Saturday, February 27, 2010
Thursday, February 25, 2010
The Sibley Guide to Birds is now available as an app for iPhone and iPod Touch. Check it out at the iTunes app store (here).
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
It's a truth verging on a truism that journalism is about telling stories. But what exactly is it that narratives—good stories—do for us? Stories work because they explain important or unusual or compelling events in terms of our everyday psychology—the causal principles that we all understand by the time we are 4. A good journalist explains why the health care bill failed, for example, by telling us about the beliefs, desires, and emotions of the wavering senators.
But science isn't about applying the causal principles we know about. It's about discovering causal principles we don't know about. Psychological science, in particular, is about using evidence to find new and unexpected causal explanations for our actions and experiences. It's not about using our everyday psychological knowledge to explain what we do. When psychologists do that, we rightly accuse them of just telling us what we already know.
This is especially true when scientists are trying to explain the conditions we vaguely call "clinical" or "dysfunctional" or "pathological." After all, people aren't pathological when they are angry or frustrated or sad because of what they want or believe. They are pathological precisely when we can't explain their miseries in the normal way—when the successful author suddenly kills himself, or when the bright child with loving and concerned parents just can't read no matter how hard she tries. Clinical scientists try to use evidence to discover the less than obvious causal principles (his serotonin level was too low, she can't process language sounds) that can explain these events.
Monday, February 22, 2010
The above remarkable video footage is part of the excellent, and frightening, new documentary "Invasion of the Giant Pythons" that aired on PBS's Nature program last night.
Burmese Pythons transported and bred halfway across the planet for sale to people who want them as pets without apparently any notion of how big the beasts can get, and who then release them into the wilds of Florida, again without any thought as to how seriously they are fracking up the Everglades ecosystem while "solving" their little growing pet problem! Isn't it remarkable how many astonishing ways we find to screw up the ecosystems on this lovely little planet we inhabit? Watch the whole film, which I imagine will be available online soon.
David Sibley, of the Sibley Guides to Birds fame, recorded the above video of the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Eurynorhynchus pygmeus, foraging in the mudflats of Thailand where they winter. In an expanding upon the observations annotating the above video, Sibley proposes a hypothesis about how these lovely little birds use their odd bills more like shovels than spoons:
Before seeing the birds, most people assume that they use their bills to swipe sideways through the water, in the manner of the true spoonbills (genus Platalea), sensing and grabbing food items as they pass between the flattened tips of the mandibles. But in reality these sandpipers use very little sideways motion in their feeding. There does seem to be a bit more sideways movement of the bill than in other small sandpipers such as Red-necked Stint, but these are subtle, irregular, and tiny movements and nothing like the rhythmic sideways swiping of true spoonbills.
Coming up with a new hypothesis proved difficult. At first I couldn’t detect any difference in the way these sandpipers fed compared to the stints. They do tend to keep their head down and their bill in the water for longer stretches than the Red-necked Stints, which have a more frenetic foraging action dipping their bill briefly into the water and mud and then raising it again, over and over. Also, the Spoon-bills seemed to feed exclusively in water – I never saw one feeding on open mudflats.
After several days of observation I noticed that while their bills were in the water the Spoon-billed Sandpipers were pushing lumps of mud and algae ahead of them, using their bills as shovels to move mud around. They always look a bit “husky” and thick-necked, which comes in part from this habit of pushing the bill through the mud, as they use their body for leverage and push with their legs. It’s not unusual to see one of their feet suddenly slip backwards under the effort of pushing. Once some mud or algae has been lifted the bird very quickly works the bill tip around underneath it, then moves on. This video shows the shoveling motion clearly in the last scene. (The video will be a little sharper if you click here to open it in YouTube and select 480p).
This seems like a plausible hypothesis to explain the unusual bill shape. The broad bill tip could be used as a shovel to get under and lift up loose substrates, and then would make an effective tool for finding and grabbing any small invertebrates that were in the slurry of mud and water flowing in behind the lifted material. This could also explain why they cover so much ground on the mudflats. If they are looking for loose bits of mud/algae/etc. that they can lift to search for prey, these might be scattered across a wide area, forcing them to walk in search of these foraging opportunities.
Have you ever seen these birds forage? Are you in a position to make more observations in other locations to see if they do the same thing? I am not, much to my regret while watching the above video... Given the rapidly declining populations and our ignorance about even their basic biology, it is clear that the spoons these birds are born holding in their mouths are far from silver ones! Can we at least find out how this marvel of evolution, this wonderful spoon-bill, works before we are forced to bid adieu to the Spoon-billed Sandpiper?
Sunday, February 21, 2010
The Education Ministry's chief scientist sparked a furor among environmental activists and scholars Saturday with remarks questioning the reliability of evolution and global warming theory. The comments from Dr. Gavriel Avital, the latest in a series of written and oral statements casting doubts on the fundamental tenets of modern science, led several environmentalists to call for his dismissal.
"If textbooks state explicitly that human beings' origins are to be found with monkeys, I would want students to pursue and grapple with other opinions. There are many people who don't believe the evolutionary account is correct," Avital said yesterday.
"There are those for whom evolution is a religion and are unwilling to hear about anything else. Part of my responsibility, in light of my position with the Education Ministry, is to examine textbooks and curricula," he said. "If they keep writing in textbooks that the Earth is growing warmer because of carbon dioxide emissions, I'll insist that isn't the case."
Unfortunately, Avital's views on evolution may be shared by a sizable segment of the Israeli public. A 2006 survey of public opinion in Israel by the Samuel Neaman Institute found that "a minority of only 28% accepts the scientific theory of the evolution [sic], while the majority (59%) believes that man was created by god," while according to the 2000 International Social Survey Programme, a total of 54% of Israeli respondents described "Human beings developed from earlier species of animals" as definitely or probably true, placing Israel ahead of the United States (46%, in last place) for its public acceptance of evolution, but behind twenty-three of the twenty-seven countries included in the report.And I'm (sadly) gratified to find a shared brotherhood with my biologist colleagues in Israel who find themselves rather unexpectedly having to bat down this kind of inanity.
Fun to see Baba Brinkman freestyling for Darwin down under... and a pretty good response to the tough question too, although he didn't really come up with a proper rhyming companion word for Galapagos. So what does rhyme with Galapagos?
Monday, February 15, 2010
Pretty much all over the globe it seems:
Just as Hadrian succeeded Trajan, Domitian succeeded Titus, Nero succeeded Claudius, and Caligula succeeded Tiberius, so Kennedy replaced Eisenhower, Nixon replaced Johnson, Reagan replaced Carter, and Obama replaced Bush.
Same empire, different emperor.
The extent of the U.S. global empire is almost incalculable. We know enough, however, about foreign bases, physical assets, military spending, and foreign troop levels to know that we have an empire in everything but the name.
There are, according to the Department of Defense's "Base Structure Report" for FY 2009, 716 U.S. military bases on foreign soil in thirty-eight countries. Yet, according to the expert on this subject, Chalmers Johnson, the author of Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis, that number is far too low: "The official figures omit espionage bases, those located in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and miscellaneous facilities in places considered too sensitive to discuss or which the Pentagon for its own reasons chooses to exclude -- e.g. in Israel, Kosovo, or Jordan." Johnson places the real number of foreign bases closer to 1,000.
This same Base Structure Report states that the DOD's physical assets consist of "more than 539,000 facilities (buildings, structures and linear structures) located on more than 5,570 sites, on approximately 29 million acres." The 307,295 buildings occupied by the DOD comprise over 2.1 billion square feet. The DOD manages almost 30 million acres of land worldwide.
Read the rest of the above post to find the complete list of the outposts of US empire that have endured through various Emperors, including the current one. Interesting that this crops up just as I'm beginning to work on filing my taxes to support this empire...
Sunday, February 14, 2010
Those predatory instincts are hard to curb, so you've got to go after any small moving object, don't you?! Oblivious to the ensuing LOLZ heard from around the internets! And apparently, computer pointer hunting is not an uncommon activity for Preying Mantids like this one - just click through to the YouTube page for this video by Bug Girl, and you'll find a few other videos (albeit of poorer quality) of similar mantis on cursor action!
Saturday, February 13, 2010
As a strong enthusiast for citizen science, and founder of the Fresno Bird Count, I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I haven't volunteered to participate in too many such counts myself! Something about being a "professional" ornithologist, I guess... its not a hobby when I'm doing it regularly for my own projects! But when I have such a bright-eyed partner to get me out of bed and out the door, I just might find myself as a citizen scientist more often. Within the next few days, in fact, for Nilavi is keen to count birds on every one of the 4 days of this GBBC, which runs through this long weekend, from Feb 12-15, 2010.
So we did a basic 15 minute count for the first day, focusing on birds within and in the visible vicinity of our backyard. It was far from a dull quarter of an hour, what with a larger than usual flock of American Robins calling and fluttering about the tops of several bare trees, a couple of Northern Flickers tapping along the bigger branches, White-crowned Sparrows singing in the brush of a neighbor's yard, and a flock of Cedar Waxwings bejeweling the tree crowns! We counted a total of a dozen species, and a short while ago, entered our data into the GBBC database. Here's our complete checklist:
California Gull - 15
Mourning Dove - 8
Northern Flicker - 2
Western Scrub-Jay - 2
American Crow - 2
American Robin - 22
Northern Mockingbird - 1
European Starling - 3
Cedar Waxwing - 25
Yellow-rumped Warbler - 1
White-crowned Sparrow - 4
House Finch - 5
And later, I managed to capture the above images of some of the birds. How was your GBBC experience?
Friday, February 12, 2010
The Huntsville Times, citing a university official, reported that a biology professor was being held in the shooting. According to a faculty member, the professor had applied for tenure, been turned down, and appealed the decision. She learned on Friday that she had been denied once again..
The newspaper identified the professor as Amy Bishop, a Harvard-educated neuroscientist. According to a 2006 profile in the newspaper, Dr. Bishop invented a portable cell growth incubator with her husband, Jim Anderson. Police officials said that Mr. Anderson was being detained, but they did not call him a suspect.
Photographs of a suspect being led from the scene by the police appeared to match images of Dr. Bishop on academic and technology Web sites.
Dr. Bishop had told acquaintances recently that she was worried about getting tenure, said a business associate who met her at a business technology open house at the end of January and asked not to be named because of the close-knit nature of the science community in Huntsville.
“She began to talk about her problems getting tenure in a very forceful and animated way, saying it was unfair,” the associate said, referring to a conversation in which she blamed specific colleagues for her problems.
“She seemed to be one of these persons who was just very open with her feelings,” he said. “A very smart, intense person who had a variety of opinions on issues.”
The shooting occurred in the Shelby Center at the university around 4 p.m., officials said. Few students were in the building, and none were involved in the shooting, said Ray Garner, a university spokesman.
Officials said the dead were all biology professors, G. K. Podila, the department’s chairman; Maria Ragland Davis; and Adriel D. Johnson Sr. Two other biology professors, Luis Rogelio Cruz-Vera and Joseph G. Leahy, as well as a professor’s assistant, Stephanie Monticciolo, are at Huntsville Hospital in conditions ranging from stable to critical.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
In a vital game of cricket, that is... not a sport anywhere near the heart of mainstream America, but one where, nevertheless, the US team should be expected to do better given the number of cricketing immigrants in this country. But they were up against an inspired Afghanistan team - and I wonder if the real conflict both countries are engaged in provided some needle to the contest - who beat them comfortably to get closer to reaching a World Cup next year! Go Afghanistan!
And the Americans must love this quote from the main Afghan bowler:
Hamid Hassan: 'I think that there is a similarity in the story of Rocky and the Afghanistan cricket team - we both started at the bottom and gradually made our way up the rankings'
Gotta love that!
Skeptic Wonder has one of the more creative analytical takes on hosting a blog carnival I've ever seen - an actually phylogeny of the blog posts included in the carnival, based on sequence alignment of each blog post's URL! I'm not sure about some of the results, however... check out where my post on the challenges of teaching evolution ended up in the above tree! How on earth did I end up paraphylizing (if that's a word) Bjørn Østman's blog?!
But, never mind that, this 20th edition of the Carnival of Evolution has plenty of good stuff to read, so head on over there in your spare moments. And pardon my tardiness in bringing this to your attention.
Every scientist who writes a popular-level book harbors a secret (or maybe not-so-secret) ambition: to be invited on the Colbert Report. Not only because Stephen Colbert is a funny guy, and it’s a good way to sell books — although there is that. The truth is that Colbert (and the Daily Show) love talking to scientists. The sad part of that truth is that more people are exposed to real scientists doing cutting-edge research by watching Comedy Central than by watching, shall we say, certain channels you might have thought more appropriate venues for such conversations. But the happy part is that Colbert and Jon Stewart help bring some fun to science, and expose it to an audience it might not otherwise reach.May the nailing be as entertaining as ever, and may the Colbert bump propel Carroll's new book " From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time " into bestsellerhood! In the meantime, visit Cosmic Variance to see a selection of Colbert interviews with some famous physics/astronomy types.
So, mark your calendars: I’m going to be on Colbert on Wednesday, March 3. (Scheduled to be, anyway — updates as events warrant.) I have a book to sell, not that I would have turned down the opportunity otherwise.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Monday, February 8, 2010
Dr. Janet Browne presents a biography on Charles Darwin and explores Darwin's Origin of Species. The lecture is concluded with a panel discussion with Craig Heller and Robert Proctor.
This is the third lecture in the Stanford course on Darwin's Legacy I've been sharing here recently (see parts 1 and 2), and is a good one to start off this week with, as we prepare to celebrate Darwin's 201st birthday next Friday. Janet Browne, of course, is the author of what may be the definitive biography of Darwin, published in two volumes: Voyaging and The Power of Place. Click on those links to pick up your copy if you haven't read them yet - this wonderful biography of a truly remarkable scientist belongs in every respectable library! And I particulary urge those of you who are troubled by evolution and may be suspicious of the old man to set aside your prejudices and read these books to appreciate the fullness of his life and work even if its implications trouble you!
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
ABC World News aired this story last Sunday, which includes a short interview clip with Rebecca Skloot, whose book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is just hitting the stores. And yes, the woman's name is Lacks - but lame as it seems, the ABC website and video have misspelt it!! The story itself is quite remarkable, and really well told. I will try to post a review of the book here as I'm hoping to finish reading it soon.