Saturday, April 22, 2017

An Earth Day Science March in Tulsa

Around the country, scientists and citizens celebrated Earth Day by joining in a March for Science. There were hundreds of such events. In Oklahoma, one of the most anti-environmental state (especially on the government level, but also on the citizen level), there were two, and one of them was in Tulsa today.

It was exactly the kind of Earth Day that one of our senators, Jim Inhofe, one of the world’s most famous climate deniers, would have considered to be a sign from God. After months of record-breaking high temperatures in Oklahoma, including January temperatures in the 90s, the weather suddenly became chilly. Yesterday brought heavy rains and today it reached a high of 52. Inhofe would have said that God meant this as a message to us that Inhofe’s anti-global-warming message is divinely-inspired. Where is global warming now, he would ask. He would, however, look around in vain for a snowball to throw as he once did on the Senate floor the way he did a few years ago.

But despite the chill, hundreds of, maybe a thousand, people came out for the march at Fred Johnson Park, at 61st St. and Peoria Ave. First we all gathered in a large circle and held hands around Johnson Park. A drone photographed us from overhead. (It was not a government surveillance drone.) A musician sang This Land is Your Land, which as a biodiversity ecologist I always found puzzling: the land belongs to all the species, not just to humans. Some of the verses of this song are borderline socialism, and were sung originally by Woody Guthrie, an Oklahoma native of whom this extreme right-wing state pretends to be proud. Then we crossed Riverside Dr. (legally) as passing vehicles honked in support (I think; at least some of them waved) and walked in a loop.

For me the best part (aside from seeing many old friends and making new ones) was the placards that people made for themselves. Such creativity! The independent thinking that went into them contrasts sharply with the mindless uniformity of Trump posters. The only element of uniformity was that many Planned Parenthood supporters carried the same posters. But here are some of the placards that I saw:

“Got plague? Yeah, me neither. Thank a scientist.”
“There is no Planet B.”
“Science already made America great.”
“You are the result of 3.8 billion years of evolutionary success. Act like it.”
“Patriots love science.”
There was even a dog with a cardboard poster that said Bark Bark Bark.

Here are some photos of placards.






Another important theme was that women should be encouraged to be science leaders. One young woman carried a placard with a quote from Rosalind Franklin. And another carried this poster:



Environmental protection is a big issue in Tulsa. Terry Young, who was Tulsa Mayor from 1984 to 1986, told the story of Helmerich Park, at the corner of Riverside Dr. and 71st Street, a place that my wife and I pass often on the walking trail. We always see a lot of people using the park, including a lot of volleyball players in the sand court. It is one of the places Tulsa can be proud of. But apparently, according to one speaker, the city council met one night and simply declared that the park was not being used and that it should be sold to a developer. The publicity for this sale claimed that the land would be used for an REI outdoor recreation store. As it turns out, the developer planned a mall—one of many new malls in Tulsa—including five acres of asphalt parking. Former Mayor Terry Young is involved in two lawsuits against this development. He decried the ascendancy of ignorance in our national thinking. And yet, ignorance can be a good thing. Scientists admit ignorance but then set out to make discoveries to counteract the ignorance. As Alan Alda, an actor turned science activist, said, “Ignorance is a wonderful thing with curiosity attached to it.” Young pointed out the problems with this decision included the following:

  • The rationale for the sale—that the park was not being used—was patently false.
  • The taxpayers, whose money bought the park in the first place, were not consulted about this sale. Even though the city is the owner and the city can do whatever it wants with its money and the taxpayers have no right to complain, the taxpayers feel tricked by this decision. The city can do whatever it wants but the citizens can also vote however they want. And the voters do not want a “we’ll do whatever the hell we want with city land” government.
  • Private donations were used to purchase the park land. The donations were for the park, not for the city’s general fund.

There have been successes. The Carrie Dickerson family led a campaign to prevent the construction of a nuclear power plant at Inola, northeast of Tulsa. The reasons were not just the usual concerns about nuclear waste, but also about how the reactor would have required immense amounts of water, a resource of which Oklahoma periodically runs short. They won! But we cannot assume that successes will continue.


I want to thank the organizer, Nancy Moran, who must have worked tirelessly on almost nothing else except this event. And she is organizing another event, the Climate March, next week, also here in Tulsa. It feels good, really good, to know that there are so many of us, even though we are a minority, who care about what we are doing to the Earth, which conservatives pretend to believe is God’s Creation.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Little Victories: Conversion of a Climate Skeptic (Guest Essay)

I am happy to post a guest essay from my botany student Matt Spears! It is his story of how his father finally came to admit that humans are causing global warming. I think it is interesting that his Dad’s reasons for rejecting global warming previously had more to do with political identity than with an understanding of science. Working against science denialism is an uphill fight but we can be happy for little victories!

(Beginning of guest essay)

My 70 year old father considers himself a conservative.  He calls me a liberal.  I am 31 now, but when I was about 18 years old I began to learn about things that at the time “blew my mind.”  I was learning about things I had never heard from my parents.  I was so excited to share these new ideas with them, but quickly discovered why my parents never talked about these things.  My dad called my new realizations about the world, which included global warming, “horse shit” and no matter what evidence I presented to him I was wrong.  It used to make me so angry.  It seemed like all of our time together consisted of arguments, but I was young, full of energy and very passionate so I persisted until years later when I got tired and gave up trying to get through to him.  I read a study where “permanent” changes were observed in the brains of people who would play violent video games every day.  My dad listens to conservative talk radio and watches FOX “so-called” news every day so I assumed that, for the most part, he has literally been brain washed to only believe what the talking heads of conservative media tell him.

Two weeks ago, while I was at my parents’ house, I saw a flyer about a discussion on climate change that would be held at a popular local bar.  The flyers were passed out at the Rotary group he attends every week.  I couldn’t believe that in my very conservative home town of Sherman, Texas a discussion on climate change was happening outside of a college or university and, most of all, my dad had brought home the flyer.  He agreed to go and met us there at the bar.  Two professors from the environmental science department at Austin College and the head meteorologist at the news station KXII were there to answer questions that those of us in attendance would ask.  It was obvious nearly everybody there already understood global warming, but there were two whom I recognized that did not.  One of those was the owner of the bar who made a short rant about his freedom to do whatever is in the best interest of business.  I just happened to be in the rest room for that and only heard the end.  After a couple of pints I began to chime in with comments and my dad followed.  He didn’t have much to say and was really just there to listen.  The speakers were all very thorough in their explanations of global warming.  It couldn’t have been any clearer to all of us who attended, no matter what our views had been walking in there, that global warming is real and our actions are making it happen at an alarming rate.

So, on the way home I called my mom to tell her all about it.  While we were talking I heard a click like somebody else was on the line.  My mom said it was my dad.  I said “Dad, what do you think?”  He replied “We’re doing it.” That’s all I needed to hear and I guess that’s all he needed to say because he just hung up.  I almost couldn’t believe it after all these years.  I want to gloat and tell him I was right all this time, but I know better.  Now, I hope he realizes that it’s not me who’s full of shit, It’s Bill O’Reilly.


(End of guest essay)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Lord, Liar, Lunatic...or Lourdes


Here is a thought for Easter from a scientific viewpoint. Was the resurrection of Jesus an illusion? I’m not saying that it was, but this question gives us an interesting opportunity to compare the process of science with the process of religious faith.

A famous fundamentalist evangelist of the 1970s was Josh McDowell, who was well known for turning the piercing light of logic upon the Christian religion and proclaiming that its fundamental tenets had passed the test of credibility. That is, he acted as if he was being scientific about it. Most famously, he posed the question of Jesus’ divinity. If Jesus was not Lord, then He must have been a liar, for He claimed that He was, or a lunatic, for believing Himself to be. Lord, liar, or lunatic—a catchy phrase.

Catchy but wrong. If, in fact, you can eliminate the liar and lunatic options for Jesus, then the only possible conclusion is “Lord,” which is true only if McDowell considered all the possibilities. But there is a fourth possibility: the resurrection was an illusion, which people wanted so badly to believe that their minds created the beliefs.

This does not mean that the early Christians, or their successors, were lunatics. Perfectly normal people can have illusions; they become lunatics only if the illusion overwhelms their common sense ability to function in society. Because nearly everyone is vulnerable to bias and illusion, scientists use certain safeguards, such as the use of controls and specifying exactly what your dependent variable should be, in order to keep from falling into this all too human trap.

I will use a couple of examples from the Catholic Church, which is actually less prone to illusion than many fundamentalist sects.

First, consider the “miracle of Lourdes.” In 1858, a girl named Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in a grotto near Lourdes in southern France. Not once, but eighteen times. Two of the things the Virgin told her were, first, that she (not just Jesus) had been immaculately (asexually, presumably through mitosis) conceived, and second, that if believers would dig a hole at the base of the grotto they would release a spring of water that would have healing properties.

Consider the claim about the immaculate conception of Mary. Some people say that this had to be revealed by the Virgin herself to Mlle. Bernadette, because Pope Pius IX had not declared this doctrine until 1854, only four little tiny years before Mlle. Bernadette’s visions, and during those four brief years Mlle. Bernadette could not have possibly heard about it. Of course, she most certainly could have known about it.

There is a spring from the grotto and it ejects enough water that people can go swimming in it. And millions have done so. The grotto of Lourdes has had 200 million visitors since 1860. Claims have been made that the waters cured nerve damage, cancer, paralysis, even blindness. The Catholic Church recognizes that many of these hundreds of claims have been delusions, but has certified 69 of them as genuine. We all know, however, about the placebo effect: almost anything can make you feel better, or even feel cured, it you sincerely believe it to be so. The placebo effect has long been the bane of pharmaceutical development. But the placebo effect works so well, especially if the placebos are expensive, that some scientists wonder if possibly the placebos should be used to unleash the body’s self-healing capacity. Numerous scientific studies have been conducted with the water from this spring, and no curative effects have been found.

The people who make pilgrimages to Lourdes (the second largest tourist spot in France after Paris) are not lunatics, but they are experiencing an illusion. The human mind, even a normal mind, sees what it expects to see.



Second, consider the “miracle of Fátima.” Based on persistent rumors, somewhere between thirty and one hundred thousand pious Catholics had gathered near this Portuguese town, fully convinced that some unspecified solar miracle was going to happen on October 13, 1917. They would latch onto anything out of the ordinary as a miracle. The people were watching the sun, many of them having smudged smoke onto glass to make solar filters. Some reported seeing the sun itself become a spinning disc in the sky, which careened toward the Earth and then zigzagged back to its original location. Others reported seeing multi-colored sunlight. Others saw both. Some saw nothing.



Since the sun is so big and so far away, this event could not possibly have happened any more than actual stars could fall from the sky the way the Bible says. So what did happen? The spinning and zigzagging could have been retinal after-images. Haven’t you ever seen these after glancing at the sun? Happens to me all the time, if I happen to look toward the sun and then away. What about the colors? Sometimes high-altitude atmospheric ice crystals can refract light into a rainbow of colors, even forming colorful bright blotches to either side of the sun. They may immediately precede a snowstorm. They are called false suns or sundogs. They can cause the appearance of three suns. I have seen them. If I had not studied the rudiments of physics, I might have considered them a miracle.

Jesus’ disciples might have wanted so badly to believe that Jesus was not really dead that their otherwise sane and normal minds played tricks on them. Christian apologists claim it could not have been an illusion because the disciples were not expecting to see Jesus rise from the dead. But it cannot be denied that they hoped He would. In one account, two disciples walked with a stranger, whom they did not recognize, upon the Emmaus Road. Only after he was gone did they “realize” that the stranger was in fact Jesus, but with a different face. This is exactly what a psychologist would expect to hear from someone who was experiencing an illusion.

The disciples weren’t crazy. They were just human.


Liar and lunatic are not the only alternative to Lord. There are two alternatives: Lord and Lourdes. Scientists never assume (or at least never should assume) that we have considered every possibility.

Friday, April 7, 2017

New video

I just posted a video about how fundamentalists misuse religion to attack the science of global warming. Wait until you see how I approached this subject, with Jim Inhofe and a Jesus finger puppet.

An Environmental Theme in American Literature: The Awakening Land

I recently finished reading Conrad Richter’s trilogy, The Awakening Land, which he finished in 1950. The three novels are about the settlement of Ohio: The Trees, about how pioneers carved out survival in a thick forest; The Fields, about how the pioneer settlements evolved into a little village; and The Town, how the little village became a major city in Ohio. The trilogy followed the life of a woman named Sayward (Saird) Luckett, later Wheeler, who grew up in a cabin but by the end of her life lived in a rich mansion. See a more detailed summary here.

At first, I was disaffected by what seemed to be the author’s approach. Sayward loved to cut trees down and to see others cut them down, for they represented a fearful primordial forest. (The primordial forest at the beginning of the trilogy, with leaves so dense that hardly any light penetrated throughout the forest, never actually existed. There were disturbances before the arrival of pioneers, especially fires set by nature or by the Natives.) Even into the second novel, she was glad to see the trees out of the way. But I should have known to expect something different before the end. Richter lived at a time when conservation awareness was beginning to grow in America. And sure enough, when Sayward was old, she realized that she missed the trees and the peaceful shade that they brought. She planted some trees by her mansion, some of the few trees in the city, and when she was dying she had her bed turned toward the window to see them. She regretted taking the land away from the trees: “Sometimes she wished she could give them back their land, for it was she who had taken it from them.”

Even the choice of the title, The Awakening Land, implied that nature is asleep until humans roust it into usefulness. But perhaps Richter intended this to be irony.

Although beautifully written, the novels seemed primarily episodic. Some of these episodes were funny, and some were beautiful: the chapter “Rosa’s Rainbow” was one of the best short pieces I have read. The only overarching plot of the trilogy was that the forest gave way to human progress. There was no structural conflict to be resolved.


The third novel did have a major plot: the romance that developed over many years between Chancey Wheeler, Sayward’s youngest and sickly son, and the frail, quiet, and thoughtful Rosa Tench. Everybody but them knew that they were half-siblings. Rosa was born from an affair that Portius Wheeler, the father, had with a schoolteacher when he was the master. But the two young people knew only that the adults, for reasons not explained to them, condemned their romance. I found myself hoping that this would reach a satisfactory resolution. Rosa had to live with a poor family and never received recognition or even a single word from the rich Wheeler family. I was hoping they would invite her into their home. This did not happen. The resolution of this plot was gruesome and occurred well before the end of the novel, which, as a direct result of this, I did not want to read. Had I known what would happen, I might not have read it. But it remains a beautiful piece of literature and a testament to the development of the American attitude toward the land, which everyone except, at the end, the main character, assumed was progress.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Springtime in Oklahoma, or, Will Molly Eat It?

There were plenty of visitors to Robber’s Cave State Park on April 1. This is not one of the state parks that the Oklahoma government, in its desperation to cut everything except oil corporation subsidies and the budgets of the legislature and governor, plans to close. Just a few of the visitors came for the Spring Field Meeting of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences. Few, but appreciative.

We (faculty and students) were surrounded by nature. Oh, wait, not quite. The forests were mostly shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) and post oak (Quercus stellata). But the shortleaf pines have nearly all, at least in this part of the state, hybridized with loblolly pines, which have been planted for lumber and pulp production. And every bit of the forest has been affected by human impact, including fire suppression. But it was a nice spring day and we were seeing things that were almost natural. The oaks were just opening their catkins and unfurling a few baby leaves. Post oaks dominate the poor, dry soils of these mountains.

Gloria Caddell, at the University of Central Oklahoma, led the botany field trips.



We didn’t even get out of the parking lot before we found plants that were interesting in more than one way. Gloria explained how to distinguish the three species of violets and how to distinguish poison ivy from fragrant sumac. But I explained that you could eat violets. I convinced Molly, a student from my university (Southeastern Oklahoma State University), to try one. After she was finished looking at a black cherry in bloom, I convinced her to eat some fading redbud flowers too. Last of all, I got her to eat some greenbriar buds.



We explored different habitats within the park. Closer to the creek, we found red maple, bur oak, and black oak. At the edge of the water we saw a birch tree with its male and female catkins. The male catkins dangle from the branch behind the female flowers. This arrangement improves the chances that the pollen that comes to the female flowers is from a different tree rather than the same one. We also saw several wildflower species, some spectacular like the plains wild indigo, Baptisia bracteata.

Baptisia is one of the leguminous plants that produce nitrogen-fixing nodules, as mycologist Steve Marek explained. It is always good to have people from different areas of study together on the same field trip.



And, as always, leave it to Gloria to open our eyes to see the tremendous biodiversity of a trampled lawn in a picnic area. As future high school teacher Lainee Sanders discovered, there was not one but two species of buttercups in the picnic area. (The dog appeared to not care about the flowers.)



There were some high school teachers on the trip. Melissa Bates brought high school students from Oklahoma City. They looked closely at little Antennaria flower clusters, perhaps never having realized that there were boy antennarias and girl antennarias growing together.



You never know where you are going to find moss growing. We found some growing on an old glove, sporophytes and all!



Chad King, a botanist at University of Central Oklahoma, gave an evening presentation about dendrochronology. Tree rings are a storehouse of information about all the tree’s experiences, therefore about things such as climate and fire history. He displayed one of his specimens, a very old tree that had had an eventful life.



Almost everything we saw was something that could so easily have been overlooked if we had been hiking fast or jogging. We need these times of slowing down, looking closely, even nibbling, under the guidance of those among us who know a lot about hidden biodiversity.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Great Leap Backward

Donald Trump has promised to make America great again. He is doing this in several ways. He just announced a funding cut (over a billion dollars) to the National Institutes of Health. We can go back to the days when if you get sick, the doctors won’t know what to do, and you can just go home and die.

Another way Trump is making America great again is by sending us back several decades to the time when all of our energy requirements come from coal and oil. I am sure that the massive campaign contributions from coal and oil companies is simply a coincidence. Most industry and most people want clean energy, but the coal and oil companies do not. America is one of the leaders in developing new clean energy technology. This is about to end, and doesn’t China know it. China is actually happy about Trump’s decision because it means that China will become the supreme leader in the energy of the future. It is almost like a president saying that we will resist this new internal combustion technology and focus our regulations to ensure that horses continue to dominate our transportation sector.

But clean energy technology has an irreversible momentum. There is no way to stop it, no matter how much Trump tells us that solar and wind energy are from the Devil. People want it, industry will continue to invest in it despite federal government threats. In addition to being good for the Earth, it is superior technology. This point was made in an article published in Science by someone you’ve all heard of.

The climate denialists—among whom there are very few scientists—will now have a meeting at which they will proclaim that all scientists who study global warming are traitors to America. The meeting will be chaired by Texas Republican representative Lamar Smith, who is famous for having said that he saw no evidence for global warming. The democratic staffers piled up papers of evidence in front of him, but he didn’t even look in that direction, so he still has not seen the evidence. Just about the only scientist they can find to defend the denialist theory is John Christy, an atmospheric scientist from the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Christy has made it clear that his opposition to global warming science is based on his reading of the Bible—which, by the way, he is reading incorrectly. Here is a report from Science magazine about this upcoming meeting.




Thank you, President Trump, for leading us boldly into the twentieth century. Next up, the nineteenth century!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Prophecies of Jules Verne

My coming-of-age experience in literature and science was when, in sixth grade, I read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Vingt mille lieues sous les mers), in English of course. Soon I hope to read it in French. (I already notice that the French title was “under the seas,” not sea.)

Jules Verne is considered to be the father of science fiction. In addition, one biographer called Verne “the man who invented the future.” It would seem that Verne was ready to embrace a scientific and technological future for the human species. What a surprise it was, therefore, for me to read Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century (Paris au vingtième siècle), in which he created a nightmare future that was ruled by science and technology. As someone said, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” This quote has been attributed to everyone from Niels Bohr to Yogi Berra. So far, no one has attributed it to Verne. But, at any rate, Verne got it wrong, though not completely.

Apparently the manuscript of this novel was found in 1994 in the proverbial locked drawer of a desk which Verne’s grandson had inherited. Verne’s publisher rejected the manuscript in 1863. And for good reason. It is a structurally flawed novel with two-dimensional characters. And it was overwhelmingly depressing. At least Twenty Thousand Leagues had an uplifting ending (see below), while this book (I will spoil it since you probably won’t read it) the protagonist falls into the snow and freezes to death.

Rather than to attempt a summary of it myself, I quote extensively from the Wikipedia summary, in bold italics below, but I add some of my own comments, not in italics.



Paris in the Twentieth Century (French: Paris au XXe siècle) is a science fiction novel by Jules Verne. The book presents Paris in August 1960, 97 years in Verne's future, where society places value only on business and technology. Written in 1863 but first published 131 years later (1994), the novel follows a young man who struggles unsuccessfully to live in a technologically advanced, but culturally backwards world. Often referred to as Verne's "lost novel", the work paints a grim, dystopian view of a technological future civilization.

The novel's main character is 16-year-old Michel Dufrénoy, who graduates with a major in literature and the classics, but finds they have been forgotten in a futuristic world where only business and technology are valued. Michel, whose father was a musician, is a poet born too late. In fact, the opening of the novel was of Michel getting an award for writing Latin poetry. The science and technology professors of the big university scoffed at the arts and humanities, “spouting like a steam engine.”

Michel had been living with his respectable uncle, Monsieur Stanislas Boutardin, and his family. The day after graduation, Boutardin tells Michel that he is to start working at a banking company. Boutardin doubts Michel can do anything in the business world.

The rest of that day, Michel searches for literature by classic 19th century writers, such as Hugo and Balzac. Nothing but books about technology are available in bookstores. In fact, the bookstores did have books of poetry, but the poetry was all in praise of mathematics and technology, such as Harmonies Ėlectriques and Méditations sur l’Oxygène. One of the poems began, “Le charbon porte alors sa flamme incendiaire Dans les tubes ardents de l’énorme chaudière...” Yes, it is as bad in French as it sounds (“Horreur, s’écria Michel”).

Michel's last resort is the Imperial Library. The librarian turns out to be his long-hidden uncle, Monsieur Huguenin. Huguenin, still working in the arts, is considered a "disgrace" to the rest of the family, and so was barred from attending Michel's birthdays, graduations, and other family events, though he has followed Michel's life—from a distance. This is the first time they meet in person. Huguenin tells Michel that his father was “un musicien de grand talent, né pour un siècle meilleur,” a great musician born for a better century. In fact, he refers to our present age as “notre âge crapuleux,” which I thought meant “our crappy age” but crapuleux actually means totally motivated by money. Chapter 10 consists of a tour of Uncle Huguenin’s library crammed with non-scientific books that could be found nowhere else.

At his new job, Michel fails at each task with Casmodage and Co. Bank until he is assigned to The Ledger, where Michel dictates the accounts for bookkeeper Monsieur Quinsonnas. Quinsonnas, a kindred spirit of 30, writes the bookkeeping information on The Ledger. Quinsonnas tells Michel that this is a job he can do in order to eat, have an apartment, and support himself while he continues working on a mysterious musical project that will bring him fame and fortune. Michel's fear of not fitting in is resolved; he can be a reader and still work on his own writing after work. In fact, Quinsonnas’s apartment is almost completely filled by a giant piano.

The pair visit Uncle Huguenin and are joined by other visitors, Michel's former teacher Monsieur Richelot and Richelot's granddaughter, Mademoiselle Lucy. Quinsonnas and Michel both dream of being soldiers, but this is impossible, because warfare has become so scientific that there is really no need for soldiers anymore—only chemists and mechanics are able to work the killing machines. But this profession is denied to even them, because "the engines of war" have become so efficient that war is inconceivable and all countries are at a perpetual stalemate. Verne said that fighting lifted the spirit (Se battre élève l’âme) and seemed to mourn the end of war. Verne’s character also missed the old days when there were courtroom battles and convictions instead of just financial settlements out of court.

Before long, Michel and Lucy are in love. Michel discusses women with Quinsonnas, who sadly explains that there are no such things as women anymore; from mindless, repetitive factory work and careful attention to finance and science, most women have become cynical, ugly, neurotic career women. Verne depicts twentieth-century women as downright ugly: long, skinny, and dry. Their waists were flattened, their faces austere, their joints stiffened (La taille s’aplatit, le regard s’austérifia, les jointures s’ankylosèrent). Their noses stuck down below their lips (un nez dur et rigide s’abaissa sur des lèvres), and they were nothing but acute angles (de la ligne drote et des angles aigus). In fury, Quinsonnas spills ink on The Ledger, and he and Michel are fired on the spot; Quinsonnas leaves for Germany. Of course, the misogynous Quinsonnas blamed Eve for the fact that he lost his temper.

In a society without war, or musical and artistic progress, there is no news, so Michel can't even become a journalist. He ends up living in Quinsonnas' empty apartment while writing superb poetry, but lives in such poverty that he has to eat synthetic foods derived from coal. He eventually writes a book of poetry entitled Hopes which is rejected by every publisher in Paris.

Michel briefly has a job at the Great Drama Warehouse, where popular entertainment is churned out quickly and sloppily. Each play was required to have “soixante-quinze mille calembous” (75 thousand puns). Michel, who loved serious literature, quit this job, saying “plutôt mourir de faim,” better to starve to death.

As the year 1961 draws to a close, all of Europe enters a winter of unprecedented ferocity. All agriculture is compromised and food supplies are destroyed, resulting in mass famine. The temperature drops to thirty degrees below, and every river in Europe freezes solid. In despair, Michel spends his last bit of money on violets for Lucy, but finds that she has disappeared from her apartment, evicted when her grandfather lost his job as the university's last teacher of rhetoric. He is unable to locate her amongst the thousands of starving people in Paris. He spends the entire evening stumbling around Paris in a delirious state. Michel becomes convinced that he is being hunted by the Demon of Electricity, but no matter where he goes, he is unable to escape its presence. He wanders into a morgue, with “les cadavres rigides, verdâtres, et boursouflés, étendus sur les tables de marbre,” stiff, greenish, swollen corpses extended upon marble tables, but even here there is bright electrical illumination. As Michel wanders, he finds the tomb of Heloïse and Abélard fallen into ruin, the glorious past forgotten. Is this depressing or what?

In the climax of the story, the heartbroken Michel, bereft of friends and loved ones, wanders through the frozen, mechanized, electrical wonders of Paris. The subjective narrative becomes steadily more surreal as the dying artist, in a final paroxysm of despair, unconsciously circles an old cemetery and finally collapses comatose in the snow. You will never guess what his last word was. If you guessed “Lucy,” you are right. “Oh! Lucy, murmura-t-il, en tombant évanoui sur la neige.”

The book's description of the technology of 1960 was in some ways remarkably close to actual 1960s technology. The book described in detail advances such as cars powered by internal combustion engines ("gas-cabs") together with the necessary supporting infrastructure such as gas stations and paved asphalt roads, elevated and underground passenger train systems and high-speed trains powered by magnetism and compressed air, skyscrapers, electric lights that illuminate entire cities at night, fax machines ("picture-telegraphs"), elevators, primitive computers which can send messages to each other as part of a network somewhat resembling the Internet (described as sophisticated electrically powered mechanical calculators which can send information to each other across vast distances), the utilization of wind power, automated security systems, the electric chair, and remotely-controlled weapons systems, as well as weapons destructive enough to make war unthinkable.

The book also predicts the growth of suburbs and mass-produced higher education (the opening scene has Dufrénoy attending a mass graduation of 250,000 students), department stores, and massive hotels. Verne depicts a giant canal that connects Paris with the ocean, and gigantic ships big enough to be floating gardens. A version of feminism has also arisen in society, with women moving into the workplace and a rise in illegitimate births. It also makes accurate predictions of 20th-century music, predicting the rise of electronic music, and describes a musical instrument similar to a synthesizer, and the replacement of classical music performances with a recorded music industry. Verne’s example of the degeneration of modern music was none other than Richard Wagner projected into the next century. Verne said Wagner’s four-hour operas were not so much to taste as to swallow. His music, Verne thought, sounded like someone sitting on a keyboard. Ah, if Verne could only have imagined what twentieth-century music, with its dissonances, actually did sound like! Whether it was melodic and expressive like Stravinsky or like a gray mixture of dissonance as in Webern, it makes Wagner’s music seem very tame. In addition, [Verne] predicts that the entertainment industry would be dominated by lewd stage plays, often involving nudity and sexually explicit scenes. Verne’s example of this from the nineteenth century was Jacques Offenbach, whose female “jumpers” wore swimsuits “showing them as nature made them.” In another place, Verne writes “le flambeau de l’hymen ne sert plus comme autrefois à faire bouillir la marmite,” which I think means “the flame of the hymen does not serve, as in the old days, to make the stew boil.” I’m not sure what this means, but it can’t be good.

In some ways, the modern world is worse than Verne could have imagined, but in some ways it is better. The modern publisher, on the last page, told how many grams of carbon dioxide equivalent were produced by publishing each book. Verne did not imagine global warming; and he could not have imagined science helping us to prevent global warming.

How could a writer who loved science so much imagine that science would create a nightmare future? I can suggest an answer to this question. In Verne’s twentieth-century Paris, all of science was in the service of making money, whereas the science that M. Arronax viewed from Captain Nemo’s underwater drawing-room was a view of the wonders of the ocean. Twenty Thousand Leagues ends with (I quote from memory), “The writer of Ecclesiastes said, millennia ago, That which is far off and exceedingly deep, who can find it out? Of all men now living only two can answer in the affirmative: CAPTAIN NEMO AND MYSELF (his caps).” Science can liberate our minds to understand the world, or it can enslave us. To Verne, either future was possible. Unfortunately, the real twentieth and twenty-first centuries more closely resembles Captain Nemo’s acts of terrorism than his exploration of the sea.


The main message I get from Verne’s forgotten novel is that science and education are whatever we make them to be. They can be used to open our eyes to beauty or to enslave us to Mammon.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Fear of the Lord

Most conservative Christians believe the Biblical statement, which I am in too much of a hurry to look up right now, that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Most agnostics and humanists would vigorously reject this statement. But maybe it is, in a way, true. If so, how?

Conservative Christians really do mean “fear.” And by fear of the Lord, they mean that we should be afraid, very afraid, that if we question so much as the tiniest point of doctrine that they assert about the Lord we will go to Hell. The fear of disagreeing with any of the self-appointed spokespeople of God is supposed to be the basis of all wisdom.

But they have it wrong in two ways. First, I think they misunderstand “fear,” giving it a modern English interpretation. They think it means that we should be very, very afraid of asking questions such as “How do you know that thing that you assert?” But instead I believe that “fear” means awe and wonder. One can have a great deal of technical knowledge about the natural world, but unless one feels awe and wonder then the natural world is not God’s creation but is just a pile of resources for rich Republicans to make money off of. Most scientists I know—and I know a lot of them—feel awe and wonder at the cosmos that we are privileged to investigate. It is we, the scientists and anyone else who feels awe and wonder, are the ones who truly fear the Lord.

Second, the Biblical statement says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, not the entirety of it or the end of it. Conservative Christians think that your unthinking acceptance of their assertions about the Lord is the entirety and the end of wisdom.


Although I do not assert many of the traditional doctrines, I do have the fear of the Lord as the beginning of my wisdom: I feel awe at the universe, and I use that as my starting point for learning more about it, from my own research and investigations by others.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Balanced Pathogenicity in Shangri-La

When I first learned about balanced pathogenicity back in the 1980s, it made me feel good about the world. This is the process in which germs evolve into milder forms over time. Natural selection favors the milder strains of germs because they can spread more readily. Any germ that kills its host is at a disadvantage. There are many examples in which diseases used to be very virulent, but today they are milder even without vaccination or medication. Examples include smallpox, which in Europe and North America evolved into a mild disease; leprosy, which today is a slow skin disease but used to kill people quickly. There are even diseases such as the “sweating sickness” that had major outbreaks in Europe in past centuries but appears to have evolved itself out of existence (it persists only in very mild forms): there are no diseases today that have exactly those symptoms. Balanced pathogenicity was part of the balance of nature in a blessed world.

Or so I thought. That’s what I wanted to believe.

Then I started learning about the exceptions. Waterborne diseases such as cholera do not evolve into milder forms. Insect-borne diseases may evolve into even worse forms. So I had to change what I taught and wrote: balanced pathogenicity applies to diseases that spread to a new host by close proximity to the victim. My main example was ebola, which, I thought, will evolve into a milder form since the worst forms of it keep healthy people from coming in close proximity to the victims.

But it turns out that even ebola can evolve into a worse form, as explained in this article by Carl Zimmer. I suppose that this evolution of worse forms of ebola is a temporary reversal of the overall trend of balanced pathogenicity. But I am now having to make so many “exceptions to the rule” that I am beginning to wonder how much of a pattern balanced pathogenicity really is.

My original feeling about balanced pathogenicity came about because I wanted to believe that there was a fundamental goodness to the world. Bad things happen, but within them is the seed of a better world. This was partly because I got my optimism from the same source that I got my original information: Rene Dubos. I learned about balanced pathogenicity by reading his Man Adapting and Celebrations of Life. He was a scientist and informal philosopher in the same mold as Lewis Thomas. A great thinker. But his “gospel” was that evolution ultimately produces a better world. I wanted very badly to believe that evolution was a good process that God incorporated into a good world. But the world in which evolution works for the Greater Good is more of a Shangri-La than a real world.


Balanced pathogenicity happens, except when it doesn’t. Evolution makes the world better, except when it doesn’t. Creationists look for scientific reasons to believe God is good. Theistic evolutionists look for scientific reasons to believe that evolution produces goodness that God intended. In this particular sense, I am not sure that theistic evolution is much of an improvement over creationism.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Senator Lankford vs. the American Burying Beetle

In an email to his Oklahoma constituents, Oklahoma Senator James Lankford (Republican; are you surprised?) boasted of how honored he was to work with such a morally dignified president as Donald Trump. Then he trotted out a litany of horror stories about Obamacare, which he said Republicans would repeal and replace. The criticisms he made were valid, but at the present time the Republican Health Care Plan is for poor people to go under the bridge and die. Now maybe later they will come up with a plan, and it might even be better than Obamacare, but if you trust them to do this, you will be waiting (perhaps under the bridge) for a long long long time.

And then he railed against all the federal money being spent to save the American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus), an endangered species in Oklahoma. (I prefer the French term, menaced species, l’espèce menacé over endangered species.) Burying beetles bury animals and lay their eggs in them.

Lankford seems to think that, if we would just quit trying to save the American burying beetle, our economy would blossom into prosperity for all—at least, for all of the people who are important to Republican Senators. He wants to launch an investigation against all those evil scientists who do not simply adore every word that comes from Trump’s mouth. Of course, the investigation would cost more than the entire American burying beetle program. But he thinks it is worth doing, in order to put those scientists, the very ones who refuse to worship Donald Trump, in our places.


But maybe the beetles will win in the long run. I can just imagine Senator Lankford laying out in a pasture, looking up into Republican heaven, and then falling into a deep sleep, only to awake and find himself, too late, buried in mud (it would take a thousand beetles to do this, but this is all in my imagination anyway) and with beetle grubs devouring him.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Botany in Congress

Now more than ever before in our history it is incongruous to see a botany bill in Congress (intentional pun). But here it is: a bill that promotes botany, botany education, and plant conservation! The Botanical Sciences and Native PlantMaterials Research, Restoration, and Promotion Act has a Democratic and a Republican sponsor. See here for a summary of the main points of the bill.


Right now, at the university where I teach, I have two students who are beginning research projects with an endangered tree species the bark of which has antibacterial properties. One of them already develops and sells botanical skin care products and wants to develop one that incorporates extracts from this species (without knowing anything about the active ingredient/s). The other is a chemistry major who knows how to conduct research on the active ingredient/s. Despite the depressing overall political climate, I am encouraged by the (what appears to me sudden) interest in botany and conservation among some of my students. This bill, in the unlikely event that it passes, will come too late to help my botany majors with their student loans etc.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

My Public Apology to the Neanderthals

I have also posted a YouTube video on this subject here.

If there are any Neanderthals reading this blog, I must ask, can you possibly forgive me? I had you all wrong. My voice joined in with the scientific establishment, led by such great scholars as Chris Stringer, in claiming that Neanderthals had no culture. This is very much the image that I presented in my Encyclopedia of Evolution. Apparently we were wrong.

Of course, my dear Neanderthals, I could not believe that a hominin with a brain as large as yours could be stupid. I never said you were stupid—put down that club, I’m trying to explain myself here—but just that you used your intelligence for something other than culture. Like maybe figuring out better ways of hitting each other over the head with clubs—oops, I think I went a little too far right then. But I wrote a novel manuscript (as yet unpublished) in which the heroine was an intelligent Neanderthal woman who lived in Minnesota in the late twentieth century. I can prove that I wrote this! I have a notarized copy of the manuscript from [date]. I’ve been defending your dignity, after a fashion, for many years now. But, you gotta admit, Neanderthals left no cave paintings or artifacts that might suggest art and religion, in stark contrast to the thousands of artifacts and massive painted caves of the Cro-Magnon modern humans.

But the accuracy of the non-cultural view of Neanderthals depends to a large extent on the interpretation of a set of artifacts that are not exactly part of American discourse, not even of intellectual snobs like me—the Châtelperronian artifacts. These artifacts, found in France, date to about forty thousand years ago, right about the time that dark modern humans came up from Africa and encountered the light-skinned, red-haired Neanderthals. The artifacts were found in a deposit that appeared to be of Neanderthal origin. They included some really well-made stone tools and, most fascinating, various bones and shells with holes drilled in them, which were apparently used in necklaces. Most of us scientists preferred to believe that such decorations could not possibly be Neanderthal. We wanted to think that the deposit was actually of modern Homo sapiens origin. Or, if the deposit was from Homo neanderthalensis, we speculated that you Neanderthals stole them from modern humans, or if you made them you were just imitating modern humans.

If we could get DNA from the human bones at this site, we could maybe settle the question. Svante Pääbo has elucidated the Neanderthal genome. But apparently thirty thousand years is about the limit to get DNA from old bones. To get enough DNA from the Châtelperronian bones, it would be necessary to almost completely destroy them. But it turns out that collagen (the protein in cartilage) does not decompose as readily. It was collagen that Mary Higby Schweitzer found in 70-million-year-old T. rex bones. Geneticists Matthew Collins and Frido Welker were able to get enough collagen from the Châtelperronian bones to analyze (Science, 23 September 2016, page 1350). Previous studies have shown that human collagen is rich in the amino acid aspartate, while Neanderthal collagen is rich in asparagine. The Châtelperronian bones had asparagine-rich collagen, identifying them as Neanderthal.

Of course, errors are possible in the reasoning used above. But the most straightforward interpretation, according to Jean-Jacques Hublin, Collins’s and Welker’s collaborator, is to say that Neanderthals made the artifacts.


Please forward a link to this essay to any Neanderthals you know.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Heeeeeeere's Connie!

Note: I have also posted a YouTube video about this.

When software changes the spelling of names, sometimes it’s a hoot, and sometimes noot.

Let me introduce you to Connie Maculatum, the poison hemlock plant.



Actually, the name is Conium maculatum, but apparently certain Microsoft programs automatically change scientific names into words that the programs think should be there. One of the best-selling books of the Christmas 2016 season, and one which I received as a present, contained this error. I doubt that the authors or editors intended the text to read “Connie.” But apparently, even after the correct name is written, Microsoft changes it from scientific accuracy to one of its standard, approved list of words. This might happen even after an author reverses the change.

It gets personal sometimes. One of my lab students last fall had the last name Cotten. In case your software changed it, the name ends with an -en. I had to write this twice in order to get Word to accept this spelling. But when we recorded her grades in Excel, it kept changing the spelling to Cotton no matter how many times we tried to correct it. We apologized to the student. She, however, has had this experience so many times that she hardly reacted. Her birth certificate, the IRS, and the university might have her name with the correct spelling but, dammit, Microsoft is determined to change her name to Cotton.

Science magazine reported that twenty percent of genetics articles that have been published online contain incorrect names of genes because Excel automatically changed them—and refused to unchanged them. One example is the gene septin-2, abbreviated SEPT2, which Excel changed to September 2. This happens even in the top journals. Notice: twenty percent of papers.

Technology is supposed to be our servant, but it determines the framework of reality. You have no choice but to enter information into Microsoft software in a prescribed format and to accept whatever form it comes out.

For centuries, people have had to accept occasional and embarrassing misspellings. The nineteenth-century report that Edgar Allan Pee had published a new book is probably apocryphal; in fact, I might have made it up. But at least newspaper and book publishers had the option of spelling it correctly.

I studied, and am now trying to rescue, an endangered plant species: the seaside alder, Alnus maritima. If I see this plant referred to on websites as Alnus maritime one more time, I think I am going to scream.


I don’t mind Microsoft underlining words that it “thinks” are misspelled, so long as I have the option of overriding its “decision.” It’s the automatic, silent, and unstoppable changes that I hoot.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Popechick, or, St. Colonel Sanders

Okay, this title is going to take some explaining. It comes from a web link publicized by Science magazine.

Apparently, until about 1000 CE, the Catholic Church did not make a big deal about eating meat on Fridays and certain holidays. But after that time, probably as a direct result of the papal edict, there was a market for chickens. Farmers bred chickens that were plumper and which laid eggs all year long rather than just seasonally. These characteristics are associated with a gene variant known as thyroid stimulating hormone receptor (TSHR), which is now found in virtually all commercial chickens. Archaeologists (for whom DNA sequencing is now a standard tool) sampled twelve sites in Europe ranging from 280 BCE to the eighteenth century and found that the TSHR allele was rare in chickens before about 1000 CE.

Is it too much of a stretch to say that the whole modern chicken industry exists as a result of papally-enforced religious dogmas from a thousand years ago? Just remember the Law of Unintended Consequences: this is certainly not what the Catholic Church was trying to do.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Maybe There Will Be a Mass Exodus

In an earlier essay, I speculated that, despite Trump’s attack on science education and research, insisting that both education and research should be focused entirely on his loudly-stated beliefs rather than on any data from the real world, there would probably be no mass exodus of scientists out of the United States into (for example) China. But events of recent weeks have caused me to rethink this.

Trump announced the appointment of his chair of a task force that will recommend reforms for higher education. That man is Jerry Falwell, Jr. Yes, the president of Liberty University, and the son of its late former president, Jerry Falwell. Jerry Falwell Jr. has said that he will redesign higher education so that it is focused on the Bible, and will bring higher education “back to some form of sanity.” And what this undoubtedly means is that, in order for students to receive loans to attend colleges and universities, they will have to attend colleges and universities that promote the utter and absolute truth of Creationism. Science education will quickly collapse, and therefore science educators will quickly leave the United States (this is my plan) or else find some other kind of job (I have not ruled out the possibility of being a science-education supermarket produce stocker, leading customers on economic botany tours in the produce section). If the entire function of science education is to indoctrinate college students in creationism, then scientific research will quickly collapse in the United States. Other countries, more welcoming to science, will benefit immensely from the inevitable brain drain.

What could possibly go wrong?

The creationists do not really want to see God, Jesus, or the Bible exalted in science education. They do not want the Bible to be taught. They want their interpretation of the Bible to be taught. Creationists consider themselves personally inerrant, incapable of error, when they open a Bible and start talking. There have been many interpretations of Genesis 1, for example, and the history of these interpretations goes back hundreds of years. But creationists consider all these other interpretations of the Bible to be wrong. The creationists, and they alone, are chosen by God to tell people what to believe about the Bible. Jerry Falwell Jr. thinks that we should all bow down and revere Him, Falwell, as the single approved explicator of God’s truth.

I don’t have a problem with Jesus. I don’t have a problem with the Bible, which may be inspired by God or may be an historical record of people trying to understand God. I have a problem with creationist Republicans elevating themselves to Godlike status and pushing God out of the way. This is the “form of sanity” that Falwell intends to impose on all scientists, educators, and students.


I teach about evolution, biodiversity, and global warming. Will I soon be considered an enemy of the state? History is full of scientists who have been crushed by religious power, from Galileo to Vavilov.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Scientific Honesty

Scientists may not be naturally more honest than other people, but the scientific method enforces honesty when it is followed, as it usually is, at least in the underfunded ecological and organismic sciences. Actually, scientists are, on average, more honest partly because the scientific enterprise attracts honest people—that is, people who do not want their reputations tainted by dishonesty. For preachers and presidents, of course, the more taint the better. So keep grabbing that p***y, Trump! And all you evangelical Christians, keep praising Trump for doing so!

One of my major projects is that I have kept records on the spring budburst dates of almost 400 trees (22 species) for the last twelve years in southern Oklahoma. While my data set is not the biggest in the world, it is one of the major on-the-ground data sets (as opposed to satellite imagery), and certainly the best one for hundreds of miles around where I live and work. On January 30 and 31 of this year, almost all of the sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua, in the Altiginaceae family) burst their buds—that is, the bud scales separated enough that I could see the green underneath. But there was one tree I missed. It was way over across campus, not close to any other trees in my data set. Since it is surrounded by brick walls, creating a warm microenvironment, I assumed that its buds had opened also. This was a statistically valid assumption. But if I wanted to make this tree a data point (datum) in my study, I had to go look at it. I did so—it was a nice 73 degree F day, like many other winter days in southern Oklahoma (itself an indicator of global warming)—and found that, indeed, I was correct. All this, for one datum out of several thousand.

This honesty is in striking contrast to the ruling junta in Washington, where the worshipers of Donald Trump believe that they can just make up “alternative facts”, assertions that God Himself is obligated to accept. My data clearly show that budburst over the past twelve years has occurred about three weeks earlier—more in some, less in other, species. But Trump can just make up an alternative fact, and say that this has not happened, and that simply sweeps aside my thousands of data and the millions of data worldwide not only of global climate change but of organism responses to it. I fear—and I hope I am wrong—that Trump and his junta will force federal research facilities to make up data to prove that global warming is not occurring, and cut off grant funding for anyone who does not agree with Him. This won’t hurt me; I just keep records on the trees I see when I walk to work or drive down to the park. All I need is statistical software, which the university provides (don’t tell Trump). The ascendancy of “alternative facts” or Trump-truths is one reason I believe that the very scientific way of thinking is under assault in America.


Maybe not in France. They have their own political mess right now, but even the right-wingers over there appear to accept global climate change and the importance of doing something about it. There is more than one way of being wrong. You can be in error, or you can be abusively wrong. The former, in French, is se tromper (to deceive oneself) (Trump le trompe), I think. The latter is avoir tort (Trump a tort). Perhaps the best description of Trump is Trump nous trompe—Trump deceives us. He should be ashamed, but Trump n’a jamais honte.