Author: Jeremy Yoder

Requiescat: David Rakoff

Requiescat: David Rakoff

He died last night of that cancer. Thanks to This American Life for putting this online—and for being the main venue through which I knew him, while I could. See also: Fresh Air, Boing Boing, and the Awl.

Incidentally, this piece from the last TAL live show wasn’t the final work of his I heard—that would be this imaginary correspondence between Gregor Samsa and Dr. Seuss. Which, I know, right? But it’s really pretty awesome.◼


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Science online, dilated pupils edition

Science online, dilated pupils edition

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pupils 2007 An apt pupil. Photo by thraxil.
  • So. Freaking. Cool. NASA successfully landed a car-sized, nuclear-powered, laser-equipped exploratory rover on Mars—for a fifth of the cost of the 2012 Olympic Games.
  • Meanwhile, in the life sciences. Thousands of ecologists converge on Portland, Oregon for the Ecological Society of America meeting. Check Dynamic Ecology and EEB & Flow for coverage.
  • What is the difference between wheelchair racing and cycling, when you think about it? The line between human athletic achievement and technological advancement is fuzzier than you might think.
  • Next: NOM announces that pupil dilation is a “lifestyle choice.” A new approach to testing sexual orientation measures pupil dilation. See also good discussion by Scicurious and Deborah Blum.
  • Yet another microbiome. Examining the bacteria living on the surface of plant roots might be as informative as examining the ones living inside plant roots.
  • Commitment to innovation? Apparently the fundamentalist textbooks for Christian schools are now opposed to set theory.
  • FACT: Wearing a bike helmet all day = 80% reduced risk of death by meteor. How to clearly explain risk, with an illustrative story.
  • Because we only think they think they’re people. Why it’s important to avoid anthropomorphizing when discussing the sexual habits of non-human animals.
  • Cool! Google Scholar will now identify new articles for you to read based on your own publication list.
  • That … sounds like a problem. Some of the world’s most important food-producing regions are living on non-renewable water.


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Is corn the new milk? Evolutionarily speaking, that is.

Is corn the new milk? Evolutionarily speaking, that is.

 

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colorful fall corn Corn. Photo by srqpix.

ResearchBlogging.orgIt is a widespread misconception that, as we developed the technology to reshape our environment to our preferences, human beings neutralized the power of natural selection. Quite the opposite is true: some of the best-known examples of recent evolutionary change in humans are attributable to technology. People who colonized high-altitude environments were selected for tolerance of low-oxygen conditions in the high Himalayas and Andes; populations that have historically raised cattle for milk evolved the ability to digest milk sugars as adults.

A recent study of population genetics in Native American groups suggests that another example is ripening in the experimental fields just a few blocks away from my office at the University of Minnesota: Corn, or maize, may have exerted natural selection on the human populations that first cultivated it.

The target of this new study is an allele called 230Cys, a variant of a gene involved in transporting cholesterol. 230Cys is known only in Native American populations, and it’s associated with abnormally low production of HDL cholesterol (that’s the “good” kind of cholesterol) and thereby increased risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. In Native American populations, the genetic code near 230Cys shows the reduced diversity associated with a selective sweep, which suggests that, although it’s not particuarly helpful now, this variant may have been favored by selection in the past.

Read more …

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Rainbow flags over the ‘burbs

Rainbow flags over the ‘burbs

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Rainbow Flag Photo by Mktp.

Over at The Atlantic, there’s a nice piece about how the conversation-centric campaign against the proposed anti-gay-marriage amendment to Minnesota’s state constitution is playing out in communities outside the famously queer-friendly Twin Cities. It comes across as pretty hopeful, I’d say.

[Wendy] Ivins recalls a discussion she had one night with a neighbor who argued, “There are more important issues to deal with, like the economy.”

Ivins’ husband, Gary, stepped in. “I’m not an economist,” he said. “I can’t solve the economy. I’m not a military strategist, so I can’t do that. I’m a doctor — and this I do know: Every human being deserves the right to be treated the same as everybody else, and the ability to marry and spend your life with someone is a fundamental right. This is on our ballot right now; it’s important to us right now that we do something about this.”

“The person backed down a bit,” Ivins says. “It’s all about civil rights, injustice. But it’s simpler than that. It’s about individual families—what does it mean personally to you?”

That’s right out of the Minnesotans United for All Families playbook, that is. For more detail (and, yes, the inevitable references to Lake Wobegone), go read the whole thing.◼


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Science online, solve for x edition

Science online, solve for x edition

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Ocean Latte Save your Starbucks card, and have a cup of ocean instead. Photo by nicadlr.


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Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Music, evolved?

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Music, evolved?

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SATB Choral Music Music. Photo by Andy Buscemi.

Over at the collaborative science blog Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, guest contributor James Gaines writes about the evolutionary context of music-making.

Music is one of the few social constructs that truly permeates human culture, and reasons for this have fascinated scientists and philosophers for centuries. Even Darwin himself wrote on the subject, speculating about whether and how natural selection could explain it. Today, there seem to be three major ideas behind why music evolved.

For a breakdown of those three evolutionary hypotheses, go read the whole thing.◼


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Science online, disruptive lesbian astronauts edition

Science online, disruptive lesbian astronauts edition

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Sally Ride. Photo by WikiMedia Commons.
  • She defied gravity. Sally Ride, the first female U.S. astronaut—and only queer astronaut?—died this week. See also, also, and also.
  • Quiet, honey! Hungry bats zero in on the sound of flies mating.
  • I think yes. Do evidence-based teaching methods need to start addressing motivated reasoning?
  • Is anyone surprised? The geometry of herd responses to a predator suggests sheep are selfish.
  • Sure, why the hell not? Is open-access on the verge of “disrupting” academic publishing?
  • War on facts, round infinity. Government-funded research did, in fact, create the Internet.
  • Isn’t this like making Solo cups out of steel? Shark teeth are covered in fluoride, which may mean they never get cavities.
  • It’d be … kinda gross. If Spiderman’s anatomy more properly paralleled a real spider’s.
  • You’re doing it wrong. Pronouncing “Muller’s Ratchet”, that is.
  • Gooey suicide bombers. In one species of termites, aging workers end their careers as suicide bombers.


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One way to successfully invade a habitat: eat the competition

One way to successfully invade a habitat: eat the competition

 

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Harmonia axyridis, adulte The Harlequin ladybug, Harmonia axyridis. Photo by Ombrosoparacloucycle.

ResearchBlogging.orgThe Asian Harlequin ladybug, Harmonia axyridis, eats aphids like they’re Popplers, and it’s been repeatedly introduced into the U.S. and Europe to do exactly that. But since it was first introduced, H. axyridis has spread of its own accord, and displaced native ladybugs. This isn’t just because the Harlequin ladybug eats more aphids, or breeds faster, than the locals; it looks like part of the Harlequin’s success is due to the fact that it eats its native competition.

Although they’re known for eating aphids, most ladybugs are perfectly willing to engage in intraguild predation—that is, to eat other insects that are themselves primarily predators. Including other ladybugs. So a team at Wageningen University in the Netherlands set out to see whether H. axyridis might engage in a different kind of intraguild predation than its native competitors—do the Harlequins preferentially attack ladybugs of different species, and, when they do, are they more likely to win?

The team tested this in what they call a “semi-field” experiment, by creating encounters between ladybug larvae on individual leaves of small potted lime trees. They chose two other ladybug species, Coccinella septempunctata and Adalia bipunctata, for comparison to, and competition with, H. axyridis. Then, on the leaves of small potted lime trees, the researchers set up larval ladybug death matches.

Death matches for science, mind you.

Read more …

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Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Searching for Ronald Fisher

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Searching for Ronald Fisher

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Geneticist Ronald A. Fisher. Photo via WikiMedia Commons.

This week at the collaborative science blog Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, my lab-mate John Stanton-Geddes writes about the current state of evolutionary genetics, as presented at the recent Evolution meetings in Ottawa:

One theme that emerged through the meeting was “The genetic basis for [insert trait here]. While this goal of mapping phenotype to genotype has been a primary goal of many evolutionary ecologists since the first QTL mapping studies, it has recently come under strong criticism, notably in a fantastic paper by Matthew Rockman in the journal Evolution last year, but also by Pritchard and Di Rienzo 2010 and in a forthcoming article by Ruth Shaw (full disclosure: Ruth was my PhD advisor) and Mike Travisano.

Readers of Denim and Tweed will recognize that John’s complaint about our ongoing fixation (ha!) on individual genes of large effect mirrors some of my own recent thinking. So naturally, I think you should go read the whole thing.◼


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