Sense of Place

Leopold near Chihuahua, Mexico, 1938
Photo: Starker Leopold

An era ago, a student of Nature named Aldo Leopold, after many years of living alongside the great American wilderness, wrote a classic book illustrating how a sense of place can become embedded in a person’s being. Some time later, an Austrian biologist stood on the banks of the Danube river and waxed poetic about his homeland. This man was Konrad Lorenz, and among his many discoveries as one of the founders of the field of animal behavior, or ethology, was that of imprinting. Imprinting is the process by which a young animal learns who its parents are. Gazing on this river, he mused that perhaps we imprint on the landscapes we belong to. Continue reading


In Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Education

I just watched a very inspiring Daily Show.

Now that’s not a sentence once expects to come across very often (no offense, Jon), but it was an interview with Malala Yousafzai.  Malala, now sixteen, is an outspoken Pakistani activist for education as the most important tool for solving the multitude of problems facing humanity. I’ve got to hand it to her father as well for clearly being the guiding role model in her life. She was shot in the head by the Taliban last year for her efforts, but fortunately for all of us, she made it.

Malala shares this view with me, my parents, and the innumerable other immigrants who came to the United States seeking a better life for themselves and their children thinking that education would enable greater opportunities in life.  This is why now, in the midst of our government’s ridiculous shutdown, I look around at the ailing public school system of this once-great country and feel very sad.

The other day I was astonished to learn that the high school that my friends and I spent four years of our lives, receiving the FREE education that sent us on to good universities and even medical school, had slid down a hole. It was now gang territory, with police cars frequently on patrol. Some families are being forced to make a ridiculous choice – give up their homes to  move to a better public school district, or fork out  the tuition for private school. How did this happen? Continue reading

Women lead nearly half of US households, yet still lag behind in science

The role of women in the workplace is a perennial topic of discussion as we collectively aspire to the ideal of gender equality. I’d like to juxtapose two interesting trends about women in the US that seem to be much-discussed this year.  The first is a study released this week by the Pew Research Center that has been grabbing headlines with the finding that 40% of households with children under the age of 18 have women as the top earner.  These so-called “breadwinner moms” break down into two distinct categories: those who out-earn their husbands, and those who are single parents. The former (37%) are affluent, well-educated and mostly white, while the latter (67%) tend to earn less, are less likely to be college educated, and mostly non-white.

Now let those numbers stew for a moment, while you consider another set of facts.

The US National Science Foundation finds that, while women earn around 50% of the doctorates in science and engineering, they comprise only 21% and 5% of full professors in science and engineering respectively, as reported in a special section of the journal Nature earlier this year.

Let’s combine these two pictures. Continue reading

On Science Serving Society, from a DC Insider

I recently attended a talk by Dr. Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist who was basically in charge of running NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmostpheric Administration) from 2009-2013.  One of the most highly cited ecologists since, well ever, she was part of Obama’s ‘Dream Team’ of science advisors. During those four years, NOAA went from one turbulent challenge to another including the Gulf Oil spill and multiple extreme storm events like hurricane Irene.

Her talk, under the theme of “Science Serving Society” was fascinating in terms of both content and delivery.  There was not a powerpoint in sight, instead she took us to a “field trip” to that strange foreign country known as Washington DC via a series of twelve short stories that illustrated the culture and habits of yonder parts.  I thought I’d share some little nuggets of wisdom here by way of some quotes that stuck:

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”  – Referring to the situation of concerned fishermen anxious about their livelihoods following the disastrous Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf. Point: Researchers may harbor a wealth of detailed knowledge, but applying it takes more finesse and the ability to relate to people. Continue reading

What’s the use of science?

The so-called “High Quality Research Act” proposed by representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), wants research funded by the National Science Foundation to benefit the interests of the United States by advancing “national health, prosperity, or welfare” and securing “national defense by promoting the progress of science”. It also wants science to solve problems that are actually important to society while not duplicating research that has already been funded by NSF.   It may seem at first that this proposal by the Chair of the Science, Technology and Space Committee is a noble attempt to hold scientists to high standards and make sure that valuable taxpayer dollars are spent on useful research.  So what’s all this fuss about peer review? Continue reading

Gene patents. The story is still not resolved!

It is hard to believe that almost one year has passed since my last post. That year was very busy, so busy in fact that I did not have any inspiration to read and write anything aside from what is directly relevant to my research. Realizing how Koyaanisqatsi my life has become, I am trying re-balance it.

I just read a small news piece in the journal Science about the ongoing U.S. Supreme Court case on gene patents. Can you believe that this issue is still unresolved? If you are a reasonable person who understands what genes are, I think it is pretty obvious that they cannot be patented. It’s like trying to patent, say, “the left lung”, or “the red blood cells”, or any other part of human organism. It’s absurd. Of course, corporations are concerned with one question, and that question is no not whether something is reasonable/ethical/fair/etc or not. The question is about money. If they could make money by patenting the left lung, they certainly would. The only reason they do not do it is because the absurdity of such intention is obvious. Lungs are big. Everybody can feel them. Everybody understands what they are doing. Nobody would accept the idea that their very own lung in their very own chest would by owned by somebody else. At least I hope nobody would! Genes on the other hand are small. Nobody can see them. Very few people really understand what they are doing. So, the absurdity of the statement that somebody would own some part of you is suddenly blurred.

Just so you know, the company that currently owns the patents to BRCA genes, and by doing so has effectively monopolized the market of breast and ovarian cancer testing, is Myriad Inc. The fact that Dr. Walter Gilbert, a Nobel Prize winner in 1980 in chemistry and a Harvard professor, sits on their board of directors and endorses such absurd legal actions is very disappointing.

If you are wondering what kind of arguments can the Myriad attorneys possibly present in favor of patenting genes, here is one:  “isolated” BRCA genes are laboratory products and, unlike chromosomes, they do not occur in nature. By the same logic, “isolated” left lungs are laboratory products and, unlike entire human bodies, do not occur in nature. (Welcome to the world of legal language.)

Good day!

Shermin and I have a number of ongoing themes in our discussions. One of them is about sustainable agriculture and how many people can our planet actually support. The latter question has a caveat of course: the answer depends on which technology one would use for growing food. I would surely think that the Earth would support more people if we grew food using conventional (i.e., not sustainable) methods compared to organic. But how much more? Twice as much? Ten times as much?

A recent paper in the journal Nature called “Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture” (free full version available here) by Seufert, Ramankutty and Jonathan Foley (see his TED talk, by the way) offers some insight into the answers. The paper presents the results of a meta-analysis of comparisons of yields between conventional and organic farms. The main result is that organic farms generally have a lower yield, but how much lower depends on the details. For example, vegetables give about 30% lower yield in organic farms than in conventional farms, whereas fruits give pretty much identical yields. Another interesting observation is that, if one compares farms with “best management practices” (not very well defined what this means though) in both types of farms, organic give about 13% less yield than conventional. So, not bad at all!

One interesting likely explanation for the poorer performance of organic systems is that these systems are nitrogen limited whereas conventional systems are not. This means that, when you increase the input of nitrogen into the organic system (e.g., by dumping more fertilizer), its performance goes up. Not the case for a conventional system. The reason why nitrogen is limiting in organic systems is probably because it is released slower from decaying organic matter than is necessary for plant growth.

In short, this article give some clues as to how to optimize food production and gives some hope that organic systems will in the future be able to provide a large fraction of necessary food supply.

Securing natural capital and expanding equity to rescale civilization

I’ve just read this article by Paul Ehrlich, Peter Kareiva, and Gretchen Daily, published in Nature on 7 June 2012 (link to the original article). The authors clearly operate on a very high level (i.e., not “on the ground”), and therefore the article offers less concreteness than I would have liked. Nevertheless, here is a brief “lazy-man” summary of what I found interesting.

The main premise is: We need to do something soon

It is clear that the human population size and consumption patterns are well above what Earth could support without impairment of vital life-support systems. Population projections suggest that the world will have about 9.5 billion people in 2050 and slightly over 10 billion in 2100.

The authors offer several potential solutions, but only two of them are concrete

1. Make means of contraception accessible in developing countriesOne important win–win way to reduce fertility rates is by meeting the ‘unmet need’ for contraception; that is, by supplying safe, modern means to those who do not want a child in the next two years of their lives but are not using any means of birth control. In 53 Asian, African and Latin American countries between 1995 and 2005, an estimated 7–15% of women have an unmet need for contraception. In sub-Saharan Africa, the region where unmet need is greatest, the estimate is about 25% of married women. There are roughly 75 million unintended pregnancies in the world annually and almost half of them end in abortion. Making reproduction education and family planning universally available in the developing world could avert 20 million or more births annually, avoid over 25 million abortions, reduce maternal mortality by 25–40%, and greatly reduce the population growth rate.

2. Educate women. A second win–win way to reduce fertility rates is to raise levels of education, especially of young women. If there were a crash program of education globally, there would be roughly a billion fewer people in 2050 than if there were no effort to keep educational investment commensurate with population size. Although education and subsequent empowerment of women lowers infant and childhood mortality, this effect  is more than offset demographically by the associated growing desire and ability to have fewer children.

Studies of community-based conservation reveal that the more women are involved in local governance, the more effective forest protection and compliance with regulations. This means that women need to be explicitly targeted when designing strategies for promoting conservation and reducing environmental degradation.

I liked the concluding encouragement note

Rapid change has occurred enough times in human history in relation to fundamental aspects of culture to give hope that such change can be triggered now. One need only consider the advances in women’s rights of the past century, the transformation of the racial situation in the United States such that an African American can be elected President, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, to see that cultural change does not necessarily proceed at a glacial pace. And, just as climate change is speeding the flow of glaciers, it should speed the transition of the human enterprise towards a sustainable scale—at which care for all human beings and the natural capital upon which they depend is at the top of the political agenda. The choice seems stark and clear enough: rescaling or global bust.

Four enemies of a man of knowledge

A quote from Carlos Castaneda’s “The teachings of Don Juan”:

A man of knowledge is one who has followed truthfully the hardships of learning, a man who has, without rushing or without faltering, gone as far as he can in unraveling the secrets of power and knowledge. To become a man of knowledge one must challenge and defeat his four natural enemies.

When a man starts to learn, he is never clear about his objectives. His purpose is faulty; his intent is vague. He hopes for rewards that will never materialize for he knows nothing of the hardships of learning.

He slowly begins to learn–bit by bit at first, then in big chunks. And his thoughts soon clash. What he learns is never what he pictured, or imagined, and so he begins to be afraid. Learning is never what one expects. Every step of learning is a new task, and the fear the man is experiencing begins to mount mercilessly, unyieldingly. His purpose becomes a battlefield.

And thus he has stumbled upon the first of his natural enemies: fear! A terrible enemy–treacherous, and difficult to overcome. It remains concealed at every turn of the way, prowling, waiting. And if the man, terrified in its presence, runs away, his enemy will have put an end to his quest and he will never learn. He will never become a man of knowledge. He will perhaps be a bully, or a harmless, scared man; at any rate, he will be a defeated man. His first enemy will have put an end to his cravings.

It is not possible for a man to abandon himself to fear for years, then finally conquer it. If he gives in to fear he will never conquer it, because he will shy away from learning and never try again. But if he tries to learn for years in the midst of his fear, he will eventually conquer it because he will never have really abandoned himself to it.

Therefore he must not run away. He must defy his fear, and in spite of it he must take the next step in learning, and the next, and the next. He must be fully afraid, and yet he must not stop. That is the rule! And a moment will come when his first enemy retreats. The man begins to feel sure of himself. His intent becomes stronger. Learning is no longer a terrifying task.

When this joyful moment comes, the man can say without hesitation that he has defeated his first natural enemy. It happens little by little, and yet the fear is vanquished suddenly and fast. Once a man has vanquished fear, he is free from it for the rest of his life because, instead of fear, he has acquired clarity–a clarity of mind which erases fear. By then a man knows his desires; he knows how to satisfy those desires. He can anticipate the new steps of learning and a sharp clarity surrounds everything. The man feels that nothing is concealed.

And thus he has encountered his second enemy: Clarity! That clarity of mind, which is so hard to obtain, dispels fear, but also blinds. It forces the man never to doubt himself. It gives him the assurance he can do anything he pleases, for he sees clearly into everything. And he is courageous because he is clear, and he stops at nothing because he is clear. But all that is a mistake; it is like something incomplete. If the man yields to this make-believe power, he has succumbed to his second enemy and will be patient when he should rush. And he will fumble with learning until he winds up incapable of learning anything more. His second enemy has just stopped him cold from trying to become a man of knowledge. Instead, the man may turn into a buoyant warrior, or a clown. Yet the clarity for which he has paid so dearly will never change to darkness and fear again. He will be clear as long as he lives, but he will no longer learn, or yearn for, anything.

He must do what he did with fear: he must defy his clarity and use it only to see, and wait patiently and measure carefully before taking new steps; he must think, above all, that his clarity is almost a mistake. And a moment will come when he will understand that his clarity was only a point before his eyes. And thus he will have overcome his second enemy, and will arrive at a position where nothing can harm him anymore. This will not be a mistake. It will not be only a point before his eyes. It will be true power.

He will know at this point that the power he has been pursuing for so long is finally his. He can do with it whatever he pleases. His ally is at his command. His wish is the rule. He sees all that is around him. But he has also come across his third enemy:Power!

Power is the strongest of all enemies. And naturally the easiest thing to do is to give in; after all, the man is truly invincible. He commands; he begins by taking calculated risks, and ends in making rules, because he is a master.

A man at this stage hardly notices his third enemy closing in on him. And suddenly, without knowing, he will certainly have lost the battle. His enemy will have turned him into a cruel, capricious man, but he will never lose his clarity or his power.

A man who is defeated by power dies without really knowing how to handle it. Power is only a burden upon his fate. Such a man has no command over himself, and cannot tell when or how to use his power.

Once one of these enemies overpowers a man there is nothing he can do. It is not possible, for instance, that a man who is defeated by power may see his error and mend his ways. Once a man gives in he is through. If, however, he is temporarily blinded by power, and then refuses it, his battle is still on. That means he is still trying to become a man of knowledge. A man is defeated only when he no longer tries, and abandons himself.

He has to come to realize that the power he has seemingly conquered is in reality never his. He must keep himself in line at all times, handling carefully and faithfully all that he has learned. If he can see that clarity and power, without his control over himself, are worse than mistakes, he will reach a point where everything is held in check. He will know then when and how to use his power. And thus he will have defeated his third enemy.

The man will be, by then, at the end of his journey of learning, and almost without warning he will come upon the last of his enemies: Old age! This enemy is the cruelest of all, the one he won’t be able to defeat completely, but only fight away.

This is the time when a man has no more fears, no more impatient clarity of mind–a time when all his power is in check, but also the time when he has an unyielding desire to rest. If he gives in totally to his desire to lie down and forget, if he soothes himself in tiredness, he will have lost his last round, and his enemy will cut him down into a feeble old creature. His desire to retreat will overrule all his clarity, his power, and his knowledge.
But if the man sloughs off his tiredness, and lives his fate though, he can then be called a man of knowledge, if only for the brief moment when he succeeds in fighting off his last, invincible enemy. That moment of clarity, power, and knowledge is enough.