Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

17Mar/09Off

Science Blogging: The Future of Science Communication & Why You Should be a Part of it

sciencebloggingOver the past few years, a new development has arisen in the world of science amongst those who wish to purvey the wonders of reality to the general public.

I'm speaking of course about the ascension of the Science Blog.

Many articles have been written on the burgeoning importance of science blogs for the processing and dissemination of scientific knowledge (see references at the bottom of this post). Conferences have been held, letters in scientific journals have been published, and a myriad online conversations have occurred through social media outlets such as twitter and friendfeed.

Despite all that, there still exists an incredibly large and significant portion of the science population that remains unaware of the existence of science blogs, of the vast amounts of knowledge to be gained from following them, and of the potential career advantages obtained from writing a science blog.

It is for this reason that I was recently asked by Dr. Paul Medina, Science Education and Outreach Coordinator of the University of North Carolina's Training Initiative in Biomedical and Biological Sciences (TIBBS), to write an article on the subject for the TIBBS Newsletter. As such, the primary target audience of this article are the biology graduate students who have yet to learn of the power of the science blog, though it is equally applicable to any and all with an interest in science. If you are arriving at this post by way of the newsletter, I welcome you and encourage you to look around this blog as well as the many other excellent blogs in my blogroll.

What is a Science Blog?

A science blog is just that: a personal web log containing posts written by the author (or sometimes multiple authors) on whatever happens to catch their fancy - usually with a high percentage of posts on scientific topics. Many science blogs are focused on very specific aspects of science - often on the field of the author's expertise. Others are more general, consisting of a wide range of scientific news items, issues, or topics. Some are written with the lay public in mind, while others are written for other scientists, detailing the esoteric minutia of a particular subject.

Science blogs in general have the following qualities:

  • Written by people passionate about science and their topic of choice
  • Written by people very knowledgeable in science
  • Often written by people intimately involved in scientific research

Science bloggers run the gamut of career levels, from lay people with a strong interest in science to teachers, graduate students, postdocs, and an increasing number of principal investigators.

Why you should follow science blogs

1. To keep up to date on fascinating research

Every single day, the world of science is filled with new findings. The scientific journals overflow with exciting new facets into the nature of existence. How is one to wade through it all to remain up to date on the most pertinent or meaningful studies? Obviously, reading the primary literature in your field is of prime importance. But it's quite easy to miss important or interesting work by relying on journals alone. This is particularly true if your interests drive you to cast a wider net. Of course, the mainstream media and sites like LiveScience and ScienceDaily will give you a lot of the headline-making stories - usually those of the highest emotional impact to the public at large.

However, much gets left out of the media - leaving an ocean of wonder beneath the waves of data. Science blogs serve as a great filter - often the best distillation medium around - to sift through it all and pull out the most intriguing and highest impact research of the day.

One of the best ways to sift through the massive amounts of daily research is to follow ResearchBlogging.org, which collates only those blog posts that deal directly with the primary literature. It is conveniently categorized so that you can follow whatever field you wish. I have little doubt that this site will represent a huge part of the science blogging, journalism, and communication future.

2. Join in the great discussion

One of the biggest advantages of the science blog as a medium of information dissemination is its focus on reader interaction and discussion. This is usually done through the "comments" section of a particular blog post. However, the conversation often evolves into multiple posts across the blogosphere - all cross-referencing and interacting with each other, generating multiple discussions in the process. Instead of being a passive receiver of scientific knowledge, commenters become an integral part of society's processing of said information, discussing and debating its implications and relevance.

3. Science blogs allow you to talk about science in an informal setting

Most science bloggers would probably tell you that the online science community has become much like a never ending 24/7 hop down to the pub (sometimes minus the ethanolic beverages - but not always). The vast majority of science blog posts aren't academic treatises. Certainly, many of them are - when that is the author's intent. However, many of the most entertaining science blogs often begin with the kind of statements you might hear among a group of scientists huddled around a pitcher of drought beer in your local dive bar. Though usually done with a little bit more literary style, they often start with something in the way of "So today I read one of most freaking cool things I've ever read..." Alternatively, science blog posts often begin with the theme "You know what I learned today that really sucks?..." This is particularly true of the blogs that deal with conservation issues or the status of evolutionary understanding in the U.S. (a daily subject of biology blogger consternation).

No community exists without its share of large egos. But by and large, I've found that in the science blogging community, pretense is often dropped in lieu of thoughtful and meaningful conversation (though I'm sure many would argue with this). Most of us science bloggers are in this for one reason: we love science and we love talking about it even more.

4. Gain emotional and social support from like-minded people

Whether you're a student, a post-doc, or a principal investigator, you've most assuredly learned that science is hard. One of greatest thing about science blogs is that they are the personal expressions and opinions of the blogger. As such, you will often read posts dealing with current issues and hardships of existing in the academic world. Trials, tribulations, frustrations - they are all on display in the blogosphere. It's much easier to keep yourself sane when reading of your favorite author's own similar experiences. I personally know of several P.I.s who follow blogs for the specific purpose of commiserating on the difficulties of being a scientist/academic in today's world.

The science blogosphere is a true community.  In many respects, being a part of this community has become one of the most rewarding experiences I've had in science. I'll speak more on this in the next section on why you should be a science blogger.

Why you should start a science blog

1. Share your passion for science

Chances are, if you are involved in the daily duties of discovering the mechanisms of nature, you're probably in it because you love it. There's nothing quite like publishing one's own research in peer-reviewed journals. However, unless you're a powerhouse you probably spend many months or years between those publications grinding away at the bench or in the field, with few other chances to share your love with the world at large. Blogs are an excellent way to continuously maintain a presence within the science community and to contribute to scientific thought, whether you write on interesting facts you've learned or dive deep into distilling the current primary literature.

2. Be a part of the community

I've found few communities quite like that of the science bloggers. We are nerds and proud of it. We care deeply about all aspects of science, with particular interest in bringing it to the people. From the first day of becoming a part of this community, you can rest easy knowing that have just entered a virtual world full of people that are like you in many respects. And of course, to make your blog succeed you must find readers. The main method of finding people who care about what you have to say is to become an active member of the community. This means that you visit your friends' online homes often and join in their conversations. Before long, they will begin to come to your virtual house to palaver. The science blogging community is a multi-threaded, never-ending science party.

When not interacting through blogs, you can always find conversations occurring on Friendfeed. If you are a biologist, the first place to start is to join the Life Scientists room (which currently has 667 members). Also, a daily-growing number of science researchers, teachers, bloggers, and journalists use twitter (start by "following" the science enthusiasts on this list maintained by David Bradley - @sciencebase).

By now you might have gotten the impression that the online science blogging community is relegated to the virtual realm alone. In reality, I owe most of my readership and my connections within the community to a real world event: the wonderful ScienceOnline09 conference. That's right - there's an entire conference dedicated to science blogging, writing, journalism, and education through online media. And the kicker for you folks from UNC is that it is held annually right here in Research Triangle Park. I know for a fact that the organizers Bora Zivkovic (A Blog Around the Clock), Anton Zuiker (mistersugar), and David Kroll (BRITE) have already begun the orchestration for ScienceOnline10. So be sure to sign up once registration opens. Not only will you learn of a slew of new developments in the world of online science, you may just get to join the rowdy ocean bloggers in another round of sea shantying.

Ocean Bloggers at ScienceOnline09

Ocean Bloggers at ScienceOnline09

3. Make connections

You've hopefully learned by now that science, like every other aspect of life, is much more rewarding when you've formed a good network. Just over the past few months, I've met more scientists in a wider variety of fields through my blogging than through an equal amount of time in the science community of the "real world." Again, the point must be hammered that these connections are very real connections, and often become much more personal through the informal nature of interacting in a blog setting. There exists the real possibility, as I have learned, that these connections may just aid you in your future career endeavors, despite what some skeptics may say.

4. Be a part of "the good fight"

I took the above reason from fellow science blogger, GrrlScientist of Living the Scientific Life and member of one of the most popular blogging communities, ScienceBlogs.

It's no secret that the science community is in a seemingly never-ending battle with those who wish to push ignorance upon this and future generations. Within the science blogging community runs a thick vein of pro-science activism. That is why we do this after all - to share our passion and knowledge with the rest of the world.

When you become a member of the community, you can be sure that should some insane legislation enter the pipelines or an inane campaign begin, you will hear about it through the blogs. It's all the more reassuring to know that when your blood begins to boil, a cadre of people spread around the globe are sharing in your frustration. And often times, this can lead to organized action.

5. Become a better writer

We all know the importance of having excellent writing skills. Writing is how we obtain funding and how we display our research findings to the world - and it largely represents our main metric of success. Writing a science blog is one sure way to keep those typing fingers sharp and your mind nimble, and vice versa.

6. Hone your ability to distill complex research into understandable terms

The vast majority of science blogs cater to a wider audience than just those individuals directly involved in similar research. As such, it's critical to explain yourself well without filling your articles with needless jargon. Not only will this make you a better writer, but it will make you better able at explaining exactly why you deserve the taxpayers' hard-earned money, and why your research might make a difference to this world. It will also vastly increase your ability to teach these same concepts.

7. Showcase your dedication to science and your interest in outreach

Though some science bloggers have managed to find a way to do this for a living, most of us do this as a hobby in our spare time. Blogging can take as much or as little time that you desire, but regardless of the amount of effort you put into your science blog, it can always serve as a tangible (virtual) accomplishment you can point to and say "see this? These are the things I am interested in as a person. This is how much I love science." Make no mistake, science blogging is real outreach. I can't count the number of hits I've recieved on this site that were obviously children doing a little bit of research. Not to mention the fact that I somehow managed to reach you.

8. Get feedback on your own thoughts and/or research

Do you ever have a science-related question and wish that you could just shout out for someone to answer it? Google works - sometimes - but it's nothing compared to the value of information you get directly from someone with relevant experience. Just a few days ago I needed information on a Green Fluorescent Protein variant antibody. I shouted the question to my blogger buddies through twitter and 2 minutes later I had my answer.

Again, a science blog is a collection of conversations - conversations that often lead to insightful changes in your own opinions and thoughts.

9. Blogs are great teaching tools both inside and outside the classroom

If you are a teacher, you might be interested to know that there is a growing trend among some of the best teachers to use blogs and similar social media-like online sites as tools to supplement the classroom (see Nings in Education). One of the pioneers in using blogs as an instructional tool is the excellent MissBaker. I had the honor of meeting MissBaker and some of her students at the ScienceOnline09 conference, and I can tell you that she is always willing to give advice to fellow teachers on using these tools.

10. Increase the visibility of yourself, your lab, your department, and your University

There is a growing push to get institutions, departments, and individual labs more involved in the online science communication. Let's face it - the world is online. Our kids learn, chat, and meet online. They practically run their lives through the internet. Science blogs are an excellent way to keep the world informed of your own research interests and to showcase what you've accomplished. We academics are often criticized for living in our ivory towers. Through science blogs you can reach out directly to the public, without having to worry about unreliable media intermediaries. If you are a principal investigator, I highly recommend that you read University professors turn to the blogosphere, for classes and recognition

11. Have fun

Oh yes, writing a science blog and following your favorite blogger colleagues is loads of fun. It was through this blog that I met Kevin Zelnio (Deep-Sea News), Andrew the Southern Fried Scientist, and David "WhySharksMatter" (both of Southern Fried Science). Beginning on February 12th - Darwin's 200th birthday - we began a competition - The Great Darwin Beard Challenge. The competition will end on October 1st - the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species - at which time we will see who has grown the most darwinesque beard (check back for weekly updates and photos).

If that's not fun, I don't know what is!

It's okay - you can say I don't know what fun is.

Why science blogs will be a major component of the future of science communication

The science blogging community is far from free of heated debates. One such debate that extends to the larger world of journalism in general is exactly what place blogs should have in disseminating knowledge to the public.

I know I'm not alone in my own thoughts, though there are many that would disagree with what I'm about to say.

I believe that by-and-large, science bloggers are in the process of making many science journalists, at least as we know them now, obsolete. That is not to say that blogging can or should replace journalism (a hot debate these days), but good science journalism will need to evolve as it becomes complemented by the growing community of science blogs.

Let me first say that there will always be a strong demand for and great value in excellent science journalists and writers. I'm talking about the Olivia Judsons and Carl Zimmers of the world. Let me also state that I am not an expert on journalism or the media. These are my own opinions, though reasonably well-informed they are.

By "science journalists," I'm only talking about those people who are primarily journalists - writers - that do not necessarily have a strong background in science, and that certainly don't have in-depth training on the topics they report on.

So why do I think this specific breed of journalist is being made obsolete? The main role of the science journalist, as I see it, is to serve as an intermediary between the stereotypical "socially inept, egghead" scientist and the public. They package the scientists' findings into neat little stories that everyone can understand, using a few quotes from the scientist to humanize the data. Many of them are quite good at what they do - and adeptly able to grasp complex concepts and boil them down for the layperson.

However, with the rise of the science blogger, intermediaries are becoming largely unnecessary.

One of the critiques often made by traditional journalists of bloggers in general is that bloggers "don't have the training to research a subject." You can clearly see that this critique doesn't fit the science blogger. In fact, there is no one better able to do the appropriate research on a science topic than those intimately involved in similar research.

A second common claim is that "scientists and bloggers aren't good writers. They don't understand the concept of a 'story'." There are certainly scientists who can't write for a general audience. And there are plenty of bad bloggers. However, there are also plenty of really bad journalists. There is now a huge and growing number of science bloggers who are truly superb writers (Note: I don't consider myself one of these. I am still very much in the learning phase). Check out Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science for one great example. Saying that scientists are bad writers is a bit like saying that journalists are terrible drivers.  Most scientists owe their very existence (i.e. funding) to their ability to write well and convincingly and many of them are quite good at turning their research into a story.

Chances are good that some of you will end up taking up science blogging. As the number of science bloggers grows, so too does the cache of potentially excellent writers who also have the expertise to break down the scientific data itself. The more of us there are, the better we all get at our craft, feeding off the successes of each other.

The cream will always float to the top. Again, I know little to nothing of the economics of science journalism, but it is quite clear that the science blogging community will at minimum raise the bar for journalists covering scientific research. Thus, I see no end in the growth of the science blog as a meaningful and personal medium for the dissemination of scientific knowledge to the public who funds it.

Will you be a part the revolution?

So you've decided to start a science blog...where do you start?

Blog Networks

More reading

To those of you already blogging science

Please feel free to add your own comments below. I will likely update this post. I seriously doubt that I managed to catch all the great reasons to blog. Also feel free to point out any errors or omissions.

9Mar/09Off

Under the Sea 3D – A Stellar Review

Under the Sea 3D

Under the Sea 3D

This weekend my wonderful wife arranged a date night for us. And how awesome does it make her that it consisted of the single most breathtaking documentary I've ever seen - "Under the Sea 3D," a stroll through the evolution of life at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, followed by a heaping plate of crab legs at the 42nd St. Oyster Bar in Raleigh? (no the irony of that last part is not lost on me - but hey - I loves me some crab legs!)

This post is both a review and a shout out to everyone who has not seen "Under the Sea 3D" at your nearest IMAX to immediately drop what you are doing and go watch it (check out its nifty flash site as well).

I'm not being overly hyperbolic here - this film (directed by Howard Hall) is utterly stunning.

There is basically no narrative in this film. But for what it wants to accomplish, I don't think any documentary I've watched has achieved its goal so succinctly.

The film begins with nothing more than sequence after sequence of mesmerizing coral reef habitats and creatures. It's narrated by Jim Carrey (who is great - I found myself forgetting that it was even him most of the time - there were no characteristic Carrey antics here).

But the key to this film is in the fact that the footage itself leaves you begging for more. Everyone in the theater watched in wonder - their mouths forced open by the alien creatures - usually only realizing later that they've been slack-jawed like goons for five minutes. The three dimensionality is pulled off to such a great extent that the creatures seem like they are moving and living mere inches from your face. I have never been scuba diving (and can't due to my marine unworthy inner ear), but I have been snorkeling - and I consider it one of the most amazing experiences of my life. That being said, the detail in this film far exceeded any real-life ocean experience I've had.

Each of the reef scenes is so filled with action - shrimp scuttling in the background, various fish doing their things, corals waxing and waning in the current - that you literally will want to watch it again just to focus on different aspects of each scene (not to mention the fact that the IMAX screen fills your entire field of view - it's impossible to see it all in one sitting).

Aside from the imagery which is hands down among the best I've seen, the conservation message is presented in the absolutely perfect way for its target audience (basically - everyone in the world and especially kids or the uneducated). Conservation or the ills facing the marine world are not even mentioned until your mind has been boggled by the crazy critters of the sea.

Only after bringing you into a state of constant awe does Jim Carrey begin hinting that things aren't alright. The message ramps up to the inevitable images of dead reefs, bleached by ocean acidification. However, I don't think it ever became overly preachy.

Under the Sea 3D

Under the Sea 3D

In fact the conservation message ended on an overly optimistic high note (overly from a scientific perspective) but one necessary if we ever want the general populace to care. Basically it paints the current state of the conservation movement as a hopeful paradigm shift in human society. It plainly states that humankind is beginning to realize its mistakes and that most people are coming around. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant because it leaves you thinking "hey, caring about CO2 and the oceans and biodiversity is the normal smart thing now. I want to be part of the informed and enlightened crowd. I want to care too."

In other words it doesn't just say "The oceans are screwed. It's all our fault. We should all be ashamed of what we've done." It says "the better angels of human nature are trying to turn it all around. And they are giving the world hope." And because of the tone, one cannot help but naturally want to be one of those better angels.

For you marine biologists, the very simple message will seem quaint. But I'm sure you will understand the necessity of this sort of film serving as an initiator for conservationist thinking.

I honestly believe that every person on the planet should watch this film. Especially the children.

Oh, and did I mention that there are TONS of cuttlefish in it?

Don't even think for half a second that the following trailer comes close to doing the 3D beauty justice!

26Feb/09Off

Kingdom of the Blue Whale! – National Geographic

Heart the size of a Mini Cooper.
Mouth big enough to hold 100 people.
Longer than a basketball court.
Weighing as much as 25 large elephants.
It is the largest creature ever to inhabit the earth.
But we know precious little about it.

Kingdom of the Blue Whale - National Geographic Channel

Kingdom of the Blue Whale - National Geographic Channel

Yes, I am now an advertising pawn of big media. But it's a particular medium that I have no problem advertising for (and it will soon be obvious why). Thanks to the National Geographic Channel’s awesome Digital Consultant, Minjae Ormes, today I received an early screener DVD of their new TV program "Kingdom of the Blue Whale," which premieres Sunday, March 8, at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

Shiny Happy DVD (and press release)

Shiny Happy DVD (and press release)

Recently, Christie at Observations of a Nerd reviewed an early copy of NGC's Darwin Specials. She had a minor problem with one aspect of it, which I then expounded upon. I saw the problem as a critical one in which they incorrectly spoke about the mechanisms of evolution. I should note that having watched "Morphed" the rest of program's quality more than made up for my criticisms. Nonetheless, I told NGC's Digital Consultant that I felt a little bad criticizing it, but that I felt I had to. She replied thusly:

"Given your experience and expertise, I wouldn't expect anything less. I think it is precisely your personal take on the programs that would more likely convince other people to watch the programs via word-of-mouth, so I always appreciate an honest and thorough review."

It is for this open attitude that I have no problem reviewing NGC's programs and advertising for them. After all, who doesn't love the National Geographic Channel in general? This blog is all about science outreach - and that's what I see these NGC programs as being all about (other than the whole money thing).

This review is a tag-team collaborative review between myself, the aforementioned Christie at Observations of a Nerd, and Allie Wilkinson of Oh, For The Love Of Science! (link will be updated once their reviews are posted). Christie is actually a marine biologist, and knows a ton about whales, so she will focus on the science aspect of the program, while Allie is a conservation buff, and will cover it from that angle. I on the other hand, know a little more than your average non-scientist Joe about cetaceans and conservation, but infinitely less than Christie and Allie, so I will mainly give my impressions of the presentation, visuals, cinematography, etc., though there will no doubt be overlap.

Kingdom of the Blue Whale

“Our oceans once churned with giants, diving deep through liquid space. Today they’re few...and fragile”

The above quote is the opening line, delivered by the smooth yet husky voice of none other than walrus-mustachioed Magnum P.I. Tom Selleck. First off, let me say that Tom Selleck makes a really great narrator - smooth and never overly melodramatic.

For those of you who don't want to read the whole review, here is all you need to know: Kingdom of the Blue Whale is stunning! It's beautiful. It's sad. It pisses you off. Then it wows you some more. Then it saddens you again. Then it's uplifts you and then leaves you thinking "we've got to save them!"

The roller coaster of emotions is most assuredly intended exactly as such, for the program involves more than one story, though it does have a singular narrative at its center.

The central story involves one that perhaps many non-marine biologists and non-scientists may find shocking: despite the fact that the blue whale is the largest animal ever to have existed on the Earth, we had never seen them mating, we had never seen an infant, and we didn't even know where the blue whale goes to get it on and have babies. In fact, the smallest blue whale calves we've seen were about 40 feet long! To quote the program:

“Their calls travel hundreds of miles…but we can barely hear them.”

“They eat thousands of pounds of food every day…but we don’t know how they find it”

These are some of the many questions that several different groups of researchers set out to answer in the film. One of the things I loved about it is that each scientific question - including the nitty gritty details of how and where lab experiments were done, how samples were obtained, who is doing the research - was cut and intermingled in between the main story arc which took place almost solely on the open ocean.

It was clearly edited in a way to best bring the details of science to the attention-deficit American audience. First woo you in with stunning imagery and a tale of high seas adventure (and the constant question: "will they find a baby blue?"), then feed you a little bit of the behind-closed-doors labor of science - studies of the inner ear, communication, some genetics, illegal hunting - followed by more of the story arc, and so on.

Tagging the Blue Whale

Tagging the Blue Whale

The one tiny potential problem is that it is fairly long (1hr 36min without commercials) with a lot of research talk, such as in a segment on a portable genetics lab in a Japanese hotel looking for blue whale meat from a meat market. But I must stress that this is NOT a problem with the program per se, but a problem with today's viewing audience. In fact, I am incredibly pleased that they included so many different scientific issues. In the end, I enjoyed every minute of it, and would recommend that everyone watch it.

As for the visuals, what can I say, but "wow!" The videography in this program is amazing. Especially when you consider how few blue whales exist in our enormous oceans. Most of the awesomeness can simply be attributed to the inherent magnificence of the whales themselves, but the filming crew definitely deserves mad props. The opening scene sets the pace with a great close up of a blue whale's fully expanded pleated throat gathering up krill. After watching shots such as these, one can't help but want much more - more than is actually available. The scarcity of underwater close-ups is made painstakingly clear simply by watching how these beasts live, where they're found, and the difficulty just in studying them.

The logistical hurdles of filming and studying these animals was portrayed wonderfully. Keep in mind that an adult female can weigh up to 200 tons! And the researchers can only study the whales in tiny boats - it's simply too dangerous to attempt it from the large base ship. They have to constantly maneuver to stay behind the tail and anticipate their movements. Luckily, the whales were completely unspooked by tagging and tissue sampling. It was almost funny watching them try to attach suction probes to study their movement and sounds. To do this, they had to match the whales' speed in a (relatively) tiny outboard boat. On other days they had to battle storms, which made it completely impossible to spot the whales' “blows”.

Flukes!

Flukes!

The program was filled with beautiful shots of whales from high above, whales from the surface, and even from below them. My favorite involved the "CritterCam" that was placed by suction cup on one whale. You could see the whale's nose aiming upward toward the surface - then a dark cloud became visible - krill! - the whale opened it's gaping maw and swallowed the entire mass.

The transitions were quite well done, with several excellent computer animated sequences. These sequences were few and not done to make the program flashy. All of the animated sequences were used to illustrate important points, such as one beautiful animation of the earth overlayed with migration routes and sea floor topography, which gave me a great sense of the immensity of the ocean and the whales' habitat. Another cool animation showed water, temperature, and nutrient flow to illustrate the core habitat the researchers were searching for: the "dome," a tropical area with specific temperature layers that serve as a prime "nursery" for many ocean species. Or to put it more accurately, "an upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water generated by a meeting of winds and currents west of Central America".

And then there was my favorite animation: a sequence showing a whale fetus in the womb.

The program was not completely without laughs - especially when Tom mentioned that a nine-month pregnant female carries a fetus that's 18 feet long. It just sounds so ridiculous! Or when the collection of a single sample of whale feces is described as a "tremendous triumph."

In the end, like pretty much every nature documentary these days, it's impossible not to leave with a sense of sadness and dread. A feeling that no matter how much programs like this help, no matter how many conservation movements take up the cause, the blue whale as we know it may be ultimately doomed. But hope is certainly not lost. Some populations may be making a slow comeback. Only time will tell.

I have a ton of notes that I'm leaving out, but I'm certain that Christie will spill much more than I. Don't worry - there is still much cetacean goodness that I haven't given away (hybrids between blues and fins?).

I'll simply leave you with the following questions:

Will they find the blue whale mating grounds?

Will they discover if the blues feed during winter unlike most whales?

Will they find the elusive baby blue whale?

Hint: the "money shot" is incredibly breathtaking.

Stayed tuned next month when we will be reviewing the other NGC program you can see on the above press release: "Waking the Baby Mammoth."

And for those of you wanting even more information on these great beasts, the official press release is below.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNEL EMBARKS ON AN EXPEDITION

TO REVEAL THE SECRET KINGDOM OF THE BLUE WHALE

Scientists Unravel Mysteries of Critically Endangered Blue Whales,

and National Geographic is the First to Film an Infant Calf Underwater

Narrated by Emmy Award-Winning Actor Tom Selleck,

Kingdom of the Blue Whale Premieres Sunday, March 8, at 8 p.m. ET/PT

(WASHINGTON, D.C. - FEBRUARY 18, 2009) They are the largest creatures ever to live on our planet - larger than any of the great dinosaurs - yet few people have seen one.  They are one of the loudest animals on land or sea - capable of making sounds equivalent to those of a jet engine - but we struggle to hear them.  They deliver the world's largest babies, but despite their immense size, most of the places where the great blue whales calve their young have been among the world's greatest mysteries.

Blue whales are so rare that even experts know little about them, but we do know their future is threatened.  Blue whales in the Eastern North Pacific once numbered close to 10,000, but more than a century of whaling took its toll.  Even though the hunting of blues has been banned since the 1960s, today only about 2,000 are left in what is thought to be the largest known population on earth.  In an effort to learn more about these behemoths and help to protect them, an international team of scientists supported by the National Geographic Society sets out on an expedition to unlock the secrets of the blue whale and investigate why more are dying than at any time since the era of whaling.

Narrated by Emmy award-winning actor Tom Selleck, on Sunday, March 8, 2009, at 8 p.m. ET/PT, National Geographic Channel's (NGC) Kingdom of the Blue Whale takes viewers on a journey with some of the world's preeminent experts to explore the little-known wintering grounds of these elusive gentle giants, chart their migratory paths and identify where this population produces their young - vital information if they are to be protected.  The team even hopes they will be the first ever to film an infant calf underwater.  National Geographic Magazine will also have coverage of this landmark expedition in its March 2009 issue.

Filmed during sea voyages off the coasts of California and Costa Rica, Kingdom of the Blue Whale follows a watery trail of clues over hundreds of nautical miles, as scientists unravel answers to ancient mysteries hidden in the darkest depths of the oceans.  Back closer to shore, we investigate the traumatic deaths of four blue whales in one season - far greater than the one expected every few years.  Is man to blame, and what can be done to prevent the loss of additional whales?

Stunning HD underwater cinematography, CGI of the developing whale fetus, satellite imaging and insight from experts all help tell this new chapter in the story of the blue whale.  Using National Geographic's cutting-edge Crittercam®, an integrated video-camcorder and data-logging system that attaches to the whale's back with suction, this special also features the exclusive footage of the blue whale gulping krill - from the whale's perspective.

Aboard Oregon State University's research vessel the Pacific Storm, scientists use state-of-the-art equipment to find, study and listen to the Eastern North Pacific blue whale population.  Beginning in California, Dr. Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, places satellite tags on individual blues to track their location anywhere in the sea and collects skin samples to determine the sex of the whales.  Simultaneously, John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research in Olympia, WA, uses a camera to photo-ID blues and a crossbow to collect small skin samples for further study.

Employing a different type of tag, Dr. Erin Oleson, formerly of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography near San Diego, CA, decodes the whales' sounds - and what they might mean - by comparing the acoustic signals to the behavior they exhibit.  To their delight, the scientists are able to tag 15 blues.  But sadly, the team also comes across several dead blues off the coast of Santa Barbara, leaving the scientists distressed and elevating the urgency to find what is killing them.

Armed with technology and driven to solve the mysteries of these giants, the scientists next journey hundreds of miles through remote and dangerous seas searching for the wintering ground of these leviathans in the vast Costa Rica Dome, an area of the Pacific Ocean where cold water from the deep rises to just below the warm, tropical surface - an ideal blue whale habitat.  There the team faces the real challenge of finding and observing blues, which spend virtually all of their lives underwater and surface for only seconds at a time to fill their closet-sized lungs before diving again.

The team locates the whales in almost 1,000 square miles of remote ocean rarely visited by humans, and succeeds in their bold mission to confirm three whale behaviors never witnessed before at the Costa Rica Dome - courtship, calving and winter feeding.  By learning more about this secret spot, they win a huge victory toward protecting the creatures and their most vital habitat.  The team also confirms that calves are born at the Dome by documenting a mother blue whale traveling with an infant calf, the youngest ever photographed underwater and one of the rarest sights in nature.  And they confirm that blues feed all year round in this location - a behavior never before observed here.  Prior to this discovery, scientists had suspected that blue whales fed here during the winter months, but were never able to conclusively prove it.  In addition, the team verifies that blue whales interact with one another by singing, a behavior previously exhibited only by single males swimming alone.

Kingdom of the Blue Whale also opens a window into why these animals have become one of the most endangered species on earth.  Today, our oceans are busier and noisier, and resources the whales depend on are disappearing.  And while blue whale hunting is now illegal, they remain under assault by another killer - huge oceangoing cargo vessels that power through the sea day and night.  Blues have been known to become victims of ship strikes on occasion, but the numbers of fatalities have increased in recent years.  In fact, the four dead blue whales found during the making of this film were apparently killed by ship strikes.  Whale experts are exploring whether the amount of industrial noise in today's oceans might be a cause of confusion for blue whales, which can play a role in their tragic, but avoidable, deaths.

Join the National Geographic Channel as it unravels the web of mystery surrounding the elusive behemoths of the sea and uncovers the keys to the blue kingdom and its future.  As we witness the vitality of the whale's most critical behaviors, we now understand the complete life cycle of big blues and where science can concentrate its efforts to protect them.  As whale expert Steve Palumbi says, "It's probably harder to be a whale like that than it's ever, ever been before ... I think we have the power to protect them and let them have that chance."  To give them that chance, we must protect our seas over the years and decades to come ... for baby blue and for ourselves.

For more information on blue whales, visit http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/episode/kingdom-of-the-blue-whale-3302.

12Feb/09Off

Darwin and the Heart of Evolution

Happy 200th birthday, Charles Darwin!
Happy 200th birthday, Abraham Lincoln!
Happy 150th anniversary, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life!
And here's to a happy Darwin Day and upcoming Valentine's Day to everyone else.

As a part of my own contribution to the Blog for Darwin campaign, I present to you "Darwin and the Heart of Evolution."

What do all four of the above events have in common, other than being events of celebration? The answer will become obvious, but as a clue, I will begin with an appropriate Valentine's question:

A Frog's Heart

A Frog's Heart

Why do humans have hearts?

I can see it already – you’re rolling your eyes thinking, “Well duh…because we need a way to circulate oxygen, hormones, immune cells and other signals, and transport waste compounds and gases.”

Ahh, but you would be wrong. For the above describes only what a heart does – not why we have one. As I wrote a few days ago, evolution pays no attention to "needs." Species don't evolve because they "need" to adapt or change some trait. Natural selection is blind to all intention and desire.

Before Charles Darwin (and his buddy Alfred Russell Wallace) gave us the theory of natural selection, the above "necessity" explanation would have sufficed – with an added “because God designed it that way” just for good measure.

The genius, beauty, and simplicity of Darwin’s big idea was in how it utterly reshaped the manner in which all “why” questions about reality are posed and how their answers are understood. The Origin of Species laid the foundation for the complete upheaval of the very word “why.” In fact, when it comes to describing biology, astronomy, physics, geology, and every other empirical look into reality, the word “why” now means nothing more than the word “how.” The how is the why.

So again, I ask - why (how) do humans have hearts?

To answer this question we need to jump back about 500 million years ago into the ancient ocean. Based on the fossil record, this is a good date to pick, considering that worms don’t make great fossils; however, the exact date is not at all important for this discussion. Nor does it matter the exact species of worm-like creature we consider, or the exact details of the hypothetical time-traveling adventure upon which we will now embark.

Imagine it - we’re swimming now in the ancient ocean sometime after the massive explosion in the evolution of all sorts of strange ocean-dwelling invertebrate body forms (the Cambrian explosion). One of the many advantages that certain individuals of various species find is that their larger body sizes makes them better able to compete – up to a point. Once a small early worm-like species reaches a certain size, it finds that it cannot grow any bigger with its current body plan. This is because at this point, our hypothetical creatures do not have circulatory systems. They must absorb all their oxygen from the surrounding water. Any individuals born larger than a certain size can no longer get enough oxygen due to the oxygen not reaching deep enough into their tissues, and so they die (or are our-competed).

The Vertebrate Family (image credit)

The Vertebrate Family

Now imagine an individual of this species is born with what others of its species would consider a defect (if they had brains with which to consider such a concept). This individual has certain cells that have formed a small simple tube-like structure. Perhaps it is only a vague cavity – or some extra space between its cells. Now when this individual swims around, contracting its primitive muscles, the fluid within its body spreads a little bit more and a little bit faster through this cavity or space.

Our little worm leads a happy life, finding mates (or perhaps reproducing asexually) and leaving an ocean full of cavity-containing offspring. It seems self-evident to us now, but Darwin found himself surprised at the amount of variability in traits throughout the animal kingdom. All populations vary; thus, some of our worm’s children are a little bit bigger than their siblings. And some of these worm children will have inherited papa worm’s fluid cavity, which meant that they could survive with a slightly larger body than those without the primitive vessel, due to the oxygen distributing power of the fluid filled vessel.

Thus began the evolution of the heart. By a series of easy to imagine steps through thousands or millions of generations, the cavity became slightly more developed, eventually forming an actual tube. I would like to note here that the above scenario is strongly supported by much embryological, anatomical, and genetic data. However, I would like keep this simple and vague for the layperson.

Now, we move forward in time, though how far is unclear. Our little worms are now bigger worms, insect ancestors, and a myriad other small invertebrate species. Some of these species have evolved their tubes to have contractile regions - that is, a region of the tube than can actually squeeze and pump. Some, like our modern earthworm, have seven of these pumping “hearts”. Others, like the Drosophila fly, have only one heart - called a "dorsal vessel" (see the Drosophila larvae movie below).

Fish Heart

The Fish Heart

We swim forward to 525 million years ago, just as the first fish appear in the fossil record. A lineage of the invertebrates has slowly morphed through primitive chordates (organisms with a nerve cord) to become the most primitive fishes. Along with the changes in many other body structures, the basic contractile heart and vessel system has itself become more complex. Instead of one contractile chamber, the fish heart has divided into two chambers: an atrium and a ventricle (and a stretchy region called the conus that isn’t contractile). The fish themselves then radiate over time, each lineage slowly accumulating many small changes, resulting in the gradual evolution of an ocean teeming with fish species – all with two-chambered hearts (see image at right).

Eventually, some fish species start shacking up near shorelines or in shallow ponds and lagoons. Some are born with thicker fins, which allow them to push along the bottom of the pools a little more quickly or lithely than others. They mate, and the process continues. Finally, one of them decides to just get it over with and leaps out of the water to land as a frog on four fully-formed legs.

The Amphibian Heart

The Amphibian Heart

Not really, but you get the picture.

We now see amphibious creatures roaming the shorelines like beastly salamanders. Their hearts have changed even further as other aspects of their bodies evolved to take in oxygen through lungs. Why did this happen? Because the changes that make it possible did happen. These shallow water-dwelling creatures began to develop vessel-filled outpockets on their esophagus, giving them the advantage of pulling oxygen from the air. In addition, the individuals with slightly better circulatory systems found their bodies better at all sorts of other things, such as regulating their bodies with hormones and getting rid of cellular wastes.

At this point, a series of further changes occurred in the amphibian heart. The atrium became two separate atria, either through a physical division of the one atrium, or through a duplication of the vessels coming into the heart. Thus, the frog ancestors developed three-chambered hearts, which were subsequently passed down to every frog currently inhabiting the earth (see image).

The Reptile heart

The Reptile heart

As time passed, the frogs began drying off their slime, sprouting scales and forked tongues, and inspiring instinctive reptilian nightmares in their prey. They became lizards. As the lizards moved fully to land and grew even larger, certain inherited variations in their hearts naturally worked a little better – thus natural selection continued the continuous sculpture of life. The ventricle began to separate into two chambers, much like the atrium had done in the amphibians. However, the ventricles didn’t fully divide. As one can see in almost every reptile on earth today, the ventricular division is incomplete – almost like a four-chambered heart, but with a hole between the ventricles (see image). However, I said that almost all reptiles have the pseudo four-chambered cardiac morphology; in fact, one branch of the reptiles went on to develop a fully-featured, true four-chambered heart: the crocodile - but that's a side story.

From some of the lizards the dinosaurs then sprung forth, populating the land from the small dark corners to the open plains. A short while later (a paltry 170 million years) most of the dinosaurs died off. Along with their distant crocodilian, lizard, and snake cousins, at least one dinosaur lineage and one reptilian lineage survived. We now call them birds and mammals, respectively.

Both the bird and mammalian lineages mirrored the path of the crocodile, completing the division between the ventricles (probably prior to their divergence). Natural selection has continued to sculpt our own mammalian hearts, resulting in marvelous structures such as the multiple different valve types, chordae tendenae ("heart strings"), and trabeculae (fibrous strings in the ventricle's interior).

The Bird and Mammal Heart

The Bird and Mammal Heart

And with that, we have answered our initial question, in a massively oversimplified fashion. We have hearts because each change leading to our hearts conferred some small advantage to the individuals that inherited them (or at the very least, were not disadvantageous).

Of course, all of these cumulative small changes in the shape of the vessels and hearts, ultimately involved millions of small changes in the genes that controlled the behavior, shape, and functions of the circulatory cells. Scientists have now discovered an incredibly large and complex network of such genes controlling development of the heart.

One of the most astonishing yet completely expected facts we have garnered through studying organisms from Drosophila to the African clawed frog (Xenopus) to humans is the discovery that every organism on this planet with some version of a heart contains the same or a similar set of genes to control heart development.

That’s right. Read it again.

Many of the genes involved in the formation of the relatively primitive “dorsal vessel” in a fly are versions of the same genes that initially form our own hearts. Think about that! Think about how massively more complex we are compared to flies (which are themselves insanely complex in their own rights). Think about the hundreds of millions of years that separate us from our most recent common ancestor with a fly. Yet your heart still uses many of the same genes and in the same ways during early heart development. Of course flies and humans have continued to evolve in parallel ever since our lineages split those hundreds of millions of year ago – we have both made countless changes and tweaks to our own cardiac programs and networks. Nonetheless, our hearts remain related.

In fact, if you watch heart development in an embryo, such as in the Xenopus movie below, you can almost see the course of heart evolution itself. Of course this isn't really ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny - but some of the evolutionary history behind cardiac development is at least evident.

Tbx20 expression in a frog larva heart

Tbx20 expression in a frog larva heart

One example of a cardiac gene that I’m particularly familiar with, having received my doctorate studying it, is a gene called “Tbx20”. For this discussion, its exact function does not matter. Suffice it to say that when I began my studies, we had a clue that this gene was important in heart development. Why? Because flies have a copy of this gene, as do humans, mice, and every other heart-bearing organism we’ve looked at; furthermore, in each of these organisms this gene is “turned on” in the developing heart tissue.

I went on to show that when you prevent frog larvae from making the Tbx20 protein, they develop incredibly malformed hearts (see the videos below). This means that the Tbx20 gene is indeed important in making a heart. Other researchers later went on to show similar results in mice and flies. Finally, about two months before I finished graduate school, another group of researchers found that some humans born with congenital heart defects have mutations in the Tbx20 gene.


Normal African Clawed Frog (Xenopus) heart


African Clawed Frog (Xenopus) heart lacking Tbx20 protein

So here we have found in only a few years of research a single gene that supports the entire model of evolutionary theory. To rephrase the famous quote from Theodosius Dobzhansky, the existence of Tbx20 in controlling the development of the heart in organisms from flies to humans does not make any sense – except in the light of evolution.

Due to the rich evolutionary history behind the development of this complex organ, the genetic network has become incredibly complex, involving hundreds of genes in thousands of cells all working, moving, and functioning in precise coordination. The higher the complexity, the more things that can possibly go wrong. Unsurprisingly, congenital heart defects are among the most prevalent of all inherited diseases, resulting in about 9 babies out of every one thousand being born with some sort of cardiac abnormality.

I’m sure many of you were wondering how I would manage to tie Abraham Lincoln tie into all this. Although still hotly debated and unproven, at least some researchers believe that Abraham Lincoln may have been afflicted with a disease called Marfan Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder affecting the heart and many other organs. Other researchers believe that he had an unrelated disease. Regardless, it remains at least possible that President Abraham Lincoln was the inheritor of one of the billions of less advantageous variances in heart development that have presented themselves throughout the heart’s evolutionary history.

In summary, the heart of Darwin's theory of natural selection is the idea that evolution comes not through the "why." It comes through the how - through the accumulation of minute individual variations that spread like wildfire when they contribute an advantage.  There remains no better demonstration of this principle than the myriad heart morphologies and functions we can trace today.

Each of you has most certainly inherited a cardiac variation, whether it be a major mutation in a gene, or a tiny change in one letter of your genetic code (a "single nucleotide polymorphism").

Who knows...perhaps yours is the one upon which an entirely new evolutionary history will be built.

So here’s to your own personal variation, and to the man who made our understanding of it all possible. We would have gotten there without him – but I doubt anyone could have rivaled the combination of his incredible intellect and beautiful prose.
Happy birthday Darwin!

_____________
Image credits

Frog heart photograph: Me
Phylogenetic tree: McGraw-Hill and Biology Corner
Drosophila heart tube movie: unknown
Heart diagrams: Oracle ThinkQuest Education Foundation
Cardiogenesis animation: Me
Frog heart movies: Me
Lincoln photograph: Visiting DC

Lincoln photo:

4Feb/09Off

University Professors in the Blogosphere

Hat tip to Bora at A Blog Around the Clock for this one.

The Michigan Daily has an excellent article written by Caitlin Schneider on the movement of University Professors to the blogosphere.  Many articles have been written on the burgeoning importance of blogs in teaching, writing, and information dissemination. This one serves as a great primer, and its one I would highly recommend you pass on to potential employers (if your trying to get a job and have a blog, particularly in science) or to faculty that have yet to enter the blogging life.

It's also nice just to have that little push saying "yes - there really is a professional reason to do this - it's not just pure enjoyment."