Field of Science

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Turkey day everyone!

And Happy Tofurkey day to those who hold mobility as an important trait in making your culinary decisions.

Bats, Fungi, and Mosquitoes

(Credit: Right Photo/ Al Hicks with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation)

Over the last two years some bat populations in the NE US  have been decimated for unknown reasons by what has been called white-nose syndrome. The name comes because a white fungus is often found growing around the nose of affected bats. So what is going on and does it matter? I mean not to be heartless but these are just flying rodents and they can carry the rabies virus. Well let's take the latter question first.

Does it matter? Yes it freaking matters! First, it matters because bats are fascinating mammals that use sonar to avoid objects and find food in the dark. Second, its never a good idea to ignore it when vast numbers of a group of animals starts dropping dead for no apparent reason. Are we susceptible? Our livestock? Our pets? Third, many bats are important for plant propagation as either pollinators (generally in climes warmer than the NE USA) and for seed dispersal by fruit eaters. Fourth, many bats eat mosquitos  and can eat a prodigious (elitist) number of mosquitos at that (on the order of 1000 mosquitos/hour/bat). Now a colony of bats is not going to effectively reduce the mosquito population enough to reduce human suffering (ie bites), but when you live in Minnesota every mosquito that dies is somehow reassuring.

Back to the first question, "What's going on?" Well the answer to this question is disheartening because we don't know. However, we know some things. First, we know there is a fungus growing around the nasal cavities of many afflicted bats. This means......not much sadly. This fungus could be a normal part of the flora (elitist) that lives in low numbers on the skin of bats normally, also known as a commensal. In this case, the large large amount of fungus observed to be growing around the nose could reflect some underlying immune dysfunction due to toxins, other pathogens, etc. In this case the fungus is not the cause of disease but a symptom. (A runny nose does not cause a cold, it is simply a symptom of a cold.) Second, we know the bats' hibernation patterns are screwed up, they wake up early or do not wake up.

Alright this is really old news (Spring 08), why post about this now? Well, the Oct. 30th  Science Express has a paper from Blehert DS, Hicks AC, and colleagues describing the identification of the fungus associated with white-nose syndrome. In short, the fungus is a member of the Geomyces family, a cold loving (psychrophilic) family of fungi related to baker's yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). Now the fact that a cold loving fungus is infecting bats in cold environments (bat caves in NE USA in the winter hover around 4°C) is interesting. However, is this fungus the cause of white-nose syndrome or an effect? Ok, it is THE cause of white-nose syndrome, since white-nose syndrome is the growth of fungus around the nose. The question is, is the problem with bats leading to white-nose syndrome or is white-nose syndrome the problem with bats? We still don't know. However, the authors, correctly Ill add, remind us that fungi (chytrids in this case) have devasted frog populations. So this is an important step forward. Now that we know what we are dealing with, we can ask if the fungus is causing disease or not. Geomyces species have caused disease in people and other mammals so it is not implausible however it is early to give a definitive response.


Why to we go to war? Hopefully there is a rational and moral reason for it.

and while we, as a people, may debate whether the sacrifices that come with war are a price worth paying, I think at the end of the day the consensus at least agrees there is a rational for going to war.

Regardless of whether you believe the reasons are right, there are sacrifices. Sadly, for the last seven years we have been at war (I would argue for the right reasons) without being asked to sacrifice anything other than our soldiers and our soldiers families. Even worse, for the last five years we have been at war (I would argue for all the wrong reasons) without being asked to sacrifice anything other than our soldiers and our soldiers families and "our" ability to successfully complete the first war.

The bodies returning home to be buried or irreparably damaged are true sacrifices we can see and relate to. There are more long term sacrifices being made that we essentially never consider.

So is the invasion of Iraq for no other rational than Saddam was a bad guy (no argument) and the neocons desperately wanted it worth this? In 20 years, are we going to be able to sleep peacefully with the rationales we give this and many other children for why their lives were fundamentally disrupted? Maybe if our forces were committed to destroying those responsible for 9/11, I could sleep ok. It sucks but I expect in 20 years these children could understand that their sacrifice (because that is what it is and they do not have a choice) was worth it. But Iraq? I very much doubt that most of these children will understand and agree with the sacrifices that were made and I wouldn't be surprised if many in that generation gives us a big

The speeches

Well its over and Im mostly happy. Maybe ecstatic is a better word. No I do not think I am kidding myself with what Obama can get done in the next four years. I am mostly happy in that I believe this presidential election, while being about many things, was primarily a national referendum on the course of our country. The choices being continuing down the road towards anti-intellectualism increased theocracy and intolerance or changing course and embracing rationalism and secular principles to promote the rights of all Americans.

First John McCain's concession speech:

This is the John McCain I remember. This is the John McCain I disagree with on many policies, but have the utmost respect for. This is the John McCain who I will argue cares more about his country than himself. This is the John McCain who, I feel, abandoned his principles and took on the rethuglican playbook written by Rove during much of this election. This is the McCain that Bush and company tried to smear by suggesting his adopted child was due to a wartime dalliance. I guess since this approach worked for Bush, McCain was convinced it would work for him when a straight approach wouldn't. This is why negativity was the highlight. I am not suggesting negative ads are improper, but there are lines. Attacking a policy position and putting it in a bad light is stock and trade in an election. Ads stating your opponent wants comprehensive sex education for kindergarteners is evil. Divisiveness "Real America" "Pro-America" etc, is not uncommon in an election, but it is draining and depressing to see the level we can be reduced to. Of all the speeches I do not recall hearing catcalls from the audience of Obama's supporters, scratch that I do remember a number of boos at one televised speech and Obama immediately saying something to the effect of 'we don't need that, we need to vote.' I will also give credit to McCain when he immediately shut down the woman stating her distrust of Obama because he was Muslim. But the rift caused by the tone of the McCain/Palin campaign will be difficult to heal. We elected a president with an immediate African lineage, however racism is strong and ugly and I believe the tone from the republican campaign fueled those fires. I understand the disappointment of McCain supporters, but the boos during McCain's speech were saddening.

Second Barak Obama's acceptance speech:

Saying that Obama gave an excellent speech is redundant at this point. However, for me, this was the highlight:

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that's on my mind tonight's about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She's a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing: Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons -- because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America -- the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs, a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination.

And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.

Yes we can.

Yes we did, but now the real work begins. The solutions to our problems are not solved by an election, are not solved by one man, are not solved by one party. We have taken one step in a long trip, but damn this was one nice step!

Civic Pride

Now all you others go vote too. If you need incentive Starbucks is giving out free coffee. Ben and Jerry's is giving out free ice cream (during limited hours).