Tuesday, April 29, 2008

on evolution and intelligent design

Evidence against god? F. J. Ayala says look no farther than the mating habits of midges, who fertilize eggs by consuming mates' genitals. If it's intelligent design, then god's a sadist.

He says other things too:


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Fodder from Susan

Jeffers, Carson, Elkhorn Slough, Plankton, and Cannery Row…

In preparation for future discussions, tying ideas, readings, lectures together, I throw out this as a beginning, ground for discussion.

1. On Jeffers and place: “If the soul were to choose an area in which to stage its agonies, this would be the place for it. One feels exposed—not only to the elements, but to the sight of God. Naked, vulnerable, set against an overwhelming backdrop of might and majesty, one’s problems become magnified because of the proscenium on which the conflict is staged. Robinson Jeffers is unerring in highlighting this aspect of his narrative poems. His figures and their manner of behavior are not falsely exaggerated, as some believe. If his narratives smack of Greek tragedy, it is because Jeffers rediscovered here the atmosphere of the gods and fates which obsessed the ancient Greeks. The light here is almost as electric, the hills almost as bare, the community almost as autonomous as in ancient Greece. The rugged pioneers who settled here needed only a voice to make known their secret drama. And Jeffers is that voice.” “Jeffers’ Big Sur,by Henry Miller

2. On the slough and consideration of change/place of humanity: “Two themes will be developed throughout this volume. The first is that of change: estuaries are dynamic environments shaped by such factors as changing tides, freshwater inflow, climate change, anthropogenic inputs (the result of human impacts), and introduced species. Elkhorn Slough is no exception…”

“The other major theme of this book is that human activities have a significant impact on how estuarine and terrestrial ecosystems function. Elkhorn Slough’s hydrology, chemistry, and biology have been highly modified by human activities over the last century.” (9) Consider how each writer we’ve read considers human impact on nature.

3. Consider how the “History of Land Use” at Elkhorn Slough tallies with what you’ve learned about Monterey history. Any significant differences you note?

4. "The 'control of nature' is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man."- Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962), p. 297. Consider and relate.

5. Did the title of Carson’s opening chapter, “Flood Tide,” mean anything different after visiting Elkhorn Slough?

6. Do the “ecosystem components” in Nybakken, pp. 20-21, have bearing on the reading of literature? How do these differ from a definition of deep ecology? How compare to the “Four Levels of Ecology” by Ricketts?

7. In preparation for John’s talk tomorrow afternoon, you might walk down Cannery Row, from Drake Ave. to Hopkins. Jot down a few notes. What do you think of today’s Cannery Row?

8. Before Chuck speaks, consider the meaning of pantheism. Is Jeffers a pantheist? Is Steinbeck? Is Ricketts?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Thursday is Put a Poem in Your Pocket Day!

It's official. Declared by the Academy of American Poets.

A long Update: week 2 Holistic Bio

This is an (insanely long) e-mail I sent to my family and friends today... Enjoy!


So much has happened since the last time I wrote. I feel like I've been here for over a month because every day is packed with lectures, field trips, homework, and fun. We're finally breaking out of our Holistic Biology shell and socializing with the other Belden (the houses where we live) people. We're doing dinners together and exploring the cities.

I've finally seen an otter on this trip! Actually, at this point I've seen tons of them, and up close, too. While we were scouting out our transect sites last Tuesday (to be explained later), we saw eight otters-- three mother-pup pairs and two solo. One of the pups was trying to run away from being groomed, and the others were in the water, tagging along with mom for a ride along the waves. Our instructors aren't huge fans of otters. They kind of scoff at marine mammals because they study invertebrates. They don't understand why people get so much more excited about vertebrates. I think you have to learn about the invertebrates before you can really find them exciting.

Class brings a slew of information, much more than I could ever hope to remember, but it is really wonderful learning from field experts. Susan Shillinglaw, out literature professor, is a Steinbeck scholar and has written many books about Steinbeck and introductions to many of his books. She is the most engaging of our professors and is such a wealth of Steinbeck knowledge that the five of us students want to read as much Steinbeck as possible with her around. So far, the only books slated are Cannery Row and the Log From The Sea Of Cortez. We're convincing her to read Tortilla flat with us, too.

I love Steinbeck. The more I read of his, the more I love it. It's also interesting to learn about Ed Ricketts, who I knew almost nothing about before I came here. Last Tuesday, after completing Cannery Row, we went to Ricketts' lab (still there) and looked out from the steps and learned what Cannery Row looked like in Steinbeck's time. She showed us all the sites mentioned in the book, and because she studies Steinbeck for a living, she was able to feed us her insight into the fictitious versus real parts to the book. Whose names he changed (Flora Wood becomes Dora Flood in the book). The lab itself is still intact, but it's not really restored as it is half owned by a gentleman's club. However, all the holding tanks and bookshelves and phonograph are still there. While there, we learned that Susan and Gilly had their wedding reception there! We also sat in the living room area and listened to a recording of Steinbeck reading aloud one of his short stories, The Snake, that takes place in the lab (the story is in The Long Valley). Apparently Steinbeck was self-conscious and only recorded two readings in his life!

In light of our discussions of sea-faring novels, we are want to read Moby Dick with Susan while we're on the boat in Mexico, since she loves it so much and none of us has read it. Right now, we're reading Robinson Jeffers poetry, doing close readings of one poem a day in addition to our other literature discussions.

On the more scientific side of things, we have been completing a science experiment, repeating transects that were first done sixty years ago and had not been repeated until last year. We were counting the number of organisms of a number of species that live in the high intertidal on vertical rock surfaces. I can now proudly say I can identify different species of limpits, snails, barnacles, and a whole host of other marine organisms and alga. There is nothing like hands on learning to help long-term memory. I feel like I could come back in ten years and remember these species because I didn't ever try to memorize them, I just started recognizing them with the help of my professors and TA.

My group for the transects was me, Cara, and Julie (our TA). We had tons of fun scaling rocks and trying not to drop into the rushing waves balancing to count species too high to see. At times we were counting over a hundred chthalmus barnacles, ones that look exactly like the granite they're burrowed into. We also had a square ( six by six, our standard measurement made out of a coat hanger) that was comprised entirely of mussels (152, but there were probably more, smaller ones underneath the large ones).

Spending Wednesday and Thursday mornings out counting sounds boring, but because there were three of us, there was tons of time to watch the waves come crashing into the rocks, the tide coming in as the day wore on. The sea grasses glistened in the sun, swaying as the tide flowed in and out with each progressively larger wave. It's meditative sitting out there for hours, watching the waves crash in cycles of extreme calm where you can barely tell there is a wind, to the thunderous crash of waves, spraying meters up and around. The first morning we were out, we were extremely close to a pair of otters. Gilly, our professor, thought it was a mother and her overgrown pup, spoiled with too much attention. Because we were so close, I took a picture. Looking back at the photo, we were witnessing otter mating-- you can tell because the female's nose is bright red. Apparently, when otters mate, the male is rough and mean and bites the females nose until it bleeds and is almost not attached! The picture is a little blurry because I was pretty far away, but you can still see the red nose.

Other field trips we've taken have been to Point Lobos to see Bird Rock and the Whaling Museum, Big Sur (twice) to go hiking and whale watching. We also went tide pooling at Soberanes Point in Big Sur. There we saw a pool of limpets and experimented with feeding anemones mussels. The view from the point was spectacular. I don't have many pictures because my camera battery ran out, but if I can procure some from the other girls, I'll post them, too.

Today we spent the day at Elkhorn Slough. I had heard of it before, but never been. It was an interesting trip. The slough is an estuary that was converted into pastures (by Meyer of Meyer Library on campus) and then restored starting in 1980. Visible the entire time in the landscape is the power plant at Moss Landing, acres and acres of crops, and the remnants of the pastures and dairy. It is not the pristine reserve I thought of before witnessing it myself. Our docent was insanely boring. I was fidgeting like a five year old, wanting to see more of the reserve and hear less from him inside in the visitor center. He also did not understand the concept of walking and talking at the same time. We're hopefully going to go kayaking in the estuary when we get back from Mexico.

The lectures in the class are really interesting, as is the reading, but there is only so long I can concentrate. Some days we have four hours of lectures in a row. I don't think anyone can concentrate that long! The information is all stuff I want to learn, my brain just gets full after a while. John Walton, a historian for the area from UC Davis, comes in a few times a week to give us a lecture about the peninsula. He's covered everything from the missions to fishing industries to Jeffers and beyond. His book, Storied Land, covers most of what we're talking about in class. A well-written and informative book, it you have time and are into history, it's a great read.

Our reading includes lots of articles compiled by the various professors and guest lecturers. It's too much to keep up with, but it's all fascinating. I'm hoping I'll have time to read all of it at some point in time. Susan and Gilly also have all sorts of books we can check out to read-- if only I had the time.

Congrats for wading through all these mundane descriptions. I will leave you all here, and hopefully I will be writing more often so that you don't get the boring accounts of my days and can get more color commentary.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

From Natalie Angier's latest book

Not that any of us need encouragement to pursue science, but I'm reading Angier's testament to the field right now and I love her writing. Thought I'd share:

"Childhood, then, is the one time of life when all members of an age cohort are expected to appreciate science. Once junior high school begins, so too does the great winnowing, the relentless tweezing away of feather, fur, fun, the hilarity of the digestive tract, until science becomes the forbidding province of a small priesthood-- and a poorly dressed one at that.


In sum, I'm not sure that knowing about science will turn you into a better citizen, or win you a more challenging job, or prevent the occasional loss of mental faculties culminating in the unfortunate purchase of a pair of white leather pants. I'm not a pragmatist, and I can't make practical arguments of the broccoli and flossing kind. Unless you're a scientist, you don't need to know about science. You also don't need to go to museums or listen to Bach or read a single slyly honied Shakespeare sonnet. You don't need to visit a foreign country or hike a desert canyon or go out on a cloudless, moonless night and get drunk on start champagne...of course you should know about science, as much as you've got the synaptic space to fit. Science is not just one thing, one line of reasoning or a boxable body of scholarship, like, say, the history of the Ottoman Empire. Science is huge, a great ocean of human experience; it's the product and the point of having the most deeply corrugated brain of any species this planet has spawned. If you never learn to swim, you surely regret it; and the sea is so big, it won't let you forget it.

Of course you should know about science, for the same reason Dr. Seuss counsels his readers to sing with a Ying or play Ring the Gak: These things are fun, and fun is good.
There's a reason why science museums are fun, and why kids like science. Science is fun. Not just gee-whizbag "watch my dip this rose into liquid nitrogen and then shatter it on the floor" fun, although it's that, too. It's fun the way rich ideas are fun, the way seeing beneath the skin of something is fun. Understanding how things works feels good. Look no further-- there's your should."

-Natalie Angier, from The Canon

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

emergent issues

This is something Chuck needs to experience -- how to tell him?

And what IS going on in the zone of death? Do we dare disturb the universe?