31 July 2007

Lessons from speculations

The New York Academy of Sciences used to publish a magazine called The Sciences. It was a somewhat interesting publication (or somewhat dull, depending on your perspective) that superficially attempted to mix sciences with arts mostly by illustrating their articles with photographs of paintings and sculptures. Until recently, I had a complete set of issues from 1983 to 1992. But our ever-growing need for more space for new books and magazines forced me to donate most of the collection to the local non-profit used bookstore; I kept a few issues with more interesting articles.

During the sorting process, I re-read some of the articles that I had first read years earlier. One piece, titled Science's Miss Lonelyhearts by William H. Honig from the May/June 1984 issue, is worth mentioning here, because the lessons to be learned from it are as relevant today as they were back then.

Honig, an electronics engineer, was the founding editor in 1978 of Speculations in Science and Technology*, a journal that aimed to provide, in Honig's own words, "a forum for ideas that might someday prove useful even if, originally, they lacked support in established theoretical and experimental work." The journal had been born from Honig's personal frustrations with the conventional peer-review process that had apparently turned down all of his physics manuscripts submitted to traditional journals.

Honig was, however, no pseudoscientific crackpot and he subjected the manuscripts submitted to his journal to a "typical review process" that was nevertheless intended to be a bit more lenient than those of typical journals. Not surprisingly, Speculations received a lot of submissions from the (pseudo)scientific fringe. Most of these were about some aspect of modern or not so modern physics (the physics knowledge of one prospective author was, Honig notes, "up-to-date as of the year 1800").

Several common characteristics of fringe authors stand out in Honig's essay:

1. Seventy percent of the submissions were from people not affiliated with a university or a research institution. In contrast, 60% of the submissions accepted for publication were from affiliated scientists.

2. Most manuscripts were poorly written and their authors avoided developing their ideas, preferring to leave them at exploratory stages. Compared to the physics manuscripts, the submissions about the life sciences were better written and more relevant to the state of the biology at that time.

3. The rejected authors would accept no criticism. They became angry, abusive, threatening or manipulative. Some even offered bribes to have their papers published.

4. The authors of most of the rejected manuscripts were ignorant of the existing literature in their research areas.

Collecting and reading the literature relevant to one's research is a time-consuming burden. But it must be done. Science doesn't exist in a vacuum and can only be built on top of what is already there. While conducting a particular research project, I spend probably about 1/3 of my time in libraries or on the Internet looking up papers and books or reading them (another 1/3 of my time is spent collecting data and the remaining 1/3 writing up the results for publication). Literature research not only makes one aware of what has already been done and published, but it also teaches one the fundamentals, the details, the methods and the opposing ideas in one's area of interest.

When Honig left his post as editor in 1983, he had learned that "while traditional procedures for disseminating new theories are indeed elitist and may lock out good hypotheses dreamed up by outsiders, these procedures also screen out chaotic, useless, and divisive ideas." He had also realized that isolation from colleagues was the main reason behind the shortcomings of the prospective authors of Speculations.

Communication is indeed a very crucial element that keeps a scientist on the right track. Scientists compete with each other, but they also talk to each other and learn from each other. That's why there are scientific meetings. Many years ago when I was an inexperienced post doc, on the eve of a meeting we were planning to go, my mentor told me that "the real science was going to be done in the evenings in bars." What he was stressing was the importance of casual, friendly scientific conversations with other scientists usually done over a cup of coffee or a bottle of beer. I had more than one occasion to underline the "wisdom" of my mentor during the last World Congress of Malacology in Belgium. Two mornings, for example, I shared my breakfast table with a malacologist who is a leader in his field. We discussed the sex lives of slugs while drinking coffee and eating bread smeared with Nutella. He happily answered my questions about slug anatomy and told me about his research group's latest projects. That sort of information exchange is most fruitful and pleasant when done face-to-face. Working in isolation, on the other hand, is a one-way ticket to oblivion.

Here is an essay about Speculations in Science and Technology by David Pacchioli from 1993.

*Speculations in Science and Technology, last published by Springer, was discontinued after 1998. The tables of contents of its last 2 volumes are available here.

30 July 2007

I wanted my readers to get a head


An unidentified and much abused sculpture at the Middelheim Outdoor Sculpture Museum in Antwerp, Belgium.

Mailbox robin – the end

A couple of robins (Turdus migratorius) had a nest with 3 eggs above our mailbox. Later, they had one chick in their nest. The chick was last seen alive early last week when it was still too young to fly. Last Thursday and Friday I checked and photographed the nest. On both occasions neither the parents were around nor was there a chick in the nest.


So it looks like natural selection won this round. Maybe they'll have better luck next time.

28 July 2007

Saturday nite's beer review: Leffe & Grimbergen from Belgium


Among the beers I tried while in Belgium the previous week I liked most these two well-known brands. There are different brews of both brands and, as is usually the case with me, I preferred the dark ones. Leffe had a robust flavor, perhaps a nutty aroma and a rather sweet taste. Grimbergen, on the other hand, was only slightly sweet and had a smooth, even flavor. One characteristic of these brands is that they are always served in their own glasses.

Both Leffe and Grimbergen are definitely sweeter than the ordinary beers. I enjoyed them, but if you don't like any sweetness in your beer, stay away from them.

27 July 2007

Of castles, bones and good-looking boys

Clive Foss's book Survey of Medieval Castles of Anatolia II Nicomedia* is about the remains of the castles around the present day Turkish city of Izmit (ancient Nicomedia). There is a rich history there involving the Byzantines, the Ottomans and best of all the Crusaders. The latter were really a crazy bunch of guys who didn't quite know what they were after.

One trick I've learned is to read ancient histories from a detached view point without taking sides and at the same time keeping in mind that one can not judge the events of thousands of years ago from our present day perspectives and cultural boundaries.

So, here are some entertaining tidbits from Foss's book.

In 1329, the Byzantine emperor Andronicus III was fighting the fledgling Ottomans commanded by the sultan Orhan. After one somewhat indecisive battle, both sides withdrew. One section of the Byzantine forces went to the castle of Philokrene (present day Bayramoğlu not too far from Istanbul). But they couldn't get in, because-this is really good-they didn't have the key. Can you imagine these tough guys in armor with all sort of weapons in their hands standing outside the castle gate all confused and frustrated and arguing with each other in a scene you would expect to see in a Monty Python movie: "Come on guys, who's got the key to this bloody castle? Don't look at me, I gave it to John. Where is he? He was decapitated? So, we don't have the bloody key?" In the meantime, the Ottomans showed up and another round of mutual slaughtering followed.

Much earlier, in 1096, a Turkish army attacked and took Nicaea (present day Iznik) from the soldiers of the First Crusade. Foss says that the Crusaders who accepted Islam were spared while the rest were killed or sold into slavery. I wonder how easy it was for the Crusaders to convince themselves that under the circumstances the smart thing to do was to forget Jesus and to accept Allah. I suppose the descendants of some of those Crusaders who became Moslems may still be living in Turkey. But how could you trace a family history that far back?

Later, the Crusaders, determined to avenge their loss, attacked the Turks, but lost again. This time the Turks went to the Crusaders' camp and killed everyone "except the girls and good-looking boys".

Foss, relying on the Byzantine historian Anna Comnena's account, states that the piles of the bones of the killed Crusaders formed "not a hill but a mountain". Now that's something I would like to have seen, not immediately afterwards when it would have been rather revolting, but maybe a year later when they were really bones.

Anna Comnena also adds that those bones were later used to build a fort.

*Published by the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara. 1996.

26 July 2007

Oscar the Cat or Hans the Horse?

Today's big news is about Oscar, the cat who can apparently sense when a patient at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island, is about to die. An essay by Dr. David M. Dosa published today in the New England Journal of Medicine states that Oscar "has presided over the deaths of more than 25 residents" and that "His mere presence at the bedside is viewed by physicians and nursing home staff as an almost absolute indicator of impending death".

It is possible that Oscar is smelling something, a perfume of death, so to speak, given off from the bodies of patients about to die. Perhaps there is a volatile breakdown product of deteriorating brain tissues too faint for humans to detect, but that is easy to track down by a keen predator.

However, I am suspecting a Clever Hans effect. Oscar is probably picking up subtle clues from the medical staff that a certain patient is near death. He is then paying a last visit to the person in return for compliments and maybe a pat on the head from the staff members.

Read about this also on Laelaps.

25 July 2007

An unusual animal at the zoo: Wollemi pine

Wollemi pine1

While walking around with a wine glass in my hand during the opening night reception of the World Congress of Malacology at the Antwerp Zoo, I came upon a sign in Dutch that said: De Wollemi den: de dino onder de bomen*. The only word I could recognize was Wollemi, the name of the rare and unusual pine species (Wollemia nobilis) that was discovered in the Wollemi National Park in Australia in 1994. There it was growing in a pot thousands of kilometers away from its home.


The species is apparently the last remaining survivor of an ancient lineage. The exact location of where the trees grow in the Wollemi National Park is said to be a secret. But you can nevertheless buy your very own Wollemi pine from here.

*According to Alta Vista that means: The Wollemi pine: the dino under the trees.

24 July 2007

Pachyderms of Antwerp


This family of wooden elephants was parading outside the Central Station (the large building in the back) in Antwerp, Belgium on 15 July. They were headed towards the entrance of the Antwerp Zoo next to the station.


The World Congress of Malacology had an opening night reception in the zoo that night. We drank wine, introduced ourselves to those we didn't know and talked; there was no time to walk around the zoo to look at the animals. In fact, the only "animal" I photographed was a nearby potted Wollemi pine. That will be the subject of tomorrow's post.

A certain malacologist-whose identity won't be revealed here-briefly attempted to develop an intimate relationship with one of the anatomically correct male elephants.

23 July 2007

Hairy snail from Antwerp

Trichia hispida

I photographed these small (6-7 mm) snails with hairy shells near the University of Antwerp's Campus Groenenborger in Belgium. I am calling them Trichia hispida; they are also known as Trochulus hispidus.

Why some snails have hairs on their shells was the subject of this post.

22 July 2007

Mailbox robin - update

During my absence last week the eggs of the robin (Turdus migratorius) that has a nest above our mailbox hatched. This afternoon I photographed the nest amid the protests of the parents. Yes, I think there were 2 adult birds around. According to this source, both parents care for their offspring.


About 10 days ago there were 3 eggs in the nest. My wife says she saw 2 chicks last Tuesday. But there is only one chick visible in today's pictures. So it seems that natural selection has already removed 2 of the offspring of this pair.

The eyes of the surviving chick were still closed as of this afternoon.


Final update is here.

21 July 2007

Bach from Belgium


A neglected statue of Johann Sebastian Bach was among the interesting items at the Middelheim Outdoor Sculpture Museum in Antwerp, Belgium. The story of how I visited the museum very early in the morning 2 days in a row and hours before it was open to the public will be the subject of a future post. But first, I have to recover from my jet lag.

Seb was missing his left arm. How is he going to become the master of his organ now?

14 July 2007

Off to Belgium

The 16th World Congress of Malacology, incorporating the 73rd annual meeting of the American Malacological Society, will be in Antwerp, Belgium 15 thru 20 July 2007.

I am leaving this afternoon for Belgium. The symposium I organized, Zoogeography of the non-marine mollusks of the eastern Mediterranean, will be Thursday morning, 19 July. The schedule is below. Yours truly will take the stage at 10:20.


The entire congress schedule is available at the link above. It promises to be a great meeting. Unfortunately, and as is usually the case, many of the talks I want to listen to are in overlapping time slots. If I could only be at more than one place at a given time...

I will return on the 21st with lots of Belgian chocolate...mmmm. Regular postings will resume soon after that.

So long.

13 July 2007

A new land snail species from Turkey: Idyla aydinensis


The massive marble peak1 above the tiny village of Gökkiriş was the last station during our 1-day land snail survey of the Aydın Mountains in July 2004. The sun was setting as we were driving thru the narrow winding roads of the village when a large truck unloading building materials blocked our way. We lost several precious minutes before the truck cleared the way. When we finally got to the end of the road below the marble peak, the sun had already set. Everyone rushed out of the car and scrambled towards the rocks.

Someone announced "There are clausiliids here!" It was exciting, because we had not found clausiliids in any of our earlier stations that day. With flashlights in hand we tried to collect as many specimens as we could, but soon it was too dark to continue. We had found many shells, but only 3 intact clausiliid shells. A quick examination of them in the light of a flashlight convinced us that we had a new species. We got back in the car and headed to a restaurant for dinner.

Several weeks later back in the U.S., a careful examination of the clausiliid shells convinced me that our initial hunch was correct: we did have a new species. But I needed live specimens to dissect before I could determine the correct genus. In March 2005 Zeki and Salih went back to the same site in broad daylight, of course, and were able to find many live specimens.

The anatomy of the genitalia of those specimens put them in Idyla, a genus found in northwest Turkey, Greece and southern Bulgaria usually in high mountains. The details are in our paper that got published recently. You may download a pdf copy2 from here.

Idyla aydinensis holotype & paratype
The holotype of Idyla aydinensis and a paratype with the palatal wall of aperture removed. The clausilium plate blocking the entrance is visible within the aperture. The holotype was 17.7 mm long.

1Nothing is safe from permanent destruction during the course of the exploitation of nature. The cuts in the lower right-hand corner of the peak were made several years ago during an attempt to mine the marble. This unique landmark is scarred forever, because some idiots wanted to get rich.
2In the printed version the first line of the title was inadvertently left out. We will try to get an erratum published in a future issue of the journal.

12 July 2007

Jeremy can't do math

Zits by Jerry Scott & Jim Borgman.

10 bucks an hour is 0.27¢ per second (actually 0.2777...).

11 July 2007

Mailbox robin

mailbox robin

An American robin (Turdus migratorius) has built a nest within the confines of the honeysuckle covering our mailbox. Everytime someone approaches the mailbox the poor bird flies away to the nearest tree. Today, I had to disturb it to take these pictures.

robin on tree

While she eyed me suspiciously from afar, I lifted the camera above the nest and blindly took a picture of the inside: 3 eggs.

robin nest

According to All About Birds, the robin eggs' incubation time is 12-14 days. We first noticed this bird about a week ago. So we may have another week or so before the babies arrive.

First update is here and the end of the story is here.

10 July 2007

Tunnel of fury

I was on my way to the University of Maryland library around noon today when the darkening skies and increasingly frequent clashes of thunder announced the approach of a storm. Before I reached the safety of the library, the rain started. I looked around and saw a tunnel under the main road going towards the center of the campus. As I entered the tunnel running, the rain had picked up. A few seconds later another guy dashed in from the other entrance. We were thinking that we'd be out in 5, maybe 10 minutes, nice and dry. We were in for a surprise.

The rain kept coming down and 20 minutes later we were still in the tunnel. Then we noticed that the wind kept changing direction; first it would blow the rain in from one entrance, making us retreat towards the other, and then it would start blowing in from the other one. Just as our situation was changing from hopeless to ridiculously hopeless, my tunnel-mate looked back towards the far entrance of the tunnel and uttered an ominous "Uh oh!" No sooner had his cry ended than I felt a tremendous gust of wind, accompanied by a tunnel-wide column of rainwater, pushing me from behind. When this pressure-assault ended a minute later, we had resisted being blown out, but the back halves of our bodies were soaking wet. My hat had gotten blown off and deposited in a muddy puddle outside.

tunnel of fury

Finally, the wind stopped. Crying would have been useless, so we just laughed at our situation. I took my camera out; this needed documentation. 5 more minutes later the first patches of blue sky became visible. I finally stepped outside, retrieved my hat and resumed my walk to the library. On the road above the tunnel the wind that couldn't dislodge us from our "refuge" had knocked down a lamp post.

after the storm
The railings along the road are directly above the entrances of the tunnel below.

09 July 2007

Favorite sentences from other blogs

Nuthatch at Bootstrap Analysis came up with this idea of posting a good sentence or two from posts at other blogs and I stole it from her shamelessly.

From Abnormal Interests:

Moveable type may have had a role in increasing literacy but don't forget underwear.

From a post at the Beagle Project Blog about the statue of Thomas Henry Huxley at the Natural History Museum in London:

Here he is: looking fairly ferocious. His left hand (out of shot) is clenched into a fist and it looks like he's about to leap from his seat and stick one on a passing creationist.

From The Other 95%:

Nothing makes me more happier than collecting specimens.

Şu an çalınan: Whole Lotta Love


It turns out that one can set the display of iPod nano to anyone of a whole lotta languages. I picked Turkish for a change. So now I have Listeler for "Playlists", Sanatçılar for "Artists", Albümler for "Albums", Parçalar (=pieces) for "Songs" (I would have used Şarkılar=songs) and Türler for "Genres". Podcasts, on the other hand, remains podcasts. Apparently, like albüm, liste and müzik, podcast is now a "Turkish" word. Moreover, Apple even retained the English plural form rather than using podcastler.


Ironically, şu an çalınan not only means "now playing" but also "now being stolen". Does Apple think that the Turkish-speaking users of iPod may have a tendency to copy their songs illegally? Coincidentally, I ripped Whole Lotta Love from...never mind.

08 July 2007

A milestone


Our 1988 Toyota Corolla reached 150,000 miles yesterday afternoon.

I had resolved to drive this car until this particular mileage. Now, I won't feel guilty buying a new one.

07 July 2007

A zeppelin above my house


Now it is only a stump

only a stump

The last standing dead tree in this permanently flooded field was the subject of last year's last post.

I drive past this lake about 10 times a week. It was about a month ago when I first noticed that the last tree wasn't there anymore.

May it be in the service of turtles for a long time to come.

05 July 2007

Everybody loves algae


This snail, apparently feeding on the abundant algae (cyanobacteria) growing on the rock, is a Physa species. They are very abundant along the shallow edges of a large creek that runs thru the park near where I live. Despite the fact that they are aquatic snails, they actually breathe air via the inner roof of the mantle cavity that functions as a lung. And because of that, they need to surface frequently to take in fresh air.

Often, I find them at the boundary between water and air. They leave the water frequently and crawl on the wet surfaces of the rocks. The snail near the top of the picture below was completely outside the water, while the lower one was partially out.

Their amphibious lifestyle seems to give them the best of both worlds: their lungs enable them to leave the water to graze on the algae-covered rocks, while the proximity of their aquatic home assures that they are unlikely to run out of water.

04 July 2007

Ricketts' nonteleology

I spent most of last night reading an essay on "non-teleological thinking" by the legendary biologist Ed Ricketts. Ricketts' one claim to fame was his friendship with the novelist John Steinbeck. In 1940, the 2 of them went on an expedition in the Gulf of California that was later chronicled in their joint book The Sea of Cortez and later in the abridged (without the list of species collected) The Log From the Sea of Cortez.

Ricketts never published the subject essay, but it was turned by Steinbeck into chapter 14, "March 24, Easter Sunday", of the Sea of Cortez with the addition of 2 introductory paragraphs and some minor changes in the text. The last known draft of Ricketts' original essay, dated March 1941, was published last year in Breaking Through, Essays, Journals, and Travelogues of Edwards F. Ricketts (Ed. K.A. Rodger). Yesterday, I was able to obtain a copy of the book from a local university library, thanks to a friend who checked it out for me in return for a sandwich (actually, she is so nice she would have done it even if I hadn't offered to buy her lunch).

I like to mark, highlight, underline, add notes to what I am reading. But to avoid desecrating a library book, I made a reading copy of Ricketts' essay. It was a good thing I did so, because when I finished reading it, there was red and blue ink all over it.

nonteleological thinking

Ricketts' main arguments were not too difficult to follow, although a careful reading was necessary to comprehend what he was trying to say. I think I understood the essence of his main point. Some words and phrases from the essay may give clues to the scope of Ricketts' arguments: the 1931 depression; sea hare, Tethys, a shelless flabby sea slug; Darwin; second law of thermodynamics; teleological; non-teleological; universality of variation; Van Gogh; why are some men taller than others?

If time and mood permit, I may write in the future more about non-teleological thinking. For now, one sentence from Ricketts to summarize it:

The truest reason for anything being so is that it is.

03 July 2007

The bishops are insane

The Telegraph quotes the "reverend" Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle, in reference to the recent floods in England:

We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation, as well as the environmental damage that we have caused...Our government has been playing the role of God in saying that people are free to act as they want...The sexual orientation regulations [which give greater rights to gays] are part of a general scene of permissiveness. We are in a situation where we are liable for God's judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance.

The other day, I posted my partial transcript of a podcast interview with Richard Dawkins, in which he said:

I think they [the bishops] are wrong...but I don't think they are insane.

Dawkins was mistaken. Here we have evidence that bishops can be insane, crazy, nuts. Public figures like Dow who still consider disasters as acts of a revenge-seeking god are dangerous for the mental well-beings of the societies they live in. They can't and shouldn't be taken seriously.

Via Abnormal Interests.

02 July 2007

16 8 random facts about me

I have been tagged with this meme twice, first by Clare Dudman from Keeper of the Snails and then by Snail from A Snail's Eye View. I guess I should have come up with 16 random facts about myself, but I barely have time for 8 now.

Besides, I have already disclosed some secrets and concise facts about myself before. Here are 8 more.

1. When I was 9 or 10, a girl about my age lived on our street. One day we secretly exchanged drawings of our genitals. I was disappointed when I could make no sense of what she'd drawn.

2. In the late 1970s for about 3 years I smoked a pipe. I don't smoke anymore, but I still have the pipe in a box somewhere. Here is the only picture known to me that shows me with a pipe in my mouth. I also had long hair and a funny beard on my chin.


3. I've never read a complete work of either Shakespeare or Dickens. And I don't think I ever will.

4. My wife is a 2nd generation Greek-American. She only knows a few words of Greek, though.

5. I've had a beard, this time covering most of my lower face, since the summer of 1995. It's been turning white slowly (here's a recent photo of me wearing a giant ring).

6. I stopped reading newspapers around 1995 and watching TV around 2001. Now I get my daily news from the Internet.

7. I subscribe to the New Scientist and Archaeology and pick up a free copy of the Onion ("America's Finest News Source") every Thursday from the box outside the College Park Metro station.

8. I love to eat chocolate-covered marzipan and almond butter mixed with maple syrup. One day I would like to figure out why marzipan and almond butter have such different colors and flavors even though they are both made from almonds.

If you are reading this post consider yourself tagged and tell us 8 things, random or otherwise, about yourself!

01 July 2007

Celebrate evolution!

On 1 July 1858, a joint paper by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace presenting their independently developed but remarkably similar ideas on evolution by natural selection was made public for the first time before the Linnean Society in London. The presentation was made by Darwin's friends J.D. Hooker and Sir Charles Lyell. Neither Darwin nor Wallace was present during the session. Read more about this historical event here.

I do not know if you have seen the wonderful book of Mr Darwin's "The Origin of Species" published about four years ago, which has revolutionised Natural History & caused more discussion & excitement than any other book <.....> on a scientific subject during the present century, I have some little share in the work myself having discovered the main principle on which the work depends, called by Mr. D. Natural Selection, & communicated it to him before the work was published.

Letter from A.R. Wallace to his brother John, dated January 2nd 1863. Transcript here.