Science online, green-blooded rat ticklers edition

tickled Stress relief. Photo by dolanh.
  • This week, at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! Does science promote morality?
  • And at The Molecular Ecologist: I demonstrate how to make species distribution models in R.
  • Good luck! Physicians at the University of Minnesota are going to try to cure another patient of HIV infection using a bone marrow transplant.
  • Best experimental treatment ever? Need to de-stress your rat? Try a daily tickle party.
  • For a general audience—but most of this also applies for scientific ones. David Dobbs on how to write about science.
  • “So, we have red blood because Nature started making O2 with chlorophyll.” The biochemistry of blood in science fiction movies.
  • Definitely significant. Or trending that way, at least. A list of statistical weasel-words.
  • “That was the only way we could get them to pay attention.” How a groundbreaking book about the AIDS crisis spread a lie about the diseases’ origins.
  • Seriously, this is asinine. How not to treat your graduate students, episode 2,573.
  • And they don’t look that much nifty-er. “Forests” planted on the terraced sides of skyscrapers cost a lot more than actual on-the-ground forests.
  • Clever girls! Groupers use gestures to coordinate their collaborative hunts with moray eels.
  • Or, Jeremy Fox aims for the head. A couple of new papers help to slay the zombie of the local-regional richness relationship.

Zombie skunk cabbage!

In a new episode of the botanical web-video series “Plants Are Cool, Too!” Chris Martine points out that skunk cabbage was a zombie long before zombies were cool.

Representative quote: “Smell that—smells just like skunk!” “Suurrre does!”◼

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Science and morality

NDU stained glass detail Photo by jhritz.

Over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, Amy Dapper takes a look at a new study suggesting that thinking about science might promote moral behavior.

In all four experiments, the authors found exposure to scientific thinking led to more moral behaviors. Study participants that were exposed to the scientific priming (or in the first experiment, that had greater previous exposure to science) reported date rape as being more wrong, were more likely to report that they would participate in prosocial behaviors and divided the $5 more evenly between themselves and the anonymous participant.

Of course, I’m flabbergasted by these results, because all of the scientists I know are selfish, amoral hedonists—that’s why we’re all clamoring for cushy, overpaid jobs on the tenure track. But maybe you should go read the whole thing and see what you think.◼

The Molecular Ecologist: Using R to model the spatial distributions of species

Environmental variation across the range of Joshua tree. Image via The Molecular Ecologist.

This week at The Molecular Ecologist, I’m showing how to use the popular open-source statistical programming language R to estimate species distribution models.

Species distribution models (SDMs) are handy any time you want to extrapolate where a species might be based on where you know it actually is. Maybe you’re trying to figure out where would be fruitful to do more sampling; maybe you want to know where your favorite critters probably lived back during the last ice age; maybe you want to know what regions will be suitable for your favorite critters after another century of global climate change.

Given how widely useful SDMs are, it’s very nice to be able to estimate them using multiple methods implemented within a single open-source framework. To get a taste of the capabilities provided by R and a select set of add-on packages, go read the whole thing.◼

Some not entirely unsolicited advice for science blogging success (for a given value of “success”)

good advice Advice. Photo by cornflakegirl_.

Recently I recieved a very nice e-mail asking for advice about blogging, and after I’d written up a response I realized I was most of the way to a blog post. So, waste not, want not. First, the original question, then my response, which I’ve edited to protect the innocent (i.e., not me), and also to turn up the snark a bit more than I care to in an actual personal interaction:

… as a highly successful blogger maintaining and contributing to multiple well-followed blogs, we were wondering if you had any tips for us on a. how to better promote our blog and b. get more people commenting?

First, let me take a moment to bask in the phrase “highly successful blogger,” which: hahahahaHaHA. John Scalzi is a highly successful blogger. When I can pull down pageviews within an order of magnitude of his, we’ll talk about “highly successful.” (I’m not bitter—John Scalzi is, objectively, at least that much more awesome than me. Seriously, did you read this short story he wrote on Twitter over the course of a flight last week?)

But more seriously: now that I’ve been writing online since midway through grad school (since, eek, 2006), there are some people who care what I have to say, and come by to read it; I’ve had some writers who I deeply, deeply respect say some nice things about some of my work; and I’ve even been asked to go to other online places to do the kinds of things I used to do entirely on my own site. And that does make me happy, and I consider it’s a pretty great outcome from just writing about whatever I wanted to here in my own little corner of the Internet.

But yeah, I do more than just the writing.

Getting people to notice your blog takes a certain mix of (usually metaphorical) jumping up and down and saying “hey, look at this thing I wrote” and also “hey, I like this thing you wrote”—and really, quite a bit more of the latter than the former. Which is to say social media is where it’s at, you probably don’t need me to tell you. Consider setting up a Facebook page and a dedicated Twitter feed for your blog. If you discuss peer-reviewed journal articles, you might also register with, which aggregates blog posts that do exactly that. These provide lots of ways to say, “hey, look at this thing I wrote.”

But, to make social networks work, you have to actually be social. Regularly putting up new original posts is a starting point, but it’s just as important to interact with sites that you consider (or want) to be your “peers.” Link to other people’s posts about papers you’re discussing; comment on their sites and include a link to your own work, if it’s appropriate. Tweet and re-tweet links to things other people have written that you like. Write posts that just round up links to other things you like. Write posts that respond, in depth, to things you’ve read at other sites.

Also, regardless of your audience, layout and formatting and illustration matter. The front page should be friendly to a new arrival—set it up so she doesn’t need to scroll through the entire text of each post to get to the next, and provide options to search the site or navigate the archives, browse a list of post topics, or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Posts should be illustrated, whenever possible, to attract attention to the specific topics discussed. When you’re discussing scientific papers, you might use figures from the paper discussed, which is pretty clearly okay under U.S. copyright law, anyway, via the “fair use” doctrine, so long as you’re not making a profit off the posts involved. There are lots of Creative Commons-licensed images on Flickr, most of which are free to use as long as you provide attribution to the source, with a link—though, again, these are often restricted to not-for-profit uses.

More generally: Decide what your goals are, in terms of audience and traffic, and think about how they align with what you’re interested in doing with your blog. In-depth technical discussion of scientific papers necessarily has a smaller audience than posts written with (maybe) less detail but more attention to broad implications.

In terms of the sites where I write regularly, Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! has a potential audience of anyone interested in science, plus people who like snarky takedowns and scientific illustrations made of attractive, shirtless men. In comparison The Molecular Ecologist is pitched mostly at working biologists, the same folks who read the journal Molecular Ecology. Accordingly, NiB has (I would say) a bigger potential audience; though in practice The Molecular Ecologist attracts rather steadier traffic, especially to posts that provide useful technical information.

That’s more or less the whole of my advice. For the moment, anyway. Go forth, and write well in online venues!◼

Science online, two months to Snowbird edition

Cecret Lake - Alta Utah Are you going to Snowbird? Photo by Al_HikesAZ.
  • This week at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! We’re looking ahead to the Evolution meetings.
  • And, at ProfHacker: I review a book about teaching science.
  • Maybe! Does your brain know whether you’re reading a piece of paper or a screen?
  • Not that we couldn’t do a lot better. U.S. policies for reducing carbon pollution are a scattershot mess, but they seem to be working.
  • No, really. Why we should treat science and math literatcy more like basketball.
  • With a lot of money on the line. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in a case that could decide whether it’s legal to patent a human gene.
  • So to speak. Even when you have all your publication-ducks in a row, how do you decide which ducks go first?
  • Yum! Scicurious review’s Mary Roach’s new book Gulp.
  • In a lineage this young, are we surprised? Human origins are turning out to be more of a mosaic than a clean-cut family tree.
  • No kidding. For more students to go into science careers, maybe there need to be more science careers?
  • Well, Earth-scale-ish. Kepler space telescope finds evidence of not one but two Earth-scale planets orbiting in another star’s “habitable zone.”
  • More on E.O. Wilson vs. math. Maybe what he really doesn’t understand is how collaboration works.
  • Aww. Zoobooks! The journey to field studies of lions in Kenya starts with a subscription to Zoobooks.

I read a book!

Scheikundeles / Chemistry class Chemistry lab. Photo by Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands.

It’s called Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching (buy it over on Indiebound). It’s about teaching science to undergraduates, which is a thing I’ve been trying to do, lately. And I wrote a review for ProfHacker.

In their new book Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching, (Harvard University Press, $24.95) Light and Micari argue that undergraduate education in the sciences should go beyond imparting a basic set of knowledge, and make learning science more like the experience of doing scientific research.

If teaching science to undergraduates is also a thing you do, may I suggest you go read the whole thing?◼

A Thing I Can Do

2009.10.11 - Portland marathon, mile 17 About mile 17 of the 2009 Portland Marathon. After five marathons, this is still the best “running” shot I have. Photo via jby.

I first heard that something was up in Boston yesterday when I got off the treadmill at the campus gym and logged onto the exercise-tracking app Fitocracy to record the workout. Like any self-respecting tech startup in 2013, Fitocracy has a “social” component, and people were using its message board to ask each other what had happened.

When I got back to the office, I found out pretty quickly. Someone planted bombs at the finish line to the premier marathon in North America. As of right now, three people have died of injuries sustained in the blasts; more than 170 are injured. Many people have lost limbs—legs—to shrapnel. I’ve run five marathons myself, and pushed myself pretty damn hard to do it, and I can only dream of someday qualifying to run the 26.2-mile course that ends at that finish line.

And that’s really all I can say about it. Other people were actually there. I’m just another guy who runs, listening to special reports on the radio.

I’ve spent the time since I saw those first social network posts helping a friend celebrate the completion of her doctorate (with cake!), hacking away at two or three different projects I’m currently juggling, listening to the news without saying much, planning for a scientific conference, speculating angrily about the kind of person who’d bomb a marathon, receiving some good (but not yet blog-able) news, and trying to decide whether to write about any of this in a public way at all.

And I found out—via Twitter, of course—that runners all over the place are logging their runs, and dedicating them to Boston. There’s a hashtag: #RunForBoston. So I did that for my nine-mile Tuesday run, down one bank of the Mississippi River and back up the other in the still-too-rare sunlight of an April evening in Minnesota. Because it’s A Thing I Can Do.◼

Science online, advice that doesn’t add up edition

math outside Math, in the field. Photo by Wanda Dechant.