Friday, April 15, 2016

The Peculiar Pleasure of Hating Insects

I think we can all agree that mosquitoes suck.

"To hate all but the right folks
is an old established rule!"
- Tom Lehrer, "National Brotherhood Week"

Venerable though it may be, outgroup hate has become unfashionable in progressive circles. We have laws against hate speech, and we have a nasty word for people who hate: bigots. Actually, we have a whole taxonomy of unpleasant names, from racists and misogynists to antisemites and homophobes.

We're more accepting of hatred toward really despicable individuals, like mass murderers, domestic abusers, or people who talk at the theater. Still, even this kind of hatred has its moral critics and troubling ramifications, as evidenced by the reams of legal and psychological literature with titles like "Can/Should We Purge Evil Through Capital Punishment?" (Criminal Law and Philosophy, 2015); "Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Feminist Responses to Violent Injustice" (New England Law Review, 1998); "Through the Looking Glass, Darkly: Perceptions of Hate in Interpersonal Relationships" (Journal of Relationships Research, 2015).

My favorite of all the papers I ran across in my hasty academic research on this topic is: "Hating Criminals: How Can Something That Feels So Good Be Wrong?" (Michigan Law Review, 1990). Unfortunately I couldn't find the full paper*, but the title is all I need to propose that hatred is a pure guilty pleasure if ever, oh ever, a one there was. As the Witches of Oz sang in the musical Wicked:

"There's a strange exhilaration
in such total detestation."
- Elphaba and Galinda, "What Is This Feeling?"

This is where insects come in. Forget the pollination of bees; forget the beauty of butterflies or the cheap, abundant protein of grasshoppers. The greatest service insects render to humans is as a guilt-free target for hatred.

I realized this while reading a recent post on the science blog The Last Word On Nothing. A group of thoughtful, educated science writers produced a thoughtful, educated discussion about the raphidophorids (cousins to grasshoppers) titled "Kill the Sprickets, Kill Them All."

"I would like to drop them one by one into an active volcano. Their collective screams would bring me peace. . . ." 
"The best thing about camel crickets is that they’re easy to kill. . . ." 
"I loathe and despise sprickets, I hate everything about them, I need to kill them. [But even in the grip of pure rage, she reaches for science--] Psychology calls this entomophobia . . . "
According to a book I've just learned about through the magic of Wikipedia, "at least 6 percent of Americans suffer from entomophobia." I should read this book, called The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects; perhaps the author has already presented and/or dismissed this concept of bugs** as a hate magnet. I don't have time.

Instead, I'll just put on my captain's hat and point out the obvious benefit of hating bugs: you can act on it with no fear of retribution or judgement. You can kill bugs as quickly or as slowly as you like, by means physical, chemical, or biological, and no one will haul you to court on charges of mistreatment or murder.

In fact, the extreme prejudice with which we exterminate certain insects leads me to question the very roots of the word "entomophobia." The sentiments described above toward sprickets--the same that many people feel toward spiders, centipedes, mosquitoes, bees, or all of the above--are well beyond fearful. Arachnophobia and entomophobia should perhaps be more accurately named misarachny and misentomy. [Stop putting red squiggles under my perfectly good English inventions, text editor!]

And once we've linked fear and hate, we're not far from the inexorable anadiplosis of the big screen's Zen master:

"Fear leads to anger. 
Anger leads to hate. 
Hate leads to suffering."

That misentomists suffer is indisputable, as anyone who has ever discovered an earwig in an unwanted location (any location) can attest. So perhaps the target insects offer for our hatred is not such a kindness after all. Perhaps we need to stand firm and resist the seemingly innocuous temptation of hexapodan loathing.

That said, I think my next blog post will be about the utterly despicable nature of wasps.

* As I'm deep in the thickets of research for the squid evolution book, all of my paper-tracking-down skill and energy are going towards titles like "A phylogeny of fossil and living neocoleoid cephalopods" and "The gladiuses in coleoid cephalopods: homology, parallelism, or convergence?" These esoteric concepts will be available as riveting prose soon! (haha jk not till the end of 2017)

** This usage of "bug" is of course colloquial and unscientific. True bugs comprise but a single order of insects, the Hemiptera. For a while I was super pedantic about the word "bug" but eventually that stance struck me as kind of silly.


Mosquito: JJ Harrison, via Wikimedia Commons
Yoda: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Diastasis Recti or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love My Belly

You don't appreciate the structural integrity of your belly button until you lose it.

That's not a juvenile sarlacc or a terminally grumpy cat; it's what I have now instead of a traditional belly button.

This condition, called diastasis recti, is actually a pretty common side effect of pregnancy, but good luck ever hearing about it until you've got one yourself. For some reason, although everyone knows that growing a new human can cause morning (or not-so-morning) sickness, few are aware that it can also cause your abdominal muscles to flee each other's company, leaving only connective tissue and skin to contain your organs.

Plenty of helpful blog posts have addressed the postpartum challenge of closing a diastasis with abdominal splints, physical therapy, tailored workouts, &c. What I'm going to address here is the partum challenge presented by diastasis recti--which turns out to have a straightforward engineering solution.

To be clear, I'm talking about a major separation here. Plenty of women may have and heal a minor diastasis of a few centimeters without ever being aware of it. However, if you are short (like me) and have big babies (like me) and maybe some other contributing factors no one is sure of, you may find yourself with a whopping great diastasis of 30+ centimeters.

There are certain advantages to this massive muscular gap, first among which is physical comedy. My protuberant belly would operate the touch-sensitive oven controls if I so much as tried to put the kettle on.

It's also an ideal "teaching belly," as one doctor charmingly put it, since there's no pesky muscle layer between hands and baby. At one of my prenatal visits, a midwife in training tried to ascertain the baby's position, and her eyes lit up. "I can feel everything!" she exclaimed.

Despite the situation's value for humor and education, though, it can really throw a wrench into labor and delivery.

I was in early labor with my first baby for most of a day, relaxing at home with my husband and doula until I started to throw up. When we got to the hospital, my cervix was seven centimeters dilated. That's up from zero and aiming at ten--a pretty good number, often just a couple hours from delivery.

Instead, some excruciating amount of time later, my normally-cheery British midwife bustled in to explain that I hadn't progressed much further. "Let's talk about the angle of dangle," she said. Somehow, between contractions, she got me to understand that this is what it's supposed to look like in a normal belly:

But this is what it looked like inside my belly (drawing babies in utero is hard, okay?):

Because my split abdominal muscles weren't holding the baby in, she was flopped out far in front of me, and her head wasn't exerting enough pressure to convince my cervix to keep opening. At this point, a lot of folks would have packed me off to the OR for a C-section, but the midwife just fetched a bedsheet.

She stretched the sheet under my belly and hauled it up from behind, while the doula pushed on my belly from the front. This made my already rather intense contractions overwhelmingly stronger, which they kept telling me was a good thing.

It was, of course, because with the help of those gnarly contractions we eventually managed to get the baby out through the traditional orifice. Even so, at the back of my cervix where the baby's head never fully pressed down, the tissue never completely thinned out, so when she came through it ripped. This cervical tear--and the stitching thereof--stand out in my memory even against the backdrop of general labor pains.

Anyway, then there was my daughter, with much joy, happiness, &c.

Still, you can imagine I was determined not to repeat that labor experience. So when I got pregnant with baby the second, I kitted myself out with a heavy-duty maternity belt, which acted as a nice shelf for my growing belly.

But for labor I knew I'd need more than a shelf. In the ninth month, I improvised a sling from a long piece of cloth that I had used to carry my daughter (ex utero). With three layers of wrapping, I hauled my torpedo belly up and in until it looked about the size and shape of an ordinary pregnancy.

When I went into labor this time, the midwife didn't need to deploy her sheet, and she stayed cheery. And the doula had to spend all her timing convincing me that it was going better than last time and seriously just stop thinking about last time already.

After a much shorter (but still excruciating) amount of time, without me having to throw up or tear anything, there was my son, with much joy, happiness, &c.

Now I'm in the postpartum healing game. Abdominal splints, physical therapy, and tailored workouts are all well and good, but even more helpful is my daughter's earnest three-year-old perspective.

"I love your belly," she says, kissing it. "It's soft like sand that's wet with water."

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Soul of an Octopus-Lover

"An aquarium without an octopus is like a plum pudding without plums," as the author quotes a Victorian naturalist. And I fully agree.

The Soul of an Octopus is a lovely chronicle, ranging from Seattle to Mo'orea but always returning to the New England Aquarium. The thoroughly researched text includes references from Tennyson to John Denver, but the voice is wholly the author's--intimate, personal.

Her story is uncannily familiar to me. We both fell in love with octopuses at a public aquarium, began planning to keep our own (the globe-trotting Montgomery concluded "as great as a personal home octopus might be, it would be too risky for both the octopus and my marriage" while I, unwed and stationary at the age of 10, went on to keep several suckered pets during my school years), and eventually learned to scuba dive for the sole purpose of meeting octopuses in the wild.

And now I want very much to visit the octopus church in Papetoai.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

How Aliens Turned Me Into a Biologist (and a Writer)

Classics like Star Wars and Foundation helped shape my love for science fiction, but one of my very first favorite works was neither movie nor novel. It was a little field guide, written like a birder's handbook, called Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials.

Although I had read precious few of the original stories Barlowe drew from, I was captivated by the meticulous illustrations and otherworldly descriptions. Parasitic males! Glowing skin! Brains in feet!

But I misplaced my childhood copy of Barlowe's Guide some years ago, and had nearly forgotten about it when the Interstellar Day of Science and Story rolled around. The wonderful people behind National Novel Writing Month introduced the hashtag #ScienceIsStory and asked: "Which story made you fall in love with the potential of science fiction?"

And I answered:
Memory suddenly ablaze, I got myself another copy, and turned to the pages I recalled most fondly:

I've still never read the source material--Midnight at the Well of Souls by Jack L. Chalker. (I probably should.) But even without narrative context, I loved the idea of a "mobile plant intelligence" that "takes root" at night. And Barlowe's Gumby-like interpretation tickled all my cute receptors.

Thus inspired, I spent much of my youth inventing new alien species--drawing them, imagining their life cycles and habitats. This is best example I could find in my files:

Let us take a moment to forgive my tweenage self for--in order of appearance--a) inventing a needlessly confusing plural form, b) subject/verb disagreement, c) using "race" instead of "species," d) failure to understand basic population dynamics, and e) treating "male" as "default."

I had a lot of learning to do. Luckily, my fascination with aliens took me by the hand and led right into my education.
Marine biology was, in fact, the natural next step for a sci-fi kid like me. I wasn't the kind that really wanted to be an astronaut, to go into space for its own sake. (Although I do think space is cool.) I just wanted to go to other planets to meet aliens, and it turned out to be more practical to simply step into the ocean.

Parasitic males, glowing skin, brains in feet? Check, check, and check!

So I became a marine biologist, and made a small contribution to the nonfiction equivalent of Barlowe's Guide. Here's the first page of the cephalopod chapter in The Light and Smith Manual: Intertidal Invertebrates from Central California to Oregon:

Admittedly, it could use some color. But with the magnified insets of male octopus sex organs, and the text's mention of escape artistry and ink-squirting, science fact seems not so different from science fiction.

This co-authored chapter was my first scientific publication, and I went on to spend six years investigating the bizarre life histories of squid. I also taught invertebrate zoology, formally and informally, to audiences from 8 to 80. The outreach suited me better than the research, so I metamorphosed into a writer of popular science . . . and science fiction.
I don't make up aliens from scratch anymore--I know too much. Now I just play with the very real, very strange biology all around us. (I also try to be more aware of race and gender issues, and am somewhat kinder to the English language.)

I think my tweenage self would be pleased.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Valentine of Science Visualization

Yes I took a picture of my press badge.
Yes I am a big geek*.
The annual meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, pronounced Triple-A-ess) came to my neck of the woods this past weekend, so I coughed up for downtown parking and checked it out. Saturday was full of science and math art, which is right up my alley (when my alley is in my neck of the woods, I guess it's more of a forest path? let's not overthink this) and I ended up falling a little bit in love with space.

The first speaker I saw that day was Horace Mitchell, from NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio. "Scientists have very rich internal worlds," he said. "They visualize things a lot in their minds. We get that out so it excites other people." The studio posts everything they do online for free, "for anyone to use for any purpose." They share thirty terabytes of content every month. Thirty TERABYTES.

It's almost too much to handle; in fact, it is too much to handle and most of it never gets much attention. Remember that "perpetual ocean" visualization everyone was talking about in 2012? It had actually been sitting around on the NASA website since 2011, undiscovered until the studio's social media person decided to tweet about it.

Still from the Perpetual Ocean visualization. Do watch it.
If you need inspiration for anything, artistic or scientific or whatever, I suggest browsing the SVS gallery. It is absolutely one of the best ways to waste time on the internet.

A nontrivial part of the work in making visualizations like this is to understand your audience. In the words of the session moderator, astrophysicist Tom Abel, "For an astronomer blue is very hot and red is very cold. And that would be very bad in the shower."

Mitchell followed this up with an example of the ozone hole. It's impossible to get data on ozone thickness directly above the South Pole, because the sun never shines straight down. The most accurate way to represent this visually is with an empty space. "But that's not the hole," said Mitchell. "The hole is an area of very low ozone around [the empty space]." If an image is only going to be shown for ten seconds on the evening news, the anchor isn't going to explain the difference between "no data" and "ozone hole." An image with an empty space would be confusing, says Mitchell, "So we should interpolate across it."

Speaking of holes and empty space, another astrophysicist, Ralf Kaehler, followed Mitchell's talk with a presentation on dark matter. "First I'll talk about what dark matter is," he said. "We don't know." Showing us an empty black slide, he commented dryly, "It's pretty clear that a direct photorealistic visualization is not a good idea."

Anscombe's quartet: four datasets with identical statistics
 and wildly different graphs. Visualization matters!
Then he went on to show the gravitational effects of dark matter: lensing light and speeding up orbits. And he pointed out that visualizations like these do more than just communicate; they spur improved calculations which feed back into the research itself. One of the other speakers also noted that graphing your data can give you a much clearer picture (har har) than simply crunching the numbers, citing Anscombe's quartet as the classic example.

And in some cases, the image is the data, such as pictures taken by Hubble and its cousin, the Spitzer telescope. No, I'd never heard of that one either. I learned about it in the AAAS Exhibit Hall, where NASA had put up their rather amazing hyperwall for several presentations, including one about Spitzer. This telescope images the sky in infrared wavelengths, which are too long for our unaided eyes to detect. Shorter IR wavelengths pass through dust without being obscured, which provides a much clearer view of the Milky Way than we're accustomed to. But remember, dust is important--stars are made of it. Longer IR wavelengths show you the radiation emitted by the dust itself, and you can see it flowing into the spiral arms of our galaxy, condensing into proto-stars and blowing out into nebulae.

And if love indeed binds everything together (N.B. research connection between love and gravity) then I can't think of a better picture for Valentine's Day.

Infrared view of the Milky Way.
"Star-forming regions appear as swirls of red and yellow,
where the warm dust overlaps with the glowing organic molecules."

* An early version of this post used the word "dork." This error has been corrected by the author's father, who should know.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

How The Ocean Will Kill You, and Other Salty Truths

This article was originally posted on Dan Koboldt's website as part of Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy—a fun and educational series of blog posts by experts from various fields. Cross-posted here with permission.

The ocean covers 71% of our planet and probably leaks into at least that much of our collective psyche. You can’t dip your toe in a tidepool without getting bitten by symbolism. The depths of the sea are humanity’s unconscious; maritime weather is fickle fate; fish represent Jesus; and the white whale—well, we all know about him.

The ocean has shaped high fantasy like Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series and hard sci-fi like David Brin’s Uplift books, adventures like Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and thrillers like Benchley’s Jaws.

The immense popularity of these last two titles, however, has contributed to one of the most common misconceptions about the ocean among readers and writers alike.

The ocean can kill you, but probably not the way you think.

When they hear that the ocean is dangerous, most people think of great white sharks, giant squid, maybe even sea serpents. But the most dangerous thing in the ocean is actually . . . water. Because you can’t breathe it.

In the US, about 3500 people die every year by drowning, and half of these occur in what the CDC calls “natural water” settings: the ocean, lakes and rivers. Compare 1750 annual deaths by natural water to less than one by shark (some years there are no fatal shark attacks) and zero by squid (there’s never been a confirmed fatal squid attack).

That’s why real people who work or play in the ocean, like divers and sailors and surfers, take safety seriously and focus primarily on the risks of drowning and exposure. Fictional characters should do the same. The Law of Conservation of Detail may prevent you from waxing lyrical about your kayaking protagonist’s life jacket, but at least you can make sure your divers follow the buddy system.

On the flip side, if you do want to hurt or kill a character in the ocean, it’s tragically easy to find inspiration in real headlines. Operating a boat under the influence. Night swimming alone. Ignoring the dive computer’s warnings.

But I know, I know. Sometimes you just have to threaten your characters with a deadly animal. In that case, may I suggest a cone snail or a blue-ringed octopus?

Most of the animals in the ocean are not whales, dolphins, or fish.

Or even (as much as it pains me to admit it) giant squid. In fact, the ocean is Earth’s premier showcase for the sheer diversity of animal life. It’s got dancing flatworms, sea cucumbers that breathe through their anuses, sailing jellyfish, octopuses that dress up like shrimp, shrimp that can break your thumb faster than you can blink . . . I could go on.

Most of these creatures are invertebrates, animals without a backbone. And some are truly bizarre. In college, my invertebrate zoology professor said that if he had to pick a group of animals that came from outer space, it would be the echinoderms (starfish, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers). Instead of having a left and right side like we’re used to, they have five-pointed symmetry. Instead of a proper circulatory system, they pump raw seawater through their bodies, using the pressure of the water to move their feet. They can regenerate their arms and even their guts. Aliens among us, indeed.

In fact, many writers have drawn inspiration from this realm for creating alien or fantasy life forms. (Writing Outside the Human Box tackled this topic in excellent detail). Marine invertebrates offer an almost endless diversity of shapes, forms and behaviors to stir the imagination.

And if you’re writing horror, try looking up marine invertebrate parasites. Tongue-eating isopods, anyone?

But if you’re not inventing new species or traumatizing your readers, if you’re just writing a few boat scenes or a romantic walk on the beach, do you really need to know about all this biodiversity? Plenty of people who live in coastal towns never see much more than seagulls and the occasional whale. However, it’s worth remembering that today’s ocean is the product of centuries of overfishing.

The ocean we’re used to is unnaturally empty.

Are you writing historical fiction or creating a fantasy/alternate world? Try filling the oceans brimful with turtles and fish twice the size of a person. Pack in the whales like sardines. Consider reading accounts of historical abundance, like this passage from the memoir Two Years Before the Mast, in the year 1834:

We were surrounded far and near by shoals of sluggish whales and grampuses, which the fog prevented our seeing, rising slowly to the surface, or perhaps lying out at length, heaving out those lazy, deep, and long-drawn breathings which give such an impression of supineness and strength. . . . I stood leaning over the bulwarks, listening to the slow breathings of the mighty creatures—now one breaking the water just alongside, whose black body I almost fancied I could see through the fog; and again another, which I could just hear in the distance—until the low and regular swell seemed like the heaving of the ocean’s mighty bosom to the sound of its own heavy and long-drawn respirations. 

On the other hand, are you writing about the future? Consider that whales may become wholly extinct, as in the charmingly cheesy Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Sad to say, it’s also reasonable to speculate that we may lose all the coral reefs, sea turtles, and sea birds.

We often think of the ocean as powerful and dangerous. It is. But at the same time, many marine animals and ecosystems are fragile and endangered. To incorporate both aspects in our writing is to give to the sea what we try to give to all of our characters—depth.

Friday, October 31, 2014

An Unexpected Death

Last night I gave a Twilight Zone talk at Creatures of the NightLife, part of the Bay Area Science Festival. It was a lovely experience, thanks to organizers Kishore Hari and Arne Bakker and our hosts at the California Academy of Sciences. The other speakers and I were asked to tell "spooky science stories" based on our research; here's the script I came up with. Happy Halloween!


I am a Humboldt squid.

I heard the deadly click-click-click of a hunting sperm whale. I dropped the fish I’d been chewing and swam for my life. Sperm whales are fast. And no camouflage will save you—they just listen for the echoes of their clicks, bouncing off your body. They have teeth, sharp teeth, but that’s not how you die—it’s the suction when they slurp you down whole.

This time, I escaped. But the sperm whale’s terrible yawn closed on a squid right next to me, and I felt certain I’d meet the same fate one day.

This is the story of how I found a different way to die.

I never knew my parents. I hatched in the open ocean, amidst hundreds of thousands of siblings. Our eyes barely worked, and we were so small that the water felt like thick molasses as we swam.

Every little fish, every drifting jelly, every slightly bigger squid wanted to eat us. I was lucky: I’m the only one of half a million who survived to grow up.

And no matter how much I grew, someone always wanted to eat me. Bigger fish, bigger squids. Dolphins and whales. There was just one safe haven: the breathless deep, a layer of water far below the surface with very little oxygen. Big fish, like tuna and sharks, couldn’t breathe there. But I could.

And so could the little lanternfish, who lived there in huge delicious swarms. It was a buffet, although one that I had to share with all the other squid who’d found the same refuge. I didn’t mind too much—some of the males were very attractive. I began to collect and store sperm for the day when I might lay half a million eggs of my own.

The breathless deep was our playground. It seemed like a great idea to follow as far as it went, so we headed out on migration. We were young and hungry—the world was ours.

We didn’t stay at depth twenty-four hours a day, of course. We followed the lanternfish when they swam up to the surface at night, looking for their own food. And as we migrated north, night by night we noticed the surface water getting colder and colder.

At first this didn’t bother me. The deep water had always been cold, and once I was no longer a baby I didn’t care. But then I began to worry for my eggs. Would I be able to find warm water to spawn ahead, or would I have to turn around?

I pushed the concern aside, because the cold water brought a welcome relief from being constantly hunted. We’d left most of the sperm whales behind, as well as the little boats with glowing lures. And we’d found new food: crunchy rockfish and sweet salmon.

Was it the long exposure to low temperatures that eventually muddled our minds? Or was there poison in the water? I’d heard that algae can sometimes grow toxic, and the shrimp who graze on them become toxic, and if you eat the fish who eat the shrimp then you go crazy and swim out of the ocean to your death.

Or maybe we were simply too eager to sate our hunger. We had been chasing a new kind of small fish. I don’t say they deliberately led us to destruction, but surely they knew better than we how to survive the crashing surf, the shallow beach.

Tumbling and pummeling, hard rocks and rough sand—these were like nothing I had ever felt before. It was all over in minutes, the last waves sucking away from my skin, leaving me stranded.

My powerful body deflated on land. My arms became tangled in seaweed. My gills collapsed. A seagull came to gouge chunks of flesh from my fins. Our eyes met, and I saw him consider how mine would taste. But before he could try a beakful, he was spooked into the air by a long shadow on the beach.

It was a human. The same creature that had caught so many of my kin back in the warm water where I’d been born, and even a few of my companions here in the cold water—for humans, I had learned, are more ubiquitous than sperm whales, and more clever at tracking us wherever we may go.

But this human had no deadly lure, no boat. It stood for a short time, shading my body from the hot sun, probably fascinated by the colors of death rippling across my skin. Then it waved its arms, and another human joined it.

They picked me up, one holding my pecked-apart fins and the other cradling my head. They waded into the surf. And they threw me out into the water.

Survival was no longer an option. I was too damaged by sand and sun, seaweed and seagull. I spent the last minutes of my life rocked by the sea, my vision as blurry as when I was a baby, my broken body as challenged to swim. And I felt something like peace.