Friday, November 13, 2009

Viral Video

Science, Twitter, and YouTube? Seems like one of these things is not like the others (remember the old Sesame Street song?). But, sure enough, internet tools like Twitter and YouTube are being used to convey science to the world, and not just scientists.

Two recent, and most fabulous, examples hit my e-mail inbox today, and could not demonstrate the phenomenon more aptly.

The first came in the form of a message from a friend and colleague, with a link to his colleague’s blog post. These two colleagues co-teach a course. My friend showed a neat video as part of his lecture, to demonstrate a fascinating bit of evolution, about the sling-jaw wrasse. Like the name implies, the sling-jaw wrasse has developed a series of hinges and joints in the head that allows it to literally throw its jaws at its prey. This is what I do for a living – study how animals work. I was sent the message because I had worked a little bit on this particular species (but I was not the one to discover the most amazing biological feat I just told you about). Check it out. Or, just do a search for “Epibulus” in Youtube.

The sling-jaw wrasse is amazing. What I find more amazing is that the colleague posted a twitter feed that went something like this “My co-instructor showed this crazy sling-jaw wrasse video in our class today” with the link above. A few folks tweeted back. It hit a couple of blogs, including Discover Magazine….then web news sites, then the London Telegraph (a newspaper), and a week later there had been 165,000 views of the YouTube video.

The second example hit my inbox just one hour and twenty-six minutes earlier, courtesy of ScienceNow. This is about bone worms. You know with a name like bone worms, these have got to be cool animals. Researchers right here in Monterey Bay, from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, have been studying these worms that show up at food falls in the deep sea. Whales die, sink, and become an important source of nutrition for the next several years for species like bone worms. These worms arrive at the carcass as larvae, and metamorphose into adult females. Additional larvae that arrive after that point settle on the females and become males, living in a sort of harem serving the female (there is just something quite fabulous about that). Researchers have been sinking carcasses that wash up on the beach for the last few years and tracking who shows up. Turns about there are at least 15 species of these worms in Monterey Bay, most of them new to science. Check out the bone worms in action. Or, just search for “MBARI bone worms” in YouTube.

Sustainable Sushi?

I’m flying the friendly skies as I prepare this latest entry for you all, and I am motivated by a feature I have just read in the magazine in the seat pocket in front of me. It is a piece about sustainable sushi by Jane Black (Hemispheres Magazine, October 2009).

These types of articles usually draw my attention for several reasons. However, it is not because I am a marine scientist and want to read about the ocean all the time (that could not be farther from the truth). Mostly, I am curious to see what sort of angle they will take. Usually they are fatalistic. The world is going to hell in a hand-basket, oh my. And, thusly I am drawn to them as a scientist much like spectators to a train wreck. I just cannot look away. At this point I must note that I, for one, do not think the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. While I do think we humans have created some real serious problems, I don’t agree with the twisted, sensationalist, non-scientifically based claims that say, for example, the entire ocean will have run out of fish in a decade. This article has the familiar undertones, but is remarkably optimistic, so I read on.

So, the points made by this particular article include that bluefin tuna populations are in bad trouble. Yep, that one is irrefutable and completely true. And, farmed salmon is bad for the environment. Yep, also true. They make the point that only certain types of fish should be avoided. I could not agree more. There is a trend now among hip sushi restaurants in places like New York and San Francisco to offer alternatives. Chefs are creating tasty new versions of sushi from fish that are sustainably harvested and these are as delicious as the traditional toro and unagi.

That these particular fish should be avoided, however, has been known by scientists and management agencies for a rather long time. Why has it taken so long for this to get the public’s attention? Especially when people are already becoming quite used to reading labels and looking for clues that the food you are buying is healthy and safe. It was suggested that people see the beautiful pieces of sushi on the plate and don’t connect them to the real world out there. They don’t realize that they are fish, part of the natural world and part of an interconnected web that sustains the planet. I suppose that could be part of it. But, I doubt it. Sushi is unmistakably fish. At least it is to me. Occupational hazard? Very likely.

I suggest that the reason people are not vigilant about their sushi in a way that they might be vigilant about the other things they buy and ingest is because of the culture of sushi itself. Sushi is an art as mush as it is a meal. Sushi celebrates the ocean. And, it is, generally speaking, among the healthiest meals you can find. Patrons step into this world and worrying about labels is a worry left behind. It is replaced, instead, by a sense of trust. How can something that celebrates so much goodness possibly be bad?

I’ve written about this type of security before. Many grocery store chains bearing healthy names and healthy slogans also pack their isles, and frozen fish cases, with environmentally unfriendly products. Some of these are also downright unhealthy. Some farmed fishes, for example, are fed artificial diets and pack the wrong kind of omega fatty acids, and therefore can do more harm than good to your cholesterol levels.

In terms of what you should or should not eat, it is really a case-by-case basis. If you are not carrying a Seafood Watch card, download one, or stop by the Monterey Bay Aquarium to get yours for free. It is among the handiest little tools out there. There is also a free app if you have an iPhone or similar device (just a little plug to keep my Apple stock on the rise).

Wild-caught Alaskan salmon, for example, is considered a pretty good choice. If you can find out what your favorite sushi chef is serving, you stand a pretty good chance of enjoying a meal of sushi that is good for you, and for the environment.

Moving Time and Space

This past week I had the pleasure of experiencing Washington DC with my extended family and my children. I lived in the greater DC area for several years as a child, and have fond memories of the National Museum of Natural History and the gigantic whale suspended from the ceiling. Though I have had many opportunities to return to DC for work, I have been waiting until I thought my own children would be old enough to remember the trip to take them. This week, with MPUSD in recess, was it.

We did the requisite trips to see the memorials and monuments. The Washington Monument reflecting on the water is still incredible, and the Lincoln Memorial still takes my breath away. The sight of the White House, lit at night, is a truly patriotic thing no matter what political party you belong to. I’ve stood there with Democrats and Republicans in power, and the effect is still the same, pure awe and respect. The National Museum of Natural History is still amazing. Fully assembled dinosaur bones, full-sized African elephants, whales suspended from the ceiling, and all. That particular museum, and my childhood memories, combined with my more recent trips as a researcher relegated to the collections stored in the catacombs in the basement of this fine institution, was my main motivation for the trip.

But, this time, with my kids, the site I found most moving was standing beneath the space shuttle Endeavor in the Air and Space Museum. The Endeavor never actually went into space, it was set up as a training shuttle. But, the sheer intensity of this actual ship literally inches from my face was almost heart-stopping. The strides we have made in this particular area of science are truly awesome. The mistakes…devastating. I remember sitting in my classroom in elementary school as the first civilian went into space, a teacher no less. This was to be a momentous day! There was a television brought into every classroom. We were glued to the broadcast. And, then, the worst possible thing happened. The spacecraft exploded, as we all watched. I knew it was awful, but I was too young to comprehend that the unimaginable had just happened. My teachers openly wept. I thought of this as I looked at the Endeavor.

And, what brought tears to my eyes, holding my son’s hand in the same museum, was standing under the Enola Gay and explaining to him the significance of that particular airplane, which, I am proud to say, I remembered without reading the elegantly framed placard in front of me. The payload of the Enola Gay represented the single most significant scientific accomplishment of the day. An accomplishment that was simultaneously the most devastating known to man, and subsequently brought an end to a World War.

The Air and Space Museum was always my father’s favorite museum. He is an engineer. I thought it made sense given his career. Now, however, I understand it from the perspective of a parent. The Air and Space Museum, like no other, represents the amazing strides we have made as a human race, and all that we hope will come to be in our children’s lifetimes, and their children’s lifetimes. We hope the science will be used for good; to find a cure for cancer, to end world hunger, to create world peace. Science can be also devastating. I lived in fear of a nuclear holocaust as a child. Global warming now haunts my children. And global warming is, in fact, the product of science run amok.

For better or for worse, science holds the key to the future. When I was a child I think we trusted that science would always make life better. Or at least I saw the world that way, through the eyes of a child. Now, I can only hope that science holds the promise of a great life for our children and grandchildren. We have seen the devastation that can be wrought. Yet, we hope that humanity will prevail and rational minds will guide science so that life for our children is better than we have now. That is all we ever want as parents.