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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Roman Holiday

As seen previously on Twitter.

Have yourself
A merry Saturnalia,
If the Fates allow—
And if Zeus
Does not turn you in-to a cow.

Have yourself
A merry Saturnalia
Let your heart be light!
The Alps will keep
Those elephants all out of sight.

Here we are as in olden days
Pre-Triumv’rate days of yore—
When Senators had no cause to spill
Caesar’s blood on the floor!

Even with
The Goths upon our doorstep,
Rome may yet endure—
Or Justinian will say the fall’s deferred.
So have yourself a merry Saturnalia now!

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Manhattan is a great drama about the problems of science careers

Two bodies: Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) and Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) are both Ph.D. scientists—but only Frank works in a field useful to the Project. (WGN America)

Two bodies: Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) and Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) are both Ph.D. scientists—but only Frank works in a field useful to the Project. (WGN America)

Some of the best dramatic fantasies project otherwise commonplace struggles and worries into extraordinary circumstances. Make that awkward teenage girl a vampire slayer, and put her in a high school that is literally built over a gateway to Hell. How do we feel about that military occupation if it’s reimagined as humans subjugated by their out-of-control cybernetic creations? A love affair is a lot more compelling if it involves the President of the United States and the woman who helped fix his election. So maybe it shouldn’t be all that surprising that the most compelling television show about the daily drama of academic science is a historical drama about building the first atomic bomb.

Manhattan, which airs on WGN America and streams on Hulu, follows physicists designing what will become the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, starting about two years before August 6, 1945. The project staff and their families are living in a laboratory campus built and hyper-secured by the U.S. military in the desert near Los Alamos, New Mexico, but in many respects they could be working at any research university today. Here’s my (spoiler-y) list of the parallels, which are sometimes dangerously on-the-nose:

Continue reading

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Proposed: A new gender-parity benchmark, you guys!

So Science, that lovable institutional behemoth of scientific publishing, has just produced a list of “top 50 science stars of Twitter” that manages to contain, by my count—I’ve triple-checked—four women. Eight percent.

Looking at the list, it hit me:

Seriously, though, I was in a gay bar this weekend with a better gender ratio than @sciencemagazine’s Twitter list: http://news.sciencemag.org/scientific-community/2014/09/top-50-science-stars-twitter#full-list
@JBYoder, 7:50 AM – 17 Sep 2014.

I hereby propose this as a new, painfully minimum standard for gender parity: If I passed more women on a trip between the dance floor and the bar at the Saloon last weekend than are present in your speaker roster, reviewer panel, or unasked-for list of notables, you’re doing it wrong. In the interest of establishing this as a rigorous benchmark, I plan to immediately embark on a systematic survey of gay bar gender ratios, starting Friday night; interested collaborators should contact me through the usual channels.

Meanwhile, see the totally meaningful list of awesome animals Tom Houslay offers in the spirit of Science, and the big special issue on diversity in science just released by that other beloved institutional behemoth of scientific publishing, Nature.

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Neither rain

Fresh summer rain. Marathon in six weeks. Gotta do the miles. Running shoes squish and suck all the way down the empty trail to the lakes. The few other runners wave in solidarity. One reaches out for a high-five, shouts “Fuck the weather!” with a grin. But the rain patters on the trail, on the leaves of the ash trees, on Lake Calhoun, like a thousand running feet.

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Proposed new consumer information labels for food products

Energy in Bananas Photo by Robert Fornal.

Produced with genetic engineering.

Contents derived from organisms produced by millennia of only occasionally deliberate selective breeding, and which may be so freakishly modified from their ancestral state that they would not survive five days without constant care and attention.

Product may make your tongue appear to be purple in color, but this effect is not permanent.

Useful for, at most, temporary relief of emotional distress resulting from a breakup, firing, or other traumatic life experience.

Will not taste anything like what your mother used to make.

Processed in a facility that also sells to Republicans.

Can be habit-forming if consumed periodically in a regular place, at a set time of day, or in conjunction with routine activities.

Contains no material that is truly describable using the word “marshmallow.”

May produce sensory stimuli with strong associations to formative childhood experiences, which can trigger periods of abstraction, rumination, nostalgia, regret, and panic attacks.

Made in desperation.◼

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Minnesota winter as a series of cinematic genres

Image via.

(Update: Cross-posted.)

First snowfall: Romantic comedy. You meet cute when you feel the first flakes against your cheek. The fresh snow cover makes everything look new and crisp and innocent. You take a long evening walk through the park, watching the falling snow dance in the light of the street lamps. You stop to make snow angels. There is a snowball fight, but afterwards everyone is still friendly. Towards the end, adorable children come out to play.

The cold snap: Heist. Going outdoors requires careful planning, and if you don’t have the right equipment, things could go pear-shaped in an instant. You have many of your most important conversations over the phone—or via Skype, if you want to look particularly tech-savvy. If you’re going to take I-94, you’ll need a really good driver.

White Christmas: Disney animated musical. Fresh snow arrives just in time to accessorize the family photo on the front porch. Everything is covered in tinsel and blinking lights. Your trip to the drugstore to buy cough syrup has a twinkly soundtrack. People you meet on the street are jolly, but there is a sneaking sense that they’re just trying to fulfill expectations.

The blizzard: Mumblecore independent drama. The cold has numbed even your memories of summer. Everyone wears layers of flannel and threadbare sweaters, and many of your friends have taken up knitting just to make more insulation. You drink flat, tasteless Grain Belt because you can’t bear the thought of shoveling off the car again to go get something better. You have long, elliptical, monotone conversations with the houseguests who are trapped in your apartment after the sun goes down at 4:30.

The thaw: Film noir. Everything seems to change when a high-pressure system from the south waltzes in and asks if you know when it’ll be the right time to plant tomatoes. You prowl the slushy back alleys of the Warehouse District, searching for a glimpse of dry pavement. Two-story-tall piles of accumulated snow peppered with gravel and cigarette butts loom over empty, ice-covered parking lots. You think you see a crocus poking up through the snow—but forget it, Jake, it’s still only March.

The April snow storm: Adam Sandler farce. Ten inches of wet, heavy snow fall overnight with an almost audible thump. It looks shiny and new, but rapidly develops the familiar gray shading of slush. People get splashed in embarrassing ways. There is laughter, but it has a desperate, mean-spirited edge. It lasts about fifty percent longer than anyone really wants it to.◼

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Muse

Actually, I don’t think I want a Muse of fire.

Fire is finicky, hard to get started,
Especially when the wood is wet.
And then it burns too hot, and consumes everything.

None of this is helpful when you’re on deadline.

I’d really rather have a Muse of electricity.
Sparking with sharp, blue wit,
Casting bright, fluorescent light on all its subjects,
Summoned at the tap of my keyboard.◼

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You’re the top!

So, this has been in my running/fiddling with code/writing playlist for a while.

Naturally that’s got me thinking I should take a crack at the challenge proposed by Ask Me Another, and update those highly period-specific lyrics:

You’re the top!
You’re a Pixar feature.
You’re the top!
You’re a Whedon creature.
You’re a two-page endnote in a D.F. Wallace tome.
You’re a NASA rover,
A four-leaf clover,
You’re the microbiome.
You’re a dream,
You’re mid-cent’ry style,
You’re the gleam in Don Draper’s smile.
I’m the nominee for the G.O.P.—flip flop!
But if, baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top!

Yeah, okay, that probably still needs some work. If you can do better, show me in the comments.◼

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