Monthly Archives: January 2008

Prioritizing philanthropy for biodiversity conservation – a survey

Interested in biodiversity conservation, and in maximizing philanthropic impact upon it over the coming years? Have an opinion on what the major challenges are, and where you think our investments should be going? You may want to check out the Keystone Center’s Science and Public Policy, Survey on Investment Opportunities for Biodiversity & Wildlife Habitat. The big question addressed by the project is:

“What are the major challenges to biodiversity conservation over the next 5 to 10 years and beyond and what might be the most significant opportunities for philanthropic impact?”

The Keystone Center is soliciting participation in the survey from as many people as possible to get a good dataset. After providing your input, you get to see basic results right away, and can also participate in an online discussion forum.

This project will continue from December 2007 through April 2008. In addition to this survey and an online discussion, Keystone will be conducting a series of national and regional meetings involving advocacy, scientific and policy leaders to focus on the central question.

The result will be a series of recommendations that will be available to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and other conservation foundations to help guide their decision-making for the next 5 to 10 years.

In my initial eyeballing of results, a couple of interesting points jump out:

1. Over the past decade, most respondents (51%) rank “Improved technical and scientific information about threats to wildlife habitat and ways to reduce those threats now on hand.” as the top successful accomplishment. Likewise the same category is ranked at the bottom of the list for “future challenges”

So it seems, most people agree, that we’ve made great strides in understanding the problems, and know what we need to do. I tend to agree even though this might mean reducing emphasis on funding research!

2. “Stronger political leadership for wildlife conservation”, on the other hand, was ranked lowest (by 49%) in terms of past accomplishments and highest (by 35%) among future challenges!

And again, this echoes my own feeling – but I’m not sure how philanthropic investment (the main agent in this study’s focus) is going to bring about such stronger political leadership. Dipping into the forums might provide some solutions, so I may get sucked into the discussion there, although yet another online forum to participate in is the last thing I need!

I may have more to share here after I’ve had a bit of sleep and a think – meanwhile, go participate in the survey, spread the word, and tell me what you think about these issues.

(Via Ecolog-L.)

Now I know why the sun sometimes makes me go ACHOO!

Do you find that your nose gets ticklish when you step out into the sun suddenly sometimes? If so, you just might have the Autosomal-dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst syndrome (ACHOO!) – a phenomenon noted even by Aristotle in his Book of Problems, but thought obscure enough by scientists to bother giving it its own above syndrome name/acronym until 1978! More simply called the Photic Sneeze Reflex (PSR), it may result from a neural crosswiring in one’s face – a current leakage between the optic (which controls pupil contraction due to sudden sunlight exposure) and trigeminal (senses nasal irritation and causes sneezing) nerves!

Aristotle mused about why one sneezes more after looking at the sun in The Book of Problems: “Why does the heat of the sun provoke sneezing?” He surmised that the heat of the sun on the nose was probably responsible.

Some 2 ,000 years later, in the early 17th century, English philosopher Francis Bacon neatly refuted that idea by stepping into the sun with his eyes closed—the heat was still there, but the sneeze was not (a compact demonstration of the fledgling scientific method). Bacon’s best guess was that the sun’s light made the eyes water, and then that moisture (“braine humour,” literally) seeped into and irritated the nose.

Humours aside, Bacon’s moisture hypothesis seemed quite reasonable until our modern understanding of physiology made it clear that the sneeze happens too quickly after light exposure to be the result of the comparatively sluggish tear ducts. So neurology steps in: Most experts now agree that crossed wires in the brain are probably responsible for the photic sneeze reflex.

A sneeze is usually triggered by an irritation in the nose, which is sensed by the trigeminal nerve, a cranial nerve responsible for facial sensation and motor control. This nerve is in close proximity to the optic nerve, which senses, for example, a sudden flood of light entering the retina. As the optic nerve fires to signal the brain to constrict the pupils, the theory goes, some of the electrical signal is sensed by the trigeminal nerve and mistaken by the brain as an irritant in the nose. Hence, a sneeze.

Yet another example of our not-so-intelligently-designed but marvelously quirky evolved bodies, eh?

[Hat-tip to Mark Hoofnagle of Denialism Blog]

Your new gateway to peer-reviewed science

After several months of experimentation at creating a central clearinghouse for blog commentaries on peer-reviewed scientific papers, the BPR3 team has just launched a new site Research Blogging. Imagine having your own cadre of “docents” to introduce you to and help you interpret serious peer-reviewed research across the spectrum of scientific research! Well, you don’t have to imagine it – for this is exactly what this site provides.

Do you like to read about new developments in science and other fields? Are you tired of “science by press release”? Research Blogging is your place. Research Blogging allows readers to easily find blog posts about serious peer-reviewed research, instead of just news reports and press releases.

Along with ScienceBlogs, this just might become one of your first stops on the science-information superhighway.

We are not the only political animals


Aristotle wrote a couple of millenia ago that “Man is by nature a political animal”, and who can argue with that, especially in this year of a presidential election here in the US. But what may be surprising is that it took so long after that sage for people to recognize that we are not the only “political animals”. This week’s Science Times section of the New York Times (which you students must’ve noticed tucked inside one of yesterday’s NY Times, free copies of which we get daily on campus; if you didn’t notice it – why not??) led with a cover article by Natalie Angiers on this topic. Its a nice, if not too surprising (at least to me) article that is well worth the read. Turns out that humans are indeed political animals by nature because we evolved that way!

Neil Shubin on preparing for his 5 minutes with Colbert

Following his successful appearance on the Colbert Report last week, Neil Shubin has shared his experience (on Pharyngula) of preparing to beard that particular lion in his den, and on the challenges of communicating science in the sound-bite medium in general. Well worth reading whether you are a fan of Shubin or Colbert, or simply interested in bringing science to the public discourse.

It can’t be an easy thing to do: the prospect facing an aggressive TV talking-head (even a fake one) was enough to give Shubin a sleepless night. But the challenge goes beyond simply having to face an uninformed and potentially hostile host whose primary goal is to provide entertainment – there is a more fundamental communication issue. Shubin writes:

In thinking about the experience a few days later I have one thought on language. As scientists we are very used to using language with a great deal of precision (note the string in the commentary on common ancestry, group inclusion, etc.). The challenge is adapting our highly precise vocabulary to the demands of a five minute performance on a show which is fundamentally not about science. It is a tough tightrope to walk to balance between language that is both engaging and precise. I had mixed success, but that has to be our aspiration for these kinds of experiences.

He ended up doing a pretty good job if you ask me – and certainly sold at least one copy of his new book (well, soon – its on my wishlist now) – but I’m not really the target demographic. I wonder if it is possible to measure his success with the show’s typical audience – perhaps through counting the number of downloads this interview gets from the Comedy Central website? if they keep track of that sort of thing?

And you can’t really argue with this final thought:

You can ask the question, a valid one, why bother with these kinds shows? If it is so difficult, and the conceptual and linguistic apparatus of science doesn’t easily conform to this venue, why do it? For me the answer is that we need to make science part of the public conversation. We live in a society where Britany Spears latest foible gets more ink than Mello and Fire’s 2006 Nobel discovery of RNAi– a breakthrough on a little worm that will likely lead to treatments of many diseases. Something is wrong here.


Did the human breast evolve from fish teeth?

Well, you’ll find out, over the course of this semester, if you are taking my Evolution class. In the meantime, watch the righteous Stephen Colbert tangle with the evilutionary biologist Neil Shubin over this and other questions about human origins. Yes that’s the very same Dr. Shubin who codiscovered the fishapod Tiktaalik roseae, and has just published “Your Inner Fish”: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body”.


$27.00 / 45 poor people = Nobel Prize

Bangladesh is no longer a basket-case, asserts Dr. Muhammad Yunus, who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Grameen Bank, a revolutionary micro-lending institution which played no mean role in the Bangladesh Miracle. Since Bangladesh has been on my mind of late, ever since hurricane Sidr’s recent trail of havoc, let me share a couple of interesting videos about Bangladesh.

First, the Bangladesh Miracle – an effective demonstration of the demographic transition that has occurred in Bangladesh over the past four decades


And last thursday, none other than Dr. Yunus appeared on the The Colbert Report to clear up the host’s linguistic confusion in explaining what “micro” means, and why “Bangladesh” no longer means “Basket Case” in English!

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Muhammad Yunus
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election March to Keep Fear Alive

Informative and hilarious at the same time, no?

I guess now I’ll have to check out Yunus’ new book about how to bring about Stephen Colbert’s nightmare world!

Friday photos: The Birds!!!


Yes, it may look like a still from Hitchcock’s “The Birds”, and the entire sequence may reinforce that impression as these urban gulls were practically dive-bombing us on the shores of a lake in Oakland on Christmas day (when I captured this image); but they weren’t really dive-bombing me – they were trying to catch pieces of bread being thrown up into the air by a visitor to that shore, there feeding the birds of an evening with a child. And the birds weren’t scary at all, even to the toddler in tow! It was cool to have one or two brush lightly past my head…


A different kind of “Christmas Poo”

While writing on the subject of poo paper, I just came across a story I had somehow missed last month: the first ever Endangered Rhino Feces auction on Ebay! Yes, four lucky individuals woke up this past Christmas to find something like this under their Christmas tree (and no, this is not about Mr. Hankey):

Yes, in case you hadn’t heard, fecal samples of four endangered rhinoceros species were auctioned off on Ebay last month!! Brainchild of the International Rhino Foundation, the auction was quite successful, apparently generating a lot of media attention (although I completely missed the story) and attracting 76 bids, topping out at $1075 for the White Rhino specimen.

Well, you and I may have missed out on acquiring that precious gift, but we still have this, at least: