Absentee Gardening and Lucky Weather

(by everydaybiology) May 26 2011

One of the advantages of living in an area with a warm dry climate is the long growing season. I normally start my vegetable garden with seeds and seedlings in the last week of March, and finish harvesting peppers and tomatoes around Thanksgiving.

This year, though, March flew by before I knew it. That actually turned out to be a stroke of luck, because a freak snowstorm dumped a couple inches of snow on April 9th, which is well after temperatures are normally hitting the 70s.

So it wasn't until almost the last week of April that I finally planted this year's vegetables. I don't have a good patch of dirt, so I grow them in large pots on my patio, following the recommendations in my dog-eared copy of Square Foot Gardening for growing vegetables in small spaces.

I like to grow a variety of vegetables that are either taste best home grown, are expensive or are hard to find in the supermarket, or grow easily.  This year I planted tomatoes (Early Girl, Sweet 100 and Black Cherry), Japanese eggplant, lemon cucumbers, floral gem peppers, tatuma squash (aka Mexican zucchini), and Blue Lake bush beans.

I started with small plants (except for the lemon cukes, which I started from seed), watered and fertilized them. And then I got sick. For several weeks my garden sat untended. Last weekend I finally got around to some serious gardening again and found that it had done just fine without me.

The tomatoes are thriving, the peppers are blooming, and there are already squash that are a couple of inches long. The eggplant was munched on by some kind of hungry bug, but it survived. And the cucumber seedlings are still small but growing.

Some of that was again luck - the weather has continued to be mostly cool and rainy, interspersed with some sunny but not-too-hot days. But it also made me realize that my usual frequent fussing over the newly planted vegetables (and tendency to overwater) might actually do them more harm than good.

I also joined MyFolia.com to track my progress. It's not perfect - I'd like to upload photos directly, rather than posting them on Flickr or Picasa first - and several of the nicer features aren't available with the free version I'm using. But so far it seems better than my usual method of jotting notes on loose pieces of paper that end up jumbled and a bit illegible by the end of the year. I like the idea of being able to easily keep track of when the plants sprouted and flowered and when the veggies were first harvested each year.

I'm hoping that all of this bodes well for a bumper crop this summer!

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Ant Talk

(by everydaybiology) Apr 19 2011

Ant on a mustard flowerWhen a wood thrush flew by the Trailhead mound carrying a grasshopper to her own nest and dropped part of the crushed insect to the ground, a patrolling worker found it in less than a minute and triggered a chain action. The worker examined the grasshopper, tasted it briefly, then ran back to the nest entrance. On the way, she touched the tip of her abdomen repeatedly to the ground, laying down a thin trail of chemicals. Entering the nest, she rushed up to each nest mate she passed, brushing her face close to theirs. With their antennae, her nest mates detected both the trail substance and the smell of grasshopper. The signals now proclaimed, Food. I have found food. Follow my trail! Soon a mob of ants ran out, followed the trail, and gathered around the delicious grasshopper haunch.
~ From E.O. Wilson's "Trailhead"

When I think of ants it's with a mixture of fascination and loathing.

Loathing because of the seemingly constant battle required to keep them from taking up residence in my kitchen. It's not just the unpleasantness of having to remove all the contents of my cabinets to figure out how the ants are getting in.  It's the lingering sensation after handling ant-covered bowls and plates or wiping down ant-strewn counters that the little buggers are still crawling on me.  Intellectually I know it's unlikely they can cause any real harm, but just thinking about it gives me the creepy-crawlies.

But out in the wild - or at least my back yard - ants are really interesting to watch, especially when scouts lead their colony-mates to a food source or mobilize when their colony is in danger. Clearly while not particularly clever as individuals, communication between colony members allows them to function effectively as a group.

Evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson is one of the world's leading experts on ants. Here he explains at World Science Festival how ants use chemical signals communicate:

The quote at the beginning of this post is from E.O. Wilson's history of an ant colony - "Trailhead" - published in the New Yorker. Wilson's anthropomorphic descriptions of ant communication work pretty well as fiction, but he may be oversimplifying what happens in an ant colony.

For more detailed look on the complexities of how an ant colony functions check out Stanford biologist Deborah Gordon's TED talk about her research on harvester ant colonies in the Arizona desert:

(note: you can view the video with captions on the TED talk page)

The "haphazard" interactions she's observed sound a lot messier as a form of communication than the chemical "statements" described by Wilson.

Why does that matter? Figuring out the details of how ants are directed to perform specific tasks could be used to develop ways of naturally controlling invasive ant populations or preventing home invasions with some sort of "Danger, keep out!" signal. That's a result I'd like to see.

Top Image: ant on a mustard flower by me

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Equal Pay Day: Why don't women just ask for more?

(by everydaybiology) Apr 12 2011

Today is Equal Pay Day. It's not a celebration like Mother's Day or Independence Day or Labor Day, at least for half the US population.  Instead April 12th symbolizes how far into 2011 women must work to earn what men earned in 2010 - it's not an exact date because the 2010 earnings data has not yet been released.

If you take a look at the US labor statistics for 2009 the difference between the median full-time weekly earnings of women and men are striking: women earned $687 per week while men earned $873 per week. There's a disparity no matter what level of education the employee attained: women with only a high school diploma earned 75.7% of what men earned ($542 vs $716), while earnings of women with a doctoral degree was only 70.9% that of their male counterparts  ($1243 vs $1754). (fcs has the numbers in pretty graph form)

The reasons for wage disparity are complicated. Part of it has to do with many traditionally male-dominated professions paying better than female-dominated professions.  Part of it has to do with some women taking time off from their careers to have children or "choosing" to spend their time doing housework or childcare rather than spending long hours in the lab or office. But that's not the whole story.

Just last week an article in Inside Higher Ed reported a study that showed that all things being equal (other than gender), women faculty members still get paid less than their male colleagues. The bottom line, according to the article:

The gender gap in faculty pay cannot be explained completely by the long careers of male faculty members, the relative productivity of faculty members, or where male and female faculty members tend to work -- even if those and other factors are part of the picture, according to research being released this week at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association.

When all such factors are accounted for, women earn on average 6.9 percent less than do men in similar situations in higher education, says the paper, by Laura Meyers, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington.

That difference is smaller than the overall wage gap, but still significant, especially considered over the course of a career.

It's not just a problem in academia. WhizBANG! has posted about a study that showed similar results for starting salaries of newly trained physicians.

And as an AAUW report  - "Behind the Pay Gap" (pdf) - points out, there's even a pay gap in professions dominated by women.  It's just smaller.  Women in education earn 95% as much as men, woo hoo!  Their conclusion:

Women and men who received bachelor’s degrees in 1999–2000 attended similar kinds of colleges. Women earned slightly higher grades, on average, and in other respects appear to be men’s equals in the classroom. Most women entered full-time employment following graduation. One year later, women earn only 80 percent as much as their male colleagues earn—about the same as the pay gap for the workforce as a whole. Gender segregation in undergraduate majorsand the subsequent segregation of the work force partly explain the pay gap. Yet the pay gap within fields of study and occupations suggests that the answer is not so simple. Indeed, after accounting for all factors known to affect wages, about one-quarter of the gap remains unexplained and may be attributed to discrimination.

So why the difference?

Sexism and discrimination? Almost certainly part of the problem, even if people aren't conscious of their biases.

Women don't negotiate better salaries for themselves? Also true.

There's not a lot that women can do about sexist employers, especially if their biases aren't overtly expressed.  But salary negotiations are under our control, right?  As the helpful mainsplainers who usually pop into these discussions usually point out: if women want better pay, why don't they just ask for more?

It's not necessarily that simple.

For one thing, a  number of studies have shown that women expect lower pay then men. A recently published study by Melissa Williams of the Stanford School of Business and her colleagues suggest that this may be due at least in part to unconscious biases. They had participants in the study estimate the salaries of men or women in the same profession. Women were consistently estimated to be paid less. Their conclusion:

First, we suggest that the salary estimation effect is not primarily driven by an awareness of the societal phenomenon of the gender gap in wages. Second,we suggest that the operative factor driving the salary estimation effect is a generalized stereotype linking men (more than women) with wealth. Social role theory would hold that this stereotype emerged from repeated observations of men occupying breadwinning roles, holding the highest-earning occupations, and managing household income at a greater frequency than women. Third, we argue that this male wealth stereotype can operate outside of awareness, guiding salary estimates and thus increasing the likelihood that the stereotype can perpetuate real gender salary differences even among the well intentioned.

But even when women do figure out what their work should be worth, the negotiation itself can be a stumbling block.

It's not just that women often aren't trained to assertively negotiate on their own behalf. It's that women who do so  may actually be penalized, particularly if the other negotiator is male.  As one recent study observed:

Men were significantly more inclined to work with nicer and less demanding women who accepted their compensation offers without comment than they were with those who attempted to negotiate for higher compensation, even though they perceived women who spoke up to be just as competent as women who demurred.

So that's the double bind for women:  if you don't ask for a higher salary, you likely won't receive one, but if you do, you may not be hired or promoted.

I doubt there is a simple solution.

But I hope discussion of the gender pay gap isn't pushed aside by Congress as simply a "women's issue".  It's always a bit mind-boggling that issues affecting half the population are treated as unimportant or unreasonable. And I hope the family values folks keep in mind that that the pay gap doesn't just affect the half of the population who are women, but any household where a woman's income contributes to household income. The husband is the sole breadwinner in only 18% of married couple families in the U.S. The pay gap is a family issue as well as a fairness issue.

Tell your Senators you support the Paycheck Fairness Act.  It's not perfect, but it's a step in the right direction.


Dey J.G. & Hill C. "Behind the Pay Gap" AAUW Educational Foundation (2007)

Bureau of Labor Statistics: Women in the Labor Force: A Databook (2010 Edition)

Williams, M. J., Paluck, E. L., & Spencer-Rodgers, J. "The masculinity of money: Nonconscious stereotypes predict gender differences in estimated salaries." Psychology of Women Quarterly, 34, 107-120. (2010)

Bowles H.R., Babcock L. & Lai L. "Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations: Sometimes it does hurt to ask." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 103:84-103 (2007)

Kolb D.M., "Too Bad for the Women or Does  It Have to Be? Gender and Negotiation Research over the Past Twenty-Five Years" Negotiation Journal (2009)

Related Scientopia Posts:

WTF?! "Equal" Pay Day (gerty-z @ Balanced Instability)
Equal Pay Day! (proflikesubstance @ The Spandrel Shop)
$16,819 for a Penis (Whiz BANG!)
Penis Parity Day (grrlscientist @ This Scientific Life)
Good Hair Day, Fair Pay Day (FCS @ The Difference Engine)
Equal Pay Day Epic FAIL (Dr. Becca @ Fumbling Towards Tenure)
Equal Pay Day 2011: there is power in a union
(Janet Stemwedel @ Adventures in Ethics and Science)

Image borrowed from feminist blogs in english.

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We're Not Evolved for Typing Email

(by everydaybiology) Apr 01 2011

Our bodies did not evolve to sit at a desk on a rigid position all day. Our fingers are not designed to move independently. We are graspers, we are killers, our bodies evolved to do particular things.

More about Gmail Motion.

(I totally want this for real - I could use some increased physical activity as I email)

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A Sense of Wonder and Awesome Slime Molds

(by everydaybiology) Mar 30 2011

I've never understood the claim that science somehow detracts from the beauty of the natural world.

I think xkcd sums it up the sense of wonder scientists get with a new discovery pretty nicely:

The sense of wonder at a new scientific discovery is similar to but not identical with the "sensawunda" you can get reading science fiction. It's an excitement at learning the previously unknown, at uncovering the mechanisms that underlie the complexity of life and the vastness of the universe, or of discovering an unexpected flower growing in your yard.

But unlike the fantastic but imaginary science of science fiction, the scientific sense of wonder comes from the discovery of how the universe - from quasars in distant galaxies to the smallest viruses* - is organized and functions.

And I think  it goes without saying that slime molds are indeed really cool.

Dog Vomit Slime Mold (Fuligo septica) at China Camp State Park, California.
By Franco Folini on Flickr.

The pretty yellow color is from the pigment  fuligorubin A.  Dog vomit slime molds are also unusually resistant to the toxic metals zinc and cadmium.  There is indeed evidence that fuligorubin pigment can bind the usually toxic metals.**

That's cool not only because it allows dog vomit slime molds to grow in inhospitable environments, but because it suggests slime molds might be used to help reclaim metal-contaminated soils (along with metal-accumulating plants).  The purified yellow pigment could someday be used to develop new treatments for zinc poisoning.

A different species of slime mold can apparently even solve a maze faster than a Japanese graduate student (technical paper)! I'm not sure anyone has tried similar experiments with Fuligo spetica, but just imagine the possibilities: a industrial wasteland reclaimed and ruled over by intelligent yellow overlords.

OK, maybe that's more sensawunda territory. But slime molds are cool. And new discoveries about unusual biochemistry of our fellow Earthly inhabitants are indeed wonderful.


* And, of course,  even smaller down to subatomic particles. But I think viruses are cooler than muons and gluons.

** A note on the importance checking original sources:

The Wikipedia article about Fuligo septica states:

"The mechanism of this metal resistance is now understood: F. septica produces a yellow pigment called fuligorubin A, which has been shown to chelate metals and convert them to inactive forms"

and cites:

Latowski D, Lesiak A, Jarosz-Krzeminska E, Strzalka K. (2008). "Fuligo septica, as a new model organism in studies on interaction between metal ions and living cells". Metal Ions in Biology and Medicine and Medicine 10: 204–9.

But the conclusions drawn by the authors of that paper (available in Google books) aren't quite as definitive as the Wikipedia article suggests:

Obtained results revealed that pigment fuligorubin A content was higher in Fuligo septica treated with zinc solutions (Figure 2). This could be the evidence of involvement of fuligorubin A in process of zinc ions detoxication and moreover it could ensure tolerance of Fuligo septica to high concentration of zinc and other toxic metal content.  [p.208; bold emphasis added]

There may be another paper out there more clearly demonstrating the function of fuligorubin A, but Wikipedia doesn't cite one and I couldn't find such a paper after a brief search.

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March Showers, Spring Flowers: The Gold

(by everydaybiology) Mar 27 2011

Yesterday I posted about the variety of blue and purple wildflowers that have sprung up after the recent rains.  But while the lupines and bellflowers and blue dicks provide spots of color, it was the yellow flowers that brightened the hillsides on an otherwise gloomy evening.

Continue Reading »

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March Showers, Spring Flowers: The Blues

(by everydaybiology) Mar 26 2011

I love spring rain.  It makes the air fresh, the weather cool and after a day of sunshine brings a profusion of yellow and blue and purple flowers.

Admittedly I consider most of those flowers weeds when they appear in my garden. But they look lovely on the local hillsides and add color to the less-well-tended bits of pavement around town.

Yesterday evening I walked the nearest hillside trail and took pictures of some of the flowers underfoot. I've done my best to identify them, but I wouldn't be surprised if some are mis-identified. Corrections are welcome!

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Harvard Lectures: The Science of Cooking and Molecular Gastronomy

(by everydaybiology) Mar 03 2011

The Science and Cooking Public Lectures were a popular series of lectures presented through the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences last fall. Now it's available online for everyone to watch*.

The introductory lecture features Harold McGee (author of On Food and Cooking), who talks about the history of using science in cooking up through current techniques in molecular gastronomy. That first session also includes a lecture and demonstration by Spanish chefs Ferran Adria - considered one of the "best chefs in the world" and head chef at elBulli - and José Andés, who was trained by Adria and now has several restaurants in the Washington DC area.

You can view the entire lecture series on YouTube or iTunes

Subsequent lectures include "Sous-vide Cooking: a State of Matter", "Brain Candy: How Desserts Slow the Passage of Time", and chemistry of olive oil, chocolate, meat glue and more.

It's very cool stuff. The only bummer is that YouTube doesn't let us sample the food prepared during the course.

Additional information on some of the topics and historical books mentioned during the first lecture:

• Harvard Professor L. Mahadevan's studied the "The Cheerios effect" (technical PDF). You can read a non-technical explanation at LiveScience.com.

• Harvard Professor Kevin Kit Parker helped invent a cotton candy-inspired machine for spinning nanofibers, with possible applications in creating artificial organs.

Modern Cookery for Private Families was originally published by Eliza Acton in 1845.

•  "Housekeeping in the Twentieth Century" by Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards was published in the March 1900 issue of the American Kitchen Magazine. It's the source of the quote "each family has a weakness for the flavor produced by its own kitchen bacteria". She also imagines a future where "we shall eat to live and not only live to eat", and have pantries stocked with factory-prepared foods.

The Physiology of Taste (La Physiologie du Goût) was published just before author Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's death in 1825

• For recipes using sodium alginate and calcium chloride (as in the lecture's demonstration) and other gelling agents, check out Martin Lersch's free e-book Textured: A hydrocolloid recipe collection. He also has a brief post about the chemistry.

There are additional videos and information links on the official Science and Cooking Public Lectures web page

* It looks like the lectures were made available online several months ago, but I just discovered them now.

(Via Martin Lersch's Khymos blog)

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Ant vision and other animal superpowers

(by everydaybiology) Mar 01 2011

Imagine you were an ant, crawling through the grass.  You would have a view of your surroundings invisible to the people towering above you.

Or imagine you are a bird, using your ability to sense Earth's magnetic field to migrate halfway around the world.

Interactive media designers and artists Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada collaborated to provide people with the experience of experiencing the world the way non-human animals do.   They call these animal superpowers.

For example they have developed an ant apparatus that uses microscope "antennas" on your hands to transmit a 50-fold magnified view of wherever your hand is resting. Watch their promo video:

As you can see, they've also developed a head-mounted solenoid compass that's supposed to provide a bird's sense of a direction. There's also a cool child to adult converter, which lets a kid see the world from an adult's height and speak in a deeper voice. I would have loved that when I was 10.

Watching regular people try out the ant apparatus makes it look like it's an interesting experience.

The project is ongoing, and Woebken has considered a number of other "superpowers" he could mimic through technology - for example insect communication through pheromones.

More info: Chris Woebken | Animal Superpowers

(via the TED blog)

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Fishy Skin Treatment

(by everydaybiology) Feb 27 2011

This may be TMI, but the wintry weather we've been having has made my feet really dry and itchy (and not too pretty to look at). Soaking my feet in a warm bath brought to mind a story I read a few years ago about pedicures that used fish to nibble away dead skin.

The fish turns out to be the Garra rufa or Doctor Fish. Native to Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, the fish are used in spa treatments all over the world. Watch them in action:

Doctor Fish made a splash in the US news when a salon in Alexandria, Virgina imported 10,000 of the little guys from China in 2008. Since then, a number of states - including California - have banned the use of Garra in pedicures because they cannot be "disinfected" between treatments. The alternative - limiting each fish to a single treatment - would be cost prohibitive and would result in lot of "retired" fish to dispose of in some way.

That unfortunately means I'll have to stick to traditional treatments - pumice and lotion - for my dry heels.  My husband claims my feet are too ticklish to withstand 15 minutes of fish nibbling anyway.

Interestingly, one preliminary study found that Garra nibbling - more properly called ichthyotherapy - may be part of an effective treatment for psoriasis.  Maybe someday you'll find them in your dermatologist's office, even if they aren't allowed in your local salon.

Additional Reading:

Shishkin P. "Ban of Feet-Nibbling Fish Leaves Salon Owners on the Hook" Wall Street Journal (2009)

Grassberger M and Hoch W "Ichthyotherapy as Alternative Treatment for Patients with Psoriasis: A Pilot Study"  Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. December; 3(4): 483–488. (2006) doi: 10.1093/ecam/nel033.

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