My imperfect memory tells me that the first grown-up book I read and enjoyed was “2010: Odyssey Two,” the sequel to the far more famous “2001: A Space Odyssey,” both written by Arthur C. Clarke.
I wasn’t seeking “2010” when I happened upon the book in the LaPorte High School library. Maybe I was looking for a book-report subject. I don’t know. But I ended up loving that book. Still, for some reason, 20 years or so passed and I still never read any Isaac Asimov.
“Hey, Baby! I’m Feeling Great!” *cough cough* “Really!”
For the first half of the above video, a sick male zebra finch sits quietly on the floor of his cage. He’s not feeling so great, trying to rest and keep quiet while his immune system is in hyperdrive. But half an hour later, shown in the second half of the video, an unfamiliar female has entered the cage. To the male bird, that changes everything. He hops around with excitement and interest as if he didn’t feel sick at all.
Behavioral biologist Patricia Lopes of the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues injected this finch and others with bits of E. coli bacteria — triggering their immune systems without actually infecting them. They watched the birds as they lay sick, then compared how it behaved when a female was thrust into the picture, counting its hops and the time it spent resting. They found the male birds’ behavior changed completely, acting as if they weren’t sick in an effort to court the female.
The southern Rhone Valley in 1866 France was a wine maker’s heaven. A warm Mediterranean climate offered warm winters and plenty of sunshine, with just enough rain to keep the vines happy. Heaven, that is, until death struck. 13 acres of vines mysteriously died, without leaving a suicide note or cause-of-death notice or anything. In the middle of a good weather year, the leaves shriveled up, the grapes turned into bitter raisins, and the whole vine died quickly.
Death spread quickly, extending out in all directions from the original field. The mysterious disease killed off large swaths of vinyards who had withstood pests and bad weather for hundreds of years already, only to be laid low by the newcomer. By July 1868 winemakers were so worried that a special council was appointed to determine the cause of all this death.
“There was no rot… but suddenly under the magnifying lens of the instrument appeared an insect, a plant louse of yellowish color, tight on the wood, sucking the sap,” wrote Jules-Émile Planchon, a professor of botany and pharmacy at the nearby university in Montpellier and one of the council members. “It is not one, it is not ten, but hundreds, thousands of lice… They are everywhere.” A suspect had been found.
The once-mighty monarch butterfly migration—an extraordinary natural phenomenon that passes right through our neighborhoods and fields—has been reduced to a trickle. Where were you all summer, did you notice?
For how things used to be, here is Annie Dillard describing the event in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 1974:
The monarchs clattered in the air, burnished like throngs of pennies, here’s one, and here’s one, and more, and more. They flapped and floundered; they thrust, splitting the air like the keels of canoes, quickened and fleet. It looked as though the leaves of the autumn forest had taken flight, and were pouring down the valley like a waterfall, like a tidal wave, all the leaves of hardwoods from here to Hudson’s Bay.
Dillard seems to be describing a scene of almost unimaginable natural wealth. The world had such an excess of raw material that it could make monarch butterflies not by the ones and twos, but by the millions. Indeed, estimates of the number of monarchs that used to overwinter in Mexican fir and pine forests range up to a billion. In pictures, the trees seem to be literally dripping with butterflies.
Former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson has a name for his favorite type of writers: “the failed scientists.” These logically-minded individuals at first pursued the mastery of a scientific field, thinking their place in life was in a lab, before undergoing a profound change of heart. Turning to writing, they found a consolation prize: the nerdy remnants of their specialization allowed them to translate between science and plain English. (Anderson was a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory before becoming an editor at The Economist.)
Yet this is not the only way to end at that curious destination, science writing. This summer, in a Magazine Editing class at the Medill School of Journalism taught by Charles Whitaker, I had the chance to speak with two representatives of distinct trajectories to science writing: Alan Burdick, senior editor at The New Yorker, and Laura Helmuth, health and science editor at Slate.com. Burdick was formerly an editor at Discover magazine; before that, he edited science stories for The New York Times Magazine and the now-defunct The Sciences. Helmuth formerly served as a senior editor covering nature, science, technology, and the environment for Smithsonian magazine; before that, she reported and edited at Science magazine.
Helmuth came from the sciences. Burdick came from the humanities. Both, in their own way, found academia too limiting a box. For these two science writers, journalism proved more satisfying way to engage with the world and the voices that fill it. Here is a summary of their paths to science writing and what they see as its role in a world in flux. Read the rest of this entry »
Google Earth is a magnificent production- you can virturally tour the whole world from a computer chair. Or so everyone thought, until one Sylvia Earle pointed out the major flaw in this idea. “My children, my grandchildren think it is great to see their backyard, fly through the Grand Canyon, visit other countries,” she said to John Hanke one day at a conference. Hanke happened to be the Director of Google Earth and Maps, and Earle had a bone to pick with him. “But, John, when are you going to finish it? You should call Google Earth ‘Google Dirt’. What about the ¾ of the planet that is blue?”
Sylvia Earle is an oceanographer and explorer, currently a National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence, formerly the chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and recipient of 22 honorary degrees. She is a well-traveled aquanaut, diving in subs and scuba gear many times over, setting records for depth, including a solo sub dive to 1000 meters. Earle has spent her many decades studying the ocean and watching it change, and many countries and organizations have awarded her their highest honors. She has some serious credits. Earle had just met Hanke at a conference in Spain. “I had a chance publicly to say how much I love Google Earth,” she wrote later. And to point out that the then-current version of Google Earth was not complete. She wanted the vicarious exploring to extend to “the real Hawaiian islands, not just the mountain tops that poke through the ocean’s surface.”