Tag Archives: animals

What First Sparked Your Fascination with Science?

Sea anemone and clownfish.

Sea anemone, you were an awkward 12 year old’s biggest crush. Credit: Ashley Braun/All rights reserved.

When I was twelve years old, I had science class in the cinder-block basement of my middle school. But perched along the perimeter of that schoolroom filled with basic black lab tables and little natural light was a bubbling saltwater aquarium and a couple plastic containers with secure, vented lids.

We students, trustworthy sixth graders that we were, could volunteer to feed their inhabitants: sea anemones, a furry and secretive tarantula, and three-inch long Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

I savored the opportunity to stick my gangly arm deep into the saltwater tank, tickling the sea anemones’ sticky tentacles as I dropped bits of chicken onto the marine invertebrates’ smooth oral disks. For a young girl hundreds to thousands of miles from the ocean or tropical forests, these science class pets quickened my pulse and my fascination with the natural world. I didn’t care if it was the weird bugs in my classroom or the rhinos, three-toed horses, and camels buried by volcanic ash in northeastern Nebraska, which we ventured out to see while visiting my mom’s family. I find these experiences and my reactions to them (delight rather than horror or boredom) reassuring. Then again, I’m a professional science writer.

But these sparks of interest in science aren’t (and shouldn’t be) limited to those of us with a professional connection to science. Carpenters and professional football players and accountants and waitresses are welcome too.

One point made over and over again at the recent Evolving Culture of Science Engagement workshop was that we as science communicators need to figure out how to reach beyond the usual audiences of those already interested and light that spark of curiosity and critical thinking in everyone else. The aim? A scientifically literate public.

The world depends on informed citizens making informed decisions. Science and technology have become entwined in everyday life in unprecedented ways, and the average person should be able to understand enough about the world around them — or at least respect the scientific pursuit of understanding — to act appropriately when life and society require it.

Psychology professor Caleb Lack explores on his blog Great Plains Skeptic the question of what a scientifically literate population looks like in the 21st century. What resonated the most with me was his definition of scientific literacy not as a memorized collection of facts but more as a way of thinking:

Science is, instead, an empirical, rational way of thinking and seeking answers to questions and evaluating claims. It is the application of a specific series of steps to arrive at empirical support for or against an idea. As such, scientific literacy should not be seen as the ability to parrot answers to questions such as “What is the speed of light?” or knowing the steps used to balance a chemical equation. Scientific literacy should instead be seen as the ability to access and use the methods of science when confronted with a question to which one does not know the answer. It should be seen as the ability to minimize the myriad of thinking errors to which we humans are so prone while using those same methods. A scientifically literate society should be able to, in short, think like a scientist about its dilemmas by evaluating the world skeptically.

Yet people today can still believe that Earth is only 6,000 years and that the measles vaccine causes autism and other disorders despite repeated, rigorous scientific study discrediting these claims. Part of this discrepancy originates in humans’ tendency to rationalize preexisting but strongly held beliefs (often coming from their religion, community, or cultural leaders), even at high levels of education. But another factor is scientific illiteracy, the inability to think critically, be open to examining credible evidence, or distinguish between science and pseudoscience.

Approaching this challenge by trying to force-feed people ever-more facts discrediting their beliefs doesn’t work and can even backfire, instead reinforcing incorrect notions. Even in the face of spectacular refutation of their belief systems, people can still manage to believe aliens are coming to save them from the apocalypse.

So. How do we go from apocalyptic aliens to a societal respect, and perhaps hunger, for science?

A vital step is tailoring the communication of scientific information to the cultural values of the audience. But I also think we can find clues about what works in the conversation started on Twitter by Ben Lillie, physicist-turned-storyteller and founder of The Story Collider. He asked people about their early science-related inspirations — those books, people, moments, etc., that touched them in a very real way.

Right. Switching hashtags. What science thing first made you really *feel* something? #sciencespark

— Ben Lillie (@BenLillie) November 13, 2013

An overwhelming deluge of nostalgia and excitement followed (which you should read): people sharing memories of gaping wide-eyed at Saturn’s rings through a telescope, of being inspired by beloved or bizarre family members and teachers, and of amazing things like this:

.@BenLillie In daycare they told us about the Earth’s crust, so I took a shovel under a tree to find it. #sciencespark

— Elizabeth Preston (@InkfishEP) November 14, 2013

As children, these experiences of discovery, when everything is new and wondrous, are nearly effortless. But how do we as busy, cynical adults recapture that instinctive, unabashed curiosity about the universe and how things work, whether it’s wondering how the rain hits the windshield or what makes up the microscopic particles what make up everything? When do you remember having that spark of understanding mixed with an openness to exploring the infinite possibilities of the universe? When did you lose it (if you feel you did)?

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De Compostus: A Brief History of Putting Animal Poop on Plants

A relief of a Gallic-Roman harvesting machine.

A relief of a Gallic-Roman harvesting machine. Credit: Public Domain

“When the weather is bad and no other work can be done, clear out manure for the compost heap,” recommends Roman statesman Marcus Porcious Cato, better known as Cato the Elder. In his writings De Agricultura, he shares the secrets to running a successful farm-business in the ancient Roman Empire.

In this work, Cato, who lived between 234 and 149 B.C., provides us with an early how-to guide for enriching the soil through the practice of composting.

The Dirt on Dirt (and Compost)

Compost is not actually soil itself, but the dark, crumbly result of a controlled process of breaking down animal and vegetable matter. The resulting product is fairly stable, no longer decomposing at the previously speedy rate, and is full of nutrients (especially nitrogen and carbon) and minerals in forms ready for hungry plants to absorb.

Black gold: The earthy results of composting with worms.

Black gold: The earthy results of composting with worms. Credit: Red58bill, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

But composting isn’t just any old rot, full of stink and muck. It involves humans maintaining roughly the right ratio of moisture, air, carbon, and nitrogen. It involves aerobic decomposition, which requires oxygen and is the main reason for occasionally “turning” or mixing a compost pile. It also involves microbes, fungi, insects, and worms all munching on and pooping out the delicious organic (carbon-based) goodness in a compost pile.

Composting for the Lazy and the Ancient Scots

A dedicated “compost pile” isn’t even necessary for this magic to happen. One of the many ways to compost is referred to as “sheet composting.” At the end of the growing season, you mix up a moist layer cake of nitrogen-heavy “green” materials (e.g., mowed grass, bolted lettuce plants, chicken manure) with carbon-heavy “brown” materials (e.g., chopped up woody plants, dead leaves, cardboard). You toss all of this right on top of a garden bed, cover it with some burlap sacks, and ignore it until spring, when you will find several inches of nutritious compost on top of the plot.

This method doesn’t sound all that different from some of the oldest practices of humans composting. Sometime in the Neolithic Age, roughly 7,000 years ago, when hunter-gatherers began making the switch to farming, they figured out that having manure and vegetable waste in the soil around their food plants was a great idea.

A 2005 British study published in the journal World Archaeology found evidence of farmers in what is now Scotland using their garbage piles of food scraps and manure (“midden heaps”) as garden beds:

“from the Neolithic to the Iron Age, midden heaps were sometimes ploughed in situ; this means that, rather than spreading midden material onto the fields, the early farmers simply ran an ard over their compost heaps and sowed the resulting plots.”

In addition to the Romans and Neolithic Scots, the ancient Chinese and Egyptians also had an appreciation for amending the soil.

When in Rome, Compost as the Romans Do

Cato the Elder, however, preferred burying manure and other compostable materials around the roots of olive trees and grape vines and letting it break down there.

“See that you have a large dunghill; save the manure carefully, and when you carry it out, clean it of foreign matter and break it up. Autumn is the time to haul it out. During the autumn also dig trenches around the olive trees and manure them.”

“In an old vineyard sow clover if the soil is lean (do not sow anything that will form a head), and around the roots apply manure, straw, grape dregs, or anything of the sort, to make it stronger.”

His techniques apparently went beyond these modern sustainable farming practices and strayed into what we might now call the “biodynamic” (“a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach” to farming that emphasizes the land as an interconnected, living organism and takes into account things like planting and fertilizing based on lunar cycles and burying in the soil at night a cow horn stuffed with cow dung).

Perhaps Rudolf Steiner, founder of the biodynamic farming movement, took his inspiration from Cato the Elder and his composting contemporaries in Rome:

“Divide your manure as follows … Save the last fourth for the meadows, and when most needed, as the west wind is blowing, haul it in the dark of the moon.”

Farmers, take note: a new moon is the best time to compost.

Not All Animal Poop Is for Plants

Cato gives excellent advice for improving the soil with a variety of manure sources, as well as a sort of olive oil-based “dressing” (amurca) to give crop trees a boost:

“Fertilizers for crops: Spread pigeon dung on meadow, garden, and field crops. Save carefully goat, sheep, cattle, and all other dung. Spread or pour amurca around trees, an amphora to the larger, an urn to the smaller, diluted with half its volume of water, after running a shallow trench around them.”

Pigeon, goat, sheep, cattle … all are good sources of manure for Ye Olde Compost Pile. But a question that often comes up for Ye Modern Urban Composter and Pet Owner is whether or not you should add dog or cat poop to your compost.

In short, no.

In long, because dog and cat feces are full of pathogens, or disease-causing microbes and parasites which humans should want nothing to do with. Many of these pathogens or their eggs or spores won’t be killed by the composting process and can stick around in the soil for a long time, in some cases, up to four years.

Dog poop in particular has been studied as a plentiful source of nasty microbes, being called a “reservoir,” even, for Escherichia coli (E. coli). Rural communities in Canada have been observed to have a high incidence of pathogens in dog feces, including Toxocara canis (roundworms), Echniococcus granulosus, Giardia duodenalis, Cryptosporidium spp., and Campylobacter spp. And let’s not forget Salmonella.

What do these pathogens do to people? All kinds of fun!

  • Diarrhea!
  • Cramping!
  • Nausea!
  • Skin sores!
  • Inflamed stomach lining/heart wall/lungs/kidneys!
  • And more!
Some like it hot: A compost pile with cow dung reaches 145 degrees Fahrenheit.

Some like it hot: A compost pile with cow dung reaches 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Credit: Fishermansdaughter, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

These are not the sorts of things you want to be putting on your tomatoes and lettuce.

Of course, livestock manure can have some pathogens too, such as E. coli and Salmonella. To kill these pathogens, the manure needs to be in a “hot” compost pile, where they are exposed to temperatures maintained at 140 degrees Fahrenheit for at least three days. It’s generally accepted that composting dog and cat feces would run a much greater risk to humans. So, don’t do it.

Instead, “doo” as the Romans do.

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I Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Baby got snack: A Reed Warbler feeds a Common Cuckoo in its nest.

Baby got snack: A Reed Warbler feeds a Common Cuckoo in its nest. Credit: Per Harald Olsen/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Earlier this week, I was researching and writing a story for Natural History Magazine about some cuckoos that have taken on the plumage patterns of local hawks and other raptors in order to frighten away other birds from their nests.

“Dressing” like a known predator allows the cuckoos to swoop in and lay their own eggs in the nests, tricking unsuspecting sets of bird-parents into raising the cuckoos’ young. This sometimes happens to comedic effect when you consider how much bigger cuckoos can grow than their host parents.

(By the way, you should read the bio of Thanh-Lan Gluckman, one of the scientists who published the study on cuckoo-raptor plumage; she has taken a fascinating, if self-described “convoluted,” path to evolutionary biology.)

In the course of researching this story, I followed an interesting tangent: In 350 B.C., the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle made observations in his work “The History of Animals” about both the behavior of cuckoo parents and their striking resemblance to hawks. Stringent scientific studies today support these observations as well as the maxim shared with me by my college ecology professor: Basically, ecology confirms what we already know.

One thing I found amusing about reading these early descriptions was the moral lens through which the cuckoo is viewed for its habits (emphasis is mine):

The cuckoo, as has been said elsewhere, makes no nest, but deposits its eggs in an alien nest, generally in the nest of the ring-dove, or on the ground in the nest of the hypolais or lark, or on a tree in the nest of the green linnet. It lays only one egg and does not hatch it itself, but the mother-bird in whose nest it has deposited it hatches and rears it; and, as they say, this mother bird, when the young cuckoo has grown big, thrusts her own brood out of the nest and lets them perish; others say that this mother-bird kills her own brood and gives them to the alien to devour, despising her own young owing to the beauty of the cuckoo … The cuckoo shows great sagacity in the disposal of its progeny; the fact is, the mother cuckoo is quite conscious of her own cowardice and of the fact that she could never help her young one in an emergency, and so, for the security of the young one, she makes of him a supposititious child in an alien nest. The truth is, this bird is pre-eminent among birds in the way of cowardice; it allows itself to be pecked at by little birds, and flies away from their attacks.

~Aristotle, “History of Animals,” Book IX, Part 29, 350 B.C.

Yes, the cuckoo is full of “cowardice” and is quite aware of it, thank you. On the other hand, the foster-parent bird purportedly “despis[es] her own young owing to the beauty of the cuckoo.” Naturally, they’re going cuckoo for cuckoo chicks!

This tangent took me further down the rabbit hole to the 1891 work of Alfred Russel Wallace, “Darwinism: an exposition of the theory of natural selection.” Wallace makes further reference to how similar several species of cuckoos appear to sparrow-hawks and other “aggressive” birds, despite–or rather because of–the cuckoos’ “exceedingly weak and defenceless” nature.

Darwinism: an exposition of the theory of natural selection, with some of its applications

“Darwinism: an exposition of the theory of natural selection, with some of its applications,” by Alfred Russel Wallace, 1891.

It’s worth noting that not all cuckoos (the family Cuculidae) exhibit these parasitic adaptations to reproduction. But approximately 41% of them do.

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Llamas love me

This Bolivian climate conference that I’ve been attending the past few days here in Cochabamba seems to have one-upped Copenhagen in at least one aspect: the llama-to-person ratio.

Me with llamas

I spoke with the delegates from New Llamaland. They are very concerned about the effects of climate change.


Just sayin’.

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Meet my friend the llama (I’m on a boat reprised)


Llamas of reeds from Lake Titicaca

Say hello to my little friends.


We met at Lake Titicaca, and I just had to bring one of the little guys home with me. They’re made of reeds from the lake and the little one cost less than $1 US, but that’s all the money I’ve spent since arriving in Bolivia.

More pictures to come later (because it’s late and I have to pack to leave for the next city of Oruro tomorrow), but for now, I hope you get a little taste of what life has been like for me here in Bolivia:

 Me on a boat on Lake Titicaca

I'm on a boat (on Lake Titicaca) don't you ever forget!

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