Reading List

February 19, 2009 on 11:37 pm | In culture, ethics, fauna, health, people, science | 2 Comments

I’ve decided I need to kick my reading into high gear, after realizing it’s been quite some time since I actually finished any new books.  So for inspiration, I compiled a brief sample list of books that I want to either read or re-read.  The ones followed by an asterisk I have already read at least partially.  This list is in no particular order – seriously.  I’d gladly welcome any comments, reviews, or recommendations.  Thanks to C for suggesting Stiff and to mobius for suggesting Godel, Escher, Bach.  If I actually complete this list, I’ll finally buy myself a telescope.  That sounds like a good bargain, right?

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter

The Evolution Of Compassion by Robert Axelrod*

Stiff by Mary Roach

The Lives To Come by Philip Kitcher*

The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond

An Anthropologist On Mars by Oliver Sacks*

In The Shadow Of Man by Jane Goodall

The Double Helix: A Personal Account Of The Discovery Of The Structure Of DNA by James Watson*

Monster Nation by David Wellington*

The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark by Carl Sagan*

The Red Queen: Sex And The Evolution Of Human Nature by Matt Ridley

Bad Astronomy by Philip Plait

Don’t mess with Pan troglodytes

February 17, 2009 on 11:31 pm | In culture, ethics, fauna, people, science | No Comments

I’ve been spending much of this evening brushing up on Pan troglodytes, or the common chimpanzee.  Yesterday, a woman in Stamford, Connecticut was terribly mauled by Travis, her friend’s 14 year old, 200 pound pet chimpanzee.  I feel terrible for the victims – including Travis, who was shot to death by police as he attacked an officer in his patrol car.  The human victim, Charla Nash, remains in critical condition in a Stamford hospital; she suffered a number of broken bones and a badly decorticated face.  Chimpanzees, while generally playful and good-natured, are still wild animals and therefore unpredictable.  From press reports so far, it sounds as if the chimpanzee may have been infected with Lyme disease, which could have been the cause of Travis’ unusual anxiety and aggression.  I don’t want to speculate about his living condition or treatment as I am not familiar with them, but I will say that handling great apes—especially Pan troglodytes—requires an excess of expertise and caution.  They typically possess four to five times the upper body strength of an adult human and can demonstrate possessive or territorial behavior.  In this incident, the human victim had recently made a significant change to her hair style which is being reported as a potential reason that Travis may not have recognized her (they were previously familiar) and identified her instead as an intruder.  I’m a bit skeptical of that theory, given that chimpanzees show remarkable ability to recognize and differentiate both human and chimpanzee faces.

I hope that Ms. Nash recovers remarkably, and that Travis’ death serves as a warning to those who own or may consider adopting pet chimpanzees.  They are best left to professionals running well-equipped sanctuaries.  Consider donating to a sanctuary if you want to help.  (Chimpanzees raised in captivity are almost never accepted by wild troops, and therefore cannot be released into the wild).

Edit: Apparently, the face-shredding is a common feature of chimp attacks.  I’d forgotten that I wrote about this in one of my very first posts on Survival Machine.

Happy Darwin Day!

February 12, 2009 on 2:20 am | In culture, people, science | 2 Comments

Charles Darwin

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the British naturalist whose publication in 1859 of On the Origin of Species laid the foundation for virtually all subsequent discoveries in biology.  He did for the Western world’s understanding of life what Galileo did for our understanding of the heavens, and what Newton did for our understanding of physical forces.  Each year on February 12, those who appreciate the magnitude of Darwin’s contribution to human knowledge celebrate Darwin Day in his honor.  You are probably aware also that today is Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday as well.  Yes, Darwin and Lincoln were born on the exact same day in 1809.  And Abraham Lincoln founded the United States National Academy of Science! There seems to be no shortage of scientific significance today.

This year is not only Darwin’s bicentennial, but also the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.  It’s also the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of a telescope, and the 400th anniversary of the publication of Kepler’s Astronomia Nova (which described his first two Laws of Planetary Motion). Wow! These coinciding anniversaries are among a number of reasons that a grassroots coalition called COPUS has established 2009 as a national Year of Science (YoS).  YoS 2009 is a national, yearlong celebration and campaign aimed at getting scientists out of the laboratory from time to time and into the public spotlight to share their research and raise public awareness and enthusiasm for science.  Both amateur and  professional scientists and science educators can get involved, and I intend to do my part by writing more actively this year and by beginning to apply to graduate schools.  Here’s hoping that the latter turns into a lifelong, professional involvement on my part…

Today, you can do your part by refreshing your knowledge of evolution by natural selection in this brief synopsis at  If that’s all elementary to you, then challenge yourself by reading some evolutionary news at Science Daily.  And lastly, I’ll be celebrating a belated Darwin Day with friends when I fly back to Baltimore tomorrow night, most likely at Joe² restaurant & bar on North Avenue and Howard Street.  Leave a comment if you want to join me.  Let’s raise a glass to evolution!

Edit:  Also, check out this essay by Susan Jacoby in today’s Washington Post. It’s an excellent commentary on Darwin’s lasting impact.

Okefenokee dokey

February 11, 2009 on 1:00 am | In culture, people, science, travel | No Comments

The internet bandwidth at my hotel here in Georgia is having its own little recession.  So, I don’t really have the patience to research and write a good entry tonight.  I’m in Waycross for work through Friday, and I hope to catch a glimpse of some gators at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge while I’m here!

I’m looking into ways of boosting readership, since a limited audience is the main reason I don’t write prolifically.  On the other hand, I’m less likely to post pointless drivel than I would someplace like Livejournal.  I’m looking at crossposting plugins, and I will probably find a way to publish my new posts via email to willing friends and colleagues.

Hopefully they’ll have the broadband fixed tomorrow and I’ll be able to get something of substance up here.  I’m considering a few good stories as topics.  In the meantime, I hope you’re preparing for the most important Darwin Day in your lifetime – this Thursday, February 12, is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday! Check out the Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin! page at the Year Of Science 2009 website for lots of perspective on Darwin’s impact as viewed from his bicentennial.  To find Darwin Day events near you, check out!

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