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Scientia Pro Publica #18: the last of the oughties edition!

028CF91C-54C2-4589-B5AF-CDD794950600.jpegWell, this carnival doesn’t really have much to do with the impending end of the oughties decade, but since everybody seems to be going on about it, compiling decadal reviews and best-of lists, I just tossed it up there. Caught your eye, didn’t it? But didn’t turn you off, I hope… 🙂

So, welcome to this (late) winter solstice edition of Scientia Pro Publica, and dig into a fair helping of hearty reading matter to keep you company by the fireside as this winter rolls you over into the double digit years of the new millennium.

Let us begin, for this is the holiday season, with some thoughts about food: about the diversity of our food sources, about how much we waste, and about how often we are hoist by our own petards in attempting to manage our precious natural – esp. food – resources. Let’s start with Jeremy Cherfas, who has over the past year taken us along on the journeys of N. I. Vavilov, that pioneering explorer and champion of agricultural biodiversity. Vaviblog makes for very interesting reading indeed, especially for someone like me who doesn’t know much about Vavilov. But here, Jeremy rather uncharacteristically lets loose with a rant about the difficulty of pinpointing the exact location of one of Vavilov’s collections in the Sahara, and takes us through the frustrations of finding information in GeneBank and other online databases that are supposed to make the life of the modern keyboard explorer much easier than that of people like Vavilov who, you know, actually went out to the frikking Sahara in pursuit of interesting plants! Without, mind you, GPS or iPhones or laptops, as one of his commenters reminds us. Still, what’s the point of all this talk about making information accessible to everyone if one can’t pinpoint and georeference where Vavilov found a particular plant a century ago? I want my data instantly, don’t you? Well, if you’re carried away by expectations of CSI like speed in modern data acquisition, let Heilochica bring you down to earth with a (hopefully) comprehensible explanation of something complicated!

But let’s stick with Jeremy a while longer and visit his another blasted weblog to read about a recent PLoS paper on how much food is wasted in America; some sobering statistics there, to be sure, plus the disquieting observation that there is no incentive in this country for anyone in the food industry to stop producing, consuming, and wasting food, environmental and human health consequences be damned! Ponder that while you tuck into the holiday treats. And if you have to bake wheat-alternative cookies because you or someone you know is allergic to gluten, Eric Olson shares a scitimes video about Celiac disease, which may be the most under-diagnosed health problem in America today (and something I’d never heard of back home in India!).

Meanwhile, we are losing the sources of biodiversity that form the basis of our food security, even as we blithely overproduce and throw away food! What’s a conservationist to do to change such odd human behavior? Well, not what they did in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, where they encouraged coconut farming as a way to lure people away from fishing in order to relieve pressures on fish stocks! Find out what happened on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, in another post by Jeremy about the law of unintended consequences! Which bring me to the question from one of my own recent posts: what is it with these Pacific island nations and their penchant for such tragicomedies?

Lest you think this carnival is turning into mostly a one-man-show, let me assure you that there is plenty more that came not from Jeremy’s keyboard! For instance, continuing with fishy business, here’s a post that makes this one something of a meta-carnival, a Fishy Friday roundup of fish in tanks! And if you ever found yourself agreeing with Bertie Wooster’s assessment that Jeeves’ superior intellect was a result of a diet rich in fish, you may be underestimating his (Jeeves’ not Wooster’s) neuroplasticity, the subject of a fascinating interview with Michael Merznenich at SharpBrains on the applications of neuroplasticity to keep all our minds sharp even as we age.

Then there is Mama Joules with two poisonous posts: first, a disturbing one about the dangers of lead poisoning in your home, and the still high childhood exposure rate even years after lead based paints were banned in the US. Followed by a lovely introduction to venom & vomit in Tarantulas! Gotta love them.

Given the brouhaha over the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, I’m a bit surprised at the lack of submissions about anthropogenic global warming/climate change! Perhaps we are all over-saturated with COP15 coverage? Still, there is no shortage of controversy, genuine or manufactured, when it comes to climate change, as these two posts show: a kind of curiously provocative post that suggests nuclear energy may still become part of our green energy future – safely(?) (I have a more cynical take on the subject as I think we are addicted enough to energy in our technology-dependent societies that we are near a threshold where the marginal benefit of nuclear energy will outweigh the risks regardless of the environmental consequences. But that’s me being Grinchy again). Meanwhile, challenges us to ignore the pseudo-controversy over climate-gate and consider the climate change problem in the framework of Pascal’s wager: act as if anthropogenic climate change is real because the risks of not believing it are too great! Interesting thought that – and one that James Randi might consider, having rather startlingly fallen prey to AGW denialism in a manner worrisome to his most loyal supporters.

But, enough with the controversies and bad news. Let’s celebrate the season while we still can, while there still is enough biodiversity to stimulate, delight, and challenge us. For even as we worry about losing species, we continue to discover delightful new ones, like the world’s tiniest orchid that GrrlScientist (matriarch of this carnival) writes about. At the other end of the organismal size spectrum, Kevin Zelnio wonders why we don’t have even larger whales? What keeps the blue whales, for example, from evolving to even larger body sizes? Not the fluid dynamic challenges of using a volkswagen sized heart to pump blood, or the constraints of depending on the tiny krill for food – but a recent paper suggests it may be that their mouths would have to be too big (may already be too big, proportionally) to keep that humongous body fed! That’s why I love reading about evolutionary trade-offs and constraints, and allometry!

Let me leave you with two more posts that share the physical, emotional, and intellectual excitement of studying life on this planet of ours. Over on NCF’s blog eco logic, Manish Chandi describes his unexpected delight in discovering brooding geckos and gorgeous snakes while on a short focused ethnographic research trip to Chowra island in the Nicobar archipelago. And Hielochica expresses her excitement in studying hydrothermal vents – which she considers a mysterious love-child of geology and biology! What could be more fun than that?

So have a happy and safe holiday my friends, and I wish you all a wonderful, productive new year full of many an unexpectedly delightful discovery. And don’t forget to ring in the new year with the next edition of Scientia Pro Publica: issue #19 will be curated by GrrlScientist and Bob O’hara (submit entries per instructions here) and hosted at the latter’s Deep Thoughts and Silliness,

Scientia Pro Publica will be here shortly… but check out Valley Cafe Sci in the meantime!

Just a quick note to say that I am compiling the 18th edition of Scientia Pro Publica as promised… but have been held up with distractions such as grade submissions, grant applications, needy grad students, preparing a paper for presentation at SICB in two weeks, planning Café Scientifique, plus a broken vehicle – some things that kind of took a higher priority. Also something about doing the job I’m paid for rather than all this bloggity-blog-blog blogosity, if you can believe it?!

But, fear not – I am back on this job as I settle into the comfy couch listening to the gentle drumming of rain on the roof as we get doused by another round of winter rains. Enjoying reading the subsmissions, and will have a round up for you by tomorrow.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t got anything special planned for the evening of the first Monday of the new year (that’ll be January 4th), and happen to be in the neighborhood, why not partake of the next event from the Central Valley Café Scientifique, where Paul Mills of the UCSF Fresno Medical Educational Program will talk about the epidemiology of lung cancer in the Central Valley. And we’ll be at a nice new venue, the Peruvian fusion joint Limón in the River Park area of Fresno.

I myself will have to miss it, however, because I will be in Seattle presenting the above mentioned paper at the SICB meeting that week. But do go – the Café is a lot of fun!

Now I better get back to reading those blog submissions…

An invitation to a winter solstice carnival of Scientia delights!


For this, indeed, will be the location for the Winter Solstice edition (#18) of the Scientia Pro Publica blog carnival! If you haven’t heard of this fortnightly carnival, then you better pop on over to the HQ and tour through the previous 17 editions for a sampling of good science and nature writing. I have participated in Scientia in the past by having one or two (ok three or four) of my posts included in previous editions. Now I get a chance to play host.

I’ll try not to overindulge myself in hosting this carnival like I did with Oekologie a while ago, when I compiled a rather monstrous collection that also turned out to be a farewell edition for that carnival! Hmm… so the first carnival I hosted ended its run after 17 editions. And… let’s see… my next attempt at hosting was at the beginning of this year when I was getting ready for the Tangled Bank #121, when it too disappeared!!

Uh oh!!!

And right now I only have a couple of submissions that have come in for Scientia so far, with 5 days left before the publication deadline. I’m getting a bad feeling about this… get a grip Madhu, for surely you know enough about large numbers to not be superstitious about coincidences… and remember that Scientia Pro Publica is actually a reincarnation of the Tangled Bank! That’s true, I think; at least, Scientia certainly has become the rightful heir of the Tangled Bank in providing a broad sampling of science, nature, or medical writing. So let’s not panic yet, for there are still a few more days to go, and there is more being written about science in the blogosphere than ever.

So, with your help, I hope to share with you another good collection in 5 days, just in time for your holiday: if you read science, nature, or medicine related blogs, or indeed write one yourself, please send me links to any good writing that has caught your eye or flowed from your keyboard. Here’s the protocol, as described by GrrlScientist, the real wizard behind the curtain of this carnival:

To send your science, nature or medical writing to Scientia Pro Publica, email the link directly to its email address (the blog form we used in the past hasn’t been working): Be sure to include (1) the URL or “permalink”, (2) the essay title and, to make life easier for the host, (3) please include a 2-3 sentence summary.

You can also leave this information right here in a comment below this post, or email me directly. I look forward to some interesting reads. (And I hope you will keep me from killing another carnival!)

Student blog posts coming up soon…

Mushrooms close-up 1

mushrooms photographed at Lost Lake park.

As long-time readers may know (if anyone has really stayed with me for long through the ebbs and flows of postings here), I started this blog to augment the teaching of a graduate class, and have continued to use it for that purpose (expanding to grad and undergrad classes) from time to time. The blog thus serves as a sometime venue for students to share some of their writing in the context of the class as well. If you search for posts tagged with “student” or “student posting” in the archives, you will find examples of such student writing from earlier classes. I had intended to continue this with classes I’ve been teaching this semester (Fall 09), and students have indeed submitted some interesting writings for the blog. Unfortunately, I’ve dropped the ball on actually posting them, because I got distracted by things like writing grant proposals (two big ones, and several minor ones submitted in the past 5 months; I’ll share more about these projects soon, especially if we actually get funded!), compiling and submitting my tenure file to my department (yes, I’m now being evaluated for tenure – can’t believe I’ve already been here for over 5 years!), and finding speakers for and coordinating the departmental colloquium as well as the Darwin’s Bulldogs‘ Evolutionary Biology lecture series – all on top of juggling a full load of classes during this year when we are all supposed to furlough and work 10% less than usual! Ha – so much for that idea!!

Anyway, enough with the excuses – I came here to tell you that I will soon start posting a boat-load of student essays from several classes this fall. So prepare for an uptick in the rate of postings here – I think you’ll enjoy some of what the students have cooked up too!

Scientia Pro Publica #14 is here…

… and it even includes, among some much better essays on a variety of topics, my recent post on climate change for Blog Action Day! Go check out the excellent compilation put together by Luke Jostins at Genetic Inference.

One of these days, I better host this carnival here, don’t you think? Not in the middle of a semester though – that would be too much of a procrastination tool! 🙂

Explore the Nature Blog Network, now featuring Reconciliation Ecology!

A little while ago, when giving this blog a makeover, I also submitted it to be part of the Nature Blog Network, an excellent collective of 876 blogs (as of today) where people write about all aspects of nature. For us bloggers, it brings in readers, and also provides some tracking tools to monitor traffic. But more importantly, as the blurb on their main page says, Nature Blog Network is “a nexus for the very best nature blogs on the net. If you’re looking for outstanding blogging about birds, bugs, plants, herps, hiking, oceans, ecosystems, or any other natural topic — or if you blog on those topics yourself — this is the place for you!” So its a great place to discover blogs covering topics of interest to you but that you may not know about (like this one!). So go explore the nexus.


In addition to the listings of blogs in a top list, and among various categories, they also showcase individual blogs as part of a weekly series of Featured Blogs – and this week, they’re featuring Reconciliation Ecology! What an honor to be featured among “the very best nature blogs on the net”! So if you want to read an interview with yours truly, head on over there to learn more about me and why I blog. And while there, you may get lost in a wide range of other nature writings.

If, on the other hand, you’ve come here after reading about this blog on the network: Welcome! I invite you come in and explore as you walk through some of my earlier writings – and hope you like enough of it to want to come back and walk with me from time to time.

Old blog in a new bottle…

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may have noticed me tweaking things here this week. Coming up on the third anniversary of this blog at the end of the year, I’ve finally settled in more comfortably. (And on the same day that my youngest starts her new preschool too!) Thus, after a relatively quiet (but productive in other areas; more on that here soon) summer, this blog is revived, with similar (and hopefully better and more) content as before, but in a new skin – and check out that url! Yes, we’re in a new domain now, and I will soon bring more of my web activities under the umbrella. Note the new Nature Blogs Network logo in the left sidebar too – for indeed this blog is now part of that community of nature bloggers.

Hope you like the changes.

Remembering Stephen Jay Gould via Scientia Pro Publica

There is a new multidisciplinary science blog carnival that I haven’t had a chance to make note of here during this busy semester: Scientia Pro Publica. In its 4th edition, Nature Network’s primate diarist Eric Michael Johnson remembers Stephen Jay Gould, who died 7 years ago today:

Science is an integral part of culture. It’s not this foreign thing, done by an arcane priesthood. It’s one of the glories of the human intellectual tradition.

On May 20, 2002 the scientific world lost a major proponent for science and reason. Stephen Jay Gould was a scientist, a historian and a writer who communicated his passion for evolution to an audience around the globe. For many people outside of the sciences, his books may have been the only source they ever read about evolution from a working biologist. His ability to connect with readers from diverse backgrounds and his willingness to challenge so many sacred cows of biological theory will ensure a distinguished legacy for his life’s work. He is largely responsible for my own interest in evolutionary biology and the history of science and I would like to dedicate this fourth edition of Scientia Pro Publica to his memory.

Scientia Pro Publica is a biweekly rotating blog carnival that represents the best in multidisciplinary science blogging. For this edition I made an effort to limit the number of posts in each category to five of the best submitted entries. I also actively sought out disciplines that haven’t been as well represented in the past. Please feel free to contact me at with your comments or concerns. Also, if you like what you read here consider submitting your own posts at this automatic entry form. Thank you and enjoy the best of the net, Scientia Pro Publica #4.

[via The Primate Diaries]

I too count myself among those inspired by Gould to study biology, and indeed, to make what feeble attempts I can to communicate science to the general public through avenues such as this blog or our local cafe scientifique. I am thrilled therefore to find my own recent blog post on plagiarism and peer review in science included in this carnival. This is the closest I could hope to come to being mentioned on the same page with Gould!

I had fallen off the blog carnival wagon after rounding up a fairly monstrous Oekologie carnival right here last summer, and then watching the Tangled Bank fizzle out (whatever did happen to it? anyone know?) during winter break. So if you are coming to reconciliation ecology for the first time through this carnival, welcome, indeed! Feel free to poke around here, and and I hope you will leave a comment or two if some of my writing catches your eye. As for those few of you who came here first, let me run you off to the carnival: there is much good science writing to be sampled among the mutidisciplinary tents Eric has pitched – so run along, sample the wares there, and raise a glass to Gould and to science in the public sphere. I know where I’ll be as I proctor the evolution final during the rest of this afternoon!