The Great Eucalyptus Debate

A grove of eucalyptus trees, viewed at trunk level, with whitish bark
Eucalyptus globulus at Reyes National Seashore, Marin County, California. Reproduced under a CC license. Charles (Chuck) Peterson

The Tasmanian blue gum, Eucalyptus globulus, is a magnificent tree. That is perhaps the only thing that everyone agrees on. It is, as Jake Sigg puts it, “a big, grand, old tree.” Tall, gnarled, stripey-barked, with white flowers like sea anemones, blue gum eucalyptus are characteristic of the San Francisco Bay area, despite being native to an Australian island half a world away. They just happen to thrive in the Bay climate, and many were planted either for timber of for scenery from the 1850s onwards.

There is, to put it mildly, widespread disagreement about what to do with these trees. The argument is as complex and tangled as the bark streamers that hang from the blue gum’s trunks. In the most general terms, there is a faction of environmentalists that want to see many of these eucalyptus trees removed, because they are a fire hazard close to homes, or because they are non-native and make poor habitat for native species, or both. In this group, place native plant enthusiast Sigg (who nevertheless loves the species and would like to see more of them planted in landscaped, irrigated parks). This faction also includes the local chapter of the Sierra Club.

There is another faction of environmentalists that dispute that the trees are more of a fire hazard than what might replace them, see them as decent or even very valuable habitat, and want to retain them to sequester carbon, provide shade, beauty, and recreation, and to avoid the use of the herbicides that are generally necessary to thoroughly kill them off. This faction includes a longtime correspondent of mine, Mary McAllister, and allies in different groups, including the Hills Conservation Network and the small-but-fierce Forest Action Brigade.

Those are the basic contours, but getting a fuller understanding requires a walk deeper into the woods.

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Drawing For My Nerves


I have a tendency to worry. When I’m stressed, I can worry pretty much any time of day, but my brain’s favorite time to worry is in the middle of the night. At 3 a.m., there is no problem that can’t be mulled over, chewed on, and puffed up until it seems like the biggest problem in the world.

Anxiety has been a problem for a lot of people I know lately. First there was the election, which hung over us all, with daily news stories (fake and real) and opinion pieces (anxious and more anxious) and stupid memes (mean and meaner). And now there’s the uncertainty about what this next administration will do.

But at the end of October, I was worrying about something pretty great: a three-week trip to Nepal. And, yeah, I was worrying about it. That’s just a thing my brain does, ok? In the middle of the night before I left, I did one of the things that helps me keep my mind off of things: Drawing. And I went for one of the more challenging subjects, my hand. And then I thought maybe I’d just decorate it with some of my travel-related worries. Continue reading

The Last Word


November 21-25, 2016

This week, Erik brings his expertise to bear on the placebo and nocebo effects of presidential election results. What are the public health implications of deep disappointment? Of all the factors, low voter turnout may make those effects more powerful.

NIH no longer uses chimps for biomedical research. But the transfer to chimp retirement communities meant wrenching them away from the people who love them most, says Cassie.

What has three eyes, breathes through its legs and eats its own kind? Cameron’s new Triassic-era pet.

Thankfulness is not the first emotion that comes to mind this month, but the People of LWON did our best and found some Thanksgiving cheer in the small things (like breathing).

Fat is neither intrinsically good nor bad, but rather a dynamic organ of the endocrine system. I look at some of the complexities of our most reviled body part.

Image: Craig’s indescribably wonderful children.

Fat: What is it good for?


Infant mortality in the Arctic has always been a bit of a mystery. Yes, the usual suspects are present — high smoking rates, overcrowding — but the same is true of many communities in the south where far fewer babies die. Nunavut’s infant mortality rate, for example, is four times that of the rest of Canada.

In recent years, a missing factor has emerged in Inuit genetics across the circumpolar world from Siberia and Alaska to Greenland. If a baby is born with two copies of the CPT1A Arctic Variant, his body cannot turn fat into energy when his blood sugar is low. The Arctic variant enzyme carnitine palmitoyltransferase (CPT) — the protein that does the fat-transforming work — only functions about 10% as well. Continue reading

Thankful? Oh, Really?

15390669275_cafc8ea61e_zAnn:  It’s been a fairly dreadful year, personally and nationally, and giving thanks is going to be a stretch.  But even when I was a kid, I was thankless.  When my grandfather said grace at Sunday dinners — “Bless, oh Lord, this food to our use and us to thy service” — I thought the words were pretty but didn’t see the point of saying them.  When the aunts and uncles and cousins sat around the long Thanksgiving table and said that before we could eat the food, we had to say our thankfuls,* I said, “I’m not going to say I’m thankful for anything because it’ll just be taken away,” graceless adolescent that I was.  In the decades since, I’ve figured out that if I’m going to say my thankfuls at Thanksgiving, I should pay close attention to what I have to be thankful for.  But now that I think about it, why would anyone need to say thankfuls at all?

Emma: Well, a lot of people these days are expressing gratitude because it is supposed to make them happier (E.g. But then again, I think this relentless pursuit of happiness is kind of screwed up in the first place.

Ann:  Didn’t Erik’s post on Monday say something like this — bad things have more power over us than good?

Jenny:  We do tend to remember the bad over the good…and the details of those memories are usually more accurate. Here’s one article that discusses this concept. Note that bad stuff is pushy and can knock good memories out of the way to make room for itself. How unfortunate.

Michelle:  Or maybe it’s narrower, maybe we remember criticism more clearly than praise. Anyway, I think we might be able to argue that gratitude is a way of correcting our skewed perception of reality. Continue reading

A Tale of Two Fish

triops_closeupI am taking care of two fish this weekend. One is a nice, respectable goldfish. It’s orange and black, it lives alone in a bubbling tank with some seaweed and a little fake wooden log to swim through. It eats a few pellets of food every few days.

The other has three eyes, and it eats its companions.

Oh, the triops. Fine, it’s actually a crustacean, but it does swim in a little bowl at a friend’s house. It—along with several others—arrived there unexpectedly as a charming souvenir, brought by someone who now refers to it as “creepy.” At first the triops seemed like a modern day sea monkey—cute-ish, small, and not likely to survive for very long.

True, most of them did not survive. In October, there were three medium-sized ones. Then one of them ate another, while my friend looked on in horror. Then there were two. The small one seemed very feisty and inedible. Then one day, the smaller one was gone, too, and little triops leftovers were floating around the floor. Continue reading

Where should research chimps grow old?


In 2015, the National Institutes of Health announced the end of invasive chimpanzee research in the US. The agency had dramatically scaled back the program in 2013, and NIH director Francis Collins reported that due to lack of demand, he had decided to allow the remaining animals to retire as well. “It is clear that we’ve reached a tipping point,” he wrote. “I have reassessed the need to maintain chimpanzees for biomedical research and decided that effective immediately, NIH will no longer maintain a colony of 50 chimpanzees for future research.”

Collins explained that all NIH-owned chimps would be transferred to Chimp Haven, a chimpanzee sanctuary in Louisiana, “as space is available and on a timescale that will allow for optimal transition of each individual chimpanzee with careful consideration of their welfare, including their health and social grouping.”

But enacting that plan has proven more difficult than anticipated. According to a 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office, as of January, Chimp Haven housed less than a third of all the chimps owned or supported by NIH. Part of the problem is space. The facility can only accommodate about 230 animals. But there’s another, thornier issue: Not everyone agrees that Chimp Haven is the best place for these apes to spend their golden years. Continue reading

Fear and Loathing in Elections

msb-532322modcolorAfter months of promising, cajoling, negotiating, threatening, inspiring, inciting, confusing, shaming, glorifying, fibbing, flubbing, blustering and exulting, the election is over and we have a winner. Donald J Trump.

This was truly an historic election for a lot of reasons that no doubt my colleagues in the political media have, and continue to thrum on about better than I. But there is one element that I as a science writer found especially fascinating. Never in recent history has an election been so charged with emotion and had such an unexpected outcome. And never has an election offered a potential glimpse into the relationship between voting day and health.

In addition to electing Trump, voting day also brought my first book, called Suggestible You, onto the shelves. The book deals with the power of our minds to affect change in our bodies – hypnosis, snake oil, healers, charlatans, geniuses, quacks, witch doctors, and psychologist of every stripe, they’re all in there. I even worked in a couple UFOs and ghosts, just for good measure.

The overarching message is this: our minds and moods have an incredible effect on our bodies and even our sense of what reality is. It’s all about expectation. Continue reading