Monthly Archives: October 2008

Resurrecting Joe the McCarthy against the impending Communist Manipesto

Are you quaking in your boots yet (all-American made-in-China-ergo-commie boots, no doubt!) at what might befall this freest of free nations next tuesday? No? You better heed Colbert and start licking your possessions:

See? Obama is so far to the left that even god-fearing, Hannity-listening conservatives in Utah would rather vote for Ralph Nader than Obama!! (But they’re running away from McPalin too…)

Still need convincing about the Red Menace? Watch how Obama is being endorsed by even these dangerous radical lefties who somehow outlived Joe the McCarthy:


Go VOTE, my American friends and comrades! I wish I could (really, this time). The whole world wishes we all couldits that important!! And if you follow that last link about how other countries’ peoples would vote if they could – note again that China and Cuba are solidly with Obama! But what the f’s up with Chavez’s Venezuela??

Go VOTE!!!

On McCain/Palin’s appalling contempt for science and learning

Trust Christopher Hitchens to lay it out in choice words:

In an election that has been fought on an astoundingly low cultural and intellectual level, with both candidates pretending that tax cuts can go like peaches and cream with the staggering new levels of federal deficit, and paltry charges being traded in petty ways, and with Joe the Plumber becoming the e

mblematic stupidity of the campaign, it didn’t seem possible that things could go any lower or get any dumber. But they did last Friday, when, at a speech in Pittsburgh, Gov. Sarah Palin denounced wasteful expenditure on fruit-fly research, adding for good xenophobic and anti-elitist measure that some of this research took place “in Paris, France” and winding up with a folksy “I kid you not.”

It was in 1933 that Thomas Hunt Morgan won a Nobel Prize for showing that genes are passed on by way of chromosomes. The experimental creature that he employed in the making of this great discovery was the Drosophila melanogaster, or fruit fly. Scientists of various sorts continue to find it a very useful resource, since it can be easily and plentifully “cultured” in a laboratory, has a very short generation time, and displays a great variety of mutation. This makes it useful in studying disease, and since Gov. Palin was in Pittsburgh to talk about her signature “issue” of disability and special needs, she might even have had some researcher tell her that there is a Drosophila-based center for research into autism at the University of North Carolina. The fruit fly can also be a menace to American agriculture, so any financing of research into its habits and mutations is money well-spent. It’s especially ridiculous and unfortunate that the governor chose to make such a fool of herself in Pittsburgh, a great city that remade itself after the decline of coal and steel into a center of high-tech medical research.

With Palin, however, the contempt for science may be something a little more sinister than the bluff, empty-headed plain-man’s philistinism of McCain. We never get a chance to ask her in detail about these things, but she is known to favor the teaching of creationism in schools (smuggling this crazy idea through customs in the innocent disguise of “teaching the argument,” as if there was an argument), and so it is at least probable that she believes all creatures from humans to fruit flies were created just as they are now. This would make DNA or any other kind of research pointless, whether conducted in Paris or not. Projects such as sequencing the DNA of the flu virus, the better to inoculate against it, would not need to be funded. We could all expire happily in the name of God. Gov. Palin also says that she doesn’t think humans are responsible for global warming; again, one would like to ask her whether, like some of her co-religionists, she is a “premillenial dispensationalist”—in other words, someone who believes that there is no point in protecting and preserving the natural world, since the end of days will soon be upon us.

Go read the rest. Then VOTE (sorry I can’t) to make sure these people aren’t in charge of your country for much longer!

Note, however, that common usage of names notwithstanding, Drosophila are not fruit flies (as you should know even if Hitchens doesn’t – if you’ve taken Entomology). Palin was referring to a study of the olive fruit fly (pictured above), which is a true fruit fly (Tephritid), as well as a serious crop pest right here in California. Which makes her remarks even more bizarre because she was attacking applied research of considerable economic significance – research that many a “Joe” farmer might care about even more than us urban elites pursuing basic research!! Clueless in so many ways…

[Hat-tip: onegoodmove and Evolgen]

Darn those scientists, confounding our politics again!


Unbelievable!! This is the leadership we are supposed to look forward to?!

As someone who came to the US because of the opportunities this country offered to pursue scientific research, and having seen science get bipartisan lip service (at least) over the past 4 presidential election cycles (when I have been here), despite the decline in science funding over the past 8 years, I find it really bizarre to see this “team of mavericks” tilting against the windmills of science in this fashion! First it was grampa McCain railing against “pork-barrel” earmark funding to study the genetics of grizzly bears (a very successful project, btw, that he had actually voted for, before turning it into a convenient flogging-horse on the campaign trail), and now Palin takes on the iconic model organism of modern genetics, Drosophila!! Talk about clueless chutzpah, bashing research on the very organism which has yielded, among myriad other insights, important clues about autism, the cause she claims she would fund by cutting off these “earmark” projects!! But, as has been clear from the day she joined the ticket, and as Rachel Maddow demonstrates yet again, this hockey-mom continues to operate in a completely irony-free zone – how can one make fun of her when she embodies the joke so completely? (remember how people chuckled when someone initially suggested that she had foreign policy expertise because of Alaska’s proximity to Russia; until she actually took that line seriously and ran with it?)

Science – cutting-edge basic science – has surely been one of the defining characteristics of this country’s global leadership over the past half-century or more, no?! Why do these “mavericks” now suddenly think it is ok to throw that away, and that they will win more votes if they bash science and scientists? I’ve wondered about the curious dichotomy in this culture, where science and technology provide the basis of so much of everyday life, yet science and scientists, and intellectuals in general, are feared/reviled as nerds/dangerous elitists. Is the anti-intellectual strain in this society so strong that McCain/Palin can drum up a few more votes to win this election by continuing to bash science, and further entrench the age of american unreason? Please tell me that is not the case, that things haven’t gone that far wrong… or should I be packing my bags as another soon-to-be-unwanted scientist who has been wasting his life and taxpayer money studying birds??!! And a foreigner, to boot!!

Passing gas relieves pressure…

Blood pressure, that is! Yes! Who knew:

A smelly rotten-egg gas in farts controls blood pressure in mice, a new study finds.

The unpleasant aroma of the gas, called hydrogen sulfide (H2S), can be a little too familiar, as it is expelled by bacteria living in the human colon and eventually makes its way, well, out.

The new research found that cells lining mice’s blood vessels naturally make the gas and this action can help keep the rodents’ blood pressure low by relaxing the blood vessels to prevent hypertension (high blood pressure). This gas is “no doubt” produced in cells lining human blood vessels too, the researchers said.

“Now that we know hydrogen sulfide’s role in regulating blood pressure, it may be possible to design drug therapies that enhance its formation as an alternative to the current methods of treatment for hypertension,” said Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Solomon H. Snyder, M.D., a co-author of the study detailed in the Oct. 24th issue of the journal Science.

[via The Stink in Farts Controls Blood Pressure | LiveScience]

I wonder if this provides any basis for the use of black salt as recommended in Ayurvedic medicine for lowering blood pressure. Black salt contains H2S, and does help relieve intestinal gas and heartburn, but I don’t know if it can actually get into blood vessels where the above effect seems to work. Maybe the ancients were on to something after all? Even if they had no clue how it actually worked, classifying it as a “cooling” element, they did link it to lowered blood-pressure. Either way, black salt sure tastes good in my chaat!

And sorry guys, this still doesn’t give us any easy excuse for passing gas…

[Hat-tip: Smoke Signals]

Citizen Science Watch: The Great World Wide Star Count

Does your mind (and binoculars) fly to outer space seeking out distant constellations more often than to the tree in your backyard trying to discern the wing-bar patterns on that warbler flitting there? Mine did, back in college several decades ago when I was an active instigator in a campus Astronomy club. Back in the Institute of Science in Bombay as a starry-eyed undergrad (zoology major, mind), some of my happiest moments were spent peering up past the city’s well-lit smog through the business end of a telescope trying to catch that faint streak across the sky known as Halley’s comet, or marvel at the smudge of the Orion nebula! O what fun we had refurbishing a lovely old brass 4-inch optical telescope found forgotten in some cabinet in the Physics department (where it has perhaps retired once again – but I hope not); even more fun designing and then building a proper equatorial mount for the brass beauty in the institute’s machine shop. We even went on to build (from scratch) a 6-inch reflecting scope, starting with grinding and polishing out the mirror from a thick disc of optical glass! We took these out on to the roof of the Institute to share views of the comet, or eclipses and such, with fellow students. The best part, perhaps, was when we went away from the city, hiking in the mountains of the Western Ghats (indeed on that very plateau you see in the wikipedia image on the page I just linked to), to get better views of the sky. And what a contrast it was from the urban sky, to be able to actually see the milky way, and once, most astonishing of all, catch a fleeting shadow out of the corner of my eye that could have only been cast by an unbelievably incandescent Venus burning up the moonless pre-dawn sky! What a cosmic experience to break open the floodgates for a sheltered urban mind! Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, I tired of reading about the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, and, on the day-hikes to-and-from our itinerant hill-top observatories, turned some of the high-powered optics to life closer by; discovered bird watching (which goes surprisingly well with star-gazing) and stepped on to the path which has kept me in a state of wonder about the universe we inhabit, and the life that has evolved from the star dust right here on earth.

If any of the above resonates with you, if you like looking at the stars, and wish you could see more of them, here’s a citizen science effort for you: the Great World Wide Star Count.

And no, unlike us birders or other measurers of life on earth, the astronomers aren’t asking you to help them conduct an actual census of the stars, or help them figure out how many there really are (wouldn’t that be fun?!). Their concern is more earth-bound, as in how many known stars can you actually see from any given location on earth! Why wonder about that? Because along with the various other ways we humans are befouling this planet for ourselves and other species, we are also robbing the night sky of its mysteries, by lighting everything up! Here’s an excerpt of an article about this project from the NSF:

The event, which is open to everyone who wants to participate, is organized by the Windows to the Universe project at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) in Boulder, Colo., in conjunction with planetariums and scientific societies across the country and abroad.

Funding is provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“By searching for the same constellations in their respective hemispheres, participants in the Great World Wide Star Count will be able to compare their observations with what others see, giving them a sense of how star visibility varies from place to place,” said Cliff Jacobs, program director in NSF’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences.

The observers will also learn more about the economic and geographic factors that control light pollution in their communities and around the world.

“The star count brings families together to enjoy the night sky and become involved in science,” says Dennis Ward of UCAR’s Office of Education and Outreach. “It also raises awareness about the impact of artificial lighting on our ability to see the stars.”

So if you aren’t doing anything of an evening during the next couple of weeks, why not walk outside your house, see if you can spot a particular constellation: Cygnus (there’s a constellation for bird-watchers!) in the Northern hemisphere, Sagittarius in the Southern, assess its magnitude, report your observations, and bask in the afterglow of participating in a collective science project?

Back in college when my friends and I wielded binoculars more at night than in the day, there was a fellow student who knew of our enthusiasm for astronomy, even though he didn’t share it enough to participate in our nocturnal adventures. Upon graduating, he came to the US for graduate school – where exactly, I don’t quite remember. What I do remember is that a few months later there was a postcard from him, gushing with excitement about his new life in this land of dreams. And among the highlights of his brief stay here was a special tidbit just to amaze us stargazers: someone had taken him camping in the US, and you know what? One could even see the Milky Way from here! Imagine that!!

I hope this project helps students like our friend know where to go to find the Milky Way wherever they happen to live on this small blue dot. I hope you can help. Even if you can’t observe the constellations, at least turn out those lights!

[Hat-tip: Urban Science Adventures]

Seminar today on the evolutionary ecology of becoming urban

Its my own turn at bat in our departmental colloquium today. Here’s the blurb on what I’ll talk about:

Becoming urban: behavioral and evolutionary implications of living in the city

Dr. Madhusudan Katti, Department of Biology, California State University, Fresno


DSC_2294.NEF (1).jpg

The city may be the ultimate expression of the human effort to control our environment: in evolutionary ecological terms, it represents a strategy to minimize the risks of starvation and predation by creating habitats which dampen natural variability in climate and food availability, and provide shelter from predators. Simultaneously, humans also generate a considerable surplus of food, making cities attractive habitats to many other wild species. Recent theoretical work by myself and colleagues shows that typical changes in spatio-temporal patterns of food availability (higher and more predictable) and predation regimes (may be lower) accompanying urbanization can alter competitive dynamics such that weak competitors survive better in urban than in more natural habitats. This has several implications for species that are able to invade the novel urban habitat: higher population densities, potentially reduced selection pressures, and in turn, greater vulnerability to sudden environmental changes. In this presentation, I explore consequences for the evolution of commensalism and the continued coexistence of other species with humans, using recent work on house sparrows (the ultimate commensal now at risk in urban habitats), corvids (suburban Scrub Jays), and south Asian primates (urban Macaques and Langurs). I will also present an overview of several projects currently ongoing in my laboratory focusing on different effects of urban environments on bird behavior, ecology, and diversity, and describe opportunities for students to get involved!

On: Friday, October 3, 2008, At: 3:00-4:00 PM, In: Science II, Room 109

On messing with the balance of nature, and American fecundity

A couple of funnies from the newspaper yesterday:


And this one, which brought to mind my first thoughts when I learnt about Sarah Palin’s attitude towards human procreation:

Now you know, I’m not a population-bomb alarmist, but I do have to wonder when the ruling party in the US nominates for vice-president someone who has apparently never heard of, nor taught her teenage daughter about birth control, let alone the whole gamut of women’s reproductive rights. I thought one of the big achievements of feminism, from empowering women in countries like India and Bangladesh, was a decline in birth rates in those “population-bomb” countries. Becoming a grandmother at my age (Palin is but a year older than me), birthing a special-needs child at the same time that one’s teenage daughter gets pregnant – why, that sort of thing, overlapping generations and all, happened only on my grandparents’ generation back home!! Or so I thought!!! Welcome to 21st century America – striding boldly into the past and dragging the rest of the planet down with it!

Carl Zimmer on a career among the Galapagos finches

grants220.jpgAbout two months ago I was fortunate enough to attend Rosemary Grant’s plenary lecture at the 2008 meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union. It was one of the most deeply impressive lectures I’ve heard in the 20 years that I’ve been attending scientific conferences. I’ve known Peter and Rosemary Grant for 10 years now, and consider myself extremely fortunate in being able to claim a personal connection with such greatness: they are my academic grandparents! If you’ve taken my classes (any of them!), you’ve probably heard me talk about them at some point. What I meant to do, but haven’t had the time to do, is write more about Rosemary’s wonderful talk here. Well, at this point in the semester, the prospects of finding time for something like that is slipping farther away. Fortunately, however, Carl Zimmer (who is way better with the written word / blog than me), happened to attend a joint lecture by them yesterday, and gives us an excellent account on his new blog at Discover. An absolute must read for the week!

Thanks, Carl!