Monthly Archives: January 2009

The Roar of the Centaur — and wicked cool picture to go with it!!

The BadAstronomy blog has this truly galactically bad-ass picture posted today!

Centaurus A is a nearby galaxy — at 13 million light years distant, only a handful of big galaxies are closer to us. And it’s weird: it’s an elliptical galaxy eating a spiral! They’re in the last stages of merging into one bigger and messier galaxy. Dust from the spiral forms a huge ring around the center of the galaxy, with the gas and dust…

You simply have to go marvel at the hauntingly beautiful violent image, read how the astronomers made the image, and what we can learn from it! And in the process, get a little bit more of the cosmic perspective too!

read more | digg story

Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy

Today’s NYT features this excellent defense of science by Dennis Overbye. My favorite part:

The knock on science from its cultural and religious critics is that it is arrogant and materialistic. It tells us wondrous things about nature and how to manipulate it, but not what we should do with this knowledge and power. The Big Bang doesn’t tell us how to live, or whether God loves us, or whether there is any God at all. It provides scant counsel on same-sex marriage or eating meat. It is silent on the desirability of mutual assured destruction as a strategy for deterring nuclear war.

Einstein seemed to echo this thought when he said, “I have never obtained any ethical values from my scientific work.” Science teaches facts, not values, the story goes.

Worse, not only does it not provide any values of its own, say its detractors, it also undermines the ones we already have, devaluing anything it can’t measure, reducing sunsets to wavelengths and romance to jiggly hormones. It destroys myths and robs the universe of its magic and mystery.

So the story goes.

But this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.

It requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists and Hindus have all been working side by side building the Large Hadron Collider and its detectors these last few years.

And indeed there is no leader, no grand plan, for this hive. It is in many ways utopian anarchy, a virtual community that lives as much on the Internet and in airport coffee shops as in any one place or time. Or at least it is as utopian as any community largely dependent on government and corporate financing can be.

Arguably science is the most successful human activity of all time. Which is not to say that life within it is always utopian, as several of my colleagues have pointed out in articles about pharmaceutical industry payments to medical researchers.

But nobody was ever sent to prison for espousing the wrong value for the Hubble constant. There is always room for more data to argue over.

So if you’re going to get gooey about something, that’s not so bad.

It is no coincidence that these are the same qualities that make for democracy and that they arose as a collective behavior about the same time that parliamentary democracies were appearing. If there is anything democracy requires and thrives on, it is the willingness to embrace debate and respect one another and the freedom to shun received wisdom. Science and democracy have always been twins.”

Odd as it may seem coming from a proud participant of this “utopian anarchy“, I couldn’t agree more! The entire essay is well worth reading.

read more | digg story

A graphic novel in time for the bicentennial!

Hmm… this might be something to get the kids really excited about:

Doesn’t he look dashing, that young field biologist? Says Simon Gurr, the illustrator:

Less than a week now until the printers deliver Darwin: A Graphic Biography, the latest 100-page comic book from Eugene Byrne and me. I’ve seen the proofs and can’t wait to hold the book itself in my hands. The big launch is on 30th Jan, stay tuned for more details and to find out how to get hold of a copy.

And now I can’t wait for this week to end…

{Hat-tip: Joe@ForbiddenPlanet]

A short course on Darwin, his science, and his legacy

Andy Shriver pointed out this University of California Museum of Paleontology short course:

Darwin: the man, his science, and his legacydarwin2009.gif

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809. His birthday is an opportunity to celebrate his contribution to science and its influence in such diverse academic fields as biology, anthropology, and medicine. To kick off the multiple celebrations that will be taking place in the Bay Area, UCMP offers you the opportunity to join historians and evolutionary biologists as they discuss the extraordinary life of Charles Darwin, his contributions, his legacy, and our current understandings of evolutionary theory. Speakers will include Keith Thomson, Kipling Will, Kevin Padian, and Eugenie Scott.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

2050 Valley Life Sciences Building, UC Berkeley

9:00 am to 4:00 pm (registration opens at 8:15 am)

As an added bonus, a teacher workshop on evolution presented by UCMP, California Academy of Sciences, Human Evolution Research Center, KQED QUEST, SETI, and the National Center for Science Education will be held the following day on Sunday, February 8, 9:30 am to 3:00 pm (registration opens at 9:00 am). The workshop, held in 2063 VLSB, will include behind-the-scenes tours of the Human Evolution Research Center and lunch. More information is available here.

Must the environment always come last in a tanking economy?

That does seem to be a correlation, doesn’t it? Short-term economic concerns always trump longer-term environmental ones, especially in an economic downturn. Well, I’m not entirely convinced of this argument, although there is the oft-mentioned correlation between poverty and endangered biodiversity, especially of the third-world variety. Poor people may be forced to put survival ahead of the environment or endangered species on occasion, but they may also have a greater vested interest in taking care of their immediate environment because their lives are more vulnerable to fluctuations therein. Provided, of course, they have some degree of control over that environment, or have even a bit of “ownership” of their habitats. But this is a larger argument I don’t really want to open up right how.

Instead, let me offer some items from the recent news about how the current economic recession facing the mighty US may already have put the environmental on the back-burner; and this, ironically at the same time that this country sees a transfer of power from a president who disastrously oversaw both the economic and the environmental recession to one who wants to green the economy as a way out of both problems!

  • The NYT reports a new Pew poll which finds that environmental concerns (including global warming) have dropped precipitously on the nation’s list of priorities as the economic bad news has come in over the past year or so. And this, they say, may pose a serious problem for Obama’s green agenda. What intrigues me, however, is that early part of the graph, back in 2000, when the environment ranked higher than jobs, but still lagged considerably behind the economy! This was when the US supposedly had that multi-trillion dollar surplus following the boom of the Clinton years; and, despite the higher-than-now environmental concerns, Al Gore (Mr. Environment himself?) lost failed to cleanly win the 2000 election. Hmm?!
  • More locally, the LA Times last week ran this story about how the current budget crisis in California, brought about by our tragi-farcically ineffective legislature, has frozen a wide variety of environmental projects in the state. If you’re curious, they also provide this extraordinary list of all the suspended projects! Try scrolling all the way through the list to get a sense of the impact. And if you live in California, you may find projects you didn’t even know about in your own neighborhood!
  • An even more local environmental casualty, right here in Fresno county, is the lovely Lost Lake Park, on the chopping block along with all county public parks as the Board of Supervisors meet tomorrow to consider closing them all down, possibly for well beyond the coming year! This came courtesy of the newly active Fresno Audubon blog, which is covering the developing story and has further information on how you might get involved to try and stave off the closure. Are parks really that expensive?

And more broadly, is this what governments should be doing in a recession? One can sympathize when individuals become environmentally short-sighted if they lose their jobs or have to worry about the mortgage. But surely, the government (and surely governments overseeing economies as big as California and the US) is obligated to take a more enlightened, long-term view, no?! Is Obama really serious about investing in his “green economy” to pull the US back out of its twin recessions (economic and environmental)? A bigger question he might ask: does he even have the political capital / support to attempt it? We shall see, shan’t we?

Reason and rationality, tolerance and secularism – welcome back to the White House

The long national—indeed, global—nightmare is finally over!! Simply getting rid of Dubya would’ve been enough, but what transpired at Obama’s inauguration today was truly inspirational and dares one to hope of truly meaningful change in America under its new leader. Much is being said and written about the historic nature of this occasion, by much more knowledgeable people. I just want to share a couple of observations that raised my hopes/spirit amid some concerns over how the transition had been shaping up, and the controversy over some appointments as well as the selection of the homophobic pastor to perform the invocation at the inauguration. Here are my favorite moments from the inauguration. (The full text and video of the speech is online at many sites and will be available soon on the new White House website, which looks refreshingly different too!)

First, there was this refreshing, not unexpected but long awaited, reclaiming of science as part of the American heritage by Obama:

We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.

Followed by this rebuke to the outgoing, but apparently oblivious, W:

As for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.

And as for Rick Warren, I don’t think many will remember that pastor’s innocuous invocation (even if it sticks in my atheist/secularist craw to have such an invocation at all!); even in religious terms, the benediction that followed from the other pastor, Joseph Lowery, was much more substantial and eloquent. And the new civil rights agenda of the Obama White House should remove any lingering concerns over Warren’s inclusion today. Even more significant for secularism and tolerance was this wonderful passage, from Barack Hussein Obama himself (emphasis mine):

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

When was the last time an American president actually mentioned nonbelievers as belonging within this nation’s heritage? And this was no mere pandering, I think, but a return to Obama’s core beliefs, as the American Humanists’ Association reminds us with this ad today!

And to top it all, Barack and Michelle Obama stepped out of their bullet-proof limousine and actually walked several stretches of Pennsylvania Avenue amid wildly enthusiastic (and screaming) people! Something not done by any president since Carter!

Way to show courage, way to demonstrate the triumph of hope over fear and reason over superstition –  way to lead, Mr. President!

Contemplating cats in the EEB and flow

Via Ecolog-L comes word of a new ecology focused blog:

The EEB and Flow was started because, while there are some great science blogs dedicated to evolution there is conspicuously little blogging of recent advances in ecology and evolutionary ecology. The posts on this blog will include highlights of recent exciting papers, thoughts about the field of ecology and what it means to be an ecologist, spotlight researchers and their recent work and discussion of applied and conservation issues. Contributors include a diverse group of junior researchers representing several nationalities and research interests. And more will be added soon.

We hope this blog will be useful to an array of people. Most importantly, that the blog is a resource where researchers will can get updated on recent papers outside their immediate area of interest. We hope that graduate students, course instructors and science writers will use this site as a source for learning about what exciting work is being done and about the people doing it.

Feel free to send us comments or to comment directly on the blog.

So I head over there, and what’s the first thing to hit my eyeballs? This post about a brand new paper (hereby added to the reading list for my reconciliation ecology grad course starting next week; students make note) about the ambiguous hazards of cats introduced to islands. Those darn cats: you can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them, because however you skin them, cats have important ecosystem consequences! Surprised? Introduced predators, once they become established on islands, can become part of the local food-web after all, and the ecosystem may or may not recover to its former state if you simply remove this one alien cog from its wheels! And in this particular story, from a sub-Antarctic island off of Tasmania, the cute/evil cat had a cuter/fuzzier alien sidekick/nemesis/prey – the rabbit! While the cats apparently did push a couple of native bird species towards extinction, they were also holding the bunny populations in check; once the cats were exterminated, the bunnies took over the island with farther reaching consequences throughout the island. But rather than have me go on about it, why not read Marc Cadotte’s blog! And the original paper too.

I do have to wonder, though: what might have happened if the cats and the bunnies were exterminated simultaneously? Easier said than done, o’course… but do we understand these systems enough to predict the consequences of management actions derived from a sort of tunnel-vision? Something to chew on during class, eh?

Meanwhile, go dip your toes in The EEB & Flow!

Untangling the Tangled Banks of the blogosphere

Blogging has been at a low ebb around here lately. Seems to happen routinely as the semester builds and I sink under a rising pile of exams, student writings, committee assignments, and so on. Not too surprising given the rhythms of academic life, especially in a teaching-heavy institution such as ours. Yet, its been three weeks since the fall semester ended, with only two more to go before spring hits, and I am bereft of my blogorrhea! Not sure if this last semester really wore me down more than usual, or if being blindsided by some clever plagiarism in the classroom upset my own writing impulses. Or perhaps it was that attack on Bombay which subconsciously threw me off my game – and this last thought occurs to me because I just noticed that I haven’t managed to blog much at all (or even post student writings over on the other class blog) in the past 6 weeks, ever since those youthful t-shirt clad terrorists invaded the urban landscape of my misspent youth. Somehow I find myself even more distracted, and procrastinating more than usual (which is saying something!). Hopefully, this too shall pass.

Meanwhile, some of you may have come here looking not for any navel gazing on my part, but some good evolutionary biological or other science writing to sink your teeth into, in the form of the latest Tangled Bank #121, due out yesterday. If such is the case, let me doubly apologize for disappointing you.

So where is it, this traveling carnival of the most excellent science writing in the blogosphere, supposed to be in its first incarnation of this Year of Darwin 200?!

I don’t know!!

I honestly don’t know, and haven’t heard anything about it from the grand panjandrum of that carnival, the great PZ himself, despite email queries and tweets over the past week. And without a tentful of entertaining acts gathered by him, I have no show to put up on these pages! Indeed it appears that the carnival may have stalled several editions ago, for the most recent one listed on the main site is #117 from Oct 30th, although Google does turn up #118 as well. At least two editions are thus AWOL, starting with the one due on Nov 26 – the date Mumbai suffered that attack! Weird / spooky coincidence? Or has our beloved Tangled Bank been hijacked and taken hostage somewhere in the nether regions of the blogosphere?

Or am I alone stuck in some strange twilight zone?