Posts Tagged ‘knowing’

Closing the Circle

July 22nd, 2011 | Meera

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

Leaning over the work table in one of the observatory’s ringing huts last week, I raised a hand to smooth the lists of birds we keep pinned to the wall. They show each of the dozens of species we might encounter here: its common names in English and Swedish, its scientific name, the five-letter abbreviation by which it is identified in our protocols, and the standard ring size it takes.

(An aside: Some of the abbreviations assigned to bird species are tiny bits of sound-poetry, delicious to say. I like it when we catch a Redpoll, and not just because they are beautiful birds. Their code, derived from the scientific name Carduelis flammea—Redpolls are also known as Acanthis flammea by some taxonomists—is like the politest little cough. CAFLA!, I announce happily as I write it down. CAFLA! Forgive me; I have something in my throat—CAFLA, CAFLA, CAFLA.)

I don’t know if my fellow volunteer Peder saw my wedding band glinting as I stood with my hand on the wall. But perhaps that’s why he said at that moment—his voice rich with the delight of a clever observation—”But Meera’s been ringed. What size is your ring, Meera?”

I smiled, both because I like Peder’s sense of humor and because there was pleasure in taking his question, which required no serious answer, seriously.

What size was my ring? Did it conform to the requirements of comfort and utility assigned to every ring we put on a bird in this hut? Was it loose enough to slide easily up and down my finger, but snug enough not to fall off? When it was placed, did someone take care not to harm me? Was it unobtrusive, in no way impeding my flight, feeding, or other natural behaviors? Did its presence on my finger serve a meaningful purpose in the world? And could you trace my history by it?

I don’t remember what I said to Peder then, twisting my ring affectionately and thinking on these questions with ducked head and wondering mind. Today—watching my brown hands fly over the keyboard, marked by a flicker of white gold—I am still sitting with them.

But when it comes to the birds, at least, I have some answers I can give.

Katie and the Long-eared Owl Adventure
Size 8 rings—one was used in June to ring a Long-eared Owl chick in a nest in Handöl. Mostly we ring passerines, with much smaller rings.

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Many of you reading have first-hand experience with the processes and purposes of ringing (or banding, as it is called in the U.S.). You, friends, don’t have to stay for the rest of this post—although I would love it if you added a comment or let me know how you do things. For the rest of you—and for me, since I am learning these things along with you—I have written a small primer. Ready? Grab a fika. This will be long, and though I find it fascinating, it won’t be very poetic. Something sweet will help us all stay focused. :)

A Bird in the Hand

To work with a wild bird, of course, you must first have access to it. If you are ringing birds in nest boxes, as I was helping Stefan do earlier this summer, this is fairly straightforward. You simply check each nest box periodically, noting which are occupied, which have eggs, and later, which have nestlings in them.

If you know approximately how old the chicks were when you last checked on them and how old they will be when they fledge, you can pick a day to ring them—sometime when they’re well grown, but not quite ready to leave the nest. At that point, you can safely pluck the clutch of nestlings out one by one, ring them, and put them back inside. Depending on the species, you’re more or less likely to be able to ring the mother as well—flycatcher parents tend to flee the nest when you approach; tits sometimes stay inside.

Besides nest box ringing, the observatory also conducts mist-net ringing each summer. (This is what I’ve been helping with for the past few weeks, since the Great Snipe tracking began winding down.)

Mist nets are very fine nets constructed of strong black nylon, with mesh sizes that vary from about 16mm to about 120mm; you need a larger mesh to catch big birds like waders and raptors, and a smaller one to catch little birds like warblers and finches. The nets get their name, as you might imagine, because when unfurled they become virtually invisible to birds (and preoccupied humans, as I have proven on more than one occasion).

Each net comprises five vertical sections of netting separated by five horizontal threads; you set it up so that the horizontal threads run taut between two poles and the vertical sections hang loosely below them, forming several pockets into which birds can fly. Nets are usually set up in the early morning and taken down or rolled up in the early afternoon. In between, birds are active but the sun isn’t shining down too hard. If it becomes very hot, windy, cold, or rainy when you are using mist nets, they are promptly closed so that you don’t trap birds under adverse conditions.

Tom B and the net set
Amazingly, I have no unfurled mist nets among the nearly 500 photos I’ve posted of Sweden so far. Here is one from my wonderful Flickr contact Andy Jones, of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Ours look exactly the same, but surrounded by tall grasses and wildflowers.

Once you’ve opened a net, it is checked frequently so no bird remains caught for very long. The great majority of the time, birds become only lightly tangled, and removing them takes moments. Occasionally a bird will be more difficult to extract (in tricky cases, beginners like me should always call for help from more experienced ringers, so that the bird can be freed as efficiently as possible). Either way, you follow the same basic steps. First, determine which side of the net the bird entered on, and work on that side; next, free the feet, then the wings, then the head, since that’s the opposite order from which most bird parts encounter the net.

The removal process, though usually straightforward, is the most delicate part of the ringing operation. It requires patience, care, and a constant attention to the welfare of the bird you’re working with. You may be being swarmed by mosquitoes or gnats or tiny evil flies, for instance, but if you have a bird in hand, you can’t twitch an arm suddenly to shoo them away. (Me, if this gets very bad, I swear under my breath. I don’t think anyone but the birds has heard me yet.)

Once you’ve freed a bird, it is placed inside a cotton drawstring bag and taken somewhere else to be processed: in our case, a ringing hut.

A Minute of Science

While there are many steps in processing a bird, experienced hands can perform them incredibly quickly—usually in under one minute. It will take me longer to write about this and you to read it than it takes most birds to make their way out of the ringing hut, and I’m not even going to describe the steps in detail, just list them.

The first thing a ringer does after removing a bird from its bag is identify it. This dictates the ring size it will take, because that is dependent on the average diameter of each species’ leg. The smallest ring we have is a 0.5, which we put on tiny things like chiffchaffs; the largest, spares of which we own but almost never use because our operations aren’t designed to trap anything except songbirds, is a 93—for something magnificent like a crane.

Next, the bird is ringed using a special set of pliers with round openings. These help you to properly bring the edges of the ring together without any danger of squeezing the bird’s leg. I have seen experienced ringers do this so smoothly that I am barely ready to write down the ring number before they are done.

Stefan Rings Four Eurasian Nuthatch Chicks
Here’s a pair of ringing pliers being used on a Eurasian Nuthatch chick.

Finally, several pieces of information are taken that will be associated with the bird’s ring number.(Every country in which birds are ringed has a central database to which these records are uploaded.) Here, we sex and age the bird to the degree that this is possible using physical signs, and then take a fat score, a wing measurement, and weight. We also look for the presence of a brood patch (a wrinkly, swollen area on female birds’ bellies that indicates they are in nesting mode), and determine what stage of feather growth young birds are in and what stage of moult, if any, adult birds are in. None of this data is necessarily all that significant in isolation, but collecting it for millions of birds worldwide each year adds a tremendous amount to the knowledge we have about various species.

If an already-ringed bird is captured, all the same information is collected and its ring number taken down. When that record is uploaded, whoever ringed the bird originally is automatically notified, so they know where that individual has been. I imagine it must be rather thrilling to receive one of these notices. Perhaps it’s a little as if a message you’d put in a bottle had been found across the seas.

After all this, the bird—which, if it is typical, has stayed calm throughout—is released through a small hatch in the side of the hut. Or, if it is a fledgling, it is taken back to the area where it was caught, with its siblings if any were trapped at the same time. We do this so that young birds can easily find their way home. I have returned fledglings several times and I can’t tell you how reassuring it is to hear chicks and parents calling to each other as you approach their nest.

As I said, most often a bird is held in the hand for less than one minute. (It took me about 15 to write this, but things might have gone a little quicker if I hadn’t run out of coffee one section ago. How are you doing, by the way? Any fika left? I’ll try to be quick now, although this last bit is arguably the part I most want you to understand.)

Varför Vi Gör Det (Why We Do It)

It’s all very well to tell you what we do when we ring birds; what perhaps seems even more mysterious, at least if you haven’t thought about it before, are the reasons we do it at all. A dear friend—and I hope she doesn’t mind me quoting her, because I think her words reflect what’s in many people’s minds—commented last week on a photo I posted of a female chaffinch being processed: “I get science and all that, but from a bird perspective, where you are must be a torture chamber.”

Let’s talk about that second part first. It’s perfectly true that being caught in a mist net and ringed is no bird’s idea of a pleasant morning. To a human, handling birds is a fascinating and rewarding experience. It’s hard not to be emotionally affected, even if in a restrained and professional way, by the physical fact of a live bird in your hand. Feather to skin, a bird’s warmth, heartbeat, and softness transmit themselves directly to you in a way that can feel electric.

To a bird—there’s no getting around it—a ringer is a predator.

Having said that, most of the birds we trap are likely to have what are obviously far more dangerous encounters with actual predators every day. Many are migratory species which travel thousands of kilometers each year and face the most grueling environmental conditions. Birds are by constitution tough animals, capable of weathering stress—especially if it is temporary and causes no physical injury—very well.

I will not lie to you. The risk of physical injury does exist. But I believe it is safe to say that the overwhelming majority of the millions of birds ringed annually, under the supervision of ringers licensed by their home nations, emerge from the process completely unharmed.

If I had written this post a few months ago I wouldn’t have been able to make that statement as confidently, but thanks to a recently published study, beautifully unpacked here by a science writer I respect a great deal, I can tell you that when the records for over 600,000 mist net captures in the United States were analyzed, the average rate of injury (which includes events like wing strain, cuts, stress, or broken bones) was found to be less than 0.59%, and the average mortality rate about 0.23%.

baby blue
Most bird species show remarkable calm during handling; some—like tits—have characteristic defense responses.

While those numbers are extremely low, they would still represent an unjust harm to bird populations if ringing served no useful purpose. But it serves many—too many, in fact, to describe here in detail, especially since I am quite sure you are now, like me, entirely out of cookies and tea (I switched to tea a little while ago).

Here then—highly abbreviated—is a short list of scientific and conservation-related reasons birds are ringed:

• Ringing is the primary method of understanding bird migration. (Before the advent of ringing as a systematized process, migration was a deep and myth-producing mystery.) By recovering previously ringed birds at different points on their migration pathways, we can identify important nesting, wintering, and feeding grounds, and note changes in routes. Such knowledge is not only interesting for its own sake, but an important advocacy tool for conservationists seeking to preserve habitats or demonstrate the effects of human activity or global warming on bird populations.

• Ringing is the only way to gather data on the lifespan of individual birds and thus establish longevity records for bird species in the wild.

• Ringing and recapturing birds in the same site over a sustained period can enable us to roughly determine how many birds exist in a given population, as well as how well they are surviving and breeding. Ringing can also help to pinpoint the reasons for population changes. For instance, if a particular species is becoming rarer, but we know from nest box studies that it’s successfully nesting and raising chicks and we know from mist net ringing that the rate of juvenile survival has gone down, then we know that some condition affecting young birds, but not affecting adult birds’ capacity to breed, is responsible for the population decline—and we have a better idea of where to look next.

• Ringing game birds is vital for monitoring the impact of hunting and determining if existing regulations are effective or should be changed.

Peder with protocols
This is the protocol sheet we use to record data about newly ringed birds.

As I write, I can feel the cool contours of my own ring embracing my finger. Beyond its shape it bears no other resemblance to the small aluminum or steel bands we put on birds, except for one: both represent a promise from those who put them on.

Of the promise that was made to me, nothing more need be said. I appreciate it every day.

Birds, of course, have no such feeling about the promise their ringers make to them. But I believe it exists, despite this, in the closing of each circle around each protesting leg. To me it seems at heart a very simple vow: to know, to heed, to protect, to remember, and to look for again.

The Vagrant in Sweden

June 27th, 2011 | Meera

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

I heard it as soon as I swung the car door shut: a dizzy, fever-pitched fizz more like an insect’s song than a bird’s, slicing through the cool Midsommar night. The meadow in front of me, glowing in the eerie illumination of a June’s-end one a.m., looked no different from so many others here. What covered its slope was a dense mat of close-growing, un-gardened stalks of the humble wildflower that is known in English as cow parsley, and which in Swedish goes by the even more embarrassing name of hundkex: dog biscuits. There was no sign that this was a place where you might find something rare.

Stefan and I had just spent several hours feasting with his family on pickled and fermented herring, potatoes, roasted pork, and all manner of breads and cheeses, and with both beer and cool, sharp snaps in my belly I had been ready for bed a long time ago. Instead, we were drawing out the longest day of the year in a sleepy haze beside a village road. We had come to the dog- biscuit meadow to see a single, very special, vagrant.

A vagrant is a bird that has, by some mistake of birth or meteorology, strayed far from the path it was meant to follow in its life. Vagrants are also called accidentals, and both names go some way toward capturing the pathos of their situation: not only lost, but alone. Somewhere in the meadow’s stalks perched such an individual. It was a male lanceolated warbler (träsksångare). As songbirds go, the lanceolated warbler is not particularly flashy; it lacks the jewel-like colors of a bluethroat or a goldfinch. It is, however, marked by a beautiful series of dark striations on its breast, crown, rump, and flanks. To look more closely is to see that the lines are formed from tiny lance-like shapes, each one a thin oval tapering to a point. It is these that give the bird its name.

In looks and song, the lanceolated warbler is rather similar to the grasshopper warbler, a relative that spends the spring and summer breeding in this region. But compared with a grasshopper warbler, a lanceolated warbler will have more—and more distinct —streaking, a higher voice, and a well-defined, as opposed to a diffuse, border between the dark center and pale edge of each of its tertial feathers. I could not have identified these subtle differences on my own. But they had not gone unnoticed when the little warbler appeared here some nights earlier, and a rush of expert Swedish birders had already given their say-so to the characteristics that separated it from its common relative. Let us say that if this bird had been aspiring to sainthood, it would have been five times confirmed by the highest of priests.

Because we knew its provenance, Stefan and I also knew that as far as we had traveled to see it—150km from the observatory in Handöl to Östersund, where Stefan lives; 32km from Östersund to Nälden, where we had celebrated the holiday in a tiny lakefront cabin with his family; another 27km or so from Nälden to Bleckåsen—the tiny bird in the meadow had come much further. A lanceolated warbler within its normal range can be seen throughout Siberia, on the lower slopes of Russia’s Ural mountains, and in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, and Japan. At this time of year, a male of the species ought to have been nesting with a female in a wet, shrubby meadow somewhere perhaps a thousand or two thousand kilometers east or northeast of the spot where we stood. This one was calling for a mate it would never find.

It’s a bit like a sewing machine, Stefan had told me three mornings earlier, after his first pilgrimage to this spot in Bleckåsen. The sound coming from the meadow wasn’t, in fact, so far from what he had described—notes of metal whistling and punching, whistling and punching, at speed. It was an obsessive little racket, the kind of sound that might come reeling at midnight from beneath the door of a red-eyed tailor in a fairytale, running stitches through cloth faster than his hands could keep up. This was the voice of instinct, I thought—the voice of conviction in the face of loss.

We saw the source of that voice as soon as we descended the makeshift path that dozens of eager birders had trampled over in the past few days. The warbler had alit on a branch in the midst of the hundkex blooms, singing with its bill so wide open that I imagined a great stream pouring from its mouth. As it sang it turned its head fastidiously from one direction to another, throwing its call to all points. And the singing lasted for minutes on end. This was unusual behavior for its species.

I hate to anthropomorphize; I hope I manage to avoid it here. But witnessing this unabating, probably futile summons (futile, anyway, unless a female vagrant happened also to have been blown here), it was hard not to feel that it resounded with a note of desperation.

To many birders—especially the ones who make a fetish out of each new species, but even those who don’t—vagrants are objects of fascination. It’s no trivial thing to be able to look upon a creature that you’d otherwise never expect to see. Real though they are, vagrants are so out of place, so unexpected, and so carefully inspected for signs of authenticity that seeing one is perhaps the closest any of us will come to seeing a unicorn or a mermaid.

Even if you can relate to it, though, you might dismiss this motive for visiting a vagrant as thrill seeking. That’s why, when Ulla first heard about the lanceolated warbler, she resisted making the effort to see it. Her serious heart didn’t want to think of itself as longing after the unusual and the rare. But days later, when the warbler failed to leave, Ulla too drove up to the incandescent meadow late at night. She listened, and she felt her heart contract.

Ulla didn’t have to explain why. What runs beneath the urge to see a vagrant is something more powerful than the desire to collect a rara avis. The wonder we feel, I think, is centered on the knowledge that this creature once had a plan—had an object, had a bone-deep, gene-deep map to follow—and somewhere along the way, got lost.

Since I have spent most of my life in search of such a map, the vagrant’s fate is bittersweet heartache to me. I cannot tell you how often I have found myself envious of another creature’s indelible blueprint. I have coveted the existence of periodic cicadas, which lie years in the buried dark readying for one great emergence, and somehow know exactly what to do when that day comes.

But I never realized how devastating certainty can be when it comes undone. There’s very little use in having a blueprint if you cannot follow it, and small comfort in a well-planned route if you find yourself so far off the map that you cannot return. It wasn’t until I heard the vagrant in Sweden that I understood my good fortune. I happen to know I am wandering; I understand there’s no such thing as a home that doesn’t change with you. And so, I now believe with all my heart, I can never be lost.

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We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.

If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.

—Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” 1862


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P.S. As most of you know, I’m writing a little book of essays about my summer adventures. In case you were wondering what that might look like, consider this post—which will appear in the book, with revisions—a preview. And thank you, as ever, for reading.

Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads

April 1st, 2011 | Meera

How do you stuff a human for display? Does one remove the innards, and if so, how is it accomplished? Is the stuffing made of cotton, hay, or what?

—Stephen T. Asma, Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums

2011.8. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads (Stephen T. Asma)

The really lovely thing about acquiring a reputation for being interested in certain sorts of things is that eventually you start to get the right kinds of presents. When I was visiting Sarah in February, she handed me a beautifully wrapped box containing, among other things, this book. I cracked the spine on it as soon as I sat down in the airport waiting room on my way home and finished it over several sessions on the elliptical machine (I read at the gym not because I’m too sexy-smart to plug into their TVs or my iPod, but because I can’t stand getting sweat all over my headphones.)

My verdict? Mixed.

I won’t say Asma’s book isn’t well named, but in spirit it is governed far more by its staid and scholarly subtitle than its deliciously black title. The book opens marvelously, with two early anecdotes setting an inquisitive tone: In one, Asma describes the awful fate of an Inuit man who followed polar explorer Robert Peary back from the Arctic to take up a job as a living specimen in the American Museum of Natural History, only to die of tuberculosis. Unbeknownst to his son, who had also made the trip, “museum staff removed Qisuk’s flesh, cleaned his bones, and put him on display for New York audiences.” In the other, the author writes of his fascination with Foma, a boy with only two digits on each hand and foot. Foma lived for years in Peter the Great’s cabinet of curiosities, and when he died, he was stuffed and put back under glass.

Gripped by the need to know how such a feat of preservation might be accomplished, Asma sets off on a viscerally fueled investigation into wet and dry preservation techniques, including taxidermy—but is soon drawn into a more academic analysis of the role that natural history museums play as both artifacts and architects of scientific epistemology. I would have been happier if he’d spent a little more time answering his initial questions about specimen preservation, especially since his discussion of how animals are processed when they come into a museum isn’t very nuanced. He says, for instance, that each one is first skinned and then skeletonized before it can be mounted for display—but with birds, you actually have to make a choice between preserving the skin or skeleton, since certain bones must stay in the skin for structural support if you’re going to stuff it. And he describes the taxidermy process as if it’s something that happens only one particular way, whereas in fact there are many choices and innovations individual taxidermists can and do make.

I also have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about people who make the experience of going into the dermestid room sound unrelentingly lurid. I mean, it’s an astonishing place for many reasons. Some people find it hard. But really, I think Asma is reaching when he calls its smell “the foulest, most pestiferous stench you can imagine,” and a “fetid odor, sweet and sour in a nauseatingly pungent combination.” He sticks in “gory” and “repulsive” while he’s at it.

These are, in truth, fairly trivial criticisms. All the questions Asma asks interest me—How exactly are biological specimens preserved? Why should we pay close attention to the processes by which scientists come to “know” what they “know”? In what ways do museum exhibits reflect the biases and intentions of their creators?—and he attacks them with an infectious and amiable spirit of adventure. There were many sections in which I was transported by his detailed visual descriptions of particular exhibits. And though there were equally many where I found myself dragged down by the slow and somewhat plodding formation of an argument, the arguments themselves were usually fascinating.

In particular, anyone interested in questions of classification will be held by Asma’s discussion of the differences between the curatorial decisions made by the 18th-century natural philosophers Georges Cuvier and John Hunter. Hunter, for instance, had a habit of arranging specimens according to similarity of function, without regard to animal groups. In one armoire, designed to demonstrate how Nature deals with the problem of digestion, Hunter placed:

“parts analogous to teeth in invertebrates,” including parts of parasitic worms, cicadas, locusts, Roman snails, slugs, cuttlefishes, and squids; then “parts analogous to teeth in birds,” including the beaks of vultures, woodpeckers, and puffins; then two shelves devoted to “true” teeth, including those of lions (“teeth composed of bone and enamel”) and those of horses and elephants (“composed of ivory, enamel, and cementum”).

These choices, Asma explains, reflected Hunter’s tendency to abstract traits from organisms. In this case, the concept of dentition was “excerpted,” as he puts it, from the individual animals and the ways in which these animals lived in the world. By contrast, Cuvier—who was Hunter’s contemporary but held vastly different ideas about how one ought to go about organizing knowledge about species—would almost certainly have placed each of Hunter’s teeth and psuedo-teeth in its own case, arranged together with other parts of the same organism. Asma sums up Cuvier’s approach as one that relates:

the parts of an organism to each other and to specific environmental conditions of existence. So the lungs of whales, for example, have a real causal relationship with the other anatomical parts of whales (trachea, blowhole, circulation system, etc.) and with the needs and demands of its aquatic environment. But there is no causal relationship with other animals that have lungs.

Over the course of 300 pages, Asma roams through seven different natural history museums in three different countries, including my beloved Hunterian, which I saw last September and which has colored my dreams ever since. He interviews curators and collections managers, gets lost in dimly lit halls and back rooms, and everywhere examines what he sees with the eye of an artist, a philosopher, and a lover of science. I get the impression he would not be unhappy to be considered a kind of rakish explorer of the macabre, and that Stuffed Animals is intended to be as much travelogue as thesis. (Hence the dramatic description of the bug room.)

In this, Asma does not quite succeed—what he has written, although more palatable than any academic work I have ever read, is a bit of an uncomfortable hybrid—not exactly dissertation, not exactly popular science. In a way, the in-between is an apt space for this book to occupy, given the author’s fascination with teratology, the study of “monsters” and “hybrids” (otherwise known as creatures with congenital abnormalities). But to my everlasting regret, Asma never does tell us just how Foma of the “lobster claw” deformity might have been preserved.



P.S. This is where I tell you that The Open Lab 2010 has gone on sale! I have an essay in it, but every piece it contains is really a delight and you should read them all online, even if you don’t want to buy a copy. But if you are lovely and do want to support the tireless efforts of the book’s two amazing editors, you can get it as either a paperback or a PDF here.

Before You Know It

February 18th, 2011 | Meera

Between happening and knowing there is a space—a bit of room to breathe before disaster. Everything happens before you know it. This is the gift of light, the laggard.

You may think light speedy, and it is true that there is none to beat it in this universe: no hare, no rocket ship, no Kenyan swift of foot can do it better. But light’s tempo has a number, and by those digits it is bound, the same as any shackled lifer. Jean Valjean had 24601; light 299,792,458. Oh, it is a traveler par excellence. Nigh on three hundred million meters per second is nothing to sneeze at. Traveling, though, takes time. Traveling trails behind transpiring.

Last week, on a mountaintop dripping with stars, I regarded the Hunter as he drew back his arrow for the Hare. This he has done since Homer. Since Hesiod. It might seem he must do it forever; but he may already have dropped his bow. For Betelgeuse, the star in his right shoulder, is old enough that it must soon die—and distant enough that it may have done already, hundreds of years past. If so we are none the wiser. We stand somewhere in the 640 year-long gap of light’s passage, event on one side and understanding on the other.

Before you know it Betelgeuse will blow. Did blow. Will blow. Did blow. I watched the Hunter and his old red shoulder. I wondered at the night sky, so full of Schrodinger’s cats.

Between happening and knowing there is a space—no matter how small. Two mornings later, kneeling over a canyon pool, I saw the Santa Catalinas in still water. Observed the sun moving, ever so slowly, over their graceful bulk. Thought: As with the stars, so with all things.

Since they were only miles away, not light years, the light that carried the mountains’ countenance came to me fast, fast, fast—plummeting out of the sky headlong and caroming off the surface of the pool and into my eager eyes so quick you’d never even know there was a time between. An infinitesimal time. Still, there it was.

Before you know it—but just before—the sun dapples over the Santa Catalinas.

Sabino Canyon morning

Between happening and knowing there is a space—a bit of room to breathe. Before you know it you’re all grown up. Before you know it you’ve fallen in love. Before you know it he’s become someone else. Before you know it, you have too. You’ll see. Just wait a second. Let light catch up.

Seeing and Believing

November 10th, 2010 | Meera

A few weeks ago I climbed into a metal dome perched on the roof of the University of Chicago’s Ryerson Physical Laboratory building, straightened my spine and stood up slightly on my toes to reach the tilted eyepiece of a stately and enormous refractor telescope, placed one wide-open eye against a small, bright window of glass, and believed in the moon for the first time.

It was the night before the full moon, and the planet’s most faithful companion was big and bold and beautiful, waxing so gibbous it seemed to strain against its own edges. At that particular point in the moon’s orbit, solar light was shining almost directly at that portion of its countenance that faces the earth, making the whole of its central surface appear perfectly illuminated and unwrinkled—as flawless and white as the petal of a Madonna lily, if a Madonna lily happened to be lit by the burning light of a star. But at the moon’s outermost contours, where it curved away the most from the sun’s rays, light struck its surface at oblique angles—creating sharp shadows and throwing the topography of the moon into high relief. Here it was ragged with dark tears and cavities, war-wounds from billions of years of asteroid and comet collisions: an old fool wearing his heart on his sleeve.

I put one hand out to the wall of the dome, steadying myself against the physically destabilizing force of true awe, and stared. It was astonishing how clearly I could pick out along the edges of the moon the very same craters and mountains that are visible on photographs of the lunar surface. After some time, the earth had drifted far enough along its own orbit (taking the telescope and me with it) that all that was left in the eyepiece was the blackness of space. And the hard, rocky, three-dimensional physicality of the moon—which had until a minute ago been something frankly close to myth in my mind, though I hadn’t realized it—was newly real.

I was reminded, as I thought about the gap between accepting the perfect, scientific truth of a phenomenon, and actually collecting it into the space of one’s personal convictions, of the wisdom of a certain very big, very friendly giant:

“But because of these jumpsquiffling ears of mine,” the BFG said, “I is not only able to hear the music that dreams is making but I is understanding it also.”

“What do you mean understanding it?” Sophie said.

“I can read it,” the BFG said. “It talks to me. It is like a langwitch.”

“I find that just a little hard to believe,” Sophie said.

“I’ll bet you is also finding it hard to believe in quogwinkles,” the BFG said, “and how they is visiting us from the stars.”

“Of course I don’t believe that,” Sophie said.

The BFG regarded her gravely with those huge eyes of his. “I hope you will forgive me,” he said, “if I tell you that human beans is thinking they is very clever, but they is not. They is nearly all of them notmuchers and squeakpips.”

“I beg your pardon,” Sophie said.

“The matter with human beans,” the BFG went on, “is that they is absolutely refusing to believe in anything unless they is actually seeing it right in front of their own schnozzles.”

Roald Dahl, The BFG

Well. This notmucher, this squeakpip, this human bean who does, still, have a hard time believing in anything unless I is actually seeing it right in front of my own schnozzle, is writing tonight as a rather shy new member of the Ryerson Astronomical Society—which was kind enough to welcome me into its fold despite the fact that I’m not only a notmucher but a notstudent.

I haven’t written about astronomy very often here, but I’m making this post partly as a promise that that will start to change. Not least because I expect that as I go along, getting to know that lovely, somewhat finicky telescope I’m lucky enough to have ten minutes away from my home, I shall very soon find myself in believing in a great many more things than that one crazy, beautiful satellite we call our own.

Waxing Gibbous

Thanks for the incredible photo above go to the talented Philip Chee.

The Naming of Things (Part II)

June 29th, 2010 | Meera

In Part I of this essay, I told you how a short story by Swedish writer Lars Gustafsson presented me with what seemed like a useful analog for talking about how I experience scientific nomenclature. This second part of the essay probably won’t make much sense if you haven’t read the first.

As a reminder, here is the sentence I stole from Gustafsson’s marvelous short story “Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases,” and edited to suit my purposes. Apologies to him.

Scientists have such funny names for their things: that is their peculiarity, and they have a right to all those names which I don’t have.

In case you’re one of the few people reading this who doesn’t know me personally, I’ll clarify that I’m a working, early-career science writer with a graduate degree—in the humanities. In other words, I’m an educated nonscientist with a deep interest in science and some hard-earned, on-the-job training in understanding scientific concepts (especially within the field of health and medicine, about which I have begun to write regularly in the past year). But my formal academic background doesn’t help me much when it comes to grappling with the nomenclature of science.

In Gustafsson-terms, I don’t have a right to the “funny names” scientists have for “their things.” And that can make science a difficult world to travel in.

At the simplest level, unfamiliarity with the naming of things in science can act as a barrier to understanding. As a writer, even one who has a defined “beat,” my livelihood depends on flexibility. I need to be able to sensibly cover a broad range of topics, each of which has its own names for its own things. The more specific the scientific field, the less likely I am to know all of those names and the higher the barrier I have to scale.

Droplets Entering Eye

I’ll give you an example. At the moment, I’m researching a story about multiple sclerosis. Even before I began working on the piece, I grasped the basic facts of the disease. I knew it was a neurological disorder marked by lesions in the tissues of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. Specifically, multiple sclerosis causes patchy plaques in the insulating myelin sheath—composed of proteins and phospholipids—around the nerve fibers of the central nervous system. In doing so, it disrupts the smooth transmission of action potentials traveling along the axons between nerve cells. This leads to numbness, weakness, poorly controlled muscle movements, and changes in vision.

I would argue that the text above is reflective of some of the reasons names in science are problematic for a nonscientist. For one thing, it, like many clinical texts, uses two different names—lesion and plaque—for the same thing. For another, both those words have everyday connotations that contradict their scientific meanings. In ordinary English, a plaque is a flat object, while the plaques of multiple sclerosis are typically raised, or even wedge-shaped. In ordinary English, a lesion is often thought of as an open wound or fresh cut, but in the disease context it’s an area of scar tissue: sclerosis comes from a Greek root that means “hardening”. (I think of Gustaffson’s boy, bewildered by saws called tails, even though they have nothing to do with tails.)

In addition, though it is careful to avoid more specialized terms like CD4 T-cells or MS-susceptibility SNPs, the description also includes a number of words that are limited to the scientific domain. Of course, my job demands that I know, comprehend, and accurately use names like myelin sheath and phospholipids (and CD4 T-cells and MS-susceptibility SNPs). In learning them, I have added the concepts they represent (and the concepts required for understanding what they represent, which are themselves numerous) to the objects of my world. By extension, I have reached for the right to know that they exist. I consider them, and many other names like them, as tools in my shed.

Yet even when it comes to a single disease, that’s not saying very much.

This Dictionary of Multiple Sclerosis, for instance, spans 254 pages and contains over 600 entries, some of which define words familiar to me but most of which do not (I hadn’t encountered Experimental Autoimmune Encephalomyelitis before last week, and while it may or may not appear in my article, I’ve found it necessary for understanding several of the research papers I’m reading).

Before I finish work on this story, there will be several dozen more scientific terms that will have entered my vocabulary. Some of them will become permanent fixtures in my toolshed: old friends that I may use to pound in future fence posts. Others, though, will inevitably retreat once again into the world of things whose names I do not know. And the same will be true of the next piece I write, and the next. Though my comfort with and command of the naming of things in science grows daily, I will probably always operate, in a deep sense, within a world where what exists and what does not is at least a little “vague and uncertain.”

I say these things not to bemoan my fate, which is self-chosen and quite beloved (and not in order to defend writers from criticism when we get things wrong), but because I think it’s worth talking about. I think it’s worth examining the ways in which, when it comes to scientific terminology, many of us—even those of us who work with scientists—are akin to Gustafsson’s boy. We may feel unsure of what things the world contains, and we may lack a sense of true ownership over those things and their names.

Ode to Pay

I attended the wedding of an old friend two weekends ago. My roommate from college, a third-year medical resident and one of the smartest, most driven people I know, had brought some work with her for the weekend. Looking at the first sentence of a scientific paper on her iPhone—a paper she needed to understand in order to properly diagnose a difficult case—she chuckled to herself. “Can I read something to you?” she asked. When I nodded, she read:

Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) is also known as the autosomal recessive familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (FHL), familial erythrophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (FEL), and viral-associated hemophagocytic syndrome (VAHS).

As soon as she finished, we both broke out into laughter. It was impossible not to laugh. The sentence, as written, was impenetrable.

This was the case despite the fact that we both recognized its capacity to hold and convey meaning. If you had complete access to the terms it used—if you knew all the funny names for all the things in it—you would have a fairly precise understanding of what the paper happened to be about (as it happens, a rare genetic autoimmune disorder affecting the cells of the blood and which apparently is known by at least four names).

You might argue that those words weren’t written with me in mind. This is partly true. My friend was much better equipped than I for the task of overcoming the barrier of all the terms in that first sentence. She continued reading the paper as I sat by her in the sun, bringing the full weight of eight years of medical training to bear on the density of terminology it contained, and (presumably) managing to hop quite neatly over the problem.

There are excellent reasons for science to keep its nomenclature separate from the vocabulary of ordinary speech. Scientific discourse values specific denotation, not ill-defined connotation. It values the compression of ideas. It abhors ambiguity. This is why so many scientific terms, including the ones that dominate the sentence we laughed over, have been derived from Greek and Latin: languages that, unlike our own modern tongues, have ceased to evolve and can provide (apparently) stable containers for precise concepts.

I appreciate these qualities of scientific speech, even though they serve to build a world in which I sometimes founder. Assuming the names for things really are precise and unambiguous, I can believe that in spite of any confusion I may personally feel, the language of science actually does serve to draw clear demarcations around objects and ideas. I can trust that no one will be sending me to fetch tools by the wrong name; or, worse, to look for tools that do not exist. And I—unlike Gustafsson’s boy—can quite happily accept the limits of my knowledge and work to expand it.

But there was still something true in the laughter I shared with my friend. The sheer bulk of scientific nomenclature, and (more problematic) the fact that it sometimes fails to live up to its ideal of clarity, isn’t lost on scientists themselves.

Physics PhD-holder Philip Ball called for his peers to be clearer and more transparent in their application of existing terms and the invention of new ones, not just for their own sakes but for the rest of us poor saps as well. Fertility, he points out, is now routinely used by demographers to mean both “birth rate” and “the ability to reproduce,” thus “allowing the existence of fertile people who have zero fertility.” And for an example that’s closer to home, take this. My husband is a graduate student in computer science. An early page in one of his textbooks lists several translations between computer science and statistics, which often use different language for the same thing. Estimation in statistics equals learning in computer science (and neither, as Ross can tell you based on many extraordinarily frustrating conversations with me, quite equals what these two common English words mean outside those fields).

We are sent for a tool, but by the wrong name.

Simon Young, co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, ranted about the bloating of research vocabulary with jargon and neologisms in 2006, reserving his sharpest vitriol for words ending in what he considers to be the preternaturally ugly suffix -omics. Young’s aesthetic judgments aside, what he really objects to is a troubling disconnect between word and meaning that has arisen as a result of fashion. “I find it interesting,” he comments, “that all journals with it (the word neuropsychopharmacology) in the title publish papers not involving drugs and, therefore, outside the scope of the journal title. Why use such a cumbersome word if you ignore its precise meaning?”

We are sent for a tool, but it does not exist.

Don't Tweeze Me

True; research is not a woodshed. It is fluid, ongoing, additive. Uncertain names that mean uncertain things multiply daily in the world of science, thanks to the constant formation of neologisms and the lack of a standardized, universally accepted process for coining names for new discoveries or inventions.

To their credit, scientists recognize the problem of vague or inconsistent terminology, and frequently make recommendations to improve the situation. Should I go on? Because I can. What troubles me most is that even when clear and logical rules for how to name things are proposed by well-meaning scientists, as often as not they fail to be adopted by the community at large.

Why? Inertia, probably. Genuine disagreement with the standards, possibly. A simple attachment to what one knows and is habituated to, certainly. And, of course, there is the issue of control. Simply knowing the name of a thing means you have the right to know it exists in the world. But owning a name means you own the thing itself. It means you decide how it exists in the world.

This is not mystical talk. This is, very simply, about power. You only have to look at the heated historical disputes over the naming rights of atomic elements to know the truth of it. The late 1990s christening-pangs of element 104—a highly radioactive substance, most of whose isotopes decay in a matter of minutes or seconds—reflected a struggle for dominance, not just between individual scientists, scientific labs, or associations, but between nations. (The U.S. overpowered Russia. Surprised?)

Here is a sentence from “Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases” that I did not have to edit:

In actual fact, the strong decide what words should be used for.

In the story, the boy who lacks the names of things is not one of the strong. He has no way of knowing what does and does not exist. And he feels the world itself, governed by names he cannot grasp, to be a strange and unfriendly place: full of fearful things that rise up like birds out of the bushes. As a result, he rejects words entirely, retreating into an inner landscape of branching trees and mysterious mushrooms—a world he builds himself from the patterns of shadow and wallpaper.

Greatness strikes where it pleases, writes Gustaffson, and what we are meant to understand from this is that there is a kind of greatness in the boy and his shadowy world. In the context of the story this is a deeply satisfying conclusion. Exquisite, even.

In the context of reality, it’s frustrating. I have no wish to retreat into a world of my own making, and neither, I would wager, do most nonscientists. What I want is for science to meet me halfway.

I am happy to accept that I will never know all the names there are to know, and that I must learn the ones I will learn slowly, one by one. I can take on that work with pleasure. I am far less happy to accept that, having learned a name, it will not always point to the same thing. Or that, having learned about the existence of a new thing, it will not always be called by the same name. And I mourn the idea that the naming of things—in science especially—should fall to the strong, or be used as a national power-play or marketing tool for a discipline. In every scientific field, from genomics to geology to astrophysics, rational minds are calling for the simplification and standardization of language.

Don’t let the strong decide what words should be used for; decide sensibly, as a community, on how to name things. And then share those names with nonscientists as clearly as you can. It will still be difficult for us to understand you sometimes. But we all, I think, would very much like to have the right to know what does and does not exist in this extraordinary world of ours.

The Naming of Things (Part I)

June 28th, 2010 | Meera

Last Saturday night, I heard a reading of an extraordinary story by Swedish writer Lars Gustafsson, published in his 1981 collection Stories of Happy People. The piece takes as its central character a severely mentally retarded individual, following him from boyhood to middle-age in a dense fourteen pages and constructing a delicate contrapuntal narrative in which outward circumstances—harsh and melancholy—and an inner world—complex and immensely beautiful—act as intertwining melodies. In its entirety, the story is infused with sweetness and melancholy in equal measure, and it is well worth your investigation.

The reason I’m telling you about it here, though, is because I was struck by how Gustafsson uses nomenclature as an alienating force. In a deep and surprising way, the story reminded me of my own interactions with the scientific world and its language. More about that later.

First, here is how Gustafsson describes the uneasy relationship between the boy and the array of tools he encounters in his family’s woodshop. (Throughout the story, his inability to grasp the names of things sets the boy, who clearly suffers from a profound language impairment, apart from others—who approach objects and command them comfortably through their names.)

Grownups had such funny names for their things: that was their peculiarity, and they had a right to all those names which he didn’t have. He always laughed awkwardly and crept into a corner when his brother and sister tried to teach him those names.

Those things belonged to them: dovetail saws, punches. The old wooden mallet used for pounding in fence posts…they hit him when he came in from the woodshed with wounds and gashes from the tools in the woodshed. They were afraid that he’d really hurt himself. They wanted to keep him away from the tools.

His brother and sister, who knew how, were allowed to handle them. It gave him the feeling that the words, too, belonged to them. Sometimes they might send him to fetch tools that did not exist, “bench marks,” things like that. It gave him a feeling that it would always be vague and uncertain which things existed in the world and which did not. Evidently using words was harder than you might imagine.

They always laughed loudly, doubled up with laughter when he returned empty-handed, or when they had fooled him into going to the far end of the barn searching for impossible objects. In actual fact, the strong decided what words should be used for.

—Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases

The Cruelest Cut

When I heard this passage read aloud in the firm voice of actor Colm O’Reilly, I felt a funny tremor of recognition. At first it seemed odd to me that I should so empathize with the boy’s mistrust of language. I spend my life, after all, with words. They are my instruments and my toys. And generally, I love learning new words, especially nouns.* One of my favorite things about skinning a bird is the act of writing its names in my log. I take a special pleasure in tracing those letters, doing my best to control my wayward script and form the words precisely, as if it really matters that I get their shape just right; as if by laying down ink over Dendroica fusca, Blackburnian Warbler, I am not simply recording something that already exists, but re-creating it as well. When I name a bird it becomes known instead of unknown.

Of course, there are many ways to know a thing. I can scrutinize the patterns of a bird’s plumage, the shape of its bill, its size in my hands. I can construct knowledge of a thing, quite deep and true knowledge, in fact, by adding up a hundred different pieces of information. But to hold them together is difficult. Give me a name, and I have a sturdy container for those hundred pieces: a shape for my knowledge.

This is exactly what science tells us, isn’t it, about the human brain? That it craves order? That the unique gift of language is to provide a set of labels with which the brain can produce order out of the too-great tidal stream of data it accepts from the world through the sensory organs? In 2001, for instance, an elegant series of experiments with 36 no doubt adorable participants showed that as early as nine months after birth, saying words aloud while introducing two similar and unfamiliar toys helped babies to reliably differentiate between them.

Playing sounds while introducing the objects, like a spaceship takeoff or a car alarm, did not—and neither did a human voice producing a non-verbal expression of emotion, such as a sound of satisfaction or disgust. Words, and words alone, enabled the babies to place each toy into a separate category. (This was true whether the names were real or nonsense labels, ruling out the notion that the babies were simply responding to word-object pairings they already knew.)

There is also the possibility—not proven, but tantalizing—that language doesn’t just organize sensory information, but influences how it is perceived. Most famously, a number of experiments have shown that speakers of languages with a greater number of words for different but similar hues are better able to distinguish between those hues in the color spectrum.

Last year one study of Greek speakers—who unlike English speakers make a linguistic distinction between light and dark blue with the breathy nouns ghalazio and ble—went a step further. By measuring the electrical activity in their brains as subjects looked at visual stimuli, researchers showed that the greater acuity for color enjoyed by Greek speakers could actually be recorded, in the form of electrophysiological differences, as early as 100 milliseconds after being presented with a colorful shape. This interval is consistent with what we know about the time it takes information to reach the visual processing areas of the brain, and is considered too brief for the participants to have engaged in a conscious awareness of what they were seeing. In addition, the differences arose even though subjects were instructed to attend to the shapes of various stimuli, not their colors. (The paper, along with a few caveats, is detailed here by Language Log. The most interesting caveat has to do with the suggestion, drawn from previous studies, that this kind of language-based interference in color perception is likely limited to the right visual field, which sends information to the left—language dominant—hemisphere of the brain.)

So there is some evidence, preliminary though it may be, that the names we know really do affect, on at least some level, “which things exist in the world and which do not.”

This makes it easy to understand why Gustafsson’s boy, so ill-equipped to learn names, finds the external world vague and uncertain. When you cannot grasp how words connect to objects, navigating amongst objects is confusing and unpredictable. You might find yourself searching for impossible things or overlooking what is right in front of your nose. Also easy to appreciate, in the light of these color studies: the boy’s sense that the right to use each tool is inextricably linked to the ownership of its name. The things in the shed belonged to his brother and sister and so did the words for them. Whereas the boy, lacking words, had neither the right to use the tools nor to know if they existed.

What does all this have to do with me and science and scientific nomenclature?

Well, this: If I make a few edits to a sentence from Gustafsson’s story, it captures something of the experience I sometimes have when I try to navigate within the scientific world.

He wrote:

Grownups had such funny names for their things: that was their peculiarity, and they had a right to all those names which he didn’t have.

I would say:

Scientists have such funny names for their things: that is their peculiarity, and they have a right to all those names which I don’t have.

If anyone is still with me, I’ll talk more about this in Part II of this essay tomorrow.

Where to address all future correspondence

*(Incidentally, in Hebrew the prosaic “vocabulary” is rendered as the lovely phrase “treasury of words.” I still have the notebook, thin and yellowing, in which I collected some of my first words in that language: book, picture, boa constrictor, prey, primeval forest. If you don’t know or haven’t already guessed why I began with those words in particular, ask me sometime and I’ll tell you.)