Category Archives: Curiosities of Nature

You can’t do transformative science without wasting money

This is a great statement by Eric Lander from an interview he gave to James Fallows at The Atlantic last year:

“When will genomics cure cancer?”

Young scientists who need to look at 100,000 cancer samples, or do functional tests inhibiting all the genes in the genome, or explore the use of chemicals in ways they never could before—they need an NIH [National Institutes of Health] that is able to place bets. With sequestration, and the NIH budget falling by about 25 percent in real terms over the past decade, the people reviewing grants naturally become more conservative. When there’s less money, reviewers don’t want to run the risk of wasting money on something that doesn’t work.

I’ve got to tell you, if you aren’t prepared to waste money on things that might not work, you can’t possibly do things that are transformative. Because for every successful transformative idea, there’s five times as many nonsuccessful transformative ideas. Nobody knows how to figure out in advance which ones they’re going to be.

I don’t agree with everything Lander says in the interview – specifically, the statement that we’ll have a “complete catalogue” of disease genes in another five or six years has no basis in reality. But overall, he makes some great points about the transformative potential of genomics.

An inch off the top

Rongbuk monastery in Tibet, near Mount Everest, which is peeking through the clouds. Here still extra-tall, in 2012.

Rongbuk monastery in Tibet, near Mount Everest, which is peeking through the clouds. Here still extra-tall, in 2012.

Climbing Mount Everest is now slightly less impressive than it used to be. After the earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, Mount Everest sank by about an inch.

The reason Mount Everest and the rest of the Himalayas are there in the first place is the same force that caused the earthquake that shrunk it: India is slowly pushing against the Asian continental plate.

Patan Durbar Square. This area was damaged in the earthquake. Here still undestroyed in 2012.

Patan Durbar Square. This area was one of the ones heavily damaged in the earthquake. Here still undestroyed in 2012.

We tend to think of plate tectonics as something that happened in the past to shape the continents as they are now, with features like the matching coast lines of Africa and South America just a remnant of an ancient continental break. But the recent earthquake – as any large earthquake does – reminds us that these shifts are still happening, and that geological features we take for granted, like the height of Mount Everest, are still changing. Usually very gradually, but sometimes with a big and abrupt shift.

The earthquake on April 25, and another big one this past week, haven’t just shifted Mount Everest by an inch, but also caused the region around Kathmandu to rise by a few feet. And this was the shift that caused the most damage.

Kathmandu is an old city with a rich history and a poor population. It has the most UNESCO World heritage sites of any city in the world, but more than half of them suffered extensive damage in the earthquakes.

Kathmandu Durbar Square in better days. Not sure which of these buildings are still standing.

Kathmandu Durbar Square in better days. Not sure which of these buildings are still standing.

Thousands of people have died, and even more have been made homeless, or suffered a loss of income. I visited Kathmandu a few years ago and I love the city and its people. So I’m simultaneously impressed by the forces that changed the height of Mount Everest and worried for the local community. Earthquakes are pretty impressive, but not always in a good way!

If you would like to help support the rebuilding of Nepal, please consider donating to a reputable organisation. There are too many to list, and they’re different depending on where you live and what kind of support you want to provide (medical, heritage rebuilding, children, etc), but feel free to ask me on Twitter for recommendations.

All photos by me, and I can never take similar photos again, because even Mount Everest no longer looks exactly like that…

P.S. If the photo captions are confusing, there are THREE places called “Durbar Square” in Kathmandu neighbourhoods. All three are UNESCO sites, and all three were destroyed in the earthquake :(

Science for the People: Pests in the City

sftpThis week, Science for the People is exploring the ways human-made environments support – and shape – the lives of many species we think of as vermin. We’ll talk to Geography and Environmental Studies Professor Dawn Day Biehler about her book Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats. We also speak to postdoctoral researcher Clint Penick about his research on the junk food diets of urban ants.

*Josh provides research & social media help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.

The Science of Monsters

The edges of old maps, the gateways to parts unknown, are often said1 to have carried the words “Here Be Dragons”. At the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, there was plenty of room for those dragons to roam. Each human culture around the globe was surrounded by a fog of geographic and metaphysical unknowns. Since that time, science has destroyed the habitat of those dragons in a steadily process 2.

The central question of Matt Kaplan’s book, The Science of Monsters, is really focused, not on the monsters, but on us. Why did we populate that fog of unknowns with fabulous creatures that evoked fear and awe? Do we still tell similar stories after the fog has been lifted? If we do, how have the stories changed to reflect our new reality? The Science of Monsters is ultimately about our favorite monster – us. Continue reading

Science for the People: Heavy Metal Birds

sftpThis week, Science for the People is learning about the impact that the byproducts of our industrial societies have on avian populations. We’ll speak to filmmaker Matthew Podolsky about his documentary Scavenger Hunt, that looks at the effects of lead on the California Condor. We’ll also talk to conservation scientist Alexander Bond about his research on mercury poisoning in the endangered Arctic Ivory Gull.

*Josh provides research & social media help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.