Monday, January 30, 2012

Something About Squirrels aka Why ALL Questions Matter

Science, bastion of intellectual inquiry, is turned to for answers to many of the questions that plague the finest minds in the world. Defined as the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world, science is essentially the pursuit of answers, and really with no cure for diseases like cancer or AIDS, what more pressing question could be facing society right now than how different are black and grey squirrels?

Black squirrel in Santa Clara, CA.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. 
Sarcasm aside, this post is dedicated to the pursuit of information regarding the differences between black squirrels and grey squirrels. Yes, squirrels. Not exactly a charismatic animal, unless you are the kind of person that thinks everything small and furry is cute, and despite this post I'm not. But then why bother to write a post about the little critters? When I saw this story in the BBC about the squirrel research going on, I wanted to do a post because I think it is a good example of one of the best things about science - that all questions are important, because there is inherent value in learning more about the world around us.

I was purposely sarcastic about the squirrels in the beginning of this post to make a point. I feel like a lot of people look at science research being done, and are unimpressed with their return on investment. Granted, the squirrel research is in the UK, and I'm coming at this from a US perspective, but I can see a lot of people that I know reacting with the same level of sarcasm and disdain that I opened with in this post. Why squirrels? What is so interesting or important about squirrels? Do we really need to know if there are other differences between them besides color? Couldn't the resources and intellect of the researchers be better used elsewhere? Maybe. But, understanding the creatures that share this world with us, even the squirrels, IS important.

The squirrel research that caught my attention, according to the BBC, is an effort by researchers from Angila Ruskin University in the UK to try to figure out the rate of spread through the UK for black squirrels compared to grey squirrels, if the black squirrels also carry the "grey squirrel pox" disease, and also to build genetic profiles of the two mammals which though different in coloration due to a genetic mutation, are the same species and do interbreed. The project is being crowd sourced to the public (which I guess is the reason this was coverage worthy?) to help report sightings of the black squirrels to help track their locations. The public is also being called on to provide access to any black squirrel remains for genetic testing. That is the polite way of saying reporting roadkill so the researchers can take samples.

I'm not trying to say that this is groundbreaking, shocking, or even all that note worthy. I'm not sure why the BBC ran the story, aside from the public interaction angle. It isn't exactly flashy or eye catching. I'm still glad it is happening though. Questions matter. To me, it isn't even about the squirrels, really. If someone honestly wants an answer to a question about squirrels, why not inquire about them? Especially in this way, where public interaction will keep costs down? I support chasing the answer to a question, even if it isn't going to be Earth shattering. Curiosity is the basis of all the important breakthroughs, and who is to say what will be important in the future? We should be attacking all the questions. Ask, why? It can make all the difference. Even if you are just talking about squirrels.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Science Ink & An Argument For Print

For the holidays my parents gave me a copy of Carl Zimmer's latest book Science Ink. To say I loved it would be an understatement. Which is why I see no point in reviewing it. There would be nothing balanced about my comments, I just think you should read it. However, Science Ink inspired me in another way, so stay with me for a moment while I make a different point.

Science Ink isn't like any old book. I coveted Science Ink. I wanted to hold it, to feel the cut outs in the cover, absorb the colors, and let my hands glide over each page as I turned it. The subject matter of the book; science tattoos, what they mean, and why people get them; is fascinating. I was completely absorbed in each little story, and found something new to learn on each page. I already want a tattoo, and it made my mind swim with the possibilities. But what I took away from Science Ink more than anything else, was the sheer beauty of the book.

The design of Science Ink is breathtaking. I thought it was just spot on. I honestly don't know what I would change about it. The pictures are beautiful, but beyond that - the font feels ancient and perfect, the colors are vibrant but somehow dark the way I think a book about tattoos should be, the cut outs in the cover are a clever surprise, and the rough texture of the red spine with its gold lettering is completely satisfying. The smooth mat of the page excellently frames each photograph, with just enough sheen to make it feel fresh and new. I was even obsessed with the index for crying out loud. Now, if this is starting to sound like a love letter to a book, that's because it is. Not just to a book, but to a PRINT book.

I get the purpose of digital books, I do. I envy my Mom and Dad, who have a Kindle Fire and and iPad respectively, while I'm still living in the dark ages flipping pages with my whole hands rather than just the tap of a finger. I've commuted to and from New York City on the train and subways enough times to know that carrying around a book like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (which I did for two months this past summer) is a neck ache waiting to happen. Not to mention the ecological benefit to going paperless and saving all the resources (trees, water, energy) that go into making print books. I wouldn't mind having a digital platform to read on, I think it is definitely the way to go. Still, I argue that there are some books that just can't be done justice with a PDF or a picture on a screen.

Science Ink is one of those books. Not that I would ever encourage any of you digital readers to skip it - the stories behind science tattoos are clever, meaningful, funny, and astounding (as they should be) - I just think that the print version is worth taking in yourself. Reading it was an experience that attacked multiple senses, and I just don't think it would have been the same if I hadn't been holding the book in my hands. The subject matter is art, and I'm sure that has a big part in making the book so beautiful. But for me, the design set the book apart, and sent it soaring right over the top.

The experience of reading Science Ink, brought me back to a topic I played around with last semester in my multimedia journalism class. UW recently opened a new wing of the Chazen Museum of Art, and I interviewed the director Russell Panczenko about the role of an art museum in a digital world. I had some problems with the piece, chief among them that I don't know if I really got to the heart of the issue. I guess what I was trying to communicate - which Science Ink helped clarify in my mind - is that just because digital platforms make it easier to read books or look at paintings, doesn't mean that the multi-sensory experience of taking in a piece should be forgotten. That is what print books and art museums have that a little screen just doesn't. I'm all for moving forward with technology, I just don't want to lose my senses in the process. That is the point.

Here is that museum piece, I'd be interested in any comments/feedback. In the meantime, go read Science Ink! Or check out Carl Zimmer's blog The Loom, where there is a great archive of science-related tattoos, and get a little inspiration for your own body art. No seriously, go read Science Ink...

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Final Countdown (Part I) The Blog

Well Wisconsin, here we are. Stranded in the middle of another midwest winter, staring down my last semester of grad school. Yes, the last semester. It's the final countdown people. Just 16 weeks stand between me and my Master's degree. Two years ago when I decided to pack up and leave behind everyone I knew to chase this crazy science writing dream across the country it felt like I was facing a mountain of a task. But day by day, my time in Wisconsin has chipped away, leaving me asking... how did I get here?

Since I can't resist, let us ruminate on that with a little interlude from the Talking Heads:

Now that that's over, back to talking about grad school. I've decided to run a series of posts this semester, under the title The Final Countdown to reflect on this experience. As I head toward graduation, and the conclusion of my life in Madison, I want to take the time to pull it all apart and examine the good and the bad. Today, I want to do some thinking about Science Decoded, and what having a blog to chronicle this time has meant to me. Each month I hope to talk about something different, leading up to graduation in May. 

This blog started when I made my move to Wisconsin and has played an integral role in my life here. It is my distraction when I'm bored, my place to publish my work, share what I've learned, and on multiple occasions served as a class assignment. Science Decoded was recently featured in Scientific American's Incubator blog (along with many more distinguished clips from my colleagues here at UW!) and it really got me thinking about how important this blog has become to me. One of the best things about the Internet is being able to carve out your own little piece, to share what you think is important, to have a voice. 

I've always wanted Science Decoded to be a place where people just have access to scientific ideas that aren't complicated and pompous, because science itself isn't highfalutin. I've always found the beauty in science to be its simplicity, but that can get lost so quickly. A good friend recently told me that what he liked about this blog was that I write the way I talk. I had been wondering if I should change the tone I use on here to something more professional, since it has been getting a higher profile lately, but my friend's comment inspired me to keep things the way they are. He told me that he likes the way I lure people in with anecdotes and asides about what I think about each topic, with a generally innocent tone but in the end smack you with the point. 

That description made me laugh, but I was also relieved to know that I do get the point across (or at least in there, somewhere). Everything I write on here does have a purpose, even the polar bear posts, and I was worried that the reason behind each post was getting lost. But, all I've ever wanted was to get people thinking, and if I'm doing that, then I'm happy with what this blog has become.

I'd love to know what more people think about this blog. I've said over and over that I have no idea who reads this or why, but I'd love to find out. If there are things I could do differently, if there are things I can keep doing -- let me know! Regardless, I intend to keep blogging. I know I was slacking during the month I was in New Jersey for the holidays (but honestly, it was a crazy time). That doesn't mean I've given up on Science Decoded or that even when grad school ends I'll throw in the towel. This blog means far more to me than just a class assignment. Now that I've carved my corner out in the Internet, I have no intention of giving it up.