May the Force Be With You, and With Your Spirit


Around the winter solstice, this year and long into the future, celebrants will gather in large public venues for a special story. They’ll hear of robed men fighting to keep hope alive in the face of an empire’s persecution. They’ll hear a story of immaculate conception, of temptation and doubt, of a promise that a chosen one will bring peace at last. They’ll find comfort in the message that a spiritual essence pervades us, and connects us all. They will fondly remember strong women who figure prominently in this story. And they’ll enjoy the animals, too, which are really there just for fun, but whatever, as long as it gets the kids interested. Continue reading

Peter Pan Complex

Last month I published a story in Nature about the sad story of the axolotl. It’s a tragic tale of an incredibly bizarre creature looking at extinction in the wild. Of the many odd attributes of the axolotl – ability to regrow limbs, giant cells, laughably big genome – the one that always gets mentioned by science writers is their neoteny.

At first glance neoteny is one of those weird classifications – like radial symmetry – that is hard to describe and usually only applies to “lower” animals. Essentially it means that an animal never truly reaches adulthood but rather becomes a sort of giant breeding baby. To quote a lot of other science writers, it’s kind of like Peter Pan.

Presuming Peter Pan never went through puberty but somehow got really big. And then, um, started having sex as a giant hairless boy?

It’s kind of cool but also kind of random. In the world of evolutionary quirks, it’s not really as interesting as, say, venom or the ability to fly. Some critters never really grow up. Great, log that away as dinner party trivia that should never actually be used in a dinner party. Right up there with “Why pus smells bad” and “The difference between a quasar and a pulsar.”

Then I stumbled on a theory that turned this whole idea on its head. You see, it seems that we humans are also neotenic. Continue reading

Sticking up for Your Colleagues, in the Lab and in the Field

This fall, I brought members of the Oregon Peace Institute to my town to lead an introductory bystander intervention training. The fatal stabbing of two men on a Portland commuter train a few months earlier had hit the community hard—many people had connections to the places and people involved—and I wanted to do something more than mourn. I chose to organize the training because friends (including Person of LWON Helen Fields) told me that it was a good crash course in how to better help others, both in extreme situations like that surrounding the train stabbing and more everyday instances of harassment.

They were right: The bystander intervention model is both a very practical set of tactics and a small but profound shift in attitude, and its approach is tremendously helpful to the everyday business of being a decent person, no matter who you are or what your situation might be. For scientists and science students (and science writers, for that matter), bystander intervention can be a powerful weapon against the chronic problem of sexual harassment in the lab and in the field. With that in mind, here are the basics, and some resources for learning more. Continue reading

A Wolf Named Asena

Cagan H. Sekercioglu is one of those people who seem to have more hours in the day than you or I. A biologist who studies birds, mammals, butterflies and also has a sideline in wildlife photography, he divides his time between his native Turkey and the American West, where he is an professor at the University of Utah. 

In 2011, he and a team of collaborators became the first scientists to collar and track wolves and other carnivores in the rugged, arid landscapes of eastern Turkey. In 2014, I interviewed him about his work for the now defunct Beacon Reader

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The Last Word

Happy 12th month, readers! Lurch with us into December with these fine offerings:

On Monday Christie brought back a 2015 essay in which she reminds us that, sure, posting our most enviable moments for all to see is good fun, but it’s way less fun than the actual doing. “When we focus on the rendering,” she writes, “something essential is lost.”

Tuesday: Ann’s pulled together history, drama, and a delightful email exchange in a redux about Farm Hall, where German nuclear scientists were held by the Brits after WWII. That’s a poor description of the post: Please read it yourself.

Jessa pondered (on Wednesday) whether kids produced via donor insemination should be told from whence they came. Parents in the UK and US tend to disagree.

It was Thursday when Sarah almost wept at a video showing a starving polar bear. She considers the value of bearing witness to and telling stories about the sad state of things for which we are responsible.

And finally, Friday, International Human Rights Day, statistician and guest poster Robin Mejia writes about what can happen when a government makes up stats rather than actually gathering them.

On International Human Rights Day, Statisticians in the Line of Fire

With International Human Rights Day coming up on Sunday, I’ve been thinking a lot about a Greek economist named Andreas Georgiou. In 2010, Georgiou was living in Maryland and working for the International Monetary Fund when he saw a call for applications for a job in Greece heading a new statistical agency. At that point, Greek financial and debt statistics were a joke in Europe. The European Union has a system where countries compile statistical information and submit it to EU-level bodies for review. These bodies had frequently expressed concerns about the figures Greece submitted, refusing to validate or certify the numbers. So, under pressure, Greece launched a new independent national statistical agency, and undertook revisions. Georgiou was hired to lead the effort. He took the mandate seriously, recalculating debt figures according to European and national guidelines, and showed that the numbers Greece had been reporting were far rosier than reality. This was news the country didn’t want to hear. The reality Georgiou helped bring to light led to the austerity measures than many Greeks feel have wrecked the country.

Soon, Georgiou became a scapegoat. Politicians argued that it was Georgiou himself who caused the crisis. He’s now fighting criminal charges in Greece for doing the job he was hired to do. Some of the crimes he’s being prosecuted for make no sense from an American perspective. For example, apparently simple slander involves saying something that’s true but unpleasant. More serious charges include trials for complicity against the state.  As Greece appears to have no concerns about double jeopardy; prosecutors have opened second and third trials when their initial efforts led to not guilty verdicts. Continue reading

In Visibility

On Tuesday, I texted my friend Michelle a brief video clip of a polar bear.

The bear is starving, all jutting hips and elbows, its fur sparse except for a thatch along its spine and Clydesdale tufts around its plate-sized paws. As with any bear, there is something disturbingly human about the shape of its body, about its movements and mannerisms. It staggers along on a green mat of tundra, foam dripping from its mouth. Dips its face into a rusty barrel and pulls out what appears to be a hunk of rotten meat. Sprawls on the ground, nose to earth, defeated by the visibly difficult work of breathing.

Watching the bear, I covered my mouth with one hand, suppressing tears. This perfect summary of unchecked climate change was like a knife to the kidney. Without sea ice, polar bears can’t hunt seals. And we are to blame.

“I honestly don’t think I can watch that,” Michelle replied. “I can’t get down with the voyeurism of photography generally.”

Michelle—an artist who’s been thinking a lot about polar bears and the Arctic these days—does not shy from engaging tough topics. What bothered Michelle was the lack of direct agency. The doing nothing in the face of such obvious suffering and then using the suffering to convey a message. Some key step had been skipped.

Neither of us was sure what the photographer could or should have done differently. To approach a bear is dangerous. To feed a bear is its own ethical wormhole, a mercy that is not clearly mercy, that carries with it a loss of wildness and the discomfiting admission that the system that sustains polar bears is beyond help. And to feed thousands of polar bears is impossible. We decided in a burst of desperate, dark humor, that oil executives should have to watch the film on repeat. Or perhaps simply be fed to the polar bear themselves. Continue reading

If you had a third parent, would you know?

On a quiet summer evening in Brighton, Alison Pike was reading to her 9-year-old son the Roald Dahl children’s classic, Danny, Champion of the World—perhaps the most flattering portrayal of fatherhood in literature. Harry turned thoughtfully to his mother.

“Sometimes I wish I had a dad,” he said, then paused. “But I’d rather have two mums.”

Pike and her partner have each given birth to one of their sons, both using the same donor’s sperm, so their children are biological half-brothers.

“He knows that some nice man donated his seed so that we could have these babies. I had to have IVF several times, and for some reason he’s very proud of the fact that this means he must have cost a lot of money,” says Pike. “He’s decided this makes him superior to his brother.”

Same sex couples are required by circumstance to tell their children how they came to be. It’s quite clear they did not come into parenthood in a traditional way. But many straight couples—especially in the UK—use donors and never tell their children. In fact, there seems to be a stark cultural disconnect across the Atlantic Ocean about whether to acknowledge a child’s genetic origins. Continue reading