A Slime Mold’s View Of Time

24 05 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

I’ve recently been reading John Tyler Bonner’s very intriguing, albeit imperfectly written (his writing style can, on occasion, be needlessly vague), book entitled “Why Size Matters: From Bacteria To Blue Whales” which, as the name suggests, analyzes the role of an organism’s size in it’s evolution, ecological niche, population density, and anatomy/physiology.  Dr. Bonner is perhaps best known for his expertise in the field of Slime Mold research, a fact which resulted in the following essay that first appeared in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle following a request from the magazine’s editorial staff just before the dawn of the 21st century. Although some of the prose contains a degree of anthropomorphism (which, given the non-scientific context, is excusable), I think that, overall, it nicely articulates just how ‘relative’ time often is in the scientific sense:

“Time From The Point Of View Of A Slime Mold”

Time and life are intertwined in so many different ways, something all biologists are acutely aware of. Consider a few extremes: a single cell bacterium may have its entire life cycle in half an hour, but a generation for an elephant takes 12 years and a giant sequoia 60 years. One reason I work with slime molds, which are soil amoebae that start off as single cells, and then come together to form a multicellular organism, is that their generations are short, so that if I start an experiment on Monday, I will know the result by Wednesday or Thursday. This kind of biological time–life cycle time–is at the middle of the time scale of living phenomena.

At the faster end of that scale is physiological time: how many beats does a heart have in a minute, or how long does it take to swerve the car in order to avoid a squirrel on the road. As with life cycles, these rapid living activities are greatly affected by size, so a huge elephant will have about 25 heartbeats per minute, while a tiny shrew’s heart goes at the amazing rate of over 600 beats every minute. The elephant will step to one side with slow deliberation compared with a small sparrow on the willow ledge with its lightning movements. We can combine the concept of the time required for a life cycle and the time required for rapid physiological processes in an interesting way. A shrew will live only a year or two, but an elephant will average 40 to 50 years; yet they have one thing in common: the total number of heartbeats they have in their whole lifetime will be approximately the same. So life for the small beast goes faster because its engine is racing along compared to the larger beast, and the total budgets for their actions are the same.

Evolutionary time is another time scale in the realm of life. Now we are no longer dealing with one generation, but with a great series of generations going way back in time to the beginning of life on earth. We are no longer dealing with minutes or a few scores of years, but with millions, and even billions of years. We find in the fossil record an era when all life consisted of cells, which later were followed by simple multicellular organisms, leading ultimately to all the great variety of animals and plants that we see on the earth today. This has been an exceedingly slow and exceedingly grand evolution that has taken up a vast quantity of time–so much so that it is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of geologic time. And we know that even these time spans are modest compared with those of the astronomer, who thinks in terms of light-years*.

So what does a biologist think of this second millennium? It is too short a time for major changes in evolution, but time enough for many generations. Every 1000 years will allow some 50 human generations, but the shrew will have a new generation each year, which means [some] 1000 each millennium. So for slime molds and shrews, the second millenium has meant waiting impatiently for a huge number of generations, while for elephants and ourselves–the wait barely tries our patience.

* [(I fully realize that a light-year is a unit of distance, and not time. However, the enormous amount of time required to travel between them preserves Bonner’s point.)]

The sheer magnitude of time with which paleontologists work on a daily basis is every bit as humbling and awe-inspiring as the vastness of space so eloquently celebrated by a host of passionate astronomers and astro-physicists throughout the ages from Issac Newton to Carl Sagan. 

But alas, I’ve said too much already! To those among my readers who study the field of long-vanished life, either professionally or as amateurs such as myself, I’d like to ask how this knowledge of deep time affects you outside the realm of scientific pursuits and during the course of day-to-day life.

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!


My 2010 Booklist Part 1 of 3: January-April

27 04 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

I apologize for my relative inactivity of late: the waning days of my final semester here at MCC are taking an enormous toll upon my free time which, consequently, has severely handicapped my ability to make routine posts.

To prevent TTT from going completely barren during this time, I’ve elected to showcase the following update on one of the resolutions I made just prior to the advent of the present year: namely, to increase my personal voluntary reading rate. As the title of the article suggests, this entry chronicles all of the books I’ve consumed thus far… each of which is accompanied by a short review composed by yours truly.

So, without further ado, I hereby present the first third of my 2010 booklist in chronological order.

“Neptune’s Ark: From Ichthyosaurs to Orcas” By David Rains Wallace

My Thoughts: The cover, excerpts of critical acclaim, and internal blurb all insinuate that ‘Neptune’s Ark’ is a highly accessible and evocative narration which equally blends scientific data, historical discourses, and personal observations concerning the history and conservation of marine life in North America’s west coast. However, in reality, the latter two features unambiguously dominate the text, leaving the former grossly under-represented. Though I find the history of science and the musings of eloquent naturalists to be fascinating and enjoyable topics, I don’t particularly care for being ambushed by either of them in search of ‘hard science’. With the exception of Wallace’s coverage of pinnipeds (which, in my opinion absorbs a disproportionately large amount of the book’s content), none of the strictly scientific information is technical enough to appeal to committed paleontology and zoology enthusiasts nor is it sufficiently readable and well-illustrated enough for laymen to find it comprehensible. The greatest strength of ‘Neptune’s Ark’ is unquestionably the author’s obvious passion for his subject, yet this ardor alone simply isn’t enough to save a book which attempts to please everyone and in so doing fails to please anyone.

”Beauty And The Beasts: Woman, Ape, And Evolution” By Carole Jahme

My Thoughts: As I’ve doubtlessly said elsewhere, my favorite popular science books are those which pay their philosophical dues and in so doing, provide the audience with more than a simple run-down of the featured discipline’s facts, theories, and controversies by forcing them to ponder the subject’s deeper implications for day-to-day life. To this end, I have yet to come across a scientific volume which exceeds the brilliant ‘Beauty & The Beasts’; a masterpiece of modern science writing. Jahme effortlessly brings us to sympathize with the plights and triumphs of female primatologists  while never failing to address such evocative and controversial questions as ‘Why do primates tend to be almost infinitely more trusting of women than men?’, ‘Should apes be given the same rights as human citizens?’, ‘How much does the human psyche have in common with those of our nearest relatives?’, and, on a broader scale, ‘Does scientific objectivity truly exist?’. Furthermore, although most feminists will relish the book, Jahme nonetheless refuses to promote “utero-centric propaganda” by thoroughly and equally scrutinizing the observational and scientific biases of both genders in primatology. In short, ‘Beauty & The Beasts’ doesn’t contain a single sentence which would lead me to remotely considering giving it anything less than my highest recommendation. Bravo!

”The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson And The Olympians Book One)” By Rick Riordan

My Thoughts: (WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD!!) Upon hearing a friend’s appraisal, I was encouraged to lend my eyes to a copy of this bestseller. Having completed the novel, I must admit that my feelings concerning it are mixed but mostly positive. Riordan’s overall concept of depicting the Greek Gods in the setting of the modern U.S. is absolutely superb and, as a lifelong mythology enthusiast, I relished the re-discovery of such legendary characters as Medusa, Procrustes, Charon, and Ares in their twenty-first century attire and occupations.  Similarly, the story as a whole is deliciously action-packed and relatively unpredictable. Unfortunately, “‘The Lightning Thief” has obviously stolen several key plot elements from the ever-popular ‘Harry Potter’ series. Furthermore, although Riordan has certainly provided his readers with a huge amount of suspense, he also falls prey to a few long-standing clichés as well as having the occasional supposedly ‘shocking’ plot twist anticipated by the reader far in advance. Still, ‘The Lightning Thief’ offers quite a bit of entertainment for those looking for a bit of light reading.

”Parasite Rex: Inside The Bizarre World Of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures” By Carl Zimmer

My Thoughts: As Zimmer would have likely predicted, I’ve never really given parasites very much consideration, despite my unrestrained adoration for a ‘host’ of  biological sciences. “Parasite Rex” conclusively reveals why this ignorance is scientifically unacceptable. Not only do these amazing organisms wield some of evolution’s most brilliant inventions, but an increasingly large amount of evidence suggests that they play an indispensably vital role in ecology and in environmental stability (in fact, it’s entirely possible that the majority of predator-prey relations are directly driven by them). Furthermore, Zimmer discusses how parasites may have directly led to such monumental evolutionary developments as sexual reproduction. For those intrigued by these ideas, I’d also suggest Susan Perkins’ excellent blog, ‘Parasite of the Day‘.

“When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives Of Animals” By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson & Susan McCarthy

My Thoughts: This is one of those concepts which would have made for an excellent article, but ultimately collapses under the weight of a moderately-sized book. Masson and McCarthy do make some powerful arguments regarding anthropomorphism, anthropocentrism, and certain biases of the scientific and pop-culture communities at large, many of which I myself have been supporting for years. However, their most interesting points are almost entirely restricted to the introductory and concluding chapters, a fact that essentially reduces the remaining pages to a diverse but woefully repetitive collection of anecdotes, many of which can be more accurately described as mere ‘rumors’. Furthermore, although the authors clearly intended to utilize ‘When Elephants Weep’ for the purposes of convincing the scientific community to take the idea that animals have human-like emotions seriously, they’ve provided little more than a sliver of ‘hard’ scientific evidence, opting to focus almost exclusively on philosophy in its place (I fully realize that I’ve often shed a great deal of acclaim upon popular science books which ‘pay their philosophical dues’. However, this particular book does so to the exclusion of virtually any actual science). In summary, ‘When Elephants Weep’ seems incapable of winning over its intended audience, even though it will likely appeal to those who already support its central thesis.

“Survival Of The Sickest: The Surprising Link Between Disease And Longevity” By Sharon Moalem (With Johnathan Prince)

My Thoughts: Moalem’s brilliantly clear introduction to the subject of evolutionary medicine is well worth the attention of anyone seeking to broaden their knowledge of biology in general. Additionally, “Survival Of The Sickest” provides some of the finest preliminary outlines of epigenetics, ‘jumping genes’, and hypermutation I’ve ever read (all of which will ensure that you’ll never view Lamarckian evolution with the traditional dosage of contempt again). My only serious complaint hails from Moalem’s discussion of the infamous aquatic ape hypothesis in which he fully supports the notion without giving mention to any of its strongest criticisms. Still, this is but a minor point: on the whole, “Survival Of The Sickest” is an absolute must-read!

“Utilitarianism” By John Stuart Mill

My Thoughts: A quick perusal of TTT’s “About Me” page will reveal that I consider myself to be a bit of a John Stuart Mill fan. Yet most of my knowledge concerning the man’s philosophical and political ideology hails from various quotations and essays I’ve accumulated over the years. At least, such was the case prior to this past spring when I finally managed to obtain a used copy of Mill’s most famous volume. As with most classic philosophy texts, it’s wise to research the content of ‘Utilitarianism’ prior to actually reading it to better ensure comprehension whilst devouring its 1861 prose. Nonetheless, Mill brilliantly articulates the underlying principles and logic of Utilitarian philosophy through a satisfying parade of evocative and powerful arguments which force the reader to strongly reconsider his or her viewpoint on the very nature of morality itself.

“Death By Black Hole And Other Cosmic Quandaries” By Neil deGrasse Tyson

My Thoughts: I’ve frequently made much ado about the fact that I regard Hayden Planetarium astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to be one of the finest science communicators of our era as evidenced by his passionate prose, general avoidance of excessive jargon, excellent stage presence, and unique sense of humor. So, upon making the decision to widen my meager knowledge of astronomy by exploring popular science books on the subject, “Death By Black Hole” became my natural first choice. This collection of several dozen essays certainly doesn’t disappoint, serving instead as an entertaining and ceaselessly intriguing model of clarity. Tyson lends his exquisite explanatory capabilities to a host of various topics, my favorites being the emergence of light from the sun, how elements are formed and distributed by the collapse of stars, and the role of consistency in the universe. Additionally, his discussion regarding why intelligent design simply cannot be cited as ‘science’ and is demonstrably antithetical to all forms of scientific inquiry should be required reading for all students of science, philosophy, and theology. My only criticism is in light of the fact that the volume contains no illustrations or diagrams of any kind. While Tyson’s bang-up descriptive powers prevent this situation from becoming remotely problematic, the inclusion of visual references would have been greatly appreciated. However, this slight imperfection should not be misinterprited as a notable criticism, as I staunchly reccomend “Death By Black Hole” to essentially everyone.

“Supercapitalism: The Transformation Of Business, Democracy, And Everyday Life” By Robert Reich

My Thoughts: In my opinion, the most pressing issues facing our society and very democracy today homogeneously owe their existence to the deplorable effects of excessive “fundamentalist capitalism” or, as former secretary of Labor Robert Reich calls it in this important and very readable diagnosis of our current socio-economic situation, “Supercapitalism”. Reich does an almost impeccable job of explaining how the celebrated free-market American economy has spun wildly out of control during the course of the past 40 years and taken hold of the industrialized world as a whole (and particularly the U.S.) by highlighting a disturbing series of facts concerning the gross inequality of wealth distribution and the ease with which major corporations may now purchase political favors. Particular appraisal is deserved when one observes the fact that “Supercapitalism” manages to break the political taboo against criticizing the middle class when such debasements are due by highlighting the role of the typical consumer in this most regrettable and dire situation.

Be sure to check back in late August for part 2!

NOTE: The next “Spotlight” post will, by special request, feature the Eocene “bear-dog” Daphoenus sp.

Neil deGrasse Tyson On Intelligent Design

11 04 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

I’ve often cited the famed Hayden Planetarium astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson as one of my favorite living science communicators, an assertion which I had previously discussed at length here. For those of my readership who opt to avoid reading that admittedly lengthy-post, allow me to submit the following clip for your consideration in which Dr. Tyson provides an impassioned defense of supporting NASA and astronomical exploration in general:

However, for the purposes of this post, this next segment from an earlier is more relevant:

I’ve recently finished reading Tyson’s wonderfully intriguing “Death By Black Hole And Other Cosmic Quandaries”. This volume nearly epitomizes the ‘Popular Science’ genre, as it’s not only understandable to someone without an ounce of outside knowledge in the field of astronomy (a fact which I partially resolved to remedy after observing a comparatively more astronomically-literate associate utilizing his telescope and insight of the cosmos to impress girls, a tactic which was apparently embraced by Tyson himself while in college) but it’s also routinely amusing, as the author frequently selects from a unique gang of scientifically-charged one-liners.

However, as an activist in the endless ‘debate’ between evolutionary biology and the demonstrably pseudoscientific enterprise known as ‘intelligent design’, I found Tyson’s thoughts on the subject to be among “Death By Black Hole”‘s most interesting segments. Hence, I’ve taken the liberty of quoting my favorite segment of this discussion, which emerges at the book’s conclusion.

“[One practice] that isn’t science is embracing ignorance. Yet its fundamental to the philosophy of intelligent design: I don’t know what this is. I don’t know how it works. It’s too complicated for me to figure out. It’s too complicated for any human being to figure out. So it must be the product of higher intelligence.

What do you do with that line of reasoning? Do you just cede the solving of problems to someone smarter than you, someone who isn’t even human? Do you tell students to pursue only questions with easy answers?

There may be a limit to what the human mind can figure out about our universe. But how presumptuous it would be for me to claim that if I can’t solve a problem, neither can any other person who has ever lived or will ever be born? Suppose Galileo and [Pierre-Simon] Laplace had felt that way?…

Science is a philosophy of discovery. Intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance. You cannot build a program of discovery on the assumption that nobody is smart enough to figure out the answer to a problem…

To deny or erase the rich, colorful history of scientists and other thinkers who have invoked divinity in their work would be intellectually dishonest. Surely there’s an appropriate place for intelligent design to live in the academic landscape. How about the history of religion? How about philosophy or psychology? The one place it doesn’t belong is the science classroom.

If you’re not yet swayed by academic arguments, consider the financial consequences. Allow intelligent design into science textbooks, lecture halls, and laborotories, and the cost to the frontier of scientific  discovery– the frontier that drives the economies of the future– would be incalculable. I don’t want students who could make the next major breakthrough in renewable energy sources or space travel to have been taught that anything they don’t understand, and that nobody yet understands, is divinely constructed and therefore beyond their intellectual capacity. The day that happens, Americans will just sit in awe of what we don’t understand, while we watch the rest of the world boldly go where no mortal has gone before.”

I certainly couldn’t have said it better myself.

Aldo Leopold’s “On A Monument To A Pigeon”

15 02 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

Recently, I’ve grown increasingly fascinated by the content of Connie Barlow’s YouTube channel “ghostsofevolution” to which I have subscribed for a few months now (having learned of its existence from Mrs. Barlow after briefly reviewing her book of the same name last December).

Earlier today, she posted the following video in which she visits the official monument to the now-extinct passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in Wisconsin’s Wyalusing State Park and utilizes the occasion to orate the legendary environmentalist Aldo Leopold’s ceremonial (and incredibly evocative) essay entitled “On A Monument To A Pigeon”, which originally appeared amongst several others in his 1949 compendium, “A Sand County Almanac” (which, having seen Mrs. Barlow’s video, I simply must read!).

For those interested, I’ve included a transcript of the entire essay below:

 “We have erected a monument to commemorate the funeral of a species. It symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.

 Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.  

There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, or clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. Book-pigeons cannot breakfast on new-mown wheat in Minnesota, and dine on blueberries in Canada. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather. They live forever by not living at all.  

Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange. The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of the spring?It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of species. We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that men are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise. 

Above all we should, in the century since Darwin, have come to know that man, while now captain of the adventuring ship, is hardly the sole object of its quest, and that his prior assumptions to this effect arose from the simple necessity of whistling in the dark. 

These things, I say, should have come to us. I fear they have not come to many.  

For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us. In this fact, rather than in Mr. Du Pont’s nylons or Mr. Vannevar Bush’s bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts. 

This monument, perched like a duckhawk on this cliff, will scan this wide valley, watching through the days and years. For many a March it will watch the geese go by, telling the river about clearer, colder, lonelier waters on the tundra. For many an April it will see the redbuds come and go, and for many a May the flush of oak-blooms on a thousand hills. Questing wood ducks will search these basswoods for hollow limbs; golden prothonotaries will shake golden pollen from the river willows, Egrets will pose on these sloughs in August; plovers will whistle from September skies. Hickory nuts will plop into October leaves, and hail will rattle in November woods. But no pigeons will pass, for there are no pigeons, save only this flightless one, graven in bronze on this rock. Tourists will read this inscription, but their thoughts will not take wing.  

We are told by economic moralists that to mourn the pigeon is mere nostalgia; that if the pigeoners had not done away with him, the farmers would ultimately have been obliged, in self-defense, to do so.  

This is one of those peculiar truths that are valid, but not for the reasons alleged. The pigeon was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and the oxygen of the air. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life. Like any other chain reaction, the pigeon could survive no diminution of his own furious intensity. When the pigeoners subtracted from his numbers, and the pioneers chopped gaps in the continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a sputter or even a wisp of smoke.   

Today the oaks still flaunt their burden at the sky, but the feathered lightning is no more. Worm and weevil must now perform slowly and silently the biological task that once drew thunder from the firmament.” 

My 2009 Booklist

31 12 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes!

In light of the fact that 2010 (and, by extension, the decade’s conclusion) is fast upon us, I’ve recently been forced to make my resolutions for the approaching year. These decisions are to improve my physical health & appearance and to increase my personal rate of literary consumption. While the confines of this blog inhibit my capacity to translate the former declaration into any sort of meaningful post, I’ve decided to erect an annual chronicle of each book I’ve read in the preceeding year so that I may better regulate the latter. Additionally, I hope that the following miniature reviews of the aforementioned books will prove to be useful to any of my readers who might consider reading them. Thus, without further ado, I humbly present this year’s entry (in chronological order):

NOTE: This list only contains those volumes which I’ve read cover to cover to the exclusion of those I’ve merely referenced (most of which can be found within the citations of earlier, more technical posts).

‘The Top 10 Myths About Evolution’ by Cameron M. Smith & Charles Sullivan

My Thoughts: If you’re already familiar with the most abundant ill-informed critiques of evolutionary theory, this book most likely isn’t for you. However, both authors receive an enormous amount of credit for re-articulating a number of concepts into terms anyone can understand.

‘Mind of the Raven’ by Bernd Heinrich

My Thoughts: I’ve already highlighted a few excerpts from this deliciously intriguing volume here. This has got to be one of the most philosophically stimulating ‘hard science’ books that I’ve read in quite some time, one which should force every reader to at least consider the idea that Homo sapiens is most certainly not the only form of intelligent life on this planet. My only substantial criticism is based upon Heinrich’s writing style which, while clear and coherent, contains an appreciable amount of undue rambling. Nonetheless, if you’re even remotely interested in psychobiology, ornithology, or naturalism in general, I wholeheartedly recommend this evocative book.

‘Mammoth’ by John Varley

My Thoughts: I don’t often read fiction, but when I do, my fodder of choice almost invariably falls within three categories: literature, philosophical thrillers, or sci-fi. I doubt that I’ll need bother mentioning by which title this novel is generally cited. I found it to be vastly entertaining, despite the fact that it inaccurately depicted a handful of its Pleistocene cast members.

‘Your Inner Fish’ by Neil Shubin

My Thoughts: This book is almost immeasurably more satisfying than the mere discussion of Tiktaalik roseae and its discovery I’d anticipated. Instead, it’s an exquisite introduction to the study of the evolutionary path upon which our bodies have traveled for the past 3.5 billion years which has been blessed with the amazingly readable prose of an obviously passionate author. Additionally, it clearly demonstrates that the human body, complex and engaging as it is, is far from perfect and is riddled with fairly obvious design flaws.

‘Mammoths: Giants Of The Ice Age’ by Adrian Lister & Paul Bahn

My Thoughts: I simply cannot think of a better volume through which to introduce the scientific study of the various Mammuthus species than this well-organized and masterfully illustrated compendium. However, I do wish that Lister and Bahn had included a more comprehensive review of early proboscidean evolution: although I realize that, as the title suggests, this wasn’t the point of the book, it would have been very much appreciated.

‘The Search for the Giant Squid: The Biology And Mythology Of The World’s Most Elusive Sea Creature’ by Richard Ellis

My Thoughts: This one was another recipient of its own review back in February, and my opinion of it has scarcely changed since then: had Ellis spent more time ‘covering the basics’ by further discussing the biology of cephalopods rather than dedicating a third of its textual content to essentially highlighting the giant squid’s celebrity status in pop-culture, it could have easily become an indispensible classic rather than the entertaining but ultimately hollow tome.

‘Ishmael’ by Daniel Quinn

My Thoughts: It’s been said that all novels are, in essence, philosophies expressed through an artistic venue. I can think of no better way to describe Dan Quinn’s ‘Ishmael’.  This is a fiercely intelligent cavalcade of earth-shattering philosophical observations guaranteed to spawn an immense amount of self-consideration long after its completion.

‘The Ghosts Of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, And Other Ecological Anachronisms’ by Connie Barlow

My Thoughts: Barlow does an exquisite job of combining personal experience with scientific inquiry to create what can only be described as a highly thought-provoking review of one of the most interesting aspects of evolutionary biology which had me closely scrutinizing any produce I happened to come across for months thereafter.

‘New Rules: Polite Musings From A Timid Observer’ by Bill Maher

My Thoughts: Although I’ll readily concede that his well-documented disdain for Western medicine and crass overall attitude are simply inexcusable, I can’t deny the fact that Bill Maher often raises some excellent points via his televised program and stand-up routines. Nevertheless, this particular volume is naught but a greatly disappointing collection of recycled material, nearly all of which can be found on Youtube.

‘Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers’ by Brooke Allen

My Thoughts: This is required reading for anyone who has even considered becoming involved in the ongoing controversy about the desired strength of church/state separation in the U.S. Allen completely obliterates the mythology surrounding the concept and its annals by providing an arsenal of historical evidence against such unsubstantiated claims as ‘the founding fathers were deeply religious men’ (the most influential ones were primarily deists, agnostics, and universalists), and ‘the United States was founded as a Christian nation’.

‘Why Evolution is True’ by Jerry Coyne

My Thoughts: From now on, when anyone asks me for a fairly comprehensive overview of the evidence for evolution, Jerry Coyne’s new book is the first thing I’ll suggest. Coyne utilizes examples I’d never heard or thought of to make monstrously-effective points which expose the reader to the absolutely mountainous evidence which supports the theory of evolution and by extension, shows him or her precisely why the scientific community accepts it on a universal scale.

‘The Moral Animal (Why We Are The Way We Are): The New Science Of Evolutionary Psychology’ by Robert Wright

My Thoughts: I have to say that, even in the face of such worthy competitors as ‘Your Inner Fish’, ‘Mind Of The Raven’, ‘The Selfish Gene’, and ‘Ishmael’, this was by an appreciable margin the most evocative and eye-opening book I’ve read this year. Evolutionary psychology is easily one of the most controversial subjects in modern science, recruiting such prestigious supporters as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker and such eminent adversaries as Stephen Jay Gould. Wright does a superb job of introducing the reader to this unambiguously captivating, yet divisive, topic. He also earns extra credit in my opinion for highlighting the philosophical struggle which accompanies the discipline by providing a detailed discussion about why the way things are isn’t necessarily the way they ought to be while simultaneously defending a personal allegiance to John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism.

‘Carl Sagan: A Life In The Cosmos’ by William Poundstone

My Thoughts: It’s no secret that I’m an enormous Carl Sagan fan. As an avid proponent of increasing and improving science communication aimed at the public, I can’t think of a better model upon which to base my own efforts than this eloquent messenger of the cosmos. Poundstone’s comprehensive biography delves beyond the mystery to reveal not only an entirely human story behind the scientific celebrity, but also some of the most destructive and divisive forces and biases which inhabit the scientific community itself.

‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins

My Thoughts: Though I don’t particularly care for his aggressiveness on the subject of religion, Dawkins is an excellent writer: a contention which, I feel, can be substantiated more effectively by no volume of his other than ‘The Selfish Gene’, which remains one of the most influential books in the history of modern evolutionary biology over three decades after its publication. However, due to the massive exposure the volume’s central concepts have been given by a plethora of subsequent narratives, they didn’t really offer me a challenge when read in their original context. Still, I found “The Selfish Gene” to be well worth my while.

‘Notre Dame de Paris’ (aka: ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’) by Victor Hugo

My Thoughts: I opted to read this one after hearing wonderful things about Hugo’s work from my well-read friends and later growing addicted to the song ‘Heaven’s Light/Hellfire’ from the Disney adaptation (the beautiful lyrics and animation of which force me to excuse the indefensibly-comical statues that occupy the first quarter of the piece). This oft-discussed novel has utterly dazzled me, and I now consider Hugo to be one of my favorite authors, for I can think of very few writers who can hope to compete with him in the art of mounting suspense and perfectly capturing the intricacies and subtleties of human emotions. Nowhere is this latter skill more apparent than in Hugo’s execution of Archdeacon Frollo, a complex and somewhat tragic character who fully deserves a place in any discussion regarding the greatest literary villains of the previous millenium.

‘Why Geese Don’t Get Obese (And We Do): How Evolution’s Strategies For Survival Affect Our Everyday Lives’ by Eric P. Widmaier.

My Thoughts: Though I fully realize that the two sciences are fundamentally intertwined, I’ll admit that I’ve always found anatomy to be far more interesting than physiology. Having made such a contention, I can’t help but feel far more enthusiasm for the latter discipline following the conclusion of this readable and passionate compendium. Widmaier clearly adores his area of expertise and has given it’s broader scientific implications a great deal of thought, as evidenced not only by the book’s introduction and epilogue, but nearly every paragraph of its being. However, this esteem appears to be somewhat reserved for physiology to the exclusion of certain other fields, as Widmaier occasionally exhibits factual errors when discussing paleontology (such as claiming that Dimetrodon was a dinosaur) . Still, this is a minor point which no way prevents me from highly recommending ‘Why Geese Don’t Get Obese’ to anyone with an interest in the biological sciences.

Happy new year and may the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

Science Communication: What We Can Learn From The Masters

3 11 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes!

Long-time readers of ‘The Theatrical Tanystropheus’ will know that I’m greatly interested in improving the communication of science to the public. Thus, it should come as no surprise that I greatly admire the late Cornell astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan. Lately, I’ve rediscovered the following video, which creates an almost immaculate sensation of awe and humility that never fails to produce a tear:

Recently, however, I’ve also taken to watching the lectures and discussions of AMNH astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (who, incidentally, was very nearly a student of Sagan’s): another highly effective science communicator. While Tyson can’t compete with Sagan in terms of eloquence and poetry, he makes up for it with his relatable personality and excellent sense of humor even in the midst of controversial subjects as displayed here:

After watching three or four of Dr. Tyson’s videos, his stage presence and compelling arguments lead me to list nearly all of them in the ‘favorites’ section on my YouTube channel page. Having done so, I began to consider another academic who is also frequently cited as a science popularizer: Richard Dawkins. Yet anyone reasonably familiar with the man’s work will almost instantly realize that Dawkins is far less frequently embraced by the general public than either of these astronomers.

But why? Dawkins is just as articulate as Sagan ever was, but when asked to compare his work to Sagan’s or Tyson’s, nearly every non-scientist I’ve met expresses their preference for the latter two.

In addition to Sagan, Tyson, and Dawkins, the list of recent and modern science popularizers contains (among many others) the equally-outspoken PZ Meyers, the University College-London’s Steve Jones, the late and incomparably articulate Stephen Jay Gould, the iconic Stephen Hawking, and the frequently-televised naturalist David Attenborough . Yet whenever I expose my relatively non-scientific friends to their various works, only Sagan, Tyson, Hawking, Gould, and Attenborough are commonly recognized as ‘persuasive’. So what are these men getting right that everyone else is getting wrong?

1. They Don’t Shy Away From The Arts, Culture And The Humanities.

It never ceases to amaze me how many science students, instructors, professors, and teachers utterly loathe the arts and social sciences; a paradox I’ve previously discussed here. I’ve always felt that science and the humanities can learn a great deal from each other and are mutually beneficial to an enormous degree. For instance, would anyone care to guess how many hundreds of paleontologists, geologists, biologists, and naturalists were inspired by the artwork of Charles R. Knight and the novels of Michael Chrichton? Yet the extreme distaste many scientists harbor for these very fields is so well known that it’s been discussed on the popular (and excellent) sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’ in which Sheldon has made such assertions as ‘the social sciences are largely hokum’ and has been indefensibly dismissive of a former love interest of his room-mate because her PhD was in literature.

There are exceptions to this rule of course, the most notable of which is none other than Sagan himself who, according to many of his friends and relatives, expressed an enthusiasm for mythology and prose from an early age. This passion grows obvious when watching reruns of ‘Cosmos’ as shown in his introduction to the library of Alexandria and utilizes the discussion to reveal just how vast the gaps in our knowledge could really be:

Furthermore, he would often take the time to point out constellations and their surrounding legends when directing his audience towards the heavens.


Because even though they’re scientifically useless, most people find such things fascinating!!

I used to work at Massawepie Scout Camps near Tupper Lake, New York every summer as an instructor whose speciality lay in teaching ‘Reptile and Amphibian Studies’ merit badge at the ecology lodge. Though the badge was often identified as one of the most challenging offered by the camp, I learned that I could make the material much more understandable by finding something which the students could relate to, which frequently took the form of the arts. A lecture concerning how certain salamanders can regrow limbs (and parts of their heads in some cases) was made easier by first giving a brief review of Hercules’ legendary conflict with the Hydra. I suspect this was due to the fact that since most of the students found Greek mythology interesting, I was able to build a springboard from fantasy to reality and in so doing, maintain their interest by exposing them to several fascinating intricacies of nature grounded literally in our own backyards.

This is hardly a novel approach. Several physics professors nationwide teach an introductory class entitled something along the lines of “The Physics Of Sports”. Even more remarkably, the University of Minnesota’s James Kakalios has acquired astronomical success with his popular course entitled “Everything I Need To Know About Physics I Learned By Reading Comic Books” and  his book based thereon, “The Physics Of Superheroes”. In the volume’s introduction, Kakalios makes the following observation:

“The real world is a complicated place. In order to provide illustrations in a physics lesson that emphasize only a single concept… over the decades teachers have developed an arsenal of overly stylized scenarios involving projectile motion, weights on pulleys, or oscillating masses on springs. These situations seem so artificial that students inevitably lament ‘When am I ever going to use this stuff in my real life?’

One trick I’ve hit upon in teaching physics involves using examples culled from superhero comic books that correctly illustrate various applications of physics principles. Interestingly enough, whenever I cite examples from superhero comic books in a lecture, my students never wonder when they will use this information in ‘real life.'”

2. They Explain WHY Things Are Fascinating.

Recently, I re-watched one of my favorite films to date: Pixar’s ‘The Incredibles’. After the movie, I perused the special features when I came upon a segment which focused on the personal story of historian and author Sarah Vowell’s (the voice of ‘Violet’) involvement. In it, she discussed her frustration with the fact that her longtime interest in Abraham Lincoln has rarely been greeted with enthusiasm by her peers and expressed relief in participating in the movie when she discovered she didn’t have to convince everybody that it was interesting.

Throughout my life, I’ve experienced an identical predicament when attempting to invoke ardor for the subject of paleontology in my friends, family and associates who have found such things as sports, shoes, cars, cheeseburgers, and Japanese animation far more captivating. I’m no gambler, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that most life-long science enthusiasts can relate.

I simply cannot ignore the feeling that were these individuals to fully understand the significance of a 215,000,000-year old phytosaur skull, they’d find it at least as interesting as a happy meal. The biological sciences are just as humbling as their astronomical counterparts, yet when people look at a frog or a tree, they usually aren’t nearly as awestruck as they are when gazing upon the stars. By every right, they should be: the science is there.

To exemplify this, I shall call upon the late, great Stephen Jay Gould who presented this musing back in 1980:

“I think that the fascination so many people feel for evolutionary theory resides in three of its properties. First, it is, in its current state of development, sufficiently firm to provide satisfaction and confidence, yet fruitfully undeveloped enough to provide a treasure trove of  mysteries. Second, it stands in the middle in a continuum stretching from sciences that deal in timeless, qualitative generality to those that work directly with the singularities of history. Thus, it provides a home for all styles and propensities, from those who seek the purity of abstraction (the laws of population growth and the structure of DNA) to those who revel in the messiness of irreducible particularity (what, if anything, did Tyrannosaurus do with its puny front legs anyway?). Third, it touches all of our lives; for how can we be indifferent to the great questions of genealogy: where did we come from and what does it all mean? And then, of course, there are all those organisms: more than a million described species, from bacterium to the blue whale -with one hell of a lot of beetles in between- each with its own beauty, each with its own story to tell.”

3. They Never Fail To Discuss The Philosophical Implications Of Their Disciplines.

Once again, I must turn to an astronomer to exemplify this idea by displaying the following video of Neil Degrasse Tyson discussing the odds of discovering technologically-advanced extraterrestrials:

To quote Daniel Dennett, “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”

4. They Avoid Acquiring Reputations As Militant Atheists.

Okay, this is doubtlessly going to be my most controversial observation, but I cannot avoid mentioning a very real, very destructive elephant in the room here: individuals who attempt to establish themselves as both vociferous atheists and effective science communicators. As far as I’m concerned, a single person cannot be both.

The obvious example here is Richard Dawkins. Honestly, I feel saddened when observing the plight of the Oxford professor because, truth be told, he really is an exceptional communicator of complex scientific principles. Case in point is “The Selfish Gene”, his first book and, scientifically, his most influential. I’ve just recently completed the thirtieth anniversary edition of this excellent volume and found it to be a truly enjoyable read: a fact which was strongly assisted by its accessible prose and evocative arguments.

Yet most people know Dawkins as the author of another, more controversial book: “The God Delusion”.

It’s no secret that Carl Sagan was arguably just as critical of organized religion, as shown in “The Demon-Haunted World” among other publications. So why do most people familiar with both men cite Dawkins as the militant atheist rather than Sagan?

Because Sagan never launched a nation-wide campaign to encourage atheists to exit their closets. Sagan didn’t accuse everyone espousing  theistic beliefs as being ‘delusional’ in an international best-seller. And I doubt that Sagan would have willingly assisted a movement to replace the word ‘atheists’ with ‘brights’.

As a freethinker, I fully acknowledge that the need to encourage public acceptance of atheism is a valid concern, but I can’t help but worry that such aggressive atheistic scientists ultimately harm the scientific cause more than they assist it. The bottom line is this: regardless of how eloquent and thought provoking Dawkins is, even moderately-religious people will fail to acknowledge any of his scientific points for their minds prevent them from seeing in him anything other than a militant atheist.

Again, this is not to say that secular scientists should wholeheartedly embrace traditional religions, but rather those who hope to educate the public should avoid combating them so aggressively.

“I think that the fascination so many people feel for evolutionary theory resides in three of its properties. First, it is, in its current state of development, sufficiently firm to provide satisfaction and confidence, yet fruitfully undeveloped enough to provide a treasure trove of mysteries. Second, it stands in the middle in a continuum stretching from sciences that deal in timeless, quantitative generality to those that work directly with the singularities of history. Thus, it provides a home for all styles and propensities, from those who seek the purity of abstraction (the laws of population growth and the structure of DNA) to those who revel in the messiness of irreducible particularity (what, if anything, did Tyrannosaurus do with its puny front legs anyway?). Third, it touches all our lives; for how can we be indifferent to the great questions of genealogy: where did we come from and what does it all mean? and then, of course, there are all those organisms: more than a million described species, from bacterium to blue whale, with one hell of a lot of beetles in between—each with its own beauty, and each with a story to tell.”

Also, consider the following discussion between Tyson and Dawkins (WARNING! Dawkins says a very bad, but amusing, word!)

Which school of thought do you think is more effective?

Please feel free to add your comments below!

May the fossil record (and the host of disciplines which seek to unravel the mysteries of our universe and everything in it)continue to enchant us all!