Farewell and Thanks for Reading

This will be my final post here at PLOS Blogs. It’s been a great couple of years, but sadly PLOS has decided to change the licensing rules that govern its blogs, and the new arrangement just doesn’t work for me as a freelance journalist.

When I was first invited to blog at PLOS, I had mixed feelings. I was honored to join such an illustrious gaggle of journalists and bloggers, among them Seth Mnookin, Steve Silberman, John Rennie, Emily Anthes, Deb Blum, Misha Angrist, and David Kroll. But I was conflicted about writing for free on a site that turns a profit for someone else.

I rationalized it like this: I was already blogging for free, at a WordPress site I’d just launched. Here was a chance to do the same thing, but with built-in traffic, a great group of colleagues, and free tech support. I climbed on board, and I’m grateful for the support, platform, and readership.

Since then, though, I’ve become even more uncomfortable with this whole economy of undervaluing content. In addition to everything else egregious about the widespread practice of offering writers no compensation but “exposure,” I’m now convinced it creates an overall atmosphere of unprofessionalism–which in turn can blur lines, leading all parties to feel a little clueless about the nature of the relationship. I may be alone here, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this climate contributed to recent episodes of bad behavior. I’m certainly not excusing anyone: “Don’t be a creep,” as Laura Helmuth so eloquently put it, is still a basic and irrevocable rule of behavior. But, I mean, really: How can anyone feel good about themselves, or take themselves seriously as a professional, when they’re being told their work is effectively worth nothing?

All of this has been weighing on me. And then PLOS decided to change its licensing rules. Until now, this blog has operated under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC license.

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

But as of tomorrow, the blogs will operate under the same license as the rest of PLOS, CC BY. Under these terms, someone could take my words, which no one paid me to write, and use them to make money themselves. I understand PLOS’s desire to streamline its licensing, and I see why this makes sense in the context of the open access mission. If I were an academic, I’d probably be fine with it.

As someone who earns a living solely as a freelance writer, though, I just can’t do it. Even if it’s only a theoretical objection (I mean, really, who’s going to make money off my blog posts?), it’s still a valid one: I’d be saying it’s okay to give away my work for free so someone else can profit from it. Logically, it doesn’t make sense.

I’ll be relaunching Tooth & Claw elsewhere eventually–though for now I’m a little overcommitted, between writing feature stories and taking care of my son, who was born in August. For now, thanks for reading.

Category: Journalism, Tooth and Claw | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

We Cannot Change Physics

412_DSP_Weather_005, 07/27/2006
As a freelance journalist, I often choose the subjects I write about. Sometimes, though, editors come to me with ideas. Which means I occasionally end up writing bizarre stories on topics I never would have considered otherwise. Last fall, I was contacted by an editor at a “creative agency” in London. One of their clients was a Swedish manufacturer of ski helmets, for whom they had produced three issues–one per year–of a strange but really well-executed little magazine. The most recent issue had been about “the way in which natural and manmade shapes and spaces impact on our lives,” whatever that means.

The next edition, the editor said, would be about “power.” Would I like to write an essay about power in nature? The story should include an exploration of “energy, forces and phenomenons,” should “explore the physics behind power,” and would ideally conclude with a discussion of how we can harness natural energy as a sustainable resource. Part of me was like, “Um, no way.” But part of me was intrigued; I liked the idea of writing something that was entirely free from the “why are we writing about this now?” dictum that governs most of my journalism work. And, you know, it came with a paycheck. So why not, right?

I have no idea what happened to the magazine. As far as I know, it never was published. The editor no longer replies to my email, after I made a fuss about getting said paycheck sometime this century. (I did ultimately get paid. But it wasn’t exactly hassle-free.) But since I bothered to write the damn thing, I thought I would let it see the light of day. Possibly it sucks beyond compare. Possibly there’s a germ of something interesting in it. Who knows. It’s wholly unedited, potentially unreadable, but may at the very least serve as a window onto the weird career I continue to cling to, despite the piles of evidence that you have to be slightly nuts to keep plugging away at it.

Here’s the essay.

Open your window in a city, and you can see, hear, and smell the energy. Not the buzz of ambition and social interactions — though there’s that too, of course. But the literal energy: the stuff that’s running the cars and lights and laptops and subways. Take a mental step backward, and you can start to envision the energy embodied within the city, in our homes, offices, possessions. Energy was used to mine raw materials (steel for high-rises, copper for wires, lithium for batteries, platinum for the chemical reactions that produce clothing, medicine, tires), to ship them, to assemble them into components of urban life. The energy in our built environments is everywhere; it’s tangible.

Now venture out into nature — to a field, a forest, a seashore. There, the energy might not be as immediately apparent. We might sense nature’s power — in the waves, the wind, the trees that tower above. But the exact presence of energy is somewhat hidden. It’s not like a high-def TV, where our basic modern knowledge tells us that electricity — energy from a coal-fired power plant, say — is making the system run.

There’s no more ubiquitous force in nature, though, than energy. Energy grows the forest and brews the thunderstorm and holds the hawks aloft and propels the throng of wildebeests across the savannah. Energy rules the earthworm and the earthquake, the snowflake and the avalanche, the northern white rhinoceros and the northern lights. We tend to think of the natural world as a big mess of biology. But underpinning it all, the governing force is physics.

“Whenever anything is happening,” wrote E.C. Pielou, an ecologist who studied the physics of nature, “energy is being transferred from one piece of matter to another.” We are all, she wrote, “surrounded all the time by energy transfers.”

Take another look around you. The leaves on the trees are doing chemistry, combining the most basic of ingredients — sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water — in a recipe that yields sugar (for themselves) and oxygen (for people and other oxygen-breathing types). Everything that eats plants — microbes, bugs, birds, mammals — uses those sugars as its own source of energy. Seen this way, that fallen leaf you just stepped on isn’t just nature’s cast-off; it’s the true embodiment of power in the world.

Energy is agnostic about its own outcome. It can just as easily destroy — consuming landscapes in fire, transforming the placid sea into city-submerging waves, converting a virile elk to a heap of bones at the feet of a mountain lion.

Energy is so basic to our world that at the very beginning, the Big Bang, our speck of a universe consisted of nothing else. Fifteen billion years later, we think of our world as consisting largely of things — what physicists would call “matter,” everything from rocks to clouds to ships to dogs to trousers. But as Pielou explains, in a book called “The Energy of Nature,” none of that matter does anything at all without energy. “The salient point about events,” she wrote — and here an “event” can mean anything: a bird calling for a mate, a baby crying, a hailstone hitting your car — “is that without energy they couldn’t happen.”

Massive concepts can be surprisingly tough to grasp. In that way, energy is a bit like God: You get it, but also you can’t comprehend it at all. What exactly is energy, anyway? It’s one of those infuriating terms that are defined by other vague terms — whose definitions just refer back to energy. At a basic level, energy is the capacity to perform work. Work, in physics, is a measurement of force — a measurement that involves the transfer of energy. To make it even more confusing, “power,” which is often used interchangeably with “energy,” is actually a measure of rate: the rate at which energy is moved around.

If our whole world is a spinning ball of moving energy, why do we have an energy crisis? Can’t we simply harness it in smarter ways? The trouble is, we’re fussy. We don’t just want energy. We want power on demand—immediate access to it in particular forms, in particular amounts. Nature doesn’t offer it that way. That’s part of the problem with trying to replace energy from fossil fuels with energy from wind. The wind doesn’t blow all the time, whereas humans can burn coal whenever we need to. Same with the sun, which doesn’t shine ’round the clock (or ever, it sometimes feels like, in London). In some ways, our energy problem is really an issue of storage. If we can just find the right way to store energy from renewable sources, so we have it when we need it, we’ll be set.

One promising new technology mimics photosynthesis with an artificial leaf that turns sunlight into energy that can be stored — just like in a plant. The beauty of this idea stems from its attempt to mimic nature rather than try to outdo it. The device uses sunlight to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen; the hydrogen powers a fuel cell.

Other emerging forms of renewable energy also try to operate within nature’s codes: like wave power, which generates electricity from the energy in ocean waves. Or river turbines, which tap natural currents for energy. Unlike traditional hydropower, which captures water and then releases it, this new type of hydro harnesses a river’s constant flow.

The race for renewable sources of energy is far from over, and the winners may ultimately be those that mimic nature rather than subverting it. Because one thing is certain: we cannot change physics. We can’t overpower the energy of nature. It’s everywhere. Hurricanes will still whip up over the oceans; deep within those same seas, all sorts of critters are bartering energy; the water’s own energy controls the shape of coastlines with its force. Back on land, elephants’ lumbering footsteps reverberate miles away, sending messages in energy to each other, and to countless other creatures that respond to the vibrations with their own energy transfers — feeding, mating, decomposing. Energy runs the world. We just work here.

Photo credit: Eric Vance, EPA Chief Photographer, via Flickr

Category: Energy, Tooth and Claw | Tagged , , | Comments Off

ESA 2013: Ditching the Doom and Gloom for Solutions

Last year’s Ecological Society of America conference featured an onslaught of great but relentlessly depressing science. I couldn’t make it to this year’s meeting, which took place last week in Minneapolis, so I asked science journalist Virginia Gewin to report back. Virginia covers environmental issues — from food security to acidifying oceans to endangered species — from her perch in Portland, Oregon. Here’s her dispatch from ESA. (Thanks, Virginia!)

EJ-Day-3-bird-bones-at-cave-300x201Journalist Virginia Gewin on the job in Hawaii in 2011

 You may recall Hillary’s perilous summation of the 2012 Ecological Society of America conference. Dire, yet sadly dead on. The cataclysmic forecasts last year left a sense of dread and torpor in their wake.

Boarding the flight to Minneapolis for last week’s ESA conference, I prepared myself for more ominous news. But I am happy to report that there was a palpable energy and enthusiasm to this meeting that was a stark contrast to last year’s apocalyptic vibe. So, when Hillary asked for a guest post on the 2013 meeting, I happily agreed.

Perhaps the most striking theme of this meeting was encouraging ecologists to engage in problem-solving. No more sitting on the sidelines chronicling species declines and compromised ecosystem functions. The public needs to be educated. Policies need to be shaped.

To get researchers talking to one another — instead of at one another, as is often the case at scientific conferences — ESA organized “Ignite”-style sessions designed to stimulate idea exchange. Invited speakers had five minutes to make their point with only 20 slides, automatically advanced every 15 seconds. After the talks, the audience participated in an hour-long dialogue.

Topics were solutions-based, ranging from how to realize resilient food systems to how scientists can simultaneously advance ecology and solve environmental problems. I sat in on a few of these sessions and found participants engaged and invigorated as opposed to dismal and defeated.

As well, there was a clear focus on transforming ecologists from data hoarders into data sharers. (In their defense, field data is an ecologist’s livelihood and not to be trifled with.) But it’s fair to say that ESA got a good taste of the growing open access movement, promoting unrestricted access to peer-reviewed scholarly research. One group stood out: rOpenSci. With new funding in hand from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, rOpenSci — run by Karthik Ram, Carl Boettiger, Scott Chamberlain, and Ted Hart — is building open-source statistical computing and visualization software that will allow ecologists to access data locked in the literature and easily share data.

The team took ESA by storm. They had 3 workshops, an Ignite session, a special session and a drink up, all focused on their goal of making science more reproducible. They reason that if researchers can share data as well as the computer code used to conduct analyses on big data sets, the science will move much faster.

Finally, there was a noticeable trend toward identifying and fostering resilience in ecosystems rather than focusing solely on their fragility. For example, I wrote about a proposal to have botanical gardens “chaperone” assisted migration as a way to surmount the fears of unintended invasions or disease transmission that plague this controversial idea.

I was reeling from the innovative, forward-thinking on display in Minneapolis. But, as I’ve reflected on it over the past few days, it’s clear that ecologists have quite simply gotten real: forgoing their doom-and-gloom soothsayer status and embracing the need to prepare for what will undoubtedly be starkly different future climate and resource conditions.

This year’s bottom line: change is a-coming and ecologists are on the frontlines scouting out possible paths forward.

Photo credit: Jon Letman

Category: Conservation, Tooth and Claw | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Thanks So Much, SEJ!

I’m honored that the Society for Environmental Journalism (SEJ) selected my story “Attack of the Mutant Pupfish” as the recipient of its 2013 Award for Reporting on the Environment in the Outstanding Feature Story category. The article ran in Wired magazine, and I’m exceedingly grateful to Wired and especially to my editor, Adam Rogers, for both recognizing the story’s potential and shaping it into something far better than whatever I originally turned in. The piece was one in a series of stories I wrote during 2012 as part of a larger project, funded by the Alicia Patterson Foundation, about the shifting sands of conservation; that project was titled “The Evolution Fix: Saving Nature in the DNA Era.”

There’s some great backstory to the pupfish tale, which I blogged back when the story ran. I’m reposting it here.

——

In the December issue of Wired magazine, I’ve got a story about saving species in the DNA era, a time when longstanding ideas about conservation–what we’re trying to protect, how to protect it–may no longer apply. The story is about whether it’s okay–even necessary–to mess with wild species’ genes in order to save them. It hinges on the Devils Hole pupfish, a tiny creature with a storied history.

Its home is part of Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, a desert oasis that houses the highest number of endemic species (two dozen) in the U.S. Bathtub-warm springs bubble up from belowground in more than 50 locations and wind among mesquite trees, occasionally opening into small turquoise ponds. In the early 1960s, entrepreneurs used these pools as nurseries for tropical aquarium fish.

A desert oasis


Over the years, other intrepid types moved to this high slice of the Mojave with grand get-rich visions: they farmed and grazed it, they moved earth and water to mine for peat, they sold its soil for cat litter. (This last industry persists nearby: your cat may be doing his business right now on a shovelful of Ash Meadows zeolite.) In the late ‘60s, expanding agriculture tapped the aquifer and caused water levels to drop in Devils Hole, and conservation-minded folks began to worry about the future of the fish. It was listed as endangered in 1967, even before the Endangered Species Act. The real threat to the landscape came a few years later, when developers descended with plans to build Calvada Lakes—an entirely new town of more than 30,000 homes built on 14 square miles of pavement in the middle of nowhere.

Ash Meadows Wildlife Preserve was almost paved over


For more than a decade, an epic land-use war unfolded: federal agencies, state agencies, local capitalists, U.S. Representatives, the Supreme Court. At issue was whether an inch-long fish’s right to water trumped all other claims. Battle lines were drawn in bumper stickers: “Save the Pupfish” and “Kill the Pupfish.” In 1976, one Nevada newspaper goaded readers to dump toxic chemicals into Devil’s Hole, to obliterate the scaly impediment to progress. “An appropriate quantity of rotenone dumped into that desert sinkhole,” the editorial read, “would effectively and abruptly halt the federal attempt at usurpation.”

In a landmark decision that year, the Supreme Court granted the pupfish senior water rights – the first nonhuman species to gain legal rights to water – turning it into a tiny icon in the annals of American conservation. Seven years later, The Nature Conservancy, with 11th-hour help from a Congressional appropriation, managed to buy the land, which is now a federal wildlife preserve.

And yet, despite having won its home and saved the ecosystem, despite having gone all the way to Washington and into history books, the Devils Hole pupfish is still flailing.

Want to know why? Keep reading

Andrew Martin, an evolutionary biologist at the University Colorado and the protagonist of the Wired story


Okay, this is actually an Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish, not the Devils Hole version. But whether they’re actually distinct species is a controversial topic.

Category: Tooth and Claw | 1 Comment

Countdown to The Science Writers’ Handbook

Late next month, The Science Writers’ Handbook will finally hit stores. It’s a labor of love by a group of freelance science journalists, and a pretty amazing treatise on, as the book’s subtitle says, “Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age.” I’m proud to have contributed a chapter (on coping with rejection–a necessary skill!), and excited for the book to go out into the world. In the meantime, the same group of writers is amassing an impressive collection of postings on related topics–from how to survive a conference cocktail reception to how to spend two weeks in the field with nothing but a daypack. Earlier this week, I posted some thoughts on dealing with crappy writing contracts. I’m re-posting them here, partly because of the email response I’ve received, and partly because I think this is one of most important and most perilously overlooked aspects of a freelance writer’s job.

Besting Bad Contracts

(republished from the website pitchpublishprosper.com)

One of the biggest mistakes a freelancer can make has nothing to do with pitching or interviewing or how to structure a story. It has nothing at all to do with the actual craft of journalism. It involves the contract.

It’s happened to the best of us. We’re excited to have landed an assignment, so much so that when the contract arrives, we eagerly sign it—without actually reading what we’re signing. Or, if we do read it, it doesn’t occur to us to amend it; all we’re interested in is the deadline, word count, and fee.

The thing is, contracts are incredibly important. They lay out what happens if the piece is killed and what kind of legal and financial risk you might be assuming. They dictate whether you’re retaining the copyright to your work and what kind of compensation (if any) you’ll receive if a publication sells your story to a sister publication, a foreign edition, or even for TV or film development.

What’s more, contracts are not set in stone. There is no harm in asking for changes. No one is going to revoke an assignment because you ask to alter the wording of the contract. It may be that the publisher simply won’t budge. Until, that is, enough writers make a fuss–so it’s always best to take issue with anything unfair. (Mark Schrope has some great tips on how to negotiate a better contract in Chapter 21 of The Science Writers’ Handbook.)

Even if the contract turns out to be non-negotiable, you still have options: you can opt to bow out of the assignment. That seems drastic, but I guarantee you that exercising free will can be empowering—lost paycheck notwithstanding.

What to watch for: indemnity and rights

Endless crazy things show up in contracts. I recently saw (and successfully changed) a clause stating that if the magazine killed my story and paid only 25% of my fee, I was nonetheless barred from reselling the story for three months. That’s absurd. I would never sign such a thing, and neither should you.

More often, the pitfalls lie with indemnity clauses. These are how publishers try to cover their asses. They basically say that in the event of a lawsuit over your work, the publication will take absolutely no responsibility, won’t go to bat for you, and won’t shell out a dime on legal fees. An indemnity clause reads something like this:

You shall defend, indemnify and hold harmless [publication X and its parent company] from and against all claims, losses, costs, settlements, suits, demands and liabilities of every kind, including reasonable attorneys’ fees and expenses, arising out of or incurred by reason of the inaccuracy, alleged breach, or actual breach of any representation, warranty, covenant, agreement, or undertaking made by you herein.

In other words, you, the lowly writer, agree to put everything you own—your life savings, your house, whatever—on the line while the deep-pocketed corporation that already has lawyers working for it risks nothing. The corporation trusts you enough to publish your story and sell advertising against it, but not enough to take any associated financial risk.

Always, always, always ask to strike the indemnity clause from the contract. As a general rule, I won’t sign a contract with an indemnity clause–at least not this extreme type. A paycheck of a few thousand dollars is hardly worth risking everything I own, however slim the chance of an actual lawsuit or related fees. I’ve occasionally turned down work because of a non-negotiable indemnity clause. I’ve also negotiated for a less-egregious version of the clause. A reasonable indemnity clause looks something like this: You agree to indemnify the publication

from any and all judgements finally sustained by a court, after appeal, for any actual breach of obligation made hereunder

Instead of you being solely responsible to any crazy person who complains, you are responsible when you actually screwed up and it’s been proven by a court. That seems a lot more sane and fair.

The other thing to pay close attention to is rights. Contracts are generally either “work made for hire”—in which you give up all rights to the article—or “first serial rights,” which means that the publisher has exclusive rights for a set period (generally 90 days, but this too is negotiable), after which the rights revert to you. The publisher may retain “nonexclusive” rights after that, which means both you and the publisher can resell or republish the piece.

As a writer, your copyright is really all you have. Why would you give it away? I avoid signing “work made for hire” contracts whenever possible. Publishers often have two versions of their standard contract and will send you the “bad” version first, on the assumption that you’ll blindly sign it. Always ask for the “good” version, the one that gives exclusive rights only for a set period of time.

The best approach to negotiating contracts is to be as professional as possible. Your editor isn’t trying to screw you over. In fact, chances are she isn’t even aware of the exact terms. Explain as clearly and diplomatically as possible what you want to change and why. But don’t apologize. This is a business transaction, and your job is to get the best possible terms for yourself as a professional. Decide beforehand what you will and won’t accept. It will make your negotiating position stronger.

Category: Journalism, Tooth and Claw | Tagged , , | Comments Off

#themeinmedia

How much “I” is TMI? That’s the question Jacquelyn Gill and I are posing at our ScienceOnline2013 session this Saturday. When Jacquelyn first posted the idea on the conference planning wiki sometime last year, I was intrigued. She was coming at it from a scientist’s perspective; wondering, for instance, “What are the advantages or disadvantages of ‘professional-only’ interactions online, versus personal ones?” But I was interested as a journalist. As I wrote then,

How much opinion is too much? As more of us are likely to be jumping between different media — magazine features (where voicing a point of view is crucial), newspaper articles (where “objectivity” is the rule), blogging/Twitter (where I, for one, tend not to hold back–but keep my subject matter pretty narrow), etc — I think it’d be great to talk about how to strike a balance, remain true to your voice, and not have what you do for one outlet come back to bite you in the ass at another.

Many of us struggle with how much of ourselves to put online. As a freelance journalist, I write for dozens of different publications, which want varying degrees of my opinion. When I write science articles for The New York Times, I like to think my voice comes through in the storytelling; but though the pieces are features, they’re relatively objective. They’re not making an argument. They’re presenting the facts, albeit according somewhat to my interpretation, and in what I hope is my recognizable voice.

But magazines, on the other hand, want me to take a stand. When they commission a story, they’re also paying (in part) for my point of view. That needn’t involve writing in first-person, but it does mean putting more of myself on the page, and attracting the ire of readers who disagree.

Then there’s blogging and Twitter and all the rest of it. What goes where? If I really must rant about something, where to do it? Is there ever value to a public rant?

Last year, I blogged about my frustrating experiences with women’s magazines. I’d decided to hell with it—if editors didn’t want to hire me after my post, so be it. In fact, several editors contacted me afterward asking me to write for them, so I think the extra dose of “I” may have actually helped in that case. But I was aware of the risk.

But what about other situations? Lately, I’ve been on a bit of a mission to make writing contracts more writer-friendly. Many writers, especially those who are new to it, assume the only thing to do with a contract is sign and date it. But contracts are often negotiable. And the more people who contest unfair clauses, the better it is for all writers. So how much of a rabble-rouser should I be? Is tweeting or blogging about contracts too far afield of my subject matter as a journalist? Or perfectly appropriate given my status as a journalist?

I’m looking forward to a fun discussion. If you’re at Science Online, stop by and chat with us on Saturday afternoon. Or follow along on Twitter: #themeinmedia.

Category: Journalism, Tooth and Claw | Tagged , , | Comments Off

A Tiny Icon of the Conservation Movement


In the December issue of Wired magazine, I’ve got a story about saving species in the DNA era, a time when longstanding ideas about conservation–what we’re trying to protect, how to protect it–may no longer apply. The story is about whether it’s okay–even necessary–to mess with wild species’ genes in order to save them. It hinges on the Devils Hole pupfish, a tiny creature with a storied history.

Its home is part of Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, a desert oasis that houses the highest number of endemic species (two dozen) in the U.S. Bathtub-warm springs bubble up from belowground in more than 50 locations and wind among mesquite trees, occasionally opening into small turquoise ponds. In the early 1960s, entrepreneurs used these pools as nurseries for tropical aquarium fish.

A desert oasis


Over the years, other intrepid types moved to this high slice of the Mojave with grand get-rich visions: they farmed and grazed it, they moved earth and water to mine for peat, they sold its soil for cat litter. (This last industry persists nearby: your cat may be doing his business right now on a shovelful of Ash Meadows zeolite.) In the late ‘60s, expanding agriculture tapped the aquifer and caused water levels to drop in Devils Hole, and conservation-minded folks began to worry about the future of the fish. It was listed as endangered in 1967, even before the Endangered Species Act. The real threat to the landscape came a few years later, when developers descended with plans to build Calvada Lakes—an entirely new town of more than 30,000 homes built on 14 square miles of pavement in the middle of nowhere.

Ash Meadows Wildlife Preserve was almost paved over


For more than a decade, an epic land-use war unfolded: federal agencies, state agencies, local capitalists, U.S. Representatives, the Supreme Court. At issue was whether an inch-long fish’s right to water trumped all other claims. Battle lines were drawn in bumper stickers: “Save the Pupfish” and “Kill the Pupfish.” In 1976, one Nevada newspaper goaded readers to dump toxic chemicals into Devil’s Hole, to obliterate the scaly impediment to progress. “An appropriate quantity of rotenone dumped into that desert sinkhole,” the editorial read, “would effectively and abruptly halt the federal attempt at usurpation.”

In a landmark decision that year, the Supreme Court granted the pupfish senior water rights – the first nonhuman species to gain legal rights to water – turning it into a tiny icon in the annals of American conservation. Seven years later, The Nature Conservancy, with 11th-hour help from a Congressional appropriation, managed to buy the land, which is now a federal wildlife preserve.

And yet, despite having won its home and saved the ecosystem, despite having gone all the way to Washington and into history books, the Devils Hole pupfish is still flailing.

Want to know why? Keep reading

Andrew Martin, an evolutionary biologist at the University Colorado and the protagonist of the Wired story


Okay, this is actually an Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish, not the Devils Hole version. But whether they’re actually distinct species is a controversial topic.

Category: Conservation, Journalism, The West, Water | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off

Farish Jenkins Was Truly Sui Generis


Sometimes you can know someone only barely, and still feel the weight of loss when they die. I only met Farish Jenkins three times, but I’m heavyhearted after learning that he passed away this weekend.

An evolutionary biologist at Harvard and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the university’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, Jenkins is best known as part of the team that discovered Tiktaalik roseae, a 380-million-year-old fossil that represents the evolution of fish onto land. (Here’s Carl Zimmer, back in 2006, writing about the find.) But to me, Jenkins was a missing link himself–a connection to an earlier era in which people were charming and polite and wore suit vests.

Jenkins came to speak to my group of Knight Science Journalism fellows at MIT in the fall of 2010. There were 12 of us, and before each of our twice-weekly colloquia, we went around the room and briefly introduced ourselves to the speaker. In Jenkins’ case, it was unnecessary. Not only had he read the Knight program brochure that featured each of our photos and short bios, he’d memorized it. So Jenkins knew, for instance, before Wojciech Mikołuszko introduced himself, that the Polish journalist liked to write about dinosaurs. In a performance that blew our minds before he even began his presentation, Jenkins introduced each of us himself.

His talk, about the Tiktaalik discovery, didn’t just involve fossils and biology. It took us to the field with the scientists–brought us right there to the Canadian Arctic, where we witnessed not just the excitement of discovery but the realities of working in remote and frigid regions, where, Jenkins told us, you never, never want to be stuck without your flask of vodka. After the talk, Jenkins offered to schedule a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum for us. So on a chilly February day, we journeyed with the ultimate tour guide through the university’s collections.



You could open pretty much any drawer in the vast floor-to-ceiling cabinets of the vertebrate collection, and Jenkins could tell you exactly what was inside. The species, where it was found, some fascinating little detail about its biology.

Jenkins and the skull of some long-lost creature

The original type skull of Gorilla gorilla

Mary Carmichael makes some friends at Harvard

A month or so later, I was late for a meeting with evolutionary biologist Hopi Hoekstra, hopelessly adrift in Harvard’s maze of time-worn zoology buildings. I was standing like an idiot in a random hallway, trying to decide which way to go, when Jenkins emerged from a stairwell and smiled at me. He asked what I was doing there. “Looking for Hopi,” I said. He recited some directions, which I could’ve sworn involved the phrase “turn left at the camel’s derriere.” I must’ve looked even more confused, because he decided to escort me to my destination himself. We descended a flight of stairs, opened some sort of secret back door, and emerged into the public museum.

For the second time that year, I tagged along beside Jenkins through narrow hallways lined with cases of dead animals. We zigged and zagged passed all manner of birds and mammals, and then we arrived at another door. “Camel’s derriere,” he proclaimed. And there it was, on our right, the back end of a stuffed camel. An explorer’s signpost. He led the way through the door, up some more stairs, and into a hallway that led to Hoekstra’s office. He popped his head in. “I deliver to you one lost Knight fellow,” Jenkins said. Then he was off.

As my fellow Knight fellows have written in emails we’ve exchanged about Farish today, he was a rare, inimitable character who made science a joy. His loss is all of ours.

(Top photo credit: Matt McGrath)

Category: Evolution, Journalism, Tooth and Claw | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

The Music of Microbes

How to cope with absurd amounts of data may be the defining problem of 21st-century science. As a systems biologist who uses computational modeling to find patterns in data, Peter Larsen works in the smoldering core of that problem. He also really likes jazz. While he sits in his office at Argonne National Laboratory, thinking about how to find patterns in data—and how to present those patterns in a way that means something to other humans—he often listens to jazz.

When microbiologist Jack Gilbert, Larsen’s colleague, asked about the possibility of using music to represent patterns of microbial diversity—in data from a long-running project in the Western English Channel—Larsen saw an immediate connection to jazz. Classical music is “very structured,” says Larsen. “And microbial life is not as structured.” But microbial life does have repeating motifs—daily, seasonally, pegged to longer-term El Nino or La Nina cycles. “These are very amenable,” says Larsen, “to the kind of musical approach of something like jazz.”

So Larsen made music out of microbial life in the sea.

Just to back up for a second: The data, collected by Gilbert and others, is part of an effort to examine the microbes that live in the Earth’s oceans, soils, and air. Microbes are the dominant form of life on this little planet of ours–there are roughly a nonillion of them (that’s a one with 30 zeroes)–and they’re largely responsible for how nutrients and energy and all kinds of vital chemicals move around. The English Channel project involves sequencing DNA found in the seawater and trying to piece together a sense of how some of these microbial systems work. How do thevarious organisms interact with one another? How do they respond to changing conditions like temperature, nutrients, acidity? The research generates terabytes upon terabytes of data.

To turn some of it into music, Larsen mapped environmental conditions–daylight, temperature, phosphorous level–to specific chords. When the conditions change, the chords change. Then he took the microbial concentrations at each of those environmental conditions—how much of a certain type of microbe exists at a certain temperature, say—and mapped each one to a scale. The chords play in a particular scale, depending on how the environmental conditions affect the size of the microbe communities. “The same population would sound different in the key of sunlight,” says Larsen, “than in the key of nitrogen.” The key of sunlight? That’s genius.

Finding a way to express the beauty of these systems really struck a chord (sorry) with Larsen. “Scientists are reluctant to use the words beautiful in a context of analysis,” he says, but the music allows people to understand “that these systems are in and of themselves beautiful.”

His favorite composition is called “Fifty Degrees North, Four Degrees West”—the coordinates designating the sample site in the Channel.

“In that one, there is a chord progression that is taken from the environmental parameters over the course of a year,” Larsen explains, “along with a series of five different melodies.” Each melody represents the relative abundance of a different group of microbes. As the year progresses, the pattern of chords repeats under the melody.

Larsen was initially surprised by the flurry of interest in this work. But he thinks he understands what’s going on. “This has identified a hunger for representing complex data in simple ways,” he says. I couldn’t agree more. Music tells a story, and stories are how humans make sense of the world.

Category: Conservation, Evolution, Tooth and Claw, Water | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

To Sum Up: We Are Screwed. Questions?

I love ecology. I can geek out all day on patterns in nature: ecosystem services, food webs, eco-evolutionary dynamics, nutrient cycles, range shifts. But I’ve spent all week at the Ecological Society of America’s annual conference in Portland, and I have to confess it’s been rough.

As a journalist who covers the environment, I’m used to depressing news. Natural systems are shifting and unraveling; the evidence is all around us. But the mind-blowing number of talks at ESA — five days of sessions from 8 am til 5 pm, with 35 talks often running at the same time (and that’s not including posters) — means that the aggregate amount of depressing news can be enough to overwhelm the staunchest optimist.

It’s not that all the talks are doom and gloom. Many, of course, are about basic research. And there are plenty that focus on solutions: giving nature economic value, collaborating with indigenous peoples, improving science communication, democratizing science by encouraging public participation in research, promoting better conservation decisions to limit unintended consequences. I attended two talks about the Sustainability in Prisons project, an inspiring program in which prisoners raise endangered frogs, plants, and butterflies. (Ed Yong covered it for Nature; check it out.)

But many of them are depressing. And I’m sure I skipped some interesting presentations because I just couldn’t bear to hear one more way in which humans have messed things up for Earth’s other gazillion species. Open to any random page in the program and the titles sink your heart into your gut. “Artificial night lighting disrupts songbird breeding behavior.” “Limited physiological response to warming in lowland tropical frogs.” “Sediment pollution reduces detrital resource availability to consumers in agricultural stream food webs.” Enough, please, stop, mercy, I can’t take it anymore.

Even in the ESA talks that tried to emphasize paths forward, the facts at hand were often grim. Three-quarters of the planet has been modified by humans. Seventy percent of all agricultural land is pasture, but this only produces five percent of the world population’s protein and two percent of its calories. A hatchery program designed to increase salmon numbers is inadvertently contributing to the fish’s decline (because the hatchery-raised fish have far lower reproductive rates).

The official title of this year’s conference is “Life on Earth: Preserving, Utilizing, and Sustaining Our Ecosystems.” But it feels like the unofficial title might be “Life on Earth: How Fucked Are We?”

This is by no means intended as a criticism of the science. I feel deeply grateful to many of these scientists for persisting in their research, which involves painstaking, repetitive, tedious, even hazardous tasks. But the gloom overload raises a pesky question for me as a journalist. If I can’t bear to hear the news, how can I communicate it to the public? What sort of articles — or books — should I be writing? Where is the balance between grim facts and hopeful innovations? How can I continue to write about what I believe is the most important topic of our time while maintaining my sanity?

Category: Conservation, Energy, Evolution, Journalism, Water | Tagged , , | 21 Comments