Math Drives Careers: Author Louis Gross

Gross jacketLouis Gross, distinguished professor in the departments of ecology, evolutionary biology, and mathematics at the University of Tennessee, is the author, along with Erin Bodine and Suzanne Lenhart, of Mathematics for the Life Sciences. For our third installment in the Math Awareness Month series, Gross writes on the role mathematics and rational consideration have played in his career, and in his relationship with his wife, a poet.

Math as a Career-builder and Relationship-broker

My wife is a poet. We approach most any issue with very different perspectives. In an art gallery, she sees a painting from an emotional level, while I focus on the methods the artist used to create the piece. As with any long-term relationship, after many years together we have learned to appreciate the other’s viewpoint and while I would never claim to be a poet, I have helped her on occasion to try out different phrasings of lines to bring out the music. In the reverse situation, the searching questions she asks me about the natural world (do deer really lose their antlers every year – isn’t this horribly wasteful?) force me to consider ways to explain complex scientific ideas in metaphor. As the way I approach science is heavily quantitative, with much of my formal education being in mathematics, this is particularly difficult without resorting to ways of thought that to me are second nature.

The challenges in explaining how quantitative approaches are critical to science, and that science advances in part through better and better ways to apply mathematics to the responses of systems we observe around us, arise throughout education, but are particularly difficult for those without a strong quantitative bent. An example may be helpful. One of the central approaches in science is building and using models – these can be physical ones such as model airplanes, they can be model systems such as an aquarium or they can be phrased in mathematics or computer code. The process of building models and the theories that ultimately arise from collections of models, is painstaking and iterative. Yet each of us build and apply models all the time. Think of the last time you entered a supermarket or a large store with multiple checkout-lines. How did you decide what line to choose? Was it based on how many customers were in each line, how many items they had to purchase, or whether they were paying with a check or credit card? Did you take account of your previous experience with that check-out clerk if you had it, or your experience with using self-checkout at that store? Was the criterion you used some aspect of ease of use, or how quickly you would get through the line? Or was it something else such as how cute the clerk was?

As the check-out line example illustrates, your decision about what is “best” for you depends on many factors, some of which might be quite personal. Yet somehow, store managers need to decide how many clerks are needed at each time and how to allocate their effort between check-out lines and their other possible responsibilities such as stocking shelves. Managers who are better able to meet the needs of customers, so they don’t get disgusted with long lines and decide not to return to that store, while restraining the costs of operation, will likely be rewarded. There is an entire field, heavily mathematical, that has been developed to better manage this situation. The jargon term is “queuing models” after the more typically British term for a waiting line. There is even a formal mathematical way of thinking about “bad luck” in this situation, e.g. choosing a line that results in a much longer time to be checked out than a different line would have.

While knowing that the math exists to help decide on optimal allocation of employee effort in a store will not help you in your decision, the approach of considering options, deciding upon your criteria and taking data (e.g. observations of the length of each line) to guide your decision is one that might serve you well independent of your career. This is one reason why many “self-help” methods involve making lists. Such lists assist you in deciding what factors (in math we call these variables) matter to you, how to weight the importance of each factor (we call these parameters in modeling) and what your objective might be (costs and benefits in an economic sense). This process of rational consideration of alternative options may assist you in many aspects of everyday life, including not just minor decisions of what check-out line to go into, but major ones such as what kind of car or home to purchase, what field to major in and even who to marry! While I can’t claim to have followed a formal mathematical approach in deciding on the latter, I have found it helpful throughout my marriage to use an informal approach to decision making. I encourage you to do so as well.

Check out Chapter 1 of Mathematics for the Life Sciences here.

Beth Shapiro Talk, Q&A and Book Signing

Shapiro Image for blog 3.30.15

Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth, will be giving a talk on “Conserving Ecosystems with De-Extinction” on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. This event is presented by Town Hall, Elliot Bay Book Company, and the Pacific Science Center through The Seattle Science Lectures. More information about the event and a link to buy tickets can be found, here.

#MammothMonday: What to Bring Back?

How to Clone a Mammoth

Welcome to another #MammothMonday. Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth, was recently called by Brian Switek of National Geographic, “the perfect guide to the ongoing discussion about de-extinction.” Today, she continues in that role, answering the question, “What to Bring Back?” In this fascinating video, Beth discusses the thinking behind the decision to bring back a large mammal as opposed to passenger pigeons.

What do you think about the debate around cloning mammoths?

Presenting the New Trailer for Beth Shapiro’s “How to Clone a Mammoth”

Should we clone extinct animals? Evolutionary biologist and “ancient DNA” researcher Beth Shapiro’s highly anticipated How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction takes apart an idea that not so long ago seemed more fiction than science. Now, several teams of researchers are working to reconstruct the mammoth genome. How to Clone a Mammoth is making its debut with an array of coverage, including a feature in yesterday’s Sunday Times. From the article:

What excites some scientists, and disturbs others, is that the genome could one day become a template to recreate real mammoths — or something like them.
In her new book, How To Clone a Mammoth, Beth Shapiro of the University of California, an expert on ancient DNA, said: “If we really want to bring mammoths back to life, then we’re in luck, as far as DNA preservation goes. Some mammoths lived in places where their bones and carcasses were buried in permafrost, like being stuck in a freezer for 30,000-plus years.
“It’s in pretty shoddy condition, so hard to piece together, but if we sort through these tiny pieces, finding where they fit along the elephant genome, then we can slowly build a lot of the mammoth genome.”

We are delighted to share the book’s wonderful new trailer:


Q&A with Ian Morris, author of Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve

Princeton University Press recently had the opportunity to talk with Ian Morris about his new book, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve.

Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels

In your book you look at the evolution of human values over tens of thousands of years. Can you briefly say why and how values change? Isn’t morality universal and unchanging?

The answer to the last part of this question is easy: yes and no. I say yes because in one sense, morality certainly is universal and unchanging. Our human values are the outcome of millions of years of evolution. Animals that were born with genes that predisposed them to value fairness, love, honor, decency, and a host of related virtues tended to flourish, while animals that did not value fairness, etc., tended not to flourish. As a result, a disposition toward these prosocial attitudes spread through the gene pool, and almost all humans share these same core values. The reason I also say no, though, is because the ways people have interpreted fairness, etc., have varied wildly through time. Few historians dispute this; but fewer still have seen that what causes values to change is not the deep thoughts of philosophers but the most basic force of all–energy. As humanity has moved from foraging through farming to fossil-fuel use, we have found that different levels of energy capture call for different kinds of social organization, and that these different kinds of organization favor very different interpretations of human values. To foragers, fairness often means that everyone should receive equal shares of food, respect, and other good things, but to people in farming society, fairness often means that people should receive very different shares, because they are felt to deserve different shares. Men deserve more than women, the rich deserve more than the poor, the free deserve more than the enslaved, and so on through too many categories to count. Foragers and farmers feel the ways they do not because the former are all saints and the latter all sinners, but because it would be almost impossible to run a foraging society like a feudal monarchy and almost impossible to run a farming society as a band of equals. Foragers who lean toward equality and farmers who lean toward hierarchy itend to outperform and replace foragers and farmers who do not. In our own age of fossil fuels, values have continued to mutate. We tend to believe that fairness means that everyone should receive somewhat equal–but not too equal–shares of food, respect, and other good things. Anthropologists who spend time in foraging or farming societies often feel as if they have stepped into alien worlds, where values are upside-down; and people from most periods in the past would have felt exactly the same way about us.

In our current Fossil Fuel age of values, you argue that violence and inequality have diminished greatly from past periods. That seems very counter-intuitive. Can you elaborate?

A lot of people today are nostalgic for a simpler, vanished, preindustrial world, and there are ways in which they are right to be so; but not if they value peace, prosperity, or (on the whole) equality. Across the last fifty years, social scientists have accumulated data that allow us to measure wealth, inequality, and rates of violence in the past. The results are surprising–so much so that they can seem, as you suggest, counterintuitive. Foraging societies tended to be quite equal in wealth, if only because almost everyone was desperately poor (by one calculation, the average income was the equivalent of about $1.10 per day). They also tended to be very violent (by many calculations, more than 10 percent of foragers died violently). Farming societies tended to be less violent than foraging societies (5 percent rates of violent death were probably not uncommon) and not quite so poor (average incomes above $2.00 per day were common); but they were also massively unequal, regularly having tiny elites that owned thousands of times more than the ordinary peasant Fossil fuel societies, by contrast, are the safest and richest the world has ever seen, and are also more equal than all but the simplest foraging groups. Globally, the average person earns $25 per day and stands a 0.7 percent chance of dying violently, and in some countries progressive taxation has pushed income inequality down close to levels not seen since the simplest foraging societies (even if it is now again on the rise). In every era before AD 1800, life expectancy at birth averaged less than 25 years; now it is 63 years. Despite all the things we might not like about our own age, it would have seemed like a magical kingdom to people in the past.

What are some of the ways our values might change as we move away from a reliance on fossil fuels?

No one knows what the future will bring, but there are plenty of signs that we are rapidly moving beyond fossil fuels. I argue in this book that changes in the amount of energy humans harvest from the world pushes them into new kinds of organizations which in turn favor different interpretations of core human values; if this is right, we might expect the 21st century to see the biggest and profoundest transformation in values in history. The industrial revolution released a flood of energy in the 19th and 20th centuries, which favored societies that evolved toward democracy, rule of law, peace, freedom, and gender equality; the big question is whether the 21st century will see these trends going even further, or whether it will see them going into reverse. The answer, I suggest, is that it all depends. There are signs that in the short term–roughly the next generation–we will see increasing inequality and increasing acceptance that such inequality is right, along with increasing instability and violence. In the medium term–the next two or three generations–we may see the values of the fossil-fuel age go into overdrive; but in the longer term–say the next century or so–the transformations may become so massive that it no longer makes much sense to speak of human values at all, because what it means to be a human being might change more in the next 100 years than it has done in the previous 100,000.

bookjacket Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels:
How Human Values Evolve

Updated edition
Ian Morris


Donald E. Canfield and Gillen D’Arcy Wood to be honored at annual conference of the American Meteorological Society

On January 7th and 8th in Phoenix, Arizona, authors Donald E. Canfield and Gillen D’Arcy were recognized by the Atmospheric Science Librarians International (ASLI) for their books Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History and Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World, respectively.

Canfield’s account of the history and importance of oxygen won him the 2014 ASLI Choice Award and will be recognized as “a well-documented, accessible, and interesting history of this vital substance.” Wood received an honorable mention for this year’s Choice Award in History. Tambora, will be acknowledged as “a book that makes this extreme event newly accessible through connecting literature, social history, and science.” More general information on the awards can be found, here.

Congratulations to Donald E. Canfield and Gillen D’Arcy Wood!


A Four Billion Year History
Donald E. Canfield



The Eruption That Changed the World
Gillen D’Arcy Wood

How well do you know Britain’s Habitats? Take our quiz

bookjacket We’re celebrating the publication of Britain’s Habitats: A Guide to the Wildlife Habitats of Britain and Ireland by Sophie Lake, Durwyn Liley, Robert Still & Andy Swash. Join the fun by taking this short, but sweet quiz to see how much you know about the lochs, moors, hedgerows, and marshes of Britain.

The Warbler Guide, winner of a 2014 National Outdoor Book Award in Nature Guidebooks

warblerTom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, authors of The Warbler Guide, received high praise for their book from the National Outdoor Book Awards. The guide covers 56 species of Warblers and features over 1,000 color photos and is a must have for Warbler watching enthusiasts. The review committee had the following to say of The Warbler Guide:

“This visually striking guide is a birders’ bonanza. It is encyclopedic in coverage and incorporates an array of tools to help identify North America’s 56 warbler species. Open it up and straight away you’ll find several handy ‘quick finders’ which picture each bird in one of several observational aspects: face profile, side view, 45-degree perspective and underside views. That’s just a start. The bulk of the guide describes each bird in elaborate detail, including habitat keys, feeding styles, extensive sonograms, migration patterns, and photos, lots of photos, of each species seen from every possible viewing angle. Pore over this book in the winter and you’ll be armed and ready for springtime’s annual flood of warblers.”

For a list of the other 2014 Winners of the National Outdoors Book Awards, click here.

Congratulations to Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle!

Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban on 2014 elections

weedenElections are almost always a polarizing event in this country, but Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban, authors of The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It, explain why it’s more complex than just liberals and conservatives going twelve rounds in the ring. Two days ago, The New York Times published Weeden and Kurzban’s opinion piece, Election 2014: Your Very Predictable Vote, and it has generated some internet buzz; over 500 comments have already been submitted.

The gist? Americans vote out of self-interest. The proof? “Unemployed people are more than twice as likely as people working full time to want unemployment benefits increased. African-Americans are by far the most likely proponents of affirmative action and government help for African-Americans. Rich white men are especially likely to oppose income redistribution.” Furthermore, but  unrelated to economic motivations, Weeden and Kurzban note, “People who want to have sex but don’t at the moment want babies are especially likely to support policies that ensure access to birth control and abortion. Immigrants favor generous immigration policies. Lesbians and gay men are far more likely to oppose discrimination based on sexual orientation. Those who aren’t Christian are far more likely to oppose discrimination based on religion.”

This all sounds like common sense, yet, there are many political scientists focused on the influence “parents and peers, schools and universities, political parties and leaders, and…’values'” have on American voters, and self-interest is overlooked. Weeden and Kurzban argue, “the most straightforward explanation, demographics, is also the most persuasive.” The authors go on to theorize as to what the United States might look like if policy was determined by polling residents:

“There would be greater spending on the poor, health care, Social Security and education. Immigration would be reduced. School prayer would be allowed. Anti-American speech by Muslims would be restricted. Abortion would be legal in cases of rape and fetal deformity, but illegal if the abortion was motivated by not wanting more children, by being poor, or by being single.”

So why doesn’t the United States look like this? Weeden and Kurzban have an answer for that too!

“Negotiations at the federal level result in more conservative economic policies, and more liberal social policies. That’s because they involve one set of highly educated, wealthy representatives negotiating with another, and the policies that result reflect their own core interests.”

You can read the article in its entirety, here and don’t forget to  pick up a copy of The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind in time for the 2016 presidential election!

Noah Wilson-Rich author of The Bee to stop in at Labyrinth Books

Wilson-Rich_theBeeThe Press is very excited to announce that Noah Wilson-Rich, author of The Bee: A Natural History, will be making an appearance at a local book store down the street from our offices on October 21st at 6:00PM. The venue, Labyrinth Books, is an acclaimed independent book store conveniently located right on Nassau St (if you’re familiar with the area) and we hope you will join us in a discussion with Wilson-Rich about his book.

Stick around after for book signings as well!

Fun Facts Friday: A Beetle’s Version of a Home Cooked Meal

7-24 Beetles2Back in June my parents decided to take an impromptu vacation to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico–every college kid’s dream, right? Well,  it wasn’t impromptu (it was for their wedding anniversary) and “the kids” were never  invited to begin with. Still, that’s not how I like to tell the story at family gatherings when I attempt to paint my parents as neglectful. (They’re not, though some extra spending money wouldn’t hurt!) But when I was reading through Arthur V. Evans’ book Beetles of Eastern North America, I came across a section titled “Parental Care,” and realized, trip to Cabo or not, I have it significantly better than beetles do when it comes to parent-child relationships.

beetle laying egg

Beetles, Pg. 21

As Evans explains, “For most species of beetles, care of offspring is limited to selection of the egg-laying site,” but there are some species that go beyond the call of duty. “Some ground beetles (Carabidae) deposit the eggs in carefully constructed cells of mud, twigs, and leaves,” while “some water scavenger (Hydrophilidae) and minute moss beetles (Hydraenidae) enclose their eggs singly or in batches within cocoons made of silk secreted by special glands in the female’s reproductive system.” (Evans 20)

But it’s the Nicrophorus beetles who win the #1 Parents Award . “They meticulously prepare corpses as food for their young by removing feathers and fur, reshape them by removing or manipulating legs and wings, all while coating the carcass in saliva laced with antimicrobials that slow decomposition.” (Evans 21) A beetle’s version of a home cooked meal!

Hope you enjoyed this week’s Friday Fun Fact and have a great weekend!

A look within — MRI technology in action

It’s 2014, and although we don’t have flying cars or teleportation, we do have some truly amazing technologies. The video of a live birth posted below has been making the social media rounds in recent weeks, and it is a wonderful glimpse of the imaging possible through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology.

To fully understand the history and future challenges of imaging technology, we recommend Denis Le Bihan’s book Looking Inside the Brain: The Power of Neuroimaging. Le Bihan is one of the leading scientists and developers of MRI technology, so who better to guide readers through the history of imaging technology from the x-ray and CT scan to the PET scan and MRI. He also explains how neuroimaging uncovers afflictions like stroke or cancer and the workings of higher-order brain activities, such as language skills and also takes readers on a behind-the-scenes journey through NeuroSpin, his state-of-the-art neuroimaging laboratory.



Looking Inside the Brain
The Power of Neuroimaging
Denis Le Bihan
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan