29 November 2007

Wrestling Global Warming

Continuing my theme from last post on professions you (or at least I) don't associate with science and biology, we now have a wrestler who is getting the message out on global warming.

My department's seminar speaker for this week was Dr. William Schlesinger, president of the Institute of Ecosystem Studies. Listed in his CV, as Dr. Zoe Cardon pointed out during the seminar, was his impact on WWE Smackdown champ John Bradshaw Layfield (JBL) and his thoughts on global warming.

“Global warming’s real,” JBL declared. “If [America wants] to be the economic powerhouse of the future, we have to make sure that this environment stays in tact. I don’t mean to sound like a leftist tree-hugger, but this is simply the fact.”
(quote taken from this article)

Not only is JBL a wrestler, but he is an investment banker and hosts his own radio show featuring segments like Tramp-of-the-week and Bonehead-of-the-week. But mixed in with that he talks about politics and had Dr. Schlesinger on to talk about global warming. If you're so inclined, you can listen to a clip of the show here if you scroll down to Feb. 10, 2007.

I doubt many scientists are really getting their message out on the importance of global warming to fans of WWE Smackdown, but I'm glad at least JBL is helping to spread the word.


Ethnobotanist model?

I was watching Project Runway tonight and for the first time they had to design men's wear - so as a result had male models walking the runway. The part that caught my attention is best summarized on this blog:

"Elisa continued her wacky shenanigans by closing her eyes and turning her back when her model was changing and camera talking that she didn't want to touch him, as her boyfriend was the only male she was comfortable using her organic methodology of design on. Which made it seem sexualized in a manner I am not sure she was aware of, as her model nervously told her he was interested in Ethnobotany and she rapturously told him "keep talking!". Um. Awkward?"
A model who is also an ethnobotanist!? The model is Conner, pictured to the right, and ethnobotany is the study of plants and their relationships with people and cultures. I'm sure female grad students everywhere are shaking their heads and wishing he had gone to grad school instead.


27 November 2007

All hail the banana

So, I've been getting the most visits to my blog via people searching for Alton Brown and Good Eats. So, it seems only fair to my "fans" to talk about an episode I saw recently - Top Banana.

One thing I love about Good Eats is that they always tell you about the history of food - in this case did you know slipping on banana peels isn't just a cartoon standby?:

"About a decade after they [bananas] came into this country, they became very popular street foods. Since there were very few trash cans in urban areas, most people just gave them a fling. [flings skin off camera, we hear a man slip, yell, and fall] So many city dwellers were either injured or killed in banana related accidents that the peel became the poster child for the growing litter problem in America. Ironic, don't you think?"
(Transcript courtesy of the Good Eats Fan Page)

And unlike avocados that I blogged about previously, I also learned that bananas are one of the few fruits always picked green and allowed to ripen off of the "tree" (banana plants might look like trees but have no woody tissue and are therefore just large herbs). They actually taste best that way.

For more history of the banana, you can watch the first 10 minutes of the episode below - if you don't mind that the sound is slightly out of sync that is.


Penguins and Polar Bears - Mystery solved!

It seems to be a common occurrence these days that I see polar bears and penguins pictured together despite the fact that these two animals do not live together. Polar bears of course residing in the arctic, while penguin species live only in the southern hemisphere.

Just two weekends ago I saw an Eskimo play set at Ocean State Job lot featuring an arctic family and various arctic animals: a walrus, a seal, a polar bear, and a penguin. Yes, a penguin. I would think a walrus would have been enough to keep the kids interested. Just last year Coca-Cola had an ad campaign featuring polar bears and penguins sharing a Coke that stirred up some rumblings in the science community, like this blog entry over on The Intersection.

However, I just saw a new t-shirt for sale at Threadless:
Penguins On Holiday - Threadless, Best T-shirts Ever
(follow the picture link to see a larger version)

This obviously puts the issue to rest. As we can see, penguins and polar bears can share a Coke (or a picture), but only if the penguins are on holiday to the north pole. Being flightless birds however, who knows how they get there - perhaps they've started an airline?


25 November 2007

Humans and Dinosaurs

Hope all of you in the blogosphere had a happy Thanksgiving!

A tradition of mine is to go shopping the day after Thanksgiving as a spectator sport - Americans are crazy and are willing to stand in hour long lines just to save $10.

So, while ogling the very long line for the checkout at Kohls (which wrapped all around the store) I saw a bunch of parents buying these dinosaurs, which turned out to be Imaginext toys from Fisher-Price and feature cavemen-looking men that ride on dinosaurs.

At first, I must admit that I was upset that kids might get the wrong impression that humans and dinosaurs ever lived at the same time. However, with a name like Imaginext I can see why the scenario of humans and dinosaurs living together might be a fun thing for kids to imagine. After all, re-runs of The Flinstones kept me entertained when I was young.

It turns out, however, that creationists think that this idea isn't just good fun, but rather that the Bible tells them humans and dinosaurs lived together. If you google "humans and dinosaurs" the first several hits are all from creationist websites. Instead of linking to any of these sites, I'll direct you to this blog entry instead that extracted some real gems on the topics of the Bible and dinosaurs. The fact that the old testament mentions dragons and that some people think this is the end all source of information just cracks me up.


20 November 2007

Children's books on evolution

I was talking with Sasha last night, and he remembered when he was in 3rd grade and getting a book about atoms and the big bang and how he was telling everyone about what he had learned. I agree, kids are definitely scientists, but most eventually get this curiosity "beaten" out of them. That lead us to think about books about evolution for kids - why not teach them early when they are more receptive to new ideas?

So we came up with a story about natural selection based on the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant that would go something like this:

Freddy the finch was born with a really large beak. Sure his parents had fairly large beaks, but that didn't stop his fellow small juvenile finches from making fun of him. Freddy figured out though that he could eat seeds that were larger than his friends. One day a drought started, and smaller seeds became more and more scarce as it continued not to rain. Freddy could still find large seeds to eat, but most of his friends were not so lucky and eventually died. One day when foraging for seeds, Freddy spotted a female finch with a large beak too! Her name was Frederica, and by next year both Freddy and Frederica had a a few large beaked baby finches of their own. And there was no one there to make fun of them.
(finch picture taken from here)

Looking around though, it does seem that there are a few books on evolution for kids, you can see them here on Amazon.
Life on Earth: The story of evolution looks promising and the illustrations look great too. I should check to see if books like this are available at large book stores.


16 November 2007

Chain stores are like invasive species

I went to the library yesterday which reminded me that I wanted to talk about the book Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk (my favorite author).

Mixed into the story along the way are these great ramblings on the topic of invasive species from the character Oyster.

Such as:

"When you think about it from a native plant perspective," Oyster says, "Johnny Appleseed was a f***ing biological terrorist"
But the part that really got me thinking was comparing chain stores to invasive species:
"Everywhere there's a McDonald's hamburger, this is the ecological equivalent of franchised life-forms. Every place is the same place. Kudzu. Zebra mussels. Water hyacinths. Starlings. Burger Kings. The local natives, anything unique gets squeezed out. The only biodiversity we're going to have left is Coke versus Pepsi."
Chuck is exactly right. Too bad we can't release biological control agents on chain stores - a weevil that feeds only on Starbucks buildings would be pretty awesome. I also think communicating science through fiction is a great way to reach out to people who wouldn't normally seek out science topics. I mean, look at Jurassic Park, sure it's fictional and improbable, but it got people talking about DNA and cloning.


14 November 2007

Waterlily-based Pokémon

Following up on my previous post about Pokémon, I think I found the original source of information for the article I posted over on this website.

This site also talks about a Pokémon that I instantly loved as someone who studies aquatic plants -- it is based on the genus Victoria, a member of the waterlily family Nymphaeaceae, and found in calm waters of the Amazon river basin in South America.

So, I present Lotad (and Lombre).

(more biology below the fold)

The Legendary Pokémon site says the name Lotad probably comes from combining Lotus and lily pad. But see that very pronounced upturned edge? It has to be a Victoria. The official description of Lotad on the Pokémon website confirms this:

"It looks like an aquatic plant and serves as a ferry to Pokémon that can't swim."
The history of people sitting on giant Victoria leaves goes back to the Victorian era, when this was a common plant in cultivation in showy water gardens.

Like these kids sitting upon leaves at the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1906.
Yes, this was before Photoshop, the leaves really are this large!

There are many more Pokémon to discuss, so I think this might be a regular feature on this blog.

And I modify my statement earlier, if you let your kids know that Pokémon are based on actual species, I think this game/cartoon franchise can be very educational. I really need to start watching the cartoon!


13 November 2007

Course on Biology in Popular Culture

It's a great day for finding blog post ideas!
I found more really neat Pokemon that I will talk about at a later date (it seems people are finding this blog by searching "origins of pokemon").

Also by checking the recent searches resulting in hits, someone at the University of Richmond found my blog by searching "biology in popular culture". It turns out this blog is number 3 on google with that search!
The number one hit you ask? - the University of Richmond. Looks like they have a class (and lab) called "Biology in popular culture".

The course description from their proposal is below the fold...

"Current topics in contemporary biology will be used to introduce students to
genetic engineering, stem cells, and the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. These issues and the impact of this technology will be explored examining their various roles in the medical community and popular culture. Laboratory investigations will emphasize the scientific method allowing for student hypothesis driven experimentation. Will not serve as basis for further work in science nor meet entrance requirements for any health profession. Three lecture and two laboratory hours per week."

"It is essential for our students to understand the role of genetics and the
possible applications in their lives. In this course, examples will be taken from the popular press, web sites, movies, TV and novels to illustrate the roles (and sometimes incorrect presentation) of selected topics. Students will gain exposure (and experience) with tools and techniques common to genetic engineering. Two major issues, stem cells and the induction of antibiotic resistance in bacteria will serve as the basis for hypothesis-driven laboratory modules."

That sounds pretty cool, I'd take it if I were an undergrad. Here's hoping that the professor's refer them to this blog!


Intelligent Design on Trial

I just finished watching Nova's presentation of "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial". I thought it was done very well, and if anything, this program should be shown in biology classrooms.

For those who missed the program, Nova will be making the show available on the internet in a few days on their website.

The part I found the funniest was that in drafts of Of Pandas and People, "creationists" got changed to "cdesign proponentsists" — a transitional fossil of text showing the link between creationism and intelligent design.

I remember when my sister was starting high school biology a few years ago - I asked her if they would be learning about evolution. It turns out the policy of the Vacaville public school district in CA was just to ignore the controversy and skip evolution all together (perhaps this has changed by now). Maybe that is the ultimate goal of the religious groups against the teaching of evolution, if you cause enough trouble, eventually people just start avoiding the topic.

It also makes me wonder about religious individuals that just refuse to listen to the evidence in support of evolution. Not only that, but threaten the lives of people trying to get evolution taught in schools. That they feel the need to fight so hard just makes me think they know their cause is unfounded.


Guild of Scientific Troubadours

So I thought I'd spotlight a blog I think has a great premise:
The Guild of Scientific Troubadours

The idea is, you read a science article or peer-reviewed journal article then write a song about it. What a great way to exercise your science communication muscles and try to make papers accessible in song form.

Looks like just the "guildmaster" is writing songs at the moment, but I hope others jump aboard. I wish I had song writing ability as I think there should be more songs in circulation that convey science. Props to They Might Be Giants, but they can't do it alone.

[ In a side note, I have started a list of songs that mention plants in their lyrics, although I can't say any of them teach you cool things about plants ]

So, start writing biological songs! And for inspiration, I will provide the lyrics to a TMBG song, below the fold:

By: They Might Be Giants
Copyright: 1992

Glass of milk
Standing in between extinction in the cold
and explosive radiating growth
So the warm blood flows
Through the large four-chambered heart
Maintaining the very high metabolism rate they have

Mammal, mammal
Their names are called
They raise a paw
The bat, the cat
Dolphin and dog
Koala bear and hog

One of us might lose his hair
But you're reminded that it once was there
From the embryonic whale to the monkey with no tail
So the warm blood flows
with the red blood cells lacking nuclei
Through the large four-chambered heart
Maintaining the very high metabolism rate they have

Mammal, mammal
Their names are called
They raise a paw
The bat, the cat
Dolphin and dog
Koala bear and hog

Placental the sister of her brother Marsupial
Their cousin called Monotreme
Dead uncle Allotheria

Mammal, mammal
Their names are called
They raise a paw
The bat, the cat
Dolphin and dog
Koala bear and hog
The fox, the ox
Giraffe and shrew
Echidna, caribou

(lyrics from the tmbg wiki)


09 November 2007

Sing-a-long with Stebbins

Kent Holsinger has a copy of "Sing-a-long with Stebbins" (a pamphlet of botanical songs passed out at the all congress dinner of the XI International Botanical Congress, 1969) and I thought I'd type out one of the songs and share.

Stebbins, is of course G. Ledyard Stebbins, writer of Variation and Evolution in Plants and also important researcher into the role of hybridization and polyploidy in speciation and plant evolution.

So warm up your vocal chords, and get ready to sing "Oh Chromosomes", sung to the tune of "O Tannenbaum"
(for those non-xmas carol singing people in the world, it goes like this).

(to the tune of O Tannenbaum)

Oh chromosomes, my chromosomes,
How faithful is thy mission.
Oh chromosomes, my chromosomes,
Thou bringest my condition.
You make my eyes look brown or blue,
My blood group, too, depends on you,
Meiosis brings us something new,
Not gained by simple fission.

Oh chromosomes, my chromosomes,
We've learned to know you better.
We know the code of DNA,
We can translate each letter.
Our thymine must have adenine,
Our guanine mates with cytosine;
Their messenger, pure RNA
Puts our proteins together.

Oh chromosomes, my chromosomes,
How faithful is thy mission.
Oh chromosomes, my chromosomes,
How sad is my condition.
My grandsire's gift for singing well
Has gone to some lost polar cell.
That's why I sing this doggerel;
I can do no better.

(Stebbins in 1969, photo from here)


08 November 2007

Bring out your inner squirrel

Have you ever wanted to fly (well, glide) like a flying squirrel or a sugar glider? Then, this week's video demonstrates wingsuits in action.

(pictures taken from here, here, and here, respectively.)

A great example of a product inspired by animal adaptations.


07 November 2007

Entomological origins of Pokémon

I just read a pretty interesting blog entry about Pokémon, which turns out is a series first started by an amateur entomologist. I can't say I ever paid much attention to the Pokémon themselves while my sister used to watch the cartoon, but it turns out that some Pokémon undergo metamorphosis in biologically real ways. I'll post some pictures below, taken from the Pokémon website.

For those who didn't read the blog entry I linked to, the cicada nymph-like Pokémon (Nincada) later emerges as an adult cicada (Ninjask) and its molted skin (Shedinja).

Who knew that Pokémon could also be (somewhat) educational?


06 November 2007

Biology on Etsy

I discovered Etsy last year (it's a site where crafts, art, and all things handmade are sold by the people who create them). The products you can find there are only limited by the imagination of artisans.

So, now that the holiday season is (almost) upon us, I was curious if people were creating biologically inclined crafts. See them below the fold.

Darwin and finch pillow.

Rodent Evolution Journal (the seller has other biological journals).

DNA beaded bracelet.

Clocks with plant cell types. The clock above features stomata.


01 November 2007

Photography, with definitions

I found a really cool photo group on Flickr called The Dictionary of Image. The goal of the group being to incorporate a word and definition that fits with the photo. Some of the botanical images are very stunning, and I think this is a great way to communicate science to viewers who might not otherwise think about the subject in that way. Granted, not all subjects are biological, but a lot are.

I wish I could post some images here, but the pictures are protected, so you'll have to visit on your own. Some photographs that caught my eye...
Solomon's seal
Surface tension