Biology

Image sampler: Pollination Power

May 15, 2017
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Image sampler: Pollination Power

Below follow just a few of the spectacular macrophotographic images culled from Heather Angel’s Pollination Power for a recent profile in the New York Times. Sourcing flora from more than twenty countries, Angel delivered a technically laborious, otherworldly portrait of one of nature’s more intimate processes. You can read more about the book here. Also this line: “Sometimes you see up to five solitary male bees sleeping in a flower,” Ms. Angel said.     To read more about Pollination Power, click here. . . .

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The Fox in the Big House

May 3, 2017
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The Fox in the Big House

Smarty Pants—a new podcast from the folks at the American Scholar—debuted “The Fox in the Big House,” a brand new episode featuring Lee Dugatkin, who talks up his latest book How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) by recounting the historical particularities behind a Cold War-era Soviet experiment that started with few dozen silver foxes from Siberian farms and then attempted to recreate the evolution of wolves into dogs in real time. Intrigue! Listen in here. To read more about How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog), click here. . . .

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Microbes from Hell!

May 1, 2017
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Microbes from Hell!

From “Fungi to be with,” a recent joint review of Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes  and Patrick Forterre’s Microbes from Hell in the TLS: Yong takes his readers to the forefront of microbial science by interviewing the relevant researchers, one of whom could have been Patrick Forterrre of the Institut Pasteur. The fact that Yong didn’t make it to Paris makes Forterre’s memoir, Microbes from Hell, read as a clean take on some of the same material, in particular the micro-organisms that have adapted to live in extreme environments. These “extremophiles” can cope with the high temperatures of hot springs and deep sea thermal vents, which are often also highly acidic or abound with sulphur. Others thrive in intensely salty places, or with amounts of radiation that were long thought to be inimical to life. Their adaptations and coexistence with their own viruses have much to tell us about life on earth and its history. To read more about Microbes from Hell, click here. . . .

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks/Life on Ice

April 21, 2017
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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks/Life on Ice

This weekend, The Immortal Life on Henrietta Lacks premieres on HBO, adapted from Rebecca Skloot’s critically acclaimed book, and starring none other than Oprah Winfrey. The story that book tells—how one woman’s cancerous cells, obtained without permission during a 1951 biopsy, went on to become the HeLa cell line, which introduced the idea of the “immortalized” cell (cells that, if properly maintained, can and will reproduce themselves indefinitely—even outside of the human body), and changed biomedical research forever. Lacks’s story is only part of a larger narrative about the history of biobanking—when, under pressure from Cold War-era atomic survivalism, scientists began stockpiling and freezing blood samples from global indigenous communities—samples believed to hold crucial keys about everything from microbes to genetic evolution—all the while facilitating the birth of the genomic age.  Joanna Radin’s Life on Ice: A History of New Uses for Cold Blood unpacks that complex history, reframing the biobank experiments as building blocks for today’s biomedicine, and locating them in their unique technical and social milieu, while offering up an endlessly fascinating digestion of a biological timeline set toward immortality. From a review of the book in Nature: sharply original history focuses on serum collected from indigenous communities and frozen during the cold war. Some samples have . . .

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Excerpt: The Personalities on the Plate

April 12, 2017
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Excerpt: The Personalities on the Plate

Frequent NPR contributor, animal intelligence expert, and anthropologist Barbara J. King steals the show—and the front page—at NPR, with the below excerpts from her latest book, Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. *** Chickens may be resplendently different one from the other, as was immediately apparent when I made six hen acquaintances at Wilder Ranch State Park near Santa Cruz, Calif., in the summer of 2015. These beautiful birds, with names like Goosey and Bella, ranging in color from white to gold and yellow, sometimes with patches of a soft iridescent blue, live in an outdoor coop outfitted with a chicken swing for exercise. During my visit they were turned out into a vegetable garden; there among the planted rows, one sunbathed and several foraged. Some invited human interaction, and others did not. I gently picked up Bella — so white, so soft — and held her against my chest in a serene encounter that I enjoyed greatly and that Bella seemed to soak up pleasurably as well. That I held, stroked and talked to a chicken for the first time in my 50s is very much a product of my time and place. In . . .

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Raptor at Kirkus Reviews

April 5, 2017
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Raptor at Kirkus Reviews

James Macdonald Lockhart’s Raptor: A Journey through Birds was recently covered by Kirkus Reviews; their review follows in full, below. *** When William MacGillivray (1796-1852) published his History of British Birds in 1845, a fellow ornithologist was lavish with praise: “There is a peculiar mountain freshness about Mr. MacGillivray’s writings, combined with fidelity and truths in delineation, rarely possessed by Naturalists, and hitherto not surpassed.” Literary agent Lockhart’s elegant, engrossing literary debut deserves equal acclaim. Buoyed by MacGillivray’s journals and books, particularly his first, on rapacious birds, Lockhart evokes in precise, vibrant detail every aspect of the fascinating predators and their habitats. Although their behaviors vary, all raptors share startlingly acute vision. Humans have about 200,000 photoreceptor cells; birds, 1 million. Like binoculars, their eyes magnify images by around 30 percent. “Birds of prey,” writes the author, “see the whole twitching world in infinite, immaculate detail.” And their world is vast. Ospreys, for example, spend winters in the mangrove swamps of West Africa, flying thousands of miles across the Sahara to arrive in Britain to breed. Peregrine falcons, “specialist” predators that prefer “medium-sized avian prey,” return to the same nest sites each year, guided by droppings left from the previous year’s young. In . . .

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Free e-book for April: Walden Warming

April 3, 2017
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Free e-book for April: Walden Warming

  Our free e-book for April is Richard B. Primack’s Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods. Download your copy here. *** In his meticulous notes on the natural history of Concord, Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau records the first open flowers of highbush blueberry on May 11, 1853. If he were to look for the first blueberry flowers in Concord today, mid-May would be too late. In the 160 years since Thoreau’s writings, warming temperatures have pushed blueberry flowering three weeks earlier, and in 2012, following a winter and spring of record-breaking warmth, blueberries began flowering on April 1—six weeks earlier than in Thoreau’s time. The climate around Thoreau’s beloved Walden Pond is changing, with visible ecological consequences. In Walden Warming, Richard B. Primack uses Thoreau and Walden, icons of the conservation movement, to track the effects of a warming climate on Concord’s plants and animals. Under the attentive eyes of Primack, the notes that Thoreau made years ago are transformed from charming observations into scientific data sets. Primack finds that many wildflower species that Thoreau observed—including familiar groups such as irises, asters, and lilies—have declined in abundance or have disappeared from Concord. Primack also describes how warming temperatures have altered . . .

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#ReadUPScience: Monkeytalk(ing)

March 15, 2017
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#ReadUPScience: Monkeytalk(ing)

Check out an excerpt from a recent review of Julia Fischer’s Monkeytalk: Inside the Worlds and Minds of Primates, at Science News, after the jump. *** “Fischer catapulted into a career chasing down monkeys in 1993. While still in college, she monitored captive Barbary macaques. That led to fieldwork among wild macaques in Morocco. In macaque communities, females hold central roles because young males move to other groups to mate. Members of closely related, cooperative female clans gain an edge in competing for status with male newcomers. Still, adult males typically outrank females. Fischer describes how the monkeys strategically alternate between attacking and forging alliances. After forging her own key scientific alliances, Fischer moved on to study baboons in Africa, where she entered the bureaucratic jungle. Obtaining papers for a car in Senegal, for instance, took Fischer several days. She first had to shop for a snazzy outfit to impress male paper-pushers, she says. Fischer and her local guide then shuttled from one government official to another until a well-timed phone call from a local police chief to a key bureaucrat finally produced the forms. Monkeys get the job done using their own brand of intelligence, Fischer writes. Macaques and baboons navigate their home . . .

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#ReadUPScience: A Digital Menagerie from The Paper Zoo

March 13, 2017
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#ReadUPScience: A Digital Menagerie from The Paper Zoo

American Scientist explores several centuries-worth of zoology on paper at the British Library in a review + “digital menagerie” from The Paper Zoo, an excerpt from which follows below. *** Historian Charlotte Sleigh’s book The Paper Zoo, which taps into the British Museum’s rich collection to explore and contextualize five centuries of zoological illustration (our sampler), leads one to conclude that the refrain’s origin can be traced back to 1659. Johann Amos Comenius’s elementary reader Orbis sensualium pictus (“The Visible World in Pictures”), Sleigh explains, “is commonly regarded as the first picture book for children.” By combining didactic text with illustrations Comenius had, with the stroke of a printing press, invented multimedia instruction. His petite depictions of animals, each appearing alongside a letter of the alphabet meant to represent the sound the animal makes, are clear and endearing without being especially cute. It’s easy to see how they would capture a child’s interest and, as Sleigh observes, ease memorization: Presenting the image of an animal next to a letter whose sound replicates the creature’s hooting, braying, growling, or hissing was an instructional breakthrough. In addition to their utility in the classroom, Sleigh notes, zoological illustrations helped far-flung naturalists keep up with discoveries made in . . .

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Touch Press sale: Gems and Jewels app

February 23, 2017
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Touch Press sale: Gems and Jewels app

Gems and Jewels is an app and the product of a unique collaboration between the University of Chicago Press and the Grainger Hall of Gems at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History (along with the Field Museum’s senior vice-president and curator of gems and gemstones, Lance Grande), published by the digital mavens at Touch Press. Crystals, crystals, crystals—also Etruscan gold necklaces, insects paralyzed in Baltic amber, and a 16th-century Aztec opal made in the image of the Sun God—all in 360-degree rotation, along with detailed captions and scientific data from Wolfram|Alpha, including classification, group, hardness scale, and chemical compound. Accompanying text unfolds from the upper left corner of each page and explores the roles of particular gems in human culture, explains geographic origins, and recounts the extraordinary histories of particular jeweled pieces. Starting today and for the next week, all Touch Press apps are 50 percent off at the iTunes store, including Gems and Jewels. You can check out the sale here. If you’ve never had a look at the app before, the video below should give you an indication of what you’re missing: To read more about Gems and Jewels, click here. . . .

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