31 July 2012

Tuesday Crustie: Beast mode!

I’ve been watching Beast Wars: Transformers on Netflix recently, a show which featured this crab-inspired Predacon...

Rampage, also known as “Protoform X.”

For the record, Beast Wars: Transformers was better written than any toy-based Saturday morning cartoon had any right to expect.

Picture from here.

30 July 2012

“Student friendly”

I often hear colleagues extolling the virtues of taking undergraduates and beginning grad students to “student friendly” conferences.

What does that even mean?

I have never seen any conference that was unfriendly to students, except for the price of admission and the cost of travelling to the conference. At every conference I have seen or been to, students have been treated well. The younger the student, the more likely they are to be encouraged and congratulated for showing up and presenting (if they are). Has anyone been to a conference where students are treated badly?

The first conference I went to was a national meeting; Animal Behavior Society meeting in Montana, as I remember. It was a confidence booster, because as I listened to presentations, I heard other people in the room asking questions that I was thinking in my head. My questions were not out of the ballpark. Some conversations I had over meals were also good for similar reasons. These helped me realize that I was on the same playing field as the other attendees.

As far as I can tell, “student friendly” seems to be code for “small, local, and cheap.” And that usually means it has a limited scope in terms of the presenters, the research shown, and the opportunities for students to network.

Students should be taken to “the big show,” early and often. They need to see the full range of current science. They need to field questions from all sides, from people with different intellectual backgrounds and different kinds of institutions.

Additional, 4 August 2012: The Singular Scientist has a post looking at student experiences at a conference.

26 July 2012

Mentoring in a minute?

At the Gulf Coast Summer Institute last week, we talked a bit about mentoring at the end of the week. We had this case study:

An undergraduate student comes into a lab for a summer project. For the sake of argument, let’s assume this is a standard sort of undergrad research experience project lasting ten weeks, with a student coming in from another institution.

The undergraduate is paired with a senior graduate student. The undergraduate wants to do a molecular biology project. The grad student and her professor decide it is too far beyond the skills of the undergraduate, too unlikely to yield anything productive, and give the undergraduate a microbiology project instead. The undergrad sulks and does sub-par work, because he is not doing the sort of project he wanted to do.

(There were a lot of “sulky undergraduates” in the case studies were saw listed, actually.)

The questions were things like, should the student be put on a different project? They were legitimate questions, but I was interested the case study implied that the grad student / post doc in this case was a mentor to the undergraduate.

From my perspective, this was not a mentoring problem. This was a management problem.

If there was any mentoring going on in that case study, it would have been between the professor and the graduate student. But as presented, it didn’t sound like even that was happening.

“Mentoring” has become overused in academic circles, because mentoring is seen as a good thing. Which it is. But it does not cover all supervisory interactions between more senior and more junior individuals. I was a little flabbergasted when one person said:

Mentoring can be a sentence.

I disagree. Saying one sentence is not even close to being mentoring, no matter how insightful that one sentence may be. To me, mentoring is a long term professional relationship. When I think about people who I consider mentors, or people who I think I have mentored, those are all people that I knew and worked with for at least a year. Most were several years of continual, regular, face to face contact and discussion.

You can’t become a mentor to a student who you have never met before and who you will only work with for ten weeks. You can supervise. You can manage. You can instruct. You can teach. These are important skills; some of them overlap with mentoring. But supervising someone is not necessarily mentoring them, although it may develop into a proper mentoring relationship – indeed, the hope is that it will. You can stay in contact with that summer student, monitor their progress, and continue to give advice. That’s being a mentor.

If you want to be a mentor, or see someone you want as a mentor, you have to be in it for the long haul.

Additional: Comments coming in on Twitter...

Physicist Lisa:

At least those 10 week students got a graduate student assigned to them. I was not as lucky... My experience that that anyone who claimed they were interested in mentoring me as an undergrad was interested in free bitch work.

Rebecca Deatsman:

When I did summer research as an undergrad, my faculty “mentor” was out of the country and unreachable almost the whole time.

Ugh. Yeah

25 July 2012

The privilege of place: how far will you go?

How far willing you go for your career?

I don’t mean, “What immoral or illegal activities would you engage in?” I mean, how far are you willing to move. Across a province? Cross country? To a different country overseas where you have no ties, no citizenship? To a small city in the middle of [curse word] nowhere?

I don’t know how much academics should be expected to move.

On the one hand, moving is always disruptive and painful. And it gets harder as you go on. You’re more likely to have family, and just more stuff to move.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s reasonable for someone to expect to be able to do a Ph.D. in their backyard.

Academics is hardly the only career where your options are going to be limited if you don’t want to move. For example, when I’m advising students, and they ask me, “What can I do with a degree in biology?”, my response is, “Is you question, ‘What can I do with a degree in biology?’ or ‘What can I do with a degree in biology here in the region?’ The answers to those questions are not the same.

“If you want to be an actor, your options are going to be very different if you are willing to move to New York or Los Angeles than if you’re not willing to move.”

I’m a small town prairie boy. When I went to my undergraduate institution, it was clear that my instructors were not locals. One of my professors said academics were “the last nomads.” This put it into my head early that moving around was expected in this career. Somewhere along the way, I realized that it was entirely possible that I was not going to be able to pick where I was going to live if I wanted to continue on this career path.

For me, the chance to live in different places around the world has been one of the best things about being a scientist. Living in Victoria, MontrĂ©al, and Melbourne were great experiences. I am so convinced of the value of this that I tell people, “Everyone should live outside their own country for at least a year.”

Some people, through accidents of circumstance, are privileged to pursue academic careers without having to move very much. Like most forms of privilege, complaining about the prospect of moving sounds can sound awfully petty to those without it.

Related posts

Are scientists lonely?

External links

Work-life balance: you keep using those words...

Photo  by East Georgia College on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license/

24 July 2012

Tuesday Crustie: Rastaman

A juvenile Gnathia marleyi, a recently described isopod from the Caribbean. The specific name was supposed to be in honor of Bob Marley... but! As the Parasite of the Day blog explains, the authors may have been too clever for their own good and made the name invalid.

Additional, 13 August 2012: The Parasite of the Day post has gone missing. It was there; see Tommy Leung’s mention of it on Google Plus. The basic claim was that the species name had been mentioned in a previous paper, which did not have a complete formal description of the isopod. And that is against the rules for naming animals. It is a nomen nudum, in the technical lingo.

External links

NSF press release

23 July 2012

Travel: TARFU

Last Friday was the last day of the Gulf Coast Summer Institute, an teaching workshop. It was a very enjoyable week that ended at mid-day. I was looking forward to going home after a week away.

But getting home proved to be a trial. Almost everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.

There were only three people from the workshop that were flying out, and two were from my institution. We went to the airport early so that the third flying participant could catch her flight. When we checked in, my colleague Erin noted that our flight, which was not due for several hours yet, was already showing as “delayed.”

Not good. We had a very short layover scheduled in Houston, and a delay meant we would almost certainly miss our flight back to South Texas. Erin sensibly suggested we try to get on an earlier flight to Houston.But that flight was sold out, so we got issued stand-by tickets. Unluckily for us, no seats opened up at the last minute.

The second flight – the one were were supposed to be on in the first place – did not show up on time. At this point, we’re getting nervous because there is only one more flight out of Baton Rouge this evening, scheduled to come in about an hour later. The airline service guy announces that they are going to combined all the passengers from our “missing” flight and the later one. They have enough room, so that’s fine – except we will almost certainly miss our connecting flight.

Even this third combined flight comes in and leaves a little late. After the short flight to Houston, we land... and the pilot informs us that there is no gate open for us. We are stuck on the runway waiting for a gate to open up for another half hour or so. While we had long given up on making our connecting flight, others on the plane could have made it if they had gone into the gate right after landing. (Afterwards, we saw the pilot tearing a strip out of the ground crew for not having a gate available.)

I check the departure lists for any flights to the valley. McAllen? No. Harlingen? No. Brownsville? No. The last flights from Houston were all gone.

Erin refused to spend the night in the airport, so we set off to the shuttle to the rental car building. Erin and I have a discussion about which agency to try, and I suggest one that I know has a centre in Edinburg.

We go to them, and they’re out of cars.

I say again: a car rental place. Out of cars.

We try car rental agency number 2. There is only one person behind the desk, and he seems intent on giving his current customers the absolute best service ever. In other words, he is taking forever. I think he was trying to see the guy some sort of lifetime membership, or something. A single car should not have taken that long. After a few minutes of standing around and seeing zero indication that he’s going to wind it up and get to answering our question, time to try again.

Erin goes to try rental agency #3. They will only do round-trip rentals. We’d have to bring the car back to Houston airport, and that’s not happening. (Agent behind the desk at #2 is still engaged with his first customers.) Denied again.

Agency #4 finally hits all the boxes: they have cars, and they’re willing to rent to us. And this is almost perfect except... Erin only has a debit card with her, not a credit card. And this means that she is not allowed to drive the car. So I have to drive this late night, early morning trek from Houston to the Rio Grande Valley alone, with no switching between us.

Fortunately, once we finally get into our rental (a nice little Kia), and only get slightly turned around trying to leave Houston, the trip back is not so bad. Apart from being the middle of the night after a week of less than great sleep. We finally roll home after at about 4:30 in the morning.

And I knew, just knew, my stupid circadian rhythm would be going, “Hey, it’s morning! Time to wake up!” I only got about three hours sleep before waking up again...

At least I got a story to tell out of it.

20 July 2012

What's next for scientific teaching?

I've been in Baton Rouge all this week at a biology teaching workshop. It’s nice once in a while to think about nothing else but how to improve teaching.

These workshops are based on scientific teaching workshops that were developed at the Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching. Several are held around the country,and they are all apparently closely built on each other. I get the impression that they are meant to follow much the same structure.

I’ve been surprised by the absence of some concepts.

A big chunk of the material about teaching focuses on the constructivist theory of education. This says that students build new knowledge on their existing knowledge. The material emphasizes over and over again that students can have misconceptions in their existing knowledge that can impede their learning new knowledge. There are a lot of examples from physics. People intuitively think that heavier objects fall faster than light ones, and this makes it very difficult to learn that once you remove air resistance, they all fall at the same rate. When you ask students to solve problems, they tend to fall back on their intuitive assumptions.

The coursework discusses many tips for exposing those unstated misconceptions that students might have. But the advice kind of stops there. The presumption is that students want to be rid of these misconceptions.

The next step is to talk about motivated reasoning (which Chris Mooney has been writing about for a few years, culminating in The Republican Brain). Students will not necessarily view their misconceptions as misconceptions. They won’t automatically change when confronted with a contradiction. They will rationalize and fight like hell to keep that existing belief.

In other words, what do you do with a student who is not motivated to learn? This is not just an issue of motivated reasoning, but in general. Can you make people care? I’m not sure that I always can motivate someone by the time they’re in university.

There was a lot of useful material on how students study, and what is effective at studying. One of the surprises to me was how utterly ineffective the most common study tool is: re-reading notes. I would have liked to seen some ideas on how to find the “one trial learning” situations. I am convinced some stories do this. I think there are some questions that do this. “An acorn is tiny. An oak is big. Where does all the mass come from?” Very few students say, “The air,” which is correct. But I only had to hear that question once to remember it. Why is that question so sticky that I never needed to study it?

Another “I wish they’d gone further” moment was in a session on diversity. In a workshop exercise, the concept of stereotype threat came up. This was good, as some people hadn't heard about it. But there was no mention of recent papers showing effective techniques to combat stereotype threat (writing short essays about what you value about your background and culture). Heck, there is an entire website devoted to the topic.

Finally, I was surprised again when one of the lead instructors started talking about the importance of diversity because... according to the President, we need a million more scientists. I said, “Did you see the front page story on The Washington Post a week or so ago? You’re really telling me with a straight face that there’s a scientific workforce shortage?”

This was the diversity section, so this was a tangent, and we weren’t able to pursue it very long. But I wasn’t crazy about the two defenses to the “moar science” claim. The first was, “Maybe there are no jobs now because we didn’t train enough scientists, so all those jobs went overseas because of the shortage.” I don’t think the patterns of employment for scientists bear that out at all. Competition for science positions have been tough for decades now.

The second response was, “But it’s still good to be trained in science!” Yes, people with science doctorates have low unemployment. But they could probably do the jobs they’re now doing without having spent the better part of a decade, if not more than a decade, getting a doctorate, post-doctoral work, etc., to be trained as a working scientist - which is what they set out to do in the first place.

19 July 2012

Say it!

A student asks you a question about something that you have been discussing in class. Let's say it's about some species that you discuss fairly regularly; Arabidopsis, maybe.

The question is coming out fine, until the student tries to say, "Arabidopsis". And it comes out sounding more like, "A rabid dope fiend." (Would love to hear examples of mangled pronunciations in the comments.)

How many of you teachers recognize that behavior? They've heard you say it dozens, perhaps hundreds of times. Why do they stumble over the word when they try to say it themselves?

I think this is a nice example of how we tend to neglect the importance of the physicality of learning something. We don't expect to learn any physical movement very well by watching it. Who can juggle after watching someone else do it? Only someone with superpowers.

Like juggling, saying words out loud is a physical thing: a complex coordinated movement of muscles and bone. It's no wonder people have to practice pronunciation.

In your classes, when do students get the chance to say the tricky words out loud, to someone who can correct them? Particularly big introductory classes?

I'm at a teaching workshop this week. Just being in an environment where you're thinking about almost nothing else, ideas bubble up about what students do, even when these are not issues being discussed in the workshop.

18 July 2012

Vendor venting

Why do scientific supply companies’s websites have to be so bad?

Trying to find anything on them is an excruciating experience.

Let’s compare your typical shopping experience at an online electronics store. You can drill down to find products by a particular maker, that have certain features, or are within your price range.

This ability to drill down is even more important in scientific equipment, as there are often more options, and it's more critical to meet certain criteria. But go looking for dissecting scissors, and you can't even sort out which ones have straight blades or curved. You have to go through them one at a time.

However, since the website is built on a more standard commerical model, you can sort by the number of ratings or average ratings. Because academics just love to rate glassware. "It was so transparent! Five stars!"

17 July 2012

Tuesday Crustie: A young Palawan

ResearchBlogging.orgThis lovely crab, Insulamon palawanense, made some news a few months back.

The name refers to the Greater Palawan in the Philippines, where this and four other new species were discovered. For those not familiar with Philippine provinces, it’s this one:

View Larger Map

Insulamon palawanense is the most common of the species belonging to this genus. Hard to believe something this brought could be overlooked for so long!

Freitag H. 2012. Revision of the gnus Insulamon Ng & Takeda, 1992 (Crustacea: Decapoda: Potamidae) with description of four new species. The Raffles bulletin of Zoology 60(1): 37-55. http://rmbr.nus.edu.sg/rbz/biblio/60/60rbz037-055.pdf

Hat tip to Jerry Coyne.

16 July 2012

Blogging expertise

In a conversation over the weekend, I was asked what made for an “expert blogger.” These are the things that spring to mind.

The first, and most obvious, was writing ability. Blogging is mainly a written medium, and the most successful bloggers can turn in some sparkling prose.

I can’t figure out a better way to phrase the second, so I’ll call it the ability to push people’s buttons. Some of the best bloggers seem to deliberately aim for topics and ways of expressing themselves that get people going. Some rile people up; others make them laugh. The best are rarely working on a purely intellectual level.

The third was reliability. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your post is if I’m only seeing one post every few months. Consistent posting goes a long way in establishing credibility,

Finally, expert bloggers are community building. The best bloggers link out to other blogs, leave comments, get comment threads going, and support fellow bloggers, not just spruik their own.

Additional, 18 August 2012: This blog post at Pharyngula is on the mark:

I’ve been at it for about ten years, with my share of controversy, and none of it really contributes to long-term growth: not Expelled, not the cracker, not every little sudden surge from Reddit and Fark and Digg. Those give little bursts of attention from people who weren’t interested in your blog in the first place; they visit to see the source of all the commotion, and then they leave.

What makes a blog grow is 1) regular updates, 2) consistent themes, 3) maintaining the attention of other blogs out there, 4) cultivation of an interactive readership that adds value to your blog, and 5) time (slow steady growth is best, and it can’t by definition happen overnight). Probably also good writing, but I wouldn’t know much about that, and I’ve also seen some gloriously well-written blogs that idle along with light traffic because they ignore my top 5 suggestions.

Substantial overlap in our lists. Interesting.

I think my biggest problem with this blog is maintaining consistency (Myers’s second point). I think this is why Better Posters is a more successful venture.

Comments for first half of July, 2012

Jeremy at A Taste for Desert Landscapes examines opinions about evolution.

Should the original arsenic life paper be retracted? David Sanders, guest blogging at Retraction Watch, says yes. I’m not so sure.

Meanwhile, Rosie Redfield brands some initial responses of NASA representatives as “cowardly.”

I make a cameo in Bora Zivcovik’s massive history of science blogging.

Hook and Eye bemoans very long lead times in publishing papers.

DrugMoneky asks if you are a better scientist than the people who trained you.

Is it ever worth it to publish in a journal that has been called “predatory”? Hird looks at the issue in Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! Be sure to check the follow-up, too.

Soapbox Science has recommendations to keep women in science.

14 July 2012

Before I hit the road

I’ll be in Baton Rouge this coming week, where I am attending a teaching workshop. My students better not be doing this unless they are willing to take video of it.

My current master’s student will not be my master’s student for much longer, as she successfully defended her thesis last week. Hooray!

My most recent paper on whether Japan could be a haven for Marmorkrebs has achieved a“Heavily accessed” button. So keep reading!

13 July 2012

You can hide those lying eyes

Near the end of the second season of the TV show Prison Break (Episode 15: “The Message”), there was a bit where two escapees release a taped confession.

The authorities start examining the tape, paying particular attention to the way the eyes of the people in the tape are moving. When Lincoln Burrows says, “I was sentenced to death for a crime I did not commit. I did not murder Terrance Stedman,” he glances up and left. There,” one investigators says. “The eyes. See them?” Another says a moment later, with some confidence, “He’s lying.”

ResearchBlogging.orgOh, television, you led me wrong again.

The notion that eye movements are particularly revealing about people’s thought processes appears to trace back to neurolinguistic programming. This is a discipline that I’ve heard other people refer to occasionally, and I got the impression it had enthusiastic devotees outside the scientific community and effectively no support within the scientific community.

A new paper by Wiseman and colleagues indicates that my impression was not far off the mark. The paper takes aim at the notion that you can infer anything about whether someone is telling the truth by watching their eye movements.

You can’t.

The new paper has three experiments, but the first one is key.

People in the experiment were told either to tell the truth or lie up front. They went into an office came out, and were filmed asking three questions about stuff in the desk drawer of the office they were in. Then, the video recordings were watched and coded for eye movements. The eye movements were not correlated with whether the person told the truth or not.

Are we done here? Well, not quite. The second experiment looked at real time judgments, rather than video analysis, as neurolinguistic programming says lie detection can be done “live.” Unsurprisingly, doing it on the fly is not more accurate than detailed frame-by-frame analysis.

The third experiment tried to get away from the lab setting. After all, one might argue that the effect might not be seen in a relatively safe setting of a psychology experiment. Wiseman and colleagues used videotapes compiled by other researchers of people who were making public please for return of a loved one who had been abducted. In half the tapes, there was good evidence that the person making the plea had committed the crime him- or herself. In other words, this is a massive lie with real consequences, not just an innocent fib.

Still nothing.

This was not a huge surprise to me. I did a decent amount of reading on research about detecting deception for an ethics paper I wrote. There’s a lot of interest in detecting lies reliably, and no technique is even close.

Oh, and in Prison Break? The characters were coached by someone who had done the “lie detection” before, so were able to give signals the exact opposite of what was expected, and fool the authorities into thinking that they were lying, when they weren’t.

Still no word on whether a smile is a thin disguise, though.


Wiseman R, Watt C, ten Brinke L, Porter S, Couper S-L, Rankin C. 2012. The Eyes Don’t Have It: Lie Detection and Neuro-Linguistic Programming. PLoS ONE 7(7): e40259. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0040259.t003

External links

Neurobonkers take on the paper

12 July 2012

Retraction tracking

I’ve always thought that the purpose of retracting a paper was to expunge it from the scientific literature. To pretend it was never published at all. To me, that always implied that a retracted paper should not even be citable, let alone cited.

Reading a post on the Retraction Watch blog, I’m realized that my view was too simple. In response to me, Ivan Oransky wrote:

There’s nothing wrong with citing a retracted paper, and that’s why good retraction practice is to leave it in the record but mark it “retracted.” The problem is when retracted papers are cited as if they were never retracted(.)

Journals should develop a standard for clearly indicating when a cited paper has been retracted. Journals already have exacting formatting for citations, so it should be easy enough for them to add an example like this.

“If the paper you are citing has been retracted, this should be indicated by placing an ‘r’ after the year in the text citation, and ‘(Retracted.)’ following the title in the full citation.

“For example:

“(Jones, 1980r)

“Jones J. 1980. Adverse artefacts of arachodoic acid. (Retracted.) Chinese Journal of Inexplicable Results 5:12-15. Retraction notice: 6:4”

This would give people a clear indication that citing a retracted paper is allowable (hopefully as a warning to others rather than to back a position). It might also help to emphasize that authors, reviewers, and editors should check for the retracted status of papers they cite. And it would increase transparency all around.

I’m totally doing this when I take over as the Editor-in-Chief of the Chinese Journal of Inexplicable Results.

External links

Despite refutation, Science arsenic life paper deserves retraction, scientist argues

11 July 2012

Success or spin? How to persuade a scientist

I spotted this on Facebook:

As Fry might say:

The problem with this is that are only two years shown.

In most social statistics, there is variation from year to year. Some years, a number will be up, and some years, numbers will be down. Someone who wants to create a particular image only has to look through all the years of data, pick a low number and a high number, and boom! You can suggest a trend when there is only random noise.

The data from the years 2001 through 2009 are needed to see if there is real trend here. A series of sparklines connecting the 2000 and 2010 numbers would help. Context matters.

Also note how some “net” numbers are shown as percentages of percentages. This can be misleading, particularly when you have small numbers. Small numbers are particularly susceptible to the fluctuations mentioned before, and are ripe for cherry picking. Going from 1% to 2% may well be a 100% increase, but it’s hardly worth trumpeting. It doesn't change that both numbers are still very small.
I hate to pick on something that has a positive message, but this is meant as constructive criticism.

10 July 2012

Tuesday Crustie: A day at the races

Ah, Maine. There’s nothing you won’t race.

Hat tip to Scicurious.

09 July 2012

Scientists are the new artists

A Washington Post article from the weekend looks at current job prospects for scientists. It ain’t pretty in the United States. Ends with this quote:

Haas, the former drug company chemist, has even harsher words. She plans to “get out of Jersey and get out of science” when her daughter graduates from high school in two years. “She’s very good at everything, very smart,” Haas said of her daughter. “She loves chemistry, loves math. I tell her, ‘Don’t go into science.’ I’ve made that very clear to her.”

And that’s the sort of reaction that parents reserved for when their kids said they were going to try to become artists or actors: “You’ll never get a job doing that!”

The good news is that admonitions from parents are only occasionally effective. And people do get jobs doing “that.”

I am thoughtful about what career advice I should give, however. Our institution puts a lot of effort into encouraging scientific careers. We have undergraduate research programs, funded by HHMI and NSF (thanks, guys!). We have high school internships. We have HESTEC, with tons of events aimed at even younger kids. (Our mission is different from other universities, though. We have many Hispanic students. Part of these program are tied to efforts to increase representation of Hispanics in science.)

Obviously, I owe it to students to let them know what the real deal is about this career. Should I actively discourage them from pursuing a scientific career?

I don’t think so, mainly because of the stage our students are at. We don’t have Ph.D. students. In theory, we could have post-docs, but nobody does. We have undergraduates and some master’s students.

A student graduating from our program who wanted to become a full-fledged lead scientist with a doctorate is probably ten years away from completing their training. Six years for a doctoral degree, four years for post-docs.

A lot can happen in ten years.

Admittedly, the long terms trends are not good. But trends can reverse sometimes.

It is important that people considering science understand how far off their goal is. They need to weigh the prospect of that long training period versus doing things right after finishing their bachelor’s degree.

I would still encourage students to consider science as a career, with the caveat that they not commit the Concorde fallacy. Make sure you have a getaway plan going in.

External links

U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there

06 July 2012

Why are insects so small now?

Bugs used to be bigger. Much bigger.

That’s right: fossils from the Carboniferous and Permian times had insects with single wing lengths of more than 30 cm (that’s a foot for those of you still using Imperial measurements).

ResearchBlogging.orgOne hypothesis for why insects were able to be much bigger was that there was more oxygen in the atmosphere then. A new paper by Clapham and Karr suggests that’s true... up to a point.

Looking at the fossil record and that for oxygen, they find a good correlation between oxygen levels and insect sizes up until the end of the Jurassic. After that... the correlation falls apart. During the Cretaceous, the oxygen levels go up (though not as high as the Permian or Carboniferous), but the insects get smaller. And insects get even smaller after the K-T boundary, even though oxygen is pretty stable.

Clapham and Karr suggest that flying predators, notably birds. This struck me as counterintuitive at first, as larger bodies are explained as possible defences against predation. Clapham and Karr’s idea is the battle in the air is over manoeuvrability. Big animals can’t twist and turn and dodge so easily. Perhaps with the reduced oxygen levels of the Cretaceous, insect physiology wouldn’t support the re-evolution of large bodies as a defence against bird predators.

If you like your insects small, thank a bird.


Clapham ME, Karr JA. 2012. Environmental and biotic controls on the evolutionary history of insect body size. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(27): 10927-10930. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1204026109

Picture from here.

05 July 2012

It’s kind of a Higgs deal

The great thing about this picture of CNN’s coverage about the announcement of finding the Higgs boson (spotted by Jon Mitchell)...

Is how wonderfully multi-purpose it is. I can use it as a slide in my next talk, no matter what the subject is!

Yesterday’s announcement that the teams at the Large Hadron Collider had almost certainly found the Higgs boson once again focused my attention on how different the community standards of scientists are. Karen James asked:

How is the Higgs announcement today anything other than science by press release?

This led to some conversation on Twitter with Karen, Ed Yong, Matthew Francis, and Cathy Kerr (mainly - apologies if I have overlooked others!) about why the physics community is perfectly cool with this. In biology, you’d probably get smacked down pretty hard for having a press conference without a paper at least accepted to show for it.

Twitter may not have been the best forum for this discussion. I referred to the Higgs announcement as a “shortcut” – not a good term in retrospect – which Ed rightfully called me on. Different community standards.

What I was fumbling to say was that in science, we do try to standardize our approaches to things to a fairly large degree. We deal in evidence. We subject ideas to peer review. Papers are the major coin of the realm. Credit is usually given to the person who makes the first announcement. It’s not absolutely uniform, but in broad strokes, people in one field of science can recognize the processes in other fields of science.

Why is there so much divergence in how results are communicated? Would there perhaps be some benefit in trying to harmonize how scientific results are communicated? We could, dare I say it, become a little more empirical about this. What are we out to achieve with announcing scientific results, and are some ways better to do this than others?

Comic Sans

The announcement may have also moved the awareness about Comic Sans and its use in the scientific community to a new level. That the cane toad of type appeared in the Higgs presentation itself became a newsworthy story for the media.

Some thought this was a deliberate move to provoke people. Some thought they were using it ironically to show they have a sense of humour. Some thought that making a big scientific discovery like this granted you immunity from prosecution for all past, current, and future type crimes. Me? I’ve made my views known before.

You can do better than that, physicists.

Higgs humour

All that aside, I had fun on Twitter putting standard anti-science arguments with this discovery, with the #HiggsDenier hashtag:

"Those graphs are perfect. A little TOO perfect, if you ask me!" #HiggsDenier

"Physcists getting rich off the government grants to find a particle HAVE to say there's a boson or lose their funding." #HiggsDenier

"They're announcing the discovery by a press conference because they know the results can't pass peer review!" #HiggsDenier

"Genesis doesn't say, 'In the beginning, God created a 126 GeV boson.'" #HiggsDenier

"Discovery of Higgs boson, particle physics 'missing link', just creates two new gaps in the standard model." #HiggsDenier

"A 126 GeV particle a perfectly consistent with my theory that the universe is made from earth, air, fire, and water." #HiggsDenier

"They want to teach the Higgs boson in school? What about parental authority? I should be able to decide what my kids learn!" #HiggsDenier

"What if the Higgs boson falls into the wrong hands? It could be the engine for new weapons of MASS destruction!" #HiggsDenier

Which led to #HiggsPressCoverage:

"Scientists announced they've discovered the #Higgs boson, the particle that creates mass. How will this affect Obama?" #HiggsPressCoverage

"The Higgs particle gives everything mass. Will this help you shed mass in time to fit into your summer bikini?" #HiggsPressCoverage

"Scientists announced today the discovery of the particle that gives mass. Next, the weather forecast with Dawn." #HiggsPressCoverage

"Next, our investigative report: What you NEED TO KNOW about the mysterious Higgs boson! Is it a threat to your health?" #HiggsPressCoverage

"Stock markets [rise / tumble] as Wall Street reacts to news of Higgs boson." #HiggsPressCoverage

"Apple aims new iBoson squarely at Higgs' share of boson market." #HiggsPressCoverage

Related posts

Are neutrinos and science journalists both going faster than they should?

04 July 2012

Selling beer (and science) the hard way

I’m indebted to Nina Simon for bringing this story to my attention: Belgian monks who brew beer. Nina summarizes the story thus (my emphasis):

Westvleteren 12... is produced by the monks of the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren in Flanders, Belgium. You can only reserve a bottle by phone. You must pick it up in person at the Abbey at a specific time on a specific date. You can only buy a small amount, and you are limited to one purchase every 60 days.

The episode is mostly focused on the thrill of the hunt, and all the attendant ways exclusivity fuels desire. But late in the episode (minute 9), when the supplicant finally drinks the beer at the monastery, he is underwhelmed. The beer is terrific, but the experience is unfulfilling. He feels anonymous. He feels disconnected. He made it to Mecca, and it’s kind of eh.

Why the disconnect? As Roman Mars, the show’s host, puts it, “You, the consumers of beer, are not the real customer. God is.” The monks make beer to support their monastic lifestyle, not to serve consumers. The exclusivity and the complicated path to purchasing the beer are not branding strategies to trump up the value of the beer. They are limitations that enable monks to spend most of their time being monks.

It seemed to me that this story is a great metaphor for a lot that we complain about regarding academic science.

(No, I don’t want to suggest scientists, like monks, can / should sacrifice everything for a “higher purpose.” I think that’s a horrible thing for a profession, not something that should be celebrated.)

Take science outreach, which is a constant source of “We should do better!” Or undergraduate teaching. It’s possible that the results here are sub-optimal because the system is not primarily concerned with those outcomes. The system tries to enable scientists to do science. So you get a sub-optimal system, much like the monk’s sales system is sub-optimal.

External links

What Belgian Beer-Brewing Monks Taught Me about Non-Profit Business Models

Photo by adamjackson1984 on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

03 July 2012

Private space flight, circa 1979

In memory of Andy Griffith, who died today, my favourite show of his, by a long ways.

I always loved hoe the narrator in the opening hit, “...and they went to the moon.” It hit just the right note of admiration and awe about the achivement.

I liked this show a lot when I was a kid; had a poster of the spaceship up on my wall, from this:

It’s interesting to look back at the show now that we are just starting to see private space flight.

Tuesday Crustie: One square kilometer

ResearchBlogging.orgThis is Euastacus bindal. It does not have a common name, because it is not common. It is the exact opposite of common. It is astonishingly rare.

Before the new paper by Furse and colleagues, there were a grand total of three specimens that had been seen to science. This picture is the first time the colour of the live animal has been shown to the scientific world.

Furst and collegues went back to the location where other specimens were found, on a mountain in Queensland, Australia. They found that this crayfish confined to about one square kilometre. That’s it. That’s smaller than the campus of the university where I teach and work.

Their investigations of the animal’s ecology is that it needs cool rainforest habitat, and that’s only found at the very top of this mountain. The nearest similar habitat is a couple of hundred kilometers away.

From a conservation viewpoint, there is some good news, though. That entire kilometre is within a national park. Pressures like urban development or exploitation might not be threaten this species.


Furse JM, Bone JWP, Appleton SD, Leland JC, Coughran J. 2012. Conservation of imperiled crayfish — Euastacus bindal (Decapoda: Parastacidae), a highland crayfish from Far North Queensland, Australia. Journal of Crustacean Biology 32(4): 677-683. DOI: 10.1163/193724012X633405

02 July 2012

Banishing bacteria by blowing bubbles?

Fighting fish are just big softies on the inside.

ResearchBlogging.orgWhy build a nest if you’re a fish? A bird’s nest can be up in a tree to keep away from predators, but a fish nest is, well, in the water. Siamese fighting fish (Betta splendans) are one of several aquarium fish that are bubble nest-builders. The male builds the nest and cares for the eggs after laying. Indeed, the male drives the female away from the nest.

One of the problems with putting all your little developing embryos or babies in a confined space like a nest is that if an infection hits, it might hit all of them. Betta nests without males are often hit by water molds (the same obscure group of organisms that also cause crayfish plague). Lots of other animals have some element of their nest that act as antimicrobials, and Brown and Clotfelter hypothesized this might also be true for the fighting fish.

Reasonable idea, but wrong.

They tested bubble nest material against two bacteria and a water mold. There was no evidence any of the bacteria were held back or inhibited by the nest material compared to a control.

Surprisingly, the presence of the nest material, made things worse With the water mold! More eggs were infected faster in the presence of bubble nest material than in plain water. Nests seem to be a horrible idea!

But wait! Brown and Clotfelter suggest that nests have an important function. Siamese fighting fish are popular in aquariums precisely because they are used to living in very low quality water, with little oxygen. The nests may be necessary to keep enough oxygen to the eggs for them to develop. And, because so few other animals can live in the same waters as Siamese fighting fish, the risk of predation may not be very high.

It might explains why you have parental care by these fish: this may be the one thing keeping those eggs viable and parasite free.

It’s nice to see that there are still interesting research projects that can be done even with these common aquarium pets.


Brown AV, Clotfelter ED. 2012. Fighting fish (Betta splendens) bubble nests do not inhibit microbial growth Journal of Experimental Zoology A: in press. DOI: 10.1002/jez.1740

Photo by christyfrink on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license

01 July 2012

Blog Carnivals for July, 2012

The Carnival of Evolution #49 is now up at Mousetrap!

And does anyone know what happened to Circus of the Spineless?

Comments for second half of June, 2012

A noble, but ultimately failed infographic on vampire hunters. Any such list needs to include Captain Kronos.

Dr. Becca considers the editorial process for review papers.

Are academics worried too much about quantity?

Prof-Like Substance wonders how your grad committee meetings are handled.