Marcia Bjornerud on Timefulness

Timefulness coverFew of us have any conception of the enormous timescales in our planet’s long history, and this narrow perspective underlies many of the environmental problems we are creating for ourselves. The passage of nine days, which is how long a drop of water typically stays in Earth’s atmosphere, is something we can easily grasp. But spans of hundreds of years—the time a molecule of carbon dioxide resides in the atmosphere—approach the limits of our comprehension. Our everyday lives are shaped by processes that vastly predate us, and our habits will in turn have consequences that will outlast us by generations. Timefulness reveals how knowing the rhythms of Earth’s deep past and conceiving of time as a geologist does can give us the perspective we need for a more sustainable future.

What exactly do you mean by Timefulness?

It’s the habit of seeing things not merely as they are now, but also recognizing how they evolved—and will continue to evolve—over time. In a sense, it’s perceiving the world in four dimensions. I use the word as a deliberate counterpoint to the idea of Timelessness, which is an impossible, and ultimately sterile, aspiration.

Unless you’re jet-setting around the cosmos at relativistic speeds, nothing exists outside the framework of time; every person, idea, culture, organism, landscape, and continent exists in a particular time-stamped moment while also bearing vestiges of a much deeper historical and evolutionary past. We tend to view these entities only as they appear in the current temporal plane, but their paths through time shaped what they are now, and what they may become in the future. In other words, all things are full of Time— they’re Timeful.

The natural world in particular is bursting with backstories— tragedies, comedies, sprawling million-year sagas, chronicles of forgotten empires. Reconceiving everything, including ourselves, as entities sculpted by time is a perceptual shift that can be transformative on the personal and societal levels.

I don’t quite get the connection with geology.

This way of viewing the world is the very essence of geological thinking – being able to hold in the mind’s eye multiple past— and plausible future— iterations of the Earth and its ecosystems. I recognize that geology suffers from a public perception problem; people either associate it with musty museum displays or rapacious oil companies and mineral prospectors. But in fact it’s an intellectually vibrant science that requires exceptional powers of imagination: the capacity to zoom in and out of spatial and temporal scales, and to visualize long vanished landscapes and inaccessible parts of the Earth we can never see directly.

Geology is also a strange field in that it addresses both very pragmatic questions—where to find groundwater, how to protect people from natural hazards—and deep, even philosophical ones: Where do we come from? Why is the Earth the way it is? Both kinds of questions are important to humans, and both require a keen sense of temporal proportion—the relative and absolute durations of the great chapters in the planet’s past, the characteristic rates and timescales of natural phenomena. But as a society, we are largely time-illiterate: shockingly ignorant about how our activities intersect with the Earth’s long-established habits.  

Human and geological timescales are so vastly different – why does it matter if ordinary people have a feeling for ‘deep time’?

Actually, they’re not as disparate as one might think. Geologists have perhaps overemphasized the idea that the Earth is incredibly old and slow-moving and that humans are mere last-minute walk-ons. I think this misrepresents our place on Earth in a number of ways. First, we humans may have taken our current form only recently, but we have very deep roots in the evolutionary tree. Second, even though we may be relative newcomers, we are having an outsized effect on the planet. Finally, the Earth’s habits are really not that sluggish. Today, satellite observations allow us to see glaciers and tectonic plates moving in real time. Many geologic processes—erosion, river migration and climate change, for example—can play out well within a human lifetime. And some of the planet’s behaviors, like earthquakes and landslides, happen so fast that we are left dazed in their aftermath. Earth has many tempos and modes, many still being discovered and documented.

Throughout the book, you weave in the intellectual history of geology and explain how we have come to our current understanding. That must be intentional?

Yes! The story of how humans have gradually come to understand the character of our planet and managed to reconstruct its deep history is itself a fascinating evolutionary tale. Calibrating the geologic timescale is arguably one of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements. Yet it is underappreciated because it is not the work of a solitary genius but instead a collaborative effort of people making observations all around the globe over the past two centuries – and it’s still a work in progress. Along the way, there have been scientists, both amateur and professional, who had brilliant insights but were too far ahead of their time for their ideas to be verified by available data. There have also been experts much celebrated in their own day who proved to be completely wrong about the nature of the Earth and who held the science in check during their lifetimes.

So yes, the book is both about the idiosyncratic history of the Earth, and the equally idiosyncratic history of human understanding of the Earth.

Some people find the idea of geologic time terrifying because it makes them feel insignificant. How do you respond to that?

I can understand that reaction and again I think we geologists ourselves are partly to blame for flogging people over the head with the vastness of geologic time. I had a math professor who was fond of pointing out that, “there are many sizes and shapes of infinity.” The same can be said for different points in the geologic past. Some are a long time ago—some are a long, longtime ago. Developing some ‘depth of field’ in thinking about geologic time makes it seem less like a yawning abyss, and then filling it in with the narrative details of Earth’s development transforms it into an awe-inspiring origin story that embraces, rather than excludes, us. I personally find existential comfort in knowing that I am a resident of an ancient, resilient, marvelously complicated planet that has been teeming with life and continuously reinventing itself for 4 billion years.

OK, but can Timefulness really “help save the world?”

First let me emphasize that by “world” I don’t mean the planet; Earth will be fine with or without us and will survive the damage we are currently inflicting on it in the same way that it has endured previous calamities. It’s the stability of the world as we humans define it— the political, economic, social and cultural world— that is in grave peril. And yes, I would argue that Timeful, long-term thinking is essential to saving that. At a time when we urgently need mechanisms in our political and economic systems that encourage long-term planning, our attention spans keep shrinking. The few leaders who aspire to keep the long view in mind find themselves removed from boardrooms and public office by impatient shareholders, voters and corporate interests that benefit from the short-sightedness of the collective. The capacity to think on even decadal timescales—zooming out just enough to recognize our common past and shared destiny as human creatures on a changing planet— may be a way to spring ourselves out of the polarized, antagonistic, segregated mindsets and habits in which we have trapped ourselves.

The narratives of natural history are a heritage we all share as Earthlings, and expanded awareness of that legacy— a little Timefulness—may liberate us from our self-absorbed narcissism and other self-destructive tendencies.  

 

Marcia Bjornerud is professor of geology and environmental studies at Lawrence University. She is the author of Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth and a contributing writer for Elements, the New Yorker’s science and technology blog. She lives in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Joseph Barber on The Chicken

The Chicken coverInherently social creatures, chickens are enjoying a renaissance as prized members of many households and small farms. From feathers and flock formation to imprinting and incubating, The Chicken by Joseph Barber provides a comprehensive, richly illustrated guide to understanding how chickens live, think, and act both alongside people and independently.

How did you get involved with chickens?

When I finished my undergraduate degree in London, I was hooked on the subject of animal behavior, and knew I wanted to continue studying this subject. I even came across the perfect PhD project that was focused on researching cheetahs in the Serengeti. You cannot get much cooler than that in terms of an animal behavior research project. However, I wasn’t even close to being qualified for research in this environment given that the most fearsome animal I had worked with at that point was a bank vole (and no, they are not fierce!).

Instead, I found a research project focusing on the social behavior of laying hens at the University of Oxford under the supervision of Professor Marian Dawkins. This was an amazing opportunity to work under one of the foremost experts in behavioral research. It also meant I had to get up close and personal with chickens. In fact, the chickens at Oxford were the first chickens I had ever really interacted with, and they were a little terrifying at first—what with their beady eyes and dinosaur-like legs. Over the three years of my research, I certainly developed an appreciation for these birds and their strong personalities. What I never learnt to appreciate was their desire to pull the hairs on my legs as I was cleaning their enclosures.

But really, a whole book about chickens?

My PhD research focused on the social behavior of chickens. This subject area represents a tiny slice of what makes chickens so interesting (yes, a slice of the chicken pie, if you like that sort of thing). The various chapter authors in this book all bring their own amazing expertise in terms of discussing the evolutionary history of the birds, their anatomy and physiology, their complex behavior, their treatment in captivity, and the delightful range of appearances and characteristics of the many breeds of chickens that exist. In other words, there is so much to learn about chickens that there is probably no single person who knows everything there is to know.  More importantly, the reason for this book is to encourage people to develop their own appreciation of chickens, especially people who might be considering having their own backyard chickens.

Why have backyard chickens?

Well, because the plentiful supply of eggs you can get will taste far better than intensively farmed eggs you buy, and can give you great satisfaction in terms of bringing food to your table from your own backyard. Even if you didn’t want eggs, chickens can be wonderfully fun to watch as they wreak havoc on the bugs and vegetables you have in your gardens. You can find many online retailers selling the most exotic chicken coops you can imagine if you want to get really fancy, and the possibilities for posting chicken-related pictures on social media are endless (#drinkingwithchickens on Instagram as an example).

Any interesting chicken stories or facts?

Based on my experience, if you hold a chicken under your arm whilst wearing a lab coat, and if you keep your keys in your lab coat pocket, then the chances are high that you will end up with chicken poop on your keys. Also, if you study chickens for 3 years, everyone will buy you chicken-related gifts for your birthday and any and all other celebrations. There are just so many chicken-themed gifts that can be bought at any time of the year. To be honest, I think it made all my relatives very happy that I studied chickens, because they always knew what to buy me! And finally, chickens don’t fly very well, but they have still have the ability to generate significant lift when motivated. A single hen who freaks out at a sudden sound or movement can trigger a superabundance of flapping birds trying to get away from whatever it was the first bird thought was worth fleeing from. This explosion of feathered fowl and sawdust can be terrifying for a human caught up in the midst of it whilst innocently gathering eggs from the nest boxes.

So, why did the chicken cross the road?

It is definitely important to ask this. From a research perspective, a potentially easier question would be “how would we determine why the chicken crossed the road?” Since chickens cannot tell us the answer directly, we only have their behavior to go on to figure out an answer.  What we are interested in as animal behaviorists is what is it that motivates a change in behavior. Is it something internal, such as hunger, or something external, such as the sight of a predator or something that other members of the social group are doing? Chickens tend to perform a lot of socially facilitated behaviors—that is, they tend to do what other birds in the flock are doing, at the same time and in the same location. It is easier to spot predators if there are lots of eyes scanning the environment. So, chances are high that most chickens cross the road because they are simply following the chickens ahead of them. As for the first bird who crossed it—perhaps she was actually riding on the back of an alligator who was chasing a clown who lost his wallet in the laundromat which just happened to be on the other side of the road.

After reading this book, will I stop wanting to eat chicken?

My PhD research and the topic of the class I teach at Hunter College both focus on animal welfare. This is a hard subject to define easily, but one way to think about welfare is to consider whether the animals we house in captive environment can cope with the challenges they face in these environments. If our farmed animals experience pain everyday because they are housed on a hard concrete surface, or if they are frustrated because they cannot perform a behavior that they are highly motivated to perform, then these would be examples of poor welfare. In these cases, the animals are faced with negative experiences that they cannot overcome. The more we understand about farm animals, the easier it becomes to see where their captive environments are not set up to meet their various needs. There are certainly farming practices that turn people off intensively farmed food once they learn about them. This book provides great insights into the life of chickens, and so can be helpful to people as they think about whether the meat or eggs they eat come from an environment that they feel is welfare friendly or not. With a little research, it is absolutely possible to find local farmers who rear animals in a way you would hope they would be reared. Indeed, if you have chickens in your own backyard, you can be far more certain that the eggs you eat come from well-appreciated birds reared in an environmentally sustainable manner!

Joseph Barber is a senior associate director at the University of Pennsylvania, and an adjunct professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

Edward Balleisen on the long history of fraud in America

BalleisenDuplicitous business dealings and scandal may seem like manifestations of contemporary America gone awry, but fraud has been a key feature of American business since its beginnings. The United States has always proved an inviting home for boosters, sharp dealers, and outright swindlers. Worship of entrepreneurial freedom has complicated the task of distinguishing aggressive salesmanship from unacceptable deceit, especially on the frontiers of innovation. At the same time, competitive pressures have often nudged respectable firms to embrace deception. In Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff, Edward Balleisen traces the history of fraud in America—and the evolving efforts to combat it. Recently, he took the time to answer some questions about his book.

Can you explain what brought you to write this book?

EB: For more than two decades, I have been fascinated by the role of trust in modern American capitalism and the challenges posed by businesses that break their promises. My first book, Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America, addressed this question by examining institutional responses to insolvency in the mid-nineteenth-century. This book widens my angle of vision, considering the problem of intentional deceit in the United States across a full two centuries.

In part, my research was motivated by the dramatic American fraud scandals of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which demonstrated how badly duplicitous business practices could hurt investors, consumers, and general confidence in capitalism. I wanted to understand how American society had developed strategies to constrain such behavior, and why they had increasingly proved unequal to the task since the 1970s.

In part, I was gripped by all the compelling stories suggested by historical episodes of fraud, which often involve charismatic business-owners, and often raise complex questions about how to distinguish enthusiastic exaggeration from unscrupulous misrepresentation.

In part, I wanted to tackle the challenges of reconstructing a history over the longer term. Many of the best historians during the last generation have turned to microhistory – detailed studies of specific events or moments. But there is also an important place for macro-history that traces continuity and change over several generations.

In addition, my research was shaped by increasingly heated debates about the costs and benefits of governmental regulation, the extent to which the social legitimacy of market economies rest on regulatory foundations, and the best ways to structure regulatory policy. The history of American anti-fraud policy offers compelling evidence about these issues, and shows that smart government can achieve important policy goals.

What are the basic types of fraud?

EB: One important distinction involves the targets of intentional economic deceit. Sometimes individual consumers defraud businesses, as when they lie on applications for credit or life insurance. Sometimes taxpayers defraud governments, by hiding income. Sometimes employees defraud employers, by misappropriating funds, which sociologists call “occupational fraud.” I focus mostly on deceit committed by firms against their counterparties (other businesses, consumers, investors, the government), or “organizational fraud.”

Then there are the major techniques of deception by businesses. Within the realm of consumer fraud, most misrepresentations take the form of a bait and switch – making big promises about goods or services, but then delivering something of lesser or even no quality.

Investment fraud can take this form as well. But it also may depend on market manipulations – spreading rumors, engaging in sham trades, or falsifying corporate financial reports in order to influence price movements, and so the willingness of investors to buy or sell; or taking advantage of inside information to trade ahead of market reactions to that news.

One crucial type of corporate fraud involves managerial looting. That is, executives engage in self-dealing. They give themselves outsized compensation despite financial difficulties, direct corporate resources to outside firms that they control in order to skim off profits, or even drive their firms into bankruptcy, and then take advantage of inside information to buy up assets on the cheap.

Why does business fraud occur?

EB: Modern economic life presents consumers, investors, and businesses with never-ending challenges of assessing information. What is the quality of goods and services on offer, some of which may depend on newfangled technologies or complex financial arrangements? How should we distinguish good investment opportunities from poor ones?

In many situations, sellers and buyers do not possess the same access to evidence about such issues. Economists refer to this state of affairs as “information asymmetry.” Then there is the problem of information overload, which leads many economic actors to rely on mental short-cuts – rules of thumb about the sorts of businesses or offers that they can trust. Almost all deceptive firms seek to look and sound like successful enterprises, taking advantage of the tendency of consumers and investors to rely on such rules of thumb. Some of the most sophisticated financial scams even try to build confidence by warning investors about other frauds.

A number of common psychological tendencies leave most people susceptible to economic misrepresentations at least some of the time. Often we can be taken in by strategies of “framing” – the promise of a big discount from an inflated base price may entice us to get out our wallets, even though the actual price is not much of a bargain. Or a high-pressure stock promoter may convince us to invest by convincing us that we have to avoid the regret that will dog us if we hold back and then lose out on massive gains.

How has government policy toward business fraud changed since the early nineteenth century?

EB: In the nineteenth century, Anglo-American law tended to err on the side of leniency toward self-promotion by businesses. In most situations, the key legal standard was caveat emptor, or let the buyer beware. For the judges and legislators who embraced this way of thinking, markets worked best when consumers and investors knew that they had to look out for themselves. As a result, they adopted legal rules that often made it difficult for economic actors to substantiate allegations of illegal deceit.

For more than a century after the American Civil War, however, there was a strong trend to make anti-fraud policies less forgiving of companies that shade the truth in their business dealings. As industrialization and the emergence of complex national markets produced wider information asymmetries, economic deceit became a bigger problem. The private sector responded through new types of businesses (accounting services, credit reporting) and self-regulatory bodies to certify trustworthiness. But from the late nineteenth century into the 1970s, policy-makers periodically enacted anti-fraud regulations that required truthful disclosures from businesses, and that made it easier for investors and consumers to receive relief when they were taken for a ride.

More recently, the conservative turn in American politics since the 1970s led to significant policy reversals. Convinced that markets would police fraudulent businesses by damaging their reputations, elected officials cut back on budgets for anti-fraud enforcement, and rejected the extension of anti-fraud regulations to new financial markets like debt securitization.

Since the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08, which was triggered in part by widespread duplicity in the mortgage markets, Americans have again seen economic deceit as a worrisome threat to confidence in capitalist institutions. That concern has prompted the adoption of some important anti-fraud policies, like the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But it remains unclear whether we have an entered a new era of greater faith in government to be able to constrain the most harmful forms of business fraud.

Many journalists and pundits have characterized the last several decades as generating epidemics of business fraud. What if anything is distinctive about the incidence of business fraud since the 1970s?

EB: Fraud episodes have occurred in every era of American history. During the nineteenth century, railroad contracting frauds abounded, as did duplicity related to land companies and patent medicine advertising. Deception in the marketing of mining stocks became so common that a prevalent joke defined “mine” as “a hole in the ground with a liar at the top.” From the 1850s through the 1920s, Wall Street was notorious for the ruthless manner in which dodgy operators fleeced unsuspecting investors.

Business frauds hardly disappeared in mid-twentieth-century America. Indeed, bait and switch marketing existed in every urban retailing sector, and especially in poor urban neighborhoods. Within the world of investing, scams continued to target new-fangled industries, such as uranium mines and electronics. As Americans moved to the suburbs, fraudulent pitchmen followed right behind, with duplicitous franchising schemes and shoddy home improvement projects.

The last forty years have also produced a regular stream of major fraud scandals, including the Savings & Loan frauds of the 1980s and early 1990s, contracting frauds in military procurement and healthcare reimbursement during the 1980s and 1990s, corporate accounting scandals in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and frauds associated with the collapse of the mortgage market in 2007-2008.

Unlike in the period from the 1930s through the 1970s, however, business fraud during the more recent four decades have attained a different scale and scope. The costs of the worst episodes have reached into the billions of dollars (an order of magnitude greater than their counterparts in the mid-twentieth century, taking account of inflation and the overall growth in the economy), and have far more frequently involved leading corporations.

Why is business fraud so hard to stamp out through government policy?

EB: One big challenge is presented by the task of defining fraud in legal terms. In ordinary language, people often refer to any rip-off as a “fraud.” But how should the law distinguish between enthusiastic exaggerations, so common among entrepreneurs who just know that their business is offering the best thing ever, and unacceptable lies? Drawing that line has never been easy, especially if one wants to give some leeway to new firms seeking to gain a hearing through initial promotions.

Then there are several enduring obstacles to enforcement of American anti-fraud regulations. Often specific instances of business fraud impose relatively small harms on individuals, even if overall losses may be great. That fact, along with embarrassment at having been duped, has historically led many American victims of fraud to remain “silent suckers.” Proving that misrepresentations were intentional is often difficult; as is explaining the nature of deception to juries in complex cases of financial fraud.

The most effective modes of anti-fraud regulation often have been administrative in character. They either require truthful disclosure of crucial information to consumers and investors, at the right time and incomprehensible language, or they cut off access to the marketplace to fraudulent businesses. Postal fraud orders constitute one example of the latter sort of policy. When the post office determines that a business has engaged in fraudulent practices, it can deny it the use of the mails, a very effective means of policing mail-order firms. Such draconian steps, however, have always raised questions about fairness and often lead to the adoption of procedural safeguards that can blunt their impact.

How does this book help us better understand on contemporary frauds, such as the Madoff pyramid scheme or the Volkswagen emissions scandal?  

EB: One key insight is that so long as economic transactions depend on trust, and so long as there are asymmetries of information between economic counterparties, there will be significant incentives to cheat. Some economists and legal thinkers argue that the best counter to these incentives are reputational counterweights. Established firms, on this view, will not take actions that threaten their goodwill; newer enterprises will focus on earning the trust of creditors, suppliers, and customers. And heavy-handed efforts to police deceptive practices remove the incentive for economic actors to exercise due diligence, while raising barriers to entry, and so limiting the scope for new commercial ideas. This way of thinking shares much in common with the philosophy of caveat emptor that structured most American markets in the nineteenth-century.

But as instances like the Madoff investment frauds and Volkswagen’s reliance on deceptive emissions overrides suggest, reputational considerations have significant limits. Even firms with sterling reputations are susceptible to fraud. This is especially the case when regulatory supports, and wider social norms against commercial dishonesty, are weak.

The title of this book is Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. What do you see as uniquely American about this history of fraud?  

EB: The basic psychological patterns of economic deception have not changed much in the United States. Indeed, these patterns mirror experimental findings regarding vulnerabilities that appear to be common across societies. Thus I would be skeptical that the tactics of an investment “pump and dump” or marketing “bait and switch” would look very different in 1920s France or the Japan of the early 21st century than in the U.S. at those times.

That said, dimensions of American culture have created welcome ground for fraudulent schemes and schemers. American policy-makers have tended to accord great respect to entrepreneurs, which helps to explain the adoption of a legal baseline of caveat emptor in the nineteenth century, and the partial return to that baseline in the last quarter of the twentieth-century.

The growth of the antifraud state, however, likely narrowed the differences between American policies and those in other industrialized countries. One hope of mine for this book is that it prompts more historical analysis of antifraud regulation elsewhere – in continental Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. We need more detailed histories in other societies before we can draw firmer comparative conclusions.

What do you see as the most important implications of this book for policy-makers charged with furthering consumer or investor protection?

EB: Business fraud is a truly complex regulatory problem. No modern society can hope to eliminate it without adopting such restrictive rules as to strangle economic activity. But if governments rely too heavily on the market forces associated with reputation, business fraud can become sufficiently common and sufficiently costly to threaten public confidence in capitalist institutions. As a result, policy-makers would do well to focus on strategies of fraud containment.

That approach calls for:

• well-designed campaigns of public education for consumers and investors;
• empowering consumers and investors through contractual defaults, like cooling off periods that allow consumers to back out of purchases;
• cultivating social norms that stigmatize businesses that take the deceptive road;
• building regulatory networks to share information across agencies and levels of government, and between government bodies and the large number of antifraud NGOs; and
• a determination to shut down the most unscrupulous firms, not only to curb their activities, but also to persuade everyone that the state is serious about combating fraud.

Edward Balleisen talks about his new book:

Edward J. Balleisen is associate professor of history and public policy and vice provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America and Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Marilyn Roossinck: 101 viruses

Viruses are seldom considered beautiful, though visually, many are in fact stunning. While the sheer mention of them usually brings on vigilant hand-washing, some are actually beneficial to their hosts, and many are crucial to the health of our planet. Virus: An Illustrated Guide to 101 Incredible Microbes by Marilyn Roosinck offers an unprecedented look at 101 incredible microbes that infect all branches of life on Earth—from humans and other animals to insects, plants, fungi, and bacteria. Recently, Roosinck answered some questions about her gorgeously illustrated new book.

How did you come to study viruses?

MR: I started college at the Community College of Denver as an adult student (I was 22 years old), with a plan to go take two years of courses and then transfer to nursing school. I took a Microbiology course and when we studied bacterial viruses, I was totally smitten by how amazing viruses were, these very small and simple entities that could change everything! I ripped up my application to nursing school and instead transferred to the University of Colorado to pursue a degree in Biology. There were two biology departments at that time: Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology; and Environmental, Populational and Organismal Biology, so I did a double major and got a degree in both programs. As an undergraduate I did an independent study in a lab working on SV40, a model for many studies on mammalian viruses. I applied to the University of Colorado School of Medicine for graduate school, and I received my Ph.D. from that institution in 1986, doing a thesis on Hepatitis B virus.

Why 101 viruses?

MR: The original plan was to include 100 viruses, a nice round number and enough to allow a broad range of viruses, including those infecting all the major host groups, from bacteria to humans. Near press time the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil was attracting a lot of attention in the press, so we felt it was important to include Zika. We did not really want to remove one of the viruses that were already in the book, because these were chosen carefully, and each entry seemed important for the complete picture, so, borrowing from Hollywood, we decided 101 would also have a nice ring.

How did you choose the viruses described in the book?

MR: Making up the list of viruses to include in the book took a lot of thought. I wanted to cover every type of virus and every type of host. I also wanted to include some viruses that people would be very aware of, like influenza and Ebola. There are more human viruses in the book than those that infect any other host, because they are more thoroughly studied, and most of them are familiar to people. I also wanted to include viruses that were pathogens and those that were not. It may come as a surprise to many people that some viruses benefit their hosts, and several of these are included in the book too. I also got some help from colleagues. After making up the initial list I sent it out to a large number of virologists for comment, and I took these ideas into consideration too. Of course many people were sure that the virus they were studying was the most important virus and should be included, but I tried to ignore this as a basis for inclusion.

Do you have a favorite virus?

MR: It is hard to pick a favorite, there are so many viruses that have a fascinating natural history, or that can dramatically affect their hosts. One of my students in a Virus Ecology course that I teach at Penn State summed it up pretty well. I was introducing the topic of the how poliovirus became a serious problem in the 20th century due to changes in water treatment, and I said, “this is one of my favorite virus stories”. The student replied, “you say that about everything”.

What viruses do you work with in your own lab?

MR: I have spent about 30 years working on Cucumber mosaic virus, a serious crop pathogen that has the broadest host range of any known virus: it can infect 1200 different plant species! This means it has been very successful from an evolutionary point of view, so it is an excellent model for studying virus evolution. For the past decade I also have been studying viruses that infect fungi. My interest in these viruses began when we discovered a fungal virus in Yellowstone National Park that was beneficial to its host, allowing it to survive very high temperatures found in the geothermal areas of the park. This sparked an interest in viruses that help their hosts adapt to extreme environments, and we do a lot of work now on beneficial viruses in plants and fungi. We also are interested in the diversity of viruses, and we have done some studies looking for viruses in wild plants: there are a lot, and most of them are novel.

virus roossinck jacketMarilyn J. Roossinck is professor of virus ecology in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology at Pennsylvania State University. She lives in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Roossinck is the author of Virus: An Illustrated Guide to 101 Incredible Microbes.

Interview with Sean B. Carroll, author of The Serengeti Rules

CarrollIn the fields of biological and environmental studies, Sean B. Carroll has made a name for himself not only as a scientist, writer, and educator, but as a storyteller. In his newest book, The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters, Carroll argues that the most critical thing we have learned about human life at the molecular level is that everything is regulated.

Carrol uses medical analogies, comparing the current blight on nature to a disease that ravages the body. The book will leave readers considering life on several scales, both personal and global. Recently he took the time to answer some questions about the book:

One of the central themes of your book is that “everything is regulated” in life. What does that mean?

SC: What it means is that at all scales of life the numbers of things are controlled. For example, in our bodies, the concentration of every kind of chemical – hormones, salts, enzymes and fats, and the numbers of every kind of cell –red cells, white cells and so on, are maintained within certain ranges by regulation. Similarly, in nature, the numbers and kinds of animal and plants in a given place are regulated.

Why is all of this regulation important?

SC: Regulation is very important because diseases (heart disease, cancer and so on) are generally abnormalities of regulation, when too little or too much of something is made. Likewise, in nature, when key species are lost or removed, too many or too few individuals of other species persist, and that habitat becomes unhealthy and may collapse. So learning the “rules of regulation” is very important to both medicine and conservation.

What have we learned about those rules?

SC: A century-long quest of biology has been to discover how life works, and that entails the deciphering of the “rules of regulation” in the body and in nature at large. The stories that make up the book are about those pioneers who tackled the mysteries of regulation and discovered important rules that have had huge impacts in medicine, ecology and conservation.

The scientists portrayed in The Serengeti Rules are admirable, sometimes heroic figures. Why did you choose to organize the book around their stories?

SC: I am a firm believer in the power of stories. Science is far more enjoyable, understandable, and memorable when we follow scientists all over the world and share in their struggles and triumphs.

You use an analogy from sports to explain how scientists have figured out how to treat many diseases. How does that analogy apply to medicine?

SC: In the body, the key “players” are molecules that regulate a process. To intervene in a disease, we need to know what players are injured or missing or what rules of regulation have been broken. The task for biologists is to identify the important players in a process, figure out the rules that regulate their action, and then design medicines that target the key players. In the book, I tell the stories of just how that was done to make such dramatic progress against heart disease and cancer.

4925392488_70abf4ed4e_z

CC Image courtesy of Celso Flores on flickr

Your book is called The Serengeti Rules. What are those rules?

SC: Just as there are rules that regulate the numbers of different kinds of molecules and cells in the body, there are ecological rules that regulate the numbers and kinds of animals and plants in a given place. I have called these the “Serengeti Rules” because that is one place where they have been worked out and they determine, for example, how many lions, or buffalo, or elephants live on an African savanna.

But these rules apply all over the globe, in oceans, rivers, and lakes, as well as on land.

Do these rules apply then to conserving and restoring species?

SC: Absolutely. But in contrast to the considerable care and expense we gladly undertake in applying molecular rules to human medicine, we have done a very poor job in considering and applying these Serengeti Rules to human affairs. For centuries we have hunted, fished, farmed, forested, and settled wherever we could, with no or very little grasp of altering other species. For a long time, we did not know any better, but now we do. So minding these Serengeti Rules may have as much or more to do with our future welfare than all of the molecular rules we may ever discover.

But as you describe in several chapters, there have been some encouraging successes in restoring species and habitats

SC: Yes, and I thought it was very important to tell those stories, to show that even war-torn and devastated places like Gorongosa National park in Mozambique could rebound given time, protection, and the efforts of just a small band of extraordinarily dedicated people.

You visited Gorongosa in the course of writing this book. What was that experience like?

SC: Life-changing. The people behind the Gorongosa Restoration Project are so inspiring, and the magnitude of the recovery in just ten years is astounding and so encouraging. If Gorongosa can be rescued from utter disaster, we should all take heart that we can restore other places and species.

8542170328_e015a4a3bd_m

CC image courtesy of F Mira on Flickr

When readers close The Serengeti Rules after finishing it, what do you hope they will be feeling?

First of all, I hope that they feel inspired by the stories of some exceptional people who tackled and solved great mysteries. Second, that they feel enriched with fresh insights into the wonders of life at different scales. Third, that they feel more hope for the future — that there is time to change the road we’re on. And finally, that they can’t wait to tell their friends to read the book!

You have had a very distinguished career as a molecular biologist. What inspired you to delve into ecology and conservation and write this book?

First, a desire to explore the bigger picture of life. When I gazed upon the Serengeti for the first time, I was as enchanted as any tourist, but I did not understand what I was looking at. For someone who has spent decades figuring out how complex, invisible things worked, that was a bit unsettling and embarrassing. So I dove into what was known and realized that the rules of ecology and even how they were discovered had some parallels to what we understood about life at the molecular level. These parallels had never been drawn; this book is an attempt to do that in the context of explaining why understand all of the rules matters.

And second, a sense of urgency. The disappearance of nature is an existential crisis for biology and humanity. As much as I love the world of DNA and cells, it felt a contradiction – to care so much about life at one level and to ignore what was happening to life at large. It is time to look up from the microscope.

Sean B. Carroll is an award-winning scientist, writer, educator, and executive producer. He is vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Allan Wilson Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Brave Genius, and Remarkable Creatures, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction. His most recent book is The Serengeti Rules. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Armistead and Sullivan on the unique joy of (better) birding

Better Birding jacketThe more one knows about birding, the more enjoyable it becomes, say Better Birding authors George L. Armistead of the American Birding Association and Brian L. Sullivan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Armistead and Sullivan simplify identification strategies, and provide techniques and tips to make the birding experience as comprehensive—and enamoring—as possible.

For many, birding can grow into an emotional and even spiritual endeavor. Birding is also like a puzzle, according to Armistead and Sullivan, because it takes consideration and knowledge of several working elements that ultimately link to one another. In this interview, Armistead and Sullivan explore the joy, fulfillment, and practices involved in better birding.

How is that someone ends up becoming a birder? How is it that you both ended up as bird-watchers, or “birders”, if you prefer?

GA: I come by it honestly. My father is a lifelong birder, and though he never met either of his grandfathers, both of them had a keen interest in nature and birds. Seems hard-wired in our family. I think most birders have a natural inclination to being outside, and are curious people with a thirst to know more. Often it seems through a hunger to discover more about the world around you, you stumble across someone else that mentors you, catapulting you forward in your quest to learn, and it’s a positive feedback loop. It’s kind of addictive. The more you know, the more you want to know. It’s fun, thrilling, yet relaxing too.

BS: I had a passion for birds as a child, and my parents really nurtured that by taking me to places such as Hawk Mountain and Cape May, where I fell in love with hawk migration. Being outside at these places really opened my eyes to the world around me. Once I realized what was possible, I was hooked. The idea of all these birds moving across the landscape twice a year fascinated me, and all I wanted to do was get outside and see what had arrived each day. For a kid, it was like living in a perpetual Christmas morning. I still feel that way every time I go birding.

What exactly is Better Birding? How is this book meant to help readers get more out of their time spent looking at birds? And why is that important?

GA & BS: More than anything, birding is supposed to be fun. Why it’s important to anyone in particular is personal, as there are so many different ways to enjoy observing birds. We’d refer readers to the section in the introduction titled “Why Birding is Cool” to try and understand what birders get out of the experience. We’ve taken a good hard look at the practices and the techniques involved in active birding in this book, and we’ve tried to distill those processes into digestible bits wrapped around the fun aspects of learning how to identify certain groups of birds. While that may sound “serious”, what we really hope to do is provide folks a deeper understanding of what they are seeing when they are in the field, and hopefully provide avenues for exploration. Most of us start out trying to snag sightings of life birds (birds we’ve never seen before), and as we discuss listing as a deeply ingrained part of birding. But after a while most of us find a desire cropping up to understand not just what birds looks like, but also how they evolved, how they are related, and why they do what they do. And the cool thing is that as you learn these things, suddenly bird identification becomes a lot easier.

In Better Birding you discuss a “wide angle approach” to birding. Explain to us what you mean by that?

GA & BS: Routinely, new birders are presented with a single bird that intrigues or puzzles them. What usually happens next is that they focus in on what the bird looks like. Naturally, they zoom in as far as possible to try and see as much of the bird as they can, in excruciating detail, and so often we are drawn to color and plumage. And this approach makes sense—it underpins the oldest approaches to bird identification going back to the original Peterson Guide. But often if we zoom out just a little bit we see a lot more. We see the bird’s surroundings, and the habitat it has chosen. We see how it moves and feeds. We see that its lurking in the shadows, or prominently perched in the sun, or always in the air, and this is useful information. If we can see and understand what a bird is doing, that can often be more instructive than how it appears. Zooming out further, we look at the date and the season, which are also really helpful things to consider when trying to determine the likelihood of a particular species’ occurrence in a place. A bird’s appearance is the starting point, but many times it’s other factors that solidify an identification. Mostly due to space constraints, typical field guides don’t provide this context.

Do either of you have a favorite bird?

GA: Yes, this is the question that all birders are asked. Some folks have a ready answer, but I’ve never been able to settle upon one. It’s like picking a favorite song, or a favorite beer; there are so many great ones to choose from! Like Brian, I’m very fond of seabirds. They are so dynamic in the air, with sharp, streamlined shapes. I remember being stranded at a dock in Mexico once for several hours and I was never bored watching the Magnificent Frigatebirds kiting around. Birds like Black-capped Petrel, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Northern Fulmar and Light-mantled Sooty Albatross are extremely gratifying to watch. Seabirds aside, one of the most beautiful moments I have ever witnessed was watching a male Spruce Grouse courting a female outside of Churchill, Manitoba. It was simply incredible, deeply moving, and affected me in an almost spiritual way. And this from the bird often known as the “fool hen”; arguably the dumbest bird in North America.

BS: For me it’s always been raptors, with seabirds a close second. My fascination with both groups stems from a love of bird migration. Watching raptors move south down a windswept ridge in fall for me is a ‘religious experience’—it’s what I do to get recharged, to become filled with a sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural world that can somehow get lost with too many days spent behind a computer. It’s a primal connection that I can’t quite describe. In terms of particular species, I’ve come to appreciate most the Red-tailed Hawk. Although widespread and common, it has a bewildering array of plumages, a fascinating range of geographic variation, and an unbending wildness about it. I like that anyone can go out and see one on any given day just about anywhere around North America, and if they so choose, they can ask themselves more questions about it. What age is it? What subspecies is it? What color morph is it? Asking oneself questions like this is a perfect example of the process of thinking about birds at a higher level—and Red-tailed Hawk is a perfect subject for it.

What qualities make for a good birder?

BS: I think in a nutshell, the single best thing that a good birder learns is the process of extracting what they are actually seeing from what they’d like to see. The power of suggestion is high in birding, and emotions can run deep around the idea of seeing new birds. The best birders not only rapidly assess what they are seeing and put it into a broader context (the tools you’ll learn in this book), but they also take an extra moment to step back, extract themselves from the emotional side of the moment, and then objectively evaluate what they are actually seeing (the process we hope you learn from this book!). Taking this extra step often reveals that what was originally suspected of being a rare bird, is actually just a common bird in an unusual pose, behavior, or plumage.

GA: Patience, dedication and the ability to embrace uncertainty. One of the fun things about birding is that it is a puzzle. Identification is gratifying in that we get to look at something confusing or uncertain, makes sense of it, and give it a name. The more you are able to do this, the more fun it becomes. People do get overzealous about it at times, and knowing how and when to say, “I’m not sure”, is important. Good birders know when to let stuff go. They understand the limits imposed on them by their surroundings (such as light, visibility, wind, etc.) and also understand the limits of their field skills. Really, it’s all about awareness which is why good birders tend to be pretty interesting people. They are alert and attuned to what’s going.

George L. Armistead is events coordinator at the American Birding Association and a research associate in the Ornithology Department at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. He has led birding tours on all seven continents. Brian L. Sullivan is eBird program codirector and photographic editor for Birds of North America Online at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He is the author of numerous papers on bird identification and the coauthor of The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors and Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: West Coast (both Princeton).

“The Bees in Your Backyard” Slideshow and Exclusive Interview

Joseph S. Wilson, assistant professor of biology, and Olivia Messinger Carril, who received her PhD in plant biology and has been studying bees for nearly 20 years, are co-authors of comprehensive new bee guide, The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees. Wilson and Carril took the time to answer some of PUP’s questions about their new ultimate bee guide, and discuss the significant and changing role that bees play in our everyday lives. Read their interview just after this stunning slideshow featuring just a few of the book’s 900 photos:

[portfolio_slideshow id=37549]

Your book begins by telling us that there are over 4000 bees in North America, do either of you have a favorite among those?

OC: Its hard for me to pick a favorite, but if I had to…  Diadasia are the genus I studied for my PhD. They are found only in North and South America and there are about 30 species in the U.S. Separately, the Exomalopsini tribe includes the genera Exomalopsis and Ancyloscelis.  All of these bees are fuzzy and look like teddy bears with wings. The Exomalopsini are tiny–about the size of a tic tac, while Diadasia are considerably larger. Both groups are made up of bee species that specialize on flowers (called ‘hosts’).  So in addition to their adorable appearance, I am intrigued by their lifestyle choices.  For my PhD research I looked specifically at the flower scent of Diadasia host plants and compared it with the scent of non-host flowers.

JW: I have always like the small bees in the genus Perdita. There are over 650 different Perdita species so I can’t say that any one species in particular is my favorite, but as a group I really like them. I think what draws me to this group is that Perdita are not the stereotypical bee; they are all small, nearly hairless, and often have bold yellow and black markings on their faces and bodies. The smallest bee in North America is a Perdita. For me, Perdita are a good example of how diverse the bees of North America are. When I point out a Perdita to friends they are always amazed that those small creatures hovering around flowers are actually bees, not gnats.

How did you each get your start in the field of bee studies anyway?

JW: I have been interested in insects for a long time.  In fact I remember having the biggest insect collection in the 6th grade. It was in making that collection that I first ran across a bee that I realized was not a honey bee (It was actually a male long-horned bee sleeping in a sunflower.) Although my interest in biology (including insects) persisted, I didn’t actually start working with bees until early in my college career.  I was introduced to the people, including Olivia, working in the “bee lab” (officially the USDA ARS Bee Biology and Systematics Lab) through a girl I was dating (who later became my wife). At first I volunteered in the lab pinning and labeling bees and eventually was hired as a technician. I worked for Olivia, who was leading a project surveying bees in a National Monument in southern Utah. Later, I headed my own project investigating bee diversity in a military base in western Utah. I temporarily paused my work on bees while I pursued a PhD studying the evolution and biogeography of some nocturnal wasps, but returned to working with bees (and wasps) after completing my degree.

OC: As an undergraduate I worked part time for the USDA ARS Bee Biology and Systematics Lab.  My first tasks were menial:  data entry and whatever odds and ends tasks needed to be done.  At the end of my first year there, however, my boss approached me with an opportunity to participate in a survey of bees in Pinnacles National Monument, in California.  I would be required to camp for three months, and hike every day looking for bees on flowers.  While I had little vested interest in the bee survey itself, the idea of camping and hiking every day for months on end sounded like a dream come true.  By the end of that first season, though, looking at the amazing diversity of bees that I had collected (nearly 400 species in an area of 25 square miles) enthralled me.  Why were some species only in certain areas, while others were found across the whole monument?  Why would some bees specialize on certain plants, and what was it about those plants that was so ‘special’?  How did they know when to emerge from their nests every year?  I happily returned to Pinnacles for two additional seasons, no longer just for the hiking and camping, but also for answers to my questions.  I’ve been trying to answer questions about bees ever since.

What made you think to write a book about  bees and how did you gather the information?  What is the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?

OC: For me, the idea of a guide to bees that was accessible to those without years of training in bee biology first took shape during my years as a graduate student.  Many in my cohort were interested in studies of pollinators and/or pollination, but were disheartened by the lack of information for the beginner.  Here were scientists in training looking at flowering plants and categorizing their visitors as “honey bee”, “bumble bee”, or “other bee”.  Considering that the “other bee” category includes nearly 4,000 species, this was unfortunate.  I realized that this is in fact how most people see bees, and that too is unfortunate.  There are bees in almost every backyard, pollinating gardens and flower beds right under our noses.  In contrast to the birds in our backyards, which we can name from the time we are five years old, bees are lumped under the heading of “Bee”, and we are taught to steer clear because they are dangerous.  In fact they are beautiful, amazing, (harmless), and inordinately important creatures, but completely misunderstood.  I don’t remember who said it to first, but when I lamented to Joe about how inaccessible the story of the bee was to the lay person, he completely agreed.  “We oughta write a book” was the outcome of that conversation.

We gathered the information for this book by pouring over the scientific literature, collecting every bit of information we could about each genus, and then synthesizing it all into a few short paragraphs that were understandable to anybody.  For me, the most surprising thing was about myself.  Here I had been studying bees in one way or another for over 15 years and assumed I knew more or less all there was to know about bees.  I was so very wrong.  Bees are incredible, and each species has a unique story to tell.  Even today most species and even entire genera are complete mysteries to scientists either because they are rare or because no one has taken the time to get to know them.

JW: More and more as we turn on the TV, open a newspaper, or browse the covers of magazines, we are aware of the role of bees in our lives. I began to be somewhat dismayed by the mischaracterization of bees from trusted news outlets and prestigious media companies. If the common portrayals of bees was to be believed, bees were either killers (i.e., killer bees) or they were in grave danger from colony collapse disorder (which only affects the honey bee). I was frustrated that while the public was gaining an appreciation for the importance of bees, they were largely in the dark about what a bee actually is, and how diverse North America’s bee community is. The decision to write this book came after discussions about the need to educate people about bees. Education is the first step to conservation.

Like Olivia, as we researched this book I was blown away by the diverse and complex world of bees. Most bee researchers focus on a small group and become experts on that group. To write this book, Olivia and I had to learn about the lifestyles of all of North America’s bees, which was challenging, but also quite rewarding. Furthermore, we endeavored to include high quality photographs of as many of the bees as we could, and we hoped to take these pictures ourselves. I learned firsthand how challenging bee photography can be, and we ended up adding a section in the book about some of the tricks we learned about photographing bees.

In the introduction to your book, you discuss the many misconceptions surrounding bees–what ‘myth’ do you find yourself most often dispelling?

OC & JW:  It used to be that every time we told folks what it is that we studied, they would try to find common ground with us by relating a story about that one time that they had been stung by a bee (the truth is, only female bees are even capable of stinging, and they are not very aggressive.  In all the many years of collecting bees and handling them–sometimes hundreds in a day, we’ve been stung less than two dozen times).  Anymore, though, people skip telling us about being stung and ask:  “So how bad off are the bees?”

How bad is the bee decline, really?

OC: The truth is that 1) we don’t really know because 2) its complicated.  Its complicated because there are so many species of bees.  If one kind is in decline, we really can’t assume that all 30,000 kinds around the world are.  Or because some are in decline in the eastern United States doesn’t mean that western populations of that same species are too.  We can guess that many of the landscape alterations we’ve made in the U.S. are not beneficial (replacing midwestern prairies with monocultures of corn and soy, fragmenting desert areas with parking lots and strip malls, perhaps even our unchecked use of insecticides), but the actual impact is largely unknown.  Systematic bee surveys were seldom conducted 100 years ago, so we don’t have solid baseline data against which to compare current population levels.  And at least some bee species seem to naturally vary 10 to 100-fold from year to year based in part on floral bloom and weather.

We do know for certain that for several years honey bee populations appeared to be dropping dramatically and the reasons for that are still not entirely clear.  Interestingly, this isn’t the first time that honey bee populations have suffered declines–there are recorded instances of honey bee declines dating back at least 100 years and perhaps even longer.  Declines in honey bee populations are economically disastrous to be sure, but they don’t tell us much about the many other pollinating bees that help with fruit and seed set.  Looking at other bees, there are evident declines in the populations of some species of bumble bees in the last 30 years.  Alternatively, squash bees have expanded their ranges in the last 100 years; they were once just in the southwest but have spread as squash plants have been planted in gardens across the country.  Considering the contrast in just these two kinds of bees, we are hesitant to make any sort of broad statement about the state of bees as a whole.

What do you hope people get from this book, and who is it meant for?

JW: While my hope is that this book will be useful for naturalists, gardeners, and professional entomologists, I think everyone will gain a greater understanding and appreciation for bees by reading it. I like to think that this book will enable more educated conversations about bees, which will lead to better designed conservation efforts both by professionals and by homeowners.

There are stories in the news every week discussing how important bees are to agriculture and what a loss it would be to us if they disappeared. However, your book is titled “The Bees in your Backyard”… why are bees important in our backyards?

JW: Bees are important for agriculture, but they are equally important at smaller scales.  Bees make for healthy flower gardens and healthy vegetable gardens and they are also beneficial to fruit trees.  Studies have shown that backyard gardens are good for healthy bee communities and vice versa; surrounding natural areas are good for backyard bee populations

OC: Near my own small garden in New Mexico some weedy-looking globe mallow popped up this year.  I opted to leave them and let them flower, even though I have to wade through them to get to my row of vegetable plants.  Because they provide such a bountiful resource for the bees, I’ve found that my garden (which has fewer blossoms than the globe mallow patch) is much more frequently visited by bees than in years past. I’m reaping the rewards in the form of tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, pumpkins, watermelons, chiles, and eggplants.  Since we don’t know if most kinds of bees are experiencing population declines, it seems wise to assume they might be.  If that’s the case, planting a few extra bee-friendly flowers or encouraging them to nest in our backyards certainly can’t hurt anything and most likely will be a great help to these wonderful creatures.

Joseph S. Wilson is assistant professor of biology at Utah State University and has been studying bees and wasps for more than a decade. Olivia Messinger Carril received her PhD in plant biology from Southern Illinois University and has been studying bees and the flowers they visit for nearly twenty years.

Q&A with Olivier Zunz, Author of Philanthropy in America: A History

Zunz JacketOlivier Zunz is the Commonwealth Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the author of Philanthropy in America: A History, which was recently updated and re-released to include a new preface written by Zunz.

Recently, he answered some questions for HistPhil, a new philanthropy blog, on what philanthropy really means, what made him decide to write Philanthropy in America, and more.

One of the greatest challenges in writing an overview of the history of American philanthropy would seem to be defining the term itself. How did you think about what philanthropy means, and what you would include and exclude, in your survey? How do you think these decisions shaped your work? And how do you think they might shape the field of the history of philanthropy more generally?

OZ: I did not want to start with very strict definitions of what is philanthropy exactly because I was very aware that the word is used in many different contexts. I am a student of Tocqueville and having thought about the many different ways that he uses the word ‘equality’ and the many different ways he uses the word ‘liberty’ I felt that, very early on, what was most important for me was to capture a process of giving in American history rather than something we could clearly define as ‘philanthropy.’ I am in general agreement with the traditional distinction people have made between philanthropy and charity, with charity being more often used for various forms of almsgiving and temporary help and philanthropy more often used, at least in American history, for long-term goals, searching for root causes. This definition makes sense and to the extent that I respected one [definition], I respected that one. But I was more conscious of the magnitude of giving in the American economy and then of the need to think of philanthropy as a part of the capitalist economy, of giving as being a major component of what we call the nonprofit sector—of giving in a particular economic context. And I also wanted to think of giving as a politically involved proposition, if not explicitly at least implicitly. It was important to me to try to describe an ongoing process of giving that had political and economic consequences rather than to start with a narrow definition and say this is what we’re studying. I took the less obvious path to clarity, but eventually I thought that it would yield a greater understanding of the process.

Check out the rest of Olivier Zunz‘s interview, here.

Preview Philanthropy in America: A History, here.

Q&A with Frank Farris, Author of Creating Symmetry: The Artful Mathematics of Wallpaper Patterns

Frank A. Farris teaches mathematics at Santa Clara University and is a former editor of Mathematics Magazine, a publication of the Mathematical Association of America. He is also the author of the new Princeton University Press book Creating Symmetry: The Artful Mathematics of Wallpaper Patterns. The book provides a hands-on, step-by-step introduction to the intriguing mathematics of symmetry.

Frank Farris gave Princeton University Press a look at why he wrote Creating Symmetry, where he feels this book will have major contributions, and what comes next.

Before and After: A Peach and a Sierra Stream Become a Pattern, by Frank A Farris

Before and After: A Peach and a Sierra Stream Become a Pattern, by Frank A Farris

What inspired you to get into mathematical writing?
FF: After editing Mathematics Magazine for many years, I developed a passion for communicating mathematics: I didn’t want dry accounts written by anonymous authors; I wanted stories told by people. I wasn’t so interested in problems and puzzles, but in the stories that bring us face to face with the grand structures of mathematics.

Why did you write this book?
FF: Many years ago, I asked the innocent question: What is a wallpaper pattern, really? Creating Symmetry is the story of my dissatisfaction with standard answers and how it led me on a curious journey to a new kind of mathematical art. I took some risks and let my personality show through, while maintaining an honest, mathematically responsible approach. I hope readers enjoy the balance: real math told by a person.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?
FF: Most people who see my artwork say they’ve never seen anything like these images and that pleases me immensely. Of course, people have seen wallpaper patterns before, but the unusual construction method I use—wallpaper waves and photographs—gives my patterns an intricacy and rhythm that people wouldn’t create through the usual potato-stamp construction method, where the patterns is made from discrete blocks.

What is your next project?
FF: I am working on a “wallpaper lookbook,” a book for the simple joy of looking at patterns. Creating Symmetry tells people how to make the patterns, and there’s quite a lot of mathematical detail to process. Not everyone who likes my work wants to know all the details, but can still appreciate the “before and after” nature of the images.

Who do you see as the audience for this book?
FF: There are three audiences and they will read the book in different ways. The general reader, who knows some calculus but may be a little rusty, should find a refreshing and challenging way to reconnect with mathematics. Undergraduate mathematics majors will enjoy the book as a summer project or enrichment reading, as it makes surprising connections among topics they may have studied. The professional mathematician will find this light reading—a chance to enjoy the amazing interconnectedness of our field.

 

Q&A with Marc Chamberland, author of Single Digits: In Praise of Small Numbers

Marc Chamberland is the Myra Steele Professor of Natural Science and Mathematics at Grinnell College. He is also the creator of the popular YouTube channel Tipping Point Math, which strives to make mathematics accessible to everyone. Continuing on his mathematics mission, Marc Chamberland has authored Single Digits: In Praise of Small Numbers, a book that looks at the vast numerical possibilities that can come from the single digits. j10437Over the course of the coming weeks, we will be exploring the single digits in real life math situations with the author himself by featuring a series of original videos from Tipping Point Math.

Recently Chamberland gave the press a look at the inspiration behind the book, along with some personal insights on being a mathematician, and more:

What was the motivation behind your Tipping Point Math website?

MC: I have long felt that many people are sour on math because they think it is all technical stuff that leads to nowhere. I felt that if they could be exposed to the rich ideas and beauty of mathematics presented in an interesting way, their negative opinion could change.

I had wondered for a while how YouTube could be used since it is such a popular medium. In 2013, I reconnected with Henry Reich, a former student of mine, who created the highly successful channels MinutePhysics and MinuteEarth. With his inspiration and advice, I was convinced that a similar channel for mathematics was possible. Thus the concept of Tipping Point Math was born.

What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about your mathematics profession?

MC: Besides my remarks about people thinking that math is only about technical stuff, there is also the misconception that all of mathematics is known. This is not the case at all. New mathematics is being developed every day. This ranges from very abstract ideas to applications such as signal processing, medical imaging, population modeling, and computer algorithms.

What would you have been if not a mathematician?

MC: In my last year of high school, I developed an unquenchable thirst to explore two academic areas: mathematics and music. Since I eventually became a mathematics professor, I suppose one could say that mathematics “won”. But music was also consuming. I would ask myself, “Why does that piece of music sound so good? Why does it produce particular emotional states? How can I compose music that affects people in different ways?” To this day I still ask some of these questions, I occasionally compose short pieces, and I play the piano, guitar, and sing. Would I have been a musician? Is it too late to change?

What are you reading right now?

MC: I’m reading “The Alchemist” (by Paulo Coelho) out loud to my wife. The simple language and overflowing spirituality is stunning.

Who do you see as the audience for your book, Single Digits?

MC: My audience: those who love beauty. I did not choose topics for their depth or their technical superiority. I principally chose vignettes that I thought are beautiful.

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.

Q&A with Leah Wright Rigueur, author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican

This week, Leah Wright Rigueur took the time to talk with us about her new book, The Loneliness of the Black Republican. Read the introduction for free, here.

photo

 

How did you come up with the title and jacket?

LR: The title of the book comes from a 1987 Heritage Foundation speech by Clarence Thomas, originally titled, “Why Black Americans Should Look to Conservative Policies.” In 1991, when George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to a seat on the Supreme Court, newspapers and journals re-printed the speech under the header, “No Room at the Inn: The Loneliness of the Black Conservative.” In 1999, conservative writer Shelby Steele later borrowed this title for an essay for the Hoover Institution and a chapter in his book The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America.

I slightly amended the title to reflect the stories of those African Americans that joined the Republican Party, an ideological gamut that encompassed liberal, moderate, and of course, conservative factions. Of all the titles I considered, The Loneliness of the Black Republican felt the most “right.” Since 1936, black Republicans – of all ideological backgrounds – have complained of being isolated because of their small numbers; they constantly bemoaned their outsider status from both their political party and racial community. At the same time, the title holds some irony, since black Republicans played a significant role in the modern GOP. Over the course of nearly 50 years, the Republican Party strategically implemented some of black party members’ ideas and policies. Black Republicans ideas also occasionally gained support from outside the GOP, as well – from the black press, black Democrats, and even black voters.

The jacket image is a photograph of Jewel Lafontant at the 1960 Republican National Convention, courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives. She’s seconding the presidential nomination of Richard Nixon. Lafontant was a prominent Chicago attorney and civil rights advocate (she helped co-found the Congress of Racial Equality – CORE), who became a Republican advisor for Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Cabot Lodge, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush. The photograph immediately stood out when I first came across it while doing research for the book. Here is this powerful and brilliant black woman, with her eyes lowered – almost demurely – surrounded by white faces, none of whom seem to be paying attention! The photo also felt provocative since black women are the least likely of any racial/gender demographic to support the GOP. Considering all of that, I had to have this picture on the cover, as it so perfectly captured the idea of “loneliness.”

What would you have been if not an historian?

LR: I would have been a print or broadcast journalist. I love all things newsworthy, political and pop-culture related!

Who do you see as the audience for this book?

LR: Everyone! All kidding aside, I wrote this book for a general audience interested in politics, history, and civil rights. Within The Loneliness of the Black Republican, I took a measured approach to better understanding the role that African Americans have played in shaping the modern Republican Party. The book also holds lessons for members of both the GOP and the Democratic Party; in short, there’s something here for people of varying ideological backgrounds interested in the experiences of marginalized groups of people trying to gain power within a two-party political system.

My book inverts our understanding of the American political system – how and why people vote the way that they do and how they behave, politically. A great example of this is Jackie Robinson’s story, which I cover in detail, in the book. Nearly everyone knows Robinson for his baseball accomplishments, but few people know about his work with the GOP. Robinson described himself as a “militant black Republican” – he worked extensively with New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and lobbied aggressively, on a national stage, to rid the party of its racist and segregationist element.

Although my book is a work of history, it also holds relevant lessons for contemporary politics.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?

LR: When I first started my research, I feared that I wouldn’t find enough evidence to support a book-length project. I couldn’t have been more wrong! I found thousands of stories of black Republicans, spanning nearly a century. I was overwhelmed with information – the challenge thus became choosing whose story to tell and how. Initially, I felt terrible that I had to leave out so many stories, but as an author, I had to carve out a representative guide to black Republicanism. On a happier note, I have enough material to begin work on my next project, which will look at black Republican politics, 1980 – present day.

What are you reading right now?

LR: I recently read Megan Francis’ book, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State, which re-conceptualizes the significance of the NAACP in American politics in the early part of the 20th Century. Next up is Lily Geismer’s book, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party and Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (April 2015). I’ve known all of these authors for years, and it is exciting to see their projects develop, take shape, transform and grow. I’m also trying to work my way though Stephen King’s novel Revival.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book?

LR: It’s clear that the characters in The Loneliness of the Black Republican influenced modern day black Republican thought – there are direct links to figures ranging from Clarence Thomas, Tim Scott and Mia Love, to Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Michael Steele. But what completely blew me away was the way in which some of the figures in my book influenced, in part, modern black Democrats. It is uncanny how similar President Barack Obama, New Jersey Senator Corey Booker and even Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick are to Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, for example. If we erased the political labels, I’d assume all of the officials came from the same political party.

Tell us something people would be surprised to know about you:

LR: I just had a baby girl in December 2014! I also have a two-year old son.
Our household is a lot of fun, to say the least!


 

bookjacket

The Loneliness of the Black Republican:
Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power
Leah Wright Rigueur