Archive for category Science

What do rats and pigs have in common?

T. C. Boyle answers that question in his 2011 novel When the Killing’s Done about the decision to eliminate them from two of the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, California (Anacapa and Santa Cruz, respectively). Neither species was native to the islands, and both had caused havoc among the native populations because they did so well once they were introduced. The Park Service decided the only way to get rid of them was to poison them (rats) and shoot them (feral pigs). Both decisions created a lot of controversy, with many people arguing that killing one species in order to save another is inhumane and is playing God in a way that doesn’t make sense, while others feared that species on this American version of the Galapagos Islands would be eaten out of existence in the same way mongoose have removed many birds from Hawaii.

Boyle examines this controversy through the plot and characters in this novel. Boyle’s antagonists are radical vegetarians and vegans, who believe the rats and pigs are as worthy of salvation as the cute foxes and bald eagles. They argue too that even though the population balance may have shifted, the endangered species had not been completely wiped out.

The island fox is a critically endangered species.

The island fox is a critically endangered species. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The author tries to bring the controversy to life by creating two adversaries: Alma Takesue, a biologist with the National Park Service and whose grandmother was stranded with all the rats on Anacapa after a shipwreck; and Dave LaJoy, a somewhat crazy entrepreneur with anger issues, who organizes against the killing. Dave’s girlfriend, Alise, grew up on Santa Cruz Island. A cast of characters is brought in to give some history and context to the story, such as Anise’s mother, Rita, who worked as a cook at a sheep ranch on Santa Cruz Island,  and Alma’s grandmother and mother.

As usual, T. C. Boyle writes beautiful and compelling prose. As in Drop City, he brings in more side stories than a circus. I enjoyed the biology and the history, and I loved some of Dave LaJoy’s stupid antics. Mr. Boyle raises important questions about how we manage this earth we live on. How important are endangered species, and how much effort should be put into controlling invasive species which threaten fragile populations, such as those of these islands?

While I liked When the Killing’s Done, I didn’t find this novel nearly as compelling as the first T. C. Boyle novel I ever read,  Tortilla Curtain, whose tragic tale will remain burned in my memory for a long time. In a way, I keep reading T. C. Boyle hoping that the next novel will measure up. Anyway, I think the reason that this novel didn’t engage me as much was the weakness of the protagonist and her relationship with her boyfriend, Tim. It was clear from the beginning that this relationship had no glue to it. Okay, fine, but Tim hardly appears in the novel: when he bails it feels anticlimactic. And she never really forms close relationships with anyone else. Perhaps she is portrayed too realistically, in that she is back and forth between her office and various research stations, but I think she would be much more compelling if she had a side-kick or two that she was always interacting with. This could have been Tim, or she could have had an affair, or children she worried about, or something. Or he could have kept Alma and Anises’ mothers engaged in the drama.

I also thought that LaJoy was a little over-the top. His attempts to foil the killings are fun, but they are pretty unbelievable. Well, unbelievable until you read the lengths real people go to in order to prevent something they believe is wrong, especially when they cannot control their anger. All in all, this was a good read and I will probably try some more T. C. Boyle.

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The Mindbody

Well, readers, it’s past time for a book review. I’m combining some topics. I hope you don’t mind (play on words intended), because the book I’m talking about today is one that touches on the deep connection between our bodies and our minds. This isn’t just experiential stuff, though, like I often talk about: this is science, and it’s fascinating.

“Viewing pain as a loss of homeostasis may solve one of the great medical mysteries of our age.” Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee

The book is The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You do (Almost) Everything Better, by a mother and son science writing team: Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee. First of all, I have to confess that this book wasn’t at all what I had expected. I thought it would talk about the complex of nerves in the abdomen, which has been dubbed the second brain by some, or about the signaling molecules that go back and forth between the body and the brain, as in Candace Pierce’s work. It doesn’t.

Instead, it mainly considers research detailing a wide number of mappings from the body to the brain (and somewhat vice versa). In a basic physiology class, they teach about the mapping of the sensory and motor nerves into the primary sensory cortex and primary motor cortex. If you’ve taken a basic physiology course or done any reading on the brain, you are familiar with the way the body is distorted in this homunculus, with lips, tongue and hands taking up far larger portions than would be expected from their size on the body. However, what the Blakeslees discuss is a body of research demonstrating that there are similar maps all over the brain, each with its own purpose. Some of these are higher level maps “represent all of your movements before you carry them out.” This allows you, for example, to imagine an action and learn through that imagining, as many Olympic athletes now do, or a professional musician might. This is also how we can predict what is going to happen before we carry out an action.

Other parts of the book talk about amazing virtual reality experiments which show how plastic the brain really is (in one that blew my mind the subjects were sure they had an appendage growing out of their abdomen which they could wiggle) and experiments that show we incorporate objects held in our hands into our body map and sense of self. There is a brief discussion of mirror neurons.

But the best part, for me, was the somewhat technical discussion of two parts of the brain: the anterior cingulate; and the insula. In particular, the authors focus upon the right front insula, which is a fascinating area in the brain where we track what is happening in our hearts, lungs, stomachs, and so on. It also seems to be connected to our ability to feel empathy, and to be where we track pain, temperature, itching and other sensations that tell us whether we are in balance (by that I mean in homeostasis). It is partly in the right front insula that we integrate our body and our mind, along with the anterior cingulate, the amygdala,  and the orbitofrontal cortex. The authors point out that pain appears to be different from what neurologists expected. Instead of being processed like touch, it may be more like temperature, hunger and thirst and be integrated with emotions. This realization may explain some of the features of pain which haven’t made sense before.

The secondary somatosensory cortex is colored ...

The secondary somatosensory cortex is colored green and the insular cortex brown in the top right portion of this image of the human brain. Primary somatosensory cortex is green in the top left. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While this is not a novel, and it deals with a complex subject, the authors did a great job of making their topic interesting and accessible (despite the terminology in the above paragraph) to the general public. My biggest gripe actually is the lack of references. A typical science book like this one would contain an extensive bibliography: although the interviewed scientist and their laboratories are cited, there are no references to the scientific literature. I personally would have like a little more rigor as well. This authors admit in the acknowledgements that “we have vastly oversimplified the science.” On the other hand, this meant that I actually read the book, and did so fairly quickly. What I learned more than anything from this book is how much we are a bodymind and not a mind driving a body or vice versa. It’s an interesting view into the rapidly changing research on our brains.

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Packing for Mars

English: The April 12 launch at Pad 39A of STS...

Image via Wikipedia

The science nerd in me has been having a field day, lately, reading popular science books about this and that. Mary Roach‘s Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void has to be the strangest one. I found this at our local library and checked it out because her book about cadavers got so much good press (I have not read that one – yet).

Packing For Mars sure surprised me with its wide range of topics. I somehow expected to learn about rockets and all of the neat technological gadgets NASA is developing. Instead, the book focuses on the human cargo. It looks at the studies concerning how astronauts will react to living in a space vehicle for the years required to go to Mars and back. Few actual gadgets even got mentioned (surely they have invented SOME cool stuff!). However, that does not mean the book ever lags. Turns out, none of the day-to-day living stuff that we so take for granted looks easy once one goes into zero gravity. Bones deteriorate, the digestive system does not work properly, food breaks into tiny particles which float around the cabin, people miss touching Mother Earth to the point where they go crazy, and on and on. I had never thought about any of this – I just assumed they would have a way of creating centrifugal force to simulate gravity for such a long voyage, but I guess that they don’t. Sure seems like it would make everything easier!

Mary Roach never met a topic she won’t delve into, so this book would be hard for the faint of heart to swallow, with its discussion of all kinds of bodily functions, including a section about porn stars pretending to have sex in zero gravity, and quite a long section about bowel movements (both of which could have been a bit shorter from my perspective). However, the book never lags and is full of information about the role of gravity in human physiology here on earth and little tidbits about physics (for example, water forms a free-floating blob in zero gravity because surface tension holds it together), so it fascinated me. She also talks about human interpersonal dynamics for a long voyage. Can you imagine spending years and years in a small smelly capsule with a small group of other people and very little to do? It would not be easy to get along for that much time.

If you like science, and especially if you like biology with some history thrown in, this makes for a fascinating and fun read. As Jack Hart says in Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, “Mary Roach is constantly on her fourth glass of wine with the girls,” and thus she is always chatty and bubbly.

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Storms of my Grandchildren: The truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity

I just finished Storms of My Grandchildren, by James Hansen, who is director of NASA’s Goddard Institute For Space Studies. I was curious to learn how climate scientists came to some of their conclusions about the effects of CO2 and other gasses upon the planet and he did not disappoint . He shows a number of graphs and walks the reader through their implications.

Global Warming 1/2

Some things surprised me. I assumed that conclusions about global warming fell out of weather modeling. This is not at all the case, because those models simply aren’t accurate enough to look at long term trends (okay, I admit it, how naive can one be? If they can’t predict the weather a week from now, how can they possibly predict what will happen in ten years?). Instead, it is based upon historical data such as ice cores and basic energy balance equations, along with growing accuracy in ocean temperature measurements. Of course, there is a lot more to it than that, and scientists have looked at the problem in a lot of ways. I didn’t pay enough attention to the details to be able to repeat them here, so you would have to read his book for yourself. But he certainly convinced me that the science is sufficiently sound to know that we have a serious problem on our hands!

English: Line plot of global mean land-ocean t...

Doesn't this scare you?

English: Taken at the Energy Crossroads confer...

The details about climate science are interspersed with his experiences unsuccessfully trying to convey the science to politicians and his ideas about how to address the problem. If one likes this kind of thing, he gives lots of names. True confession: I found his lists of people in government a little tiresome and skipped some of this.

Because global warming interests me, and I think it is one of the most important issues of our times, I plan to do lots more reading about it. If our world could potentially warm enough to raise the levels of our oceans even one foot, let alone two, and change weather patterns even a fraction of what James Hansen suggests, the world we know would no longer exist and millions and millions of people would suffer. To me, this doesn’t seem like a risk worth taking, compared to the risks associated with doing something, right now, to slow down the world’s production of greenhouse gases.

There’s been a lot of debate about climate change. This article cites Dr. William Happer, who sounds pretty impressive (he’s at Princeton) until you realize that his research has nothing to do with climate. He studies spin-polarized atoms and nuclei. I have to wonder how he suddenly became an expert on global warming and why he is so sure it isn’t caused by CO2. Just wondering.

Still, I like to learn about any science showing humans are not causing global warming, so, if this book gets translated into English, I just might have to have a gander:

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