Spinning science

Recently I was discussing my dissertation progress with another volunteer at the bird banding station. “I have all the data,” I said, “I just need to figure out how to spin it.”

She looked taken aback. “Well, it’s data,” she said. “It’s information. You don’t spin it; it just is.”

“Right,” I agreed quickly, in my best Objective Scientist voice. “Of course.”

I thought about this exchange a lot over the next few weeks. It had been a while since I had talked about my research at length with a non-scientist, and her reaction to my word choice made an impression. Why had I said “spin”? Did I mean “spin”?

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“Spin” your data? Outrageous!

I paid more attention than usual to the word choices my colleagues made, and quickly realized that we all talk about spinning our data. We also talk about interpreting our data, and framing our data: similar and related concepts, but not exact synonyms for spinning the data. “Spinning” sounds underhanded, deceitful. It sounds like we are making the data say what we want it to say. Shouldn’t the data speak for itself?

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Hidden worlds: whale falls

I like to read science fiction. I particularly enjoy a good alien world, like Neal Asher’s world of hyper-aggressive invertebrates or Lois Bujold’s planet of radially symmetric beasts. Still better than these, however, are the alien worlds right here on Earth, hidden in plain sight. (Well… if “on the same planet” counts as “in plain sight.”) The hidden world I’d like to talk about today is that of whale falls.

A “whale fall” is just a nice way of saying a dead whale: when a whale dies in the ocean, it sinks—falls—to the bottom, and you have a whale fall. Whale falls are different from other dead animals in two big ways. First, they are, well, big. No other living animal gets as big as our biggest whales. When one of those dies, that’s a lot of dead whale.

Also, whale falls are pretty cool in their pre-fall form.

Also, whale falls are pretty cool in their pre-fall form.

Second, when they fall to the ocean floor, they change the environment on the ocean floor dramatically. A dead animal in a forest or jungle or lake is a piece of dead meat in a habitat already full of other kinds of food: leaves, berries, insects, fish, etc. Some animals in these habitats will scavenge on the dead meat, but many other animals will ignore it. The deep ocean floor is not like a jungle. It is barren, with no sunlight to support plants or plankton, which are generally the food sources that the rest of a food chain depends on. The only organic food sources near the deep sea floor are the dead things that fall down from the water column above, picturesquely named “marine snow;” and that water column is filled with creatures trying to eat anything they can find, so not a lot makes it all the way to the bottom. When a dead whale lands on the ocean floor, it is the equivalent of an enormous banquet being dropped into the middle of a desert.

When a whale falls, it gives rise to an entire ecosystem by itself.

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Advice from whales and elephants: listen to Grandma

Grandmothers are an evolutionary mystery.

Well, not grandmothers exactly: rather, women who have passed menopause. Human men can sire children as long as they live, but human women can’t have children after they go through menopause. But why do we have menopause at all—why stop having babies? Isn’t it always better, evolutionarily, to have more babies?

I don't know, this might be too many babies...

I don’t know, this might be too many babies…

The mystery is far from solved, but we have some good clues.

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Why do animals lick their fur?

Furry animals can spend a lot of time licking their own fur. Here, a mother sea otter demonstrates:

The simple explanation—that these animals lick their fur to keep it clean—is more or less true, but not nearly the whole story: animals get a lot more out of licking their fur than a stain-free coat.

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Going out with a thud-crack-ow!

I just wrapped up what I think will be my last field work on the juncos for my dissertation. It was quite the eventful trip; I saw a few things I’ve never seen before – but more on that in a future post.

We were trying to catch an unbanded male. He was interested in our playback, but had escaped from the net once already, meaning he was likely to be wary of the net now. When he flew into the net the second time, I ran for him quickly, wanting to get to him before he managed to escape again.

…Or I started to run. Then I failed to clear a large rotting log and went down.

“Are you okay?” one of my field assistants asked.

“I’m not sure,” I answered honestly, from the ground. “Get the bird!”

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Biology with third graders

In the past month I have been occasionally visiting local third-grade classes with some colleagues to deliver a lesson on adaptive variation. It isn’t as dry as that makes it sound—there are puzzles and tiny spoons and squishy fishing lures. We are fun scientists. Science is fun! Science is fun but if you don’t put the fishing lures back in the bins and pay attention, we won’t get to start, okay, I know they’re gross, please don’t throw them, thank you, as I was saying, science is fun!

It has been interesting to see how much difference there is between classes. One class squirmed and giggled whenever we suggested that animals might need to find, as we put it, “boyfriends and girlfriends.” Another class was completely unfazed. “Yes,” one student in that class clarified, “they need to find mates.” Every class so far has known about camouflage and what hummingbirds eat.

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