A quiz

Question 1: Do you know that children sometimes look like their parents or grandparents?

  • Yes. –> great
  • No. –> start here; if Wittgenstein can use this idea, so can you

Question 2: Do you know how you get these traits (for example, the color of your eyes)?

  • Yes. –> cool
  • No. –> read this (also a comprehensive yet comprehensible explanation that’s good for kids)

Question 3: Do you know that traits do not get passed onto the next generation equally (so that the total number of parents who have a trait is different from the number of children who have the same trait)?

Continue reading

“McMuffin-poopin’-cakes”: a theory of pet names

"Big man" Drizzt

“Big man” Drizzt

I sometimes call my sister “bo,” but other than that I refer to the humans in my life by their given names or common substitutions like “mom” or “dad”. On the other hand, I almost never refer to my pets by the names I decided they should have unless I’m talking about them to someone else. Yes, that does mean that I often talk to my pets directly. I call Drizzt, my bearded dragon, “big man” or “Drizzt-y-pie.” My American cat Isabelle is “pitoo” or “boo-boo,” while my Swiss cat Zora is “snuggle pumpkin,” “buckets,” or “butthead” (when she’s being annoying).

I have called every pet I’ve ever had by some cutsey name or, more often, a totally random word or sound. In the reverse, no one I know has a pet name for me as far as I am aware. One time, a friend suggested “kakes,” but it didn’t stick. Why do people use pet names at all? Is there some kind of mental or social benefit to that kind of communication? More importantly for me, why do I use pet names for animals but not for people? What does that say about me?

Continue reading

Why get the flu shot?

herd immunity

Photo credit: http://www.vaccines.gov

Imagine that you’re at the mall and you see someone you don’t like – maybe an ex or that annoying kid from high school – but the mall is crowded that day and you can easily blend into the crowd and escape. Now imagine that the mall isn’t crowded. This unsavory person sees you and walks over. Because there aren’t a lot of people around for you to hide among, now you have to talk to someone you’d really rather avoid. In the case of infectious diseases, what actually happens is your body becomes the feeding ground of an organism whose numbers have been so long controlled by preventative medicine that they have all but faded from cultural memory.

Continue reading

Don’t be superior.

wonder woman

Photo credit: https://www.facebook.com/mfeminism/

When I first read this post about Wonder Woman by A Mighty Girl (http://www.amightygirl.com/), there was a comment by a woman who said that she didn’t mind the qualification “for a girl” because men are biologically stronger than women.

I do not accept this reason.

1. There is a difference between saying a characteristic is due to biology versus saying that it’s due to genetics. Men are not biologically stronger. The only biological difference between men and women is in the gonads and reproductive organs: men have testes (etc.) and women have ovaries (etc.). Continue reading

Which came first?

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Answer 1 (to emphasize the value of descriptiveness over brevity): Obviously, the egg came first. Current knowledge dates the domestication of the chicken at no earlier than 10,000 years ago, while reptiles pioneered the hard-shelled egg idea about 300,000,000 years ago when they diverged evolutionarily from Paleozoic amphibians (Carroll, Robert L. “Problems of the Origin of Reptiles”Biol. Rev. 1969, 44, pp. 393-432).

Let’s rephrase the question:

Which came first, the chicken or the chicken egg?

Continue reading

Save the (empty) rainforests

Today, I am going to challenge the way you think about habitat. A habitat is the place where an animal or plant or other organism lives, like tigers in the jungle, poison ivy in areas of forest floor with generally poor soil, and archaea in the hot springs at Yellowstone National Park and in the rumens of cows. Well, most of the time that’s what it is. There is an important biological exception: metapopulations.

A metapopulation is a group of organisms of the same species that occupies discrete patches of suitable habitat within a continuous range, but which is considered to be a single population because individuals migrate from patch to patch within their lifetimes.

metapopulation

The range of a metapopulation (dotted line) encompasses many patches of suitable habitat (shaded areas).

migration

Organisms can migrate among the patches during their lifetimes.

Continue reading

Why I wear my lab coat

I work with a soil bacterium, Myxococcus xanthus. All of the safety procedures my lab employs are designed not to protect us from it but rather to protect it from, well, everything. We don’t wear gloves, we don’t use goggles, there’s no strict wash-your-hands-before-you-leave-the-lab policy, and most of us don’t wear lab coats.

There really isn’t a point to wearing a lab coat when you work in an environment where you are the most dangerous thing around. Maybe you’d want it on media-making day if you’re a bit clumsy or if you forgot that it was media-making day and accidentally wore nice clothes, but except for protecting you from agar spills, the coat doesn’t do much.

Physically.

Continue reading