Thursday, March 29, 2007

Some stories what I wrote, and one that I didn't

I'm working for news@nature for a few weeks, so I haven't had a chance to write much stuff for El Gentraso.

What I have written is a story about what the direction a dog's tail wag means, one about 'semi-identical' twins', both of which were subsequently picked up (i.e. copied) elsewhere.

I found them, not by any particular piece of investigative brilliance, but by looking at journal tables of contents. As a science journalist, if you look beyond the press releases on sites like Eurekalert and Alphagalileo, you'll often find that you've got no company.

The twins story, in particular excited a rush of comments to Nature's newsblog, mainly from people who thought they were, or had had, semi-identical twins. But probably aren't/haven't.

Not that incentives for good practice should be necessary, but writing for online is a useful reminder of what people might make of your stories - it's always sobering to see the expressions of hope that come in after any story on a potential cure for a disease or disability, however caveat-laden the story.

More recently, I've written about cane toad distribution and mammal evolution.

So doing all that has prevented me from blogging about John Lanchester's masterly essay on climate change in the LRB. This has one of the best intros I've seen in a long time:

It is strange and striking that climate change activists have not committed any acts of terrorism. After all, terrorism is for the individual by far the modern world’s most effective form of political action, and climate change is an issue about which people feel just as strongly as about, say, animal rights. This is especially noticeable when you bear in mind the ease of things like blowing up petrol stations, or vandalising SUVs. In cities, SUVs are loathed by everyone except the people who drive them; and in a city the size of London, a few dozen people could in a short space of time make the ownership of these cars effectively impossible, just by running keys down the side of them, at a cost to the owner of several thousand pounds a time. Say fifty people vandalising four cars each every night for a month: six thousand trashed SUVs in a month and the Chelsea tractors would soon be disappearing from our streets. So why don’t these things happen? Is it because the people who feel strongly about climate change are simply too nice, too educated, to do anything of the sort? (But terrorists are often highly educated.) Or is it that even the people who feel most strongly about climate change on some level can’t quite bring themselves to believe in it?

It makes you think (and tempts you to act). My guess is that most people don't like doing violence, to property or people, and that we shy away from escalating a confrontation, usually for good reason. Maybe that's another word for cowardice, or apathy, though.

I don't bandy the words 'essential reading' about much, but I'd say that this is. The one thing I might take issue with is Lanchester's approving words on James Lovelock's advocacy of nuclear power.

I don't have an issue with nuclear power per se, and I think it should probably be in our energy portfolio. But George Monbiot's 'Heat' argues that, in practical terms, building a new generation of power stations would take so long that it's not a quick fix - we might as well go all out for renewables and carbon sequestration - and that energy efficiency gives the best return in carbon-saved-per-pound-spent.

One's always tempted to find rational arguments to support things you emotionally favour, but Monbiot makes an effort to do his sums - and also shows that no one really knows what's what when it comes to how we're going to get our energy.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

One of the best things about being a science writer...

Is sitting down on a Monday, and turning out a story about something that, that morning, you knew less than nothing about - the 248-dimensional exceptional Lie group E8. And then coming in on Tuesday and writing a story about a burrowing dinosaur. Who knew?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Oekologie #3

Here beginneth the third edition of the Oekologie blog carnival. Thank you everyone who took the time to send in posts. It was great to receive such a diverse bunch — we've got just about every group of organism and every part of the world represented, at scales ranging from the global to the backyard, and addressing just about every issue you can think of. So here we go…

Crime! Julie from The Human Flower Project has sent in a cool story on the banning of the Hungarian hovirag harvest. The hovirag is a snowdrop, sold in Hungary as a mark of coming spring, but now grievously over-picked (and with a street value somewhat greater than crack, apparently). The flower is also the source of the protein that, put into to GM potatoes, led to the controversy around the experiments by (Hungarian-born) Arpad Puzstai.

Deceit! GrrlScientist at Living the Scientific Life posts on a neat piece of mimicry — the moth that pretends to be a jumping spider.

Pestilence! Jennifer Forman Orth at the Invasive Species Weblog reports on beech bark disease, which involves an invasive insect infesting the tree, which leads to a fungal infection, which leads to trouble.

Meanwhile, showing that not you don't need to cross an international borders to be an invasive species, Paul Decelles at The Force that Through… points the finger at red cedar, a native of the eastern US now making trouble further west. And then defends his position.

Goats! Aydin at Snail's Tales discusses the impact of goats on the past and future vegetation of the Mediterranean. "If we want to return at least some of the land to its original, pre-grazing, pre-human state, the goats must go," he says.

The Mediterranean is interesting because it has diverse plant life, even though it has seen millennia of heavy human impact, suggesting that the plants have coevolved with people and their animals. (This has also equipped Mediterranean plants to do well in places like California and Australia.) But, of course, whether this flora was in place before people showed up — and if not, what was — is another matter.

That's enough exclamation marks.

Fish: Stephen Leahy at, um, Stephen Leahy points us to his story discussing the concept of peak fish — global catches have levelled off (not sure what's happened to global fishing effort, but it seems unlikely to have fallen), and may soon start falling.

Another option for providing seafood is fish farming. The US government has proposed to extend fish farming into federal waters, 3 to 200 miles offshore. But Lish at Science Ripsaw is worried it that this would deplete nutrients and increase pollution.

Oil: Tom Elko at Sky Blue Waters reports on the concerns around the environmental impact and property rights issues of the MinnCan pipeline. If built (which is looking likely) it would carry crude oil from Canadian oil sands (which are environmental and carbon-emissions bad news in themselves) to refineries in Minnesota.

Milk(weed): Miconia at A Neotropical Savanna meditates on Asclepia.

I know it's not a very scientific reaction, but…

Eeuuw: GrrlScientist reports on a blind, cave-dwelling Madagascan snake (that looks like a worm), rediscovered more than 100 years after the last known specimens were collected. They avoid the light, and sniff out their prey — the eggs and larvae of ants and termites.

Eeuuw II: The pygmy-hog-sucking louse (as a part-time copyeditor and punctuation geek, I place those hyphens with some confidence). Sticking up for the bloodsuckers at Endangered Ugly Things, Garfman makes the excellent point that every large, cuddly and charismatic species in danger of extinction also has (probably several) parasites that depend on it for their own survival. Coendangered is the technical term, apparently.

Mangroves: On the Ecological Society of America's blog, Edward Barbier has posted an authoritative guide to the issues surrounding the loss and restoration of mangrove forests, particularly regarding their ability to buffer against storm and tsunami damage.

Barbier — who has done lots of research into the interactions between development, mangroves and ecosystem services (the mangroves usually come off worse) — argues that the debate around the benefits and costs of replanting, that have followed from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, is oversimplified.

Cheetahs: Over at Laelaps, Brian Switek highlights something that was new to me — Iranian cheetahs. Brian writes about the Wildlife Conservation Society's work to conserve this population.

(This also made me intrigued about another thing I know nothing about — what issues a US conservation organizations faces when it works in Iran — in terms of dealing with both the Iranian and US governments.)

Bats: Jennifer Pinkley at The Infinite Sphere discusses how the eastern pipistrelle's more catholic taste in habitat and roosts has made it "more adaptable to changing environmental pressures" than its close relative the gray myotis.

Microbes: Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock alerts us to PLoS Biology's glut of papers on ocean microbial diversity (i.e. metagenomics). This is way-cool stuff right now (see also previous post on this blog).

Semantics: Matt at the Behavioral Ecology blog has sent in a post entitled 'Is rape adaptive?', which also discusses whether 'rape' is a good word to apply to forced copulations in (non-human) animals. The consensus appears to be not and, although I usually favour strong words and try to avoid jargon, I agree.

Celebrity: Mike at 10,000 birds muses on the ethics of twitching, and the motivations of twitchers. Naturalists, paparazzi, rubberneckers, or all of the above?

Memories: for me at least, with Jeremy Bruno, and the Voltage Gate's guide to tropical dry forest.

Jeremy mentions Guanacaste in Costa Rica, conservation success story (thanks to the idea of introducing large domestic herbivores to do the seed-dispersal job once done my extinct species), macroecological hotspot, and a place I visited while researching ITBOAH (I had to get a mention in somewhere). One of the remarkable things about Costa Rica is that this forest is about half-an-hour's drive from cloud forest containing a totally different set of species.

Global: John Feeny at Growth is Madness! muses on whether spreading the news that we're in the middle of the earth's sixth mass extinction since the Cambrian will help turn people on to conservation.

And Vbecer00 at Reconciliation Ecology also touches on the issue of how you get people to care in his/her post on, well, just about every issue in conservation — why do it, how to do it, and how to make it work.

Local: Join Dave Bonta at Via Negativa for a walk in the snow in Plummer's Hollow, and benefit from his sharp eyes. The man knows his neighbourhood, and his shrews.

Or, you could visit Wayne at Niches, and read his reports on the effects of heavy rains on the creeks on his property in Athens, Georgia.

And finally….

Personals: Johan Stenberg is in Sweden, feeling lonely. Cheer Johan up and join his journal club on insect-plant ecology, at (where else but the) Insect-Plant Ecology blog.

So there you have it. Oekologie — opening your minds, grossing you out, winding you up, bringing you together. Thanks again, and be sure to check out the next edition in a month's time on the Behavioral Ecology Blog.

We are family

This week's Nature is a special issue for Linnaeus' 300th birthday, and I've got a feature($) in it looking at what genomics has done for the Linnaean project, in terms of working out the tree of life (and what evolutionary biology can do for genomics). The field is called phylogenomics. One of the surprising things I found when researching this was how uncertain things still are - we have no idea how many of the animal phyla relate to one another, for example.

I'm also talking with Henry Nicholls and Kerri Smith about this on the Nature podcast, recorded at the Natural History Museum in London. Henry has a feature about Linnaeus' raccoon, and has achieved full-spectrum science media dominance by also having a feature($) on metagenomics in today's New Scientist.

Jonathan Eisen's blog is a good place to find out about both phylo- and metagenomics.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A quick toot on my own trumpet

Library Journal has just named ITBOAH as one of the best science books of 2006. Picket your local college or public library now, demanding that they buy at least one copy.


The Scientist has a big ol' article, with a fine typo in the last paragraph, on West, Brown, Enquist and their metabolic theory. It's particularly good on recent historical and biographical detail, although a little sketchier on how the idea works, and what else it might apply to besides metabolism.

And I would take issue with the statement that temperature is a "variable necessary to explain the 3/4 scaling of metabolic rates across organisms". It's not, it's an additional variable that explains some of the variation in metabolic rates (between say, reptiles, birds, and mammals, all of which have different body temperatures) not accounted for by size-based 3/4-power scaling.

The article also shows how some of the disagreements about the theory come from differing expectations and goals. WBE are after a theory that gives an abstract, approximate, first-order account of the underlying structure of organisms and ecosystems.

Confronted with Helen Muller-Landau's data on forest population biology that contradicts their predictions they say, well, ok, it shows something else must be going on. Much as, if you see a planet that doesn't follow its predict orbit, you look for something else influencing it before you junk gravity (not that I am saying metabolic theory is as well-established as gravity). Muller-Landau and others, however, see deviation as disproof.

It's a difference partly of philosophy. But it also shows the genuine uncertainty about when you decide that just because a theory can't predict everything doesn't mean it's wrong (as Michael Ruse has written, natural selection's failures are a sign of its strength), and when you decide it's wrong.

WBE's metabolic model is too powerfully predictive, and its foundations make too good sense, to be junked yet. In fact, it seems to be popping up more and more - I have recently spoken to fisheries and foodweb researchers who are using it.

I would also say that people tend not to change their minds, regardless of what data or theory say. A scientific field's centre of gravity depends on when people retire and who gets their job, as much as it does on dialectic.

(The Scientist has published a couple of previous things on metabolic scaling and so on: here and here.)