'Bigger Is Better' View of Evolution Gains Credence
New York Times,
December 28, 2004Link
Bigger is better, the saying goes, and in the case of evolution, the saying is apparently right.
When Bats and Humans Were One and the Same
New York Times,
December 7, 2004Link
Scientists have used computer analysis to read evolution backward and reconstruct a large part of the genome of an 80-million-year-old mammal. This tiny shrewlike creature was the common ancestor of humans and other living mammals as diverse as horses, bats, tigers and whales.
Sexier Posterior Evolves Almost Overnight
The New York Times,
November 30, 2004Link
Swallows are getting sexier.
The Face Of Nature Changes As Art And Science Evolve
New York Times,
November 23, 2004Link
Artists and scientists, so the story goes, glare at each other across a cultural divide. The scientist coldly hacks nature into pieces. The artist is unwilling to do the hard work necessary to understand how the world works.
Faster Than A Hyena?
Novemer 19, 2004Link
Depending on your point of view, last week's New York City marathon was a demonstration of athletic excellence or of unparalleled masochism. But according to a report in this week's issue of Nature, it was also a display of a key innovation in human evolution. University of Utah biomechanics expert Dennis Bramble and Harvard physical anthropologist Daniel Lieberman argue that the human body is exquisitely adapted for endurance running. They marshal evidence that the ability to run long distances emerged 2 million years ago, possibly enabling our ancestors to become better scavengers. If the researchers are right, running goes a long way toward explaining why our bodies are so different from those of other apes.
How to Program a Cell
November 8, 2004Link
A lot of today's engineers got their start as kids playing with electronics kits, wiring together resistors or capacitors. Depending on how you put the pieces together, you could build a simple switch or make bulbs blink like a movie marquee.
October, 2004LinkA review of
The God Gene: How Faith Is Hard-wired Into Our Genes, by Dean Hamer.
By page 77 of The God Gene, Dean H. Hamer has already disowned the title of his own book. He recalls describing to a colleague his discovery of a link between spirituality and a specific gene he calls "the God gene." His colleague raised her eyebrows. "Do you mean there's just one?"she asked. "I deserved her skepticism,"Hamer writes. "What I meant to say, of course, was 'a' God gene, not 'the' God gene."
Those Fall Outfits May Be Saving Trees
New York Times,
October 19, 2004Link
As trees across the northern United States turn gold and crimson, scientists are debating exactly what those colors are for.
You Are Here
New York Times Book Review,
October 17, 2004LinkA review of
The Ancestor's Tale, by Richard Dawkins
I once attended a conference about systematics -- the classification of species -- and felt as if I were looking at Mount Rushmore with a magnifying glass. The names alone -- Tetraconata, Amoebozoa, Ecdysozoa, Oomycota, Neomeniomorpha -- were overwhelming. Speaker after speaker hypothesized about how various species were related -- whether springtails or bristletails were the closest relatives of winged insects, whether sponges all descended from a common ancestor, whether slime molds are really molds. I stumbled out of the lecture hall desperate for the big picture. And suddenly I saw it, on a five-foot-square poster taped to a wall.
Making The Rocks Talk
New York Times Book Review,
July 25, 2004LinkA review of
Devil in the Mountain: A Search for the Origin of the Andes by Simon Lamb
Simon Lamb, a geologist at Oxford University, got a call one day from a television producer about pictures of Atlantis. The lost civilization could be found on 12,000-foot high plains nestled in the Andes Mountains. An Atlantis expert (whatever that is) had shown the producer satellite photographs of the plains, pointing out canals running in parallel straight lines for miles. What more proof could one ask for? The producer called Lamb, an expert on the Andes, for confirmation.
What Came Before DNA?
June 2004 (cover story)Link
The question took me by surprise. I was sitting in a noisy Boston cafe with two biochemists who were having a straight-faced conversation about putting together a budget to create synthetic life-forms. Next to me was Jack Szostak of Harvard Medical School, and across the table was Steven Benner, who had flown up from the University of Florida to pay Szostak a visit. The conversation was thrumming along, touching on the efficiencies of chemical reactions and the like, when Benner abruptly turned to me and asked, "How much do you think it would cost to create a self-replicating organism capable of Darwinian evolution?"
Washington Post Book World,
June 10, 2004LinkA review of
An Alchemy of the Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain, by Diane Ackerman.
On the one hand, there is the mind: a web of faculties aware of itself and the universe, capable of learning a new piano sonata or recalling a spring snowstorm 40 years ago. On the other hand, the brain: a three-pound blob. For thousands of years, few people saw a connection between the two. In 1652, the English philosopher Henry More flatly stated that the brain "shows no more capacity for thought than a cake of suet or a bowl of curds." Today, of course, it's clear that the brain is far more than goop. Electricity and neurotransmitters shuttle among its billions of neurons, producing our passions, reasoning and consciousness. Yet most of us still have trouble feeling a link between the details of the brain -- its oligodendrites, its nodes of Ranvier, its alpha-2A noradrenergic receptors -- and our own existence.
The Ultimate Remote Control
June 7, 2004Link
Wireless technology lets us talk on cell phones with people thousands of miles away, surf the Web without a cable and control our stereos, DVD players and televisions. But none of this technology works without pushing buttons or giving voice commands. Imagine what it would be like if we could turn our brains into remote controls, sending wireless commands to computers, robots and other machines.
Muse, May/Jun 2004
Link Olson loves tenrecs. A biologist at the University of Alaska Museum, Olson flies to the other side of the world to study these strange animals. Some look like hedgehogs. Others look like moles. Some act like shrews, others like otters. Some talk to each other by rattling the porcupinelike quills that cover their bodies. Some are like bats and use sonar to find their way around in the dark. Others give birth to 32 young at a time.
Stretching the Limits of Evolutionary Biology: A Profile of George Williams
May 28, 2004LinkGeorge Williams died on September 8, 2010. Here's a recording of one of our conversations during my research for this profile.
On a recent sunny Saturday, scientists from the United States, Canada, and Europe gathered at the State University of New York (SUNY), Stony Brook, to talk about their research. A geneticist from Harvard University spoke about preeclampsia, a potentially fatal condition during pregnancy. An ichthyologist described the loyalty--or lack thereof--that male fish show to the mothers of their offspring. Psychologists discussed economic decisionmaking. A psychiatrist reviewed some of the genes associated with clinical depression.
Whose Life Would You Save?
Dinner with a philosopher is never just dinner, even when it's at an obscure Indian restaurant on a quiet side street in Princeton with a 30-year-old post-doctoral researcher. Joshua Greene is a man who spends his days thinking about right and wrong, and how we separate the two. He has a particular fondness for moral paradoxes, which he collects the way some people collect snow globes.
Can't Get It Out Of My Head: Brain Disorder Causes Mysterious Music Hallucinations
The Sunday Telegraph Magazine, February 28, 2004
Janet Dilbeck clearly remembers the moment the music started. Two years ago she was lying in bed on the California ranch where she and her husband were caretakers. A mild earthquake woke her up. To Californians, a mild earthquake is about as unusual as a hailstorm, so Dilbeck tried to go back to sleep once it ended. But just then she heard a melody playing on an organ, "very loud, but not deafening," as she recalls. Dilbeck recognized the tune, a sad old song called When You and I Were Young, Maggie.
Virulent Fears, But Not Enough To Make A Case
New York Newsday, February 26, 2004
A review of Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government's Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory, by Michael Christopher Carroll.
Most Long Islanders probably don't need an introduction to Plum Island. Since the 1950s, this wooded sliver of land just off the North Fork has been home to a leading research center for animal diseases. Over the past three decades, the press has brought to light plenty of disturbing news about the island, from escaped germs to lax security to gushing sewage spills. Last October, a government report surfaced that criticized the center (now part of the Department of Homeland Security), warning that some of the viruses studied there might make potent bioterrorist weapons, and that access to them needs to be tightened. In "Lab 257," first-time author Michael Christopher Carroll takes on the important task of making sense of Plum Island's secretive, scandal-ridden history. Unfortunately, he's created a muddle.
Master And Commander
New York Newsday, January 4, 2004
A review of Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery - The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, by Nathaniel Philbrick.
Chances are you have never heard of Charles Wilkes. Chances are even better that you've never heard of the United States Exploratory Expedition. To Nathaniel Philbrick (the author of the 2000 National Book Award winner "In the Heart of the Sea"), this is a sad state of affairs. Between 1838 and 1842, Charles Wilkes led a fleet of six ships and more than 500 men on America's first great scientific voyage. As they circled the globe, they drew the first maps of Antarctica, surveyed hundreds of islands in the Pacific, explored the waters of the northwestern United States and picked up thousands of specimens and artifacts. Their research would play a key role in the birth of sciences ranging from anthropology to geology to evolutionary biology.
A Distant Mirror For The Brain
January 2, 2004LinkThe inaugural essay in a series called "Beyond the Ivory Tower"
History has a way of repeating itself--even the history of science. Today we are witnessing a revolution in neuroscience, as researchers chart the circuitry of memory, cognition, and emotion, offering the promise of a chemically based medicine of the mind (1). But these same words would have been just as apt over 300 years ago, when neurology first emerged as an experimental science (2). In the mid-1600s, humanity's understanding of the brain changed no less profoundly than it is changing today. Medieval concepts of the soul and spirits rapidly disappeared, replaced with a vision of the brain based on anatomy, chemistry, and physics.