Guest Post: We Gaze at Dogs, Dogs Gaze at Us, Is It Love?

15282278241_d6c048c20b_kYesterday, scientists reported that dogs have found an unusual way to steal our hearts. When we stare at our human infants and they stare back, we both experience a rise in the hormone oxytocin, which has been linked to trust and maternal bonding. Now it appears that dogs have hijacked this hormonal response, causing our oxytocin levels to rise when they stare at us, and vice versa. The researchers claim that this behavior may have played a critical role in dog domestication, but is the study all it’s cracked up to be? Judith Lewis Mernit (editor at High Country News and animal watcher) and David Grimm (editor at Science and animal writer) hash it out.

Judith: David, you’ve written a thorough and super-engaging book about our relationship with domestic animals,  Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, and you often write about the science behind domestication. What do you make of the findings of Miho Nagasawa, et al in their study, Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds? Do they make a strong case that humans and dogs get an oxytocin rush as they gaze into each other’s eyes? In your book you have an experience of meeting wolves where you’re instructed not to stare at them. But as you also go on to show how dogs have evolved in ways that set them apart from wolves, ways that allow them to coexist amicably, for the most part, with humans. Is the “oxytocin-gaze positive loop” these researchers describe another example of that co-evolution?

David: Hi Judith, I think it’s an intriguing study, though I think it’s heavy on speculation. Continue reading

There Goes the Sun

That’s me in the Black Sea, waving. (You might have to squint.)

During a total eclipse of the sun, the landscape darkens. But you knew that. What you might not know—what I didn’t know, anyway, when I observed a total solar eclipse on August 11, 1999—is that the experience comes with a lot of other sensory overload.

I found myself thinking about that total eclipse while reading about the one that was visible last month—visible, that is, if you were among the few eyewitnesses in the high northern latitudes of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1999, though, the path of totality cut across the heart of Europe and the abdomen of Asia, ranking it among the most-watched total eclipses of the sun in human history. I myself saw it from the deck of a cruise ship in the Black Sea, courtesy of a magazine that paid all expenses—round-trip air to Athens, cruise passage, ground transportation—in exchange for an 800-word article. (Plus the fee for writing the article.) (Those were the days.) While I clearly remember the sight of the moon’s disk slipping in front of the sun’s—somewhere I have a tape recording of my on-the-scene musings, which, as I recall, consisted mostly of “Wow”s—I also can conjure, just as vividly, memories of what I didn’t expect. Continue reading

A Sense of Many Places

Two women sniff a fruit tree.
Two of the People of LWON investigate a fruit tree.

In the past half year, I’ve traveled a lot.

I’ve always traveled a lot. Until recently there’s been a heavy emphasis on longer trips: going to live in a foreign country or hang out on a ship for a few weeks or months. In the five and a half years I was freelancing, time was basically limitless, but money was tight. Now, thanks to a steady office job with an employer that is friendly to the idea of three-day weekends, I’ve been able to start taking short trips to visit friends around the country.

I have a love-hate relationship with travel. There’s the expense and the packing and all that time squeezed into a sardine can with wings. Also, I love home so much, it’s hard to leave it.

Christie, one of the People of the LWON, has written thoughtfully about staying home. For all of 2010, she stayed within 100 miles of the farm where she and her husband live in western Colorado. If I were to clumsily condense Christie’s message, it would be something like this: Stop traveling so much. Be at home in your place. Get to know your neighbors.

But, if I took her advice, I wouldn’t get to hang out on her farm.

Continue reading

Redux: Not One More Winter in the Tipi, Honey

What is it about modern homesteading that drives so many women mad?

This post originally ran July 14, 2011.  NOMWITTH, however, hasn’t changed, not one bit.

There are a lot of ways to shrink a carbon footprint. Bike instead of drive. Eat low on the food chain. You know the drill. Where I live, in the boondocks of Colorado, a lot of people — myself included, but I’ll get to that in a minute — go on a carbon diet by purchasing some cheap land, rigging up a few solar panels, and getting off the grid.

Most of these people are well-educated, well-meaning, and idealistic, determined to build and garden their way toward some version of a better future. But after living here for more than a decade, I’ve noticed a disturbing susceptibility among these modern homesteaders. I’ll call this recurring disease Not One More Winter In The Tipi, Honey (NOMWITTH).

Here’s what happens: A couple arrives in our valley, young, strong, in love, and full of plans to build an ultra-energy-efficient house out of straw bales, rammed earth, adobe bricks, or, heck, used bottlecaps. They set to work with equal enthusiasm, buying land and setting up temporary quarters in a yurt or a tipi. The weather’s good, the views are great, and the new house is humming along.

But at some point, the weather turns, or the project slows. Or a baby arrives, and everything gets more complicated. For whatever reason, their brio fades, NOMWITTH sets in, and what was once a joint project becomes a battlefield, XX vs. XY. In mild cases, help is hired, the house gets a roof, and all ends well. In more serious cases, one person — inevitably XX — splits town for a fully-furnished condo with central heating, leaving XY alone with the low-carbon dream.

I’ve seen many couples, and carbon budgets, fall prey to NOMWITTH, and the predictability of its gender roles has always bothered me. Women may have different strengths than men, but we don’t lack for toughness — we demonstrate that in feats ranging from mountain-climbing to childbirth. So why does NOMWITTH always seem to strike women first?  Continue reading

The Dragons’ Third Stir: the Next Bigge One

shutterstock_148606181In keeping with the brave tradition of gullible, single-source reporting, here’s an astounding science news report.  It ran in the News and Views section of the prestigious journal, Nature, a couple weeks ago, I don’t know how I missed it, and it surely deserved more than the brief flurry of attention it got on Twitter.   In brief: global warming will almost certainly trigger The Third Stirring of the world’s dragons.  The report’s authors, borrowing a phrase from Geoffrey of Exmouth, say this will be “the bigge one.” Continue reading

The Last Word

3536058968_bf7418f169_oApril 6 – 10

Have you ever had to endure the smug cocktail party contention that “biology is just chemistry, chemistry is just physics, and physics is just math” (and so all of life is reducible to math)? Abstruse Goose demolishes that glib noise with a thought experiment that reverses the formula.

Michael Balter’s brontosaurus story has everything. Internecine science-mag warfare! An embargo scandal! Stephen J. Gould! Unfairly maligned stamps! Oh, and a giant thunder lizard.

Michelle and frequent guest Judith Lewis Mernit undertake a closely considered reading of Jonathan Franzen’s climate piece. They dive deep: if you must choose between the climate and the environment, is anything acceptable as collateral damage? Can we really afford to think of anything as expendable?

GM crops are bad, Craig shows us, but not for the reason your crazy aunt thinks they are.

“When a scientific theory comes face to face with new facts, scientists adjust the theory accordingly, and journalists should do the same.” Christie bravely wades into the Rolling Stone rape story fiasco.

See you next week!

Guest Post: Brontosaurus and Me

Brontosaurus_Copyright_DavideBonadonna (1)The biggest science story this week was really, really big. Brontosaurus, weighing in at about 16 metric tons, is a taxonomic contender once again, thanks to a 300 page long cladistic analysis in the online journal PeerJ.  (Spoiler alert: Yes, the rest of this piece will include puns, jokes and allusions to classic films just as corny as these.)

Every major and minor news outlet in the world seems to have the story, and it’s no surprise. This is not just a major science story, but also a cultural event of monumental proportions. How do I know that? Simple: even The New Yorker weighed in with a commentary on the paper. That either means the news has very deep resonance for humanity (including New Yorkers), or that The New Yorker is slumming it these days, or a bit of both. You decide.

As pretty much every reporter pointed out, Brontosaurus is an “iconic” dinosaur that lost its wonderful name (“thunder lizard” in Greek) through no fault of its own. The blame can be put squarely on Othniel Marsh, the 19th century dino hunter who—in his greed to discover as many dinosaurs as possible—named one skeleton Apatosaurus in 1877 and then named another, very similar, skeleton Brontosaurus in 1879. Four years after Marsh’s death in 1899, paleontologists decided that they were the same beast and so Brontosaurus lost out thanks to the rules of scientific nomenclature. I don’t need to tell you more because, as a sophisticated, scientifically literate reader of LWON, you will have read at least one if not more of the numerous news stories that relate the tale of the “Bone Wars” in pretty much the same terms. So to refresh yourself on the details, simply click on any of the many, many—no, wait, read MY STORY!

Okay, now that you know this piece is going to be at least partly about me, let’s get shameless. Continue reading

Abstruse Goose: Fundamentalist Comp Lit

nontrivial_subfieldI suppose somebody could actually think these things.  I doubt that person would be in comp lit, though.  I suppose reductionism comes in here somewhere but in spite of having it explained 100000 times, I don’t understand it.  I don’t know, I’m just so depressed that Abstruse Goose seems to have fallen down.  Oh Abstruse Goose, we love you get up.*


*That’s from a poem by Frank O’Hara.