Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

Archive for November 2010

Developing a scientific worldview: why it’s hard and what we can do

While performing monotonous, brainless tasks at work, I’ve begun the habit of listening to podcasts.  And let my friends tell you: have I been listening to WNYC’s Radiolab or what?  (I feel like I recommend an episode to someone every few days.)  The other morning, I got completely stuck on a 2-minute clip from the episode “Time” (~29 min – 31 min).  The hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, had just been speaking with theoretical physicist and author Brian Greene about the theory of relativity and how, well, time is relative.

Jad asks the question: “What do you with this information? … I know this is what science tells me, but my common sense tells me that that is COMPLETELY WRONG.”

Text cannot do Radiolab justice; listen to the 2-minute clip below:

The key quote here is from Brian Greene:

This is one of the great conundrums, it seems to me, that what you learn in science is so different than what you feel in your regular life!  How do you live between those two worlds when what you know and what you feel are so different?

To be honest, this is not something I had thought about too hard before.  I grew up immersed in science.  Any facts that exist that I couldn’t reconcile with experience, I just chalked up to the limitations of my senses or even my brain’s ability to conceptualize (the latter usually reserved for when I’m dealing with astrophysics).  But if you aren’t well-versed in how science works and perhaps the basics, this stuff sounds completely insane!  I mean, reread Brian Greene again:

When I look at the tabletop, I delight in the fact that I can, in my mind, picture the atoms and molecules and the interactions between them and the mostly empty space that’s in there.  And that when my hand touches the tabletop, I see the electrons of the outer surface of my hand pushing against the electrons in the outer surface of the table.  I’m not really touching the table!  My hand never comes into contact with the table!  What’s happening is the electrons are getting really close together and they’re repelling each other.  And I love the fact that I am, in essence, deforming the surface of the table by making my electrons come really close to it.  That enriches my experience.

Because I have a basic understanding of atomic physics, I understand what he’s talking about.  I certainly don’t think about electron repulsion when I touch an object (although maybe now I will…), but I understand from where he’s coming.  But imagine you don’t have that basic knowledge, or you never fully grasped its meaning?  What he’s saying sounds nuts!  “What do you mean I’m not touching the table?  I AM TOUCHING IT!  I CAN FEEL IT!” etc.

“That enriches my experience,” he says.  And I agree with him.  The ability to exist in two worlds at once – the experiential and the unseen scientific –  provides me with a great deal of satisfaction, as if, by just thinking, I can fill in historical details of the world around me.  But how do you get to that point?  How can you get to a place where you can see the world through a scientific lens in the first place?  And then, how do you integrate this worldview with the one you know?  Where, although you cannot physically sense it, you can still experience science in your every day life?

I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to think in equations all the time (as in the Abstruse Goose comic above); some things can be left to the scientists.  But really understanding science – developing a real scientific literacy, if you will – is hard!  It takes a fundamental reorganization of the way one thinks about the world and, in turn, experiences the world.  It places you in a larger context: instead of living as if it’s you, an individual, against the immediate world, science can give you a sense of the whole of life and how you fit in.

So it’s no real wonder that the two most frequently denied scientific subjects (well, at least as the media presents it) are evolution and climate change – two areas that involve slow change that an individual cannot experience.  It’s not that these people are stupid!  (I’m talking about your average, everyday deniers here; not sure what to say about the big-time activists.)  They just don’t have the mindset to reconcile the science with their experience.  This is why I am regularly horrified by the way evolution or climate deniers are approached.  They are not idiots; beating them upon the head with facts is not the way to teach them.  They do not only need facts, but also a way to make the facts relevant in their lives.  And that may be something that they can be guided toward, but need to discover for themselves.

And what they  need to know to form that framework isn’t straight facts, anyway, but more like the scientific method.  The two pillars of a scientific worldview, as I’ve thought it out, are:

  1. The ability to ask questions about the world around you.
  2. The ability to find and evaluate answers to those questions

What can educators and science communicators do to provide guidance to a scientific worldview?  I am a huge proponent of science and environmental education for children and agree with Rachel Carson that childhood is the best time to plant the seeds to encourage a “sense of wonder” about the world.  Unfortunately, the current guidelines for many schools do not encourage students to ask questions, but rather to memorize this list of facts so they can pass their test: nothing more.  (See more thoughts I have on this here.)

How do we engage adults?  This is where science writers and communicators come in: it’s our job to communicate science in such a way that it hits upon larger questions about the world and forces the reader to ask these questions about his/her own world.  This follows very closely with John Pavlus’s recent post about rehabilitating awesome.  The bottom two tiers of writing are news bites that provide cool facts about science, but are memorable “only in the way that an ice cream cone or a fart” is.

Instead, we need to aim for AWESOME, Pavlus writes.  In AWESOME stories,

Something about this material connects you to who you ARE (or want to be), above and beyond what you notice, feel, want, and do. This is inspiration and terror; the stuff that can change lives, or worlds — inner and outer.

I really feel this level of writing and communicating is what we need to develop a scientific worldview for more people.  Even if they didn’t grow up with science and thus feel alienated, by telling engrossing stories that celebrate the science of our daily lives, we can cause a small revolution in the way a person sees the world.  And that small revolution can lead to more questions, more inquiry, and, maybe eventually, someone who can see a tabletop for its atoms.

I’ll leave you now with this quote from Carl Sagan:

Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which ones best match the facts. It urges on us a fine balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything—new ideas and established wisdom. We need wide appreciation of this kind of thinking. It works. It’s an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change. Our task is not just to train more scientists but also to deepen public understanding of science.

Written by Hanner

November 18, 2010 at 10:01 am

Post on the Scientific American guest blog!

Hello friends,

It’s time for me to self-promote.  It actually makes me really uncomfortable – but I know deep down that I’ve gotta do it.  Plus you might actually be interested in this!

I was invited to write a post for the Scientific American guest blog!  It went up this morning and is about some new research on the geometry of schools of fish.  I write about why fish school, some general theory, and then dive into the research and its implications.  It’s a pretty cool story and I invite you to check it out!  Comment, tweet, digg, stumble.  Whatever you think I deserve.

Now in 3-D: the shape of krill and fish schools

Thanks for reading!


Written by Hanner

November 10, 2010 at 10:56 am

If you feed them, they will come: the effects of nitrogen fertilization on community composition in a salt marsh

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for Eutrophication has gained a pretty bad reputation considering that it is a natural process.  The word itself comes from the Greek “eutrophia” which means “healthy” and simply means the addition of nutrients into an ecosystem encouraging plant growth.  Of course, there’s good reason why eutrophication has such negative connotations these days.  Since the industrial revolution, the amount of fertilizing nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, entering ecosystems from runoff has doubled.  Just like your mother told you, too much of a good thing can be bad: too much nitrogen cause unlimited plant, algal, or phytoplanktonic growth.  When these organisms die, their decomposition uses up an incredible amount of oxygen, creating areas where these is little (hypoxic) or no (anoxic) oxygen.  One of the most famous areas for this overgrowth leading to hypoxia from eutrophication is the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, which is 6000-7000 square miles!

Satellite image of the northern Gulf of Mexico/Mississippi Delta showing hypoxic coastal water (light blue). This color change is due to excessive nutrients being washed into the sea. Source: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC, January 2003.

But this is not necessarily how the story always ends.  A little bit of fertilizer runoff can actually fertilize natural ecosystems.  This typically increases the growth of plants or other photosynthetic organisms, whose growth is normally limited by the scarcity of nitrogen and phosphorus.  When there are more plants, there is more energy available to herbivores and, in turn, omnivores and carnivores, altering the food web.

So – as you can guess – we are very interested in studying how these food webs are changed, and how the fertilizer runoff from human activities alters the structure of communities.  One effect frequently seen is that the increase in nutrients allows rarer plant species the opportunity to grow.  This increase in plant diversity leads to a greater diversity of herbivores, since herbivores that only feed on one type of plant are drawn in.  Thus this increase in diversity of species can ripple throughout the system.

One question that ecologists have been asking is how a pure plant biomass increase would effect the diversity of herbivores, omnivores and carnivores in an ecosystem.  That is – not an increase in plant diversity, but a simple increase in the amount of food available.  This is a harder question to study than you might think.  Most ecosystems are diverse to start, and the rarer species with greater nutrient requirements are always looking for a way to wiggle their way in to grow and reproduce.

Spartina alterniflora-dominated salt marsh at College Creek in James City County (Colonial National Historical Park). Photo: Irvine Wilson / © DCR Natural Heritage.

A recent study in Ecology features some beautiful experiments that do a great job addressing this question.  Gina Wimp and her crew studied a salt marsh on the coast of Tuckerton, NJ.  Salt marshes are usually a monoculture: they only have one species of plant growing, a grass called Spartina alterniflora.  Not only is it a monoculture, but just one plant!  This grass species has a rhizomal root system, which can spread its roots underneath the soil and shoot up new stalks where it can find the resources and space.  So in miles of salt marsh, you will often find a single organism.  Pretty amazing!

The researchers used this monoculture to their advantage to see whether the species composition of the community changed when there was simply MORE Spartina available as a food source.  The researchers marked off three types of plots in the salt marsh.  One was an unaltered control plot, and the other two had “low” and “high” nitrogen additions 5 times throughout the 2-month growing period.  The “high” level was the maximum amount of nitrogen you could add without killing the Spartina.  They samples the insect communities 4 times during the season, and also took measurements of the changes in plant biomass and grass height when they sampled these insects with a D-vac suction sampler.  (Yes, a vacuum for bugs.)

What did they find?  Well, to start off, they did find significantly greater growth of Spartina in the fertilized plots, and it remained a monoculture, confirming what we already thought we knew.  (Phew!)  In the fertilized plots, they found not only more insects living on the grass, but a greater diversity of species, as you can see in the figure below.  The asterisks above the sampling date show that there was a significant difference between each nitrogen treatment – that is, the different in number of insects was large and consistent enough that it was not due to chance.  AND! On top of that, the actual communities of insects were also significantly different.


Arthropod species diversity and abundance in plots of Spartina alternifora grown under 3 different nitrogen fertilization conditions (control, low and high). Both diversity and richness increased with greater fertilization. From Wimp et al. 2010 (Ecology)

In summary: the increase in the amount of plant biomass alone (through fertilization) not only increased the number of insects and the number of different species sequentially, but also the relative abundances of each of those species to one another.  WHOAA!

What does this mean really?  Most of the focus on overfertilization from runoff has been on these dead zones and areas of hypereutrophication that I discussed earlier.  But this study shows that, even when plant diversity is unaffected, the addition of nitrogen and phosphorus affects not only plant growth, but what species are living in an area and how many of each are around.  That is: we are changing entire ecological communities.

On one hand, this seems like a good thing.  When a little bit of fertilizer reaches ecosystems, there is an increase in production and an overall increase in biodiversity, which we generally agree is a good thing.  But the problem with changing the structure of a community and even altering its food web is the potentially for causing a fundamental change in an ecosystem itself.  Seems like a strange concept – but what if the increase in growth brings in an organisms that somehow disrupts the growth of Spartina in the first place?  Then, while we temporarily have a buzzing, diverse community of organisms, the initial community could be lost, decreasing overall biodiversity.

I’m not trying to scare you or be a fearmongerer: but these are the extreme questions we have to ask when contemplating how our actions are influencing the typically balanced communities of organisms that surround us.  This truly beautifully-designed study gives us the information that communities can change just from more food resources being available.  And we can use this information to help regulate agriculture and prevent vast ecological changes from occurring that could be detrimental to the organisms, and us, in the end.

Wimp, G., Murphy, S., Finke, D., Huberty, A., & Denno, R. (2010). Increased primary production shifts the structure and composition of a terrestrial arthropod community Ecology, 91 (11), 3303-3311 DOI: 10.1890/09-1291.1

Written by Hanner

November 5, 2010 at 10:50 am

Hannah’s Picks of the Interwebs (Oct 2010)

Hey Guys,

Welcome to Hannah’s Picks, a new monthly feature in which I sum up the best things I read/saw in the previous month.  These will mostly be picked out of my google reader shares because these represent not only the things I think are interesting/well-written, but are accessible to non-scientists and/or provide a useful perspective.  There won’t be too many – not more than 10.  I really intend for this to be the cream of the crop as far as the month’s science writing/web fun goes (in my opinion, obviously).

FIRST: SHAMELESS PLUG – The post from my other blog, Sleeping with the Fishes, that I think you will be most interested in.

We now have the technology to not only quantify the approximate amount of phytoplankton by satellite, but also identify type of organism!  This actually blows my mind – identifying the genus or group FROM SPACE.  If you want to read about it, click here: The grand diversity of phytoplankton: focusing from space.  (It was a Research Blogging Editors’ Selection, if that’s any incentive…)


The 29th edition of the Carnival of Evolution is up at Byte Size Biology.  Some highlights include:

Also be sure to check out this month’s grad student carnival – about eating in style (on the cheap!) and hosted by Scicurious


“Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science” by David H. Freedman
Maintaining a healthy skepticism about scientific research is a tough line to tread.  Lean too far on one side, and you encourage a distrust of science generally; but trusting research without confirming its rationality is also unwise.  This is a common problem in medical science in particular, with much over-hyped reporting and some questionable studies.  PLEASE read this article in the Atlantic – you seriously won’t regret it.

“Carbon Dioxide and Climate”
This article isn’t as trite as the title implies – in fact, it was the opposite at the time.  This is a reprint of a 1959 Scientific American article suggesting that human activity may be affecting the earth’s climate!  WHOOA!  Worth the read for the historical perspective.

“Back from the Brink: Victories in Conservation”
Most writing about endangered species is incredibly depressing.  To promote conservation, it makes sense to promote some feeling of guilt about or responsibility for our planet and its organisms, but all the sad stories can make conservation efforts seem hopeless.  The team at Southern Fried Science wrote this lovely piece highlighting successes in bringing endangered species back from the brink.  It’s a great reminder that we CAN do something, and that our efforts are worth it.

“What are Species Worth? Putting a Price on Biodiversity” by Richard Conniff
Along the same lines – we hear all the time how important it is to preserve biodiversity, but sometimes the effort doesn’t seem worth it.  So what if we lose one species – we have so many!  Richard Conniff explains why diversity is so important, both to the planet and our own human livelihood, and why one species does matter.

Nikon’s Small World Photography Contest Winners Gallery
Gorgeous pictures of tiny things. I don’t think this needs more of a plug than that.  Soap film, cancer cells, soy sauce, and banana stem as you’ve never seen them before.


Stephen Fry’s “What I Wish I’d Known When I was 18.”
A half-hour of life advice from Stephen Fry.  Perfect.  Listen while you’re cooking dinner.


Proper time vs. Remembered Time on Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal
Funny and poignant, as it should be.

Soldier serving his queen on Buttersafe
I won’t give away the punchline this time.


Autumn, again,” new album from Philly’s A Sunny Day in Glasgow, which they are giving away!  Free download!  It’s really lovely.


Written by Hanner

November 3, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Posted in Science on the Internet

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