Friday, June 20, 2008

Stephen Jay Gould Documentary

I am currently reading Gould's book, "The Mismeasure of Man" and I posted his and Lewiton's critique of the adaptationist program last quarter to this blog. Along with being an excellent writer and thinker, he apparently was an amazing speaker. I recently found a relatively short documentary of Gould from 1984. I found it quite entertaining, and I hope all of you will as well (some of it seems overly basic as it was surely made for a more general audience than us; just give it a chance). Did I mention he was on the Simpsons?

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Friday, June 6, 2008

Summer reading

As you all disperse to pastures new for the summer, how about a recommended summer reading thread? The only rule is that the books have to be, however tenuously, related to biology.

Add any recommendations by posting a comment on this post (or a new post if you have lots). Thanks to Chris for inspiring this with his recommendation of one of Kurt Vonnegut's last books, Galapagos. Quotes and links are from, a convenient source of information on books even if you don't end up buying them there.

'Serious fans of Vonnegut's wry and ribald prose will welcome this tale of the devolution of superbrained humans into gentle swimmers with small brains, but others may find this Darwinian survival tale too packed with ecological and sociological details that trap the story line in a series of literary devices, albeit very clever ones.'

Discovering Vonnegut used to be a college rite of passage, one that I hope continues.

Another Vonnegut classic is Cat's Cradle which contains the fictional 'Ice-9' - a type of water that is solid at normal temperatures AND converts regular water into the Ice-9 form. This is often used to explain the mechanism of the prion proteins that cause diseases like CJD, BSE and Scrapie.

One of Vonnegut's most entertaining novels, is filled with scientists and G-men and even ordinary folks caught up in the game. These assorted characters chase each other around in search of the world's most important and dangerous substance, a new form of ice that freezes at room temperature. At one time, this novel could probably be found on the bookshelf of every college kid in America; it's still a fabulous read and a great place to start if you're young enough to have missed the first Vonnegut craze.

For light and funny summer reading you can't go far wrong with Christopher Moore. I think everything he has written is worth reading but Fluke has perhaps the most biology links.

Nathan Quinn, a prominent marine biologist, has been conducting studies in Hawaii for years trying to unravel the secret of why humpback whales sing. During a typical day of data gathering, Nate believes his mind is failing: the subject whale has "Bite Me" scrawled across its tail. Events become even stranger as the self-proclaimed "action nerds," Nate, photographer Clay, their research assistant Amy, and Kona, a white Rasta (a Jewish kid from New Jersey), encounter sabotage to their data and equipment. They also observe increasingly bizarre whale behavior, including a phone call from the whale to their wealthy sponsor to ask that Nate bring it a hot pastrami and Swiss on rye, and discover both a thriving underwater city and the secret to what happened to Amelia Earhart.

Many of Christopher Moore's books are set in the fictional Californian town of Pine Cove, which is suspiciously like Cambria.....

Jay Hosler is both a biologist and a talented cartoonist. The Sandwalk Adventures is the story of a conversation about evolution between Charles Darwin and a follicle mite named Mara living in his left eyebrow. If that sounds a bit wacky, it is, but the book is very clear and you'll learn a lot about both Darwin and evolution. You can read about his books and order them, if you are so inspired, at his website. If anyone asks me really nicely and promises to give it back I'll lend you my copy.

For reasons that could take (and probably have taken) a whole thesis to examine, a number of comic book characters regularly cover environmental topics: Swamp Thing, Toxic Avenger, Dr Strange and the Silver Surfer to name just four.

But perhaps the most environmentally conscious 'super hero' is Paul Chadwick's Concrete. In two different graphic novels he addresses first the environmental movement as a whole (particularly the
more radical side) and then he takes on population growth (again addressing some of the more radical viewpoints). In both books, the readers responses give valuable additional viewpoints.

Japanese comics have also covered environmental issues. Perhaps the best example is Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. I don't think I could begin to summarize the story. Oh, go on then: Joan of Arc like character helps defend people and planet, including lots of giant insects and toxic fungi, from warring factions. The story is collected in a 7 volume set or you can rent the movie, based around the first two books, by fimmaker and illustrator Hayao Miyazaki.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Jatropha weed is a possible candidate for jet fuel

This article in the LA Times caught my eye. Jatropha is an ugly weed that grows in warm environments around the world. It can be grown anywhere, doesn't need much water or fertilizer, is not edible (in fact, is poisonous) and it produces half of the carbon emissions of fossil fuels. It costs a third of the price per barrel of standard crude oil (as of Wednesday night...) and is incredibly fast-growing. Basically, it looks like this stuff has the potential to save the dying airline industries. Of course, we've all heard that before...

Agronomists from the Hawaii Agricultural Research Center are working with Boeing engineers to find the most efficient processes to convert this potent oil into jet fuel.

Oh, and an Air New Zealand Boeing 747 will soon take a test flight using this fuel, cross your fingers...

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Cars, Cows, and Checkerspot Butterflies

Here is a link to the paper I mentioned in class that investigates the effects of N-deposition on serpentine grassland communities. You can also read about how N-deposition from air pollution is changing other ecosystems, including coastal sage scrub in southern California, and desert scrub in the Mojave, by allowing invasion of non-native annual grasses, which are in turn altering fire regimes. These are great examples of the complex interactions ecologists investigate and the challenges faced by ecosystem managers.

Biosensors for the Diagnosis of Infectious Disease

I know that next week is finals but I thought this looked interesting:

The first seminar in the UCSB Engineering and the Sciences & Cottage Health System seminar series is scheduled to take place next Wednesday evening. The talks will highlight the impact that UCSB research breakthroughs have on pressing needs in the biomedical field.

Title: Biosensors for the Diagnosis of Infectious Disease
Wednesday June 11, 2008
5:00 - 6:30pm
Engineering Science Building (ESB) 1001

Dr. Kevin Plaxco, Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, UCSB
Title of talk: Better Living through Biosensors

Dr. Stephen Hosea, Director of Clinical Care, Internal Medicine,
Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital
Title of talk: The Need for Speed in Diagnosing Infectious Diseases

Are you Genetically More Likely to Vote?

I thought that this article from the New York Times might be applicable given that voting day was yesterday. Could it be that there is a genetic component to voting? I hope you all went to the polls!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Biosphere 2

I looked for a better source but it looks like Wikipedia really does have the best general overview of the Biosphere 2 project. It's all there, the cult, the feuds and the failures. There's a short video on the Wikipedia page and another couple of videos on this 'On this day in video' page. It's now run by the University of Arizona and is, apparently, 'where science lives'.

Monday, June 2, 2008


I can't remember where I first saw Edward Burtynsky's Shipbreaking photographs but these haunting images have stayed with me. The one reproduced above looks like a scene from the Trojan war but these are in fact some of the world's largest ships being disassembled, largely by hand, in some of the world's poorest countries. The scenes Burtynsky shot were in Chittagong, Bangladesh but similar scenes can be found at Alang, India.

Following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 there has been increased pressure to phase out the vulnerable single-hulled ships and replace them with safer double-hulled tankers. This might seem like a good idea but the problem comes about when the old ships are broken up. A single oil tanker can contain literally tons of toxic material (eg 7000 kg of asbestos) and in Chittagong and Alang, the workers have virtually no protection from toxic, and other, hazards, and the waste itself often ends up on the beach or in the ocean.

A series of articles on the international shipbreaking industry by Gary Cohn and Will Englund of The Baltimore Sun won a Pulitzer prize in 1998 and you can read the series here. The article on Alang is perhaps the most relevant. More recently in 2006 Foreign Policy magazine had a short photo essay on the ship breaking beaches of Chittagong.

I think the sad moral of this story is that one apparently simple change (a move to safer ships) can create a toxic nightmare in a number of poor countries. Cleaning up this mess (literal and metaphorical) isn't going to be easy. This sort of consequence very much reminds me of the ecological consequences we see when we mess around with food webs by introducing alien species or driving species to extinction. There. I made it relevant right at the end.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Most obvious nickname ever...

When we went to watch Chris running on the treadmill at Rob Gym Vincenzo asked what the fastest speed anyone could run at was. Well the answer just changed (albeit only very, very slightly). Usain 'lightning' Bolt, a 21 year old Jamaican, is now officially the fastest man in the world with a time of 9.72 for the 100m in New York last night. Since 1 m/s = 2.237 mph that means Usain was doing 10.28 m/s or 23.01mph, just a hair over the previous record of 9.74 or 22.98 mph.

In a slight complexity there is just one person, Michael Johnson, who ran at a faster average speed for 200m (the world record of 19.32 s or 10.35 m/s or 23.15 mph). This is because of the fixed costs of the slow start. Sprinters probably accelerate up to maximum speed within 60m and then are gradually slowing down. Due to this fact the world record speeds for 100m and 200m are always similar. The instantaneous speed reached is not measured as a matter of course but 10m split times for the 100m and radar gun data suggest that humans can reach instantaneous speeds of almost 12 m/s which would be in excess of 25 mph. If there was a regular 140m or 150m event I imagine the world land speed record would be set over that distance.

That's still slower than a hippopotamus.....