Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I was a teenage troll, or how I came to accept evolution

Today is both Valentine's Day and my state's 100th anniversary! Happy day! Before that, though, Darwin Day was on Sunday, and I thought I'd share a post on an Arizona teacher I only later came to love. I didn't name names -- I don't know if he'd have wanted me to -- but those who had the same teacher will recognize him, and perhaps there are more like him. Love of science is appropriate for today, anyway, as is Arizonan stubbornness.

My high school years were unremarkable. I didn’t hate them, but they certainly weren’t my glory days. Still, everyone has standout memories from high school. Some of mine -- crashing a school dance, cliques, that one class you take because the teacher lets you ditch -- are fairly universal. Others -- rattlesnake awareness days, meeting friends at a desert lake at the end of a precipitous dirt-road drive or at a restaurant called “The Feedbag,” cowboy fights breaking out at lunch -- might be more local, but folks from my school will recognize them.

The ones I remember the most are a little more unique. The Time I Forgot to Wear Pants. The Pavlov Drooling Experiment in Math Class. The Time My Science Teacher Gave me the Silent Treatment, Forcing me to Accept Evolution and Reality.

Because yesterday was Darwin Day, We’ll focus on that last one today. Sorry if you wanted to hear the pants story.

This may come as a shock to anyone who has experienced one of my diatribes against science haters of all stripes -- but in high school, I went through a brief, extremely enthusiastic, and very embarrassing creationist phase.

Our biology teacher probably wouldn’t survive in today’s school system, at least not with the recent revival of creationist fervor. This was a guy who focused pointedly and heavily on biological evolution, a guy who made it known to anyone who asked that he was an atheist, a guy who drew Darwin fish in everyone’s yearbooks. When a student in class sneezed, he didn’t just refrain from the mildly religious “God bless you.” He said “Go to Hell.” He was an anti-theist, before I knew that there was such a thing.

His class was revered and reviled in equal measure. His worksheets were legendary. The labs were long and difficult, but invariably fascinating. He had a seemingly endless collection of formaldehyde-preserved animals -- hag fish, worms, bony fish, sea urchins, snakes, a shark. When a handful of us saw Peter Benchley’s Beast on television and pestered him about squid the next day, he broke out the squid-in-a-jar so we could see that squid did, in fact, have small curved claws on some of their suckers.

And he was weird. During our fetal pig lab, he offered (seriously, it seemed) “five bucks to anyone who can suck on their pig’s nose till the head caves in.” When my lab partner needed to refill a chemical at our station, he sent her to the refrigerator. She had to reach behind what appeared to be giant fleshy grapefruits. They turned out to be immense ram testicles. In his fridge, for some reason. I think his lunch was in there too.

On test days, he wore all black. He liked to talk about “masticating” whenever he got the chance, knowing what we all mistook that word for. He looked like Satan.

I’m serious. He had salt-and-pepper hair when we knew him, and wore plaid shirts (except for test days) and glasses, but even then we thought he looked like a particularly mischievous Devil, with the goatee perfectly trimmed for the effect. When we found an old faculty photo with all-black hair and goatee, we wondered why the writeup didn’t include “soul contracts signed this year.”

Still, I thought he was an eccentric genius -- until I got it into my head that this “EVILution” stuff was bullshit, and took it upon myself to write a ridiculously lengthy report to that effect. I titled it “A Fairy Tale for Adults,” because originality wasn’t my strong suit at the time. While normal teenagers avoided even the assigned homework, I threw in a 20-page, footnoted, completely unnecessary and not-requested report. Because I was a really devoted little shit.

I handed it to another biology teacher (so I was a chicken shit too), who generously read it and (even more generously) added gentle notes throughout. They were all things like “No Kim. This isn’t true,” and “Your sources have not done their research.” I ignored it all. I knew I had The Answer.

I spent the rest of the semester doing dickish things like filling out the worksheets with caveats (Question: Give examples of both parallel and convergent evolution. My answer: SOME SCIENTISTS BELIEVE that the eyes of different animals show convergent evolution…) I asked; while thinking I already had the answers; about complexity, the second law of thermodynamics, and mathematical odds. Basically, I was a troll.

I tried to provoke my teacher. I dropped hints about the “studies” I’d cited in my paper. I knew the teacher I handed the report to had let him read a copy. I knew he had read it. I couldn’t wait for his reaction.

And … I never got one.

He had corrected me on every error I’d ever made. Every slight error on a worksheet, or lab, or exam. Every stupid offhand comment I made once I started my creationist kick. He had a portrait of Darwin behind his desk, for crying out loud. But now, nothing.

I finally asked him about it after classes had wrapped up for the year. He responded by referring to his own initials: B.S. He added, “I think you know better," and that was it.

Then he ignored me. He didn’t speak to me for the entire next year. I didn’t have him that year, but we passed. If I was in a group of people, he’d make a point of saying “Hi, John. Hi, Sarah. Hi, Chris … Well, I’ll see you all later.”

I thought, Wow. He’s mad! I got him good.

But really, it was just that he’d said all he could. That’s it. I was the troll, and he didn’t feed me. And, after a while, it worked. Eventually, I went back to reading real science books, and I abandoned the very appealing feeling of having The Answer™. Real life turned out to be less about membership in a secret, in-the-know club; and more about, well, real life. It was so much more beautiful that way.

That teacher is a big reason I came to accept evolution by natural selection once more. But more than that, he let me -- forced me -- to think for myself. By not rising to my ridiculous bait, by not responding except to indicate that it wasn't worth a scientific response, and by not doing the thinking for me except to present information and model how to think; he forced me to change my mind, because I was wrong. I didn’t see it for years, but that was huge.

My teacher really was weird. And maybe he really did hate me. But I don’t think so. I think he thought quite highly of me. And not just me, but all of us. He knew we were better than this. He knew we were capable of thinking for ourselves, of taking the world both seriously and with a healthy dose of dark humor, of reaping the consequences for saying and doing stupid shit. And by all that was holy (which was nothing in his view, but still), we were going to do so. We were going to be challenged.

He died several years ago, and I never had a chance to go back and thank him. It’s sad that he’d probably be in hot water today. I hope Arizona gets its act together about science education. I hope in high school, my son has "jerk" teachers who push critical thinking and love for the natural world. I guess I can probably fill in until that happens.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Spider Sunday 2-12-12

Another Spider Sunday! Also, happy Darwin Day! Go appreciate some biological diversity today.

Scientists discover "most stretchable" spider silk in Italy
Researchers have identified the most stretchable egg sac ever tested. I'd say I felt like my egg sac was stretched when I was pregnant, but I've been informed that comparing parts of my own anatomy to those of arachnids "really isn't sexy, and you should stop doing it. Seriously. Stop it." Hmph. Anyway, super cool discovery not only because of the spider, but for potential nanomaterials design.

Spiders to remain kings of the castle during restoration work
Clan MacDougall, medieval kings ... and cave spiders! They're restoring an old Scottish castle, and saving the spiders that nest in its wall! Awesome squared.

Le sigh, headline and lede writers
A cobweb-like substance has been found on spent uranium rods at the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina. Cue the Spider-Man references, "mutant spider worries," and headline writers generally losing all desire for accuracy or self control. The substance hasn't even been positively identified, though it does seem to be biological. Even if it was made by a mutated spider, "mutated" to a scientist isn't always what the public imagines when they hear "mutant." No superpower-granting arachnids here, sadly.

In honor of Darwin Day:
A spider found by Darwin 180 years ago, and promptly lost. It was found again.
A spider that was named in honor of Charles Darwin, on the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Also, it spins huge webs from silk that's stronger than Kevlar.

An accessory that might actually capture my interest
Maybe a more flowery example of spider-silk milking to match last week's black widow story -- I've heard of this guy, Simon Peers, a few years ago when he created a scarf with wild-caught orb weavers. Now he's made a golden spider-embroidered cape. Apparently, he was inspired by mid 17th and 19th century accounts of the enormously time-consuming technique. They release all the spiders, too!

That's it for now. More spiders next week. (Or earlier, probably.)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Travel Tuesday: Don Donnelly Stables

A little over twenty years ago, for my eleventh birthday, my parents got me a horse.

Well, not my own horse. My parents weren't crazy.

As a child, I was in love with animals, but I was a little flighty. My parents weren’t ready to take on full-time horse care.

So they did the next best thing. They got me a horseback ride. Not just a ride in circles on a hitched-up pony. A real, mountainside, hours-long horseback ride.

The ride was about two hours, up into the foothills of the Superstition Mountains, and it was led by a guide from Don Donnelly Stables, based in Gold Canyon. It was one of the best birthday presents ever.

Two decades later, I'll admit there was a little nostalgia at play when I first booked the ride for my son and me. A blurry snapshot of me riding over a mountain rise on my horse still occupies a treasured spot in my childhood scrapbook.

Still, at almost 10, my son -- captivated by animals, fascinated by horses, adventurous, and a lot little flighty himself -- seemed like a perfect candidate for the same ride. I scheduled a late-morning two-hour "Tenderfoot" trail ride with ourselves and one other parent-and-child duo.

David spent the rest of that evening looking up instructional videos online. (In case you’re wondering, "How to ride a horse" returns about 26,600 results on YouTube.) He was definitely excited.

Obviously, we didn't have to rely on the Internet. The folks at Don Donnelly's D-Spur Ranch & Riding Stables are experts at helping riders learn the ropes (or reins), and feel at ease with their horses.

Don Donnelly himself, sort of an Arizona John Wayne, was passionate about preserving the desert wilderness, was a natural storyteller and teacher, and had a soft spot for children; so it's only natural that his wife, Shelly, and his stable continue his legacy as ambassadors to the cowboy way of life. It's impossible not to "cowboy up" at Don Donnelly Stables, or at least to want to.

We arrived fifteen minutes before our ride was set to start, signed waivers, and were fitted for helmets. (Helmets are not mandatory, though you do have to sign off that you don’t want to wear one if you choose to decline. We both wore them.)

Our guide, Rusty Bates, gave a brief overview of riding etiquette and demonstrated how to control our neck-reined horses, which are used to following the trail and are trained to respond to very slight pressure from the reins.

The first big hurdle - literally - was mounting our horses. I know David had worried about this, but mounting blocks made it relatively easy. We all swung onto our horses, David onto a Tennessee Walker named Bart and me onto a bay-colored horse named Skip.

From there, Rusty led our little train out of the corral and into the foothills of the Superstitions.

Rusty was a wonderful guide. He talked with my son and me, as well as the other family, throughout the ride, and put us all at ease. Every once in a while, he'd holler back to David, whose horse liked to trot ahead at a faster pace than anyone else, until David reined the eager horse in. By the time we were getting to higher ground, David was controlling Bart with relative ease. These horses know the drill.

We soon began to know our horses’ personalities and feel comfortable with their rocking, sometimes jerky gait, as they stepped surefooted over the rocky terrain. My horse, Skip, was careful going downhill, carefully picking his way over rocks and down the thin strips of trail. On the other hand, he liked to get up a head of steam on the uphills. David’s horse (to my dismay) liked to run both uphill and downhill. We both learned to rein in our horses.

After about an hour, we stopped for a break at a lookout point, ---- and led our horses back down the narrow, meandering trail out of the Superstition Wilderness.

By now, we were comfortable. That’s the beauty of a longer ride. The trip back was as much a sightseeing tour as a trail ride, with Rusty pointing out desert plants (somewhat unnecessary, as our horses liked to run our legs into cactus and our heads into trees) and animals (common sights include javelina, deer, and coyote; we saw rabbits and a few phainopeplas, silky flycatcher birds that resemble black cardinals).

As we rode back to the stables, Rusty carried on easy conversation and stories, right up to the moment we rode back to our mounting blocks. David’s horse decided to get a five-minute drink, with David still mounted, before heading over to be dismounted. David certainly didn’t mind. By this point, he was trying to milk every last second of horseback time he could from the experience. I can’t say I blame him.

If you’re looking for a break from the usual; if you’re looking to splurge on a treat for your kids; if you want desert scenery or if, like me, you’re still secretly that 11-year-old girl who’s in love with horses -- you’ll have a blast at Don Donnelly Stables.

Rides range from Leadline/Greenhorn (1-hour, for beginners) to all-day or overnight trips. Call ahead to reserve a ride at (602) 810-7029. Print the waiver ahead of time at www.dondonnelly.com.

Monday, February 6, 2012


Two facts to know for this story: First, we're hugely pedantic sticklers for accuracy in this family. Seriously, our family has gotten into three-way blowouts over book titles, biology facts, or X-Men character arcs. Facts REALLY matter in this household (even fictional ones). Second, my son goes to public school.

If you think you know where I'm going with this, you might be wrong. I'm a product of public school, and have a bunch of relatives who work or worked in public school. It's usually pretty great. My son's teachers, for the most part, have been wonderful. Even when they aren't great, they're not evil, and I'd rather he learn to deal with difficult people now, when it's just the mean P.E. coach, than for the very first time when he's working for a difficult boss.

No, our district is fantastic, and his experience has been overwhelmingly good. But public anything is filled (even more than private/niche versions) with lots of people with different ideas, with different backgrounds, and different access to information up to this point. This is awesome, 99 percent of the time. It exposes my son to things I'd never know to teach or show him, and I wouldn't want to regulate the information he learns even if I could. Still, even highly qualified teachers, in this diverse setting, might think silly things. These things might make their way into lessons.

My son is a master at weeding out, questioning, and decimating silly assumptions. I am so freaking proud of his talent in this area, you wouldn't even believe it. I can almost see how nutty parents get off on living vicariously through their kids. It's like I get to be an insufferable know-it-all, all over again, as I listen to his stories. It's awesome.

The thing is, he doesn't have an equally high talent for diplomacy.

This has played out around some highly charged topics. However, I am (I hope) slightly more diplomatic than my 9-year-old, so I'll choose a recent example that's not tied to any treasured beliefs. My son learned the other day, in health class, that our blood is actually blue until oxygen hits it. This didn't sound correct to him (Why does shining a strong light through your hand look red? What about blood tests?), so he asked me about it. I told him no, I'm pretty sure that's not quite right. More importantly, I told him the trick is to look up this information, to know where to look, and to know how to recognize a good source. We looked it up together, confirmed that unoxygenated blood, while maybe a darker maroon, is still red. When it carries oxygen it's a brighter red.

He asked all kinds of follow-up questions, not all of which I could answer, and we discussed it for a while longer. He wanted to know how the health teacher got it wrong; and we talked about how even educated, highly intelligent people can get caught up in incorrect assumptions. How there's probably something right now that we both think that's wrong. How it's important to keep an open mind, but not be gullible and fall for every "fact" you hear or read.

Lastly, we discussed how he might broach this topic with his teacher or the other students. (He really, really wanted to broach this topic with his teacher or the other students. He always does.) We talked about how being correct isn't the end of the story. I told him how you mention the topic, and your disagreement, can make all the difference. That it shouldn't be about correcting someone so much as discussing the topic. We role played it. I was the teacher. He decided to tell teacher-me that he was interested in the circulatory system, so he'd gone home and looked at such-and-such reference materials with his mom, and from that, it seems like her fact (veins look blue) is sort of true, but there's more to it (blood isn't, and it doesn't change dramatically when it "hits the air"), and here are those facts. I thought it was pretty good. I was hopeful.

After his next health class, he mentioned the blood thing again.

"Oh! Did you ever ask your teacher about the blue blood fact?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah! We had a sub, but I told the class anyway. One of the other kids said 'Nuh-uh! She TOLD us it was blue.' So I said, 'Well, she's totally wrong! She got her information wrong and that's what happens if you're gullible and fall for hoaxes and stuff!' And I said it's like lying to keep teaching it if we can all find out that it's not true! So NOW I guess they'll all have to go home and look it up for themselves. Haha!"

I'm really sorry, Mrs. Health Teacher.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

(Super) Spider Sunday!

Let's get this show back on the road. I shall start with your favorite topic and mine, spiders!

Well, it's my favorite, anyway.

If I haven't plugged it recently, you all need to get on Google+. It's growing into an awesome place to hang out (pun intended, for Plussers). It's especially good depending on your interests. I'll always troll the internet for science stories, but there are some awesome (and active) experts on G+ in fields ranging from astronomy to entomology. (There's also boring stuff like technology, but who cares about that when you can catch up on the latest in solar flares and spider penises?) And Flickr will retain it's place in my heart, but G+ is great for photography too, from amateur to pro, and the discussions there are fantastic.

Another great thing about my time on Google+ is that I've come to co-curate a weekly spider photography theme, Spider Sunday! (I mentioned it when I last posted, about a million years ago.)

In keeping with the theme, I'm going to start a new Spider Sunday feature to share the latest freaky/cool spider news, articles, pictures, and things I read when I should be working cutting-edge research. Enjoy!

Milking a what?!
Passed onto me by BJ, among others. I can't imagine why anyone would think of me when reading this story. On milking silk from black widow spiders (the spiders, while probably not too pleased, are not harmed) for potential human benefit. Origially posted, fittingly, in the r/WTF subreddit.

It takes (away) balls to mate, if you're a spider.
Well, more like palps. But it certainly takes some figurative balls to self-castrate just to maximize your procreative chances (since you are likely to be eaten before you're, um, finished). You probably thought I was joking about spider penises. Nope. "Spiders dodge cannibalism through remote copulation." Written by Google Plusser and science writer extraordinaire Ed Yong, and a nice double whammy on my husband, who was less than thrilled to find an article about both spiders AND snapping off one's genitals on the computer in place of his football scores.

Spider webs strengthened by local sacrifices
Spiderwebs are strong buggers. Just try stumbling into one. Here's a nice article on the resilient properties of the silk and webs, that keep damage localized. Materials scientists, civil engineers, and biologists are all studying the incredible little builders. It's almost enough to make me interested in the boring practical field of engineering. Read more on the resiliency of spider silk here and here.

What a black widow does when she's agitated
Well, before biting, hopefully. I can confirm this. When mine really gets going, her web is like a little upside-down trampoline. So adorable! (No? Not adorable? Come on!)

Spiders jump with deadly accuracy in green light
I've seen this one around for a few days now. Really cool experiment and conclusion on how jumping spiders use what's called image defocus, aided by a green-pigment layer in their retina, to nail the distance to their prey. Now I know when that jumping spider landed on my face, it was on purpose.

That's it for now. Share more spider stories, links, and other coolness in the comments if you have 'em, and if you have spider photos, head to Google+ and join in the Spidery Sunday fun. Anyone can watch the Superbowl. It takes balls (or, you know, a detached palp or two) to love spiders.