May 16, 2014

Clyde Snow, the real "skeleton detective"

Around 1990, I spent a month in Aberystwyth, Wales, collaborating with John Witty and Frank Minchin on some research on legume root-nodule physiology..

One evening, the waiter at a restaurant where I often ate said "there are some other Americans here tonight." The couple were chain smoking, so I declined their kind offer to join them for dinner, but stopped by to say hi afterwards.

"Where are you from?", I asked.
"Oklahoma", they replied.
Somehow, I don't think of people from Oklahoma as world travelers, but asked:
"Have you ever traveled outside the US before?"
"Oh, yes, in the last year we've been in El Salvador, Cambodia, and Argentina."

Turns out he (Clyde Snow) was a forensic anthropologist who helped human rights groups to identify skeletons of the disappeared and find evidence of torture. See his obituary in today's NYT.

I enjoy the fictional accounts of "skeleton detective" Gideon Oliver, by Aaron Elkins, but solving individual murders pales beside Snow's lifetime of detective work against genocide.

August 1, 2013

Ediacaran Fossils at Mistaken Point, Newfoundland

Plan ahead if you want to see these 500-million-year old fossils!

Access to the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve is limited to guided tours, which are free and very informative, but can fill up. Call at least a few days ahead. We only had one full day in Newfoundland and the tour was fully booked that day. Fortunately, someone cancelled.
MistakenPointFossils.jpg HumpbackWhaleBackCloseup.jpg

The tour starts at the Edge of Avalon Interpretive Center and is led by Julie Cappleman. The center has a huge cast of some of the fossils and is hoping to display more, if they get World Heritage Site status. The "fossils" are impressions left by soft-bodied species, rather than mineralized bones or shells, so the cast is an impression of an impression. But it's an excellent copy. You can see even more detail in the cast than on the field tour, although I enjoyed seeing the fossils in situ. The cast was made by Research Casting International, run by Peter May. His son, Alex May, who spent a year in my lab working on rhizobia, first told me about Mistaken Point.
The tour was great! Between driving to the trail head, a pleasant and interesting 2-km hike to the coast, viewing the fossils and return, we were there from 1 PM to a bit after 4. You can't get close enough to touch most of the fossils, but Julie lent us binoculars for a good close-up view, while her assistant pointed out some of the more interesting fossils. We did get one closeup view of fossils near the trail. There was a lot of morphological diversity in these early representatives of multicellular life.

The previous day, we went on the Gatherall's boat tour and saw humpback whales and puffins. We stayed at Elaine's Bed and Breakfast and got a good look at a minke whale in the bay, while we were eating breakfast. But I'll let a humpback have the last word.

February 1, 2013

Carnival of Evolution

Planning some evolution tourism? Check this month's Carnival of Evolution.

June 8, 2012

Scientific tourism in Hawaii: beyond beeches

The big event was the June 5 transit of Venus across the sun. Our estimates of cosmic distances (size of the galaxy, etc.) depend on estimates of the distance to the nearby stars, which depend on knowing the length of the earth's orbit, which were first estimated from differences with latitude in the duration of the 1761 and 1769 transits. TransitOfVenus.JPG
My brother-in-law, Dean Nomura, took the photo above (near the end of the transit) from Oahu, Hawaii, using his video camera and my Kendrick solar filter. With the same filter on my Celestron 70 mm travel telescope, we could also see four large sunspots not visible in this photo (see NASA photo on Wikipedia). For those without telescopes, the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy provided telescopes and safe-viewing filters at several locations. Venus was visible (barely) without magnification.

There won't be another transit of Venus visible until 2117, at least from Earth. But you could save up for a trip to Mars, to view the 2084 transit of Earth. This assumes fundamentalists don't re-impose burning at the stake for questioning an Earth-centered view of the solar system before we develop the ability to travel to Mars.

Meanwhile, Hawaii has plenty of less-ephemeral opportunities for scientific tourism. Past trips have include snorkeling with sea turtles, getting as close to flowing lava as my heat tolerance would allow, and an impromptu discussion with a technician who maintains research mini-subs. Also lots of cool plants, on hikes and in several great botanic gardens. This time, we hiked above the Hawaii Nature Center (trails shown on Google maps!) and got lost (briefly) at the Ho`omaluhia Botanical Garden. We also signed up for a tour of Kahuku Farms, perhaps the only farm in the world that rotates between eggplants and papaya.
They also grow bananas, lilikoi, and various flowers.

I I particularly enjoyed seeing their huge Casuarina trees, which they called "ironwood." Hawaii has lots of legumes (including the "sensitive plant" and many trees), many of which host nitrogen-fixing rhizobia. Casuarinas also host nitrogen-fixing symbionts, but they aren't legumes and their symbionts aren't closely related to rhizobia. Casuarinas are related to beeches, but they look remarkably like conifers, with needle-like leaves and cone-like flowers. To see the resemblance, look at a Casuarina photo (with a sea turtle laying eggs in the background) posted previously, which I took on Heron Island, during the Applied Evolution Summit.

If you find yourself in Hawaii without bird, plant, and hiking books, the central library in downtown Honolulu is wonderful -- lots of classic science fiction and shaded courtyard -- and the branch libraries aren't bad. You can buy a guest membership if you want to use their internet access or borrow a book.

December 29, 2011

Evolution tourism

You've heard of ecotourism? This month's Smithsonian magazine has an article on "evotourism", highlighting ten sites around the world that tourists interested in evolution might want to visit. The Smithsonian's own Museum of Natural History isn't one of the ten sites, although they have a lot of great material on evolution, as I discussed in an earlier post. The two sites nearest to my home are Ashfall Fossil Beds Historical Park, in Nebraska -- the Nebraska State Capitol has a great evolution-themed mosaic on the rotunda floor -- and Isle Royale, Michigan, where coevolution of wolves and moose has apparently led to larger moose. There are two sites in Europe and one each in Asia, Australia, Africa, and South America (if the Ecuadorian territory of the Galapos Islands is considered part of South America). Smithsonian's evotourism website has more.

September 16, 2011

Science tourism: transit of Venus

Venus doesn't pass between the Earth and the sun very often.
Transits in 1761 and 1769 -- they occur in widely-spaced pairs -- were used to make the first accurate estimates of the size of the solar system.

If you missed it in 2004, June 5 of 2012 is your last chance, unless you expect to be alive in 2117.
Here's some useful information, if you want to plan to see it.

December 10, 2010

Scientific tourism?

I'm adding a new category of posts: "science tourism." This includes traveling for ecotourism or to visit science museums. Volunteering to help on a research project (perhaps through Earthwatch) or going to a scientific meeting (particularly one outside one's own specialty, if you're a scientist) are also science tourism.

Here are a few examples of science tourism (or scientific tourism) I've enjoyed.

Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris. I was in Paris to speak to a meeting of plant breeders focused on organic farming. The museum includes Focault's original pendulum and is a major setting for Umberto Eco's book by that name. But it also includes Focault's less-known demonstration of the earth's rotation: a gyroscope with a microscope to detect the tiny apparent shift in its plane of rotation during its 10-minute spin time, as the earth turns around it. Also an example of the pre-Morse shutter-based "telegraphs" mentioned in The Count of Monte Cristo, looms controlled by player-piano-like paper rolls, a hand-cranked machine for making metal files, the apparatus Lavosier used to weigh hydrogen and oxygen before combining them into water, etc. My wife and I ended up spending all day there.

Heron Island, on the Great Barrier Reef. I was there for the Applied Evolution Summit, but got to snorkel on the reef during afternoon breaks. I wrote about this already and linked to a video that summarizes some themes from the meeting but also includes lots of nice wildlife shots. I'm guessing the resort on the island is quite expensive, but the food there is good. I stayed at the research station, which is mentioned in Arthur C. Clarke's The Deep Range.

Tech Museum in San Jose, California. I was in town for the Ecological Society of America meetings, in 2007. They had a hands-on lab exercise to transform bacteria, adding a gene that made them fluorescent. I just followed the instructions ("first, take the rack of red tubes out of the refrigerator"), which ended with putting a plate of transformed bacteria in an incubator. Some staff person took the plates out after the bacteria grew up, then put pictures up on the web, so you could see if the transformation worked.

What's your favorite destination for science tourism?

October 19, 2010

Applied Evolution Summit video (Heron Island)

Many evolutionary biologists do field work in exciting locations, like the Galapagos. I mostly work in the lab these days -- when I'm not at the computer writing or revising papers -- but I often get invited to speak at meetings in interesting places. For example, I'll be talking about Darwinian agriculture in Paris in December, at the EUCARPIA meeting on plant breeding for organic farming.

But it's hard to beat Heron Island, Australia, where I spoke at the Applied Evolution Summit in January. The scientific output from our discussions will be coming out in Evolutionary Applications, but if you like sea turtles, birds, and coral reefs with your science...

Here's a beautiful video about the meeting.

Casuarina, a tree that hosts nitrogen-fixing bacteria not closely related to those that form symbioses with legumes, frames a sea turtle laying eggs, on Heron Island. Photo by R. Ford Denison.

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 2, 2010

Travel tips: free WiFi etc. in Brisbane

This entry was written in Brisbane, en-route to the Applied Evolution Summit. My train north, The Spirit of the Outback, was stranded in the outback, due to flooding. Fortunately, since I needed to catch the boat to Heron Island tomorrow morning, Rail Australia added a special high-speed train -- made me feel like Professor Moriarty!. Meanwhile, I had most of the day free in beautiful Brisbane. So here are some travel tips for anyone thinking about visiting the area.
1) For free WiFi, try the State Library (above right). They leave it on even when the library itself is closed, and there's a nice interior courtyard out of the sun and rain -- we've had a good mix of both this week -- with stone benches full of students and visitors using their laptops to access email, etc. The library is near the up-stream end of South Bank park, just across the river from the central business district (CBD). The park itself is wonderful, with several museums, a swimming area near but not in the river, ice cream (we liked New Zealand Natural) and more substantial food, lots of places to sit and relax.

2) Brisbane is very pedestrian-friendly. South Bank park is connected to the CBD by two pedestrian and bike bridges (both with sheltered places to sit, one with drinking-water fountains), plus one shared with cars. We paid $23 each for 1-week transit passes which are valid on ferrys across the river, City Cats boats up and down the river, buses (including the one we took to the great botanic garden, planetarium, and look-out on Mt. Coot-tha), and even on the section of the airport train between South Bank and the Roma Street station where I'll catch my train tonight. The Roma Street Parkland, right by the station, is great, too. Lots of interesting plants (bottle-trees, Banksia), birds (including Australian wood ducks and very colorful and talkative lorikeets), and iguana-like water dragons.

3) Consider staying on Kangaroo Point. In addition to buses and ferrys to the CBD, there were steps down to the river a few blocks from the Paramount Motel, where we stayed (more like a short-term apartment rental, with full kitchen) and then a nice walk to South Bank Air Train station and other South Bank attractions. There was a well-stocked 24-hour store nearby and a full grocery store within about 1 km.

4) Take a trip with Bushwacker Ecotours. Our trip to Springbrook National Park was great. Our guide, Megan, was very knowledgeable and entertaining. She spotted the trap-door spiders and glow-worms in earth banks along the trail, told us how male bush turkeys (which we saw) make compost piles to keep their eggs warm, pointed out tree-scars made by sugar gliders, etc. A high point for me was seeing Casuarina, a nitrogen-fixing tree that looks like a conifer, is more closely related to beeches than to the nitrogen-fixing legumes I study and hosts different nitrogen-fixing symbionts in its root nodules, and has separate male and female plants. For those less-interested in natural history (not readers of this blog, surely, but perhaps your partner?) the walks have lots of beautiful waterfalls and a chance to hand-feed wild (well, unconfined) parrots. Be advised that the climb up out of the valley is equivalent to climbing several flights of stairs with a bit of walking between flights.
I should probably mention that restaurant meals here cost 1.5-2x what they would in the US. But the botanic gardens and parks are all free, so it hasn't been too expensive, apart from airfare.

I'll write something about the Applied Evolution Summit soon.

December 1, 2009

Wildlife and plants near Brisbane?

My wife and I will spend a few days in Brisbane between Christmas and New Years, before I go to the Applied Evolution Summit. Any suggestions for places to visit nearby? We like seeing new species of plants and animals.

October 12, 2009

Darwin at the Smithsonian

I recently had two or three hours to spend at the Smithsonian, en route to the airport. I hadn't been to the natural history museum for awhile, and was interested to see how they were celebrating Darwin's anniversaries this year. Pretty well, it turns out. Banners outside advertised a Darwin exhibit and "Plants and butterflies: partners in evolution." Inside, there was apparently an organized "Evolution Trail", which I didn't have time to follow.

The Darwin exhibit is off the entrance hall with the elephant and has a mix of biographical and scientific exhibits. My main criticism was their definition of "co-evolution" as being limited to evolution for mutual benefit. Evolutionary arms races (e.g., between hosts and parasites) are also coevolution. The entrance hall on the other side, where I came in, has two display cases of Darwiniana.

The butterfly exhibit was dominated by a live butterfly room inside a larger room with displays on the coevolution of plants and butterflies, with fossils labeled "examine the evidence." I was happy to pay $6 admission to the butterfly room since I wanted to make a donation anyway and enjoyed having a frittilary land on my nose.

Near the Oceans exhibit was a display of Burgess Shale fossils I hadn't seen before, including Pikaia, a tiny 500-million-year-old chordate. We chordates have evolved a lot since then. Nearby were some fossil stomatolites.

The mammal room was great, focusing on adaptations in everything from bats to giraffes (splaying front legs to drink, with an explanation of adaptations to limit blood flow to head) to pangolins with termite mounds. Right in the middle of the floor was a window down to fossil hominid footprints.

I wish I could have stayed longer. One problem with a quick visit to the Smithsonian is that post9/11 hysteria has closed most of the bag-check rooms. You can't bring your luggage into the museum and if you leave it somewhere, they'll try to detonate it. (Luggage made of sapient pearwood can defend itself, but I wouldn't recommend bringing it to Washington!) But here's a secret tip for my regular readers only: the 4th St. entrance to the National Gallery still has a check room, complete with x-ray machine. Don't tell too many people, or they'll probably close it.

Coming up in March: the Hall of Human Ancestors!

September 11, 2009

Applied Evolution Summit

I've just agreed to give a talk in January at the Applied Evolution Summit: a small group of experts meeting at an island research station near the Great Barrier Reef to apply evolutionary biology to critical problems in human health, agriculture, fisheries, etc. It might surprise some evolution denialists to learn that pornography, abortion, atheism and "death panels" are not on the agenda, just science. Of course, when we talk about how global warming is affecting the coral reefs critical to some fish, we may need to go look!
Heron Island aerial.jpg
I'm going to try really hard to finish my book before the meeting, which will keep me quite busy until then. I don't teach regular classes -- as an adjunct professor, I'm paid only from our grants -- but reading proposals for a grant panel, writing a paper on "spiteful solar tracking" in alfalfa for Evolutionary Applications, and helping my hard-working and brilliant grad students with methods and manuscripts can't wait until my book is done. So I may be posting only sporadically for a while.

June 11, 2008

Evolution 2008 in Minnesota

This year, the Evolution meetings are here in the Twin Cities. Evolution 2008 is a joint meeting of the American Society of Naturalists (not the nudist organization), the Society for the Study of Evolution, and the Society of Systematic Biologists.

A quick search of the program found no references to atheism* or child pornography, but there will be plenty of talks about sex. You could spend all Saturday morning listening to lectures on Plant Mating Systems and all afternoon learning about Sexual Selection. On Sunday morning, if you don't have other plans, there will be talks on the Evolution of Sex from 8-12, among other choices. You have to pay the registration fee that covers the cost of the meeting to attend these talks, but Olivia Judson (author of Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation) will be giving a public lecture:

The Art of Seduction: Evolution, Sex, and the Public
4-5 PM on Sunday June 22
Ted Mann Concert Hall
My students and I will give talks in the Species Interactions and Life History Evolution sessions. I will discuss some of the talks at the meeting in a future post. Before then, I may be a bit sporadic, getting ready for the meeting. Also, both of our latest grant proposals were rejected by NSF -- depending on how you look at it, there are either too many good proposals or not enough money -- leaving us with essentially no funding for our research. So I'll be working on revised proposals due in early July.

*Note to those not in the US or Turkey: religious extremists claim that understanding evolution leads to atheism which then leads to crime. Comparisons among countries appear to support the evolution<=>atheism link but not the atheism=>crime link.

August 14, 2007

Cooperation gets complex

This week, instead of discussing a paper, I will summarize some presentations from the Ecological Society of America meetings last week in San Jose, California (a much more interesting place than I expected, including hands-on transformation of bacteria at the Tech Museum).

I ran into two people who admitted to reading this webblog: Madhu Katti and Don Strong, but didn't get to talk to either of them for long. There were usually several interesting sessions going on at once, from 8 AM to late evening, plus lots of informal discussions, but I will limit my summary to a few of the presentations on the evolution of cooperation, my own area of research.

Continue reading "Cooperation gets complex" »

April 17, 2007

Darwinian agriculture II

Last week, I was at a meeting in the Netherlands on "Darwinian agriculture: the evolutionary ecology of agricultural symbiosis." Topics included: the effects of cows on human evolution, the independent invention of "agriculture" by ants and termites, and some disadvantages of diversity. As promised, here are a few highlights.

Continue reading "Darwinian agriculture II" »