Friday, August 04, 2006

Friday Random 10

I'm moving, so there won't be any new posts for at least a week and a half. In the meantime, enjoy my blogroll -- there's lots of good stuff there.
  • Johnny Cash, "Orange Blossom Special"
  • Jo Dee Messina, "That's the Way". Life isn't simple, but you've got to roll with the punches!
  • Bruce Cockburn, "Arrows of Light"
  • Peter, Paul and Mary, "Because All Men are Brothers". An anthem of solidarity.
  • Gloria Gaynor, "I Will Survive". What is it with all the '70s stuff coming up today?
  • Leslie Fish, "PGP". A total nerd song.
  • Collin Raye, "I Can Still Feel You". I like the video for this one.
  • John Denver, "Today". Lovely and gentle.
  • Peter, Paul and Mary. "500 Miles". Slow and very singable.
  • Tim McGraw, "Angry All the Time". Haunting.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Science, Wonder and Creativity

Today, Chaotic Utopia, Creek Running North and The Scientific Activist are all discussing various aspects of the connections between science, art, metaphor and poetry. I wish I had time to post something substantive on this, but I'll have to leave you with a poem and two quotes.

Molecule Moment
by Jane Shevtsov

Earth’s endless life-stuff cycles
-- Sun-energy flows --
make, as an eddy, me

I will someday be over
but flowing cycling
will go on
creating more uniquenesses

I eat, I drink, I breathe
and I excrete,
Life flows through me

i am a part of an immense intelligence
a Life spinning through space

My future, past, and present all connect
to all the Earth
to the whole Universe,
all of the knowledge of which
is required
to truly comprehend
the single cell
of an amoeba
living in my mouth

The Universe is glorious
and all of human artwork,
is inadequate
to capture it.

I know my joy,
my thoughts,
my words.
The name does not matter
Only the acts.
I act
to celebrate,
and prolong Life

I'm a moment for all my molecules

""Spirit" comes from the Latin word "to breathe." What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word "spiritual" that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spiritually. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."
--Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

"Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars -- mere gobs of gas atoms. Nothing is "mere." I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination -- stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern -- of which I am a part -- perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the *why?* It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?"
--Richard P. Feynman

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Science as a Voice of Sanity

Science Magazine is one of the most reliably cosmopolitan publications coming out today. A couple of weeks ago, they printed a letter that seems especially poignant in light of the current madness in the Middle East. Its author responds to an article about collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian scientists. (Access most likely isn't free.) He writes:
In these days of debates on borders that impede the free movement of people--the U.S.-Mexican border, the European Union-African maritime borders, and the Israeli-Palestinian separation wall--Bohannon reminds us that science is an international activity that knows and should know no border.

Scientists understand the importance of the free flow of ideas, knowledge, and professionals. When scientific collaboration is seen as enemy collaborationism, science is losing against confrontational politics. While the battle against terrorism is of great importance, walls and barriers are against the essence of science.

While scientists are not immune to various chauvinisms, many have spoken out for larger loyalties. A couple of years ago, I studied cosmopolitan thought in Cold War America. One of my areas of focus was the attitudes of scientists, as expressed in the front matter of Science. Here are a few representative quotations.

"[S]cience is universal in that its truths are part of the universe accessible to all investigators; ... we gain as much by original discoveries made elsewhere as by those which we make." --Edward U. Condon, physicist, 1948

"We should deplore every display, whether by statesman or journalist, of dunghill courage that lessens the hope of mutual understanding, good-will, and ultimate collaboration among human beings." --Paul B. Sears, conservation scientist, 1958

"[I]nternational groups of scientists seem able to achieve cooperation of great importance when they are free of political entanglements and can act freely with the tropism toward cooperation which is traditional among scientists." --James R. Killian, Jr., former MIT president, 1961

"From a spaceship it is hard to see the logic of political boundaries. A new concept of sovereignty of nations might turn out to be the most important product of joint space stations." --Walter Orr Roberts, atmospheric scientist, 1970

Why is this view so widespread among scientists? Maybe because science studies an external world that exists independently of humans and their divisions. Maybe there is a trace in science of enlightenment universalist ideals. Maybe there are other reasons. Whatever the roots of the connection between science and world citizenship, I hope it leads to real change in the world.

Tangled Bank #59

Check out the new Tangled Bank at Science and Reason.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Blogger After My Own Heart!

I've just discovered Science and sensibility and I like what I see there. Although the blogger, David Winter, is a biochemistry student, he writes about cool things like butterfly biogeography. (I can't remember the last time I saw biogeography in the science blogosphere!) And his front page has a post about fungi, including a very nice photo of Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric. Now, if he'd just do something on food webs...

Monday, July 31, 2006

Let's Go to the Circus!

Circus of the Spineless is up at Words & Pictures. Enjoy the show!

The Parasite Web

Food webs -- diagrams of who eats whom in an ecosystem -- are among the first aspects of ecology that most of us encounter in school. However, much is unknown about the rules governing the structure, formation and dynamics of these networks.

A large part of the reason is that reasonably complete food webs are extremely difficult to produce. A moderately large web can involve from tens to hundreds of species (even though many communities have far more) and it is necessary to trace feeding interactions for every single one of them. This can involve such pleasant tasks as examining the stomach contents of fish -- lots of fish. Tracking the feeding interactions of insects isn't easy either. And parasites, especially those that feed on other parasites? Forget about 'em!

That may not be a good idea, says a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (It is freely available here.) The authors took four published food webs that included parasites and examined the effects of removing them.

While much of the paper is devoted to methodological issues, the bottom line is that parasites are important. "Parasites dominated food web links; on average, a food web contained more parasite–host links than predator–prey links." Including parasites raised food web connectivity, which, computer models suggest, makes extinctions less likely to propagate.

The authors repeatedly return to the question of proper and improper methods of including parasites in food webs. However, I wonder whether they should be included at all. The problem is that many parasites have complex life cycles, requiring several hosts to mature and reproduce. In normal trophic interactions, having more than one food source makes an organism less vulnerable to extinction. But for a parasite, all links may be crucial. In other words, a predator-prey arrow doesn't have exactly the same meaning as a parasite-host arrow. To avoid confusion and develop robust theory, it may be best to distinguish between predator-prey and parasite-host interactions, at least where complex life cycles are involved.


Dunne, Jennifer A., Richard J. Williams and Neo D. Martinez. (2002) Network structure and biodiversity loss in food webs: robustness increases with connectance. Ecology Letters 5:558-567

Lafferty, Kevin D. Andrew P. Dobson and Armand M. Kurls. (2006) Parasites dominate food web links. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103:11211-11216

Healthy Childhood, Healthy Elderhood?

From the Bizarre Connections department: FuturePundit and Aetiology discuss a New York Times article that shows evidence that reducing infectious disease in early childhood may reduce chronic disease in old age.
The biggest surprise emerging from the new studies is that many chronic ailments like heart disease, lung disease and arthritis are occurring an average of 10 to 25 years later than they used to. There is also less disability among older people today, according to a federal study that directly measures it. And that is not just because medical treatments like cataract surgery keep people functioning. Human bodies are simply not breaking down the way they did before.

Sunday, July 30, 2006


There is a truly gorgeous piece of writing at Creek Running North you owe it to yourself to read.
The wind raked her hair — the color of the dried grasses atop the bluff. Eyes the shade of the horizon followed a line from my finger to the rock. Fifteen feet up, emerging, a nest of scallops five million years dead. The next storm will shatter them, an evanscence there with us and over far too soon.