Archive for April, 2011

Post by Ruthanna Gordon

In 1934, a zoo was a place you went to see animals.  Period.  Small cages were the norm, ensuring that no visitor would be disappointed by missing their favorite creature.  A lucky animal might have a few bars to swing from or a platform to climb; unlucky ones had little to do except pace.

The Brookfield Zoo, when it opened that year, was one of the first to break the pattern.  They built naturalistic habitats, blocked off by ditches and moats.  The richer environment meant that a visitor might not see every animal—but the ones they did see would be happier.  And the visitor would learn more by watching the animals’ natural behaviors.

Rhinoceros at the Brookfield Zoo

Over the decades, the zoo, and its organizers at the Chicago Zoological Society, have built on this early attentiveness, even as their early practices have become the norm.  The modern zoo is still a place to see animals, but it’s also an organization dedicated to conservation, education, and research.  Brookfield, for example, is heavily involved in breeding programs for endangered species, including black rhinos, Balisian Mynah birds, and cotton-top tamarins.

Perhaps the biggest change from the older style of zoo is the emphasis on ecologies rather than species.  Brookfield, over the years, has increasingly emphasized the different types of habitats, often grouping animals by where they live rather than species similarity.  While they still maintain a reptile house and a collection of pachyderms, they also have exhibits devoted to rainforests, deserts, and swamps.

Possibly the most impressive of their exhibits combines the two forms.  Tropic World might, in other times, have been called the monkey house.  It contains several of the largest indoor animal habitats on the planet.  Just inside is the South American exhibit.  Humans walk past a waterfall and find themselves overlooking several stories of trees, rocks, and streams.  Callimicos and spider monkeys climb as high as they can for the chance to peer back at the primates on the walkway.  Come in at the right time, and you can also catch a glimpse of a giant anteater shuffling below.  Further along, in the African tropics, a troop of Western Lowland Gorillas largely ignore the crowd, looking fascinatingly familiar as they socialize and keep their children out of trouble.

Western Lowland Gorillas at the Tropic World exhibit. Image from http://www.brookfieldzoo.org

Throughout these exhibits, signs and videos tell visitors much more than the name of what they’re looking at.  In addition to habits and habitats, you also get the latest tidbits from the zoological society’s researchers—and a little about how humans are impacting life in the wild.  Many of these species are endangered, or live in threatened areas.  Outside the zoo, these problems can seem too distant and abstract to do much about.  Face-to-face with our closest relatives, though, they feel more immediate.  People leave the zoo with a sense of their place in the larger world—and of how they might change it.

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What are you looking for in an art/science organization? What information or services would you like to see, that no one is providing?

Give us your input here, or join the conversation on Facebook.

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Post by Minna Krejci

Ok, ok.  So we’ve talked about art and science, we’ve talked about Chicago, we’ve talked about art and science in Chicago… but what have we missed?

Try googling “art and science and Chicago”.  What do you get?  A hair salon!

I guess it’s not terribly surprising, and I won’t deny that it’s clever marketing.  There is a measure of comfort you get from knowing that there’s some science behind your cosmetic and health products or services.  Science provides the impression of consistency, or a certain standard — somewhere along the line, a guy with glasses and a white coat marked his approval on a clipboard.  (Or something like that… I’m certainly not one to try to perpetuate the white-coat scientific stereotype.)  So combining science and art in the cosmetic world makes sense, since you most likely don’t want to be a walking art project, all the time.  Unless of course you’re Lady Gaga:

In terms of cosmetics, we all want to buy stuff that will work, make us more attractive, etc.  Because nothing will really work the way we want it to (as hard as we try, those wrinkles probably aren’t going anywhere any time soon), we rarely find that perfect solution that we stick with forever.  Instead, we’re always looking for new products with convincing claims, and shelling out more money than we should for them.  In doing this, we’re forcing cosmetics companies to keep developing new technologies and innovations, and we’re funding those efforts as long as we keep buying.

And how do we know that these products will work?  Someone gives us proof!  We’re all seen this before:

THIS PRODUCT IS PROVEN TO GIVE YOU X% MORE ___ (shine/volume/moisture/dryness/firmness/smoothness/workability/health/strength/curl/straightness/length)
AND TO REDUCE ___ (shine/volume/moisture/dryness/frizz/flatness/brittleness/stickiness/wrinkles/grease/cracking/wetness/redness)
BY Y%!

All right, I’m convinced!  I’ll buy it, and so will millions of others.  Does it matter that we don’t know exactly what studies were done to “prove” to us that this product will work, or precisely what “more volume” for my hair actually means?  Is each individual hair getting bigger?  Or maybe the distance between the hairs:

Problems with flyaway hair? (via http://www.phys.virginia.edu/Education)

We don’t seem to mind that the “science” of the cosmetics industry can seem a bit fuzzy at times, thanks to something called confirmation bias.  We want to know that the product works and we’ll favor information that “proves” that it works, while often ignoring evidence that says the opposite.

Just out of curiosity, I looked up the FDA requirements for cosmetic products.  I was kind of surprised to see that the FDA doesn’t have authority to approve cosmetics before they go on the market, with the exception of color additives.  FDA regulations just prohibit the marketing of adulterated products (that are somehow poisonous, injurious, decomposing, unsanitary, etc.) or misbranded products (that have improper packaging or labeling that is misleading or missing required information).  Interestingly, no one is really double-checking cosmetic science “claims” about how their products work — or their safety, for that matter.

There does seem to be a wealth of information out there about the science of personal care products.  For example, check out the websites for some of the prominent brands, like Pantene, which has a whole section devoted to science: “Our hair scientists shed light on the breakthroughs and debunk the myths surrounding your hair.”  This is actually a great idea, as long as the science that is presented is held to the proper standards (e.g. peer-reviewed, placebo-controlled, double-blind, etc.)  From my quick browsing through the Pantene site, it seemed that there may be a mix of both.

Now that I’ve gone completely off topic, let’s go back to Art+Science Salons and check out their website.

On the first page: “Our team of talented professionals blend art and science to create the ultimate look for you.”  Ok, that’s a good start!  Unfortunately, I didn’t find any additional direct references to science.  Art+Science does appear to stress the importance of advanced education and training for their stylists, in addition to keeping their clients “well-informed of product choices, home maintenance, and overall hair, scalp and skin health”.  Fair enough, but this doesn’t sound too much different than any other salon I’ve been to in a similar price range.

Art+Science Salons may not have an obvious science connection, but they bring me to another point: the term “salon” can refer to more than a hairdressers’ shop.  According to Wikipedia: “A salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.”  Maybe we should hold our own “art and science salon” and show how it’s done!  Who’s in?

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Post by Henderson

At MASI, we believe that the point of starting a science organization is to benefit people.  To give them information that they, otherwise, wouldn’t have.  To help them to look at and interact with the world just a little differently.

Well, it should be.

Though many of these organizations begin with altruistic intentions, many just aren’t as effective as they could be.

Whether their methods or mission don’t fit or the competition for providing similar services is too overwhelming, a number of startups find themselves at a severe disadvantage on the road to success.

Based in Chicago, The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) is one organization that has beat these odds.  Operating since 1978, CNT uses rigorous research to bring about practical changes in a myriad of disciplines from climate change to energy to community development.  A self-proclaimed “innovation center for urban sustainability,” CNT is all about using science to benefit the community and make it more cost-effective and efficient.

Never heard of them, you say?

Well, I know you’ve heard of I-GO, the non-profit car sharing initiative started by CNT in 2002.  The whole point of the enterprise is to create a seamless and integrated transportation system that reduces transportation congestion and greenhouse gases in the city.

Cool, huh?

But they do much more than that.  Check out this video of Governor Quinn signing a bill supported by CNT’s transportation research.

They are, after all, a think-and-do tank.  Just last year, they were integral players in many initiatives, and here’s the short list:


Designing Usable Data

  • Abogo – helps would-be homeowners determine the true cost of transportation.
  • H + T Index – just expanded to 337 communities and helps determine household affordability when paired with transportation costs.

Greening Policy

  • Helped to ensure funding for green projects in an existing Illinois EPA bill.

Solution Oriented

  • Assisting coordination of a $25 million dollar federal grant that will fund regional energy efficiency retrofits, leverage local investments, and create more than 2,000 jobs.
In the end, The Center for Neighborhood Technology is a cool organization because it uses science and technology to make the region better for all of us.
Check them out.
Who are your favorite science or art organizations making a difference?  Go ahead and share them.  Let’s see if we can get a great list going.

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On Wednesday, we asked about examples for teaching evolution.  Confusedious talked about the lineage of whales–a wonderful illustration of the way evolution is not necessarily linear.  The pressures of survival can encourage adaptations that bring a species out of the water, and then eventually send them back again.  Some of the interim forms are… startling.  The alligator-like Ambulocetus natans doesn’t look like anything you’d want to get close to, even with binoculars.

MASI’s own Henderson linked to a piece on the rapid evolution of a lizard species, after being transplanted to a new environment.  Although evolution can also take place gradually, punctuated equilibrium suggests that faster change isn’t at all uncommon.

J. B. S. Haldane (he of the pre-Cambrian rabbits) was once asked what his studies of evolution had taught him about the Creator. Haldane gave the question due consideration, then announced: “He has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”  They make up about a quarter of all the species on Earth, so he had a point.  An Inordinate Fondness is a monthly blog carnival that covers beetles in all their glorious variation. Unrelated to the blog, there is also a book and a Flickr set. Researchers at Harvard are working on putting together the full beetle family tree–click through for the stunning photos on the first page, if nothing else.

The Evolving Planet Exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum is one of the best places to get a feel for the scale and pattern of evolution.  It’s set up as a story, walking you from the origin of life through its many eras and extinction events, all the way up to the development of modern humans.  The Burgess Shale animation in Thursday’s post is from that exhibit.  The whole thing starts with this plaque:

That would make a great business card, convenient for handing out to people who think “theory” means “vague hunch.”  Or maybe it belongs on stickers, for putting inside the covers of high school biology texts.

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Post by Ruthanna Gordon

Evolution is one of the most well-supported theories in science. It draws on many types of evidence, most notably the millions of datable fossils gathered by researchers from all over the world. At times, fossils can seem almost mundane: small ones dot any marble floor, and slightly larger ones go for a few bucks in museum gift shops. It can be a shock to realize how spotty the fossil record really is.

Most living organisms never become fossils. They live and die in open air or water, and their bodies eventually decompose without a trace. A species is lucky to leave any remnant at all. The infamous Tyrannosaurus rex, for example, probably once roamed in the tens of thousands. We have about 30 skeletons in various stages of incompleteness, and one footprint. For comparison, scientists estimate that the current population of North American Homo sapiens may leave between 0 and 2 fossils.

We have fossils from about 300,000 species, far less than 1% of the total that have ever walked, squirmed, or swum the earth. Of these, most preserve only hard materials such as bone and shell. On rare and fortunate occasion, we are able to find fossils of soft tissue. These treasures provide a cornucopia of information about their original owners.

One example: About 500 million years ago, multi-cellular organisms went from tentative experiment to wildly successful profusion. The Cambrian Explosion (which predated the Cambrian era and took several million years) is best documented at the Burgess Shale in British Columbia. Here, regular mudslides covered the sea floor, burying marine animals and preserving their every detail—for a few wormlike creatures, we can still see the contents of their stomachs. The Shale includes some of the earliest recorded ancestors of modern life, families that thrived for several million years before dying out, and a few strange lineages that vanished almost as soon as they appeared.

Trilobite from the Field Museum's fossil collection

Pikaia gracilens doesn’t look much like you, although it’s certainly related. Trilobites lasted until the mass extinction at the end of the Permian. But you won’t find anything close to a Hallucigenia wandering around today—a pity, in my opinion.

Another example: Last year, scientists managed something previously considered impossible. They discovered the color of a dinosaur. Exceptionally well-fossilized feathers, including pigment structures, were compared to the pigments in modern birds. What they found was something like a chicken-sized, flightless woodpecker. White stripes on the arms and legs stand out against a black coat. An orange crest tops the whole ensemble. The remake of Jurassic Park may feature impressive levels of accuracy—or you can check out the models at your nearest science museum.

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Open Question: Evolution

Evolution takes place over millions of years.  Change on that scale can be hard to convey.  What are the best illustrations of evolution?  Do you have a favorite museum exhibit?  Are you inordinately fond of beetles (as an example of biological diversity)?

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