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.

From “rolling stone” to World’s Best Dad: Richard Bribiescas on fathers

How Men Age jacketWhy is paternal investment so rare in the animal world? Why do some human fathers choose the caring route, while others don’t? Biological anthropologist Richard Bribiescas, author of How Men Age: What Evolution Reveals About Male Health and Mortality, reveals how many of the physical and behavioral changes that we negatively associate with male aging may have actually facilitated the emergence of positive traits. These traits, including how we parent, have been crucial to our success as a species. We caught up with Richard for a special Father’s Day Q&A.

Many in the animal kingdom aren’t noted for being the best fathers. What’s the evolutionary significance?

Chimps aren’t very good fathers. They just aren’t. They don’t care for their offspring, provide food, or offer any assistance to moms. Don’t get me wrong, chimpanzees are noble creatures who merit our stewardship as well as the common courtesy of not destroying their forests. They’re just not the fatherly type. In fairness to our great ape cousins, most males in the natural world won’t be earning waffles in bed. With a few exceptions such as certain South American monkeys 1, most mammalian males are unlikely to earn a “World’s Best Dad” coffee mug on Father’s Day. Men however can be terrific dads with paternal care being one of the hallmarks of our species. Human males often invest significant amounts of time and resources in their offspring. This is true in modern industrialized societies as well as hunter/gatherer groups. Pass the butter and maple syrup.

Why is paternal investment so rare in the animal world? There are several evolutionary reasons but one especially salient explanation is that caring for offspring requires knowing who your offspring are. This is known as paternal uncertainty and is evident in all species that have internal fertilization. In humans, estimates of paternal misidentification when asking individuals to identify their fathers and then testing that assumption genetically ranges from one to around ten percent, depending on the study and population 2. Conservatively that means for every hundred readers, at least one of you was fathered by a man who is not the recipient of your Father’s Day card. But don’t freak out. This simply means that women are just as likely as men to evolve a range of reproductive strategies. Plus the odds are still in your favor of being correct so there’s no need to forward the mail.

A recent finding that illustrates the evolutionary significance of paternal investment is the capacity for men to display different reproductive states. This has long been observed in women since non-pregnant, pregnant, and lactating states are readily visible with numerous associated hormone changes. In men, different reproductive states are less obvious but evident when you look at reproductive hormones such as testosterone. Anthropologists Peter Gray and Lee Gettler have demonstrated this in numerous cross-cultural studies that show testosterone declines in response to fatherhood 3,4. This is more evident when men are in paired relationships with women.

Then what about male/male relationships and gay fathers?

Good question. We’ll get to that in a bit. So what is the significance of lower testosterone in association with fatherhood? It is still unclear but declines in testosterone may have behavioral, immunological, or metabolic effects that promote paternal investment. Stay tuned.

But fathering children is not the same as being fatherly. Again, hormones provide a spiffy way of getting at this subtle but important point. Anthropologist Martin Muller and colleagues looked at testosterone levels in association with fatherhood in two African societies, the Datoga who are cattle herding people in which the men do not commonly engage in childcare and the Hadza, an adjacent population of hunter/gatherers in which the men regularly hold and care for their children. Testosterone levels were not significantly different between the two populations even when looking at paternal status. But when Muller and colleagues looked at within group testosterone levels in association with having their children close by, interesting differences emerged. When their children were around, Hadza men were much more engaged with them compared to Datoga men who do not pay much attention to their children. Among the Hadza testosterone levels were significantly lower when children were in their household compared to when they were not around. The presence or absence of children among the Datoga had no influence on testosterone levels 5. This suggests that paternal engagement is important to any changes in testosterone. Caring and engagement makes a difference.

What does it mean to be a good father?

While human males are unique in their potential to be doting fathers, they also exhibit a much broader spectrum of paternal behaviors compared to other primates and mammals. Men can be extremely caring to simply providing food to being infanticidal. As a boy growing up in the Watts area of south central Los Angeles in the ‘60’s and 70’s, my friends and I listened to a lot of The Temptations. Among their hits was “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”, a song that tells the story of children asking their mother about their estranged, wandering father. “Papa was never much on thinkin’, spent much of his time chasing women and drinkin’…” Why some men choose the caring route while others do not is unclear. Evolutionary theory suggests that in environments with lots of hazards and a low probability of living a long life, caring for offspring may take a backseat to more risky reproductive strategies such as seeking out additional mates in lieu of investing in family. This is true of both men and women 6. Since humans have evolved the ability to thrive in a broad range of ecological and social settings, it makes sense that behavioral biology of fatherhood would be broad and malleable7,8.

Let’s go back to the question of gay dads. There is no reason to assume that caring for children should be limited to straight men but adding the variable of sexual orientation is an interesting question given the range of variability in reproductive behavior in humans. Researchers examined brain scans of gay men in association with interactions with their children. They found that areas of the brain that are commonly activated in mothers and heterosexual fathers in response to children were also evident in gay fathers suggesting that the neurobiological mechanisms associated with childcare transcend gender or sexual orientation 9. Compared to other mammals and certainly other great apes, humans seem to be biologically predisposed to care for children. Do gay fathers exhibit the same hormonal changes as heterosexual dads? We don’t know yet although Yale anthropology Ph.D. candidate Erin Burke, Dr. Pasquale Patrizio of Yale Medical School and I are hot on the trail of this question 10. There are many ways to be a dad and we’re only beginning to understand that fatherhood is as varied as the colors and patterns on a homemade necktie.

Richard G. Bribiescas is professor of anthropology and ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University, where he also serves as deputy provost for faculty development and diversity. He is the author of Men: Evolutionary and Life History. He lives in Hamden, Connecticut.

References and Endnotes


1          Fernandez-Duque, E., Valeggia, C. R. & Mendoza, S. P. The biology of paternal care in human and nonhuman primates. Annual Review of Anthropology 38, 115–130, doi:10.1146/annurev-anthro-091908-164334 (2009).

2          Anderson, K. G. How well does paternity confidence match actual paternity? Evidence from worldwide nonpaternity rates. Curr Anthropol 47, 513-520, doi:Doi 10.1086/504167 (2006).

3          Gray, P. B. & Anderson, K. G. Fatherhood : evolution and human paternal behavior. (Harvard University Press, 2010).

4          Gettler, L. T., McDade, T. W., Feranil, A. B. & Kuzawa, C. W. Longitudinal evidence that fatherhood decreases testosterone in human males. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 108, 16194-16199, doi:10.1073/pnas.1105403108 (2011).

5          Muller, M. N., Marlow, F. W., Bugumba, R. & Ellison, P. T. Testosterone and paternal care in East African foragers and pastoralists. Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences 276, 347-354 (2009).

6          Quinlan, R. J. Human parental effort and environmental risk. Proc Biol Sci 274, 121-125, doi:10.1098/rspb.2006.3690 (2007).

7          Bribiescas, R. G. Men: Evolutionary and Life History. (Harvard University Press, 2006).

8          Bribiescas, R. G. How Men Age: What Evolution Reveals about Male Health and Mortality. (Princeton University Press, 2016).

9          Abraham, E. et al. Father’s brain is sensitive to childcare experiences. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 111, 9792-9797, doi:10.1073/pnas.1402569111 (2014).

10        Burke, E. E. & Bribiescas, R. G. Hormones and behavior in same-sex male parents: implications for the evolution of paternal care in humans. Am J Phys Anthropol 159, 105 (2016).


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.

Stephen Heard: Write like a scientist

the scientist's guide to writing heardScientific writing should be as clear and impactful as other styles, but the process of producing such writing has its own unique challenges. Stephen Heard, scientist, graduate advisor, and editor speaks from personal experience in his book The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career. Heard’s focus on the writing process emphasizes the pursuit of clarity, and his tips on submissions, coauthorship, citations, and peer reviews are crucial for those starting to seek publication. Recently, Heard agreed to answer a few questions about his book.

What made you decide to write a book about scientific writing?

SH: I think the first spark was when I realized I give the same writing advice to all my students, over and over, and caught myself thinking it would be easier to just write it all down once. That was foolish, of course: writing the book wasn’t easy at all! But before long, my rationale shifted. The book became less about stuff I wanted to tell everyone else, and more about stuff I wished somebody had told me. A lot of us get into science without much writing experience, and without thinking much about how important a role scientific writing plays – and when we start doing it, we discover that doing it well isn’t easy. It took me many years to become a reasonably competent scientific writer, and the book includes a lot of the things I discovered along the way. I was surprised to discover that writing the book made me a better writer. I think reading it can help too.

Surely there a bunch of other scientific-writing books out there? What do you do differently?

SH: Yes – and some of them are quite good! But I wanted to write something different. I’m not sure my book says anything that no one else knows about outlining or paragraph structure or citation formatting (for example). But I thought there was a lot of value in a book that pays attention to the writer as much as the writing: to the way writers behave as they write, and to ways in which some deliberate and scientific attention to our behavior might help us write faster and better. I’ve also discovered that knowing a bit about the history and culture of scientific writing can help us understand the way we write (and why). Just as one example: knowing something about the history of the Methods section, and how it’s changed over the last 350 years as scientists have struggled with the question of how scientific studies gain authority, can help us decide how to write our own Methods sections. I also tackle the question of whether there’s a place in scientific writing for beauty or for humor – something that gets discussed so rarely that it seems almost like a taboo.

Finally, I wanted to write a book that was really engaging: to show that thinking about writing (as we all need to) needn’t be dry and pedantic. So readers might be surprised, in a book about scientific writing, to find mentions of Voltaire’s lover, SpongeBob SquarePants, and the etymology of the word fart. But I hope they’ll also find that there are lessons in all those things – and more – for scientists who want to write better and more quickly.

You also go into a lot of depth about the review and publication process. Why are these things important to cover alongside the writing process?

SH: Well, maybe that isn’t “writing”, strictly speaking – but it’s an essential part of getting one’s scientific writing in the hands of readers. All of us want our scientific writing to be read, and to be cited, and to help move our fields forward. So it’s not enough to write a good manuscript; we have to be able to shepherd it through the process of submission, review, revision, and eventual acceptance. Early in my own career I found this process especially mysterious. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about it – by publishing quite a few papers myself, but also by reviewing hundreds of manuscripts and acting as an Associate Editor for hundreds more. So I have a pretty good overview of the publishing process, from both the writer’s and the journal’s perspective. There’s no particular reason that process has to be mysterious, and I thought it would be helpful to draw back the curtain.

Is scientific writing really that different from other kinds of writing?

SH: Both yes and no! Of course, there are technical issues that matter in scientific writing, like ways of handling text dense with numbers, or ways we handle citations. There are also more cultural ways in which scientific writing is its own thing. One of them is that we’ve developed a writing form that efficiently conveys material to other people who are familiar with that form. Our conventional division of papers into Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion is a piece of that. Our writing (and our publication process) have evolved in many other ways that aren’t quite the same as you’d find in the humanities, or in writing about science for the public. That’s why there are books about scientific writing, not just about writing. But on another level, good scientific writing is like most other good writing: clear, concise, engaging whenever possible, and did I mention clear? Nothing is more important than clarity! As a result of this similarity, people who learn good scientific writing are well positioned for any career that involves writing – which is to say, pretty much any career.

Do you think of yourself as a good writer?

SH: No! And to loop back to the first question, that’s a big part of why I wrote the book. There are a very few natural writers out there – geniuses – for whom good writing just seems to come naturally. But these are rare. I’m like nearly everyone else: writing is hard work for me. It’s a craft I’ve learned over the years by practicing, by thinking deliberately about how I do it, and by reading advice from books that have gone before mine. It’s still hard work, but that’s OK: I’m willing to put in the effort for my writing product to seem pretty good, even if my writing process is laborious. If I’d understood earlier in my career that most writers are just like me, I would have been less crushed by the discovery that my papers didn’t just write themselves! Every scientific writer can do what I’ve done: practice the craft and improve at it. I hope my book can help.

Stephen B. Heard is professor of biology at the University of New Brunswick in Canada and associate editor of the journal American Naturalist. His most recent book is The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career.

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.


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.


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.

Carl Wunsch: Has oceanography grown too distanced from the ocean?

Wunsch jacketWith the advent of computers, novel instruments, satellite technology, and increasingly powerful modeling tools, we have vast knowledge about the ocean. Yet because of technological advances, a new generation of oceanographers have grown increasingly distanced from the object of their study. Physics Today recently published a Q&A with Carl Wunch, author of Modern Observational Physical Oceanography: Understanding the Global Ocean. According to Wunch, the field of oceanography cannot rely on theoretical truths alone. In this interview, he emphasizes the importance of the discipline’s observational roots:

Before Modern Observational Physical Oceanography: Understanding the Global Ocean (Princeton University Press, 2015) was published, Carl Wunsch had already made “an immense contribution” to the field, writes Stuart Cunningham in his January 2016 review of the book for Physics Today. Cunningham counts more than 250 papers and “an astonishing list of master’s and PhD students whose own merits are widely recognized.”

Modern Observational Physical Oceanography is Wunsch’s fifth book. Cunningham writes that it will be “of value to anyone wishing to know more about how to observe the ocean, interpret the data, and gain insights on ocean behavior and on how oceanographers reach their understanding of it.”

Carl Wunsch

Carl Wunsch

Wunsch was the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physical Oceanography at MIT before his retirement in 2013; he is now a visiting professor at Harvard University. He received his PhD at MIT under the tutelage of renowned oceanographer Henry Stommel. Among other things, Wunsch has studied the effects of ocean circulation on climate.

Physics Today recently caught up with Wunsch to discuss Modern Observational Physical Oceanography and his views on climate change issues.

PT: What motivated you to take up this book after retiring from MIT?

WUNSCH: In talking to students and postdocs, and in teaching, it became clear that we are in an era increasingly dominated by modelers and theoreticians, for many of whom observations are something downloaded from the Web and then taken as a “truth.” The field of physical oceanography and its climate components has become ever more remote from its observational roots.

In the past 25 years physical oceanography developed a number of highly useful, up-to-date, but theoretically based textbooks. There was no book known to me to which one could direct a colleague or student that emphasized the interesting complexities of the very diverse data types oceanographers now have available. The beautiful theories emphasized by the existing textbooks can produce the misperception of a laminar, essentially steady, ocean and in the extreme case, one reduced to a “conveyor belt.”

Read the full interview in Physics Today, here.

Anna Frebel on the search for the oldest stars

Frebel jacketAstronomers study the oldest observable stars in the universe in much the same way that archaeologists study ancient artifacts on Earth. Stellar archaeologist Anna Frebel is credited with discovering several of the oldest and most primitive stars, and her book, Searching for the Oldest Stars is a gripping firsthand account of her work. Recently she took the time to answer some questions:

What is your main research topic and what is stellar archaeology?

AF: My work is broadly centered on finding the oldest stars in the universe and using them to explore how the first stars and the first galaxies formed soon after the Big Bang. This works because these ancient stars are about 13 billion years old and they are still shining. The universe itself, by comparison, is 13.8 billion years old. I find these ancient stars in the outskirts of the Milky Way galaxy, using a large telescope. I’m also researching how the chemical elements heavier than hydrogen and helium were first created in those early stars, which ultimately allowed Earth to form and to bring about life in the universe.

What is your biggest discovery?

AF: I have been fortunate enough to discover several “record holding stars”. In 2007, I found a 13.2 billion year-old star, which is incredibly old. This followed the 2005 discovery of the chemically most primitive star – a star of the second generation of stars to have formed in the universe. Since then, I have analyzed some incredible ancient stars in dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way galaxy, and together with my team, we have recently beaten said 2005 record, which was enormously exciting.

Why do people say we are made from stardust?

AF: We humans are made from all sorts of different chemical elements, mostly carbon. We breathe oxygen and nitrogen, we wear silver and gold jewelry. All these elements were once, atom by atom, created inside different kinds of stars and their supernova explosions over the course of billions of years. Studying this evolution of the chemical elements in the universe with the help of ancient stars means that I’m literally studying the cosmic origins of the building blocks of life. So we really are closely connected with the universe, far more than we realize.

How did you decide to become a scientist?

AF: From a young age I knew I wanted to study stars. They were just so fascinating to me, these big spheres of gas, fusing new elements to gain energy to shine for eons in the sky. Fortunately, I received good advice during high school on how to become an astronomer. After studying physics until 2002, I turned to astronomy and the rest is history. Today, I take pride in sharing my story with young people and the general public by telling them what astronomers do on a daily basis, and how scientific results are achieved. I am passionate about conveying the importance of science literacy to the young and the young at heart while inspiring them with the beauty and mystery of the cosmos.

What kind of telescope is used for your astronomical observations?

AF: Astronomers use all kinds of different telescopes on Earth as well as from space to peer deep into the cosmos. It depends on the type of project and the brightness of the objects which telescope is best suited. Space observations are being carried out remotely, whereas ground-based observations are still done by the astronomer who has to travel to the telescope. More and more telescopes are becoming automated to enable remote controlled “office observing”.

Anna Frebel in front of the 6.5m Magellan Telescope in Chile.

Anna Frebel in front of the 6.5m Magellan Telescope in Chile.

Are you traveling to any telescopes?

AF: Yes, I regularly fly to Chile to the Magellan Telescopes to carry out my observations. These are some of the largest telescopes in the world and the dark night sky in the Southern Hemisphere is terrific for studying the cosmos. It’s the favorite part of my job and I love discovering new facts about the universe through these observations!

What does it mean when you say you’re going observing?

AF: To use the telescopes, you have to fly to Chile. First to Santiago, then to La Serena and from there is a 2-3h drive up the mountains of the Atacama Desert where the telescopes are. There are guest rooms there for the observers to sleep during the day and the observatory chefs are cooking delicious meals for everyone. Dinner is eaten together by all observers, including the technical staff. It’s a little community with the sole purposes of caring for the telescopes and obtaining exquisite astronomical observations all night long of a breathtaking sky.

What does a typical night at the telescope look like?

AF: All preparations for the night happen during the afternoon while it’s still light outside. After sunset, I usually choose the first targets from my list, which I begin to observe soon after dark. Each star is observed for 10-30 minutes. We immediately inspect each observation and then decide on the fly whether we need more data or not. If we have found an interesting old star we may choose to immediately observe it for a few more hours.

Did anything ever go wrong at the telescopes?

AF: Of course! Mostly when it’s cloudy because then we can’t observe any starlight. This can be very frustrating because it can mean that we have to come back to the telescope a year later to try again. Clouds spell bad luck. Other times, the air layers above the telescope are often not as smooth as is required. This makes the stars twinkle and appear less sharp, which means less good data and longer exposure times. And sometimes there are technical problems with the telescope too.

How do you get your telescope time? Can I go to your telescope and observe, too?

AF: To obtain telescope time, astronomers have to submit a proposal to a committee that selects the best projects and awards them the time. The proposal contains a detailed description of the project and the technical details on what information is being sought. Telescope use is restricted to professional astronomers because of the considerable expense. The cost is about USD 50,000 to 100,000 per night, depending on the telescope, and often paid by various institutions and universities who jointly operate observatories. While this is a lot of money, it’s actually not that much in comparison to many other research facilities.

Are there any special moments at the telescope that you remember in particular?

AF: Yes, going observing is always magical and memorable. Of course I particularly remember big discoveries and the excited nervousness of checking and checking whether we didn’t make a mistake and that the discovery was really what it appeared to be. Then, there have been the frustrating moments of sitting at the telescopes for nights on end listening to the rain and flying home empty-handed. I have been there when severe technical problems and even a bush fire prevented observing during clear nights. But I always associate observing with the most colorful sunsets, the calm and peaceful atmosphere up in the mountains, and of course the sleepless but exciting nights.

Anna Frebel is the Silverman (1968) Family Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is author of Searching for the Oldest Stars, and has received numerous international honors and awards for her discoveries and analyses of the oldest stars. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Digital Einstein Papers: An Open Access Story

EinsteinA year ago in December, Princeton University Press rolled out an unprecedented open access initiative: the ongoing publication of Einstein’s massive written legacy comprising more than 30,000 unique documents. The Digital Einstein Papers, one of the most ambitious publishing projects ever undertaken, launched to widespread fanfare from the scientific, publishing, and tech communities, with enthusiastic coverage from The New York Times, (which hailed the papers as “the Dead Sea Scrolls of Physics”), to Inside Higher Ed, The Guardian, and far beyond. You can watch Diana Buchwald, editor of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, launch The Digital Einstein here.

A year out, what has the success looked like in terms of traffic? Ken Reed, Digital Production Manager at Princeton University Press takes us behind the scenes:

The Digital Einstein Papers site launched on 5 December 2014, and in the past year has had over 340,000 sessions, with over 3.2 million pageviews.

Site traffic has been worldwide, with the top five countries in order being the United States, Germany, India, Canada, and Brazil. The site is mobile optimized, especially for the iOS, which accounts for 50% of mobile traffic to the site. This is vital for global users, since by some accounts the mobile share of web traffic is now at 33% globally.

The Papers features advanced search technology and allows users to easily navigate between the original languages in which the texts were written and their English translation, as well as extensive supplementary material. But the Press is always looking to make technological improvements. In the past year, Princeton University Press has worked closely with the developer, Tizra, to monitor traffic and continually tweak display issues, especially around mobile devices. We have recently added a news tab, and the future will hold more enhancements to the site, including added functionality for the search results, and the addition of a chronological sort.

At present, the site presents 13 volumes published by the editors of the Einstein Papers Project, with a 14th slated to go online in 2016. Here is just a sampling of the included documents:

“My Projects for the Future” — In this high school French essay, a seventeen-year-old Einstein describes his future plans, writing that “young people especially like to contemplate bold projects.”

Einstein’s first job offer — Einstein graduated from university in 1900, but had great difficulty finding academic employment. He received this notice of his appointment as a technical clerk at the Swiss Patent Office in June 1902 and would later describe his time there as happy and productive.

“On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” — Einstein’s 1905 paper on the special theory of relativity is a landmark in the development of modern physics.

Keep an eye on this exciting open access project as it evolves in 2016 and beyond. Explore for yourself here.

Mark Denny discusses Ecological Mechanics

According to Mark Denny, the time is right for biomechanics to be folded into the broader study of ecology. In Ecological Mechanics, Denny explains how the principles of physics and engineering can be used to understand the remarkable ways plants and animals interact with each other and their surroundings, and how this controls where species can survive and reproduce. Recently, Denny shared some thoughts on the emerging discipline and his new book:

Ecological MechanicsEcological mechanics is not something I’ve heard of. Is it a new field of study?

MD: Yes and no. Biomechanics, the field in which I was raised, has traditionally focused on trying to understand how individual plants and animals work: how they are shaped to perform certain functions, what materials they are constructed from, how they interact with wind and moving water. But this biomechanical perspective has matured to the point where it can now be productively applied to questions of how individuals interact. In other words, the time is right for biomechanics to be folded into the broader study of ecology. That’s the basic idea of the book: to reveal to ecologists can they benefit from incorporating some physics and engineering in their approach, to challenge biomechanics to extend their expertise beyond the individual, to bring two well established disciplines together.

Can you give me a good example of ecological mechanics in action?

MD: I’d be delighted to! Let’s take coral reefs. They are an iconic example of how an assemblage of plants and animals interact to build a community that can grow and persist in a physically stressful environment, in this case the wave-beaten shores of tropical islands. But coral reefs exist in a delicate balance. Fish that shelter among branching coral colonies eat the seaweeds that otherwise would outcompete corals for space on the reef. If too many of the branching corals are broken by waves, the fish population declines, and the seaweeds take over. So, the state of the reef is a complex interaction between fluid mechanics (which governs wave forces), solid mechanics (which governs the ability of corals to resist those forces), and ecology, (which accounts for the community-wide consequences of coral breakage). But ecologists have had no way to predict how these interactions will play out as climate changes. Fortunately, ecological mechanics can now provide the answer. By taking into account both the predicted increase in intensity of tropical cyclones and the reduction in strength of corals due to ocean acidification, we can use the principles of engineering to accurately predict the change in species composition on a reef, and, from that, to use ecological principles to predict the change in competitive interactions between corals and seaweeds.

What’s the scope of the subject matter?

MD: Broad! In the first section we cover basic concepts from the physics of diffusion to fluid mechanics. We then use those concepts to understand the forces that plants and animals encounter both on land and in water, how animals move, and how the environment affects the temperature of everything, both living and dead. Then there’s a section on the mechanics of materials: how the chemical composition of a structure determines its stiffness and strength, how the shape of the structure affects the forces imposed on materials, and how structures interact in dynamic fashion with their surrounds. We then finish up by tying together the information from the previous sections. We explore how variation in the environment affects the plants’ and animals’ performance, and how that variation changes through time and space. We delve into the statistics of extremes (which can be used to predict the likelihood of ecological catastrophes), and we see how physics causes ecological patterns to emerge even in physically uniform habitats. There’s plenty here for both terrestrial and aquatic biologists, at scales ranging from the molecular to the global.

What tools will I take away from reading Ecological Mechanics?

MD: Great question. In a nut shell, you should come away with enough practical knowledge not only to understand the ecomechanics literature, but also to start working as a practicing ecomechanic. The chapter on thermal mechanics, for instance, teaches you how to construct a head-budget model for an organism that you can use to predict body temperature in any environment. The chapter on scale transition theory provides a recipe for predicting how the average performance of a population will change as the population spreads through space.

Sounds pretty technical, though. How much of a background in physics, math, and engineering would one need?

MD: Not much, actually. If you’ve had a course in basic physics somewhere along the line, and remember a reasonable amount of the algebra you learned in high school, the ideas presented here are should be easy to absorb. My own formal background in math and physics is absolutely minimal. Most of what I know about engineering I learned by explaining it to myself, and I think that has put me in a good position to explain this material to others. Readers are likely to be pleasantly surprised at how far a little bit of mathematics and basic physics can take them.

Given the scope and level of the discussion, what do you see as the audience for Ecological Mechanics?

MD: I wrote this text with several audiences in mind. First, there are ecologists and biomechanics actively involved in research, everyone from undergraduates on up. I feel certain that the breadth of information presented here will provide them with new perspectives on their subjects, new ways of thinking about the ways in which plants and animals interact with each other and with their environment, and the tools to explore those thoughts. The text can also be used as the basis for an upper-level undergraduate course. Combining as it does biomechanics and ecology, it could easily fit into a general curriculum in biology. It could equally well provide accessory information for other courses; various chapters could be used in isolation in a general biomechanics course, for instance, or a general course in ecology. And lastly, I hope there is an audience among folks who are just interested in science. Ecological mechanics involves such a compelling mixture of physical and biological science; I’m hoping that people will pick up this book just to scratch the itch of curiosity.

How did someone with little background in math and physics end up in a field like ecological mechanics?

MD: Pure serendipity. Like so many people, I went to college planning to go to medical school. I majored in zoology, avoided math, and put off taking physics until my senior year, and even then I took it pass/fail. But I found that physics offered a different (and intriguing) way of thinking about the world. And that really clicked into place when, in my final semester, I took a biomechanics course from Steve Wainwright and Steve Vogel. They showed me how the physics perspective could be applied to biology, and I’ve been riding that wow!! feeling ever since. I’d love to pass that excitement along to others, and books like this are best way I know to do that.

Mark Denny is the John B. and Jean DeNault Professor of Marine Sciences at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California. His books include Biology and the Mechanics of the Wave-Swept Environment, Air and Water, and How the Ocean Works.

Conversations on Climate: How geoengineering has been used in the past

PlanetIn The Planet Remade, Oliver Morton argues that geoengineering, the process by which Earth’s systems are manipulated, can be used in a positive way to address the problems caused by man-made climate change. Geoengineering is nothing new. Chapter 7 of The Planet Remade describes how it was used in the twentieth century to feed a growing population. A summary:

At the end of the nineteenth century it became apparent that the yield of wheat would soon fall short of the demand. Sir William Crookes, one of the leading chemists of the time, gave a speech in 1898 on the subject. The number of people who wanted to eat wheat was increasing, but by that point there was no more land on which to grow it. The solution? Increasing the amount of nitrogen in the soil to increase the amount of wheat that a given parcel of land could yield. If this wasn’t done, Crookes warned, the world would face starvation.

Nitrogen was fixed on as the key to a solution because it is a necessary component of photosynthesis. It exists in the air we breathe in the inert form of two identical atoms attached to one another. In order to aid in sustaining life, it must be detached and fixed to some other element. This happens when bacteria in plants twist nitrogen molecules and insert hydrogen molecules into the resulting spaces, turning the nitrogen into ammonia. Later, the nitrogen is returned to its inert form. The process by which nitrogen is fixed and then unfixed makes up the nitrogen cycle. As this process has proceeded uninterrupted by humans for billions of years, it has been one component in supporting increasingly more complex life forms on Earth.

Crookes was hopeful that the problem could be solved. He called on scientists to figure out a way to fix nitrogen industrially. Fritz Haber, a professor at the University of Freiburg, rose to the challenge. He and his laboratory technicians created a process by which fixed nitrogen was created by passing a continuous stream of nitrogen and hydrogen over a hot catalyst at very high pressure. His colleague Carl Bosch scaled the process up so that it could be used on an industrial scale. The process was quickly adopted globally to produce more food. By the end of the 1960s, the amount of nitrogen fixed by the Haber-Bosch process exceeded that fixed by all the microbes in the world’s soil. Both men won the Nobel Prize for their efforts. Their discoveries have had profound implications beyond the world of agriculture.

The problem identified by Crookes had been solved, but at a cost. One cost can be seen in the Gulf of Mexico every summer. Between the 1960s and 1990s, the flow of nitrogen out of America’s heartland, through the Mississippi and into the Gulf has doubled. This abundant supply of nitrogen makes ideal food for photosynthetic algae to flourish, resulting in colossal algal blooms. As they decompose, they consume all the oxygen in the water, leaving none to support other life forms. As a result, large swaths of the Gulf of Mexico become dead zones every summer.

Does this episode in history prove that humans can’t be trusted with geoengineering? Or can it be used more responsibly in the future to address the challenge of climate change? To answer that question, check out The Planet Remade here.

Was Einstein the First to Discover General Relativity?

Today the world celebrates the day 100 years ago that Albert Einstein submitted his final version of the general theory of relativity to the Prussian Royal Academy. A theory of gravitation with critical consequences, it completely transformed the field of theoretical physics and astronomy. Einstein has long been celebrated and popularized for his contribution, but some have continued to ask whether he was, in fact, the first to discover general relativity. Daniel Kennefick, co-author of An Einstein Encyclopedia, looks at the debate:

Einstein’s Race

By Daniel Kennefick

On November 25, 1915 Einstein submitted one of the most remarkable scientific papers of the twentieth century to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin. The paper presented the final form of what are called the Einstein Equations, the field equations of gravity which underpin Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Thus this year marks the centenary of that theory. Within a few years this paper had supplanted Newton’s Universal Theory of Gravitation as our explanation of the phenomenon of gravitation, as well as overthrown Newton’s understanding of such fundamental concepts as space, time and motion. As a result Einstein became, and has remained, the most famous and celebrated scientist since Newton himself.

EinsteinBut what if Einstein was not the first scientist to publish these famous equations? Should they be called, not the Einstein equations, but the Einstein-Hilbert equations, honoring also the German mathematician David Hilbert? In 1915, Einstein visited Hilbert in Gottingen, and Hilbert convinced him that the goal of a fully general relativistic theory was achievable, something Einstein had nearly convinced himself could not be done. Einstein returned to work, and by November, he had found the field equations which give General Relativity its final form. However, Hilbert also worked on the ideas Einstein had discussed with him and published a paper discussing how Einstein’s theory fitted in with his own ideas on the role of mathematics in physics.

The argument for honoring Hilbert lies in a paper written by him which included the Einstein equations, derived from fundamental principles. This paper, while appearing several months after Einstein’s, was submitted on November 20, and Hilbert even sent Einstein a copy which probably reached Einstein before he submitted his own paper. In fact, a few people have even gone so far as to propose that Einstein might have stolen the final form of his equations from Hilbert.

Of course even if that were true, we are talking only about one final term in the equations (Einstein had published a close to correct version earlier in the month) and to Einstein would still belong sole credit for the enormous amount of work which went into the argument by which equations with these unique properties were singled out in the first place. We would still recognize Einstein for the critical physical thinking, while acknowledging Hilbert’s superior mathematical ability in more quickly finding the final correct form of the equations. Still, perhaps Hilbert would deserve a share of the credit for that final step. Why then do the centenary celebrations mention Einstein only and omit Hilbert almost completely?

One reason is that in the late 1990s a historian working on Hilbert named Leo Corry made a remarkable discovery. He found a copy of the proofs of Hilbert’s paper, with a printers stamp dating it to December 6, 1915. These proofs show that Hilbert made significant changes to the paper after this date. In addition, the proofs do not contain the Einstein equations. The proofs have been cut up here and there (probably by the printers themselves as they worked), so it is possible that the equations would be there if we had the missing pieces. But it is also quite possible that amidst the changes Hilbert made to the paper, he took the opportunity to include the final form of the equations from Einstein’s paper. Indeed some of the changes he made after December 6 were to update his argument from earlier versions of Einstein’s theory to the later version.

Certainly it was Einstein who felt himself to be the injured party in this short-lived priority dispute (arguably the only occasion in his life when Einstein found himself in such a dispute). He complained to a friend that Hilbert was trying to “nostrify” his theory, to claim a share of the credit. Einstein complained to Hilbert himself indeed, and some of the changes made in proofs by Hilbert included the addition of remarks giving credit for the basic ideas behind the theory to Einstein. At any rate, Einstein tried not to let proprietary feelings color his feelings of gratitude for Hilbert. He recalled well that Hilbert had played an important role in encouraging Einstein to return to his theory at a time when Einstein had, to some extent, given up on his original goals. On December 20, 1915, he wrote to Hilbert:

“There has been a certain resentment between us, the cause of which I do not want analyze any further. I have fought against the feeling of bitterness associated with it, and with complete success. I again think of you with undiminished kindness and I ask you to attempt the same with me. It is objectively a pity if two guys that have somewhat liberated themselves from this shabby world are not giving pleasure to each other.” (translated and quoted in Corry, Renn and Stachel, 1997).

So if Einstein was becoming the new Newton, as the man who solved the riddle of gravity, he was far from being a new Newton in another sense; of being the sort of man who carries on scientific grudges to the detriment of his friendship with the other great thinkers of his day.

Daniel Kennefick is associate professor of physics at the University of Arkansas, an editor of the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, and the author of An Einstein Encyclopedia and Traveling at the Speed of Thought: Einstein and the Quest for Gravitational Waves (Princeton).

For more on Einstein’s field equations, check out this article by Dennis Lehmkuhl at Caltech.

#ThanksEinstein: Hanoch Gutfreund on the revelation of relativity

Einstein meme 2The Revelation of Relativity

By Hanoch Gutfreund

Hanoch Gutfreund is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is also the academic director of the Albert Einstein Archives. This is the story about how Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity revolutionized his teaching, understanding, and career.

My present day interest in Einstein evolved late in my academic life. It started when as Rector and then President of the Hebrew University, in the 1990’s, I became aware of the unique cultural asset possessed by the university – the Albert Einstein Archives. When I stepped down from the presidency, with einstein lightthe encouragement of my successor, I began to devote more and more time to promote the Einstein – H.U. connection, through public lectures on various Einstein topics and by organizing and helping to organize Einstein exhibitions in different places in the world.

As professor of theoretical physics, for many years I taught everything that Einstein did in his miraculous year – 1905. However, only in the late nineties did I read the original papers with commentaries by John Stachel. For me this was a revelation. Einstein’s way of thinking, his motivations, his introductions and conclusions – all this was very different from the way these topics were treated in ordinary textbooks. I believe that if I had known and understood what I know and understand today, my students would have appreciated and benefited from my lectures even more. Motivated by this revelation, I decided to fill a gap in my own physics education. As a student, I never had a course in general relativity. In the learning process, the historical context and Einstein’s intellectual struggle were for me at least as important as the scientific results.

Teinstein speed of lighto mark the 50th anniversary of the Israeli Academy of Science, we displayed the most important manuscript in the Einstein Archives, the manuscript of Einstein’s seminal paper on general relativity. Each one of the 46 pages of this manuscript was enclosed in a dimly illuminated box. People visited this exhibit as if they were entering a shrine.

Following this experience, I met with Jurgen Renn, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. We discussed an option to publish this manuscript as part of a comprehensive account of Einstein’s intellectual odyssey to general relativity.

Gutfreund_RoadtoRelativityThis meeting led to a fruitful collaboration, which has now produced The Road to Relativity: The History and Meaning of Einstein’s The Foundation of General Relativity. It attempts to make the essence of general relativity accessible to broader audiences. We have also initiated the recently published, 100th anniversary edition of Einstein’s popular booklet on the special and general theory of relativity, with extensive background material and a reading companion, intended to resent Einstein’s text in a historical and modern context. We are already considering other Einsteinian projects in the future. This year, as the world marks the 100th anniversary of general relativity, there are many requests addressed to the Albert Einstein Archives and to myself for assistance in organizing special exhibitions, for participation in scientific conferences and in public events, for interviews in the media and for help and advice in various other initiatives. It’s an exciting time, and I remain very grateful for this inspiring phase in my life.

Hanoch Gutfreund is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is also the academic director of the Albert Einstein Archives.

Check out the earlier post in this series by Jimena Canales.

#ThanksEinstein image courtesy of the official Albert Einstein Facebook page.