The Wisdom of a Summer Afternoon, Redux

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During the summer and fall, my husband and I spend most of our evenings sitting on the front porch, drinking a glass of wine and watching the sun move across the sky and below the horizon. The light show unfolds differently each time and cannot be binge-watched or replayed. It can only be fully experienced in the here and now, and that’s where we sit and savor it.

This time of year, we often have the pleasure of sharing our evening ritual with friends, and today I’d like to take a moment to remember and honor a friend who taught me how to appreciate the importance of these simple moments. I first told the story here in August of 2011, and I’m sharing it again now, because it’s a lesson whose significance never fades. 
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Lately, I’ve been thinking about the nature of knowledge and how we acquire it. My training as a scientist taught me to revere the scientific method, and I continue to hold science in the highest regard. Science can teach us much about the world and ourselves, and as I’ve written elsewhere, it can allow us to see beyond our biases — if we can keep open minds.

Yet I’ve grown to understand that not all knowledge worth possessing can come from a book, an experiment or a Google search. Science is very good at answering questions that involve quantifiable elements — how far away is that planet? Which drug produces the best response? But it’s less helpful at answering some of life’s most vexing questions like, what should I do with my life? Where should I focus my attention?

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Guest Post: How Our Pets Domesticated Us

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13408372845_b803a279b7_kOne of the most fascinating tidbits I came across while researching my new book, Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, concerns the 10,000-year-old village of Shillourokambos. Located on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, the site was once home to an early farming community whose inhabitants stored grain in stone silos and corralled livestock behind wood fences. In 2001, archaeologists digging beneath the foundation of what was once a small, circular house made a surprising discovery: a shallow grave containing the skeleton of a human, and next to it, surrounded by carved seashells, the remains of a cat.

That wasn’t the fascinating part. Archaeologists had long suspected that cats first entered human society to hunt the rodents that early farming villages attracted. What surprised me was learning that the Shillourokambians had shipped in foxes for the same purpose. And yet only cats became pets. Dogs, likewise, became treasured companions when plenty of other animals could have theoretically fit the bill. Of all the species on earth, only two have morphed from wild animal to family member. It’s a process that took thousands of years.

And yet, as we were transforming these animals, they were also transforming us. Continue reading

The Last Word

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Galileo tomb

 

July 7-11, 2014

This week Richard finally lets slip what he was doing on his trip to Italy – communing with the shriveled remains of Galileo’s body parts – and Abstruse Goose sets himself a Sudoku-style plot challenge.

Craig recounts some lengthy discussions with E.O. Wilson, who reminds us that dying species don’t look like a dying individual animals. They’re young and healthy…until they’re just gone.

Michelle uses allometric scaling principles to allay her daughter’s fears of big monsters.

And finally, I present a roundup of children’s books for kids who like inventing, building and figuring out how things work.

Give Me a Heroine Who Invents

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rosierevereIt’s been a while since we had a roundup of children’s books. So long, in fact, that the last time we had one, I wasn’t yet interested in children’s books. Now, it’s situation critical. My town has one little bookstore, and our library is accessed through several flights of dingy staircase at the back of a mall. The nearest other public library is 482 kilometers away, and it’s even smaller.

I know we’ve found the right book when a reading of it sends my 5-year-old son straight into play or reaching for a pen to design something. Here are a few of our favourites:

Rosie Revere, Engineer, by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts

Rosie the Riveter was a feminist icon in the United States during World War II, when women took on traditionally male jobs. Our story’s heroine is her namesake and great-great-niece, who dreams of becoming a great engineer. The book celebrates experimental failure and design iteration in fantastically-illustrated, rhyming form. (Another good one by these authors: Iggy Peck, Architect) Continue reading

Slay a Monster—With Science!

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“There are monsters in my mind,” my daughter said at bedtime.
“Oh, honey,” I said. “Monsters don’t exist.”
She glared at me. “Yes, they do.”
I sighed. “Have you ever heard of allometric scaling?”

Well, it didn’t go exactly like that.

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Extinction Debt

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Road kill 2

There’s been a lot of road kill on my drive to work and back in Western Colorado, mostly prairie dogs and rabbits, and young magpies trying to learn how fast they have to fly to get out of the way. I find myself slowing and dodging for the live ones who continue shooting across my path like meteorites, or those who congregate near the yellow line, scattering in all directions at the last second.

The automobile is an act of violence. Never mind the incredible human toll taken by accidents where in the US about 100 people are killed every day, a whole other class of fatalities exists among those who aren’t even signed onto this culture of speed.

Stains and scraps of animal remains I race past every day leave me thinking about the ease of extinction, how even our rudimentary task of transportation leaves trails of entropy. Cottontails and prairie dogs, at least in my rural neighborhood, are not at risk of extinction, but a debt is being accrued. Continue reading

Abstruse Goose: Sudokomic Game

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another_fun_game_is_comic_tac_toeOh this is just purely awful in so many ways.  Let me count them.  Its humor is dumb & puns are always in the very worst taste.  It’s bloody & I hate that.  It’s not only clever, worse, it’s close to addictive.  The mouseover apologizes, says this is the best he could do on short notice, so there’s that.

The secret title suggests that this comix-word game also works with tic-tac-toe.  Not trying it.  I have stuff to do.

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http://abstrusegoose.com/575

Giving History the Finger

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fd3782c1-85d3-4f6c-a422-d63b25f5bacf.grid-4x2 The middle finger of Galileo’s right hand is a satisfying sight. Not because the resemblance to an obscene gesture is unmistakable (though that’s pretty amusing). And not because such a gesture might suggest that in the end a scientist who suffered persecution for the sin of being correct had gotten the last word—well, two words (though that would be amusing, too). And not even because the relic once belonged to the body of the real live Galileo Galilei (awesome). No, what pleased me most during my first personal encounter with the finger a few months ago was something more historically potent: its setting. Continue reading