The Age of Observation

How long have we been counting?

I recently watched Louis C.K.’s latest standup routine on Netflix. One of his bits is that even though all religions are “equal,” he tells his kids that “the Christians won.” His proof: What year is it?

This got me thinking. The Gregorian Calendar does implicitly uphold the birth of Jesus as the Most Important Event Ever. Maybe that’s fine, because all timekeeping systems are invariably arbitrary. And changing the one we’ve got would be a phenomenal inconvenience. But what if we’d rather emphasize values that aren’t uniquely Christian? Science. Reason. Egalitarianism. The kinds of things people are marching in the streets about. Could we do better? Ideally, what would a secular, globally acceptable calendar look like?

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140,000 Words

Too cool for school? Or just cool enough?

When I was about ten, I got a Far Side page-a-day calendar for Christmas. Of course I couldn’t wait a whole year to read the cartoons, so I sat down and flipped through the entire thing. I adored the gags, but I couldn’t understand many of them. My poor parents had to set a rule that they would explain only one joke per month, to minimize my pestering them with questions. That left me to research the others on my own, plunging me into books on prehistory, microbiology, and ecology.

So I learned a lot from Gary Larson. Inspired, I copied his style in my own attempts at humorous line drawing. As the child of two schoolteachers in rural Alaska, I spent a lot of time in classrooms both before and after the other students had to be there, which gave me plenty of access to barren blackboards. Day after day I illustrated scientific puns with chalk. I like cartooning, but my freehand skills are limited. I will never create gorgeous scientific sketches on par with Bird and Moon, American Beetles, or Stated Clearly. Still, I’ve always loved using simple whimsical pictures to share truths about nature.

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Invaders and Recluses

Do these defenses even work?

Nature, it has been said, is red in tooth and claw. An endless struggle. When two species go at it for long enough, they even begin to adapt to each other. Each new weapon prompts a new counter-weapon in your enemy. This constant escalation, as illustrated in this Futurama gif, is called a coevolutionary arms race. The term originated back when the USA and the USSR were busy building missiles and anti-missiles, and it was easily to see evolution in the same light. But it’s still just a metaphor, and perhaps not the best one. After all, the goal of a nuclear arms race is Mutual Assured Destruction: peace because the consequences of war would be unthinkable to either side. An analogous situation might exist in a face-off between two heavily-armored members of the same species, but interspecies interactions are rarely so symmetrical. They are less like The Butter Battle Book and more like Green Eggs and Ham: a persistent and dynamic chase. That matters, because sometimes one of the species is us. Humans often seek to control nature: to kill germs, to eliminate weeds and pests, to stop vectors from spreading disease. If we’re going to get our teeth and claws bloody, we should at least know what kind of fight we’re joining.

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Seeing Russia from my House

The ptarmigan of peace?

I’m encountering a lot of anxiety about Russia these days. Maybe it’s because our recent election turned out to be triumph of Kremlin meddling. Or it might be that the insecure man-child they helped install is now threatening to revive the nuclear arms race. Could Russia end up digging its fingers further into American soil? I’m no geopolitical analyst, and I don’t know. Certainly there is precedent. Russia has done so before, for longer than these fifty states have existed as a nation. Of course I’m talking about Alaska. And I do know something about that. I can’t predict or explain the actions of a foreign government, or even our own. But maybe we can all learn to get along anyway.

Throughout my entire childhood, I spent part of each year in the former Russian Empire. My otherwise-Midwestern parents were schoolteachers in several tiny villages on the Kodiak Archipelago. I attended two years of high school in Ouzinkie, population 221, a Native Alaskan community on Spruce Island. The island is lush and evergreen, covered with spruce and alder, teeming with salmon and eagles, and free from the famous bears of the larger islands. Everything comes in by bush plane via a rocky airstrip. The majority of vehicles on the gravel streets are ATVs, along with a handful of trucks. Folks enjoy fishing, hunting, boating, basketball, and, at least in those days before Netflix, plenty of satellite TV.

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A Biosphere of One

Even a seed can be an ark

Biodiversity is a hard concept to pin down. The word evokes a rich ecosystem brimming with plant and animal species. But is it just the number of species that matters, or their dissimilarity? Picture a pond with twenty kinds of frog and no other vertebrates. Surely you’d call it less diverse than a pond with twenty total species of frogs, snakes, turtles, muskrats, carp, ducks, and newts. And what if one species has a lot of genetic variation? Is the kaleidoscopic western ground snake, with myriad shades and stripe patterns, weighted the same as a population of genetically identical salamander clones? What about individuals? Can one organism be more biodiverse, by itself, than another? I once had a t-shirt that proclaimed “BIODIVERSITY” with a picture of a lone, multicolored frog. It implied that a single animal can be biodiverse if it only has enough distinct pigments. Nonsense? Or is there something to this idea?

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Race Ed

Does DNA cause racial differences in test scores?

I got a lot of feedback from Race, Genetics and Taboo. Mostly positive, believe it or not. One particularly engaging e-mail conversation was with Jonathan Tweet, author of the fantastic evolutionary children’s book Grandmother Fish. A lot came out of these dialogues worth sharing with the world. In any case, it’s my responsibility as a geneticist. Just as educators need to speak openly about safe sex despite it being an uncomfortable topic, so it is with race. Thus, even though I maintain that other species are more interesting, here I am writing again about (human) race and genetics.

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The Koala Conspiracy

Do marsupials even exist?

The word of the year for 2016 is officially “post-truth.” It seems a lot of folks just don’t care very much for facts. Instead, they form beliefs based on subjective feelings about what kind of experts are trustworthy and what kinds of stories fit their existing worldview. Fake news is rampant. It thrives under a secular version of Poe’s law: when politics has been fractured into extremes, any tale about the opposition sounds plausible. We are at an impasse. If showing people the data is not good enough, what is?

For science educators, this is nothing new. The most dispiriting and challenging aspect of science outreach isn’t ignorance, it’s willful denial. Folks who have heard about climate change, evolution, the effectiveness of vaccines, or the safety of GMOs, but simply refuse to believe it. It’s frustrating. How do objective scientists reach out to the illogical masses?

We can start by not framing it as such a duality. Everyone operates on subjective belief. We’re not so different from each other.

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