29 May 2009

Good idea, bad idea: Rock Stars of Science

Rock Stars of ScienceA short review of Rock Stars of Science.

Good idea: Show scientists in a context besides in a lab coat, with safety goggles, pipetting some coloured liquid into a flask. And what’s cooler than rock and roll?

Bad idea: Reinforce the idea that the only reason to do science is to cure disease. No physicists, no ecologists, no chemists (unless you’re a biochemist), no mathematicians, no astronomers...

Bad idea: ... No women.

Island girls: Why Hawaiian female crickets aren’t very choosy

ResearchBlogging.orgThe Hawaiian islands are the setting for one of the most fascinating experiments in evolution in real time that I know of. There, the males in a population of crickets have gone from singers to almost entirely silent in just a few years.

This species of cricket (Teleogryllus oceanicus) lives across a wide range of Pacific locations, from Australia (where they started) to Hawaii (a much more recent introduction). Male crickets sing to attract females, so there’s selection to keep singing. These same songs, however, can attract small parasitoid flies that lay their eggs in the male crickets and kill them, so there’s selection pressure against singing. This parasitoid doesn’t live everywhere the cricket does; the two overlap in the Hawaiian islands alone.

A few years ago, a mutation appeared in the male crickets called the “flatwing” mutation in Kauai. Males with this mutation literally cannot sing. Normally, this would be bad news for males with the mutation – no singing means no mating!

But context is everything.

In the context of an environment loaded with parasitoid flies that track hosts down by listening for the song of that host, the flatwing mutation took off like a rocket. The parasitoid flies couldn’t find the males! In this particular population, about 90% of males are now silent flatwing males (Zuk et al. 2006).

Teleogryllus oceanicusThe question this paper tries to answer is, “If females need to hear singing to mate, how did the flatwing mutant spread?” If song was necessary for mating, it wouldn’t matter how much protection being silent gave you from the parasitoid flies. Zero mating means zero copies of the flatwing gene going on to the next generation.

Turns out that there was an hypothesis that predicted island females would be less choosy about their mates (Kaneshiro 1980). The logic went that in small, restricted populations like newly colonized islands, picky females would be unlikely to find a mate living up to their high standards. There would be selection for the unselective, as it were.

Because this cricket has such a wide distribution, this provided an opprtunity to test this hypothesis. Tinghitella and colleagues paired up males and females from across the species’ range. The males were all singing, except for the Kauai males, which were all silent flatwings. The females had no choice of mates, just the decision to mate or not.

The first finding was that singing males got more matings. No surprise there. But females from every population would occasionally mate with a flatwing. But was there a difference in female preference according to location?

Figure 3
Not only was there a difference, but the difference was that predicted by the hypothesis. Females from mainland Australian populations were more reluctant to mate with silent males than females from any of the island populations.

Thus, the female crickets living on islands were pre-disposed to take a chance on flatwing males, allowing the mutation to spread when it occurred. The observant will note that the Kauai females are the least discriminatory against flatwings of all the island dwelling populations. It will be interesting to find out if that proportion goes up over time, if females can benefit from having sons that don’t advertise their presence to parasitoids.

It’s going to be fascinating to watch the dynamics of these three players (males, females, parasitoids) as time goes on.


Kaneshiro KY. 1980. Sexual isolation, speciation and the direction of evolution. Evolution 34: 437–444.

Tinghitella, R., & Zuk, M. (2009). ASYMMETRIC MATING PREFERENCES ACCOMMODATED THE RAPID EVOLUTIONARY LOSS OF A SEXUAL SIGNAL Evolution DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2009.00698.x

Zuk M, Rotenberry JT, Tinghitella RM. 2006. Silent night: adaptive disappearance of a sexual signal in a parasitized population of field crickets. Biology Letters 2: 521-524. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2006.0539

28 May 2009

McLeroy’s out

Don McLeroy will no longer be the chair of the Texas State Board of Education, according to Texas Freedom Network.

This is a good decision, but it is probably not good news, since there are several other hard-line Creationists who are liable to be on the shortlist to be appointed as the new Chair by Governor Perry.

Additional: Reports in Austin American-Statesman and Houston Chronicle.

Jellyfish nervous system myth busted

I was leafing through the June 2009 issue of Popular Science, and was pleased to see invertebrate neurobiology featured in a little quiz.

For those of you who don’t want to turn your computer monitor upside down to read the answer to question #3, “Do jellyfish have brains?” the answer given is, “Nope, they have a network of nerves but no central location to it.”

Which is only partly correct.

It is not true that jellyfish have no central nervous systems. They have an unusual nervous system, because jellyfish are not bilaterally symmetrical – that is, they don’t have a left side and a right side. So while most invertebrates have a chain of ganglia lying down the middle of the body, with one very large one at the front end (the brain), jellyfish don’t.

Partial jellyfish CNS from Mackie and Meech, 2000Instead, jellyfish have a ring nervous system, located along the margin of the bell. There is definitely a concentration of neurons in that location (although it contains relatively few neurons compared to other animals). Plus, those neurons do serve as an active relay and processing station for sensory and motor activity. Those are two of the main things that central nervous systems do, so there seems to be no good reason to deny that jellyfish have a central nervous system. (Picture from Mackie and Meech, 2000.)

Mackie and Meech (1995) credit the initial discovery of nerve rings to Passano in 1965, so we’ve known about the existence of jellyfish central nervous systems for at least a few decades.

It is true that jellyfish have no brains. But that may not be so bad. Mackie and Meech (2000) wrote:

(T)he lack of a brain is... an adaptation to radial symmetry rather than an indication of primitiveness(.)

Take that, bilateral bigots!


Mackie G, Meech R. 1995. Central circuitry in the jellyfish Aglantha. I: The relay system. The Journal of Experimental Biology 198: 2261-2270. http://jeb.biologists.org/cgi/content/abstract/198/11/2261

Mackie G, Meech R. 1995. Central circuitry in the jellyfish Aglantha. II: The ring giant and carrier systems. The Journal of Experimental Biology 198: 2271-2278. http://jeb.biologists.org/cgi/content/abstract/198/11/2271

Mackie G, Meech R. 1995. Central circuitry in the jellyfish Aglantha. III: The rootlet and pacemaker systems The Journal of Experimental Biology 203: 1797-1807. http://jeb.biologists.org/cgi/content/abstract/203/12/1797

Jellyfish photo: User mayhem on Flickr.

27 May 2009

The importance of alternative ideas

There’s an article on PLos Biology concerning why so many people in the U.S. think vaccines causes autism, when there is no good scientific evidence that they do. I was interested in it, since it’s one of several lightning rods where public mistrust of scientific evidence comes into full light. The article, alas, is not very helpful in proposing a way forward.

It does talk a bit about how people that researchers prove that vaccines don’t cause autism, which is not something that research can really do. Look at what I wrote myself above: I wrote “no evidence.” I guess many people interpret that as, “no evidence at all,” not “tested and failed.”

But maybe, maybe two new papers hint at a way out. Perhaps one of the things that works in favour of the “vaccines cause autism” publicity is that the causes of autism weren’t well understood. Maybe some people just can’t live with an unknown cause, so they say, “You don’t know what causes autism, so you can’t say that vaccines don’t cause it.”

Maybe as research on autism continue, and we understand the actual causes of it better, the arguments for vaccines being responsible will start to lose steam. Coincidentally, two new paper in Nature (here and here) that start to do just that. Both link autism to genes involved in brain development.

Can fig wasps bluff their way to mating success?

ResearchBlogging.org“Not so tough now, are ya?”

I think everyone secretly hopes to utter that phrase someday to someone who blusters and bullies and threatens.

There’s a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s film Death Proof where Kurt Russell’s character, Stuntman Mike – who has just been terrorizing a group of women on the highway – gets shot. He runs like hell and is pretty soon all but balling his eyes out.

I like the scene a lot, because we rarely see it acknowledged in movies or TV that getting shot hurts.

Dandy the coawrdly lion from Tales of the Wizard of OzIn animal behaviour research, there’s been a lot of interest in animals that bluff. Bluffing is an example of a dishonest signal: looking strong when you’re really not. It’s interesting because theory says it’s possible to have these dishonest signals, but it’s tricky. They will only stay in the population only under certain circumstances. For instance, not every confrontation can escalate to a fight. Richard Dawkins presents some of these theoretical “hawk versus dove” models in chapter 5 of The Selfish Gene.

In this paper, Moore and colleagues present evidence for bluffing in fig wasps. The males have two morphs, typical and atypical. The atypical males are, well, not typical: they make up about 18% of the males. These males have longer jaws (mandibles, if you want the $5 word) for their head size, and they also tend to have larger heads.

The questions are:

  • When do male wasps fight? When there are lots of other males with mandibles about the same size. This supports the idea that wasps won’t fight if there is a big mismatch in jaws, consistent with them evaluating their opponents.

  • Who wins fights? The male with the bigger mandibles wins about two-thirds of matches, except...

  • Which morph fight better? Atypical males are less likely to win fights and appeared more likely to sustain injury.

  • Who gets to mate? The atypical males get 44% of matings when they make up less than 20% of the males &ndash more than their fair share.

There are a few caveats with this paper. First, the authors themselves admit the sample sizes are pretty small. They only observed 18 matings, for example, and only 10 of those were by animals they observed fighting.

Another qualifier is that there several inferences; reasonable ones, but inferences nevertheless. For instance, they infer that male wasps evaluate mandible size, and that they will retreat if outmatched. Since these were all spontaneously occurring fights in the figs the wasps inhabit, they have not done any experimental pairings to test that.

In the long term, it would be interesting to see if people can get enough data to see if the atypical males’ apparent bluffing, and the costs (getting beat up) and benefits (sex!) are in line with the theoretical predictions of game theory.


Dawkins R. 1976. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Moore, J., Obbard, D., Reuter, C., West, S., & Cook, J. (2009). Male morphology and dishonest signalling in a fig wasp Animal Behaviour DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.04.006

26 May 2009

Partial Link

Darwinius T-shirtI watched the first half of The Link, the documentary made about the fossil primate Darwinius (Ida). I didn't watch the whole thing, because, well, there were on things on TV I wanted to watch, and knowing basic cable, I fully expected it to be on several times more this week. I'll probably see the second half on Friday.

There’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that the science is actually pretty good. They lay out the various questions and how they go about trying to answer them in a fairly cogent way. There are some good explanations of the regional geology that I certainly didn’t know. The claims are not too over the top, although you do get slightly overblown sentences like, “Only one person in the world had the expertise to interpret these scans...”

The bad news is that the documentary doesn’t stand out from any other documentary. There are the talking heads, the same few computer animations repeated over and over, and the anonymous narrator, who sounds like every other narrator of science documentaries. It’s as though all of these documentary filmmakers are perpetually stuck in one gear.

Jørn Hurum, who’s at the center of all this, said in an interview:

If we really want kids to get involved with exciting scientific findings, no matter what kind of field, we really need to start [thinking] about reaching people other than [our] fellow scientists.

And I appreciate the sentiment, I really do. Heck, it’s one reason why I blog. But I don’t know that a slow moving documentary that doesn’t look any different from a dozen others is the way to go.

Probably more after I see the second half of this on Friday.

Even while watching this documentary about the most important find in 47 million years, the History Channel is running ads for the next show that promises to be “the television even of the summer.” But wait, isn’t this summer? Wasn’t this supposed to be the untoppable epic event that would change everything?

How to react when research says it supports stereotypes

The Intersection points out that Phillippe Rushton is at it again. Back in my grad schools days, there was tremendous debate about Rushton, an academic living in Canada, who published work that purported to confirm racial stereotypes.

Now, he has a new article that purports to confirm sexist stereotypes. (Additional: Whoops, didn’t notice the date and realize this is a couple of years ago.)

I support academic freedom. I think Rushton should be free to do his research. But that doesn’t mean he should be free from criticism of his research. In that spirit, I would like to include a couple of quotes from the most memorable book review I’ve ever read in a peer-reviewed journal or elsewhere, on Rushton’s earlier book, Race, Evolution, and Behavior. David Barash wrote:

(Rushton’s) argument is much weaker than it first appears, based on a great array of material resembling delicate needlework: superficially impressive, it boasts a discernible pattern, but is revealed on closer inspection to be composed entirely of holes. Thus, we get tabular material that cannot be evaluated and seems nothing less than absurd, such as purportedly serious heritability estimates for ‘pajama parties’, ‘striptease shows’, ‘learning Latin’, and ‘Bible truth’, these and 46 others somehow mysteriously ‘corrected for unreliability’ (Table 4.3). Defending such drivel, Rushton argues at length for what he calls the ‘principle of aggregation’, which, in his hands, means the pious hope that by combining numerous little turds of variously tainted data, one can obtain a valuable result; but in fact, the outcome is merely a larger than average pile of shit.

Among the sad substitutes for ‘data’ (Table 7.4) are the purported opinions of ‘orientals’ as to the ranking of blacks, whites, and orientals with regard to size of genitals (blacks first, whites second, orientals third) and the views of ‘whites’ as to brain size (whites first, orientals second, blacks third). These results may speak volumes as to the existence of racial stereotypes, but not a syllable as to their accuracy. Statistical tests are presented only rarely, when supportive; otherwise, differences of a few cc out of total cranial volumes on the order of 1400 cc are unleashed, as though noteworthy. This also ignores whether cranial volume or indeed, brain size, within the normal human range, correlates in any way with intelligence.

I don’t know which is worse, Rushton’s scientific failings or his blatant racism.

The review is well worth reading in full. It is the very definition of evisceration. And it’s all the more remarkable for being published in the normally staid pages of a peer-reviewed technical journal.

I suppose it’s possible that Rushton’s science has improved in the last decade. But that he didn’t gather any of his own data (again) does not make me hopeful. But I think the lesson offered by Barash is worth repeating. The first question that should always be asked with this kind of study is:

“Is the science sound?”

The Daily Mail article doesn’t ask this question at all. And as science journalism is cut back, there will probably a lot more of this sort of reporting.


Barash, D.P. 1995. [Review of Race, Evolution, and Behavior]. Animal Behaviour 49: 1131-1133. http://dx.doi.org/10.1006/anbe.1995.0143

25 May 2009

Spitting mad cobras adjust for how far away you are

ResearchBlogging.orgThere’s been a spate of spitting in the last few months. First, I catch a discussion of spitting cobras on Quirks and Quarks. Then, they’re featured on Time Warp. And this paper makes the third time in recent months.

As the name implies, spitting cobras spit venom at things that threaten them. This particular venom is pretty specific. If you just get a little on your (uninjured) skin, there’s not much of a problem. But if you get it in your eyes, expect immediate pain.

Cobras aim for the eyes.

Spitting cobra on time warp
The cobra has some physics to contend with to hit their target, for two reasons. First, think about how much you have to move your wrist to move the beam of a flashlight between two points. As you move the item farther and farther back, the amount of angle you have to move your wrist to flick the light back and forth between those two targets gets smaller and smaller.

Second, think about the spraying something, whether it be spritzing your flowers or sending water through the garden hose. As the liquid emerges, it’s in a fairly tight, cohesive stream. But as that stream travels away from the source, it’s going to start to break up and spread out.

The authors here suspected that the cobras were take advantage of the physics of the situation. Previous work had shown that spitting cobras make fast head movements when spitting. These were hypothesized to help ensure that the cobra hit one of the eyes. But given the widening of the stream that will happen just by the physics, the authors predicted that the cobra should make smaller head movements as their target got further away.

The test was simple – if you can ever call an experiment that involves pissing off a deadly venomous snake “simple.” They placed the cobras in an arena, had an experimental wearing a visor with a plastic screen on it walk towards the snake and until the cobra to spit venom. Film it all, measure the distances, and see where the venom lands.

The tricky bit is actually taking the complex splatter of spray and turning it into something that you can measure. It’s a little like trying to give a number to Jackson Pollack paintings. But the authors found something pretty simple. They used the the venom drops 1 mm in size or bigger to define the edges of a rectangle.

The bottom line is fairly simple: the further away the target, the smaller the angle that the cobra sprayed its venom.

Venomous snakes don’t necessarily take unloading their venom lightly. It takes time to make venom. An animal wants to make every one of those uses count.


Berthé, R., Pury, S., Bleckmann, H., & Westhoff, G. (2009). Spitting cobras adjust their venom distribution to target distance Journal of Comparative Physiology A DOI: 10.1007/s00359-009-0451-6

Additional: New Scientist covers this article.

State Board of Education update, plus: Did he say that?

Quick update on the Texas Legislature and the State Board of Education is up at the Star-Telegram. Lot of proposals to modify the Board have failed, and Don McLeory’s confirmation to continue as chair could be before the Senate today.

The Burnt Orange Report has a short column on McLeroy that almost nails it, but fouls it up with a falsehood:

Let’s not get mixed up here – McLeroy’s idiocy has nothing to do with his creationist beliefs, though calling parents “monsters” for wanting to teach their children about evolution is definitely the mark of the unbalanced. It has more to do with his trashing of any expert opinion – and of teachers – over the simplest of issues(.)

Just one thing: McLeroy never called parents who taught evolution “monsters.” He wrote a short but positive review of a book that did so, however, titled Sowing Atheism.

As I've said before:

While I always appreciate people supporting for science, this should never mean putting words into anyone’s mouth. No matter how much you might think it belongs there.

Additional: The Houston Chronicle has a small update on the situation.

22 May 2009

How much is too much in science public relations?

I am a promoter of science. Sometimes, I even call myself an evangelist for science, although it’s kind of tricky because of the religious connotations of that word. What’s more, I am a pretty shameless self-promoter. Perhaps the best example of that is my Marmorkrebs project, where I run a website, Marmorkrebs.org, with a blog, and I fully admit I am there to spread ideas in the hope that I will win.

So why does the promotion about the recent finding of Darwius bother me?

Carl Zimmer posted an ad about the upcoming documentary, which describes, “The most important find in 47 million years.” This ad must be seen to be, um, appreciated.

Words fail me.

In the New York Times, Dr. Jorn Hurum said:

Any pop band is doing the same thing.

Here, I think, is part of the problem. Pop bands are in the business of selling the transitory and the ephemeral. Pop music thrives on novelty and timing. (And I say this with great affection for the genre.)

Pop music reminds us that disappointment is a powerful thing. Was the reputation of the Beatles really enhanced by the release of new songs in 1995? (Released as part of a promotion for another documentary, incidentally.)

Scientists also enjoy novelty, but science is also about accuracy, and about building something that lasts for decades, if not centuries. I know it sounds high-falootin’, but science is about the eternal.

And that is probably the bigger issue. Promote all you want, as long as the promotion is accurate. And I think it’s fair to say that in this case, a lot of things are being said that are not accurate.

Additional: Interview with the ringleaders of this circus.

21 May 2009

What is a scientific success?

Reading this review about a book on Stephen Jay Gould got me thinking. The review made what was, to me, a startling claim.

Punctuated equilibrium never caught on as a new theory of evolutionary change among most scientists.

Putting aside whether it was supposed to be “a new theory of evolutionary change” (arguably not new, but a refinement), and who “most scientists” are...

“Never caught on”?

I’m not sure what that means. Maybe it’s is a little like saying Einstein’s theories of relativity “never caught on.” After all, we still use Newtonian mechanics for most of our routine science and engineering. We don’t really worry about time dilation and relativistic speeds driving down the highway and that you’re very slightly younger than if you’d stayed at home.

But that an idea doesn’t explain every case doesn’t mean it “never caught on.”

The original paper by Stephen Gould and Niles Eldrege proposing punctuated equilibrium has, according to Google Scholar, been cited over 1,700 times. Punctuated equilibrium generated many fruitful predictions. Many, many research projects were done to test the hypothesis.

For comparison, the most any of my papers has been cited is... well, let's say less than 17. Now, admittedly, the punctuated equilibrium paper has had an extra 20 years or so on to gain those citations, so it’s not an entirely fair comparison. Even given that, that paper has been cited more than one hundred times more often than my best effort.

This article implies punctuated equilibrium is ultimately a failure. So where is the bar for success?

Me? I would love to have a failure like punctuated equilibrium.

20 May 2009

The long, slow response to Texas science standards

SEED magazine summarizes the Texas K-12 science standards. It’s mostly a summary, but there are a few new things to note. First, how do textbook publishers plan to deal with the standards?

Textbook author and biologist Ken Miller and publisher Rene LeBel both say they’ll abide by the letter, but not the spirit, of the standards; for instance, by fulfilling the requirement to cover “all sides of scientific evidence” without including creationist pseudoscience.

I also hadn’t heard any of my peers or colleagues taking this approach:

Professors in Texas and elsewhere are privately planning to boycott college textbooks from any publishers who let the board taint high school textbooks.

19 May 2009

Roll the bones, continued

Darwinius reconstructionI really wasn’t expecting to post more on this new fossil today (and I have to admit, it’s lovely), but this clueless news story got me riled up.

Researchers say proof of this transitional species finally confirms Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the then radical, outlandish ideas he came up with during his time aboard the Beagle.

For crying out loud, you [censored], it’s total idiocy to say that this “confirms” evolutionary theory. Sorry to be so blunt, but the strength of evolutionary theory doesn’t rest on any one piece, and particularly not this fossil. It is the huge, massive body of research conducted over decades that all point in the same direction, that weave together like threads of Kevlar to make the science of evolution bulletproof.

The science of evolution has not been hanging by a thread for the past 150 years, waiting for one small German fossil to say, “Why yes, descent with modification is correct.”

This level of cluelessness and boneheadedness is one reason that professional researchers might shy away from talking to the media. They get it wrong. Badly.

And while I’m here and ranting, why, oh why, did people decide to start calling this “The missing link”? Like there is, and could only be, one transitional fossil in the lineage leading to humans? For that matter, Java Man was “The missing link” when it was found. Other fossils are much better candidates for links to humans than this new one is, like Lucy.

Image: Reconstruction from Franzen et al. 2009.

Additional: I'm disappointed that the TED blog falls into the same simplistic language, although they only use it in the headline.

More additional: Carl Zimmer’s take on the media hype:

No scientist, including the co-authors of the Darwinius paper, would ever pretend that they had found a single fossil that was “the” missing link. For some reason reporters (and apparently television producers) are obsessed with the idea, as I wrote about long ago when another primate fossil was touted in a similar fashion.

The faces of fresh new species

It is a great time to be studying biology. But when people talk about this as being the age of biology, usually they think about our ability to perform molecular biology.

But I’m sorry, molecules are not why I wanted to be a biologist.

I say that one of the most undervalued aspects of biology know is just how much we still have to learn about organisms. Really basic natural history. We are constantly finding new species, and in many cases, the discoveries aren’t even slowing down.

New Scientist has a gallery of recently discovered species, like the adorable little snake pictured here, and older species with new findings. I’ve mentioned some of them on this blog before.

It’s a little sad that the gallery only has animals, as I’m sure there are many beautiful new plant species that have been discovered, too.

Roll the bones

This article in the New York Times concerns the unveiling of a new fossil, which is slated to be published today. A new fossil in and of itself is interesting, but that’s not the focus of the Times article. No, the Times story is about generating buzz.

In addition to the technical paper, there will be a two hour documentary on The History Channel and a book, both called The Link.

An article... will report more prosaically that the scientists involved said the fossil could be a “stem group” that was a precursor to higher primates, with the caveat, “but we are not advocating this.”

Really? All of that for “could be a stem primate”?

I worry that hype could mean public disappointment if the fossil isn’t spectacular. And really few fossils have that sort of immediacy to capture the level of attention it sounds like this is to be given.

Why Evolution is True reports this was reported in The Daily Mail and The New York Times.

Coincidentally enough, today’s Ph.D. Comics managed to articulate, in a weird way, why the story bothers me.

Ph.D. Comics for 19 May 2009

Additional: Here’s the actual scientific paper.

14 May 2009

Everyone chase the money!

In March, I wrote about the stimulus package funding:

I think researchers are going to be so relieved by hearing about the federal budget increases, so excited by the prospect that writing a grant proposal might be a better way to get money than buying a lottery ticket, that there could be a huge surge of new grant applications.

This week’s Science proves me more right than I ever could have thought.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) put out a program called Challenge grants. They expected to make 200 awards.

By 12 May, NIH had logged about 20,000 applications for the Challenge awards.

The Zen of Presentations, Part 26: Attention span

An idea that is batted around quite frequently about presentations now is that people can only pay attention for a few minutes. This has probably been at least part of the incentive for creating short presentation formats like Pecha Kucha (6 minutes, 40 seconds) and Ignite (5 minutes flat).

For example, click here and then click on, “Audience Attention Span” and you will see a very scientific looking graph. Colour me skeptical. How was that determined? Where are the error bars? Is it based on real data at all?

(It is the case that people remember the opening and closing parts of sequences better than the middle, but that’s not necessarily a problem of attention.)

I’ve seen claims that people’s attention span is limited to 9 minutes, 7 minutes, or 18 minutes. And then, it is said, people will invariably drift away. In teaching, I’ve seen some people arguing that lectures need to be broken up into small, “attention sized” bits.

Yet the strange thing is... we routinely see people paying attention to something for hours at a time. Think of movies. Movies often have many characters and complex narratives that do require attention. Filmmakers don’t always get it right – people can sometimes lose the plot – but If we were really so limited in our ability to pay attention, movies wouldn’t be two hours long.

Now, I am not saying that every presenter makes it easy for the audience to keep paying attention. Things that cause the audience to stop paying attention are not hard to detect: speaking inaudibly or in a monotone speaking, overly complex visuals, using jargon, and so on.

The directive for presenters should not be, “Make every presentation short.” The directive for presenters should be, “Don't be boring.”

11 May 2009

Why am I having so many meetings?

Classes are done, grades are in, and I really want to be thinking about research and my student’s projects... but I’ve spent a whole lot of today in administrative meetings. And I have a lot more this week.

09 May 2009

Shrimp and sexism from the 1950s

Bonnie EldredI was digging around Google Scholar, looking for some old article, and found this newspaper article about shrimp biologist Bonnie Eldred, whose work I'd never known until today.

One the one hand, it’s a wonderful story about someone who had to work just to get through high school who became “one of the top three or four shrimp authorities in the entire world” without a university education. On the other, it’s a time capsule that reveals much about attitudes towards women in the 1950s.

The article makes much of her being a housewife, and calls her “vivacious,” and then there’s this, which I can just hear in one of those old news reader voices from the 1950s:

For a little girl (she still looks girlish even though one son is 23) Bonnie deals in big names.

I hope that none of my female colleagues have ever had to face something that blatantly patronizing.

08 May 2009

We declared war on fish

... and won.

Here’s a picture taken of fishermen’s catch off the Florida Keys in the 1950s.

Here’s a picture taken of fishermen’s catch off the Florida Keys in 2007.

As always, it’s one thing to know intellectually that the big fish are being taken out of the ocean and that fisheries have collapsed around the world. It’s another thing to see such a stark visual depiction of it.

Spotted at Guilty Planet and at Observations of a Nerd.

Texas State Board of Education powers likely to stay

The Dallas Morning News reports that many bills intended to curb the power of the Texas State Board of Education are dying in the legislature.

A significant reason is the pressure that grassroots GOP and conservative groups are applying to lawmakers to maintain the Republican-dominated board's authority.

Evidence of that pressure came this week, when the House initially approved a bill to “sunset” the education board – subjecting it to a top-to-bottom review by legislators – only to turn around a day later and kill the measure in one of the chamber’s most partisan votes of the year. ...

Of the various bills that would remove or alter the current powers of the education board, only one has passed either house – a proposal by Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, that would strip the board of authority over the $18 billion Permanent School Fund. Earnings from the fund, made up of stocks and other investments, are used to purchase textbooks and other materials.

Chair of the Board Don McLeory, however, is not likely to remain chair much longer.

Confirmation requires a two-thirds vote, or at least 21 of 31 senators. Democrats now hold 12 seats – enough to block confirmation.

07 May 2009

Looking for cultural leaders

C.P. SnowToday is the fiftieth anniversary of C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures. In my view, much of the book’s reputation rests on this fantastic quote, where Snow describes discussions with his colleagues in the humanities on science:

Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?

I bring this up not only because of the anniversary of the book. I bring this up because of a recent spat of political leaders who are doing the equivalent of insisting that Shakespeare wrote The Da Vinci Code.

Cases in point, all members of the U.S. House of Representatives:

A lot of fellow science bloggers are pointing out these mistakes, but what I really want to know is this.

Why aren’t professional science organizations calling them on it?

Why don’t we have organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or Sigma Xi, or the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, or any of dozens of other scientific societies, saying, “This is not acceptable for political leaders to be saying”?

Frankly, these kinds of comments are so badly inaccurate that they should be subject to as much social censure as calling someone “macaca.”


Star Trek Log OneStar Trek.

Are there any other words that carry such connotations of complete and utter nerdiness? Dungeons and Dragons might come close.

As it happens, I am just a few months older than Star Trek. Unlike many others, I didn’t grow up watching Star Trek. I lived in the country with two channels, and there was virtually no science fiction on either one. Being able to catch an episode of Trek when I went on vacation was a big deal.

I grew up reading Star Trek. In particular, I loved Alan Dean Foster’s adaptations of the animated series. The later ones were particularly fun, where Foster only used the episode as a jumping off point for a longer story.

All About Star Trek Fan ClubsAnd there was a magazine with an unlikely and impossibly long title, All About Star Trek Fan Clubs. The first issue had a short episode guide and laid out the sort of basic information that now you’d pick up from Wikipedia. But of course, there was no Wikipedia then.

While the Trek captains have received a lot of discussion, make no mistake: my favourite character was the science officer.

There was something cool about Spock. Of course, I wasn’t alone; Mr. Spock was the most popular character for a long time (often to the detriment of stories – Spock ended up solving plots far too often).

Mr. SpockIn retrospect, I think a large part of the attraction was that Spock was a highly intelligent character. At the time, there weren’t a lot of those to go around in pop culture. Around the early 1970s, how many characters can you name who were really, really smart besides Spock? Sherlock Holmes. I’m missing others, but it certainly wasn’t like now, where the success of CSI and all its procedural crime drama offspring has put a lot of very smart characters as main characters in drama. Spock was pretty appealing to all those people who got tagged “the smart kid” in school.

If there had been no Trek, I would probably still be a scientist. But I cannot guess how much of my mental architecture has been shaped by science fiction generally and that show especially.

I lost touch with Trek somewhere between the third and fifth television series, when it seemed they just ran out of stories worth telling. Russell T Davies said much the same thing about Doctor Who before he pulled off a completely glorious revival of that show.

Today, a new Star Trek movie opens. I am hoping that writer and director J. J. Abrams will pull off for Trek what Davies did for Doctor Who: take everything we loved about the old series and stick a great big swodge of 2009 in it. The advance reviews are uniformly enthusiastic, and, for the first time in a long time, I’m genuinely excited about the prospect of watching Star Trek.

Because what’s better than a brand new hero?

An old hero who hasn’t lost it.

05 May 2009

In my office

The scene in my office right now...

So much for locking the door and working quietly.

02 May 2009

High school teachers actually do matter

I have a confession to make. This surprises a bit:

U of Minnesota study finds high school teachers influence student views of evolution & creationism | Science Blog

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Frankly, I would have expected that by the time students are hitting high school, they are liable to have a pretty strong opinions of their own.

"I was shocked that there weren't bigger differences between majors and non-majors," said Sehoya Cotner, associate professor of biology.

That does not surprise me. I’ve found the difference between biology majors and non-majors to be very, very slight. There’s a few things I can pick out statistically, but it takes huge sample sizes. Plus, many of the people who are undergraduate biology majors are there not because of an interest in biological sciences, but because they want a way into the health professions.

(Hat tip to Dr. Kiki.)

New carnival

Oh, For the Love of Science is hosting this month’s blog Carnival of Evolution. Which I mention purely because it leads back to one of my recent posts, but this is a carnival I may have to start following more closely.

01 May 2009

The English take note of Texas

The Guardian has an article about the ongoing kafuffle about the Texas science standards, which includes some new quotes from the always quotable Don McLeroy:

McLeroy gloats over the idea of textbooks using the Texas standards to discuss the fossil record or the complexity of the cell. “I’m curious to see how they’ll cover these subjects. I think the science behind those things is pretty weak.” He runs through some creationist favourites – the Cambrian explosion, the flagellum. “They haven't come up with an explanation of the eye. They haven’t. They haven’t!”

“So you want to see them fail to come up with scientific explanations for these things?” I ask. “Absolutely! That’s what I think will happen. The kids can sit there and judge for themselves.” Children are intuitively skeptical about evolution, he says.

Just keep talking, Mr. McLeroy. Because the more you say, the more you cast yourself and your colleagues in an unflattering light. Because the more you say, the more can be used in court if a lawsuit ever comes up about teaching using the standards you helped to create.

Additional: The Austin American-Statesman updates what the Texas legislature is doing to the State Board of Education. McLeroy looks like he may not be retuning as Chair, and the Governor will pick a new board member to act as Chair.

Unfortunately, there are several other board members who are folie à deux with McLeroy on science, so the situation will probably not improve.