Category Archives: Health

WCSJ2013 in Helsinki, a photo-tour

Flying directly from SciFoo in California to WCSJ2013 in Helsinki, Finland is a pretty long trip that requires a pretty big airplane. Those of you who know me well, know I am obsessed with airplanes, am an addict of FlightAlert, choose JetBlue on domestic flights in order to continuously monitor flight statistics, and my first requirement when someone else is booking my flights is “the biggest airplane you can get”. So I was quite pleased to be riding on this big bird, the original Jumbo Jet:

Boeing 747, ready to go from San Francisco to Heathrow, London.

Boeing 747, ready to go from San Francisco to Heathrow, London.

What I really liked, though, was something that is apparently banned on US air carriers, but both of Finnair flights (to and from London to Helsinki) had – a cockpit cam! While the screen shows many more different flight stats than JetBlue does, and one can also watch the view from a camera facing straight down (which is really nice when approaching the Land of 1000 Lakes), during the last few minutes of flight, during landing, everyone’s screen is automatically turned on to the cockpit cam. It feels like playing a video game, piloting the airplane down onto the runway!

Cockpit cam view, just seconds after landing at Heathrow from Helsinki.

Cockpit cam view, just seconds after landing at Heathrow from Helsinki.

Helsinki is gorgeous:

Plenty of water

Easy to relax on the square in front of the University

Cathedral in the middle of the day

Cathedral in the middle of the night, i.e., that two-hour period when it's not as bright as usual in the middle of the summer!

I checked in:

Of course, I added my Twitter handle to the nametag 😉

And picked up the Program:

It's all there, black on white.

First morning plenary, by Hans Rosling “A fact-based world view – people, money & energy”

Hans Rosling

Hans Rosling, giving the first plenary

A Hans Rosling slide

A Hans Rosling slide

A Hans Rosling animation

Hans Rosling polled us, and we all failed miserably!

The first morning plenary panel was What about ethics?

Deborah Blum at the first morning plenary panel

Deborah Blum on Chemophobia

Deborah Blum on Chemophobia

Deborah Blum on Chemophobia

JAYFK makes an appearance

SA Guest Blog makes an appearance


More Chemophobia

Even more Chemophobia

I went to many sessions, but did not take photos in each one. And those I took from the back row with my iPhone, as you can see, are not very clear, but OK….

What happens outside USA and UK?:

Nina Kristiansen, Chief Editor of ScienceNordic

Says who? – Challenging the experts on medical knowledge:

Mikael Fogelholm, Professor in Public Health Nutrition, University of Helsinki. (I think)

Wearing many hats? How to preserve independence was already covered in great detail by Kai Kupferschmidt and Anne Sasso.

The day ended with an evening at the National Archives of Finland:

City of Helsinki welcomes science writers

Second day’s morning plenary – Deborah Blum: “The Poisoner’s Guide to Life (And Communicating Chemistry).”

Deborah Blum communicates chemistry

Deborah Blum communicates chemistry

Then, there was a plenary panel, The Rise of the Science Blog Network: Lessons from All Corners of the World, organized by Deborah Blum, moderated by Lynne Smit, with panelists Betsy Mason, Alok Jha, Ed Yong and yours truly:

View of the panel while being on the panel.

Alokh Jha explaining something I agree with a moment later (perhaps we all agreed too much!).

You can watch the whole panel webcast here (You can watch webcasts of all the plenary talks and panels):

Next panel was “The ‘killer’ science journalists of the future.” But if you’ve ever been to my blog, you know I wrote a lot about it already, see: #sci4hels – ‘Killer’ science journalists of the future ready to take over the world!, and #sci4hels – the ‘killer’ science journalists of the future want your feedback, and #sci4hels – What makes one a “killer” (science) journalist of the future?. Of course, preparing for this for almost a year, they did an amazing job and were rightfully stars of the event (but also see this and this).

Last strategy meeting before the panel

It's about to start!

In front of a packed auditorium

Rose Eveleth introduces the panel

Lena Groeger demoes Cicada Tracker

Kathleen Raven tackles the tough questions from the audience.

Erin Podolak and Kathleen Raven, relaxed and happy during a break a little later.

A deserved outing:

On the island...

An old fortress

A church

Reindeer calf for dinner.

An old cannon

Geese and goslings

The third day started with the plenary talk “Mental preparation for a vulnerable world“:

Janne I. Hukkinen's slide

Late breaker session: Big data, big brother:

Dino Trescher (Germany), editor and founder of Constart Correspondent Network.

Making Sense of Uncertainty:

Making sense of uncertainty

Closing Plenary: New Horizons:

Ivan Oransky

Connie St.Louis

Barbecue dinner at Heureka, the Finnish Science Centre, was the last event:

Entrance to Heureka

The rainbow colors of the building

The Fire dance

Plenty to play with

Easy to roll a ball in the water

Phase space in sand. It's beautiful!

In the basement of Heureka, in the replica of a WWII bomb shelter, at the moment the bomb struck and lights went out.

Breakfast with Vesa Niinikangas, outgoing WCSJ President.

A sparrow at the Helsinki airport, at my gate.

Beautiful city, I hope to be back one day.

They eat horses, don’t they?

“Behave, or I’ll send you to Italy!”.

That’s a strange threat! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go there to visit the wine country, see the art in Florence, learn some history in Rome, and enjoy the Adriatic beaches?

Not if you hear the above and you are a horse! Especially if you were a horse back in the day when I used to ride in my now-extinct homeland of Yugoslavia.

With total number of horses in the country small and dwindling after the cavalry was disbanded in 1948, with fast urbanization of the country reducing the number of horses working the fields, and before equestrian sports started taking off again in the late 1980s, there was no need for a dedicated horse slaughterhouse. Occasionally a really urgent case would be slaughtered in a cattle slaughterhouse. A horse in agony after an injury would be killed on the spot (e.g., on the racetrack) and its meat donated to the perennially strapped-for-cash Belgrade Zoo for lions and other carnivores, But most horses at the end of their lives ended up on trucks headed to the meat market of Italy (and probably a few also to Austria – but I don’t have access to any documents, just what everyone in the horse business at the time knew).

With all the horse meat ending up in Italy, there was not much left for domestic consumption. Thus whole generations grew up without ever tasting it. The culture gradually changed. A horse butcher had a store in Belgrade for about a decade in the 1960s, but had to close due to low demand. Later, in mid-1980s, another entrepreneurial butcher opened a horse-meat store, this time promoting it as a delicacy rather than utilitarian, cheap alternative to beef. That store did not last long, either.

While there is no taboo against eating horse in the Balkans, there are definitely cultural forces that prevent it from being as popular as it is for its neighbors to the West, And those forces are divided by generations.

According to the elders, especially those with clear memories of World War II, horse meat was a poor man’s food, only to be consumed in times of war or famine. If you can afford beef, pork, lamb and chicken, why should you stoop so low as to eat the tough, acidic horse meat?

On the other hand, youngsters saw horses in a much less utilitarian way. They did not remember thousands of cavalry horses, cart horses, and draft horses filling the countryside. They did not remember poverty and hunger. Every horse they met had a name, be it a nice riding school pony, or a stunningly beautiful sports horse.

Obviously, neither of the two age groups could be easily persuaded that horse meat is a delicacy.

I saw that generational divide myself one day, back in the 1980s. We grilled some horse steaks…at the barn, right after we finished riding, grooming and petting our horses. There were horses inside, happily munching their oats in their stalls. There were other horses outside, sliced and roasting on the grill. How conflicted everyone’s feelings were!

But that was an excellent opportunity for all of us to discuss and debate the ethical, utilitarian, economic, nutritional, ecological and other angles of horse consumption. Why older people found it easier to eat the meat than the younger folk? Why was it easier for men than for women? Why some found it delicious, while others hated its texture and taste? Many of the young, pony-obsessed girls wouldn’t touch it, while younger boys gave it a try despite obvious disgust.

In the end, it all came down to names. You cannot eat an animal whose name you knew when it was alive. Name gives it a personality. An animal whose name you know is also an animal you know well – its looks and behavior and personality. It’s a friend. Friends don’t eat friends.

The steaks we had came from a horse we knew nothing about. Not the name, not age, sex, breed, color, anything. Perhaps the previous owner really loved that horse, cried when loading it onto the slaughterhouse truck. Just like one day, certainly, someone in Italy was going to eat the flesh of our horses we loved, and could do it because of not knowing those horses personally.

But by buying and eating that horse’s meat, we helped that previous owner recover some of the financial loss. Perhaps it was a farmer who lost a horse essential for working his farm. Without taking the meat price for the old horse, the farmer would not be able to buy a new horse, and would not be able to work the farm and feed his family. The circle of life would have been broken, both the human one and the equine one.

That was the economy of individual horse ownership by regular people. Of course, if you are rich or live in a rich country, and if you can afford to keep all your horses out on pastures until they die the natural death, by all means do that. But most people cannot afford that. And yet they need to have horses for their livelihoods. Eating horse meat is an essential part of such an economy.

I can attest that this statement is true.

I can attest that this statement is true.

But then it got tricky. The problem became more complex. After all, it is relatively easy for an individual to decide not to eat horse meat because of ethical concerns. But that is the meat of a dead horse who died in order to provide that meat. So, how do you try to use ethical considerations to explain why you refuse to eat meat of the horse who is still alive? I am talking about marinated, delicious testicles of the stallion who is still prancing out in the paddock. In a country where offal is a perfectly normal part of everyday cuisine, and one can order sweetbreads in any decent restaurant. No harm was done to any animal. So, why not eat it? Not an easy question to answer. And it’s pretty obvious that the answer is not rooted in ethics, economics, ecology, nutrition or health concerns. It is psychological and aesthetic, thus it is rooted in culture.

And this is where we switch gears, as we need to start comparing cultures, in this case Balkans with America.

“Behaving or not, you’re going to Mexico!”

The question “shall we eat horse meat?” is coupled with the related question “shall we slaughter horses?”. In both countries, most of the horse slaughter (and consumption) is outsourced to other countries (Italy in the case of the Balkans, Mexico in the case of USA). Yet the attitudes are different. There, if there were more horses and there was more appetite for meat, there would be horse slaughter in place with almost nobody’s objection. Without too much emotional opposition to eating horses, economic forces would be allowed to dictate what happens on the ground.

Here, there is an overabundance of horses, but because there is no appetite for meat at all, slaughtering horses is considered a very bad idea. Hence such outcry when the slaughter of horses was recently made legal again after a long time (and opening a slaughterhouse is fraught with difficulties).

If unicorns were easier to catch, they would be a staple diet in at least some cultures.

If unicorns were easier to catch, they would be a staple diet in at least some cultures.

The shift in culture that I started observing in the 1980s there, already occurred much earlier here in the States. Horses are still used in agriculture there, especially in more mountainous regions where tractors are ineffective and uneconomical. Many small farmers cannot afford tractors, or have too little land to need one. Older people still remember the life on the farm, and even kids have seen horses working in the field. The movement from country to city happened too recently.

Here, agriculture has long ago moved from small farmers to gigantic agribusiness. Very few people have any personal experience with a horse working the land. Most horses are used for pleasure and sport – they have names and are treated as pets, rather than as beasts of burden.

Also, there is an overproduction of horses here. So many horses are bred, often of poor quality, that many never get to be ridden at all – they go straight to Mexico while still young. It is not that just old, sick or lame horses get slaughtered, it’s healthy foals! It’s not just a natural circle of life, it’s production of horses directly for slaughter.

Then, there is the issue of food safety. There is a reason Europe does not allow import of American horsemeat, no matter how much demand there may be there (and demand is dropping there as well). One never knows if the meat came from a racehorse (or if it’s horse meat at all). The rules for drug use (from steroids to painkillers) in racehorses in the USA are so lax compared to other countries, that it is almost certain that the meat of an American racehorse is unfit for human consumption. And how can one know if the steak or sausage came from a draft horse or a racehorse? With eating horse in America being potentially dangerous, it’s not strange that people don’t do it, and the cultural tradition of eating horses quickly dies out. If your parents never ate horse meat, you won’t either. Cultural food habits start at home.

But there are other reasons why American culture is so strongly against eating (and thus slaughtering) horses. I vaguely alluded to some of those already, but now need to be more explicit. And for this, we need to go back to the old master, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins and his 1976 essay La Pensee Bourgeoise: Western Society as Culture, in which he takes a close look as to why Americans eat cows and pigs, but don’t eat horses and dogs.

Manly Men in the Feed Lot.

True, “in most parts of the world, people are grateful to eat whatever is available to them.” Vast areas of the planet have scant vegetation. Plant agriculture is impossible due to poor soil. People need and want to live there anyway, at least as nomads if not settlers, but cannot sustain themselves on an occasional root or berry. They have to carry their food with them, but that also takes up energy. So the best way to survive in such harsh environments is to have the food walk along with them. Cattle, goats, sheep, camels, donkeys, mules, asses and yes, horses, are the sources of daily nourisment, both meat and dairy.

In places of plenty, in times of plenty, one can afford to have culture, rather than necessity, dictate what foods are deemed OK and what foods are not:

Yet the point is not only of consuming interest; the productive relation of American society to its own and the world environment is organized by specific valuations of edibility and inedibility, themselves qualitative and in no way justifiable by biological, ecological, or economic advantage.

There is no nutritional reason not to eat horse. If anything, horse meat may have some advantages over beef. If production of horse meat was a viable, large industry due to high demand, it would have similar environmental impact as beef industry has now, and the economics would be the same as well. Low demand is due to culture, which determines even how food taste is perceived. It is not surprising that food preferences then become deeply ingrained, and offers of locally unusual foods elicit strong negative responses based entirely on emotions, rather than rational calculations. So even during times of crisis and famine, those cultural and emotional obstacles prevent the population from taking advantage of available food sources, regardless of governmental, corporate, scientific or media efforts to help enlighten the population about it. The angry reactions are based entirely on cultural norms and emotional sense of disgust. Sahlins uses this example from the Honolulu Advertiser of 15 April 1973:

“Horses are to be loved and ridden,” Gallagher said. “In other words, horses are shown affection, where cattle that are raised for beef … they’ve never had someone pet them or brush them, or anything like that. To buy someone’s horse up and slaughter it, that, I just don’t see it. “

Sahlins again:

In a crisis, the contradictions of the system reveal themselves. During the meteoric inflation of food prices in the spring of 1973, American capitalism did not fall apart-quite the contrary; but the cleavages in the food system did surface. Responsible government officials suggested that the people might be well-advised to buy the cheaper cuts of meat such as kidneys, heart, or entrails-after all, they are just as nutritious as hamburger. To Americans, this particular suggestion made Marie Antoinette seem like a model of compassion (see fig. 10). The reason for the disgust seems to go to the same logic as greeted certain unsavory attempts to substitute horsemeat for beef during the same period.

When I came to the States, I understood that I would not be eating horse here at all. Which is fine with me – I tried a steak once and a sausage once, and while they were OK, I can totally live without them. But when we castrated a couple of colts at the barn, none of the whites would touch the testicles. But they were expertly prepared by an African American friend and we ate them with great appreciation.

Salome serves roasted unicorn head, which inludes cheecks, lips, tongue and brain.

As I wrote at length a few years ago, one of the specifics of American cuisine, due to culture, lies in its history. When we talk about Balkans food preferences, we are covering pretty much everyone who lives there – the class divisions and cultural divisions were always quite miniscule there. But when we talk about American food preferences, we tend to forget a big chunk of American culture. Whites prefer beef to other species, and will almost universally not eat offal. But there is a whole parallel culture, often unmentioned. The soul food, the Southern food, all the offal and innards and roadkill and strange foods that were cooked, and recipes perfected into delicacies by generations of African Americans, descendant of slaves who fixed steaks for the white masters and learned how to utilize everything else from the slaughtered animals. They have no problem with offal – or horse – as that is an intergral component of that subdivision of the American culture. Sahlins:

The poorer people buy the cheaper cuts, cheaper because they are socially inferior meats. But poverty is in the first place ethnically and racially encoded. Blacks and whites enter differentially into the American labor market, their participation ordered by an invidious distinction of relative “civilization.” Black is in American society as the savage among us, objective nature in culture itself. Yet then, by virtue of the ensuing distribution of income, the “inferiority” of blacks is realized also as a culinary defilement. “Soul food” may be made a virtue. But only as the negation of a general logic in which cultural degradation is confirmed by dietary preferences akin to cannibalism, even as this metaphorical attribute of the food is confirmed by the status of those who prefer it. I would not invoke “the so-called totemism” merely in casual analogy to the pensee sauvage. True that Levi-Strauss writes as if totemism had retreated in our society to a few marginal resorts or occasional practices (I 963a; 1966). And fair enough-in the sense that the “totemic operator,” articulating differences in the cultural series to differences in natural species, is no longer a main architecture of the cultural system. But one must wonder whether it has not been replaced by species and varieties of manufactured objects, which like totemic categories have the power of making even the demarcation of their individual owners a procedure of social classification. (My colleague Milton Singer suggests that what Freud said of national differentiation might well be generalized to capitalism, that it is narcissism in respect of minor differences.)

Marshall Sahlins then delves into the question of words and names. As he reminds us, Red Queen said, “It isn’t etiquette to cut anybody you’ve been introduced to.” Horses (and dogs) have names. Most cows (and pigs) don’t.

Muscles of accepted food animals have cute monikers that hide what parts of the animal and which animal they came from. There is beef and pork and mutton. There are steaks and t-bones and round and chuck. But un-acceptable species don’t have such cutesy names for their muscles. Horse meat is called horsemeat. Dog’s would be dog-meat. Nothing to hide. Likewise, names for innards are not cutesy, hiding the obvious source: liver is liver, tongue is tongue, kidneys are kidney (though intestines become tripe, and testicles, probably due to puritanism, become whitebreads). Sahlins again:

Edibility is inversely related to humanity. The same holds in the preferences and common designations applied to edible portions of the animal. Americans frame a categorical distinction between the “inner” and “outer” parts which represents to them the same principle of relation to humanity, metaphorically extended. The organic nature of the flesh (muscle and fat) is at once disguised and its preferability indicated by the general term “meat,” and again by particular conventions such as “roast,” “steak,” “chops,” or “chuck”; whereas the internal organs are frankly known as such (or as “innards”), and more specifically as “heart,” “tongue,” “kidney,” and so on-except as they are euphemistically transformed by the process of preparation into such products as “sweetbreads.”The internal and external parts, in other words, are respectively assimilated to and distinguished from parts of the human body-on the same model as we conceive our “innermost selves” as our “true selves”-and the two categories are accordingly ranked as more or less fit for human consumption. The distinction between “inner” and “outer” thus duplicates within the animal the differentiation drawn between edible and tabu species, the whole making up a single logic on two planes with the consistent implication of a prohibition on cannibalism. It is this symbolic logic which organizes demand. The social value of steak or roast, as compared with tripe or tongue, is what underlies the difference in economic value. From the nutritional point of view, such a notion of “better” and “inferior” cuts would be difficult to defend. Moreover, steak remains the most expensive meat even though its absolute supply is much greater than that of tongue; there is much more steak to the cow than there is tongue. But more, the symbolic scheme of edibility joins with that organizing the relations of production to precipitate, through income distribution and demand, an entire totemic order, uniting in a parallel series of differences the status of persons and what they eat.

Of course, there are cultural (and language) differences between nations as to how they name the animals and how they name edible body parts. French is quite different from English in that regard, for instance. In Serbian, the words for muscle-meats from various animals are not cutesy but directly derived from the names of those species: govedo=govedina (cattle=beef), tele=teletina (calf=veal), ovca=ovcetina (sheep=mutton). Where eating animals is both an economic and a cultural necessity, where there is no taboo or even mild unease about eating meat, there is no need to come up with linguistic camouflage.

But what I find most interesting in Marshall Sahlins’ article is this passage:

The exploitation of the American environment, the mode of relation to the landscape, depends on the model of a meal that includes a central meat element with the peripheral support of carbohydrates and vegetables-while the centrality of the meat, which is also a notion of its “strength,” evokes the masculine pole of a sexual code of food which must go back to the Indo-European identification of cattle or increasable wealth with virility. The indispensabilitty of meat as “strength,” and of steak as the epitome of virile meats, remains a basic condition of American diet (note the training table of athletic teams, in football especially). Hence also a corresponding structure of agricultural production of feed grains, and in turn a specific articulation to world markets-all of which would change overnight if we ate dogs. By comparison with this meaningful calculus of food preferences, supply, demand, and price offer the interest of institutional means of a system that does not include production costs in its own principles of hierarchy. The “opportunity costs” of our economic rationality are a secondary formation, an expression of relationships already given. by another kind of thought, figured a posteriori within the constraints of a logic of meaningful order. The tabu on horses and dogs thus renders unthinkable the consumption of a set of animals whose production is practically feasible and which are nutritionally not to be despised.

The American meal – a big juicy beef steak surrounded by a little bit of vegetables mainly as decoration – as a manly man’s meal. The meal of the pioneer, the cowboy, the self-sustained, survivalist, rugged individualist. The beef steak as a descendant of the steak a hunter hunted in the past. Beef steak as a product of the hard work in the harsh environment in the vast expanses of the American West. Only the toughest need apply. The cultural mythology that led to placing beef at the pinnacle, that led to distaste for eating any other species (not for macho men!), that led to taboo against eating horses (companions and co-workers in the difficult production of beef), and that eventually led to hyperproduction of beef for the growing population by consolidating it from small farms into huge feed lots owned by large agribusiness. So, both the illogical, uneconomical, and environmentally damaging food instructure in the States AND the taboo against eating horse may stem from the same cultural source – the early self-sufficient pioneer man.

But that was centuries ago. Surely we have progressed since then. Remember when Michael Pollan made the full circle, from feed lot (symbolic hunt) through a series of organic and local small operations back to the non-symbolic, real hunt, he had difficulty pulling the trigger. We are more civilized now.

In his book A Primate’s Memoir, Robert Sapolsky relates how he adjusts his own diet depending on where he is. Earlier in his career he used to split his year in half. During the half spent teaching neuroscience at Sanford, he was a vegetarian. In America, one has that choice. But in the other half of the year, studying baboons in the field in Africa, he ate what the locals fixed. Yes, a zebra leg. Not just that he would have insulted the hosts by refusing, but if he refused it would incur additional expense and effort of the hosts – they would have to find nutritious plant food every day for him, something that is not as easy to do in that region. There are good reasons why local diet is mainly based on hunted animals.

Thus, the deep roots of the American culture may prevent us from ever eating horse. Although it makes no economical, health, nutritional or environmental sense, that is OK as it makes cultural sense and we can afford this taboo.

But we should re-analyze why outdated machismo is still guiding the way our food instructure works in damaging ways and perhaps do something constructive about it to bring it along into the 21st century, somewhat away from beef and gigantic feed lots and toward a more sustainable, environmentally friendly, public-health reasonable, nutritionally balanced food system.



Marshall Sahlins, La Pensee Bourgeoise: Western Society as Culture, in Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976) (pp. 166 – 179)


Photo of me: original photo by Russ Creech, photoshop by Mindy Weisberger.

Unicorn on the grill and on the platter, original art from Taymouth Hours, 14th century, at British Library, additional photoshop by Sarah J Biggs. Originally posted on April Fool’s Day by Julian Harrison at Medieval manuscripts blog of the British Library.

Good Night, Moon! Now go away so I can sleep.

Mars has two moons - Phobos and Deimos. Here we see Phobos passing in front of the sun, as seen from the surface of Mars. How would having two moons with different phases affect behavior of Martians?

Mars has two moons - Phobos and Deimos. Here we see Phobos passing in front of the sun, as seen from the surface of Mars. How would having two moons with different phases affect behavior of Martians?

Scientific papers usually don’t faithfully convey exactly how the researchers came up with the idea, or the chronological order in which the investigation proceeded. And there is a good reason for that – papers need to be standardized so other scientists can easily read them, understand them, replicate them and use them to perform further research.

But sometimes, a paper is honest about the process. It is wonderful – and shows that scientists are human, with a great sense of humor – when #OverlyHonestMethods sneak into the text of a scientific paper, surprising and rewarding the careful reader with an ‘easter egg’.

One such paper – on the effects of moon phase of sleep quality – just came out in Current Biology.

The first thing I noticed was that the data were collected in 2000-2003. Why did it take a decade to publish? Was it just sitting on a back burner of a PI for years after the student left the lab? Did it have to go through many rounds of peer review in several journals until it finally managed to get published? None of those reasons, actually! See for yourself:

We just thought of it after a drink in a local bar one evening at full moon, years after the study was completed.

And that is where we encounter yet another effect of the full moon (in synergy with ethanol) on human behavior, at least on WEIRD populations, such as scientists!

But jokes aside, this is also a great example of a paper that usefully re-visits and re-analyzes old data sets. Of course, the authors emphasize the positives of this post hoc approach – nobody at the time of the study could possibly know that the data would be analyzed in this way, so there were no possible subconscious psychological effects – it was a truly triple-blind study:

Thus, the aim of exploring the influence of different lunar phases on sleep regulation was never a priori hypothesized, nor was it mentioned to the participants, technicians, and other people involved in the study.

On the other hand, a study specifically designed to test for moon-phase effects on sleep quality would have been designed differently to ensure it has just the right controls and that maximum information can be derived from the data.

Research in chronobiology is frustratingly slow. In circadian research, each day is just one data point, so each study has to keep subjects in isolation for many days. In the study of lunar rhythms, each month is a data point and the subjects need to be kept in isolation for many months.

To determine if a rhythm is generated by an internal timer (daily or monthly) as opposed to being a direct behavioral response to environmental cycles requires a whole battery of tests, which are hard and time-consuming enough in circadian research, and twenty eight times more so in circalunar rhythm research

Back in the 1960s, it was possible to keep (well compensated) human subjects in isolation rooms for long periods of time (see pioneering research by Wever and Aschoff in the underground bunker in Andechs, Germany). Likewise, animal subjects can be kept and monitored in isolation chambers for long periods of time.

As lunar rhythms are more “messy” than daily rhythms, more data over more time are necessary for the robust statistical analysis. And, due to ethics creep, it is not certain that either animal or human studies of such scope can be approved and performed any more. So, one has to be creative and get quality information out of imperfect experimental protocols (just like we cannot wait to observe multiple cycles of 17-year cicadas, but have to invent creative, short-term approaches instead).

But this time, the researchers were just lucky! Their data-set came from an old experiment which was designed well enough for this new purpose. The key is they had LOTS of data. Their subjects came in to the sleep lab many times and a number of different parameters were measured. Ideally, each subject would stay in the lab for a few months instead of just four days at a time. But having such a huge data set allowed them to weave together a patchwork of fragmented data into a large, trustworthy whole. Each first night of the test was eliminated from the data due to potential influence of the previous day (and the so-called “weekend effect”, as people tend to change sleep times on their days off). Each phase of the moon was covered by multiple subjects multiple times. So they could employ powerful statistics to tease out the effects of the moon phase on various parameters of sleep quality.

And they found some interesting stuff! My colleague Dina Fine Maron has covered the paper in greater detail here. In short, human subjects with no access to information about moon phase, or any ability to perceive the moon itself or its light intensity, nonetheless slept about 20 minutes shorter on the nights of full moon, mostly due to taking roughly 5 minutes longer to fall asleep in the evening than on a night of the new moon. Levels of melatonin, hormone released by the pineal gland during the night, were lower during full moon nights as well. Some of the age and sex differences cannot be explained at this time due to imperfect experimental design – and that is OK. I’d rather see new interesting information coming out of an old data set, than never seeing it at all just because it cannot be “just perfect”.

There are many claims around about lunar periodicities in all sorts of human behavior. For some of those, there is no evidence the claims are true. For others, there is strong evidence the claims are not true. But a few subtle effects have been documented. This paper adds another set with persuasive statistics.

Is this a demonstration that there is a working circalunar clock in humans, operating endogenously, and independently from the actual moon? It’s not possible to tell yet. Those kinds of demonstrations (just like for circadian clocks) require a battery of tests, starting with documenting multiple cycles (I’d say at least three complete monthly cycles) in complete isolation, ability of artificial moonlight to phase-shift the phase of the rhythm in a predictable manner (consistent with a Phase-Response Curve), and hopefully identification of body structures or cellular components which are devoted to generation of the rhythms, with at least some hint of the mechanism how they do it.

We are far from it yet even in animals we can manipulate in lab and field studies. Much work has been done over the decades in the study of lunar and circalunar rhythms in various animals, mostly aquatic and intertidal ones. There are documented lunar cycles (but not necessarily internal lunar clocks) in a variety of organisms, including sponges, cnidaria, polychaetes, aquatic insects, and many different crustaceans including crayfish.

In the terrestrial realm, antlions possess internal lunar clocks, but many other species show modifications of behavior during different phases of the moon, including honeybees, rattlesnakes, ratsnakes, some rodents, some lizards, and lions.

The gravitational force of the moon is so weak that it can affect only very large bodies of water on the Earth’s surface. It cannot even affect smaller lakes and rivers. There is no theoretical mechanism by which any molecule or cellular structure in a human body can be so sensitive as to detect the gravity of the moon. So that hypothesis is out.

In field studies, animals can see and synchronize to the changing night-time intensity as the moon goes through its phases. But in the lab, as in the case of this study, there are no visual clues to the moon phase for the subjects, and, since they had no idea the data would be analyzed for moon phases, they probably did not pay attention to that before they entered the light-isolation lab.

With both gravity and light eliminated as potential clues, the internal clock remains the strongest hypothesis. But it’s still a hypothesis that needs to be tested before one can state with any certainty that it is the case.

As for evolutionary explanations for the existence of a putative lunar rhythm of humans? I would be very careful about this. Demonstrating that any trait is actually an adaptation (and not an exaptation or side-effect of development, or something else) is an incredibly difficult task. Just because something seems “obviously useful” does not make it an adaptation. It is an error of hyperadaptationism to pronounce a trait an adaptation just because it exists, and then to tack on a semi-plausible scenario as to how it may have been selected for. Evolutionary biology is much more rigorous than that kind of lazy armchair speculation.

Sure, if our ancestors actually had lunar clocks as adaptations, it is possible that the mechanism for it may still remain, even if in a weak state, in at least some of today’s humans. But maybe not. And like a rudimentary organ, it does not seem to have any obviously useful function for humans living in the modern society. Twenty minutes of less sleep, that’s all. But it’s good to know. So we can find good use to those extra twenty minutes, perhaps come up with new scientific hypotheses over a pint with colleagues at a local pub.

Reference: Cajochen et al., Evidence that the Lunar Cycle Influences Human Sleep, Current Biology 23, 1–4, August 5, 2013,

Images: top: by NASA, bottom: from the paper.

Bring science and health journalism to #ONA13

The Online News Association Conference is one of the most popular events in the field these days, where prestigious ONA awards are also given to innovators in online journalism. The ONA13 will be held in Atlanta this year, on October 17-19th.

Unfortunately, there is rarely anything on the program that specifically touches on science or health journalism, despite it being a somewhat different – and difficult – area of journalism with some very specific challenges.

Luckily you, the community of science and health readers, can help out. The Program is, at least partially, built through community vote. You can see all the session proposals here. You can ‘vote’ for any of them by clicking on the little heart icon (the “Like” on Tumblr) and/or by reblogging it on your own Tumblr.

If you scroll down again and again and again, you will finally reach the only science-related proposal: Science and Health Go Social: What Journalists Need to Know. You can help this session become a part of the official program by liking and reblogging it, perhaps adding your own commentary.

The session was proposed by Patricia Thomas who runs the excellent Grady Health and Medicine Journalism program at the University of Georgia in Athens.

The proposed panelists are:

Maryn McKenna, blogger at Wired, frequent contributor to Scientific American, and the author of Superbug and Beating Back the Devil.

– Barbara Glickstein, Health journalist, public health nurse and the Co-Director of The Center for Health, Media & Policy at Hunter College City of New York.

– and me.

So, just click here and ‘heart’ the proposal and help us get there and start a discussion on challenges specific to science and health reporting in the rapidly evolving new media ecosystem.

Let’s Not Spring Forward.

Cross-posted from Zocalo Public Square.

Even cows don’t like Daylight Saving Time. Come Sunday morning, when the milking machines get attached to their udders a whole hour too early, the otherwise placid bovines on dairy farms around the United States will snort in surprise and dismay. They may give less milk than usual. They could take days or weeks to get used to the new milking schedules.

We are no different. While most of us won’t be hooking ourselves up to udder pumps, our bodies next week will experience a disturbance very much like the cows’ – one that can affect our mental and physical health. The reason lies in the clash between sensitive, eons-old biology deep within our cells, and human-imposed time-keeping traditions that are barely a century old. Twice every year, when we “spring forward” and “fall back,” our bodies must do battle between “sun time” and “social time.”

Before the mid-19th century, time was more flexible. Each town and village maintained the local church clock more-or-less in sync with the natural light-dark cycles of the sun. The spread of railroads changed all that. The need to keep trains moving in and out of stations at predictable times forced the adoption of a standardized time. That, in turn, led to the formation of time zones.

Daylight Saving Time (DST)—the resetting of all clocks twice a year—was first proposed by New Zealand entomologist George Vernon Hudson in 1895, for quite selfish purposes. He was studying daily cycles in insects and wanted to be able to do more of it during daylight hours. But his idea of maximizing daylight soon spread. The first country to adopt DST was Germany in 1912. Most other countries soon followed, including the United States, which instituted DST in 1918.

The leading argument in favor of DST has always been that it saves energy. Back in the early 20th century, most energy was used for lighting. So, the argument went, placing work and school schedules within daylight hours would save electricity. People wouldn’t need to use light bulbs to navigate around their homes, offices, factories, and fields in the dark, and they would have more time in the evening to indulge in commerce and entertainment.

Today, the situation is very different. The proportion of total energy that is used for lighting is miniscule compared to other, time-independent uses like factories, computers, nuclear plants, airport radars, and other facilities that run 24/7. Energy companies themselves have measured the effect, and have concluded that DST does not save energy.

With this knowledge, some nations have started re-thinking the concept. Russia, for example, abandoned the clock change in 2011, keeping one time all year round. Iceland and Belarus did the same. On the other hand, in 2007, U.S. Congress, clinging to the notion that DST saves energy, moved the onset of DST three weeks earlier than before. That change, I think, makes a difficult transition even more stressful.

Although Congress can impose these changes, it’s a bit unclear who exactly has the right to determine whether DST is implemented. Until very recently, a large number of individual counties in the state of Indiana refused to go through the clock-changing ritual. Arizona doesn’t change its clocks at all—the only state in the union (apart from Hawaii) to defy DST altogether. This lack of clarity about who is in charge may be one of the reasons why a more sustained effort to abolish DST has been unsuccessful nationwide.

Whether or not DST saves energy is the least of the reasons why it’s a bad idea. Much more important are the health effects of sudden, hour-long shifts on our bodies and minds. Chronobiologists who study circadian rhythms know that for several days after the spring-forward clock resetting – and especially that first Monday – traffic accidents increase, workplace injuries go up and, perhaps most telling, incidences of heart attacks rise sharply. Cases of depression also go up. As the faint light of dawn starts preparing our bodies for waking up (mainly through the rise of cortisol secretion), our various organs, including the heart, also start preparing for increased function. If the alarm clock suddenly rings an hour earlier than usual, a weak heart can suffer an infarct.

The reason for negative health effects of DST is that, in essence, the entire world is jet-lagged for a few days. Unlike some animals, like honeybees and reindeer, humans have a very robust circadian clock system that resists abrupt shifts.

Every cell in our bodies contains a biological clock which coordinates the events in those cells—for example, when gene transcription turns on and off, or when specific proteins are made. When we are exposed to a light-dark cycle that is different from what we experienced the previous days, some types of cells synchronize to the new environmental cycle faster than the others. Cells in our eyes, for example, may adjust in about a day, while cells in our brains take a couple of days. Cells in the digestive system and liver may take weeks. So, for weeks after the DST clock change, our bodies are like a clock shop in which each timepiece cuckoos at a different time of day—a cacophony of confusing signals.

Our bodies are constantly being pulled apart by conflicting demands of the natural ‘sun time‘ and culturally imposed ‘social time‘. People living in urban areas may be better shielded from the sun time than their rural counterparts, because of artificial lighting and the skyglow it produces, but nobody is completely isolated from its influence. Twelve noon according to the clock is not twelve noon according to the planet. Citizens of Barcelona and Bucarest are almost two hours apart in their perception of sun time, yet live in the same social time—the same time zone that encompasses most of Europe.

Even those of us who are lucky enough to work from home and can generally set our own work schedules are not completely immune to the effects of DST. I still have to drive my daughter to school at the time prescribed by the local clock, not by local sunlight. My colleagues have expectations about when I will pick up the phone for a teleconference or respond to their emails. I am supposed to show up for my dental appointment at 7am, not “two hours after dawn”.

But if I ever buy a cow—and that is not as crazy as it sounds since I live next door to a dairy farm—I have a plan. Of course I’ll ignore the bi-annual clock changes, which I hear many smart dairy farmers already do. But I’ll go a step further and ignore social time altogether, milking her at the sun time her nervous system can understand, probably the crack of dawn. Whatever I do, I will never make her suffer through the sudden shift of DST. And none of us human animals should suffer it, either.

Image: Dirk Hanson

ScienceOnline – crossing a river with Anton Zuiker

I have been conducting these ScienceOnline interviews for years now, and somehow I never got to interviewing you – one of the founders! It’s high time, don’t you think? So, without further ado, welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your background? How did you get into medical journalism?

Thank you, Bora. Like you, my last name starts with a Z, so I’m used to waiting for everyone to be called to the front of the classroom to speak. I think that that was one of the early experiences that taught me to pay attention to others. So, it’s been a pleasure to read your interviews through the years and to admire all the unique individuals who have been drawn to ScienceOnline. You’ve done an amazing thing in asking them to share a bit about their lives. The Web — the world — is a better place when we can stop to listen to each person’s story.

I live in Carrboro, North Carolina. I came here 12 years ago, and before that the longest I’d lived in one place was five years as a boy in Idaho. I’ve also lived in Ohio, the South Pacific, Hawaii, Illinois, U.S. Virgin Islands, Arizona, Minnesota and California. I’m the oldest of five sons. My father was a Peace Corps Volunteer (1965-67, Dominican Republic) and coordinator for the VISTA program, then became an attorney. My mother was a parochial-school teacher and principal. In 1981, my parents were watching the nightly news when the television sparked and died. They put it in the closet and never got another, probably the most important parenting decision in my life. I’m a voracious reader because of them. On St. Croix, the house we rented had stacks and stacks of National Geographic, and I set my mind to becoming editor of that journal. Inspired by the photos, I joined the eighth-grade photography club to learn to develop my own pictures.

My high school years were spent in DeKalb, Illinois, my mother’s hometown. I played varsity soccer, was elected student body president, edited an award-winning literary journal, worked summers detasseling hybrid seed corn and walking soybean fields, and with a couple of friends formed a juggling troupe named for the 18th-century Swiss scientist Daniel Bernoulli (our terrific physics teacher suggested that). My dad regularly took me and my brothers into Chicago to visit the Museum of Science and Industry and to see the Blackhawks and White Sox and Cubs (he taught me how to keep the box score, and always have hope), and his stories about being a hard-working vendor — ‘Beer, here!’ — were often more interesting than the games we’d come to see. Dad also taught me to think about the consequences of my actions, and to keep a record of my activities. My mother encouraged me to make new friends and to persevere when my math homework brought me to tears.

When I entered college at John Carroll University in suburban Cleveland, I knew I wanted to be a journalist and to live a life of service, including following in my father’s footsteps and joining the Peace Corps. I also thought long and hard about becoming a Franciscan friar, but decided to become a different kind of father. I fell in love, but moved to Hawaii, where I got to interview astronomer Jerry Nelson in the Keck Observatory. Eventually, I returned to Cleveland, married Erin, and worked as an arts magazine editor. Together we joined the Peace Corps and went to the Republic of Vanuatu, later returning to the U.S. via Australia, Asia and Europe.

So, geographically, I’ve been around. Around the world, quite literally. And philosophically, I’ve learned to be open to that world and its possibilities. My parents taught me to make the best of each and every situation, and how to talk with people to find our similarities and marvel in our differences.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present? And future?

You’re probably still wondering how I got into medical journalism. That came out of my time in Vanuatu. Erin and I both got giardiasis and dengue, and she also got vivax malaria. We saw Hansen’s disease and filariasis and malnutrition and ciguatera poisoning. In the heat of the tropical days, I swayed in the hammock reading the Control of Communicable Diseases manual. When later we moved to North Carolina for Erin to get her masters of public health, I learned about the science and medical journalism program at the UNC j-school, and studied under Tom Linden. I was taking Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases when SARS broke out, and one of the class instructors happened to be Ralph Baric, a coronavirus expert. By now, I knew I was never going to be editor of National Geographic, so instead I was aiming for the New Yorker: my masters thesis project was a 12,000-word narrative feature about acute HIV among college students.

An important thrust to my career trajectory, though, also came from my time in the Peace Corps. That was in the late 90s, and I recognized that when I was done on my island with no running water and no electricity, my childhood dream of being in print would have to change with the World Wide Web. I got a job at an Internet startup company in January 2000, just in time to watch the tech bubble burst from the inside. But I created my first website, became a blogger, and never looked back.

Over the last decade, you and so many other friends and colleagues have helped me combine my passions for journalism, community development and connecting on the Web. We call this the BlogTogether spirit — supporting individuals as they connect through social networks, and then creating ways for them to come together for face-to-face conversations. Those conversations, we’ve seen, promote the golden rule: blog about others as you’d have others blog about you. (I didn’t become a priest, but I’ve found my mission, you could say — or sing, as David Kroll did in Minister of Ether.)

I’m not going to be editor of National Geographic. I may never get into the pages of the New Yorker. But I do hope my career keeps me involved in supporting thoughtful observations about our world.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

I have a great job, as communications director for the Duke University Department of Medicine. It’s in a vibrant academic medical center, and we use a blog to reflect the activities of our faculty and trainees, such as Nobel laureate Robert Lefkowitz. I was in his office a while back, and loved hearing him talk about how science and humor are alike in helping us see connections.

I recently figured out an important connection in my own life. My paternal grandfather, Louis Sisco, organized the annual Sisco Picnic, and I often helped him set up for that. His devotion to gathering the extended family, and his attention to the details in planning the event, rubbed off on me. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons I’ve spent the last 10 years organizing events and meetups, from the Narratives of HIV series to BlogTogether Backyard Barbecues to our shared ScienceOnline conferences. This year, though, I’m taking a break from organizing events. ScienceOnline has become an official organization, and Karyn Traphagen is charging ahead with great momentum and ideas – hers is a detail-oriented mind that my grandfather would admire. I now serve ScienceOnline, Karyn and the rest of our community as chairman of the board, and I will focus on that role. I’m excited to see where this all goes.

Not having to sweat the details of the conference means I have more time to write, and so I’m more actively writing on my blog. I’ve learned that the more I write on my blog and in my personal journal, the more balanced I am. That’s helping me to spend more time with my daughters, who need me to encourage them through their math homework, and two-year-old Oliver, who needs me to explore in the woods with him just like my dad did when I was young.

I’m in my forties now, and spending this decade learning to be a better storyteller. I love to hear great stories at the Monti, and Jeff Polish inspired me to convene the Talk Story narrative variety show. Karyn showed us postcards she wrote to her mother, and my friend Carter Kersh has gone on to tell two stories at The Monti, for which he’s been nominated for the Hippo Awards. I’ve stumbled through a few of my own stories. I may never be a great storyteller, but I do know that I’m becoming an even better listener. If my gift in life is to facilitate conversations and help other people share their stories, then I’ll continue to do that as humbly as I can.

Through my writing, my listening, my living, I’m trying to be ever more thoughtful, kind, patient and passionate.

You once described your life philosophy as crossing-a-river. What does that mean and how does it work?

I’ve spent a lot of time at the edge of the water – watching contemplatively as mountain rivers cascade, or expectantly as ponds begin to freeze over, or contentedly as the sun sets over oceans and seas in which I’ve just surfed or snorkeled or paddled. As my family moved around, and my parents taught me to find opportunity in each new place, I came to see my life as a journey across a wide river strewn with stepping stones, each stone offering new possibilities for forward or lateral movement toward that other river bank. Some steps are shorter and seemingly less memorable, others further and riskier. I’m certain I’ve fallen in a few times – the story I’ve told my daughters the most is the one about rafting on the New River, tumbling over and losing my favorite Greek fisherman’s cap – but I’m also sure that each moment has strengthened and deepened.

(As I’m writing this, sitting in 3CUPS sipping keemun hao ya, there’s a young guy at the next table over, strumming an ukulele. That makes me remember meeting the gentle giant Israel Kamakawiwoole and Big Island lutier David Gomes. Part of the allure of my crossing-a-river metaphor is the joy in looking back at the steps I’ve taken and the people I’ve met along the way.)

When I graduated from college and decided to move to Hawaii — away from the woman I dearly loved — a mentor told me something simple and profound. “Anton, if it doesn’t work out, you can always come back.” I took it to mean that I need never feel trapped, or choiceless. After two great years in Honolulu, I did return to Cleveland as Erin was finishing college. Ever since, she’s been my companion on that river crossing.

You have been blogging for a very long time, you are one of the pioneers of the form, and you have helped many other people start their own blogs. How do you see the evolution of the blogging form in the near future, both regarding your own blog, science blogs, and blogging in general?

As I used to explain in our Bloggging 101 tutorials, blogging developed in some of the same ways as the early Internet, from What’s New pages to filtering lists to personal-perspective journals. After all these years, blogs can be any or all of these types of online writing.

Social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Flickr and Instagram have given us tools to share short messages and photos and videos. It feels to me that blogs posts have lengthened (you’re the outlier, of course!), and are more essay like. Last fall, we held the Back to the Blog meeting at Duke University to discuss some of the trends in blogging, including minimal styling, responsive design and using social media to alert your networks to your new posts.

I’m still gung-ho about blogs. I still know more people who don’t have blogs than I know people who do blog. That’s a lot of people to recruit to the blogging life.

That includes scientists, of course. One of the early foundations of the ScienceOnline community was the colorful tapestry of science blog networks, and now in ScienceSeeker we have a fantastic tool for mining the rich daily output from science blogs. But even in my own institution, Duke University, there aren’t that many scientists actively blogging. You remember the keynote speaker at our first ScienceOnline conference back in 2007: Dr. Hunt Willard suggested it would have to be the postdocs and fellows who would need to be trained to use online tools. At Duke, Dr. Zubin Eapen and the cardiology fellows are a shining example of that; Dr. Matt Sparks is another. It’s going to be fun to see others take up online science just as avidly and successfully.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my own blog recently, both in terms of the design and my writing style. I started my blog in 2000 to honor my grandfathers and relatives, and to share my own life and work and travels. I think of my style as storyblogging, in which I start with a current happening, relate it to a story in my or my family’s past, and make an observation. After 13 years of writing, I’d begun to doubt whether I had anything else to record. And, yet, when I search my archives for an anecdote or reference I’m sure I’ve blogged before, I don’t find it. I’m only halfway across my river, so I guess I’ve got a lot more to share. But I also know that Narcissus sat along the water and reflected on himself to unhappy consequence, so I want to challenge myself to add other layers to my blogging, such as deeper exploration of one of my areas of interest. You’ve written much about niche blogging, so maybe I’ll finally develop a niche other than myself.

You have been involved, for a long time, in different nodes of the blogosphere: science blogs, medical blogs, technology blogs, food blogs, local North Carolina blogs — what have you learned from these different communities? What’s on your blogroll of blogs to read daily?

I’ve learned that no matter the subject or node, when interesting people are given the tools — pencil, press, microphone or weblog — to delve deeply into their interests and reflect their areas of specialty, we end up with an awesome deluge of information, insight and inquiry. Niche blogs are great for the ways they focus on a topic or industry, and I understand your argument for writing only about one’s area of expertise. But I’m also convinced that when a writer steps out of his or her niche to provide glimpses of other interests or fragments of experience, we learn more about the person. And knowing more about each other helps us relate to each other better. I believed that at the beginning of the BlogTogether experiment, and over the last seven years, the ScienceOnline community has simply astounded me with its respect and friendship and inclusiveness and camaraderie.

I’ve been reading Dave Winer for a decade, learning from him and using his new World Outline tools, and I cherished the chance to go for a bike ride with him last summer. Michael Ruhlman and Ilina Ewen and Dean McCord are my food and beverage inspirations. 33 Charts, by Dr. Bryan Vartabedian, is quite relevant to my medical communications job. I read design blogs, web technology blogs, blogs by business leaders and venture capitalists, and personal organization blogs. I use Reeder to scan RSS feeds, and I’m rebuilding my river here. On Sunday evenings, I iron my shirts for the week, listening to podcasts by The Monti, Story Collider, StoryCorps and Joel Dueck.

Family looms large in your life and in your writing. Your personal blog is essentially a chronicle of several generations of your family, with you as an acute observer and eloquent archivist. Tell me what family means to you. Are you hoping that your children will continue preserving the family’s stories?

When I was in the fifth grade in Idaho, my mother was my teacher. One day, her assignment to the class was to write a story about the first snowflake to fall in winter. Around that same time, my father would gather me and my brothers in the kitchen, where he used the bare white wall to show his Peace Corps slides. In the mailbox each week, we’d get typewritten letters from my grandfathers: Zuiker Chronicles, from Frank the Beachcomber, were travelogues and camporee reports, while the two-page ‘peek into grandpa’s diary’ detailed the daily routines of Grandpa Sisco. The narrative lives of my ancestors were a daily presence in my youth. I’m a writer because of them.

In middle school, one of my favorite authors was James Michener. I read Caravans and Space, and when I read The Source, I became enamored with archaeology. Years later, on a holiday break during college, I visited my father on the island of St. Thomas. He hooked me up with a friend working on a dig in the hills where construction for a mall had uncovered a pre-Columbian Arawak village. I spent just a day there as a volunteer, carefully brushing dirt and picking out charcoal from a fire pit. Even the tiniest of details of the past, I learned, are important for understanding human history.

The Zuiker Chronicles Online and The Coconut Wireless weblog at – in many ways, these are my ways of sifting through the little details in the lives of me and my family, and trying to find meaning in the connections.

Erin, my wife, has taught me so much about communication, about being honest and open and always aware of circumstances and contributing factors. While she can gab on the phone for hours, I get twitchy after 60 seconds on the phone, so we make time each week to just sit and talk, and we make sure to listen to the other, looking for the small details about each other that we didn’t know or recall. When we started our family, Erin helped me understand the importance of communicating with our children, reviewing the days activities and reciting bedtime routines. That’s a concept — the small just, just ahead — that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately as I try to incorporate a river of news into my work and blogging.

My children lovingly joke about my blogging, and they know I’m trying to be a better storyteller. But what I hope they take with them into their adulthood is the appreciation that I was present in their lives, much as my father was present in mine, and his father and grandfather before. I hope they feel the connections to those who have come before. I hope they extend those connections into the future.

Even more than medicine and science, your writing revolves around community, storytelling and food. You have been a force in gathering and growing the local online (and offline) community around stories and food. Tell me more about some of the projects and events you organized over time, and what looms in the future?

My mother has no sense of smell or sense of taste. She made a delicious Crock-pot Swiss steak, and tasty chocolate chip cookies, but I didn’t really know what garlic was until I got to college. Our dinners weren’t gourmet, but I do remember them as family meals, all of us sitting down together (no books allowed).

Erin’s mother happens to be an amazing cook, and I quickly figured out that my culinary ignorance offered me a perfect way to hang out in the kitchen, learn how to cook, help out with the dishes, and generally show Erin’s parents that I was going to be a good companion for their daughter. It worked. Now, I love to cook for Erin and our children, and of course I chronicle our meals at home and out on my blog. Most Sundays, I roast a chicken according to the instructions of Michael Ruhlman, whom I’ve hosted three times for food blogging events. I enjoy the process of reading recipes, gathering ingredients and putting them together for something tasty, such as the slivovitz that we enjoyed last week. One lesson I learned: don’t make kimchee, with its fermented shrimp paste, when your wife is six months pregnant.

Good food, good wine, good friends, good conversation — I crave these, and The Long Table has been one way I try bring them all together. Our first dinner was quite fun, with a bunch of people standing up to tell their own food-related stories. With ScienceOnline in good hands, I hope to do more of these dinners in the next few years. I still want to organize a food blogging conference, and maybe someday we can do a conference on food-science blogging.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most? What platforms and what types of online activity have you found most useful, or most gratifying to use? What new platforms or method of online communication, if any, are you excited about?

Well, the intersection of story and science is what got me into medical journalism, and it’s what still drives me today. The ScienceOnline community is filled with great examples of science stories told well. I’m watching #scio13 and ScienceSeeker daily to keep up. And the blitz demonstration sessions at ScienceOnline2013 will surely introduce me to new platforms and approaches.

I mentioned my high school physics teacher above. He assigned our class to work in teams on an experiment. My buddies and I wanted to study the Doppler effect, so I borrowed a tape recorder from my Grandpa Sisco, and met Kevin and Craig on a quiet country road late one night. We drove our cars past each other at different speeds, Craig in his Camaro with horn blaring, me in my Catalina with the tape recorder on. Just now I had to look up Doppler on Wikipedia to refresh my knowledge, but that experience of learning together with friends never dissipated.

Collaboration, clearly, is key these days in science. At Duke, a lot of my communications plan aims to help our investigators connect with their faculty colleagues to explore new multidisciplinary and team-science collaborations. On the Web, I’m interested in exploring how we can build personal network publications, something beyond multi-author blogs and something that can feature contributions from those who aren’t already writing on the Web. Many of my friends and relatives still do not have blogs of their own, and I’m interested creating some sort of online publication with them. Marco Arment’s new app/pub, The Magazine, and the writing platform Medium are helping me think about the possibilities.

You’ve been at every ScienceOnline conference, of course. What’s most memorable of any or all of them? How do you hope ScienceOnline2013 is similar or different?

Actually, ScienceOnline2013 is going to be my first. Learn why in my blog post on The Coconut Wireless.

What I’ve most enjoyed about ScienceOnline is watching the interactions, seeing the passions, witnessing the partnerships. You and I started with a conversation in a cafe, and we’ve gained a friendship and a community. I sincerely hope that all who attend ScienceOnline2013 and the many other events to follow will similarly be better persons because they openly engaged in the conversation.

Please share three descriptive words you hope people would use when talking about you.

Passionate. Pleasant. Present.

No rats in Ryder Alley

Last week, in the wake of superstorm Sandy, I saw a number of people asking questions on social media (and some traditional media picking up on it) about a potential for ratpocalypse, i.e,. the possibility that hordes of rats will come out of the sewers and subway tunnels and flood the streets of New York City in a Pied Piper style. So I wrote a blog post debunking this and explaining why this will not happen, which made me a temporary expert on behavior of rats in storms, so I got interviewed in various places, etc.

As I noted at the very end of the post, my main source of information, at least initially, was a book, Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan. I read it several years ago, when it first came out, and loved it. Reading it provoked me to read more on the topic, so when these questions came up, I already knew most of the answers, and knew where to look for additional information.

The book describes a year in Sullivan’s life, spent observing rats by night, and researching them by day. He went every night downtown to Fullton Street, and just stood there in the middle of two L-shaped alleys: Edens Alley and Ryder Alley. He watched rats come out at night, eat the food discarded by the two restuarants edging the alleys one on each side, fight, hide, and whatever else rats do when they are up on the surface.

The first opportunity I had to go up to New York City after reading the book was in 2007. I just could not resist! The book has no photos of the alleys, so I just HAD to go and see them myself.

My wife and I hailed a cab. Told the driver: Edens Alley. Driver: Hmmm, this is my first day on the job, do you know how to get there?

This was before I had iPhone, GPS, Google Maps…. I pulled out an old-style map, printed on paper, and gave the driver turn-by-turn directions. Once we got there (after making several circles around the area), the driver refused to take any money. I forced him to take double the amount of the fare. He did well for the first day as a NYC taxi driver. This place was hard to find. And off the mid/up-town grid.

Of course, this was in the middle of the day. I did not expect to see any rats there at that time. If I did, that would be an indication that the underground population is astoundingly large, forcing some of the sub-dominant individuals to forage during the day. But I was looking for traces of rats, and for holes and crevices from which they emerge at night, for bags of garbage full of Chinese food, and I took the pictures. I had the pictures stashed away in my Dropbox for more than five years. This is the first time they see the light of day. See for yourselves: