February 28, 2011

My Guinea Pig

I just wanted to share a few (very artsy) pictures of my goofy guinea. He's exploring the strange landscape of our stairs. He appears totally confused, but really, that's just how he always looks.

February 25, 2011

Talkative Parrot

Outside the Eco Station in Culver City, CA, I met this talkative fellow. It's too bad the video is so very backlit, but I really enjoyed his parrot laugh.

February 24, 2011

Extinction, and other poop

Absolute finality makes me anxious. I like flexibility, changeability, and variety (all of which describe fajitas, by the way).

The ultimate in finality is death, but even more final than that final-ness is the extreme finality of extinction.

So extinction doesn't just make me anxious, it makes me crumple into a pitiful ball of despair.

It's just so disturbing to think that a species could be here, be here, be here, and one day just--poof!--be gone forever.

As unsettling as extinction may be, it's "normal" in terms of geologic events. There have been 5 major extinctions in earth's past, the most well-known of which was 65 million years ago and killed all the brontosauruses, among other things.

In fact, 99.9% of species that have ever existed on earth are now extinct. That's why they say, "Extinction is the rule. Evolution is the exception." ("They" are science nerds like me.)

But even if extinction is somewhat routine, it's still poopy--especially when it's being accelerated by our species' unquenchable thirst for resources and the ensuing shenanigans.

Of course, we keep a list of endangered species, but is this being taken seriously? Perhaps "endangered" isn't quite descriptive enough: these species are in line for a one-way ticket to oblivion. We can't just call them endangered and then go to lunch.

Let us consult the thesaurus!

Endangered synonyms: at hazard, exposed, imperiled, in jeopardy, in peril, jeopardized, susceptible, threatened, vulnerable

"Exposed" definitely won't work. People will assume we just mean the animals are naked, and then people won't want to save them, as they're clearly too depraved and immoral to deserve saving.

"Peril" might work, but it doesn't sound quite imminent enough. Maybe we can't sum up the seriousness in just one word.

So instead of "endangered" species, I'll call them  no-really-this-is-not-okay-this-creature-might-be-gone-for-reals-forever-if-we-don't-stop-ruining-everything species.

Which endangered species get the most airtime? The fuzziest and cuddliest ones. Good luck getting people to care about (or patronize) a conservation effort for venomous snakes or a rare species of spider.
But who are we to choose which species deserve to live?

I'm also a little annoyed when organizations try to raise awareness and concern about an endangered species by explaining how its demise will in turn affect us. Do we need to protect pandas and their environments only to benefit ourselves? Do we need to stop finning sharks just because they are an important part of the ecosystem in the ocean, which we benefit from every day with of food and oxygen? Is that the only reason? Isn't there some altruistic reason?

Doesn't life have a right to exist without threats from deforestation, pollution, or overhunting?  Or does it only merit protection if we can see a direct line between its survival and our own prosperity? Shouldn't we rehabilitate endangered species simply because it's the cool thing to do?

You can call me a starry-eyed idealist all you want, but I think that living things deserve to be here... until they go extinct by some more acceptable method, like a giant comet colliding with earth.

February 17, 2011

Box Jellies and Awesome Australians

Australia is home to a ridiculous number of poisonous and/or generally dangerous animals, but none of them have the o-m-g factor of the box jelly.

Box jellies (not jellyfish, mind you), are perhaps the sneakiest of all creatures that can kill you.

Their bodies are almost perfectly transparent, and their tentacles are 16 feet (5 meters, as Aussies would say) long and all but invisible. This stealthy floating jelly monster is so loaded with stingers, that contact with one causes immediate death--one's heart simply stops beating from the shock. And bonus, they only float near the shore in the middle of summer... when everyone wants to swim. Yeah, it's not a great bonus.

So to recap: box jellies are invisible, huge, deadly, and available during the summer. Great...

It was my friend Joeline that first told me about them when I visited her in Melbourne.

At the time, I found it odd that anyone would advocate swimming when it could possibly end in death, but when you live somewhere like Australia, with lots of natural hazards, you have to accept that anything fun comes with a few risks. If you lived your life trying to avoid all danger, you'd be wearing a hazmat suit every day and hiding under your bed. 

I like to think that Australians are as outgoing and fun as they are because they fully comprehend that any day could be your last, so you best enjoy the time you have. I mean, sure you could be stung by a box jelly and go immediately into cardiac arrest, but that's no excuse for never enjoying a swim.

Check out this great National Geographic article about box jellies: http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/box-jellyfish/

February 11, 2011

I'm not scared of the polar bear

This picture scares me. Do you see why?

It is the giant taxidermied polar bear? 

Is it my amazing acting talents? 

Did you notice the floating deer head on the wall?

It's haunting me.

February 09, 2011

Live, Die, Cherry Pie

Long for This World: The Strange Science of ImmortalityI heard Jonathan Weiner speak last week about his book Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality. Basically, there are researchers currently searching for the keys not just to longer life, but to complete immortality. The most notable among them is Aubrey de Grey, who not only believes that immortality is possible, but that the first person to live to be over 1,000 years old has already been born. Them's fightin' words. But the idea of living for even a few hundred years, let alone a thousand or eternity, raises some very serious questions about the limitations of our planet and our minds.

I was inspired to make this video about it. I hope you enjoy.

February 02, 2011

Gregor Mendel REALLY liked gardening

Gregor Mendel was this sassy monk who lived Austria from 1822 to 1884.

As a monk, Greg had a luxury that most people these days have in short supply: free time. Not just some free time. I'm talking about a million pounds of free time. Science is really lucky that Gregorious chose gardening as his time-consuming hobby. If it had been underwater basket weaving or playing the harmonica, it would have altered the course of science history forever.

He didn't just casually garden. He grew thousands of pea plants, bred them, and took notes of every feature. It sounds indescribably boring, which means he was either a masochist, or the guy just really, really liked gardening.

It takes some serious focus and determination to tend to thousands of plants and keep track of every mind-numbing detail like he did. An anti-science time machine terrorist could easily exploit his patience and perseverance to keep him from discovering the fundamentals of genetics.

Greggy is pretty lucky that he chose pea plants and not, oh I don't know, ducks. Because pea plants have distinct, all-or-nothing characteristics for him to catalog, unlike ducks which have characteristics that are slightly harder to quantify.

What saddens me about the Gregmeister is that, like many historical scientists, his work wasn't discovered and celebrated until after his death. But Gregorino, we love you. That's why we call you the Father of Modern Genetics. And to show my continued appreciation, I got you a sweatshirt: