Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Colbert to do Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins this week!

What fun! The Colbert Report will have Richard Dawkins on tonight, followed tomorrow by Francis Collins, the new director of the NIH! I wonder if he might ask Dawkins some of these questions? Maybe not, although Colbert, despite his avowed Catholicism and gut-centric persona, seems much more rational, skeptical, and pro-science than Bill Maher. He certainly showcases more scientists on the Report than any other late-night talk show! For examples, look no further than Matt Tobey's post on the Comedy Central Blog last week featuring this collection of Colbert's Most Intelligently Designed Creationism Moments:


Did humans evolve from monkeys over the course of hundreds of millennia or were we created in the Garden of Eden 6000 years ago? It's hard for me to say, to be honest. On the one hand, like Eve, I find apples very tempting, especially when they're in fried pies. On the other hand, I really enjoy flinging my poop. Hopefully these creationism-themed Colbert Report clips can help me make up my mind.


Check out all the videos there - but let me share here, below the fold, both Collins' and Dawkins' previous appearance on the show:



The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Francis Collins
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorMichael Moore

Let's see how he fares on his return visit on thursday, now that he has his own upgrade to head the NIH!


And here's Dawkins hawking his previous book on the Colbert Report three years ago:


The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Richard Dawkins
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorMichael Moore

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Darwin on American Public TV and in Theatres this fall!

As the Darwin Bicentennial year winds down and we approach the Sesquicentennial anniversary of the publication of "On the Origin of Species" on Nov 21, we will get two promising televisual/cinematic treatments of the torment Darwin underwent while sitting on the horns of the dilemma of whether or not to share his theory with the world! The recent drama about whether the movie Creation was going to be distributed at all in the US has now been settled as we get word today that Newmarket, a small Indie company (whose previous hit, intriguingly, was "The Passion of the Christ"!!) has picked up the US rights for the film and plans a year-end release! Hooray - although some of us are apprehensive about how "even-handed" the film will be in trying to "balance" between religion and science! The National Center for Science Education's executive director Eugenie Scott (who has just accepted my invitation to speak at Fresno State this fall as well - but more on that soon!) liked the film, describing it in her early review as "a thoughtful, well-made film that will change many views of Darwin held by the public — for the good."


Meanwhile, NCSE also alerts us to another treatment of Darwin's Darkest Hour - a 2-hour television special airing on PBS stations next week courtesy of NOVA and National Geographic. Here's a preview:




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Monday, September 21, 2009

Scientia Pro Publica #12 is out

The 12th edition of the science themed blog carnival Scientia Pro Publica is out for your reading pleasure at Lab Rat. Enjoy this relatively brief issue - especially since it also features one of my recent blog posts - thanks Lab Rat!



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Kanye interrupts Chuck D.




tumblr_kq52gsbkpa1qa3i8uo1_500.jpg



(Tip'o'Hat: Daven Presgraves via whyevolutionistrue)


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Sunday, September 20, 2009

A punk-size T-rex and an Eagle that ate children?!

ResearchBlogging.orgOne trait that shows interesting evolutionary trends is the size of animals. Body size plays a significant role in the most important interactions between animals: competition (for resources or mates) and predation (for both predator and prey). Body size is also, of course, significant for a variety of physiological reasons. It's no surprise, therefore, that biologists spend a lot of time thinking about body size, and have discovered some intriguing patterns. For instance the so-called island rule in biogeography includes both insular gigantism (relatives of smaller-bodied mainland species tend to be larger in island populations) and insular dwarfism (relatives of larger-bodied mainland species tend to be smaller on islands!) - and both of these patterns are well supported empirically. We also have apparent body size trends in some lineages where successive descendants keep getting bigger and bigger until they reach some apparent limit and go extinct. This might happen because of predator-prey arms races, competition, or runaway sexual selection where female preference drives the exaggeration of a trait (e.g., antlers) in turn selecting for larger body size to support that exaggerated trait.


The Search



Our understanding of how large some species can get and still function well is somewhat limited by the fact that many of the largest species ever to have evolved have gone extinct, leaving us to speculate whether their very size led to their extinction. Were the giant Haast's Eagles of New Zealand reduced to scavenging because they evolved too rapidly to become too big to be able to hunt? On the other hand, did Tyrannosaurus rex not become a good predator until it attained a sufficiently large body size? Our hypotheses about body size can thus go in different directions depending upon taxon and ecological circumstances. After all, we can only infer so much from reconstructing the anatomy of some of these giant beasts from their fossilized skeletal remains - but we are getting better at studying the fossils and visualizing their functions, by adapting technologies such as CAT (computed axial tomography) scans. This week some of the media picked up two papers reporting interesting findings about the two taxa mentioned above. The AP and several websites who picked it up from there got all excited about how the Haast's Eagle may have been the fearsome aerial predator of Maori legend as it might have hunted humans - especially (oh the horror) children! The original paper by Scofield and Ashwell while generating that sensational headline, is actually more interesting because of its approach and analysis of skeletal material, and in suggesting greater flexibility in the allometry of body size evolution. The authors used CAT scans to reconstruct and analyze the brain structure of the eagle to show that while the body of this species increased rapidly in size upon their arrival in New Zealand - presumably because of the lack of mammalian predators and the presence of a giant prey, the Moa - their brains did not increase in proportion! They use allometric analysis to show that these birds have much smaller brains for their body size compared to other Falconiformes, and this large size seems to have evolved rapidly: Haast's Eagle became 10-times the size of its putative ancestral lineage within a short 1.8 million years! That's what going after Moas, as seen in the above painting, meant for the evolution of this bird!! But wait, weren't these birds too big to hunt actively, instead scavenging off Moa carcasses like Condors and other large vultures?


The large morphological size of Haast’s eagle has led to competing hypotheses concerning its life style and behavior. Here we analyse neuroanatomical indicators to address questions concerning the behavior of Haast’s eagle: (1) was it an active predator or merely a scavenger of carcasses; (2) was it most likely to inhabit forest or open places; and (3) did its large body weight allow strong active flight?

And therefore:


We predict that if this eagle had vulturine habits it would show a combination of all, or some of, the following: (1) somatic evidence that it made significant use of olfaction; (2) adaptations indicative of an ability to undertake sustained gliding flight; (3) large eyes adapted to locate prey from considerable distances; and (4) a lack of evidence for the ability to attack and kill prey with its legs and talons. Alternately, if these features were not found to be present, we would suggest that Haast’s eagle was most likely an active hunter.

To do this, they look not just at the whole brain, but specific relevant regions of the brain where the size can be inferred from their scans, as well the anatomy of the eye and the optic nerve. They found that the olfactory system of the Haast eagle's brain was proportionally similar to smaller eagles from the Accipitridae and much smaller than in vultures. So these birds probably did not rely so much on smell to find food! Further, the visual system also remained similar to the Eagles, not apparently gaining any further acuity like we find in the vultures.


We suggest this disproportionate growth was only possible in the unique New Zealand environment where Harpagornis was not threatened by mammalian predation or competitors and was able to develop specific adaptations to predating on a particular prey, the moa, by evolving a bigger head and more robust talons. Also we prefer this interpretation rather than the alternative of Harpagornis evolving from a similar sized ancestor and in doing so undertaking a reduction in endocranial capacity, and degradation of the optic and olfactory lobes.

They then examined flight morphology to conclude that here the bird was more like vultures in being better adapted to soaring (despite its relatively short wings) than the fine control exhibited by its forest dwelling cousins. It may have dwelt more in open grassland habitats where it could swoop down upon its prey from cliffside perches. And here they draw upon corroborative evidence from Maori legend - for this fearsome beast went extinct from NZ skies only about 500 years ago!

Although no European scientist ever observed Haast’s eagle hunting, Maori oral tradition provides some evidence to support our behavioral reconstruction. One description given to Sir George Grey in 1872 (Grey, 1873, pg 435) states: “This bird, the Hokioi, was seen by our ancestors. We (of the present day) have not seen it. That bird has disappeared now-a-days. The statement of our ancestor was that it was a powerful bird, a very powerful bird. It was a very large hawk. Its resting place was on the top of the mountains; it did not rest on the plains. On the days in which it was on the wing our ancestors saw it; it was not seen every day as its abiding place was in the mountains. Its colour was red and black and white. It was a bird of (black) feathers, tinged with yellow and green; it had a bunch of red feathers on the top of its head. It was a large bird, as large as the moa”. Another description reported by the Reverend Stack (Stack, 1878, pg 63) said: “A Pouakai had built its nest on a spur of Mount Tawera, and darting down from thence it seized and carried off men, women, and children, as food for itself and its young. For, though its wings made a loud noise as it flew through the air, it rushed with such rapidity upon its prey that none could escape from its talons”. The carrying off of men and women is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but the description of its presence over open ground and mountainous terrain is consistent with our deductions.

So that is the sensational tidbit that the media can run with - this was a terrifying eagle that carried off children!! But the main thrust of the paper itself is in demonstrating that Haast's eagle was an active predator, with an oversized skull (hence disproportionately smaller brain) that attacked moas from the air, striking them with its strong, sensitive talons in the lower back over the kidneys and at the base of the skull. In the bigger evolutionary picture, this is a fascinating case study showing that neurological (brain) and somatic (body) expansion can be mismatched even in cases of island gigantism - there appears to be considerable flexibility in how natural selection affects different parts of the brain and body under different ecological conditions (such as the lack of predators or presence of new bigger prey).


Meanwhile, the other paper making the news this week goes the other way, describing a small Tyrannosaurid precursor of T. rex from
China that appears capable of hunting on its own too - because that lineage had already evolved skeletal features for the predatory lifestyle made famous by their much larger descendants! Large size was thus not a prerequisite for that lifestyle to evolve. Here's the abstract from Sereno et al in Science:


Tyrannosaurid dinosaurs comprised nearly all large-bodied predators (>2.5 tons) on northern continents during the Late Cretaceous. We show that their most conspicuous functional specializations—a proportionately large skull, incisiform premaxillary teeth, expanded jaw-closing musculature, diminutive forelimb, and a hindlimb with cursorial proportions—were present in a new small-bodied, basal tyrannosauroid from Lower Cretaceous rocks in northeastern China. These specializations, scaled up in Late Cretaceous tyrannosaurids with body masses approaching 100 times greater, drove the most dominant radiation of macropredators of the Mesozoic.

Better yet, thanks to Futurity, the new science portal I wrote about recently, we can get the story straight from Dr. Sereno's in this video:



Cool as a small Tyrannosaur sounds, this dude was still over 9 feet tall, so I'd still avoid it! And this latest among an already large set of fossil finds from China makes me wonder if the Jurassic Park franchise might head eastwards next!


References:



  1. G. Grey (1873). Description of the extinct gigantic bird of prey, Hokioi, by a Maori. Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, 5: 435

  2. Scofield, R., & Ashwell, K. (2009). Rapid Somatic Expansion Causes the Brain to Lag Behind: The Case of the Brain and Behavior of New Zealand's Haast's Eagle (Harpagornis moorei)Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 29 (3), 637-649 DOI: 10.1671/039.029.0325

  3. Sereno, P., Tan, L., Brusatte, S., Kriegstein, H., Zhao, X., & Cloward, K. (2009). Tyrannosaurid Skeletal Design First Evolved at Small Body Size Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1177428

  4. J. W. Stack (1878). Sketch of the traditional history of the South Island Maoris. Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand , 10, 57-92

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Friday, September 18, 2009

The Evolution of the Origin visualized

Origin-Evolution-visualized.jpg

My students know I never tire of emphasizing the self-corrective nature of science: how scientific theories are always dynamic theories, constantly being tested against reality, discarded if they fail the test, and continuously revised and refined as we get a better and better approximation of truth. A good example of a scientist who put his own ideas, his life's work, through this process of continual testing and refinement is of course, Charles Darwin. We all know about how he hesitated to publish his theory of evolution by natural selection for c.20 years, 15 of those after he had written out a detailed "outline", but his work didn't stop with the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 (we're coming up on the 150th anniversary of its publication in November this year). He continued to tinker with the book, tweaking the language, refining his arguments, and responding to criticisms as well by eventually adding a whole chapter on the subject - and publishing a total of 6 editions of the book over the next 13 years. Students taking Evolution at Fresno State have in recent years been reading the 1st edition of the classic book, chosen because we want them to experience the book as the world first encountered it, before Darwin had to worry about responding to critics. But the 6 editions themselves represent an evolution of sorts, with favored passages being preserved and refined while others were selected out. Darwin scholars have been studying the differences, and now the rest of us also have a new way to appreciate this textual evolution, through a fascinating new visualization created by Ben Fry of Seed Visualization's Phyllotaxis lab. This dynamic Flash graphic takes you through all the changes to the text much the same way a phylogeneticist might compare DNA sequence changes across a taxon's evolutionary lineage. And as you can see in the gel-like excerpt I've put at the top of this post, you can click on any "band" in any portion of the text-gel to read the mutations therein! Go check it out - its really cool! And read also Ben Fry's interview in Seed about this visualization.

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A new portal for science straight from the horses' mouths on the internets (but ignore the odd name)

We scientists are always complaining about the quality of science reporting in the mainstream media, particularly in recent times when we've seen an alarming growth in anti-science movements in the US (be it creationism on the right or anti-vaccinationism on the left). You'll find my own rants on the subject in the archives of this very blog. In fact, the lack of quality science communication in the public sphere (i.e., outside the ivory tower) is the main reason some of us have jumped into science communication outside of our journals, e.g., by starting science cafes to reach our local communities, and blogging (coming up on 3 years of that for me!) for a broader audience. All taking time off from the research field site or lab bench so we could try to wrest that media megaphone from the jackanapes running newspapers (let alone TV newschannels) and journalism schools who don't give a hoot about employing people with any proper science education! The blogosphere has provided an excellent democratic medium for us to get the real science out directly, but its not exactly an alternative to a news channel, especially for smalltime bloggers like me. We have hundreds or thousands of science blogs now, many written by active scientists, but the effort is scattered across a similar large number of websites, which means most of our writing reaches mostly a fraction of those already motivated to read about science! Its not like someone is going to stumble upon my blog as they might if I had a column or even a letter in the Fresno Bee, is it? So we've had some blogging collectives emerge, the most prominent example being ScienceBlogs, which can attract more eyeballs, and keep them coming back for more (despite occasional outbreaks of distinctly odd non-science blogginess over there among the denizens of SB). This week a new portal has opened on the internets, with a more impressive pedigree: 35 top US universities have banded together to launch Futurity.org! Check out the impressive array of university logos on their about page which states:


Futurity.org made its debut as a beta site in March 2009 and formally launched on September 15. As an online research magazine, Futurity highlights the latest discoveries from leading universities in the United States and Canada.


Who is Futurity?

Duke University, Stanford University, and the University of Rochester lead a consortium of participating universities (see list below) that manages and funds the project. All partners are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU), a nonprofit organization of leading public and private research universities.


Futurity aggregates the very best research news. The content is produced by the partner universities, and submitted to Futurity’s editor (editor@futurity.org) for consideration. The site, which is hosted at the University of Rochester, covers news in the environment, health, science, society, and other areas.


So now you have one more excellent source for quality science news straight from the frontiers of discovery at the best institutions in the US. In addition to the web portal, you can also partake of all this future-y science-y goodness on Facebook, Twitter, and even YouTube! How terrific is that?


I just wish they'd spent a little more time/effort coming up with a better name than Futurity!


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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

When Hollywood distributors are exposed to Darwin's thoughts, who knows what could happen?!

Its not clear yet if and how the Darwin biopic "Creation" may ever get distributed in the US, even as it readies for a UK release next week. There was some scuttlebutt yesterday when the NCSE tweeted a Bay Area NBC affiliate station's report that their parent company was in a "bidding war" over the US distribution rights! And the juicy tidbit in that story was that apparently Mel Gibson (he who managed to get his graphic movie about a guy being flogged and tortured for hours shown in churches all over the US, without the help of any major Hollywood distributors!) had actually helped finance this movie (him being Catholic, and Catholics saying they don't have a problem with Evolution - that's how some people tried to explain it)! Wow - would that have blown some fuses in the heads of the church-going fans of Gibson's Passion in the American heartlands!! But, alas, that won't happen, because that news story has been retracted/replaced, with this caveat:


The original article confused the film's distributor, Icon Distribution, with Mel Gibson owed [sic] Icon Productions. The companies use the exact same logo and indeed Icon Distribution was once owned by Gibson. It is no longer. We regret the error.

Huh?! Alrighty then... and so American journalism continues its reverse evolution - but that disease apparently afflicts the British press as well, for the very same Telegraph that lamented the lack of a US distributor for this movie had, two days earlier, published a truly egregious piece of "balanced" reporting about evolution vs. creationism! As for the movie itself, I still haven't seen any official word on how that NBC affiliate's parent company is doing in that "bidding war", nor if indeed there is any such war at all. In fact, their own latest story has no mention of any bidding!! Scores of fans on the movie's Facebook page, meanwhile, are rallying around demanding it be shown here, but who knows if they constitute enough of a market for the bean counters weighing faith-based backlash vs. the box office appeal of a 19th century nerd wrestling with serious scientfic/philosophical issues! Last night, on another media outlet likely genetically linked to the Bay Area station, Rachel Maddow and Kent Jones had probably the funniest take on the saga:



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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Who will dare show this in America?


These are strange and deeply worrisome times for democracy, science, and education in America, once the beacon of those very things which drew people like me from all over the world to its shores. From a global leader for science and free intellectual pursuits, how has America become a place where even one of the most significant scientists in human history is no longer welcome? Not even a biographical film about him! In a week when this country's very own democratically elected President was censored in the nation's public schools and heckled by a congressman, this news should come as no surprise, I suppose:



Creation, starring Paul Bettany, details Darwin's "struggle between faith and reason" as he wrote On The Origin of Species. It depicts him as a man who loses faith in God following the death of his beloved 10-year-old daughter, Annie.


The film was chosen to open the Toronto Film Festival and has its British premiere on Sunday. It has been sold in almost every territory around the world, from Australia to Scandinavia.


However, US distributors have resolutely passed on a film which will prove hugely divisive in a country where, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution.


Movieguide.org, an influential site which reviews films from a Christian perspective, described Darwin as the father of eugenics and denounced him as "a racist, a bigot and an 1800s naturalist whose legacy is mass murder". His "half-baked theory" directly influenced Adolf Hitler and led to "atrocities, crimes against humanity, cloning and genetic engineering", the site stated.


The film has sparked fierce debate on US Christian websites, with a typical comment dismissing evolution as "a silly theory with a serious lack of evidence to support it despite over a century of trying".


Jeremy Thomas, the Oscar-winning producer of Creation, said he was astonished that such attitudes exist 150 years after On The Origin of Species was published.


"That's what we're up against. In 2009. It's amazing," he said.


"The film has no distributor in America. It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the US, and it's because of what the film is about. People have been saying this is the best film they've seen all year, yet nobody in the US has picked it up.


"It is unbelievable to us that this is still a really hot potato in America. There's still a great belief that He made the world in six days. It's quite difficult for we in the UK to imagine religion in America. We live in a country which is no longer so religious. But in the US, outside of New York and LA, religion rules.


"Charles Darwin is, I suppose, the hero of the film. But we tried to make the film in a very even-handed way. Darwin wasn't saying 'kill all religion', he never said such a thing, but he is a totem for people."


Creation was developed by BBC Films and the UK Film Council, and stars Bettany's real-life wife Jennifer Connelly as Darwin's deeply religious wife, Emma. It is based on the book, Annie's Box, by Darwin's great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes, and portrays the naturalist as a family man tormented by the death in 1851 of Annie, his favourite child. She is played in the film by 10-year-old newcomer Martha West, the daughter of The Wire star Dominic West.


Early reviews have raved about the film. The Hollywood Reporter said: "It would be a great shame if those with religious convictions spurned the film out of hand as they will find it even-handed and wise."


Mr Thomas, whose previous films include The Last Emperor and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, said he hoped the reviews would help to secure a distributor. In the UK, special screenings have been set up for Christian groups.


And you thought the money-grubbing, amoral (or immoral), Hollywood movie business loved controversy and liked to make a buck off it whenever it could! Apparently not, if it might irritate a minority (I hope) of religious extremists, America's own Taliban. So a film about Darwin - a long dead and much celebrated scientist - seems much more dangerous to the fabric of this country than Borat! Sigh...

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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Why I am a scientist

Not that I want to make this blog much more autobiographical or self-indulgent (what the hell, its my blog!), but a recent thread on twitter and in the blogosphere, started by Andrew Maynard at 2020Science, with a follow-up by Steven Hill at Testing hypotheses... about how they were inspired to become scientists, has got me reminiscing again about my own sources of inspiration that led to this life in science. I also think my story might be worth sharing because of a background that is rather different from the others mentioned above - so allow me to offer a different view from another part of the world. Here, without further ado, is my list (in not strictly chronological order) of significant influences on the road to becoming a scientist:


  1. Mrs. Menon: my science teacher from ~5th grade on in New English High School in Ulhasnagar, a distant suburb of Bombay. She had a reputation as one of the best teachers in school, and I was really looking forward to being in her science labs. But scientific enlightenment came in a rather opposite way than I (and perhaps she) might have anticipated: not by example of what she knew and taught us, but by the realization during one class that she didn't know (or was confused about?) something quite basic! I remember vividly: she was lecturing us about how "water seeks its own level" with the example of a U-tube filled with water where if you raise one "arm" of the tube, water will appear to rise up that arm and fall down the other arm. Wait... what?! Shouldn't water fall in the arm being raised and rise in the other one to maintain its level? That was what I shot up my arm to ask her and we had a bit of an argument, with the rest of the class on the sidelines. I asked why we don't do the experiment and see what happens - surprisingly, she agreed, and pulled out a rubber u-tube. Of course, the experiment proved me right - and we went on with the rest of the lesson. Why has this incident (almost more than anything else I learned in the 12 years in that school) stayed with me so vividly? Because it shattered my illusion, nurtured in the traditional hierarchical culture of deference to elders and authority still prevalent in India, that these elders/authorities actually knew what they were talking about! They could be so wrong! And little old me could show them how they were wrong - empirically. What an empowering moment for a 10-year old!! In retrospect, it was remarkable the Mrs. Menon even allowed me to challenge her in class and let me conduct an experiment that proved her wrong in front of the whole class. And I still don't know to this day whether she went through the whole thing as a teaching device, to make us think, or if she had simply made a mistake and was sticking to her guns in the heat of the classroom moment when confronted by a student actually paying attention to what she was saying. My ego (and the fact that this was a unique event in all the years in her class) would like to think it was the latter, but as a teacher myself now I wonder if she was wilier than she let on? Either way, thank you Mrs. Menon, wherever you are, for setting me on the path to a life in science!


  2. Charles Darwin. Of course, my students might say, rolling their eyes - but that's not a cliched answer! It was not reading anything Darwin wrote that got me into biology, but the story of his life as novelized by Irving Stone in The Origin which I picked up during college from a second-hand book-stall on the sidewalks of Flora Fountain in Bombay. (And thank you Dad, for alerting me to Stone's work in the first place by recommending his Lust for Life).


  3. Stephen Jay Gould's The Panda's Thumb and other writings. I've gushed a bit about Gould in the recent past so I won't say more.


  4. Libraries! A decent well-stocked public library is practically nonexistent in Indian towns, sadly. But Bombay offered alternatives, and me and my buddies, like so many others of our college generation, made the most of them, spending a lot of time in the very different libraries of the British Council (Darwin, Patrick Moore, Attenborough, Dawkins, and, of course, PGW), American Center (Gould, Sagan, Steinbeck, Asimov, Carson), and Soviet (yes - this was pre-perestroika! Engels, Tolstoy, Mayakovsky). These libraries opened up a whole world of science and wider literature that was largely unknown even to most of my college teachers (sad, but true).


  5. Bombay's infamous local trains! If not for my daily commute from Ulhasnagar to Bombay VT (75-105 min each way depending upon whether I caught the fast or slow local), I never would have had the time to read all those wonderful books, nor ponder the mysteries of the universe!


  6. The Institute of Science, a wonderful place not so much for my professors, but for its amazing library with a century-old collection of books and, more importantly, journals, actual science journals that we could blow the dust off of and marvel at (even if many subscriptions were no longer current). Here I was able to read not just about the discovery of DNA's double-helix structure, but the original Watson & Crick paper too!! The labs were pretty well equipped also with some real research ongoing - this is unusual again in the Indian context, where for most undergrads "science" is stuff you memorize from out-of-date textbooks and hand-me-down notes, rote dissections and lab "experiments" - not something you can, you know, get your hands dirty actually doing!! But this Institute (which, sadly, has walled itself off from undergraduate teaching once again) allowed a bunch of us ne'er-do-well undergrads to run around the labs tinkering with things, building telescopes, and generally having a ball learning to do science on our own.


  7. Peers. And this is another one I want any students reading this to remember - your peers are perhaps the most important component of your learning, especially in science, so surround yourselves with curious, nerdy friends! Although I didn't have any truly inspirational (in the positive sense) science teachers until I reached graduate school, I was lucky enough to find a bunch of fellow-traveler-nerds with whom I shared a natural curiosity about the world and a growing love for science as a way to satisfy that curiosity. Vishy, Pradeep, Rajesh, Ravi, et al (and my sister Vaijoo) - if not for them, I might well have ended up a bank clerk or worse!


  8. Finally, like Maynard, I must also tip my hat to all my school and undergrad science teachers who did their best to beat the curiosity and wide-eyed wonder out of me, to make science dull and tedious, to make me respect authority, to do well on standardized tests, and so help me get into medical school (my parents' ambition which I so utterly failed to fulfill)! And a special bow to the Head of the Biology Department at Ruia College (sorry I can't remember his name, this was in 1987) for taking a half hour of his valuable time trying to talk me out of joining the strange new MSc Wildlife program at the Wildlife Institute of India, to keep me from throwing a promising career away!! Thus, for my ability to withstand all that counter-programming, and persisting in this doomed business of science, I have to give another shout out to Mrs. Menon: thanks again, Ma'am!!



A final note for those of you who've known me since graduate school days and may wonder why I haven't mentioned any influences past 1987: its simple - I was already on the path to becoming a scientist by the time I got to WII. This list is of the signposts that helped me find that path in the first place!


Now, dear reader, how about sharing your own story? How did you become a scientist?

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Saturday, September 5, 2009

American Rubyspot grooming


A beautiful little video of some rather amazing gymnastic maneuvers employed by this American Rubyspot to groom himself. Here's the description from my friend Meena Haribal who filmed the behavior:

A male groomed his body, possibly to rid of parasites such as mites. I personally did not see any mites on him, but I guess he was not taking any chances. He shook his abdomen several times, then cleaned it with his hind legs. Then the hind legs were cleaned by rubbing each other, Eyes and face were also cleaned several times. The forelegs were then cleaned with mouth and mouth was also cleaned as we gargle and brush.

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