The Ethics of Selling Science: From Farting Dinosaurs to Conscious Planets

When science mixes with the media, there is a tendency for things to get…sensationalized. One recent example of this is the recent dinosaur flatulence fiasco. An interesting, short, and straightforward paper was recently published in Current Biology, which attempted to estimate the amount of methane produced by giant dinosaurs. Scientists have known for a while that farm animals, especially cows, produce enough methane to potentially effect the climate, so what about dinosaurs?


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And the Winner of the MBL Cover Contest is…

Last summer, I was fortunate enough to take part in the Embryology Summer Course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts (I blogged about this experience for The Node, and on my now-definct blog BioBlueprints).

Every year, some of the coolest images taken during the course compete to be on the cover of an issue of the scientific journal Development. And I’m excited to say that an image I helped take (with Lynn Kee from the University of Michigan and Meghan Morrissey from Duke University) has won the first contest! It will be on the cover of Development later this month (I’m sure you can pick it up at your local newsstand, right between the most recent issues of Annals of Botany and Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society).

You can still see all of the photos here, and they are all really incredible.  But I do think this image is something special (hint: you have to see it at the larger size to really appreciate it):

This is ventral surface of a skate (genus Raja) treated with alcian blue (which stains cartilage) and alizarin red (which stains bone). The squiggly lines surrounding the face are ampullary canals, which act as an electro-sensory system.


A (not so) Fond Farewell to our Paleontologist Presidential Candidate

I can’t say Newt Gingrich was on the top of my list for president, or for that matter, anybody else I knew.  And I guess I wasn’t alone on that one, because a dozen contests too late and $4 million in debt, Newt Gingrich is suspending his presidential campaign.

Newt hasn’t exactly endeared himself to the scientific community this election season, arguing we invest our limited recourses into a moon colony and vowing to ban embryonic stem cells. But did you know that in his free time, Newt is a passionate armchair zoologist?

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Do Sex Starved Flies Drown Their Sorrows in Alcohol?

ResearchBlogging.orgA recent study suggesting male fruit flies sexually rejected by females turn to alcohol (Shohat-Ophir et al. 2012) has received a lot of colorful (and questionable) media attention. The New York Times poetically suggests that males are “using alcohol as a balm for unfulfilled desire”, TIME magazine says “When she says no, the bottle beckons more brightly — for men and for fruit flies” and a blog for the LA Times eloquently proclaims this “confirms that the proclivity to get shit-faced after being sexually rejected isn’t exclusive to dive bar sad-sacks”. Colorful interpretations aren’t unique to the media; below is a figure from the Science perspective paper (Zars 2012):

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Dinosaur gets a new glossy sheen

” Question #1:What color were the dinosaurs? 

Dino checks

Answer: No one knows. Animal’s skin colors are produced by organic pigments which are not preserved in the process of fossilization…. Basically, it is impossible to know what the dinosaurs’ coloration was (using today’s science). ”

I found this particular answer off of the children’s website ZoomDinosaurs, which I chose partly because of the awesome checkerboard T-rex that came with it, and partly because of the caveat that the problem regarding the color of dinosaurs is impossible to solve “using today’s science”. It leaves hope that one day, the answer will be found.  Working scientists know how many questions are still unanswered, and how rapidly technology can change a field of study. So most (not all) scientists are properly cautious to avoid suggesting that something in science is “impossible”. I think the general public, though, is more likely to think science has all the answers, and what scientists don’t already know is unknowable (which, is probably our fault as scientists and educators more than anyone else’s).

Once again, the impossible is now possible.
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What Good is Half of Half of an Eye?

ResearchBlogging.orgFor those of us in academic fields, there are always a handful of famous quotes that come up over and over again ad nauseam. In evolutionary biology, I feel personally fortunate if I can make it through a half dozen lectures without seeing geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s quote “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution“. Another required quote, if you study eye evolution, comes from Charles Darwin himself:

“To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances … could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.” (Darwin, Origin of Species, Chpt 6)

This has been quoted and misquoted more times than I care to count. Some people have cited this as evidence that Darwin did not believe something as complicated as the eye could have ever evolved through natural selection; such people clearly did not read the sentences immediately following:

“Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.”
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