Archive for the ‘Fauna’ category

Heads Up! — Pigeons on the Loose at So Simple A Beginning

March 23, 2009

It’s not just this blog that has suffered a bad case of the slows lately; so has So Simple A Beginning a group-ish effort to blog against The Origin of Species in anticipation of that books 150th anniversary coming up this November.

But now I’m pleased to report that we’re finally getting on to Chapter one, starting off with a wonderful post by science writer Courtney Humphries.  Humphries, a graduate of America’s Finest™ Graduate Program in Science Writing — that at mine own institution,  MIT — is the author the acclaimed book on pigeons in all their glory, Superdove, published last year.  Check out what she has to say about Darwin’s use of the descendents of the humble and ubiquitous rock pigeon, Columba livia.

Image:  Anonymous, “Young Woman in Oriental Dress with Pigeon Post.” 19th century.

Good Times In Cambridge Tomorrow: Great New Science Writer/Pigeon Love Edition

October 29, 2008

A great big shout out to Courtney Humphries, pride of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, class of ’04, who is reading from and taking questions about her wonderful new book, Superdove on the MIT campus.

All those of you in the area who want to (a) hear some very cool stuff about one of the most effectively opportunistic of our fellow creatures and (b) watch a very talented science writer (and writer, full stop) spread her wings (sorry, inevitable) in the early stages of what will be a great career should show up in MIT building 32, room 141, tomorrow, Thursday, October 30 at seven p.m.

Interactive map here.  Hint:  Building 32 is also known as the Stata Center, and it is the Gehry building (aka the melted building) on Vassar St. near its intersection with Main St.

Come if you can.  Courtney’s the real deal, and there are few pleasures to match that of seeing one of the good guys making their debut in the big leagues.

NY Times review of Superdove here, if you aren’t willing just to take my word for it.

Image:  J. J. Audubon, Plate 17 from Volume IV, Audubon’s Birds of America. Pictured are Carolina Pigeons (Turtle Doves), Columba carolinensis, on a flowering bush of Stewartia malacodendron.

Program Notes: New York Times, Langurs, MIT Science Writing Edition

September 23, 2008

Check out this delightful story in todays Times about a conservation success in China, preserving habitat and restoring a population of highly threatened langurs.

A couple of things are of note about the piece.  First, it offers an example of one of the most important modern conservation ideas:  a command approach to preservation is hard one to enforce; much more likely to succeed is one that creates the right combination of economic and moral incentives for those on the front lines — the people, often very poor within the neighborhood in which conservation is to take place.

Second, good work has a long tail.  The scientist-hero of this story was moved to study the social behavior of langurs after reading E. O. Wilson’s seminal Sociobiology, first published in 1975.  A third of a century later, five hundred langurs owe their own, their home’s, and potentially their species’  continued existence to the spark of the ideas in that book.

Third — a little shameless self-promotion, at least the institutional variety.  The author of the piece, Philiip McKenna graduated from the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing — my home base — in 2006.  We can’t take credit for his incredible work ethic, sense of story and spirit of adventure…but it is always a pleasure to think, with cause, I believe, that what we did here helped him on his way.

Image:  Mori Sosen, “Monkeys in Plum Tree,” 19th century.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.  And yes, I know, this is a Japanese painting of a different species of monkey than the one discussed above.  I like the picture, OK?

Book Notes: “Boids…

August 31, 2008

...filthy, disgusting boids” edition.

One of the pleasures of being a teacher is seeing the success of students.*

So check out this review in today’s New York Times of Courtney Humphries’ new book on pigeons, Superdove:  How the Pigeon Took Manhattan…and the World.

(Self-serving alert here.)  With this impressively positive review Courtney  becomes the latest advertisement for the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, from which she received her MS in 2004.

I can’t yet comment myself on Courtney’s work yet, but the reviewer, Elizabeth Royte gives it a rave, and as soon as the looming semester gets past the first flurry of insanity, I’ll read and report.  In the meantime — check it out yourselves, and remember:  new good authors need even more reader love than the writers you already know you like.   Take a flyer on this (heh).

*Sadly, my pride in Courtney is entirely institutional; she graduated from our program the year before I arrived here.  But pride it is — it is always great to see good young writers from one’s own shop do well.

Image:   Jiang Tingxi, “Eleven Pigeons.”  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Mental Health Break: Ornithology edition

July 28, 2008

As the the ever reliable xkcd confirms, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing:

With Apologies to PZ Myers: Not one penny for tribute, unlimited sums for mechanical cephalopods.

May 2, 2008

The next episode of Friday Newton blogging is going to have to wait for an off-day edition; end of term woes and committee meetings have sucked up all the time I was going to spend putting together my material on Newton’s gambling habits.

But what would Friday be without some rather off-axis look at science in the public square?

So, stealing a patch of PZ Myers turf, I thought I’d share what I picked up from my MIT colleague Anette Hosoi a few weeks ago.

Hosoi’s lab uses biological sources to provide inspiration for the creation of small robots; Hosoi and her group are most famous for their work on a robotic snail. (Video, courtesy of my students in the Graduate Program in Science Writing, can be found here— bottom of the page, after two videos on the humanoid robot, Domo.

As it happened, I was taking around a visitor the other day — the incomparable David Macaualay. (Name dropping alert — at least for those of us sufficiently steeped in geek to know the wonderfulness of Macaulay’s books and films on engineering, the made world, design, the brain and pigeon’s eye-views of Rome.)

Professor Hosoi and her students were in fine form, showing us the latest in mechanical swimmers, the updates to the artificial slime on which the labs’ snails crawl and so on. Last up was a student new to me since the last time I hung out over there. Her project…well it seems that the Department of Defense’s wild eyed boys and girls at DARPA got a look at this video

Someone over there said “I want me one of these.”

So Hosoi’s team, among others are now trying to deliver a design for, a robotic octopus, a deformable robot capable of carrying a payload — sensors, weapons, whatever — into and out of the tightest spots evah. Your defense dollars at work.

What can I say? Actually, it’s a sweet, rich problem, with all kinds of potential applications in peace as well as war. If Hosoi or any one else responding to DOD’s prompt comes up with a good solution, it will have confronted a number of serious physics and engineering hurdles to get there; this is the kind of problem folks come to places like MIT to research.

What’s really going on is something PZ has known for years: we are humbled by the powers of the mighty cephalopod. Besides which, this is a hell of a lot better way to spend my tax dollars than on ESP, trained naval warfare dophins, and ballistic missile defense.