November 14, 2008
It’s been a year since I started writing for the Gist, and over our lifetime we’ve amassed more than 200 posts. But the time has come to ride into the sunset – to kick off into that happy blogosphere in the sky, where the rivers babble with happy comments and the posts fly off the keyboards like tiny birds.
We’re retiring the Gist, and this is our goodbye post.
Over the last year, you’ve gallantly followed along as I posted about treebound evolution, extremely prompt pesticide resistance, first-hand penguin sightings in Antarctica, the crazy sanity of gas prices, the unimaginably huge turtle trade in China, giant prairie-stomping pterosaurs, a galactic collision that looks like Tinkerbell, very dead Norwegian (OK, Danish) parrots, NASA fashions, most possible angles on Tyrannosaurus rex and giant pandas, the oddly familiar numbing heat of Chinese soup – and, as they say, much, much more.
And I wasn’t alone. Virginia Hughes (who still blogs here) kept us updated on solar power, the Grand Canyon, and the suggestion that our time in history should be named after all the trouble we’ve caused. Sarah Zielinski tracked down a murder mystery involving gorillas and warned us about Burmese pythons invading the U.S. Laura Helmuth added news about dams and expensive gems.
But this is America, where everyone’s a sucker for a happy ending, even the Smithsonian. So the Gist isn’t totally vanishing: in its place you’ll find a sampler platter of new blogs: Dinosaur Tracking – hot and cold running dinosaurs; a new science blog called Surprising Science and written by Sarah; and my new project, with Laura Helmuth and Amanda Bensen: Food and Think, where we’ll be writing about the culture and science of food.
Food and Think had its beginnings this summer: a curious explanation for chile heat, and globalization’s role in reviving an ancient Oaxacan drink. We realized that food and cooking are marvelous, complex fields of study that also make our mouths water. Cuisine is the accumulated results of millions of amateur chemists in millions of kitchen laboratories. It’s chemistry distilled by history, and it’s completely fascinating. We hope to serve you some of the choicest tidbits – and to whet your imagination as well as your appetite. I can barely wait.
So thanks to everyone for reading, for commenting, for adding us to your RSS feed. I hope you’ll follow me over to Food and Think, or keep your eye on our other blogs if they suit your interest. I’ve had a great year snacking at the science news buffet; now here comes the main course.
(Image: Sunrise over South Texas, by Hugh Powell. That’s right – a sunrise. In every ending there’s a new dawn, after all. See you at Food and Think)
November 7, 2008
Ah, the last of the summer tomatoes. Plump, sun-warm, and soft. Sometimes I like to just eat them over the sink and let the rich purple juice run down my chin.
What’s that? You were expecting rich red juice? But purple could be so much healthier, according to this week’s Nature Biotechnology online. Scientists from England’s John Innes Centre succeeded in transferring two genes from snapdragons into tomatoes, boosting the fruits’ ability to produce pigments called anthocyanins. The resulting deeply purple fruit promoted longer lives when fed to laboratory mice.
This is one of those technological feats that makes you think “wow,” “ew,” and “the end of the world is nigh” all at once. I mean, I know this is done routinely nowadays, but just the thought that we know that somewhere inside a snapdragon is a gene that can persuade a tomato to change color is kind of amazing. Let alone that we can essentially cut and paste it into another plant without so much as a hiccup.
And it’s all because you haven’t been eating your vegetables. Fruits and veggies are high in a class of pigments called flavonoids that would be so good for you – if only you would eat them. But since only about 23 percent of Americans do eat enough veggies, Innes Centre scientists set out to invent a tomato with sky-high flavonoid levels. The idea being that instead of changing your eating habits, you can get healthy by squeezing ketchup over fries, eating pizza, and drinking bloody marys. Kind of neat thinking, really.
Enter the snapdragon: not popular on menus, but great at producing flavonoids. In particular, purple varieties called anthocyanins – the same stuff that makes blueberries blue and companies like Jamba Juice so eager to tell you about their smoothies. The list of health benefits the researchers provide includes
protection against certain cancers, cardiovascular disease and age-related degenerative diseases. There is evidence that anthocyanins also have anti-inflammatory activity, promote visual acuity, and hinder obesity and diabetes.
Sounds good, but I’m still not convinced purple tomatoes are the best way to get my anthocyanins. I’m not a raving opponent of transgenic crops (though I disagree with patenting them). I just think I’d rather have blueberries on my cereal than eat purple spaghetti. Heck, I’d probably rather have blueberry spaghetti.
(Image: John Innes Centre)
Fad dieters take note: The Innes Centre website takes care to point out in bold type that seeds are not available for sale.
October 24, 2008
Men are under natural selection to become richer, according to a report in the November issue of American Naturalist. That’s right: the same way natural selection once encouraged longer necks in giraffes and duck bills on ducks (and platypuses), men are now feeling that Darwinian pull toward the corner office.
The Newcastle University researchers found the effect only in men, and explained it by saying that
men strive for cultural goals such as wealth and status in order to convert these achievements into reproductive success.
Women showed the opposite effect: lower incomes were associated with more children (the researchers interpreted this as women giving up earning potential in order to have kids). All sorts of other interesting societal lessons cropped up in the study. The effect held across typical Western societies (the U.K., Sweden), in African hunter-gatherer societies, and in family records of Europeans spanning the last 500 years.
This research is kind of a brutal reminder that civilization doesn’t trump evolution, it just shifts the focus. Quasi-philosophical discussions about whether we’ve stopped evolving are fun, but there’s really only one right answer: Of course we’re still evolving.
Evolution is just the slow genetic shifting of the norms in a population. It happens to the best of species – even ones that have invented flu shots, indoor plumbing, and airbags. Case in point: I have terrible eyesight, but thanks to contact lenses I’ve avoided being eaten by wolves or walking off cliffs. So you might argue that our superb mammalian eyeballs have stopped evolving.
But I’m still childless. If I keel over tomorrow then, evolutionarily, I’ll have vanished.**** My genes will sink into the dirt along with the rest of the contents of my cells. Which of my genetic traits will be to blame? My enormous Anglo-Saxon cranium? The tendency to recite Monty Python on first dates? Too busy blogging to meet real people? Or my paltry earning power?
The point is that natural selection is at work, blindly weeding out genes, even if in less blood-curdling fashion than we often think of it. Of course, selection is only one of evolution’s three ingredients. To actually evolve, a population needs to be variable, different individuals must have differential reproductive success (that’s selection), and they must be able to pass those differences on to their offspring (that’s heritability). But all those are met, the researchers argue: just ask the Kennedys.
Presumably we’re not evolving some kind of Susan B. Anthony-producing sweat gland, of course. But more subtle abilities (or predispositions) to accumulate wealth are being rewarded with more children. And although evolution takes a long time, the results from this study suggest this selective pressure is as old as the barter system. I wonder what exaggerated features it has already produced, giraffe- or peacock-like, in our bodies and our psyches?
(Image: courtesy Matt Schwartz. disclaimer: enormous cranium notwithstanding, that’s not me in the picture)
***Except for whatever I have in common with my nephews and nieces.
October 20, 2008
The science news last week was peppered with common-sense breakthroughs: among them, an elephant-rampage early-warning system and a hospital centrifuge made from a hand-cranked eggbeater.
It’s a good time for modest ingenuity to make a comeback, since our plummeting economic fortunes are dampening enthusiasm for, say, an $8 billion physics project that keeps getting the hiccups – or even a $450 million Mars landing that goes off flawlessly. So clip the following coupons to get great science at discount prices:
Hand-powered blood sample prep: Transporting a delicate medical centrifuge to a remote village to fight infectious disease is tricky enough, not to mention the problem of finding an electrical outlet once you get there. Sure, you could carry in your own generator and diesel fuel, or you could collect blood samples, put them on ice, and ship them to the nearest hospital. But a team of Harvard researchers thought up a much more satisfying option (I like to think it was over an omelette breakfast). Start with a $2 hand-powered eggbeater. Remove one of the beaters and tape your blood sample to the other one. Crank. Even untrained helpers can hit 1,200 rpm, the team reported in the journal Lab on a Chip - plenty to separate blood cells from the plasma doctors need for running diagnostic tests.
Elephants own up to mischief by text message: In some parts of Africa elephants are still being mercilessly poached for their ivory, but elsewhere they raid fields, destroying crops and engendering ill will. Twenty-four-hour elephant surveillance, a la the black helicopters in Goodfellas, is hardly an option. Instead, rangers attach radio-collars to troublemaker elephants. When a geolocator in the radio-collar realizes the elephant is headed for a farm field, it text messages the rangers so they can warn it away.
(A somewhat similar text-messaging method detects whale calls in Boston’s shipping lanes and alerts officials to the danger of a collision.)
And finally, we learn that worms hate the sound of moles. They come writhing out of the ground by the spaghetti-load at a mole’s merest murmur – or the reasonable approximations performed by “worm-grunters.” (OK, so this breakthrough isn’t as practical as the eggbeater centrifuge. It’s a great piece of experimental science – and who knows what it could do for the bait-worm economy?)
Wired Science noted the story first, and pointed out that Charles Darwin himself had thought through the problem in his exhaustive tome on earthworms. He proposed moles as the cause – but it took another 120 years or so for someone to put together the proper experiment.
The thing I love about “common sense” breakthroughs is that they’re only common sense after somebody thinks of them. Until then, we just have pieces of a solution arrayed in front of us, hiding in plain sight. Makes me wonder what kind of discoveries are in my own kitchen. And where I can get some of that ingenuity.
October 16, 2008
Barring an observation or two about how science is or isn’t cropping up in this campaign, the Gist is not a political blog. But as someone who still remembers sixth-grade planetarium visits where I craned my neck against the theater seats to watch the stars wheel by, I do feel a responsibility to speak up about a recent instance of planetarium-bashing.
I’m not talking about John McCain’s portrayal in the second debate of a state-of-the-art sky projector as a foolishly overpriced $3 million overhead projector. That mischaracterization was pointed out nearly instantaneously by the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Sky and Telescope, Wired Science, Bad Astronomy, Cosmic Variance, Boing Boing, and Gizmodo, among others.
What prompts me to post about it now is McCain’s decision to repeat the mischaracterization in the third presidential debate, last night. McCain’s aversion to pork barrels and earmarks is laudable, and with so many of them floating around in the federal budget, I just don’t understand his determination to dump on the defenseless and lovable planetariums of the world.
As a visit to your local planetarium will affirm (try the Smithsonian’s Einstein Planetarium if you’re in D.C.), that lens-studded spherical contraption that faithfully projects the night sky onto the ceiling is a far cry from the overhead projector your 11th-grade history teacher chronicled the Reconstruction on with smelly blue markers.
Granted, for $28 you can order a home planetarium complete with nine revolving planets that runs on AA batteries – but something tells me the light bulb on it is not quite up to snuff. A few thousand more can get you an ingenious inflatable planetarium, but it maxes out with considerably less than a school-bus-full of kids.
To run a world-class planetarium that brings the mysteries of space to millions of visitors, day in and decade out – as at Chicago’s 78-year-old Adler Planetarium, I think that going with a name brand qualifies as money well spent.
Now, if we can just leave the science educators out of the earmark wars, perhaps we can concentrate on what the candidates say about the other $699,997,000,000 that has the country so worried?
(Image: Google Earth/NASA; it’s a patch of sky directly above the Gist and dead in the center of the constellation Leo. It is mesmerizing to zoom deeper and deeper into space in this program – the stars just keep on coming. You should try it in a planetarium.)