Sentenced to death: how not to communicate science

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I like to think the purpose of language (poetry excluded) is to convey information. Doing so in science is complicated somewhat by the vocabulary that every field accumulates. But, from my experience, most of this jargon takes the form of nouns and these are easy to explain when necessary. Take the word ‘phylogenetics’ as an example. On first inspection it’s a polysyllabic monster but as a noun it’s easy to define as “the systematic study of organism relationships based on evolutionary similarities and differences.” Simple. And over time this word slots into our vocabulary so we no longer need a definition every time.

The real problems in the language of science communication lurk elsewhere. Neuroscientists declare the self is an illusion but there is always going to be a subject doing science no matter how objective we want it to be. And it is that subject who should do the explaining of his or her work. The complete aversion of scientists to personal pronouns is a disaster for clarity and renders many papers unreadable. There are instances when the passive voice is more suitable but it’s not a case of ‘I showed’ for the humanities and ‘it was shown’ for science.

Lewis Spurgin lists myriad forms of bugbears in communicating science in one of his blog posts. Pretentious writing and clichés are both listed! As he says, so much light has been shed on matters in science that we’ve all gone blind. So rather than eschewing obfuscation and espousing elucidation try to keep it simple stupid (KISS).  Despite Will Self’s eloquent defence of obscure words, in science communication, clarity should be our highest priority.

And finally we come to the “funny title: actual title” format (see this blog post). Spurgin reckons scientists prone to this are in need of a colonic irrigation. And with good cause, for having a colon in your title reduces the number of cites you receive.

Author

Adam Kane: kanead@tcd.ie

Photo credit

wikimedia commons

Technically speaking…

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Following the excellent Botany/Zoology postgraduate symposium in TCD a couple of weeks ago, we had a discussion in NERD club about giving scientific presentations – what makes a good one, what makes a bad one and which were the best in the symposium? Actually, we didn’t do the last bit, and scarily I could remember very few talks a week after the event (“do you remember so and so’s slide about x y and z?” NO!!). So, either I am becoming old and forgetful (likely), or I wonder whether it’s some form of desensitisation? Every conference is full of short talks I listen to and think “that was interesting” and then immediately forget. How can we give presentations that won’t be forgotten, or at least will be remembered for all the right reasons? Below are some of the points we discussed as a group – not an exhaustive list, but the random ramblings of a few academics, postdocs and postgrads.

What are the things to avoid – what makes a bad talk?

  1. Speaker running over time (both their own fault for putting too much in, and the chair’s fault for not keeping time properly).
  2. Too much text on slides – undergrads love it if there’s plenty for them to copy down as the lecturer is speaking (or to learn off by heart from the powerpoint slides just before the exam), but telling a story without the distraction of a load of text is much better for a scientific talk.
  3. Too much content – need to stick to one (or two) key take-home messages, particularly if the talk is just one of many people will hear during the course of a conference.
  4. Too many graphs – especially ones that are too small to see properly, or that are irrelevant – if a speaker needs to say “ignore all the graphs on the slide except the one in the top right” then they haven’t done their job of tailoring their talk to their audience and just presenting the one on the top right.
  5. Jargon – even in a room full of eco-evo people, abbreviations and technical terms should be avoided (as should giving the name of a gene or biochemical pathway in the talk title – but we may be biased on this one!)
  6. Not knowing what is coming up on the next slide – comes from a lack of practice
  7. Colour-blind insensitive colour schemes – avoid red on green and other such indistinguishable schemes
  8. Reading out the acknowledgements – this led to a discussion of whether the acknowledgements should come at the beginning or the end of a talk. The problem with having them at the end is the audience is left looking at a list of funders, collaborators and helpers, rather than the key take home message. The problem with having them at the beginning is the audience wants the speaker to get on and talk about something interesting. We ended up deciding that for short conference style presentations, having them at the end was best, but perhaps not covering a whole slide so that the key message/awesome graph can still be on the last slide to give the audience something to think about whilst clapping. But for seminars or longer talks, acknowledging that the work was a group effort at the beginning was a nice thing to do. And funding agencies could just be acknowledged with a logo on the title slide.
  9. Bad chairing – ok, so that one’s not the speaker’s fault, but it is very annoying

 

And what makes a good talk?

  1. A good story or narrative – a good talk tells the story in such a way that you are drawn in, the approach is logical (and seemingly obvious and you’re left thinking “why has no-one done this before?”) and the findings interesting and digestable
  2. Targeting the scope and contents of the talk to the time slot – putting enough in, but not trying to include too much. Getting the balance right.
  3. Leading the audience through the presentation so that they don’t get lost – clear ideas and questions as slide titles rather than introduction/methods/results/conclusions.
  4.  Being confident (but not cocky). Being enthusiastic.  Being yourself, or doing a really good job at acting confident and enthusiastic.
  5. Making eye contact or scanning the room – not picking on one person to talk to as this can be intimidating for that member of the audience. If actually making eye contact can be distracting, then looking at people’s foreheads or just over their heads, so it looks like you are making eye contact.
  6. Spend time explaining graphs/figures – the audience gets lost if the graphs just flash up with no explanation – point out the trends or important parts, explain axes and colours if necessary (but don’t go on too long). Try not to just pull figures from papers/your thesis, redraw graphs to simplify them and make them clear so that they aid the audience in following your story, and don’t make things more complicated.
  7. Know your audience and target your talk to them.
  8. Humour – use with caution.
  9. Have the ability to give your talk without any powerpoint slides/prezi – there may be a power-cut and you just have to carry on.
  10. Practice your talk – practice the slide transitions so that you know what’s coming up next and how you’re going to link the slides.

 

There are heaps of resources out there which say more or less the same thing – I really like Jane Wilton et al.’s BES Bulletin article

And here’s Michael Alley’s “The craft of scientific presentations

And here are some more (from a VERY brief google search)…

http://matt.might.net/articles/academic-presentation-tips/

http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/cms/agu/scientific_talk.html

http://www.cs.dartmouth.edu/farid/Hany_Farid/Tutorials/Entries/2011/6/2_How_to_give_a_good_talk.html

http://oikosjournal.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/talk-and-stats-tips.pdf

Author

Jane Stout: stoutj@tcd.ie

Photo credit

http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com/social-media-marketing/if-facebook-comments-are-gold-here%E2%80%99s-how-to-dig-for-more/attachment/audience-happy-2/

http://muratak.com/2011/11/24/5-ways-to-improve-your-pitches/

The popularity of bees

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Because my research often uses bees as the study subject, friends and family are always forwarding links to news and culture that concerns these fascinating creatures.  Let me list for you some of my favourites: I found this article about the debate surrounding the ban on neonicotinoids within the EU on twitter.  On a lighter note, a performance group teamed up with a group of monks at Glenstal Abbey to compose a “Song of the bees” based on scientific recordings and data from honeybees.  A friend on facebook sent me this comic, which describes the seeming absurdity of honeybee workers sacrificing themselves for their hives.  Another facebook find was this spoof article which points out that we could probably solve the problem of bee decline if bees privatised.  Finally, friends and family in Philadelphia informed me that Drexel University recently named its new department the BEES department!  That last one is a little deceiving because BEES stands for Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science, so they don’t actually focus on the study of bees.  I think it’s still significant that the department’s acronym features our little buzzing friends though.  In addition to these references, the birthday and Christmas gifts I’ve received over the past three years include bee embroidered hand towels, wine glasses with bees painted on them, a bracelet with a bee charm, and a stuffed bee .

What is apparent from all of these links and articles (and the availability of the plethora of bee paraphernalia my lovely friends and family continue to buy for me), is that bees are incredibly popular right now.  And I can’t help but ask myself, what is the attraction?

My first question was am I just noticing these references more because I started studying bees in the last few years?  Honestly if you asked me to point out the difference between a honeybee and a bumblebee before I went to college, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to do it. But it turns out it’s not personal bias, not according to the scientific literature anyway.  The graph below is the result of a search in Web of Science for papers that contain the word “bee” or “bees” in the topic.  Clearly there has been increased interest in bees since the 1940’s.  In the last few years the publications on bees have been especially numerous, for example there were 1796 records in 2012.

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Okay, so bees are being studied more.  But why does the public seem to be so intrigued by these organisms? Why do people love bees?

I have a few thoughts- I’ll start with the obvious:

1.) Bees make honey.

Or so many think.  In reality, not all bees make honey.  The honey-like substance that bumblebees produce would not be fit for consumption- they don’t keep their colonies nice and neat like honeybees do, so you’d be likely to get a mouth full of bacteria or bee larvae in your honey if it came from a bumblebee.  But everyone thinks all bees make honey, and after all, honey is delicious.

2.) The social nature of bees.

The average person may not know much about solitary bees or the differences in the life cycles of bee species, but usually they can tell you that honeybees have a queen.  People also commonly know that the queen bee is responsible for producing all the rest of the bees, and that the rest of the bees in the colony will fight to the death to protect her.  I’m not trying to dive too deeply into psychology here, but I think that the apparent altruism of bees attracts people to them and makes them a more sympathetic organism than we would normally consider something with a sting.  People also like the concept of a “superorganism.”

3.) The “busy bee”

If you’ve ever watched a bee in the springtime foraging on a flower it’s clear that they are working hard.  The work ethic of bees is impressive!  I think people like that bees put in a hard day’s work, collecting food for themselves and their brood.  It makes us think kindly of them, the working class insect.

4.) The ecosystem service

Maybe my first three reasons seem a bit silly and have left you unconvinced, so I will end with a more scientific explanation.  We’ve known for some time that bees make excellent pollinators, and pollination is an important ecosystem service.  In 2006 Science published two studies describing declines in pollinators in Europe and North America.  These findings were compounded by the emergence of colony collapse disorder just a year or so later, leading to intense fear that our helpful honeybees were experiencing declines in population that they simply wouldn’t be able to recover from.  The next question was what will be the impact of declining bee populations on food security? Turns out it’s rather significant.  Studies have shown that the global economic value of pollination is over €153 billion.  Furthermore, a study in March demonstrated that honeybees cannot replace the value of pollination services from wild pollinators; we can’t just worry about the honeybees, wild bees are important to increasing yields as well.  Food security is not something we tend to take lightly, so our pollinators have intrinsic value.  This helps explain the incredible media coverage bees have been receiving lately, especially regarding the European ban of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides that have been shown to be harmful to bees.

I wonder though, how many people know the facts about how important bees are to the ecosystem service of pollination and therefore food security?  How many people really like them because they are fuzzy, make sweet honey, and are hard workers?  I suppose you could argue that it doesn’t matter why people are attracted to bees, it’s positive regardless because it encourages money to be spent on research into why they are declining and how we can conserve their populations.  I think it’s helpful to try to understand why bees have become a sort of flagship species. That way we can better understand what traits cause humans to assign intrinsic value to organisms for future conservation work.

Author

Erin Jo Tiedeken: tiedekee[at]tcd.ie

Photo credit

wikimedia commons

Earth day

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Monday 22nd April was Earth Day. In schools and offices all around the world people organised events to highlight the importance of the Earth and the harm that climate change, deforestation, and other human impacts are causing.

As an ecologist and someone who cares about conservation I should welcome Earth Day and its relative, Earth Hour, with open arms. Shouldn’t’ I? Maybe, but I really can’t. In fact, I find these sorts of events incredibly frustrating. Implicit within them is the idea that if we spend one day really caring then we can spend the other 364½ how we like.  I know that this is not the intention but I fear it is the reality.

Earth Day is popular with companies trying to improve their ‘green’ image, and it is here I have a big problem. I have no issue with companies trying to improve their green credentials, but improving their image and improving their credentials are not the same thing. How ‘green’ is a company who decides to spend Earth Day extoling the benefits of re-using cups at the coffee machine when the next day they send staff on a ‘training course’ that just happens to be in a hotel in Portugal? Who cares if you encourage everyone to print double-sided if you then require that 1,000-page file to be photocopied five times and then sent to offices all around the country (yes, I am drawing on past experience in these examples!).

I understand that Earth Day, and similar initiatives, try to encourage people to make small changes that are of little consequence in themselves but multiply over many people to make large differences. People are encouraged to turn off lights, the TV, their computer, and so on, when they’re not being used for long periods. The most commonly given reason for doing this is to ‘save you money’. After all, we live in a capitalistic society where money drives many of our decisions and if we can use money to drive lower energy consumption then everyone wins, surely?

Well, no. The problem comes from the rebound effect. If you save money on your heating bill most people don’t just say ‘yippee, I’ve saved money on my heating bill’, they say ‘yippee, I’ll put those savings into the holiday fund’ or similar. So the money saved on heating goes towards a flight to a tropical paradise where you stay in a five-star hotel for a week and lounge on the beach. This doesn’t exactly help the environment.

And this is where my biggest problem ultimately lies. No matter how hard we try to reduce our energy use, whether it’s through small behavioural changes or making things more energy efficient, the rebound effect will get us every time. I don’t know what the solution is but I think that this is something that really needs to be discussed publicly.

Sometimes the causes and effects of climate change can seem so overwhelming that people (myself included) want to give up, believing there’s nothing they can do. Unfortunately, there’s some truth in that. But one thing we can do is realise that it is overall effects that we need to consider, not individual ones. It’s not a very sexy message or one that is easy to sell, but unless it becomes the focus of the discussion then Earth Day is going to be nothing more than a wasted PR exercise. And that’s a real shame.

Author

Sarah Hearne: hearnes[at]tcd.ie

Photo credit

http://thinkloud65.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/children_holding_hands_around_the_world1.gif

Chronicle of a death foreseen

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Why did Neanderthals go extinct while humans prospered? There are volumes full of speculations into the decline and fall of our burly cousin who last walked the Earth 30,000 years ago. Climate change may have reduced the large herbivores on which they depended for food. Humans may have inadvertently spread lethal diseases to them when we first came into contact. Perhaps the most sinister hypothesis is that we extirpated them in an ancient act of genocide (/speciescide?).

Researchers at Oxford now argue that Neanderthal orbit size gives us an insight into the reason for their downfall. They reason that, as Neanderthals had relatively larger eyes than humans, more of their brain was dedicated to visual systems. This was an adaptation to their habitats in the higher latitudes where light conditions were poorer. This came at a cost though because the evolved brain can’t be a master of all trades, there must be some tradeoff. In this case the authors propose that the Neanderthals suffered a reduction in their cognitive abilities.  This was significant because it meant that your average Neanderthal could deal with fewer social partners than a comparable human.

The impacts of this in the authors’ words, “First, assuming similar densities, the area covered by the Neanderthals’ extended communities would have been smaller than those of [humans]. Consequently, the Neanderthals’ ability to trade for exotic resources and artefacts would have been reduced, as would their capacity to gain access to foraging areas sufficiently distant to be unaffected by local scarcity. Furthermore, their ability to acquire and conserve innovations may have been limited as a result, and they may have been more vulnerable to demographic fluctuations, causing local population extinctions.”

But this proposal hasn’t gone unchallenged. Anthropologist Trenton Holliday says that by ignoring the relatively larger faces of Neanderthals the inferred larger visual brain region is mistaken. Another criticism comes from Virginia Hughes over at the Only Human blog. She points out that brains aren’t perfectly modular. So by comparing these idealised modules across species isn’t 100% informative. Perhaps Neanderthal brains were set up in a different way to process social information.

I think the visual system-cognition trade-off is something that could be easily explored in extant fauna. Think of related species that differ in latitude et voila a confirmatory or dissenting paper awaits.

Author

Adam Kane: kanead[at]tcd.ie

Photo credit

wikimedia commons

Your days are numbered

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Last weekend journalist Rod Liddle applauded the efforts of two scientists who wrote a primer for the lay public on physics. His applause stopped when it came to the content though. The problem for him was the quantity of maths the authors used to get their point across. Liddle wrote “By the time we got onto calculus and derivatives I had long since raided the wine rack and things stopped making sense altogether.” But calculus is an integral part of the Leaving Certificate maths curriculum in Ireland and A levels in the UK so why should an educated man find it so intractable? Well, for one, maths is often taught in the abstract.

Of course many of us struggle with the abstract world of maths so this isn’t restricted to Rod Liddle.  And I realise that not everyone can be a master of all trades. The trouble is, maths is damn useful, and in science it’s indispensable. Look at how Eugene Wigner spoke of the ‘Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.

In secondary school and throughout university I thought biology was almost a maths free science. How wrong I was. If you ignore the quantitative part of biology you miss a wealth of literature and hamper your understanding of the subject. Without statistics much of biology would be stamp collecting. So it’s worrying that a maths-phobia has infected biologists. Look at this study showing that as the number of equations in a biology paper increases the number of cites it gets goes down. There even seems to be a split in the biological community, the theoreticians on one side and the empiricists on the other.

Back in 1959 the chemist C.P. Snow gave a Rede Lecture in which he decried the split between the sciences and the humanities. He called this ‘The Two Cultures‘. I don’t think we’ve bridged that gap. But I’d hope that biologists can improve the way they communicate with one another. Every effort should be made to make a scientific paper as clear as possible.

This will have to come from both sides. Those quantitative minds will have to make it clearer what they’re talking about. I suggest using in-text drop down boxes to make every step explicit as the number of equations ratchets up. This shouldn’t be a problem as we move away from paper publications and use all of the tools the digital age affords us.

But there is an onus on the rest of us to up-skill. Fortunately this has never been easier. A large proportion of MOOCs are mathematically themed and sites like the Khan Academy are a fantastic resource. A real boon of these courses is they afford anonymity, so you can safely check out logarithm identities without embarrassment.

Author

Adam Kane: kanead[at]tcd.ie

Photo credit

wikimedia commons

The buzz on neonicotinoids

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On the 31st January, stimulated by a European Food Safety Authority report, the EU proposed banning three neonicotinoid insecticides which have been implicated in causing honeybee decline. These insecticides are widely-used, systemic (i.e. soluble enough in water to move around the plant’s vascular system to nearly all plant tissues), and, like nicotine, affect the insects’ central nervous system. They are highly effective at reducing insect pests that feed on crops and reduce yields and value, and many farmers are concerned about the effect the proposed ban will have on crop production. But these insecticides can also end up in the nectar and pollen of crops (as well as in the soil and in non-crop plants), and thus can have unintended side-effects on beneficial, nectar-feeding insects, who act as pollinators. Especially bees.

Bee decline has become a hot topic with scientists, the media, the public and even some politicians, but until recently the threat of neonicotinoids to bees has not been seriously implicated in their decline. Concern about pollinator decline is a result of the important role that pollinators play in food production: 75% of crop species depend on animal pollinators, which translates into 35% of global production; and the total annual economic value of pollination has been estimated at €153 billion globally. In addition, pollinators are fundamental to most terrestrial ecosystems, and indirectly affect the availability of food for other organisms (e.g. fruits and berries for frugivorous birds), as well as the structure and functioning of ecosystems.

So here’s the paradox: flower-visiting insects including bees are really important for agricultural production. But so is the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. Which is more important and is the ban justified on scientific grounds?

In the last year, the evidence that neonicotinoids have negative impacts on bees has been mounting. Bees and other flower-visiting insects are exposed to neonicotinoid pesticides in multiple ways: during planting of seeds which have been coated with pesticides as a pre-planting treatment, by collecting pollen and nectar from the crop, and by foraging on non-crop plants which take the pesticide up through the soil. Traditionally, toxicological tests of agrochemicals are carried out on the managed honeybee Apis mellifera, and pesticides are rated according to their lethal effects (by calculating the LD50 – the dose required to kill half the organisms tested after a specified duration). But the biology of Apis and all the other bee species (20,000 of them worldwide) is different. Can we generalise about effects on Apis, to effects on other bee species, and other pollinating insects including hoverflies and butterflies? And what about sub-lethal effects, i.e. those that don’t kill the insects, but affect their physiolology, behaviour and fitness?

Neonicotinoids are highly toxic to insects – that’s the whole point of them. Bees are insects. So it shouldn’t be too much of a shock that they kill bees. Last year it was shown that neonicotinoids can also have sub-lethal effects in honeybees, by decreasing foraging success and navigation by individuals back to the hive. At the same time, the neonicotinoid pesticide, imidacloprid, can reduce bumblebee colony growth and fitness by affecting their feeding behaviour. Some dissenters have cast doubt on the field-relevance of laboratory tests, claiming that field-realistic dosages have not been used, but this is not the case – the concentration of imidacloprid in oilseed rape flowers for example has been found to be 4.4-7.6 mg/kg in pollen and 0.6-0.8 mg/kg in nectar, which was within the range tested on bumblebees. This is pretty convincing evidence that neonicotinoids can cause very adverse effects on populations of these social bees.

Although neonicotinoids are not the only cause of widespread bee decline, they are more than likely contributing to it. Some of the agrochemical companies are claiming that bee decline has nothing to do with their chemicals and instead blame decline on Varroa destructor, the parasitic mite which infects honeybee colonies. Whilst Varroa probably plays its part in honeybee decline, the most probable cause of decline in other bee species is multiple pressures, including habitat loss and loss of forage plants, AND the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.

So should these insecticides be banned? YES, if we want to address pollinator decline. They should not be used for insect-pollinated crops, and wind-pollinated crops that insects forage on (including maize). But what’s the alternative for the farmer? How can crop production be maintained in the absence of these chemicals? Use something worse? If we’ve learned anything since Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” published 50 years ago last year, it’s that an alternative will be found, and we can’t be sure that this won’t be worse for the bees and other pollinating insects.

Author

Jane Stout: stoutj@tcd.ie

Photo credit

wikimedia commons

Apocalypse Meow

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Cats eh? You either love them or you hate them it seems. Well the latest research published in Nature by Loss et al. (2013) will give those who hate them plenty more reason to do so. While those who love their cats may just sit that little bit less comfortably next to their feline companions.

Let me start by making a few things clear. Cats are predators, they are an invasive species which have been introduced to islands all over the world, by man. In many places domestic cats have become feral, i.e. reverted to living in the wild, which has led to huge increases in their numbers in some places, which can have a devastating effect on indigenous wildlife populations. For a more detailed and somewhat depressing example of where this has occurred read about Stephens Island in New Zealand. Famously a lighthouse keeper’s cat had been blamed for the extinction of an entire species on this island though it seems that reports may have been somewhat exaggerated in this case.

The report in Nature is more scientifically robust than urban legends about a lighthouse keeper’s cat though. Figure 1 below shows just how devastating domestic cats can be on local wildlife populations. The graphs show the estimates of predation by domestic cats on (a) birds and (b) small mammals.

Figure 1. Estimates of cat predation on US birds and mammals (from Loss et al. 2013)
Figure 1. Estimates of cat predation on US birds and mammals (from Loss et al. 2013)

The numbers are startling, an estimated 2.4 billion birds are killed by cats every year in the US and 12.3 billion mammals. Incredible numbers I’m sure you will agree, there is however a caveat; only 31% and 11% for birds and mammals respectively are caused by what the writers class as “owned cats”, cats which are regularly kept indoors and well fed. While the majority of the mortality is thought to be caused by free roaming “unowned” cats. Incidentally there has recently been some debate about wind farms and their impact on local bird populations but this excellent blog and another recent Nature piece put the numbers into perspective in terms of other anthropogenic causes of bird deaths.

As those responsible for the domestication and introduction of cats, we can’t lay all the blame at the feet of our feline friends. First of all we need to somehow effectively manage the populations of feral and “unowned” cats and while this has been attempted with the Trap-Neuter-Return movement, it has been viewed as a response based on regarding feral cats as part of the native fauna rather than the invasive aliens that they are , therefore largely unscientific and ineffective. Secondly pet owners can take several measures of their own, neuter or spay your cat while keeping your cat indoors at night can vastly reduce their impact on local wildlife.

Author

Keith McMahon: mcmahok[at]tcd.ie

Photo credit

wikimedia commons

Men are from Earth and women are from Earth

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We love to explore and our adventures into outer space represent the acme of our derring-do. But when we leave our cozy planet we put an awful lot of stress on our minds and bodies. The billions of years of evolutionary pressures exerted on our ancestors all took place within the confines of Earth so a sudden dose of zero gravity is completely alien to us.

Some of the effects of space travel will give even those among you with the right stuff cause for pause.

There are the obvious perils like the terrifying oxygen-less vacuum of space but other, less obvious, afflictions abound.

Okay, so our skeletal system allows us to saunter around this planet quite comfortably. The whole point of the system is to provide some structure and locomotory ability against the force of gravity. But remove the pull and the bones start to wither away. There’s no longer any strain for the bones to resist. It happens at quite an alarming rate too. An average (?) astronaut can expect to lose 1% of his bone mass per month due to spaceflight osteopenia.

Still there’s no shortage of people who’d jump at the chance to be a star voyager for a few months.

But with longer flights, like a mission to Mars, there are even more insidious problems to consider. Back in 2010, six astronauts were selected to simulate such a mission (I was rejected for being too tall). They were locked in a room modeled on a spacecraft and given tasks that would be typical of such a journey. The whole ‘trip’ took 520 days and was an effort to better understand what happens to a person during a period of prolonged isolation.

While not quite space madness the six developed a range of symptoms. Chief among them were hypokinesis and disturbed sleep-wake cycles. The authors of the study describing the effects believe that the cause of these problems was a disruption to the circadian rhythms of the people involved. On Earth, we have our 24 hour day with its predictable light and dark cycle. But in space there is no such thing. Subtle changes in light can throw off your internal clock. This would be quite problematic. If one person has changed to a 25 hour day this can destroy the working ability of the team because he’ll find himself sleeping when everyone else is up.

It’s quite frustrating that we don’t have a biological blank slate that can adapt to all conditions. When we blast off from Earth, one thing we don’t leave behind is our evolutionary past.

Author

Adam Kane: kaned[at]tcd.ie

Photo credit

wikimedia commons

City slickers

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Typically, when humans and wildlife meet it’s curtains for the latter. Think of all the megafaunal extinctions in the past and the mounting evidence that we’re responsible for an ongoing sixth mass extinction event. Aside from directed extermination we can change the environment over a very short time-scale to suit our needs and other lifeforms are often left playing catchup. This is especially true for plants and animals (microorganisms have such short turnovers that we don’t really impact them in this way); the plight of the blue swallow isn’t top of an industrialist’s list of priorities.

Despite these radical changes, some species have adapted to living in our towns and cities. This has piqued the interest of scientists and we’re now seeing the burgeoning field of urban ecology populated by urban ecologists. The amount of urban biodiversity is quite surprising and the adaptations of the flora and fauna comprising it equally so. Look at the previous post talking about birds lining their nests with material from discarded cigarette butts.

As civilization has developed we’ve become more aware of the value of nature, be it an intrinsic worth or a more practical value. So we can actively change our urban centres to accommodate more species if and when we choose. Sushinsky and colleagues asked how we should grow our cities in order to minimise their biodiversity impacts. Their conclusion was a more concentrated city plan would be better suited to avian diversity than a sprawling one. Certainly, it seems better for our cities to grow vertically rather than horizontally if we are to minimise humanity’s footprint. So, more New Yorks and fewer Los Angeles.

We can even provide supplementary food to animals. Fuller et al. showed that bird feeders can increase the abundance of birds and pointed out that up to a third of households in Australia, Europe and North America supply food for birds.

Then there are species that can prosper on our discards when it hasn’t been our intention to feed them in the first place. Badgers, foxes, raccoons, bears, the list goes on. All of them can make a living in an urban setting.

With more and more of us cramming ourselves into cities we should be aware that there are real benefits to interacting with nature. We feel psychologically better when there is more of the natural world around us.

To butcher Gordon Gecko, green is good.

Author

Adam Kane: kanead[at]tcd.ie

Photo credit

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