Teaching: the perfect two minute lesson

December 7, 2011

1Veritasium pulls it off in this little video,  asking “how far apart are the moon and the earth?”. Along the way he sends a message about some pretty complicated subjects–the concept of scale, the size of the universe, and why it is difficult to use images alone to capture the reality of distance.

The recipe starts with “man on the street” interviews. These set up the misconception and in the process send the viewer the empathic message, “hey, you’re not the only one.”  This is followed by a simple demonstration, using the long focus of the camera as an ally. Then simple graphics expand the idea and its implications. Finally, a 10 s summary: “The universe is truly bigger than we can imagine, and certainly bigger than we can draw to scale”.

Imagine a similar suite of videos on any difficult subject: enzymes, global warming, evolution. Imagine producing a suite of five or so on a science topic that interests you, posting them on your own Youtube channel. With your smiling face introducing each one. That’s one way to get noticed and to do a real service.  As a debunker of myths. As teacher of science.

Any great, short, science videos out there you want to bring to a wider audience?


Ernst Haeckel: high on biodiversity

December 3, 2011

Ernst Haeckel was a seminal biologist and one of the first theoreticians in evolutionary biology. He was also a crazy good artist, and his 100 plates highlighting invertebrate diversity are available for download. The files are big enough to turn into small posters. Three of my favorites below the fold.  Read the rest of this entry »

Oribatid mites–plunging into the dizzying diversity of the brown food web

November 24, 2011

BrittanyB, a tuba-playing entomologist extraordinaire, has been tasked with developing methods to catalogue the diversity of our oribatid mites–little fungal grazers in the brown food web. Brown food webs convert the dead into minerals and carbon dioxide; they are nature’s cleanup crews, and a subject of endless fascination for us here in the AntLab. Our latest big project will explore how these food webs work at six sites, from the rainforests of Oregon to the alpine forests in Colorado,  from the diverse forests of the Smokey mountains to even “diversier” forests in Panama.

So, after years of splashing around in the kiddy-pool of ant diversity–our first love, but relatively well known–we in the AntLab are moving into the calm, dark waters of the soil’s meso- and micro-fauna, starting with collembola (springtails) and oribatids (box mites). This requires a dive into the baroque literature of each group’s taxonomists–the high priestesses of biodiversity–and to learn the the secret language of the guild, the road marks and way signs embedded in form. We also must o photograph the little darlings, using cameras attached to microscopes.  This involves fidgeting with lights, angles, magnification, and embedding media (some in the lab were relieved to know that the K-Y Jelly experiment was a flop, sparing them the embarrassment of a tube at every microscope station). Then these images must be stitched together and further manipulated with software. Lotsa variables, lotsa play, lotsa art.

For me, this is magical. For years, having simply counted petri dishes  of “collembola” and “oribatids”, pushing them around into little grey piles before plopping them into centrifuge tubes, it is unimaginably exciting to finally get a good look at what I’ve been squinting at.

So here are a few of Brittany’s first attempts. This is gonna be fun.

Will Youtube replace lectures?

November 16, 2011

Imagine a course where your read articles and watch videos at home, then come to class to work on problem sets. We’ll have more to say about this in the future, but I suspect if you want to work on your teaching chops, focus on how you interact with small groups, say, leading an exam review.

I mean, can you imagine a more succinct introduction to the alkali metals (love me some Na and K)?


November 8, 2011

We in the AntLab are learning through trial and error to photograph tiny things under the microscope. The goal is to produce web- based catalogues of critters from the brown food web, the microbes that decompose dead stuff like leaves, and the invertebrates that depend on them for food and shelter. The catalogue, which will go online sometime next year, is for our use as we quantify patterns of diversity, abundance, and body size across the New World forests. Hopefully it will help others interested in the same questions.

Here are a couple of photographs from Jelena Bujan, early efforts toward capturing the elusive beauty of Collembola, or springtails.

The art of insect photography, a tutorial

November 8, 2011

Alex Wild, of Myrmecos, and Alex Wild Photography, has fashioned his post-Ph. D. life into a career in insect photography. He is now an evangelist for taking better photos.

Check out a video of his recent presentation at UC. Davis. Or use this link to access his slide show.

Takehome: its about lenses, lighting, and composition.

Why we do science: quantum mechanics remixed

September 18, 2011

These guys give me hope.