So Long, and ThanksBy OLIVIA JUDSON
Olivia Judson on the influence of science and biology on modern life.
This is my last column for the time being: from today, I’m taking a year’s sabbatical.
Writing in this space is the most gratifying job I’ve ever had, but also the toughest. It’s like owning a pet dragon: I feel lucky to have it, but it needs to be fed high-quality meat at regular intervals . . . and if something goes wrong, there’s a substantial risk of being blasted by fire. And so, to ensure a supply of good meat in the future, I’m taking some time off. Part of this is to work on a book project. But I will also be reading, reflecting, and replenishing my stash of ideas.
Which brings me to the subject of this column. This week, as it is the last, I thought I’d write more personally, about how I put these pieces together — and where the ideas come from.
For me, ideas are capricious. They appear at unpredictable (and sometimes inconvenient) moments — when I’m in the bath, falling asleep, jumping rope, talking to friends. They are also like buses — it’s never clear when the next one will come, or how many will arrive at once.
So it’s important to catch them when they do appear: to that end, I have a list. It’s not well-organized — my desk is littered with scraps of paper and post-it notes, covered in scrawls like:
• Seven amusing things to do with bacteria?
• Funny methods? Find paper where scientist dressed as a moose. Also tickling paper — tickle 7 orangutans, 5 gorillas, 4 chimps . . .
• Do sexually transmitted diseases increase sex drive?
• Oxytocin and diplomacy
• Painting the planet
• Taking names
To elaborate on the last four: some parasites are known to alter the behavior of the host so as to increase their own transmission. The parasite Toxoplasma gondii, for example, spends most of its time in rats and cats, and needs to get from one to the other. Infected rats, instead of avoiding places that smell of cat urine, show a foolhardy attraction to them — which presumably makes the rats more likely to be captured and eaten, thus allowing the parasite to return to the body of a cat. Since organisms that cause sexually transmitted diseases can only spread if those who are infected copulate with new partners, you might therefore expect they would evolve to enhance their host’s desire for new sexual encounters. Testing this in humans is problematic. But it could be looked at in other animals. Indeed, there is tentative evidence that insects are sometimes victims of such manipulation.
On oxytocin. This is a hormone that, when given as a nasal spray, has been shown to increase trust; at one point I considered arguing that it should be administered to all peace negotiators.
On painting the planet. I was charmed by the recent discovery that the colors of dinosaur feathers can sometimes be discerned from fossils — and by the thought that with this knowledge we can start to give real color to the planet’s past. Also, working from what we know of how today’s birds and lizards see the world, we can infer how the world might have looked like to a dinosaur.
On names. I have a fat file of disparate name facts. For example: it’s often argued that your name affects your life. It’s been suggested, for example, that girls with “girlie” names tend to be bad at math, apparently because the world expects them to be. Then there’s a set of reports about last names and monogamy — last names are usually inherited from the father, as is the Y chromosome. So names and Y chromosomes will be inherited together — if mothers are faithful to their husbands, and there is no adoption.
Also in the file: dolphins are said to have names. Though whether it’s a name (a whistle that other dolphins use to address a given individual) or a personal theme tune (something the animal whistles to announce itself) is not clear. But the real reason I considered writing about all this is that I wanted to gripe about the fate of “Olivia.” It used to be a rare name — which I liked. But it is now among the most popular names for baby girls in England and Wales. It is the name of a pig in a series of children’s books; you can even buy the stuffed toy. And — worst of all — it has become an acronym. Some time ago, I walked into the Imperial College library to see advertisements for “OLIVIA: OnLIne Virtual Information Assistant.” Harumph.
To try and tempt ideas to arrive, I talk to people and I read a lot. I always read the press releases from Nature for example, and I am a regular visitor to Science Daily, a Web site that collects science headlines and press releases. A couple of colleagues reliably alert me to interesting papers, too. All that gives me a sense of what’s out there.
But having an idea is one thing; developing it is another. Some ideas look great from the bathtub, but turn out to be as flimsy as soap bubbles — they pop when you touch them. Others are so huge they can’t easily be treated in 1,500 words or less, or would take two or three months to prepare. Still others — luckily — are just right. But I don’t usually find out which is which until I begin to investigate them.
This is the part I like most. I go to a science database called the ISI Web of Knowledge (this is not an open database, alas; my access is through Imperial College), and I start fishing: I type in key terms — fossil and color; brain and exercise; praying mantis and cannibal — and see what comes up. This gives me a sense of how much is known, and how complex the subject is. And then I begin to read. And read. And follow threads of information — who has referred to this paper? What is the original source of that fact?
Having done this, I let the information percolate. Often it takes me several runs at a subject to create something coherent. A few weeks ago, for example, I published a piece about cuckoos; but that was the fourth time I had tried to write it, and the final version represented a fusion among several different subjects I had been playing with. Perhaps I’ll give the full treatment to one of the related subjects when I come back.
Before I go, I want to say thank you — to everyone who has read the column, commented on it or written to me, whether with enthusiasm, ire, suggestions or questions. I also want to thank the many friends and colleagues who have discussed ideas with me, commented on drafts, improved the rigor and clarity of my thinking, responded to queries and stimulated my imagination.
Above all, however, I want to thank those who, one way or another, have helped me week in, week out. Special thanks to: Thiago Carvalho, Martin Espindola, Nick Franks and the other members of the Biophysics group at Imperial College, Dan Haydon, Elizabeth Jones, Gideon Lichfield, Oliver Morton, Dmitri Petrov and, above all, Jonathan Swire. I owe you guys more than I can say. Thanks.
So, until the next time — goodbye, everybody! And thanks again.
I found the paper where the scientist dresses in a moose suit. See note 12 of Berger, J., Swenson, J. E., and Persson, I.-L. 2001. “Recolonizing carnivores and naïve prey: conservation lessons from Pleistocene extinctions.” Science 291: 1036-1039. The tickling paper was Ross, M. D., Owen, M. J., and Zimmermann, E. 2009. “Reconstructing the evolution of laughter in great apes and humans.” Current Biology 19: 1106-1111.
The extent to which parasites have evolved to manipulate their hosts is controversial. However, reasonably strong evidence exists for Toxoplasma; see, for example, Berdoy, M., Webster, J. P. and Macdonald, D. W. 2000. “Fatal attraction in rats infected with Toxoplasma gondii.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 267: 1591-1594; and Vyas, A. et al. 2007. “Behavioral changes induced by Toxoplasma infection of rodents are highly specific to aversion of cat odors.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104: 6442-6447. Note that Toxoplasma has also been suggested to cause behavioral changes in humans, perhaps including some cases of schizophrenia — see Yolken, R. H., Dickerson, F. B. and Torrey, E. F. 2009. “Toxoplasma and schizophrenia.” Parasite Immunology 31: 706-715. However, as far as I know, there is no suggestion that any parasite-induced changes in human behavior are an advantage for the parasite. For a review of the evidence, such as it is, that some insects are made more promiscuous by their sexually transmitted diseases, see Knell, R. J. and Webberley, K. M. 2004. “Sexually transmitted diseases of insects: distribution, evolution, ecology and host behaviour.” Biological Reviews 79: 557-581.
For oxytocin increasing trust see, for example, Kosfeld, M. et al. 2005. “Oxytocin increases trust in humans.” Nature 435: 673-676.
Inferring dinosaur feather color from fossils has been in the news: see Li, Q. et al. 2010. “Plumage color patterns of an extinct dinosaur.” Science 327: 1369-1372; and Zhang, F. et al. 2010. “Fossilized melanosomes and the colour of Cretaceous dinosaurs and birds.” Nature 463: 1075-1078.
On names. I first read about girls’ names and mathematics in The Guardiannewspaper; I was never able to find the original research. For an overview of research into Y chromosomes and surnames, see King, T. E. and Jobling, M. A. 2009. “What’s in a name? Y chromosomes, surnames and the genetic genealogy revolution.” Trends in Genetics 25: 351-360. For a discussion of dolphin whistles, and whether they are names, see Barton, R. A. 2006. “Animal communication: do dolphins have names?” Current Biology 16: R598-R599. For Olivia being among the most popular names in England and Wales, see here. The series of books about Olivia the Pig are by Ian Falconer. To see what I mean about the acronym, go to the Imperial College library information page and type “online virtual information assistant” (in quotes) into the search box.