Friday, August 20, 2010

Snark Hunting in the Floating World

In August, Science + Story will be going to the beach--figuratively, anyway. We'll really be on the rocky coast of Maine. Here is the second installment on beach science, on flotsam. You can catch up on this series by reading the earlier post on shells.

I hadn't planned to blog about this until later today, but want to catch the wave--if you'll pardon the expression--of an upcoming segment on Ira Flatow's Science Friday. In today's second hour, 3:00 PM EST, SciFri will interview Karen Lavender Law of the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole about plastic in the sea.
Scientists are trying to understand what goes on in and around floating patches of plastic debris in the world's oceans. Results from a 22 year investigation into floating plastic garbage were published this week in the journal Science. The researchers looked at the physics behind the plastic accumulation, its concentration, and biological activity in and around the debris. Interestingly, the researchers found somewhat less plastic than they anticipated. We'll talk to one of the authors of the report [KLL] about the findings.
 I'll be tuning in. You can listen live here. Plastic in the ocean has been much on my mind as I've been reading Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man’s Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano. It was published last year by Smithsonian Books and released in paperback just time for this summer's exodus to the beach.

I confess I've been guilty til now of priveleging marine biology over oceanography, the science of the sea itself. No more. Ebbesmeyer and Scigliano have introduced me to a world of gyres, eddies, meddies, and snarks--the term Ebbesmeyer coined for the water slabs of different salinity and density that drift through the ocean like clouds in the sky. Ebbesmeyer hunts for watery snarks in this mysterious floating world.

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, snark hunter. Photo by Rick Rickman/NOAA

As other reviewers have noted, this is a mix of memoir and science, and it works well, as Ebbesmeyer's personal career trajectory traces the growth and maturation of ocean science itself over the last forty years. Ebbesmeyer has become an expert on the behavior of nonliving objects in the ocean, be they sneakers, rubber ducks, messages in bottles, coconuts, or cadavers.

All those stories await you in the book, and Ebbesmeyer and Scigliano tell them well. The parts I want to highlight here are these. The first is the remarkable story of messages in bottles. The practice was popularized and romanticized in the nineteeth century in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens, but the deliberate release of messages in bottles may go back centuries--and messages set adrift back before there were bottles. In the nineteenth century, however, messages in bottles, or MIBs, came into their own--caught in a gyre, if you will, of naval ambition. As Ebbesmeyer and Scigliano note, the American, German, and British navies were eager to map the currents of the world's oceans, and bottles were one way to do it. Into the early twentieth century, they released thousands of bottles, casks, and other "deliberate drifters" into the oceans to try and gain a naval advantage.
Photo from

A. W. Fawcett, the chairman of Guinness, the British brewery, used a message in a bottle in a spectacular ad campaign that is still washing ashore today. Between 1954 and 1959, Fawcell arranged to have shipping companies drop fifty thousand commemorative bottles into the sea at eleven sites around the world. The brown bottles were sealed with cork, a metal cap, and a lead wrapper. Inside was a scroll from "King Neptune" marking the bicentennial of the brewery. The bottles were retrieved from all over the world, including a penal colony off the coast of Mexico and remote Coats Island in Hudson Bay, where the Inuit fishermen who chanced on eighty of the bottles "used them for stone-throwing practice until they learned Guinness offered a reward."

The other great story in the book--and it is hard to choose among the many these author tell, --is how the practice of beachcombing is contributing to citizen science around the world. Beachcomber Alert Network and organizations like it are providing researchers with a constant stream of data about ocean currents. For more about the science of "flotsam oceanography," visit For a wonderful read filled with astonishing stories that will transform your next walk on the beach, read Flotsametrics.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Autobiography of a Shell

In August, Science + Story will be going to the beach--figuratively, anyway. Here is the first installment, on shells.

Marble Cone (Conus marmoreus), 31 to 150 mm, common throughout the Indo West Pacific, including the Philippines, where I spent part of my childhood. The Marble Cone is a carnivore of the rocky bottom.
Like a message in a bottle, every shell on the beach has a story to tell. Each turban, limpet, conch, and cowrie can tell the trained eye stories about how and where it lived, and even battles it fought against storm, surf, and predator. Authors Jerry Harasewych and Fabio Moretzsohn teach us, in this spendidly conceived and realized book, how to train our own eyes to read and recover those stories.
It is second nature to us to admire the delicate shape, color, and beauty of a perfect specimen. Taking the time to "read" each shell as an autobiography of the animal that produced it is often just as rewarding. 
Harasewych, of the Smithsonian, and Moretzsohn, of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University, have not merely provided a deluxe field guide. They've chosen the six hundred shells showcased in the book's 656 pages to provide a cross section of the shell-bearing mollusks from around the world. As the authors point out in the introductory pages, "molluscan diversity is dominated by small animals"--most the size of a fingernail or smaller. A representative selection of shells would be small snails, and a lot of them. We wouldn't see such wonders as the Lazarus Jewelbox, the Pagoda Prickly Winkle, the Modest Worm Snail, or the Telescope Snail.

Windowpane Oyster (Placuna placenta), 100 to 200 mm, Tropical Indo-West Pacific. This oyster yields the capiz shell used widely for wind chimes and other crafts in the Philippines, where there is a major Placuna fishery.

I did wish for a few more images of the living animals, and for some backstory about some of the mollusks' common names. Surely there is a tale to be told about the Poor Ittibittium, Ittibittium parcum? I also wanted to know what made the Paradoxical Blind Limpet paradoxical. But those are quibbles. That would have been a 900-page book.

Gumboot Chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri), 100 to 400 mm, Hokkaido, Japan, to Aleutian Islands, Alaska to Southern California. A nocturnal grazer on red algae, the living animal is sometimes washed ashore after storms. In life, the eight plates of its shell are covered in a mantle.
What the authors have collected here for the reader is a museum-in-a-book. You can turn the pages almost as if you'd been let into the back rooms of Smithsonian and been allowed to open the drawers containing specimens, with Harasewych at your elbow, explaining what you're seeing. While the book is beautifully written and presented, it's so seamlessly done that nothing about the presentation gets in the way of the story of the shells.

True Heart Cockle (Corculum cardissa). 40 to 80 mm, Red Sea to Indo West Pacific. The true heart cockle can form dense colonies near coral reefs. Like the corals where it makes its home, it has a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae algae.

 And what stories they are. Of the Miter-Shaped Nutmeg we learn that its relatives, the cancellariids, are "known to suck the blood of sleeping fishes." Carrier shells like the Atlantic Carrier Shell cement shells, rocks, and derbis to their shells, perhaps as camouflage, perhaps as stabilization in the fine mud where they live. The Giant Owl Limpet aggressively guards an algae garden. The Common Janthina is a pelagic predator, roaming the oceans of the world on a raft of air bubbles trapped in mucus--its own bubblewrap. I know I will never look at a shell quite the same way again. It's time to go up in the attic and find the box with the childhood shell collection, and look at the shells with new eyes.

Elephant Tusk (Dentalium elephantium), 50 to 100 mm, Red Sea to Australia. This tusk shell lives buried in the sandy bottom, with only its narrow end sticking out of the surface. Some hermit crabs specialize in tusk shells.

M. G. Harasewych and Fabio Moretzsohn, The Book of Shells: A Life-Size Guide to Identifying and Classifying Six Hundred Seashells (Smithsonian/Chicago University Press, 656 pages, 2400 color plates. $55.) 

Disclosure: Science + Story received a copy of The Book of Shells from The Chicago University Press for the purpose of this review.


Monday, August 2, 2010

If I Ran Shark Week

In case you hadn't noticed, it's Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. The promo spot is in heavy rotation: footage of Great White launching itself up out of the ocean and snatching some unfortunate pinniped in its jaws.

Perhaps in some attempt at synergy, our local movie theater is showing Speilberg's Jaws. As I drive past the marquee, I can't help thinking that our perception of sharks hasn't come very far since 1975. Sharks themselves have fared even worse, decimated worldwide by overfishing and sharkfinning boats.

To be fair to the folks at Discovery, their website for Shark Week 2010 has a lot of good information about sharks, and they've partnered with Oceana and the Ocean Conservancy. There is information about the ten most endangered sharks ("see them before it's too late!") and the 25-75 million sharks   killed each year to satisfy the demand for shark-fin soup. But the actual on-air line up for Shark Week is all shark-attacks, all the time. Jaws, jaws, and more jaws.

We're in the process of exterminating sharks at a faster rate than we are finding out the most basic facts of their biology. It's hard to mobilize people to take the kind of action that's necessary to save sharks if all they see about them is a 35-year-old Jaws stereotype. So is Discovery's shark conservation message just going through the motions? In my humble opinion, they won't change hearts and minds about the plight of sharks until their programming presents another side of sharks than as perfect, mindless killing machines.

Knowing that sharks are in far more peril from humans than humans are from sharks, it's hard for me not to want to give Shark Week a complete overhaul. Here, then, is my version of Shark Week.

Sunday: Sharkabet with Ray Troll. Game show a la Jeopardy! hosted by the author of Sharkabet.

Troll's picture book Sharkabet was where my family learned about such wonderful animals as wobbegongs and goblin sharks. I think Troll would be the perfect ambassador for shark diversity.

Monday: Diving with Sharks. Hammerheads, Galapagos sharks, and silky sharks off Cocos Islands, Costa Rica, stingrays off the Canary Islands with the dive experts from It's hard to generalize about any large community on the internet, but folks at Elasmodiver appear dedicated to shark education and conservation.This would be a Travel-channel type show of shark diving sites around the world.

Photo copyright Tom Burns. All rights reserved.

Tuesday: The Secret Lives of Sharks. My reality show would follow scientists as they use satellite tagging to solve the mysteries of white sharks and other pelagic top predators.

Above, footage from Stanford University of the National Park Service's Scot Anderson discussing data from tagged sharks.

Wednesday: SharkCam. This show would feature footage from "crittercams"--also known as animal-borne imaging systems--attached to a variety of sharks, from a basking shark to rare and mysterious six-gill shark. Sharks occur in a variety of habitats from tropical reefs to the ocean's dark, cold abyss. The shark-mounted cameras of SharkCam will allow viewers to follow sharks wherever they live.

Attaching a "crittercam" to a whale shark.
Photo by Peter Nicholas.

Thursday: Doc Gruber's SharkLab. Profiling the work of Dr. Sam Gruber and colleagues on lemon sharks at Bimini Biological Field Station.

Friday: Sharkspiration. The science of biomimicry is bringing sharks' best evolutionary innovations to a product near you. Sharkskin is inspiring a new kind of medical film that inhibits the growth of bacteria. Overreliance on antibiotics is fueling the rise of so-called superbugs, but it may be that a super marterial--sharkskin--will be able to take these bugs on.

Photo; Sharklet Technologies.
Are you listening, Discovery? The sharks are running out of time. For Shark Week 2011, maybe you can find a different story to tell about the world's emperiled sharks than "My, what big teeth you have."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Petits Serpents Bruns

Asked to name fun things to do in Paris in the summer, chances are you won’t think of sitting down in the back room of a natural history museum with a large bucket of venomous snakes and measuring them.

But measuring snakes is just what undergraduate and budding herpetologist Khoa Nguyen (Whitman ‘12) found himself doing under the direction of herpetologist and leading expert on the snakes of Africa, Kate Jackson. The Whitman College biology professor brought Nguyen and classmate Claire Snyder (’12) to the Musée Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris to get some research under their belts. Whitman College encourages its biology faculty to take undergraduates into the field, except when the field is a part of Congo so remote that most herpetologists have never set foot in it and where Jackson not so long ago found herself on the wrong end of a forest cobra’s fang. (You can find out how that turned out in her 2008 book, Mean and Lowly Things: Snakes, Science, and Survival in the Congo.)

Jackson originally planned for all three to work together on the museum’s collection of forest cobras, only to be told that a researcher at the museum was already at work on their forest cobra holdings himself. Jackson quickly had to come up with another project, and so Nguyen and Snyder found themselves in the back rooms of the research collection of the MNHN-Paris, learning all about “little brown snakes.”

“Khoa was very disappointed that we couldn’t do the project on forest cobras,” Jackson reported in a recent conversation from Paris. “Instead I set them a project researching the museum’s collection of egg-eating snakes and file snakes—what Jackson calls ‘little brown snakes.’ Well, that just didn’t do it for poor Khoa. World expert on venomous snake systematics, Wolfgang Wüster, when I discussed this with him, said he would have felt the same way as Khoa if he had to work on egg-eating snakes instead of cobras."

Jackson found a way for Nguyen to work on a charismatic, venomous snake after all--the Musée had a large vat of uncatalogued snakes from Cameroon. Nguyen was tasked to work on the museum’s holdings of Dendroaspis jamesoni, an arboreal snake known as Jameson's mamba. “Green mambas are so well studied, it was unlikely a student could uncover anything new about them in three weeks,” Jackson tells me.  “So he’s photographing them and measuring them and collecting data that might yield insights into snakes more generally.”

Nguyen and Snyder's weeks at the Paris Museum are being funded by a Perry Award from Whitman College to fund faculty-student research. Their work is part of a larger, more ambitious project to revise The Snakes of Western and Central Africa by Jackson and her colleague, tropical medicine expert Jean-Philippe Chippaux. The much-needed book will cover half the continent and nearly 250 species--a vital resource for a region where snakebite is serious problem and one of the only resources available is a reprint of the account of a 1912 snake collecting expedition. Nguyen and Snyder's efforts are contributing to a project that may help reduce some of the 20,000 deaths from snakebite in Africa each year.

Nguyen first takes a large carboy of miscellaneous mambas and begin to sort them by size—small, medium, and large.

By the end of the day the floor of the room is covered in drifts of snakeskin and scales, which have to be swept up with a dustpan.

Snyder is working on file snakes. “Claire thinks file snakes are incredibly cute, and she can’t understand why everyone doesn’t work on them,” Jackson reports. You can judge their cuteness for yourself; here is a file snake, Gonionotophis brussauxi, collected by Jackson last month during field work in the Congo. I think they are rather fetching.

File snakes are so named because they are triangular in cross-section, and resemble an old-fashioned three-sided file. File snakes come from Africa, and they’re cannibalistic, eating other snakes and even others of their own species. On her second day working on the MNHN-Paris holdings of file snakes, Snyder had found a misidentified specimen and correctly identified it. Jackson alerted the collections manager, and Snyder was asked to write out a new label. The relabeled jar now announces a “new determination, Claire Snyder.” Not bad for an undergraduate. 

When they run out of specimens, Nguyen and Snyder have to wheel a cart through the research building, past the small menagerie and snack bar in the museum complex, to a door “like the door of a dungeon” that leads to the collections storage. “Miles of corridors and stairs and things before you get to the actual shelves.” These are the compact, rotating kind. Eventually Nguyen and Snyder arrive at the section storing the carboys full of the species Khoa needs: Jameson’s mamba (Dendroaspis jamesoni).

While Jackson converses in French with the collections technician to arrange the transfer of the specimens to the cart, Snyder, who does not speak French, is managing through sign language to extract a recipe for crepes from the other technician. We rather admire Snyder’s initiative.

Older jars are sealed with silica gel (like the caulk around your tub) and beeswax. When a jar needs to be opened, a technician has to be summoned to come and carefully open it with a razor blade—with skill, this will leave both the jar lid and the technician’s hand intact.

It turns out many of the mambas were in bits—the way venomous snakes often find their way into collections. Non-herpetologists tend to want to make very sure the snake is dead before collecting it. “I told Khoa the Museum would be very grateful if you would reassemble all those and reattach them with string,” Jackson says, “but when he was done it turned out they were almost all heads.” A carboy of snakes is a lot like une boîte de chocolats--one can never be quite sure what one is going to get. But imagine the thrill of reaching into a jar sealed decades or even a century earlier, and extracting a specimen,  wondering about the story its collector must have to tell, the kind of story that doesn't fit on a label on a jar.

Jackson is in Paris writing up the next installment of her own story, her recent research expedition to the Congo—part of which will find its way into her next book, tentatively titled A Thousand, Thousand Slimy Things. In the meantime, you can listen to her being interviewed about her research and field work on NPR here. Mean and Lowly Things is newly out in paperback from Harvard University Press and The Snakes of Western and Central Africa will be published by Johns Hopkins Press in 2011.

All photos by Claire Snyder and Kate Jackson.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Moving On

Guest blogger Karen Romano Young aboard the icebreaker Healy, June 26, 2010.

Say it ain’t so.  My time with ICESCAPE aboard the jolly red icebreaker Coast Guard Cutter Healy has come to an end.  Kathryn Hansen, NASA’s cryosphere writer, joins the ship via helicopter from Barrow on Monday, June 28.  Then the helicopter takes me back to that small town on the edge of the Beaufort Sea, the northernmost point in North America and home to our community observer, Benny Hopson.

Benny has told me a lot about Barrow, told me about some whale scientists to talk to, and advised me to attend the Nalukataq, the celebration that marks the spring whaling hunt. If I’m lucky I’ll meet Harry Brower, Jr., a whale researcher who brought in the first bowhead  of the whaling season -- and I might even get thrown into the air at the blanket toss that’s the hallmark of Nalukataq.

I’ll be busy in Barrow, but I’ll be sad too, regretful about having to leave this wonderful group of scientists and “coasties”, which is what we affectionately call the men and women who look after the research needs of our country so well -- and who have done each of us aboard ICESCAPE so many good turns.  I’m grateful to the scientists, too, for their patience and forebearance in the face of my efforts to understand their work. This has been a crash course in Arctic ocean science for me, and it has been full of difficult concepts and surprises.

One thing that is not a surprise is the continued confirmation that the Arctic ice is melting due to climate change, and that the climate change is due to global warming, and that the melting of the Arctic ice is a sign of the averse effects of human activities on our planet. Scientists, Coast Guard, and everyone who spends time in the Arctic is in agreement about the decrease in the sea ice that supports a vital and rich food chain, and which contributes to the circulation of water throughout the planet.

I’m glad that NASA cared enough to send the scientists to study the Arctic ecosystem in an effort to get new evidence to support and strengthen their satellite surveillance of the area. And I’m grateful that they sent me along to help cover it.  I appreciate all three of my blog hosts, and to Ann Downer-Hazell, host of the Science + Story blog: hey Ann, I kept my promise. I found you an eddy chaser!

His name is Bob Pickart, a physical oceanographer from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.  Pickart and  his technician, Frank Bahr, are here measuring the circulation and water types throughout this cruise, using an instrument called the Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler, which emits sound signals from the Healy’s hull. “It emits sound that reflects off the particles (plankton and other substances) in the water.  If the bugs are moving, that tells you how the water’s moving relative to the ship.” Pickart uses the ADCP together with the CTD to link the character of the water with the currents and the sea floor, and supplies data about it to the other ICESCAPE scientists. As the cruise moves north (without me!) of Barrow and into a particularly volatile area, Pickart will shift gears, taking a more active role in guiding the ship’s path -- and maybe getting the chance to chase an eddy or two.

Pickart’s images from an expendable probe called the XBT reveals temperature at different depths. Can you spot the eddy? (top left)

Eddies form near the boundary of two different water types where there is often a strong current running parallel to the boundary. The current begins to “wiggle” and eventually pulls water from one side of the boundary to the other in the form of a lens (or eddy in oceanographic jargon). Bob Pickart provided this animation of eddy formation.

In the Arctic these eddies are tiny, often only 10 miles across. If Pickart can find an eddy, the Healy may attempt to stay with it, giving Pickart and the rest of the ICESCAPE team the chance to examine one up close. “It can be like finding a needle in a haystack,” says Pickart. But it’s a worthwhile needle, one that could reveal the mechanism that carries cold Pacific water from the shelf into the central Arctic, where it helps maintain the halocline, the salty barrier layer that keeps the deep, warm Atlantic water from rising to the top of the water column, where it could melt the Arctic ice sheet.

Oceanographers know the Pacific waters get there, but not how.  Pickart’s focus haystack is the shelf break jet, formed at the boundary of the Pacific water and the central Arctic water. This jet is known to be unstable, and the hope is that it will be spinning off eddies of cold Pacific winter water at this time of year.

The original plan had been for ICESCAPE  to run transects (paths of stations) in lines radiating out from Barrow, using the instruments we’ve been using since Dutch Harbor -- finding out what sorts of organisms live in the water, what they live on, and what their health is. As a group, the scientists understand the vitality of Barrow Canyon -- a deep canyon north of the town of Barrow -- and are eager to see what is happening here. Enter Bob Pickart to run quick stations using the CTD and ADCP only to measure salinity temperature and velocity in hope of finding one of these cold spirals  down deep.

What they find by chasing an eddy may contribute greatly to the understanding of how water, and other vital properties, moves through the Arctic -- and that, in turn, will make it easier to see how the Arctic will be affected by climate change.

Thank you for reading my  ICESCAPE blogs at Science + Story.  For more on ICESCAPE, please see my blog posts at Climate Central and NASA What on Earth? and Haley Smith Kingsland’s blog at the ICESCAPE site.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Walrus Post

Guest Science + Story blogger Karen Romano Young aboard ICESCAPE, Coast Guard Cutter Healy, Arctic Circle, 21 June 2010

“ ‘The time has come,’ the walrus said, ‘to talk of many things --’ ”

Such as what a big red ship was doing pushing through the ice floes at the head of Kotzebue Sound the other night, and what the big brown tusked lumps on the ice were thinking.

The walrus hauled out on the floes seemed to raft by us like Huckleberry Finn drifting down the Mississippi; actually of course they were immobile as swimmers lounging on poolside, while the Coast Guard Cutter Healy passed them by.  They were serene, but we on board were not. One cadet spotted a big bull swimming, and dashed along the rail to stay parallel to it, calling, “Walrus, my boy!”

Inside the ship in the Future Lab, my friend Haley Smith Kingsland, who’s writing the ICESCAPE blog for the official ICESCAPE site, googled up the collective noun for walrus: pod or herd. But, after seeing the walrus in their stoic groups along the floes, I searched for a more stately term. It ought to be a court of walrus, or a panel of walrus, or a parliament. This animal has attitude, and we can only imagine what it thinks of us.

But enough anthropomorphizing. My fantasy life aside, there is quite a walrus story, with a rich inner life, and with broad ramifications.  The walrus, some say, could be as much a poster child for the effects of climate change as its compatriot, the polar bear.

Walrus require ice to haul out on once they’ve finished diving deep and scouring the bottom for benthic (bottom) creatures such as snails and clams. But what happens when the ice melts? Walrus spend 80 percent of their time swimming, foraging for food at the sea floor, and then they haul out to rest on the ice.  Now that the Arctic climate is changing, the ice cover of the shallow continental shelf has melted back, and what ice can be found it too often over waters too deep for walrus to dive through on one breath.  The walrus have to move their poolside perch to the beach, too far from the food they rely upon.

Besides, the food they rely upon in turn relies upon algae that forms at the bottom of the ice. Without the ice, without the algae, without the benthic life...the Arctic could find itself without the number of walrus that once thrived here. And so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has petitioned for endangered status for the Pacific walrus.  A detailed report will be published in September 2010 in the Federal Register.

For another view, here’s a walrus doodle I did based on my walrus photographs and the information I found by researching the work of scientists Chad Jay of the U.S. Geological Survey, Carleton Ray of University of Virginia,  and Lee Cooper and Jacqueline Grebmeier of the University of Maryland Chesapeake Biological Lab, and by talking to ICESCAPE’s own Karen Frey, from Clark University.

Visit the Coast Guard Cutter Healy online.

Read the official ICESCAPE blog.

For more of my ICESCAPE experiences, please check
Climate Central:
NASA’s What on Earth?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Into the Bering Sea with ICESCAPE

Hey, it’s me, Karen Romano Young, guest-blogging on Science + Story from the Arctic Ocean.
After weeks of planning and losing sleep and counting the days, I’m finally aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy as it steams out of Dutch Harbor north, north, north into the Bering Sea, heading for the Arctic Circle.

This is the voyage of ICESCAPE, a contingent of 48 science crew and some 90 Coast Guard. For five weeks this group will explore the Bering Strait, Chukchi Sea, and Beaufort Sea, examining ice and sea in hope of reaching a better understanding of what climate change is doing to this region.
The sea is like slate, like shale, glowing with reflections of the sky, multilayered in shades of grey like rock, not steel.  As we move through Dutch’s giant rocky gates, we roll along gently with only a few reports of seasickness so far. My swivel stool rotates ten degrees with each swell.

The sky is all cloudy but with layers and streamers of cloud that let through just enough light to make you realize there really is color there if only the sun would come out -- but no, it’s gone again, above the clouds, where it’s mostly been, for the three days we’ve been to Dutch Harbor.

Dutch Harbor feels like a place at the end of the world, like the place in the epic novel The Golden Compass where Iorek Byrnison, the heroic polar bear, is enslaved. Maybe that is because of the icy mountains and harsh creatures -- a Supreme Court-gone bad of bald eagles, the ubiquitous sprawling king crabs that decorate t-shirts and mugs  (this is the home of The Deadliest Catch, after all -- I even met Lenny!). Maybe it’s because of our trip in, on a Saab 340 twin-propeller airplane so heavily laden with scientists and gear that it had to stop twice to refuel at tiny island airports, over the 800-mile flight.

Ahead of the Healy’s giant red prow, the sea troughs deepen. We’ve been advised to expect 9- to 12-foot seas, so those who haven’t completely secured their labs and berths hurry to do so. I sit on the stool next to and sleep in the bunk over Emily Peacock, from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Emily is a baker at the local pie shop, an owner of Chihuahas, and a technician in the lab of biologist Sam Laney. She has shown me how to secure my laptop, with cord strung across the hinge through two eyes screwed into the plywood countertop. I used bungee cords to create a little safe hammock in a corner for my books, cameras, and sound equipment. And now I’m back on deck again, sniffing the sea and shivering.

It’s in the 40s, and rain is spitting down. I hang on tight as I make my way, against the wind, up one of Healy’s many slick, steep ladders. I wonder what’s ahead, how long it will be before we see a whale or seal, how long before we reach ice.

Just before I left my home in Connecticut, late last week, ICESCAPE co-chief scientist Don Perovich, of the Army’s Cold Region’s Research and Engineering Laboratory, sent the science group a map showing the sea ice.  Here it is:

I wrote him,

Dear Don,

Beautiful!  What satellite is it from? And, to what degree does this meet your expectations?

Back came the answer:

Hi Karen

The image is from the website  [The Cryosphere Today, UIUC website]
I think it is from SSMI. There is less ice than I expected.

If you check there, you’ll see a new map of the Arctic ice, out this week, and can make your own comparisons.

Overall there is less ice in the Arctic than usual, and less for this date than in 2007, the year known for having the least ice there has been in the years since 1979, when the Arctic ice has been measured.

What would this change in ice mean to our mission? Today I asked ICESCAPE Chief Scientist Kevin Arrigo and his research partner Gert Van Dijken.  For their views, check in with my blog at Climate Central.

In days to come I will be blogging there, here,  and at NASA’s Earth Science blog, What on Earth?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Real Professors of the Far North

My son and I just finished reading The 7 Professors of the Far North, John Fardell’s 2005 arctic adventure romp. We really enjoyed the Tintin-esque vibe of the exotic setting, the even more exotic methods of transportation, and series of narrow escapes. (In this undated interview, circa 2006, Fardell cites both Tintin and Narnia as influences, and it shows. You quite easily could imagine these kids slipping through the wardrobe into Narnia, and Fardell’s illustrations pay homage to the late, great Hergé). Much as I enjoyed it, I closed the book wishing Fardell had added a tad more actual arctic science to the mix.

Well, over the next two months we'll all have the chance to follow the progress of some real-life professors of the far north, members of the NASA-sponsored ICESCAPE mission to study the effects of climate change on pack ice and the arctic ecosystem.

Don’t you wish you could tag along? Then be jealous—very, very jealous—of Karen Romano Young—children’s book writer and science explainer extraordinaire. Karen is the author of many books, including Across the Wide Ocean, four titles in National Geographic's Science Fair Winners series, and the forthcoming novel Doodlebug: A Novel in Doodles. She's been to sea before, and down to the bottom of the ocean in the submersible Alvin. So it's not suprising that she landed the gig of accompanying the ICESCAPE crew to the Arctic Sea on the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy this June and July. Karen will be checking in with Science + Story off and on while she's at sea as a guest blogger.

Science + Story: First, I'm unspeakably jealous! What will you actually be doing on board?

Karen Romano Young: Drawing, photographing, bothering, interviewing, looking over shoulders, asking questions, observing...I am writing a series of books about science notebooks--[a method being used in K-12 education in the lower grades to teach kids the method of observing and recording data scientists use]. The first book will be a science notebook about an investigation in the Arctic. The working title is Wren's Science Notebook: Investigating the Arctic. I published another book, Arctic Investigations, in 2000, but over the last decade the science has changed radically because of climate change.

S+S: It sounds fantastic. Why is NASA interested in the Arctic?

KRY: Previous research missions have usually included either open-ocean scientists or ice scientists. NASA is bringing them together in order to create dialogue and-- ultimately--a new discipline in science, focused on the sea-ice-air interface called the cryosphere.

S+S: So, in a way, you will be present at the birth of a new science?

KRY: Yes.

S+S: How did you convince NASA to save a berth for a children's book writer?

KRY: I can't think of a better place for a children's book writer to be than at a scientist's elbow as the discovery happens. On her blog, Melissa Stewart writes about research that shows that some huge percentage of scientists can trace their career choice back to an experience they had or mentor they knew when they were 7, 10 years old. For some kids, that experience may be a book.
Karen's ICESCAPE mission sets sail from Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutians, on June 15. Stay tuned for a schedule of her blog posts. I hope she will be able to tell me she saw a narwhal, if not a villain’s narwhal-shaped submarine. And maybe she will be able to tell me what “eddy chasing” involves.

For more about Karen, visit her website, For more about ICESCAPE, visit the mission website.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Animal Zombies Want Your Brains

I’m always scanning the news for stories about the science behind one of my ten-year-old’s current obsessions (zombies, robots, strange creatures from the deep), and this article and accompanying image gallery of animal zombies caught my attention. The folks at Scientific American have assembled a truly mind-boggling round-up of nature’s weirdest parasites, experts at hijacking other species to do their bidding. One parasitic worm impels its pillbug host to run out from under the safety of the leaf litter; an infected caterpillar is forced to guard the larvae of a parasitic wasp; a nematode turns a snail’s tentacles into light-up, wriggling appendages that look like tasty caterpillars to passing birds.


These examples go way beyond a wasp paralyzing a spider to serve as incubator and meal for her growing brood. These parasites actually change the behavior of their unwitting hosts. In his 1996 book Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology, Lawrence Weschler wrote about one spectacular animal zombie, tropical ants infected by a fungus called Cordyceps.  The fungus eats the ants from the inside out without killing them. When the food supply is almost exhausted and the fungus is ready to reproduce, its compels its host to climb to a high point and clamp onto a plant stem with its jaws. The fungus now devours the ant’s brain and its fruiting bodies sprout through the ant’s head and the joints of its appendages. I highly recommend exploring every nook of Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet; you can also learn how Cordyceps turns ants into pronged zombies here, on the Neurophilosophy blog.

(Bad as the ravages of Cordyceps may be for an individual worker ant, the ant-fungus relationship in general is far more beneficial to the colony, as the spectacular success of the fungus-farming ants attests. Recent research shows that ants didn’t just begin farming a single strain of fungus 50 million years ago—they have practiced real horticulture, domesticating new strains for their underground gardens.)


Even more mind-blowing? You might know of toxoplasmosis, the parasite found in garden soil and cat litter, that can cause serious medical complications in the fetuses of pregnant women who become exposed to the protozoan, Toxoplasma gondii. As the SciAm slide show points out, researchers now suspect latent toxoplasmosis may be behind subtle personality changes in people--a claim based on work by Kevin Lafferty at UC Santa Barbara. Men with a latent infection appeat to exhibit more jealousy and aggression and women hosting T. gondii in their brains appear warmer and more nurturing--though whether the parasite makes you more likely to have a dozen cats is still a matter of conjecture. There’s an older post, "Return of the Puppet Masters," on Carl Zimmer’s blog, The Loom,  that covers the science up to 2006.
You can also read the more recent post, “Parasitic Personality Disorder” order on the blog Strange Loops, and contemplate how much you yourself might have been shaped by a parasite in your brain. Strange Loops writes:
… there is a decent chance you are infected with T. gondii, and it may have helped shape your personality, who you are. It’s always disorienting to contemplate, but it is hard to deny fact that our personality – how we think and act and respond to situations – is to at least to some extent externally determined, by genes inherited from our parents, by past experiences growing up, and even by latent parasitic infections.

My son, who was a spectacular zombie for Halloween last year, may be thrilled to learn he may be a little bit zombie after all. Me? Not so much.

Zombie bunny (c) 2009 Chris Boyd, www.crazy3Dman

Friday, April 16, 2010

Superhero Scientists with Tentacles? Bring 'em on.

Great article and slide show up on the New York Times website from this past Monday about the considerable body of work comic art genius Jack Kirby left behind on the drawing board when he died in 1994. Dave Itzkoff's article, "Jack Kirby's Heroes in Waiting," details how the talented and prolific Kirby moved from New York to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, working first for Hanna-Barbera and then for Ruby-Spears, creating character designs for their Conan-lite Saturday morning serial, Thundarr the Barbarian.

Clicking through the slideshow, my attention was immediately caught by the slide for a presentation board for a show called the Gargoids, "scientists who gain superpowers after becoming infected with an alien virus."

It would be great if the producers now looking to bring some of these concepts to the big and small screens took the opportunity to learn something about the amazing superpowers of viruses themselves. Stop someone on the street and ask them what a virus is and you'll find that, despite decades of media noise about HIV and West Nile and H1N1, we don't really know. A project in the Omaha, Nebraska, public schools is empowering kids with the knowledge and journalism skills to create videos for use in classrooms to educate their peers about viruses--not just what they are and how they make us sick, but how viruses in all their amazing diversity are a vital part of life on Earth. It's an inspiring example of students learning to use storytelling to first make sense of science and then share their new expertise with others.

The World of Viruses project is spreading that message through other media as well--including Kirby's chosen medium. Bringing together comic book vets Martin Powell, Brent Schoonover, and Thomas Floyd, the World of Viruses project is creating graphic novels that bring viruses to life through traditional superhero graphics and story lines.

The science content is vetted by virologists through the Nebraska Virology Center and story lines and art alike go through several drafts to pass scientific muster.  The comics that result are bound together with nonfiction essays by award-winning science writer Carl Zimmer. The first three issues tell the stories of the human papiloma virus, influenza, and an ocean virus called EhV.

Printed and bound copies of the comics are being distributed to teachers and students through schools and libraries, but if you want your own copy you can download it for free through iTunes, as an iPhone app or in full-sized glory on the iPad.

Full disclosure: Elefolio provides some editing support for the World of Viruses project. (My paying clients are always listed on the front page of this blog.) I'm a huge fan of the graphic format, and especially interested in the possibility of the graphic novel form in furthering the public understanding of science, so it's been a special treat to be involved with the project in even a small way.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


I’m always happy to watch movies about dirigibles and robots, and never more so when the hero is a young inventor.

Not so long ago we watched Steamboy, Katsuhiro Otomo’s 2004 steampunk anime. I have a budding animator with a tinkering bent at home, and it was a pleasure to watch a movie with him that featured a young inventor hero, Ray Steam.  (There are also great pleasures to be had from the scenes of the young female aviation designer, Fio, in Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso.)

The tinkering bent brings with it a constellation of related interests. The science fair experiment in progress at our house involves an investigation into air pressure via a homemade potato cannon. We sampled the invention camp sponsored by the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and that was fine, but we’re migrating back to a camp with a more unstructured, self-directed Maker Faire ethic—Parts and Crafts, based in NYC and Boston. There is just a little whiff of void-the-warranty anarchy that we like.

So it was with glee that we caught the viral video by OK Go, in which a team of engineers crafted a huge Rube Goldberg machine timed to the verses of “This Too Shall Pass.” Wired has an article about the team that created the video and the video itself up on their site.  The OK Go video was fresh in my mind when I got a call from Shawn Jordan, Perdue grad and Rube Goldberg machine builder extraordinaire and veteran of the National Rube Goldberg Machine Building Contest. I’ll be talking about the Rube Goldberg contest itself more in a later post, but it was in reconnecting with Jordan that I learned about ST∑@M. STEM is used in K-12 education parlance to refer to a constellation of disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. ST∑@M is devoted to the idea that you gain more traction and bring more kids into the circle when you add the A (or @) for Art.
In a March 9 Commentary in Education Week, Joseph Piro of Long Island University wrote urging we not overlook the arts in the push to create a scientifically literate citizenry. He concluded

If American schools are to become a leading force in guaranteeing that the country is well prepared to negotiate the complexities of the future, they must be encouraged to make every student’s education one that is broad and comprehensive. And in meeting this goal, we might take a cue from Albert Einstein. While Einstein’s reputation undoubtedly rests on his scientific contributions, a lesser-known fact about him was his estimable musical ability. This great physicist, theoretician, and STEM-exemplar was known for revering Bach and Mozart, and to have once said: “I know that the most joy in my life has come to me from my violin.”

I will be thinking about the care and feeding of my own steamboy as I hear him practicing violin out in the kitchen, the sheet music secured to our fridge with a magnet.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Technovelgy: Tracking How Science Fiction Becomes Science Fact

This is really a short follow-up to my earlier post, "Where's my #@%&!*S jetpack?! Oh, wait," from January 12.

I am writing a book for Lerner Books on elephant communication, and yesterday was researching an arcane bit of elephant sensory anatomy in the trunk called vellus vibrissae, sensory whisker-like hairs that don't break the surface of the skin. This sent me off on a long tangent into the science of the mammalian whisker as a sensor, and I soon uncovered some awesome whiskered robots. From there, it was a short jump to the technovelgy website: an exhaustive list of inventions predicted by science fiction writers, and a subset of those that are coming true. (One of my favorite science fiction novels, Jonathan Lethem's Gun with Occasional Music, is distressingly less fictional all the time. The self-aware talking kangaroos still aren't here, it's true, but the arsenal of pharmaceuticals with names like Acceptol, Avoidol, Forgettol appears to have arrived.) At last count, the brain(s) behind technovelgy has assembled 1,865 examples of science fiction inventions, dating back to Johannes Kepler's description of weightlessness in his 1634 work, Somnium. Check the "Science Fiction in the News" part of the site to see which ones are coming true.

Of course, robot mice without whiskers are hardly new: this competition for robot mice to run a maze dates back to the 1970s.

Robots with whiskers have real-world applications, including being able to search rubble after natural disasters. The ScratchBOT robic "rat" in development at two UK universities may soon be put to use in search and rescue missions. Amazing video of it at work here.

Who is this technovelgy guy? It's not really clear. But I am signing up for the RSS feed and checking out his blogroll.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

In Appreciation of Squirrels and Other Urban Wildlife

Science + Story would like to point out that tomorrow is Squirrel Appreciation Day. Founded in 2001 by North Carolina-based wildlife rehabilitator Christy Hargrove, it is a holiday with no greater agenda than to further the appreciation of the Sciuridae. Hargrove suggests putting out extra food or learning something new about your backyard squirrels.

If you are motivated to celebrate the occasion in a manner other than scattering some peanuts in the shell, you might visit the website of Project Squirrel at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago. Become a citizen scientist and log your observations of your neighborhood squirrel species into their database and contribute to the body of knowledge about the Gray Squirrel, the Fox Squirrel, and urban ecology more generally.

If your feelings toward urban wildlife run to darker or more ambivalent emotions, I recommend visiting the website of visual artist Amy Stein. An exhibit of her photographs, Domesticated: Modern Dioramas of Our New Natural History, premieres at the Harvard Natural History Museum January 22 and will remain up until April 18, 2010. From the Museum website:

Informed by actual newspaper accounts and oral histories from residents of the small town of Matamoras in northeastern Pennsylvania, Stein’s photographs are staged scenes, often using taxidermied animals, illustrating real-life encounters between humans and animals. A girl and huge bear stare at each other from opposite sides of a fence surrounding the family pool. Coyotes howl at a street light. Stein’s images, at the same time both surreal and paradoxical, explore the increasingly permeable boundary between the human/built environment and the wild. Stein writes, “We at once seek connection with the mystery and freedom of the natural world, yet we continually strive to tame the wild around us and compulsively control the wild within our own nature."
Stein opens the exhibit with a gallery talk January 22 at 4:00 pm.  The museum is also hosting wildlife biologist Stephen DeStefano, reading from his book about urban wildlife, Coyote at the Kitchen Door, January 23 at 2:00 pm. You can bring peanuts for the squirrels on the museum's snow-covered lawn.

Photo from Domesticated by Amy Stein.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Where's my #@%&!*S jetpack?! Oh, wait.

We are huge fans of Threadless , the T shirt site where the community designs the shirts and votes on which ones gets produced. It has been for the last four years the only way I dress my son, who seems to be channeling some combination of Thomas Edison and H. P. Lovecraft.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about this design by John Slabyk, titled "Damn Scientists." The text is kind of hard to read, but it says: "They lied to us. This was supposed to be the future. Where is my jetpack? Where is my robot companion? Where is my dinner in pill form? Where is my hydrogen fueled automobile? Where is my nuclear powered levitating house? Where is my cure for this disease?"

It appears this shirt is going to have to be revised soon as the sci-fi future bears down on us. Witness the story in the last Food Issue of the New Yorker about "The Taste Makers" at the company Givaudan. The flavorists at Givaudan are on the verge of creating, if not dinner in pill form, then a pretty accurate version of Violet Beauregarde's Three-Course-Dinner Chewing Gum from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Robot companion? Check.
Jetpack? Working on it.
Hydrogen car? Honda has that.

Smart phones are looking more and more like tricorders from Star Trek. If you think that's a stretch, Google "Science apps for iPhone."

My point here is that the future has a way of creeping up on you. I guess when I pictured the future, I imagined a digital world, all glass and steel, and gizmos looking something like the Kindle. I just didn't envision the messy part, where the Kindle and the book were coexisting, like Cro Magnons and Neanderthals.

Maybe some far-future PhD candidate will write a thesis on the demise of the book and whether the Kindle was the death knell for books with pages and that wonderful dead-tree smell. In the meantime, I may check out Dan Wilson's Where's My Jet Pack? A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived.  Already a little outdated, perhaps (see above), but I think Wilson, a roboticist, has interesting things to say about how science and society march to different drummers and why some inventions just never catch fire. And check out Wilson's blog here, where you can find out more about the coming robot apocalypse.

You can get your own "WHERE'S MY #@%&!*S JETPACK?!" poster by Paul Sizer,

Monday, January 4, 2010

10 Red Balloons

At the beginning of a new decade, battered by all kinds of best-of and year-end listmaking, I decided to go for a walk with my Blackberry to listen to some science podcasts that had accumulated, waiting for me to listen to them. And so I heard this Science Friday podcast from December 11 about the DARPA Network Challenge. From the Science Friday site:
The challenge: find the geographic coordinates of 10 red weather balloons scattered across the country, as quickly as possible. The contest, sponsored by DARPA, aimed to "explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems."
It's old news now that a team from MIT found all 10 balloons in a staggering 9 hours, using the power of social networking, but the phrase in the podcast that leapt out at me was "viral collaboration." Since I've listened to the red balloon story, friends on Facebook have been reposting a YouTube video titled "Just One Dog" about a mutt in a high-kill animal shelter saved through the efforts of people enlisted through social networks. And tomorrow, friends and family of Utah resident Susan Powell, missing since early December, will begin a media blitz on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to try and draw attention to her case in an effort to locate her. The real-world ribbons tied on signposts and trees during the disappearance of Salt Lake teenager Elizabeth Smart in 2002 have eight years later become virtual ribbons online. As the Deseret News says in the lead to their story, "Friends and family of Susan Powell want the search for the missing mother of two to go viral."

It's a more than a little disconcerting to me that it's DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, that's interested in the power of viral collaboration. But I thought back to the role that Twitter played in citizen reporting during the Iranian election in the summer of 2009, and I wanted to know more about how the viral power of social media was being tapped for positive change. Was this just a new buzzword, like the "crowdsourcing" of 2005? Or did it have the potential to be much more, especially in the role of citizen science?

The social networking site is supposed to launch later this month. It's billing itself as Craigslist meets for Citizen Scientists. I know I'm intrigued. Until the social network for citizen scientists goes live, you can find a citizen science project through the blog of the Science Cheerleader. That's where I also found news of EpiCollect, a data gathering application originally designed for epidemiology but now allowing a diffuse network of users to contribute data points to a single Google Map. I'm picturing elementary school kids fanned out on a species inventory, snapping images of flora and fauna with Android-powered smartphones, and then being able to see the images as points on a global map. That's a kind of viral collaboration that's anything but scary.