Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hydra bud

To reproduce asexually, hydra bud. A bump grows on the lower stem of the adult, elongates, grows tenticles, develops a seperated body cavity, and finally releases from the mother to be a perfect little clone. This particular bud needs another few days of growing before it can detach, but its tenticles are already armed with poison stingers, and it can catch prey, or eat plankton passed to it by the tenticles of the mother. I've only seen this food-passing a couple of time, and it could even be coincidental, but it is nice to think that even cnidarians get tasty treats from their mommies.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Blame the vehicle

I'm on a medicine that helps tremendously with the neuropathic pain associated with Levitis Syndrome. It is often prescribed for neuropathies associated with diabetes, and while there apparently no similarity between the two disorders other than the peripheral neuropathies they cause, this stuff seems to help with both. I recently went to my doctor for a refill, and she prescribed the tablet form, where I had been taking the slow-release capsule in the same dosage. Two days after switching to the tablets, I suddenly started getting these sharp distinctive pains in my hands and wrist again, and the surgical scars on my palms are looking angry. So this morning I went back to my doctor, and this being Germany got to see her within 20 minutes. I am back on the capsules, and I hope the problem is solved. I really would love to understand what is going on with my neurophysiology that the difference between a tablet and a capsule makes such a difference. I don't think it is even understood why neuropathic pain happens, or why some compounds interfere with it, so I don't have much hope of understanding the pharmacokinetics. I just hope the stuff keeps working.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Science picture of the month: Hydra hatchling

I've talked her before about hydra and their reproduction, so I thought I should post a few out of the thousands of pictures I have of them. I particularly like this one, and have a copy o up on the wall in the lab. It is a hydra hatchling, right out of the shell. The three bumps at the lower end of the picture are it's stubby little baby tentacles. The diameter of that shell is a bit under half a millimeter.


I have an almost complete first draft of the PowerPoint slides for my job talk. I have a week and a half until my practice talk, and two more weeks after that before the interview. It has just occurred to me that I’ve never actually given a job talk before. I’ve heard lots of other people’s job talks, and practice job talks, and I’ve given lots of non-job talks. I am not generally nervous about public speaking, and I don’t find myself too nervous about this. I wonder if I should be more nervous than I am, and if thinking of this as my first job-talk, instead of my hundredth talk, is a good way to accomplish that.

There is perhaps good reason for concern. The other applicants I’m competing against are likely to be an extraordinary group. I have no indication of what fraction of us they're likely to hire. I have the bare minimum professional experience necessary to apply. I'm a biologist interviewing in the Humanities Section. What to an American seems an appropriate level of self recognition can strike many Germans as immodest boasting. My slides are currently a bit too wordy and dense.

All that said, I don't feel nervous yet; they don't expect me to describe my work in German. Just the idea makes me sweat.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Linguistic injustice; it's good to be a native Anglophone

The English language is good to me. Much of my success in science to date can be attributed to my English skills. The quality of my writing and my speaking attract the praise of my peers at least as frequently as the originality or soundness of my ideas. (I am not such a good speller, but at this point that has very little effect on me.) Further, my wife’s work is very much based on her English skills; she teaches English as a second language and edits scientific articles to improve their English.

All this came to mind when I saw this letter
“Awkward wording. Rephrase”: linguistic injustice in ecological journals

and this response
‘Linguistic injustice’ is not black and white

in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution (TREE).

TREE is a high profile journal, publishing mostly excellent review articles, but unfortunately most of its content is not free to the public.

I will quote; the letter’s author, Miguel Clavero, begins,

International scientific communication is monolithically dominated by English, particularly within natural sciences. The professional career of individual scientists relies on their ability to publish in internationally relevant journals, and writing in English is the only way to achieve this. Non-native English speakers (NoNES) seem to be clearly disadvantaged with respect to native English speakers (NES) when trying to get their work published. In fact, English language proficiency has been shown to be a strong predictor of scientific output...

This argument makes sense to me. I have colleagues who are both smarter and harder working than I, who are quite fluent in conversational English, who take much longer to write a paper than I do. Writing crisp, clear, precise, flowing science while staying within word limits is hard, and frankly I’ll never learn a second language well enough to pull it off in anything but English. If Greek, Latin, French, Chinese, Arabic or German were the dominant language of science, I would be in deep trouble.

The response published in TREE points out that other disadvantages (e.g., being from a developing country) are vastly harder to overcome than being NoNES. A Swede has a much better chance to succeed in international science than an Anglophone African. A Swede may even come to speak and write English which is better than that of some Anglophones. It also points out that most English language journals won’t reject a paper because of language problems, so long as the science is sound and the writing is comprehensible and reparable. Both of these things are surely true, but don’t negate Clavero’s point. Bad English may not be a huge disadvantage, but skilled beautiful English is, it seems to me, a big advantage, and native speakers are much more likely to speak a language beautifully. This is particularly true, I think, when it comes to job applications. When one is being evaluated not only on the quality of one’s work, but also on one’s presentation skills, ability to answer complex questions clearly and leadership potential, language skills are important. I have seen application talks at the Institute given in such poor English that I had trouble following them; these people were not hired. The graduate students and post-docs I work with are mostly NoNES; a larger portion of the Research Scientist and lab heads are NES or have lived for extended periods in English speaking countries. This is not because of hiring decisions beeing made inappropriately. Rather, those fluent in English tend to be more successful in those tasks on which hiring decisions are legitimately based.

I doubt that English will cease to be the dominant language of science in my lifetime, and for this I am glad. That said, I take Clavero’s point, and I suppose we should add NoNES to the list of groups disadvantaged in scientific careers (females, underrepresented minorities, the disabled, citizens of developing nations, etc.). I am not sure what is to be done about it. Clavero argues that journals should cover the costs of language editing by charging a fee to all authors, whether they need language editing or not, spreading the costs. They would have to waive this fee for those without sufficient funding to cover them. Some journals in fact already do this, paying in-house language editors from author fees. This has not obviated the linguistic injustice. I am not sure what will, short of sci-fi quality automatic simultanious translation technology. I would love to have this technology, if for no other reason than because then I could stop struggling to learn German.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Weasel words

I always thought the term "weasel words" derived from the idea that some words are inserted into speech or writing to allow the speaker to weasel out of saying something directly. It turns out it comes from the false belief that weasels suck the insides out of eggs, but leave the shell almost intact, so they appear to have more substance than they do. So in the statement, "I've heard it said that maybe half of your ancestors were kangaroos, just sayin'," the weasel words "I've heard it said," "maybe half," and "just sayin'" suck the hard meaning out of the actual statement "Your ancestors were kangaroos." The speaker, if challenged, can disavow responsibility for the statement, but has still said it.
After reading the Wikipedia article on this, I happened to sit down to edit an application essay by a brilliant, but very shy, student of mine. I found it full of phrases like, "I wanted to," "Although I was," "I believe," "I began to," "I had the opportunity to," and "I helped to." These aren't weasel words mostly, but they serve a similar function. They allow her to say what she accomplished without it seeming like she is saying that she accomplished things. "I designed and carried out the research" reads a lot better than, "I was offered the chance to gain experience in designing research and gathering data," and takes up a lot less space.
The really successful scientists I know not only can say a great deal in very little space, they can squeeze in praise of their own work. I have several times seen, in scientific publications, people describe their own work as startling, revolutionary or subtle. For purely professional reasons, I aspire to this level of unabashidness. For the truly shy, classes in hubris might be in order.

Two talks at once!

My task, apparently, is to give a talk to both audiences simultaneously. Those viewing my job talk will include “a specialist in your field” as well as committee member representing the breadth of backgrounds of the Human Sciences Section of the Max Planck Society. That Section consists of the following Institutes, which I have casually categorized:

MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig
MPI for Social Anthropology, Halle/Saale

MPI for Human Development, Berlin
MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig
MPI for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, Netherlands

MPI of Economics, Jena
MPI for Research on Collective Goods, Bonn

MPI for Foreign and International Social Law, München
MPI for Intellectual Property, München
MPI for Comparative and International Private Law, Hamburg
MPI for Foreign and International Criminal Law, Freiburg
MPI for Comparative Public Law and International Law, Heidelberg

MPI for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen
MPI for the Study of Societies, Köln
MPI for Demographic Research, Rostock

MPI for Art History, Florence, Italy
MPI for the History of Science, Berlin
MPI for European Legal History, Frankfurt/Main

You will note that I put my own institute, Demography, under the heading of sociology. Demography is in many way rooted in sociology, despite my belief that it should be a branch of biology. You will also note the preponderance of topics such as Law, Economics and Psychology, which have little theoretical overlap with evolutionary demography.
This is, in a way, a brilliant way of evaluating an applicant. Anyone who can describe their topic in a way which is simultaneously comprehensible and exciting to experts in one’s own field and experts in distant fields is at least a talented communicator. If they threw in some toddlers, who also had to like my talk, and maybe a few Tea Partiers, then it would be a real challenge.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The dead blackbird thing.

Much has been made of the news that 5000 dead blackbirds fell from the sky onto a small Arkansas town at the turning of the year. ~11:30PM on New Year's Eve. Conspiracy theories and omens abound, but I will propose my own theory: a conspiracy between fireworks and the migratory behavior of blackbirds.

There are several species of blackbirds in North America (e.g. Red-winged Blackbirds, Grackles, Starlings), that tend to migrate in large mix-species flocks. And when I say large, I mean blot out the sun, river in the sky, ornithophobe's nightmare large. Frequently in the hundreds of thousands, not rarely in the millions of birds. I was working at the Long Point Bird Observatory (in southern Ontario) one day in late November when one of these blackbird flocks went by, too thickly to count, for an hour and a half. As soon as we saw them we rushed out and closed the mist-nets we had put up to catch birds. While these nets work well for catching a flock of a dozen chickadees (which we would then measure, band and release), a thousand blackbirds hitting the nets all at once will collapse them, potentially killing large numbers of the birds. Many of the nets had several dozen blackbirds in them within the first minute, and it was a struggle to free them faster than new birds got caught. We couldn't close the nets until they were empty, and we couldn't stop catching them without closing the nets, so thick and fast they came, despite the fact that the main stream of birds was far above our heads, and despite each bird tending to avoid places where humans were standing. We put brightly colored cloths in the nets to make them more visible, but still we couldn't keep up. The nets began to sag under the weight of birds, each of which weighed only a few ounces. Only when the course of the avian river shifted significantly to one side were we able to empty and close the nets, and then stand and gape at the immensity of the flock. That night they all settled in a nearby wetland, densely and within a surprisingly small area.

Now by New Years Eve, these flocks would not be in Ontario, but in places more like Arkansas. It is reported that a wooded area in Beebe was being used as a nighttime roost for several hundred thousand blackbirds. My guess is that somebody was setting off fireworks near that wood, and scared the bejesus out of at least half a million blackbirds. Fireworks are used in agriculture to scare blackbirds out of fields, and to uninitiated birds, they are quite terrifying. So this river of blackbirds leaps into the air whirl around and around as the rockets and fountains go up. Now blackbirds, like most songbirds, have very poor night vision, and frequently smack into things if startled up at night. So maybe one in a thousand in the whirling disoriented mass smacked into a lamp, a sign, a building, each other. They go quite fast enough to kill themselves crashing headlong into hard objects, and can rebound several feet. The birds seemed to have died of blunt trauma, as from a crash.

Or it could be a sign of the end times.