Wednesday, October 10, 2007


This great article highlights how baboons have a social hierarchy of which each baboon is distinctly aware. Male baboons who move up the social ladder often kill the previous alpha male's babies to send the female back into estrous so she can get pregnant. A female baboon with good social contacts is more likely to keep her baby with a previous alpha male than a female with better social standing. It's not who you are, but who you know.

In psychology, the theory of mind is the ability for us as humans to recognize that other people have their own minds and may know and believe different things than ourselves. Do animals have this ability? Apparently baboons do not. Some people have little of this ability. We should learn from the baboons and develop good social connections to protect ourselves from disasters, and also develop our theory of mind and recognize that other people are not us and have their own thoughts and desires.

It's definitely worth registering for the NY times to read the article on baboons.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Nike, Bill O'Reilly, and race

Nike designed a shoe especially for Native Americans. Tribal communities may purchase the shoe at wholesale (Air Native N7).
Recently, Bill O'Reilly raised eyebrows by speaking about a recent experience at a restaurant in Harlem, in which he said it was a similar experience to any other restaurant, there was nothing different about it, even though it was run by blacks.
Awareness of race is not the same thing as racism, and being color-blind is not ideal. Different cultures have different values, and acknowledging that is good. I think I understand where Bill O'Reilly is coming from. If you do think black people are different from yourself, you may expect your experience at the restaurant to be different. If you think everyone is the same, then of course his statement provokes a "duh" reaction.
Do Native Americans need a specially designed shoe to encourage them to exercise? Supposedly, the "average" native foot is shaped a bit differently. So a special shoe may indeed be called for. But it is surprising that in a large group of diverse tribes, the same specially designed show will fit. And looking at it, why white? White gets so dirty. But if it enhances and promotes physical activity, good. And for people who are racist, Bill O'Reilly's statement may make them rethink their position. So overall, I think both statements are positive.
Currently, I'm thinking about race and health care. Minorities, including blacks, hispanics, and asians, on average die at higher rates, get less time with their physicians, and are referred for fewer preventative health measures such as mammograms, even when correcting for insurance, economics, and education. Not to mention, as a group hispanics are much less likely to be insured, and so receive inadequate health care. Interestingly, physicians are more likely to ask minorities about alcohol consumption. Awareness of bias is the first step to removing it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


I remember as a kid watching the end of the year montage of famous people who had died, and they were mostly a bunch of old people I'd never heard of. But this summer, many people and creatures famous to me have passed the way of the dodo. Pavarotti sung his last, and these three people are also history.
Alex the parrot, who challenged our ideas on what it means to be conscious, died on September 6th (this post is a little late). This NYtimes article is exceptionally interesting and reveals Alex's personality: Alex Wanted a Cracker, but Did He Want One?
Also, a belated fairwell to Albert Ellis (died 7/25/07), the father of rational emotive behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. Anyone with a bad habit like drinking or self-hate should look into CBT. Here is his NYtimes article.
Madeleine L'Engle also died on september 8. I had read some of her books, the most famous of which is titled A Wrinkle in Time. The mother of the children in that series was a chemist.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


I heard on public radio this morning that sunlight may help guard against Multiple Sclerosis. As you move away from the equator, rates of MS increase, peaking at northern latitudes. Also, in studies of twins, the twin who had more sun exposure was 25-75% less likely to have developed MS. And people with MS are 20% less likely to have skin cancer, possibly because they have less sun exposure. So be tan, stay mobile, and die of skin cancer, or be wrinkly and MS-free. Enough with the gross oversimplifications, but whichever dead Greek guy advocated moderation in all things, listen to him.

I've been listening to the soundtrack of Man of La Mancha, a musical based on Don Quixote. I'm not sure since I haven't read the book, but it seems that the prostitute Aldonza, whom Don Quixote calls Dulcinea, at first resents his illusioned view of her as a maiden of virtue, but with time, his idealized image of her transforms her into a lady. What had been a false image becomes the truth. Initially, Dulcinea screams, "Can't you see me for who I am?" Is it better to be loved as you really are, or is it better to be loved for the potential within? To be loved for who you are has more security, since it requires no change, and can lead to self-acceptance, which could be a good thing. To be loved for an idealized image could shatter a person's view of themselves, and help them recreate themselves as the ideal. In Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote catalyzes Aldonza's transition from a prostitute to a maiden through his belief in her. Is Don Quixote a madman, or is he seeing Aldonza's true self, the Dulcinea in her, smothered by her life of prostitution? The danger with illusion is if the holder of it is disillusioned, love may fail because the beloved cannot live up to the illusion, but maybe the illusion can lead to change.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Bee Update!

Scientists now believe the primary, but not sole, culprit in the mysterious loss of bees is due to a virus, the Israeli acute paralysis virus. Theories such as climate change, cell phone signals, and genetically-modified crops were rejected.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Art of Quitting: Goodbye Zodiac!

Evan Harris has a book called, "The Art of Quitting When Enough is Enough." I received this book as a birthday present from my good friend Alegra. A hint? What does she think I need to quit?
According to Ms. Harris, there are six basic quits:

1) Job
2) Person/People
3) Thing
4) Location
5) Idea
6) Habit

Soon after reading the book, I saw a quit glaring at me from the heavens: Astrology. Those of you who know me have not taken my musing on the zodiac very seriously, because I am very very serious and very very skeptical, and would not look at sun signs to interpret affairs of the heart or business. But I do read my horoscope and have spent hours discussing the compatibility of different signs in relationships. Furthermore, I confess to pointing out that people really ought to know their moon sign and ascendant house. I have stopped short of cancelling events based on horoscope advice and choosing my boyfriend based on his sign. Recently, three people have pointed out to me that the sun wasn't even in the constellation of Leo when I was born. This statement appears to be true, and along with Evan Harris's book, has motivated me to quit astrology. So Leos, start a torrid affair with a Cancer or Pieces. Even the most poetic, literary horoscope, while tempting, is not worth reading if one can't decide which sun sign's horoscope to read.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Creeping Critters in Daily LIfe

Two weeks ago, I was walking on the lawn outside my apartment chatting on the phone, when I saw the brightest blue squirmy thing in the grass. A worm? A snake? It was about 5cm long. Lucky for me, the small creature wiggled onto the sidewalk and under one of my planters. It was a lizard of some kind. I described it on the phone to my friend from Austin, who correctly identified the lizard as a "skink". I managed to take the above picture of it. I believe this is a blue-tailed skink. Apparently skinks lose their blue tails when they enter adulthood.

Last week, I had a close encounter of the 8th kind with an orb weaver. A stray jacket left outside the building was brought inside out of the rain and hung on a doorknob waiting for its owner to recognize it. Although the jacket was not mine, I thought I'd try it on and without realizing it, tried on the high-jacking spider for size too. I was admiring myself in the bathroom mirror, then went to, well, you know, when I saw the orb weaver sitting on my leg. I was quite startled. I brushed the spider off and carried it to safety on a paper towel.

There are many small rodents and lizards in Los Alamos, but fortunately, I have yet to see a roach. Which is just another reason that Los Alamos is indeed, utopia.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Invasive Species: Rats and Pythons

The Asian python has infiltrated the glades of Florida, courtesy of negligent pet-owners who have become overwhelmed by their exotic friends.

Rats must have been an early invader, traveling everywhere by ship, land bridge, etc. They are smart animals who enjoy sex, have similar immunology and addiction behaviors as humans, are compassionate to other rats, and also know what they know and know what they don't know. In one experiment, rats were rewarded with a large treat for correctly discerning the length of a beep. The rat had a choice of pressing a long bar for an 8s beep, and a short bar for a 2s beep. The rat also had the option to stick its nose through a hole and receive a small treat if the rat couldn't decide how long the beep was. Discerning between 2s and 8s beeps was easy for the rats, but as the beep length approached 5s, the rats more frequently opted to stick their nose in the "I don't know" box and get a small reward. The recent NY times article on rats is wonderful. The NYT is free online, but you do have to register to access their articles.

Obviously, we need to breed larger rats to recapture or possibly eat the pythons. As an alternative, don't buy snakes for pets. Rescue a cat or bird instead. I would like a pet bird, but I don't think I have time, since they are very social creatures.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Flowers on Pajarito

On June 30th, I climbed the ski hill and noticed some lovely purple flowers growing on the rocky part of the trail. It was dusk and very beautiful, after a particularly charged day. On the way down the hill, a white dog saw me and started barking like mad. He came closer. I saw an older man far behind him, who after a delay called the dog off. But Mr. Man didn't leash or hold his dog, although I had not passed them, and after a head pat (the man on the dog), the dog turned and ran back toward me barking. I was terrified and almost pepper-sprayed the dog. The man eventually caught up with the dog and leashed him, assuring me that the barking monster that traveled 100 yards off trail to harass me was "okay".

Timid but missing the hill, I went up the next week. Luckily, I ran into a very fit woman with hiking poles at the top of the hill. We hiked down together, and in addition to making me feel safe, she knew the name of the lovely flowers: Columbine.
We also saw some deer, a female and a buck.

Columbines differ from other flowers because they have five "spurs", which are tubes that typically serve as nectar reservoirs. The high number of spurs have contributed to the diverse speciation of Columbines: there are 70 species, which have spurs adapted for specific animal pollinators: short spurs for hummingbirds, longer spurs for hawkmoths with long tongues. I don't know if these Columbines are specific for a pollinator.

They grow on a rather stark ascent on the trail.

This is the view from the summit on the west side. The land goes back with no manmade structures in sight, but also conveys a secrecy. What inhabitants are hidden? Spanish explorers would not have known. Some may have disappeared there. Far from home, looking at the view, the only feeling is liberation. You could walk down and disappear into the wilderness and become part of the mystery.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Hike Los Alamos. No risk of detonation.

Los Alamos is a world famous city. Atomic bomb Atomic bomb. But we're so much more than that, and the perceived paradigm is shifting. Why, my favorite soap opera couple on the Young and the Restless got married in Los Alamos, portrayed as a Texas cowboy town on the show (their plane had to make an emergency landing at the Los Alamos airport due to bad weather).

I can tell you, not many Texan cowboy types here. And I work with computer models to better understand HIV and the immune system, not bombs. The division I work in focuses on science that helps people. I don't know a single person who voted for Bush in my building. I can't vouch for people outside my building though.

Develop your own view of Los Alamos, come here and hike.

We have beautiful aspen and pine trees. Aspen are not individual trees. They share a common root system that shoots up new trees when the old ones die. An aspen grove grows and can cover more ground each year.

In the winter, you can ski or snowshoe.
I have big plans for future blog entries. I like hiking, but I grew up in a city and was never a girl scout. I know almost nothing about geology, flowers, or local birds. My preferred way to learn is to hike with knowledgeable people who can show me these things. Soon, I will highlight the volcanic influence on the landscape here, and also include some flowers and their names. Come visit me.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A tough egg to crack.

Life is hard. If you don't believe me, watch March of the Penguins. Perfect illustration of how things are rough all over for everyone.
Earlier I wrote about baking eggs instead of boiling. "No water," I said. "Perfect consistency is within your reach!" I tried to exploit this technique to make an egg that had firm whites and a runny yolk, and then realized I had read the original article incorrectly. While the egg white protein Ovotransferrin denatures at 142 degrees Fahrenheit and the yolk at 158F, the majority of the egg white, Ovalbumin, doesn't coagulate until 184F.

I realized my mistake when I tried to bake eggs again, first in my oven, then my toaster oven. I discovered my secondhand appliances cannot maintain a constant low temperature. How can I become an egg connoisseur with such poor oven resolution? I wanted to be like Hervé This in the Discovery article, "Ah, a 152 degree egg." I ran my first trial with two eggs: I set the oven to 160F. When I returned 30 minutes later, my oven thermometer was at 200F. Rubbery eggs. In my toaster oven, I left an egg for 15 minutes with the oven temperature at 140F and the thermometer reading 150F. The white was uncooked and the yolk had coagulated: obviously not enough time.

Finally, I set the toaster oven on at 150F and watched it diligently. The thermometer showed a temperature of 160F. I left a single egg in the oven for one hour. I unpeeled it. It was cooked, not rubbery, and quite good. But I will not bake any eggs until Easter. If you want runny yolks, frying or poaching is easier, and you don't have to peel.

You could follow the suggestion of Hervé This: "But if the oven in your kitchen is not accurate, cook eggs in plenty of water, using a good thermometer." But then, we're back to using water.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Survival of the fittest, or humans kill meadow birds?

Whenever I hear about an invasive species driving out weaker local species, such as the Argentine ant in California, or crows everywhere, I sometimes think, good for them. Crows are smart, beautiful birds that can thrive alongside people. If they out compete other birds, they deserve to live. I have a hard time appreciating the pure value of diversity.

The Audubon society and the US Geological survey reported early today that many once familiar meadow birds are fading from our sight. Our homes encroach on the meadow birds' homes. Farm land creeps into the birds' territory. Plans to increase reliance on biofuels will only exacerbate this problem. The numbers of more specialized birds are declining. Apparently even household cats are numerous enough to impact bird populations. The poor little guys can't survive in human settlements. Their numbers have declined by as much as 82% in the last 40 years, while turkeys, Canadian geese, and other hardy birds increase in number.
So this is not a war among birds, we are moving into the birds' roaming grounds too fast for them to adapt.

Audubon "Birds in Decline" report, with pictures.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Long term science, dedication beyond death.

I learned about the Long Term Ecological Research Network from fellow blogger Alegra. Currently, 26 sites around the world are involved in this work with the goal of understanding climate change, the human-environment interaction, and changes in biological cycles in both local ecologies and individual species. Scientists are tracking changes in the climate, vegetation, and wildlife using logs from the past and making observations in the present, while planning better data collection strategies for the future. Studies are mapped out for the next 200 years! Although some of these studies will likely reveal scary things about our coming environment, I find it both inspiring and peaceful to picture scientists looking at past data and taking data for future generations. Global warming aside, there is a human continuum beyond our individual lives, that can contribute to an understanding of nature. Hopefully this work will help us prevent the continuum of other species from ending.


S to the Sci-o, B to the Birdie, Sciencebird is in da house!

To all my fly sci's out there, word!

S, C, I, E, N, C, E and bird y'all.
(Repeat, sung to the tune of Fergie's Glamorous.)

If you ain't pub'd in Nature take your sad ass home!
If you ain't pub'd in Science take your sad ass home!

We're flying so high,
flapping our wings
in the sunshine,
infrared beams.

Sciencebird, s-sciencebird sciencbird s-s-sciencebird,...

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

This blog is going to the Dogs!

Do not consume.

I once made a bet with friends that I could eat twelve donuts in 30 minutes. I never made the attempt because if I lost, I lost face, and if I won, I gained waist, plus the knowledge that I can indeed eat a dozen donuts. Kind of lose lose. Unless you are Joey Chestnut, the new champion hot dog eater. Now I love hot dogs, but 59 in 12 minutes? What's the science behind that?

In the world of competitive eating, scientists speculate that champion eaters can 1) repress their vomiting reflex, and 2) tolerate a higher level of discomfort due to fullness. As far as speed goes, the bottle-neck is getting the food down the esophagus, which contracts and relaxes, directing food into the stomach. It takes 9-15 seconds to get it down, which puts an upper-limit of 80 continuous swallows in the 12 minute window. Some speed eaters dream of relaxing their throat muscles like sword swallowers, bypassing this system, and "pouring" food into their stomach, although this dream may be unattainable. See the most scientific article I found on competitive eating here; it's well written.
Thanks to Joan, for pointing this news out to me.

Friday, June 1, 2007

A Perfect "Boiled" Egg Update

My first attempt to bake eggs in the oven, see 5/26 posting.

I set my oven to 160F, who knows what it really is, and set two eggs on the top rack. I forgot about them until I was about to leave for work. Everything was fully cooked, and not rubbery, but the eggs were too fresh and hard to peel.

Next time I will use an oven thermometer and time the eggs, but this does show that no water or pan is necessary to cook an egg in it's shell. I'll never wash dishes again!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The story of our lives...

The NYT has an article in Mental Health and Behavior on psychologists' views of how the narratives we tell about our past reflect our personality and outlook, on not only our past, but our present and future too.

Sometimes I tell stories from my past, and it is very true that how I relate the story depends on my mood at the time. Sometimes my past seems miserable and haphazard, and other times it seems like a wonderful breadth of experience that has made me who I am today. According to Cognitive Therapy, not only will my mood affect how I tell my story, but how I tell and think about my story will also affect my mood.

The Times article goes on to say that psychologists have found correlations between our moods and behavior with how we picture past events: whether we experience them again in the first person, or whether we view ourselves in the third person as if we were watching a movie. In a 2005 study at OSU, college students asked to visualize embarrassing moments from the third person tended to identify less with the bumbling fool in the story, and to feel more confident and social after their visualization, as measured by a research mole waiting to hit them up for conversation in the exit room. Students asked to visualize embarrassing events in the first person were more likely to state that they hadn't changed very much since high school, and were less friendly to the undercover lab coat outside. In a 2004 study, people who pictured themselves voting at the poll booth during the presidental election were more likely to go vote than those who did not. Can these technique help people achieve other goals? Who knows! I rarely picture myself in the third person. Frankly, I find it disturbing to look at myself. I'm really glad I don't have a twin.

But I'll try picturing myself on the big screen today, and you try it too. Picture yourself running a marathon, successfully completing projects at work, exercising, or being calm in congested traffic, and see if it helps you achieve those goals. I'm going to picture myself finishing a manuscript I'm working on and sleeping, because I've been an insomniac lately.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Skin Elasticity and Kate Hudson

Many women are concerned about loose skin remaining after they lose a lot of weight or have a baby. Kate Hudson has recently been featured as having a saggy belly in Star magazine's Best and Worst Beach Bodies, and has in the same week been featured in Us and In Touch as having a toned tummy.

People on the web have commented that the Star photo is fake, but I believe it is simply old; she felt a lot of pressure to lose her baby weight very fast (her kid is three or four). Stretched out skin can take up to two years to firm up. In the saggy photo Kate looks stressed out and scrawny, and her tummy has more fat and muscle in the newer photo.

I tried to find more scientific information on the topic of skin elasticity, but alas, all I came up with were articles on body contouring in plastic surgery journals. The best writing I came across is by Justin Leonard:

Weight Loss, Extra Skin

Question: I have recently lost a lot of weight and seem to have extra skin with some fat covering my lower abs. Is surgery the only solution?
Justin Leonard: Not necessarily . . . For some, the skin's elasticity will change over time back to its normal state. But admittedly, others' will never change. You may want to give it a couple months for improvement, just to make sure it isn't a temporary state for your skin.

He has a nice website on weight lifting and fitness issues.

One thing for sure is, kudos to Kate for baring her tummy and not getting impatient and having it tucked, and kudos to Star for publishing these pictures, even though they should have been in the "Stars, They're Just Like Us" section.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

A Perfect "Boiled" Egg

How do you cook a perfect egg that is transportable?
Normally we boil our eggs, and they come out rubbery and bounce around and sometimes crack. You can solve this problem by baking your egg in an oven, no water needed. The various proteins in an egg denature and coagulate between 142-184 or so degrees Fahrenheit, far below the boiling temperature of 212 degrees F. By baking eggs at different temperatures in this range, you can bake an egg with the consistency you prefer. I like mine runny. Thanks to my organic chemistry professor for pointing this out to my class.
See the full article on baking eggs in Discover Magazine here. Those stuck on boiling may want to look at this site.
As soon as I get an oven thermometer, I will try out these techniques and post pictures.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Oh, what a lonely shark in Nebraska can do!

For anyone who missed it, a hammerhead shark in Nebraska gave birth to a baby she conceived on her own, with no male contribution (technical term: parthogenesis). The full story is here, on the NYT website.

Rumi, the sufi mystic poet, wrote a poem saying whenever a man and woman become lovers, a child is born, even if actual conception doesn't take place. The union of a man and woman is still an act of creation, whether in a one night stand or a marriage. This poem needs a new stanza:

Come come, called the mother, I will focus within.
Come come, little light, be born.
My time in confinement, surrounded by flat plains,
has resulted in you, my dear one.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Toxic Seats or Toxic Science?

Recently the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor issued a study of toxic chemicals in car and baby car seats. In the baby seat rankings, various car seats from several companies such as Graco and Eddie Bauer were ranked in terms of Lead, Bromine, and Chlorine.

What does this study say about your baby's car seat? They tested only one sample of each model, so we have no idea how these toxic chemicals vary among individual car seats. Also, all seats tested below the FDA allowable limit in Lead, yet each seat is rated relative to the other models tested on a scale from "least concern" to "most concern". Seats with the worst ratings are still within acceptable limits and seats listed as "least concern" may come from a better manufactoring plant than the seat sitting on the shelf in the Albuquerque Wal-Mart. We really don't know what these scales mean, with no absolute and only one sample.

I do think we need to minimize toxic chemicals in our life, but a poorly executed study like this raises an unnecessary amount of fear. And where will all these toxic car seats be disposed, when people rush out to buy new products?

Hopefully the Ann Arbor study will put pressure on car seat manufacturers to make more environmentally and child friendly seats, and open up the discussion on what to do with the toxic stuff we already own, without too many mothers believing they need to buy a new car seat or worrying that they damaged their child by buckling them in.

Here is a more detailed Eopinion review of the study.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Intel International Science Fair 2007

Last week I was a judge at the Intel International Science Fair. I judged in the physics and astronomy category, and also in microbiology. I had the chance to look at some posters in medicine and behavioral science also. About 40% of the students asked an interesting question that could come up in day-to-day life, and devised an experiment to answer it. The rest had grad school level research projects. Everyone did a great job, but I was inspired by the students who had more straightforward experiments, such as, how does dress inpact your success at getting adults to take a survey (Aubrey Lynn Havold), or can you influence what color of skittle a person will choose with subliminal messages (Robert MacKenzie), or what is the effect of snow density on ski speed (Elizabeth Magnussen DiMascio)? They showed that simple questions that come up and actually impact your life can be answered, or at least approached, with simple, scientific methods. Of course the students who solved 20 year old problems in astrophysics (Temple Mu He) or showed the dark side of anti-hormonal therapies on cancer (Tejal Ulhas Naik) were impressive too. I was also impressed with how poised and articulate the students were.
If you have a chance, be a judge at a science fair, or design experiments to answer any questions of your own.
Intel International Science Fair

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Polls, Evolution, and Stupid Americans

I work with a man from Sweden obsessed with and apalled by Americans' belief in creationism. Every so often, he sends out a statement of disbelief, along with a link to polls concerning Americans and evolution:

According to the Harris poll, roughly half of people believe humans and apes had a common ancestor, that fossil evidence supports evolution, and that other plants and animals evolved. The same poll also says that 64% of people believe God created humans in their current form, so some people both believe humans and apes had a common ancestor and that God created humans without evolution.

Does expressed belief in creationism indicate an anti-science attitude? Only a third of people believed that religion and science conflict with each other. Most people, including me, have a deeply rooted belief that humans are special and distinct from other animals, so it is difficult to accept evolution on an emotional or instinctual level. If the scientific community can support its viewpoint that creationism differs from a scientific theory and should be left out of science curriculums, we will gain more ground than by belittling people's religious belief and feeling incredulous that religious people exist. Let's support the teaching of evolution without comment on religion.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Why Drought Makes Plants Sad

I just saw a talk by Nate McDowell on climate change and the ecosystem. I learned that when the air is dry, leaves close little openings in their outer leaves (stomata, not to be confused with stigmata) to prevent moisture from escaping. During a drought, the stomata stay closed, which causes processes of defense, growth, and the intake of nutrients stagnate. The leaf becomes weak and dehydrated and bark beetles can have their way with the hapless plant.
In this way, drought leads to closed, unhappy plants.