The Bowl, The Ram And The Folded Map: Navigating The Complicated World

The writer Carlo Levi said:

The future has an ancient heart.

Consider these two traditional bowls. Later there will be a short quiz on them.

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the ram

The problem with having two evolutionary biologists in the car is the arguments.

We were driving past the wet English pastures, carpeted as usual with gentle sheep. Their fleeces were heavy and baggy, saturated with rain, but they moved in their usual dreamy trance across the landscape like rainclouds passing across the fields of heaven. It was a few days after Christmas and the rivers were starting to rise. Dr Glass was driving.

“What are you thinking about?”

“A thing I saw on Tumblr,” I said. “A vegan group had put up a picture of a badly shorn sheep to claim that wool is a product of animal cruelty. Below it was a discussion between shepherds and vegans. While there are many ways to be cruel and abusive while raising sheep, a problem with the statement that wool=cruelty is that domestic sheep do need to be sheared.” I looked at the soggy sheep. “That’s what I was thinking about, looking at these wet sheep. Imagine carrying around all of those pounds of soaking wet wool, like a sponge. I know it’s somewhat waterproof, but I can’t imagine how they don’t get… mildew.”

Need to be sheared.” Dr Glass pounced on this. “Why do sheep need to be sheared?”

I responded with knowledge I had received from shepherding friends and family: “If you don’t remove their fleeces, they can collapse of heat exhaustion. They’re heavy and dirty, and inconvenient and uncomfortable for the sheep.”

Sometimes you can hear Dr Glass think. Right now he was slightly annoyed, in the pursuit of something: obviously a product of domestication, but how/why/where/when? What kind of animal “needs” human intervention to survive? “And what do sheep do in the wild?”

I had to think about this.

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The Ballad of Birdy Bum

Dear ones, I have been distracted by the looming mass unemployment of the House of Glass, which will be tempered by the possible migration of the House of Glass onto a type of ludicrous-yet-adorable vessel called an English narrowboat. So since March 12, the last post here, I have:

  • had a bank-holiday canal boat trip to see if we turned out to be allergic to boats, and faced the remarkable store of characters and landscapes that England keeps in its back pockets for these occasions. There were gongoozlers and attack swans and madmen and magical locks and bridges that swung open and stopped traffic with a secret key, and early mists and dappled sun and cold mornings with hot tea and ducklings, landscapes like Narnia, like the Shire, like Wind in the Willows and Watership Down and Harry Potter. I covered myself in grease and glory and spent most of the time half-terrified wishing we had packed alcohol. I am sure that I almost lost Dr Glass and the 50-foot steel narrowboat to a vicious attack lock which tried to hold them underwater, and I certainly almost killed myself pulling them off the cill, which proves that I am either wildly exaggerating the danger or actually capable of superhuman feats of strength under duress.
  • gone to Crick Boat Show to see if we proved to be allergic to boats upon closer inspection.
  • performed stand-up comedy in the name of Science, doing a Science Showoff double act with the clever and interesting Emily.
  • stopped biting/peeling my nails, breaking the habit of a lifetime, becoming an instant devotee of fine manicures and nail polish.
  • gone on job interviews, as our funding sources are drying up. got shot down. picked selves back up, dusted selves off, and started looking at slightly smaller boats.
  • had my first first-author paper come out.
  • had a different bank holiday in the South of France, clambered over Carcassonne, hiked the giddy crumbling heights of Peyrepeteuse, and saw the vines, the golden fields, the Mountain at the End of the World. Dr Glass does not do French, and I remain obtusely American. At one point, while purchasing groceries, I realized that everybody else had brought their own bags. Madam, I addressed the clerk, forgetting the word for “bag,” Have you a box – but a box that is not a box? She answered, as graciously as possible: A bag, you mean? I said, Yes, Madam, thank you, a bag, we will have two. And then I immediately forgot the word for “bag,” and can only remember a-box-that-is-not-a-box. Hopefully it will not come up again.

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And we just came back from a weekend spent viewing some narrowboats with an eye to purchase, which will underline how star-stoppingly unreal our lives have gotten.

So now that we have piled up the Excuses Not to Blog, here is a guest post on Captain Awkward for you to read, and the Ballad of Birdy Bum.

The Ballad of Birdy Bum

Walking to work this morning, I saw this on the sidewalk. This is a baby birdy bum sticking out into the street. He has stuffed his tiny head into this tiny hole in the stone wall.

Walking to work this morning, I saw this on the sidewalk. This is a baby birdy bum sticking out into the street. He has stuffed his tiny head into this tiny hole in the stone wall.

I was immediately overcome with sympathy and empathy. This baby birdy bum has a big problem. He has fallen from the nest onto a busy Bristol street. He is about the size of a large date, he is the most vulnerable thing in the world, his situation is far beyond his skills or abilities to cope with, and he has no friends or family to help him. His solution to this problem is to scope out the gigantic stone wall separating himself from safety, and to stuff his head into a tiny hole in it. THERE, FIXED NOW. WE CAN'T SEE HIM. SITUATION IS UNDER CONTROL

I was immediately overcome with sympathy and empathy. This baby birdy bum has a big problem. He has fallen from the nest onto a busy Bristol street. He is about the size of a large date, he is the most vulnerable thing in the world, his situation is far beyond his skills or abilities to cope with, and he has no friends or family to help him. His solution to this problem is to scope out the gigantic stone wall separating himself from safety, and to stuff his head into a tiny hole in it. THERE, FIXED NOW. WE CAN’T SEE HIM. SITUATION IS UNDER CONTROL

 

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I know those feels, baby birdy bum. You are like a symbolic representation of the Millenial Generation. I am so sorry about all this.

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We’ve all been here, haven’t we? We laugh at him, sure, but we can’t really judge.

It’s a common misconception that if you touch a baby bird, the parents will not take it back because THEY SMELL THE TAINT OF HUMAN HANDS ON ITS FEATHERS. If you think about this for more than five seconds, you’ll realize how stupid this is – the actual reason that you shouldn’t handle a baby bird is because you will injure it, possibly fatally. Do NOT pick up, grab, squeeze, grip, pinch or drag a baby bird. I would not do this, and am confident enough in my small-animal-handling skills that I can give a baby mouse a manicure, pedicure and attractive ear piercing before it realizes I’ve picked it up. Think of the damage you can do to a tasty barbecue chicken wing, then look at birdy bum’s little body and how crushable it is! So: you can rescue a baby bird, just don’t close your fingers over it.

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You CAN give it a little nudge with your finger to get its attention (AWW LOOK AT THE LITTLE FACE) and encourage it to hop aboard a leaf elevator. You can lie to the little bird and tell it that this is a magic elevator, if it is still very young.

 This bird was young enough to believe that the leaf elevator was indeed magical. The correct thing to do with a healthy, nearly-grown nestling like this is to place it in a high place, where the parents will find it. You can also pretend you are sending them to Hogwarts.


This bird was young enough to believe that the leaf elevator was indeed magical.
The correct thing to do with a healthy, nearly-grown nestling like this is to place it in a high place, where the parents will find it. You can also pretend you are sending them to Hogwarts.

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Baby birdy bum rescued! ResCUTE? He promptly hid his face behind a leaf, which works better than the hole idea, since the leaves are actually big enough to hide him. Anyway, he should be fine here – and if he isn’t, it’s all part of the Great Circle of Life.
It is tempting to think that it would be cute to collect and raise the birdy bum if his parents don’t find him, but he would probably die more quickly in our care.
The moral of the story is to give things the help they need, not always the help you want to give.
Here ends the ballad of birdy bum.

 

Plains of Paradox: Lost Villages, Great Bustards and Evil Badgers

Plains of Paradox: Lost Villages, Great Bustards and Evil Badgers

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Wiltshire! The mystical land that my husband hails from. It’s a rural English county that is mostly made of green velvet and gently glowing scenery. The natives decorate the rolling hills with white horses (see above) and sprinkle them with sheep.

Actually, pretty much all of the landscape looks like promotional posters for some a rural propaganda campaign:

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COME TO THE COUNTRYSIDE. LOOK HOW HAPPY THE SHEEP ARE.

Wiltshire is the kindly West. It’s basically the Shire.

With abandoned tanks in it.

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TANKS FOR STOPPING BY!

Which is kind of a contradiction, and one that interests me.

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The Rainbow In Your Hands: Protocols for Hand-Painting Yarn

this is an artsy craft blog now. artsy craft blogs are cool, right? ...?

Figure One.

What did you do this weekend, Elodie?

Nothing much. Met the Awkward Army, put the world to rights. Learned a bit of materials science and inadvertently created a new kind of polystyrene plastic in my kitchen.

Made a rainbow.

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In the aftermath of the unicorn dissection…

The richly glowing skein in Figure One is a sumptuous, hand-painted rainbow yarn that I dyed myself. With food coloring. And SCIENCE. You won’t find colors like that in a store…

And at the risk of becoming a craft blog (SCIENCE CRAFTS!) I’m going to tell you how to do it.

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Elodie’s Compendium of Illustrated Search Terms, Volume II

Let’s lighten the mood in here with another Illustrated Compendium! All of these search terms are 100% genuine reasons why various people found my blog. What were they looking for? Did they ever find it? What do they want? Who are they? The following illustrations are my attempts to solve these mysteries. (For the interested and confused, partake of Elodie’s Illustrated Compendium of Search Terms Part One)

“A wild animal shouting is also tired”

a wild animal shouting is also tired

wild animals get cranky!

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SMASH SEXIST SCIENCE REPORTING: “Lady in the Lab”

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Cover of “Heart Matters,” Jan Feb 2013, vol 47. A woman must be an angel in the kitchen…

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog that is not affiliated with any research institution, funding body or charity. The British Heart Foundation is a very nice charity that does amazing things – donate your used goods to them today! This piece has not been endorsed by Professor B. Casadei or any member of her research group, and should not reflect upon her or her opinions in any way. As someone who writes frequently about sexism in science culture, I believe that criticizing the following article from a gender-egalitarian perspective will move the field forward, reduce the levels of sexism in science, and possibly improve reporting quality in the future.

       The British Heart Foundation is a popular and beloved charity in Britain, funding over half of the cardiovascular research performed in the British Isles. Non-academic readers may be surprised to learn that charitable funding is how a lot of scientists pay the rent.

   For me, this is one reason why consistent, trustworthy, high-quality science communication is so important. The public pays our wages, whether by charity or by tax dollars. Public interest and public trust is vital if we want to cure cancer, heal hearts, save the environment, fight off meteors, survive climate change and understand the meaning of life. None of this can happen without you guys. Thank you so much for your help and support.

    So when I see really terrible, sexist science reporting occurring in the pages of the British Heart Foundation’s magazine, well … it breaks my little heart. (Which is ironic.) I believe that science communication at every level is charged with moving the field forward, and I believe that it should be held responsible when it breaks that trust.

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[GIRLS IN SCIENCE] Part Two: It’s Okay to Like Science As Just A Friend

“Back to Origins” by Jonathan Williams for Nature Magazine.

“Back to Origins” by Jonathan Williams for Nature Magazine.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

– Charles Darwin, in the earlier editions of Origin of Species. 

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate two phrases.

First we shall consider the poetic truth of “endless forms most beautiful.” Let us pause and ponder the truth of these words. In the middle of our busy lives, let us stop to weigh this in our hands. Yes, life is made of endless forms most beautiful and wonderful.

Now let us turn our minds to “There is grandeur in this view of life.

Because there is.

Even if you’re deciding to make Science your ex, Science is an ex you will never regret having, an ex who is patient and respectful of your boundaries, an ex whose experiences made you slightly better, more rounded, with more exquisite edges.

If you have left the field of academia or research to pursue another career,  well done: you have not failed but become more evolved. If you are a graduate student right now, thank you for your work: these pains, too, shall pass. If you are a science lover or a science groupie, be glad. Rejoice, for the sun is coming again.

You will never regret pursuing your interests in science. When you practice research or academia, you are merely engaging in a form of work in a cultural environment that may be unsupportive or frustrating. It is not Science that hurts you or holds your head underwater; it is not Science that you are bad at, it is not Science that you hate. It cannot kill, but it does love, and you cannot be unfaithful to it for your other loves are its other faces (Humanities, Mathematics, Higher-Arts and Competitive Scherenschnitte). Fear not, and do not be afraid: your passion walks with you, as it always has and always will. Your curiosity, your education and your experiences will nourish you for your entire life. Forever and ever. Amen.

Welcome to Girls in Science Part Two: It’s Okay to Like Science As Just A Friend.

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[GIRLS IN SCIENCE!] Part One: Kids Don’t Rule The World, Even if They’re Sexy.

One of these kids grew up to be a weather wizard and the other grew up to cure cancer.

A young pair of friends. One of these kids grew up to be a weather wizard, and the other grew up to be a mad scientist.

Hello my darlings, and Happy Darwin Day! If you have a moment, spare a thought for the beardy father of evolutionary biology and maybe stop by this post to enjoy his timeless charm.

Today we’re launcing a Girls in Science series of blog posts! If you haven’t been paying attention, I am a Woman in Science. During the day I work as research assistant in molecular biology, although I am a more broadly trained biological researcher. I am a gender egalitarian and a feminist. A passionate science communicator, I am an award-winning science writer who has been shortlisted for exciting prizes, and I’m working on an even cooler project that I hope to share with you all soon. I am really passionate about this stuff, you guys. Science & ladies. Hit me up anytime.

And these subjects have been appearing in the news a lot lately. For some reason, the media has suddenly noticed the fact that There Aren’t Enough Girls In Science (Yay!) and it’s tying itself in knots trying to figure out ways to fix this without actually addressing any problems or providing any solutions (Aww.) This requires some remarkable contortions of thinking. So I’m going to talk about some solid, real plans and propositions to REALLY get little girls interested in science, right?

Well.

Er.

Frankly, I think it would be disingenuous and hypocritical of me to do so.

And I’m going to tell you why. Welcome to Part One of Girls in Science: Kids Don’t Rule the World (Even if They’re Sexy.)

 

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[SMASH BAD SCIENCE]: The Guardian Sees Its Shadow, Declares 10 More Years of Societal Regression

"Hahahahaha! What's a pipette?"

The Guardian’s alt-text here was “girls science math.”
“Wow! We’re science and mathing! We’re science and mathing SO HARD!”

A few people have asked me to weigh in on the Guardian’s recent foray into SCEINCE JOURNLISM, “Girls and science: why the gender gap exists and what to do about it.” With its discussion of nature, culture, science and female gender roles, it is scandalously encroaching on my turf. There’s nothing I love more than a rousing discussion of How To Get More Girls Into Science! And yet, the article seems calculated to enrage pretty much any female scientist who reads it, with suggestions for getting girls interested in science that include “use lots of bright toys and colors!” and “have her cook!”

The author, one Emma G Keller, uses the word “domestic” four times. She asserts that the gender gap in the STEM fields can be closed by getting girls to bake more cookies.

Because girls can't aspire to being PIs, amirite?

Lady-science should always be performed in pairs, because females are better at socializing and giggling than males are.

Click to read more, but pour yourself a 1950’s drink first.

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