Category Archives: Books

A couple of Big Announcements about The Open Laboratory

First Big Announcement:

The first couple of reviews of the 2010 anthology are now out: by Dr. Alistair Dove at Deep Sea News and by Ariel Carpenter at USC News. Check them out. If you have read the book and have a place to publish a review, we’ll appreciate it – just send us the link.

Second Big Announcement:

I am very excited to announce the Guest Editor for the 2011 – a good friend, a marvelous writer, and a great blogger: Jennifer Ouellette (blog, Twitter). I am looking forward to working with Jennifer over the course of the year to produce the best anthology yet!

Third Big Announcement:

After five years of self-publishing the book with, the Open Laboratory now has a real publisher! Yes!

I am happy to announce that the sixth anthology will be published by Scientific American Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Both Scientific American and Farrar, Straus and Giroux are part of the same publishing empire – McMillan – so this is a natural marriage between the two.

Jennifer Ouellette and I will work closely with Amanda Moon, Book Editor at Scientific American and Senior Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, on producing the next volume.

What does this mean, and what will change?

The first phase of the production of the book will remain the same. You will keep submitting your own and other bloggers’ work via the same submission form. I will keep posting the growing list of submissions every Monday morning.

At the end of the year, some time in December, we’ll close the submission form as we always do. Jennifer will devise the judging methodology and will ask a group of bloggers, writers and scientists to serves as judges, to help us go through hundreds of entries at a fast pace. Thus the crowdsourced, community aspects of the book will remain intact.

Once the final decisions have been made and 50 essays, one cartoon and one poem are chosen for the inclusion in the book, Jennifer, Amanda and I will work closely with the authors to edit, copyedit and proofread the entries until they are in a perfectly publishable form (but without losing the webby ‘feel’). Then the project will get turned over to the professionals for design, typesetting and marketing – the aspects of publishing that were always the hardest for us to do as amateurs until now. Also, though Open Laboratory is a brand in our small circles (and quite popular there – see #openlab hashtag on Twitter), we may need to change its name to something more broadly marketable – but that is far from final yet, more information to come later.

This process lasts a little bit longer when done professionally, so we expect the book not to get published early in the year as before, but rather in early Fall, perhaps September, just before people start shopping for the holidays.

It took five years to find the publisher for this project, and it has finally happened, mainly due to continuous and strong support of the community – yes, that’s you. And I should not forget to mention the help of people most closely involved in the project over the years – the past Guest Editors Reed Cartwright, Jenny Rohn, Scicurious and Jason G. Goldman, the LaTeX guru Blake Stacey and, person without whom this idea would not have even been hatched – Anton Zuiker.

I am very, very happy with these developments and am looking forward to working on it over the next year, and hopefully into the future.

‘Pink Boots and the Machete’

‘Pink Boots and the Machete’, book by Mireya Mayor was published today.

I received an advance review copy from the publisher and wrote the review last night. I published it this morning on the Observations blog on Scientific American – check it out: Book review: ‘Pink Boots and the Machete’ by Mireya Mayor.

Simultaneously with the review, I also posted the interview with Mireya conducted by Darlene Cavalier on the Guest Blog – see it there: Cheerleader for science: A chat with Mireya Mayor, author of Pink Boots and the Machete.

Enjoy, comment, share… and read the book!

Book review: Pink Boots and the Machete by Mireya Mayor

As a little boy, I was always drawn to books about wilderness, exotic places, explorers and wild animals. I hungrily read accounts of real events, from Joy Adamson to Gerald Durrell, and works of fiction, from The Jungle Book to The White Fang, from Henryk Sienkiewicz’s In Desert and Wilderness to the entire Doctor Dolittle series.

And I never outgrew the genre, excitedly checking out new titles, but now with a somewhat raised bar – adventure is not enough, I also want good science in the story. Like, for example, last year’s hit Bonobo Handshake.

And this year, or to be more precise, exactly today, a new adventure book is coming out – Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey From NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer by Mireya Mayor.

If the name is familiar to you as a science and nature enthusiast, it is probably because you saw her on TV. Mireya is the host of numerous wildlife shows on the National Geographic channel. You may have seen her in “Mystery Gorillas“, or the currently airing “Wild Nights with Mireya Mayor“. Or perhaps you watched her in the History Channel’s “Expedition Africa: Stanley & Livingstone” retracing, using only the technology available at the time of the original journey, the footsteps of Dr.Livingstone, I presume.

Raised by three strong women in the Cuban immigrant family in Miami, Mireya Mayor was both a “girly-girl” with interest in pretty clothes and make-up, and a “tom-boy”, climbing trees and hunting for lizards around the neighborhood. As breaking into a career in acting was difficult, and 9-5 cubicle jobs she had to take were deadening, she saw going back to college as her only way out.

One day, on a dare, she auditioned for a slot on the cheerleading squad with Miami Dolphins and, to her own surprise, she got picked out of thousands of candidates. Majoring in English and Philosophy, and busy with professional NFL cheerleading, she postponed the science requirement to the very end of her senior year, when the only class still available was physical anthropology.

That class changed her life. She got lucky to get sent by National Geographic to her first expedition, and she started graduate studies in anthropology soon after.

The book is her autobiography, describing how she grew up, in every sense of the word “grow up”, from a sheltered girl in Miami, through the world of professional cheerleading, to a career in science and finally the spotlight on television.

A Fulbright Scholar, a National Science Foundation Fellow, a two-time Emmy Award-nominee, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, a scientist with a respectable publication record, including the discovery of Microcebus mittermeieri which is likely the smallest primate species in the world, one can say she’s made it. But the journey was anything but easy – getting chased by elephants and gorillas, swimming with Great White sharks, climbing steep mountains, getting bitten by every imaginable tropical critter that bites, getting sick and medivac-ed back home in the nick of time, even surviving an airplane crash in the jungle. This was no smoothly oiled Hollywood stardom track – it took literally gallons of blood, sweat and tears to get there!

I may have read all those books and explored the wilderness vicariously, but Mireya lived them. I did not have the courage (or craziness – but are the two traits really distinguishable from each other?) Mireya has. She has a rare talent – to say ‘Yes’ when her entire terrified body is saying “No” to an offer of yet another spectacularly dangerous expedition.

It is quite difficult to write an autobiography when one is so accomplished. It is too easy to sound self-aggrandizing. On the other hand, efforts to write in a more self-deprecating manner, emphasizing the role of friends and luck in one’s success, usually sound fake.

Mireya Mayor did not fall into either trap. She just wrote it as it is. A genuine, authentic voice describing what happened, what she did, what others did, and how it all felt.

In other words, Mireya is a Natural Born BloggerTM (and coming from me, this is the highest praise she can get), writing with her genuine voice, with her real personality shining through each sentence. If she was scared, she says so. If she did something brave or smart, she says so. No need to embellish or downplay anything. Total honesty all the way.

It is a refreshing style. Even the paragraphs describing the setting of the story of the particular expedition are real, clear descriptions, helping one visualize the place, not places to practice endless flowery prose for the sake of showing off one’s writing ability. Each chapter reads like a long blog post (or a series of several shorter posts) and I am surprised that she does not write a blog herself. While wildly popular on Twitter and Facebook, I could only find one blog post she has ever written.

With such personal and authentic style of storytelling, it is very easy to get inside of her head and go on the journey with her, trekking around the world, avoiding hippos, piranhas, scorpions and leeches, drinking dirty water full of worms (and getting de-wormed after every return home), running out of food in the middle of nowhere where no communication with the civilized world is possible, climbing vertical walls of rock while being terrified of heights, and all of that with bleeding wounds and swollen ankles in 100 degrees Fahrenheit over days of incessant rain. It is exciting, enchanting, sometimes scary. It is sometimes exhausting just reading it, but you feel guilty for being so whiny while not actually having to physically endure it yourself!

Fortunately, Mireya sometimes gives us a break. And those chapters that are not “on the road” are probably most important parts of the book.

Chapter 12 may seem funny at first. In it, she compares what she used to pack for her first trips and what she packs today, joking about the unexpected usefulness of feminine items, carefully choosing what items are more useful than others for survival. But between the lines you can see how she matured over the years, and what it feels like to be the only woman on an expedition, often at time when desperate times demand desperate measures, like starting a fire with a tampon.

Many will suggest this book as essential reading for teenage girls, with or without interest in science, and for their mothers. But I think that it is even more important this book gets read by boys and men. The book as a whole, but especially the incredible and must-read Chapter 6, shows what it takes to succeed as a woman in the male world of science and in the even more male world of television.

Why did her professors, classmates and scientific colleagues make life so hard for her in the beginning? Why does every TV crew want to film her showering under a waterfall? Why, no matter how she dresses, producers will think she looks either too sexy or not sexy enough? Why does it matter how she looks like in the first place?

“You don’t look like a scientist” is often the first thing she hears when a new TV crew meets her. “Well, this is how a scientist looks like” is her response. Makes you think. Now read the book.

Related: Cheerleader for Science: a chat with Mireya Mayor, author of “Pink Boots and the Machete”


My readers are most likely to know Andrew Bleiman as my SciBling from the Zooillogix blog, a witty and fun blog about animals and curious things they do. You may not be aware that he also runs a blog called Zooborns which highlights the animal babies.

Recently, Andrew teamed up with photographer Chris Eastland and produced two books of Zooborns – one, ZooBorns for a little bit bigger children, and the other, ZooBorns!: Zoo Babies from Around the World, for very little kids. Let’s say the first is for kids who can read on their own, and the latter for kids who need to be read to.

When the books arrived the other day, we read them together, the whole family. Actually, “reading” may be an overstatement. We were loudly oooooohing and aaaaaaahing at each page. Those baby animals are sooooo cute!

Of course, that’s the point! Hook ‘em young with charismatic megafauna! Or even better – with irresistible babies of animals not usually deemed ‘charismatic’. Perhaps they will want to learn more when they grow up – the information provided in the books is a great hook to get them to want to learn more. Or they will grow up being aware of conservation efforts. Or they will keep us elders hostage by constantly nagging us to keep those species around for a couple of decades more so they can go and see them when they grow up!

On that last point, the books can help you a little bit as 10% of proceeds from the sale of every book goes to support the AZA’s (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) Conservation Endowment Fund.

Holidays are coming soon. If you were wondering what presents to get the small and big children in your family, now you know – a bunch of copies of ZooBorns! books!

Written In Stone: interview with Brian Switek

2010 is an incredible year for science books, many written by people who daily write on blogs.

The latest in this fantastic streak is Written In Stone (homepage, IndieBound, Amazon) by Brian Switek (blog, Twitter).

Written In Stone is officially published today. If you pre-ordered it, it should hit your mailbox in a few days and bookstores should get it soon after (watch Brian’s blogs for updates – there was a small delay in shipping). I got the book earlier, have read it and loved it – my review is coming here later today. But first, I wanted to catch up with Brian and ask him a few questions about his book, his blog, and how the two are connected.


A few years ago, you were a student and blogging was a hobby – something you did on the side, out of love. At what point did you realize that you could do writing as a profession? Was there a precipitating event or did that gradually dawn on you?

There wasn’t any single event or cause – I just fell into it. Now that we’re mostly beyond the blogger vs. journalist sniping – I hope – I can look back and say that I was acting like a science writer even before it became a viable career option. Making the transition required a change in attitude and a realization that I could actually get paid for what I like to do, and I feel exceptionally lucky that I have been able to turn my hobby into a nascent science writing career (even though I still work an unrelated day job to keep the lights on at home).

The more detailed story goes like this – After blogging for two years, I got serious about my science writing and started to pitch to magazines. My performance was abysmal. Most of the time I didn’t even hear back from the publications I pitched to. Still, I kept using my blog as a writing laboratory and tried to fine-tune my writing. Then, in May of last year, everything changed almost instantaneously. It was at that time that I started working with my literary agent – Peter Tallack of the Science Factory – and Mark Henderson of the Times was kind enough to give me my first formal op-ed about the Darwinius controversy. Those breakthroughs, paired with the earlier acceptance of my first academic paper (just published), allowed me to build up enough momentum to start making some headway into more formal channels of science writing outside the blogohedron.

I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without blogs, Twitter, or the web in general. Blogging allowed me to practice writing, plug into a community of fellow science enthusiasts, and has otherwise made it possible for me to become a professional – if still part-time – science writer. If I tried to do the same thing just a few years ago, or otherwise tried to jump into science writing without developing my writing online, I would have almost surely failed. As I mentioned above, though, I did not think of my efforts as a career change. The only major difference was that people started paying me for the sort of work I had been doing anyway!

How did you decide to write a book? You were already a well-known blogger and have started appearing in more mainstream media on occasion – why a book?

Written in Stone had a relatively long gestation and significantly changed since the time that I was first inspired to write a book. I knew that I wanted to write a book about evolution from the time I started blogging, but I was pretty clueless as to how to go about it. I used my blog as a way to practice writing, keep up with the literature, and organize my ideas. Blogging gave me an incentive to keep learning, researching, and sharing that information with whoever cared to read it.

This went on for about three years. I kept notes and wrote parts of a few chapters, but I didn’t have a story to tie things all together. I knew that I wanted to write about evolution from the perspective of the fossil record, but that’s not a book – I needed a more specific angle from which to approach the bigger story of life through time. I knew that I didn’t want to write a comprehensive textbook – we’ve already got plenty of those – but what examples should I choose to help people understand what fossils tell us about how life has changed?

Unfortunately I can’t remember the moment the idea struck me, but I settled on looking at some of the major transitions in the history of vertebrates that transfixed me as a child. The evolution of the first tetrapods from fish, the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, the evolution of whales from terrestrial mammals, the evolution of humans, and others – they were classic examples of evolutionary change, but as I became more familiar with the scientific literature I felt that the public wasn’t being presented with the latest science about these examples. Even in recent popular books about evolution, a few of these transitions would be presented but usually in such paltry detail as to be unconvincing to anyone who didn’t already agree that evolution is a reality. More than that, these changes have been debated for a very long time but we often talk about them only in reference to recent discoveries. I wanted to dig into the long history of debate and show how our understanding has changed. In distilling everything down to simple, step-by-step diagrams of evolutionary change, I felt like other authors had missed something, and I wanted to plug that gap in the popular literature.

Once I figured all that out, writing the book wasn’t too difficult. I had been rummaging through the literature for my own education for several years already – it was mostly a matter of writing the thing. With three chapters in hand, I signed with Bellevue Literary Press in September and completed the first full draft of the manuscript just two days before Christmas. The manuscript went back and forth a few times over the following months for edits, but, looking back, I am still a little baffled as to how I put the whole thing together so quickly!

Your writing – both on the blog and in the book – looks at evolution, focusing mainly on fossils, in the context of history of science. This is a pretty unique combination of themes – where did that come from? Was that a conscious decision or something that just happened as it combined your existing passions?

The mix of evolution, paleontology, and the history of science happened organically. They all overlap and feed into each other. Since I wanted to write about what the fossil record tells us about evolution, those aspects of the story came together very easily. I could have left it at that, but then I would have done the same thing as everyone else by divorcing recent discoveries from their context. I didn’t want to do that. I did not want to act as a figure of authority, handing down data for the public to digest and accept.

Instead of taking the more traditional approach, I wanted to give the book a warmer tone – I wanted to present science in the way that I might talk to a curious friend about evolution, or in terms of what I might say if I were walking with someone through a natural history museum. The history of science allowed me to do this by providing me with a flowing narrative which encompassed the scientific points I wanted to talk about. This served the dual purpose of placing recent discoveries in context and also gave me a way to lead readers through the tangled process of scientific discovery. This was especially important in the historical chapters about the beginnings of paleontology and evolutionary theory (Ch. 2 and 3). I found the idea of simply laying out the nuts and bolts of stratigraphy, natural selection, the nature of the fossil record, etc. repulsive – as I mentioned, I had no intention of writing a textbook – but by tracing the history of science I could use stories to introduce readers to those same concepts in a more palatable way.

Naturally, my own interests played a role, as well. I am fascinated by vertebrate paleontology, and both evolutionary theory and the history of science remain important in the field for understanding the patterns of life on earth and how our perspective of those patterns has changed. It was not a stretch to bring it all together. Paleontology is an evolutionary science, and paleontologists are constantly reexamining old specimens and localities. Given all these available perspectives, it was mostly a matter of choosing where to place the emphasis.

The book grew out of your blog. What proportion of the book, can you estimate, comes directly from edits of your older posts, and how much was brand new material? Was it difficult to repurpose the bloggy format into something that will work well in the book form?

The book grew out of my blog in the sense that I used my blog to practice writing about some studies and ideas which eventually became incorporated into the blog. The book is not just a stitched-together collection of posts. It was written as a story unto itself – containing many smaller stories – and even when I covered something I had blogged about earlier I disregarded what I had already said and wrote something fresh. Sometimes I would dig back into my posts for something I had referenced which I had trouble remembering, but in no instance did I edit any of my posts to place that material in the book. I wanted to write in such a way that the story flowed, and I felt that if I was going to start incorporating material directly plucked from the blog I would jeopardize that. Readers of my blogs will see some familiar subjects, absolutely, but, barring quotations, the book is 100% new writing.

Reading the book, it struck me how unique it is and how much it fills a glaring gap in the literature. There are many books on evolution. There are many books on the history of science. There are many books about fossils (though usually narrower in subject, focusing on a single group like dinosaurs, or even a single fossil like Tiktaalik or Darwinius). Yet I cannot remember another book that combines these three topics until today (literally today!). While it is fortunate for you that this niche was wide open for you to fill, do you have any thoughts as to why this niche was empty to begin with? Aren’t there other scholars who could have, perhaps should have, covered this area in this way?

I think some historians of science have written similar books, but they have usually been focused on a particular time period of group of researchers (such as Adrian Desmond’s Archetypes and Ancestors about Victorian paleontology, Peter Bowler’s Life’s Splendid Drama about early 20th-century paleontology, or Eric Buffetaut’s sadly out-of-print A Short History of Vertebrate Paleontology). When you’re dealing with the history of paleontology, you have to include biological details as well as historical ones, and in many ways this historical subgenre was very influential in determining how I should go about telling my story.

You’re absolutely right about the gap in the literature, though. I intentionally wrote this book to fill it. There’s no single reason why the gap was left open to start with. From a practical perspective, the history of science is often left out of popular books because there is a common assumption that the public doesn’t care about it. One publisher I spoke to about the book early on, in fact, wanted me to cut all the historical material from the book and focus only on new discoveries – from science magazines to book publishers, there is a major push to cover what is new and exciting and leave the historical bits for people who want to track them down (despite the success of some books, such as Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, which have a heavy emphasis on history!). An exception is Sean B. Carroll’s recent book Remarkable Creatures, but, while I greatly enjoyed it, the treatment of significant people and specimens was a collection of snapshots which did not illustrate the importance of paleontology to our understanding of evolution. There are gaps and jumps in my narrative too – if I included everything I wanted Written in Stone would have rivaled The Structure of Evolutionary Theory in length – but it was very important to me to trace ideas through multiple shifts in understanding over the past 150 years.

The fact that many recent, popular-audience books about evolution – such as Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne, The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins, and Only a Theory by Kenneth Miller – have been written by lab-based evolutionary scientists is another reason for the persistence of the “paleo gap.” Paleontology isn’t their field and so, understandably, doesn’t get much attention from these authors outside of transitional forms in the fossil record. More than that, though, there is something of a conceit that genetics and microbiology are more important to evolutionary science than paleontology is. Paleontology is still often viewed as the search for old bones to fill museums with – it can demonstrate the reality of evolution by do little else. This appraisal of paleontology has been around since the beginning of the 20th century, at least, and Dawkins even downplayed the importance of the fossil record to understanding evolution in his book The Ancestor’s Tale.

Since Stephen Jay Gould died in 2002, we haven’t really had a strong public advocate for paleontology as an essential evolutionary science. I’m no Gould, but I was inspired by his work to communicate the relevance of the fossil record to understanding of evolution (as well as similar efforts made before him by George Gaylord Simpson). Not only does paleontology provide the essential context to understand why life is as it is now – it is the science which showed us that extinction is real and that life has been changing for vast periods of time – but has become arguably the most interdisciplinary evolutionary science. Paleontologists regularly use ideas and techniques from genetics, molecular biology, embryology, histology, geochemistry, and other sciences in addition to comparative anatomy and geology. Having just attended the 70th annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology just last month, I can tell you that paleontology is an exceptionally vibrant field in which everything from the color of dinosaur feathers to the tempo and mode of evolutionary change are being investigated. This makes the rather brief treatment of paleontology in many recent books on evolution all the more irritating – paleontology, as I know it, is not being reflected in discussions about evolution, and I wanted to write a book to help remedy that.

One thing that struck me as I was reading the book is how well fleshed are the characters in the story, people like Lamarck, Darwin, Owen and Huxley, among others. You present them with a nuance that is rarely seen in usual discourse on the history of evolution. How much did you use biographies of these people, their letters and diaries, in trying to understand them as complex personalities, not just cardboard caricatures that we usually see?

I have to admit that I actually did not get to include the amount of detail I wanted – I mostly restricted biographical sections to the period a given authority was working on a particular problem or idea – but I thought it was essential to provide some background as to who these people were and why they did what they did. In the case of Lamarck, for example, I didn’t know anything about his life outside of his ideas about evolution before writing the book, so I thought including a little more information about him would be a small way of helping his public image since he is so often trotted out to be a contrast to Darwin and nothing else.

The sources I used varied from figure to figure. For Cuvier, I relied on various historical papers and Martin Rudwick’s selected translations of his work in Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes, whereas I used Adrian Desmond’s biography Huxley and the naturalist’s original research papers for sections about the man famously called “Darwin’s Bulldog.” The most difficult challenge was Charles Darwin. So much has been written about him that I could not possibly read it all, so in addition to biographical accounts I used the Darwin Correspondence Project and The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online to dig into his original writings as much as possible. Of course my account of Darwin’s work is framed in terms of paleontology – I could not comprehensively cover everything he did, especially since he was such a prolific naturalist and correspondent! – but I tried to hit the major points of his career leading up to 1859 without derailing the paleontological thread of the book.

Finally – what’s next? I know you will be busy traveling the country promoting the book, but I am wondering if you already have the ideas for the next book?

I actually don’t have many travel plans. I’ll be giving a few talks in the NY-NJ-PA area, but I don’t have the budget to allow for a full-scale book tour. I am going to focus on doing what I do best – keeping up my blogs and trying to find more stories to tell in more formal science publications and journals. If opportunities to travel and talk about the book pop up, I’ll jump, but I have no idea when or where such opportunities will arise.

If anything, I have too many ideas for future books. Some are just the seeds of future projects which will require significantly more background than I presently have to cultivate, whereas others I am already in the process of starting. Right now I am trying to choose between two different projects – one on the “Dinosaur Enlightenment” which is rapidly changing our understanding of the charismatic creatures, and another on the controversial idea of “Pleistocene Rewilding.” I fully intend on writing both, but which comes first depends on an array of factors from my ability to travel to places relevant to the books to the willingness of publishers to jump at the projects. Beyond those, I have at least three more ideas for long-term book projects on three disparate subjects, so with any luck I will be writing for some time to come!

And, as a closing note, thank you for your help and support, Bora. You have been behind my writing from the very beginning, and it has been a pleasure to talk to you about a book which has grown directly from my work online. Your ongoing encouragement has helped drive me to become a more professional science writer, so I am genuinely thrilled that you enjoyed the book.

Thank you so much for the interview. And let’s hope that book sells very well – it surely deserves it.

Serbian Dreambook: National Imaginary in the Time of Milošević

Some of you may know that my brother is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. He also works as a visual artist in photography, video, and other media, mostly in collaboration with his wife Gordana who is an artist.

In a few months, his book willl come out – Serbian Dreambook: National Imaginary in the Time of Milošević:

The central role that the regime of Slobodan Milošević played in the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia is well known, but Marko Živković explores another side of this time period: the stories people in Serbia were telling themselves (and others) about themselves. Živković traces the recurring themes, scripts, and narratives that permeated public discourse in Milošević’s Serbia, as Serbs described themselves as Gypsies or Jews, violent highlanders or peaceful lowlanders, and invoked their own mythologized defeat at the Battle of Kosovo. The author investigates national narratives, the use of tradition for political purposes, and local idioms, paying special attention to the often bizarre and outlandish tropes people employed to make sense of their social reality. He suggests that the enchantments of political life under Milošević may be fruitfully seen as a dreambook of Serbian national imaginary.

I have read most of the stuff in the book, at least in some earlier drafts, over the past few years, and I know this stuff is good! It will help you understand Serbia – in the wartime 1990s as well as before and after. And it may help you understand some other nations or some other groups of people (perhaps even TeaPartiers if you are dilligent in adjusting for different contexts, histories, etc.).

So, pre-order the book now – it will come out next May but it will be worth the wait.

Superbug in the Triangle!

Well, hopefully not the real MRSA in your home! But the book Superbug will be introduced to the audiences around here. Author Maryn McKenna (Twitter) will be in the Triangle this week.

First, on Wednesday October 6th at 7:30 pm, Maryn will be reading at my most favourite bookstore in the world – Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. I’ll be there.

Then, next day, on Thursday October 7th at 7:00 pm, she will be going over to Durham to read/sign at The Regulator Bookshop. I may try to come to that again.

Join us if you are in town for one or the other or both events!

Insects! Outreach and Three Books (video)

From Joanne Manaster:

Joanne shares information about the University of Illinois’ outreach, BugScope and tells of a yearly event featuring insects called The Insect Fear Film Festival. Awesome! Also, three Featured Books by Sonia Dourlot (Insect Museum), Hugh Raffles (Insectopedia) and May Berenbaum (The Earwig’s Tale) All three books have chapters listed in alphabetical order, but not in the way you would imagine

How to write and publish a science book?

SCONC Presents: Writing Science: Local Authors Discuss Their Craft (an N.C. Science Festival event):

Join the Science Communicators of North Carolina as we probe the minds of local science writers to find out how they go about the process of writing a book.

How are ideas generated? What does their research process entail? How do they go about getting words down on the blank page/screen? What is the editing process like? Once the book is finished, what next?

Find out the answers to these questions and pose your own.

Panel includes:

T. Delene Beeland (blog, Twitter), author of the forthcoming The Secret World of Red Wolves.

Scott Huler (blog, Twitter), author of On the Grid (review).

Glenn Murphy, author of Why is Snot Green?

Moderated by Russ Campbell (blog, Twitter) of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

Thursday, September 23, 2010 from 6:30 PM – 8:00 PM (ET) in Research Triangle Park.

Get your free ticket(s) here!

Really bad timing for me – I’ll be at the Block by Block summit on exactly the same day. I hate I will have to miss this. But you should go if you are in the area! This is bound to be awesome!

Periodic Tables: Durham’s Science Cafe – Bonobo Handshake: Love and Adventure in the Congo

From e-mail:

I hope you can join us for our next installment of Periodic Tables: Durham’s Science Cafe! Below are the details for the evening. And remember, try to come early if you want a seat and a bite to eat before we kick things off at 7pm!


What: Bonobo Handshake: Love and Adventure in the Congo

“A young woman follows her fiancé to war-torn Congo to study extremely endangered bonobo apes—who teach her a new truth about love and belonging.”

Author and scientist Vanessa Woods will discuss and sign copies of her new book, Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo. Like chimpanzees, bonobos are related to humans by 98.7%. But in contrast to chimpanzees, who live in male dominated societies where infanticide and lethal aggression are observed, bonobos live in highly tolerant and peaceful societies due to female dominance that maintains group cohesion and regulates tension through sexual behavior. How much of us is chimpanzee and how much is bonobo?

The Regulator Bookstore will be on hand to sell Vanessa’s book after her talk.

Who: Vanessa Woods, Author and Research Scientist at Duke University

Where: Broad Street Cafe, 1116 Broad Street, Durham

When: Tuesday, August 10th @7pm (2nd Tuesday of every month)

Parking: We understand that parking can be tough so please feel free to park at the NC School for Science and Math (catty-corner to Broad Street Cafe)

Additional Info

Books: ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’ by Deborah Blum

Poisoner's Handbook cover.jpgIf you picked up The Poisoner’s Handbook ( looking for a fool-proof recipe, I hope you have read the book through and realized at the end that such a thing does not exist: you’ll get busted. If they could figure it all out back in 1930s, can you imagine how much easier they can figure out a case of poisoning today, with modern sensitive techniques? And if you have read the book through, I hope you found it as fascinating as I did. Perhaps you should use your fascination with poisons to do good instead, perhaps become a forensic toxicologist?
My SciBling Deborah Blum (blog, Twitter) has done it again – written a fast-paced page-turner, full of action and intrigue, and with TONS of science in it. It reads like a detective novel. Oh, wait, it is a detective novel. Who said that an author has to invent a fictional detective, an Arsene Lupin or Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes or the Three Investigators? There existed in history real people just like them, including Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, the heroes of The Poisoner’s Handbook.
Charles Norris was the first Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, or at least the first one who was actually qualified for that position which, before him, was a political appointment not requiring any expertise. Norris served in this role from 1918. to 1935. and revolutionized both the position and the science of forensic medicine. Alexander Gettler was one of his first appointees, who served as New York City’s chief toxicologist until 1959.
The two of them used their prominent position to set the new high standards for the profession of a public medical examiner, and also set the new high standards for the scientific research in forensic pathology, including forensic toxicology – the study of the way poisons kill and how to detect it. They affected rules and legislation with their work, they sent clever murderers to the electric chair, and exonerated the innocents who were headed that way due to mistakes of the non-science-based courtroom battles. And in order to do that, they needed to do a lot of their own research during many years of long days and nights in the lab performing meticulous and often gruesome studies of the effects of various substances on animals, people, living and dead tissues and coming up with ever more sensitive and clever methods for detecting as small quantities of the poison as was technically possible at the time.
In the author’s note at the end of the book, Deborah Blum notes that there were many other forensic scientists before, during and after the Norris-Gettner era, and many of them got mentioned in the book or are cited in the EndNotes (which I discovered only once I finished the book – I hate the way publishers do this these days!). But it is also true that Norris and Gettner were the leaders – they used their prominent position and political clout, and their meticulous research defined the high standards for the nascent discipline. In a way, the central importance and prominence of these two men worked well for the book – here we have two interesting characters to like and follow instead of a whole plethora of unfleshed names. And as each chapter focuses on one poisonous substance and one or two notorious cases of its use, it is just like following Holmes and Watson through a series of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories – the two characters are the connecting thread, and they evolve throughout their lives and throughout the book, case by case.
Apart from being a history of forensic toxicology, the book has several other themes that keep recurring in each chapter, as they chronologically unfold. The book is also a history of 1920/30s New York City, and a history of technology and engineering. Carbon monoxide poisoning? That was the beginning of the car craze. Gas? Everyone cooked and heated with it at the time. Some other poisons were easily found in many over-the-counter products in stores and pharmacies.
Having just read On The Grid, I was also attuned to the discussions of infrastructure of NYC in the early 20th century. How did people transport themselves? Air pollution? Gas? Clean water? Wastewater? All sources of potentially toxic chemicals. How efficient was garbage collection? Not much….thus there were many rats. And rats needed to be controlled. And for that, there was plenty of rat poison to be bought. And rat poison can kill a human as well – inadvertently, as a method for suicide, or as a murder weapon. It is kinda fun to see some of the same infrastructure issues, like garbage disposal and pest extermination in N.Y.City, addressed from different angles in different books – this one, On The Grid, as well as Rats, another fascinating science book that covers New York City engineering, infrastructure and politics of the time. All the threads tie in together….
Another topic addressed in each chapter was Prohibition. One can certainly die of a huge overdose of ethyl alcohol normally found in drinks, but at the time when producing and selling drinks was illegal, people still drank, perhaps even more. And what did they drink? Whatever they could find on the black market – home-made concoctions brewed by unsavory types more interested in profit than the safety of their product. Instead of ethyl, those drinks were mostly made of methyl (wood) alcohol which is much more dangerous in much smaller doses. Prohibition saw a large increase in drinking-related deaths, a fact often loudly pronounced by Norris, leading to the eventual end of Prohibition. Can we apply that thinking to the War On Drugs now?
And the story of Prohibition has another element to it – the importance of regulation. An unregulated substance is potentially dangerous. By solving a number of poisoning cases, and by doing their research on the toxicity of then easily available substances, Norris and Gettner have managed to initiate regulation of a number of toxins, or even their removal from the market altogether. Some substances that were found in everything, even touted as health potions (even radioactive substances!!!) were discovered by forensic toxicologists to be deadly, and were subsequently banned or rigorously controlled. Today we have entire federal agencies dealing with regulation of dangerous chemicals, but in the early 20th century, it was the time of laissez-faire murder, suicide, suffering and death.
Finally, after I finished this fascinating book, I realized it gave me something more: an anchor, or a scaffolding, or a context, for every story about poisons I see now. Now every blog post on Deborah’s blog makes more sense – I can fit it into a body of knowledge and understanding I would not have if I have not read the book. This really goes hand in hand with the recent discussions of #futureofcontext in journalism – see The Future Of Context for starters. The idea is that news stories do not provide enough context for readers who tune into a new topic for the first time. A story that is an update on an ongoing story is not comprehensible without some context, which the news story cannot provide. So now various media organizations are experimenting with ways to provide context for people who are just tuning in. The perfect source of context for a topic is a book, especially now that every book appears to have its own website with links and news and a blog and a Twitter feed and a Facebook page. The book provides context, and all these other things provide updates.
For example, reading Bonobo Handshake may not provide much more context for me about animal behavior and cognition since I already have that context, but it certainly now makes it easier for me to understand the news stories regarding conservation of great apes. And without that book I would never have sufficient background in the recent history of Congo to understand and appreciate this comment thread. ‘On The Grid’ gives me context for all news regarding infrastructure. Explaining Research is a great recent example of a book that is a great start on the topic, but which constantly reminds the reader that this field is in flux and that the book’s website contains frequent updates and additional resources. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks provides fantastic context for the discussions of medical ethics and its evolution in the USA in the past several decades, which I riffed off a little bit in my latest interview.
What reading The Poisoner’s Handbook did for me is to give me enough knowledge and understanding on the topic that I can really appreciate it. I now get excited about news stories regarding poisons because I feel I understand them better. While reading Deborah Blum’s blog was interesting before, now it is more than interesting – it is exciting and I can’t wait for a new post to show up. I did not know how much I did not know. Now that I do, I want to know more. I am hungry for more knowledge, and more news, and more stories about toxins and poisons and how various strange and not so strange substances affect our bodies – where they come from, how they get in, how they hijack or disrupt our normal biochemical processes, how they kill us, and how do we figure that all out in the laboratory or in the basement of the mortuary. I hope you will feel the same once you finish reading this book. You will do that now, OK?

Books: ‘On The Grid’ by Scott Huler

grid_cover.jpgAbout a month ago, I told you about the book-reading event where Scott Huler (blog, Twitter, SIT interview) read from his latest book On The Grid ( I read the book immediately after, but never wrote a review of my own. My event review already contained some of my thoughts about the topic, but I feel I need to say more, if nothing else in order to use this blog to alert more people about it and to tell everyone “Read This Book”.
infrastructure 001.JPGWhat I wrote last month,

“I think of myself as a reasonably curious and informed person, and I have visited at least a couple of infrastructure plants, but almost every anecdote and every little tidbit of information were new to me. Scott’s point – that we don’t know almost anything about infrastructure – was thus proven to me.”

infrastructure 003.JPG…was reinforced when I read the book itself: I don’t know anything about infrastructure. But after reading the book I can say I know a little bit, understand how much I don’t know, and realize how much more I’d like to know. I bet it was fun watching me as I was reading it, exclaiming on average five times per page “This is so cool”, and “Hey, this is neat” and “Wow, I had no idea!” and (rarely) “w00t! Here’s a tidbit I actually heard of before” and “Hey, I know where this is!” (as I lived in Raleigh for eleven years, I know the area well).
infrastructure 006.JPGA few years ago, Scott was just as ignorant about infrastructure as most of us are. But then his curiosity got better of him and he started researching. He would start at his house in Raleigh and trace all the wires and cables and pipes going in and out of the house to see where they led. Sometimes there would be a crew on his street digging into the asphalt and fixing something and he would approach them and ask questions. At other times he would figure out where the headquarters are and who to ask to talk to:
infrastructure 007.JPG

“What Scott realized during the two years of research for the book is that people in charge of infrastructure know what they are doing. When something doesn’t work well, or the system is not as up-to-date as it could be, it is not due to incompetence or ignorance, but because there is a lack of two essential ingredients: money and political will. These two factors, in turn, become available to the engineers to build and upgrade the systems, only if people are persuaded to act. And people are persuaded to act in two ways: if it becomes too costly, or if it becomes too painful to continue with the old way of doing things. It is also easier to build brand new systems for new services than it is to replace old systems that work ‘well enough’ with more more modern ways of providing the same service.”

infrastructure 008.JPGIn a sense, this book is a memoir of curiosity as Scott describes his own adventures with a hard-hat, a modern Jean Valjean sloshing his way through the Raleigh sewers, test-driving the public transportation, and passing multiple security checks in order to enter the nearby nuclear plant.
infrastructure 009.JPGBut it is more than just a story of personal awe at modern engineering. Scott weaves in the explanations of the engineering and the underlying science, explains the history and the politics of the Raleigh infrastructure, the historical evolution of technologies underlying modern infrastructure, and illustrates it by comparisons to other infrastructures: how does New York City does that, how did Philadelphia did it 50 years ago, how did London 500 years ago, how about Rome 2000 years ago?
infrastructure 014.JPG

“What is really astonishing is how well the systems work, even in USA which has fallen way behind the rest of the developed world. We are taking it for granted that the systems always work, that water and electricity and phone and sewers and garbage collection and public transportation always work. We get angry on those rare occasions when a system temporarily fails. We are, for the most part, unprepared and untrained to provide some of the services ourselves in times of outages, or to continue with normal life and work when a service fails. And we are certainly not teaching our kids the necessary skills – I can chop up wood and start a wood stove, I can use an oil heater, I know how to slaughter and render a pig, how to get water out of a well, dig a ditch, and many other skills I learned as a child (and working around horses) – yet I am not teaching any of that to my own kids. They see it as irrelevant to the modern world and they have a point – chance they will ever need to employ such skills is negligible.”

infrastructure 015.JPGAnd this brings me to the point where I start musing about stuff that the book leaves out. As I was reading, I was constantly hungry for more. I wanted more comparisons with other cities and countries and how they solved particular problems. I wanted more history. I wanted more science. I wanted more about political angles. But then, when I finished, I realized that a book I was hungry for would be a 10-tome encyclopedic monograph and a complete flop. It is good that Scott has self-control and self-discipline as a writer to know exactly what to include and what to leave out. He provides an excellent Bibliography at the end for everyone who is interested in pursuing a particular interest further. His book’s homepage is a repository for some really cool links – just click on the infrastructure you are interested in (note that “Communications” is under construction, as it is in the real world – it is undergoing a revolution as we speak so it is hard to collect a list of ‘definitive’ resources – those are yet to be written):
OnTheGrid homepage.jpg
infrastructure 022.JPGWhat many readers will likely notice as they go through the book is that there is very little about the environmental impacts of various technologies used to ensure that cities function and citizens have all their needs met. And I think this was a good strategy. If Scott included this information, many readers and critics would focus entirely on the environmental bits (already available in so many other books, articles and blogs) and completely miss what the book is all about – the ingenuity needed to keep billions of people living in some kind of semblance of normal life and the interconnectedness that infrastructure imposes on the society, even on those who would want not to be interconnected:
infrastructure 027.JPG

“There are people who advocate for moving “off the grid” and living a self-sufficient existence. But, as Scott discovered, they are fooling themselves. Both the process of moving off the grid and the subsequent life off the grid are still heavily dependent on the grid, on various infrastructure systems that make such a move and such a life possible, at least in the developed world.”

infrastructure 031.JPGMy guess is, if there’s anyone out there who could possibly not like this book, it will be die-hard libertarians who fantasize about being self-sufficient in this over-populated, inter-connected world.
infrastructure 032.JPGAt several places in the book, Scott tries to define what infrastructure is. It is a network that provides a service to everyone. It has some kind of control center, a collection center or distribution center. It has a number of peripheral stations and nodes. And there are some kinds of channels that connect the central place to the outside stations and those stations to the final users – every household in town. There is also a lot of redundancy built into the system, e.g., if a water main breaks somewhere, you will still get your water but it will come to you via other pipes in surrounding streets, with zero interruption to your service.
infrastructure 025.JPGScott covers surveying of land, stormwater, freshwater, wastewater, roads, power, solid waste, communications (phone, broadcast media, internet) and transportation (e.g., public transportation, trains, airplanes). These are the kinds of things that are traditionally thought of as ‘infrastructure’. But aren’t there other such systems? I’d think security has the same center-spokes model of organization as well: police stations and sub-stations (distribution centers) that can send cops out wherever needed (distribution channels), with potential criminals brought to court (processing centers) and if found guilty placed in prison (collection center). Similarly with fire-departments. Ambulances are just the most peripheral tentacles of the health-care infrastructure. The local-county-state-federal political system is also a kind of infrastructure. So is the military. So is the postal system. So is the food industry and distribution.
infrastructure 018.JPGThinking about all of these other potential examples of infrastructure made me realize how many services that require complex infrastructure undergo cycles of centralization and decentralization. For transportation, everyone needed to have a horse. Later, it was centralized into ship, railroad, bus and airline infrastructures. But that was counteracted by the popularity of individually owned cars. And of course taxis were there all along. And as each decade and each country has its own slight moves towards or away from centralization, in the end a balance is struck in which both modes operate.
infrastructure 020.JPGYou raised your own chickens. Then you bought them from mega-farms. Now many, but not most citizens, are raising their own chickens again. It is not feasible – not enough square miles on the planet – for everyone to raise chickens any more. But having everyone fed factory chicken is not palatable to many, either. Thus, a new, uneasy balance.
infrastructure 011.JPGNowhere is this seen more obviously today as in Communications infrastructure. We are in the middle of a big decentralization movement, away from broadcast (radio, TV and yes, newspaper industry infrastructure with its printing presses, distribution centers and trucks) infrastructure that marked about half of 20th century, and forward into something more resembling the media ecosystem of the most of human history – everyone is both a sender and a receiver, except that instead of writing letters or assembling at a pub every evening, we can do this online. But internet is itself an infrastructure – a series of tubes network of cables and it is essential not to allow any centralized corporation to have any power over what passes through those cables and who gets to send and receive stuff this way.
infrastructure 013.JPGFinally, as I was reading the book I was often wishing to see photographs of places or drawings of the engineering systems he describes. As good as Scott is at putting it in words, there were times when I really wanted to actually see how something looks like. And there were times when what I really wanted was something even more interactive, perhaps an online visualization of an infrastructure system that allows me to change parameters (e.g., amount of rainfall per minute) and see how that effects some output (e.g., rate of clearing water off the streets, or speed at which it is rushing through the pipes, or how it affects the water level of the receiving river). That kind of stuff would make this really come to life to me.
infrastructure 030.JPGPerhaps “On The Grid” will have an iPad edition in the future in which the text of the book is just a beginning of the journey – links to other sources (e,g., solutions around the globe, historical sources), to images, videos, interactive visualizations and, why not, real games. After all, it is right here in Raleigh that IBM is designing a game that allows one to plan and build modern infrastructure – CityOne. These two should talk to each other and make something magnificent like that.
Cross-posted from Science In The Triangle.
The small images are thumbnails – click on each to see the whole picture, full-size.

Welcome the newest SciBlings! And more.

Now this is big: ScienceBlogs Welcomes the World’s Top Scientific Institutions to Our Network:

We here at ScienceBlogs are pleased to announce that beginning today, we will be helping to spark the next generation of research communications by introducing new blogs to our network from the world’s top scientific institutions. The initial list includes: CERN, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), SETI Institute, Weizmann Institute of Science, and Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The first two of those are already live – check out the Weizmann Wave and Brookhaven Bits & Bytes. Go and say Hello. The others will go live soon. And if your institution is interested in doing something like this, contact the Overlords over on Page 3.14.
Also, the ScienceBlogs Book Club is back! The first book discussed right now is ‘Inside the Outbreaks: The Elite Medical Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service’ by Mark Pendergrast, who is himself participating in the book club. Later, who knows, perhaps some books from this list?

Kids Read Science and Teens Read Science – Summer Science Reading Contest 2010

Joanne Manaster of Joanne Loves Science has just announced a science book reading contest for young readers (and movie-makers): Kids Read Science and Teens Read Science. Watch the introductory video:

Check out the contest instructions for details:

The contest is simple–just do what I do quite often. Read a non-fiction science book and make a video! Oh, you have to be a kid or teen. Just making that clear. Age 8-12 can enter Kids Read Science and ages 13-18 can join Teens Read Science. We will be thrilled to see you all be creative and articulate. Tell us what you learned in less than five minutes.
Anyone anywhere in the world can submit an entry. We have prizes, too! But, for now, with our limited legal knowledge, we can only distribute those in the US. Don’t worry, we’re going to try to figure something out for everybody else.

You can start with my previous post to get ideas about readings (at least for teens), and feel free to add ideas in the comments here and on Joanne’s blog.

Science Bloggers and their Books

These days I am swallowing one good science book after another. 2010 seems to be a great year for science book publishing!
But I have also noticed that almost all of these books are written by science bloggers (or at least active Twitterers)! Some are writers first, and started blogging later. Others started as bloggers, and decided to also write a book.
Some use their blogs as writing labs, putting out ideas, getting feedback, honing the message, then collecting, fine-tuning and editing a couple of years of blog material into a book.
Others keep the two worlds pretty much apart – book covers one topic, the blog is on something else, but it is nice, once the book gets published, to have a few thousands loyal blog readers who are natural buyers of the book, will spread the word about it to their friends, review the book on their own blogs, or organize readings and signings in their hometowns (now that publishers have no money to do much promotion for any authors but the biggest stars).
So I decided to make a little list here of science books by science bloggers, focusing on the 2010 year, but also some of the older and some yet to be written.
Please make corrections and additions in the comments. And if a non-blogger is publishing a good science book in 2010, you can also add that in the comments – sooner or later a book author will have to learn how to use the Web for promotion if they want anyone to hear about their work at all, so perhaps you can show them this post ;-)
And if you are one of the authors I listed here and have something to add, perhaps about the way you use the blog as part of your book-writing or marketing, or a book we don’t know yet you are writing, add that in the comments as well.
2010 books
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (website,, by Rebecca Skloot (website, blog, Twitter)
Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo (website, my review, by Vanessa Woods (website, old blog, new blog, Twitter, ABATC interview, previous books include It’s Every Monkey for Themselves)
On the Grid: A Plot of Land, An Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make Our World Work (website, my report from a reading, my review, by Scott Huler (website, blog, Twitter, ABATC interview, previous books include Defining the Wind)
Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA (website, blog, Twitter, by Maryn McKenna (old blog, new blog, Twitter, previous book – Beating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service)
The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (website, by Deborah Blum (website, old blog, new blog, Twitter, previous books include A Field Guide for Science Writers, The Monkey Wars, Sex on the Brain, Love at Goon Park and Ghost Hunters)
Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature (publisher’s website, website, by Brian Switek (website, blog 1, blog 2, Twitter, ABATC interview)
Here Is a Human Being: At the Dawn of Personal Genomics (website, by Misha Angrist (blog, Twitter, ABATC interview)
The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse ( by Jennifer Ouellette (blog, Twitter, ABATC interview, previous books: Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics and The Physics of the Buffyverse)
Dinosaurs Life Size: Discover How Big They Really Were ( by Darren Naish (blog, previous books include The Great Dinosaur Discoveries, Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life and ‘Walking with Dinosaurs: The Evidence – How Did They Know That?)
From Eternity to Here (website, by Sean Carroll (blog, Twitter, previous book – Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity)
The New York Times Reader: Health & Medicine (website, by Tom Linden (website, blog, Twitter, ABATC interview)
Intelligent Design and Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (website, by John Wilkins (blog, Twitter, Species: A History of the Idea and Defining Species: A Sourcebook from Antiquity to Today)
Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work (website, by Dennis Meredith (blog, Twitter, ABATC interview)
Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be (website, by Daniel Loxton (blog, twitter)
Afterglow of Creation: Decoding the message from the beginning of time ( by Marcus Chown (website, guest-blogging, Twitter, previous books)
Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation (website, by Elissa Stein (website, blog, Twitter, previous books, next book – Wrinkle: the cultural story of ageing)
How to Defeat Your Own Clone: And Other Tips for Surviving the Biotech Revolution (website, by Kyle Kurpinski (website, Twitter) and Terry Johnson (blog, Twitter)
‘The Nature of Human Nature’ (teaser posts) by Carin Bondar website/blog, Twitter)
2009 and older
How to Teach Physics to Your Dog (website, by Chad Orzel (blog, Twitter)
The Tangled Bank (website, by Carl Zimmer (website, blog, Twitter, ABATC interview, previous books)
Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist ( by Tom Levenson (blog, Twitter, ABATC interview, previous books include Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science, Einstein in Berlin, and Ice Time: Climate Science and Life on Earth)
The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat (website, by Eric Roston (blog, Twitter)
Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food (website, by Pamela Ronald (blog, previous book – Plant-Pathogen Interactions)
The Monty Hall Problem: The Remarkable Story of Math’s Most Contentious Brain Teaser ( by Jason Rosenhouse (wesbite, blog)
How We Decide ( by Jonah Lehrer (website, blog, Twitter, previous book – Proust Was a Neuroscientist)
Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do ( by Andrew Gelman (blog, previous books)
Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage and Preservation (website) by Sharon Astyk (blog, previous books – Depletion & Abundance and A Nation of Farmers)
Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives ( by David Sloan Wilson (blog, previous books include Darwin’s Cathedral and Unto Others)
Experimental Heart ( by Jennifer Rohn (blog, Twitter)
Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral ( by David Dobbs (website, blog, Twitter, previous books include The Great Gulf: Fishermen, Scientists, and the Struggle to Revive the World’s Greatest Fishery and The Northern Forest and the forthcoming book is The Orchid and the Dandelion)
Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives (website, by Michael Specter (website, blog, Twitter)
Until Earthset ( by Blake Stacey (blog, ABATC interview)
The Vision Revolution (website, by Mark Changizi (wesbite, blog 1, blog 2, Twitter, previous book – The Brain from 25,000 Feet: High Level Explorations of Brain Complexity, Perception, Induction and Vagueness, next book – Harnessed)
The Science of Middle Earth ( by Henry Gee (website, blog 1, blog 2, Twitter, ABATC interview, previous books include Jacob’s Ladder: The History of the Human Genome, In Search of Deep Time and A Field Guide to Dinosaurs)
Evolution ( by Jonathan Eisen (blog, Twitter, ABATC interview)
Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex ( by Olivia Judson (blog)
The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs ( by Michael Belfiore (website, blog, Twitter, previous books include The Way People Live – Life Aboard a Space Station and Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots is Boldly Privatizing Space)
Not Exactly Rocket Science ( by Ed Yong (blog, Twitter, ABATC interview)
The Republican War on Science, Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Chris Mooney (blog)
Academeology (, by Female Science Professor (blog)
Walking With Zeke ( by Chris Clarke (blog, Twitter)
Principles of Biochemistry ( by Larry Moran (blog)
Death from the Skies!: These Are the Ways the World Will End . . . ( and Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing “Hoax” ( by Phil Plait (blog, Twitter)
2011 and beyond
The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us ( by Sheril Kirshenbaum (website, blog, Twitter, ABATC interview, previous book: Unscientific America with Chris Mooney) will be out on January 2011.
Blood Work: A Tale of Murder and Medicine in the Scientific Revolution, by Holly Tucker (website, blog, Twitter) should be out in 2011.
DeLene Beeland (website, blog, Twitter) is writing a book about wolves in North America (with a focus on conservation) which should be published in 2012.
Reinventing Discovery (blog) by Michael Nielsen (website ,blog, Twitter, previous book is Quantum computation and quantum information) should be published in 2011.
Marketing Your Science (website) by Morgan Giddings (blog, Twitter)
John McKay (blog 1, blog 2, Twitter) has almost finished writing a book on the history of the discovery of mammoths and is looking for a publisher.
There are rumors that P.Z.Myers (blog, Twitter) is writing a book.
There are rumors that Dave and Greta Munger (blog, old blog, oldest blog, Twitter) are writing a book.
I am assuming that most of the above authors will try to come to ScienceOnline2011 next January, so we should organize some kind of book-centered activity – sale, contests for free copies, book readings/signings, and of course sessions about pitching, writing, publishing and promoting books on the Web.
Web – how it will change the Book: process, format, sales
New Journalistic Workflow
Making it real: People and Books and Web and Science at ScienceOnline2010

Books: ‘Bonobo Handshake’ by Vanessa Woods

To get disclaimers out of the way, first, Vanessa Woods (on Twitter) is a friend. I first met her online, reading her blog Bonobo Handshake where she documented her day-to-day life and work with bonobos in the Congo. We met in person shortly after her arrival to North Carolina, at a blogger meetup in Durham, after which she came to three editions of ScienceOnline conference.
I interviewed Vanessa after the 2008 event and blogged (scroll down to the second half of the post) about her 2009 session ‘Blogging adventure: how to post from strange locations’. At the 2010 conference, she was one of the five storytellers at the ScienceOnline Monti on Thursday night (and did another stint at The Monti in Carrboro a couple of months later). I have since then also met her husband Brian Hare and we instantly hit it off marvelously.
bonobo 002.JPGI have read Vanessa’s previous book, ‘It’s every monkey for themselves‘, but never reviewed it on the blog because I felt uneasy – that book is so personal! But it is an excellent and wonderfully written page-turner of a book so I knew I was in for a treat when I got a review copy of her new book, Bonobo Handshake ( I could not wait for it to officially come out so I could go to the first public reading (where I took the picture) at the Regulator in Durham on May 27th, on the day of publication.
Vanessa recently moved her blog to a new location on Psychology Today network and had a few interviews in local papers, more sure to come soon.
Vanessa will also soon read/sign the book at Quail Ridge Books on June 9th at 7:30pm, and at Chapel Hill Borders on June 12th at 2pm (also June 22 at Barnes & Noble on Maynard in Cary, June 30 at The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, and Aug. 10 at Broad Street Café in Durham, in-between readings in other cities on the East and West coasts) and I hope you can make it to one of these events as they are fun, especially the way she tries to talk about a species renowned for its sexual behavior by using language that is appropriate for the kids in the audience ;-)
The book weaves four parallel threads. The first is Vanessa’s own life. Bonobo Handshake starts where ‘Each monkey’ leaves off. And while the ‘Monkey’ covered the period of her life that was pretty distressing, this book begins as her life begins to normalize, describing how she met Brian, fell in love, and got married – a happy trajectory.
The second thread is the science – the experiments they did on behavior and cognition in bonobos and chimps, and how the results fit into the prior knowledge and literature on primate (including human) nature.
The third thread reports on the conservation status of great apes, especially bonobos, and all the social, cultural, financial and political factors that work for or against the efforts to prevent them from going extinct.
The fourth thread is the country of Congo, where all the bonobos in the wild live, especially its recent history of war and its effects on the local people.
The four threads are seamlessly intervowen with each other, but it takes some time into the book to realize that there is, besides the fact that Vanessa was there and did the stuff and wrote about it, another unifying thread – the question of cooperation vs. competition. Vanessa and Brian sometimes love, sometimes fight: what determined one behavior at one time and the opposite at another time?
bonobo handshake.jpgFor the most part, chimps compete and bonobos cooperate: why is that? And what accounts for occasional exceptions to that rule? When threatened, or perceiving to be threatened, animals become insecure. Chimps deal with that insecurity by lashing out – becoming violent and aggressive, or at least putting out a great show of machismo. When bonobos feel insecure (including when they are very young), they solve the problem (and release the tension) by having sex with each other. If chimps won the national elections in the USA, they would probably rule by fear and force, investing mightily into the military, the police and the prison system, going around the world bombing other countries, declaring various internal “Wars on X”, and generally trying to keep the population fearful, subdued and obedient. Bonobos in such a position would always first try to find out a diplomatic solution: how to turn a stranger, or even an enemy into a friend and ally? Share something! Whatever you have: food, shelter, sex…. Everyone is safer that way in the end.
Of course, there are reasons why chimps are one way and bonobos the other. Food is scarce where chimps live, thus there is competition for it, thus the strongest individual wins, and the winner takes all. The position in the hierarchy is the key to survival. Individualism rules. On the other hand, there is plenty of food where bonobos live, enough to share with everyone, eat enough to get bloated, and still plenty left over to just let rot. Why fight over it? Thus, communitarian spirit rules, and if a big strong male starts to feel his oats a little too much, the females will get together and gang up on him as a sisterhood and beat the crap out of him – a rare exception to their usual non-violence, but an act that restores harmony to the group as a whole.
What can we learn from it? That, being equally related to both species, as well as being smarter, we are quite capable of switching between the two modes of reaction to perceived threats: competitive or cooperative. Some people (probably due to the social environment in which they were raised) tend to respond more like chimps, others more like bonobos, but all are capable of behaving both ways. Thus, all are capable of making choices how to react. And the society as a whole can teach people about the exictence of this choice and, in some general ways regarding different kinds of issues, suggest which of the two reactions is condoned by the society and which one will lend you in jail. Studying both chimps and bonobos, comparing them to each other and to humans, can help us understand this choice better, and what it takes to make one or the other reaction to a perceived threat. And even how to study, as researchers, competitions versus cooperation, something that was historically colored by the social upbringing of individual scientists.
[An aside: this is not really relevant to the book as whole, but if I remember correctly it occurs once in the book, and Vanessa sometimes mentions it in her public speaking and on her blog. She mentions the old trope that we are about 98% identical to both chimps and bonobos. That number denotes the identity of sequences of DNA that is expressed in adult, sexually mature individuals at a particular time of year and particular time of day. It ignores all the unexpressed DNA, individual differences, seasonal/daily changes in expression, and effect of the environment. It also ignores the fact that the sequence is not what really matters - it is how the developing organism (from zygote, through embryonic and post-embryonic development, through metamorphosis, growth, maturation, puberty, adulthood and senescence) uses those sequences to effect the development of traits and the day-to-day response of the organism to the environment. It is not the sequence that matters, but which gene is expressed in which cell at what time and in conjunction with which other genes that matters. The number "98% equal" reeks of genetic determinism, which originates with Adaptation and Natural Selection, the 1966 book by George Williams which corrupted generations of biologists, and 'The Selfish Gene', the 1976 book by Richard Dawkins which ruined generations of lay readers and science journalists. It peaked in late 1990s (I wrote this in 1999) with the hype over Human Genome Project ("Holy Grail", "Blueprint of Life"!) and currently survives only in the realm of that abomination of science we all know as Evolutionary Psychology. There is a lot of literature explaining the poverty of the genocentric and deterministic view of biology, most notably the entire opuses of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, their numerous students and proteges and fans, and an entire generation of evo-devo researchers (the field was spawned/inspired by Gould's 1977 book 'Ontogeny and Phylogeny') and Philosophers of Science (e.g.., Bob Brandon, Bill Wimsatt) who spent some years proving it wrong and, successfully done that, have since moved on to more fertile topics. Actually, one of the easiest-to-read books on the topic for lay audience is titled - What it Means to be 95% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and their Genes. Saying that humans and bonobos are 98 (or 95, or 99, different numbers are thrown out) percent identical to us is like saying that an airplane and a house are identical because both are built with identical sizes, shapes and colors of Lego blocks - except that one propeller-piece that the airplane has and the house does not. Bonobos and humans are similar because our development is similar, leading to similar phenotypes - not much to do with the sequences of c-DNA libraries. Aside over.]
Conservation of Great Apes depends on humans cooperating to make it happen, but also has to take into account the instrinsic proclivities of different species (chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans and gibbons are all different) towards violence vs. collaboration which dictate the sizes and shapes and organizational schemes of their sanctuaries and eventual wild refuges.
Finally, civil war in Congo is an enormous example of violent competition, but what were its causes? Who chose to compete in this way and why? What was the competition about? Did the end of the Cold War sufficiently weaken the Non-Aligned Movement in a way that reduced the national pride of the people of its member-nations (allowing tribal instincts to take over), reduced the economic cooperation between the member countries (thus sending some of their economies into a downward spiral leading to hopelessness which often leads to lashing out at perceived enemies), or reduced the military cooperation between the members that would scare any potential leader of a tribal movement, or reduced the authority and thus ability of the Movement’s leadership to intervene and prevent wars between the members?
Why did some people come out of war utterly changed – the “living dead” – while others emerged hopeful, energetic and optimistic, full of life and love? How did collaboration of some people help save some of them from murder, and save their psyches from lifelong scars?
Vanessa weaves these four threads expertly and, at the end of the book, you cannot help but care about all four! It is a fast and easy read, you never feel bored or inundated by information, yet you end the book with vastly more knowledge than when you began. And once you know about something enough, you start caring.
I remember as a kid, before the Internet, trying to find something to read after I have finished all 20 library books I took out and still having a couple of weeks of boring vacation ahead of me. Stuck somewhere outside of civilization, with nothing else to do, there was nothing else but to explore the enormous leather-bound classics, each thousands of pages long, each unabridged – stuff that every home has. So I read, slowly and carefully as there was no need to rush, such books as David Copperfield, Pickwick Papers, Teutonic Knights, Moby Dick, Les Miserables, The Road to Life and Martin Eden and others. Being a kid, I did not know anything about any of those topics, and these ancient authors LOVED to write lengthy treateses on various topics over many pages, yet, by getting informed about them, I got to care about Victorian England, Medieval Religious Wars in Poland, classification of whales (and how Melville got it horribly wrong), Paris sewers, educational reforms, and the hard life of becoming a writer. Once, when I contracted something (rubella? scarlet fever?) that made me sick for a couple of days but contagious for another three weeks, with nothing to do at home, I read the unabridged five volumes of War and Peace – at the beginning I did not, but at the end I did care about Russian aristocracy and military strategy (or “how to lose a land war in a Russian winter, part I”).
I don’t know about you, but before I picked up ‘Bonobo Hanshake’ I cared about Vanessa, being a friend, and was thus interested to see what happened after the ‘Monkeys’ book was published. I was interested in bonobo behavior (as we discussed it a lot back in grad school – I did my concentration in Animal Behavior and was a part of the Keck Center for Behavioral Biology) especially as I did not follow the scientific literature on it over the past 6-7 years. I had no idea how endangered bonobos were, nor did I know anything about the civil war in the Congo (and how it is related to the civil war in Rwanda). And while Vanessa did not emulate the 19th century writers, and instead of long chapters on each topic she intertwined brief updates on each of the four threads within each short chapter, I still learned a lot – enough to start caring about the apes, about the people of Congo, about the primatologists working in dangerous places, about individual bonobos and individual Congolese people whose lives intersected Vanessa’s over the past few years. More you know, more you care. So, even if the four themes of this book do not automatically excite you, I suggest you pick up the book – a couple of hours later, you will deeply care about it, know more, want to know even more, and will feel good about it.
Update: In strange synchronocity, my SciBlings Jason Goldman and Brian Switek also reviewed the book today.
Update: The book has now also been reviewed by DeLene Beeland, Sheril Kirshenbaum and Christie Wilcox.

A Weapon of Mass Instruction (video)

Scott Huler – ‘On The Grid’ at Quail Ridge Books

huler 003.JPGAs I alerted you before, last night Scott Huler (blog, Twitter, SIT interview) did a reading from his latest book On The Grid ( at the Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.
The store was packed. The store sold out all the books before Scott was even done talking. The C-Span Book TV crew was there filming so the event will be on TV some day soon. Scott was also, earlier yesterday, on WUNC’s The State Of Things (the podcast will soon be online here) and the day before that he was on KERA’s Think with Krys Boyd (download MP3 podcast by clicking here).
Scott’s energy and enthusiasm are infectuos. He held the audience captive and often laughing. The questions at the end were smart and his answers perfectly on target. But most importantly, we all learned a lot last night. I think of myself as a reasonably curious and informed person, and I have visited at least a couple of infrastructure plants, but almost every anecdote and every little tidbit of information were new to me. Scott’s point – that we don’t know almost anything about infrastructure – was thus proven to me.
What Scott realized during the two years of research for the book is that people in charge of infrastructure know what they are doing. When something doesn’t work well, or the system is not as up-to-date as it could be, it is not due to incompetence or ignorance, but because there is a lack of two essential ingredients: money and political will. These two factors, in turn, become available to the engineers to build and upgrade the systems, only if people are persuaded to act. And people are persuaded to act in two ways: if it becomes too costly, or if it becomes too painful to continue with the old way of doing things. It is also easier to build brand new systems for new services than it is to replace old systems that work ‘well enough’ with more more modern ways of providing the same service.
huler 002.JPGThere are people who advocate for moving “off the grid” and living a self-sufficient existence. But, as Scott discovered, they are fooling themselves. Both the process of moving off the grid and the subsequent life off the grid are still heavily dependent on the grid, on various infrastructure systems that make such a move and such a life possible, at least in the developed world.
What is really astonishing is how well the systems work, even in USA which has fallen way behind the rest of the developed world. We are taking it for granted that the systems always work, that water and electricity and phone and sewers and garbage collection and public transportation always work. We get angry on those rare occasions when a system temporarily fails. We are, for the most part, unprepared and untrained to provide some of the services ourselves in times of outages, or to continue with normal life and work when a service fails. And we are certainly not teaching our kids the necessary skills – I can chop up wood and start a wood stove, I can use an oil heater, I know how to slaughter and render a pig, how to get water out of a well, dig a ditch, and many other skills I learned as a child (and working around horses) – yet I am not teaching any of that to my own kids. They see it as irrelevant to the modern world and they have a point – chance they will ever need to employ such skills is negligible.
grid_cover.jpgI got the book last night and am about to start reading it – very eagerly so. Scott started with his house in Raleigh and traced all the wires and cables and pipes going in and out of the house to see where they led. He compared what he learned in Raleigh and its various infrastructure experts and officials, to the equivalent services in other geographical places, and traced them back in history. I can’t wait to read the synthesis of all that research. I hope you will read it, too.
Cross-posted from Science In The Triangle

‘On The Grid’ by Scott Huler at Quail Ridge Books

Last night I went to the book reading of “On The Grid” by Scott Huler at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. It was a great event. I wrote a more detailed summary over on Science In The Triangle.

Cory Doctorow in Chapel Hill

Cory Doctorow, blogger at BoingBoing and author of several books, came to town last weekend and did a reading/signing of his latest novel For The Win at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill on Sunday.
I assume that, being bloggers and blog-readers, you all know who Cory is and what he does – if not, follow the links above as this post is going to be self-centered ;-)
This is the first time I got to meet Cory in person, but he is pretty important person in my life. After I have been blogging about politics for a couple of years and my blog started being well known in the circles of the progressive blogosphere, Kerry/Edwards ticket lost and we all sunk into a collective state of depression. I wrote a few election post-mortems but the wind was out of my sails and I was tired of political blogging.
So I started a new blog in January 2005 and posted a longish blog post about circadian rhythms and sleep in humans. I installed Sitemeter on that one-post blog and went to sleep, only to wake up in the morning to an avalanche of traffic – coming from BoingBoing, linked to by Cory. Soon others linked to it as well, e.g., Andrew Sullivan. To this day, this is still one of the most visited posts in my blogging career and at least once a year it gets rediscovered by someone on digg, redditt or stumbleupon which brings in another mini-avalanche of traffic to it.
That was a wake-up call and an Eureka moment. Aha! Everyone can bash Bush and Cheney, but not everyone can write about science from a position of expertise! I can! On that day I became a science blogger. I knew a handful of science blogs at the time – Intersection, Loom, Pharyngula, Deltoid…but really, the space was still wide open at that time. Very soon, my science blog was receiving as high traffic as the political one, although I kept it very narrowly focused on just chronobiology – talk about a niche blog!
A year later, I was invited to join which widened my audience and enabled me to organize the first science blogging conference (now known as ScienceOnline) and to put together the first science blogging anthology (Open Laboratory 2006). This broadened my audience even more and put my name out there into the media, the science publishing world and Science 2.0 world. As a blogger whose academic library password expired, I naturally became a proponent of Open Access and tended to blog a lot about PLoS papers because I could access them. All of this led to a job at PLoS which I got in the comments of a blog post of mine. That job then led to many other opportunities – speaking invitations, two trips to Europe, various consulting gigs, etc.
So, a single link from someone like Cory can completely alter one’s career trajectory. Just saying. Never hold your links back, you never know how that can help a person one day.
Oh, and you never know what exactly on your blog is interesting to other people. Cory says he loves the Clock Quotes. Go figure!
Anyway, I took a few murky photos at the reading – under the fold:

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‘Bonobo Handshake’ coming soon to a bookstore near you

bonobo handshake.jpgVanessa Woods (website, old blog, new blog, Twitter) will be reading from her new book “Bonobo Handshake” (comes out May 27th – you can pre-order on at the Regulator in Durham on May 27th at 7pm, at Quail Ridge Books on June 9th at 7:30pm, and at Chapel Hill Borders on June 12th at 2pm.
I have interviewed Vanessa last year so you can learn more about her there.
I received a review copy recently and am halfway through. Once I finish I will post my book review here.
From Publishers Weekly:

Devoted to learning more about bonobos, a smaller, more peaceable species of primate than chimpanzees, and lesser known, Australian journalist Woods and her fiancé, scientist Brian Hare, conducted research in the bonobos’ only known habitat–civil war-torn Congo. Woods’s plainspoken, unadorned account traces the couple’s work at Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary, located outside Kinshasa in the 75-acre forested grounds of what was once Congo dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s weekend retreat. The sanctuary, founded in 1994 and run by French activist Claudine André, served as an orphanage for baby bonobos, left for dead after their parents had been hunted for bush meat; the sanctuary healed and nurtured them (assigning each a human caretaker called a mama), with the aim of reintroducing the animals to the wild. Hare had only previously conducted research on the more warlike, male-dominated chimpanzee, and needed Woods because she spoke French and won the animals’ trust; through their daily work, the couple witnessed with astonishment how the matriarchal bonobo society cooperated nicely using frequent sex, and could even inspire human behavior. When Woods describes her daily interaction with the bonobos, her account takes on a warm charm. Woods’s personable, accessible work about bonobos elucidates the marvelous intelligence and tolerance of this gentle cousin to humans.

‘On The Grid’ is coming in two days

grid_cover.jpgScott Huler (blog, Twitter), the author of ‘Defining the Wind’, has a new book coming out this Tuesday. ‘On The Grid’ ( is the story of infrastructure. For this book, Scott started with his own house (unlike me, Scott did the work) and traced where all those pipes, drains, cables and wires were coming from and going to, how does it all work, does it work well, where does it all come from historically, and how its current state of (dis)repair portends to the future.
You can read a review in Raleigh News & Observer, as well as an article by Scott in the same paper and another one at the Science In The Triangle blog.
Scott Huler has a book reading and signing event on Wednesday, May 12th at the Regulator in Durham, then another one on May 26th at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. I’ll try to make it to one or both of these – and you should, too.
From the blurb:

Wires, pipes, roads, and water support the lives we lead, but the average person doesn’t know where they go or even how they work. Our systems of infrastructure are not only shrouded in mystery, many are woefully out of date. In On the Grid, Scott Huler takes the time to understand the systems that sustain our way of life, starting from his own quarter of an acre in North Carolina and traveling as far as Ancient Rome.
Each chapter follows one element of infrastructure to its source — or to its outlet. Huler visits power plants, watches new asphalt pavement being laid, and traces a drop of water backward from his faucet to the Gulf of Mexico and then a drop of his wastewater out to the Atlantic. Huler reaches out to guides along the way, bot the workers who operate these systems and the people who plan them.
Mesmerizing and often hilarious, On the Grid brings infrastructure to life and details the ins and outs of our civilization wigh fascinating, back-to-basics information about the systems we all depend on.

Open Laboratory – old Prefaces and Introductions

One difference between reading Open Laboratory anthologies and reading the original posts included in them is that the printed versions are slightly edited and polished. Another difference is that the Prefaces and Introductions can be found only in the books. They have never been placed online.
But now that four books are out and we are halfway through collecting entries for the fifth one, when only the 2009 book is still selling, I think it is perfectly OK to place Prefaces and Introductions that I wrote myself online. I wrote Prefaces for the 2006, 2007 and 2008 book, as well as the Introduction for the 2006 one. The introductions for the subsequent editions were written by the year’s guest editor, i.e., Reed Cartwright in 2007, Jennifer Rohn in 2008, and SciCurious in 2009.
So, under the fold are my three Prefaces and one Introduction. See how the world (and my understanding of it) of the online science communication has changed over the last few years:

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The New York Times Reader: Science & Technology

The New York Times Reader: Science & Technology by Holly Stocking is now out:

Science writing poses specific challenges: Science writers must engage their audiences while also explaining unfamiliar scientific concepts and processes. Further, they must illuminate arcane research methods while at the same time cope with scientific ignorance and uncertainty. Stocking’s volume not only tackles these challenges, but also includes extraordinary breadth in story selection, from prize-winning narratives, profiles and explanatory pieces to accounts of scientific meetings and new discoveries, Q&A’s, traditional trend and issue stories, reviews, essays and blog posts. These Times exemplars, together with Stocking’s guide to reading stories about science and technology, are perfect for science writers who aspire to diversify and hone their reporting and writing skills in a changing media climate. Holly Stocking is an experienced science writer, award-winning teacher, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

This is a collection of best science-related articles from New York Times, including several articles from the NYTimes by Carl Zimmer, and a few blog posts by NYT bloggers Olivia Judson, John Tierney and Andy Revkin [corrected].
I have not bought the book yet, but it is my understanding that the last chapter, on additional Suggested Resources, has quite a lot about science blogs, as well as the Open Laboratory anthologies.

Rebecca Skloot is in the Triangle, NC

My SciBling Rebecca Skloot will be here in the Triangle for a couple of days this week promoting her book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I’ll be out of town for most of this (off to Boston in a couple of hours), but you should come to one or more of these events if you can:
Monday night 3/22, 7:30 pm she’ll be at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh just off the Wade Ave exit on I-40:
Tuesday 3/23, noon, she’ll be Frank Stasio’s guest on The State of Things at WUNC-FM 91.5
Tuesday 3/23, 3 pm, she’ll be the keynote speaker of a mini-symposium on African American issues in science, medicine, and history at North Carolina Central University. Blair Kelley from NC State’s History Dept will speak at 3 pm, Dr.David Kroll will give a talk at 3:30 on the HeLa cell production unit set up in the mid-1950s at Tuskegee University by the March of Dimes, then Rebecca will give her book talk at 4 pm, followed by a book signing. The talk will be in the auditorium of the BBRI (Biomedical Biotechnology Research Institute) on George Street on the east side of Fayetteville St.
Wednesday night, 3/24, 5:30 pm, she’ll give the Crown Lecture on Ethics at Duke’s Sanford Institute
Follow Rebecca on her blog and Twitter.

Second review of Open Laboratory 2009

And it is good! Written by Maggie Koerth-Baker at BoingBoing: Best science writing from the blogosphere! Check it out. Post a comment….

The Open Laboratory 2009 – It is Live!

OpenLab09coverart.jpgYes, the day has finally arrived! The anthology is now up for sale!
Just go ahead right now and click on this link right here, then click on the “Add To Cart” button and one copy (or more!) of this amazing book will be yours!
SciCurious did a fantastic job as this year’s editor – and it shows. You’ll see when you get your copy. Really.
Also, huge props to Blake and his LaTeX and generally tech-savviness for putting the book together so it looks really good (and is actually loaded on the site!).
Cover art was done by Glendon Mellow who used the cover design by Dave Ng.
The list of judges is so long, I cannot possibly link to everyone here, but they are all acknowledged in the book.
If you wish to publish a book review of Open Lab 2009, please contact me directly for a review copy. Or just buy one by clicking here – paperback or PDF download. I will also let you know when it is available on and will also explore the ways for putting it on Kindle.

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Announcing the posts that will be published in The Open Laboratory 2009!

The time has come….the moment many of you have been waiting for, for months!
The most amazing 2009 guest editor Scicurious and I are ready to announce the 50 posts that have made it through a grueling judging process to emerge as winners to be included in the Open Laboratory 2009, the anthology of the best writing on science blogs of the past year.
Out of 760 posts, all of amazing quality (we could have collected something like ten anthologies, all good), the survivors of all the rounds, the posts that will actually get printed on physical, dead-tree paper, are:
Breastatistics, by Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde.
Beyond Energy, by Tom Paine’s Ghost.
Making the Archeological Record, by Aarvarchaeology.
I want to be Carl Sagan but Can’t by NeuroDojo.
The Weird History of Vaccine Adjuvants by Neuron Culture.
Why you didn’t really want the job, the Waiting for Godot Edition at The Oyster’s Garter.
Cosmopithicus at The Beagle Project.
Blood and brains – can vampires survive a zombie apocalypse? by Southern Fried Science.
Pressure to Preserve by the Culture of Chemistry.
Bittersweet, from Beyond the Short Coat.
How research saved the large blue butterfly, from Not Exactly Rocket Science.
How science reporting works, from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.
Good Head (Don’t worry, it’s about beer!) from Bayblab.
Brain and behavior of dinosaurs, from Neurophilosophy.
The Origin of Big from the Loom.
Stripped, part II, the Aquiline Nose, by Anna’s Bones.
Male chauvinist chimps or the meat market of public opinion? from The Primate Diaries.
Seagulls at Sunset, from Partiallyclipse.
Astronomical art: representing planet earth, from 10 Days of science.
Addiction and the Opponent-Process theory, at Neurotopia.
Academia: slowing down the search for cures? at Respectful Insolence.
It’s official: we really have saved the ozone layer, at Highly Allocthonous.
The Cuttlefish Genome project, by the Digital Cuttlefish.
Why social insects do not suffer from ill effects of rotating and night shift work by Blog Around the Clock.
Does faking amnesia permanently distort your memory? from Cognitive Daily.
Why swine flu is resistance to adamantane drugs by the Scientific Activist.
Betting on the poor boy: whorf strikes back by the Language Log.
A sorry saga, the crumbling cookie from the Mr. Science Show.
The rightful place of the science and the African-American community from the Young Black Professional Guide.
Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: Monday/Newton+Darwin Edition from the Inverse Square Blog.
The glamour of marine biology from Evolutionary Novelties.
Impediments to dialogue about animal research, parts 2, 3, and 4 from Adventures in Ethics and Science.
What exactly am I ambivalent about, parts 1 and 2 from Ambivalent Academic.
Eye-opening access by Reciprocal Space.
Aspartame and Audrey by Bench Twentyone.
The incredible shrinking genome, at Byte Size Biology.
Genital mimicry, social erections, and spotted hyenas, from Wild Muse.
A squishy topic, by Expression Patterns.
Start seeing micro-inequities by Female Science Professor.
Darwin’s degenerates – evolution’s finest, by Observations of a Nerd.
The first great mammoth, by archy.
In which I ramp up, at Mind the Gap.
Sleep paralysis, from Wired.
Because as we all know, the green party runs the world, by no moods, ads, or cutesy fucking icons.
Deep sea corals and methane seeps, by Deep Sea News.
Maiacetus, the good mother whale, by Laelaps.
More of the science of the influenza “cytokine storm” by Effect Measure.
And The Old World Passed Away… The Geologic History of the Colorado Plateau from Geotripper.
Spermophilus (it’s about squirrels, really!) by Coyote Crossing.
The Grid of Disputation from Cosmic Variance.
Congratulations to all the winners, and to everyone whose posts were submitted over the past year.
We would especially like to thank our distinguished panel of judges – people who had to, in short order, read and evaulate many, many posts and provide us with useful comments we needed in making the final decision. The judges are:
Joshua Rosenau of Thoughts from Kansas and the National Center for Science Education.
Kevin Zelnio of Deep Sea News.
Greg Laden of Greg Laden’s Blog.
Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds.
Comrade Physioprof
Dr. Isis
The Digital Cuttlefish
T. DeLene Beeland of Wild Muse.
Christie Wilcox of Observations of a Nerd.
Suzanne Franks of Thus Spake Zuska.
Anne Jefferson and Chris Rowan of Highly Allocthonous.
Brian Switek of Laelaps.
Jean-Claude Bradley of Useful Chemistry.
Peter A. Lipson, MD of White Coat Underground.
Michael D Barton of the Dispersal of Darwin.
Anna Kushnir of Lab Life.
Moheb Costandi of Neurophilosophy.
Revere of Effect Measure.
Liz Borkowski of the Pump Handle.
Carl Feagans of A Hot Cup of Joe
Carel P. Brest van Kempen of Rigor Vitae.
Laurent of Seeds Aside.
Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science
Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science.
Greg Gbur of Skulls in the Stars
Pamela Gay of Starstryder
Ethan Siegal of Starts with a Bang
Female Science Professor
Ambivalent Academic
Art Kilner of AK’s Rambling Thoughts.
It will take another couple of weeks for all the posts to get edited and ‘typeset’ and for the book to be ready for sale. Watch this blog and Neurotopia for the announcement.
And in the meantime, while waiting, you can go back and re-read (of course you have them already! Don’t you?!) the 2006, 2007 and 2008 editions.

Web – how it will change the Book: process, format, sales

There will be, at ScienceOnline2010, at least two sessions dedicated to books and book publishing – From Blog to Book: Using Blogs and Social Networks to Develop Your Professional Writing and Writing for more than glory: Proposals and Pitches that Pay – as well as several others that will at least mention books as vehicles for distributing scientific information, popularization of science, or science education.
This got me thinking….about ways that the Web is changing the world of the book. I can think of three aspects of this:
1) Changes in the process of writing a book
It may not be a matter, these days, of sitting at your typewritter every morning and typing. The process may go, perhaps byt not necessarily for everyone, somewhwat along these lines. Or it can be shorter – from blog post to magazine article to book.
Bloggers like Tom and John and Brian routinely use their blogs to post parts of their future books, expose them to feedback and criticism they can use to refine their work. While others (for example) may blog about related topics, but derive their book material from their earlier research rather than blog posts.
2) Changes in the format and form of a book
For example, check out this recent article (and an interesting comment thread) by Michael Hyatt about the way eReaders will change the format of the book.
Or some a little older, but also very thought-provoking articles about the ways Web and eReaders will change the form and format of the book: by Tim O’Reilly and by Steven Johnson.
Then think of writers who were born half a century or more too early, and had to make experimental books while constrained by the limits of paper and print. For example recently deceased Milorad Pavić – imagine how easy it would have been for him to write and publish his books (and perhaps some even crazier ones) if he wrote with a Kindle in mind:

Though Pavić’s novels can be enjoyed by reading them cover-to-cover, among his stated goals are a desire to write novels with unusual forms and to make the reader a more active participant than is usual. In an interview published in 1998, Pavić said:
“I have tried my best to eliminate or to destroy the beginning and the end of my novels. The Inner Side of the Wind, for example, has two beginnings. You start reading this book from the side you want. In Dictionary of the Khazars you can start with whatever story you want. But writing it, you have to keep in mind that every entry has to be read before and after every other entry in the book. I managed to avoid, at least until now, the old way of reading, which means reading from the classical beginning to the classical end.”[1]
To achieve these ends, he used a number of unconventional techniques in order to introduce nonlinearity into his works:
* Dictionary of the Khazars takes the form of three cross-referenced encyclopaedias of the Khazar people. The book was published in a “male” and “female” version, which differ in only a brief, critical passage.
* Landscape Painted With Tea mixes the forms of novel and crossword puzzle.
* Inner Side of the Wind — which tells the story of Hero and Leander — can be read back to front, each section telling one character’s version of the story.
* Last Love in Constantinople has chapters numbered after tarot cards; the reader is invited to use a tarot deck to determine the order in which the chapters can be read.
* Unique Item has one hundred different endings and the reader can choose one.

Thte Web makes these experiments easy.
3) Changes in the way books are pitched, sold and delivered to the readers.
A number of bloggers have recently got book deals, or have self-published. Today, it is still deemed more respectable to get published by Houghton-Mifflin than by But how long will that situation last?
Just think of the Long Tail phenomenon and how some self-published books became popular and sold well, or led to an offer by a traditional publisher to republish (self-publishing does not hurt one’s chances of getting a traditional publisher, quite the opposite) . I know that a number of bloggers whose essays were published in Open Laboratory anthologies included that in their CVs. It counts for something, at least in some academic domains.
And there is (or was) such a thing as Blooker Prize for the best blog-to-book self-publishing efforts.
There are a number of ways to self-publish a book. Or to scan existing books from paper to digital. Or to print out any book you want – from digital to paper.
And if you write a book and self-publish (or even publish with a traditional house) you may need to do the pitching and marketing yourself.
The book promotion tours, at least those organized by publishers, appear to be a thing of the past.
These are just a bunch of interesting links, as a food for thought. Then bring those thoughts to these sessions at ScienceOnline2010 and discuss….you can start right here in the comments.

Introducing the Skeptical Blog Anthology 2009 – the best of skeptical blogging

This is exciting! From Young Australian Skeptics: Skeptical Blog Anthology 2009:

Inspired by the annual The Open Laboratory, the Skeptical Blog Anthology is a printed anthology of blog posts voted the very best of 2009, managed by the Young Australian Skeptics in conjunction with the Critical Teaching Education Group (CTEG). The anthology is an attempt to bring a greater awareness of the skeptical content on blog sites and showcase some of the range and diversity in the blogosphere.
With an aim to provide text-based resources to classes and readers who may be interested or intrigued by what skepticism has to offer, entries from January 1st to December 1st 2009 are eligible for submission. Both a print and Portable Document Format (pdf) will be made available for purchase via, with estimated printing early in 2010.
Entries can be self-nominated or proposed by readers of skeptical blog sites. The guidelines proposed by the popular Skeptics’ Circle are a fine indicator of the kind of content suitable for the anthology, including urban legends, the paranormal, quackery, pseudoscience, intelligent design, historical revisionism, critical thinking, skeptical parenting/​educating skeptically, superstitions, etc.
Please use the following form to submit entries, which will continue up to the closing date.

Books: ‘Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex’ by Mary Roach

A few years ago, I read Mary Roach’s first book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and absolutely loved it! One of the best popular science books I have read in a long time – informative, eye-opening, thought-provoking and funny. Somehow I missed finding time to read her second (Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife – I guess just not a topic I care much about), but when her third book came out, with such a provocative title as Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, I could not resist.
And I was not disappointed. It is informative, eye-opening, thought-provoking and funny. The language we use to talk about sex (and death) is so rich, and so full of thinly (or thickly) veiled allusions, that playing with that language is easy. Puns and double-entendres come off effortlessly and yet never seem to grow old. And the effect of interspersing serious discussion of science with what amounts to, essentially, Kindergarten humor, makes the humor effective. I guess it is the effect of surprise. The same humor in a different context (or outside of any context) may not be as effective or funny. The book made me laugh out loud on many occasions, startling the other B-767 passengers on the trans-Atlantic flight a couple of weeks ago (if it was B-777, as American Airlines promised, I would have slept, but the smaller airplane made that impossible, so I read about sex instead).
I should not point out any specific examples of research described in the book – there’s so much of it – as I don’t want to take the wind out of Scicurious’ sails: she uses the book as a starting point for many of her Friday Weird Science posts.
And I will not even attempt to write a real book review (see the review by Scicurious and the series of posts on The Intersection for more details. Also check out Greta Christina and Dr.Joan for different takes).
Instead, I will mention something that I kept noticing over and over again in each chapter. An obsession of mine, or a case of a person with a hammer seeing nails everywhere, you decide.
On one hand, the history of science shows a trajectory of ever improving standards of research, more and more stringent criteria for statistics and drawing conclusions from the data, more and more stringent ethical criteria for the use of animal and human subjects in research, etc. As the time goes on, the results of scientific research are becoming more and more reliable (far from 100%, of course, but a huge improvement over Aristotle, Galen or the Ancient Chinese who could write down their wildest ideas with authoritative flair).
On the other hand, the language of science has become, over time, more and more technical and unintelligible to a lay reader. The ancient ‘scientific’ and ‘medical’ scripts, the books of 300 years ago, the Letters to the Academy of 200 years ago, the early scientific papers of 100 years ago – all of those were readable and understandable by everyone who could read. Of course, in the past, only the most educated sliver of the society was literate. Today, most people are literate (ignoring some geographical difference in the rates of literacy for the moment). But even the most educated sliver of the society, unless they are experts in the same scientific field, cannot understand a scientific paper.
Thus, as the science gets ever more reliable through history, it also becomes less and less understandable to an educated lay reader. Why is that so?
In the past, the educated lay reader was the intended audience for the scientific and medical writings. Today, the intended audience are colleagues. The papers are hidden behind paywalls and accessible only to people in big First World research institutions where the libraries have sufficient funds to pay for journal subscriptions. The communication to the lay audience is relegated to the non-experts: the media (which does an awful job of it) and science writers (who often do a great job, but their audience is severely limited to self-selected science aficionados).
I have been wondering for a while now (see the end of this post for an early example – and we had an entire session on the topic at ScienceOnline’09) if Open Access and the new metrics (that include media/blog coverage, downloads and bookmarks – all requiring that as many people as possible can understand the paper itself) will prompt authors of scientific papers to write keeping broader audiences in mind. Even if the “Materials and Methods” and “Results” sections need to remain technical, perhaps the Abstract, Introduction and Discussion (and in more and more journals also the “Author’s Summary”) will become more readable? At least the titles should be clear – and sometimes funny.
Last week I asked (on Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook – but FriendFeed, again, proved to be the best platform for this kind of inquiry) for examples of witty, normal-language titles of scientific papers. You can see some responses here and everyone reminded me of NCBI ROFL, the blog that specializes in finding wacky papers with wacky titles. Many, but certainly not all, of such titles indeed cover the science of sex.
Do you see this trend towards abandoning unreadable scientese (at least in titles) happening now or in the near future? Is it more likely to happen in OA journals? Do you have good examples?
In the meantime, watch Mary Roach – see why humor is an important aspect of science communication to lay audiences:

Sheril at Quail Ridge Books

Just came back from Raleigh, where Sheril gave a reading of her book Unscientific America in front of a nice-size crowd at Quail Ridge Books:
Sheril 001.jpg
Sheril did a great job and ably fielded the questions afterwards:
Sheril 007.jpg

Sheril and Unscientific America at Quail Ridge Books

From Quail Ridge Books

Quail Ridge Books & Music
hosts author
Sheril Kirshenbaum
for a discussion of her book
Thursday, July 23 at 7:30 pm
Climate change, the energy crisis, nuclear proliferation — many of the most urgent problems of the twenty-first century require science-based solution. And yet Americans are paying less and less attention to scientists. Journalist and author Chris Mooney (The Republican War on Science) and Duke scientist Sheril Kirshenbaum explain how religious ideologues, a weak education system, science-phobic politicians, and the corporate media have all collaborated to create this dangerous state of affairs. They propose a broad array of initiatives that could reverse the current trend and call for the reintegration of science into public discourse.
Sheril Kirshenbaum is a marine scientist and research associate at Duke University. She has served as a congressional science fellow and pop radio disc jockey. She lives in Durham.
If you have any questions or would like more information please call the store at 828-1588 or go to

I’ll be there.
I hear my copy arrived. I will not blog about it until I read it (I know the framing wars have already started, but I will resist for now).

Book Club: ‘Bonk’ by Mary Roach

I loved Mary Roach’s ‘Stiff’ when it first came out, so I was excited to see that Sheril started a book club reading the third book, Bonk, by the same author. My copy just arrived, so I will be participating as much as I can find the time.
Some of my SciBlings have already read and reviewed the book, e.g., SciCurious, or have the book and intend to read it, like Brian and Dr.Joan.
Sheril introduces the book here and begins the club, strangely with Chapter 5, here. Join in.

Why Gandalf Never Married?

1985 talk by Terry Pratchett:

….One may look in vain for similar widespread evidence of wizards. In addition to the double handful of doubtful practitioners mentioned above, half of whom are more readily identifiable as alchemists or windbags, all I could come up with was some vaguely masonic cults, like the Horseman’s Word in East Anglia. Not much for Gandalf in there.
Now you can take the view that of course this is the case, because if there is a dirty end of the stick then women will get it. Anything done by women is automatically downgraded. This is the view widely held — well, widely held by my wife every since she started going to consciousness-raising group meetings — who tells me it’s ridiculous to speculate on the topic because the answer is so obvious. Magic, according to this theory, is something that only men can be really good at, and therefore any attempt by women to trespass on the sacred turf must be rigorously stamped out. Women are regarded by men as the second sex, and their magic is therefore automatically inferior. There’s also a lot of stuff about man’s natural fear of a woman with power; witches were poor women seeking one of the few routes to power open to them, and men fought back with torture, fire and ridicule.
I’d like to know that this is all it really is. But the fact is that the consensus fantasy universe has picked up the idea and maintains it. I incline to a different view, if only to keep the argument going, that the whole thing is a lot more metaphorical than that. The sex of the magic practitioner doesn’t really enter into it. The classical wizard, I suggest, represents the ideal of magic — everything that we hope we would be, if we had the power. The classical witch, on the other hand, with her often malevolent interest in the small beer of human affairs, is everything we fear only too well that we would in fact become.
Oh well, it won’t win me a PhD. I suspect that via the insidious medium of picture books for children the wizards will continue to practice their high magic and the witches will perform their evil, bad-tempered spells. It’s going to be a long time before there’s room for equal rites.


The Open Laboratory 2008 is here!

openlab08cover.JPGI know you have all been trembling in anticipation! But the day has finally arrived – the third science blogging anthology, The Open Lab 2008, is now up for sale!
This year’s guest editor, Jennifer Rohn, did a fantastic job of putting together the best anthology ever! Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Jennifer is a pro, so she assembled a team:
Richard Grant was the assistant editor (yes, the posts were really, professionally edited this year, and thus much improved in the process).
Maria Brumm did the technical part, the typesetting, starting out with the template designed last year by Reed Cartwright.
The new cover (not depicted here as well as it looks in Real Life) was designed by Dave Ng, using the artwork by Glendon Mellow.
We received around 830 submissions (give and take, some doubles, some spam, etc. – we gave up counting in the end) and that amazing pool of blog posts was narrowed down to 50 essays, one poem and one cartoon by a team of judges:
Eva Amsen, Tania Glyde, Richard Grant, Stephen Curry, Ed Yong, Katie, Mo, Jonathan Sanderson, Maria Brumm, Martin Rundkvist, Cameron Neylon and, well, Jennifer and me.
If your post is included in the anthology, or if you were a judge, you may way want to display one of the badges on your website/blog – the codes are under the fold.
If you have missed them the first time around, you can still buy the 2006 anthology and the 2007 anthology. Both of those, as well as the new one, are available in paperback or as a PDF download at In a few weeks, the book will also be available at other online retailers, e.g.,, but we prefer that you buy from as the proceeds will go towards organizing ScienceOnline’10 next January.
As always, we will appreciate if you spread the word about the book – the link to the page where you can buy it is, again, here.
Update: Thanks to everyone for spreading the word:
Living the Scientific Life
Science After Sunclipse
White Coat Underground
The Beagle Project Blog
Confessions of a Science Librarian
PodBlack Cat
The Digital Cuttlefish
Bad Astronomy
The OpenHelix Blog
Observations of a Nerd
The Oyster’s Garter
Space Cadet Girl
The Flying Trilobite
Greg Laden
The Mr Science Show
Uncertain Principles
Life Sciences Info @ Imperial College London Library
remote central
Books, Inq. — The Epilogue
Tom Paine’s Ghost
Catalogue of Organisms
Page 3.14
Hope for Pandora
Michael Nielsen
Mind the Gap
Tomorrow’s Table
A canna’ change the laws of physics
P2P Foundation

Continue reading

Happy Birthday Dr.Seuss – from Google

Google Dr.Seuss.gif

Every Living Thing: Man’s Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys

From the Regulator Bookshop:

Time: Tuesday, February 3, 2009 7:00 p.m.
Location: Regulator Bookshop
Title of Event: Rob Dunn
NCSU ecology professor Rob Dunn will discuss and sign copies of his new book, Every Living Thing: Man’s Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys. Dunn, an engaging science popularizer, tells the exhilarating story of humanity’s quest to discover everything about our natural world from the unimaginably small in the most inhospitable of places on earth to the unimaginably far away in the unexplored canals on Mars. For more information see the author’s website.

From the book descripiton:

Biologists and laypeople alike have repeatedly claimed victory over life. A thousand years ago we thought we knew almost everything; a hundred years ago, too. But even today, Rob Dunn argues, discoveries we can’t yet imagine still await.
In a series of vivid portraits of single-minded scientists, Dunn traces the history of human discovery, from the establishment of classification in the eighteenth century to today’s attempts to find life in space. The narrative telescopes from a scientist’s attempt to find one single thing (a rare ant-emulating beetle species) to another scientist’s attempt to find everything in a small patch of jungle in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. With poetry and humor, Dunn reminds readers how tough and exhilarating it is to study the natural world, and why it matters.

Look what came in the mail today:

Emerging Model Organisms:
emerging animal models cover.jpg
All exciting, but of course, I got it for the chapter on Japanese Quail. The protocol desribes how to make a transgenic quail. It sounds easy on paper. A few years back I took a graduate class and we spent the entire semester going through all the steps needed to make a transgenic bird. Nice to see this species getting a serious look once again. Will keep watching….

Look what came in the mail yesterday:

Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction by Eugenie C. Scott.
genie scott book cover.jpg
Written at this time.

Tear Down This Myth

Tear Down This Myth.jpgWill Bunch of Attytood recently published an interesting and important book – Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future.
On his blog, Will provides an excerpt and commentary:

Twenty years gone – but Reagan still matters. About this time one year ago, unceasing Reagan idolatry hijacked the race for the White House. Sometimes it was voiced in the name of policies on immigration or toward Iran that were the exact opposite of what really happened a generation ago. The power of this political fantasy – expressed mainly, of course, on the GOP side but occasionally even spilling over to the Democrats – caused me to begin work on a book about the Ronald Reagan myth. The result – “Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future” – is coming out now from Simon & Schuster’s Free Press.
OK – but you may ask whether the Reagan myth matters as much now that George W. Bush is back at the ranch and President Obama in the White House. I would argue that it does. Increasingly, the GOP minority in Washington, including 41 senators with just enough votes to derail the administration’s proposals, is going to invoke the Reagan myth to continue to justify a tax system that harms the middle class and policies that ignore the scientific consensus on climate change. Look at the first major policy debate of the Obama presidency, over the proposed $825 billion economic stimulus. Democrats are under enormous political pressure to weight the plan toward tax cuts, and away from spending programs, which Republicans quickly branded as much pork – despite evidence that jobs programs stimulate the economy at twice the rate of tax reductions. “I remain concerned about wasteful spending that might be attached to the tax relief,” House GOP leader John Boehner said – and right-wing talk radio was a lot less restrained. Ironically, the spending sought by the Democrats seek to undo the crumbling of America’s infrastructure and the failure to create “green-collar” jobs that dates back to the Reagan era.
And here’s another reason the Reagan myth still matters, and that’s because there’s a pundit class inside the Beltway that cuts its teeth in the 1980s and remains firmly convinced that America is a “center-right” nation, despite massive evidence to the contrary. These pundits will urge Obama to enact an economic recovery package in the Gipper’s image, ignoring the long-term harmed caused by Reagan’s brand of “trickle-down economics.
Unless we don’t let them – and tear down this myth.

Five-Fiftysix meme – solutions to the puzzle

I promised solutions in 24 hours, and it’s been a little more than that now, so here are the sources:

1. I suppose that the mere fact that I was in the company of two friends itself proves that I wasn’t actually some kind of hermit when it came to my rat studies.

Rats by Robert Sullivan (not a blogger, as far as I know)

2. They’re screwing the security guards in the bathroom.

The Wisdom of Whores by Elizabeth Pisani

3. By the end of the nineteenth century, organic synthesis was widely accepted and the vital force theory was abandoned.

Tomorrow’s Table by Pamela Ronald

4. Cyanobacteria actually can tell time using a mechanism similar to our circadian clock, from the Latin meaning “about a day”.

The Carbon Age by Eric Roston

5. Half blind, I picked myself up and ran and ran and ran.

It’s Every Monkey For Themselves by Vanessa Woods

6. The idea that the transmission of news via paper might become a bad idea, that all those huge, noisy printing presses might be like steam engines in the age of internal combustion, was almost impossible to grasp.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Joe Trippi

7. Born in 1769, the twenty-year-old seminary student had weathered the French revolution by working at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris with the dashing eccentric zoological genius Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hillaire.

Siege of Stars by Henry Gee

8. Males place packets of sperm everywhere on the female’s head or tentacles.

Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation by Olivia Judson

9. Escoffier begins with the browning of beef and veal bones in the oven.

Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer

10. The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, who, I think, are not bloggers….

Five-Fiftysix meme

It started with Henry who was bored with the simplicity of the “pick the nearest book” meme and decided to make it really hard!
Mike picked it up and tagged a few people, including me and Wilkins.
So, what are the rules? Hey, Henry came up with this, so feel free to make the rules as you go. After all, what’s he gonna do – release calcium from intracellular stores?
OK, pick not one but TEN books. They don’t need to be the closest to you – take your time and make good picks. It’s not easy – you want people to work hard, but still figure out the sources eventually. Goldilocks Principle applies – not too obvious, not too obscure. Or whatever you prefer – make it easy so everyone can have fun, or make it so darned hard nobody gets it and you can gloat about your sophistication!
The unalterable rule: take ten books, and transcribe the fifth sentence from page fifty six.
If you want, you can have five of them be fiction, but you can change that as well.
If you want, you can provide hints, but you don’t have to.
Then tag six people, or some other number (including zero) as you wish. As Wilkins notes, memes are supposed to mutate and evolve, so don’t be a stickler for the rules. Just have fun!
OK – here are my ten:
1. I suppose that the mere fact that I was in the company of two friends itself proves that I wasn’t actually some kind of hermit when it came to my rat studies.
2. They’re screwing the security guards in the bathroom.
3. By the end of the nineteenth century, organic synthesis was widely accepted and the vital force theory was abandoned.
4. Cyanobacteria actually can tell time using a mechanism similar to our circadian clock, from the Latin meaning “about a day”.
5. Half blind, I picked myself up and ran and ran and ran.
6. The idea that the transmission of news via paper might become a bad idea, that all those huge, noisy printing presses might be like steam engines in the age of internal combustion, was almost impossible to grasp.
7. Born in 1769, the twenty-year-old seminary student had weathered the French revolution by working at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris with the dashing eccentric zoological genius Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hillaire.
8. Males place packets of sperm everywhere on the female’s head or tentacles.
9. Escoffier begins with the browning of beef and veal bones in the oven.
10. The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.
Hints: 8 of the 10 authors also write blogs.
I tag:
John McKay
Peggy Kolm
Tom Levenson
Carl Zimmer
Brian Switek
Honor system – refrain from Google for 24 hours. Post your best guesses in the comments. I will post the solutions to the riddle in 24 hours in the comments here.

Science and Science Fiction

A few days ago, Peggy and Stephanie asked the blogosphere a few questions about the relationship between science and Science Fiction. They want to use the insights from the responses to run their session – Science Fiction on Science Blogs – at the ScienceOnline09 meeting in January.
They got lots of responses – interesting reads for the long holiday weekend:
Responses from the SF Writer Point of View

Responses from the Science Point of View

There’s also discussion of the topic going on at io9.
I did not find time (yet) to write my own responses. Perhaps I will – no promises, as I may feel, after reading everyone else’s posts, that I have nothing to add. In the meantime, you can check out (if you have missed them before) some of my old posts related to Science Fiction:
Essential Science Fiction
What Is Lab Lit?
World 2.0 at Rainbows End
Did A Virus Make You Smart?
Sci-Fi And Building Blogging Communities
Books: Max Barry’s ‘Jennifer Government’
Most Significant SF Books
Circadian Rhythm Degeneration Syndrome?

Open Game Table

Inspired by The Open Laboratory, the Gamers in the blogosphere are planning to do something similar – the Open Game Table.
If you are a gaming blogger, take a look and participate….

‘Academeology’ review in Nature

Peggy Kolm wrote a book review in Nature of Academeology by Female Science Professor.
My copy arrived some weeks ago, but it will have to wait until I read at least three other books I promised to review….eh. Anyway, Peggy says:

FSP’s stories of being a woman in a male-dominated field are engrossing. She describes the casual sexism, such as being ignored or treated as a secretary by visiting scientists, or having male colleagues comment that she received an award “because she is a woman”. These tales might be disheartening to some. But FSP also relates her successes as a scientist and in navigating difficulties as one half of a scientist couple who began her academic career with a young child. Never claiming that her experiences are universal or that her path has been easy, FSP shows that it is possible to have both a career as a scientist and a life outside of science.


Malcolm Gladwell has a new book out and critics all home in on different aspects of it….

Much of what Mr. Gladwell has to say about superstars is little more than common sense: that talent alone is not enough to ensure success, that opportunity, hard work, timing and luck play important roles as well. The problem is that he then tries to extrapolate these observations into broader hypotheses about success. These hypotheses not only rely heavily on suggestion and innuendo, but they also pivot deceptively around various anecdotes and studies that are selective in the extreme: the reader has no idea how representative such examples are, or how reliable — or dated — any particular study might be.

Louis Bayard:

The problem with having your theory in hand from the beginning is that you have to slough off whatever data don’t fit. There is, in fact, a small-print proviso attached to each of Gladwell’s theoretical constructs: “Except when it doesn’t.” “The Tipping Point”: A small-scale social shift can generate sweeping societal change … except when it doesn’t. “Blink”: Great decision making happens on impulse … except when it doesn’t. (Or, in the case of racial profiling, shouldn’t.)


Academic journals brim with disputes as theories are contested by opponents. Mr. Gladwell revels in the flaws of Lewis Terman’s hoary work on I.Q. — because it argues for innate ability — and he gives voice to Terman’s critics. But he omits discussing objections to the work of the social scientists he chooses to rely upon. As in a magic trick, he wows the audience, using bold claims and exquisite storytelling, but we see no arguments that would detract from his brilliant spectacle.

Michael Nielsen:

Given these examples, how should we think about the relationship between great achievement and the 10,000 hour rule?
It’s certainly clear that great achievement is possible without putting in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that it’s perhaps even relatively common among the greatest discoveries within science, and would not be surprised if this were also true in some areas of technology.
I believe it’s a mistake to focus on building up 10,000 hours of deliberate practice as some kind of long-range goal. Instead, pick a set of skills that you believe are broadly important, and that you enjoy working on, a set of skills where deliberate practice gives rapid intrinsic rewards. Work as hard as possible on developing those skills, but also explore in neighbouring areas, and (this is the part many people neglect) gradually move in whatever direction you find most enjoyable and meaningful. The more enjoyable and meaningful, the less difficult it will be to put in the time that leads to genuine mastery.

Amanda Marcotte:

Still, there’s no way around it—the books sounds foremost like a dissection of privilege. And he shoved it into a space that’s usually hostile to that message, that successful people owe it more to their background than their inherent superiority over people who aren’t as successful, but likely as smart and creative. Unfortunately, according to this review, Gladwell indulges his urge to wank off on pet theories a little too much, using rice paddies to explain why some Asian nations best the rest of the world in math scores. I think the likelier explanation is more mundane, which is that Asia began to rise in the world markets at precisely the time that economies started to be driven more and more by science and technology, and they reacted to that environment by putting the focus on math in schools. Americans, alas, just don’t care as much. But I’m curious to read the book and see if Gladwell makes his case.

We can haz Not Exactly Rockit Science?

Yes, we can!
My SciBling Ed Yong has collected some of his best posts from the last year and published them as a book. Yes, I already bought a copy for myself. And you should, too – just order it here.
Ed says:

I started Not Exactly Rocket Science as a way of reaching out to people with no specialist knowledge and only a passing interest in science. The book is meant to help draw in people who don’t really read blogs so if you have any friends who are interested in science, why not tell them about it or buy them a copy in time for Christmas?

Carl Zimmer wrote a blurb:

“Few blogs make a smooth transition from computer to paper. Not Exactly Rocket Science is one of them. Ed Yong writes elegantly yet engagingly about all manner of biology, from yawning dogs to viruses of viruses. Turn off the laptop for a while, and crack open this book. You will be pleased you did.”

Buy the book here.

‘Experimental Heart’ – first novel by Jennifer Rohn

Jennifer Rohn’s first lab lit novel, ‘Experimental Heart‘ is now available for sale! It is described as “A literary thriller/romance set in the London research scene, ‘Experimental Heart’ is a thought-provoking, page-turning lab adventure that exposes the hidden world of modern scientists”:

During his many long nights in the lab, scientist Andy O’Hara has plenty of time to wonder about the mysterious and beautiful Gina, first glimpsed in a lit window across the courtyard. He doesn’t realize she is consumed by her vaccine research, concerned about her biotech company’s financial problems, and about to become the prime target of animal rights activists. She is also distracted by a charming pharmaceutical mogul who offers funding for her work and a glamorous escape from her past mistakes.
When Andy finally meets Gina, his monotonous life starts to unravel. Soon he becomes embroiled in an increasingly complex web of deception as he scrambles to discover his rival’s true intentions. When Gina abruptly disappears, Andy sets off to find her. But is it too late? Is there a more sinister reason behind Gina’s involvement with the company? Is Gina’s vaccine all it appears to be? And is Andy ready to acknowledge that there is more to life than work?
Narrated with Andy’s irreverent view of a profession that both fascinates and frustrates him, Experimental Heart is an engaging romantic thriller set against the backdrop of contemporary scientific research.

As you know, Jennifer is this year’s guest editor of Open Laboratory. You can buy the book and get more information at:
- Publisher’s sale site
- Press release

Reading Recommendation for today

The Great Limbaugh Con by Charles M. Kelly, published in 1994, is even more current and up-to-date than it was then. And it is not really about Limbaugh himself – he serves only as a starting point. There are many Limbaughs out there now who parrot the same stuff and what he pioneered in the early 1990s is now a big industry for the Right.
Furthermore, some of the right-wing rhetoric that Rush invented is now not just a standard GOP advertising lingo, but also deeply ingrained in the nation’s psyche and will take a lot of effort to neutralize. The book describes, for instance, exactly how Limbaugh demonized Hillary Clinton as early as 1991., and how some of the same tropes about her survive till today and made her presidential bid just that much harder.
But what is most important about the book is that Kelly uses Limbaugh’s rhetoric to discuss some of our erroneous preconceptions about the world, especially economics and how it works. For instance, Chapter 6 analyzes the phrase “trickle-down economics”, and Chapter 12 explains how liberals and conservatives have a very different definition of the word “work”. If the two sides of the political spectrum use different definitions of the same word, then the target audience – the low-information independent voters – will be confused. Or, depending how it is framed, the audience will understand the message to use one definition, while it really uses the other – the basis for Orwellian spin of the Right.
As far as I know, this is the first book that seriously talks about the role of language and ‘frames’ (though the word never appears in the text – too early in history for that) in the modern American politics. And it does it well.
You can read the entire book online on Google Books or buy yourself a cheap used copy on Even if you disagree with Kelly on some details, it will make you think differently and it will make you think next time you hear a right-wing hack in the media use some of those phrases – they do not mean what you think they mean.