Science marches on!

The three of us–Dave (my husband), our friend Peggy, and I–headed to Justin Herman Plaza via BART and arrived just as the speeches were starting. I don’t know how many people were there, but it felt pretty full. We looked in vain for the rest of our group, Indivisible Berkeley, but settled on a spot on the steps where we could sit. We figured we could join up with them later.

There were scientists, teachers, engineers, and just a lot of people who appreciate science cheering on the speakers. It’s crazy that in this day and age we have to march to show our support of science, but it was encouraging to see that plenty of folks still value it in the Bay Area.

And the Clif Bars company had people handing out free Clif Bars to everyone. Thank you, Clif Bars!

As the speeches were ending, Peggy, Dave, and I moved to the back of the plaza where we found our group with the Indivisible Berkeley banner unfurled and ready to go. About a dozen of us positioned ourselves behind or alongside the banner ready to march. And we waited. Because we were at the back, it took quite a while before we actually got to move, but we had fun taking selfies and pointing out all the great signs.

In fact, I think the signs were my favorite part of the march. So much creativity, thought, and humor went into them, and many were handmade and unique. Several used scientific language and symbols to bring home their points.

I loved one that read “You know it’s important when even introverts march.” A girl of about five years had a sandwich board-style sign on her front that read “Be part of the solution” and one on her back that read “Don’t just be a precipitate.” But I hadn’t seen the one in front and couldn’t actually remember what a precipitate was, so I was puzzled until Dave explained it to me.

I saw a sign that was just a cut-out of the Lorax, one that featured two stranded penguins, a few that read “I’m with her” and pointed to Earth, and lots that just pointed out the ways that science is a good thing. I liked the simplicity of the one that said “Hug a science teacher,” held presumably by a science teacher.

Some people, like me, were there as part of a group and proudly held banners or wore matching t-shirts. Others came with friends and/or family. A group of elementary-school children chanted jubilantly WE LOVE SCIENCE!

 

There were atheists and religious people there with different views of god but who marched together for science.

The dynamic duo–Bill Nye & Neil deGrasse Tyson!

 

 

Of course, as at any protest, a few people used the opportunity to spout their particular beliefs. Hence the sign held by a guy sitting on the side of the march route that claimed “9/11 was an inside job.” To which my husband, Dave, replied, “Well, the planning probably did take place indoors…”

 

 

 

But most of the signs were on point and even spelled correctly. And everyone was in a pretty good mood, despite looming climate change and the impending decimation of the EPA.

I saw one person in a polar bear suit and another in a brown bear suit. Luckily it was a cloudy day, and the temperature stayed in the low 60s. Otherwise, those would have been some hot bears…

Alongside the marching route was a trio portraying some of Trump’s cabinet picks, some people selling homemade baked goods to hungry marchers, and some people who preferred to watch as the parade went by rather than march in it.

We landed at the Civic Center where there were tents set up and a Brazilian dance group was just starting to perform. But we were tired, and we’d done what we’d come to do. So we found the closest BART station and headed home.

It’s tiring having to march for something that should just be a given. But if it makes any difference at all, it was worth it.

 

 

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Why I listen to public radio, part 3

bison on Catalina

Yesterday morning I learned from Morning Edition on NPR that there are buffalo off the coast of California.

Really.

Of course they didn’t swim to Santa Catalina Island on their own. These buffalo were left behind from a movie shoot back in 1924, and the movie never even got made. But what started out as 14 bison grew to 600 by the 80s. You know the story—a non-native gets introduced to a habitat where it has no natural predators and thrives. Sort of like cane toads, but a lot bigger.

A conservancy group managed to bring the numbers down somewhat through hunting, but was mostly relying on shipping them off to South Dakota. And that’s more than a few forever stamps.

Biologist Julie King is in charge of the wild bison that currently roam the island. That is, they’re her responsibility, but they are not an easy bunch to manage.

“I’m guessing they thought bison were a lot like cattle, that you could turn them loose and herd them fairly easily,” King said.

bison birth controlBut that is not the case, and shipping is costly. So for the past three years they’ve been trying something new—a birth control vaccine injected by dart guns. (I suppose that’s easier than trying to apply condoms.)

Now the herd is at a manageable 150, and they’ve become somewhat popular as a tourist attraction for people who want to see bison but don’t want to go to South Dakota to do it.

To listen to the full story, go to http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=211440302&m=211585110.

 

Why I love public radio, part 1

cityartsandlecture-300x300On the way home from a friend’s book launch (that will have to be a separate post), I turned on the radio to one of my pre-tuned public radio stations, KQED, and heard part of an episode from the City Arts & Lecture series. I recognized Michael Krasny’s voice from KQED’s Forum and listened to him interview Helen E. Fisher, a biological anthropologist. The topic was the science of love and attraction, but the idea that I found the most thought provoking was one Fisher brought to light in response to Krasny’s question regarding nature versus nurture.Michael Krasny

Fisher said that the more we learn about biology, the more we can control our responses to it. Yes, we are born with tendencies, some of them quite strong. But our culture shapes what biology has given us. And because humans have free will, we can choose whether to passively become what is easier by nature or forge another path. Fisher said she thought it was time to throw out the old nature versus nurture paradigm because it set up a false dichotomy that didn’t take into account a third player—free will.

So biology is not destiny. But neither is culture. We are neither solely a product of our nature or our nurture. That’s not new—the obvious answer has always been that we are a combination of the two. But Fisher brazenly threw out the whole nature/nurture argument, which makes so much sense to me. It’s as if I’ve always felt this in my bones but assumed that there was only way that I was allowed to view it.

Helen Fisher
Helen Fisher

This little snippet of an interview that I just happened to hear gave me an entirely new lens on which to view life and the way the world works.

And that’s just one of the many reasons I love public radio.

Confessions of a blogger

We’ve all done it. That is, if you’re a blogger. But I write this not to point any fingers at anyone, or try to bring you all down with me, but merely to get this off my chest: I, Tanya, check out my stats routinely, tirelessly, religiously.

No, that sounds too normal for what I do. The truth is I pore over each stat in a rabid frenzy, gleaning every possible morsel of information, whether it’s an actual scientific observation (on October 21, 11 people read my post on Lauren Myracle and the National Book Award debacle) or inferred (people don’t like cute kitty photos as much as I thought). There, I’ve said it, er, written it.

I’ve never been to an AA meeting, but everyone knows that the first step to conquering an addiction is admitting you have one, right? Although I confessed my problem with Angry Birds a few months back, and I’m no closer to being free of them…

For those of you who have escaped the allure of those stat bars, let me just explain how many ways you can crunch the numbers when you peek at your stats to see who is reading which blog posts:

  • the number of hits you get on any particular post in a day
  • the total number of hits you’ve gotten so far on any particular post
  • the percentage change of views from one week to the next
  • the number of comments on a particular post
  • the average number of hits for a particular post in any month
  • the number of views on your busiest day ever
  • the total number of views today
  • the number of categories you’ve used so far
  • the total number of tags you’ve used
  • the number of your active followers
  • how many spam comments you’ve been spared by your spam filter
  • total referrals you’ve gotten from search engines
  • which post has had the most viewers today
  • how many views have you gotten for the month of October this year
  • how many views have you gotten for the month of October last year
  • and, of course, how many total views in the lifetime of your blog

But I don’t stop there. I compare the number of views I got on a book review to the number of views I got on the post about an author reading I attended.

Or I wonder why my post on insect sex got more hits than my Top Ten List, especially since insects, sex, and insect sex are not even regular categories that I cover. Then I begin to think that maybe instead of focusing on books, writing,  and publishing, I should really do a science blog.

Except that I’m a writer, an editor, and a book nerd who took only one science course in college (astronomy) and did not do very well. Although you really can’t blame me because the class was right after lunch, and the prof turned off the lights and showed films fairly frequently, which had the routine effect of putting me right to sleep.

So maybe I shouldn’t abandon my blog in favor of more scientific pursuits.

But then I wonder why my post on the Berkeley Film Festival got three comments, but my post on saving independent book stores didn’t inspire a single person to write in. Does it naturally follow that people have more to say about movies than books?

And what is the significance of the fact that my post on e-readers got a lot of hits right after it came out but hardly any since then; yet my post on test-tube burgers that I wrote back in May continues to draw viewers? Does it mean that e-readers are already so last year, but genetically produced meat is the topic that everyone is secretly thinking about?

Then I realize I’ve been obsessing over stats for an hour, and I’d only allotted myself an hour and a half to write today’s post.

So my advice is this: never look at your stats. They will come to own you, or at least sidetrack you from what is truly important—writing (and looking at cute kitty photos.)

Alien pests worse than terrorists

the poor wiliwili tree

Okay, this is pretty scary. I read in the paper that after 9/11, hundreds of agricultural scientists who had been in charge of keeping out invasive insects were reassigned to the new anti-terrorism arm of the government—Homeland Security.

And now dozens of foreign bugs are taking over the country.

The number of border inspections that were supposed to curb these invasions plummeted between 9/11/2001 and 2010 resulting in at least 30 new species each year who are now threatening our crops, which drives up food prices for us all. California and Florida have been hardest hit because the climate makes it easy for foreign species to survive and reproduce.

Here are just a few of the culprits:

  • Nineteen separate infestations of the pesky Mediterranean fruit fly have occurred in California alone.
  • The Asian citrus psylid has already decimated Florida’s orange groves, has done its victory dance, and is now heading for California.
  • The erythrina gall wasp has dealt a great blow to the wiliwili tree in Hawaii from which we get the seeds used to make leis.
  • The insidious apple moth made its way from New Zealand to the Monterey Bay, and in trying to eradicate it, government officials sprayed 1600 pounds of pesticides in the Monterey Bay area, killing birds and causing respiratory problems for residents. But the apple moth still lives.

And he is laughing at us.

the evil emerald ash borer

Forests all over the Northeast have been inundated by the emerald ash borer and other beetles who were stowaways on Chinese shipping pallets because nobody was there to check for them.

An economic report put out by Cornell University estimates that the cost of these unwanted visitors is $120 billion each year.

So we’ve gotten rid of bin Laden, but at the price of the nation’s agricultural health. It turns out that the real terrorists have six legs and wings.

 

Vampire bats are coming, vampire bats are coming!

I credit Steve Newman’s “Earthweek: Diary of a planet” for today’s scary bit of news: vampire bats could be moving in.

A rabid vampire bat bit a 19-year old last summer in Mexico, but he didn’t become ill until he was working in a sugar cane field in Louisiana where he collapsed.  His heartbeat slowed, he got hypothermia, and he stopped responding to stimuli before he was taken off life support and died.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted this as the first rabies fatality in the U.S. linked to a vampire bat attack and warned that the habitat of the vampire bat could be expanding to include the United States due to climate change.

Wait a minute—the article stated that the young man had been bitten in Mexico, not Louisiana. So what exactly is the base of CDC’s dire prediction? I guess even the CDC isn’t beyond a little sensationalism. It does make for a scary article. Although seriously, you could write a story about unicorns and rainbows, and it would still be pretty darn frightening with this photo of a vampire bat next to it…

Insect sex has its ups and downs

 
I learn so much from National Public Radio.

 
For instance, this morning on Fresh Air I listened to Marlene Zuk, who wrote Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love and Language from the Insect World.
photo by Alex Wild
 
Here’s just a sample: 
 
Damsel flies have a type of scoop on their penis, which they can use to drag out the sperm from a previous male and replace it with their own.

 

Of course I’m thinking that the scraping-out part doesn’t sound like so much fun for the female. In fact it reminds me of that thing the doctor stuck in me to help get my daughter out when my labor had stalled. That was not any fun either…

Here’s another tidbit:

“A spermatophylax, which can weigh up to 30 percent of a male’s body weight, is essentially like a really good snack attached to their sperm…It has a lot of protein in it, it’s very nutritious — and the female eats it while the sperm is draining into her body, and the males have to produce this before the female will mate. If he just has the sperm, she won’t mate with him. If he does have it, she will mate with him — but the bigger and more nutritious it is, the longer she’ll spend eating it.”

Now that’s something I could go for—nachos at the end of sex! It also demonstrates how bigger is better, although I don’t know if I buy the part about it having to be nutritious…

There was also this weird study about wasps in which some of the wasps got their faces painted to identify the alpha wasps, but the other wasps didn’t recognize the ones with face paint on, so the alpha wasps lost their status in the nest. Or maybe the non-alphas got to be alphas for awhile—now I”m not remembering exactly how that played out. Mostly because the whole time she was explaining it, all I could think about was how they were able to paint the wasps’ faces in the first place.

Insects are fascinating when they’re not biting you or invading your kitchen.

If you missed this amazing episode of Fresh Air, fear not—it’s excerpted on their web site:  http://www.npr.org/2011/08/15/139554957/sex-on-six-legs-when-insects-go-wild