“Sex on Six legs” by Marlene Zuk | Book Review

This weekend I completed Marlene Zuk’s “Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on life, love, and language from the insect world”. The book is a short, entertaining, and sciencey non-fiction read in a world where many science books can be overwhelming.

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I picked up the book this past summer and when I saw the cover I knew I had to get it. Sex, bugs, and Marlene Zuk’s insights? Sounds good! To be honest, I was also attracted by the length. At only 225 pages, this book is much less intimidating than other tomes of science non-fiction out there.

The first thing I gotta say is that this book is NOT all about sex. I was a bit disappointed when I figured that out because insect sex is quite fascinating and an entire book devoted to it would be great! However, for those non-scientists out there, it may be less intimidating to feature a variety of insect vignettes instead of hammering on sex for so long. Instead, the book focuses on a variety of behaviours making the connection that we can learn a lot about human (and other vertebrates) behaviour by insights from the bug world.

Each chapter provides a highlight of a new topic ranging from insect genomics, personalities, parental care, language, and even homosexuality. Within each section, there are highlights from various researchers and their findings in those fields of animal behaviour. For example, she talks in depth about the work of Tom Seeley and colleagues on group intelligence in bees including how the bees find suitable new homes and decide to move together to get there. The fact that Zuk took time to call out by name each researcher was one of my favourite parts of the book. If you are into entomology or behavioural ecology as more than a past time, you’ll find it enjoyable to recognize and look up some of the names later on. She also sets up the how and why of all the researcher’s experiments, sometimes even including a comparison of the results to the predictions. This task can be difficulty when writing for the general public and I think there are some hits and some misses among the book’s stories. Even as a scientist, I sometimes found the descriptions confusing or found that I was skimming over parts. However, there are so many vignettes in this book that missing a few may be okay.

Speaking of the book’s vignettes, this brings up my biggest complaint about the book. Despite being split into various topics, the stories of the insects and research discussed within each chapter are quite choppy. The chapter may start with water bugs, then switch to bees, then ants, then crickets without adequate transitions. I saw another book review on GoodReads (a website you should check out) that described the style as like a series of blog posts put together. I’d certainly agree with that. There is definitely a theme of the book and chapters, but sometimes it gets lost.

Photo by Greg Hume CC-BY-2.5.

Honeypot ant: Photo by Greg Hume CC-BY-2.5.

Okay, back to another thing I really liked about this book: I learned a lot. There were some parts that I knew about already, but many of the insects and topics I hadn’t heard much about at all. It made me feel like I was a kid again: thinking everything in animal behaviour was just amazing. I found myself stopping frequently to look up pictures of the insects or read even more online. Oh, yeah, there are no pictures in the book, which is a bit of a hamper when you’re describing the bulging abdomens of honeypot ants or bumpy backs of male toe biter bugs carrying eggs. Definitely be prepared to dog-ear some pages and look up pictures or videos later on. However, even without the necessary visuals, the book certain hits the “cool factor” button dead on.

Toe biter bug. photo taken by flickr user noisecollusion

Toe biter bug. photo taken by flickr user noisecollusion

My last thought is on the general writing of the book. When I first started reading it, many of the author’s comments and jokes felt really forced. They just didn’t seem to flow well with the tone of the book. However, as I read on, it didn’t seem to bother me as much. I’m not sure if this is because it got better or if I started to ignore it. Anyways, be prepared for some discomfort with it.

Overall, I’d give this book 3 out of 5 stars. I liked the content and the connection to real research and scientists. However, there were some stylistic and organizational things that really brought it down. The content of the books is good for anyone with a little bit of science and/or bug background. For example, she doesn’t discuss the intricacies of natural selection or evolution, so if it has been awhile, you may want to brush up before delving into the book. It’s a definitely a short read so it is worth picking up if you’ve got a bit of time to learn!


 

Thanks for reading! Do you like book reviews? Are they useful? Let me know! I have a stack of non-fiction science books that I have been meaning to read. Now that I am not in graduate school, it seems more fun to pick them up over my fiction books. I am now reading Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind by Richard Fortey. I plan to review that book too if people seem interested. Maybe we can start a virtual book club?

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How can the blind see? A look into blindsight.

Today I am super excited to host a guest blog post by my amazing friend Jahn Kidd. Jahn has a background in psychology and is currently working towards an engineering degree (Go Jahn!). He wanted to share some of his knowledge on the inner workings of the human brain. Get excited to learn!


 

First, watch this video:

Now, you may be thinking “So what? It’s a man navigating a pretty simple obstacle course. Anybody could do that.” And you would be correct. Except for one thing (if somehow you haven’t noticed the video title): the man in front is blind, but reacting to the obstacles in his path the way you or I would react. And the man behind him is a researcher, shadowing the participant in case he should stumble over one of the obstacles. This is a demonstration of a visual phenomenon known as blindsight.

To begin with, let’s get into a quick and dirty explanation of the human visual system. The visual system consists of the eyes (obviously), some nerve tracts, and the all-important visual cortex (otherwise known as the occipital lobes, located at the rear of the brain, seen in Figure 1).

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Figure 1

 As you can see from Figure 2, the nerves from the eyes project subcortically (where the green arrow in Figure 3 is pointing, an area near the center of brain and below the cortex; Remember this- it’s important later), before continuing on to the visual cortex. It is in the occipital lobes that much of the information is processed and responsible for the conscious experience of sight.

Source: http://www.skidmore.edu/~hfoley/Perc3.htm
Figure 2
visualpath
Figure 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If it helps, imagine the nerves as roadways and the visual information as cars that move along those roadways. These cars enter the roadway at an on-ramp (the eyes), and eventually arrive at a large intersection (the subcortical area of the brain). Most of the cars will continue further along the main road to their destination (the visual cortex), while some cars will take side roads to other areas (other parts of the brain that aren’t the visual cortex).

The next important thing to consider: Blindness. The definition is pretty simple, we all know it: blindness means you can’t see. But what may not necessarily be known is that there are a few ways that blindness can occur. Blindness can be caused by injury to the eyes, or by congenital defect (i.e. the nerve tracts develop abnormally in the brain), or by damaging the visual cortex (specifically an area known as the striate cortex, or V1). This last cause is important for blindsight: being cortically blind means that the other organs and nerves important to sight are still functional.

Blindsight is a phenomenon that has been actively studied for several decades, first being noticed in animals and then later in humans. Commonly, patients are only blind in part of their visual field (the striate cortex in the occipital lobes isn’t completely destroyed, only damaged). As you can see from the video, and from other studies, people who are cortically blind are able to respond to various stimuli that are presented in the blind areas of their visual field. Importantly, they do this at levels significantly above chance. This can include being able to navigate an obstacle, to detecting when lights are flashing, when objects are moving, and even the size of objects in some cases.

Remember that I said it was important that the optic nerves projected to subcortical areas? This is thought to be the mechanism through which blindsight may occur. Visual information is projected to several other areas in the brain, which can then possibly pass that information further along to other areas. This means that even when the V1 is damaged/destroyed, there is still visual information making it to other areas of the brain to be processed on some level. Continuing our earlier car and roadway analogy, this means that the main roads are completely or mostly blocked, which prevents those cars from reaching their destination (the visual cortex). But the cars that are taking the side roads are still able to reach their destinations (the other areas of the brain).

It’s important to note that this is an ongoing field of investigation: this phenomenon has implications about the way in which we are affected by things in our visual field (evidently, conscious awareness of a stimuli is not always necessary). There are also questions about the physical mechanisms that some blindsight capacities may depend upon in certain instances, about how to predict if blindsight will occur in a region of blindness, about rehabilitation of visual sensitivity and discrimination, and about brain activity during blindsight.

These are important questions about a fascinating (and as one researcher put it, rare) discovery in the field of psychology, and science in general. My goal here was to briefly expose you, the reader, to an interesting and perhaps little known phenomenon. It’s beyond my abilities to give a thorough enough explanation in a blog post, so I encourage you to read to further on the subject, even if it’s just the Wikipedia article. For those interested in further reading, I’ll provide the information on a relatively easy to read article about blindsight below.

References:
Weiskrantz, L. (2010). Looking Back: Blindsight in Hindsight. Psychologist, 23, 356-359
https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-23/edition-4/looking-back-blindsight-hindsight
Figure sources:
Figure 1: http://www.e-missions.net/cybersurgeons/?/nerv_teacher/
Figure 2: http://www.skidmore.edu/~hfoley/Perc3.htm
Figure 3: https://stanley.gatech.edu/research_topics_vision.html

Make it thematic: Best practices 4/5

My past best practices posts have focused on getting to know your audience and using questions to help create a conversation. But, what the heck should you talk about to people? I have yet to address creating a message. (Hey, I never said the posts would be in a logical order…)

Best practice number 3: Make it thematic.

One of the scariest questions to get asked is often “So what do you study?”. Ugh. Really? Where do I start?

The best way to get yourself going is find the big picture! You may be in the depths of analyzing DNA from bird blood, but is that the point of your research? Probably not. The big picture may often be the same as the first or last paragraphs of your journal article. Thinking about it that way can make it easier to address a new audience.

Theme vs Topic: A theme and a topic are very different. Your research topic might be: hybridization of plants along the Rocky Mountains. Your research theme is often more broad and sometimes includes the answer to your research. A theme could be: Pollination by hummingbirds facilitates hybridization of plants in the Rocky Mountains. Notice also how the theme includes a VERB and is a more complete thought than a topic. Your theme can be even more broad like: Plant-animal interactions influence the evolution of new species. This theme can apply to topics outside of your research project.

Why be thematic? When you walk away from an interaction with a member of the public, whether it is a chat on the street or a public talk, you should aim for at least one big take away. Of course they may come away with a variety of ideas and thoughts, but if you can at least get them to leave with your theme, that’s great! By using a theme (with a verb!) they can come away with a complete idea. So instead of coming away with, “Joe studies plants in the Rocky Mountains” they’ll hopefully come away with “The hummingbirds interact with the flowers to create new species”. That theme provides a new viewpoint for future scientific stories they hear.

Be flexibleAs a museum educator, I’ve learned that flexibility is crucial! I’ll often start an interaction with the hope of connecting the visitor to a certain theme, but instead they want to ask about something totally different. The same thing happens when researchers discuss their work. First step is to not panic! You’re going to create a more meaningful interaction if you connect with people based on their inherent interests. It may even help to use some questions to open up your conversation so that you can guide the conversation to their interests from the start. For example, my graduate school research was not necessarily focused on climate change, but people often asked me about the role it may play in the tropics. So I would then switch to talking about shifts in animal and plant ranges across elevation with climate change. Always good to have a back-up plan.

This best practice may seem very straightforward to you, but is often more complex in practice than it seems. I really think that finding a theme yet remaining flexible to other interests will make your science communication the best!

Try it out: Write down at least 3 themes that relate to your past or present research. Remember, include a verb to make it thematic!

Good luck!DSCN6815

Dippy’s passing shines light on a new era for natural history museums.

Last week, the Natural History Museum in London announced it would be replacing its beloved entry way dinosaur, Dippy, with a blue whale skeleton. People were in uproar over the loss of this iconic figure taking to Twitter with #saveDippy.

I believe that the bold move by the NHM speaks to what the role of natural history museums should be: to showcase and preserve ancient and modern life.

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Dinosaurs are cool, there is no denying it. But so are blue whales! By changing the face of the NHM, the museum is showcasing the wonderfully large and bizarre creatures that exist on earth today. The blue whale is the largest animal to ever live. Yes, bigger than the dinosaurs. So why shouldn’t we showcase this feat of evolutionary wonderful size? Every time I look up at the big blue whale in Beaty Biodiversity Museum or at the Natural History Museum of LA County, I can’t help be realize how special of a time we live. Can you believe it? You get to walk the earth at the same time as the biggest creature EVER swims in the ocean. Now that’s cool! By moving the focus away from Dippy the dinosaur, the NHM paves the way for a focus on the beautiful biodiversity that we have today. When people realize how special of a time we live in, they may just want to try harder to preserve it.

Think to the future when there are no longer blue whales. Then imagine the wonder and excitement that a child would feel walking into a museum with this almost mythical, gigantic sea creature hanging from above. They’d tell stories and recite nomenclature from their whale book just like kids today tell us all about the dinosaurs.

Thanks to Dippy, Sue, and Thomas, we’ve learned to embrace the preciousness of the gigantic creatures we have today. Let’s focus on them as our mascots of biodiversity into the future before they become part of the past.