Biology

TRAFFIC: Carl Zimmer and Richard Preston

May 12, 2011
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TRAFFIC: Carl Zimmer and Richard Preston

Welcome back to TRAFFIC, a Chicago Blog series featuring leading figures from across the humanities and sciences, whose prescient views on current events help us to interpret contemporary culture. We’re delighted to continue this month’s Friday TRAFFIC features, led by popular science writer Carl Zimmer. This week Zimmer welcomes Richard Preston, New Yorker contributor and bestselling author, for a conversation on smallpox and the possible eradication of other viruses. Richard Preston is the author of seven books, including The Hot Zone, The Cobra Event, and The Demon in the Freezer. He is a regular contributor to the New Yorker, and his awards include the American Institute of Physics Award and the National Magazine Award. Preston also the only person who isn’t a medical doctor ever to receive the Centers for Disease Control’s Champion of Prevention Award for public health. Should Smallpox Be Put To Death? Dear Carl: There’s a debate in the scientific community about what to do with the remaining stocks of smallpox virus on the planet. Should the virus be preserved so that it can be studied? Or should the virus be destroyed, so that—in theory at least—it would become extinct and would not threaten the human species . . .

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TRAFFIC: Carl Zimmer and W. Ian Lipkin

May 3, 2011
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TRAFFIC: Carl Zimmer and W. Ian Lipkin

Welcome to TRAFFIC, a series exclusive to the Chicago Blog presenting an exchange of thoughts between leading figures from across the humanities and sciences, whose prescient views on current events help us to interpret contemporary culture. We’re delighted to begin a month’s worth of Friday TRAFFIC posts helmed by popular science writer Carl Zimmer in collaboration with some of our most acclaimed virologists, immunologists, and scientifically minded journalists. Please join us for the next four weeks in welcoming discussions on virology and immunology with W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity; small pox with Richard Preston, New Yorker writer and bestselling author; phage therapy with Timothy Lu, inventor and Novophage founder; and ocean viruses with Sallie Chisholm, biological oceanographer and marine science expert. With that in mind, join us for our first TRAFFIC exchange with Zimmer and Lipkin below: The New York Times calls Carl Zimmer “as fine a science essayist as we have.” In his widely admired books, essays, and blogs, Zimmer charts the frontiers of biology. Booklist acclaimed his most recent title A Planet of Viruses as “absolutely top-drawer popular science writing.” Zimmer is a lecturer at Yale University, where he teaches writing about . . .

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The Cougar which isn’t a Mellencamp

March 21, 2011
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The Cougar which isn’t a Mellencamp

The eastern mountain lion—called occasionally cougar, catamount, panther, painter, puma, or mountain screamer—was once one of the most widely distributed terrestrial mammals in the Western Hemisphere. But times have turned for these secretive and crepuscular big cats (the cougar is the largest of the small cats, actually, although it characteristically resembles those from the larger Pantherinae subfamily). In the twentieth century, following two centuries of European colonization, the mountain lion population on the Eastern seaboard was declared all but extinct. Dwellers in this coastal region questioned the existence of this majestic subspecies, giving rise to all sorts of legends—all of this despite the fact that it had been officially listed on the United States Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species list since 1973. On March 2, 2011, the USFWS finally declared the eastern mountain lion (Felis concolor couguar) officially extinct. “We recognize that many people have seen cougars in the wild within the historical range of the eastern cougar,” said the Service’s Northeast Region Chief of Endangered Species Martin Miller. “However, we believe those cougars are not the eastern cougar subspecies. We found no information to support the continued existence of the eastern cougar.” The Service’s decision to formalize the . . .

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A reminder before you rake

October 20, 2010
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A reminder before you rake

As the autumn leaves begin to pile up in backyards everywhere, perhaps what all of us who groan at the hours of raking ahead could use is a reminder of the pleasures that those leaves brought us through the summer. Fortunately, as Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune pointed out on Sunday, we’ve got just that: The Book of Leaves: A Leaf-by-Leaf Guide to Six Hundred of the World’s Great Trees. Keller, after admitting that she has “lost her head and is swooning” under the influence of The Book of Leaves, writes: This big, beautiful, shiny, sumptuous and informational volume will enhance your appreciation of the natural world, but it does something else as well. It reminds you that wonderful things are often right under your nose. The most familiar entity—in this case, the leaves on the trees—often are the most enchanting, but we overlook them because they’re so common. So ordinary. The print edition of Sunday’s Tribune shared some of the visual glories of the book with readers, but those of you reading the article on the Web need not be left behind: we’ve got a gallery of images from The Book of Leaves to entice you, too. Check . . .

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Autumn Leaves

October 1, 2010
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Autumn Leaves

Image by Rebecca Anne @ Flickr . . .

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Nancy Drew needs you!

September 1, 2010
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Nancy Drew needs you!

Last night my wife, as she often does, was reading an old Nancy Drew mystery, The Invisible Intruder (1969), when she started laughing. “Nancy’s investigating the theft of a shell collection,” she said, “and every single person she meets turns out to know a lot about shells!” For example, Mr. Kittredge, a lawyer, on being shown a shell “the shape of a pyramid and … about five inches high” says, “This is very interesting. Its nickname is the Fraud Shell. The right name is Epitonium scalare.” The lawyer explained that the shell was a rather rare type found in deep water off the coast of China. Then there’s a policeman, Detective Peron, who, on seeing Nancy inspecting a Crusader shell, says, “That’s a beautiful specimen,” and then, reminding us that we’re in midcentury American suburbia, continues, “My wife has a set of those scalloped shells. She uses them to serve salads in and sometimes creamed dishes.” All of which is a roundabout way of getting to this question: Why haven’t you bought a copy of our big, beautiful new Book of Shells yet? It’s 600-plus oversized pages of life-sized photos of stunning shells, alongside information about their range, distribution, abundance, . . .

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Chimpanzees Do Not Make Good Pets

August 26, 2010
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Chimpanzees Do Not Make Good Pets

Most pets in the US either bark or meow—Americans own more than seventy-seven million dogs and ninety-three million cats. But how many chimpanzees are kept at home as pets? It’s a question that, until now, had no easy answer. But thanks to the pioneering work of Lincoln Park Zoo scientist Steve Ross, we now have a figure: about 113. And, if Ross, has his way, that number will dwindle to zero. Today’s Chicago Tribune reports on Ross’s mission to change the way people view these primates and their (un)suitability as pets. His organization, Project ChimpCARE, hopes “to locate every chimpanzee in North America and assess its level of care.” For Ross, the ChimpCARE project is about protecting chimps and people from a dangerous public misperception that chimps are safe, people-friendly animals, which makes him opposed in particular to using chimps as actors. Chimps seen on screen are babies or prepubescent youngsters, never adults, Ross said. When they reach puberty, they become dangerously unpredictable and aggressive, a tendency that resulted in tragedy last year when one retired chimp attacked and severely injured a woman in Connecticut. And Ross should know a thing of two about chimpanzees. After all, he coedited our . . .

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Whaddya mean ugly?

August 11, 2010
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Whaddya mean ugly?

While academic studies on the nature of beauty abound, this article in the New York Times takes note of some recent efforts by academics to uncover the nature of ugly. The NYT‘s Natalie Angier writes: Let’s not pussyfoot. They are, by our standards, ugly animals—maybe cute ugly, more often just ugly ugly. And though the science of ugliness lags behind investigations into the evolution of beauty and the metrics of a supermodel’s face, a few researchers are taking a crack at understanding why we find certain animals unsightly even when they don’t threaten us with venom or compete for our food. Citing researchers like neuroscientist Nancy Kanwishwer, and evolutionary biologist Geoffery Miller, Angier shows how most of our ideas about the aesthetic appeal of animals are based on how closely their physical appearance conforms to, or deviates from, the physical appearance of healthy, attractive, human beings—an idea which cultural critic Wendy Steiner (also quoted in the NYT article) both draws from and complicates with her account of changing perceptions of beauty in her books, Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth-Century Art, and The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art, the latter of which . . .

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An evenhanded guide through our global energy landcape

July 29, 2010
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An evenhanded guide through our global energy landcape

With all the media attention to the environmental and human catastrophe, both actual and predicted, surrounding our dependence on oil and other non-renewable sources of energy, it can be easy to take a rather pessimistic view of our global energy landscape. As a recent story on NPR’s Marketplace asks, will we ever be able to rid ourselves of our addiction to oil? Perhaps not, at least in the near future, but in his new book The Powers That Be: Global Energy for the Twenty-first Century and Beyond, consulting geologist and independent scholar Scott L. Montgomery offers readers a rare glimmer of hope—arguing that quitting cold turkey isn’t a necessary—or realistic—step towards securing our energy future anyway. What is crucial, Montgomery explains, is focusing on developing a more diverse, adaptable energy future, one that draws on a variety of sources—and is thus less vulnerable to disruption or failure. An admirably evenhanded and always realistic guide, Montgomery enables readers to understand the implications of energy funding, research, and politics at a global scale. At the same time, he doesn’t neglect the ultimate connection between those decisions and the average citizen flipping a light switch or sliding behind the wheel of a car, . . .

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Bigfoot on To the Best of Our Knowledge

July 26, 2010
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Bigfoot on To the Best of Our Knowledge

Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge aired a program last week on the theme of monsters, inviting several authors on the show whose books explore the important role they play in the Western imagination. Among them was Joshua Blu Buhs, author of Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend. While Buhs doesn’t believe in Bigfoot, as his book demonstrates, there’s no denying Bigfoot mania. Tracing the wild and wooly story of America’s favorite homegrown monster from the early nineteenth-century to the present, Buh’s book offers more than a few interesting insights on what our fascination with this monster says about modern American culture. You can catch the To the Best of Our Knowledge podcast on the WPR website or archived at this third party site. Also, find out more about Buhs’ book on our website with this excerpt, and an interview with the author. Or stay right right here at the UCP blog to read our previous post featuring Buhs in dialogue with fellow UCP author Sigrid Schmalzer on Bigfoot and its Chinese analog, the yeren. . . .

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