Posts Tagged ‘Science’

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 intellectuals 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 society parasites 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

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yes, better than Starwars and World of Warcraft together, the wars of ants. Last year in our lab, we set up wars between different species, among the most aggressive in the world.

I’m sure you can imagine. Monstrous armies of millions of Unsullied warriors, impervious to danger, dedicated to the death, working together with the efficacy given by millions of years of evolution, all entirely bent to one single purpose, destroying the other armies. I’m certain to are picturing this. Well, you are picturing it wrong, you immature brutes. So, what did we do and why did we do it?

It was a time when a Ph D student (Cleo Bertelsmeier) was studying the effect of climate change on invasive ants. I’ve told you already why we study invasive ants. If you’ve missed it, you can read it here. The first part of the PhD thesis was to build up species distribution models to try and predict where invasive ants would find favorable regions with climate change (ants are very sensitive to climate, and milder winters may mean higher probability of establishment). And the result was that some of the most problematic invasive ant species were predicted to arrive at the same place in several regions. And because the most obvious characteristics of all these invasive ants is that they are extremely efficient at removing other arthropods, starting with local ant species, we naturally wondered what would happen if two of such Hun armies were to clash in newly invaded territories. Or in other words, is there among these tiny berserk beasts one that would take over all the others (and the rest of the world with it).

So we set up colonies of four of the worst of the worst. These were the invasive garden ant Lasius neglectus, the Argentine ant Linepithema humile, the big-headed ant Pheidole megacephala and the electric ant Wasmannia auropunctata. The experiment set up by Cleo was not really the wars you pictured, but they were enough for our purposes: boxes with colonies of 300 workers and one queen, put into contact by a tiny tube, and days of counting the dead and the survivors. And these taught us a lot. First, that the experiments of one worker versus another in a Petri dish – often set up to establish dominance hierarchies among ant species – are not well suited, because some ants species need other workers to kill others. Some ants hold the enemy while it is being cut into pieces, and you can’t do that when you’re alone, and you’ll systematically lose in duels but not necessarily a battle. It also mean that classical experiments of 10 vs 10 workers in a Petri dish are also problematic, because the lack of natural conditions can bias the results. These ants are very stressed, more or less forced to fight, and with no territory, nest or queen to defend (which was not the case in our experiment). Last, it taught us that ants adapt their strategies according to their opponents. Some species that are very aggressive and kill everything were less so when confronted to potentially stronger adversaries. Some even escaped or feigned death. And some raided the other colonies D-Day style improved with chemical weaponry, with many losses but an eventual conquest while some others remained in their strongholds and privileged defense. And eventually it taught us that when you increase complexity, for example by putting all four species together, you increase… well complexity. Here, the species that systematically lost against any of the three others won half the time when all four were fighting simultaneously.

Now I’m sure you’d like to know who was the meanest of the four. The tiny electric ant, so named for its terribly painful sting? Or the scary big-headed ants, which soldiers can cut in two any of the other species? Well, I guess that to know that you’ll have to read the paper (and perhaps that one too about their strategies)… Yes, I know, I’m mean. That’s what the ants say too.

Marvel-Ant-Man-Banner-Poster

Of course, the best fighter of all remains the Ant-man

When I was a PhD student, a researcher that I admired once told me that half the research in labs is done in corridors and coffee rooms. Of course he didn’t mean that the dire restrictions of lab and office spaces faced by academia nowadays force half of us to install their benches or computers there. Even in France. What he meant was that in academia the social aspect is very important, and that social gatherings, such as coffee breaks, are not to be neglected because they are not just breaks from work and coffee loading. They are more than that. They are crucial because that’s where scientists chat. They of course sometimes chat about mundane topics, such as whether Schrödinger’s cat is male or female or both, or why 42 and not 43, or 41. But they most of the time talk about their work. Yes, most of us are in the latest stage of nerdiness and can’t be saved anymore.

And chatting about studies is really important for two things. Well, three, because it also gives you information about what the guy on the desk next to you is spending his days on (beside Facebook), which can be interesting, if not utterly fascinating (sometimes). But regarding your own research progress it’s important because it forces you to synthesize and to structure your thoughts about your work (the whole of it, or a more specific problem). This effort alone can benefit you a lot. Sometimes it will help you to get unstuck or to spot a weak link in your reasoning; sometimes it will just help you see more clearly your problem and go forward more easily. The second reason is that you can get feedback that can in many times be useful, be it from someone close to your topic or on the contrary rather remote.

With this in mind, we have set up three types of regular meetings in our group (in addition to the boring ones). The first one is the SemiBeer. We’ve talk about it here. But in a nutshell, it’s a Journal Club with two twists: 1/ we treat unconventional papers, such as funny ones, articles about controversies or papers about carrier and 2/ we drink beer (or other stuff, with peanuts and crackers, what we call apéro in France, a key cultural tradition that every other country on Earth should copy).

The second type of socio-scientific meeting is the Teameeting. That’s where we discuss problems encountered by a team member. We just gather around a table with a computer and sheets of paper and someone presents where (s)he’s stuck in her/his topic and others try to give suggestions. A brainstorming session set up at teatime, so with homemade cookies and similar goodies, hence the super pun I’m so proud of: Tea-meeting / Team-eating. Oh God, am I good when it comes to food…

The last type of meetings that we have is the Breakfast Club. As you may have guessed (I hope for you), this one is in the morning, very very early (9 am) and we discuss about carrier. Students ask a question, such as how to best find a supervisor for a PhD or how to balance work and personal life, and the postdocs and PIs give them their famed wisdom. And we eat croissants and other morning delights with tea and coffee and good ambiance.

So if I count well, we’ve been very serious scientifically, because we’ve covered breakfast, tea time and apéro. And of course everyday we all have lunch together at the canteen of the university. Now I just need to do something about Elevenses, and we’d be one step closer to the Hobbits.

LabFoodYes, that’s my lab and yes I told them not to eat while doing experiments

 

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

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

 

It may seem odd that someone often known as a conservation biologist would promote and defend basic ecology. Yet, I do. I do because I feel basic ecology needs promoting and defending. In a time when environmental crises are so worrying (at least for those who are aware of them), it is normal that people, including scientists, would want to favour applied ecology. That is, after all, a science directly committed to solving environmental issues, such as biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradations, food security, emerging diseases, climate change and the likes.

As a result, the trend has been in the past decades to increasingly favour applied ecology; and because budgets are not extensible, that has been at the expense of basic ecology.

Yet, there are many reasons why basic ecology – or fundamental ecology – is important. I will not enumerate them all here, you’ll probably want to read the article I just wrote, with 4 other authors in the last issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, here if you subscribe, for for free here*. But I can still pick up a few, just to arouse your curiosity, because I’m sure you didn’t think of them all, and several might surprise you a bit.

And then not! Go read the paper, I’m feeling lazy today and I’ve been told to keep my posts shorts. But of course, you can use this blog to tell me why you disagree. Because, unlike applied ecology, debate is fundamental in science.

ThermodynamicsOfEcology
by Ari Weinkle

* you can download the paper from the link on this post or directly from my lab web page here. I shouldn’t offer it like that, but I am in the process to pay for the Open Access and I don’t want to wait until it is available for readers to access it easily.