The latest Tangled Bank is up

January 31, 2007

Cecropia at forest edge, Barro Colorado Island, Panama

Check out this week’s compendium of the best blogging in science and medicine, hosted by the always cheeky ouroboros.

The tangled bank, of course, is a reference to EEB’s own Chucky D, perfectly capturing his experiences in the tropical forest:

  “It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life and from use and disuse: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms.”

QOTD: Robert Kaplan

January 29, 2007

Robert Kaplan, writer for the Atlantic‘In the academy, specialization has become both a necessity and a curse. Too much narrow expertise is the inverse of wisdom.  But the explosion of facts that need to be categorized demands a growing number of parochial subdivisions within any given field. We must fight against the tendency to become, as the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset feared we all would, “learned ignoramuses”.”

Discuss amongst yourselves.

From An Historian for our Time by Robert D. Kaplan in The Atlantic

What a tropical forest looks like

January 28, 2007

From Debby Cotter Kaspari's Drawing the Motmot

Unlike, say, prairies or deserts where the light is often spectacular–think “Dances with Wolves”(….alright, don’t think too hard)–tropical forests are hard to capture with a camera. There is just so much stuff all dimly illuminated (only about 5% of the photons reach the forest floor) , save for the screeching light flecks that penetrate like laserbeams through ephemeral holes in the canopy. This is why the artist working with her pen and ink can often capture what the artist working with her digital camera cannot.

This image comes from Zeladoniac’s fantastic Drawing the Motmot. Keep yer eye out on this blog because apparently she has more like this somewhere. While you wait you can  browse through her eclectic postings on fossils, birds, natural illustration, and hair design.

Tempus fugit

January 28, 2007

I was in my pajamas, a child of the space race, watching Jackie Gleason one Saturday evening when a dark card reading “CBS News Bulletin” filled the screen and an announcer ominously intoned of breaking news.

apollo1fire-capsuleview.jpgIt turns out three heros of mine had died in a horribly, horribly, mundane way. Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were performing routine tests in the new capsule destined ultimately to take us to the moon. They lay strapped in, doors sealed, capsule fully pressurized with pure di-oxygen. They flipped switches, checked gauges, and generally went through the kind of dress rehearsals that train astronauts to perform their various duties automatically, with no hesitation.

At 6:30 PM EST Chaffee reported “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit.”. It was likely an electrical spark on some abraded wire–this was new technology after all. One would think that in a normal atmosphere of mostly di nitrogen gas the spark would have been noted and the offending circuit fixed. But this was pure oxygen and the flames spread. What’s more, in the pressurized command module it was impossible to quickly open the hatch, which required undoing 12 bolts and pulling the hatch in. The fire, and the increasing pressure (which eventually ruptured the capsule) made this impossible. Seventeen seconds later, Grissom, White, and Chaffee were dead of smoke inhalation. The heat had fused Grissom’s and White’s space suits together.

apollo1patch.jpgI suspect there is a large cohort of men and women that are doing science in part due to  these astronauts and the men and women who worked to send them into space and bring them home safely again. To be an astronaut, after all, you had to not only be physically fit and sharp of senses, you had to be smart. You had to get A’s in calculus and physics, we were told. So kids like me that would rather have had teeth extracted than do their math homework did so with the hope of big payoffs sometime down the road.

Even after Apollo 1, most of us longed to don the space suits, strap ourselves into those form-fitting seats, seal the cockpit door, and stare out those tiny windows as the Saturn 5 rocket below us rumbled into life. We imagined weightlessness, the black void, and the brilliant, unwavering light of the stars. And those of us who ultimately chose different paths still occasionally stare upwards on moonless nights and think of the heroes that allowed us to dream.

Dammit, I wanted to be Heinlein

January 28, 2007
I am:

Arthur C. Clarke

Well known for nonfiction science writing and for early promotion of the effort toward space travel, his fiction was often grand and visionary.

Which science fiction writer are you?

Why you ask for the *best* answer when writing exams

January 28, 2007


h/t to Rob at

How to be creative–variations on a theme

January 27, 2007

All scientists value creativity: the ability to generate a long list of ideas combined with the ability recognize the best of those ideas. The list grows in proportion to the amount you  read broadly and keep yourselves open to a diversity of experience (something it is hard to justify at times, when it seems its all you can do to master the discipline you are really passionate about). But what about the culling part?  How do you sort through all this experience to  find a new and profitable connection?//

Variations on a theme is one creativity technique as old as the diversity of life. Its simple: find something that works and apply it in a different context.

My favorite example of VOT in EEB is optimal foraging theory–a set of models that predict which habitats, prey, and parts of a prey that a predator should eat. Robert MacArthur and Eric Pianka could have invented this theory from scratch, but instead they knew that similar work had been done by economists (ecology/economics … same root) and they borrowed it, changed the names of the variables, and voila a citation classic that raised helped invent Behavioral Ecology. Likewise, Eric Charnov saw something from Microeconomics 101 that asked how the value of an activity declined with the time you put into it– Marginal Value –and applied it to the question of how long a forager stays in a patch that is taught in every Intro Ecology course.

Variations on a theme–same tune, different lyrics–serving the arts and sciences since 954 B.C.

Illustration from BMClocks’s excellent Natural History Artworks