Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

Archive for the ‘Science on the Internet’ Category

3Quarks Daily Science Blogging Contest: Vote for someone!

Why write again what Jason has already written?

Why write again what Bora has already written?

“The great science blog 3 Quarks Daily has announced the voting for it’s third annual prize for the best science writing on blogs. Last year, the judge was Richard Dawkins. This year, once the voting by the public narrows down the choices, the finalists will be judged by Lisa Randall.

Check out the nominees and then vote for your favorite.”

So this year, several of my posts were nominated. Vote for one of mine, or vote for another, but definitely vote.

Voting closes Wednesday at 11:59pm eastern time (8:59pm pacific time), so do it soon!

I’ve got 1 million friends who were nominated for their great work. Just vote for SOMEONE, alright? If you vote for me you get a high-five!!

I’ll be back to blogging again soon. Between a fabulous weekend of blogging for the World Science Festival and starting my internship at Nature Medicine last week, I’ve been a bit swamped. But see you soon – ON THE INTERNET.

Written by Hanner

June 7, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Lazy Sunday Video: A tour de force through the history of life

Posting the lazy sunday video at 4pm: That means it’s an exceptionally lazy day!

But it’s also an exceptional video — one of my favorites that I’ve seen on the whole of the internet. (Gasp!) Piecing together clips from dozens of science documentaries and specials overlaid with stunning music, the youtube user UppruniTegundanna starts out tracing the history of humans, integrating technological and artistic development. Then it takes a turn to beautifully visualize the most severe mass extinctions on this planet before starting from the beginning — from the big bang, formation of the solar system and earth, the first molecules and the evolution of life as we know it.

It’s a lot of ground to cover and it’s so well done. Get ready for 12 straight minutes of butterflies and chills. I haven’t failed to get them each time I watch it, an unquantifiable number of times at this point.

In this video and his others, the artist seems to truly grasp the magnificence of the universe. At its heart, this video is about natural disasters, embracing extinction and death as key to how we got here. In a lovely blog post this week, Patrick Clarkin wrote:

Eugenie Scott, Director of the National Center for Science Education, has written that for many laypeople the notion that evolution is an unguided, mechanistic process implies that “life has no meaning.” However, contrast that view with how many scientists write about nature. The sense of awe and reverence that is exuded is palpable.

And this video exemplifies this — true awe at the fact that we exist at all.

Written by Hanner

May 15, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Lazy Sunday Video: Endangered species vs. humans

Balancing the needs of endangered species that can damage human property and the people that own the property is quite the trick — one that hasn’t exactly been figured out yet. Ranchers call the conservationists arrogant hippies, conservationists call the ranchers heartless and selfish.

And as with so many of the battles in our species, it all comes down to property — who has right to the land? I think it’s a particularly interesting facet of the right-to-property debate because it really is so easy to understand where each side is coming from, especially as an outsider, while such squabbles (or wars) within our own species get complicated very quickly.

This short video by Jeffrey Mittelstadt, a UNC master’s student in documentary journalism, does a great job articulating the argument between the two “sides” by interviewing a rancher and a government worker working to protect the Florida Panther. You can read an interview with him as well.

Hat tip to Jason Goldman

Written by Hanner

May 8, 2011 at 11:50 am

Lazy Sunday Video: What NASA does

“Now that I think about it, many universal constants are more certain than death and taxes..”

Funny video, starring a cute boy, about how NASA helps to increase the awesome of the USA! Why is NASA worth .45 cents of each of your tax dollars?

I’m convinced.

NASA: Decreasing the suck. Increasing the awesome.

Written by Hanner

May 1, 2011 at 10:35 am

Baby eagles, now on webcam

Right now there are over 150,000 people watching a Bald Eagle nest in Decorah, IO with me over webcam.

Isn’t the internet wonderful?

Join the cool club and look at some cute/ugly baby birds (or just the momma eagle nesting) with us on ustream

UPDATE: According to Wired, there is still another chick  that hasn’t hatched yet! And it will probably hatch within the next 48 hours! You know what that means: NO SLEEPING. NO GOING OUTSIDE. I hope it doesn’t hatch during my commute…

Written by Hanner

April 5, 2011 at 12:11 pm

The danger of appealing stories: anecdata, expectations, and skepticism

Image: DFID/Russell Watkins

This lovely image was taken by Russell Watkins in Sindh, Pakistan, and I was directed to it by a brief article in New Scientist. Reporter Seil Collins:

Covered in spiders’ webs, these cocooned trees in Sindh, Pakistan, are an unexpected result of floods that hit the region in 2010.

To escape from the rising waters, millions of spiders crawled up into trees. The scale of the flooding and the slow rate at which the waters receded, have left many trees completely enveloped in spiders’ webs.

Although slowly killing the trees, the phenomenon is seemingly helping the local population. People in Sindh have reported fewer mosquitos than they would have expected given the amount of stagnant water in the area. It is thought the mosquitoes are getting caught in the spiders’ webs, reducing their numbers and the associated risk of malaria.

I love this idea. My friends have been passing it around google reader, and it seems to make a lot of sense: More spiders, more webs, more dead mosquitoes in webs, fewer mosquitoes, less malaria. Bing bam boom.

The problem with it: It’s entirely based on anecdata. Anecdata has been my favorite word for about six months now, as well as a topic of fixation for me. It describes information from compiled from a number of agreeing anecdotes, stories, or items of hearsay — “psuedo-data [sic] produced from anecdotes” in the words of urban dictionary. Hearing that multiple people have made similar observations or had similar experiences can clue you into a trend, but hearing a lot of stories doesn’t prove anything. Storytelling is subjective and malleable, not the qualities of good data.

I haven’t been able to find a single scientific source for this mosquito/spider/flood story, though I’d give you a double high-five if you could find one for me.

So what’s the deal with data? We humans look around at our world, make observations, connect them, and use our rationality to draw reasonable conclusions. The story behind the photo makes sense: A number of separate correlations fit together. Who am I to say that we need SCIENTIFIC DATA, free from bias, to speak any kind of truth? After all, the chance to collect baseline data about mosquito and spider populations, average web coverage, mosquitoes per inch of web, etc. has passed and now we can only look back and try to remember what it was like before.

The problem with memory: It changes based on new information. And the problem with stories: They are borne from preconceived expectations.

I recently spoke with Timothy Mousseau, a biologist at the University of South Carolina, for The Scientist about the ecology of Chernobyl. If you scroll through media coverage of this topic, you’ll find many references to the Chernobyl site, which has received the highest level of radiation to date, as a wildlife preserve, one that has finally been able to thrive now that humans have left the area.

Mousseau, however, says this is a perfect example of anecdata. (Well, actually, I was the one who used the word. He thought it was very funny and I was the happiest.) Visitors go to Chernobyl expecting a wasteland, and instead they see the plants and animals that have returned in the past two decades.  These people aren’t liars — they just can’t help but exaggerate. The visitors went in with expectations about what they were going to see, and when the reality was so drastically different, they went back home and told stories about the booming wildlife, even if it hadn’t actually returned to pre-radiation standards.

But many scientists, Mousseau included, have done a great deal of ecological research at Chernobyl and have found decreases in the number and diversity of many taxa, decreased sperm counts and brain size, and physical mutations, particularly in Mousseau’s specialty species, the barn swallow. (I’m going to write up more detail on this over the weekend, do not fear!)

This story of the thriving of wildlife in the absence of humans at Chernobyl, despite the nuclear fallout, is so appealing. It’s got the perfect ingredients: It’s a bit counterintuitive, but after a moment of thought, the pieces fit. “Ohhh, people were worse for the wildlife than radiation! Thank god this nuclear disaster happened and got rid of all the people so the animals can live in peace!” And as an added bonus, it lets us feel a little better about a terrible incident. It’s really no wonder the media clung to this story — but it’s probably not true. It’s just an instance of storytelling being interpreted as data, despite its contamination with human inference and expectation.

That’s what makes me nervous about this flood/spider/mosquito story. It has very similar appeal: The bit of surprise that a flood could decrease malaria, the “ohh” moment when the patterns seem to stack up, and, once again, a bit of good-feeling about a situation that was disastrous for many people.

Oh yeah, and that the reports are totally anecdotal, made by “people in Sindh.”

I want to believe it! It’s beautiful and makes me feel good inside! But the stories that are the most appealing are probably the stories that we should be most skeptical about. And they are also the most dangerous because they are the ones that will be retold over and over.

Written by Hanner

March 25, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Carnal Carnival: Body Odor Edition!

Welcome to the 6th edition of the Carnal Carnival, a blog carnival founded by Bora Zivkovic and Jason Goldman, dedicated to celebrating the traditionally gross in the animal world.  Previous editions have featured poop, vomit, decay and orgasm (which is less gross, but still pretty taboo).

This month of January 2011, the carnival features BODY ODOR!

I'm an artiste; don't judge

You know … when you go to the gym and there’s that one guy, shirtless and reeking of garlic, who happens to be on the treadmill next to you and you nearly pass out.  Or maybe it’s your best friend and, after months of avoiding having a conversation with her about her overwhelming odor, you just buy her deodorant for her birthday.  The smell of B.O. is imprinted upon each of our minds – a stench that sometimes makes us question why we have the ability to smell in the first place.

What is smell and why would we evolve this sense?  What we think of as smell – sniffing odors through our noses – is just a form of chemosensing, found in bacteria, ants, dogs, and, yes, humans.  We have chemoreceptors in our noses that pick up chemicals in our environment and interpret them.  Bacteria use chemosensing to pick up on cues in the environment, molecules of poison or food for example, and can then move towards or away from them.  Ants are well known for their pheromone trails which can alert other members of their colony to danger or to a food source.

The Search by xkcd

In a similar vein, humans have retained their sense of smell to identify food and poisons.  Because rotten food, such as the “smelly dead” illustrated by Viktor Poor of Stripped Science below, gives off such a rank smell and can also make us sick, we can learn to avoid poisonous food based on smell.  But that’s not all this sense does.  We like to think that we are far mightier than ants and that we have control over all our decisions based on mind and intellect alone.  But just like the ant, we also communicate messages to each other through pheromones given off in our sweat, our body odor, that we interpret without realizing it.

Drawing by Viktor Poor of "Stripped Science"

The Smell of Fear

Pounding heart.  Sweaty palms.  Sudden inability to speak.  Enhanced athletic ability.  These are all human reactions to fear.  When you’re scared or anxious or nervous, you feel them to your core – however, those around you might not be aware that you are so scared, much less why.  Thus there is a benefit to be able to communicate this emotion to the people around you, so that they can also be aware, alert, and ready to react.

Since there is not yet evidence of telepathy, sense of smell is the obvious way for individuals to communicate with one another non-verbally.

  • Does sweat produced when a person is anxious make others who smell it more likely to take risks? See this post at BPS Research Digest by Christian Jarrett
  • Can the smell of sweat produced by subjects in horror (watching horror films) cause others to be more likely to see threats where there aren’t any? See Neurocritic‘s post, “I Know What You Sweated Last Summer”

B. O. is sexy?

I have a friend who doesn’t shower too frequently.  Whenever his hair is looking a little greasy and he starts to smell a bit funky, someone will often joke to his girlfriend, “how do you put up with it?”  He’ll then stick his armpit in her face and, with triumph, yell, “She loves my smell!  She can’t get enough!”  Is there any truth to this?

  • Can a woman determine whether a man is aroused just by smelling his sweat?  See posts at both the Neuroskeptic and Christie Wilcox, at her old site
  • Can you identify your partner based on scent alone?  And does this ability vary depending on how “in love” she is?  See this post at Christie Wilcox’s site at Scienceblogs
  • Could there be another explanation for my friend’s cocky behavior? Scicurious of Neurotopia presents an interesting study correlating the attractiveness of a man, rated by women, with his self-evaluation of his own smell

For a great overview on this topic, read Jesse Bering’s post on his Scientific American blog, “Bering in Mind,” Armpit Psychology: The Science of Body Odor Perception.

That’s just rank!

Sometimes there’s nothing else to say but that.

  • How do you deal with people who have bad B.O. in public spaces?  Christina Pikas writes about B.O. in public libraries
  • Morning breath.  We all know about this particular breed of B.O. James Byrne of Disease Prone writes about this, and the broader bad-breath diagnosis of halitosis
  • People aren’t the only ones who can sense and have to deal with the stink of one another.  Read about how elephants can differentiate between different human ethnic groups based on smell alone on Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science

To learn more about the evolution of pheromones, I recommend Dr. Kara Hoover’s recent review in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, “Smell with Inspiration: the evolutionary significance of olfaction.”

Thanks for reading, and I hope you learned a thing or two about the science of human stench.

To end, I’d like to share the greatest human-produced smell of all: The Smell of Teen Spirit

Written by Hanner

January 24, 2011 at 10:01 pm


It’s that time of the month.. or rather, it was that time of the month 3 weeks ago, but I’m an idiot.


What is the carnal carnival?  It’s a collection of blog posts on the same topic that all happen to be gross or otherwise bodily!  Previous editions have included poop, vomit, decay, and orgasm,!

This month’s edition?  BODY ODOR!

Submit your posts – recent or old!  Dig through your archives and find your best posts that celebrate reeking stench!  Even if they are not gross – I would be just as happy to celebrate those lovely pheromones and learn about how they work, when, and why.

It’s a celebration of animal smell!

It was supposed to happen tomorrow – but I will have to delay until MONDAY, JANUARY 24, 2011.  Submit your posts! Submit your friends’ posts! Your mother’s posts!


Thank you and I’m looking forward to this carnival of body odor.

Written by Hanner

January 20, 2011 at 11:26 am

Why conservation? (on Southern Fried Science)

As long as we’re considering human nature in terms of how we treat one another this new year, we may as well consider how we treat other species.  That is, conservation.

Once you start thinking about Homo sapiens as just another organism competing for resources, traditional views about conservation start to crumble.  We’re raised, once again in anthropocentrism, believing that it is our job to take care of the planet.  But if we’re competing, who really cares what we destroy along the way?  Is it not just part of evolution, of natural selection and survival of the fittest?

I have a lot of thoughts on this matter, but I’d like to point you all to a post by Andrew Thaler of Southern Fried Science.  As a biologist studying hydrothermal vents, he often wrestles with the question of, “who cares? Why should we save hydrothermal vents?”  In his post, he really gets down to the thick of it, the point that gets to me every time: we evolved behavior to care about the environment.

What makes us truly unique is not our ability to destroy, but our ability to conserve. No other species in the history of the planet has recognized the inherent value in another species, not as a resource, food source, or substrate, but simply as another living organism. No other species has expended its own resources, its own precious energy, to protect another, simply for the sake of the other species existence. No other species has ever planned and implemented an initiative to bring a species back from the brink of extinction. As certain as humanity’s ability to destroy has driven countless species to extinction, it is our unique and, frankly, unnatural desire to preserve and protect species and ecosystems for purely altruistic reasons that defines us.

Read the full post here.

Written by Hanner

January 3, 2011 at 3:37 pm

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