Category: Science History

The Perverted Penguin Paper

I often write about stories or headlines and how it is obvious that the media just couldn’t resist. Well, in this instance I couldn’t resist. I’ve been putting off writing a new blog post for various reasons but when I saw the headline, “Depraved sex acts by penguins shocked polar explorer” I knew I had my next post. The story has everything: animals, behavior, history, science, and an obviously irresistible headline.

Science history is an area I have no training in, but it combines two subjects that I’ve always found interesting. If I’d had more time I probably would have added a history minor to my Bachelor’s because I took so many history classes as electives. I obviously have a love for all things science, so add history to that and my interest is definitely peaked. Especially after my history of the scientific book and journal class from last semester.

Adelie penguin. Credit: Stan Shebs via Wikimedia Commons

Adelie penguin. Credit: Stan Shebs via Wikimedia Commons

Prior to and following his involvement with the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition, Levick was a leading expert in the study of penguins and was the first person to observe penguins for an entire breeding season. His observations of their sexual behavior were apparently quite scandalous. So much so that when Levick wrote a paper about his observations including what he dubbed “sexual coercion” “depravity” and even necrophilia (male penguins having sex with dead females), that portion of the paper was not included in the official publication. Instead, 100 copies were discreetly distributed to select scientists.

The article that caught my attention is about the recent publication of notes and papers written by George Murray Levick regarding the sexual behavior of adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae). Levick was a biologist and medical officer of the Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole 1910-1912. The Terra Nova Expedition is infamous because several members (not Levick) attempted to be the first group to reach the South Pole. By the time they arrived, a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it and on their return journey the members of the Terra Nova Expedition who had attempted the trip all perished.

Douglas Russell, curator of eggs and nests at the British Natural History Museum, discovered one of the only two remaining copies of Levick’s lascivious penguin paper in the museum’s files. Russell and colleagues have published their interpretation of Levick’s findings in the journal Polar Record. The original paper and handwritten notes by Levick are now on display at the museum.

According to Russell, scientists in the early 1900’s didn’t understand the penguins’ behavior but now scientists have a better base of knowledge for understanding Levick’s original observations. For example, what he described as necrophilia isn’t actually necrophilia the way the behavior is understood in humans. When it occurs in penguins, scientists now believe male penguins are confusing dead females with live females due to specific body positioning. In the BBC’s article about it, Russell says he thinks researchers in Levick’s time often looked at penguins like little people, but their behavior needs to be understood in terms of their own species. They are birds, and need to be observed in that context.

I really like this story for several reasons. Of course, I enjoy being able to title this post with an inappropriate alliteration, but I also really love the historical significance. Levick is an interesting scientist for his ground breaking work with penguins, but also for his participation in the Terra Nova Expedition. I love that this is a story about animal behavior, an area that I’ve written about and been interested in for some time. I also love that this is about penguins, because who doesn’t like penguins? So there you have it, all the components of an irresistible blog post.

Finding Amelia Earhart’s Plane: New TIGHAR Expedition

The Internet doesn’t think very highly of Amelia Earhart. As a girl I was fortunate enough to do school projects on some great female role models. One that stands out in my memory was Amelia Earhart. Learning about great women helped form my conviction at an early age that women have as much to offer the world as men. I loved Amelia Earhart for what she represented to me: defiance, adventure and mystery. Reading this article in the Telegraph, and checking out the comments where she is called a “dumb woman” and “foolish” made me pause. The commenters also slam the effort to find out what happened to her based on the Telegraph’s claim that the expedition is “backed” by the U.S. Navy.

The article is about The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery’s (TIGHAR) planned trip this July to try to located the remains of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra aircraft. I’ve written before about TIGHAR and their efforts to find enough evidence to conclude that Earhart landed, and later died on the island of Nikumaroro in the Republic of Kiribati. According to some of the commenters finding out what happened to Earhart isn’t worth the effort. Some say because she was an idiot flying when she did and some say it isn’t worth it because of the money. Many of the commenters are up in arms that the Navy is “backing” the project on the grounds that the economy is still down and this is a stupid thing to spend money on.
I was surprised to see the Telegraph headline, “US Navy prepares mission to solve riddle of Amelia Earhart’s death” knowing that the TIGHAR expedition to find the plane was planned for this summer. When you read the Telegraph’s article, you can see that the expedition they are talking about is the one by TIGHAR. Now, TIGHAR is funded by contributions not federal money. It is not getting your tax payer dollars. I know this, because I googled. Having written about them before I went back to the TIGHAR website to see what they had to say about their alleged joint mission with the Navy.
This is what I found (pulled directly from their website) bolding is mine:

“As with previous TIGHAR expeditions, funding for this search is being raise entirely through contributions from private citizens, foundations and corporations. Lockheed Marting is leaidng a growing family of corporate sponsors. TIGHAR’s long-time sponsor FedEx is aboard with a major contribution in shipping services, and we are proud to announce that in addition to helping sponsor our expedition, Discovery Channel is producing a television special to air later this year documenting the search.

Underwater operations will be conducted for TIGHAR by Phoenix International, the U.S. Navy’s primary contractor for deep ocean search and recovery. We’ll sail from Honolulu July 2nd – the 75th anniversary of the Earhart disappearance. TIGHAR is deeply appreciative of the expressions of support voiced by Secretary Clinton, Secretary LaHood, Secretary Lambourne, Assistant Secretary Campbell, and Dr. Ballard.”

The U.S. Navy is not paying for TIGHAR’s expedition to try to locate Earhart’s plane. They say it themselves on their website, they are funded by private and corporate donations. The announcement by the State Department that they support and are backing the expedition is just that – a statement. The terms “support” and “backing” automatically make one think money. I thought money when I read the Telegraph’s headline and article. But in this case “support” and “backing” comes in the form of verbal acknowledgement and a few nice press pictures, not oodles of taxpayer dollars. It also probably helped get Phoenix International onboard to do the actual mapping/search, but they are going to be paid out of TIGHAR’s coffers.

Still, Earhart is just a stupid woman got herself killed by taking off on a poorly planned trip right? Even if all those commenters up in arms about their money going to something they think is silly have been mislead by the article there are still those that think Earhart doesn’t matter. I like the idea of going out there to try to figure out what really happened to Earhart because there is historic and social value to knowing how her story ended. She is an important figure in aviation history, women’s history, and United States history. She mattered. She mattered in her time, and for girls like me who read about her in books and start to believe that they can truly do anything with their life she still matters.
It isn’t a secret that I find Earhart inspiring. I’ve posted about her twice before this. Seeing her called dumb and foolish for trying to fly around the world annoys me. She took a risk, and she paid for it with her life. You mean to tell me no man has ever done that? She knew she could fail in her journey. She took off anyway. Was it a good choice? No. She made a bad choice, but the key word there is choice. She was a female aviator in the 1930’s who took her own life in her hands, she made choices. I admire Earhart because she lived her life in a way that gave her the ability to choose for herself. So I do support TIGHAR’s effort to find the plane and some conclusive evidence about what happened to her. I’m glad the State Department supports it too. I’m also glad that the funding is private, I think that is how it should be. Shame on the Telegraph for printing something so misleading.
If all I had to do was go to the TIGHAR website to find out how the State Department and Navy were involved in the expedition, there is no reason the Telegraph shouldn’t have done the same. Rather than making this a story about Earhart, the Telegraph article made this a story about government spending and waste. That isn’t the story at all. I would much rather have seen some real coverage of Earhart – the good and the bad – leading up to the 75th anniversary of her disappearance.

Lessons From Neil deGrasse Tyson

On the day I attended the last college class of my higher education experience, I also attended a talk given by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. For me, it was my commencement. I’ve made the decision not to walk at graduation for a number of reasons chief among them that none of my colleagues are walking and it didn’t make sense to me to do it alone. So I won’t be getting the cap, gown, prominent speaker send off typical for most people who complete a Master’s degree. Still, the University of Wisconsin-Madison gave me a great parting gift. The opportunity to sit at my favorite place on campus surrounded by other students on a gorgeous day and listen to a person whom I have admired for years talk about the future is the best goodbye I could have asked for.

Photo by Erin Podolak

Photo by Erin Podolak

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist (please don’t ask me to explain astrophysics further than saying it is physics in space) at the American Museum of Natural History but he is also an author, speaker, host, and even a meme. You might have seen him on the Colbert Report or the Daily Show throwing down some truth and clarity. He is eloquent, funny and honestly one of the people I admire most in the field of science communication. He pulls no punches, while still being extremely passionate about space and all the other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

The talk, which took place 5/10/12 on the Terrace here at UW-Madison, started with Tyson talking about the role science plays (or lack thereof) in our culture. He used the example of money, by asking us which scientists appear on U.S. currency. The answer is none. You can make the argument that Benjamin Franklin was a scientist, but his experiments are not what is highlighted on the $100 bill. He is there for his political achievements. This is just an example of the way as a culture we have not placed a strong emphasis on science.

Tyson then went into talking about the history of the U.S. interest in space exploration. He said that historically there are three reasons why people invest a lot of money in a risky exploration: fear of death, promise of economic return, and praise for royalty and deities. If you look at the U.S. push to get to the moon we were acting under #1 fear of death. Our investment in NASA and the space program had everything to do with the Russians and the Cold War. When the communist threat was gone, the space program started to decline. I think Tyson really drove home this point when he said that if the Chinese decided to declare that they were building military bases on Mars the U.S. would get ourselves on Mars within 10 months. We could if we wanted to, we just don’t invest in the necessary programs. We need to feel threatened before we actually do anything, how very American of us.

Photo by Erin Podolak

Photo by Erin Podolak

After going through the history of the space program, Tyson started talking about the economy and why investment in space and science overall can help. People in general seem to have this impression that NASA gets a big chunk of the federal budget, but Tyson pointed out that if NASA actually got what people think it gets NASA would be rolling in it. The perception of the budget is pretty skewed. What I love most about Tyson is that he says things that just make sense. When talking about innovation he said that the way you keep jobs in the U.S. is by making things that no one else can. Well, duh. But then where is the big push to invest in innovation? We aren’t doing ourselves any favors by not trying to invent. Perhaps my favorite line from his talk (which was full of quotable one-liners) was “If the dinosaurs had had a space program, you can bet they would have used it” basically about how to save us from ourselves.

Seeing a speaker like Neil deGrasse Tyson meant a lot to me. He lived up to the hype. I was impressed with the caliber of his ideas in addition to his stage presence and the great dynamic he developed with the audience. All of us sitting there, the sea of students strewn on the concrete in front of the stage, get to walk away from this year at UW-Madison having heard from a man who is without a doubt one of the biggest bad asses in science communication. I mean he paused at one point to tweet his own talk (@neiltyson) that takes some cojones and an awesome sense of humor. It was a great experience, and I can’t wait to read Tyson’s new book!

History of the Scientific Book and Journal

Every Monday afternoon, I go to Narnia. At least that is what it feels like to me. In the post I wrote about the book Blood Work, I mentioned that I am taking a class on the history of the scientific book and journal. I’ve been asked to elaborate on what we do in that class, which I’m happy to do because it is easily one of my favorite courses I’ve taken.

The course is offered through the History of Science Department here at UW, and is taught by Robin Rider. We meet in the special collections department of UW’s Memorial Library. The reason I equate going to class with going to Narnia is because special collections is accessible by a single elevator, separate from all the others, which is the only one that goes all the way up to the ninth floor. Special collections is gorgeous. When you step off the elevator into this magical land it is all glass and dark wood with soothing low lights and the books, oh the books. For me, short of my own library complete with floor to ceiling bookshelves and a ladder to ride around and find things, special collections is as good as a library is going to get.

Memorial_Library_entrance99What I love most about the class is that it gives me the ability to just completely nerd out for a few hours. There is something I love about holding a book in my hands, I felt it when reading Science Ink a few weeks ago, and I feel it every time I get to handle the class materials. A few weeks ago in class we got to see the library’s copy of Andreas Vesalius’ 1543 De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the structure of the human body). I was pretty awe struck, to actually get to see for yourself something from so long ago that was so important in its time was amazing to me.

Two years ago I was an intern at a science journal (BioTechniques) and was lucky enough to be exposed to a lot of the editorial decision making and publication processes as the journal was put together each month. I found getting to handle copies of the Philosophical Transactions (including the first one published!) of the Royal Society and the Memoirs of France’s Academy of Sciences particularly interesting as early examples of journal writing. There is just something about getting to turn those yellowed pages myself that thrills me. Nerd alert, I know.

There are a lot of issues from back then, when the conventions of printing and publishing were just coming to be, that are still worth debate today. For instance in preparing for my next class meeting I was just reading about the issue of author anonymity in writing. Now, for the most part I believe that putting your name on something is a good way to evoke trust in what you say – at least you are owning it. However, at the same time I see why there are people out there (some wonderful science bloggers come to mind) who choose to operate under a pseudonym. Safety in the wake of backlash against what you say (extreme or not) was an issue back then (ahem, Galileo) and it remains one today. Writers – no matter what you choose to write, scientific paper, blog post, etc. – open themselves up to criticism which can and does escalate. I find it interesting that so many centuries later, claiming individual ownership over words would still be an unsettled issue.

I enjoy that in my last semester of grad school I am being exposed to so many wonderful pieces of science history, but also to the ideas, procedures, and processes that go into creating a printed work. We got to tour the Silver Buckle Press, which is located in Memorial Library, during class. I had no idea UW had a collection of old printing presses, let alone that they were set up in a working print shop on campus. I even got to print something myself, which believe me was fun. For me, this class is about incorporating new experiences and ideas with things I already knew or had at least heard of in some way. It is like taking a step deeper into the world of the written word, and so far it has been amazing.

I’m taking this class as an elective, and I would recommend it. The downsides are that the readings sometimes take more effort than a few clicks of the mouse to get to, and special collections is cold sometimes. Otherwise the professor is enthusiastic, the course work isn’t particularly heavy, and I’ve learned a lot.

Book Review: Blood Work

I recently made a trip home, and decided to grab a book from the UW Bookstore to keep me company on my flight. I felt like it was time to read another piece of narrative non-fiction, so I picked up Blood Work by Holly Tucker. The book is about the first human experiments conducted on blood transfusion. I have no background of any kind in studying blood transfusion or in studying European and medical history in the time period of the 1660’s. However, I was drawn to the book because I was intrigued by the way it was marketed on the jacket as, “a tale of medicine and murder in the scientific revolution.” It seemed like something that would keep me awake on my nighttime flight.

BloodWorkBookCoverAs it turned out, Blood Work was a perfect compliment to the material we are covering in my History of the Scientific Book and Journal class this semester. Of all the classes that I’ve ever taken, this is one of my favorites. It is in the special collections of the UW Library and we get to handle the real texts, but I digress. We were just looking at early copies of the Philosophical Transactions, the publication of London’s Royal Society and the Memoirs of France’s Academy of Sciences. These two publications, and their respective societies are an important part of Tucker’s book. Publication is the means of spreading information, and getting into the journal of a national science organization was the premier means of getting attention for your work – critical for the early blood experiments.

Blood Work tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Denis one of the first medical doctors to experiment with animal to human blood transfusions. At the time, blood transfusion was extremely controversial because medical knowledge was conflicted about what exactly blood did in the body, what it was made of, and how it connected to the essence or soul of a person. There were fears that transfusing animal blood into humans would create horrible hybrid human animals. This resulted in two strong camps, those in favor of blood transfusion who believed it had the power to cure a variety of problems including mental illness, and those of the traditional way of thinking who wanted nothing to do with blood transfusions. Despite the controversy there were researchers engaging in these experiments anyway, and Denis was one of Paris’ most famous (or infamous depending on how you see it.)

What I liked most about this book was that while well researched and factual about science and the time period, the narrative was extremely strong. This is a vivid story with great characters struggling not just to further medical research but also to make a name for themselves, with their reputations and all that goes along with them at stake. You will learn a lot of history, not just medically, but of the time period. You certainly won’t be bored by details. The narrative is well crafted and engaging.

I loved seeing the work that went into researching this story. You can tell Tucker really did her homework to try to unravel the mystery of what happened to the patient in Denis’ most famous animal to human blood transfusion. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the patient dies and it calls into question the safety of blood transfusions. The incident serves as proof for those medical doctors opposed to blood transfusion research to have the experiments, and thus Denis, shut down. However, there is a question about whether the transfusion killed the patient, or more sinister means were employed in a conspiracy to tank the research. The incident resulted in blood transfusion itself going on trial.

This book was enthralling. I was reading in a busy environment, and had to put it down several times out of the necessity of moving around and traveling. I was able to keep coming back to it though, because my interest was peaked enough to want to find out what happened in the end. This story has mystery, a conspiracy, and science. I was certainly hooked. This isn’t really a fun read, not the kind of thing you’d want to take to the gym or the beach, but it is definitely interesting and worth the time if you’d like to learn something new about research in the 17th century, and be entertained while doing it.

One of the things that left me thinking after I’d put the book down was Tucker’s epilogue where she compares the blood transfusion experiments with modern day stem cell research. Blood transfusion is now a standard medical procedure (though not interspecies, we’ve learned that human to human blood transfusions are the way to go because the body can reject the blood of another species). However, it was greatly feared when it was first proposed, and that fear set the research back years. I thought the corollary to how stem cell research has been perceived by certain groups was a strong one, and it certainly got me thinking about how research that might seem “extreme” these days may be viewed in the future. Overall, I’m glad I read it.