Sunday, June 24, 2012

Book Review: Jurassic Park

I'm about two decades late to the party with this book review, but considering I was two years old when Jurassic Park was first published my interest in dinosaurs, genetics, etc. needed a little more time to develop. I have finally read Michael Crichton's iconic Jurassic Park, and not really surprising anyone I loved it. I have been exposed to the cultural premise of Jurassic Park my whole life, but I'd never read the book or seen the movie, so really it was like my first exposure to the story in its entirety. I found my Dad's old copy from back when it was first released and decided to rescue it from the book donation bin. I'm glad I did.

In case you live under a rock and are thus unaware the premise of Jurassic Park is that scientists develop a way to pull dinosaur blood samples out of mosquitoes fossilized in amber. The blood is used to decode the genetic sequence for a variety of dinosaurs and they are then grown and hatched in a lab. An eccentric billionaire funds the project because he believes he can make billions by using the dinosaurs as the main attraction in a theme park. What could go wrong genetically recreating dinosaurs for a modern day tourist attraction? Everyone involved in the project thinks nothing could go wrong, yet things do go awry on the island where the theme park is built causing much dinosaur related havoc.

I can only speculate what reading the book when it was first published must have been like and how I would have perceived the ideas and lessons in the context of early 90's technology. Still, even in our current age of high speed genome sequencing I think the warnings in Jurassic Park continue to hold true. Things go wrong because the people working on the dinosaur project don't give nature enough credit. They think there can't possibly be a way for their fail-safe measures (creating only female dinosaurs and making them lysine dependent) to be overcome by the dinosaurs. They doubt the intelligence of the life forms they create and their ability to adapt. They also don't appreciate that they have created something new instead of just recreating the past.

The desire to profit off the dinosaurs is the main priority, leading to a lack of understanding about them and the process that created them. Living in an age of even more advanced scientific ability, I think remembering that there can always be unexpected outcomes with any scientific experiment is important.   I am a firm supporter of genomic research, but the key word there is research. Creating a profitable enterprise like the one in Jurassic Park shifts the priority from understanding to economics. Understanding should always be the goal with scientific inquiry and processes, because if we are going to use technology to manipulate, change, or create we need a firm grasp on the what and the how.

Ultimately I think what I took away from Jurassic Park was a sense of respect for science and nature. We can't take ability for granted. Ethics are important. Why we do things matters as much if not more so than just our base ability to do them. While I know (obviously) that Jurassic Park is a work of fiction, I think it gives a reader a lot to think about regarding research and real-world applications, even after so many years. It is also pretty entertaining, the plot is great but the characters are also well developed and it is definitely action packed. I now need to find the time to watch the movie, and read The Lost World. I'm totally hooked. Have you actually read Jurassic Park? Just seen the movie? How old were you? What did you think? I'd love to know what other people thought when they first encountered the story.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Science For Six-Year-Olds: The Bear Skull

Science For Six-Year-Olds is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year in first grade we've also learned about groundwater in Africanoctilucent clouds done an experiment with butter, talked about hurricanes and sugar maple trees, and learned a song about the states of matter.
This science for six-year-olds post is a little different than my previous posts, because this time I'm back-blogging about a presentation that I already gave to the first graders in person. Since I'm now back in New Jersey, I was able to visit their class to talk about my favorite subject, bears. While we know I'm partial to polar bears, in Mrs. Podolak's class we talked about black bears. 

Black bears are the type of bear that can be found in New Jersey. The reason I decided to talk about them with the first graders is because I brought Bob in for a bit of show and tell. This is Bob: 
Credit: Erin Podolak
Bob is a black bear skull that a friend passed along to my Dad a couple of years ago. The skull was found by a hunter in the woods in northern New Jersey within the normal range for black bears (Ursus americanus) in this area. The skull was pretty clean, but we boiled it just to be sure and now it makes for a great show and tell item to talk about the species and how it lived. The kids really loved getting to hold Bob and take a look at his jaws. They asked some great questions, like "where did his brain go when he died?" To answer that we had to talk about decay and how bacteria will break down tissue that isn't alive anymore. Deep stuff for first graders, I was impressed. 
I was also impressed with their existing knowledge of animals. The class has been working on research projects to learn more about specific animals of their choosing. We talked about whether or not black bears are predators and if they are dangerous to people. I started to explain to them that black bears are omnivores, which means that they are opportunistic eaters and will consume plants, berries, bugs, or meat. The kids already knew what omnivore meant, and they were also able to tell me about cartilage and that sharks are cartilaginous fish. It was a lot of fun to see what they already knew about black bears, and to listen to their observations. 

Credit: Erin Podolak
I just wanted to share a few more facts about black bears that we didn't get to talk about in the time we had in class: 
  • There have been confirmed sightings of black bears in all 21 counties in New Jersey, but they are more concentrated in the northern area of the state. 
  • Black bears are the largest land mammal that can be found in New Jersey
  • Female black bears can weight around 175lbs, while males weight around 400lbs
  • Black bears have very strong senses of smell and hearing
  • Their habitat typically includes hardwood forest areas, but they can also be found in dense swamps or forested wetlands.
  • The most common problems humans experience regarding black bears occur when the bears are attracted to garbage that has been left outdoors. 
  • Black bears can run as a speed of 35 miles for hour. 
  • Contrary to their name, not all black bears have black fur. Some black bears are brown or cinnamon colored, or they can have a white patch on their chest. 
  • Black bears stand about three feet high when on all fours, and can reach five to seven feet tall when they are standing upright. 
For more information about black bears in New Jersey, you can check out the New Jersey Department of Fish and Wildlife website (they have some good resources specifically for kids!) It was a great learning experience for me to try to communicate science to first graders. I was continually surprised by the complexity of the material they were able to understand and often stumped, but impressed, by their questions. I hope everyone who reads this blog who isn't in the first grade also enjoyed the subject of these posts. Happy summer vacation, everyone!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Perverted Penguin Paper

I often write about stories or headlines and how it is obvious that the media just couldn't resist. Well, in this instance I couldn't resist. I've been putting off writing a new blog post for various reasons but when I saw the headline, "Depraved sex acts by penguins shocked polar explorer" I knew I had my next post. The story has everything: animals, behavior, history, science, and an obviously irresistible headline.

Science history is an area I have no training in, but it combines two subjects that I've always found interesting. If I'd had more time I probably would have added a history minor to my Bachelor's because I took so many history classes as electives. I obviously have a love for all things science, so add history to that and my interest is definitely peaked. Especially after my history of the scientific book and journal class from last semester.

Adelie penguin. Credit: Stan Shebs
via Wikimedia Commons
The article that caught my attention is about the recent publication of notes and papers written by George Murray Levick regarding the sexual behavior of adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae). Levick was a biologist and medical officer of the Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole 1910-1912. The Terra Nova Expedition is infamous because several members (not Levick) attempted to be the first group to reach the South Pole. By the time they arrived, a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it and on their return journey the members of the Terra Nova Expedition who had attempted the trip all perished.

Prior to and following his involvement with the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition, Levick was a leading expert in the study of penguins and was the first person to observe penguins for an entire breeding season. His observations of their sexual behavior were apparently quite scandalous. So much so that when Levick wrote a paper about his observations including what he dubbed "sexual coercion" "depravity" and even necrophilia (male penguins having sex with dead females), that portion of the paper was not included in the official publication. Instead, 100 copies were discreetly distributed to select scientists.

Douglas Russell, curator of eggs and nests at the British Natural History Museum, discovered one of the only two remaining copies of Levick's lascivious penguin paper in the museum's files. Russell and colleagues have published their interpretation of Levick's findings in the journal Polar Record. The original paper and handwritten notes by Levick are now on display at the museum.

According to Russell, scientists in the early 1900's didn't understand the penguins' behavior but now scientists have a better base of knowledge for understanding Levick's original observations. For example, what he described as necrophilia isn't actually necrophilia the way the behavior is understood in humans. When it occurs in penguins, scientists now believe male penguins are confusing dead females with live females due to specific body positioning. In the BBC's article about it, Russell says he thinks researchers in Levick's time often looked at penguins like little people, but their behavior needs to be understood in terms of their own species. They are birds, and need to be observed in that context.

I really like this story for several reasons. Of course, I enjoy being able to title this post with an inappropriate alliteration, but I also really love the historical significance. Levick is an interesting scientist for his ground breaking work with penguins, but also for his participation in the Terra Nova Expedition. I love that this is a story about animal behavior, an area that I've written about and been interested in for some time. I also love that this is about penguins, because who doesn't like penguins? So there you have it, all the components of an irresistible blog post.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Finding Amelia Earhart's Plane: New TIGHAR Expedition

The Internet doesn't think very highly of Amelia Earhart. As a girl I was fortunate enough to do school projects on some great female role models. One that stands out in my memory was Amelia Earhart. Learning about great women helped form my conviction at an early age that women have as much to offer the world as men. I loved Amelia Earhart for what she represented to me: defiance, adventure and mystery. Reading this article in the Telegraph, and checking out the comments where she is called a "dumb woman" and "foolish" made me pause. The commenters also slam the effort to find out what happened to her based on the Telegraph's claim that the expedition is "backed" by the U.S. Navy. 

The article is about The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery's (TIGHAR) planned trip this July to try to located the remains of Earhart's Lockheed Electra aircraft. I've written before about TIGHAR and their efforts to find enough evidence to conclude that Earhart landed, and later died on the island of Nikumaroro in the Republic of Kiribati. According to some of the commenters finding out what happened to Earhart isn't worth the effort. Some say because she was an idiot flying when she did and some say it isn't worth it because of the money. Many of the commenters are up in arms that the Navy is "backing" the project on the grounds that the economy is still down and this is a stupid thing to spend money on. 

I was surprised to see the Telegraph headline, "US Navy prepares mission to solve riddle of Amelia Earhart's death" knowing that the TIGHAR expedition to find the plane was planned for this summer. When you read the Telegraph's article, you can see that the expedition they are talking about is the one by TIGHAR. Now, TIGHAR is funded by contributions not federal money. It is not getting your tax payer dollars. I know this, because I googled. Having written about them before I went back to the TIGHAR website to see what they had to say about their alleged joint mission with the Navy. 

This is what I found (pulled directly from their website) bolding is mine:
"As with previous TIGHAR expeditions, funding for this search is being raise entirely through contributions from private citizens, foundations and corporations. Lockheed Marting is leaidng a growing family of corporate sponsors. TIGHAR's long-time sponsor FedEx is aboard with a major contribution in shipping services, and we are proud to announce that in addition to helping sponsor our expedition, Discovery Channel is producing a television special to air later this year documenting the search.  
Underwater operations will be conducted for TIGHAR by Phoenix International, the U.S. Navy's primary contractor for deep ocean search and recovery. We'll sail from Honolulu July 2nd - the 75th anniversary of the Earhart disappearance. TIGHAR is deeply appreciative of the expressions of support voiced by Secretary Clinton, Secretary LaHood, Secretary Lambourne, Assistant Secretary Campbell, and Dr. Ballard."
The U.S. Navy is not paying for TIGHAR's expedition to try to locate Earhart's plane. They say it themselves on their website, they are funded by private and corporate donations. The announcement by the State Department that they support and are backing the expedition is just that - a statement. The terms "support" and "backing" automatically make one think money. I thought money when I read the Telegraph's headline and article. But in this case "support" and "backing" comes in the form of verbal acknowledgement and a few nice press pictures, not oodles of taxpayer dollars. It also probably helped get Phoenix International onboard to do the actual mapping/search, but they are going to be paid out of TIGHAR's coffers.

Still, Earhart is just a stupid woman got herself killed by taking off on a poorly planned trip right? Even if all those commenters up in arms about their money going to something they think is silly have been mislead by the article there are still those that think Earhart doesn't matter. I like the idea of going out there to try to figure out what really happened to Earhart because there is historic and social value to knowing how her story ended. She is an important figure in aviation history, women's history, and United States history. She mattered. She mattered in her time, and for girls like me who read about her in books and start to believe that they can truly do anything with their life she still matters. 

It isn't a secret that I find Earhart inspiring. I've posted about her twice before this. Seeing her called dumb and foolish for trying to fly around the world annoys me. She took a risk, and she paid for it with her life. You mean to tell me no man has ever done that? She knew she could fail in her journey. She took off anyway. Was it a good choice? No. She made a bad choice, but the key word there is choice. She was a female aviator in the 1930's who took her own life in her hands, she made choices. I admire Earhart because she lived her life in a way that gave her the ability to choose for herself. So I do support TIGHAR's effort to find the plane and some conclusive evidence about what happened to her. I'm glad the State Department supports it too. I'm also glad that the funding is private, I think that is how it should be. Shame on the Telegraph for printing something so misleading. 

If all I had to do was go to the TIGHAR website to find out how the State Department and Navy were involved in the expedition, there is no reason the Telegraph shouldn't have done the same. Rather than making this a story about Earhart, the Telegraph article made this a story about government spending and waste. That isn't the story at all. I would much rather have seen some real coverage of Earhart - the good and the bad - leading up to the 75th anniversary of her disappearance.