Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Scientific Sense of Importance: The Case of the Fire Ant

We scientists like to think that our work is important. And it is. But sometimes we scientists get a little carried away and exaggerate the importance of our particular lines of research. One example that I have personally observed is the invasion of the fire ant, Solenopsis invicta.

Fire ants came from South America to Alabama about 1930, where the young naturalist E. O. Wilson, who went on to become one of the leading evolutionary scientists in the world, found them. They have spread inexorably since that time, restricted to warm wet areas. Right now, in Oklahoma, they live in the southern part of the state but not the northern part. And they can be a menace. If you disturb their nest, they will quickly swarm all over you. And they swarm over and eat some ground-nesting birds and young mammals who cannot run away. They have even killed a person, as told in this news report. They once crawled up the river of snot from a little boy’s nose, very quietly, and when he moved they attacked him. He lived, I think.

There is an annual meeting of Imported Red Fire Ant (IRFA) researchers. I went to two of the meetings, back when scientific travel money was easier to obtain. Both years I presented results of small research projects (it was never a major focus of my work) about the effects of fire ants on plants. I was the only botanist at the meetings.

It is understandable that some scientists would study the fire ants, especially since they are a potential menace. It is important to monitor where they are and what they do. And they have astonishing behavior. Not unlike army ants, they can lock themselves together in a clump, and can float in water. That is how they came across the Red River from Texas into Oklahoma.

But, as it turns out, fire ants have not been a major threat. Cold temperatures and dry conditions have stopped their northward and westward spread. Central Park is safe. They have spread to California, perhaps in nursery soil, but fire ants are way down the list of threats to the health and safety of Californians. Ground-nesting birds have not been driven to extinction by them, and you are about as likely to be killed by a meteor as by fire ants.

But we wanted to make our work important. So we emphasized the potential threats that fire ants posed to public health and safety, and to the economy. For scientists whose research programs were invested in fire ant ecology, it was important to do this. We did not spread deliberately false alarms about the Attack of the Killer Ants, but we put a spin on it that, at least subconsciously, was intended to scare funding agencies into supporting our work.

Everybody wants to think their work is important, and our minds create a bias to this effect. Scientists are like everyone else in this respect. But the scientific method, at least, makes us scientists aware of our biases and requires us to present evidence for our assertions.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Caveman’s Shadow

This is a brief meditation upon how science has changed everything we see.

If a caveman stood straight up (which he could; the old movies showing cavemen dragging their knuckles are ridiculous) at midday, he would see his shadow just like every other sunny day. He would not have realized that his shadow pointed straight north.

If he had done so on the first day of spring or fall (assuming he knew about what day this was), he would most certainly not have realized that the length of his shadow would be exactly the same as his height if he was at 45 degrees north or south. Or that the reason for this was that the Earth revolved around the sun and was tilted relative to the plane of its revolution. He would just see his shadow. But today we can look at our shadow and see a whole story about the movement of the Earth.

In this and many other ways, the scientific viewpoint changes everything we see.

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.