Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Small and Blue and Beautiful

Yesterday I blogged about something very small.

Today I'd like to call your attention to some articles that talk about something very big.


Forty years ago today, astronauts took this historic photo, "Earthrise". I didn't remember that until reading the editorials in the Times, of course, since I wasn't around yet. Some say that this image helped jump-start the environmental movement.

Anyway, the articles from today and from 1968 are worth checking out. Here is today's editorial reflecting on 1968 and now; this op-ed piece observes that while *we* may be fragile, life on earth has endured worse than humans and survived. From the first editorial, click on the "Related Articles" links to download some of the original articles from 1968, which are not available as web pages. This photograph is also so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page.

From the 1968 editorial:
To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.
Lovely.

PS: For more on "Earthrise" and a short video clip from the Apollo 8 mission, visit this Dot Earth post from today.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The 40 Million Year Old Virgins

Imagine, on this cold near-solstice day, that in the spring you go out to a nearby pond and collect a sample of water. You bring it home, put a drop on a microscope slide, and take a look at the pond's microcosm. Zooming around your sample are a wide variety of "wee beasties" -- you might see a blobby amoeba, a diflagellate like Chlamydomonas, and many other single-cell organisms.

Then a large, mostly transparent creature comes into focus. It doesn't look like all the others. It's far more complex, like a mechanical sea creature in miniature. Something like this:


Beautiful, isn't it?

This is a rotifer, a tiny aquatic animal in the phylum Rotifera. It may be small, but it is bilaterally symmetric and has a distinct head. It pulls in food particles with the wheel-like structure (hence "rotifer" or "wheel-bearer") around its mouth.

The rotifer pictured above is, however, special for another reason. This is a bdelloid rotifer (the b is silent). You are looking at a species that has not mated in at least 40 million years.

All bdelloid rotifers are female, and they reproduce by parthenogenesis. (Olivia Judson talks about them at length in her excellent book, Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, and wrote a column about them in June.) This is highly unusual, since it is generally thought that gene exchange is an important mechanism for evolution. Yet with no sexual reproduction, how could the bdelloids have speciated so intensely (there are estimated to be 350 species) and persisted for so long?

Researchers at Harvard and Woods Hole may have the answer. In a paper published in Nature in May, geneticists found that when they analyzed rotifer DNA, they found genes known to occur in plants, fungi, and bacteria. This evidence suggests that rotifers have been engaging in horizontal gene transfer (HGT).

HGT is a well-known phenomenon, but it was primarily known from single-celled organisms. For example, many bacteria are known to incorporate novel genes from other members of the population, or even from other species. When you only have one cell, it's not too hard to get a novel gene into that cell. Most animals, which are by definition multicellular, can't do this; most of us pass our genes to our offspring via specialized reproductive cells, which are typically hidden away inside gonads. Unless novel genes make it to the sex cells and can therefore be passed on to the next generation, HGT has not taken place. (Passing genes to your offspring is vertical inheritance.)

Bdelloids, however, appear to be capable of massive horizontal gene transfer. Gladyshev et al. point out that this is not a case of rotifers simply retaining genes that are common to all life; that case is both extremely unlikely and not supported by the data. Instead, they suggest,

It may be that HGT is facilitated by membrane disruption and DNA fragmentation and repair associated with the repeated desiccation and recovery experienced in typical bdelloid habitats, allowing DNA in ingested or other environmental material to enter bdelloid genomes.

With their proclivity for moist habitats, bdelloids also run the risk of dessication. They are able to withstand repeated dessication; in fact, it might be necessary for the continued success of the entire class, since this appears to be the mechanism by which they gain new genetic material. The authors conclude,

Although the adaptive importance of such massive HGT remains to be elucidated, it is evident that such events have frequently occurred in the genomes of bdelloid rotifers, probably mediated by their unusual lifestyle.


So, in conclusion, bdelloids have done away with sex as we know it, but periodically get turned into rotifer jerky, incorporate new genes while their cells are cracked open, and when reconstituted and repaired produce more copies of themselves, thus passing new genes to the next generation.

Lots of questions remain; for example, what are rotifers doing with all these new genes? (One example is a bacterial gene for cell walls; no one knows how an animal might make use of a cell wall.) I will keep you posted on all rotifer-related news updates. Stay tuned!

References
Gladyshev, E. et al. "Massive Horizontal Gene Transfer in Bdelloid Rotifers." Science 30 May 2008: Vol. 320. no. 5880, pp. 1210 - 1213

Judson, O. "The Weird Sisters" The New York Times, June 3, 2008.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Plants Fighting Back

On Tuesday I reached into the container of cilantro from the grocery store and quickly pulled my hand back in surprise. Something had hurt me! But what?

My thoughts went to some alarming places. Bits of metal? Shards of glass? I felt like I had been pricked by something sharp, but there were no marks on my fingertips. No blood was drawn.

I dumped all of the cilantro into a colander and moved it around with a fork. There in the middle was the culprit. Initially its camouflage had concealed it from sight, but on closer inspection it stood out from its surroundings.


Clearly, those are not cilantro leaves. Any guesses?

It turned out my instinct was correct, because the first page I pulled up on Wikipedia was stinging nettle, where I saw the above picture. The plant mixed with my cilantro was the spitting image.

What makes a stinging nettle sting? The sting is caused by a combination of chemicals, not just by the hairs alone which, although sharp, are tiny. Tiny and hollow, and filled with a combination of chemicals that give a noticeable irritation: acetylcholine, serotonin, and perhaps most importantly, histamine and possibly formic acid. Yikes.

Surprisingly, nettles are easily tamed, and can be made into tea or even eaten when young ( and cooked). They're also good for your hair, feature prominently in hippie-dippie shampoos, and are mixed into cattle feed to give the bovines shiny coats. My nettle, however, was transferred by fork to the trash bin, as I was in no mood to attempt to tame it. (And my hair is already quite shiny, thank you.) I do admire it for fighting back, though. As a vegetarian, I'm not really used to food that puts up much of a struggle, so this was an interesting interaction between me and a plant.

But I think I'll stick with cilantro just the same.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Wild Edibles Seafood Market, or, What Not to Buy

Over the long weekend, I visited Grand Central Station to check out the holiday marketplace. While we were there, our group also visited the food markets . I love the temple of dairy that is Murray's Cheeses, and Penzey's Spices is always a treat.

And then I was face to face with a red snapper.


I don't often spend time near the seafood counter at the grocery store, nor do I actively seek out fishmongers on a regular basis. But I can recognize a red snapper, and I was mildly perturbed to see one on display at Wild Edibles Fish Market. I decided to leave one of my Seafood Watch seafood guides with whoever was on duty and send an email to the company when I got home.

Then I looked closer. There was a sign near the snapper with a bright red fish symbol and a description of why red snapper is not a recommended seafood choice. I surveyed the rest of the catch of the day; every fish was marked with a sign, and a not insignificant number carried the red "Avoid" tag. A sign hanging over the counter informed me that Wild Edibles was working with the Blue Ocean Institute to help people decide which seafood to buy.

They even had wallet-sized seafood guides available at the counter.

I was horrified. They were actually selling the fish that their own signs declared threatened or endangered. I asked the woman working the counter, "How can you sell this when you know that it's endangered?" Her response: "Well, we want the customers to decide. If they tell us to stop selling it, we'll stop selling it."

Let's tell them.

Tell them that they ought to know better. Tell them that they do know better. Let them know you don't want to see fish on the menu that, by any account, would be better described as "Endangered Species" than "Catch of the Day". And while you're at it, tell your local fish seller too. Go to your grocery store and see if they're selling red snapper, orange roughy, Chilean seabass, or any other endangered fish. Give them a seafood guide, or two, or ten.

While you're at it, you might want to let the Blue Ocean Institute know what you think of their endorsement, as well. Shame on them for lending their name to an irresponsible fish merchant.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Better Know an Insect: Fungus Farmers

Happy Thanksgiving!

A few weeks ago, I read some interesting papers about mutualisms in ecological networks.

Here is a thought-provoking opening sentence from one of them:
About 40 – 60 million years before the advent of human agriculture, three insect lineages, termites, ants, and beetles, independently evolved the ability to grow fungi for food (Mueller & Gerardo, 2002).

As you digest your delicious Thanksgiving meal, think of all the things we farm, and the complex relationship we have with agriculture, with farmers, and with the organisms we farm. Then contemplate that insects did it all way before us with their tiny little nervous systems.

Leafcutter ants are one of the lineages that have developed the ability to farm. You might have seen leafcutters in a museum -- they're popular exhibits because they will build their entire colonies readily inside an enclosure and only require a steady supply of leaves. They are the champion farmers of the insects; in some areas, they are considered major agricultural pests because they will strip all vegetation near their colonies to feed their fungus colonies.

The life cycle of leafcutter ants is something like this: when a new queen hatches, she takes a small amount of her home colony fungus along with her on a specialized structure on her thorax when she makes her nuptial flight. After mating, she founds a new colony with the fungus she carried with her. The fungus grows on decomposing vegetation -- leaves -- which the queen initially supplies. After her first offspring have developed, they take over the role of leaf-gathering so that the queen can focus entirely on laying eggs.

Humans go to great lengths to maintain their crops. We spray insecticides, fungicides, and other chemicals to keep our crops disease-free. Ants have developed a system to do this as well -- on each worker is a small patch containing beneficial bacterial colonies. These bacteria secrete antibiotics that help protect the fungal crop from disease. The ants can also adjust the kind of vegetation brought into the colony, and will not bring leaves that have previously been rejected by or toxic to the fungal crop.

Two amazing, related facts about leafcutter ants: 1) they are native to the Americas (especially Central and South America) and are not found on other continents; therefore, when you see a line of leafcutter ants in The Lion King (sorry, I'm having a hard time finding a screenshot) that is an error.

2) While most leafcutters make their homes in the tropics, one species actually lives as far north as southern New Jersey.

There's loads more to say about leafcutter ants, but I mainly wanted to talk about farming in this post, since it sort of relates to Thanksgiving. Perhaps I'll write about them again soon. Eusocial insects are my favorite insects to talk about since they do so many amazing things. Look for more on ants in the future!

Sources:
Mueller, Ulrich G. and Nicole Gerardo. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2002 November 26; 99(24): 15247–15249.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Vote.

Get out and vote! Go on! Go vote!

Vote because, if you're a woman, your right to vote is less than 100 years old. Honor the women who struggled to get you that right!

Vote because you don't get to complain if you don't vote.

Vote because you can get a free cup of coffee at Starbucks and a free cone at Ben & Jerry's if you tell them that you voted.

Vote because all your friends on Facebook are voting. (All the cool kids are doing it!)

Whatever your reason, whatever your voting preference, go do it!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Barack O'Lanterns

Just a little something fun for Halloween...


The image is watermarked, but here's a link: YesWeCarve.com. They even have stencils for you to make your own Barack O'Lantern. (Jack O'bama? No, definitely Barack O'Lantern.) Gotta love the flexibility of that sunrise/O logo. It's a sun! It's a notebook! It's a pumpkin!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sarah Palin Loses the Geneticist Vote

This is already burning up in the science-oriented part of the blogosphere, but I want to mention it here too.

I've talked before about how Sarah Palin is a heartless lawbreaker who would love to shoot every wolf in Alaska. But did you know she's also opposed to basic scientific research?

Well, more specifically, she doesn't know what she's talking about when it comes to research. Otherwise, why would she highlight spending on fruit fly research in Paris as a "pet project earmark"? Did no one in the McCain campaign bother to find out what kind of research they were doing? I hate to tell you this, Ms. Palin... but fruit flies are the favored lab animal for genetics research around the world, both in Paris and here in the good ol' USA. (Except for New Jersey, which is not part of the "real" America.)

I think PZ Meyers, who writes the excellent blog Pharyngula, said it best:

Yes, scientists work on fruit flies. Some of the most powerful tools in genetics and molecular biology are available in fruit flies, and these are animals that are particularly amenable to experimentation. Molecular genetics has revealed that humans share key molecules, the basic developmental toolkit, with all other animals, thanks to our shared evolutionary heritage (something else the wackaloon from Wasilla denies), and that we can use these other organisms to probe the fundamental mechanisms that underlie core processes in the formation of the nervous system — precisely the phenomena Palin claims are so important
.

Oh, and he also threw in this disturbing but excellent point:

You damn well better believe that there is research going on in animal models — what does she expect, that scientists should mutagenize human mothers and chop up baby brains for this work?


If you're interested in watching, Think Progress has a video clip of Palin delivering the remarks. You can read the original prepared text at the McCain campaign page, but they differ somewhat from what she actually said. (For example, sarcasm is not noted anywhere in the prepared text.)

With the election so near (I've been unable to think of anything else lately), I think it's important to recognize what a McCain victory would do to the scientific community. Government funding for basic research is non-negotiable.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dinosaur Documentary Drinking Game

Last night, D. and I watched a Nova episode about Arctic dinosaurs. (You can view the whole episode online!)

D. is a remarkable and patient man, for I know few people other than him who could tolerate watching a TV show about dinosaurs with me. I am incredibly annoying. I have a tendency to argue with the television, pause the show to make a comment about what I feel is wrong with the most recent shot, and so on. I do this a lot with science shows in general, but dinosaur shows for whatever reason have a greater likelihood of skewing towards hyperbole. (That, and I don't know enough about astrophysics or material science to keep up my end of the argument.)

I guess I must have paused the action one too many times (is three times in the first ten minutes a lot?), because D. turned to me and said, "You know, we should create a dinosaur show drinking game."

Voilá. We took notes during the show and added a few other things based on previous things we've watched. (Walking with Dinosaurs, etc.)
  • Drink for tired clichés -- "gentle giant", "vicious carnivore" etc. -- that make assertions about an animal's temperament based solely on what it eats. (Cape buffalo and hippos are herbivores, but no one would call them gentle!)
  • Drink for scientific inaccuracy, like showing T. rex urinating on its territory. (Feel free to call me if you aren't sure. Here are a few to start you off.)
  • Drink for Jack Horner. (Jack Horner is awesome!)
  • Drink every time they show a digital animation of an asteroid hitting the earth at the end of the Cretaceous. Drink twice if the ensuing explosion is reflected in the eye of a dinosaur.
  • Drink for Montana.
  • If anyone says "Brontosaurus," (including the narrator!) finish your drink.
  • Drink each time a prehistoric critter breaks the fourth wall (bumps the camera, etc.) -- prevalent in the "Walking with..." series.
  • Drink for paleontologists in cowboy hats. (One drink per hat.)
  • Drink for dinosaur-on-dinosaur violence or dinosaur mating.
  • When a female paleontologist or other scientist appears, finish your drink. (Don't worry, guaranteed not to happen more than once per show. The Wikipedia page for Sue is longer than the page for the woman who discovered her. These are very male-dominated shows.)
Grab a couple of beers and your TV Guide -- there's always something about dinosaurs to watch, whether on Discovery Channel, PBS, National Geographic or Animal Planet.

In the end, though, as critical as I am of these shows, I have a deep affection for them. Perhaps its the part of me that hasn't stopped hoping to see a real, living dinosaur someday, or maybe I'm just a nature nerd. I couldn't tell you which. But check out the Arctic dinosaur show, it was actually quite interesting. Bring a beer over to your computer while you're at it. Keep an eye out for cowboy hats.

PS: Forgot to mention -- if you have anything to add to this list, please leave a comment!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

FiveThirtyEight

I can't believe I haven't mentioned this sooner!

If you love number-crunching, politics, statistical research, sociology, or any combination of the above, (or you're a big fan of Obama and want a joyful little reprieve from the woe of the stock market) you will love FiveThirtyEight.com.

There are a lot of polls out there. But any given poll will only survey a few hundred, maybe a few thousand, people at best. With something like 200 million Americans of voting age in this country, how much information can you get from a single poll?

Not much.

That's why a baseball statistician from Chicago named Nate Silver created this marvelous website. He combines polling data from all over the country, assigns a weighting to take into account factors like the number of people interviewed and how reliable a polling company is likely to be, and runs thousands of simulations. All this lets him make predictions about how each state will swing on November 4. (You can read more about the particulars on the FAQ.) These predictions are presented in various ways on the site, but my favorite is the at-a-glance map in the upper right corner.

That map is starting to look a little like my fantasyland map, and I'm tickled dark blue.

The most exciting part recently has been watching states turn white from pale pink, and then slowly, gradually, start turning the palest shade of sky blue... then a little more of a baby blue... and then all of a sudden Virginia is almost as blue as Vermont, Michigan is as blue as Minnesota, and it seems to be spreading from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Indiana.

There's more to the site than the presidential race -- you can read up on the Senate and House races as well. You'll have to sort through that for yourself, as I'm mostly paying attention to the big race (although I like checking the Senate map as well). Enjoy!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Sneak Peek

This Sunday's New York Times Magazine is all about food!

Bittman! Pollan! Kosher conundrum! Exploding corn (on the cover)! All this and more on newsstands this Sunday... or, yours to read right now.

I haven't had a chance to read any of it yet, so I'll probably have at least one more blog post about this issue of the magazine. I just wanted to bring it to your attention, since it looks like there's tons to read. Before I dig in, though, I just want to point out exactly which food they chose for the cover. It's not an heirloom tomato or a bag of wheat or a Twinkie. It's an ear of corn. And that's not an accident.

Read, enjoy, discuss... I'll blog it up soon enough!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Uncertainty Parcel Service

I recently ordered something through a website, and the merchant kindly provided a UPS tracking number.

When I clicked through to track my package (still in CA? what's with that?) I ended up on the UPS page. Apparently, UPS now has a new program called "Quantum View". The description is interesting:

Quantum View® visibility services help you manage your shipping information securely and efficiently. Whether you want to provide proactive notification to your customers when their shipments are on the way or create a custom tracking report, Quantum View has a solution for you. [emphasis added]

Now, of course, the way they want you to parse this paragraph (I believe) is that you can do all of these things with their new program for businesses.

But, given what they've decided to call the program, I'm pretty sure you can only do one or the other. You can find out when your package will arrive, or you can know what city it's in. How uncertain.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

New Poll!

Hello readers,

Just wanted to let you know, there is a new poll up on the sidebar! I'm curious about how many of the international hits on my blog are actually people reading my posts, and how many are just looking for photos of Johnny Depp or giant isopods or something. Oh, and hey, if you're just here for the pictures that's cool too -- maybe leave a comment and tell me what you were searching for? I'm curious about who's checking out my blog!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Corny Ads

Lately there have been some very interesting ads on television and in newspapers. Perhaps you have seen them. In the TV ads, the script is something like this:
Person A: Ew, you're eating that? It contains corn syrup!

Person B: So? It's made from corn. Corn is a plant! What's wrong with it?

Person A: Uhm... I... uhm... can I have some?
You can check them out on YouTube: Ad 1 and Ad 2.

Naturally, these ads have been lighting up the food blogosphere. The Jew and the Carrot (hereafter known as JCarrot and now part of my blog biscuit) had a good, long post about them a few days ago, and I don't want to just repeat everything that they said, so check out their post. I just wanted to bring this to your attention, in case you're like me and don't actually watch enough TV to see these things for yourself.

Don't be like the folks in the commercial, clueless when it comes to actual reasons to avoid corn syrup. There are plenty of good reasons, having nothing to do with its nutritive value. Notice that in the commercials, the products are "fruit drink" and a popsicle, things we expect to be sweet... had they shown breadcrumbs, canned soup, tomato sauce, or any of the myriad products that really *don't* need to be additionally sweetened, I would hope that Person A would reply, "But why do you need to have corn syrup in your breadcrumbs/tomato sauce/chicken soup/whole wheat bread in the first place?" and it would be Person B's turn to be at a loss for an answer.

Actually, that's not a bad idea... maybe we should get some talented filmmakers to make alternative versions of these ads and post them as responses on YouTube to the corn syrup ads. Any volunteers?

In the meantime, though, read the JCarrot article for some suggestions about why corn syrup is, in fact, not all that great. (Although in my conversations with Aliza, I have learned that nothing is nearly as simple as we'd like it to be.) And, you know, while you're at it... keep reading JCarrot, it's a great blog!

PS: I have no idea why I didn't post this when I wrote it. So I'm posting it now, a little late but better than never, right?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Migratory Patterns

::David Attenborough voice::

Today we will witness one of the greatest migrations on the Eastern Seaboard.

From my vantage point in the driver's seat of my vehicle, I will be able to observe the great herds in their seasonal movement. In enormous numbers, the vast flocks will gather at places used at this season for generations. In just a few days, they will disperse again, many of them not appearing until the next yearly migration. In the meantime, however, their sheer density will change traffic patterns for miles.

::back to myself::

In other words, I get to sit in traffic on the Belt Parkway later this afternoon. But as long as the documentary in my head keeps rolling, I think I'll be ok.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Better Know an Insect: Just a Little Weevil

I love whole grains, so I keep a variety of them in miscellaneous jars and other storage vessels in a cabinet in my kitchen. I like barley in my soup, curried quinoa, fresh popcorn (no microwave needed!), steel cut oats, and other tasty grains.

Unfortunately, I'm not the only one.

While restocking our popcorn jar, I picked up a bag of barley that I had opened some weeks ago and had rolled and clipped shut. I noticed that some of the barley was... moving. Crawling, really.

This was how we found out that we had an infestation of weevils. More specifically, they were probably wheat weevils, also known as granary weevils, which are a common pest of grain. They look like this:


Unlike the giant water bugs a few months back, however, what you're seeing on your screen is far larger than lifesize. If you check out the post on Wikipedia, you'll see the length given as 3-4 mm from snout-tip to end. These are tiny little critters; they burrow into seeds, very tiny indeed!

They might be tiny, but they don't lack ambition. We found the majority in the barley, but they'd also made it into the wild rice and the oat bran. (Actually, we caught a mating pair in the act nestled in the oat bran. I'm just glad we found them before it was full of their offspring.) It's not entirely clear -- they may have simply navigated the folds of the bag -- but they may have actually chewed through the plastic to get to the barley. (It was one of those flimsy two-pound bags.)

Anyway, we transferred everything to weevil-proof glass jars and threw the infested materials in the trash.

I don't know how accurate the Wikipedia article is, although the description is true enough. (It's completely lacking in citations.) The page about the weevils as a group is fairly interesting, if brief. It's too bad that the article is so short. There are 60,000 species of weevils in the world, so such a short entry really doesn't do them justice.

Weevils are in Curculionoidea, a superfamily of Coleoptera, or beetles; there are approximately 350,000 described species of beetles total, although there may be as many as 5 million in the world. (This might sound familiar -- frustration with mammal-centrism is part of the reason I do these "Better Know an Insect" posts.) As the visualization goes, if you lined up every known species of animal at random, every fifth one would be a beetle. By comparison, there are fewer than 6000 species of mammal in the world. There are not quite 60,000 species of vertebrates. Yet the gallery for weevils has just a handful of pictures, including the very pretty palmetto weevil.

Even the Encyclopedia of Life has no information about the little granary weevil. The best you can do is the snout beetles page, which has a few nice pictures and a phylogeny but not much besides.

I'm tired and it's nearly Friday, so I'm going to end there for now... but there will be more about other kinds of beetles in the future! There are so many, I could just blog about beetles and have several years' worth of material!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Super Supper?

People who know me well are often inclined to ask my opinion about whether something is "good for me." It's an interesting question. I'm not really qualified as a nutrition scientist, food chemist, doctor, or, you know, any other professional food expert. I am a vegetarian, which has made me more aware of what I eat (and more aware about myths concerning protein, for example) but other than that, and being a voracious reader and an enthusiastic Pollangelical, I'm just an ecology graduate student.

But, usually, I have an answer. It's generally along the lines of, "Well, is it a plant? If it's a plant, eat it. If it's not a plant, just eat a little of it." For more information, I turn to the trusty rules of Pollan: does it have more than five ingredients? (Bad.) Are any of them unfamiliar? (More bad.) Are any of them unpronounceable/indistinguishable from the ingredients in your shampoo? (Very bad!)

Now, though, there are new problems. Foods that used to be totally normal foods have become... something else. Do you like sardines, for example? (Many people don't.) What if you couldn't taste them, and they were in your orange juice this morning? Would you like to have some broccoli, kale and beet salad? (Not too appetizing?) That's OK, you can get all your vegetables in a convenient chocolate bar form!

Weird, right? And yet... and yet. Superfood or Monster from the Deep?

So is that chocolate-broccoli-kale-beet bar good for me?

I hope no one asks me, I'm not really sure what to say. I'm pretty sure the answer is, "Well, it's still a chocolate bar!" but what does that even mean any more? What if it supplies all the daily requirements of certain things? I can tell you that eating a square of chocolate will not fill you up, and you'll still want a normal meal. I can tell you that if the rest of your diet is made of burgers and fries, having some antioxidants in your chocolate is probably not going to help you much.

What about having orange juice with sardines in it? Even assuming a negligible flavor difference, shouldn't orange juice have, you know, just one ingredient?

Thoughts from the gallery? I'm moderately sleep-deprived, so let me know if I lost you somewhere along the way.

Monday, September 15, 2008

14 Questions

Have you been wondering where Obama and McCain stand on important science issues? Science Debate 2008 can help. They compiled a list of fourteen general questions about important science issues and put them to each of the candidates.

You can read their full responses here. Too busy to scroll all the way down? (Or is the lack of a Web designer hurting your eyes?) Check out the summary published by the NY Times.

Note: You will not find anything about evolution or the teaching thereof in this article. It just didn't figure into the top 14 questions, I guess. I think that's sort of encouraging, but then again, the people asking the questions are scientists. Would I love to hear John McCain say something dumb about evolution? You betcha, but I don't think it's likely; in the Republican primary debates, there was the following exchange:

MR. VANDEHEI: Senator McCain, this comes from a Politico.com reader and was among the top vote-getters in our early rounds. They want a yes or on. Do you believe in evolution?

SEN. MCCAIN: Yes.

MR. VANDEHEI: I’m curious, is there anybody on the stage that does not agree -- believe in evolution?

(Senator Brownback, Mr. Huckabee, Representative Tancredo raise their hands.)

SEN. MCCAIN: May I -- may I just add to that?

MR. VANDEHEI: Sure.

SEN. MCCAIN: I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also.

So, there's that. But, I also think McCain is slippery enough to try to get out of that one too, especially with what's-her-name in the game now. Gotta love how he has to qualify his acceptance (we don't like to say belief) of evolution. Also love that they work in some discussion of sustainable seafood! Anyway, now I'm going off on a tangent. Enjoy the articles!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Fantasyland

At night, I close my eyes and in my dreams I visit a magical land. A land that, in some ways, is much like our own... but just a little different.

Actually, I have a map... it looks like this:



Let the "keep dreaming" comments begin.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Sarah Palin: Heartless Lawbreaker

Hello readers, I apologize for being very quiet of late. I've been watching and reading coverage of the DNC and the RNC, pondering "change" and "hope", starting the school year, getting the full rundown of teaching assistant instruction, etc.

There are a few things I would like to point out about "moose-hunting hockey mom" (what the heck kind of demographic is a hockey mom, anyway?) Sarah Palin. Namely, that she doesn't only like to shoot big, adorable, antlered critters.

Sarah Palin likes to shoot dogs from airplanes. Specifically, these dogs:


(What, you thought I was going to work a reference to Bristol Palin's pregnancy and Sarah Palin's determination to stick to her abstinence-only, wolf-killing guns? Nah, that would be a cheap shot, no more sporting than shooting a wolf from an airplane...)

OK, yes, the dogs in question are the wild conspecifics of our cuddly canine companions. (And I am being incorrect in referring to them as dogs, since dogs are the subspecies and wolves are the species. It got your attention though!)

But that doesn't change the matter of aerial hunting. Aerial hunting is cruel, unsporting, and just plain awful. Whole packs can be shot in a short amount of time, orphaning pups back at the den. They claim to do this to increase heLinkrd numbers of deer, elk, caribou, etc. so that hunters can put more meat on the table. (In other states, wolves are shot to protect the interests of ranchers who claim that wolves kill their sheep.)

Want to see what wolf hunting looks like? Check out this video on Radar. There isn't a lot of blood, but it's not an easy video to watch all the same. Oh, and so you know, Sarah Palin broke the law (again!) when she offered a bounty on wolves. There was a law against putting bounties on various critters, including wolves. And she broke it by offering $150 per pair of fresh forelegs of a wolf. That seems pretty clear (and pretty grim) to me. (And now they want to go after black bears...)

Do you really want another Vice President with no discernible compassion, no respect for the law, and no regard for the environment? Haven't these last eight years been enough of that?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Too Cool

So, it turns out that I'm rather allergic to certain moisturizers, or some ingredient therein.

In addition to some serious topical steroid cream which required a prescription, my dermatologist suggested a lotion called Sarna* as an additional treatment/source of salvation. (A salve of salvation?) What's the magic ingredient? There are two, actually: camphor and menthol.
Camphor

Naturally-derived camphor is a tree resin that is solid at room temperature. It is also highly flammable, which I learned from The Time Machine. Not surprisingly, it has some insect-repellent qualities (of course it does, plants need defenses too!). Some mothballs are made with camphor. It is also a rather effective topical analgesic.

It is interesting to note that natural camphor is derived from the camphor laurel, Cinnamomum camphora. That genus name isn't a coincidence; true cinnamon (C. verum) and cassia (C. aromaticum, which is most common "cinammon" sold in America) are in the same genus as camphor. Camphor laurels are an economically important crop in the areas where the species is native, but the tree is invasive in Australia. Camphor was also one of the first organic chemicals to be synthesized in a laboratory.

Menthol

Menthol is the other half of this dynamic duo. Menthol can also be synthesized in the lab, but in nature it is found in members of Mentha, the genus that includes peppermint (Mentha x piperita, actually a well-established hybrid of watermint and spearmint), spearmint (Mentha spicata), and other pleasant-smelling herbs.

I don't know which of these compounds acts faster and which one lasts longer, but combined they're enough to stop itching cold. (Sorry.) Menthol stimulates specific cold-sensitive ion channels in skin neurons, but I'm not sure how camphor works. In my case, the combination of menthol and camphor creates such a strong illusion of cold that I start shivering even though I know my body is at an acceptable room temperature.

I would write more -- allergies are incredibly interesting and very complicated -- but I'm also taking diphenhydramine and I feel like I'm about to zonk out. (And it's only 11 AM!) I'd better prepare some coffee.
Caffeine

Oh, organic chemistry, is there anything you can't do?

*As an interesting aside, sarna apparently means "scabies" in Spanish.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Rescue Ink

When Big Ant, Sal, Des, Batso, and Mike Tattoo tell you that your dogs have inadequate shelter from the sun and you should really build them a doghouse, would you say no?

Tattooed Bikers, A Dog's Best Friend

It takes a tough man to bottle-feed a kitten, that's for sure. Let's hope Michael Vick runs into a couple of these guys when he gets out of prison.

You can learn more about them at the site for Rescue Ink.

Don't forget -- spay and neuter your pets! (Big Ant doesn't like people who don't.)

PS: Forgot to mention -- the slide show for this article is one of the greatest things ever. Really.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Correction

Just a quick FYI -- thanks to Mike, I can now inform you that the dragonfly I previously labeled L. vibrans (great blue skimmer) is actually L. incesta (slaty skimmer). Apparently, vibrans has a whitish face, which indicates that this is incesta. I do not know how it came to that species name, however. That's all for now!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Anax junius and Friends

As promised, some pictures!

It turns out that Anax junius likes to hang out more towards the middle of the pond. Lacking waders, I practiced catching anything I could. (Things like coordination don't always come easily to me.) I also don't have a great camera for macro stuff. One of these days I'll get a better one, but in the meantime I still got some decent pics!

OK, less talking, more dragons!

Pachydiplax longipennis

First up is Pachydiplax longipennis, also known as the blue dasher. That is the standard way of holding dragonflies after you catch them, by the way. This guy was a lot more blue than the picture looks, but it's sort of hard to see.

Celithemis eponina

If this is what I think it is (but I don't have a great field guide) then it is the aptly-named brown-spotted yellow-wing, Celithemis eponina. Unfortunately, standard dragonfly holding procedure obscures a lot of the beautiful wing patterning, so check out Wikipedia for more. The wings on these guys are lovely! If I've ID'd it correctly, it's also known as the Halloween pennant. Even if I don't have the species quite right, I feel pretty good saying that it's at least in Celithemis.

Libellula vibrans?
Libellula incesta

I don't have a good handle on this one. I suspect it might be Libellula vibrans, the great blue skimmer, but I'm really not sure. There's a picture of one on this page about the genus Libellula, but ... I don't know. I'll have to send this post to Mike and ask him.

(Editor's note: See next post for correction.)

Plathemis lydia

I'm pretty sure this one is a white-tail, Plathemis lydia. Why? The tail is white. (Actually, there may be several species of white-tails, but there is only one in my field guide. Hopefully the correct one. )

And, finally, the pièce de résistance, the trophy at the end of several hot hours standing in the sun by a mucky pond with a net, the big kahuna we were hunting all day:


Mike holding our first and only Anax junius of the second day out.


Waiting for the glue on the transmitter to dry.

Waiting for clearance from air traffic control.

After being manhandled for several minutes, they need to shiver their flight muscles to get warm enough to take off. Payload firmly attached, he was airborne a few seconds after this pictures.

We tracked him for about an hour with a pretty strong signal, first up in the woods and the back to the pond area where Mike had originally caught him. And then, suddenly, the signal vanished. We waited awhile, but he did not return. Perhaps he decided that this pond was too dangerous.

PS: You might be interested to know, for scale, that my left thumb nail, which features prominently in all but the pictures of Anax, is almost exactly one-half inch wide. You might also be interested to know that "longipennis" means "long-winged", despite what I know you were thinking. Apparently penna means "feather" in Latin and is related to the word "pennant". Penna is also the root of the word "pinion", meaning both the outer part of a bird's wing and the removal thereof to permanently prevent flight. Aren't you glad you asked? Entomology and etymology, all in one convenient location.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Applebee's, Redux

On Monday evening, as I was preparing dinner, I received a telephone call.

It was from Applebee's! (Read my previous post on Applebee's here.)

Specifically, a very nice manager of the location at which I recently dined who made the following points:

1) The "artifact" (their word, not mine) had been promptly removed and destroyed. Or at least put in the trashcan, good enough for me!

2) As a lapsed vegetarian, she had a lot of sympathy for the fact that when I look at the menu, even though I know that something could be made specially for me, I feel slighted by the 100% coverage of meat. I expressed this feeling and suggested that even listing a few things, like vegan burgers, black bean and veggie quesadillas, and maybe a pasta primavera with a choice of sauces could really add veggie comfort to the menu. She thanked me for the suggestions and gave me her email address in case I think of more/better ideas. (Since I was preparing dinner at the time, my brain wasn't entirely focused on coming up with *other* meals, one at a time please!) I haven't contacted her yet, been busy with the dragons, but I will soon.

(Any suggestions?)

Anyway, I have to say that this experience with Applebee's has been on the whole very pleasant and positive. It's nice to know that companies really take the words "customer service" seriously. So far I'm three for three in my interactions with food businesses this year, kind of awesome! Hopefully, if they're really serious about it, we'll start seeing more veg-friendly fare on the menu at your local Applebee's too. One location at a time, I guess. Where better to kick things off than the Garden State?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Better Know an Insect: Anax junius, part I

I post a lot about what's going on in the world of science, but I haven't posted much about what I'm doing.

Today, that changes.

Ladies and gents, this is Anax junius, the green darner dragonfly:

Male green darner.

Female green darner.

Take a good look, because you'll be hearing a lot about these guys in the future.

Today was a testing day for Mike and myself. (Mike is my advisor.) We received some very small transmitters a few weeks ago, but because of various things (his trip to South Africa, my shuffling between NJ and LI, logistics, etc.) the plan finally came together only this week.

(Please bear with me. I forgot my camera, I will try to describe things as well as I can, and I will hopefully have some more pictures tomorrow.)

After borrowing a van from Princeton, which may or may not prove handy depending on how well we can use our radio antenna, we headed to a pond and spotted a few Anax. Mike being in possession of the one pair of waders, he went on in while I stayed on shore in case any made an escape attempt in my direction. We were very lucky, and Mike bagged a male (like the picture above) within a few minutes. Back on shore, we sat down in the shade (don't want the little guy to overheat) and proceeded to apply a radio transmitter with a combination of eyelash adhesive and crazy glue. Once it was on, he sat on Mike's finger, shivered his flight muscles for a few minutes to warm back up, and took off.

We were able to follow him for a bit into some trees (apparently, green darners that have been man-handled will retreat to trees away from the pond) and then lost the signal. Driving around, we were able to find his blip again, only to lose it a few minutes later. We are concerned that the soldering was not as firm as we'd like and the transmitter may only be transmitting intermittently (that's a mouthful!).

Our plan for tomorrow is to 1) try to find our guy again in the same area. If we are successful... well, actually I don't know. I think we'll just try to keep an eye on him as long as we can. 2) If we can't find him, we'll first do a practice run with just a transmitter to test the range of a properly-functioning beacon. After that... probably try to bag another one and follow it around for a while.

What's the point of all this? Well, our project is on migration in Anax. So, we're trying to figure out whether it's even feasible to tag one, relocate it, and follow it for several days over land. It has been done before, but we're both new-ish to the technique. And it's not easy.

I'll post more in the next few days about the exciting world of insect endocrinology and how hormones may influence migratory behavior -- an under-explored area which might become part or all of my project if it proves too difficult to consistently follow tagged individuals. Also, pictures next time.

PS: In case you were thinking that we were attaching big, heavy transmitters to dainty damselflies, rest assured, we are not. Green darners are anything but dainty. Go out to a pond, take a look at all the dragonflies you see, and look for the biggest thing flying around. That's probably an Anax species. A picture for size comparison:

Male A. junius and female A. longipes.

I didn't take this picture and those aren't my hands, but this will give you some idea of just how big these guys are. Totally harmless, of course, but definitely massive!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

I Want to Go to Nice

This restaurant sounds amazing!

Rich, Luxurious, French, Vegetarian

The only thing is, where did Mark Bittman get this idea that people need to be convinced that veg doesn't equal monastic? Guacamole, peanut butter and tahini are all vegan and all decadent, and when you're ovo-lacto the whole world of cheese, eggs, and therefore soufflé is at your disposal. So, I'm not really sure where that came from, or who he's trying to convince. After all, he did write How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, so he knows better... it's very odd how defensive he is.

But if you're up for a trip to Nice (and who isn't?), let me know, we're going to this place.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Applebee's, Meat, and the Dearborn Independent

Today D. and I went to the local Applebee's for a quick bite after doing some shopping at Target. We don't eat there often, but it was close by and we figured it would be fast and easy, and it was.

While we were waiting for the check, I idly surveyed the sports memorabilia decor. Jets jerseys sharing a wall with Giants jerseys, an assortment of hockey team photos, and along one wall, a number of humorous golf-related signs.

And then my eyes fell on something unusual on the wall of golf items. For there, between the sign indicating that hitting your caddies with a five iron is more effective than with a driver (or something like that, it seemed very violent either way) and something else about golf being outlawed in fifteenth-century England, there was a little framed magazine cover showing a man in classic golf pose, having just driven the ball 200 yards and looking very satisfied.

It was a cover from the Dearborn Independent.

Had I been in this Applebee's a year ago, I might not have even made any association, although the name was certainly familiar. However, over the last couple of months D. and I have been watching The Jewish Americans, a great documentary that aired in three 140-minute segments on PBS. It's really good so far, although I haven't yet wanted to watch the next segment. Learning about Jews in the Old West is one thing, but we're just about up to World War II and that's a little harder.

In the meantime, though, we have learned a lot about Henry Ford and the newspaper he purchased that published some genuinely bonkers anti-Semitism. Among other things, it ran the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The Dearborn Independent was founded in 1901 and purchased by Henry Ford in 1919; it didn't publish again after 1927, after lawsuits about above-mentioned bonkers anti-Semitism forced him to shut it down. The cover in the restaurant was dated 1926, putting it squarely within his era.

I'm not calling for some kind of mass action against Applebee's; restaurant chains have enough going on right now with the economy doing what it's doing. But it did get me thinking. I had actually been planning to email the company anyway; the menu is dreadfully dead-animal centric, although, as our waitress helpfully pointed out since it wasn't on the menu, they do serve vegan burgers. I think I will mention the magazine cover in my email as well. I know that their intention was not to offend; I'm sure it's only up on the wall because it fit the golf theme of that section. But I do think it's worth reconsidering whether it should be up there at all.

What do you think?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

You Say Xitomatl, I Say Tomatillo

Tonight I cooked tomatillos for the first time.

I suspect that most of my regular readership knows at least vaguely what a tomatillo, also known as a husk tomato, is, but just in case, these are tomatillos:

Physalis philadelphica

They're green and tart, and from what I can tell, their primary use is making salsa verde.

They're also great for confusing cashiers at the grocery store. Apparently, in New Brunswick tomatillos are purchased so infrequently that they were not in the computer system; a manager had to trek to the produce aisle to find the price.

It's too bad, because they're absolutely delicious. I took a bite of one before cooking, out of curiosity, and found it very pleasant. It was tart, yes, but flavorful and not overwhelming. It didn't make my face screw up the way it does when I lick a lemon; it was more like the pleasant tartness of a granny smith apple (which it strongly resembled visually) without any of the sweetness.

The dish I was making was not salsa verde, but it may as well have been. It was basically a souped up version of salsa verde, with lots of pureed corn, peas for extra green color, and for no discernible reason, canned green chilies. (That's what was in the recipe, and I like to follow recipes one time through before I fix them up.) Next time I make it, no cans necessary -- the jalepeños, for some reason, are thriving on our balcony and we should have a nice harvest starting soon. (It will add some heat, too -- the soup could use a little more hot pepper.) I can say with some satisfaction, however, that I used home-made veggie broth for the first time, with outstanding results.

Anyway, back to the tomatillo.

Tomatillos are in the nightshade family, although they are in a different genus from tomatoes. An interesting fact from Wikipedia is that tomatillos are self-incompatible; that is, you need at least two tomatillo plants to get any fruit. Whole Foods, meanwhile, indicates that they can be used to tenderize meat, probably due to their acidic content since it doesn't mention anything about our friends the enzymes.

According to Purdue, evidence of tomatillos has been found at the site of Tehuacán in Mexico, although they give a date range of 900 BCE to 1542 CE, which is not terribly helpful. (A lot can happen in 2100 years!) They do add that in pre-conquistador Mexico, the tomatillo was actually preferred over the tomato. (I would have to guess that their European visitors did not share this opinion, because we do not eat spaghetti and meatballs in salsa verde.) There was also, apparently, a lot of confusion about exactly which fruits were which, because Aztec words got a little mixed up by the Europeans.

GourmetSleuth, however, seems pretty sure that the domesticated tomatillo dates back to at least 800 BCE. They also have information that's a bit easier to read about the whole tomato-tomatillo-tomatl-xitomatl-miltomatl controvery. (Dang, now I wish I spoke Nahuatl. Apparently "tomatl" means approximately "round and plump", so that's a word I can get behind! Also, these are the same folks who gave us chocolate.) They also agree with Whole Foods that tomatillos freeze well but should be frozen whole.

So there you have it, the tomatillo in a nutshell. Or in a tomatillo husk, as the case may be.

The moral of the story: go buy some tomatillos and eat them, cook them, make salsa verde, confuse cashiers. I think they'd probably make an interesting margarita, too. Too bad I cooked all the ones I got today.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What, Me Worry?

John Tierney's column today, "10 Things to Scratch from Your Worry List" does our planet a considerable disservice.

OK, yes, it's true we don't need to worry about sharks (we never did), and local produce may not be all its cracked up to be. (Eating in season is still best, but it's more complicated.)

But what bothers me about this column is #5, "Evil Plastic Bags."
5. Evil plastic bags. Take it from the Environmental Protection Agency : paper bags are not better for the environment than plastic bags. If anything, the evidence from life-cycle analyses favors plastic bags. They require much less energy — and greenhouse emissions — to manufacture, ship and recycle. They generate less air and water pollution. And they take up much less space in landfills.
It's as though he's being willfully ignorant -- for if you follow the link to the EPA page, you know what they recommend? Bring your own bag! (Don't believe me? Click the link.) While plastic may require less space and less energy, they are also made from petroleum, which unlike trees, does not spontaneous grow from the ground.

In short, the evidence only marginally favors plastic bags in my opinion, and overwhelmingly favors the option of cotton canvas tote bag instead. Or reuse your plastic bags, if you can; I find that mine tend to rip well before the eleventh reuse, which is the point at which you have "broken even" by some reckoning. My bags of choice for regular grocery shopping are a combination of little green Stop n Shop bags and two long-handled canvas tote bags. (Long handles are good for slinging over shoulders.) If I was in the market for another bag, I might get this one. It's pretty! I keep extras in the car; I have a large canvas bag that can hold three six-packs of bottled beer (tested yesterday) among others.

Bring your own bags; then you don't have to worry about plastic bags or paper bags. And your groceries will taste better.*

*Note: groceries may not actually taste better.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

In Which I Am Perplexed

I am trying to imagine the contents of this book.


Notice the "Fact & Fiction" tag at the bottom right corner. Are there rampant fictions being spread right now about goat cheese? Have the cow cheese makers started telling nasty lies about goat cheeses, like goat cheese is actually made from baby goats? Is the moon not, in fact, a giant Crottin de Chavignol? Is goat cheese likely to kill you tomorrow?

Amazon is less than helpful. There are no reviews, no comments, no "See Inside This Book!", nothing.

The face of the goat on the cover is inscrutable. She is contemplating cheese; is she also contemplating the laughing goat? There are no "thought bubbles" connecting the two; perhaps he is a figment of her imagination. (And no, there is no particular reason I chose those genders for the goats; I just needed a handy way to distinguish them, and the pensive expression the brown goat suggests that she is thinking about where her milk is going.)

In short, what is going on here? If anyone out there has read this book, please tell me. I love goat cheese and I don't want to give it up because it might make me go insane or something. Thanks!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chocolate-Covered Enzymes

Flipping through bridal magazines, you see many cakes. A majority of them, at least the über-fancy ones, are covered in fondant. Fondant (for those of you not shopping for pastry at the moment) is what makes cakes look like this:

It's a cake!

A cake frosted with buttercream, on the other hand, looks more like this:

Raspberry delight!

Both cakes look lovely, but notice how the top cake is so smooth and sculptural, while the bottom one (which in my opinion looks more delicious anyway) is a little rougher; there are little air bubbles and minor imperfections along the sides, the lines aren't quite perfect.

"What the heck does this have to do with science? I didn't come to this site to read about fondant vs. buttercream! I demand an explanation!"

Let's start out just talking about fondant. Fondant is a heavy paste which, at its most basic, is made with just water, sugar, a little food coloring, and a skilled hand. (A candy thermometer helps, and there are many variations using different sugar ingredients.) If you accidentally jolt the bowl while it's cooling, the sugar will come out of solution quickly and in large crystals; presto, rock candy!

However, by mixing the water and sugar together at a high temperature and then cooling it very gently, stirring violently at the very end, the supersaturated solution forms very tiny crystals that look as smooth as a lake on a calm day. You can use this paste to decorate cakes in myriad ways -- a quick Google images search for fondant cakes will give you an idea of just how many! You can sculpt with it. You can cut it and shape it. And, for all intents and purposes, you can even eat it. (Although not that many people do.)

Now, if you made fondant from scratch, you would likely just use sucrose -- that is, ordinary table sugar.

And if you cut that piece of fondant into squares and dipped them into chocolate, you would have this:
Minty!

"But wait! The inside of an After Eight mint is so creamy and soft! There's no way it could be the same as that stiff piece of fondant covering the cake up there!"

Ah. Yes. You have a point.

And that is where the enzymes come in. Invertase is a naturally-occurring enzyme produced by some bacteria as well as some animals that breaks down sucrose into its component sugars, glucose and fructose, which is sometimes known as inverted sugar syrup. (The reason for "invert" is interesting but I can't explain it well; read about it here.)

In the production of After Eight mints, a small amount of invertase is added to the minty fondant just before it is coated with chocolate. The enzyme doesn't begin to work immediately, so the chocolate can cool around the fondant before it begins to "cure". The smaller, more soluble molecules of glucose and fructose go into solution more readily and disolve in the small amount of water contained in the fondant; it isn't enough to create a runny liquid, but it's enough that when you bite into an After Eight (or any other fondant-filled treat) the texture is creamy and viscous and not a stiff paste.

Mmm, enzymes. What can't they do?

PS: On a totally unrelated note, we just watched the first segment of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. Hilarious! So much fun! Go watch while you can, it's gone on Sunday.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Dr. Horrible

Speaking of fireflies...

So... normally I don't like to promote stuff or whathaveyou, there isn't any advertising on my blog... except for this!

Because: 1) science fiction is almost as good as science facts; 2) Neil Patrick Harris; 3)NATHAN FILLION; 4) it has the word "blog" in it, so it's relevant! 5) Oh, and did I mention Joss Whedon? Him too.

Watch it and stuff!

More real posts later.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Better Know an Insect: Femme Fatale Fireflies

Last night Dustin and I took an evening stroll through the park. It was a lovely, warm evening, with robins singing from the treetops and a slight breeze rustling the grass. And, of course, there were fireflies, lighting up the summer night with their romantic display, a visual analog to a bird's song.

Males, seeking females, blink their message in code, while females sit and wait on the ground for the right guy to come along. When she sees him, she blinks back until he finds her, and that's where baby fireflies come from. Aww.


Unless she's a hungry female of the genus Photuris, that is.

After Photuris females have mated, they don't need to mate again. But why waste a perfectly good signaling device? Instead, the Photuris females signal back to males of another species, Photinus, luring them in and catching them for dinner. Delicious!


But he's not just a tasty meal to help her lay eggs. It turns out that Photinus males produce a chemical that protects them from attacks by spiders and other arthropod predators. By eating Photinus males, the Photuris female acquires this armor and is herself protected from attack.

So, the next time you're out for an evening stroll in July, consider the drama playing out before you. There are dangerous femme fatales everywhere you look.

Read more about it on this page from Cornell.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Mater Familias

This article ran a couple of weeks ago.

Albanian Custom Fades: Woman as Family Man

I find everything about it interesting. A woman cannot head a household, but it's acceptable to change her gender and live her life as a man, and head a household. It is an interesting view of gender perception. While I'm glad that greater equality is coming to Albanian women, it's also a little bit sad that such an interesting cultural tradition (respected by both Christians and Muslims alike) is going to fade away within the next twenty years or so.

I don't know what else to say... any thoughts from the peanut gallery?

Saturday, July 5, 2008

DIY Dairy

In the spirit of reducing packaging from foods (is seltzer a food? maybe in Hollywood?) that I love, consider the yogurt maker.

"But dairy products were not meant to be made at home!" you might think. "They are frequently complicated, sometimes involve caves, and are generally not DIY projects!" Ah, but that is not always true. Yogurt is actually incredibly easy to make at home; technically, you don't even need a yogurt maker, but having one can greatly improve the reliability of your results. (And as a scientist, I am always in favor of reproducible results.)

Yogurt is delicious but also tends to arrive in non-recyclable plastic containers, creating even more guilt than recyclable seltzer bottles. (Yes, in some places you can recycle plastic #5, but for whatever reason, those places don't include New Jersey.) It also tends to come in fairly standard flavors, like peach and blueberry. Making yogurt at home allows you to create your own flavors. If I get a yogurt maker at some point in my life, I might start with herbal or spiced yogurts (lavender? thyme? cumin?), maybe play with extracts... cherry-almond is one of my favorite combinations, so a little almond extract (or even almond milk?) might be a tasty addition. We'll see how it goes.

Friday, July 4, 2008

July 4, 1776

WHEN IN the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience heth shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

(read the rest here...)

Thursday, July 3, 2008

I Love the Subway...

I love the New York City subway system. It's always been like a jungle of intersecting vines to me, and as Tarzan swung vine to vine, I swing from handhold to handhold through my turf.

I do not love the subway anywhere close to the way these two little boys do, though. This story, and the accompanying graphics, are utterly adorable. It's great that someone out there is actually pleased to hear the words "service change".

I hope that one day, riding the subway, I will encounter this family and see three little boys singing (in perfect harmony) all the stops on the 3 train. That would be one for the blog. I'll keep you posted.

(Boom de yada, boom de yada...)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Better Know an Arthropod: Bizzaro Lobsters!

Most people are familiar with the lobsters that grace many New England tables this time of year. The American/Atlantic/Maine lobster, Homarus americanus, is a well-known icon of the northeast part of the country and countless J. Crew summer prints.

Therefore, we're not going to discuss them further here today. Perhaps once I read The Secret Life of Lobsters I'll have something interesting to say about them beyond that they're apparently good with drawn butter.

This post is about the bizarro-lobsters of the deep seas. Sharon introduced me to a new one today, so let's view that one first!


The slipper lobster is not a "true lobster" -- it is instead more closely related to some of the other bizarro lobsters, the spiny and furry lobsters. They are achelate, meaning they have no claws. This makes them easy prey for humans, and indeed, if you Google "slipper lobster" you will find their tail meat for sale. (Of course, there is no claw meat to speak of.) Some of them are actually referred to as bugs, which is rather entertaining. No word yet on their position as a sustainable seafood. Not much seems to be known about them, if Wikipedia is at all accurate. Maybe it's better that way.

Next up: spiny lobsters. Popular for eating, also known as "rock lobster", and very colorful. Also, the only arthropod (as far as I know) that was immortalized in song by Fred Schneider (who is also very colorful). Interestingly, spiny lobsters have a unique form of sound production involving rubbing their antennae against a file-like protrusion. I'm not really sure what's going on there, but they're the only ones that do it, so that's neat.

I would tell you something about the furry lobsters, but there doesn't seem to be much to tell. (Except that if you start thinking too hard about the concept of a furry lobster, it can sort of hurt your brain.) Besides, you don't want to hear about true furry lobsters, you want to hear about this:

Kiwa hirsuta

Kiwa hirsuta, also entertainingly known as the yeti lobster, is not a true lobster or in the Achelate group with the other "bizarro" lobsters. Kiwa is in its own brand-new family, Kiwaidae, all by its lonesome. See, this beautiful, samba-dancing lobster, which you might be tempted to call a furry lobster but is not, was only discovered in 2005, chillin' at the bottom of the Pacific ocean. It lives on hydrothermal vents (so, maybe not chillin', per se), is pretty much blind, and may use all those "hairs" to detox after hanging around the vents, which spew mineral toxins.

My favorite part of this lobster is not that it's yellow, not that it's furry, and not that it's a deep-sea critter. (Although I love deep-sea critters, they're so bizarre!) My favorite part is that it was only found three years ago. I spent most of my life on a planet where no humans knew this thing existed! I suppose Kiwa knew it existed, if decapods can have self-awareness. But we did not know. There are still new things out there to find, if we look hard enough! (As I mentioned in my previous post, the world is just awesome.)

So there you have it. OK, true, none of these critters are true lobsters, but they all have lobster in their names and are therefore acceptable for a not-entirely-scientific blog post. (I didn't name the blog "Correctly Taxonomied Creatures," did I?) I hope you enjoyed your bizarro lobsters. Now please pass me some drawn butter, I want to dip my asparagus in it.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Just Awesome

Apparently I'm a blogoslacker, because it's been, what, more than two weeks? Yeah. I was running dry on material and very busy going back and forth for wedding plans and such. Bad blogger! I'm still a little low on material, but I have a couple things I'd like to share. Brace yourselves, I'm back!

Dustin and I watch a lot of Discovery Channel. Mostly Mythbusters but also some other random nature shows and things like that. If you watch Discovery Channel enough, you will see these commercials, which are for the Discovery Channel.

60 Second Spot

30 Second Spot

They're just... great. And slightly different, worth watching both.

Anyway, I was simply delighted by today's XKCD.

I don't really have a lot to say about this, they sort of speak for themselves. One thing that comes to mind, however, is that I sort of feel like these spots very succinctly address why I blog: "The world is just awesome." Yes, yes it is, and I'm trying to highlight that one "Better Know an Insect" at a time.

I love the insects, I love to look at birds,
I love old fossils, I love big mammal herds.
I love the whold world, and all the beauty here
Boom-de-yada, boom-de-yada, boom-de-yada, boom-de-yada...