Father Figures

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Father’s Day is about thanking Dad for all of the things he does for us: bike and swimming lessons and card games and rides to Quidditch practice. When the cards are written and the posts are tagged, we spend the rest of Sunday thinking of more things he can do: take us to the zoo or ballpark for a discount; test out his new tools on a tree fort; grill up some dinner with his new BBQ apron and get that new tie smoothed out for work again tomorrow. The shape of a Father Figure, it seems, is a being in motion.

Looking beyond the outings and the hot dogs, social scientists have measured the ways in which dads can help keep kids and families happy and healthy. (Shout-out here to the good work my Dad and his co-workers do at Children’s Trust Fatherhood Initiative).

So we know fathers can do a lot for their kids, but what does Dad get out of the deal?

Some results from the lab suggest that other mammals get some surprising perks from fatherhood. The subjects of the study were mice; after their pups were born, the mice that stayed in the nest with their offspring started developing new brain cells. The new cells were related to smell and memory, and likely help the father mice tune in and to their offspring. Fathers that didn’t stay in the nest didn’t develop new brain cells.

The new neurological development is regulated by the hormone prolactin. Prolactin also regulates biological responses in mammal mothers, and the idea that male parents could be connected neurologically and hormonally to their offspring might be surprising to some. The similarities between parental roles on the biological level are striking. (Some thoughtful reflection and reporting on this at Scientific American.) So are the differences. For mothers, the two-way physical connection is immediate and obvious. The study with mice suggests that mammal dads have those connections, too, but they have to wait for them.

It’s great to celebrate dads as the do-ers, the rough-and-tumblers, ride-givers, driving teachers. But here’s a reason to think about Pops’ patience, about the spaces between those bursts of action, which start with Days Negative-One-to-Two-Hundred-Seventyish. I like thinking that Dad gets a nifty neural payoff for all of his patience (not just a sunburn on his noggin’). I also like thinking that he’s happy hanging around anyway.

P.S. I’ll bring the sunblock, Dad.

 

 

 

Do You Smell That?

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I often think of my sense of smell as one of my best natural defenses against foul invaders. One faint whiff can steer me clear of vectors before I see, touch, or (worst) taste it. (My ears are good for sensing distant danger, but we all know that some of the worst smelly offenders make a silent approach.) My nose is the first part of me to know which business to stay out of.

I’ve been thinkin’ about stinkin’ since I read Julia Scott’s “No Soap, No Shower, Bacteria-Rich Hygiene Experiment” New York Times Magazine. For one month, Scott misted with a “living bacterial skin tonic” instead of her usual routine. Spritzing with bacteria and skipping soap flips my hygiene training upside down. I should shower so I wouldn’t get smelly, because smelly meant unhealthy (not to mention unpopular). It sounds a little wild to try to cultivate primal body scum when we’ve got modern suds and gels that are premised on wiping out all the buggies that can make us sick. But inventor of the bacteria-based spray—and the journalist’s experiment with it—suggests that a lot of the stuff we think is keep us smelling good is not only unnecessary, it’s actually killing some of our natural defenses against filth. Furthermore, modern cleansers contain chemical agents to help create and preserve their potency and their pretty scents, and some of the most common of those chemicals have been found to be harmful to humans, or even carcinogenic. (One example study here.)

Which means my trusty nose has been leading me astray, allowing me to fall for the floral lures of nasty chemicals. I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve caught my nose in a lie before. The worst betrayal came on a sunny summer afternoon. I was walking near the Charles in Cambridge. I inhaled and caught a whiff of something floral and sweet. “Oooh smells good, what is that? What’s blooming now?” I asked my walking companion. Ten seconds later we rounded a bend in the path and saw a crane dragging a portable potty away from the boat house. Nature Gal mistook industrial-strength bathroom spray for fresh summer blooms.

Sometimes my nose catches on. I recently bought a soap that is supposed to conjure “Summer Sunshine” but smells like Nerfls, with undertones of My Little Pony feet. I feel factory-made rather than bathed in solar rays. But I’ve purchased many other shower gel flavors on the merits of a surreptitious whiff in the pharmacy aisles.

I guess the reason that I’m surprised that so many of us could fall for the “trick” of synthetic scents is n sometimes my nose captures truth of my memory with more specificity and complexity than any of my other senses could: melting asphalt, mixed with chlorine and a tang of bark mulch transports me poolside at my childhood friend’s house. Or the smoke from a charcoal grill fueled with too much lighter fluid, and maybe a scrap of charred burger that fell into the pit tell me Dad’s cooking dinner on a Sunday night.

These are specific to my experience, and maybe similar to those who grew up in a similar place and time. But to some extent all humans are working with a shared palette of scents that attract and repel us. Researchers found smells that are universally ranked good or bad. (Participants represented different cultures, gender, etc.) Most of the winning smells are citrus fruits, and some flowers and tree smells were runners up. Sharp, vinegary smells were leaders on the “bad” list—the smell of good list fruits gone dangerously rancid. This fundamental code seems to signal a memory that reaches beyond the shampoo aisle, one that is entrenched in our basic human needs and fears, and unlikely to be lured away by a synthetic sunflower. I’m not sure I’m ready to give up my hygiene routine (sighs of relief here from my family and friends) but I want to try to tune my nose back to that original scale. It’s a good excuse, if nothing else, to stop and smell the roses.

And things were never the same again

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As a writing student I learned that’s a launch point for a successful narrative. But as a kid I wouldn’t have believed it. My favorite stories were the ones that my grandmother told me, and I liked to hear them over and over. I reveled in the detail and the order of narratives I knew well. The way Gam’s dad (my great-Grampa) winked at her when he said that it might be too much to hope for a tricycle for her birthday. And then her birthday came and her present was a set of paper dolls but then her told her to go look outside —with a wink again— and there was the tricycle! It was shiny red and had a big wheel in the front…

Even as I try to re-tell it here, I know that I’m making changes, and I know that my grandmother must have, whether intentionally or not. Nature is writing a new story every day, too. One researcher recently made a breakthrough with a picturesque example: stick bugs. It’s easy to imagine that these insects evolved to closely match the plants in their immediate environments. Those matches are the product of tiny changes, selected over time as the stealthiest bugs survived to reproduce. The surprise here is that the most of the DNA-level changes were different across individuals, even among bugs that basically look the same. The bugs aren’t like a set of paper dolls in which a fixed set of variables are toggled to create different (shrubby) outfits, and randomness plays a big part in the changes take place over generations.

The possible implication of this is that, at least for these bugs, and probably for many other species, the evolutionary journey is unique. (Does this suggest that there isn’t a clear genetic recipe for a particular set of traits, which may be bad news for any hope of restoring lost species, at least for re-creating individuals identical to those that have already disappeared, over multiple generations? See last week’s post.) For me the stick bug discovery complicates the question of what preservation and conservation might mean for the present, and the future. Because in almost all ways—from the most emotional to the most pragmatic—I define the world I want to protect in terms of what I know now. I’m charmed by the cardinal’s fiery up-do, and I expect the tulips to be blooming before my Gam’s birthday in April. The details and the order matter, and for me they are defined by what I can see and hear, here and now.

At the same time, focusing too hard on restoring the particulars of one space, one moment could blind me to what nature does best, which is carry on through such long stretches of space and time with resilience and persistence and spontaneity, through diverted migrations and late frosts. The same is true for the stories. I didn’t and don’t mind whether great-Grampa winked twice, whether the tricycle was really red. What I really valued, wanted to be the same time and again, were the qualities underlying Gam’s stories: the sound of her voice, the vicarious joy and surprise of a child, the tight attention that connects a storyteller and her listener.

The stick bugs, then, offer a two-fold, paradoxical inspiration: Value everything I see now as a one-of-a-kind phenomenon. That cardinal’s crest is as awesome as a comet, even if it flashes by six times a day; a product of a certain kind of magic that is valuable in its own right. At the same time, the study is a reminder that protecting nature requires a wide embrace, with plenty of wiggle room for things to be different now than they were then, or different here than they are there. When did those tulips downtown get planted, anyway? Would Gam have seen them on that tricycle birthday?

Maybe I will tell my granddaughter about the flashy red birds that lived in my backyard. Maybe we’ll see some just like it. Perhaps she’ll grow up with different flocks, and won’t believe such a thing could exist in her part of the world. Probably we’ll both be surprised at what we find, and grateful for the chance to wonder at it.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

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I’ve got species preservation on the brain lately, and I’m not the only one. The story arc of humanity as stewards is everywhere. Maybe it starts on the big screen, with Russell Crowe as Noah, rescuing fauna from cataclysm. Over on the book shelf, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History traces the evolution of human understanding of what brings new species to life and what makes them disappear. Darwin and his predecessors established the baseline that earth isn’t populated with a permanent collection, and, now, two hundred years later, E.O. Wilson suggests that human beings are both agents of a wave of mass extinction that might take us down, too.

Now a new chapter is opening: “De-extinction.” This fresh appendage of the human ecology toolkit is growing in the favorable climate of knowledge and technology for manipulating genetic material. The criteria (as listed by The Long Now Foundation, a research sponsor) are careful, but broadly defined: DNA available from samples 500,000 or less years old; habitat available; culturally appropriate. The reasons for these restoration efforts are as diverse as the candidates. Wooly mammoths might help restore the northern grasslands ecosystems. The gastric-brooding frog could be useful for medical research. Passenger pigeons could boost ecosystem, just by looking pretty.

If it delivers on these promises, then selective de-extinction could be a step forward for humanity’s stewardship of the ecosystems we need and know. Or, does embracing de-extinction pull science backward, to when we thought that species simply appeared (or disappeared)—when we didn’t understand that extinction and speciation are functions of time. Species occupy niches in the historic landscape. Whatever we can conjure with DNA samples and stem cells, we can’t re-shape time itself. And we know from recent episodes of species introductions, like the infamous cane toad in Australia, that a misplacement can wreak havoc. Will the wooly mammoth really carry the healthy grassland of hundred thousand years ago back to Europe? Or is this the ecological equivalent of dragging that circa 1970 olive green sleeper couch out of the basement and trying to stuff it into a studio loft?

Surely the proponents of de-extinction, and the opponents too, have considered this and could make strong cases for whether we’re advancing or reverting in our actions. But quibbling over that is in itself a misplaced interpretation of evolution and time. There really isn’t forward and backward in the loopy realm of ecological cycles. Today it’s a fur-friendly freeze, and tomorrow it’s a fad for flashy feathers. Among our other adaptive traits, we humans have carried through our era strong streaks of affection, imagination, optimism, and a bit of hubris. De-extinction may just be the latest presentation of those traits, and whether the projects turn out to be of flutters of hope or the wings of ecological revolution, it is only natural that we give them a test flight.

What cool creature do you want to revive? Check out the de-extinction Candidate Checklist at the Long Now Foundation.

Stacks

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In grade school, research was the stuff you had to get through before you could start to write. Now it’s a part of the process I relish. I like discovering new ideas and learning new concepts. But the research process feeds the part of me that craves some instant gratification, and some of the physical markers of productivity that I miss when I spend hours tapping pixelated characters onto a glowing screen —and then deleting most of them a week or an hour or a minute later.

Perhaps because I value research as a tangible part of the writing process, I especially like spending an afternoon, or two, or four in the library, foraging for books. A couple of weeks ago I visited from just about every corner of the local library. I built a rainbow stack: illustrated encyclopedia of Chinese mythology from the children’s reference collection, a pocket-sized meteorological field guide, a handsome green hardcover on the philosophy of “cloudspotting,” textbooks on climate change, and a couple of glossy magazines. I thump those down on a nice bench by the windows, and then comes the best part —digging in.I love cracking the stiff spine of a shiny new hardcover, or fluttering the clothy corners of a well-used paperback under my thumb. Smooth-paged texts smell like glue, and heavy papery volumes give off a whiff of potatoes and dirt.

Rewarding and rich as the physical search is for me, I’ll admit this type of info-hunting has its limits. I’m lucky to live a short walk or ride from several well-shelved libraries, but even then my bookbag is only so big, and the roads turn to impassable slush every three to five days. So I’m luckier still that my access to information doesn’t stop on a snowy Sunday. I can lift the lid of my laptop and open a portal to a massive collection that never shuts down, without spending a cent or an ounce of effort.

Of course, that’s not a new development for technology and not even a new one to me. I cobbled together many undergrad papers with JStor (and diet cola), and I’ve spent more than a few afternoons dallied in citation hopping via Google Scholar. Just recently, however, I’ve started to appreciate the full range of tools and resources that are available.

Diversity and convenience are the chief virtues of the virtual, but those don’t satisfy everything I want in a research expedition. I’ve used online databases for a long time, and yet I still need the library to make reading feel real. As I branch out to new (to me) tools and resources, I’m finding that I can come closer to approximating that multi-sensory satisfaction of capturing a source and making it my own. Part of the experience of a treasure is making one’s mark, whether it’s a fingerprint on the dusty cover, a sticky flag or an exuberant scribble, so whoever decided that e-comments should look like PostIt squares and highlighters default to neon yellow had readers like me in mind. Now I’m starting to play with specialized search engines that let me make maps or collages of results or key words , note-taking software that lets me dog-ear and highlight my favorite webpages, and a growing “e-brary” that allows me to put a digital text on my own online shelf, flip through page by page, and mark up my favorite parts without leaving my desk. I’ll admit my old-fashioned heart fluttered when I saw the “Export Citation” button on a publications database, and then the drop-down menu let me choose APA or MLA.

An online research hunt can take me farther afield than my Bean boots will carry me and allows me to stack up more material than I could ever carry. With the time I save I suppose I should be able to read twice as much, or I maybe I should go outside and stretch my legs.

For meta-nerdery, research new digital research toys at: http://dirt.projectbamboo.org/

Groundtruthing with a Raw Data Diet

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Pretty soon, you might find that your garden is gossiping about you, says PLEASED, an outfit that is advancing plant cyborg technology. Last week, you found some thoughts here about an e-tattoo that could read humans’ unspoken thoughts, via electric impulses picked up at your vocal cords. PLEASED is taking eavesdropping to a new kingdom, to translate electric impulses to find out what plants are “thinking.”

In some fields,* plants are the experts. They’ve developed sensitive sensors for light, moisture, acidity, and more. Electric signals are part of the response to stimuli. PLEASED—PLants Employed as Sensing Devices— is tapping into that information and creating a network that harvests data from many plants to create a profile of the environmental conditions in the area. They are starting now with just a few measurements, but they are creating an open dataset to build an inventory of electric responses to stimuli and tools for translating those signals into useful field information.

The system may sound elaborate considering that we have thermometers, and other instruments that help us assess the conditions around us. Plants have evolved to be really good at sizing up their environments because they have to; they live and die by those measurements. Humans have figured out some work-arounds, maybe the simplest of which is that we can move around, say in and out of the shade. Some conditions, however, aren’t easy for us to control or escape. Breaking news from the collective plant kingdom could be very useful in that case, not only for the breadth, depth and accuracy that PLEASED is expecting, but also because vegetable data is as raw as it gets. Some of the biggest ecological questions that humans face have become fraught with media spin, corporate interest, and political posturing. Google “climate change facts” and the words “skeptics,” “denial,” “attacks,” “dangers,” and “myths” pop up everywhere in the first wave of results. Instead of having to weed through the human intrigue and error, “the internet of plants” could be one way to get info from unbiased sources. All the plants know is what they need to know to survive. And that’s what we humans need, too. We might be wise to tune in.

* I planted too many puns in this piece. Forgive me. Bonus prize if you can count them all.

Hearing Her

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[**Spoiler Alert**]

The more I hear people talk about Spike Jonze’s Her, the more I start to think about talking. Many responses to the film focus on what or who the protagonist, Ted, is talking and falling and love with. “She” —Samantha— is a virtual persona with artificial intelligence. Another big question, however, is how he falls in love. Fundamentally, is talk enough to be the basis of a romantic relationship?

I love talking with people I love, but my first reaction to the premise of Her is that I can’t imagine a romantic relationship that was based solely on conversation, with no physical or even visual contact. I could never find the words to describe my emotions fully and adequately, and I could never be sure enough that my partner interpreted those words as I intended. Watching the film, however, reminded me that talking is more than exchanging words, and that a voice is more than the language it speaks. Ted calls Samantha out on one of her signature tics. She inhales sharply before she starts a sentence. Why does she do that, he asks? She doesn’t need oxygen. It’s a funny and clever moment in the film, but it also says suggests something more about the bond that is forming. That breath, and those unique patterns –-albeit artificial ones—are part of what makes the vibrations in Ted’s ear into a being he loves.

Samantha suggests that maybe she picked up quirks like her habit of sharp inhalations from Ted, which calls up one of the easy indictments of this man who falls for his virtual assistant —Samantha’s voice is really a reflection of Ted’s desires, and in the end, this partnership is all in his head.

If the exchange basically is just the product of Ted’s mind, would that mean the relationship isn’t real? Further complicating my thinking here is documentation that the voices in our heads are indeed physically measurable phenomena. Scientists discovered years ago that “covert speech” actually manifests as impulses in the vocal cords. A new e-tattoo patent promises to take those impulses into the outside world, translating them into smartphone commands through a tattoo sensor on the user’s throat. Rather than speaking into the sky as  Bluetooth or GoogleGlass wearers do, someone with this new device could simply think, “I want to check my messages,” and voicemails would play through the earpiece, on cue.

With the aid of a digital translator, intentions could become commands. As Her suggests, a “smart” enough operating system could translate romantic desires to fulfilling responses. The prospect makes me nervous, although it’s hard to pinpoint why. In my experience, quick decisions aren’t always good decisions. And if my ideas can become a physical reality within milliseconds, then mistakes can escape the confines of my mind, and perhaps affect other people, too.  Do I really want my new music playlist to start when my friend launches into a long story about her conference call at work? Instant gratification and instant distraction might not be a good thing for me, or for the people I care about, and I could fall into before I had a chance to give it a second thought.

In the end of the movie, Ted and Samantha are allowed second thoughts. They experience pain at the end of their partnership, but they have the option to retreat to the comfort of other companions —he to his flesh-and-blood neighbor and she to the communal artificial consciousness that she shares with “other operating systems.” Still there’s a suggestion of the danger that was nearly averted, that Ted’s retreat to his friend’s arms and to the rooftop of the apartment building represents a narrow escape from virtual, romantic entrapment.

The theater was remarkably silent at as the screen faded to black, quiet enough that I think my ears caught a quick, sharp breath before the credits rolled. Maybe it was on the soundtrack —one last message from Samantha. Maybe it was a collective sigh in the audience, relieved that our smartphones couldn’t hear us. Maybe it was only in my head.