- Annual Meeting
- Join CSWA
by: Nicola Temple
When UK scientists released research findings that sharks have individual personalities, I was not surprised. I used to have a Figure Eight puffer fish (Tetraodon biocellatus) that would curl its caudal fin around its body and let the suckerfish (Plecostomus) in my tank push it around the aquarium like a soccer ball. I’ve kept other fish of these same species, but I have never again seen this behaviour. For those of us who have spent many hours under water or staring into fish tanks, observing fish, this is no more news-worthy than a headline that dogs have personalities. Yet, as the editors at CSWA reminded me, not everyone has wasted away hours watching fish!
The American Psychological Association defines personality as the “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.” This is not an anthropocentric definition.
Every individual of every species has a unique genetic make-up and unique experience of its surroundings, which shapes its subsequent behaviours. Each fish in a shoal has a different experience depending on where it is in the shoal, its proximity to predators, its access to food and its interactions with other individuals. These different experiences undoubtedly determine how an individual responds in future situations.
While a characteristic pattern of behaviour in fish is easy to accept, the idea that these creatures may think and feel may seem counterintuitive to our experience. Yet, there is a body of scientific evidence that supports the fact that fish do indeed have personalities.
Associate Professor Culum Brown at Macquarie University in Australia has a special interest in the learning and memory of fishes and has challenged many preconceptions about the cognitive capacity of fishes.
The Thinking Fish
Brown has shown that fish, like humans and many other organisms, can favour certain hemispheres of the brain – known as cerebral lateralization – for certain tasks. This allows for complex multi-tasking – an ability associated with higher thinking. Fish have also been shown to have long-term memory, a capacity to learn and to use clues from the surrounding landscape to find objects. Some fish species have even been shown to use tools; for example cod learned how to use a tag attached to their dorsal fin to trigger the release of food from a self-feeding mechanism . These are qualities we associate with more complex cognition – not a mindless creature.
The Feeling Fish
Research has also enlightened us to the fact that fish are more feeling creatures than originally thought. Whether fish feel pain has been the subject of scientific debate – a debate that seems largely based around the nuances of a definition for pain. During my graduate work I clipped the adipose fin off of many trout and – despite my best efforts – every one of them exhibited signs of stress before I clipped them, every one of them flinched when I made the quick snip and every one of them took time to recover afterwards. There is no debate in my mind.
The Fishy Personality
So if we can agree that every fish is an individual that has a unique experience of its environment and that it is capable of – at least in the most basic sense of the word – thinking, feeling and behaving, then it should be no surprise that fish would exhibit unique personalities. The interesting question is then not whether fish have personalities, but how these individual personalities reflect different survival strategies. Or how they might allow some individuals to adapt to situations more readily than others? Or how the variety of personalities compares with other animals of similar life expectancies and habit?
While we await the answers to these broader questions regarding the personalities of fish, perhaps the acknowledgement that they are individuals will advance our ethical treatment of fish. I have a son and husband who love to fish, which means I have spent many hours in boats and on shorelines reading, writing and observing. I have often seen fishermen leave their catch thrashing helplessly on the shore beside them. It is equivalent to a hunter snagging a deer in a leg trap and then wrapping its head in a plastic bag to then watch it slowly die by asphyxiation. It simply wouldn’t be acceptable – so why do we find this OK for fish?
Perhaps we just can’t commiserate with creatures that have scales and gills. We have a natural affinity to our fellow hairy, milk-bearing mammals. Primates are such close relatives, we find it relatively easy to recognise individuals. Jane Goodall didn’t need tagging methods, she recognised each individual based on distinct features, just as we do with our own species. In whales, elephants and meerkats we can recognise the family units and social structures that have parallels with our own, including conflict and cooperation.
People who spend a great deal of time around fish can see the complexities of real personalities in these unique and interesting animals as well. Whether it’s sharks with wallflower tendencies or soccer star puffer fish, we are only beginning to appreciate and understand fish as individuals. With over 30,000 species of fish on the planet, we clearly have a lot to learn.
Nicola is a displaced Canadian working as a freelance science writer in the UK. Before writing professionally full time, Nicola worked as a biologist in some of the most beautiful and remote places in western Canada and Australia. It was in these wild landscapes, somewhere between counting salmon and tinkering with outboard motors that Nicola discovered a love of storytelling. You can see more of her work at http://www.nicolatemple.com/
by Barry Shell
After 30 years writing non-fiction for a living, on November 1, 2014, I started a novel. On November 30th, if I win the challenge, I’ll have a 50,000-word book. Short by some standards, but longer than Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Anyway, it will be my first novel. I’m participating in NaNoWriMo short for National Novel Writing Month where you write a book during the month of November. I heard about it from Janis Mackenzie a librarian at SFU. We’re writing buddies in the NaNoWriMo local group.
At a kick-off meet-up, on October 26 in a downtown Vancouver pub, called Mooses Down Under, I learned much from the veterans, people who’ve been writing a novel in NaNoWriMo every November for up to nine years. When asked what happens to all these novels, one guy told me, “Some I’ve never looked at. Not once since the day I finished it. It just lives on a hard drive someplace.” A woman who has written six NaNoWriMo novels, an engineer by profession, said, “I usually don’t look at my novel until at least the following Spring. Then when the sun is shining, I can sit out and relax and take a look at what I did and enter into an enjoyable editing process in the sun.” Sound good to you?
It gets better.
For one thing, NaNoWriMo is free. There’s no cost to participate. But there are lots of socials funded by raffles, wheels of fortune, and even a tarot card reader who for $5 will let you draw three cards, the interpretation of which will get you out of a plot hole or fill in the emotional blanks for a character.
All over the NaNoWriMo website are tips and essays for “Pantsers,” writers who fly by the seat of their pants. You start on November 1 with only a vague idea of what you will write. Maybe a few characters, very roughly drawn, a scene or three. Some issues you’ve been thinking about. A theme or two. But really the message to all pantsers boils down to “just sit down and put fingers to keys and write. Write and write.”
Then there are the planners—people who have their whole novel pre-plotted, character sketches, done, all scenes storyboarded, etc. I guess they know what they are doing. I don’t. I’m a pantser.
Fifty thousand words works out to 1,667 a day, every day, for 30 days. Sixteen hundred words is about the size of the typical article I’ve been writing for almost 30 years explaining university research. But fiction is a lot different from non-fiction, where you have to get the facts right, and even more importantly, be careful to not upset anyone with any detail or turn of phrase.
In fiction anything goes.
By Day Two I had a character, an enthralling ghost, dancing her way through various quantum phenomena to seduce a young man on a park bench Twilight-Zone-style. I created another character, an educated bum forest-dwelling hermit homeless guy who is a renegade quantum physicist that figures out how to communicate with the ghosts of the park benches pushing the limits of quantum physics but using all natural materials at hand in the wilds of Stanley Park.
Why not? You can say anything, dream up anything, and make your characters do anything they want. But there’s more.
When I wrote the incredibly hot sex scene involving a man, a woman, and a ghost on a park bench it was fun. Two hours evaporated as if I myself had entered the twilight zone for a while. But what was even stranger was when I got up from my chair and went to make lunch. I felt all tingly and buzzy. It was as if I had just had sex. (Well, not exactly, but it was definitely weird.) Later I was telling a friend about these feelings, a guy who has a PhD in English Lit, and he said, “Well, you know, when your brain writes that kind of stuff you are triggering some of the same neural pathways and hormones involved when you are having sex for real. If you think writing sex scenes was strange, wait till you murder someone.”
Oh boy. They say that by week three most NaNoWriMo participants get stuck, and the best advice at that point: kill off one of your characters. So I know that day will come.
There’s something else fabulous about NaNoWriMo — Scrivener, the software you get to use for free to write your novel. Anyone can download Scrivener and use it 30 days for free, after which time it costs $56 (Canadian). But during NanoWriMo, you get to use it for free for 45 days, up to Dec 15, and if you finish your 50,000-word novel, you get to buy it for 50 percent off. Non-winning participants get 20 percent off. Scrivener was created by a guy named Keith Blount who wrote the code mainly because he was trying to write a novel (possibly for NaNoWriMo) and he wasn’t happy with any of the available word processors.
As a writer I’m LOVING Scrivener. I wish I had known about it before I retired. It lets you move blocks of text around on a virtual corkboard. It keeps track of your characters. It keeps a running track of your word count. It has a way for you to store internal and external references. And in the end it can format your text for any number of styles including eBook publishing. You really owe it to yourself to download Scrivener and check it out. It’s a bargain.
The NaNoWriMo event was created by a guy named Chris Baty in San Francisco in 1999, growing form 21 friends to well over half a million participants in over 100 countries in 2014. There are about 150,000 students in K-12 classrooms across America participating this year. The Vancouver area region alone has about 6,000 people registered. Maybe you should try it? There’s always next year.
NaNoWriMo is based on the honour principle. You report your own daily word counts. Nobody checks. The website plots a graph and predicts how soon you will finish your novel at the rate you are going. People say to me, “What do you win if you finish your novel by November 30th?” The answer: a book you wrote yourself, in one month. Isn’t that a fabulous prize? Based on my experiences on Day 3 of this adventure, I can hardly wait.
Barry Shell is a Vancouver freelance writer. He created www.science.ca, the top Google hit for Canadian science. He has written four books, and has published in magazines and newspapers including the Globe and Mail and the New York Times. Originally from Winnipeg, Barry has a BSc in Organic Chemistry from Reed College in Portland, OR and an MSc in Resource Management Science from UBC. His book, “Sensational Scientists” profiling 24 of Canada’s greatest scientists and published by Raincoast Books, won a national book award in 2005. Barry also plays sax in a Vancouver pop trio.
by Kasra Hassani
I, a scientist with a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology, was a climate change denialist. Wait, let me add, I was an effective climate change denialist: I would throw on a cloak of anecdotal evidence and biased one-sided skepticism and declare myself a skeptic. Good scientists are skeptics, right?I sallied forth and denied every piece of evidence that was presented to me, for a relatively long time.It feels strange when I look back — I inadvertently fell into almost every pitfall of pseudo-science, shutting my eyes and repeating a series of mantras, such as “I don’t believe it!”“Why does it even matter?” and “I don’t care!”.
Thankfully, those days are over, but the memories linger. Although the evolution of my thought, from ignorance, to denial, to skepticism and finally to acceptance was a continuum, in retrospect I can distinguish certain phases that are worth listing and discussing. I hope my experience encourages others to loosen up some strongly held beliefs and listen to the din of evidence.. Here are the prominent phases of my climate change denialism:
The “We have bigger problems” phase:
Being a biology and ecology geek in high school, my mind nurtured environmental concerns, especially in my birth country, Iran, where air and environment pollution, uncontrolled hunting, deforestation and desert formation are rampant. When I first heard about climate change through media (nothing had been taught in school), I couldn’t help but see it as a distraction from more immediate issues — poverty, childhood mortality, wars and conflicts, pollution, and so on. It bothered me to think of countries coming together and people marching in the streets over such a hypothetical long-term effect while children die of preventable causes. This phase slowly transformed into…..
The “It’s all a conspiracy!” phase:
The conspiracist in me intensified after I read the novel State of Fear by Michael Crichton, a science-fiction author of Jurassic Park and The Lost World, and whom I adored during my teenage years. State of Fear had a very science-y look with references, graphs, arguments and counter-arguments. Its thesis was that the media exploited global warming to keep us in a state-of-fear and guilt over the very act of being human. And then, I moved into…
The “OK, it may be happening, but who knows if it’s our fault” phase:
As time went on, I was exposed to more and more evidence in support of climate change that I could no longer deny. I had no choice but to adapt my theory and finally admit to some sort of climate change. “OK, it may be happening, but how can you tell if it’s our fault? We lack a control Earth!” To back myself up, I clung to a variety of fringe arguments: “It’s the sun!” or “We can’t trust the measurements!” or “It has happened before! It’s normal!” and so on. (You can find a long list of common climate change myths debunked here and a shorter version here. Right now the list counts up to 176. New ones are added often.)
Some studies have suggested that people who believe in one conspiracy theory, tend to believe others as well, even if they are contradictory to one another. This is usually because the conspiracy theory needs to be strengthened in face of every new piece of contradictory evidence. Also, once you fall into the trap of believing that a huge sinister organization can perform an action so perfectly yet covertly, then you believe other conspiracies are plausible. Thankfully, I avoided the meta-conspiracist delusions. During this years, I actively discussed and argued with other conspiracy theorists and denialists, especially on biology and health-related issues such as evolution, immunization, and genetic engineering. Still, I kept adapting my own denial strategy, eventually leading to….
The “It’s not that important” phase:
This became a recurring thought supplied by my lack of knowledge and failure to see the impact that climate change has on the environment. I kept referring to other pressing and more tangible global issues. I was blind to how the pressing environmental concerns of today—energy, water, pollution, sustainability—were actually in harmony with actions needed to fight climate change. This can be clearly seen in United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals and their special focus on climate change.
Finally, I crawled into…
The “Maybe I’m being in denial” phase:
No one undeniable bit of evidence unequivocally proved to me that humans were responsible for climate change, which makes sense if you’re me. Science works on multiple proofs. One single experiment or piece of evidence supports a theory, it doesn’t prove anything. Over time, as different researchers gather more evidence a theory becomes refined and a more acceptable explanation for natural phenomenon. But it also took time because I was never astonished by a piece of evidence or a big news story; when you are in denial, evidence is unlikely to change your mind. On the contrary, it might persuade you to cover your ears and pretend you’re not listening. Believe it or not, there exists a “Flat Earth Society,” and no, I won’t link to it.
So what happened to me then? What was the revelation? How did I enter…
The “Tear down the conspiracy wall!” phase:
I began to actively pursue knowledge on how to discuss climate change with conspiracy theorists (the ones who believe in conspiracies in principle and therefore are more likely to be climate change denialists) that I realized my strong-held beliefs and stubbornness matched the same criteria as the people I was trying to convince. I was a denialist myself.
I created a list of every question and doubt I had about the physics, chemistry, biology, economics, and politics of climate change, and I started reading. I took online courses. I listened to podcasts. Every myth in my head popped and floated away. I learned that cosmic rays cannot account for the current patterns of climate change; that low and middle-income countries and their fragile economies are actually more vulnerable to climate change than high-income countries and should care more about it; that climate change could be accelerating desert formation; and finally that pushing for renewable energies and sustainable development is in harmony with combating climate change. It all made sense without the need for an Evil Monster Corporation hiding a big truth or pushing a secret agenda. I was conspiracy-free!
No human is free of bias. There could be certain social, political and even personal circumstances that would stiffen a thought or belief in one’s mind. It takes effort try to identify our biases and rid ourselves of them, or at least be conscious of them. But it’s definitely worth it.
by Stephen Strauss
So there I am sitting in a meeting room in Ottawa supposedly providing insight on the future path of one of Canada’s federal research agencies and all I can think is: If There Is a Technological God All Canadians Would Worship It Would Be The Babel Fish.
Okay, yes, we should back up.
The group in that Ottawa meeting room was tasked with looking at a series of previously identified global trends and a series of previously identified technological changes which — theoretically — would help us figure out which trends and changes would most affect Canada in the next 20 or so years. And as a consequence of that analysis, decide which future arenas the agency should/must get involved with.
Now if you are unaware of it, the listing of trends and areas of technological change has become a sort of intellectual fast food. The top ten or twelve or even the 56 rankings of these rankings seem to appear everywhere and often.
Spend time reflecting on any “trend” and it seems supra-banal. Yes, it’s true: Many countries’ populations are growing older; Climate change may change everything a lot; If there are more people fresh water should get scarcer. Nothing, which rises to the level of “oh my god I never thought of that”.
At same time, anything-but-banal new technologies like the Internet of Everything — that is all kinds of tiny devices hooking you with the Internet — is coming and Big Data — think a tsunami of data and data analyzing approaches — is coming and the Kingdom of Smaller than Small (Nanotechnology) is coming too. Altogether it seems new devices/apps in the next little while will make the recent past look like some technological Stone Age inhabited by data starved, climate unimpressed, and Internet impoverished 20th century Nerd-erthals.
Our group at the meeting in Ottawa, however, had no consensus on whether Canada, this most middling of countries with its poor to not even middling history of translating discovery into product, could carve a special niche within those changes. What can we do that the Finns and the Americans and the Brazilians and the Chinese and everyone else can’t also do? And given our previous history of hardly ever turning discovery into usable products, how can Canadians do it quicker and better and much, much more profitably than them?
And as I sat there listening to everyone trying to make smart remarks about future world changes without being able to say how this country would change the world, I realized it was a very modern Canadian gathering. That is we were all were speaking in English, but lots of people in the room’s first language wasn’t English. Their native tongue was mostly French, but accents suggested other languages were represented as well.
And that’s when the Babel fish as Canada’s “Gift to the Future” thought hit me. If you are looking for a cross-country Canadian civic religion it is — PQ party loyalists aside — bilingualism, and maybe also multilingualism.
What all Canadians would buy into and be happy to see research weight thrown behind is some technological version of the Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy effortlessly translating ear plugged in quasifish. For those who haven’t seen or read Hitchhiker’s the Babel fish is described there as “small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies…the practical upshot of all this is that you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything in any form of language.”
The Babel Fish was of course just an iconic idea in a funny book but the idea of an instantaneously translator seems branded into a lot of science fiction. There are Star Trek’s Universal Translator and the telepathic field of Dr. Who’s Tardis and others.
And I thought, as the group discussed less obvious Canadian contributions (like coming up with technologies to cut down on water use because we had so much water) wouldn’t all Canadians want to be multilingual without having to go through the pain of actually learning another language — particularly if there was some kind of device which instantly translated all written words into your language too?
And then on the way home I wondered how close we were to a Babel fish/Universal Translator. And after some research found some exciting news to share: Much, much closer than I would have ever thought. Indeed we seem to be on the brink of at least approaching Universal Translator-dom if not Babel-fish-dom.
Simple devices that simultaneously translate a few words from one language to another already exist. Some pleasure cruises offer these devices to help people (who are just going to spend a short time in some foreign place) ask, “Where is the bathroom?” and understand the answer.
But there is also huge, big stuff taking place all around us. Skype is developing technology that could one day allow people to talk in one language and be heard in another. According to the Smithsonian magazine, Google is hard at work at “Kissing Language Barriers Goodbye.” Facebook has acquired something call Jibbigo which does translations in 20 plus languages.
Goddamn it, I then thought. This is happening, and nobody is alerting/warning us Canadians that this potentially huge big change in our national lives might be coming. And then I got depressed. Because maybe it is already too late for us to make any real contribution to the technology of simultaneous translation because how are we as a middling country going to complete with huge technological transnationals called Google and Skype and Facebook?
And then I had an epiphany.
Maybe it is too late for Canada to develop these technologies, but we could/should absolutely be the testing ground in which they are tried out. To be a 21st century Canadian is to either speak the other language, or wish you did, or want to make sure your kids are bilingual, or some combination of all the above. We have become a country where bilingualism, indeed multilingualism, is a kind of civic religion. But it is a hard because, well, languages are subtle and different and too slippery to easily equate. So lots and lots of us Canadians would put up with the glitches and the technological discomfort and costs of a Babel fish if it meant we really could talk to one another — and still be effectively unilingual.
Do you hear me Google and Skype and Facebook?
Start testing your universal translating technologies on us Canadians because we really, really, really want them.
Do you hear me unnamed federal research agency?
Give money to anyone trying to conduct these tests or develop apps related to them, because we really, really, really, really want something like the Babel fish to be in our national lives.
And we want it: Now/Maintenant/Ahora/Nú/今.
CSWA President Stephen Strauss has written about science for more than 30 years for The Globe and Mail, CBC.ca, Nature Biotechnology, The Walrus and many other places. One of his fondest memories of his time at The Globe was how his fellow journalists took to calling him Dr. Debunko
Tagged with: Babel Fish • bilingualism • canada • Douglas Adams • Dr. Who • Facebook • Google+ • Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy • innovation • Internet • Jibbigo • language barriers • multiculturalism • multilingualism • Ottawa • science writer • Star Trek • Stephen Strauss • Tarids • technology • telepathic field • translation • unilingual • Universal Translator
by Meredith HanelPeaches and nectarines are the same fruit minus a small genetic variation that makes nectarines hairless. When I first learned this little trivia tidbit I wondered about the difference in flavour. I prefer nectarines to peaches, but wondered if the taste difference was all in my head. Well, it’s not.
The genetic variation affects flavour, aroma, size, shape and texture. While the rough location of the genetic change has been known for some time, the exact gene and the exact change in the DNA sequenceof “nectarineness” has been a mystery. In March, scientists from Italy finally identified a disruption in a “fuzz” gene that is absent in peaches.
Agriculturists in China gifted fruit lovers with the peach about 4000 to 5000 years ago. At least 2000 years ago, again in China, nectarines burst on to the scene. Charles Darwin pondered about how nectarines popped up on peach trees and vice versa and described the odd finding of one fruit that was half and half. Would we call that a “peacharine?”
Darwin, and others, deduced that the nectarine was a peach variety. In 1933, scientists determined a recessive gene variant was responsible for the inheritance pattern of the nectarine’s hairless (glabrous) skin. The glabrous trait was given the designation G, with big G for the normal fuzzy peach character and little g for the glabrous nectarine character. Each fruit has two copies of this gene. Each parent gives one to the offspring fruit, which can be either GG, Gg, or gg, and only the gg fruits are nectarines.
The chromosomal location of the G trait was already roughly landmarked but the Italian research team zoomed in on the spot, sort of like how you zoom in to street view with Google maps. Many DNA sequence differences exist between nectarines and peaches that are not located in genes but are useful as landmarks along the chromosomes. These are called genetic markers. To zoom in on the G trait, the researchers crossed peach and nectarine trees and followed the offspring through two generations. The offspring had a mixture of peach and nectarine markers along their chromosomes but certain genetic markers, the ones closest to the G trait location, always went along with the nectarineness. These genetic markers landmarked the region to search for genes with mutations that could explain a nectarine’s fuzz-less-ness.
Within the landmarked region, the researchers identified a disrupted gene. The peach to nectarine gene disruption is a genetic modification by the hand of Mother Nature, an insertion of a transposable element. This type of DNA element can move because it contains its own code for the production of an enzyme that can “cut”and “paste”the transposable element to other locations in the genome. Transposable elements can get pasted right in the middle of genes, disrupting the DNA sequence. They are a known cause of genetic variation in plants. If you like chardonnay wine, you can thank a transposable element for disrupting the cabernet grape genome long ago.
In nectarines the transposable element stuck itself right in the middle of a gene called PpeMYB25. Genes with similarities to PpeMYB25 in other plants are important for making plant hair, called trichome, which can occur on the stem, leaves, flowers and fruit of plants. The PpeMYB25 gene is the recipe for making a protein that is a transcription factor, a type of protein that controls when and how much other genes are turned on, so a mutation in this one gene could explain not just baldness in nectarines but other nectarine characteristics as well, depending on what these other genes are that it controls. In this report the researchers focused on the peach fuzz characteristic. When they looked at flower buds during the period when fuzz or trichome first develops, they found PpeMYB25 to be active in the peach but not the nectarine buds.
This is the first description of a specific genetic modification that can explain the difference between peaches and nectarines, something that has long been a mystery.
This research makes a strong case that nectarine lack of fuzz is due to the inability of nectarines to produce the PpeMYB25 protein. How lack of PpeMYB25might lead to the other nectarine characteristics — flavour, for instance — still needs to be worked out.
Vendramin, E. et al. (2014) A Unique Mutation in a MYB Gene Cosegregates with the Nectarine Phenotype in Peach. PLOS ONE. 9: e90574 Get paper
Meredith Hanel earned her PhD in medical genetics and spent many years in the lab doing research in molecular and developmental biology related to medicine. Meredith works in science outreach with Scientists in School. She enjoys writing about science and loves to find out the biology behind just about anything in nature.