Books and the reason we do science

January 1, 2007

Chris at Mixing Memory has a nice post today soliciting favorite opening paragraphs. It sent me scrambling to my library for this gem from John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez:

The design of a book is the pattern of a reality controlled and shaped by the mind of the writer. This is completely understood about poetry or fiction, but it is too seldom realized about books of fact. And yet the impulse which drives a man to poetry will send another man into the tide pools and force him to try to report what he finds there. Why is an expedition to Tibet undertaken, o a sea bottom dredged? Why do men, sitting at the microscope, examine the calcareous plates of a sea-cucumber, and, finding a new arrangement and number, feel an exaltation and give the new species a name, and write about it possessively? It would be good to know the impulse truly, not to be confused by the ‘services to science’ platitudes or the other little mazes in which we entice our minds so that they will not know what we are doing.

Truth is, we go into the sciences each for our own reasons. One of the best writers on this subject is John Janovy Jr whose books capture the excitement of field biology and the challenges and joys of teaching it. You may know of Janovy from his On becoming a biologist. My favorite of his ten books is still Keith County Journal which is as excellent an introduction to Janovy’s writing as you are likely to find. I read it as a senior in high school, and Janovy (and Steinbeck, and Sagan, and Dillard, and Abbey, and Eisley) are a big reason I’m a scientist.

Janovy also provides an extensive and esoteric reading list as well as an unpublished manuscript that is bound tor turn a few heads, “Outwitting College Professors: a practical guide to secrets of the system.” (PDF) which deserves wide readership. So spread this meme around!

And leave some recommended authors of your own in the comments, those books that are must reading for the days when all the experiments flop and working at Sonic seems a distinct prospect.

Light posting today

January 1, 2007

Nebraska CornhuskersGotta get this grant off my desk, and Nebraska is playing Auburn in 22 minutes.

UPDATE 7:31PM–Nothing like slogging away on a grant to erase the bad taste of losing another game you should have won. Sigh. Well….crap.

Catching, and holding attention–the biophilia effect

January 1, 2007

clipspaceshipcomparison.jpeg E. O. Wilson popularized the term biophilia to refer to our innate attraction to the diversity of the natural world. For me, some form of genetic hardwiring allowing our ancestors to see the subtle distinctions between two plants–one poisonous, one not–seems pretty much a given. However, being an ecologist, I’m not exactly neutral on this as 1) I think preserving the earth’s biodiversity is a pretty reasonable thing to do, and 2) I’ve grown up making such distinctions, progressing from bugs, then herps, then birds, and onto ants.

However, one of the strongest arguments for the biophilia hypothesis is not that you find naturalists wherever you go. Ask a college freshman to name 10 species, let alone 10 species of bird, and you find most struggling after five or six (a disturbing number forget Homo sapiens). The best evidence is that among these very same students, one can recognize every release of the Ford Mustang, one collects lady head vases, and another can give a spontaneous lecture on the subtle variations in, and performance of, the WW II fighter, the P-51 Mustang. Given the incredible accumulation of facts such obsessions demand, and the relative unimportance of Ford Mustangs to our ancestors on the plains of Africa, the most reasonable hypothesis is that this whole “collecting” thing is best understood as displaced biophilia. IOW, if you grew up in suburban North America, you likely saw more species of cars than birds, and were predisposed to obsess about the former. (OK, cars were probably more linked to your fitness, as they were your predators when you were young, and offered reproductive opportunities when you were a bit older, but you get my general point).

I have never seen a better illustration of displaced biophilia than this pseudobiological poster describing the relative sizes of every Starship from the annals of science fiction, from the Enterprise (Constitution Class), to the Borg collective’s assimilation cube, to the Galactic Empire’s (Executer Class). It is gorgeous, as all good depictions of scaling relationships can be. That is just happens to thrill the sci-fi geek, is not, as they say, a bug, but a feature.

If you want to catch someone’s attention, exploit their biophilia.  Place a bunch of subtly different objects in front of them, scaled appropriately, and let them play “one of these things is not like the other“.