Saturday, May 28, 2011

Is Meat Eating In Our Genes?

I ate a steak yesterday. Thanks to Patricia McConnell's class on human and animal behavior and ethics and Hal Herzog's Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat the experience troubled me greatly.

I come from a family of meat eaters, yet have dabbled with vegetarianism before. I was around 15 and I stopped after three months because didn't have the time between school and extra curricular activities to educate myself about nutrition and what my body needed, therefore was not doing it right. Though some college students might disagree, one cannot subsist on Ramen Noodles alone. So I went back to eating the same meals as my family, and thus eating meat.

Beef cattle. Source: Wikimedia Commons
When I came home for the summer last week, I was more than happy to expound upon my new found interest in animal ethics and why we should or should not eat meat. One of the first things my brother said to me was "Oh God you aren't going to start with the vegetarian thing again are you?" While the answer is no, I don't have any immediate plans to give up eating meat all together, I certainly find the experience less appetizing than before and I have a lot of opinions about how the animals we eat should be handled and treated.

I haven't figured out where I stand ethically on the idea that it is wrong to expect another living thing to sacrifice its life (a basic interest if you will) to appease what Herzog refers to as "the carnivous yahoo within us." My desire to eat meat is peripheral, I don't need it to be healthy and in fact would be healthier if I substituted some of the meat I eat for more healthy vegetables or grains. But at the same time I find there to be some merit to the idea that without meat-eating those animals wouldn't exist or have lives to sacrifice in the first place, and also with no demand for healthy animals farmers have one less reason to treat their animals properly.

So I don't know. Right now I'm into the idea of eating less meat and living closer to the earth, trying to be as sustainable as I can and not support factory farms or farms where the animals live under duress. This means consuming locally raised meat, from farms that I have researched and know how they treat their animals. Lucky for me, my hometown has such an extensive farmer's market, I can see there is some background checking in my future.

But the real reason I bring up my food-choice lifestyle is because I am intrigued by the idea that meat eating is a desire programmed into us through our DNA. The "its our heritage" excuse for meat eating has several logical threads running through it. Humans are animals, and other animals eat meat. Human are at the top of the food chain, therefore we should be the top carnivores, because the animals highest on the food chain are carnivores. Humans and chimpanzees' share 98% of our genetic make-up, and chimpanzees' eat meat. If you believe in evolution (which if you read this blog, you know that I do) you can say that if we diverged from a common ancestor with chimpanzees' and they are carnivores, clearly we should be carnivores too. As much as I find meat tasty, I find these arguments to be baloney.

Chimpanzees are predators. The reason I decided to write this post is because I saw the article "Chimps hunt monkey prey close to local extinction" by Michael Marshall for New Scientist. The article explains new research that has shown the statistical significance of predation by chimpanzees on the declining red colombus monkey population in Uganda's Kibale National Park. It has previously been proposed that chimps have been damaging the monkey's population, but new research by Thomas Struhsaker from Duke University has demonstrated that chimpanzee predation had the biggest impact on the 89% decrease in the red colombus population. Other factors that had a smaller impact include habitat changes, disease, competition with other monkeys, and predation by crowned eagles.

Its no secret that chimpanzees eat meat, or as the chimpanzee/red colombus monkey study shows, that they eat a lot of it. But does that give humans carte blanche to kill other animals at will? I don't think it does. After sitting through so many lectures on the ethical treatment or animals and learning so much about our relationships with food this semester, I find the "its in our genes" argument less than compelling.
One of the things we humans lord over other animals is our big brain. We have it, and we flaunt it. Therefore, our big brain can't just go out the window when it comes to the issue of what we eat. We have the ability to think about the ethical implications of our behavior. While research has shown chimpanzees to be very intelligent, we don't know if they have that kind of internal life. But, if every act that humans did could be excused by genetic or biological urges what would stop crimes like rape or murder? As a society we have said that it is not okay to just follow your urges and do what you want. Humans are held to a higher standard, because we have the ability to control ourselves. Because we have those big brains. People who choose not to control themselves are usually labelled as criminals.

Now I'm not saying that meat eating should be criminal. Please don't misunderstand me - I eat meat, and I don't consider myself a criminal. BUT I don't think the idea that we are biologically driven to consume meat it a good reason to support meat-eating. We are also biologically programmed to be able to override our urges, it isn't easy and many people fail, but many people also succeed on a daily basis.

If you really want to get into the biology of meat consumption you could argue that humans are actually developed to not eat meat. Just look at how sick we can get from eating meat that is not cooked properly. Wolves and bears don't have similar concerns. Their guts are made to deal with the bacteria that can be found on uncooked meat. Ours aren't. Meat could kill us. But then again, there has also been deadly spinach, so vegetables aren't always safe either.

The point is if you want to eat meat, you need to come up with a better reason than being on the top of the food chain. I'm still figuring out how I feel about my food, but I do know that I consider myself an animal - a smart animal with responsibilities to other animals. We'll see where that thinking gets me.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Allure of a Good Ghost Story

When I was six my parents, brother and I moved to a cute brick house just the rights size for us. It hadn't been lived in for a few years because the elderly couple that had owned it passed away in hospice, while a caretaker maintained the house. When my parents bought it, the house was a blast from the past. Pale yellow bathroom fixtures, peeling linoleum floors, blue eagle kitchen wallpaper, mustard yellow velour couch, seafoam green paint in the living room. Because the home's previous owners had passed away, some strange/awesome/old features (like that couch) got tossed in with the sale.

Moving meant that for the first time in our lives my brother (slightly older) and I would each get our own room. My room was going to be pink, and it was going to be Aladdin and Jasmine themed and I was thrilled. That is - I was thrilled until the kids down the street told me the "truth" my parents were hiding. The house, specifically MY room, was haunted.

Obviously, the house was haunted. Old people lived there, and they DIED. Of course they came back to haunt the house. Specifically, I was told, they haunted my closet. The proof of this haunting was the fact that sticks and leaves stuffed in the mail slot of the house while it was unoccupied waiting for sale MYSTERIOUSLY disappeared. No one lived there, so then who moved them, right? Clearly the answer was ghosts, and what ghost wouldn't like being trapped in a closet?

Nothing like a creepy staircase
Source: Wikimedia Commons
At the wise old age of six I was skeptical, but didn't understand enough about real estate to know that prior to showing a house any real estate agent would remove random detritus shoved through the mail slot by pesky neighborhood kids. When I reported my news of the haunting to my Mom she informed me that there was no such thing as ghosts. But then why did I always check to make sure the closet was shut firmly before going to bed? Why did I RUN up the basement stairs every time I had to go down there? Why did the old furniture and fixtures seem like the perfect backdrop for a ghost story?

I've now lived in that house for over 15 years, and I've never had a close encounter of the ghostly kind. But the ghost story told to me back then about my haunted closet is to my memory my first real encounter with the supernatural. Flash forward to my college years, and my interest in ghost stories was again peaked by the Discovery Channel show A Haunting. My roommate and I started watching A Haunting every weekday because it was on at 3pm, when we didn't have class. We quickly became enthralled, coming to such conclusions as "it always happens to the Catholics" and "blessing your new home is asking for it."

I've never felt any otherwordly connection to spirits or the like, but I find it hard to dismiss the possibility of life after death all together. Just because there is no proof, or at least no definitive proof, doesn't mean hinky things don't happen, right? So with this background and frame of mind, I was all too excited to read "Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death" by Deborah Blum.

Those who read my blog regularly know that I'm studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I have Deb Blum as a professor. No, she doesn't require or even ask us to read her books. Yes, I've already gotten my grades for the semester, and no, I'm not sucking up by reading through her books. I'm curious about the work of the person I'm learning from. I've given my thoughts on Poisoner's Handbook, and Love At Goon Park & The Monkey Wars in previous posts - and just want to share a few reflections from Ghost Hunters.

The book chronicles the rise of the American and British Societies for Psychical Research, through several characters, most dominantly Edmund Gurney, Henry Sidgwick, Frederic Myers, Richard Hodgson, and William James (brother of the writer Henry James - The Aspern Papers, the Turn of the Screw, etc.) and of course the famous medium Leonora Piper. These people set out in the 1880's to try to prove the existence of life after death. Obviously, since this is something that has yet to be determined 130 years later, they did not succeed. But what they did do was devote their lives to trying to make psychical research a legitimate science.

William James
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The researchers studied phenomenon like slate writing, floating furniture, the appearance of specters (white floating blobs, etc.) strange lights, blowing curtains, and the claims by mediums that they could speak to the dearly departed. The majority of what the researchers did was expose fraud. But there was one medium, that the majority of psychical researchers believed in - Mrs. Piper. This medium stood out for the fact that she didn't charge for sittings, and wasn't making money off of her "abilities." One of the most interesting experiments with the medium described in Blum's book is the "cross-correspondence" study.

The term telepathy was developed by the first psychical researchers to describe the ability to communicate thoughts mentally. They set up an experiment to see if the spirits of people who had died would be able to take a thought conveyed by a medium, and transmit it to a different medium. Mrs. Piper was sent to London, the medium Margaret Verrall was in Cambridge, and Alice Kipling Fleming (sister of Rudyard Kipling) was in India. Myers, Gurney, and Hodgson were by this time deceased, so the remaining psychical researchers set out to communicate with their old colleagues.

Lines of poems and words in Greek and Latin (languages unknown to the mediums) were reportedly conveyed between the mediums in their different locations. But is that evidence of life after death, or telepathy, or spiritual communication? I don't know. At the time (in the early 1900's) it wasn't enough proof. The argument was that the psychical researchers wanted so badly to prove that they could communicate with their departed colleagues and show that the mediums were real, that their desires colored the study and skewed results. Perhaps making something out of nothing. Perhaps so dedicated and well-intentioned that they did summon up spiritual communication.

What I like most about Ghost Hunters is that Blum never decides whether any of the experiments did or did not prove the existence of life after death. I don't see how she could. I think that even today, while there are so many "events" that can't be explained away as tricks, smoke and mirrors, or active imaginations, there is still nothing definitive to show that spirits exist. I don't think there ever will be. I think that this is a case where, "for those who believe no proof is necessary, for those who don't believe no proof is possible" (Stuart Chase.)

While I am a firm believer that nothing haunts my closet, I can't explain "the unexplained" and I won't try. But thats not what Ghost Hunters is about anyway. It is a fascinating history of the work of several researchers (and friends) trying to make sense of the things that go bump in the night using the scientific experimental standards they believed in most. Ultimately I think it comes down to the belief that eventually science can explain everything - and having to accept that it hasn't, and maybe never will.

For me, the drama in the book is not will the psychical experiments be successful but rather, will they ever be accepted? Ghost Hunters tackles the issue of exclusivity in the scientific community and examines where scientists draw their line in the sand as far as what should and should not count as science. The definition of science is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world. Do ghost hunters count? Should they count? Who gets to decide what is science and what is a waste of time?

Of the books that I have read by Blum, I enjoyed Ghost Hunters the most. I love science, but sometimes even the best science books can get confusing and having to work to maintain clarity, I lose interest. The sign of a great writer is to be able to take a subject and weave together the stories of all the different people involved in developing that subject, without getting the reader lost. I was never confused while reading Ghost Hunters about who was who or what was going on. I was enthralled from start to finish - not because I love a good ghost story, but because I love the richness of science history, and the real stories of these rogue researchers.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What Makes A Planet A Planet?

I grew up believing that there were nine planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. Then, in 2006 my understanding of the universe was shaken when poor little Pluto was stripped of its classification and labelled just another object in the Kuiper Belt, an area that extends from the orbit of Neptune and contains thousands of icy "objects" with the same consistency as Pluto.

The decision that Pluto was not a planet came in 2006 based on the 2005 discovery of Eris, an object larger than Pluto, in the Kuiper Belt. Pluto and Eris are both considered "dwarf planets." According to the International Astronomical Union for an object to be a planet it must meet three criteria:
  1. It needs to orbit around the sun (or if part of a different solar system than ours, it needs to orbit around another star)
  2. It needs to have enough gravity to pull itself into a spherical shape
  3. It must be the dominant gravitational body in its orbit (thus any smaller body in its orbit is either consumed or flung away by the object's gravitational pull - being smaller than Eris, Pluto clearly doesn't qualify)
Pluto by the Hubble Space Telescope via Wikimedia Commons
But why digress on a five-year old story about a former planet's rejection? Well, because the issue of what makes something a planet seems like it could again be coming into question. This week the BBC  ran the article "Free-floating planets found with no star in sight" talking about the new discovery of objects in space that are seemingly un-connected to a star. The BBC article is referencing the research "Bound and unbound planets abound" featured in Nature, and as we learned from the Pluto experience, criteria #1 for being classified as a planet is that the object in question needs to orbit a star.

So then what is going on with the new discovery of at least 10 objects the size of Jupiter that don't orbit a star? The research suggests that objects like this might be so common, they actually outnumber stars 2:1. While the BBC's article states that researcher are cautious to completely flip our understanding of the universe based on a single study - if true, it would completely flip our understanding of the universe.

The definition of a planet is firmly grounded in the three criteria listed above, so these new objects don't fit the bill because #1 - orbiting a star is violated. But then, what are they? The answer to that is a little complicated. The BBC's article doesn't explain it. So, since I have zero background in astronomy, I did some digging and found Phil Plait's blog Bad Astronomy for Discover.

According to Plait's post called "The galaxy may swarm with billions of wandering planets," the objects talked about in the Nature study either formed like stars or they formed like planets in solar systems (like our own) and got tossed out. Plait favors the latter, saying they are most likely rejects from other solar systems.

He explains that massive planets often form along the outside of a solar system, and then migrate inward toward the center star. This could cause other plants in the path of the migrating planet to undergo changes in their orbit, or even get flung out the solar system completely. It is these planets that get flung out of their solar system by the movement of larger planets that could be the star-less objects featured in the Nature study. The evidence in favor of this theory is the prevalence of large plants that orbit very close to their stars.

So most likely - the objects in question ARE planets, they formed like planets, in a solar system that orbited a star. But, somewhere along the way they got tossed out of their solar system, and thus became free-floating planets.

I'll be interested to see if there is any kind of distinction as far as name or classification that these rogue planets are given, that identifies that they are different than your typical planet. Lord knows losing Pluto was bad enough, I'm not sure what I'll do if there is another planetary shake up. Its rough seeing things you learned when you were six get turned on their head. But, it is also incredibly cool how much new information the universe still has to give up. I really love the idea that there could be so many free-floating planets out there waiting to be discovered.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

New Website

As I am slowly taking steps toward at least appearing professional (fake it, until you make it right?) I recently became the proud owner of

I'm trying to use the site as an online resume of sorts, so if you have any advice on what I could make better about it, or what information you think it might be missing I would love any feedback.

Monday, May 9, 2011


I've known for a long time that science can be intimidating to people. It intimidates me sometimes and I read and write about science topics everyday. But I had never considered the idea that the words used in science would spark an actual phobia. Yet there is such a thing - Hellenologophobia is the fear of Greek terms or complex science terminology (I know its true, because the Internet told me so.) 

To describe the sensation of fear you could talk about any number of things: wide eyes, arms and legs frozen stiff (paralyzed in fright, if you will,) rapid heart beat, pain, sweating, surprise, shock, something sudden, dangerous, deadly, dark, loss of breath, holding your breath, breathing heavily. Something scary.

Not my favorite, but not THAT scary. Photo by Erin Podolak
There are two things that I would say particularly freak me out: spiders and people jumping out of the dark. The spiders are relatively self-explanatory, I mean some spiders can kill you, they crawl on you, and they could be anywhere. People jumping out of the dark comes from the idea of things jumping out of my closet, made all the more scary by the fact that in movies bad things always happen when someone jumps out from a dark corner to attack. 

But would I say that these are fears? Not really. I take no special precautions in life to avoid spiders or dark enclosed spaces. I might flail quite a bit should I find a spider on my clothes, but that is hardly comparable to a phobia. By definition a phobia is a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it. 

So what about those who suffer from Hellenologophobia? Is the idea of encountering a scientific term so horrifying that all steps should be taken to avoid any chance of "chromatin" or "genome" from crossing your path? For some people, it is. I am not a therapist, or in any way, shape or form qualified to offer medical advice, but if you want to learn more about phobias I suggest checking out the Mayo Clinic's webpage dedicated to phobias it has a lot of great information. I will also stress that if you think you are suffering from a phobia, you should consult a physician who specializes in mental health to get a real, informed opinion. 

But anyway since the idea of science seeming scary and unapproachable to the public is largely why I have this blog, realizing that there are people who suffer from a condition of fearing the words used to describe science reminded me why I do what I do. What scientific research takes place, and what discoveries are made is something I have no control over, but the words used to describe it all - that I can control. The words are what I have spent so much time specializing in, hoping to make them less scary. 

I want to make science less intimidating, and show people who might not have a science background that science stories are interesting and important. I've been wondering lately if I'm actually any good at science communication or if I should switch tracks (like that is possible with half a Master's degree.) I wonder sometimes if loving what I do is enough to counter the fumbles I make, the beginners mistakes, the idea that I am so far from being a "brilliant" writer that I will never get anyone to pay me for a science story. I hope it is, because I don't want to stop making sense of the words and taking the fear out of science.
For the record: Chromatin is a material made up of protein, RNA and DNA that the chromosomes of eukaryotes (multi-celled organisms) are made of. (Chromosomes are very small structures, found in the nucleus (center) of most cells that carries the genetic code.)
A Genome is the set of chromosomes in a cell that represents the complete set of genes and genetic information (the DNA) that it takes to make that organism. Humans typically have 46 chromosomes - 23 from the mother and 23 from the father.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Summer Starts Here

Source: Wikimedia Commons
I made it back to the homeland today, which means I survived my first year of grad school. When I moved to Wisconsin nine months ago it seemed impossible, but here I am back home with 50% of a Master's degree. Before I left Wisconsin for the summer I finally (FINALLY) tried fried cheese curds. I get what all the fuss was about. It was a crazy week finishing projects and saying goodbye to my friends in the pro-track program who are graduating. 

But, I am back in New Jersey now, and I have some down time ahead of me between now and when my summer internship (which I will tell you more about later) starts. Never fear, I intend to blog all summer. Although as my loving big brother put it today, "Its not that I don't WANT to read your blog. You just don't write anything interesting." I guess I'll have to up my game, though I hope if you are here, you are not bored. 

For the record I also have to say, I was shocked by how green and beautiful everything is in New Jersey right now. I didn't realize how far behind in spring Madison was, it was shocking to see green leaves on the trees and flowers after so many months in "the frozen north" aka my home away from home. Though I am a little disappointed I won't get to experience Madison in the summer, from what I've heard it is the best season to be a part of the Madison community. But, summer is also my favorite time to be in New York City so I guess this one is a trade off. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Termites: Just Another Way to Lose Your Money

While I love being in grad school, there is one thing from my year working in medical marketing that I dearly miss: my bi-weekly paycheck. In addition to being a grad student, I'm a journalist and as a freelancer with very little free time, that adds up to being consistently strapped for cash.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
With that in mind, I had to share this news story in the BBC, "India bank termites eat piles of cash." In the US we are all watching the money leave our bank accounts to pay for mortgages or rent, utilities, groceries, school tuition, healthcare, and ever increasing gas prices (predicted to hit $4/gallon this week!) But one thing I am sure we aren't afraid of losing our money to is termites.

A branch of the State Bank of India, located in the Uttar Pratesh region have been found guilty of "laxity" for allowing insects to eat through 10 million in rupees (equivalent to $225,000.) According to the BBC's article the bank, and storage room where the money was kept, were old and not properly cleaned very often. 

The State Bank of India has instructed other branches to check the status of money held in storage more regularly in response to the incident. The eaten money will also be replaced based on the serial numbers of the chewed through notes, with the burden placed on the bank.

I worry about losing my money in lots of ways, but it getting eaten wasn't high on my list of things that could go wrong for me financially. I guess I'll have to add termites to the list, and be grateful for metal bank vaults... and Terminix.