Screen Junkies: Science and Jurassic World

So the episode I mentioned is out! It’s a lot of fun, and there’s so very much that we talked about that they could not fit into the episode. See below. It is all about Jurassic World – a huge box-office hit. movie_science_screen_shotIf you have not seen it yet, and don’t want specific spoilers, watch out for where I write the word spoilers in capitals, and read no further. If you don’t even want my overall take on things without specifics, read only up to where I link to the video. Also, the video has spoilers. I’ll embed the video here, and I have some more thoughts that I’ll put below.

One point I brought up a bit (you can see the beginning of it in my early remarks) is the whole business of the poor portrayal of science and scientists overall in the film, as opposed to in the original Jurassic Park movie. In the original, putting quibbles over scientific feasibility aside (it’s not a documentary, remember!), you have the “dangers of science” on one side, but you also have the “wonders of science” on the other. This includes that early scene or two that still delight me (and many scientists I know – and a whole bunch who were partly inspired by the movie to go into science!) of how genuinely moved the two scientist characters (played by Laura Dern and Sam Neil) are to see walking living dinosaurs, the subject of their life’s work. Right in front of them. Even if you’re not a scientist, you immediately relate to that feeling. It helps root the movie, as does that fact that pretty much all the characters are fleshed […] Click to continue reading this post

LAIH Luncheon with Amy Parish

LAIH_Amy_Parish_10_April_2015_2 For Friday’s Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities luncheon we had a presentation from anthropologist/primatologist Amy Parish (an LAIH Fellow) on the work she’s been doing with bonobos at a zoo in Stuttgart. She updated us on how bonobo societies work (of all the apes, bonobos are our closest cousins, genetically), and then told us about recent experiments she’s been doing with getting them to watch films, giving them control over what they watch, and observing the effects of this on social patterns. (There’s a brief article here about Amy’s recent work.) It was an excellent talk, well attended, with lots of laughter – the result of a pretty potent mixture of food, sex, and humour!

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

LAIH Field Trip: The Natural History Museum!

LAIH_NHM_Field_Trip_3On Friday the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities went on another field trip. This time we went to the Natural History Museum. (Click the image for a larger panorama from one of the dinosaur halls.) If you’ve not been there for a while, this is not the museum you remember. It has been transformed, under the leadership of Jane Pisano (President and Director of the Museum, who gave us a splendid talk over lunch), adding several new spaces, a special garden, and new foci in its programming (such as special displays and research programs highlighting urban ecosystems – featuring coyotes, rats, squirrels, possums, Cooper’s hawks, doves, skunks, parrots, etc., (basically my back garden on a typical day, as you know from this blog), along with snakes, bedbugs, termites… The Nature all around us in the city of Los Angeles – fascinating actually.)

We had a tour of some of the spaces, breaking up into two groups (there were around 40 of us) and taking turns on two mini-tours (as we did for the Clark Library in December), one looking at the new dinosaur halls, the other the space dedicated to the urban environments I mentioned above. We learned a lot from our guides about what’s going on in the forefront of research in both […] Click to continue reading this post

Baby Mothra!!!

So I discovered a terrifying (but also kind of fascinating and beautiful at the same time) new element to the garden this morning. We’re having a heat wave here, and so this morning before leaving for work I thought I’d give the tomato plants a spot of moisture. I passed one of the tomato clusters and noticed that one of the (still green) tomatoes had a large bite taken out of it. I assumed it was an experimental bite from a squirrel (my nemesis – or one of them), and muttered dark things under my breath and then prepared to move away the strange coiled leaf that seemed to be on top of it. Then I noticed.

It wasn’t a leaf.


It was a HUGE caterpillar! Enormous! Giant and green with spots and even a red horn at one end! There’s a moment when you’re unexpectedly close to a creature like that where your skin crawls for a bit. Well, mine did for a while […] Click to continue reading this post

Screen Junkies Chat: Guardians of the Galaxy

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 3.13.03 PMYou may recall that back in June I had a chat with Hal Rudnick over at Screen Junkies about science and time travel in various movies (including the recent “X-Men: Days of Future Past”). It was a lot of fun, and people seemed to like it a lot. Well, some good news: On Tuesday we recorded (along with my Biophysicist colleague Moh El-Naggar) another chat for Screen Junkies, this time talking a bit about the fun movie “Guardians of the Galaxy”! Again, a lot of fun was had… I wish you could hear all of the science (and more) that we went into, but rest assured that they* did a great job of capturing some of it in this eight-minute episode. Have a look. (Embed below the more-click):
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Coral Forest

crochet_forest_7Given that you read here at this blog, you may well like to keep your boundaries between art and science nicely blurred, in which case you might like to learn more about the coral reef forests made of crochet spearheaded by Margaret and Christine Wertheim. The pieces mix crochet (a hand-craft I know and love well from my childhood – I got to explore my love for symmetry, patterns, and problem-solving by making doilies) with mathematics – hyperbolic geometry in particular – as well as biology (mimicking and celebrating the forms of corals – and drawing attention to their destruction in the wild). You can read much more about the projects here. I’ve mentioned the work here before on the blog, but the other day I went along to see a new set […] Click to continue reading this post

Fail Lab Episode 12 – Finale

fail_lab_ep_12_still….In which Crystal and many of the crew chill out on the sofa after a long hard season of shows and express some of their gut feelings about the whole business. Well done on an excellent series of shows, Crystal, Patrick, James, and all the other behind the scenes people! (Warning: – This episode may not be for the squeamish!)

Embed below:
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Containment Cube

No, not some geometrical artifact of immense power… It is the containment for my next batch of compost. Click for a larger view. I made it last year out of PVC pipes and chicken wire, and it was a huge success (see recent posts with pictures of the produce that has been appearing from that compost batch….) with one design flaw: It was a bit high so that digging in it to turn the forming compost over and so forth was tough on the back – I put my back out for days one time. So I’ve cut it down to a smaller height and now it […] Click to continue reading this post

Whale Song – Your Help Needed

I heard on NPR this morning that there’s a shout out to everyone to help with an interesting scientific project. It is crowd-sourcing in order to achieve certain objectives in science, which is an excellent idea. I wish I could do certain research projects I’m working on in this way – would be fun and quite novel indeed… Crowd-sourcing crowds of processors is maybe the closest I’d get to that. Anyway, it is all about identifying different types of whale song, and as a citizen scientist you’ll […] Click to continue reading this post

Bad Project


I’m guessing that a lot of you (especially those doing graduate work in Biology Labs) will just love this video, because you can relate to it. It’s about that frustrating feeling that (for one reason or another, or several) you’re stuck doing the endless project from hell… We’ve all been there. Oh, and it is done in the style of a Lady Gaga video I am told (not having ever seen or heard a Lady Gaga video, as far as I am aware, I can’t attest to this). Video after the fold:
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I, For One, Welcome Our New Arsenic-Replacing-Phosphorus-In-DNA Overlords

mono_lakeYeah! This is just the sort of thing I’d hoped that we (human beings) would find soon, in order to strengthen the idea that in looking for forms of life elsewhere, we be not just open to the idea that the basic chemistry for that life may be very different from what we are used to on earth (easier said than done), but that it is maybe even probable that this is what we could find first. Now, given the news today (announced by Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her team in a NASA press conference today and reported on in a paper to appear in Science) we know that it is not just a theoretical construction, but already a reality right here on earth. The researchers have identified a life form with a striking difference. The bacterium (which lives in Mono Lake – see NASA image above right) has DNA (and some other important complex molecules) with a major difference from all other forms we know. phosphorus has been replaced by arsenic!

periodic_tableThis works, by the way, because arsenic is in the same chemical family as phosphorus, being directly below it in the periodic table. Note that this is exactly the sort of thing that has been speculated about a lot in the classic days of science/speculative fiction concerned with alien life, remember? :- Silicon based life forms instead of the Carbon based ones that we know and love on earth. Silicon is again in the same column as […] Click to continue reading this post

Understanding Artificial Life

You’ll remember the recent announcement about the first synthetic life form, created by team Venter. But what does that mean, really? How truly synthetic is it really? What aspects of Nature needed to be input in order for it to be viable? Too much for it to be called truly synthetic? What dreams are out there to do better? What’s the science behind such a challenge? How did the mechanisms for life that we know know actually evolve, and what steps are adjustable or reproducible?

These questions and many more are addressed in a lovely special edition of BBC […] Click to continue reading this post

Another Hole in Pandora’s Box?

05classic05lNo doubt you’ve heard it all over the news. Craig Venter and his teams have created another press storm, this time about “synthetic life”, although I wonder a bit about the meaning of the term. I’ve no particularly insightful things to say about it all, other than to do like everyone else and watch and wonder where it’s all going to lead (probably not exactly where people currently think… is one thing we can say for sure). There’s coverage everywhere so I don’t need to point, but for future reference, here’s a Guardian link to a video of the man himself talking about it in some detail, and a link to a story by Ian Sample in the same paper. There you can find links to the research paper too. (Image at right is of a pithos, the kind of vessel Pandora opened in the Greek myth. The image is from the online component of the Michael C. Carlos museum at Emory university. Click image to jump there.)

Truly fascinating stuff to say the least.

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Art and Science

e.coli image by shardcoreSome time back I wrote a post concerning E.Coli, and illustrated it with an image that I found on the web. The other day I learned more about the actual source of the image. The painting (click on image to enlarge) was from someone working under the name shardcore, and you can visit their site here. Notably, there are several pieces of work there, and a number of them are of science subjects, and scientists. Shardcore writes interesting notes for some of the work too.

The work is overall quite fascinating, striking, and often very aesthetically engaging. I recommend having a good long look around. To tease you to go there, let me point out a (topical) one for some of us with eyes on the LHC. A painting of Peter Higgs:

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Gunslinging Bohr

bohr_einsteinThis story has come along at just the right time, given that my last post was about Einstein. Seems that Niels Bohr (another giant from the same period, and another one of the founders of the quantum theory) was a big fan of cowboy movies, and thought a lot about gunfights. Yes, really! (There he is in the photo on the left hanging out with his friend Einstein in later years, perhaps 1925. Perhaps they’re at a drive-in movie? I got this photo here.)

It turns out to be all relevant to new studies about reaction time. The fastest person to draw does not necessarily win the gunfight: […] Click to continue reading this post

Help from the Bugs

On NPR ’s morning edition the other day there was an interesting piece by Nell Greenfieldboyce about a lovely piece of research on the effects of various cultures of microbial organisms in our stomachs on how we extract nutrients from food. The key point is that what lives in our stomachs and how it interacts with what we eat is a key consideration in worrying about issues like nutrition, obesity, and other issues. I recommend listening to the audio of the piece, which you can find (along with a transcript if you prefer) here. (Actually, while searching for the audio for the story I found a related story by Robert Krulwich from almost exactly a year earlier. You can listen to that here.)

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Jane Goodall

jane_goodall_bovardJust went to a marvellous talk by Jane Goodall here on the USC campus, in Bovard auditorium. She’s signing her new book as we speak! Among the many things she said, she emphasized one of my favourite themes with regards the environment (and so many other things, like community, education, etc): Act locally.

Have a look at her roots and shoots organization for example. It is very youth driven […] Click to continue reading this post

Professors Do It Too

Remember a couple of weeks ago I was mentioning an outbreak of schoolboy(-like) giggles from my physics 408b class due (it turns out, if you did the homework on the equation) to some audience-perceived off-colour hidden joke in some of the material I was presenting? (I’m still a bit embarrassed since I had no intention of making the joke they saw.) Well, just a couple of days later, I was witness to it again, but this time it was in a lecture by someone else, and the audience was mostly professors, and it was one of my esteemed colleagues who couldn’t help himself and broke out giggling. Well, actually, there was a short loud guffaw which burst out. So you see, even the fine upstanding citizens can submit to juvenile giggles.

Let me tell the story. We had the eminent evolutionary biologist Patricia Gowaty (UCLA) give an excellent talk entitled “Darwin and Gender”, as part of the College […] Click to continue reading this post

See Oh Two

Remember the Culture? Not the Iain M. Banks civilization, interesting as that is. I mean the yeast from last week’s post Culture is Science.

You’ll recall I mentioned that its primary role in the whole baking business is the production of carbon dioxide. Well, you only see that indirectly via the results of the baking, of course, but while it was going through the ten day growth phase, I got the chance (after feeding it on day 5) to get some nice pictures of the swollen bag that results from its generation of the gas after its munching down on flour and sugar: […] Click to continue reading this post

Categorically Not! – Doing Darwin Differently

hyperbolic crochetThe next Categorically Not! is tomorrow, Sunday April 19th. The Categorically Not! series of events that are held at the Santa Monica Art Studios, (with occasional exceptions). It’s a series – started and run by science writer K. C. Cole – of fun and informative conversations deliberately ignoring the traditional boundaries between art, science, humanities, and other subjects. I strongly encourage you to come to them if you’re in the area. Here is the website that describes past ones, and upcoming ones. See also the links at the end of the post for some announcements and descriptions (and even video) of previous events. (Image above right is discussed in an earlier post here. The last paragraph of the description below made me think of it.)

The theme this month is Doing Darwin Differently. Here’s the description from K C Cole: […] Click to continue reading this post

Culture is Science

Well, on my way home on the bus just now I was the one responsible for the strange smell. Guilty as charged.

Let me explain.

This morning, a colleague, one of our teaching lab managers Joe, came by with a surprise gift. It was in a black bag, which I opened. Inside was a transparent bag with a quantity of mysterious looking goop in it. From it came the strong and very familiar smell of yeast. Along with it was a piece of paper with instructions.

yeast_cultureYes, it was/is a living yeast culture that Joe wanted to share with some friends. It was this that was with me in my bag on the bus just now. The idea is that you let it grow over ten days or so, and then you either make it all into a batch of bread, or you leave some over to make new cultures that you hand on to others after ten days and/or bake another batch of bread. What a remarkably unusual (these days) gift! (Thanks Joe!)

I’d actually been planning to start up my bread-making again (I used to do it a lot as a student, postdoc, and young professor-with-more-time-on-his-hands), and had […] Click to continue reading this post

Something to chew over…

skull  of sabertooth cat at page museum…while I prepare the longer post on the Tuesday special visit to the Page Museum at the Tar Pits.

I think it would be just fantastic if domestic cats had teeth like their cousins of 40+K years ago. (Click left for larger.)

Just great!

Would make for a considerably different dynamic while stroking them…

What do you think?

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Pit Stop

saber toothed catI’m going to another interesting College Commons event today. It’s an away mission. We’re off on a specially arranged tour of the La Brea Tar Pits! This is part of the 1859 celebration series, and of course Darwin is the focus here to some extent. We’re going to be taken around the famous Pit 91. I shall try to take some pictures and report later. The image on the left is a painting of the saber toothed cat, by John C. Dawson. (It is in the LA Natural History Museum.) (By the way – yes, the “Los Angeles 20059 B.C.” on […] Click to continue reading this post

The Spiritual Life of Plants

cvj sowing seedsGiven all the gardening I’ve been doing over the last week or so (there’s some seed-sowing action going on to the right – more later), it may be fitting to go and sit and participate in the event coming up today. It is another of the College Commons events I’ve been mentioning here.

It’ll be a round table discussion and workshop to kick off a series, and here’s the summary:

“The Spiritual Life of Plants” series, arranged by Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari of French and comparative literature, aims to reunite urgent contemporary conversations around ecology and the built environment with an early modern past — a past in which plants existed both at the limits of being and at the frontier of new forms of knowledge. What might these animated plants have to tell us about the ways in which humans experience, regulate, and are transformed by the non-human beings that surround them? How can we carry these conversations forward into the present and the future?

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