In a forested area along the western edge of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula lurks a very large fungus. It doesn’t inspire awe in the way that a giant redwood or blue whale might, it isn’t grand, and it isn’t majestic, but this prodigious fungus is among the largest living things in the world.
This short video was created back in 2008 as an advertisement for the European Union’s Marie Curie science fellowship program. It imagines what elements would look like and how they would interact if they were people, and the result is pretty funny. But weirdly enough, this approach to understanding the elements isn’t so far off from how many chemists actually think about chemistry. Chemists often talk about “promiscuous” atoms or molecules when discussing particularly reactive chemicals – even within the otherwise unimaginative text of an academic journal. And chemists are constantly concerned with the emotional wellbeing of atoms and molecules: ‘Is this atom happy or unhappy?’ they’ll think to themselves, and occasionally say out loud, while figuring out how a chemical reaction works. By “happy” they mean stable and by “unhappy” they mean reactive. A carbon atom, for example, is happy when it’s bound to four other atoms. But strip away one of these bonds and the incensed carbon will do whatever it takes to reestablish the lost bond.
In my own work as a chemist, I’m guilty of occasionally imbuing molecules with personalities and other human traits as well. Some molecules, for instance, are wallflowers. They seem shy and sensitive and need to be carefully coaxed into participating in a reaction with just the right set of conditions. And other molecules seem to have a one-track mind, reacting in the same way over and over again, no matter how much you try to persuade them to do otherwise. I imagine them as creatures of habit, like people who order the same dish every time they go out to eat. Still other molecules are extreme extroverts, forming bonds with anything and everything around them. These are the aforementioned “promiscuous” molecules.
It’s not just chemists who anthropomorphize their work. I suspect that most scientists do this to some degree, whether they admit it or not. After spending months or years or even decades studying a single, specific topic, it’s only natural to form a one-sided relationship with a research subject. Humans are social creatures after all, and thinking about the world in social terms is something we’re prone to do. And although this is a very unscientific way to think about things, I don’t think it necessarily prevents scientists from doing good science.
Except when it does. Even though I sometimes invent a personality for a molecule, I know the molecule is really just a non-sentient collection of atoms held together by electromagnetic forces. But when the research subject is a living thing, the situation gets muddier. During the 20th century, scientists discovered that certain species of bacteria produce a wide array of antibiotic compounds. Of course, they then went on to isolate some of these compounds and used them to treat infections in humans, revolutionizing the field of medicine. The flip side to this story is that for decades after these antibiotics were discovered, biologists generally assumed that the bacteria that produce them use them for the same purpose we do: to kill other bacteria. In a 2010 article in Nature, biologist Julian Davies describes how this assumption led many biologists to describe bacterial ecosystems as “battlefields” where bacteria employ “chemical weapons” in a competition for space and nutrients. This view of bacterial ecology mirrored the human world, where resource competition often leads to war.
Davies argues that the idea of “bacterial warfare” made sense to biologists because it matched up well with human experiences. It made so much sense, in fact, that biologists didn’t consider the possibility that bacteria might produce these antibiotic compounds for some other purpose. For some bacteria, the primary purpose of these antibiotic compounds may indeed be to kill other bacteria. But there is now evidence that the compounds may play a role in a bacteria cell’s internal biology as well, regulating physiology and modulating gene transcription. Davies argues that, for years, biologists were blinded to this possibility by anthropomorphic thinking.
Although anthropomorphic thinking can throw a wrench into the scientific process, it can also make science more approachable, easier to understand, and more appealing. It provides a way for us to relate to science on a personal level. In an interview with RadioLab, Oliver Sacks described how, as a shy, socially awkward kid, he felt a keen sense of kinship with the unreactive noble gases, since both he and the gases had “difficulties forming relationships.” This personal, childhood connection to the scientific world helped lead Sacks to a long and prolific career in science.
On an unseasonably warm Saturday a few weeks ago, I drove down to a nature preserve 15 miles south of Boston called the Blue Hills Reservation. It’s a large forested area with plenty of trails, and I was planning to spend the afternoon hiking. But first, as I usually do when I visit the Blue Hills Reservation, I stopped off at the Trailside Museum on my way to the trailhead. The museum, managed by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, includes a small, outdoor, native-animal zoo. There are a variety of animals at the zoo, white-tailed deer, snowy owls, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, but I always check out the river otter display first. The otter enclosure is a large, concrete pit. One end of the enclosure is covered by a dirt floor with a towering rock pillar at its center. The rock formation is covered in ledges and crevices, which could presumably provide the resident river otter with some privacy if she so desired. But in all the times I’ve visited the zoo I’ve never actually seen the otter in this area. Instead she’s usually in the large pool down at the other end of the enclosure, showboating for a crowd of spectators.
When I looked over the edge of the enclosure, the otter seemed to be asleep on one of the logs floating on the surface of the pool, but she immediately opened her eyes and squinted up at me and a few families with little kids who had gathered around. She must have decided that her audience was now large enough to warrant getting out of bed, because she hopped into the water and began zooming back and forth across the pool, jumping up and over the floating logs or diving under them. And then she suddenly dove toward the edge of the enclosure, building up speed for her signature trick. When she reached the concrete wall, she pushed up and off the wall into a graceful backflip. The little kids peering over the top of the enclosure squealed in delight. The otter glided underwater, upside down across the pool before surfacing, turning around, and doing it all over again.
Otters have quite a reputation for playfulness. If you’ve seen otters in an aquarium or at a zoo, like me you’ve probably been delighted by their antics. Even in the wild, otters are known to engage in bouts of amicable wrestling, and they’re often seen sliding down snowbanks or muddy slopes on their bellies. A Youtube search for “otter” yields thousands of videos of wild and captive otters wrestling, sliding, and playing with their food. And of course there’s the recent viral video of Eddie, an arthritic sea otter at the Oregon Zoo playing basketball as part of a physical therapy regimen.
As I watched the Blue Hills otter backflip off the wall over and over, I began to wonder, is this something she was trained to do? Or maybe she’s just having fun? So when I got home after finally going on that hike, I emailed Norman Smith, the sanctuary director at the museum to find out. He referred me to Elizabeth Bastable, the museum’s volunteer coordinator, who explained that the river otter was not trained, and in fact backflipping “is something [otters] do on their own, even in the wild.”
The revelation that backflipping is a natural otter behavior made me wonder why, exactly, otters are so playful. Does their playfulness serve some greater purpose? Or is it really just pure fun? After all, wild otters have to earn a living. The law of natural selection mandates that they attend first and foremost to the business of finding food, reproducing, and otherwise surviving. So why waste so much time and energy on an activity as seemingly frivolous as backflipping, or wresting, or sliding?
A little digging through Google Scholar revealed that this question has been a subject of debate among scientists for some years. Articles with titles like “Sliding Behavior in Nearctic River Otters: Locomotion or Play?” and “Wrestling play in adult river otters” have tackled the issue. Most animals play when they’re young as a way to practice adult behaviors, but otters are some of the only animals that continue to engage in play as adults, making the behavior all the more puzzling.
In the end, scientists have been hard-pressed to find practical reasons for otters’ playfulness. The idea that otters slide across frozen ponds and down muddy river banks simply because it’s the fastest way to get from point A to point B, has been challenged by observations of otters repeatedly sliding down the same path. And otter play doesn’t seem to mimic practical, hunting behaviors either: biologist Scott Shannon notes, “otters don’t wrestle or pounce on fish.” The most reasonable explanation for play among otters may be that it reinforces social bonds and encourages group cohesion.
But not all otters are particularly social. Otters that live in hardscrabble environments where food is difficult to come by spend little time playing and instead focus most of their energy on solitary hunting. But in environments where food is bountiful, like a marsh or coastal inlet – or a zoo for that matter – otters can afford to devote more time to playing and forming social groups.
In general, otters are scrappy, well-adapted animals, which may help to explain why they’ve had the luxury of developing playful, social behaviors. They’re commonly called river otters, but they also thrive in a wide variety of non-riverine habitats, from salt marshes to ponds to swamps, and even areas with minimal water. They eat pretty much anything they can get their paws on, crayfish, frogs, crabs, small rodents, birds, and fish of all kinds. Otters have few natural predators, and at one time they could be found in wetlands across most of North America. But over the course of decades, unregulated hunting, increasingly polluted waterways, and widespread destruction of wetlands took their toll on North America’s otter population.
By the beginning of the last century, otters had disappeared from large swaths of their former range. But following 20th-century clean water and wetland protection legislation, otters have made a dramatic comeback. In a sign of the strength of this comeback, a river otter has taken up residence in San Francisco within the past few months. Nicknamed Sutro Sam after Sutro Baths, the ruins of an early 20th century, coastal swimming pool complex where he has made his home, the otter has become an instant Bay Area celebrity.
I didn’t come across any wild otters on my hike in the Blue Hills Reservation, but I very well could have. Wild otters have been spotted in the Neponset River, less than a mile from the otter enclosure at the Trailside Museum. Although they were once nearly extinct in the Bay State, otters can now be found across Massachusetts. A few years back a kayaker even snapped a photo of otters frolicking in the Charles River in suburban Boston. Perhaps they were socializing and reinforcing social bonds. Or maybe they were just having fun.
Sunday, February 10, 2013
30,000 feet above Boston, Massachusetts
A pilot is peering out of the cockpit window of a 777 on its way to London. He looks down through a cloudless sky at the city of Boston spreading out beneath him and the cities of Everett, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop beyond it. He sees a whitewashed patchwork of streets and buildings cut up by a deep blue harbor. It’s a city buried beneath more than two feet of snow. He takes a photograph.
Three days earlier, Thursday February 7, 2013, 6:00 PM
Heavy, wet snow is falling. The evening commute has ground to a slow crawl along IL Route 137, running north out of Chicago. This is a fairly routine snow storm for northern Illinois in February. It will leave behind about half a foot of snow in the Chicago suburb of Waukegan. Just a few miles south, the storm is mostly cold rain and wind, inconveniencing Chicagoans on their way home from work.
Friday February 8, 2013, 7:00 AM
Mirlo Beach, North Carolina
A rainstorm is creeping along the North Carolina shoreline. The barometric pressure is dropping, and as it drops humid sea air rushes toward the coast, forming thick clouds and dumping rain as it sweeps inland. Ocean winds gust to 40 miles per hour across the outer banks. Here at Mirlo Beach, sheets of rain wash over vulnerable seaside houses, some of them raised on stilts to protect against the flooding that has become increasingly frequent here in the past few years. The ocean waters, driven toward the shore by the strong wind, are washing across NC Route 12. The small beach town is still rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy, which tore apart the asphalt along Route 12, leaving the road, and the town’s only connection to the mainland, impassable. Within a few hours the seawater will recede, and the damage left behind will be minor. The storm will roll out to sea, continuing along its northeastern trajectory.
Friday February 8, 2013, 7:00 PM
Somewhere off the coast of New Jersey
As the storm pulls away from the North Carolina and Virginia coastline, it moves over the waters of the Atlantic, which are warmed by Gulf stream currents. Here the storm intensifies as warm, humid air from the ocean surface is drawn up toward the storm’s swirling center. As this warm air rises, strong winds force it toward the outer edges of the storm. This process of drawing air up and out of the storm’s center causes the pressure within the storm to drop, which in turn causes more air to rush toward the storm, producing higher and higher wind speeds. As the storm suctions humid air from the surface of the ocean, the amount of moisture it carries, and the potential quantity of snow or rain it could release when it makes landfall, increases. Meanwhile, the snow storm that originated in northern Illinois has swept across the Great Lakes and overland toward the Atlantic coast, pushed eastward by the transcontinental jet stream. The timing and paths of the two storms are perfect as they collide and merge, the northern storm front wrapping around the emerging nor’easter. A single, massive storm now churns northward.
Friday February 8, 2013, 10:00 PM
East Boston, Boston, Massachusetts
I’m walking down the middle of the street, shuffling through several inches of slush. The governor of Massachusetts has mandated a state-wide driving ban in anticipation of the approaching storm, so the street is empty. The wind is relentless. Needle-like bits of precipitation sting my face with each gust. I can’t decide whether it’s sleeting, snowing, raining, or some combination of all three. The wind is making it increasingly difficult to walk. Tomorrow I will hear that near-hurricane-force wind gusts were recorded at the airport less than half-a-mile away. I begin to wonder if going outside to watch the arrival of the storm first-hand was a good idea, but I continue on. I round a corner and walk down a side street toward the harbor. At the end of the street, I squint through the driving snow, looking for the water’s edge. I know the land drops into the harbor less than twenty feet from where I’m standing, but I can’t see it. I involuntarily recall stories told to me as a child, of people walking out into a blizzard, becoming disoriented in a whiteout, unable to find their way back, freezing to death just feet from their own front door. I turn around and scramble back uphill the way I came. With the wind now at my back, I pause to take a few pictures.
Saturday February 9, 2013
Winthrop Beach, Winthrop, Massachusetts
High Tide. Waves driven by a relentless wall of wind are breaking over the top of the 15-foot seawall at Winthrop Beach. As seawater spills over the wall, it gathers into torrents, rushing down streets, contained by snowbanks.
Saturday, February 9, 2013 10:30 AM
East Boston, Boston, Massachusetts
I’m standing knee-deep in snow, looking at my car. It more closely resembles a vaguely car-shaped pile of snow than a car – it’s completely enveloped in a snow drift. I take my phone out of my pocket and check the weather forecast for the coming week: temperatures above freezing every day. The snowfall has tapered off. Only a few snowflakes lazily float to the ground around me. I carefully consider my need for a car. I have enough food for the week, and I’ll take the subway to work. I leave the car where it is and hope that the sun will do the work of extracting it from the snow bank for me. (Update: This plan, despite being inspired by laziness, was largely a success. By this past weekend, the car was surrounded by just a few inches of snow, which I cleared away after ten minutes of shoveling)
Saturday, February 9, 2013 1:00 PM
East Boston, Boston, Massachusetts
The storm has passed. Everyone is outside. Some are shoveling snow, digging narrow passageways along sidewalks, uncovering cars. Others are having fun. A mother pulls her infant daughter down the street on a toboggan. A man cross-country skis through the neighborhood. Kids are sledding down an outdoor staircase covered in two feet of powdery snow.
Sunday, February 10, 2013
22,236 miles above the US eastern seaboard, geostationary orbit
As the nor’easter spins away from the New England coast, out into the north Atlantic, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES-13 satellite takes a photograph revealing that the storm has taken on the appearance of a hurricane – a massive cyclone with a distinct eye at its center.
The clear skies left in the wake of the storm provide the NOAA satellite with a clean view of the storm’s aftermath – the entire Northeast buried in snow.
Sunday February 10, 2013
Somewhere over the North Atlantic
As he leaves Boston behind and sets out across the north Atlantic toward England, the pilot is unintentionally following the path taken by the storm just hours earlier. Within a few hours he will catch up to the storm somewhere below Greenland. He will guide his plane south, skirting the edge of the storm system, bypassing it. He will arrive in England three days ahead of the storm.
Wednesday February 13, 2013 5:00 PM
West Midlands, England, UK
As the storm chugs across the North Atlantic, it gradually loses intensity. The cyclone structure quickly dissolves as the frigid ocean waters and dry, arctic air sap the storm’s energy and moisture. By the time the storm finally makes landfall again, here in Great Britain, it hardly resembles the ferocious nor’easter that smothered the northeastern US three days earlier. It manages to drop just over an inch of snow across the Midlands before completely dissipating. The storm ends its 4000 mile journey in much the same way it began: inconveniencing evening commuters with long traffic jams and an unpleasant walk home.
It’s snowing in Boston today. While I was out for a walk this morning I noticed that many of the snowflakes that were crashing into my jacket were perfectly symmetrical, six-pointed stars with delicate branching on each point. I managed to snap a picture of one of these snowflake specimens just after it alighted on my coat sleeve, before it melted away.
The most recent episode of RadioLab features a story about snowflakes. If you haven’t heard it yet, it’s worth a listen. We often think of snowflakes in terms of the perfect, crystal forms featured on holiday cards and sweaters, but the RadioLab story reveals that these perfect-looking snowflakes are actually very rare in nature. It turns out that most snowflakes aren’t anything special to look at. They’re often lumpy and asymmetrical. Kenneth Libbrecht, a scientist featured in the story who studies snow crystal formation, claims that he can look at thousands of snowflakes before finding one that is completely symmetrical. He explains that conditions have to be just right for perfect snowflake formation: there must be minimal wind, and it has to be cold enough that the snowflakes don’t clump together as they fall. It just so happens that these ideal snowflake-forming conditions exist today in Boston.
An article about snowflake science accompanies the RadioLab piece. It features Kenneth Libbrecht’s microscope photos of some perfect and not-so-perfect snowflakes.
For a blog called Smells Like Science, you might have noticed that I haven’t written much about smelly science. That all changes here as I get to the bottom of the “Juicy Fruit: which fruit does it taste like?” debate. Plus, what do Juicy Fruit Gum and honey bees have in common?
Having lived in New England most of my life, I’m not used to seeing rainstorms approaching from miles off, but it turns out this is a pretty common sight out in the wide-open West. I took this picture two weeks ago in Arizona. At the time it was the tail end of the monsoon season in the southwest and there were thunderstorms almost every afternoon. I took the picture near the summit of Mt. Lemmon, [...continue reading]
There aren’t many foods that are as closely tied to American identity as apple pie. In fact, Americans love apple pie so much that, at times, we’ve felt compelled to make it even when we don’t have any apples. I’ve heard about a recipe for apple-less apple pie from a number of people over the years, but I’ve never talked to anyone who’s actually eaten it. So this past weekend, I decided to give it a try.