Monthly Archives: July 2007

The assault on reason

The recent book by that endangeredfisheatingecooracle has recently joined the large pile on my nightstand, and I hope to get to it before the next semester kicks in. Meanwhile, an anonymous commenter brought this summary/review video to my attention:


Have you read the book? What do you think?

What’s your favorite “political-intereference-in-science” cartoon?

I’m sure many of us have some cartoon in this category taped to our office doors these days – don’t we? The Union of Concerned Scientists has turned this into a “Science Idol” contest where you get to vote on your favorite of 12 finalists chosen by their panel! One of my favorites (not featured in contest, although its creator was one of the judges) is below the fold.

A science blogger interviews a presidential candidate: Coturnix talks to John Edwards

And actually gets a reasonably substantial discussion without resorting to such popular questions as “do you believe in evolution?” Well, given that Bora is talking to John Edwards, that particular question was probably not all that relevant, and it is good to get some more direct answers to science-and-policy questions, particularly on global warming. I’ve liked John Edwards too, especially given his willingness to address poverty directly, so it is nice to get some answers to questions not often seen in the mainstream media. Now I hope we get similar blog interviews on science from all the other presidential candidates…

Friday photo: Garter Snake and Dark-eyed Junco

I took this picture last week in nearby Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park. While walking around the humongous General Grant tree, the fussing and cussing of a tiny little junco in its shade, in a small patch of low scrub, caught my eyes/ears to reveal, upon closer inspection, a bit of nature’s daily drama. A Mountain Garter Snake (best as I can identify) had apparently just devoured the distraught bird’s babies (note the tell-tale bulge in the snake’s middle)! And it must’ve just happened for the mom was trying to mob the snake by herself, and was joined in a little while by the dad who had a beakful of worms (which is why I inferred there were nestlings involved, not just eggs). And among a sequence of images, shot hurriedly in the strongly contrasting sun-dappled shade, I find this one of both parents trying to attack the snake particularly arresting – I hope you agree.

Why are chilies hot?

If you’ve taken one of my classes where I talk about the scientific method and the nature of questions and explanations (i.e., most of my classes, but esp. Evolution), you’ve heard me tell a little personal anecdote to illustrate the difference between Proximate and Ultimate explanations. One about the question: Why are chilies hot?

If you just want the answer to the question, go here to read Bora’s nice essay on the topic. If you are interested in my anecdote also, look below the fold…

Some 11 years ago, when I was in the throes of writing my dissertation, I shared an apartment in La Jolla, for a short while, with Ajay Chitnis, a developmental neurobiologist then postdoc-ing at the Salk Institute (he’s now at NIH). It was one of the most stimulating few months of my life, as we both enjoyed cooking, especially spicy foods (not just curries, mind you, but world cuisine!), as well as talking about all matters scientific, philosophical, literary, culinary, and cinematic, well into the wee hours of the night – ah the intellectual ferment of those grad student days…! I don’t think I have ever had such a wide-ranging ongoing discourse with anyone else before or since, so in some ways he was the best flat-mate I ever had. I learnt a great deal from Ajay about evo-devo in those early days of the field, and like to think that some of my evolutionary-ecological blatherings found some foothold in his fertile imagination. And of course, he has my eternal thanks for selling me my first jalopy…

Anyway, to the point of the anecdote: one day we had a rather intense discussion about chilies, starting with my asking the question: why are chilies hot? Ajay’s immediate answer was, because they have capsaicin in them! So naturally, given the smart-ass evolutionary ecologist in me, my comeback was, but why do they have capsaicin? why are they hot, again? Why have they evolved that way? And, as we wound up talking about this for the next hour, it also dawned on us that our initial responses said something about the nature of explanations we tended to seek: Ajay, with his training in medicine and molecular biology, had first come up with a proximate biochemical answer to the question, whereas my own focus was on the ultimate evolutionary answer. Obviously, both are necessary to fully answer the question, thus the pedagogic value of this anecdote.

What had triggered our discussion? It was a seminar by a grad student visiting my lab at the time – Joshua Tewksbury, who was conducting some neat field studies on the coevolution of chilies and their seed dispersers in the Arizona desert at the time. I guess I have to thank Bora for reminding me of this again with his very nice summary of some of Josh’s research – and he’s written it so well that I have to send you to his blog for the answer to the question. And watch his blog, for he promises to follow up with an exploration of why we are the only weird mammals with such a hot tooth!