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Chief Penguin
Musings from the Academy’s Global Ambassador

September 14, 2012

Celebrate the Slug



Apparently, they led the way and not just at UC Santa Cruz.

Zeray Alemseged, our anthropology curator, sent me the following piece from the Calgary Herald earlier this summer. Walking upright is a key feature in the history of humans, but moving around—which we all take for granted—had to evolve among animals in the first place. Here is some fresh evidence, published in the journal Science, dating back to 585 million years ago. The new evidence is tantalizing and is a very good example of how fragmentary data can tell us a lot about how we became who we are: “Alberta researchers help find earliest evidence of mobile multi-cellular organisms”.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 3:00 pm

September 5, 2012

The Circle of Life, Rainforest-Style


Isn't he (she?) cute?

Read on for the story of the Academy’s thriving colony of violaceous euphonias, courtesy of our Rainforest biologists. The fledglings are really cute, as fledglings often are. And you thought we were just a bunch of penguins! Not so.

Violaceous euphonias (Euphonia violacea) have been a part of the Rainforest exhibit since opening. Breeding this species has been a goal for the Rainforest biologists, and we were able to confirm fertile eggs in our collection a few months ago. Just like the rest of the finches and tanagers in our exhibit, they feed on nectar, insects, and fruit. Only eight other institutions in the U.S. display this species. Among these eight institutions, only one chick has been hatched in the past 12 months.

In March, we acquired new male and female euphonias. After clearing quarantine and being released into the Rainforest exhibit, the pair began building a nest in a planted wall on the Costa Rica (top) level.

The female laid three eggs, and she incubated them for 15 days. During incubation the biologists candled the eggs, revealing that two of the three eggs were fertile. After the eggs hatched, the female juggled incubating the chicks, foraging for food, and feeding them.

A mere 18 days after hatching, the chicks were fully feathered and ready to leave the nest! At this time the male began encouraging them to leave the nest and also began feeding them.

Just a few days ago, the fledglings began attempting to eat solid food on their own. In about one week we expect the fledglings to be self-sufficient. The fledglings will be moved behind the scenes, then transferred to partner zoos/aquariums this fall, where they will eventually breed and start the circle of life over again.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 11:03 am

August 30, 2012

Mind Change about Climate Change: Science in Action


Our comfy blue dot

Richard A. Muller is a professor of physics at UC Berkeley, and his story (from the New York Times of July 28, 2012) is a great example of science in action. Muller was a public skeptic about climate change who changed his mind because his research didn’t support his skepticism. As a scientist, when his results didn’t support his opinions, he had no alternative but to change his mind, and he did. Publicly. That’s science at its best. The core of the scientific method is that whatever an individual or an organization prefers to believe, truth is that which is demonstrated by repeated observation and measurement.

The global climatic system is dauntingly complex, and we have only begun to understand it. However, a clear consensus has emerged that climate change, whatever its details, truly is happening. By burning fossil fuel deposits and releasing enormous quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a geological blink of time, we are doing a large-scale experiment in the one and only test tube that is our world. We are taunting Mother Nature, big time. Years will pass before we know the consequences, and they are unlikely all to be good. Trashing the neighborhood is risky. We have no other neighborhood to move to.

Then there are the ethical issues. No one reading this sentence will be alive in a short 100 years from now. We are only passing through, and we pass through very quickly. What world do we want to leave behind? As the Boy Scouts advocate, “Always leave your campsite cleaner than you found it.” Their advice applies to planets as well, particularly when there isn’t a spare one available for our grandchildren and their children. Do we want to be remembered as responsible stewards of our one and only comfy blue dot in the vast void of the Universe, or as the generation that heedlessly (greedily?) drilled, burned, fiddled, and danced…and left the check for the kids?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 1:21 pm

August 23, 2012

The Next Generation of Scientists


SSI intern

The Academy’s Summer Systematics Institute (SSI) just concluded its 17th season. SSI provides hands-on research experiences for undergraduates from colleges across the country. This year’s cohort hailed from as far away as Duke and the University of Hawaii, to places next door like the College of San Mateo.

SSI interns engage in a curriculum of lectures and labs that inform about the type of science that is done in a collections-based setting. They also take part in a variety of community-building events and field trips. But most importantly, participants take ownership of and help design a research project in the lab, under the guidance of an Academy mentor. Each year, SSI interns demonstrate their special abilities to launch into a full trajectory from program design, through data-gathering, and then to analysis. The crowning event of the SSI is a presentation at the end of the program by each of the interns to a diverse audience of peers, scientists, and even friends and relatives. These are not just “what I did on my summer vacation,” but full-blown research talks, the likes of which one might see at an international conference of professionals already well-established in their fields. We are fond of saying that by the end of the program, the SSI interns are no longer students. They are colleagues. In fact, they are the world’s experts on their chosen topics of investigation, and their work is, without exception, fully publishable. Many will go on to do just that…publish their findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals, or present them at large meetings such as the annual gathering of the Society for Integrative & Comparative Biology (which just happens to be in San Francisco this coming January).

Every year, we are astonished how quickly these fantastic interns “get it” about the science we do here. We should all be so lucky to emulate that capacity. It’s what keeps us coming back to the program as advisors, lecturers, and administrators: to see the research lights come on in these fertile minds, and to know that the future of evolutionary biology will be safe in the hands of this next generation of scientists.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 10:47 am

August 17, 2012

Galileo: One of the True Greats of Science


Earth and Sun

I have been thinking about Galileo recently, because the other day I saw a note in the paper saying that a very important document of his will go on display next year in Rome. Thinking about Galileo got me thinking once again about science, how it all got started, and how controversial it has been, century after century.

The core of the scientific method is its reliance on observation. Science establishes what is true through observing, measuring, constructing models, and testing them against reality. When there is a conflict between what we observe and what we might want to believe or others might prefer that we believed, reality wins.

Science is not dull and desiccated. The process by which science evolves is very human, even rowdy. It’s full of passion and emotion. Anyone who has ever gone to a scientific meeting has seen scientists get into loud and heated debates as they advocate their particular viewpoints. But in the end, measurement, observation, and repeatability are the referees that determine what is true and what is not.

Galileo was one of the true Greats of science. He also is a poster child for what can happen when science and human institutions come into conflict. Faced with death by slow burning for his scientific views of the cosmos, Galileo recanted. You really can’t blame him. He had more life to live and wanted to live it. Regardless, he knew that what he had published about the planets and the sun was true, and that eventually the truth would come out and be recognized by all. And so it was.

This summer’s news reported that the document in which Galileo recanted and to which he affixed his signature, “Galileo Galilei,” will go on display in Rome next year, from February to September, in the Capitoline Museums. It’s a major punctuation point in the history of science, human thought, and freedom.

Galileo is one of my personal heroes. So, as “Penguin One” of an institution that is devoted to doing and sharing and learning about science, I encourage us to pause and pay homage to Galileo Galilei. He deserves our admiration and our gratitude. He did a great deal to birth the modern world we live in.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 11:32 am

August 2, 2012

Listening for Life “Out There”


Jill Tarter

Today (August 2) at 12:30 pm, Academy Fellow Jill Tarter will be speaking on the museum floor as part of our weekly “Chat with an Academy Scientist” program. She is the real-life inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the 1997 film Contact. If you can’t make it to the Academy today, don’t fret—watch the program live or after the fact on our Ustream channel.

Jill recently announced that she is stepping down as director of the Center for SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) at NASA Ames Research Center. Fortunately, she will remain active as a scientist in the center.

It’s a labor of patience and determination. She and her colleagues are searching for what many feel must be “out there,” which is life of some kind, extra-terrestrial life. Whether it is life like us is entirely a matter of speculation. After all, life on Earth was green slime long before it evolved to the point when it started chattering on cellphones. But, to me at least, it just seems intuitive that with all the planets in the Universe, surely more than one harbors life of some kind.

Earthlings tend to think that our spaceship is special. Earth IS special, of course. It’s home for all of us, and we don’t have anywhere else to go. If we trash our neighborhood, our pale blue dot, we will have big problems.

All these thoughts remind me of the famous line from Casablanca, said by Rick (Bogie) of Ilse (Ingrid Bergman): “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

Maybe life is like that, and we just happen to live in the right joint. Then again, maybe “they” have been watching already but decided to go visit someplace else.

Science is all about wondering, exploring, and (in time) understanding. Searching for extra-terrestrial life is wondering of the most profound sort. Personally, I take particular delight that one of OUR Academy family has helped to lead the search.

I admire Jill for it, given what may be the odds. Join me in hoping that a really regular and distinctive signal will be heard sometime soon. It will be the most significant beep ever heard in human history. Nothing, nothing at all, will be the same after it is detected. What fun it will be. What good fortune it would be to live at the time of such a discovery. Even more fun to make the discovery. Go Jill and colleagues. Please keep listening.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 11:23 am

July 24, 2012

Citizen Science Army Marches

The Academy recently launched a new citizen science initiative, which seeks to advance our understanding of California biodiversity and address conservation, restoration, and protection needs. Leveraging the enthusiasm and power of a volunteer corps, the Academy is participating in two pilot projects: 1) partnering with the Marin Municipal Water District to survey the biodiversity of Mt. Tamalpais to inform management practices, and 2) partnering with the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary to document the marine ecosystem at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. Learn more on our Citizen Science page.

I’ve included below an op-ed piece from the Marin Independent Journal published a few months ago celebrating citizen science—which was, in fact, the first science.

Citizen Science Brings Passion about the Natural World Back into Our Lives
By Jaimie Baxter

Where would the scientific world be today without the contributions of Galileo or Charles Darwin?

Alice Eastwood (photo: USGS)

Locally speaking, how much of Marin’s natural history would be known were it not for Alice Eastwood? According to contemporary thought, these prominent contributors to our knowledge of natural processes and scientific theory were not scientists by training, but ordinary members of society with an inexorable curiosity in solving riddles of the natural world.

Charles Darwin’s early fascination with the natural world distracted him from his medical education. In spite of this, Darwin followed his passion to publish Origin of Species, a creation that is considered one of the most influential works to scientific and evolutionary theory in all of history.

Alice Eastwood, a teacher and self-taught botanist, contributed invaluable botanical knowledge of Marin flora to Marin County and its scientific community. Her countless collections are housed at the California Academy of Sciences to this day.

These examples showcase the pursuit of scientific study by lay citizens who kept journals, collected specimens and wrote papers about their discoveries. This type of observation-based inquiry and contribution to our collective scientific knowledge waned in the mid-20th century as science became the domain of professional researchers who were employed by governmental institutions and universities.

Alas, the dominant academic discourse of the 21st century remains entrenched in the idea that the collection of scientific data is only valid if performed by professionally trained experts.

But recently, a movement that emphasizes uniting public involvement with scientifically sound practices is beginning to blossom. This movement is called citizen science and it has the many benefits of modern technology. Indeed, technology may well be the main driving force of recent explosions of citizen science activity. It provides access to expansive populations of people, and these large volunteer networks allow scientists to accomplish tasks that would be too expensive or time consuming to accomplish through other means.

Many of us are merely one step away from becoming citizen scientists. By taking advantage of mobile applications, we have the ability to record data while hiking on our favorite trail, gardening in our backyards, or wandering a portion of the Pacific coast.

Not all “apps” record data, but questions can be posted to the web with answers provided in a matter of minutes. Some examples of these mobile applications and data recorders are Nature’s Notebook, Project Budburst, Calflora’s Observer, SciSpy, eBird, iNaturalist, LeafSnap, NestWatch, WildLab, Project Squirrel and the Great Sunflower Project.

Local forms of citizen science exist in Marin as well. For example, this year the Marin Municipal Water District, in celebration of the district’s 100th anniversary, has teamed up with the California Academy of Sciences to carry out multiple bioblitzes to capture a snapshot of the flora of Mt. Tamalpais. Another local land management agency, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is piloting the California Phenology Project which tracks seasonal changes of designated plant species in the Presidio and Marin Headlands.

In addition, the Point Reyes Bird Observatory recruits citizen scientists for their annual
Christmas Bird Count from mid-December to early January.

Jaimie Baxter is an Americorps member with the Conservation Corps North Bay and a restoration and ecosystem management intern with the Marin Municipal Water District.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 10:58 am

July 16, 2012

New Technology Announced: The Faucet


Did You Know

Disposable plastic water bottles add greatly to marine and terrestrial pollution. They simply are a waste of resources. Importing water all the way from Fiji? Nuts.

In partnership with GlobalTap and the City of San Francisco, the Academy has installed a GlobalTap refilling station near the roof elevators on the public floor. Standard water fountains, unfortunately, make it awkward to refill reusable water bottles, while the GlobalTap station is designed specifically to make this easy. The installation also features an electronic counter, which records and displays the cumulative reduction in the number of disposable bottles used, as well as information about the various environmental and social costs of using disposable plastic bottles. The overall goal is to encourage visitors to bring and use their own bottles, and to show them their contribution to the overall reduction in plastic pollution.

Note for new users: Faucets are really easy to use. Don’t hold back. Just turn the handle or press the lever and water will come out the spout. It’s simple. It’s fun for the whole family. It’s easier than cracking the cap on a plastic bottle of water. You may make it a habit. Get to know a faucet near you. Most modern homes have them.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 4:51 pm

July 10, 2012

A Study of Public Trust in Science


Earth Day conversation in the piazza

The Academy is based on science. The extent to which the general public trusts science (a word with many meanings) is important to us.

To that point, Gordon Gauchat, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is the author of the paper “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010,” which appeared in the American Sociological Review a few months ago. It stirred up quite a bit of controversy and received a great deal of press. Just Google “Gordon Gauchat” and you can occupy your time for as long as you have the patience.

Scientific study and the conclusions that come from it don’t make for a cozy universe with comforting meaning for all. Where some celebrate the wonder and awe that come from doing science, others may feel a chill and loneliness and instinctively move toward the warm glow of other hearths.

A lot of the challenge in talking about science has to do with the issue of what constitutes “common sense.” Public figures frequently call on us to celebrate the appeal of “common sense,” as if they are reminding their listeners of the obvious value of what their mothers tried to teach them in the kitchen. Appeals to mother are powerful. Father, too, but for many mother has the edge, at least in my experience.

If we take the meaning of “common sense” to be what we experience in our daily lives, then much of what science talks about might as well be on a distant planet. Just think about atoms, molecules, and DNA strands—not to mention muons, neutrinos, and quarks. When is the last time you saw an atom? How about a quark? They may be common, but they sure don’t make sense to everyone. The job is not simple at all when it’s your business to deliberately challenge, in the pursuit of “truth,” what makes common sense to most people and provides them comfort and predictability in their lives. After all, looking out my window, the earth looks pretty flat to me. It’s just common sense.

If we here at the Academy are bound together in the belief that science matters—and that its conclusions matter—then statistics of the sort reported by Gauchat are important. They are helpful in thinking about what we do and how we can do it more effectively.

You might want to read Gauchat’s paper. Here is a link to it. Go ahead and plunge in. I did. http://www.asanet.org/images/journals/docs/pdf/asr/Apr12ASRFeature.pdf

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 6:02 pm

July 3, 2012

Highly Recommended Summer Reading


The Swerve

Here is a great book for summertime reading: The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt. It reads like a detective story yet deals with major issues in the history of scientific thinking. I’m in the middle of it at the moment.

Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction, The Swerve recounts the discovery of an ancient Roman manuscript 600 years ago – a discovery that influenced Boticelli, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, Shakespeare, Jefferson, and others.

Here is an article – you might say a very compact Cliff’s Notes version of The Swerve – by the author that appeared in The New Yorker last year. You should think of it as an enticement to read the full book, not a substitute!

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 10:01 am
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