Where is here; here is where

Isaiah’s map.

Isaiah grins at me across the dining room table and more than 1,000 miles.

In my nephew’s small, pale hand is an outsized Crayola marker, to match the pencil in my more gnarled fingers. We both lean over rectangles of paper—his in Colorado, mine in Oregon, now occupying the same virtual space, thanks to a slightly jumpy Skype connection.

My brother pops into the frame, revealing a bushy beard that he didn’t have when I saw him over Thanksgiving. “What’s another thing that you remember from our walks?” he asks Isaiah, who is four and half. Isaiah thinks for a minute and announces, “The brown truck!” He takes a moment to scribble on the paper, then holds it up for Patrick and me to admire.

I had asked Isaiah and my other family members in Boulder to help me with a basic experiment: Draw a map of the neighborhood where my parents have lived for decades, where my brother and I spent the first 18 years of our lives, and where Isaiah lived for a time with my brother while he was looking for a new apartment. But instead of being a regular map, with meticulously labeled streets and platted homes, drawn to scale and placed in context with relevant landmarks, my instructions were simply for each of us to identify the five most memorable things from the neighborhood that come to mind, and situate them in space in relation to my parents’ house.

In Topophilia—literally, love of place—Yi-Fu Tuan’s 1974 book on the way people relate to their environment, there is a chapter on ethnocentrism and space. In early maps and mapping experiments, cultures from across the globe have tended to place themselves and their known home landscape at the center of the world. Surrounding landmasses are secondary, smaller, distorted, or don’t exist at all—giving way to sea, or more mystical conceptions of what lay beyond it.

Might the same be true of us as distinct individuals, I wondered, each our own little countries with separate interests and histories? And would these little memory maps reveal a flicker of how we had experienced the same place differently? Continue reading

My Liver’s Bloody Buddy


Periodically, I get an MRI to confirm that all is well with my internal organs. It’s because at one point some years ago all was not well. As a result of my bodily dysfunction, I now have no spleen, a tailless pancreas, plus ulcerative colitis and weird chronic pain and the beginnings of arthritis in my hands, knees, and hips. (That last bit is a recent addition, and not really relevant to my internal organs. I just wanted to be thorough.)

Other than that, Doc, I feel fine.

My MRI results have, fortunately, not changed in a number of years. I’ve always liked perusing the reports, and my most recent one, from last week, was a true joy to read. First, it’s nice to see the word “normal” associated with parts of my body, and under these circumstances I also appreciate “unremarkable,” which under other circumstances might hurt my feelings.

But the other reason I like reading my MRI results is because they remind me that I have a special friend within me. I’ve named him Gus. Gus is my own personal hepatic hemangioma. Continue reading

Resistance Begins at Home

On the evening of November 29, 1944, in the small town of Hood River, Oregon, the members of American Legion Post 22 performed what they later described as a patriotic act: They went to the county courthouse and blacked out sixteen names on the plaques honoring local soldiers. All sixteen men were still overseas, fighting on behalf of the United States. All sixteen were of Japanese descent.

The United States government, in the midst of the racist paranoia that followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, had already “removed” some 120,000 Japanese-Americans from their homes on the Pacific Coast to internment camps in the Interior West. In Hood River, hundreds of families had been forced to abruptly sell or lease their land and board a train bound for the camps, not knowing when or if they would return.

By the fall of 1944, with the end of the war in sight, the hysterical hatred directed at Japanese-Americans had begun to subside. In Hood River, however, it was about to reach new heights.

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Concert Bug

stink bug on an interior brick wall

Sunday afternoon I sang a concert of madrigals and other choral music of the last few centuries.

It was in the pleasant modern chapel at a retirement home. Between sets, the music director introduced the next group of songs. A set of Elizabethan madrigals, with plenty of fa-la-las. (They don’t mean anything, but they’re joyful.) Some Irish tunes for St. Patrick’s day. A set of Italian madrigals, including–they work in so many languages–more fa-la-las.

The last month of weather has been so odd here in the Washington, D.C. area. February had warm, sit-outside-for-dinner weather, and the National Park Service said the cherry blossoms could reach peak bloom around March 15. But instead the region got walloped with snow, ice, and days of cold, and we’re still waiting for peak bloom.

As the sun came and went behind clouds, bright colors from the stained glass windows rose and faded on the faces and sweaters of the audience. Continue reading

The Last Word

March 13-17


Ann started the week with a Q and A with Sharon Weinberger author of The Imagineers of War, unraveling the history of DARPA, making a secretive weapon-creation agency not so secret, including the rise of the jet pack. Bring your fire retardant pants!

Jessa welcomed the new robot overlords, introducing us to experimental socially-assistive androids whose job it is to make sure people with dementia eat everything on their plates.

With a Skype and beer interview, Emma brought in David Grinspoon, author of the new book, Earth In Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future, for a run down of sci-fi literature, what you should be reading and why dystopia is all over the place.

Guest poster Jenny Cutraro is back, adding her second-grade daughter’s observations of climate change and spring budding cycles of trees outside her window to the work of ecologist Richard Primack. A child and a scientist both validate each other, a perfect collaboration.

Finally, my post yesterday was an attempt to not put my foot in my mouth about gender inequality among scientists and river guides.

Photo: declassified picture of a jet pack in action.

Sexist for All I Know

Last night I ran through quotes in my new book manuscript, making sure they were all amply annotated, meaning I spelled the names right. There were a lot of women in this run. For a book on the Ice Age and paleo sciences, mostly archaeology and paleontology, I’d had no trouble finding female researchers to write about and interview.

My previous book, dealing with climate and earth sciences, was sometimes a struggle to get female quotes. Often the woman was the second, third, or fourth name on a paper. I’d call and she’d ask why I was talking to her instead of the first name, the principal investigator. If I said it was because I was trying to keep a balance of male and female researchers, there was usually an awkward silence as we both tried to figure out what that really meant.

My research between different books is not a reliable statistic. Maybe I was reading the wrong papers. More women in paleo sciences, especially paleontology, fewer in earth sciences and climates, is above my pay grade to fact check. But it was something I noticed anecdotally.

In paleontology, especially Pleistocene, women were at the top of more than half the papers I read. There was a group that over the years I came to call the Bone Women, osteologist Phd’s working with Pleistocene fauna. We’d get together and cover lab tables with skulls, unhinging sabertooth cat jaws, sticking our heads in the rib cages of giant sloths. It felt like we were right down in the heart of a creation story.

For climate change, astronomy, geosciences, on the other hand, I somehow found myself in many offices of men. Continue reading

Guest Post: Scientists Come in All Sizes

I spent part of our recent snow day in New England on the phone talking to Richard Primack, an ecologist who studies how climate change affects seasonal events such as budburst and bird migration. I was interviewing him for another story, but as we talked, a new one came to light.

He told me that about six years ago, his lab started monitoring the spring leaf-out times of trees in suburban Boston, where he and I both live. It turns out that even people who spend their professional lives around plants, like those who work at botanical gardens, hadn’t kept a particularly close eye on local leaf-out dates for many common trees. “Everything here leafs out in April” was about as specific as it got.

So he started to pay attention. He and his graduate students found that while red and Norway maples begin to leaf out in early to mid-April, oaks don’t even start opening their buds until mid-May. There’s generally a four to six-week gap in between.

Well, guess what? My second-grade daughter has some data to add to his records.

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Reading Sci-Fi with Astrobioloigist David Grinspoon

David Grinspoon is a comparative planetologist and an astrobiologist. He’s also a big book nerd, and his love for both fiction and nonfiction are proudly on display in his own new book, Earth In Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future.

Grinspoon’s book uses insight from the study of the other planets in our solar system and the search for extraterrestrial life—along with a healthy dollop of science fiction—to contextualize our current moment on Earth. According to Grinspoon, we are at a crossroads. Humans have become a planetary force, reshaping Earth’s ecosystems, biogeochemical cycles, climate, and more. But so far we’ve done so largely by accident, and often to the detriment of other species. Now is the moment to “human up” and start managing the planet intentionally, in order to protect its millions of species and our own health and happiness. If we prove to be equal to the task, human intervention could someday save more species than we’ve ever driven extinct by stabilizing the climate over the long term and fending off any large space rocks that might otherwise send us all the way of the dinosaurs. The result would be a transition to an intelligent planet, what Grinspoon calls Terra Sapiens.

I was interested to note that the book used a lot of examples from sci-fi, and could tell I was reading the words of a true fan. I’ve been meaning to explore this sprawling genre myself, something I didn’t do when younger out of a misplaced snobbery. I was an English major, after all. I was supposed to enjoy the slog through Henry James’ The Ambassadors rather than anything with, like, lasers in it.

But as Grinspoon and I discussed over Skype and beers, the geeks have won and sci-fi is officially cool—or maybe it has always been cool; I just didn’t know it. So I decided to get some tips on what I should read as I frantically catch up with the rest of the world. Here’s a edited version of our conversation.

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