A look at avian intelligence with Nathan Emery

EmeryWhat really goes on inside the mind of a bird? Are these creatures as simplistic as the expression “bird brain” would have us believe? In Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence, Nathan Emery shines new light on the minds of birds, offering insight into their sophisticated neurological functions and the diverse behaviors these functions give rise to. An extraordinary work of cognitive biology, Bird Brain uncovers an array of unexpected abilities including mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight. Recently, Emery took the time to talk with us about avian intelligence, why it has long been misunderstood, and how he first became hooked on birds.

Can you tell us something about how you go into studying avian intelligence?

NE: I completed undergraduate degree in Neuroscience at the University of Central Lancashire in the northwest of England. Then I moved north of the border to do my PhD studying face responsive neurons and social signals in primates at the University of St Andrews. After that, I moved to UC Davis in California for 3 years to work on an animal model of autism, that didn’t exactly work out as expected, but it did result in me meeting my future wife, Nicky Clayton. We moved to Cambridge in 2000, me continuing my neuroscience research at the Sub-department of Animal Behaviour, where both Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey did their PhDs; Nicky as a lecturer in the Department of Psychology. It was at Cambridge that I started getting focusing on birds instead of monkeys.

How did you become interested in birds?

NE: My wife Nicky got me hooked on birds. I was never a birdwatcher, I didn’t keep a pet parrot, and it would be fair to say that I’d never really considered them, except as a tasty meal at Christmas. Nicky has worked with birds for her entire career, first studying bird song for her PhD, then concentrating on spatial memory and caching behaviour. I was writing a review paper on how different animals use eye gaze as a social signal. I didn’t know what to say about birds, as my knowledge up to that point had been entirely about primates. She made me see the light! She told me dozens of fascinating facts about birds. I was hooked and haven’t turned back. My review completed from a new perspective, Nicky and I collaborated on a project looking at whether scrub-jays appreciated that others were watching where they cached, and whether they protected their caches from these potential thieves. This lead to our first joint paper, which we were lucky enough to get into the highly prestigious journal Nature a few months after we got married. It was published on our joint birthday, probably the first, and possibly the last occasion this happened to a paper in Nature! In the 15 years since, I’ve not looked back on either front, and now my research is entirely on birds.

How did you get involved in writing Bird Brain?

NE: I’ve wanted to write a popular book on avian intelligence for about 10 years, but things always seemed to get in the way. Then I was approached by Ivy Press to write a chapter on avian brains for an edited book they were putting together. My wife was asked to edit it, but she didn’t want to do so, so suggested me. I was keen, but then thought ‘why don’t I just write the whole thing myself?’ Ivy agreed, so that’s what I did. I had already arranged a year long sabbatical from work, so switched focus from the experiments I’d planned, to writing the book.

The book is beautifully designed and illustrated. Did you have any input into how it looks?

NE: One of the reasons I was excited to be working with Ivy Press (the UK publisher of Bird Brain) was their reputation for producing beautiful books with a specific focus on design.

They were producing some very attractive nature and science books for a popular audience, and I really liked what they had planned for this project as it tallied with my own ideas. I’ve always been interested in illustration. At that crucial point in my life when I had to choose what I was going to study, I had to decide between science and science illustration. I chose science, but have always tried to incorporate illustration into my science work – whether the design of my lectures or talk slides, the illustrations in papers or even the design of problem-solving tasks. This project was a dream come true. I designed and drew all the illustrations in the book (except for three) using Photoshop, but they were then changed into a style more consistent with other Ivy books by three great illustrators. I do get credited for Illustration Concept, but would love to illustrate my own books in the future.

It’s quite unusual to see detailed brain wiring diagrams and experiments illustrated in a popular science book. Was this something you had in mind from the start?

NE: Yes. Jacqui Sayers, the book’s original editor was very keen on doing something visually different with the book, to try and make some of the arcane aspects of science more accessible to the public. I tried to illustrate the various steps in an experiment in a way that could be easily understood. We also tried not to dumb down how the information is presented, which is why there are quite a few complex diagrams detailing the avian brain’s wiring patterns. Also, it is called Bird Brain! However, the brain is said to be the most complicated object in the known universe, so it would be a travesty to present it too simply. We think we’ve achieved the right balance.

Why do you think birds have been maligned for so long?

NE: The term ‘birdbrain’ is part of our language. Our ancestors knew more about the capabilities of our feathered cousins than we did, until very recently. They feature as the clever protagonists of many fables and legends, including origin stories concerning the beginning of the world. Although somewhat fanciful, there is a lot of truth – at least in terms of their behaviour and intelligence – about these birds. A bigger issue is that most people have little experience of birds, outside of pigeons, chickens, ducks and sparrows, and they wouldn’t know what constitutes intelligence. You see an animal using a tool, such using a stick to move food into reach, and it is easy to use your own experience to understand that this requires some intelligence. This is possibly why a video of a New Caledonian crow solving a problem requiring 8 different steps has received over 10 million hits on YouTube. It just looks clever. Compare that to a study of long-term memory, such as remembering where something was hidden 6 months ago. This doesn’t translate very well to a single video. All the relevant information about what maybe going on in the bird’s mind when it’s recovering a memory of a past caching event, such as ‘where or when did I hide that worm?’ is hidden in the details of the experiment rather than a video clip. Our perception of all animals is guided by what we see in front of us, and its relationship to our past experiences. Unfortunately, our day-to-day view of the natural world is not enhanced by a Sir David Attenborough voice over. This clouds our view of an animal’s intelligence more than any particular aspect of their behaviour.

What would you say were your most important findings about clever birds?

NE: There are three pieces of research of which I’m the proudest. The first is the study that I mentioned earlier, that scrub-jays are protective of their caches by implementing different strategies to reduce the chance of them being pilfered. The most intriguing fact about this, is that not all scrub-jays do this. It’s not an innate response to being watched. Only birds that have previous experience of being thieves protect their caches – it takes a thief to know a thief! Birds without such experience, do not protect their caches. They are too naïve to know that the world is a bad place until they experience otherwise. This finding has been proposed as evidence that jays have a theory of mind – thinking about another’s thoughts. However, I’m not sure that this is akin to human theory of mind or a process that is special to creatures who cannot speak.

The second finding is a series of studies on tool-related cognition in rooks; namely whether they are capable of creating novel tools to solve unique problems, such as bending a wire to reach and pull up a bucket containing a treat, or placing stones into a water-filled tube to raise the water level to reach a treat floating on the surface. There is no evidence that rooks use tools in the wild, so it is striking that in captivity they can do things that great apes have yet to demonstrate. One of my greatest loves is designing experiments, especially new cognitive tasks. I have notebooks filled with my experimental designs, and we’re currently testing the problem-solving abilities of the famous ravens at the Tower of London using some of these new designs. It’s extremely rewarding when others adopt your tasks, especially when they add their own improvements and test them on their own species. One case is the Water Displacement Task, my ex-PhD student Chris Bird and I adapted from Aesop’s Fable ‘The Crow and the Pitcher’, that has now been used to test rooks, New Caledonian crows, Eurasian jays, western scrub-jays, grackles and young children. It’s one of the challenges of comparative psychology to develop tasks that assess cognitive differences across species that aren’t based on simpler factors, such as visual acuity or manual dexterity. Certainly for birds, the Aesop’s Fable Task appears to be achieving this aim.

The final contribution for which I’m proudest is not the result of an experiment, but an idea. Nicky and I wrote a review paper in the journal Science in 2004 in which we proposed that crow and ape intelligence is an example of convergent evolution – namely that complex cognition evolved in these distantly related animals due to facing similar selection pressures, such as living in complex social groups or having to find and process a range of foods, some that are difficult to acquire or with external defences. This idea lead to me coining the term ‘feathered apes’ for corvids. It is gratifying to see this has become part of the scientific furniture where the general public just accepts that crows are smart, and just as smart as apes, dolphins and elephants.

Nathan Emery is Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Biology at Queen Mary University of London, UK has studied the intelligence of corvids, and parrots, as well as apes and monkeys for the last 20 years. Emery is the co-editor Social Intelligence: From Brain to Culture and The Cognitive Neuroscience of Social Behaviour, and is on the editorial board of the journals. He is the author of Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence, a visually stunning guide to the brain, behaviour and cognition of our feathered friends. Emery’s work has been extensively covered by international newspapers and magazines, in books, and on TV. He is currently working with the ravens at the Tower of London.

The making of a field guide in Ecuador: an interview with Nick Athanas and Paul Greenfield

birds of western ecuador athanas jacketIn Birds of Western Ecuador: A Photographic Guide, Nick Athanas and Paul Greenfield provide a practical field guide for birders wanting to explore the region. Filled with bright and beautiful photographs, their extensively researched and photographed volume is a striking guide for the area’s birds, with nearly every species in Western Ecuador included. Recently, both authors agreed to answer some questions about their personal passions for the project.

Why did you want to write Birds of Western Ecuador?

NA: I had been photographing birds in South America for about ten years, and had built up a sizable collection of nice images. I wanted to do something useful with them. Since I am also a birder and a birding tour guide based in Ecuador, a field guide to the region was an obvious project to think about. Iain Campbell, longtime friend and business partner, was working on a photographic guide for Australia, and encouraged us to do it; he put us in contact with Robert Kirk at Princeton University Press.

PG: Ecuador is a huge country in terms of bird species diversity, and with the advent of digital photography, actually capturing nice images of much of its avifauna made doing such a project a viable possibility. When the project was first presented to me by Nick and Iain, I hesitated a bit, only because I had already spent over 20 years working on the painted illustrations of the Birds of Ecuador, but after looking over some of the proposed shots, the idea of presenting a photographic testimonial to the Ecuador’s rich birdlife instantly became very attractive.

What is your target audience?

NA & PG: Our book targets English-speaking birders visiting western Ecuador, either on their own or on an organized tour. We assumed no previous birding experience in the Neotropics. However, the guide will be useful and inspiring for anyone with an interest in the birds of the region, even those with a lot of experience birding the Neotropicals. We excluded photos of some species that are very rare visitors to the region in order make the book smaller and more user-friendly, but it will have everything most visiting birders will see on a typical trip to western Ecuador. The excluded species are also usually mentioned in the text so that readers are aware of them. While not specifically designed for it, the guide also covers the vast majority of birds occurring in southwestern Colombia and northwestern Peru.

So this is a real field guide, and not just a collection of pretty bird photos?

NA & PG: Absolutely, this is a field guide. It was designed to help identify birds. The photos were chosen to show the relevant field marks, the text is extensive and helps to distinguish between similar species, and the range maps are completely new and based on up to date sighting information. Text, species accounts, and maps are all laid out side-by-side and everything is indexed.

Do you believe photographs can be as effective as paintings in a field guide?

NA: With good photos and clear text, I really do believe that. It would have been impossible even just five years ago. With the amazing recent technological advances in digital cameras, it is now possible to get great shots of shy rainforest species in natural light that were impossible before. The better gear also has led to an explosion in interest in wildlife photography, so there are a lot more people out there shooting bird photos. There are now good images available of the vast majority of the world’s bird species. A clear, sharp photo can show a bird’s important field marks at least as well as a good painting, and can even reveal features that other field guides might overlook.

PG: Having experience with both bird photography and painting, I believe that each presents effective, but slightly different strengths for illustrating field guides. Bird painting, with its respective pros and cons, can be quite effective—through hardly noticeable distortions—in presenting field marks from above and below a bird at the same time, as well as creating a sense of wondrous anticipation in the viewer. Bird photography presents the ‘real’ image of the actual species—it brings in the element of reality with ‘real-time’ accuracy when it comes to field-marks, ‘attitude’ and expression.

Were you able to get all the photos you needed?

NA & PG: All but a few. There were two species that we could not find any photos which were of high enough quality to publish: Berlepsh’s Tinamou and Colombian Crake. There were a few species where we could not find photos of one of the sexes. There are also a few of marginal quality, but in general we are extremely happy with the selection of photos. About half the photos are Nick’s, but we also invested a huge amount of time looking for other photos and contacting dozens of talented photographers. In the end, over 70 photographers contributed shots to Birds of Western Ecuador. It includes images of nearly 950 species. To put that in perspective, that’s more bird species than are found in all of the continental US.

This guide only covers half of Ecuador. Why?

NA & PG: We did not think we had the photos to do the entire country, nor did I we think we would be able to get them in the few years we had to write this book. Eastern Ecuador has significantly more species, and many of them are rainforest birds that are extremely hard to find and see, never mind photograph. Western Ecuador was a manageable starting place, and even still it was a far larger project than we anticipated.

Will you write a companion volume?

NA & PG: If this book is well-received, and if PUP is interested, we’d like to write another volume. It could be for eastern Ecuador, or possibly for the whole country. Most of Ecuador’s birds are in the East, so including everything won’t make the book proportionally that much larger. I think that in the years that have passed since we started Birds of Western Ecuador, many more species have been photographed, so that we should be able to obtain nice shots of almost all of Ecuador’s birds by the time a companion volume is finished.

Some people may see all these photos of amazingly colorful birds and be inspired to visit. When is the best time of year?

NA & PG: Come any time! We go out birding any month of the year and always find great birds. June-September are usually the driest months, and January to May are usually the wettest months. A lot of people like to visit the Northwest in the intermediate months of October-November since some rain is good for activity but it usually isn’t too much. January in the Southwest is usually great because the rains are just starting, the birds are singing, but the trees still haven’t leafed out much so the birds are easier to spot and enjoy. But really, if you can only come at a certain time, by all means do so.

Do you have a favorite bird?

NA: I have many! Hard to pick favorites when there are so many amazing choices. One of them, however, is definitely the Velvet-purple Coronet that went on the cover. It’s such a uniquely-colored hummer and its shimmering hues change depending on the angle and the lighting conditions.

PG: I have always said that my favorite bird is the one I am looking at ‘right now’, and I believe that’s really true. I especially get a kick out of remembering the circumstances when I first saw a species, each time I see it again; but how can you not go nuts with tanagers, hummingbirds, trogons, cotingas, antbirds, toucans… well all of them!

Nick Athanas is cofounder of the tour company Tropical Birding. He leads bird tours throughout the Neotropics and has photographed more than 2,500 bird species. Paul J. Greenfield is a longtime resident of Ecuador, where he leads bird tours and is active in bird conservation. He is the coauthor and illustrator of The Birds of Ecuador. Together they have written Birds of Western Ecuador: A Photographic Guide.

Language in the age of “search”

digital keywords peters jacketHow does language function in today’s information revolution? Keywords, and these days, “digital keywords” organize research, teaching, even thought itself. In Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society & Culture, Benjamin Peters compiles essays on keywords by major digital media scholars, as well as an extensive list of these keywords themselves. Here’s a look at five words that have completely changed in today’s search-driven culture.

1. “Activism” has become one of the most popular terms found on the internet and it’s nearly decimated the use of “revolution”.

On the one hand, aspirations for political struggle continue to take both radical and nonradical forms . . . On the other hand, the history of activism and protest since the 1990s remains marked more by moderation than by radicalism in both Western democracies and other countries.

2. “Archive” is a word that has had its concept completely re-imagined as each person can individually decide what is important to them and should be saved permanently through digital means.

An archive is less about the printed word and can be about all facets of materiality, form, and its subsequent encoding–even the reader herself.

3. “Cloud” today does not only invoke images of nature, but streams of data held and protected somewhere.

Perhaps it is exactly their apparent blankness, mutability, and vanishing mode of being that makes them such a ripe canvas for human creativity and criticism.

4. “Meme” is an exception in that its meaning hasn’t changed so much as its relevance has. It is a word that was largely ignored when it was first conceived and now is in common use on the internet.

While researchers continue arguing about the usefulness of this construct, netizens have delivered their verdict. By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the term Meme had become an integral part of online vernacular.

5. “Sharing” is a huge part of media and social relations on computers today, between friends or between millions of people who have never met each other except over the Internet. This concept has challenged concepts about copyright and how criminal activity can be conducted online.

However, while the term data sharing would not appear controversial in any way . . . File sharing . . . is not sharing, but rather theft.

Learn more about Digital Keywords this summer as we share a series of posts from Culture Digitally.

The bright world of fireflies: photographs from Silent Sparks

silent sparks jacketCharismatic, admired, and endlessly mysterious, fireflies have long been a source of intrigue. Sara Lewis has spent nearly thirty years examining the lives, surprising habits, and habitats of these beloved and frequently romanticized insects. As Memorial Day weekend winds down and fireflies start to make their debut in summer skies, take a peek inside the new book, Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies.




Q&A with Sara Lewis, author of Silent Sparks

silent sparks jacketThere is something undeniably captivating and alluring about fireflies. In Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies, author Sara Lewis talks about the lives and surprising secrets of these creatures that light up the night skies. You’ll learn, for instance, that fireflies’ lives can be rather brief and gruesome. Lewis has spent over thirty years studying fireflies and has participated in a popular TED talk about the insects. This Q&A offers insights into why Lewis became so attracted to the idea of researching fireflies and what readers can expect to be surprised by in Silent Sparks.

What inspired you to write a book about fireflies?

SL: Ah, this book had quite a long gestation period! I’ve been doing research on fireflies for about 30 years. Whenever people hear about my job, “ Oh, I love fireflies!” is their nearly universal response. And so many people are curious, quite eager to learn more. But there really hasn’t been much accessible information out there. Even though we’ve learned a tremendous amount about fireflies over the past few decades, all these new discoveries lay hidden away in the technical literature. Scientists write primarily for other scientists, so these papers are chock full of technical jargon. Also, they can be difficult to access because they’re located behind paywalls. Knowing how many people would enjoy celebrating the science and the wonder of fireflies – that’s really what inspired me.

Who is the audience for this book, and what do you hope people will get from it?

SL: As I write in the preface: “If you love fireflies, then I wrote this book for you.” My goal is to escort people behind the scenes to explore the science behind the spectacle. How do these creatures make light? And what’s with all that flashing – are they talking to one another? What do baby fireflies look like? Are fireflies really disappearing?

One thing I hope people will take away from Silent Sparks is the immense beauty that emerges when you look at fireflies in the light of evolution. And they’ll get to glimpse the scientific process that helps us collectively accumulate knowledge. Of the few hundred scientists who’ve dedicated their days and nights to uncovering fireflies’ secrets, I’m lucky to count many of them among my mentors and friends. The book introduces quite a few of these firefly scientists – for me, their stories help the science come alive.

What’s most the surprising thing your book reveals about fireflies?

SL: Most people think there’s just one type of firefly, so the Most Surprising Revelation Award would likely go to the fact that there are over 2000 different firefly species sprinkled across the globe. And they’ve evolved remarkably different courtship styles. In North America, our most familiar fireflies are lightning bugs, which use quick, bright flashes to find mates. Northern Europe has mainly glow-worm fireflies: plump and wingless, these females climb up onto perches at night and glow for hours to attract their flying males. The western US has mainly dark fireflies. These fly during daytime and they don’t light up – instead males use their fancy antennae to sniff out perfumes given off by their females.

Any other surprises?

SL: Yes, lots! Without revealing too much, I think most people will be surprised by fireflies’ gory and gluttonous childhood, for instance.

Do you have a favorite firefly?

SL: I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that! It’s so hard to pick just one, because fireflies have so many different lifestyles and I find each one fascinating. I guess my current favorite would have to be the blue ghost firefly, Phausis reticulata. I fell under the spell of these mysterious fireflies a few years back when I first encountered them in the southern Appalachians. Flying ankle-high above the forest floor, blue ghost males give off eerie, long-lasting glows as they search for females. Meanwhile, the blue ghost females are tiny and wingless, and they’re very hard to find. They’re nestled down in the leaf litter, their transparent bodies studded with glowspots that shine like gemstones.

Another reason I like them is that they hold so many secrets just waiting to be uncovered – we still know very little these blue ghost fireflies.

silent sparks firefly

In blue ghost fireflies, the males can fly but the wingless females cannot. (photo by Raphael De Cock)

What got you started studying fireflies?

SL: I got hooked on life’s diversity early on, but it wasn’t until I completed my PhD that I started paying close attention to fireflies. One evening I was sitting out in my backyard in North Carolina, and suddenly these silent sparks rose up all around me. It was a magical moment – anyone who’s seen them knows exactly what I mean! And when I started reading about them, I realized these creatures would make perfect subjects to better understand sexual selection. This evolutionary process is responsible for the many bizarre and unusual features that help males improve their reproductive prospects: the peacock’s tail, the rhinoceros beetle’s horns, the bowerbird’s displays, the wood thrushes’ song and, as it turns out, the firefly’s flashes.

What did you learn while writing this book?

In terms of my personal growth, I learned to love writing again. For this book project, I really wanted to make the science accessible. Yet scientific writing uses a highly precise, concise shorthand; jargon works really well when scientists are communicating with one another, but this language can be difficult for others to understand. It took a few months, but finally I remembered how much fun it is to write in plain English! Adjectives, punctuation…the possibilities were thrilling!

silent sparks firefly

Fireflies spark childhood memories, transform ordinary landscapes, and rekindle our sense of wonder (photo by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu).

As I researched the book, I also learned a lot about the many interconnections between humans and fireflies. Around the world, fireflies elicit a nearly mystical reverence. But nowhere on Earth are fireflies more intricately woven into the cultural fabric than in Japan. As I describe in Silent Sparks, the Japanese people have enjoyed a profound love affair with fireflies for more than a thousand years. But I hadn’t realized how narrowly these beloved insects escaped being extinguished from the Japanese countryside during the twentieth century. Now, through research and widespread restoration efforts, Japanese fireflies have made a remarkable come-back to become a symbol of national pride and environmentalism.

Sara Lewis, who has been captivated by fireflies for nearly three decades, is a professor in the Department of Biology at Tufts University. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Scientific American, and USA Today. Lewis lives with her husband in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Ten weeks, ten states, and a symphony of birdsong

listening to a continent sing kroodsma jacketTake a journey across ten weeks and ten states,  from one coast of America to another, as Donald Kroodsma and his son bike 5,000 miles and record birdsong along the way. In Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Kroodsma  provides a written account of this inspirational adventure that is one part personal memoir, one part guided history, one part invitation to pursue your own dreams. The book is beautifully illustrated, incorporating images of the vast terrain and animals the pair encountered on their trip. QR codes link to audio of birdsong throughout.

Click through to enlarge some of the book’s images here.

Follow the wild bees with Thomas D. Seeley

following the wild bees seeleyBee hunting—in which one captures and sumptuously feeds wild bees, and then releases and follows them back to their secret residence—is virtually unknown today, though it was once widely practiced. Thomas D. Seeley, world authority on honey bees, vividly explores the exhilarating pastime in his new book Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting. A unique meditation on the natural world as well as a how-to guide, the book provides history and science about the craft alongside gorgeous photos and helpful diagrams.

Click through the gallery below to see some of Seeley’s essential tools for bee hunting as well as fascinating photographs captured during the hunt.

Presenting the new book trailer for Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation

Five years ago on March 12, following a devastating tsunami, Fukushima Prefecture in Japan experienced the largest release of radioactive materials since the infamous nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl 30 years before. The world, understandably, was braced for the worst. But molecular radiation biologist Tim Jorgensen, author of Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation says this accident was no Chernobyl. The levels measured at Fukushima after the meltdown aren’t much higher than the annual background levels that already existed—a fact that does little to allay fears for many. How much then, do we really know about radiation and its actual dangers? Though radiation is used in everything from x-rays to cell phones, much of the population still has what Jorgensen considers an uninformed aversion to any type of exposure. In this fascinating scientific history, he describes mankind’s extraordinary, often fraught relationship with radiation.

We are pleased to present the new book trailer for Strange Glow:

Conversations on Climate: Paul Wignall says climate crisis is nothing new

NEW climate pic

Climate Change: We’ve Been Here Before
by Paul Wignall

The world’s climate is always changing and always has. Even during the past few centuries we have seen substantial variations, but only recently have we begun to blame ourselves for them. But how much natural variability is there, and just how extreme can climate change be? To gain some longer-term perspective on the climate’s variability we can look back through geological time, particularly at catastrophic events known as mass extinctions. In my recent book, The Worst of Times, I focus on an 80 million year interval when life on Earth suffered one disaster after another. These catastrophes included the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, the worst crisis that life has ever faced. It is not very reassuring to find that these extinctions all coincide with intervals of rapid global warming.

rocks from Permian-Triassic boundary in Guizhou

Sedimentary rocks from the Permian-Triassic boundary in Guizhou Province, SW China that record evidence for the greatest of all mass extinctions.

So, are we all going to hell in a hand basket? Well, probably not just yet. The story from the past is much more nuanced than this and I believe there is substantial hope that all is not so bad today. The reason is that the worst 80 million years happened a long time ago and more recently (in the past 100 million years) things have got a lot better. At one time all the world’s continents were joined together into a single supercontinent called Pangea. This seems to have created a global environment that was very fragile. Every time there was a phase of giant volcanic eruptions in Pangea, climates changed rapidly, the oceans stagnated and life began to suffer. The cause seems to be not the actual lava flows themselves, although these were very large, but the gases that bubbled out of them, especially carbon dioxide, everyone’s (not so) favorite greenhouse gas. As I explain in my book the effects of these gases on climate and oceans changed global environments in a disastrous way. Rapid increases in global temperature were part of the story and the results were some of the hottest climates of all time. The results for life were profound; dominant groups went extinct and new groups appeared only to have their brief hegemony terminated by the next disaster. By the time these waves of extinction were over the dinosaurs were the newest kids on the block. They went on to thrive and get very large whilst scurrying around at their feet were a group of small furry creatures. These were the mammals and they would have to wait a long time for their turn.

basalt flows

A landscape entirely made of giant basalt flows from the Permian Period, Yunnan Province, SW China.

Dinosaurs were the dominant animals on Earth for over 140 million years and it is often thought that they were somehow competitively successful but I think they were just very lucky. They appeared at a time when the Earth was rapidly getting better at coping with climatic changes caused by giant volcanism. There were plenty of episodes of large-scale eruptions during the time of the dinosaurs and none caused major extinctions. The key thing was that Pangea was splitting up and separate continents were forming – the familiar continents of today’s world. Such a world seems better able to cope with rapid increases in atmospheric gases because feedback mechanisms are more effective. In particular rainfall is more plentiful when the continents are small and nowhere is too far away from the sea. Rain scrubs the atmosphere and thus alleviates the problems.

However, the $64,000 question is how quickly this feedback can happen. The world seems better at doing this today than it was in deep time but maybe we are adding the carbon dioxide too fast to our atmosphere, maybe we are swamping the system? This is a hard question to answer, we’re not sure how much gas came out during the giant eruptions of the past and so it’s hard to directly compare with the present day pollution rates. What we do know is that past mega-eruptions have been remarkably damage-free. For over 100 million years, our world has been a benign place.

Oh, except for a remarkably large meteorite impact that was bad news for the dinosaurs, but that’s another story.

Wignall jacketPaul B. Wignall is professor of palaeoenvironments at the University of Leeds. He has been investigating mass extinctions for more than twenty-five years, a scientific quest that has taken him to dozens of countries around the world. The coauthor of Mass Extinctions and Their Aftermath, he lives in Leeds.

Conversations on Climate: Economists consider a hotter planet on PBS Newshour

NEW climate picIn Climate Shock, economists Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman tackle the likely prospect of a hotter planet as a risk management problem on a global scale. As 150 world leaders meet in Paris for the UN Conference on Climate Change, both took the time to speak to PBS Newshour about what we know and don’t know about global warming:

Everyone is talking about 2 degrees Celsius. Why? What happens if the planet warms by 2 degrees Celsius?

Martin L. Weitzman: Two degrees Celsius has turned into an iconic threshold of sorts, a political target, if you will. And for good reason. Many scientists have looked at so-called tipping points with huge potential changes to the climate system: methane being released from the frozen tundra at rapid rates, the Gulfstream shutting down and freezing over Northern Europe, the Amazon rainforest dying off. The short answer is we just don’t — can’t — know with 100 percent certainty when and how these tipping points will, in fact, occur. But there seems to be a lot of evidence that things can go horribly wrong once the planet crosses that 2 degree threshold.

In “Climate Shock,” you write that we need to insure ourselves against climate change. What do you mean by that?

Gernot Wagner: At the end of the day, climate is a risk management problem. It’s the small risk of a huge catastrophe that ultimately ought to drive the final analysis. Averages are bad enough. But those risks — the “tail risks” — are what puts the “shock” into “Climate Shock.”

Martin L. Weitzman: Coming back to your 2 degree question, it’s also important to note that the world has already warmed by around 0.85 degrees since before we started burning coal en masse. So that 2 degree threshold is getting closer and closer. Much too close for comfort.

What do you see happening in Paris right now? What steps are countries taking to combat climate change?

Gernot Wagner: There’s a lot happening — a lot of positive steps being taken. More than 150 countries, including most major emitters, have come to Paris with their plans of action. President Obama, for example, came with overall emissions reductions targets for the U.S. and more concretely, the Clean Power Plan, our nation’s first ever limit on greenhouse gases from the electricity sector. And earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a nation-wide cap on emissions from energy and key industrial sectors commencing in 2017.

It’s equally clear, of course, that we won’t be solving climate change in Paris. The climate negotiations are all about building the right foundation for countries to act and put the right policies in place like the Chinese cap-and-trade system.

How will reigning in greenhouse gases as much President Obama suggests affect our economy? After all, we’re so reliant on fossil fuels.

Gernot Wagner: That’s what makes this problem such a tough one. There are costs. They are real. In some sense, if there weren’t any, we wouldn’t be talking about climate change to begin with. The problem would solve itself. So yes, the Clean Power Plan overall isn’t a free lunch. But the benefits of acting vastly outweigh the costs. That’s what’s important to keep in mind here. There are trade-offs, as there always are in life. But when the benefits of action vastly outweigh the costs, the answer is simple: act. And that’s precisely what Obama is doing here.

Read the rest on the PBS Newshour blog.

Wagner coverGernot Wagner is lead senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund. He is the author of But Will the Planet Notice? (Hill & Wang). Martin L. Weitzman is professor of economics at Harvard University. His books include Income, Wealth, and the Maximum Principle. For more, see www.gwagner.com and scholar.harvard.edu/weitzman.


Conversations on Climate: Victor W. Olgyay on Design for Climate

NEW climate pic

Design with Climate is Design for Climate
by Victor W. Olgyay

climate change 2Our environmental crisis is real, and it is of our own creation. It is shocking that we humans are intentionally destroying the foundations of our existence, fouling our nest beyond repair. And we appear incapable of stopping ourselves from continuing to further worsen the problem.

Perhaps the issue is not irredeemable. After all, the climate crisis has had a long, slow burn. It has been a hundred years in the making, and has had the contribution of millions of individuals who have been polluting in the name of progress.

Now, in 2015 we are aware of what the uncoordinated actions of 7.3 billion people working for progress results in. We understand the origins of the ever-increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And we can both see the path forward, and we can design the path that we prefer.

Globally, buildings are the largest end use energy sector. We need to take dramatic steps today to address the global climate crisis, and that requires improving the energy performance of existing and new buildings. By doing this we will be able to shift economically to a renewable, low carbon energy supply.

We can reduce energy use in new and existing buildings dramatically and we can accomplish much of this through low and no cost measures. Simply designing buildings to work with local climatic conditions can reduce energy use by 50 percent or more. Design with Climate, a book written over 50 years ago, and recently republished by Princeton University Press, shows exactly how to do that. In essence, bioclimatic design information tells us how to shade our windows and walls during overheated periods, and to let in the sun’s warmth in when it is desirable. We can use daylight to illuminate vast amounts of interior space, and ventilate buildings with the wind, rather than fighting it. These ideas and many more result in sensible, responsible design, intelligent use of resources, and can result in beautiful, comfortable buildings.

: Designing with Climate makes buildings more comfortable while using less energy.

Designing with Climate makes buildings more comfortable while using less energy.

Since Design with Climate was written in 1963, several things have happened that make this even easier. We have more effective building insulation systems, which dramatically reduce heat loss and gain. We have better windows, and better techniques for building to reduce air and moisture infiltration. And we have sophisticated computer energy modeling techniques that accurately predict how buildings will preform before we build them, so building performance can become an integral part of building design.

And one more thing: we have that environmental crisis I started with. When Design with Climate was first published in 1963, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 320 parts per million (ppm), and today it is over 400ppm. In 1963 Rachael Carson had just written Silent Spring, and the environmental movement was nascent. Today the polar ice caps are melting, and global warming is threatening our very existence.

climate change 1We are now building extremely low energy buildings, zero energy buildings, and even buildings that produce more energy then they consume. Retrofitting existing buildings to use less energy, and building new superefficient structures paves the way for our renewable energy powered future, and combats climate change.

We must design not only with, but also for climate. Building design has implications we must use for our benefit. And through this engaged conversation with nature we can usher in a design solution to our climate crisis. That is true progress that can align millions of people.

Victor W. Olgyay is an architect and the son of the author of Design with Climate.

Andrew Robinson to talk on “Einstein in Oxford” at Christ Church

In late 1915, in Berlin, Albert Einstein announced the general theory of relativity: his greatest achievement. In 1931-33, he lectured on relativity in Oxford, receiving an honorary degree from the university and staying in rooms in Christ Church, before fleeing his home in Nazi Germany and settling in Princeton. How much is known about Einstein’s time in the city of dreaming spires? For the centenary of general relativity, Einstein biographer Andrew Robinson will give a talk on “Einstein in Oxford” at Christ Church, Oxford on December 3. Robinson, the author of Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity, will reflect on relativity, Einstein’s intriguing relationship with Oxford and the puzzle of his universal fame. 

Ahead of his talk, Robinson shares some fascinating details about the historic visit:

Einstein in Oxford

By Andrew Robinson

My father was a physicist at Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory for more than four decades, revered Einstein’s work and wrote a textbook on relativity. I was born, brought up and largely educated in Oxford. So I am naturally curious about Einstein’s relationship with the city.

When Einstein paid his first visit to England in 1921, The Times carried a two-sentence news item headlined “Professor Einstein at Oxford”. It read as follows: “Professor Einstein paid a private visit to Oxford University as the guest of Dr. Lindemann of Wadham College. A tour was made of the principal University buildings and the Professor returned to London in the evening.”

Einstein receiving an honorary degree at Oxford. Source: http://www.einsteingalerie.de/zubehoer/grafiken/portraet/doctor1931.jpg

Nothing further came of this Oxford visit for a decade. But the name of Einstein’s host in Oxford in 1921, the physicist Frederick Lindemann, proved to be very important. Though born in Germany in 1886, Lindemann was actually brought up in Britain and regarded himself as British. But he returned to Germany as a PhD student in Berlin. In 1911, when his Berlin supervisor, the future Nobel laureate Walther Nernst, organized a key scientific conference in Brussels—the first Solvay Congress—Nernst appointed his student Lindemann as one of the scientific secretaries of the conference. And it was at this historic conference—where the young Einstein lectured on quantum theory—that Lindemann first met him.

In 1919, Lindemann was elected Dr Lee’s professor of experimental philosophy (that is, physics) in Oxford, and began the much-needed rejuvenation of physics at the university, centred on the Clarendon Laboratory. The Dr Lee’s chair was attached to Wadham College, where Lindemann remained a fellow until his retirement. But in 1921 Lindemann was also elected, as was legally possible in those days, to a “studentship not on the governing body” at Christ Church, which had provided the endowment for the chair. This entitled Lindemann to rooms in Christ Church that were more spacious than Wadham could provide, and from 1922 for the rest of his life, until his death in 1957, ‘Prof’, as Lindemann was known, lived in Christ Church. He was living there when he became close to Winston Churchill in the mid-1920s and eventually acted as Churchill’s key scientific adviser during the Second World War.

In 1927, Lindemann made his first attempt to persuade Einstein to return to Oxford and give one or two lectures, on behalf of the newly established Rhodes Trust—without success. In 1930, he tried again. This time, Einstein agreed, then changed his mind. But Lindemann was determined. He saw Einstein in person in Berlin, and also worked on Mrs Einstein. Einstein agreed to give three lectures—one on relativity, the second on cosmological theory and the third on his much-discussed unified field theory—and to stay in Oxford for some weeks. A solicitous Lindemann assured Mrs. Einstein in a letter:

He can of course have as many meals as he likes alone in his rooms and I will endeavour to preserve him as much as possible from importunate invitations. I am taking steps to see that he can get some sailing, so that I hope he will not feel that he is wasting his time here altogether.

Einstein arrived in Oxford in early May 1931 and was given rooms in Christ Church on Tom Quad (now the Graduate Common Room) belonging to the classical scholar Robert Hamilton Dundas, who was away on a world tour in 1930-31. At a practical level, he was looked after by Lindemann’s indefatigable manservant and general factotum, James Harvey. Lindemann himself acted as Einstein’s mentor and guide, showing him the sights and introducing him to various friends and acquaintances. According to Lindemann, over the course of Einstein’s visit, he “threw himself into all the activities of Oxford science, attended the Colloquiums and meetings for discussion and proved so stimulating and thought-provoking that I am sure his visit will leave a permanent mark on the progress of our subject.”

His first Rhodes lecture was on 9 May. Entitled “The Theory of Relativity”, it drew a packed house in the Milner Hall of Rhodes House, with some people standing. But since the lecture included much mathematics and was also in German, it quickly went over the heads of most of the audience. Those whose maths was good enough to follow Einstein’s calculations, mostly lacked sufficient German to follow his words, while the German speakers certainly lacked sufficient maths.

By the time of the second lecture a week later, devoted to the recent notion of an expanding universe, there were somewhat fewer listeners. As The Times correspondent cautiously noted:

Once more he had an audience which, though not so large as for his first lecture, almost filled the hall. An analysis of the audience was interesting. Senior and junior members of the University were divided by a barrier. The senior members consisted chiefly of teachers in the faculties of Literae Humaniores, mathematics, natural science, and theology, all of whom are affected in some degree by the new theory. The junior members were drawn by considerations partly of science, partly of language, and partly of curiosity. The element of curiosity, however, was not so strong as for the previous lecture, and most of those present had a serious interest.… Two blackboards, plentifully sprinkled beforehand in the international language of mathematical symbol, served him for reference.

One of these Einstein blackboards was wiped by an over-zealous cleaner. Fortunately, the other one was rescued by one of the Oxford dons with a serious interest in relativity, who whisked it away to the Museum of the History of Science in Broad Street, where it today attracts much intrigued, if bemused, attention from visitors. (The wiped blackboard still exists, too, but lies ignominiously in the storeroom of the Museum.)

Just before the third lecture on 23 May, Einstein was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University at the Sheldonian Theatre. The Public Orator, presenting Einstein to the vice-chancellor in Latin, claimed that relativity, “which touched both science and philosophy, was specially acceptable to Oxonians … who had learnt from Heraclitus that you could not bathe in the same river twice”.

Then the audience in the Sheldonian—or at least those members strong enough to cope not only with Latin but also with Einstein’s German and his mathematics—proceeded to Rhodes House. After this lecture, Einstein remarked that the next time he had to lecture in Oxford, “the discourse should be in English delivered”. To which one of Lindemann’s friends was heard to murmur in German: “Bewahr!” But two years later, when Einstein gave the Herbert Spencer lecture in Oxford in 1933, “On the Method of Theoretical Physics”, he wisely spoke it in an excellent English version translated from his German by colleagues from Christ Church. This lecture included a piercing tribute to an Einstein hero, Galileo:

Conclusions obtained by purely rational processes are, so far as Reality is concerned, entirely empty. It was because he recognized this, and especially because he impressed it upon the scientific world, that Galileo became the father of modern physics and in fact of the whole of modern natural science.

However, Einstein also stated, controversially, his growing view—which would come to dominate his work in the United States—of the importance of mathematics over experiment in devising physical theories:

It is my conviction that purely mathematical construction enables us to discover the concepts and the laws connecting them which give us the key to the understanding of the phenomena of Nature. Experience can of course guide us in our choice of serviceable mathematical concepts; it cannot possibly be the source from which they are derived; experience of course remains the sole criterion of the serviceability of a mathematical construction for physics, but the truly creative principle resides in mathematics. In a certain sense, therefore, I hold it to be true that pure thought is competent to comprehend the real, as the ancients dreamed.

Undoubtedly, Einstein left a pleasant impression on the students (fellows) of Christ Church. The classicist Dundas—in whose rooms Einstein lived in 1931—was tickled to find a poem by Einstein written in German in his visitor’s book when he returned from his world tour, including the verse:

Grumble: Why’s this creature staying

With his pipe and piano playing?

Why should this barbarian roam?

Could he not have stopped at home?

While the economist Roy Harrod wrote in his biography of Lindemann that Einstein “was a charming person, and we entered into relations of easy intimacy with him.” Harrod recalled vividly that Einstein

divided his time between his mathematics and playing the violin; as one crossed the quad, one was privileged to hear the strains coming from his rooms. In our Governing Body I sat next to him; we had a green baize table-cloth; under cover of this he held a wad of paper on his knee, and I observed that all through our meetings his pencil was in incessant progress, covering sheet after sheet with equations.

On one occasion, Einstein turned up at the college’s entrance gate in a pony cart driven by a girl he had met over lunch at the house of some friends of Lindemann. Some of his admirers were waiting to help him out of the cart, but a big button from his Ulster had caught in the cart’s basket-work. His lady driver wanted to disentangle it and give it to Einstein, but the college porter said: ‘I wouldn’t worry, Miss. The gentleman will never miss it. He has one odd button on his coat already.” “Oh, in that case I shall keep it,” said the girl. “I shall probably never drive anyone so famous again!”

Robinson jacketAndrew Robinson will give a talk on “Einstein in Oxford” at Christ Church, Oxford on 3 December 2015. He is the author of Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity, published by Princeton University Press in 2015, and Genius: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press in 2011.