August 30, 2013

Charles Darwin and Casuarina

WorldCat, which lists the holdings of libraries all over the world, is now claiming that several hundred libraries have my book, Darwinian Agriculture. Many of these appear to be "electronic access", which won't accelerate the availability of the paperback, but that still seems like a lot.

Among the libraries on the current list are those at Epic Bible College -- what a great name! -- and at Charles Darwin University. Another great name, and it gets better. It's near Darwin, Australia, but actually located in the town of Casuarina, which is named for one of my favorite trees. Casuarina is:

* A nitrogen fixer that isn't a legume.
* A flowering plant that looks like a conifer.
* So salt-tolerant I've seen it growing a few meters from the ocean, on Heron Island.

April 19, 2012

A taste of Darwinian Agriculture

My book on Darwinian Agriculture should be available in June. If you think you might want to read it, Princeton University Press has information, including a PDF of the first chapter.

December 15, 2011

Fighting back against fake-conference spam

An anonymous scientist apparently figured that if BIT is inviting speakers randomly, he could invite himself, submitting an obviously-fake CV and satirical "abstract." BIT not only failed to spot the obvious joke, they invited him to chair a session. (For an additional fee, maybe?)

March 22, 2011


Suppose one country wanted to slow the growth of an economic and political rival?

The costs and risks of a direct military attack would greatly exceed any possible benefits. Secretly introducing crop or livestock pests might be significantly less risky, but any nation caught doing that could expect various nasty consequences, especially if the disease spread beyond the borders of the target country.

Small-scale sabotage of the target country's communications, though, might trigger only small-scale retaliation,even if discovered. And it could certainly suppress economic growth. Of course, I would never advocate such a thing.

But what if a fast-growing country sabotaged its own communications? Would any government be stupid enough to do that? Apparently so. Mention certain words, in any context, and your cell phone call drops or your email doesn't go through.

When mentioning "freedom" is banned, can "free radical", "ribonuclease-free", and "free-machining" be far behind? If "protest" is banned, will "in favor of testing" be next? Can I discuss statistical tests, develop a new cancer test, study for the GRE? If I can't announce a political "demonstration", how do I invite people to a demonstration of a new invention?

If you love free-machining aluminum, let's meet at KFC for a t-test !

This could be just the opportunity the US needs to catch up. Of course, we're busy sabotaging ourselves, undermining the basic-research foundation of technological progress, replacing science education with religious indoctrination, and pursuing wars that create new enemies faster than we can kill them....

Let's see, what should we call "evolution" after the creationists take over? "Environmentally acquired inheritance", maybe?

February 4, 2011

H-index and Erdos number

There must be some mistake here. Professor Smith, of PhD comics has out-performed me by a factor of 3 (papers in Science or Nature) to 17 (PhDs graduated), by every criterion except the H-index of citation impact, where I hold a slight lead, 23 to 19. In other words, 23 of my papers have been cited 23 or more times, so far. And my lead seems to be increasing.

I don't think my H-index is unusually high, so maybe Smith's is unusually low. Perhaps, if he treated his students better, they'd write better papers together?

Also, where's his Erdos number, the degrees-of-separation formula that inspired this XKCD cartoon? Mine is 5, via T.R. Sinclair, R.H. Rand, H.D. Block, and P.C. Rosenbloom. The first two links are via papers in nonmathematical journals, though. I'd be more interested in my W.D. Hamilton number, anyway. Incidentally, Hamilton's H-index is only 15, so maybe it's not such a reliable measure of scientific impact after all. Other approaches to citation analysis have been developed, including "eigenfactors."

December 22, 2010

Our secret is out !

Fort_Denison.jpgFor millennia, we Denisovans have hidden in our secret fortress laboratories, underground in Siberia and out at sea, like Fort Denison, occasionally interbreeding with humans from neighboring islands. We didn't expect you to discover the traces of the latter activity so soon. Looks like we'll have to use our interstellar spaceship earlier than planned. So long, and thanks for all the fish!

June 25, 2010

Evolution meetings in Portland

The Society for the Study of Evolution, the Society of Systematic Biologists, and the American Society of Naturalists are meeting together over the next few days, in Portland, Oregon. I'm not going this year, unfortunately, but my grad students Ryoko Oono and Will Ratcliff will both be speaking.

Once again this year, there are no sessions scheduled on atheism, pornography, abortion, etc., just evolution. It's almost as if evolutionary biology were a science, maybe even a branch of biology! Reminds of a job fair long ago, where they told me "ecology" was too broad a specialty, but "biology" was OK.

January 22, 2010

Evolution threatens Darwin

Dengue ("breakbone") fever was much in the news last month in Australia last month, when I was there for the Applied Evolution Summit. The mosquitoes that spread this deadly disease are currently found in Queensland, where we were, but not further west, in the city of Darwin. They were found in Darwin in the early 1900s, however. Could some combination of climate change, human activity, and evolution put Darwin at risk once again? That was one of the questions discussed by Ary Hoffmann at the summit, largely based on a paper titled "Integrating biophysical models and evolutionary theory to predict climatic impacts on species' ranges: the dengue mosquito Aedes aegypti in Australia", published in Functional Ecology last year.

Continue reading "Evolution threatens Darwin" »

August 25, 2009

Vertical farms: a pyramid scheme?

I hate to bash the New York Times twice in one week, but this is such a stupid idea that I hardly know where to start. Some guy thinks we should build multistory skyscraper "farms" in New York City. He claims that:

For every indoor acre farmed, some 10 to 20 outdoor acres of farmland could be allowed to return to their original ecological state (mostly hardwood forest). Abandoned farms do this free of charge, with no human help required.
What about the abandoned farmers? But I'm not really worried about them, because this is not going to happen, at least not on a scale that poses an economic threat to many farmers.

If hydroponics is as wonderful as claimed in this article, do you wonder why most farmers still grow stuff in soil, rather than covering their fields with hydroponic tanks? Hint: it's not because they're stupid.

Growing plants on the roof of a building -- a "green roof" -- poses various challenges, but at least a roof can get the same amount of rain and sunlight as a ground-level garden would, assuming no shading by nearby buildings. With a multilevel "vertical farm", however, water and light must somehow be divided among the levels. OK, if the tower is taller than anything nearby, it can get some sunlight coming in sideways, but consider the geometry...

Continue reading "Vertical farms: a pyramid scheme?" »

July 21, 2009

This is a joke, right?

I've seen a lot of discussion lately about the poor quality of science reporting and scientific literacy today, but was still amazed to see this in the New York Times:

As this image makes obvious a 14.5-inch reflecting telescope is not 14.5 inches long, but considerably larger.

Doesn't everyone know that the "size" of a telescope refers to the mirror diameter? And that the light-gathering ability of a telescope depends on the area of the mirror, proportional to the square of the diameter? Next, it will turn out that people have been graduating from high school without understanding evolution.

It's a great story anyway: an amateur astronomer is the first to spot the after-effects of an earth-size planet hitting Jupiter. If he hadn't taken a break from his hobby to watch golf on TV, he might have seen the actual impact.

March 18, 2009

"I.B.M. Said to Be in Talks to Buy Sun for $7 Billion"

...according to the New York Times. Although private ownership is one way to prevent degradation of the commons, this is going too far, in my opinion.

February 11, 2009

Cake for Darwin Day

Two layers in contrasting colors represent different geological strata. Nuts mixed into the layers represent fossils: sliced almonds went extinct, leaving no descendants, but chopped pecans survived and speciated, sharing the upper stratum with their sister species, black walnuts. I decorated with a simple version of the "I think" evolutionary tree from Darwin's notebook.


December 24, 2008

Celebrating Science Seasonally

Olivia Judson's column today is great, as usual. But I have some reservations about her proposal to celebrate Dec. 25 to January 4 as the Festival of Newton.

Dec. 25 is already taken. It is, of course, Family Day, although the name is used mainly in Uruguay. The date also has religious significance to many. And the connection between Newton's birth anniversary and Dec. 25 is a mere fluke of human attempts to impose a calendar on a year with an uneven number of days.

Newton was born on the perihelion, the day when the earth is closest to the sun, and that is when we should celebrate him. This is approximately January 4, depending on the year. Taking that day as given, I see two logical time-spans for a winter festival celebrating science.

1) Winter solstice to perihelion. If astronomy were the whole of science, this would be a great choice, but it's not. This period is already enriched with family get-togethers and religious celebrations with generally positive themes and there's more to life than science. Furthermore, US scientists are frantically revising grant proposals to NSF, due the beginning of January.

2) Newton's birthday (and perihelion) to Darwin's birthday (Feb. 12). Most scientists would agree that these two changed our understanding of the universe and ourselves as much as anyone before or since. We could use the time between their birthdays to celebrate past scientific advances, but also today's most exciting frontiers, across all of science.

I'll spare you the words to We All Evolved from One, sung to the tune of All Creatures Great and Small.

November 3, 2008

Ook! Another librarian for Obama

With the US election imminent, I interview the Librarian of Unseen University.

TWiE: Your endorsement of Obama has created quite a stir on this planet and might help swing the election. Were you influenced by Sarah Palin's firing a librarian for refusal to censor library books or for her views on evolution?

Librarian: Ook.

TWie: OK, but she would have limited power (you know, like Cheney) unless McCain dies in the next four years. Are you worried that some Christian terrorist would assassinate him to put her in power? Or are there problems with McCain as well?

Librarian: Ook!

TWiE: A macaca? But those aren't even apes; they're...

Librarian: Ook. Ook.

TWiE: OK, OK. Moving on to another topic, are you supporting anyone for Patrician?

Librarian: Eek. Ook.

TWiE: OK, thanks for your time. I did have a few more questions, but good luck straightening out Wall Street.

June 30, 2008

Celebrating ignorance with Sherlock Holmes

We know that some political and religious leaders are proud of their ignorance of evolution, global warming, etc., but did you know that this tradition goes back to Sherlock Holmes? In A Study in Scarlet, he expresses the opinion that it makes no practical difference whether the sun orbits the earth or vice versa. Yet, in The Musgrave Ritual, it turns out that incorrect theories make incorrect predictions...

Holmes: “I looked up at the sun. It was low in the heavens, and I calculated that in less than an hour it would lie just above the topmost branches of the old oak. One condition mentioned in the Ritual would then be fulfilled. And the shadow of the elm must mean the farther end of the shadow, otherwise the trunk would have been chosen as the guide. I had, then, to find where the far end of the shadow would fall when the sun was just clear of the oak.�

Watson: I imagine both trees must have grown since the Musgrave Ritual was written, but what do you mean when you say that the sun was “just above the branches� of the oak?

Continue reading "Celebrating ignorance with Sherlock Holmes" »

March 28, 2008

Which explains the origin of the earth?

That was one of the questions in a recent poll by The Economist. People in the US and the UK were asked to choose among these answers:
1) the theory of evolution
2) The Bible
3) "Intelligent design"

That's easy. Of the three choices, only The Bible even attempts to explain the origin of the earth. A broad definition of the theory of evolution may include possible explanations for the origin of life -- narrower definitions are limited to explaining how life has changed since its origin -- but "the origin of the earth" is the province of astronomy or geology, not biology. What I've seen of "intelligent design" is mostly whining about alleged gaps in the theory of evolution, rather than attempts to develop scientifically testable explanations of the origin of the earth or anything else, so that's out.

Continue reading "Which explains the origin of the earth?" »

March 14, 2008

Why we need peer review

Most scientists also volunteer their time as "peer reviewers" for scientific journals, checking submitted papers for serious flaws, such as lack of appropriate controls. Reviewers also make good papers better by, for example, suggesting alternative interpretations of results. My own papers have been greatly improved by this process, which makes up for the few times I've thought a paper was rejected unfairly. (Fortunately, there are plenty of good journals, and the odds are against getting the same incompetent or biased reviewer twice.)

As a minimum, reviewers try to make sure that the paper describes what was done and what the results were, clearly and unambiguously. Which brings me to two recent sentences from the New York Times that probably wouldn't have made it through peer review:

And now add to the lengthening list Gov. Eliot Spitzer, husband, father of three teenage daughters, who authorities on Monday said had been involved with a ring of prostitutes.

Police found the soldier, who was still in the vicinity, shortly after 11 p.m., using a helicopter with a thermal camera.

November 19, 2007

Biological evolution vs. word games

Each generation tends to resemble the previous one, so evolution of whales from land animals, for example, took many generations. One limitation on the power of natural selection is that each generation must be viable. Some creationist suggested that the problem is analogous to "evolving" a sentence one letter at a time to make a substantially different sentence, while requiring that each intermediate step be a valid sentence. The Mosquito Eater has solved this challenge. Cool!

But we no longer need to rely on imperfect analogies to biological evolution. Molecular tools now make it possible to explore multistep evolution experimentally, as I discussed in an early post.

October 2, 2007

Grad school as an epic quest

I thought this analogy between grad school and Lord of the Rings was pretty funny, but what about Monty Python and the Holy Grail? I'm really tempted to start my next oral exam with:

What is your name?
What is your quest?
What is the long-range dispersal mechanism of Cocos nucifera?

Continue reading "Grad school as an epic quest" »

September 15, 2007

The pirate code

R_RRR R_!R_!R!!_R!R !R!!_!!_R!R_! !R !RR!_!!_!R!_!R_R_! !!_!!! !!R!_!!_R!_! R!!!_!!R_R R_!!!!_!!_!!! R!R!_RRR_R!!_! RRR_!RR!_! R!_!!! R_!!!!_! !RR!_RRR_!R!_R_!!!!_RRR_!R!!_! R_RRR !R_!!!R_!R_!!!_R !RR_RRR_!R!_!R!!_R!! RRR_!!R! !RR!_!!_!R!_!R_R_! !R!_!R_R!!_!!_RRR !RR_!!_R_!!!! !R_R!!_R!!_!!_R_!!_RRR_R!_!R_!R!! !_R!_R!R!_!R!_R!RR_!RR!_R_!!_RRR_R! !!_ !!R! R_!_!_R!!_!_R!!

June 18, 2007

Strange searches

Fellow science bloggers are discussing the strangest search terms that have led readers to their blogs. I haven't seen anything nearly as weird as what some report, just a few moderately strange ones:

"grants to support carpenter ant research"
"examples of week rocks" (maybe "weak" was meant?)
"opportunity cost essay" (there may be an annoyed economics student out there somewhere)
"disadvantages of shark-fin soup"
"scientists who contributed to the evolution of ecology" (only qualifies as strange because similar search came from two different IP addresses in the Philippines the same day; maybe a school assignment?)
"how plants and animals r useful to humans"
"weird scientific papers" (I think I'm offended by this one)
"this week in" (after TWI Amateur Radio, but before TWI Tech)
"Why should farmers know about evolution??" (not really a strange search, but made me wonder whether the searcher had any pre-existing bias on the question)