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.