Scientia Pro Publica #37


Welcome to the 37th iteration of Scientia Pro Publica, the carnival that brings together a selection of writings from the blogosphere on the environment, human health, and various other sciences. This week we have a whole gamut of essays ranging across the spectrum, so I won’t keep you long before you can start sampling the goods. Just remember to leave a comment to let the authors know what you think of their writing. And note that the next edition will be hosted by Dr. Shock on Aug 30th, so don’t forget to submit links to blog posts that catch your eye over the next couple of weeks.

Journeys through space and time

Let us start the journey at the biggest of scales, shall we? Ever wondered what a Galaxy is, really? Astro Basics offers a comprehensive overview of what a Galaxy is, and what it has meant to us, astronomers and laypersons, through the history of astronomy. Staying with history, but closer to home, Romeo Vitelli at Provedentia shares an interesting tale of extreme, you might even say pathological, denialism in the 19th century when Alfred Russell Wallace took on John Hampden’s Flat Earth Wager looking for some easy cash but ending up with more than he had bargained for. There a lesson in there somewhere for the current “debates” between scientists and denialists of various sorts, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, Matthew Willis of Backyard and Beyond takes us on a journey from Iceland, home of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull that had our tongues atwist earlier this year, all the way to his neighborhood of Brooklyn, the Hudson river valley and the Palisades, while ruminating on volcanoes, their power and their effects on human history. He has a wonderful way of connecting the global with the local and personal both in geology and history. On a lighter, more (or less) poetic note, Sarah Zielinski at Smithsonian’s Surprising Science blog is on a quest for bad poetry about geology. And she would like your help deciding which couplet she’s discovered is the worst, so go vote in the poll at the bottom of her delightful post!

If you still in the mood for travel, you have two wonderful excursions to share in, virtually. Kazimierz Lebowski of Science and Soul takes us on a class trip through the cloud forest and montane landscapes of Costa Rica, illustrated with beautiful photographs. Over at eco logic, Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi shares a more adventurous expedition to the Hidden Fortress of Gya, the tallest Himalayan peak in Himachal Pradesh, in search of the snow leopard and the blue sheep.

Of human glory and folly

This business of science has led us on some amazing journeys, from the galactic to the molecular scales. At Reciprocal Space, Stephen Curry tells us the fascinating story of an amazing molecule without which we would not survive, a molecule of life and deathAkshat Rathi at the Allotrope tells us how far we have come from the discovery of that critical molecule, to becoming molecular architects, for we have mastered the art and science of constructing complex naturally occurring molecules in the laboratory from easily available raw materials! How’s that for human achievement?! Or hubris? Because we still don’t fully understand how many of the more complex molecules, such as proteins, fold into their three-dimensional functional forms after being transcribed from their DNA code. Which is why scientists have to turn to gamers for help, with Foldit, a game reviewed by GrrlScientist who is now at Scientopia.

It is difficult to escape humanity’s influence in even the remotest places on earth, as both the travel essays above also indicate. We humans have a tendency to start and get into all kinds of trouble, for ourselves and for other species on this planet. Patrick Clarkin has tried to unravel one of the biggest knots in this human tendency to self-destruct, the biology of war, by exploring the connections between war, health, and evolution. Much to think about in that there post!

So what does make humans tick, then? Eric Michael Johnson, in a guest post at Neuron Culture, reviews a recent paper to discuss how in Great Apes and in humans, simple games that children play often prepare them (us) for the complex social skills they will need as adults. Michelle, entertaining as ever, reviews the role of menopause (that human oddity) as an evolutionary strategy, and tells us of more research in the “duh” category demonstrating how sex, like exercise, can reduce anxiety!

We may be getting a better understanding of the brain, but, are we any good at testing our mental abilities? – asks Andrew Bernardin at 360DegreeSkeptic. While on the subject of mental abilities, how can one not think of Sara Palin? Bob O’Hara at This Scientific Life over on Scientopia has a review of a recent study of the Palin Effect – how much did she actually help John McCain lose the election?

From understanding the evolutionary roots of how our brains work, to developing ways to make them work better when they don’t: Sharpbrains has an insightful interview with Dr. John Docherty on the value of technology as a missing link to enable a brain-based
model of brain care. While on brain care, David Rabiner, also at Sharp Brains reviews the long-term effects of neurofeedback treatment for ADHD. But if you are under such novel medical care, or any sort of medical care at all, wouldn’t you like to be able to access your own medical records electronically? An experiment in allowing such access is under way in Massachusetts, reports Pascale Lane in her Stream of Thought.

Not only are we tinkering with molecules in the lab, we have also messed with a variety of ecosystems, often by moving species around for sometimes odd reasons. Brendan Locke at the BioNode gives us a quick overview of what invasive species are, and why we should care about them. But sometimes, not matter how much you care, it is already too late – for Bambi has already run the Bears off the island all the way to extinction, says Anne-Marie Hodge of Endless Forms, with a surprising tale of a species introduction that went horribly awry.

If you think, however, that wildlife conservation is a simple matter of removing undesirable introduced elements from an ecosystem, especially elements of human disturbance such as invasive species or cattle in national parks, Pavithra Sankaran’s post at eco logic should serve to dispel you of such notions. She shares troubling and intriguing lessons (but not entirely clear ones) from experiments to mitigate conflicts between two sets of desperate neighbors: the endangered wildlife of Bandipur Tiger Reserve, and the rural poor who eke out a marginal existence at the edges of that park. What drives the people to take their cattle grazing into Bandipur, despite ongoing low-intensity trench warfare against the official forces that make this one of the best protected Tiger Reserves in India? The answer may surprise you. Just as a lasting solution continues to elude.

David at Southern Fried Science reviews the literature to give us an excellent overview of what it will take to conserve sharks. In a separate post, he also offers a review of television’s Shark Week, which apparently is getting better in terms of not exploiting the sharks for entertainment. Long way to go still, but any steps by the media towards helping rather than exploiting endangered species is to be welcomed. Back on land, Lab Rat has a look at the hidden effects of forest fires on organisms less visible than trees.

So is there hope for biodiversity? Well, we all have to do our bit, don’t we? And so have the taxonomic splitters at the American Ornithologists’ Union (of which I have been an itinerant member)! They have gone and increased the diversity of bird species yet again simply by splitting a number of former species into two (or more) new ones! How’s that for reversing the loss of biodiversity?! All joking aside, this taxonomist’s scalpel can actually be a valuable tool for conservation because it forces us to recognize the extent of genetic and evolutionary diversity within what we may think of as but one species. And so the work continues, says John Beetham at a DC Birding Blog.

If, like birdwatchers, you are into lists, here are a few science/medical lists that might be useful: 10 incredibly unlikely & inspiritational physical therapy stories at A Hearty Blog, 50 best psychology blogs worth following, and 100 best YouTube videos for science teachers
On the other hand, if you prefer to scratch your head or twirl your facial hair thoughtfully while pondering the broader implications of this business of taxonomy and classification, you may enjoy John Wilkins’ essay on natural classification and the dynamics of science.

The lows and highs of doing science

Speaking of the dynamics of science, and of human folly, this last week plunged the animal behavior/cognitive science community into some despair when Harvard University announced that it had placed eminent primate behavioral psychologist Marc Hauser on a year’s leave because an internal investigation had found potentially serious scientific misconduct in his lab. Of course this story is getting much play in the press, but I found  the perspectives of David Dobbs at Neuron CultureMelodye of Child’s Play at the new Scientopia blog network, and John Hawkes worth reading. Undoubtedly there is a lot more being written in the science blogosphere about this still unfolding situation, another bump in the road for behavioral science which has weathered a few such setbacks, and will no doubt emerge stronger from all the soul-searching engendered by this controversy.

But I can’t leave you on that sour note now, can I? Not at the end of a science carnival? So let me turn you to a more uplifting story about the true joy of doing science, the profound sense of wonder and amazement about the natural world that propels us all on this shared journey to the ever expanding frontiers of science. Alistair Dove at Deep Type Flow shares the pure bliss of dancing with a giant!

May we all find such bliss!

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