Archive for the ‘Phenomena’ Category

An angel for Christmas

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008
angelsmall.JPGThe cell phone camera photo of a security camera image taken in a hospital hallway in September 2008.

Fourteen-year-old Chelsea Banton was near death, hospitalized for pneumonia. She was removed from life support, and—could it be a miracle?—slowly began to improve. At the same time, a mysterious angelic form was seen hovering outside her hospital room. Her mother Colleen credits her daughter’s recovery to the angel. “It’s a miracle,” she said. Ann Curry opened this “news” piece on the Today show by suggesting that even skeptics might reconsider their cynicism after viewing the late-breaking evidence. Sixty-eight percent of Americans believe in angels (that’s 19% more than believe in evolution) already. But this is not an especially awesome example of supernatural shenanigans (the angel totally looks like a glare). And it’s not even a Christmas coincidence: this all took place months ago. I guess the news is all relative.

Dance dance… evolution?

Saturday, November 22nd, 2008

Some things are really hard to understand. Like, how to resolve pathways of functional coupling in human hemoglobin—even if using quantitative low temperature isoelectric focusing of asymmetric mutant hybrids. So hard!

Fortunately, Dr. Vince LiCata, a researcher at Louisiana State University, has performed an interpretive dance on this very topic. In fact, Dr. LiCata has recently won the 2009 AAAS/Science “Dance Your PhD” Contest in the “professor” category. (There are also grad student, post-doc, and most-popular-on-YouTube categories.) Watch Dr. LiCata and his team perform the winning dance:

This is an extraordinary contest. Previous winners received a year’s subscription to Science. But this year the winners get something more:

Each [winner] will be paired with a professional choreographer. (A team of 4 choreographers in Chicago are ready and waiting.) Over the next couple of weeks (via email and telephone) you must help your choreographer understand your article, its aims, the hypotheses it tests, and its big-picture context. With that knowledge, the choreographers will collaborate with a group of professional dancers to create a 4-part dance based on the science behind the 4 winning research articles.

You will be honored guests at the 2009 AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago in February, [where] you will have front row seats to the world debut of “THIS IS SCIENCE”—the professional dance interpretation of your scientific research.

The mission of this contest is to bring scientists and artists together, and to engage the public with science. I’ve never heard of anything quite like it, at least not anything that is being developed from such grassroots origins—the intent is to produce a full theatrical run and world tour! Winners are expected to participate as “science diplomats,” bridging that perilous gap between basic science research and public interest and understanding. How fantastic! You can watch other dances, like creator John Bohannon’s interpretation of the role of the WSS operon in the adaptive evolution of experimental populations of Pseudomonas fluorescens SBW25, on the contest site or on YouTube.

It keeps coming back

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

snapper.jpgMy friends from college and I have a reunion vacation every year in a cabin in the Adirondacks, and there is this turtle that lives in the pond on the property that keeps joining us. It is a massive snapping turtle. It looks just like the picture and it is terrifying.

Two years ago we tried to catch it. The reptile specialist in my department recommended a reinforced cardboard box and some sort of lasso on a very long stick. The advice was imparted reluctantly; he actually recommended staying away from it altogether and showed incredulity when I explained about the skinny dipping. As a somewhat fearsome individual himself, this was a shock, and it justified the alarmist attitude that was already preventing the boys from lounging in the inner tubes. Some impatient internet research had convinced me that snappers, while vicious and aggressive and sure to snap off your digits if you disturb them on land, are of a diffident and temperate personality underwater. Our empirical evidence only partially supported this claim: it did bite one of us on the foot; the foot, like the turtle, was in the water; the leg and all the rest was on land. (Amputation was avoided, and no one died of Salmonella poisoning.) This was, if I recall correctly, our introduction, and that first impression may have instilled an unreasonable level of antagonism between us.

Anyway the year we brought the relocation equipment, we couldn’t find the turtle. This year, with short memories and fresh enthusiasm for a splash in the lake, we saw it again. It likes hanging around the dock, and provides plenty of opportunity for ogling. So grotesquely prehistoric! I love it, but it scares me. It’s quite the summer thrill.

Is the golden age of beekeeping over?

Friday, June 15th, 2007

honeybee.jpgHave you heard about the honeybee crisis? Sometimes beekeepers discover that their hives have dwindled or gone extinct over the winter. Such events are usually rare, however, and multiple colony collapses are typically local phenomena. But across America, beekeepers are now reporting alarming numbers of hive deaths. A 20% loss over the winter is normal, but beekeepers in California report losses up to 60% and losses have been even higher in Texas and on the east coast.

My dad’s been keeping bees since 1977. He started the hobby when we lived in suburban Maryland, on a half-acre yard cultivated with peach, pear, apple, plum and cherry trees, hedges of blackberries and raspberries, blueberry bushes, a strawberry patch, a full vegetable garden and a perimeter of grapes. The hives were tucked between a neighbor’s evergreen and our chinese chestnut (I associated that region of the yard with painful sharp things) and got lots of sun—a perfect environment, even if the surrounding neighborhood exhibited a far more suburban landscape. In those days, my dad says, he occasionally got honey yields as high as an impressive 110 pounds per hive. But talking with him on the phone yesterday, he declared, “The golden age of beekeeping is over.” In the late 1980s, he began finding mite infestations in his hives. Soon other beekeepers at the Susquehanna Beekeepers’ Association meetings were reporting similar problems, and domestic bee colonies never really recovered. About a decade ago, my parents moved to a rural part of the county. Close by are fields farmed with soybean, corn, oats and sunflowers, but the surrounding woods shade the hives and the microenvironment is just a little too damp. Last year my dad had three hives, but this spring he’s left with just one. Is it the mites? Is it part of the nationwide trend of colony deaths?