The Glory Lily Gloriosa superba produces these spectacular and odd inverted flowers. I snapped this image over a decade ago in southern India while doing my graduate research. One of the more interesting botanical Latin names, don't you think? I guess I miss some of these tropical colors!
Friday, March 28, 2008
Thursday, March 27, 2008
... even though corrupting young minds like this should be a punishable offense, not a profitable business venture! Yes, BC Tours is a real business, which, apart from conducting these tours, also sells videos and more at their website.
A question to my students (esp. those who were asking me recently about my views on religion and science): what would you do if one of these kids showed up in your class? I wouldn't be surprised if there are people here on our campus who have been subjected to such a tour - and I am really curious what they think. Of course, the guide here has a very particular notion of how children should learn to think, doesn't he? Always ask "how do you know" - which is great thing for science students to learn - but then completely dismiss any real scientific explanation because it strays from a literal interpretation of a self-contradictory 2000 year-old collection of stories! What a recipe for life-long learning! One part that really got my goat was where the smarmy guide goes "now fossils are usually rather boring because they are piles of dead things"!! What a horrible way to close off a child's mind to the true wonders of the real world!
Several years ago when we visited the American Museum of Natural History, our (then) kindergardener daughter couldn't get enough of fossils after spending 3 entire days wandering among the exhibits, much of it in the Darwin exhibit. So fascinated and thrilled was she by all of it that she's been a fossil nut ever since - to the extent of demanding a fossil-themed birthday party last year (we obliged, and her friends had a lot of fun digging up and taking home real fossils as party favors)! Tell me - shouldn't I do everything I can to keep her away from these pious charlatans?
If only things were the other way around...
glumbert - Gay scientists isolate Christian gene
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
My good friend and co-conspirator behind the Central Valley Café Scientifique, Mr. Scott Hatfield, Order of the Molly, is celebrating a blogospheric landmark with his 300th post since launching Monkey Trials, and getting 8000+ hits in the past 3 days because he too jumped into the fray of the Great Good Friday Expulsion, kicking over some slimy rocks to expose the pious frauds behind that propaganda piece.
He will also soon be moderating a discussion here in Fresno between the Central Valley Alliance of Atheists and Skeptics (CVAAS) and New Covenant Church members on April 19, during the weekend-long Apologetics Symposium "In Defense of the Faith", which will kick off with a debate on "Does God Exist" between Michael Shermer and the despicable Dinesh D'Souza. Scott, of course, thrives in the middle of such sticky wickets, being the terrific (and now quite blogacious) godly evilutionist that he is! He has demonstrated, on the few occasions I've seen him in action being mobbed by devout young Christians after some such moderating gig at a local church, as well as when engaging daily with the rowdy atheist throngs on Pharyngula, what real "framing" is about in his thoughtful and respectful way; unlike the Nisbet-Mooney gang who have only talked about it endlessly while telling some of the best science communicators around to shut up! They would do well to shut up for a while themselves, and maybe even learn a little something if they only spend some time studying how Scott communicates.
Well done, indeed, Mr. Molly (the first ever)! Here's looking forward to the next 300.
And this time, it was fatal and it happened in America - in the supposedly more "progressive" state of Wisconsin, not in some rural corner of the developing world! Here's an excerpt from this appalling news story:
An 11-year-old girl died after her parents prayed for healing rather than seek medical help for a treatable form of diabetes, police said Tuesday.
Everest Metro Police Chief Dan Vergin said Madeline Neumann died Sunday.
"She got sicker and sicker until she was dead," he said.
Vergin said an autopsy determined the girl died from diabetic ketoacidosis, an ailment that left her with too little insulin in her body, and she had probably been ill for about 30 days, suffering symptoms like nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst, loss of appetite and weakness.
The girl's parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, attributed the death to "apparently they didn't have enough faith," the police chief said.
They believed the key to healing "was it was better to keep praying. Call more people to help pray," he said.
The mother believes the girl could still be resurrected, the police chief said.
What century are they living in, again? And in what backward "leader-of-the-free-world" country?
But that's not all - here's what local law enforcement did:
Officers went to the home after one of the girl's relatives in California called police to check on her, Vergin said. She was taken to a hospital where she was pronounced dead.
The relative was fearful the girl was "extremely ill, dire," Vergin said.
The girl has three siblings, ranging in age from 13 to 16, the police chief said.
"They are still in the home," he said. "There is no reason to remove them. There is no abuse or signs of abuse that we can see."
If you are now even more appalled and wondering how and why death is not apparently a sign of abuse, it turns out that such parental neglect, even if fatal, is not considered so bad as long as it is faith-based! Here's a quote from someone who commented on the above story after looking into the Wisconsin state law:
Unfortunately Wisconsin law won't hold the parents accountable:
State statute 948.03(6) provides an exemption from the law against failing to act to protect children from bodily harm for what is referred to as 'Treatment through prayer.' The statute says: 'A person is not guilty of an offense under this section solely because he or she provides a child with treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone for healing in accordance with the religious method of healing ... in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.'
And another reader posted this follow-up:
Regarding statute 948.03(6), I have just done the research to confirm this for myself. That, together with 48.981(3)(c) and or 448.03(6), explicitly state that it is not considered child abuse nor neglect to rely solely on prayer or cultural practices (The first two) or 'Christian Science' (The final one) for healing a child, even to the exclusion of medical means. So, this is probably perfectly legal.
I suggest this would be a very good time to campaign for the state legislature to pass an act removing these exceptions - parents who refuse to provide available medical care for their very ill children should not be trusted with the safety of more, even if they honestly believe their rituals had healing power.
Why do I get the feeling that that police chief's reaction might have been somewhat different had the parents been conducting "vedic" or "tantric" prayers and chants for the poor child, or holding a havan for her?
Meanwhile, in Oregon, another faithful family killed their 15-month old toddler by denying her the chance of getting antibiotics. At least in that case, prosecutors are reviewing it for legal action because the Oregon legislature threw out laws similar to Wisconsin's offering the faith-based get-out-of-jail-free card to neglectful parents.
How can a country where people kill their own children through such ignorant barbaric faith in some god feel morally superior to other fundamentalists from other countries with slightly different but equally barbaric faiths?
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
And wouldn't that be a better use for that organic matter, in a more global scheme of things? Sure, you can make your landscape look nice, your flowerbeds and shrubbery healthy, and perhaps even more naturalistic, with some good old nature-grown mulch. What could be so bad about that? Well, it kinda depends upon where that mulch is coming from. What if it is made of wood harvested from the cypress forests on the Louisiana coast? The same forests which are probably the best buffers against the next Katrina or Rita? And what if you have no way of knowing if that bag of mulch in the hardware /garden superstore contains any of that valuable Louisiana cypress? This story in Mother Jones sure has given me much to ponder before our next trip to the garden store, which I suspect will come sooner rather than later now given the nice spring we are in the midst of (but I can put any mulch-related bad karma on to my better half's account since she's the one with the green thumb!).
This paragraph from the excellent article really rung my irony-meter (and you know how I like that):
After the 1920s, when loggers hacked down the last of the old growth, the timber industry more or less forgot about cypress. With levees newly in place, the Gulf of Mexico crept inland, and the second-generation cypress matured in shallow, brackish water. They grew tall but skinny, making them worthless for lumber—you might get one decent plank out of a whole log—so nobody bothered to cut them. That is, until a housing boom cranked up the demand for landscaping mulch. Between 2000 and 2004, new home construction in Louisiana soared by 56 percent. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita, home construction spiked another 26 percent; in addition to mulch surrounding new construction, homeowners replaced mountains of old mulch that were washed away.
So, here's the development cycle for you: Build new homes along the lovely Gulf coast by clearing some of the forests that keep that coast lovely and protected from hurricane damage; cut down more of that same protective forest to make mulch to make your new homes lovelier; watch all that lovely mulch get washed away along with your home when the next really big hurricane or two come along; and a couple of years later... rinse, and repeat?!!
Ain't it wonderful how we keep coming up with new ways to unintentionally threaten our own habitats while trying to make them look prettier? O Biophilia where will you lead us next?
Monday, March 24, 2008
... but was it really worth 4000 lives? Nothing funny about this at all, but what's it going to take to wipe that smirk off those two faces?
Click on image for the complete comic story!
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Much of the internets (at least the reality-based, rational, irony-rich segments) have been rolling with laughter over the kerfuffle on good friday in Minneapolis when PZ Myers was expelled from the audience of the IDiotic documentary Expelled despite being featured - and thanked - in the film itself, and even as his companion Richard Dawkins, Darwin's rottweiler, was allowed in. You have probably caught the story somewhere by now for even the New York Times picked it up (too bad the Daily Show / Colbert Report appear to be on hiatus next week!). Now we have Dawkins' own account of the incident as well as a trenchant critique of the film itself. Not to be missed!
I have to say that, once I'd picked myself up from the floor after all that ROFL-ing friday night upon reading PZ's comic account, I was inclined to chuckle and move on...
Until, that is, a couple of Pharyngula's sciblings started trying to throw PZ and Dawkins under the bus over this silly business! While I am not surprised that those self-proclaimed master "framers" of science, Matt Nesbit and Chris Mooney are upset at these two atheist gadflies kicking up such a ruckus without even actually misbehaving - I am puzzled that they want PZ and Dawkins to shut up even in the face of such blatant (if incompetent) targeting by the ID goons! Surely, at least in this incident, N&B ought to be telling their religious friends that they shouldn't be overreacting to mild-mannered atheists (who, in this case, had bent over backward in consenting to be interviewed under false pretenses by the producers of this film), rather than trying to shove the atheists into a closet?
I therefore have to now share the following videos with you. Watch and tell me - how threatened are you by these two science geeks?
And this, from their interviews in the film itself, where they were apparently so rude, as spun through the IDiot perspective:
So I have to ask, once again, why can't these master framers try to actually "frame" atheists like Dawkins and PZ in better humanistic light to their religious pals? Why not tell the religious that they really have little to fear from these atheists, other than gaining some sound scientific knowledge, and even getting an occasional guffaw out of their irreverent wit, rather than tell scientists to shut up for fear of offending the pious? And how much duller our lives would be if people like Dawkins and PZ shut up?
In the January 2008 issue of The Oryx, Dr. Joel Berger (of the University of Montana and the Wildlife Conservation Society) published an interesting short article on the likely local extirpation of white-tailed jackrabbits from the Yellowstone region - a cautionary tale about the potential problems of undetected extinctions and their potential ramifications cascading up through food webs. The current issue of the journal is freely accessible, so at least for now you can read the whole article here, and I've put the abstract below the fold. The paper itself has become a cautionary tale for a different reason however - because it appears that the jackrabbits weren't really extirpated after all, as shown by a number of local people! Bully for citizen science - and a little egg on the face of the scientist. Now isn't that a good easter story?
Oryx (2008), 42:139-142 Cambridge University Press
Copyright © Fauna and Flora International 2008
Undetected species losses, food webs, and ecological baselines: a cautionary tale from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, USA
Large protected areas are often considered natural yet outside pressures may compromise ecological integrity. This paper points to a problem in assessing ecological baselines: what if species’ extirpations go undetected? I present a data set spanning 130 years that demonstrates the loss of white-tailed jack rabbits Lepus townsendii from two National Parks in the well studied 60,000 km2 Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, USA. While these extirpations have been unnoticed until now, an ecological consequence may be elevated predation on juvenile ungulates. A critical challenge we face is how to apply better the concept of shifting baselines to the restoration of functional relationships when species' losses are undetected.
(Received November 29 2006)
(Reviewed February 09 2007)
(Accepted May 01 2007)
Key Words: Ecological baseline; extirpation; Grand Teton; Lepus townsendii; protected area; white-tailed jack rabbit; Yellowstone
c1 Northern Rockies Field Office, Wildlife Conservation Society and Division of Biological Sciences, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana 59812 USA. E-mail email@example.com
The White-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii) is a not-inconspicuous-sized small mammal likely to be an important prey species for the canids (coyotes and wolves) of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. And in parks as well known, well-protected, and well studied by scientists as these, something as large as a jackrabbit shouldn't really disappear unnoticed for too long, right? Yet, somehow, that is exactly what happened - or so Berger argues in the article: this species did go locally extinct, without raising much of a scientific eyebrow and that this may in turn have led to the coyotes shifting prey to eating young elk instead! Berger "chronicled L. townsendii disappearances by collating historical information, unpublished and published notes, and queries to professional biologists and naturalists who have (or had) worked in the Yellowstone Ecosystem for up to 5 decades (Appendix). I also checked records and queried databases of the American Museum of Natural History, the California Academy of Sciences, the Chicago Field Museum, the Burke Museum (Seattle), the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and the Museum of South-west Biology (Albuquerque)."
Berger's analysis of the above data suggested that the jackrabbit disappeared from the region by the 1990s. He also used analyses of coyote scat samples from the 1930s to the late 1990s to show that the jackrabbit disappeared from the coyote's diet over that time period. So he concluded there was a local extinction (as was also concluded in a WCS workshop on jackrabbits in the Grand Teton in 2005), and went on to speculate about the potential effects of coyotes shifting to young elk as prey. He rounds off the brief article by discussing the potential for reintroducing jackrabbits to the parks to potentially help in "the establishment of dynamic ecological processes that were intact prior to extirpation". And points out the problem that the local extirpation may have left us with unreliable baseline data so that we may not actually know what the ecosystem was like prior to this extirpation - therefore we need to use shifting baselines in an adaptive management framework. "At a broader level the problems of species disappearance in the two parks in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is not likely to be a unique episode restricted to this well studied region. A critical challenge we face is therefore how to apply better the concept of shifting baselines to the restoration of functional relationships when species' losses are undetected."
All well and good, the paper was reviewed and published in the Oryx, and the story was picked up not only in the blogsphere (e.g., here and here) and science outlets, but even the mainstream media, including NPR; but there was a problem. A few days after the paper was reported in the media, a local ornithologist saw a couple of jackrabbits in Yellowstone, and a handful of other locals furnished other evidence that they were not exactly extinct yet! All this has left Joel Berger with "egg on his face", and he now promises to publish a retraction in the next issue of the Oryx. Yet, he stands by his "study's broader point - that the rabbit's decline may have forced predators to turn to other food sources". More unfortunately, he leaves himself, and scientists in general, open to accusations of bias, hidden agendas, and worse.
Here are my lessons from this cautionary tale:
- Extinction (like most other negatives) is damn hard to prove, even on a local scale. The counterpoint, as seen in the infamous saga of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker's "rediscovery", is that non-extinction is equally hard to prove! So we should strive to use all means available to get the most reliable data.
- Scientists, even prominent ones, can make simple mistakes. In this case, it seems Berger drew upon a variety of evidence to analyze the status of jackrabbits - yet somehow failed to ask for the most direct data: current field observations!
- Standard peer-review can fail to catch some of these mistakes immediately. This article was peer-reviewed, yet no one apparently asked for more direct evidence from the author!
- Its funny how many of us accepted the conclusions of the paper and ran with the "cautionary tale" perhaps because it fits so nicely with our conservation paradigms - yet all Berger (and the rest of us) had to do was to ask ordinary people who live in the area if they'd seen the jackrabbits! How often, and why, do we forget that?
- Nevertheless, science remains (and must remain) open to non-peer review as well, so that even amateurs can point out the errors of the most eminent among us scientists. This is where citizen science has a crucial role to play, so we should all, especially in conservation biology, strive to use every possible set of eyes and ears to monitor wildlife and the environment. And given that many people are fascinated enough by nature to spend plenty of their own time and money watching wildlife, why not get some useful data out of their efforts as well? Isn't that a real win-win?
- And finally, scientists must be prepared to enjoy the occasional egg on their faces! Afterall, isn't the scientific method, ultimately, about us hurling empirical eggs at each other's pet hypotheses? So why should we keep the fun of that to ourselves? Why not share it with the public?
Joel Berger (2008). Undetected species losses, food webs, and ecological baselines: a cautionary tale from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, USA Oryx, 42 (01) DOI: 10.1017/S0030605308001051
Friday, March 21, 2008
What better way to mark World Water Day than with this:
A pair of Double-Crested Cormorants flying across San Francisco Bay.
(click on photo for larger version of image; © Madhusudan Katti, 2007)
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Two atheist evolutionists (and I mean two of the biggest gadflies) walk into a movie theater for a preview screening of a film about how "smart" creationist ideas are "expelled" from public school science classrooms run by the "neo-Darwinist" establishment. One of the gadflies is recognized as a local pillar of said "establishment", and - you guessed it - expelled from the theater by some uniformed men at the behest of the film's producer. He leaves, struggling only to control his giggles, and rushes to the nearest internet portal to blog the incident. For the producers appear blissfully unaware who the other gadfly is whom they have let in along with a number of acolytes... read the story to find out who it is!Made my evening... :-))
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Here's something to ponder in the wake of Jason Bush's talk, as we await the next lecture (on April 23rd) in the Ethics Center Seminar series where theologian Ted Peters (author of The Stem Cell Debate) will take up some of the more sticky moral controversies that Jason punted on last week! While a lot of the opposition to stem cell research in the US comes from the religious right, especially over the issue of embryonic stem cell research, there is opposition from the left as well - especially the "alternative medicine" left which sees everything in western medicine as being somehow tainted and unnatural. And then, by (illogical) extension, that any other "alternative" to western medicine is therefore much better for you, even if practitioners of said alternative don't have a clue about how their medicine works, if it works at all! But what if "eastern" medicine starts offering therapies based on stem cell research (and other products of "western" science)? And start doing so when such therapies are not available here in the west? Skeptico raises this question in an interesting commentary on an NPR story about how some Americans are heading to China seeking stem cell therapies not available in the US. In addition to the welcome and enjoyable bashing of irrational "skeptics" like Bill Maher, Skeptico makes this important point:
The truth is, ancient people, who did not understand how the body works or what really made people ill, just made stuff up about these things. The ancient Chinese made up stuff about meridians and chi. Ancient Indians made up stuff about chakras. Ancient Europeans made up stuff about humors. We now know better, and so have abandoned humors and bloodletting. The only mystery is why people still insist that chi and chakras are real. But whatever you believe is real, the distinction clearly is not between “western” and “eastern” (fill in your preferred country) therapies. The distinction is between therapies that work and those that don’t. Scientists in China are researching real medicine, and trying to find out what works and what doesn’t, just like scientists in the west. Maybe some have oversold their results, but scientific procedures, not ancient myth, will ultimately decide what works and what doesn’t.
So can we now please abandon this pretence that doctors in the west practice something called “western medicine”, while the Chinese have access to some secret knowledge that “western science” still hasn’t yet caught up with? There is only medicine that works – or at least, is backed by reliable evidence that it does – and pre-scientific superstitious quackery that doesn’t. The East/West labels mean nothing. And the next time some twit like Maher intones gravely against “western medicine”, just say, “yeah, I don’t fancy bloodletting either” - and advise him to go visit Doctor Hu in Hangzhou. Preferably on a one-way ticket.
I've always thought that the main criterion in medicine is whether it works. Even if we don't fully understand underlying mechanisms! Any good medicine should aim to cure the afflicted, without getting caught up in its own dogmas about how the human body is supposed to work. Figuring out the "how" and "why" of any successful medicine - well that's the job of science. That's why you can have many "alternative" medicines, but only one science - for there is no western or eastern science once we understand how any particular disease and its cure works, is there? And on the flip side (and this may raise some of your hackles), that's why medicine (even in the west) isn't always necessarily a science either!
Monday, March 17, 2008
Tomorrow's Daily Show interview promises to be at least as interesting as tonight's, for they will have Jeffrey Sachs (director of Columbia's Earth Institute) on, talking about his new book Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet. Based on the book's website and the blurb on Amazon, it sounds like Jon Stewart is on a mini-roll of cautious, sobering, optimism about humanity's future with this week's guests (although Wednesday's looks to be less uplifting), which is fair-and-balanced music for us reconciliation ecologists' ears tired of see-sawing between the usual economic boosterism on the one hand and eco-doom-and-gloom on the other! More when I've seen what Sachs has to say tomorrow. Meanwhile, try climbing the ladder of development on the Common Wealth website!
That was perhaps the most ironic exchange between Brian Fagan (who said the first part) and Jon Stewart (who came back with the swift self-deprecating retort) tonight on The Daily Show where Fagan came on to talk about his new book "The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations". The Daily Show's promo blurb for today's show had a link to Fagan's blog, where he wrote this interesting post about the forecasts of prolonged droughts in some parts of the world being the silent elephants in the climate change discussion. And it was when he was discussing that very point when the above ironic exchange occurred during the interview (look for it @ 3:35 min in the video below the fold) - a double dose of irony if you will!
|The Daily Show with Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
Meanwhile, I was touched by another post discussing the Indian monsoon in a historical context, with the opening making me ache for my favorite season of the year back home:
"The peacocks danced at eventide", wrote the sixth-century Indian writer Subdandhu of the onset of the monsoon. The monsoon is much more than a matter of meteorology in India and Pakistan. The very fabric of human existence unfolds around two seasons--the wet and the dry. The wet season brings warm, moist conditions and heavy rain, carried by the monsoon winds blowing inland from the ocean. The other half of the year, the arid season, enjoys cool, dry air from the north. The coming of the monsoon is a highlight of the year to those who suffered through the buildup after the pleasant winter months--weeks of torrid heat. Colonel Edward Tennant of the British East India Company wrote in 1886: "The sly, instead of its brilliant blue, assumes the sullen tint of lead. . . . The days become overcast and hot, banks of clouds rise over the ocean to the west. . . . At last the sudden lightning flash among the hills, and shoot through the clouds that overhang the sea, and with a crash of thunder the monsoon bursts over the hungry land." My father was a civil servant in the British Raj in the Punjab during the 1920s. Even in his extreme old age, he could vividly recall the most epochal day of the year, when India became cold and grey, like distant England.Trust me, it is actually quite unlike England, being grey, yes, but definitely not cold - but rather invitingly cool after a blazing hot summer! Oh how I miss the march of those grey clouds across the Bombay coastline...
Fagan goes on to describe the discovery of correlations between the Indian monsoon and El Nìno events in the Pacific...
Generations of meteorologists have tried to forecast monsoons, notable among them Sir Gilbert Walker, a brilliant statistician with a passion for flutes and atmospheric pressure, who is remembered for his discovery of the Southern Oscillation, the driving force behind El Nino and its opposite cousin, La Nina. There is now fairly general Agreement that monsoon failures sometimes, but not invariably, coincide with El Nino conditions in the Pacific, as was the case with the terrible famine and monsoon failure of 1875-6, which killed tens of thousands and ravaged at least a third of Bengal.... before adding some strong words about the historical context of the famine and the culpability of the British empire:
While much of India starved, the British Raj was busy exporting grain to the world market. Meanwhile, the Viceroy, the eccentric and erratic Lord Lytton, who happened to be Queen Victoria's favorite poet, was preoccupied with a gigantic durbar in Delhi, which included a week-long feast for 68,000 maharajahs and officials. An English journalist estimated that at least 100,000 rural farmers perished during the festivities, which were designed to be gaudy enough to impress the orientals". Lytton's shameful famine policy was one of laissez faire. The historian Mike Davis, whose book Late Victorian Holocausts should be required reading for every historian of the nineteenth century, estimates that at least 20-30 million tropical farmers perished during that century as a result of drought, famine, and famine-related diseases.And as Fagan rounds off with an alarm bell about how future wars will be fought over water even as we waste our current resources on unnecessary wars while avoiding facing the real problems looming ahead, I'm reminded of the Indian journalist P. Sainath's powerful book Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India's Poorest Districts.
As some of you know, one cause I am really passionate about is Citizen Science - the involvement of volunteer "amateur" citizens in genuine scientific research. And I don't mean just for PR purposes: a good citizen science project is not just some window-dressing one may put in the "broader impacts" section of one's NSF grant proposal, but rather a good way to gather real useful data with the help of interested volunteers who, in turn, get to taste what doing science is really all about. I've been mulling a longer post on this question - what I think a good citizen science project should be all about - but will save it for later. Let me, for now, simply launch a new recurring segment to this blog: Citizen Science Watch - where I will try to find and highlight projects which involve citizen scientists, and bring attention to what they are finding. And while I have a new citizen science project of my own to toot the own horn about, let me instead first share with you The Great Sunflower Project, as it was announced on Ecolog-L recently:
We have just launched The Great Sunflower Project, a community scienceproject with the goal of increasing our understanding of where bees are doing poorly and how the pollination of our garden and wild plants are being affected. We're hoping you will join us by planting sunflowers in your garden. Community, demonstration, and school gardens are invited to participate.
We'll send you some free native sunflower (Helianthus annuus) seed and twice a month, we'd like you to time how long it takes for 5 bees to visit one flower on that sunflower. This information will give us an index of pollination that we can compare across the United States.
Do join us!
Thanks so much,
San Francisco State University
I hope you can participate, whether you are a professional scientist or an interested bystander who'd like to sink her/his hands into the dirt also!
Do you ever wonder how long it takes for some scientific discoveries to penetrate the usual fog of gossip and trivia in the mainstream media to actually get some wider coverage? or why it sometimes take so long, even if the discovery is of great significance for the public good? If you are a conservation biologist, you probably wonder: what does it take to get the media to pay attention to one of the endless (and ever numerous) stories of research that might save species (if not habitats or entire ecosystems) on the verge of extinction if only the public knew enough to pay attention to the researchers crying themselves hoarse, before its too late? And must one always tie one's research on the smaller / more obscure species (however important they may be in the larger scheme of things) to the coattails of some charismatic megafauna to get any attention at all? If you worry about newsworthy conservation stories that never even reach high enough on the media filter to fall through the cracks, here's an interesting case for you. It has a number of elements that should make the media sit up and take notice: a truly charismatic megafauna, a spectacularly beautiful remote wilderness location, a fairly dramatic story of a serendipitous discovery that could save this charismatic species, and, arrayed against all this, the relentless forces of a globalized industry that supplies food for your dinner table! And it is a hopeful story full of beauty and wonder - not entirely your usual doom-'n-gloom conservation sob stories! Yet, even with all these premium ingredients, it has taken 10 years for the discovery to be reported on network TV, even if it is late at night, tonight.
A remarkable discovery that could be a key to conserving Blue Whales - a previously unknown sizeable population that could yet serve either as perhaps their last stand or nursery for recovery (still not sure which way this is going to go) - is finally hitting the mainstream media, sort of, tonight when this story airs on ABC's Nightline. The discovery actually happened 10 years ago:
In 1997, a group of scientists boarded two ships to comb the 2,500 miles of Chile's pacific coastline and do a count of blue whales. In that entire time, they found just 40 whales — "it was bad news," says Hucke-Gaete. But then a small group of those scientists decided to soak up the stunning scenery. They hopped on a cruise ship to enjoy the trip home. That ship passed through the Gulf of Corcovado.
"When they were entering the gulf, they started seeing blue whales," says Hucke-Gaete, his voice filled with excitement as he recounts the unexpected discovery. "And they saw another one, and then they finally saw 60 in less than four hours."
It seemed the scientists had stumbled on a large and unknown population of blue whales, but it wasn't easy to confirm their findings. It took Hucke-Gaete six years to raise the money to come back the Gulf to confirm that what they saw in 1997 wasn't just a one-time occurrence. Each year since 2003 the scientists have been in Corcovado from January to April — the Southern Summer — and so have the whales. They have learned that the whales come to this vast Gulf to feed and nurse their young. Corcovado is a previously unknown refuge that may help save the species.
"The significance of the place is that this is a place they feed; this is a place that is important to them and not only for the adults, it's for calves," explains Hucke-Gaete. "If we find calves, that means the population is recovering and that carries on a big responsibility for us: we need to take care of this place."
Rodrigo Hucke-Gaete and colleagues from the Centro Bellana Azul formally published their discovery in the peer-reviewed scientific literature in 2004, after the follow-up survey mentioned above. Here's their abstract:
Discovery of a blue whale feeding and nursing ground in southern Chile
Rodrigo Hucke-Gaete, Layla P. Osman, Carlos A. Moreno, Ken P. Findlay, Don K. Ljungblad
After the extensive exploitation that reduced the Southern Hemisphere blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) populations to less than 3% of its original numbers, studies on its recovery have been compounded by the inaccessibility of most populations and the extensive migrations between low and high latitudes, thus ensuring that knowledge about blue whale ecology and status remains limited. We report the recent discovery of, arguably, the most important blue whale feeding and nursing ground known to date in the Southern Hemisphere, which is located near the fjords off southern Chile. Through aerial and marine surveys (n = 7) 47 groups, comprising 153 blue whales including at least 11 mother-calf pairs, were sighted during the austral summer and early autumn of 2003. The implications of this discovery on the biological understanding and conservation of this endangered species are discussed.
Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B (Suppl.) 271, S170–S173 (2004)
It has taken another 3 years for the story to make it to my television (or even Google news).
What's even more remarkable is that, in addition to the spectacular Gulf of Corcovado being their best remaining feeding and nursing ground, the blue whales are also much more accessible for study here than almost anywhere else:
Normally whales have to be studied at deep sea and great expense. Corcovado offers a unique opportunity to track the whales close to land for an extended time.
Hucke-Gaete says it's difficult to study whales in part "because they spend 90-98 percent below the surface. So it's really, really difficult. It takes lots of time and lots of patience." With meager budgets that are mostly consumed by gas that costs $9 a gallon, the scientists spend their days studying the habits and habitat of the whales, photographing and indexing each whale — no two dorsal fins are the same — and collecting tiny samples of their skin. The samples, he says, are "enough to tell us what population this whale belongs to, to know the sex of the animal, to identify it genetically like a forensics lab, that we identify these animals."
And what's the biggest threat to this population? Atlantic Salmon! No, they haven't crossed the Panama Canal, swum down the South American coastline, and invaded the Gulf of Corcovado - actually, they are being raised in new farms in Chile to supply the growing global (mostly US) market for salmon. And why is that a problem?
If the species [Blue Whale] is to survive and rebuild its stocks, the Gulf of Corcovado could be critical. But this pristine habitat here that survived almost unscathed through the 20th century is being invaded by industry, in particular salmon farms. Salmon are not native to the Southern Hemisphere, but about 25 years ago Norwegians discovered the cold waters of the South Pacific are ideal for farming salmon from the North Atlantic. Now Chile is about to overtake Norway as the biggest producer of salmon in the world — providing 60 percent of the salmon Americans eat. But at huge environmental costs: contaminating the waters with feed and harmful chemicals and spreading disease.
So I hope this belated media attention does some good now: at least generate some more support for the Chilean Centro Bellana Azul and its allies including the Centro de Conservacion Cetacea and WWF, as they press their government to declare the Gulf of Corcovado a Marine Protected Area. Perhaps it will also make some consumers pause to read the label of origin on that farm-raised salmon next time they are in the supermarket.
And may the Blue Whale continue to serve as the flagship which carries along with it the rest of the supporting cast of species (most of whom will never get their 15-min of TV fame) in that ecosystem!
(photo taken by Madhu Katti @ McKenzie Preserve near Fresno, California)
A fundamental question in biology is how the functioning of collective systems works—whether you are dealing with the function of a tissue and how the cells within a tissue interact, or whether you're dealing with ecologies or even ecosystems. We really need to build a new understanding and new tools that allow us to integrate across these scales. People refer to top-down and bottom-up; in some sense we have to take both approaches to try to understand these systems.
There is no characteristic scale that is the right scale to observe a system—one of the reasons I studied animal groups is that the systems can be taken apart and put together very easily. Some of the models and the understanding that we get from how these groups function—we are all familiar with the dramatic collective patterns exhibited by schools of fish or flocks of birds—and the way we can take these systems—like an ant colony—apart to see how they really function gives us deep insights.
So one line of research is to do specific testable ideas on specific systems. But another line of research is to try to find the fundamental principles that underlie, for example, collective decision-making in biological systems. And what we find remarkable is, when we actually look at the algorithms used by, say, an ant colony, or used by a school of fish, when making collective decisions, at a certain level of description, the types of algorithms they use are also the types of algorithms we now know humans use in the visual system, for example, to make decisions about what we are seeing.
Natural selection has found these same principles time and time again and included them in different systems in different ways, but fundamentally the principles are the same. I think this is a growing new area of research; we are really trying to build across these different systems.
Ants have algorithms. If you think about an ant colony, it's a computing device; there's some wonderful work by Jean-Louis Deneubourg in Brussels and his collaborators that really started this field in a way with Ilya Prigogine and later on Jean Louis Deneubourg looking at the ways in which social insect colonies can interact. One example would be—it sounds trivial, but if you think about it, it is quite difficult—how can a colony decide between two food sources, one of which is slightly closer than the other? Do they have to measure this? Do they have to perform these computations?[Read the rest at Edge: ANTS HAVE ALGORITHMS: A Talk with Iain Couzin]
[Hat-tip: 3 Quarks Daily]
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Friday, March 14, 2008
I captured this image of a pollinator drunk inside a lovely baby blue flower at the McKenzie Table Mountain Preserve of the Sierra Foothill Conservancy last weekend. I hope you will enjoy a few more photos of spring below the fold, and even more in this gallery (also linked in the right-hand panel on this page) as I anticipate the start of spring break this weekend!
From Wetlands International comes this short video about the loss of peatlands and how that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. The film highlights one of the projects run by this NGO to restore peatland in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. It is being shown at major international meetings such as last December's UN Climate Conference in Bali and the upcoming Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Bonn in May 2008 as part of an effort to advocate for more peatland restoration efforts to mitigate against greater CO2 and methane emissions. Of course, you don't have to wait until then to watch the video and read this report and this more comprehensive one to convince yourself that the world needs more peat:
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
I've seen this story being picked up in a couple of places in the blogosphere today, about how some 50 people in the southern Indian state of Kerala have been blinded because they stared too long into the sun looking for an image of the Virgin Mary! Really:
50 people looking for solar image of Mary lose sightAnd my first reaction - to heap scorn on the gullible idiots who rendered themselves blind - is not all that different from that of Norm Jenson who called it "Natural Selection at work", or PZ Myers who wrote:
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: At least 50 people in Kottayam district have reportedly lost their vision after gazing at the sun looking for an image of Virgin Mary.
Though alarmed health authorities have installed a signboard to counter the rumour that a solar image of Virgin Mary appeared to the believers, curious onlookers, including foreign travellers, have been thronging the venue of the ‘miracle’.
St Joseph’s ENT and Eye Hospital in Kanjirappally alone has recorded 48 cases of vision loss due to photochemical burns on the retina. “All our patients have similar history and symptoms. The damage is to the macula, the most sensitive part of retina. They have developed photochemical, not thermal, burns after continuously gazing at the sun,” Dr Annamma James Isaac, the hospital’s ophthalmologist, said.
The hospital has been receiving patients with these abnormal symptoms since Friday. When the doctors found a pattern in the case sheets, they reported it to the district medical officer.
I think we can see that religion definitely attracts stupid people to its ranks.But what really gets my goat, and redirects my ire somewhat away from some of the gullible towards religion itself is this bit of detail from the report in DNA-India:
I sure hope no one tells them that if you hit yourself on the head with a hammer real hard, you'll see swarms of angels dancing everywhere around you. Or, more likely, that if you mail all your money to a preacher, you'll get rich. But no one would be that sadistic, would they?
“The patients show varying degrees of severity. They are mostly girls in 12-26 age group. Our youngest patient is 12 and the oldest 60. Most of them were looking at the sun between 2 and 4 pm, when UV1 and UV2 rays are harshest,” Dr James Isaac said. He added that they could identify the problem as solar retinopathy because they were aware of the local sensation.The victims are mostly young girls!! In a state that prides itself as being one of the most literate in the country, and is in many ways an alternative model of development! So who should be blamed for rendering young girls, even in this supposedly left-leaning most literate state in India, so susceptible to religious delusions that they would stare at the sun until they go blind? Or so ignorant that they did not know they would go blind by staring at the sun... until they did? What is the role of their parents and churches in allowing this to happen? Are any of them taking responsibility? Is this not another example of the mental child abuse Dawkins talks about, particularly in case of the 12-year-olds?
“Most patients may hopefully improve their vision. But there may be long-term effects on the retina,” he added.
Growing up outside Kerala, if you'd asked me to picture a woman from that state, I would more than likely have visualized a nun, a nurse, or maybe a school teacher - and most likely Christian! (and I'm sure many would agree). Nothing inherently wrong with these professions, but they are all ones that require self-sacrifice, giving up of self in service of others, and seeking salvation through these sacrifices!! So who makes them grow up believing this is the only way to give meaning to their lives? Who instills that other kind of blindness in them? And why is it easier to victimize girls with this line of bullshit?
This story might be another indicator that Kerala is indeed slipping from being that model of development through literacy and empowerment through education and basic health care. Simply teaching someone how to read and write is not enough, is it?
[Hat-tip Pharyngula] and onegoodmove
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
No... not that Bush / Shrub! Rather, its our own department's Jason Bush, who actually knows a little something about stem cell research as a scientist, and who happens to be from north of the border - the northern border of the US, that is. Our Bush will be speaking as part of the CSU-Fresno Center For Ethics spring lecture series:
Jason A. Bush: “The Art, Mystery, and Controversy of Stem Cell Culture”
As stem cell research has exploded in the past 5 years, fundamental concepts have changed and we have made technical advancements. Scientists see the potential and opponents see the slippery slope. This lecture will discuss the complex issues that engulf stem cell research.
Jason Bush has a Ph.D. in Experimental Medicine from the University of British Columbia. He did post-doc work in Cancer Biology at The Burnham Institute. He is Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Fresno State.The lecture will be in the Alice Peters Auditorium at 12:00 PM on March 12, 2008. Should be fun, so try to be there!
[From Upcoming Ethics Center Events and Lectures]
Monday, March 10, 2008
MARCH MEETING: March 11, 2008. The Birds of Pantanal, BrazilThere's more about Pantanal and the speaker in the Yellowbill, Fresno Audubon's newsletter.
Dr. Monique Franca, a native of Brazil, will talk about the “Birds of Pantanal, Brazil.” Pantanal is a paradise for wildlife and a paradise for bird watchers! Meetings are held in the Calaveras Room on the first floor of the UC Center at 7:30 PM (550 E. Shaw Ave).
[From Fresno Audubon Society]
Sunday, March 9, 2008
Golf courses are interesting examples of peculiar human habitats that are as likely to attract wildlife as they are to kill it. The wide open green spaces, abundant greenery and water, and scattered trees must make it seem like attractive habitat to many a species, and it is not uncommon to find many birds - especially raptors and geese, and even larger mammals like coyotes trying to occupy these habitats. Yet golf courses are more likely to be ecological traps than suitable habitat because of the intensive landscape management and constant disturbance by humans, and more importantly, the often excessive use of pesticides to maintain that lush greenery.
The ever-proliferating golf courses are among the more conspicuous drivers of landscape change and habitat destruction, even as golf is often touted as an outdoor sport where one might pretend to be close to nature. Given that many wildlife species are drawn to these habitats (most often because they have lost their original habitat to the same golf course) it would seem the opportunity is ripe for some reconciliation ecology. We should be able to design at least these human-recreational habitats in ways that won't harm wildlife, right? The Audubon Society sure thinks so, and actually runs a program to turn golf courses into Cooperative Sanctuaries. They certify golf courses at various levels depending upon how eco-friendly they are, and going by the long list of courses already certified, the program shows a lot of promise, despite some worries about the actual impacts on usable habitat for wildlife.
Against this backdrop comes this bizarre story of a migratory raptor attempting to nest on a golf course actually falling to a flying golf ball whacked at its head with much persistent effort by a self-proclaimed animal-loving golfer! The poor bird in question was a Red Shouldered Hawk (pictured here) that made the initial mistake of not nesting on an Audubon certified course, and then compounded it by noisily interrupting the pro golfer Tripp Isenhour in his taping of a golf instruction video! So irritated was this pro golfer that, as the Orlando Sentinel describes it that he had to go after it with the weapons at hand until he actually beaned the bird to death with his nth golf shot!
The bird was annoying him during the taping of a golf video at the Grand Cypress course. It took 10 swings before Mr. Isenhour killed the bird. And that was after he took a bunch of other swings -- for 10 minutes -- at the bird while it was perched elsewhere.While the golfer has been charged with killing a migratory bird and faces up to a year in jail and at least $10,000.00 in fines, the Sentinel makes a persuasive argument that that punishment is likely too light:
He now faces misdemeanor charges of cruelty to animals and killing a migratory bird. If convicted, he could face up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $10,000. But that's spare change for a man who earned $471,000 last year. And he's not likely to spend a year in jail, either. A more just punishment is to suspend him for that period of time. Isn't golf supposed to be the "gentlemen's game?" Mr. Isenhour is anything but. PGA officials say they don't comment on disciplinary actions, but this would be a good time to start. Tell people this deplorable behavior won't be tolerated. Mr. Isehhour methodically launched golf balls at a defenseless bird. Even if he's suspended, Mr. Isenhour's lucky. Unlike the bird, he gets a second chance.There's more to the story as the Grand Cypress Golf Course itself may be culpable: apparently they failed to call back the Audubon Society when the latter had offered to relocate the bird with its nest to a safer location!! And of course, why doesn't it surprise me that this bizarre incident took place in Florida? Perhaps because I've read too much about how the weirder elements of humanity are destroying Florida's nature in Carl Hiaasen's novels, and because this act by Isenhour certainly suggests he belongs among Hiaasen's fictional rogues' gallery. I wonder (hope?) if this might inspire the next crazy bad-guy in a future Hiaasen novel - although even Hiaasen has gone back to playing this very same ruinous sport in his older age!!
Saturday, March 8, 2008
Those are the hot news items from my homeland, India, lately, although the nation's priorities do not necessarily seem to be in that order (at least zoologically speaking). So let's start backward with that list as well, shall we?
Yesterday morning driving into campus I caught a brief snippet on NPR at the end of their report on Forbes magazine's latest list of the world's billionaires: Four out of the top 10 billionaires in the world are now from India!! Amazing? Or about time that this long slumbering "tiger" woke up and stretched its claws, and got its due? And its not just those top four - Forbes' list has a whopping 53 Indian citizens on the list putting the country in the upper bracket in number of billionaires as well, I suspect!
Meanwhile, what of the other 1,129,866,101 people in the country (as of Sep 2007)? Well, at least some of them, a handful of cricket players, also struck it rich recently when they were put on the auction block for the first ever "draft" by franchises of the new Indian Premier League (aiming to be like the English Premier League of soccer). And you wouldn't be too far off in guessing that some of the above mentioned billionaires happen to own the franchises that bought some of the new cricket-playing millionaires. I don't know which of these two groups of rich Indians is celebrated more and which has caused more hand-wringing and angst - I suspect it is the latter on the part of those old-school cricket lovers lamenting the loss of the "soul of the noble sport" at the hands of filthy-rich philistines! The billionaire businessmen (and they are almost all men, of course), meanwhile, may be more a source of pride for the globalized Indian.
Even as the top brackets of the Indian wealth pyramid grow fatter, they still leave behind a huge number of people on the bottom in the dust - quite literally! Is there / will there be a significant trickle-down? How much of this new wealth is spread out in pulling up the median and bottom ends of the income distribution as opposed to widening the gap between the rich and the poor? And how much of the new wealth is a result of American jobs heading over to India?
That last question was addressed (briefly, but entertainingly per norm, given the "frame") earlier this week by Shashi Tharoor, the erstwhile Under-Secretary-General (and candidate for Secy-General) of the United Nations, when he was interviewed by Stephen Colbert. According to Tharoor, outsourcing has brought only about a million jobs to India - that's not too many drops in a bucket of over a 1.29 billion people, is it? But Tharoor, for the most part, appeared to be with the cheerleaders of the new India Rising (see the video below to judge for yourself)!
One might hope that his new book for which he sought the Colbert bump, "The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cellphone", has a more subtle, balanced analysis, at least going by some of his previous writing. At least one review gives mixed feelings on that score, however, while discussing Tharoor's list of the top ten areas of vulnerability for India:
Before the final chapter, Tharoor lists ten areas of vulnerability that are “dangers to India’s future.” While I was dismayed that energy crisis and environmental degradation were omitted, it is difficult to argue with Tharoor’s Top Ten, ranging from “The Threat to Pluralism” to “Neglecting the ‘Software’ of Human Development.” However, there is a missed opportunity for this section to have closed with the powerful sentence Tharoor invoked in an earlier essay on the challenges of literacy: “If I had to pick the one thing we must do above all else, I now offer a two-word mantra: “Educate girls.”Energy and the environment not among the dangers to Indian's future?! Not even in the light of global warming? How can someone who might have become the UN Secretary General think that squeezing a billion and a half people into a landmass a third the size of the US and pushing them on an economic growth trajectory aiming for the American standard of consumerism not also bring along serious environmental and energy crises? Are the dominant cultural "frames" of economic growth, productivity, and globalization so powerful that even serious thinkers like Tharoor are unable (or unwilling?) to grok the seriousness of our environmental problems? Boy, does that make the task of bringing about a steady-state (as opposed to constantly growing) economy that much more challenging?
So where does all this economic boom and boosterism leave the real elephants and tigers? You know, the actual flesh and blood zoological sources of these ever proliferating metaphors? Even as their numbers flourish in metaphor, the real creatures are faring worse than ever (click here for the latest status report for tigers), jostling for space and resources amid the rising India, which seems intent on repeating the mistakes of the developed nations that sacrificed their own environment and biodiversity at the altar of economic growth and productivity. That a poorer country than the US, with 3X the population occupying 0.3X the landmass nevertheless still has room for such megafauna as elephants and tigers (while the US went about systematically wiping off their megafauna for decades before realizing the consequences and working now to bring some of them back) is something I used to be, and indeed still am, proud of, but am no longer sure that source of pride is going to last another generation! As I contemplate the enormity of the task for those few of us who want to question and change the dominant economic discourse towards a genuinely sustainable future for the foreseeable future with enough room for the real elephants and tigers amid a happier humanity (albeit with fewer billionaires and fewer homeless), I'm remembering an essay by Eduardo Galeano I read shortly after arriving in the US for graduate school right around when the seeds of India's current economic boom were being planted through neoliberal economic policies supported by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In "To Be Like Them" addressed to his fellow Latin Americans, as well as all from the global South, Galeano wrote:
Can we be like them?
But what is not possible is just not possible, and besides--as bullfighter Pedro el Gallo used to say--it’s impossible. If the poor countries were to rise to the level of production and waste of the rich countries, the planet would die. Our poor planet is already in a coma, severely poisoned by industrial civilization, and squeezed nearly dry by consumer society. And he ended the essay thus (this was written in 1991):
The West is living the euphoria of triumph. After the fall of the Eastern block, the alibi is all set up: there it was worse. Was it worse? I think we should rather wonder if it was radically different. In the West we see justice sacrificed in the name of freedom, at the altar of goddess Productivity. In the East we saw freedom sacrificed in the name of justice, also at the altar of goddess Productivity.That was written nearly two decades ago, but no one, certainly among the powers that be in India, took notice! I'm afraid that today it may already be too late to take back some of the offerings we've made to that goddess in the 17 years since Galeano wrote those words.
In the South, it’s not yet too late to wonder if this goddess deserves our lives.
If you've stuck with this long blog post thus far, you really should go ahead and read Galeano's essay in its entirety - you might end up reading it over and over like me. Meanwhile, let me leave you with this passage, one of my all-time favorite quotes, from the beginning of the essay:
Dreams and nightmares are made from the same materials, but this particular nightmare purports to be the only dream we are allowed to have: a development model that scorns life and worships things.
Friday, March 7, 2008
The suburbs of Kolkata (Calcutta) are dotted with numerous (but dwindling numbers of) ponds in peoples yards where they cultivate fish. I captured this image of a family party of Small Indian Mongoose running, almost flowing, along the retaining wall of my in-laws' pond in Khardah, north of Kolkata. Not sure what made me seek out this image today, but somehow it soothes me at the end of another long week...