Thursday, September 18, 2014

Unsolicited parenting advice

I have decided to share with you one of the big points of baby raising that Iris and I learned by hard experience.

We have a million books on baby care, Iris reads a bunch of "mommy blogs," and we know lot of people with babies; we felt quite confident in our baby skills before our first daughter was born. For the most part that confidence was justified, but there was one thing we just had no idea about. Once we figured it out, it transformed our parenting experience: helping a baby fart. One hears all about midnight feedings and how to deal with diaper rashes, but we had no idea it was necessary to help a baby fart. She would be crying inconsolably, and we would be going crazy trying everything we could think of to sooth her, and then at 3 or 4 or 5AM, she would finally fart, and immediately fall asleep. This happened repeatedly for weeks, maybe months, until we figured out that belly massage, light pressure on the belly, or alternatively pushing her knees up toward her belly would squeeze the fart out. With practice one can feel exactly where the gas bubble is and guide it up and around and down and out. We got good at this, and could make her fart almost immediately, bypassing the hours of gas pains and ear pains. 

P.S.  Another thing I found very useful, when woken up for the 14th time that night, was to have a posted list of things to try to help the baby. It seems like it would easy to remember to check the diaper, but when sleep deprived enough this can be quite hard. So here it is:

Belly Massage
Clean skin

In almost every case where she wasn't actually sick, one of those was it. Print it poster size and put it near a nightlight.

Picture show (in Danish)

This spring I taught a field course in terrestrial zoology at Svanninge Bjerge, a nature area owned and operated by the Bikuben Foundation. The foundation had Casper Tybjerg, a well known Danish photographer, join us and take photos. Bikubenfonden has featured the course on the Svanninge Bjerge website, including posting many of his photos (including the above). If you start here, and click to the right, most of the next several dozen photos are from our course, and all are beautiful. The accompany text is in Danish.

It makes me all happy and proud and sad-that-it-is-over to look through these and remember what amazing fun that course was.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Lightly-salted peanut wrapped in a sweetened dried cranberry, then covered in dark (>75%) chocolate.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Student scientists study sea stars, produce plaudable publication

A good university science education should give students the opportunity to engage in scientific research. This is widely agreed upon, and most of the biology position announcements I consider state that the successful applicant's research should present opportunities for student participation. The general model is that the professor has the research program, and a question that needs answering, and a plan for answering it, and the student gets to see how research happens by carrying out, or at best refining, that plan. I'm all in favor of this, but I'd like to take it a step further.

My first publication, way back in 2003, was with one of my professors at Bennington College, based on work that she planned, and I, as an undergraduate, helped carry out. I made alterations to the experimental protocols, did a lot of lab work with minimal supervision, and chose to work on this project rather than others that were available, but I can take no credit for any of the ideas in the publication. In retrospect the one thing I would add to my own undergraduate education, if I was to be my own professor, was working through the entire process of generating a primary paper, from initial observations and idea generation to publication.

Implausible you say? Impracticable? If generating publishable science is so easy, why doesn't every professional scientist publish a paper a week? Well, I've just finished doing it with two of my students, and I'll tell you about it.

'Finished' is vague. We've submitted the paper, and I think it good, but we have to wait to hear if the reviewers agree. I'm not going to give you too much detail on what we found because you'll have to read the paper (or a future post) when it comes out.

It happened like this: At SDU, where I currently work, all natural science students in their second semester have to complete a group project. A group of students (four in my case) are assigned a faculty mentor who gives them a question to answer and guides them in answering it. In my case, the question was, "Can we use PIT-tags (like a vet puts in your cat) to mark starfish for a long-term demographic study?" We brought some starfish into the lab, talked about animal care and experimental design, showed them how to inject the tags and pretty much let them do their own thing.

They did great, but the tags just kept coming out. After a few weeks, all the tags were out. They answered my question with confidence: No, PIT-tags cannot be used to mark starfish long term. But the thing is, they didn't stop there. With no pay, no additional course credit, no requests for recommendation letters or such, two of the four students just decided to keep going. We met occasionally and I offered encouragement and comments, but little more.

They presented their results to the Evolutionary Demography Society, and long after the course was over they kept doing more experiments to figure out how the starfish were ejecting the tags. Notice that this is their own question. I asked, "Do the tags stay?" and my students answered this then asked, "How do they get rid of the tags?" And when we had an open house at the laboratory, they presented what they had learned to the public. Just by chance, one of the visitors they talked to had access to an ultrasound machine. This let them repeatedly image exactly where within the starfish the foreign body was moving. A year after they started, they convinced me that they had discovered, and had the data to back up, a previously unknown mechanism by which starfish can eliminate foreign objects from within their body cavities. "Okay," I said, "write it up for publication, and tell me now by what date you will have a finished draft." They missed their self-assigned deadline. They needed more help with data analysis than they expected. They put in all the wrong references in all the wrong places, and the flow of the article was terrible. English is not their first language. But not so long after they said they would, they sent me a draft that had most everything I needed to make it good. With the co-authorship of a couple of marine biologists (did I mention that I know next to nothing about starfish and have no other starfish research ongoing?) and with the continued input of these two students, we made a respectable manuscript out of it.

What lessons do I draw from this? Motivated undergraduates, with just enough guidance, can basically have their own successful research programs. The paper we produced still took a bit of my time to write up, and isn't the most important paper in the world, but they discovered something completely new (answering a question that someone who knew the literature would never think to ask), and they learned. They learned a lot. Refining questions. Starfish anatomy and function. Experimental design and practice. Ultrasound imaging. Cox regression in R. Scientific English. Literature searching and use. Collaboration. Communicating science to peers and the public. Preparing and submitting a manuscript for publication. Now they will get to see how peer review really works, or doesn't. These students, just starting their third year as undergraduates, have a fuller experience of what goes into making a scientific publication than I did when I started my third year as a doctoral student. Chew on that for a minute.

It is important here to think about these students' motivation. Judging by their grades, they are not academic stars. Neither of them has described a lifelong fascination with starfish. They did this, so far as I can tell, because it was their first chance to truly be scientists rather than just science students.

I told them early on that:
A) That they would have a strong say in the direction of the research and
B) that if they produced something publishable, I would help them submit it for publication.

These are not promises to be made lightly. Publishing things, especially things outside one's own central line of research, is time consuming. Giving first year undergraduates even this limited version of academic freedom in their research is, understandably, not common practice. But it seems to me to be damn good educational practice, and I plan to continue offering this type of opportunity to students when possible. Students will do much better, and more, work when they are exercising agency and following their own curiosity. Even if they don't choose careers in science, they know how science happens from start to finish, and that is surely something science students should be given the chance to learn.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Toddler naturalist

It was only 45 minutes until dinner and my girl was antsy. We decided to head out into the woods and see what we could see. We got on a bike brought along an almond and raisin snack, a water bottle, a doll, and stuffed orangutan. Five minutes later we were standing in the woods outside of town looking at this piece of wood. "This is a perfect cover object," I told Tigerlily. It was flat or even slightly concave underneath, it was on the soil but not in the soil, it was broad, and it was in the sunlight. "I want to look under it," she said. We lifted it up and found this shiny black toad.
We talked about toad poison and washing hands before eating. She hadn't finished her raisin and almond snack so only I held the toad.
Next we went for a little walk in the woods. She said she wanted to find insects. Instead, we found blackberries.
Or rather, she stumbled into them and I recognized what they were. I tried one just to make sure they were good, and they were. I didn't use my hands. Toad poison.
She left only the underripe ones. On our way back to our bike, she said, "what's this? An insect?" It was a beautiful dragonfly that I had walked right past. I couldn't get a good picture of it but you can get a sense of how colorful it was. 
Now it was dinner time and we walked straight back to our bike. My girl was tired and hungry but learning about the woods and was ready to come home.

Monday, August 04, 2014


I keep a running list of papers to write on my whiteboard.

This list currently has 15 entries.

Two of these have been accepted for publication this year but not yet taken off my list because it is nice to see them there.
Another was submitted, rejected, and is waiting rewriting.

Two have nearly complete manuscripts written and have been sent to colleagues for comments.

Five more are actively being worked on by me or co-authors and will hopefully be finished by the end of the year.

Four others are collaborations that are currently not moving. One of those is a project died for some specific reasons (like the data couldn't answer the question) and I just haven't entirely decided what to do about it. The others are things that neither I nor my collaborators are currently prioritizing that I hope we will get back to.

Finally, I have one project on my list that I want to write, but I don't even know exactly what data I need or the approach I want to take. I just know it is an important paper to write.

There are roughly a million other ideas I could put on my list, but I'm having a moratorium. I have decided I am not allowed to start on anything else until my list gets a lot shorter. As I have mentioned, I am applying for jobs, and I'd like to have most of this backlog cleared up before I go.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Too consise?

I'm preparing a manuscript to submit to Nature. In addition to a low acceptance rate (8%), they have severe word limits. The 'main text' should be "about 1500 words" excluding introductory paragraph, references, methods, figure legends, etc. It is the intro, summary of results, and the discussion all in one. My main text, of which I now have a complete but not final draft, is 1138. It was not hard to make it this short. This is just how long I wrote it. This of course makes me think that there are all sorts of vital things that I should have said but left out. I will think about what these might be after my wife and daughter are asleep.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Nightly visitor

Hedgehog! We have a hedgehog picking up the seed under our feeder every night at 11. The feeder is just outside our bathroom window so when we hear it cracking seeds we creep over, open the window and watch. One night there were two of them, mating, being pretty loud about it. Europeans are mostly pretty blasé about hedgehogs, but to us they are cool and exotic (there are none, except pets, in the Americas).

Friday, June 20, 2014

So many reference to choose from, may as well alliterate

"Many different processes are commonly referred to as asexual reproduction and numerous authorities have set out systems of terminology dividing these up and labeling them (e.g., Schön et al. 2009; Schulz-Schaeffer 1980; Suomalainen 1950)."

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Field Course!

I love field courses. I loved taking them, love teaching them and even enjoy the logistics of preparing for them. What could be better than teaching excited students about animals by taking them out to see the animals where they live? Nope, not better. Try again. Nope, not that either.

Our five day field-trip starts on Saturday. Me, three teaching assistants, twenty-four students and a small house out in the woods. Beetles, birds, frogs, snakes, newts, mice etc. Stinging nettle, ticks,  mosquitoes, vipers. Out late to record bats, up early to hear the dawn chorus. I love it.

More about the course is here.

While you should regret that you are not taking this course, you should take solace in the knowledge that you would not have enjoyed it as much as I will.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

One way to avoid writing negative reviews is to decline to act as reviewer

"Please tell us why you have declined to review this article"

I am afraid I am unable to decipher the meaning of even the title of this paper, and the abstract implies a communicative style that could charitably be called idiomatic. I know all the words being used, (and am familiar with the probable subject matter) but couldn't tell you what most of them mean in this context. Were I to review a paper written in this manner I would spend an excessive amount of time on these linguistic issues, and might or might not ever get around to figuring out the embedded science.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Administrative Danglish

A few examples:

Censorship- Grading, examining
"Will this class require external censorship?"

Confrontation Hours- The time an instructor spends actually face to face with the students, contact hours
"You are responsible for 160 confrontation hours a year."

Economy- Accounting, bookkeeping, purchasing, etc.
"Mads handles  our economy."

Referent- The person who takes minutes at a meeting, secretary
"Every class needs a chairperson and referent?"

Breaking a truly ancient tradition

"Modal age at death" means the age at which the largest number of individual deaths occur. The modal age at death is determined by the interaction of two factors, the increasing risk to each individual with advancing age, and the decreasing number of individuals still alive with advancing age. As a population of adults gets older, each person is at ever increasing risk of death, so at first the number of deaths at each age goes up. But eventually, even though individual risk is still increasing, the number of people experiencing that risk is going down so fast that the number of deaths at each age (what demographers call dx) goes down. So modal age at death is neither at the age with the most individuals or the age at the highest risk, but somewhere in between. And studying the modal age at death, how it varies between populations and over time can tell demographers many useful things that I'm not going to go into because I am more interested in subverting the paradigm.

The paradigm in this case is that modal age at death is some time in early old-age, when death rate is going up but not too many people have died yet. Except that often it hasn't been. If one looks at life-tables for historical populations of humans, the highest dx (by far) is often d0, the number of individuals who die before their first birthday. Put another way, far more people died between birth and their 1st birthday than during any other year of age. The Human Mortality Database (the world's premier source for data on this sort of thing) estimates that of the baby girls born in Sweden between 1751 and 1759, slightly over 20% died in their first year. To put in perspective how the resulting distribution of deaths over age looks, please glance at this graph:
If I asked you to guess at what exact age a random female had died, by far your best guess would be age 0. And surely the people living in such a population must have been affected in all sorts of ways by the frequency that babies die. To ask how this population would have adjusted to such a thing is to ask a misleading question, because adjustment would imply that this is something new. In fact, the modal age at death is almost always 0, and modern humans are highly unusual in having it be much later in life. In fact, even in the cohort of Swedes born in the 1920s, modal age at death was still 0. In some countries it may still be 0, although such places are generally harder to get good demographic data from.

How far back does this go? Well it is 0 for hunter gather populations. It is zero for wild primates. It is zero for other mammals. It is zero for.... As far as I can tell, modal age at death has been zero for almost every population of almost every kind of organism for the entire history of life on earth. Contemporary wealthy humans still suffer much higher mortality in our first year than at any other pre-adult age, but infant mortality has been gradually brought down over the last centuries, so far that somewhere in the 1930s and '40s, many of the world's nations unknowingly broke with hundreds of millions of years of tradition by having a modal age of death that wasn't zero. So the right question to ask may well be not, "how did they adjust to zero being the mode?" but rather, "how are we adjusting to zero not being the mode?" And my impression is that one important way that we have adjusted is by very gladly forgetting that things were ever different than they are now.

Seen another way though, we haven't changed the modal age at death at all. If one is willing to classify the loss of an embryo or fetus as a death, modal age at death has never been zero. It has always been, and remains, -1. Minus one because far more individuals are lost in the year prior to birth (even if only nine months) than the year after it, or any other age. Where before many cultures avoided naming newborns until a week or month or even a year had passed, we still often avoid it for those not yet born, for the same set of emotional (some say superstitious) reasons.

Will science progress to the point that we feel safe naming that recently implanted embryo, knowing that she will almost surely make it? Perhaps. If so, modal age at death will finally, at long last, be in the age range that my demographer friends like to consider.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Diana Levitis

T-Mobile is sending me emails about your wireless device. I think you may have mistyped your email address when you set up your account.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Lines 147-152 show great potential.

I hate writing negative reviews of people's manuscripts. I really hate writing negative reviews when I know the authors. But one has to be honest in these things, and honestly, this one needs to be tossed out and maybe even not started again. I put it nicer than that in the review. I really worked to find nice things to say about this manuscript. I'm not sure I entirely succeeded.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Case of the Incomprehensibly Big Super Volcano

The Yellowstone Super Volcano is every American's favorite geological Apocalypse-in-waiting.* Every 700,000 years, give or take a few hundred thousand, this buries a significant portion of the western US in various astounding superlatives. But this article on the recent 4.8 earthquake at Yellowstone has the biggest (and silliest) superlative I've come across in a while. The article states that,
"Late last year a new study into the enormous super volcano found the underground magma chamber to be 2.5 times larger than previously thought — a cavern spanning some 90km by 30km and capable of holding 300 billion cubic kilometers of molten rock." 
Now, 90*30=2700, and 300 billion over 2700 is 111,111,111.1111, or a bit more than 110 million. So for the volume of the cavern to be 300 billion cubic kilometers, the cavern would have to be 110 million km deep, or roughly 8700 times the diameter of the earth, about 2/3 of the distance to the sun. That is one deep hole. With the utmost respect to the Ragnarokian prowess of the great and powerful Super Volcano, I question whether its magma chamber is roughly one third of the entire Earth. Rather, I suspect that this is another case of innumeracy (or at least i-unitacy) on the part of a reporter. 300 billion cubic kilometers of molten rock is not likely, but 300 billion cubic meters of molten rock is quite plausible. A cubic kilometer is a billion cubic meters, so 300 billion cubic meters is 300 cubic kilometers, which is about how big you would expect a 90*30 km cavern to be. Still figuratively, but not literally, astronomical.

The fact that reporters often don't understand units and don't do the basic arithmetic to check numbers is nothing new, but it has only just occurred to me that there is a systematic bias in this. As when NPR casually mentioned the "240 mile deep water" off Alexandria, or when I heard on the radio that a local bank was receiving a bailout in the hundreds of trillions of dollars, reporters always seem to get the numbers wrong in a way that grossly exaggerates the claim. If the magma cavern was stated to be 300 billion cubic millimeters (equal to 300 cubic meters) instead of 300 billion cubic kilometers, a reporter or editor probably would have found that unsatisfying and therefore caught the mistake. If it was instead 300 Sextillion cubic meters, it would look sexy and nobody would likely question it. But there is probably another bias at work. Once a number is really big, substituting another really big number generally doesn't change the impression much, and if one doesn't understand what the numbers mean, it is therefore equivalent. Incomprehensibly Big = Incomprehensibly Big. So overstating your case by a factor of a billion isn't go to raise nearly as many alarms as understating it and thereby eliminating the hugitude.

*You only think you prefer that tired old tectonic fault.