Monday, May 19, 2014

The Raccoon

When I was around three or four I met my first raccoon - an unexpected moment of intimacy (though I didn't think of it that way at the time) that has stayed with me. It was in a zoo. Back then, most of the local zoos (the Bronx Zoo was the exception) were city run and were the kind of dingy, gray landscapes that still haunt the dreams of many animal rights activists. In fact, my few memories of the Central Park and Prospect Park zoos are generally cast in gray and white - not the pretty kind from classic movies but rather the dreary kind from color photos showing rubble piles in war-torn cities.
Bears at the Prospect Park Zoo c. 1929. In my memories, the cages were even drearier. Photo from NYC Parks
Cougar at the Prospect Park c. 2013. The change isn't really the colors but the fact that animals are given proper care and attention, including enrichment like this pumpkin at Halloween. Photo from Have Sippy Will Travel

These memories are also devoid of animal life with a cast of three individuals. The first is a chimp displayed in a miserable little cage fronted in glass or Plexiglas. I don't remember the animal and maybe I never saw it, I just remember wondering at the barren cage and being told that there used to be a dancing chimp in it. The second is a gorilla who had vomited and had proceeded to eat the vomit (note that these zoos were later given to the Wildlife Conservation Society and are now pretty fantastic). The vomit is a brick red - a rare bit of color! - in my memory, which is unlikely unless it had been fed some sort of colored primate biscuit. The third is the raccoon. It is the only one I really ever think about much, but it has made a nice little nest in my brain and refuses to leave.

I remember it as a rather small creature with silvery gray fur, a white belly, and black on the mask and tail stripes. I remember the hands most of all; white & gray fur with deep black hairless fingers and palms, slightly glossed like new leather. The raccoon in my memory is standing behind the black chain-link fencing of the bare concrete cage, it's little fingers curled around the metal like a prisoner in a cartoon. Sometimes the chain-link is just vertical iron bars. Maybe it paces a bit too. I am standing behind a black bar also - a thick railing intended to hold people back from the cage itself. In my memory I am just tall enough to see over it instead of having to stoop below it, but it's just as likely that my dad did the same thing parents everywhere do, sitting me on the bar for a better view. I am bundled up in a coat and mittens (brown with some sort of pattern) and very happily eating one of those large pretzels available at hot dog carts all over the city.
I came across this guy in Prospect Park -
see how cute they can look?

I liked the raccoon. I may have thought it was cute or funny or mysterious or anything else. My knowledge of animals was fairly extensive, fueled by books my parents read to me, coloring books and TV shows (Wild America was a favorite), but still mostly limited to being able to identify different species and maybe even pair some up with odd facts like that cheetahs are the fastest animal and that lemmings commit suicide periodically (these were the "facts" as I knew them then anyway). Familiarity with the real thing was different. I was old enough to separate the real animals from their children's-book and cartoon counterparts but still too young and innocent to really understand what that meant. The result was a void waiting to be filled with my own observations and real life experiences. Zoos can be a great place for that.

Here was a real-life raccoon. It was not some smiling, dancing cartoon character or a picture on the TV. It was right there and I loved that. Even better, the raccoon knew I was there too. It was not asleep; it was not hanging out in the back of the exhibit or doing anything that told me that I was unimportant to it. It was hanging out with my dad and me, watching us with interest. I was hooked.

Photo obtained from National Wildlife Foundation
Then, quick and sudden, the raccoon reached out and took my and mitten pretzel from me. In that instant, my knowledge of the raccoon as a real live animal and individual gelled. Here was no Disney/Richard Scarry/Sesame Street character looking cute in the background or teaching me about manners, friendship or sharing; this was all the things those characters encourage you not to be! It was rude, it was selfish, it was a bully. It was also my first real encounter with nature. I cried. I'm not sure whether this was a reaction to the loss of my pretzel and mitten, to the unexpectedness of the "attack" or to the fact that my entire view of this cute raccoon (and the natural world in general) had been so suddenly and violently overturned, but either way it upset me.

The memory ends there. I have no recollection of how my father consoled me, or if I later told the story to my mom with tears or laughter. That is forever lost to time. How accurate my memories are is also a question. The more you remember an event, the less accurate it gets, and I remember this event quite often. It's not just my memory either. My mom and dad both remind me of it on occasion. It is a glue that binds us together with the early years of my childhood. For them it is a window to a time when I was innocent and carefree, perhaps also an early portent that I was to pursue a career working with animals. For me, the memory and the raccoon specifically, is a symbol of my first real interaction with a wild animal.

There are many sad things about the memory - the deplorable state of the zoo, the lack of color, the thievery - but they lost their bite long ago. I can hardly blame the raccoon for it's actions that day and in fact I now see that rather than simply taking my pretzel and mitten, it also imparted a gift - a lesson. It woke me up to complicated realities of nature - that a creature can be both cute and scary, that the black and white view of animals portrayed in children's books is no more correct that that of shows focusing on the violence of predators, that sometimes life just sucks - and to the fact that I am not entirely separate from it.

Raccoons can be both cute and scary (okay - this one's more cute than anything)

The raccoon and I reenact this event periodically. Each time I can feel the fingers grab at mine and the pretzel they hold. I can feel the light scratching of a claw or two as they accidentally hook onto the yarn of my mitten, and the sudden cold of my now empty, naked hand. I still remember the awe and then shock I felt as all of this happened. Like the Egyptian goods Seth and Ra who must fight each day as the sun crosses the sky, we are forever locked in this conflict, becoming (personal) archetypes - the raccoon represents not theft or trickery but nature, and my young self represents innocence and ignorance. I approach the raccoon with the joy of the innocent and the raccoon takes the pretzel and mitten, forcing me to face nature as it is, not as my ignorance would see it. Each time is like the first time for me - the memory is that strong - but before and afterwards, the heat of our conflict is long gone leaving in it's place the warm glow of that perpetual intimacy and lessons learned.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


This week: a book review.

As this blog is first and foremost a place for me to practice my nonfiction writing, and as much of my reading time is spent reading nonfiction, I thought I might occasionally post book reviews on here. All were originally posted on Goodreads

Last week I finished "Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution" by Richard Fortey. My review is below.

This book does shed light on trilobites - their biology, ecology, evolution and even behavior. For non-scientists, there is plenty of explanation of scientific methods etc. These get pretty repetitive, enough so that I suspect everyone will be skimming/skipping these sections by half way through. 

Personally I found that it was weighed down by the author's self-involvement. Fortey attempts to bring the book alive with lots and lots of personal anecdotes. It works okay in the beginning but gets old after a while. Part of the problem is that some of these additions add little to the topics he is illustrating. It is enough of an issue that I found myself pretty bored by the last through of the book. The bigger issue is his ego which comes through loud and clear. 

Fortey loves to talk about his own discoveries and accomplishments. That is warranted in many places but it happens so frequently that it left me wondering what other researchers have found. It's not that he doesn't mention the successes of others, but many of those are historical figures and the current ones are uncommon and frequently are colleagues of his. Cronyism is nothing new in such books, but combined with the giant number of personal contributions to the field and the overall paucity of others makes it stand out. 

His acknowledgement of dissenting opinions is even rarer. Most are only snidely hinted at. For instance, he mentions that one of the new species he named was contested by others but doesn't say anything else; his dismissal of them is so strong he doesn't bother to go into detail. It was a missed opportunity to discuss the process of identifying and naming new species or groups. He does eventually discuss that fascinating issue and gives some good examples of similar research and arguments making his lack of detail on that particular story all the more confusing. 

For the most part he avoids the vitriol characteristic of Richard Dawkins and some other popular science writers, even calling Dawkins to task for it at one point. One exception is his in depth discussion of Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould is well done but odd in it's detail. I actually wondered if he had a particular problem with Gould, and I'm still not sure (he does mention Gould in a more positive light later but not in any really detail). BTW - I am aHUGE fan of Gould's writings, so I'm admittedly biased here but I saw no issue with Fortey's points, rather I was taken aback by how much attention Gould and his book got in that section.

Richard Fortey with one of his beloved research subjects. Photo obtained from Age of Wonder

The end result is a mix of the really interesting and the really tiresome. Sadly, these are common issues in popular science books. Brian Greene & George Schaller are great example of scientists (non-scientists writing about science generally never have such issues) that have been able to write great popular books on their fields. 

Richard Fortey is a world-renowned expert on trilobites and the depth of knowledge he displays is wonderful. This is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in trilobites or paleontology, just be prepared to skim through sections of it. 


The original review can be found here:

Other Goodreads reviews of the book can be here:

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Farewell to Shortwave

Shortwave, the junior member of our crayfish pair, died early last week. She was our third crayfish after Craymer and Cray Cray, all being rescued from a classroom where they were due to be frozen after their use was done. The lab techs were happy to see them go to a good home.

Shortwaves molted exoskeleton
She had molted her exoskeleton a couple of days before and had looked healthy while waiting for her new one to harden. Because crayfish have a hard, acellular exoskeleton, they cannot grow without first molting (shedding) it. When they emerge, they have a new exoskeleton in place but it remains soft for a few days, allowing them to grow a bit. It also leaves them vulnerable to threats that wouldn't be normally. Crayfish often keep hidden during this period but Shortwave was always brash, and paraded around like a man at a party trying to pass of a threadbare thrift shop tuxedo as and Armani.

Shortwave shortly after molting
Deaths during molt are a known problem with keeping crustaceans at home. I knew about it and feared it. As anyone with an aquarium knows, there are many things that can go wrong in a tank, injuring or killing the inhabitants. My initial introduction on crayfish care was a mad dash of self-education and preparations, and while I still have plenty to lear  I was properly neurotic about checking the pH, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels, cleaning the tank and changing the water regularly. All of these were concerns but the biggest stress for me was the hardness of the water.

I'm not 100% sure what killed her in the end, and my lack of experience in crayfish care doesn't help. I worry that I played a part in it though. The night before we found her body, I accidentally scared her, causing her to take refuge in her favorite place between a large rock and the glass. I had worked to make sure it was not such a tight fit that she would get stuck, but I never thought about what squeezing her now softshelled body into such a tight space might do to her. Later on we found her back in the middle of the tank, moving funny - walking awkwardly backwards. I was worried that something was wrong but I wasn't sure - she often did weird and worrying things. The next morning she was dead.

It was only yesterday that I removed her old exoskeleton from the tank. I'm not sure why I left it in for so long, but sentiment was part of it. I miss her, as I missed Craymer before her. These feelings could probably not be reciprocated (there are some anecdotal stories out there that suggest that more species than we realize are capable of forming social bonds with other species - but I'd be shocked if that were the case here) but that's unimportant.

My feelings for my crayfish may not make sense to others, but it should. Emotions are personal; and although other people can sympathize or empathize with us, they can not join us. At best they can feel the same way on their own with you. It makes no more sense be be attached to a crayfish than it does an autographed baseball by your favorite player, or for that matter to be angry at the cashier for the company's refusal to take your expired coupon. The emotions are still there and that's fine.

We tend to think of a pet as something that loves us back.It's a common sentiment but also a confused one. In the movie Meet the Parents, Robert de Niro states that the love of a cat is better than that of a dog, because "...cats make you work for their affection..." That's the exact same justification I've heard to explain why dogs are better pets than cats. Both arguments prize the reciprocal love of pets. Others deny any reciprocation of feeling, pointing to the fact that your dog or cat would eat you if stuck in your apartment for days with no food. While that is true, it does not disprove a pet's bond to you, but it is still a disturbing thought to many.

photo from

It shouldn't matter. Many new mothers are distressed to realize they do not love their baby immediately after birth. That love will develop soon enough and before it does the new moms will take excellent care of them. Why? Because the baby needs it and to some extent, so does the mother. Does the baby love the mother immediately after birth? I can't say for sure but I'm willing to bet against it. For those mothers who do feel that unconditional love for their infants immediately, it would not lessen if someone pointed out to them that their baby cannot reciprocate it yet. Love does not require reciprocation (friendships etc are another matter).

I freely admit that I did love Shortwave, as I did Craymer and as I do Cray-Cray who has survived both. I loved them for their interactions with me (Shortwave's efforts to threaten me every time I passed nearby and pinch me when cleaning their tanks and Craymer's caution and sometimes obliviousness to the same); for their often kooky behavior (the absurd acrobatics of Craymer in his never ending quest to get access to the filter at the surface, the blaze attitude of Shortwave to the threats of the much larger Cray Cray, their never ending quests to rearrange the gravel, find forgotten food and bask in the bubbly rushing waterfall of fresh water being poured into the tank) and for the joy and laughs I got from watching them do all of this.

Craymer died in November. I had not taken any pictures and have no mementos of him. Shortwave was moved in shortly thereafter and I made sure to take photos this time. Her abandoned exoskeleton, largely intact before her death, now sits on a paper towel where I put it out to dry. There is not much left of it. When I tried to pick it up it disintegrated into a cloud of chelipeds, swimmerets, maxilla, abodminal segments and more. I scrambled to catch as many as I could but although I retrieved many of the big sections, many of the smaller ones swirled away from my fingers, content to stay home for a little longer.

Shortwave, RIP
This will have to do for poor Craymer as well, since there is nothing left of him but memories.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

So Voyager has left the Solar System (and much earlier than this post thanks to a general lack of time on my part for writing).

It is an exciting time for many people, both astronomers and others, myself included.  It comes at an exciting time in science.  We are at a point where congress and NASA have the technology to fight over how best to get to Mars, and whether or not capturing an asteroid is a worthwhile endeavor for our money.  No longer are these things relegated to the realm of Science Fiction only.  We are living in a time in which the seeds of our astronomical dreams are opening up and spreading forth new possibilities for us to pursue.

picture of Voyager:

 Voyager's exit from our solar system is a big step forward for us.  It is the first man-made object to do so.  Many of us hope this will on day be followed by more probes and eventually my mankind.  The event brings a sense of adventure that is badly needed in a time when it seems that most technological progress is being made on cell phones and tablet computers.  I should be swept up in those feelings, and part of me is, but part of me just feels sad for Voyager.  It is a lifeless machine with no need for companionship, but I can't help but impose my own feelings onto it.  It will never return home.  By 2025, it's power will fail and if will float on quietly.  In about 40,000 years it will pass by another star - Gleise 445.  But even that star will remain far to the side of it's path.  I'm not sure when, if ever, Voyager will enter another solar system, but I know the time scale is too large to really bother worrying about.

When I was little I had a difficult time getting to sleep.  I still do. As I lay in bed, terrified of monsters lurking in darkened corners of the room, I was even more terrified of not being able to sleep.  I would lay in bed trying so hard to fall asleep that it was a full-on job in it's own right.  Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, I would drift off and be happy.  Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and it would dawn on me that I was the only one up.  My parents would be sleeping in bed, the living room lights and TV would be off.  The apartment would be huge in it's silence.  This thought would creep up on me from behind, whispering to me that I was on my own, alone in the world.

I carried that around with me for a long time.  It made the task of going to bed that much worse because it was a race - a race to fall asleep before my parents went to bed themselves, a race to be unconscious before I found myself alone in the dark. Around the time my parents divorced, that changed.  Unconsciously seeking escape from the stress - unconscious because I don't really recall there being many fights etc in those early days - I spent my free time after school hanging out with friends or watching TV alone at home.  I began getting up in the middle of the night to finish my homework.  By fourth grade my grades had plummeted as I stopped doing homework altogether.  As a result, I hated schoolwork more than ever and isolated myself from it more that ever.  I had friends but sought to spend more and more time on my own.  Loneliness was an odd concept to me at that point - I wanted to be physically alone, but increasingly I felt socially alone, cut off from my peers by my poor performance in school and perceived social awkwardness.

By high school I relished being alone.  I had plenty of friends and enjoyed my time with them, but I also lived much of my life alone and reading.  I often stayed up well after my mom went to bed, but now I loved it, loved being the only one awake.  Like many teens, as much as I loved my friends, I often thought of myself as separate from them - distant.

Fast forward to 1997 when the movie Contact came out.  There is a scene towards the end of the movie where the heroine, Dr. Arroway, alone inside the machine (kind of a spaceship of sorts) gets a full panoramic view of the Milky Way galaxy which she is suspended above.  For some reason I could not find a good screen shot of that scene, but I think the scrip does a good job of it:


So many dazzling multicolored stars they almost touch.
Millions more stars than are visible from Earth on the
clearest night.

An immense, spiraling river of gas and dust, millions of
miles long, pours into the maw of a black hole of
staggering dimensions.  Flashes of radiation leap from the
center like summer lightning --

  The center of the galaxy...

Pretty awe-inspiring huh?  A beautiful swirl of lights as billions of stars make there way around the central disk, our own Sol one of them - magnificent.  To me at the time - horrific.  I was struck in that moment by just how far away Dr. Arroway was from everything familiar; in fact from everything period.  I couldn't stop thinking how empty her little corner of the Universe was at that moment.  How many light years was she from the galaxy?  For me, that moment represented the truest form of loneliness.  It is not the lack of friends, or even other living things - it is the lack of everything.

Walking home that night, and for days afterward, that feeling haunted me.  That scene had opened to door to  a level of solitude I had never known.  I had often wondered about it.  When I was in Sunday School as a child, the notion that in the beginning of the Bible, God is alone.  There are no angels or demons, no stars, no people, no light or darkness.  Nothing.  It is a common start to religious creation stories.  The Egyptians were a little kinder to their creator Atum, who began life alone in the water body Nu.  At least he had water surrounding him.  I'm not sure if that was much comfort.

Either way, the experience of being the only one, the only anything, must have been unpleasant to these divinities.  It is such an alien concept that I don't think we have the capacity to imagine it.  Take a moment and try anyway.  You are alone.  There is nothing around you.  No objects, no sounds, no light or color, no sensations of any kind because there is nothing to sense.  Nothing.

I can't do it, not really anyway.  The closest I can get is to remember back to that scene in "Contact" and I find that unpleasant enough.

I think that initial scene of so many creation stories serves as much to separate and elevate God for us as to explain the beginning of the universe.  For early man, living in small communities, huddled around fires at night and cooking the day's collection of roots, berries and small game, the idea of being cut off from each other must have been horrendous.  To me, it is interesting that they could even conceive of there being no universe at all.

Science may be more ready to help us in this.  A current theory is that the universe is like a bubble in a sea of other universes, cut off but surrounded by them.  I find that comforting.  There is no promise that we could ever peek into these other universes or even sense them but the idea that they could be out there, is something.  Nice as that is however, it does little for us when the void of space presses into our conscience.  Being so small and delicate, it takes little to pull me back to the enormity of the emptiness of space, and Voyager's accomplishment has done just that.

Voyager thinks nothing of it's trip into emptiness.  Even if it could emote somehow, maybe the sheer magnificence of the cosmic vista and the knowledge that somewhere out there, there was life to be found, would be enough for it.  Here on Earth, I find myself dreaming of alien worlds and what they might be like.  What it would feel like to walk on them, see the stars from a new angle or even enjoy the local life if any existed?  I'm not expecting any miracles but we should be able to get a much better picture of these things for the many extra-solar planets we have now discovered and those we have yet to find.  If we never find life elsewhere, will we find ourselves lonelier for it?  Will we shut down the space program and call it a day.  Will we suddenly feel the full weight of responsibility we have in taking care of our own planet and turn over a new leaf, or will we instead submit to a planet wide depression and destroy ourselves in a fit of rage and self-hatred?

Personally I think that we will keep going, exploring the universe to learn as much as we can about it, our origins and our place in it.  I think that given enough time, we will do our best to spread to Mars and maybe even beyond.  We will do this, not only because we might need the space or the resources, but because of the peace it brings - the knowledge that no matter how lonely we feel at night, alone in our cities, nations and continents, that we have neighbors to share the stars with us.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

With all the hubub over Congress lately - specifically, their inability to get anything done, I thought a new version of the game Clue was in order.  There are tons of versions of Monopoly these days but it seems that Clue has been neglected despite how easy it would be to "personalize" for any given city/workplace/group of people.
Well, here's my take on Congressional Clue.  It's easy to make - cards for characters and weapons can be cheaply made with index cards and a real Clue game board can be easily converted via paper and tape (or, if your are up for it, buy some poster board and make it yourself. Game pieces can be made with almost anything you want to stick labels on.  Rooms, characters and weapons can be personalized as you like.  The end result is pretty ghetto, but then so is Congress.

Congressional Clue
·        Rooms
1.     Congressional Hall
2.     Brothel
3.     Backroom
4.     Bar
5.     Back Alley
6.     Political Talk Shows/News
7.     Press Conference
8.     Rally
9.     Abandoned Building/Parking Garage
·        Characters
1.     President
2.     Speaker of the House
3.     House Majority Leader
4.     House Minority Leader
5.     Senate Majority Leader
6.     Senate Minority Leader
7.     Influential Non-leader Republican
8.     Influential Non-Leader Democrat
9.      Lobbyist
·        Weapons (descriptions stolen largely from Wikipedia - forgive my laziness)
1.      Straw Man—a fallacy based on a misrepresentation of the opposition’s position.  To "attack a straw man" is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by replacing it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the "straw man"), and to refute it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.
2.      Scandal—a widely publicized allegation or set of allegations that damages (or tries to damage) the reputation of an institution, individual or creed.
3.      Filibuster—talking for hours on end without support of a break.  These days no actual filibuster need take place, just the threat of one is enough.
4.      Crocodile Tears—false or insincere display of emotion, often used in conjunction with other weapons, the proper use of crocodile tears is often enough to sway support on their own.
5.      Money—either by paying off the opposition or by paying for advertising to gain support for your position.
6.      Blackmail— an act, often a crime, involving unjustified (or justified) threats to make a gain or cause loss to another unless a demand is met.
7.      Religion—claiming that a bill is against your religion, repressive of your religion or simply immoral; completely making up the argument would be a Straw Man
8.      Science—claiming that a bill is contrary to current science, hampers science or will have harmful consequences based on current scientific knowledge; completely making up the argument would be a Straw Man.

9.      Rider—an additional provision added to a bill or other measure under the consideration by a legislature, having little connection with the subject matter of the bill.  While often intended to get legislation passed that would not get support on its own, riders can lead to the killing of bills due to outrage at their subjects or even the sheer numbers of them.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Story published!

Just a quick post to toot my own horn.

A short story of mine, "Hector", about a snail that visits the UN is now up in the latest issue of Scareship magazine.  It's my first published fiction and I hope you enjoy it:

I don't have a picture of a conch but here's some pictures of a calliostomatid snail, just because:
Found this guy at the NY Aquarium.  The original picture, and more like it can be found at my photography site here

Kisses! This can be found on my photography site here

Friday, May 31, 2013

Scientific Metaphors & Similes That I Wish Were Well-enough Known to be Cliches in Writing.

Anyone who has been given instruction in creative writing (either by choice or otherwise) has probably had the evils of cliches drilled into their skull.  Writers like to deride them from their lack of creativity and imagination - fair enough - but for all of that, I wish the list of cliches out there was longer.  The good thing about cliches is that they can give us an idea of references that are so well known in our culture that people are often sick and tired of them.  Considering that some examples of cliches are "dark as pitch", "bright as the sun" and "having an ax to grind", we as a society may have set the bar of general knowledge pretty low.  

I study biology and I'll admit to being biased by it.  I see/hear evidence of scientific ignorance daily (hell I'm still ignorant about plenty of it and am always trying to resolve that) and got to thinking that it would be pretty awesome (read geeky) if the state of our collective scientific knowledge was such that there were plenty of scientific cliches going around.  "Fast as the speed of light" is one that I can think of off the top of head.  Here are some more that I think would be great additions (if you feel like skipping the explanations, no worries - I won't cry):

  • As thin as a jellyfish's body  
    • Explanation: jellyfish are diploblastic, meaning they have only two tissue layers.  The vast majority of animal species are triploblastic, meaning they have three tissue layers.  The lack of a third tissue layer means jellyfish and their relatives (Ctenophores too which are in a different phylum) don't need respiratory (gills, lungs etc.) or circulatory (heart & veins) systems - O2/nutrients/waste can easily diffuse throughout the body without them.
Photo from Me!

    • Example: The politicians argument that the 50 states would be better off merged into one was as thin as a jellyfish - everyone could see he was trying to gain support with the influential Statists from his state.  
      • Point of Note: Statists are in essence the opposite of libertarians. I don't know of any powerful statist groups (or any statist groups all all for that matter) in the US.

  • As difficult to pass as a kiwi's egg
    • Explanation:
Can't remember where I got this exactly but it's EVERYWHERE online.  When I find the original scientific paper that did this, I'll give appropriate credit
    • Example: Our first exam was as difficult to pass as a kiwi's egg.

  • As hard to find as dark matter
    • Explanation: Dark matter is theoretical but strongly suspected to exist by astronomers who realized that the observed mass of the universe did not add up to what it should.  They've been searching for it ever since (and may have found some evidence this year).  That's about as much as I know about it.

    • Example: I looked all over town for my favorite brand of coffee without luck.  It's as hard to find as dark matter.

  • Cuter than a tardigrade
    • Explanation: Tardigrades are tiny (I do mean tiny - 1 mm max for some species) invertebrates which are so damn cute their also called waterbears.  See for yourself -

image obtained from here, but it's up on many websites

                     They have even inspired cute yarn versions - 

image from the Wunderkammer blog

    • Example: Oh my God - your new baby is just as cute as a tardigrade!

  • Blacker than a male mountain blue don's wings.

    • Example: Our new car is white as snow, with soft leather seats and tires blacker than a male mountain blue don's wings.

  • As complex as the Einstein field equations
    • Explanation: Part of his Theory of General Relativity which help explain how the function of gravity is a result of spacetime being curved by both matter and energy.  I only kinda-sorta understand it myself but that hardly matters.  What matters (at least for this simile) is this: 

                    What's more - there are 9 more of them, each as complex as that one.

    • Example: The flavor profile of the 2013 Chardonnay produced by Escalia Vinyards is rich and as complex as the Einstein field equations with hints of oak, strawberry, marshmallow, apple, vanilla, butter, durian fruit and bacon.

  • Beautiful as the world seen through a mantis shrimp's eyes
    • Explanation: mantis shrimp have 16 different photoreceptive pigments in their eyes, compared to our three.  
    • Peacock mantis shrimp, via National Geographic. A piece of advice to this guy - just because you can see more colors than the rest of us doesn't mean you have to wear them all at once.  
      • Example: Oh honey.  My that...what is it?  A picture of me?  Well now, er, I look as pretty as the world through a mantis shrimp's eyes!  I'll just go and hang thin in the closet where I can admire it every time I get my coat.

    I had more - way more - but I haven't had time to do them all.   Be thankful. 

    Have any of your own (scientific or from another field)?  Let's hear 'em!

    Saturday, May 4, 2013

    Fun with E. coli

    Technically it's fun with Photoshop CS5.

    Discovering that the school computers have the program I played around a bit with it.  I've long thought it would be fun to create a series of tee shirts featuring cartoony pictures of microorganisms people don't like. Eschericia coli is probably at the top of that list, regardless of how important it can be in maintaining a healthy digestive tract.

    Anyway, I learned that while CS5 is pretty easy to use, it's also pretty hard to make smooth lines via a mouse.  I'm pleased with the end result but plan to try again sometime to see if I can smooth out the edges a good deal.

    Thursday, April 4, 2013

    Mission Accomplished

    I went to the book signing last night and managed to get a good seat.  I've been to a few book signing events and this one was definitely one of the better ones, not a little bit due to the fact that there is just so much cool stuff in the book to be discussed.

    I forgot to bring my copy of Packing for Mars but I brought two others and she happily signed all three.
    Notice the mistake in the last one.  It's kind of weird but that made my day!  She was super nice about it and had a great sense of humor (could you really expect anything else?) too and I sure didn't mind.  I guess what makes it truly special for me is the unique and personalized quality to the message (how many people will get books signed complete with editorial marks and the word "duh" included?

    It was her first signing event for the new book so that was cool but I kind of wish I could have gone to tonight's at the Mutter Museum (I think) which will involve the curator bringing related specimens.


    Well, if I can't go, at least I can close this posting with a picture of a megacolon on display at the museum (photo from


    Wednesday, April 3, 2013

    scurrying to see Mary Roach

    Mary Roach, one of my all-time favorite nonfiction authors (hell, one of my all-time favorite authors period) is reading from her new book Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal tonight at the Barnes & Noble at Union Square.

    With the exception of Spook (which I do plan to read), I have read all her previous books and loved each.  Her topics of choice are the sort that can't help but stir the imagination - corpses, space, sex, ghosts - and she has previously stated (I'm paraphrasing) that she has the interests of a 14 year old boy.  Give that, this book seems a bit of an oddity for her.  I'd imagine that a book devoted to the digestive tract is a hard sell for most of the public, but maybe I'm wrong.  I can see how it relates to the 14 year old boy mindset (digestion = poop) but I'm not sure if a. that will occur to many would-be readers or b. that will be the very thing that keeps some from reading it. 

    I'm thinking/hoping that her growing popularity is enough to push the public to buy the book.  That in itself is huge.  For myself as a biologist and as an aspiring science writer, the ability to get people interested in topics generally ignored/actively avoided is a major goal.  Beyond that, I am in awe of Ms. Roach for her seemingly fearless approach to all subjects she writes about (in Bonk she doesn't just write about sex research - she participates in it).  I'm not sure how far I will find myself going in pursuit of answers to my questions but starting a blog - available to the public - is a tiny start for me.