Archive for ‘Science!’

August 26, 2012

Farewell, fair readers

Not really.  However, graduate school classes begin on Monday (huzzah!), a mere day away, and I think I can reasonably expect to spend the next three months with my nose buried in a textbook.  My summer reading assignment alone was large chunks of three ungodly large textbooks, just one of which would have taken a year to get through in college.  I printed out the readings and lecture notes for the first week of classes the other day and ended up with a pile of paper two inches thick.  You see, in the first semester, all new students take something harmlessly called “The Core Course”, and it is, in a word, rigorous.  It’s essentially a whirlwind review of all molecular biological science to bring us all up to speed, particularly people that weren’t biology majors in college or, say, someone that hasn’t been to school in a hundred years and has spent that time blissfully NOT brushing up on basic science principles (ahem, that would be me).  The stories, oh the stories, I heard all last week during Orientation of the grueling study hours, the six-hour long exams every couple of weeks, the mental breakdowns.  These older students sounded like war survivors recalling their first year with a mixture of horror and fatigue.  The mere memory of the class traumatized them!

And so, it doesn’t sound as though I’ll have much spare time left for blogging about randomness.  So, I thought I’d lament this loss by dedicating a post to a bit of randomness as I say an ephemeral farewell to my various hobbies, farewell to writing about them, farewell to reading for pleasure, and farewell to learning for fun…at least until Christmas.

I was lounging on the deck the other day (ah downtime, how I’ll miss you!), and I saw what looked like a tiny hummingbird (relatively speaking) feeding on my petunias.  It was the strangest thing.  It was moving too quickly for me to really get a good look at it, but I could have sworn it was a little miniature hummingbird I never knew existed.  It’s at times like these that I’ve started turning to my iPhone, a devious device I’ve had for only a month and yet have, in that short period of time, become hopelessly dependent on.  Seriously, it has created a dangerous combo: a vehement necessity for immediate information without the requirement that I store the information in my own brain (i.e. learn).  Anyways, a single search of “tiny hummingbirds” later, it was revealed that I’m not the only one to make that mistake.  According to the Connecticut Audubon Society, they receive all kinds of letters and emails around this time of year with the same question about the mysterious creatures.  It turns out they aren’t birds at all but moths:

“The Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) is one of three species of clearwing moth found in Connecticut.  All three have a hummingbird-like flight and all three favor the red, pink and purple flowers that are often frequented by our local Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.  Hummingbird Clearwings are members of the Sphinx Moth family (Sphingidae) – a large group of fast-flying moths. The clearwings are somewhat unusual in this group in that they fly during the day, while most moths are nocturnal. Different species of clearwings imitate hummingbirds or bees in their appearance and behavior, briefly hovering in front of flowers and slurping up some nectar from each through a long proboscis that acts as a straw.”

These are the pictures I took on my patio:


And this is the photo from the CAS’s website:

Pretty cool, huh?  Ha, I’m such a dork.  This post is likely to amuse only me and perhaps my friend Jess, who studied moths for her undergraduate thesis.  Of course, she now lives and loves in Italy and writes about her life there, more than making up for her painfully dorky collegiate pursuits by having an enviously romantic life now.  Whereas I, on the other hand, am clearly still a giant dork.

Look…a chicken!  Randomness!

And now, to conclude this post, photos of my boys demonstrating what I will not be able to do until December…

June 27, 2012

Fellow lady scientists: the jig is up, they’re on to us!

This was brought to my attention this morning by a friend. I give you the horror that is: “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!”, a PSA from the European Commission in an attempt to woo women into the field of scientific research, where there is a troubling gender disparity. It’s a noble undertaking to be sure, but it would be a gross understatement to say this ad is misguided in that attempt; a more accurate description would be to say that it is a horrifying travesty. The ad opens with three female models strutting into a laboratory where a properly attired male scientist is clearly intrigued and then goes into a sequence of images of lipsticks, nail polish, and high-heeled shoes interspliced with images of bubbling chemicals and Erlenmeyer flasks. Essentially, they are trying to attract women by appealing to the things they think we’re into, namely, make-up, shoes, glitter, and giggles. I’m going to be opinionated for a moment and say that anyone who sees this should be deeply offended. It should be physically painful to watch.

But how then, I wondered, did such an abomination get the green light from an otherwise reputable (or at least innocuous) organization? I think I have an idea.

What is perhaps more disturbing than the article itself is the comments that follow. Writes one poster: “Where does this video “reinforce stereotypes”? Women bare and take care of the children, men bring the freaking meat. Complain to evolution. Following that which is embedded in us does not make it a stereotype. It does not make us chauvinist, it makes us homo sapient.” Ah yes, the homo sapient, our original ancestor. Clearly, this guy has a stronger biology background than I do because he surely must have read about all the cavewomen that have been unearthed wearing mascara and stilettos.

Apparently, we have “evolved” from “women bear the children, men bring the meat” to “women look pretty, men do the science”. Tomato, tomato. This guy’s best impression of a rational, educated person probably stems from a conversation he overheard about gender differences in the brain. Now, it is true that there are differences in the internal structure of the brain that have been proposed to affect how males and females perform at different tasks and does indicate that men and women might be predisposed to succeed at different things. But let’s not overstate and oversimplify these findings. For if that were true across the board with no other mitigating factors, then all men would be good at science. The fact of the matter is that that actually plays a very small part and pales in comparison to what different INDIVIDUALS are genetically predisposed to regardless of gender and what they can excel at if given the opportunity. And let’s not forget that evolution is driven by our surroundings; male and female brains and behavior may eventually evolve to be quite the same if, for example, jackasses stop saying, “Women should be in the kitchen; evolution has spoken.” This brings me to my most important point: what he is talking about has nothing to do with evolutionary biology. The female body’s fecundity or the female brain’s proclivity for empathy has just nothing to do with a modern-day woman’s affinity for clothes and make-up. It is a construct created and driven by society, nothing more. Furthermore, science is (or should be) genderless. It’s probably best if we assume that everyone in science regardless of their downstairs plumbing got into it because they were interested in, oh I don’t know, THE SCIENCE! And before a friend outs me, I might as well tell you. I am a feminine feminist; I have to say I like shiny, pretty things. So perhaps I am in the best position to assure you that I did not get into scientific research for the possibility of a fashion show. And it is not an indication that my female brain is no good at science. In fact, the day society thinks that the anthropological expert responsible for these inane comments would make a better scientist than me is the day I might as well not go on living. He goes on to say, “hmmm… maybe we should have men get pregnant too so that women shouldn’t have to…”. Yes, dear, that is what we meant by equality. And a biologically feasible proposition too.

In a slightly less disturbing comment that I still completely disagree with, another poster said: “My earlier objection was to commenters who seemed so focused on the idea that stereotypes are bad that they failed to consider the possibility that this advertising campaign could actually have a net positive value. There is a big difference between reinforcing a stereotype and using a stereotype to understand how some population is likely to respond to something.” The interesting thing here is that stereotyping actually does have an evolutionary basis; the ability for early man and woman to categorize something from its outward appearance and predict its behavior based on that was a necessary means of survival (Is it food or a predator?). And as their descendants, we do the same thing as a way of organizing and understanding our world. This just makes sense. Imagine if every time you encountered something or someone, you had to relearn what is was anew. Or how chaotic our minds would be if we treated everything and everyone as an individual instance instead of placing them in recognizable groups (e.g. “cats” or “people I know from work”). The problem arises when people start incorrectly using this to justify their bad behavior. One would be hard-pressed to find something generally regarded as “bad” in our society that we aren’t hard-wired for from hundreds of millions of years of evolution. In fact, almost all bad things we think and do occur to us naturally, so it would be absurd to excuse that behavior away on that premise. I’m sure the people who cite this argument sound initially thoughtful and learned. But the overlying and inescapable fact is that forming prejudicial notions about a person based on her gender (or age or ethnicity or sexual orientation or whatever) is universally agreed upon as bad and is discrimination, which is illegal in certain cases. And, make no mistake, believing that an ad for science that flashes around a bunch of pink and poofy things that have nothing to do with science will attract women (or girls) to the field is prejudiced.  Period.  The concept that this ad campaign is only addressing preexisting stereotypes, that it is less harmful because these notions were already prevalent and is even somehow cancelled out by the possibility of what could be gained from it is a fundamentally silly argument. “There is a big difference between reinforcing a stereotype and using a stereotype.”  Um, no.  No, there isn’t.  It’s the same thing.  Stereotypes, by definition, are bad; this particular one about the superficiality and frivolity of women is centuries old. But has this stereotype become so long-standing that people no longer hold you accountable for propagating it? If you are one looter amongst many, are you still responsible for the brick you threw through that window? Yes. Even if there are other looters doing far worse? Yes. Even if it has a “net positive” result? Yes. Yes, yes, yes. You are still responsible for your own actions.  Wrong is wrong.

As it happens, I am reading Anna Karenina right now, and I’m seeing a lot of the same arguments about the duties women are fit for as they were making back in 19th century Russia. In a discussion among male aristocrats of women’s suffrage and whether or not to educate women, it says:

“What seems strange to me is that women should seek fresh duties,” said Sergey Ivanovitch, “while we see, unhappily, that men usually try to avoid them.”

“Just as though I should seek the right to be a wet-nurse and feel injured because women are paid for the work, while no one will take me,” said the old prince.

Hmmm…kind of sounds like poster # 1’s look-ladies-don’t-blame-us-blame-evolution and you-don’t-hear-us-complaining-that-we-can’t-get-pregnant approach, doesn’t it?  This whole business is misogyny disguised as intellectualism.

September 29, 2011

Bits (where I talk about random things I come across)


I saw an article about a fashion trend that, regrettably, I think I actually kind of dig.  A big hit amongst fashion-forward celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker and Katie Holmes (does a guest appearance on “Project Runway” and admittedly cutting edge but undeniably ugly clothes qualify someone as “fashion-forward”?) is the leopard print denim jean!  Pick your jaws up off the floor and let me explain.  Ok, so paired with a skin-tight halter top and accessorized with patent leather heels, it’s drag queen meets Jersey Shore streetwalker.  But a more toned down approach like the one Miss Sarah Jessica took with her soft pink trench and matching open-toed platform shoes or Isla Fisher in her chunky sweater and suede pumps suddenly make it refined yet playful.  The grey rinse offers a bit more subtlety, but I prefer the full-on black-spots-on-orange look.  I think Forever 21 offers a far more affordable option than what you’ll find on Carrie Bradshaw, but as a rule, I don’t go in there nor do I recommend that anyone over 25 go in there either; it is where synthetic fabric goes to die.

  • This just in!  Rick Perry hates the environment and, I presume, anyone with a moral conscience.  My favorite bits of irony: when he talks about the EPA’s stifling “red tape”…um, I think that might be Texas’ air quality that you’re choking on; and, when he calls climate scientists “frauds” and yet, was a supporter of Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign.  I’m not saying he’s totally wrong, I’m just saying he’s totally wrong and may have no principles.
  • Since when did “hot to trot” become a compliment one woman gives to another?  I am not down with this decidedly sexist (since it is always in reference to women) phrase and its negative connotations.  Do not call me this; I will not be pleased.  Is it because it’s fun to say?

Any biologists want to take a crack at the NUMEROUS problems with this piece about how the 3-D structure of an HIVenzyme was deciphered by online gamers?  My god!!!  I mean, I get what the study authors are trying to say, but the representation of their work in this article is just awful.  The average layman stumbling upon scientific papers by accident could have written a better article than this guy’s presumably researched bit of bad journalism.  Why, if only we scientists could have found another way of determining protein structure than by looking at it under a microscope…  Computer models!  What an incredible idea!  Quite frankly, I think the real story here is the person that built the microscope through which you could even discern the structure of a protein.  Someone give that man a Nobel!

  • So, perhaps someone out there who saw the “Terra Nova” series premiere (I did not) can answer this for me (and my mom): Why did they choose to go back in time to the time of the dinosaurs???  I mean, there are hundreds of millions of years proceeding that.  Why not just go to a time IMMEDIATELY AFTER the time when there were giant, people-eating reptiles?  And what do they plan to do about that whole mass extinction thing?  It’s just, if I were going back in time, there are a few periods I would be sure to avoid: Venice in 1347, Hiroshima in 1945, and that time a giant asteroid hit Earth and wiped out almost all life on the face of the planet.

And now my parting gift to you…Jack, proving that there is no amount of discomfort he won’t go through to keep from sharing…sociopath.

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