Friday, January 11, 2019

A Look Back to Some Good Posts of the Past

For those of you who have only recently started reading this blog, I had some fantastic posts in 2012.

I took a long road trip from Oklahoma to California and back. One of the main purposes of this trip was to take photos and make videos to teach about evolution. I posted a series of “Evotour” essays, with photos. I saw some really interesting and thought-provoking things! The links are below:

I also posted a series about Religion and Science, The Vast Gulf. Science and religion differ markedly on such issues as:

I also had a series of posts from the Oklahoma Evolution Workshop in October 2012. A stimulating experience, not to be forgotten!

I posted numerous free-standing essays, of which my best were:

Appealing to the Basest Instincts. This was about politicians, and it has suddenly become more relevant than ever!
Reality of Global Warming: The 2012 Phenology Conference Includes a part in which two scientists who consider global warming to be a gigantic problem were listed among the “3000 scientists who reject global warming.”

If you have time, take a look at these. I have left out essays which, however interesting, dealt with issues that were mainly relevant in 2012.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Fiction as Science: The Example of On the Beach

Fiction can be science. This is a point that I made in my recently-released book Scientifically Thinking: Sometimes fiction has a structure similar to scientific research. The novelist sets up an experiment and runs it to test a hypothesis, just like a scientist would, only the experiment takes place in a fictional mind-space rather than in the lab or field.

In 1957, the world was on the cusp of nuclear annihilation, and nobody knew what might happen next, and what the consequences of nuclear war might be. Everyone knew there would be a lot of radiation, but nobody knew how much or what the physiological effects on humans or any other species might be.

Into this milieu of peril came Nevil Shute’s famous novel On the Beach, in which the entire Northern Hemisphere had been destroyed by nuclear war. The Southern Hemisphere, including Australia where the novel is set, did not participate. And yet the radiation crept inexorably down from the north. On the southern shore of Australia, even as the radiation destroyed northern Australia, life continued almost as before. The electric trains still ran, since Australia had its own low-quality coal for power plants, but there was no gasoline, so people rigged up their cars to be drawn by horses. The novel was set in 1964, which was the future, but near enough so that the readers could not feel distant from it.

This novel was made into a famous 1959 movie starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins. Only a really important movie could have gotten this line-up.

It is an amazing movie, except that almost the only soundtrack was Waltzing Matilda over and over and over. But even here the movie was well done. Drunken fishermen were singing the song out of tune, but right at a dramatic moment when Dwight and Moira had to confront their doomed love for one another, the orchestra played the tune in perfect and disturbing harmony.

Into this Australian scenario comes an American submarine that just happened to be in the south when the war struck. Toward the end, Commander Dwight Towers realized that he and his crew were the only Americans still alive in the world. He was the only American with any authority. When he realizes this (page 164 of Signet edition), “He said wearily, ‘I guess the United States is me, right now. I’m thinking of running for President.’”

Nevil Shute set up the fictional experiment, and controlled the variables that he knew would make the results of the experiment too difficult to interpret.

  • Shute made the dying silent and without destruction. If the novel was filled with explosions and carnage, it would just be confusing. But Shute had the radiation approaching invisibly. The atmospheric circulation of the Northern Hemisphere is almost entirely separate from the Southern, but not quite. The air is almost still right where the sun is straight overhead, but this latitude of stillness moves north and south with the seasons, causing the atmosphere of the North to mix with that of the South in a gradual and totally consistent manner. Every Northern Hemisphere city that the submarine crew saw through their periscope during a reconnaissance mission was nearly intact except for the total absence of people.
  • Shute made it easy for people to choose a painless end to their lives. The Australians also chose to end their lives, once they knew death was inevitable, by taking poison pills, for which they lined up at health dispensaries. For the sake of simplifying the experiment, Shute made up a poison that makes you painlessly fall asleep forever. I am not aware that any such poison exists.

Therefore the novel can focus clearly on the central questions, rather than being distracted by mayhem.

One question this novel addresses is this: what would people do if life seemed utterly normal, except that they knew that death was coming, and they knew almost exactly when it would arrive and how it would happen?

  • One hypothesis is that people would go wild and plunder one another and establish warring states. Maybe this is, in fact, what Americans would do, with our tradition of taking whatever we want for ourselves and our worship of guns. One might imagine that a lot of men would go wild and take as many women as they could get, and plunder the houses of anyone with no, or fewer, guns.
  • But another hypothesis is that people would continue on with their daily lives as long as possible. This is what the Australians did and what countries with a greater sense of social identity would do. I imagine that this is what would happen in, say, Finland. The people continued their jobs, their families, their marriages just as before. This is also what Americans did during the Cold War: they continued their daily lives.

Why would a society of people continue with their normal lives even as death approaches? Here are two possible reasons.

  • A normal life was their only sense of comfort and happiness.
  • A normal life allowed them to fantasize that it wasn’t really happening. In this novel, the American submarine commander Towers has a romance with a young Australian woman (Moira Davidson), but he is chaste with her since he considers himself still married to his wife in Connecticut, even though she must be dead. Towers even bought presents to take home to his wife and children, whom he knew yet denied were dead. The wife of the Australian naval officer put in a garden for the next year that she pretended to believe would still come. This might be the most chilling aspect of the novel: to see people living in their fantasy worlds.

In the end, everyone dies doing what they loved best. One seaman, when the submarine came to his hometown, jumped ship and spent his last day fishing in his own boat. Another, who had a race car, was willing to die during a dangerous race, but he won the championship; then took his poison pills while sitting in his race-car (in the book; in the movie, he killed himself with carbon monoxide). The Australian officer dies in bed with his wife. Moira dies as she watches Dwight sink his submarine offshore. They all died, except Dwight and Moira, with smiles on their faces.

Another question that this novel addresses: What is your responsibility to alleviate the inevitable suffering for those who cannot understand it? The Australian officer tells his wife she may have to kill their baby rather than let it suffer if they die first. At first she angrily insists that this is murder, but eventually decides it is mercy.

Yet another question: Is it fair the Southern Hemisphere should suffer from the fallout of what the Northern Hemisphere has done? All the characters struggle with this constantly, though only once in a while blurting it out.

I hope we are never in a position to find out what we would do if the end of the world was coming inevitably, gradually, and at a time we knew several months in advance. I hope that the real experiment is never done. Is it possible that this novel, and the movie made from it, forced people to confront the reality of the nuclear threat and keep it from actually happening?

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Welcome to a Peaceful New Year!

Well, that may be too much to expect. No matter how much peace and goodwill we create in our lives and among our family, friends, and associates, external forces (such as corporations and politicians) do their best to disrupt us. Because those forces keep us desperate, we will buy whatever the corporations want to sell and go along with whatever the politicians want to foist on us. The classic example is the family with two breadwinners and three jobs that does not have enough time to eat healthy or to work for social and economic change. Corporations, and governments that support those corporations with tax dollars, are happy to supply the unhealthy food.

But the more peace we can have in our own lives, (1) the happier and healthier we will be despite our circumstances, and (2) the more independent we will be of the dominant forces of society as well. To find inner peace, we do not have to subscribe to a specific spiritual doctrine or purchase a special kind of health food. All we have to do, as much as possible, is to find a regular balance in all the things we do in life, all of them in moderation. If we can, that is.

By balance I refer mainly to keeping a regular schedule with your biological clock. More or less regular times for getting up and going to sleep, for eating, and seeking mindful relaxation. One of the worst things we can do—I say from the experience of having done them and then quit—is to let other people control our minds and create tension, mostly from television. Unsubscribe, folks, and save yourselves a lot of money. I quit cable in 2002 and since that time I have saved $10,000. Not sure where that money went, but it didn’t go to cable. Learn to cherish silence. Worked for me. Instead of watching TV, I read and write. Usually in silence.

We become most aware of the disruption of our biological clocks when we experience jet lag. Everything seems to go out of balance, not just our cycles of sleep and wakefulness. But it is not just jet lag but poor daily time management that can disrupt our biological clocks.

Medical assistance may be necessary. If you have sleep apnea, as I did, surgery or a ventilation device may be helpful. Get rid of apnea and you will get your life back. At least I did. I also have sleep onset myoclonus, which is a kind of torture that even Dick Cheney never thought of: at the moment of sleep onset, my muscles contract just enough to wake me up. Maybe just a little muscle, maybe a lot of big ones. Over and over and over and over several times a minute. Medication brought this under control. There is heavy-duty medication, but hemp oil may work just as well. I used to take regular naps; now, I nap maybe three times a year.

An article was published in the November 25 issue of Science in 2016: “Circadian physiology of metabolism,” by Satchidananda Panda of the Salk Institute in La Jolla (Volume 354, pages 1008-1015) This link takes you to the summary; full articles are available only to AAAS members. In this article, the author summarized the many different disorders that can result from disruption of the biological clock:

  • Obesity
  • Insulin resistance
  • Disruption of gut microbes
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Liver disease
  • Increased cancer risk
  • High cholesterol
  • Sleep disorders
  • Compromised muscle function

What a list! All of these physiological effects are interrelated, and related to the biological clock. Disrupted sleep can make you fat, give you diabetes, make your intestines sick, and increase the risk of other problems. I was astonished to see this list. I have some of these problems in small measure; what a walking sicko I would be if I did not seek to live in harmony with my biological clock.

I have found that, by mindfully seeking inner peace and following a regular schedule, I am seldom tired. For this, I must also thank certain medications. But we must enable such medications to work by seeking regularity and balance. Even when I have no work to do, I find myself reading and writing—I am on vacation right now—because they are not, for me, stressful. I rest the way the heart muscle rests: between each beat.

Was Ben Franklin right? Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. Seems too simple. But if Franklin read that Science article, he would have claimed vindication.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The Big Little World of Robert Hooke

In England in 1664, the scientific world was amazed to see Robert Hooke’s book Micrographia. Hooke was one of the first people to make expert use of early microscopes. The intricate drawings in this book remain some of the best art in the world today. Hooke opened up our vision to a big little world too small for the unaided eye to see.

Most biology textbooks contain the drawing that he made of a thin slice of cork. Rather than being a solid material, it consisted of lots of tiny cubicles, which reminded Hooke of the monastery cells in which monks lived. This observation began the scientific search that eventually led to the cell theory: that all organisms consist of cells. 

But Hooke did not just look at organisms, nor did he just look: he also asked questions about what he saw. One of his drawings was of “gravel in urine,” or kidney stones. When you look at them microscopically, you can see that the smaller ones are crystalline. This helped to explain where they came from: from minerals dissolved in the urine which occasionally crystallize. And because they are crystals formed in the urine, rather than actual gravel, they can be dissolved back into the liquid and thus, perhaps, eliminated. “How great an advantage it would be,” he wrote, “to such as are troubled with the Stone, to find some [liquid] that might dissolve them without hurting the bladder...” This possible solution to kidney stones would not have occurred to someone who did not look at them closely, so someone who just assumed they were gravel.

He also asked questions about the “cells” in the cork. (He was well aware that no one had ever described them before: “...indeed the first microscopical pores I ever saw, and that perhaps were ever seen, for I had not met with any Writer or Person, that had made any mention of them before this.”) He deduced that these cells, which contained air that could not escape from them, were the reason that cork could float and why it was springy. He even deduced that there were also “channels or pipes through which the...natural juices of Vegetables are convey’d, and seem to correspond to the veins, arteries and other Vessels of nutrition in sensible creatures...”

Hooke also rhapsodized about the amazing quantity of tiny objects, such as the cells of cork, of which “a Cubick Inch” could contain 1259712000, or “twelve hundred millions.” It was “a thing almost incredible, did not our Microscope assure us of it...”

How could he be sure that his observation of cork cells was not a mere anomaly of cork? He also looked at (but did not draw) cells in “the pith of an Elder, or almost any other Tree, the inner pulp or pith of the Cany hollow stalks of several other Vegetables: as of Fennel, Carrets, Daucus, Bur-docks, Teasels, Fearn, some kinds of Reeds, &c.”

He also closely observed sensitive plants (a branch and leaf of which appears right under his drawing of cells) to try to figure out why and how the leaflets closed when touched.

His drawings of small arthropods revealed a new world of awe to his readers. Although creatures such as the flea can be very ugly, one must admire the intricacy of their adaptations, which allow them to suck blood and to avoid being scratched away or swatted.

Hooke also wrote about the things he saw through the telescope, and drew craters and mountains of the moon.

The beginning of science is thoughtful observation. The microscope and telescope extended our observation to the very small and the very large and allowed us to ask new questions that we could not have imagined. Thank you, Galileo, and thank you, Robert Hooke.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Plants Will Save the World! Or Not

An old acquaintance of mine (well, no older than I am) responded to a message that I had posted on Facebook, in which I said I had my students do a project in which they increased their health and reduced their carbon footprints. My friend wanted to know why anyone would want to reduce their carbon footprint. Plants need carbon dioxide, so if we put as much carbon into the air as possible, we are feeding the plants, right? He was puzzled that I, as a botanist, did not seem to understand this.

He even had a scientific source for his views. He referred to the work of Sylvan Wittwer, a horticulturalist whose research showed that plants grow better in higher carbon dioxide. From this, Wittwer concluded that rising carbon dioxide levels in the air was a good thing.

In the narrow sense, Wittwer was right. Back in graduate school, I worked on experiments with Fakhri Bazzaz (University of Illinois, later Harvard) that proved this very thing. They were greenhouse experiments. But later outdoor experiments, using Free Air Carbon Enrichment (FACE) reached similar conclusions. What happened is that, at first, plants grow more when they have more carbon, but then the growth enhancement slows down. Just one example of this is a 2006 article by Stephen Long and Donald Ort, from the University of Illinois where I got my Ph.D. Unfortunately, I cannot provide the full text, since it is available only to members of AAAS. But you can read the abstract. Here is a photo of one such experiment. It was led by my fellow graduate student from Illinois in the 1980s, Rick Lindroth.

The problem with saying that plants will grow more and cleanse the air of excess carbon is that plants need lots of things other than carbon dioxide in order to grow. They need light, which on this planet is usually abundant. But they also need soil with water and nutrients. A lot of places on Earth have droughts and soil erosion, and in those places the plants cannot make use of any extra carbon dioxide. Most of all, plants need to not be destroyed if they are to grow and absorb carbon dioxide. A lot of forest and grassland is being destroyed. Forests grow back, but we are destroying them faster than they can grow back. Apparently the plants grew quite well in Wittwer’s greenhouses, but in the great outdoors, they frequently do not.

The results are clear. Carbon dioxide levels have been increasing. When measurements began in the 1950s, carbon dioxide levels were less than 300 parts per million. Today, they exceed 400. These numbers sound small but carbon dioxide is very good at holding in the atmospheric heat. Carbon dioxide is the main reason that Venus is hotter than Mercury despite being further from the sun.

If plants are going to save the world, why are they not doing so now? They seem to be totally incapable of absorbing the surplus carbon dioxide we have already put in the air. If plants are going to save the world, when are they going to start?

Plants need carbon, and we need water. But you can’t make us healthier by drowning us in water. You can’t make plants grow more by gassing them with carbon, except sometimes in a greenhouse.

Another problem is bias. Wittwer helped to start two major think tanks. One of these is the Greening Earth Society, which is sponsored by the Western Fuels Association. The other was the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, which does not reveal its funding sources but IRS records showed that at least one source was ExxonMobil. The very purpose of these think tanks is to convince people, mainly politicians, that global warming is nothing to worry about and we should use as much oil as possible right now. They fund only research that is consistent with this view.

Having bias does not mean that you are a liar. We all have biases, as I explain in Chapter 13 of my new book, Scientifically Thinking. But there is certainly pressure for scientists whose work is funded by oil companies to reach conclusions those companies would like. You would have to be nearly superhuman in your fairmindedness if your funding sources did not influence your conclusions.

One would think that the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change would gleefully promote the conservation and replanting of forests and grasslands, in order to get them to grow back faster and absorb more carbon dioxide. I asked the lead scientist of that organization if his organization promoted conservation and reforestation. He answered that taking a stand one way or the other on reforestation was outside the mission of his organization. I took this to mean that his oil donors did not want him to say that we should save and replant forests, even if he personally believed it. Your funding sources not only influence your conclusions but limit what you can say. This man struck me as being honest, as honest as he was permitted to be.

My own research shows that buds of deciduous trees in Oklahoma have opened earlier in the spring by about one to three days per year over the last dozen years. This is associated with one component of global warming. Earlier budburst is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a sign of global warming. This graph shows the earlier budburst dates in four major species of deciduous trees. Lower numbers on the y axis mean earlier budburst.

Budburst did not occur earlier each year, but over the twelve year period, the odds of this result occurring by chance were (by statistical analysis) less than one in ten thousand.

I have received no funding for this research, not from science agencies, nor from environmental groups, nor from oil companies.

So, what is my bias? Of course I have one. But it is not what you might think. I am a botanist. I love love love plants, starting with the green chlorophyll that absorbs sunlight all the way up to the whole organism and the whole forest.

In the photo on the top, green chlorophyll glows red because it absorbs visible white light but emits red light by fluorescence. The photo on the bottom is a water oak leaf, which is a photosynthetic factory filled with veins that deliver water and take away precious sugar.

I would love to be able to tell everyone, plants will save the world! They will scrub the excess carbon out of the air. Unfortunately, I have to dejectedly accept the conclusion that they will not. This is the conclusion I reached in Chapter 3 of my earlier book, Green Planet. The subtitle of that book shows clearly that I really hoped that plants would rescue us from the greenhouse effect: How Plants Keep the Earth Alive.

It is with a heavy heart that I must report to you that the research conducted by a handful of oil-funded scientists is incorrect, and global warming is real, getting worse, and very dangerous.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Terrorist Attack in Strasbourg

Last night, a terrorist attack in Strasbourg left two dead, one brain-dead, and twelve injured. This attack has shocked people around the world. French police responded immediately and are looking diligently for the shooter, whose identity is known and whose face has been broadcast everywhere.

Very quickly les citoyens strasbourgeoises created memorials to the slain.

(Photos from 

This was the same response that I saw in July 2016 when the citizens of Strasbourg created memorials for the victims of the terrorist attack in Nice.

While the horror of this attack cannot be ignored, I must remind my readers that there were more people killed, thirteen in all, on October 27 at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California. That was the 307th mass shooting in America. America has so many mass shootings that people here and around the world quickly forget them.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Mix Together Religious Zeal and Scientific Ignorance, and What Do You Get?

You all already know the answer to this question. I want to give you a particularly vivid example.

In eighteenth-century France, as in other places in Europe, Catholics massacred a lot of Protestants, and the reverse was often true as well. One of the worst massacres was in August, 1572, when French Catholic mobs murdered thousands of Protestant Huguenots in the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre. Historical summaries generally say the triggering event of the massacre was the attempted assassination of the Admiral de Coligny. But there was more to the story. I cannot find this information online, but I distinctly remember reading in a book in 1976 (written by Henri Noguรจres) that one of the triggering events was the flowering of a crabapple tree. Crabapple trees usually bloom in spring. When some of them bloomed in late summer in Paris, many people, already stirred up by religious zeal, took this to be a miracle; if a miracle, then a message; if a message, then from God; if from God, it meant that they were supposed to go kill Huguenots.

This event, however, was all based on ignorance—in this case, botanical ignorance. If crabapple (or Bradford pear) trees experience a summer drought, and then rain begins to fall, the rain serves as a trigger that makes the trees bloom. This is because the trees do not have heat and cold sensors; to a tree, winter is dry (because the water is frozen) and spring is wet. Therefore, many trees will respond to a dry midsummer followed by a wet late summer as being winter followed by spring. This is why the crabapple trees bloomed in Paris in August 1572.

When the trees bloomed, the religious zealots did not know why. And if they do not know why, then it must be a miracle. This was their religiously deluded line of reasoning. Who knows how many people lost their lives because some religious zealots did not know enough botany!

This is my six hundredth post.