30 June 2007

Can you guess?

White shrimp nerve cord
...What the picture at the right is?

It's the top view of part of the abdominal nerve cord of a white shrimp, Litopenaeus setiferus.

I have dissected out many nerve cords of many different species of crustaceans, and they are usually a slightly translucent white. So I was tickled by finding this unexpected leopard-like dotted pattern in this shrimp. I'd never seen anything like it before. I have no idea why it's coloured in this shrimp but not other species.


28 June 2007

Under the big top

I was listening to a very interesting interview with David Sloan Wilson on Quirks and Quarks. Dr. Wilson wrote a book called Evolution for Everyone -- a sentiment with which I agree. That said, I did find some of his comments a little odd.

When asked about the continuing conflicts (real or imagined) between evolution and religion, Wilson described creationism and intelligent design as a "sideshow." He also described books like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins as a "sideshow." The "main event," Wilson argues, will be the scientific study of evolution as a natural phenomenon. (An article exploring similar ground can be found in the July 2007 American Scientist: "Evolution, religion, and free will" by Graffin and Provine.)

Now, it is no doubt true that there is much very interesting research to be done on religion. Philosopher Dan Dennett has argued that nobody has really tested the contention that more religious people are more virtuous, more giving, more charitable, etc., than less religious people. And that is definitely an important question.

Wilson seems to be arguing that when viewed from an evolutionary perspective, there may be empirical evidence that religion beneficial for some reason or another. Contrast this to the subtitle of Christopher Hitchen's recent book, "How religion poisons everything." Or compare it to Dawkins' suggestion that religions are sorts of intellectual parasites that ride along because of other ways that we think (e.g., a tendency to obey elders).

Wilson seems to think that by bringing religion into the fold of evolution, and by saying that it might -- indeed, probably -- had some evolutionary benefit, there is no longer any conflict between the two.

This misses the mark. What both creationists and atheists care about and are arguing about is not whether religion is beneficial, but whether it is true.

For a lot of people, the question of whether shared worship generates societal cohesion that increases the fitness levels of a group is one of two things.

For some, it's not a question they're interested in. They're much more interested if there is a being who intervenes in human affairs on a regular basis, answers prayers, and has selected certain territories for particular people to live in (say).

For others, the question is interesting but irrelevant. Many people are interested in what society ought to do rather than what society has done. Religion may have been adaptive in the past, and perhaps remains so in the present, but that doesn't mean that other non-religious systems might not be as adaptive, if not more.

I'm completely surprised that Wilson -- and many others, according to the American Scientist article I mentioned earlier -- think that the conflict between religions and evolution can by resolved in this way.

Rethinking granting

The idea of loans is to use money to create wealth.

The idea of grants is to use money to create scientific knowledge.

People have often tried to create wealth, particularly in non-industrial nations, by loaning money for huge mega-projects (e.g., building dams, power plants).

People have often tried to create knowledge by giving money for huge mega-projects (e.g., moon shots, human genome and biomedical research).

More recently, micro-loans have been so successful at creating wealth that some of the first to use this strategy were recognized with a Nobel Peace price in 2006.

Where are the equivalent micro-grants?

24 June 2007

Another thought on the automotive age

Not having a car in south Texas is like being under house arrest.

Competition in education

For some reason, thought yesterday about a comment from Doug, a former University staffer who ran the Center for Distance Learning. "Competition is coming to higher education," he claimed. Distance learning through the internet would make online classes and universities possible, and there would be competition for students and their tuition fees.

I don't think the internet made competition between universities possible. I think it was the car.

Think late 19th century, early 20th century. How long would it take you to travel 30 miles? If you lived that far from an university, you probably couldn't go to university. Now, of course, people routinely commute much farther than that on a daily basis. If someone wants to move to attend a university hundred of miles away, it's actually pretty trivial.

That said, I've seen a lot of people who have no desire to leave their region. A lot. But I haven't felt or seen any sort of sea change in the way people think about their education. I don't know if people see value in getting an online degree.

14 June 2007


Just submitted another manuscript to a journal for review. Cross your fingers.

Now, back to the part of research I am coming to hate the most: spending money. I know, spending money for most people is a pleasure, not a chore. But the paperwork is so obtuse, and it's so easy to do the wrong thing, it's becoming one of my least favourite tasks. It's terrible.

I have shopping to do for a little DNA barcoding project I have going this summer. Probably in an upcoming post, I'll describe a little bit more about what DNA barcoding is and why I'm going to try it.

13 June 2007

The Zen of Presentations, Part 9

Another total cheat post directing you towards this post comparing speaking and singing. I am a lazy blogger.

Unnerving surge in lab numbers

In the last week, I've gone from having one Master's student and one undergrad in the lab to no Master's student and three undergrads.

I haven't lost my Master's student – that would smack of carelessness – but Sandra is out of state attending a neuroethology course at Friday Harbor. She arrived without incident, and all is well so far.

I also had to recruit a student to take up an undergraduate research position I was given, who came in yesterday and will officially start next week. Then, at random, out of the blue, I had an Honor's student who walked into my office interested in a research project. And they're all taking up DNA / molecular projects, where I really have very little experience. Which is starting to feel unnerving.

09 June 2007

Go Jerry!

Jerry Coyne, co-author of an excellent book on speciation (rather unimaginatively, alas, titled Speciation), takes on the appalling demonstration of the mix of American politics and scientific literacy in this preview.

Love the opening shot:

Suppose we asked a group of Presidential candidates if they believed in the existence of atoms, and a third of them said "no"? That would be a truly appalling show of scientific illiteracy, would it not? (...) Yet something like this happened a week ago during the Republican presidential debate.

Still, as one other commentator noted, that only three of the ten Republican candidates professed not to believe in evolution has an upside of sorts. That's about 20% less than the general American public.

Don't think the question has been asked of Democrats yet.


My colleague Chris Little has left the building this week. He was hired one year after I was, and interviewed while he was still getting ready to defend his Ph.D. This week, he has gone off to the Plant Pathology department of Kansas State University.

Good for you, Chris. Good luck.

I will always be grateful for Chris for something he did this semester. One of his students came into his office to discuss a presentation, and the species names was wrong – not italicized, I think. Chris slammed down his hands on his desk, making collegues in the offices next door jump, and – shall we say – emphasized to the student the importance of getting species names correct. Emphasized emphatically. Okay, jumped down the student's throat.

"Are we going to have this conversation again?" he asked the student.

Meek response of "No sir..."

I am glad Chris did this. Now, when people talk about having meltdowns about student mistakes, they are less likely to mention me. I was probably the previous record holder for some rants to grad students about excessive numbers of slides in their talks.

Other favourite anecdote: Chris and Mike Persans were new hires in the same year. At a department social function in their first semester, Gloria, the Dean's secretary, was talking to them while we were sitting a table in the department hallway.

Gloria looked at Mike and Chris and asked, "Are you two married?"

"Not to each other," I deadpanned.

That would have been pretty progressive for southern Texas.

Amateur hour

A researcher is someone who commits to being an amateur forever. You're always trying to do things you've never done before.

05 June 2007

Near miss

Only a little more than one year after the last time... The locker I was using at my fitness center was broken into. Again. The thing was padlocked, but the doors are actually pretty slim wood, so it's easy for someone to break the door in two – literally.

Luckily, brains occasionally do this wonderful thing called, “learning.” After I lost my wallet (with credit cards, green card, etc.) last year, I stopped putting it my locker. So fortunately, I lost nothing this time. Whew!

A fast answer

Too bad the answer was “No.”

So one of my current manuscripts has been kicked back from a second journal after a quick review, on the basis that it is not of sufficiently broad interest.

Will the third time be the charm? If I can figure out a third place to try...

02 June 2007

More revisions

Another manuscript got off my desk and sent to an editor yesterday. Hooray. So now I have one thing in press and two in the hands of editors. And... well... after that, nothing else is close to ready quite yet.

What next? I hope on Monday that I can actually get some science going, maybe a little data collection. One problem that has come up with regards to summer research plans, though, is that one of my students -- who was going to receive pay for working on a project with me -- might not be eligible to work. Turns out her family are not American citizens, and are in the middle of a green card application process -- something I know a little about. So now I might have to try to scrounge a back-up student, or something. ‘Tis a problem.

I always have problems re-focusing at the end of semesters, or in transition times. I work best when I consistently have similar tasks on a daily basis.