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The next step

July 26, 2012

I’ve left the redwood trees, barking sea lions and surfers of Santa Cruz and migrated to the city that some call the center of the world. New York is just as fantastic as I hoped. I’m here until December as an intern at Scientific American. Some of my stories and posts are already up online and more will appear in print. As I mentioned in my previous post, I don’t know what 2013 will bring, but I aim to grab ahold of the next opportunity.


Sketching at the American Museum of Natural History

July 25, 2012

I’ve moved to New York City for the foreseeable future (though that time period just extends to the end of December–I’m pretty sure that 2013 is just a rumor). One of my favorite things to do in this huge glorious city is go to the American Museum of Natural History. I’ve only been four times in the month since I’ve arrived: twice as a pay-what-I-will, once for a tweetup and once with a friend who is a member. I will make it my home.

I took my sketchbook and tried to find a small space to stand still and draw. People flowed around me in spurts, like ketchup glopping out of the bottle. Some stopped and looked at my two or three lines and proclaimed them beautiful. It was chaotic and unlike any other drawing experience I’ve had. I had to work to focus on what I was seeing. The constant curiosity made me feel like I should produce, but people’s expectations are low and I basked in small words of praise. I need to hear “attagirl” I guess.

Impala from the Hall of African Mammals:

Various ancient beasts from the Milstein Hall of Advanced Mammals: The cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) skeleton stands on its hind legs, giving me just enough of an idea of the whole creature that I imagine it terrorizing small bands of humans. Paleoparadoxia tabati, an ancestral sea cow, seemed to have supremely snaggly teeth. Hayaenodon horridus was an early carnivore and an artist’s rendering gave it a kind of lizard-like ferocity. The early proboscid, Gomphotherium productum, might have looked like a giant tapir.

The peregrine falcon from the Hall of North American Birds, carrying a pigeon to its chicks which prompted questions from every other kid passing by: “Why did it kill the pigeon?” and very unsatisfactory answers from parents: “Because that’s what they do.” I would say: Yeah, and we do too! Let’s go get some chicken! The panorama in the back of the exhibit is of the Palisades, the cliffs across the Hudson, before they were developed. My sketch doesn’t even attempt to capture the background, but I love that many of the animals and birds are displayed against murals of real places.


January 30, 2012
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I’m one of those inclined to say that writing is easy. That’s why I chose it. I’m ‘good’ at it.

It’s true that words come quickly and flow onto the paper (or screen) in a way less tortuous than others lead me to believe:

“Writing is easy:  All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”-Gene Fowler

“It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.  If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.” -Paul Gallico

But then that voice starts up. That voice of self-criticism and even self-hatred. Without that awful voice, I know, my writing would muddle along at the same level. It needs to be goaded into improving. But that voice ties my stomach in knots and sets me fretting about the room. I’ll do anything but write when it really matters. Arrange papers. Do laundry. Check my finances. Ugh.

But then there is the other thing. Like a fern unfurling? Somewhere inside there is that thing that creates the need in the first place. There is that thing that puts my fingers on on the keys and sets them tapping. The knowledge that it is there is not enough to explain what it is. I’ll call myself a writer, but one without the words to say why I write.

My usual strategy when I need to write:

Read read and read until my head is full and bursting. Every time I dread starting the piece, read another article that will feed the story. One hopes that this will create a pressure cooker in my skull. All of the words stuffed into the brain will just ferment or stew or cook. Then when the feeling just gets to be too great the valve comes off and words get on the page.

For a brief moment, before reading the result, everything is glorious. I am sure that the story just shaped is golden, brilliant.

But at some point you need to re-read what you have written. Then the torture starts again and is never done and never perfect until it is time to publish or turn the wretched effort in to the teacher.

Printing out the piece sometimes gives me a momentary lift– aha! Look, I have written something!– but there is no satisfaction until I get some kind of feedback. The edits are the best. The roadmap is laid out and all the writer needs to do is follow it. With luck, the humble little thing can be polished to a passable glimmer. I’m not sure if my prose will ever be golden, but for some unnamable reason I keep trying.
The thing with the blog is that I hit publish before the luster leaves. It’s a blog after all.

Forays into science writing

November 19, 2011

Bike path from UC Santa Cruz. I bike down every Tues and Thurs after class.

UC Santa Cruz’s Science Communication program has been keeping me busy. I may not have been writing here much, but I am writing elsewhere.



The Santa Cruz Sentinel is my internship, some of my favorite stories are these:

  • UCSC scientists lead a team deploying robots to forecast toxic algae blooms
  • UCSC researchers propose a new way the moon could have generated a magnetic field
  • Whale watchers get up close, personal in Santa Cruz Harbor

Our class blog has some great detailed posts from my peers. My posts have been on fluoridation and science hack day.

And even our class assignments can get online. I wrote about pitcher plants that eat mammal poo! Great fun.

How the lunar dynamo might have formed

November 9, 2011

Full Moon Luc Viatour

Full Moon by Luc Viatour (via wikimedia commons)

Working at a newspaper means West Nile one week, whale watching the next and complex planetary science this week!

Here’s my article about how the moon could have gained, then lost its magnetism.

Apollo astronauts in the 1960s and 70s found a mystery on the moon. Some of the rocks they picked up were magnetized, a strange discovery given that the moon has no magnetic field.

Now, researchers at UC Santa Cruz have taken a step toward solving that mystery. In this week’s issue of Nature, they proposed that the moon had a long-lasting magnetic field, billions of years ago, created by a stirring of the lunar core as the moon orbited around the earth.

The cooling of the earth’s liquid core created the magnetic field. But the moon is too small to sustain the necessary heat and generate the lava lamp-like motion, or dynamo, in the liquid core.

“People have been scratching their heads for 40 years, ever since Apollo,” said Christina Dwyer, a graduate student in planetary sciences at UCSC and lead author of the study. The moon’s magnetic field must have formed a different way, Dwyer said.

“The other way is stirring,” Dwyer said. “Just like you stick your spoon in a pot of water and stir to move the water. We have a way of stirring the moon.”

The UCSC team’s calculations show that when the moon orbited closer to the earth than it does today, gravitational tugs from our planet stirred up the core like a giant spoon in a bowl.

There’s more to the article if you follow the link.

Christina Dwyer, the graduate student and lead author on the paper was great to talk to. Here is a story she told me that wouldn’t fit in the paper:

“I love geology, there are so many interesting clues buried in rocks,” Dwyer said.

For example, rocks can tell us how day length has changed over time. The moon’s proximity does have an effect on how the earth spins, so as the moon moves farther away from the earth (at at rate of about 1.5 inches per year) the day gets incrementally longer.

Not so you’d notice it on your wristwatch, but it can be measured in the fossil record.

Dwyer explained that you can have plants growing in tidal regions that later become fossils. Researchers can then count the number of tides by the rings of fossilized tidal mud, divide by two and get the number of days the plant stood there. Dating the fossil gives you an idea of the tidal patterns how ever long ago that plant grew.

The fossil record gives us tidal patterns back about 600 million years– about a 10th of the earth’s history. With this new lunar dynamo twist, scientists can get information even further back in time.

“If our theory is right and if we can experimentally measure a really detailed history of the intensity of the lunar magnetic field over time, we can take the known lunar magnetic field and our theory and go backwards.”I have to agree, geology is pretty cool. This paper is even cooler.

But wait there’s more! If anyone has access to Nature:

The paper

And published at the same time, a paper about how the dynamo could have come from repeated bombardment by asteroids that tweaked the core out of alignment and created the stirring action. I didn’t cover this paper, but a lot of other articles did. I was going with the “local researchers” angle. Also, since I’m not on any embargo lists– I didn’t know about the other paper!

Other news articles:


Science News

Discover News 

Spread of West Nile virus

October 31, 2011

West Nile virus, a virus that hitchhiked from Africa to America, probably via airplanes, swept across the continent in a few short

Culex quinquefasciatus Photo Credit : Jim Gathany via wikimedia commons

years. Birds are the virus’s primary host, but when viral loads in the blood are high enough, a mosquito can transfer the infection from bird to other animals, including humans.

“The virus is like a rat or a house mouse,” said Kilpatrick when I interviewed him for an article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, “an animal that is helped out by human habitation.”

Kilpatrick’s paper in the October 21st issue of Science pulled together research and findings from the past decade.

“It looks like we have kind of set ourselves up,” he said. ” We have this amazing world of globalization, that increases the movement of the disease but also their vectors.”

This trend becomes clear when Kilpatrick pointed out that the disease is more common in urbanized and agricultural areas. These disrupted landscapes provide the habitat for mosquitos, standing water, and the main hosts. Birds most commonly infected with West Nile include the American robin, pigeons and the Common Crow.

American robin via Wikimedia CommonsRobins are what epidemiologists call ‘super-spreaders’. The robins only may be 1 in 10 of the birds, but they may be repsondible for half of all the infected mosquitos.

One example of a super-spreader was Mary Mallon, the infamous “Typoid Mary”, a cook in the New York City area in the early part of the 1900s. She had typhoid but never showed any symptoms. The presentation of a disease without symptoms was fairly unknown then, so health officials had a hard time convincing Mary that she needed to be quarantined. She infected 53 people with typhoid fever.

Another example Kilpatrick gave me was an individual in Bangladesh who got infected with the Nipah virus. The man happened to be a spiritual leader, well respected by the community. Everyone came and paid thier respects, so he became an accidental super-spreader.

Why are robins super-spreaders? Kilpatrick said that scientists don’t know if they are preferentially fed on by mosquitos, but that they suspect that robins don’t defend themselves well (perhaps they don’t avoid mosquitos, or they don’t shake a mosquito off when it bites).

It may also have to do with the robins’ infectiousness.
Kilpatrick explained that the virus replicates in your blood and can even pass the blood brain barriar and kill you, in rare cases. But in some individuals it never gets to a high enough concentration. The higher the concentration the more infectious you are. “Robins are at the medium to high end of infectiousness,” he said.
The mosquitos themselves also adapt well to human-altered landscapes. Culex pipiens does really well in urbanized areas in the east, C. quinquefasciatus love the Southwest, and C. tarsalis thrives in agricultural areas.

Another trend that Kilpatrick pointed out was that the West Nile virus changed shortly after arriving in North America. By 2005, the virus had evolved into a local variant that completely replaced the original New York strain from Uganda. That local variant is more efficiently transmitted by  both C. pipiens and C. tarsali.

Kilpatrick said that because there hasn’t been a big West Nile virus epidemic at the national level since 2003, people aren’t as concerned about the virus as we used to be. His paper does show a strong decreasing trend in the number of cases each year.
But if an empidemic strikes again, this study could help health officials develop strategies. Kilpatrick said we could turn to “even wacky strategeis like vaccinating robins, developing even oral vaccines for birds if we had another big year like 2003 was.”

It is possible that 2002 and 2003, big years for the West Nile virus nationally, had the perfect weather to encourage the spread of the virus. Or, it could be that once the virus enters an area it can cause an epidemic that declines afterward, perhaps as birds and humans build up immunity to the virus.

“We don’t really know,” said Kilpatrick. “There is kind of a decreasing trend but you don’t want to say that it is all over.”


Other news coverage: San Jose Mercury News, UCSC press release

CDC fact sheet on West Nile virus

CITATION: Kilpatrick, A.M. Globalization, Land Use, and the Invasion of West Nile Virus. Science 21 October 2011: Vol. 334 no. 6054 pp. 323-327.DOI: 10.1126/science.1201010

The paper is unfortunately behind a pay wall:


October 24, 2011

Sunset on Saturday. The ghost children play in the surf.