Tag Archives: blogging

Instant Noodle Soup and Ecological Enlightenment on the Trans-Himalayan Urban Frontier

KeeGompa panoramic

I haven’t been posting much on this blog lately, and in case you’re wondering why, I had a good excuse. I spent most of June up in the trans-Himalayan desert, in Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, India. I went up with my whole family at the impromptu invitation of old friends who have been working in the region for nearly 2 decades – it was a long-term dream come true for me and Kaberi! We drove up from Delhi, taking three days on the road to get there. Then we were supposed to stay for just about 10days before driving back. As it happened, while we were there, that awful intense monsoon storm hit Uttarakhand and the lower reaches of the Spiti-Sutlej valley. We only received some rain and an inch or two of unseasonal snowfall, with the snow melting away within hours. The larger storm battered the mountains below us quite heavily though, and all our exit roads got blocked. So we got stuck there for another 10 days… but how can anyone complain about being stuck in such a gorgeous landscape, with such lovely creatures for company?

I took the snow day to write one of the longer essays I’ve written lately, pondering the nature of urbanization, and how the global city now seemed to have no limits, having penetrated into the far reaches of the Himalaya, right here at the edge of the roof of the world. Where a monk at an ancient monastery (Kee Gompa, pictured above) offered this tourist a bowl of instant noodle soup! In turn triggering a contemplation of apparent lack of limits to the reach of urbanization on our planet, which is now posted up on The Nature of Cities blog where I am a contributor.

Have a read, and let me know what you think. What is your experience of the limits of urbanization? What is the smallest patch of urban habitat you have ever seen? What makes it urban?

War correspondence for The Nature of Cities

A few months ago, while attending the 2012 Urban Biodiversity and Design Conference in Bombay, I met David Maddox of Sound Science, an organization he co-founded in 2004. David is an urban ecologist and conservationist who opted out of academia and is doing great things for urban conservation, adaptive management, and science communication. He recently put together a fine online portal for wide-ranging essays about nature in the city on this semi-urban planet of ours: The Nature of Cities blog. As David says though, this has already become rather more of a platform for longer-form essays about urban ecology than a typical blog – and that I think is a very fine thing thing. He has done an excellent job of bringing together a great (and still growing) group of writers from around the world—urban ecologists of every stripe from academics to activists, designers to planners to economists—who are sharing their insights and perspectives on what nature means in this urban world.

After some terrific discussions—including on a long bus ride where we sat together in the evening traffic winding our way past Dharavi to the Cricket Club of India for dinner—David invited me to join The Nature of Cities as a regular contributor. I am honored to be part of this collective through which David is curating a veritable archive of contemporary thought in urban ecology. Whether I bring anything of value to this conversation… well, you be the judge. My first contribution to the blog, where I don the hat of a frontier correspondent reporting about water use and abuse in Fresno based on my group’s research, went up this past Sunday. It is a much longer essay than my average blog post here, but worth your while, I hope. Allow me to lead you on with this teaser graphic:

Urban Water Use in the Cadillac Desert

Do leave a comment below the post (or here – but better there) if so moved. And don’t forget to bookmark / subscribe to The Nature of Cities!

ScienceOnline2012 in Review

Nice short video overview of the ScienceOnline2012 unconference I attended last january, just days before my life went into a turbulent period from which I am still recovering. I had several blog posts in mind to record my own experience at the meeting, and summarize the discussion in the un-session I was able to lead there. It is nice to see this video which reminds me of the warmth of that unconference, and jogs memories that should help me write those blog posts… just as soon as I’m done catching up with all the other more urgent scheisse that has piled up at work in my absence! In the meantime, enjoy this video, which even has my own hairy face on camera for a second, laughing at something Brian Malow, the Science Comedian said during lunch on the final day. Its only been a couple of months, but feels so long ago that I have to say: ah, the memories!

A ray of sunlight illuminates Half Dome, as an essay reminds conservationists of Yosemite’s history


On the all too rare mornings when the Central Valley’s dirty air has been cleansed by a winter storm—and before the Tule fog has set in—I find myself fortunate enough to be gazing out upon the snow-topped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains from my office window, my view bracketed by two amazing National Parks: King’s Canyon (with Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states of the US) at the southern edge, and Yosemite to the north. As a hiker and rock-climber in my youth, I spent many hours poring over photographs of these places in books checked out of the American Center Library in Bombay. I dreamt of visiting Yosemite, a mecca for rock-climbers, imagined myself walking through the fantastic landscapes captured on film by Ansel Adams, feeling the granite under my fingers. Rock-climbing gave way to bird-watching as I grew into an ecologist and a conservation biologist, and Yosemite assumed even more significance as one of the holiest places in any conservation pilgrimage of the US, indeed the world. What a model for nature conservation this National Park was, is. How wonderful the wilderness I could picture in these places in the writings of John Muir and others. And how lucky I am now to be living so close to such places. When I gaze out at the mountains, or visit Yosemite as part of the throngs of millions that flood its beautiful valley every year, I try to imagine what the place might have looked like a century or two ago—a fantasy we all share, those of us who despair over the state of the natural world. In my dreams now, though, I don’t see it as a “pristine” wilderness untouched by humans, but a home to a community of native people, the Ahwahneechee who once thrived there, but whose existence has been sought to be erased from our collective memory and imagination, as a centerpiece of the still prevailing notion of a National Park as pristine wilderness, a place where human beings don’t belong (and therefore never did), except as visitors who may be allowed to look and to listen, but scarcely to touch anything.

This week, I am pleased to share with you an evocative essay by Eric Michael Johnson, reminding us of the human history of Yosemite, and of what we in the conservation community have lost in seeking to airbrush humans out of our imagination of what Nature is supposed to look like, “unspoilt”. We must reclaim that history too if we are to reconcile our existence on this planet—not apart from, but as active participants in, Nature. Eric’s guest post on my Reconciliation Ecology blog is part of  his Primate Diaries in Exile blog tour. You can follow other stops on this tour through his RSS feed or by following Eric on Twitter.


Dr. Vitelli has your latest Scientia Pro Publica # 47

It includes one of my contributions too. Check out the whole nice compilation:

Rc[1]Welcome, one and all, the the 47th edition of Scientia Pro Publica.  It is a special privilege for me to host this rotating carnival of the best science, medical, and environmental writing on the web and the lineup this time around is as strong as ever. 

On beauty, popularity, and what young girls may blog about

Earlier today, I posted a link on Facebook, urging people to vote for my young blogospheric friend Christie Wilcox, who blogs about science at Observations of a Nerd, and is in the final round of a student blogging competition for a $10,000 scholarship, where she needs all the votes she can get because the runaway leader of the online poll right now is someone who blogs about “beauty”, but really about make-up! Seriously!! How can that be so much more popular than science?!

A friend then commented saying one of their nieces blogs about make-up, and surely there is a niche for everyone, right? I agree, there should be room for everyone (and in the blogosphere, indeed, there is!), and I suppose there is a bigger market for make-up than for science, especially for girls. At least that’s what the vote on this scholarship indicates right now in a sad popularity contest (but do vote for Christie, as she could put the money to good use). Nevertheless, as a father of young girls, and a mentor to mostly female graduate students in my lab, I can’t help but feel that surely there are worthier things for them to write about! If you really want to write about beauty, think about what that really means – and it ain’t make-up!

So, for my daughters, my students, my blogger friend seeking votes in this popularity contest, and for my friend’s niece who blogs about make-up: allow me to share some inspiration from Katie Makkai, articulating what it means to be bound by the word “Pretty” (and, oh, unlike many commenters on this video on YouTube, I have opted to share the unedited “profane” version – so be warned ye who may take offense at a “dirty” word):

Our troubled relationship with water (Blog Action Day 2010)

How did we get here, in this parched state, fighting for and over something as basic as water, on this watery blue world? Isn’t water a basic element essential for all life, including humans? Like air? How and why have we lost sight of this fundamental truth?

At a late hour on this Blog Action Day 2010, as part of my keyboard action, I want to briefly explore some aspects of our (humanity’s) increasingly troubled relationship with this basic element. (ok, strictly speaking it is a compound, not an element, but you know what I mean here, right?). But first, here’s a brief video highlighting the need for more action on water issues.

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/15336764 w=500&h=283]

One obvious reason people are now fighting over water, of course, is that we have more and more people living in places with limited if not dwindling freshwater supplies. It is remarkable that some of the fastest growing cities in the world (Las Vegas, for example) are located in the middle of the desert! (Did you know that?) Remarkably, people face acute shortages of safe drinking water even in far wetter places (Cherrapunji, anyone?), because we have on the one hand stripped bare the watersheds by chopping down formerly dense water-soaking forests, and on the other, failed to develop or deliver appropriate water harvesting / saving / distribution technologies to the poor people living there. Of course, when technology does find its way to such places, it is all too often laced with poison. Throw in changes in rainfall patterns due to global warming, and we’ve got a perfect storm of natural disasters compounded by limitless human stupidity to land us in this situation: we dig deep into aquifers or divert water from remote rivers to support megacities growing in the driest places, even as we neglect the small villages in the wettest places on earth! Gotta love that human ingenuity, for only our species could have conjured up such an unlikely paradoxical pickle in which to land ourselves.

What puzzles me even more is how we have fundamentally changed our relationship with water by turning it into a market commodity! Because that ultimate stupidity is what often lies behind water shortages in most places now. We (i.e., our governments, from Kerala to California to Bolivia) are letting corporations take control of our aquifers and watersheds, so that they can sell the water back to us in bottles and cans, with or without sugar’n’fizz, at exorbitant prices. There’s much profit in that, obviously. But supplying potable water and indoor plumbing to those villagers in Cherrapunji? Surely there can’t be much profit in that! Let them buy the bottles, if they can afford it. Such is the wisdom of the market, of course.

The same logic of the “free” market dictates that municipal water supply agencies be run like self-sustaining (if not for-profit) businesses. Thus do we end up with the paradox of places like Las Vegas, where water departments must, even as they encourage citizens to use less water, keep raising prices on the smaller amount of water they use in order to maintain revenues to keep the department viable in tough budgetary times. Incentivize people to save water by raising prices; see revenues drop as people listen to you and use less water; raise prices again to maintain revenues to keep up the water infrastructure; rinse and repeat! Until people revolt. Or, shrivel up, I suppose. Maybe that is the final solution – wean people completely off of water through this spiraling of costs so we have a dehydrated citizenry that doesn’t need water any more. What a tragicomedy of the commons…

Meanwhile, here in Fresno in the Great Central Valley of California, in one of the richest agricultural counties in this breadbasket of the arid west, we have a growing city that is only just beginning to meter water use! And they are doing it quite tentatively, with a non-tiered rate structure that may not be steep enough to discourage water use. Some of us who have already been trying to reduce water use (without any incentive from the city) may see our water bills go down from the current flat rate. I look forward to that! Yet it is also possible that some of my fellow citizens, upon seeing their bills get lower, may actually increase their water use because that new bill tells them they can use even more without busting their original budgets! So what’s the net result going to be? I hope to be able to tell you as we continue to monitor water use in this city.
It seems to me (non-economist that I am) that it is well nigh impossible to find any free-market solutions to these paradoxes, because it is inherently problematic to charge an industry that relies on profits from selling water to come up with ways to reduce the use of water! Can it really be done, from within this capitalist paradigm? Isn’t it time to reconsider this folly, and start treating water like the public good and human right it really should be? When even the rich societies of the global North / West refuse to invest public funds to ensure a safe and steady water supply for its citizens, what profit is there for corporations to provide such supplies to the poorer peoples of the world?

That surely is a fundamental disconnect in our increasingly troubled relationship with water.

Women bloggers of science

I have come to know some excellent women bloggers who write eloquently about science in various fora, so I was a bit mystified by recent observations that they seem to be underrepresented in the more prominent blogging networks (which are proliferating a bit these days). Martin Robbins, who is now part of the Guardian’s new network of science bloggers, has crowdsourced this excellent list of female science bloggers. Know any that are missing?

[Update: The list is growing, of course, so follow the #wsb hashtag if you are on twitter, and the comments thread on Martin’s post.]

A recent blog post by Jenny Rohn observed that ‘celebrated science bloggers are predominantly male’, and points to the fact that across the various science blogging collectives – including our fledgling efforts here at the Guardian, although I can tell you we certainly tried to get a fair balance – there is a distinct over-abundance of Y chromosomes.

So like the armchair activist I am, I created a hashtag on Twitter – #wsb – and asked people to help me come up with a list. Over the next several hours, more than a hundred replies came in, and beautifully, the tag became an impromptu celebration of women in science blogging.

Here’s the resulting list:

(In alphabetical order of first name. Please post any errors or people I’ve missed in the comments, preferably with a URL where I can find their blog.)



(With particular thanks to: @alicebell, @smallcasserole, @sarahkendrew, @scicurious, @biochembelle, @geekingambia, @jomarchant, @aetiology, @BecCrew, @droenn, @tdelene, @hpringle, @kateclancy, @oanasandu, @elakdawalla, @tkingdoll, @anthinpractice,@hpringle and @culturingsci.)

That’s 86 women science bloggers – clearly no shortage – so why aren’t they breaking through and gaining more prominence?

What do you think, and who have I missed in the list above?


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!

How about a random walk through the Carnival of Maths this weekend?


The 68th edition of the Carnival of Mathematics is up online, hosted at Plus magazine, with a nice collection of mathsy posts on topics ranging from sports to poetry to infinity and everything in between. Enjoy reading!

PS: and I like how they call it Maths, not just Math as so many Americans do!