Archive for the ‘Inconsequential blabber’ Category

I’ve heard so many times the saying that curiosity killed the cat. In French we say that quality is a naughty defect (generally to kids, in order to discourage it). That’s utter-bullshit, pardon my English. Curiosity saved men. It’s because we’re curious that we founds ways to compensate our tiny constitution, our ridiculous speed, our feeble health and so on. And it’s because we’re curious that we invented a special job: researcher. People devoted for the sole purpose of satisfying the curiosity of the society, and/or their own.

In return, the very minimum that these researchers can do, it tell the results of their investigations. Otherwise, that’s a bit unfair, no? It’s called staying in the Ivory Tower, the tower where intellectual selfishly do their work, while staying disconnected from the society. We get paid by the society to find stuff, and we don’t tell what we find? Apart from fueling the lunatic nature of conspiracy theorists, who think every researcher in the world participate covertly to global machinations, this is just failing to do the full spectrum of our very responsibility as researchers. Every researcher should do popularization work, be it public conferences, press interviews, books or documentaries or just press release and let the journalists communicate for them. That’s the fair thing to do, and that’s also a very good exercise to be able to explain complicated concepts, and ultimately also to get more people interested in our discipline.

With that in mind, I’ve been popularizing quite a lot, since my very early carrier. I’ve written a piece about my thesis research during my first year of PhD, against the advice not to do so of my supervisor, who thought – like almost everybody else at the time – that popularization was the realm of bad scientists: those who where not sufficiently strong in research to stay with their peers went to shine with the public, pretending to be smarter than their colleagues knew them to be. Now I’ve written more, from articles to books, initiated several documentaries, participated in several others, given conferences in front of many different audiences, including about every age of school children, and interviews to radio, tv channels and written press. And apart from one or two exceptions, every single one has been a great experience.

In some countries, like my own, the public tends to think that researchers are at best immature parasite society who work on useless questions just because they can. In others, like the USA, they tend to have a better reputation, sometimes up to selfless saviors of the society. Regardless of the general view of our profession, communicating with the public is profitable for the public, is profitable for us and is profitable for our profession.

Of course, when  I say communicate to the public, don’t go telling them all everything. We want to keep all our global conspiracies safely concealed, otherwise our secret plot to take over all the governments of Earth might be delayed…

Communication

Today, we wondered: why here? Why Paris?
It’s because you, the moron hidden thousands of kilometers away, well concealed while you send empty heads blow themselves up in your place, you know that here, we are everything you hate
.
You know that within a few minutes, all doors will open in Paris for everyone to find refuge
.

You
know that firemen, police officers, soldiers, nurses and doctors will rush in to save lives while risking their own.

You know that, the next day, everyone will mass in hospitals to give their blood.
You know that the very evening, candles will be lit by the thousands at our windows.
You know that we will continue to welcome the refugees that you abuse in your own country.
You know that Virginie will explain as much as she can that you are not a believer but just a despicable ignorant.
You know that Miko will draw to show that you do not understand anything about the Koran and that youre its greatest traitor.
You know that the Place de la République will be filled the following day by people who will express their support, in spite of the repeated requests of the authorities not to remain there.
You know that gatherings, forbidden now, will happen spontaneously despite everything.
You know that the highlight of the day will be a musician and his piano, playing a song about peace.
You know all this.
And you can’t stand it.

So, you write us that we should be afraid of you, that it is only the beginning, that you are the strongest. While being well hidden, safe and far from all this

But I will tell you a something, bastard: you lost.
Before even starting, you had lost.
We are better than you.
You may well hit us like a madman, send your clueless minions to blow themselves up in the midst of our parties, we will prevail.
You may well write to us, tell us that we must be afraid, follow your orders, we will prevail.
You may well take away friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, we will prevail.
Even sad and stunned by all these victims, we will prevail.
We are not afraid of you.
We are millions not afraid.

Jean-Claude, Francine, Christine and Alain have never been afraid of you.
Us, we are not afraid of you.
And
Chloé, Clément, Pierre, Guillaume, Léo, Noa and Yoann will never be afraid of you.

And that also, you know.
And that is why you hit here.
France is your worst enemy.
Count on us: this will not change.

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Vincent Hulin, Paris, 14/11/15. Free translation.

Since biblical times, I’ve thought that one of the only things that perhaps could tip the balance in favor of the environment would be to have religious people on our side. When you think of it, they are numerous, they are organized and when they have divine directive, they take it rather seriously.

It seems that God, in Its great wisdom, has led the first men to believe that Nature was theirs to do whatever they wanted with, and that the only role of animals on Earth was to be at the disposal of Men, and that Men had to fight and win over Nature and this type of bullshit. Or so they wrote in the Bible. No wonder then that Christians don’t give a damn about the environment. Or at least, not enough to matter.

I don’t know enough of the other mainstream religions, but I doubt they also preach biodiversity and ecosystem conservation as one of their main messages (anyways, I’m not an expert but I reckon the main message of all three major religions is « don’t kill your neighbor » and their followers still seem to be struggling with it, so never mind the « don’t mess up your planet »).

And there I was thinking all this, quite pessimistically, and it seems God heard me and thought « Oh Franck, you may be a bit megalomaniac, but you gave Me a good idea, I’ll talk to some of My representatives ». Because next thing I knew, Pope Francis spoke (and wrote) a very clear and very explicit message about protecting biodiversity, mitigating climate change, and stuff in his Encyclal Letter: Laudato Si’. You can find it here. As explained in a nice analysis here, this makes him a powerful ally for conservation. And God knows we need all the allies we can find.

Its seems that the Dalai Lama also said things that go in this direction (but he also said some very sexist things recently, so he’s not my best buddy anymore; yet, Buddhists should listen to that environment thing), which means that we can expect some other major leaders of some other major religions to express themselves on the same lines, since God just asked them (or reminded them, because, hey, if God wanted to kill the planet, He’d just order a downpour and be done with it). And I’m pretty sure God doesn’t want us to mess up with His creation, even if He spent only 7 days doing it and has been a couch potato ever since. .

So now, if you ever were in doubt about how to spend your zealous energy, making converts, making money, or protecting biodiversity, now you know. God wants you to protect biodiversity. And so do I. He’s on my side. You don’t stand a chance. Obey and pray that our divine wrath is curtate and our clemency all-encompassing.

god

You want personal? I give you personal. My year in California; it will be the year of many things, but it will definitely be the year of trying triathlon. Of tri-ing.
I started with an experience in the three sports amounting to only a poor 8 months of running. No swimming (ever, I didn’t even know how to). No biking (ever, I didn’t even have a bike). No idea whatsoever of what a transition is, or why three sports in a row is so much more difficult than the mere sum of the three.

That was a big challenge, but I was there for the challenge. Otherwise I wouldn’t have picked the university team that was (and remained) the USA champions (UCLA Triathlon). An amazing team that awed me and inspired me, but that also made me feel ridiculously slow, fat, old and generally unfit. Because triathlon is everything but easy. Oh, yes, I have sweated, I have bled, I have ached and moaned. I have discovered what it means to be so oxygen deprived that even clutching the pool side I couldn’t catch up my breath and was slowly drifting into both asphyxiation and panic. I have seen people faint and collapse around me during races and wondered whether I was next. I now know what it’s like to see white spots while swimming, to feel lost in the ocean, to feel unable to climb further up a slope, to run for hours on giant blisters, to keep going even as darkness pulls around, to puke on the side of the road or to stay awake all night long with a body full of hormones and pains after a race.

I have lost sleep; I have lost weight; I have lost toenails; I have lost pride; but I have never lost focus nor courage. I never gave up, even when the rest of the team was so effortlessly losing me in swims, in rides and in runs. Even when my highest achievements were dwarfed by the lowest of theirs. I have found determination, I have found strength in my microscopic progresses. I have found sound advice and kind encouragement. I have found a coach, and mentor and a team.

And I have found pleasure. I have found pleasure in progressively feeling stronger, faster, tougher, more enduring. And I have found pleasure in fighting my fears, in overcoming my limitations, in pushing my limits, in never, ever giving up. I found pleasure in stringing races, in running in Death Valley, in biking with Marines, in passing so many racers in the ocean. I come back to France having now run 7 half-marathons, three marathons and four triathlons, many in difficult conditions. I was pleased to finish within the first 20% racers at my last semi-marathon, which was one week after my last triathlon, itself 5 days after my last marathon. My overall feeling is that although I have never been skilled, I have pushed myself, and never failed.

So, this is supposed to be a blog somehow related to scientific research?! WTF? Ok, here’s the message. First, research is relatively easy; even a PhD is relatively easy. Believe me. There are much harder endeavors, stop complaining if you are. Second, whatever your goals, you can reach them if you put your mind into it. Nothing is out of your reach. If you don’t push away your limits, you’ll remain limited. Third, hard work, tenacity, courage and strength of will can go a long way towards compensating lack of skills or other disadvantages in our academic world (such as being young, being a woman or being a non-English speaker). Last, even difficult, painful, long endeavors can provide pleasure, sometimes just because you managed to overcome the obstacles you once believed to be insuperable.

Now, that’s done; Note to self: second step, give this text to my PhD just before I give them some additional, hard work.

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The Dunning–Kruger effect. No, it’s not yet another episode of the hilarious “Big Bang Theory” show. It’s a real, serious scientific thing.

As a kid, I’ve always wondered whether people who are really dumb have a way know that they are really dumb. If they lack the intellectual faculties to spot intellectual faculties, then they are stuck in a loophole that is way worst than anything the devious French administration could ever invent. No? Yes, the answer is yes.

According to the mighty Wikipedia, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias whereby unskilled individuals mistakenly assess their ability to be much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude. Conversely, highly skilled individuals tend to underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others. As David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University conclude: “The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.” End quote.

Or, as Franck Courchamp of Paris Sud University concludes: “Geniuses are too aware of the possibilities not to focus on their own limitswhile dumbs are too dumb to get that they are dumb”. That’s quite related to the “impostor syndrome” that I discussed earlier here.

The good news is, if you thought you were not that smart, you are probably underestimating yourself, and are much smarter than you feel. The bad news is, now that you know you may be smart, you should start wondering whether you’re not “miscalibrating” a bit. You stupid.

Intelligence

Sometimes it comes at night. I lay awake in the middle of the night, and think, unbound and unbounded, and ideas come. And often, I eventually get back to sleep, right before I have to get up, and I lose it all. This time, I decided to get up and write them down. It is four in the morning, and because I’ve woken up at that approximate time the two nights before, unable to find sleep again, I decide this time that it’s not worth the wait of Morpheus, and the frustration of Massive Attack (my alarm clock song).

But before I silently get up and discreetly leave the bedroom, I think about another thing. That email I received yesterday that mildly annoyed me. It was about a questionnaire, that people working on the border of two disciplines should fill out, but I don’t remember to what endeavor. The point that bothered me was that they were requesting it from “scientists at the interface between life science and formal sciences”.

Right. In essence, life science is not a formal science. I know that what we do as ecologists is very formal in the sense that it is strict and rigorous and that I shouldn’t get touchy about this ‘informal’ adjective. Formal sciences really means sciences focused on formal systems, and formal systems are systems of abstract thoughts based on mathematics. Even if many ecologists use mathematics and statistics as a primary tool, we are focused on physical systems. Right ok. Pill swallowed. So how to define the idiosyncrasies of biology when you don’t want to give in into the stereotypes of the hierarchy of sciences? Because, yes, there is a strong hierarchy, at least in the mind of many people, scientists and laymen alike. Many think that hard science apply only to maths and physics. Same thing for the term exact science. Pure is usually used for a branch of maths only, so the rest must be quite impure. And because we biologists are not included in social and sciences either, we must be – since we are right between the world of hard/exact/formal sciences and social and human sciences – the only scientists busying our days doing science that is impure, inexact, informal, soft, asocial and inhuman. The best of all sciences. Thrilling.

Well, I prefer to think of biology as a science of complexity and variability. Because these are really the two entities we are working with and that really define the kind of struggle we face on an everyday basis. And ecology is probably the paramount of these two features. To the point that we embrace them totally. Complexity of uncountable species interacting with their environment in space and time is what attracts most of us to ecology. Variability, far from the interference it represents in physics, has become itself a major focus of interest in our discipline.

Now, it’d be good to end up on a clever conclusion, so I’ll go back to bed and hope ideas will come. By the way, getting up in the night to write down ideas in hopes of not forgetting them in the morning might work, provided you don’t start blogging. Damned, I don’t even remember what these ideas were about…

purity

Nuclear power recommended by environmental scientists? Probably sounds like a bomb, but read this.

As conservation scientists concerned with global depletion of biodiversity and the degradation of the human life-support system this entails, we, the co-signed, support the broad conclusions drawn in the article Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation published in Conservation Biology (Brook & Bradshaw 2014).

Brook and Bradshaw argue that the full gamut of electricity-generation sources—including nuclear power—must be deployed to replace the burning of fossil fuels, if we are to have any chance of mitigating severe climate change. They provide strong evidence for the need to accept a substantial role for advanced nuclear power systems with complete fuel recycling—as part of a range of sustainable energy technologies that also includes appropriate use of renewables, energy storage and energy efficiency. This multi-pronged strategy for sustainable energy could also be more cost-effective and spare more land for biodiversity, as well as reduce non-carbon pollution (aerosols, heavy metals).

Given the historical antagonism towards nuclear energy amongst the environmental community, we accept that this stands as a controversial position. However, much as leading climate scientists have recently advocated the development of safe, next-generation nuclear energy systems to combat global climate change (Caldeira et al. 2013), we entreat the conservation and environmental community to weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.

Although renewable energy sources like wind and solar will likely make increasing contributions to future energy production, these technology options face real-world problems of scalability, cost, material and land use, meaning that it is too risky to rely on them as the only alternatives to fossil fuels. Nuclear power—being by far the most compact and energy-dense of sources—could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution. As scientists, we declare that an evidence-based approach to future energy production is an essential component of securing biodiversity’s future and cannot be ignored. It is time that conservationists make their voices heard in this policy arena.

The list of signatories can be found here and here. Now, please, do read the article of Brook & Bradshaw before getting emotional and all. Now I’m waiting for the fallout…

nuclearprogramIllustration.sellingnukepower