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:

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Stuff online, bad algorithms edition

Stuff online, endless waves edition

The Molecular Ecologist: Fishing for genetic signals of adaptation

Atlantic Salmon

Adult Atlantic salmon. (Flickr: Matt Hintsa)

Over at The Molecular Ecologist, I discuss a new paper that exemplifies how we’re going to be studying the genetics of adaptation in the age of high-throughput DNA sequencing—even if it doesn’t quite live up to that promise. It’s a study of adaptation in Atlantic salmon, whose lifestyle makes them uniquely suitable for a particuar sampling design:

Salmon hatch in freshwater rivers, and spend at least their first year in that environment before swimming downstream to the ocean, where they develop into reproductively mature adults. When they’re ready to mate, they migrate back from the ocean, up the river where they hatched to spawn at the site of their birth. Those major migrations and the transitions between freshwater and salt-water are likely to be major selective events for salmon, and they offer convenient times to catch and study salmon from roughly the same age-cohort: when they migrate downstream to the ocean, and when they return to their birth-river.

By taking genetic samples of juvenile salmon on their way out to sea, and then adults on swimming upstream to breed, you can test for genetic changes—adaptation—that has occurred over the course of the fishes’ life in the ocean. And that’s exactly what the authors of this paper did—go read the whole post to find out how it worked.

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:
@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.

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: The key to a secure global future is evolution

Sunrise from the Fall River Road

A mountain vista in Colorado, with trees killed by pine beetles in the foreground. (Flickr: John B. Kalla)

Over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, I discuss a big new review article on all the ways understanding evolutionary biology will be critical for human health and development in the next hundred years:

The long list of authors, led by Scott P. Carroll and including Ford Denison, whose lab is just down the hall from my office at the University of Minnesota, explicitly connect evolutionary principles to global goals for sustainable development. These include the reduction of both “chronic lifestyle” diseases and infectious diseases, establishment of food and water security, clean energy, and maintenance of healthy ecosystems. Carroll and his coauthors divide the applications of evolution to these problems into cases where evolution is the problem, and those where evolution may offer the solution.

I’m going to be citing this paper in every grant application I write for the next decade, I suspect. Go read the whole post, and download the original article from Science Express.

Stuff online, disappearing shorelines and thoughtful fingertips edition

2014.09.05 - Lower Manhattan I


  • Nickel-and-dime misgovernment. How local governments, especially small ones, are way worse than the Feds—and how they’re shaking down their poorest citizens with court fees and traffic fines.
  • If we’d just spend the money. There’s a system in place to mass-produce an anti-ebola drug.
  • It’s almost as though conventional wisdom is just Baby Boomer projection. Apparently millennials read more books than their elders.
  • Or, the only thing that got me through yesterday. A brand remembers September 11.
  • Because this is totally what’s holding us back. The legal complications of mining asteroids.
  • Going down. Thanks to erosion and rising sea-levels, there’s a lot less Louisiana than you might think.
  • Pretty slick. A plasmid that gives bacteria genetic code to fix nitrogen also helps them mutate to better work with a host plant.
  • And yet they’re no help with my writer’s block. Receptors in your fingertips are thinking about what you touch even before they tell your brain about it.

Stuff online, conservation and consternation edition

Summer sunset in the boundary waters.

Photo by Clint McMahon.

  • For now and the future. Fifty years of wilderness protection in northern Minnesota.
  • Not feeling the fucking love. A soft-pedal profile of I Fucking Love Science, and its emphatic counterpoint.
  • Visibility! A new site devoted to the personal stories of LGBTQ scientists.
  • Maybe a bit? Is ecology explaining less than it used to?
  • Maybe not different “species,” though. How one bacterial symbiont split into two without ever leaving its host.
  • C’est vrai. On immersion-learning a foreign language, and the meaning of learning.
  • Government bureaucrats over corporate bureaucrats. Make government smaller and more efficient by hiring more workers instead of out-sourcing.
  • And he ought to feel like one, by now. Hope Jahren sure has an asshole for a colleague.
  • Best unintended consequence ever. A socialist utopia is no place for pickup artists.
  • Robert Moses versus humanity. The man behind the worst public planning choices of the 20th century.
  • As in everything else. American inequality applies to diet quality, too.
  • Antonin Scalia is a horrible, horrible person. Exhibit A.