Bring back the dead or save the living?

No, I’m not talking about zombies.

This post considers two stories in the news last week.  The first, is a new study in Science Advances by Ripple et al. finally spotlighting what we’ve known for a while: herbivores around the world are collapsing, particularly the large charismatic ones. This is bad news not just because they’re iconic species that people love to love, but because they are major components of ecosystems and their disappearance would have widespread cascading effects.

Columbian Mammoth in the George C. Page museum, Los Angeles

The second is an interview on NPR with Dr. Beth Shapiro at UC Santa Cruz on her new book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction.  It leads with the question “If science could clone a mammoth, could it save an elephant?” Continue reading

Arkadii Kryazhimskiy: Memories of My Father

On 24 March 2015 Russian newspaper Troitskiy Variant published my article about my father. Here is my English translation of it.

Arkadii Viktorovich Kryazhimskiy, mathematician and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, passed away on November 3, 2014. This was my father. He was an exceptional scientist, a talented painter, a poet, and a writer. He was a true artist, a man with boundless imagination and a charge of warm optimism. As for me, he was my principal teacher, my point or reference, and my major supporter.

Now, after he is gone, it is impossible to fully reconstruct his personality or recreate his thoughts, feelings, goals. One can only hope to put together a coarse vastly incomplete portrait from disarrayed snippets of memory. Nevertheless, I will attempt to capture his image here for us and for our descendants.

Arkadii Kryazhimskiy

Continue reading

The Job Search Paradox

Here we are: 2013 is out, 2014 is in. It is time to examine one’s life in the past year. For me, it is time to examine life more generally, as for any person who is on the academic job market this season. Specifically, I would like to discuss today some issues surrounding a job search that completely or partially fails. Let’s start with the paradox that gradually arises in the applicant’s head. If you are applying for jobs, at some level you certainly believe that

(1)  You are a good scientist, i.e., you know how to ask interesting research questions, obtain solid results and publish in good journals.

If your job search is failing, it means that

(2)  No one wants to hire you.

Clearly, one of these two statements has to be wrong! Continue reading

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

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.