My review of Lab Girl for the LA Review of Books

How should I illustrate a review of Lab Girl? Let's go with a cool plant. This is bunchberry, Cornus canadensis (Flickr: jbyoder)

How should I illustrate a review of Lab Girl? Let’s go with a cool plant. This is bunchberry, Cornus canadensis. (Flickr: jbyoder)

You have surely, by now, heard all about Hope Jahren’s terrific scientific memoir Lab Girl, including as one of my “bookshelf” recommendations for Chronicle Vitae. My full-length review of Lab Girl is now online at the LA Review of Books, and it is, as you might expect, very positive — Jahren writes beautifully about the process of scientific discovery and the daily miracles of the natural world. As a postdoc still scrabbling for purchase on the lower rungs of the tenure track, though, Lab Girl managed to simultaneously tweak my anxieties and give me hope:

The world is heating up, and it often seems that the intellectual luxuries afforded to scientists of the past — Darwin’s leisurely publication schedule, Haldane’s dalliances with radical politics — are gone. Lab Girl’s rendition of the daily institutional frustrations of research marks it as a different kind of scientific memoir — but also as a product of twenty-first century science. If you navigate among scientists’ blogs or scroll through their Twitter feeds, you’ll quickly find the same fears and vexations and injustices Jahren describes, intertwined with accounts of the work that excites scientists’ passions. … Jahren does not makes science look like an easy career choice, but it isn’t her job to do so — and if Lab Girl chronicles the real and substantial barriers to becoming a successful scientist, it also makes that life compelling: she shows the fruit that can still grow from the rocky soil of a research career.

I do hope you’ll read the whole review, and pick up a copy of Lab Girl if you somehow haven’t already.

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How to do chili

Not pretty, but it warms you right up. (jay)

Not pretty, but it’ll warm you right up. (jby)

We’re well into the time of year when, in Minneapolis, the air outdoors will freeze your nose hairs on the first breath, and snow has lost its charm. Here in Vancouver, the only substantial snow is on the mountains across the water, but there’s ice on the trails in Stanley Park, and the trees are lacy with frozen fog. In either city, it’s the time of year for soup: elaborately spiced pho, classic chicken-noodle, and chili.

I don’t so much have a recipe for chili as I have some rules of thumb. My preferred ratios of ingredients, and some of my spicing, are informed by the recipe in Mark Bittman’s magisterial How to Cook Everything, but really that one confirmed a lot of what I’d already arrived at through trial and error. This probably won’t win you a state-fair cook-off, but it’ll make a big pot of hot, hearty, fragrantly spiced chili of the sort that goes perfectly with some cornbread or over rice on a cold winter night.

Here’s what you do:

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Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Nature’s Nether Regions, by Menno Schilthuizen, reviewed

Jewelwing Love

Jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) mating. (Flickr: Lisa Brown)

Over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, I’ve posted a long-overdue review of a terrific little book about naughty parts. Genitals. Junk. It’s called Nature’s Nether Regions, by evolutionary biologist and entomologist Menno Schilthuizen, and it puts the weird world of (animal) reproductive anatomy on full display, while avoiding the cliches and pitfalls into which so many popular accounts of sex and evolution fall.

The book’s subtitle What the Sex Lives of Bugs, Birds, and Beasts Tell us About Evolution, Biodiversity, and Ourselves, might be a bit ominous to a reader familiar with the many hazards of evolutionary hypothesizing about human behavior, but Schlithuizen’s chatty tour of animals’ sexual anatomy dodges them all. He does this, in large part, by devoting far more time and attention to the “evolution” and “biodiversity” than to “ourselves,” putting the rather pedestrian reproductive arrangements of Homo sapiens in their place amidst the baroque diversity of appendages, receptacles, secretions, and behaviors other animals employ to multiply their kinds.

Go read the whole review, which includes some sampling of the natural history Schilthuizen covers, and then check out the book itself.

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Queer as Spock

(jby)

(jby)

It is an axiom of geek culture that Star Trek was a beacon of progressive thought on prime-time television, presenting an aggressively optimistic vision of the future in which humans of all races worked alongside even stranger beings to explore the universe and protect life in all its diversity, with phasers set to “stun” unless absolutely necessary. It is equally widely admitted that a glaring gap in the rainbow coalition aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise was human sexual diversity: in six television series and 12 feature films, the franchise has never identified an onscreen character as unambiguously gay, lesbian, or transgender.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was, apparently, farther behind the curve on gay rights than he was on racial equality, and never quite made queer inclusion a priority in his time guiding the franchise. Nevertheless Trek has tiptoed up to the line from a number of angles, presenting mind-swaps between bodies of different sexes going back to the “Original Series” of the late 1960s, alien species with sexual and gender roles that defy the male-female binary, sexually ambiguous alter-egos in parallel universes, and even gender reassignment surgery. Legend among fans also has it that an officer on the bridge in the movie Star Trek: First Contact, Lieutenant Hawke (Neal McDonough), was conceived with a gay backstory, but this personalizing detail was cut for time, and Hawke was assimilated by the Borg — maybe making things a little more fabulous in the depths of the Collective, if not the onscreen canon. Gay men also made central, if officially closeted, contributions to Trek: most notably George Takei, who played Lieutenant Sulu, and screenwriter David Gerrold, who wrote episodes including “The Trouble With Tribbles,” the one that buries William Shatner’s Captain Kirk in a pile of multicolored fur-balls. Gerrold wrote an episode for Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Blood and Fire,” which included a gay couple in pivotal roles, but the screenplay never got anywhere near production. (It has since been adapted in a fan-made continuation of the Original Series, with no small success.)

But while fans looking for overt queerness in Star Trek are forced to rummage through the lower decks of the franchise, there’s been a covert gay icon stationed up on the bridge since before the first episode was broadcast. That icon is none other than the First Officer of the Enterprise, Mr. Spock.

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Mammoth ambitions

Giant ground sloth

Nothrotheriops shastensis, the giant Shasta ground sloth, is one of many large North American mammal species that went extinct when the ice age ended and humans arrived on the scene. (Wikimedia Commons: Michael B. H.)

Over at The Awl, I reviewed paleobiologist Beth Shapiro’s new book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Exitinction. Shapiro argues that we can and should resurrect mammoths, then release them into the best approximation of ice age habitat we can assemble. Which is crazy! Right?

Shapiro frames mammoth resurrection, or de-extinction, or recreation, or whatever this would be, as part of a broader effort called “Pleistocene rewilding.” The idea is not to put recreated mammoths in zoos—it is to release them into wilderness preserves in Europe, Asia, and North America, as part of re-establishing the community of large animals that lived in those regions during the last ice age, the geological era called the Pleistocene.

… proponents of Pleistocene rewilding argue that it could provide new habitat for megafauna species that are critically endangered in their native ranges, like lions and rhinoceros, and that it would have significant benefits for the health of the ecosystems into which they are introduced.

But hey, go read the whole thing.

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Requiescat, Leonard Nimoy

The New York Times reports that Leonard Nimoy has died at age 83. We’ve already seen his death and funeral on screen, in the movie that was possibly the best episode of the television show that made him famous. But that time, there was a sequel.

I’ve meant for a long time to write about how, for all its failure to directly represent the diversity of human sexual identities, Star Trek did have queer characters in leading roles — and Spock was the first of them. But I’m going to block out my evening tonight to re-watch The Wrath of Khan.

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Gender-swap the Foundation!

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels were among the first grown-up science fiction I read. I still remember picking up the tattered dime-store paperback copy of Foundation in the high school library, opening it up, and getting sucked into the story of a galaxy-spanning Empire that was about to collapse from its own cultural-historical inertia, and a rogue colony of “psycho-historians” who use a sort of historical physics to guide the galaxy through the coming dark age to a Second Empire even better and more stable than the first one.

Word on the Web is that HBO is planning a television adaptation of the Foundation series, and I am totally excited. But it’s going to be very interesting to see how this adaptation proceeds. For one thing, the first stories in the series date back to the early 1940s, so their ideas about “futuristic” technology need some serious updating. The first novel, Foundation, implies that it’s possible to have faster-than-light travel and interstellar war without understanding nuclear fission.

For another thing, the first stories in the series date back to the early 1940s, so very nearly every character who does anything meaningful in them is a man. (There is one story, in the later books, that revolves around a precocious teenage girl, and another that centers on a husband-and-wife couple.) But this, it has occurred to me, is not a problem! The Foundation novels are fundamentally not about interpersonal interactions—their recurring theme is that people are swept along in broad historical currents. The story, and its drama, is literally about the Fall and Rise of Empires, not about individual people. So it actually doesn’t matter what gender anyone in the Foundation stories is. As a bonus, everyone’s names are in Asimov’s concept of future-ese, which makes many of them less obviously gendered: Hari Seldon, Salvor Hardin, Bel Riose. Those are all dudes in the original, but don’t tell me they couldn’t each be women.

So my challenge to the folks working on this adaptation: Gender-swap every other character that you adapt from the original Foundation books. You’ll end up with a more human vision of the future, and you might just end up creating the next Starbuck — or several of them — in the process.

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