Category Archives: science

Fighting the Good Fight

I’ve been thinking about the immune system a lot lately. Partially because of my family’s recent experience with tragic immune failure, but also because it’s the season of sickness. Okay, yeah, and because I spent a full month reading, researching, and writing about the lymphatic and immune systems, culminating in our crowning final four Crash Course Anatomy and Physiology episodes.

So, if you are perhaps bedridden with the flu and looking for some educational entertainment, or are just curious about exactly how you’re fighting off that cold, how vaccines work, or auto-immune deficiencies, or what your immune cells have in common with Mad Max, then please, pull up a chair and spend a little time with one of the most amazing and fierce systems in your body.





Attack of the Super Bugs!

I’m not talking about Shelob and her eight-legged cronies, or Capitol-engineered tracker jackers, or killer bees… I’m talking about something much more terrifying — antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Credit: Mariana Ruiz / Public Domain

Credit: Mariana Ruiz / Public Domain

I’ve recently been reading a lot about how we humans are kinda wired to fear the wrong things. I’ll save the psychology behind this for a different day, but suffice to say, we tend to worry more about being bitten in half by sharks, mauled by bears, shot by snipers, or dying in a fiery plane crash than the things that will in reality most likely kill us — car accidents (in the US, at least), poor health, cancer, and to my mind, the various and inevitable manifestations of climate change.

Super bugs are easy to put out of your fear-mongering mind because they won’t knock on your door at night or snatch you out of the woods… which is interesting, because they do have the potential to just, you know, wipe out half the humans in the world if they get a solid run, Plague-style.

Anyway, check out my latest long-form SciShow episode to add another horror to your fear bank, and hear all about how crafty bacteria can be, how we fight it, how it fights back, and how it could ultimately rock our world again and again.




Review of Hear Where We Are

Check out my latest review for Orion Magazine on Michael Stocker’s new book, Hear Where We Are: Sound, Ecology, and Sense of Place. And yes, my friend Bret does record singing mice in his magical no-sound room in a UT-Austin basement, and it was super cool and hella creepy up in that piece.

You can read the pdf in layout form here, starting on page three, (check out the other reviews, too!) or read the text below. Cheers!

HWWA_Final Cover

Hear Where We Are
By Michael Stocker
Springer, 2013. $34.99, 200 pages.

My good friend Bret studies the nuanced vocalizations of neotropical singing mice. While visiting Austin last fall, I had the chance to tour his University of Texas basement lab, meet some operatic rodents, and spend a little time in a unique anechoic chamber, or, as I like to call it, “the magic no-sound room.” These unique rooms allow for precise sound measurements because everything about them is designed to absorb, insulate, and eliminate outside sound. When we spoke it felt like the walls were robbing our very breath. My ears tried to compensate for this total lack of sound with their own buzzing, and I imagined this was what floating in space must be like. No bearings, no sense of place, no peace, even. After a few minutes it went from novel to physically uncomfortable.

Reading Michael Stocker’s comprehensive book about sound perception, Hear Where We Are: Sound, Ecology, and Sense of Place, I gained some new insight as to why that room felt so wholly unnerving. He provides numerous examples of how subconsciously dependent we are on the “sounds of our environment to reveal the hidden dimensions of our reality.” These sounds “enable us to gauge where we are, how safe or exposed we feel,” and without them, we are left groundless.

Indeed, there are a million ways sound and vibration influence humans and nonhumans. We know how soothing “womb music” can calm babies in utero, and how a sharp alarm can cause a heart to flip. Crickets, chickadees, lions, and humpbacks use sound not only to communicate with each other, but also to establish acoustical relationships within their environments. As a tool, sound can comfort, communicate, or even wage war—just ask former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, brought to surrender under the relentless blasting of twenty-four-hour American rock music.

Don’t be intimidated by the book’s scientific-journal-style cover. Stocker casts a wide net, delving into the historical, anthropogenic, psychological, behavioral, and engineering aspects of sound, and succeeds in bridging the gap between densely factual scientific writing (anchored by thirty-five pages of footnotes and indexes) and more poetic musings. The book is dense, to be sure, but accessible under Stocker’s descriptive, even surprisingly lyrical voice. Infused with a naturalist’s infectious curiosity, it makes you reconsider how we internalize a sense of place and community through listening.

Some of the more personal scenes are the most memorable: the author, in the moment, watching wasps and spiders battle under the porch eaves, or gently pushing back the face feathers of a roadkill owl to reveal its hidden ears, or skinning a beached whale’s skull, or sitting in a Sierra hot spring listening to the dawn chorus of birds. I picture him as a man with binoculars swinging from his neck and a small notebook forever fastened to his hip.

Stocker freely acknowledges that the role of sound is not limited to communication. There are, of course, myriad ways to silently communicate. But, he writes, “sound is helpful. It implies a willful inclusion, a reaching out to notify others of participation and intention; an acknowledgement that others exist and are worthy listeners.” I think that, in essence, is why that little room in a Texas basement felt so wrong to me. In it I felt indescribably, utterly bereft.

—Kathleen Yale

William Wasn’t the Only Badass Wallace

You of course know all about the estimable Charlie Darwin, but what, if anything do you know of his exceptionally bold and largely unsung contemporary, British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace? Yeah. Well, he was a fine and modest chap with a sharp mind and adventurous spirit, and, you know, also discovered natural selection. No big deal.

File:Alfred Russel Wallace engraving.jpg

Wallace was one of the first to legitimately write about ecology and early concepts of conservation, and in his free time he supported women’s suffrage. In short, he was a kind of freethinking dreamboat.

Last November, in honor of the centennial of his death, The New York Times posted Flora Lichtmanis and Sharon Shattuck’s excellent animated tribute to the man, The Animated Life of A.R. Wallace. If I can’t actually be Wallace (or the modern-day lady equivalent) I’d love to at least tell stories like his in such a poignant, whimsical, and visual way. Well done, ladies.

Peep this superior display of creative, informative artistry and fine science storytelling  of fantastic gaudy things here: