• Using the Force. Messing with kids' heads can be fun!

    My friend Anne recently passed on the above Volkswagen video, created by Craig Melchiano and David Povill, which involves a kid dressed up as Darth Vader trying to use the force. It's pretty funny and it reminded me of this game we did two years ago at my son's 5th birthday party.

    Specifically, it was a Star Wars themed birthday party, which we foolishly held in our house (also, if you can believe it, Kate made a Jedi robe for every kid!). What we did was modify the game, "pass the parcel." We had saw online that there were Star Wars versions of this, which primarily involved wrapping something up like a ball, and calling it a Death Star.

    However, we thought that it would be way more fun if we could convince the kids that if they used the "force" they could get the stereo to stop the music (and therefore entitling them to the act of unwrapping). This, of course, is easy to do since pretty much every stereo these days comes with a remote. Note that, obviously, the Star Wars theme was the music being played during the game.

    I tell you: it was one of the funniest things I've ever seen – here you have a group of 5 year olds "concentrating" so hard, and doing the classic Jedi hand gesture at the stereo trying to make the music stop. For a Star Wars fan like myself, it was a brilliant sight to see. And just so that everyone had a chance to do it, we would also consistently get them to use the "force" all together to start the music up again ("On the count of 3: one… two… three!!).

    I should note that if you plan on doing this, be prepared to get a few phone calls from parents. After our party, we had quite a few of them calling, saying that their children were now trying to make their stereos, televisions, and other assorted appliances turn on by sheer will of thought. Anyway, it might be just me, but I thought this was both charming and hilarious.

  • The classroom blog: This is how you do it, science style!


    Last fall, whilst I was in London at the Natural History Museum, I was lucky enough to spend some time with a group of high school students who had travel all the way from the northeastern United States. They were totally engaging, and completely enthralled with the prospect of taking in the museum exhibits and learning some biodiversity science. They were, in a word, awesome!

    Why the enthusiasm? Well, I suspect a lot of it had to do with the fact that they had to write pieces for their classroom blog. This (as in using blogs in a classroom setting) seems like a brilliant idea. And the science blog run by these students with their teacher, Miss Stacy Baker, is definitely one of the best out there. In many ways, the blog format offers students and teachers a great platform where they can broach topics, share ideas, practice their writing, and even interact with experts in the field. In particular, I love how there is this degree of "relevancy" in assignments structured this way. In other words, no longer is the student's homework something to be discarded and forgotten once graded – now the work is actually a piece of writing that exists in the public realm. In fact, the work that these students produce has lead to some pretty amazing opportunities (a good example being some of the students being selected to blog for Nature)

    Best of all, as you can see from the video below, even the students think it's cool:

    So how do you do this in your own classroom? Well, Stacy has gone to the effort of sharing her experiences, so that some of the logistics of starting a classroom blog are less daunting to the newbie. This includes outlines of how she structures the assignments, mechanisms for student evaluation, and information on the issue of permissions and public access.

    Anyway, check out their blog (some of them are even reporting right now from the Science Online 2011 conference). If you're a science-y type, leave a comment or two. Better yet, if you're a blogger and you have a teacher friend, maybe you can offer your help in setting one up (you know how easy this actually is). Based on these students' experience alone, it looks like it would be well worth the effort.

    The Extreme Biology Blog

  • Scientists pick apart list of nonsense

    RealClimate.org has a great piece by Michael Tobis and Scott Mandia which is going to be incredibly useful for one of the classes I teach (Global Issues in the Arts and Sciences), and to be honest, I totally think it's also worth a look by anyone interested in climate change affairs. By focusing on a recent opinion piece published by Larry Bell at Forbes, it nicely broaches two areas: 1) it illustrates a few of the tactics that climate denialists use when they debate their case, and (2) it picks apart many of the most recent and most common "scientific" arguments used against the case for immediate policy action to mitigate climate change.

    Bell uses the key technique that denialists use in debates, dubbed by Eugenie Scott the "Gish gallop", named after a master of the style, anti-evolutionist Duane Gish. The Gish gallop raises a barrage of obscure and marginal facts and fabrications that appear at first glance to cast doubt on the entire edifice under attack, but which on closer examination do no such thing. In real-time debates the number of particularities raised is sure to catch the opponent off guard; this is why challenges to such debates are often raised by enemies of science. Little or no knowledge of a holistic view of any given science is needed to construct such scattershot attacks.

    To me, the picking apart of the various assertions that Bell presents is the best part. Not only does it show how easy it is to form such careless arguments, but it also provides a highly readable science primer on some of the more recent research in climatology, all in an effort to inform on the current trends in cyclonic activity, ocean cooling, sea levels, polar snow fall, ice melting, etc. The net effect is that it becomes clear that the Forbes article is largely nonsense from a scientific point of view (since Tobis and Mandia do point out the one assertion where Bell may have a valid argument), full of polemic where language is spun accordingly, and really a disheartening example of poor press.

    Anyway, great fodder for a class where discussing these sorts of things (including an opportunity to also critique Tobis and Mandia's piece) is key. Now, all I need is to find an article with an opposing view that is both responsibly written and uses the same lens of robust research data – something tells me that might be a little trickier…

    Forbes' rich list of nonsense

  • The Rap Guide to Evolution: Helping out with the music videos.

    Now that classes have started, and I'm in the "teaching" zone again, it's always cool to check out folks who have come up with unconventional, and dare I say, innovative ways of talking science. One such example is Baba Brinkman, who does a great job of communicating the principles and various nuances of evolution using rap and hip-hop. In fact, there's a whole album's worth of material called "The Rap Guide to Evolution," which you can listen to for free or download/purchase if you so choose.

    As well, the artist recently received an educational grant to create a series of videos for the songs, but has been seeking out some additional funding to really open up post-production possibilities (i.e. animations, access to footage, etc).

    Quite a few biology and psychology teachers already use the rap songs in their classes to introduce evolutionary concepts to their students, and these videos will make an even more potent vehicle for communicating science in an entertaining manner.

    The initial funding from the Wellcome Trust allows us to shoot live footage for each video with a professional film crew, edit it, and set up a website to distribute the videos.  This phase of the project will be completed by mid-December.  The additional funding from Crowdfunder will allow us to produce original animation and digital effects and license high-quality nature footage from the BBC, to make the vision of each video really come to life.

    In any event, check out the songs, the video above and also the link below if you want to help out.

    The Rap Guide to Evolution DVD Project

  • How not to go crazy traveling with young children

    One of the things you have to do when you're on sabbatical in a city like London, is make sure you take advantage of your travel opportunities. For my family, this equated to visiting a number of iconic European cities, a luxury that from Vancouver (where I'm usually based) would have been far too costly. Anyway, it's been clear to my wife and I that during these once-in-a-lifetime visits, our consciousness is very much overridden by one central question: "What will Ben and Hannah do?"


    (Clockwise from left) Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy; Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France; near Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh, Scotland; 2010

    Just so you know, Ben and Hannah are my children. You've might have seen them in this previous post, and like any parent, I love them dearly. Nevertheless, traveling with very young children is an interesting experience, as it is by turns wonderful, exhausting, memorable, frustrating, and (just to be clear) exhausting. You are, after all, interacting with a tourist that would most likely rank the playground or the cat that they saw by a tree, far above the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum. Also, if you're lucky enough to be staying somewhere where there is indoor swimming, then you can rest assured that you will hear of nothing else.


  • Students doing right by making medicine accessible to the developing world.

    In light of World AIDS Day, I'd thought I'd post a little bit about Universities Allied for Essential Medicines. It's a bit of a mouthful, but it's a student run non-profit that does brilliant things. Even though the video above is two years old, Mike Gretes does a lovely job highlighting some of what UAEM does, and there's also tons of information on their website:

    Many important medicines and public health technologies are developed in academic laboratories. Their accessibility in poor nations is profoundly affected by the research, patenting and licensing decisions made by universities.

    We are a group of university students who believe that our universities have an opportunity and a responsibility to improve global access to public health goods

    This is important for a number of reasons. One example is that it recognizes that almost all therapeutics have their humble beginnings at some lab bench at some university. This isn't necessarily the finished product, but it is often the "eureka" moment that can start the path towards a medicine with real life benefits.

    Because of this, that academic lab and its researchers, have this opportunity to lay down some ground rules when the discovery is ultimately marketed out to some company. For instance, they can dictate that licensing is different (amenable to generics) when circumstances compel the drug to be sold in markets that simply can't afford the usual prices set by pharmaceutical companies (think HIV medicine in developed versus developing countries). Unfortunately, this amazing opportunity is usually a missed opportunity: which is why UAEM members stay up nights thinking about ways, to advocate, educate, and guide universities to do the right thing.

    Anyway, if you're connected to the university system, it's a must to check it out. There might already be a UAEM chapter at your school (there is at mine). If not, there's also help available to set one up.

    Universities Allied for Essential Medicines

  • The Nagoya Protocol: the first step towards saving the endangered Unicorn?

    If a Society for the Preservation of Unicorns1 were to put out commentary or a press release about important but largely unreported UN biodiversity meetings, I'd imagine it would go a little like this:

    unicornhabitatbb.jpg(Public domain image adapted from NOAA photo library. Slide available here).

    Well, it's been a few days since the Nagoya COP102 conference has wrapped up, and by all accounts, people have deemed it relatively successful. That is, the conference that was meant to set some goals in the preservation of global biodiversity has (largely due to the admirable persistence of Japanese officials) managed to get government types to agree to a strategic plan with a number of environmentally friendly targets (nicknamed the 2020 Aichi Targets3 for those of you who like to keep track of such things).

    Although the word "rainbow" did not make a single appearance in the text, the targets did nevertheless include obvious things like percentages of land and ocean to set aside for preservation (17% and 10%), and overarching statements that promised, "to at least halve and where feasible bring close to zero the rate of loss of natural habitats including forests (by 2020)." (more…)

  • The Candy Hierarchy

    LATEST: The Candy Hierarchy has been updated for 2012.


    With Halloween approaching, I thought it would be amusing to write a bit about candy, or more specifically, a system that aims to rank it. In this case, the rubric would be according to "emotional zeal" or something more jargony sounding like "joy induction." Anyway, this hierarchy is the work of a friend and colleague, Ben Cohen. Ben is an environmental historian over at the University of Virginia, but in a previous life, he and I use to write on a blog together. This partnership happened because of our backgrounds publishing science humour (see Ben's clip list here), so in some respects, this "Candy Hierarchy" is just another creative juncture.

    However, since I'm loving how you can get immediate feedback from the Boing Boing community, I'm also thinking that we could use this opportunity to throw a little kickass "peer review" into the ranking. Kickass because: (1) I know some people are going to be deeply offended by the rankings; (2) the rankings were last updated in 2008, and are therefore long overdue for some revision; and (3) well, isn't peer review just kickass anyway? Oh yeah – the graphic is new (just made it today): hopefully if you play in the comments, some of us can use it one day as a slide for an interesting discussion on the scientific method – yes?

    Anyway, read on… (more…)

  • My virtual swag bag for biodiversity and Nagoya COP10 includes Zhu Zhu pets.

    So this Nagoya COP10 conference is coming up in a week, and at these events what tends to happen is that all the delegates will receive a "swag bag' of sorts. Actually, the term "swag" is probably over selling it a bit, since what they actually receive is probably better described as a portfolio of resources. In other words, it's less about gadgets, gift cards, and bling, and more about documents and materials that will attempt to inform them on the various issues at stake.

    Anyway, the teacher in me is also wanting to put together a virtual swag bag of biodiversity things to look at – especially for those who want to quickly get up to speed on the whole thing. Of course, you can read my "Star Wars" jargon infused primers on the conference itself (see parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and a sidebar; or here as a single post), but why not take a gander at a few other things available on the web.

    You should start with the above panel discussion video. In my opinion, it is excellent – I'm going to get all of my students to check it out. Involving five experts who obviously care a great deal about biodiversity, it's a good and pragmatic overview of all the pertinent issues at stake. Admittedly, it's a little close to homework at times (especially the first few minutes where intros are made), but in terms of packing in a lot of great information, it's well worth a look. Best of all, once the questions start (culled from forums and twitter) it gets engaging and lucid pretty quickly. I loved the bit where the entomologist, Dr. Chris Lyal, defends the weevil, and in doing so, you learn just how kick ass weevils are!

    The embedded YouTube video just shows the first 8 or so minutes (which includes the introductions), but I highly recommend giving yourself some time to watch the full length version here (think of it as a much more palatable alternative to reading 50 pages of text to stay informed). (more…)

  • Do you know what this is? (Pretty sure it's not a Tribble)


    Not much information about it, except that the furry stuff does appear to be hair. Current hypotheses involve something to do with a lion hairball that may have been blown about in the dusty savannah, therefore resulting in this poofy look. Other ideas posit an association with the Massai? Anyway, If you have any ideas of what this could be, it would be great to hear them. For now, it remains a mystery.

    What you're seeing is one of the many samples that the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity gets day in day out. Essentially, this is a centre within the Natural History Museum that acts as an accessible expertise base for all things flora, fauna, and fossilized in the United Kingdom. Kind of like a place where the public can bring stuff in for identification, hang out with scientists, link up with other amateur naturalists, and even help out in a number of open air laboratory outreach projects (also known as OPAL).

    I've highlighted the "hairball" because it is something that was brought in and even after an initial look is still quite mysterious. However, the vast majority of things that get sent or dropped off do get identified. Earlier, I had a chance to talk to the centre's resident entomologist, Beulah Garner, about some of the things that were particularly odd or interesting looking. See, if you can identify any of them (answers in bold supplied by Beulah): (more…)

  • Chapter Titles from my Unicorn Physics Textbook

    This is a continuation from this post about crowd sourcing humour writing. There were many great suggestions, some of which were almost complete pieces in themselves (especially this one from pencilbox and this one from J.K.). In the end, however, an editorial touch was used to streamline the many great comments into hopefully a pretty funny list. So without further ado, the Boing Boing community presents:

    "Chapter Titles from my Unicorn Physics Textbook"

    Newton's Laws
    Quantum Mechanics
    Phototonics (a.k.a. Glitter)
    Horn Topology
    Force Fields
    Thermodynamics (except for the 1st Law)
    Euclidean Vectors
    Total Fucking Awesomeness

  • Thanks for reading and "May the scientific method always be with you."


    Phylomon cards: "EUROPEAN HONEY BEE, I CHOOSE YOU!"

    I had a great experience here at Boing Boing, and want to send on a big thanks to Mark, Cory, Xeni, David, Rob and the rest of the crew for letting me spend some quality time here. I'm also grateful to the many museum folks who let me chat with them, and so graciously showed me their projects. Kudos especially to Bob Bloomfield for the warm welcome and the many discussions on biodiversity advocacy. Hopefully, my posts didn't dilute the overall awesomeness here at Boing Boing, and at the every least, I hope a few more people are interested in Nagoya COP10. Also, it was fun to do my part to increase the Chewbacca quotient (even if only slightly) here at the site.

    With that, I'd like to end with two last requests. Both related to biodiversity: one is kind of worthy, the other a little goofy. One requires folks of the artistic bent, the other maybe a more scientific approach. (more…)

  • Nagoya COP10 Primer #4: with reference to Twitter

    Continuing from:

    Nagoya COP10 Primer #1: with references to Star Wars
    Nagoya COP10

    Primer #2: with a reference to Kevin Bacon

    Nagoya COP10 sidebar: UNFCCC YOU!

    Nagoya COP10 Primer #3: with a small reference to LOL cats

    So what should be done at Nagoya? This is the 20 million species plus question. And for all of the criticism that I've (and others) have proffered, we should appreciate that the task at hand is going to be quite the challenge. If nothing else, this is immediately clear from the often anthrocentric (humans rule the Earth and are just playing our role on the evolutionary front, so deal with it!) commentary left on biodiversity pieces throughout the internet.

    There is a somewhat official Strategic Plan document out there, one that (with a remarkable lack of brevity) highlights 2020 goals and attempts to identify the process and partners to be involved. It's worth a look, although probably best absorbed by taking in the tables shown on page 19 on. It involves a list of some 20 different target statements. Some of which are short, bouncy, although still vague like a twitter tweet:

    1. By 2020, everyone is aware of the value of biodiversity and what steps they can take to protect it.

    Others are more to the point:

    11. By 2020, At least 15% of land and sea areas, including the most critical terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats, have been protected through effectively managed protected areas and/or other means, and integrated into the wider land- and seascape.

    A few establish direct talking points for individual COP members:

    16. By 2020, Each Party has an appropriate, up-to-date, effective and operational national biodiversity strategy, consistent with this Strategic Plan, based on adequate assessment of biodiversity, its value and threats, with responsibilities allocated among sectors, levels of government, and other stakeholders, and coordination mechanisms are in place to ensure implementation of the actions needed.

    And this one, almost works as a haiku:

    3. By 2020
    Subsidies harmful

    to biodiversity

    are eliminat…


  • Art, nature, the history of science, and whoa, aren't these beautiful?


    Plate 73 of the John Reeves Collection of Zoological Drawings from Canton, China, 1774-1856. (© The Natural History Museum, London).

    Reeves was an English tea inspector, but also amassed a wonderful collection of Chinese drawings of plants and animals during his time in Canton.

    A few weeks back, I had a great conversation with Judith Magee, Library Special Collections Curator at the Natural History Museum. From this conversation, as well as others (thanks Peronel, Martha, Bergit), it soon became clear that there were many individuals within the museum that had a passion for things pertaining to the humanities and the arts (see also this previous post).

    In particular, the museum happens to house a vast collection of illustrations and paintings, many of which were originally produced as a way to scientifically document new species, new cultures, and other things observed during expeditions. However, it's also clear that apart from their historical value, these pieces of artwork also have immense aesthetic value. They. Are. Beautiful.

    And speaking to Judith, you can literally feel the enthusiasm and affection for such pieces. Judith talked to me about writer/artists such as Alexander von Humboldt, John Bartram, as well as the wonderful drawings collected by John Reeves. (more…)

  • Why natural history museum collections rock!

    348916676 551F3Ef390 Z D

    Photo: Tom Goskar. Used with permission.

    So far, it's been a very interesting experience in the month and a bit into my sabbatical at London's Natural History Museum. First off, there was that element of giddiness: coming back to an iconic institution that takes me back to my time as a kid in awe of dinosaurs, blue whales and all the sparkly stuff in the mineral exhibits. Next came, a weird sort of pride – like as if being in the museum's great hall, looking up at the beautiful ceiling, and standing in between a Diplodoccus skeleton and a statue of Darwin, made me feel privileged to be a scientist. I felt as if I was in the best-club-ever: one that carried on the work of so many pioneers whose efforts are housed in this museum. But then a strange feeling of discomfort settled in. This was because the science that goes on here, by and large, is quite foreign to the medically genetic driven projects of my own background. In other words, the bench tops here do not always require pipettemans and overpriced electronics. However, after having had the privilege of meeting some lovely people at the museum and viewing a few of these collections, I've come to really appreciate the importance of biological curation.

    1. The collections serve as the physical and open portal to specimens needed for biodiversity research.