Tag Archives: natural selection

Drosophila, exponential growth, and the power of evolution

A few weeks ago I blogged about the way the universe is doomed by the exponential growth in readership of an old post here on Scientist Sees Squirrel.  That exercise was a bit silly, but I used it to make a non-silly point or two about biology.  My blogging example reminded me that I used to use an almost-as-silly fruit fly example in my undergrad ecology courses. I thought you might enjoy it – so here it is. (And if you’re teaching, and want to borrow it, be my guest.)

Imagine that you return from the grocery store with some bananas.  Unbeknownst to you, a single (inseminated) female fruit fly* has stowed away in there.  If all her offspring survive, how many fruit flies will your kitchen have after just one year? Continue reading

The blog post that dooms the universe

Warning: silly.

Got your attention, did I?

You know what got mine?  Noticing, a while ago, the apparently inexorable growth of interest in what I thought was a fairly dull* post, Friends Don’t Let Friends Use “cf.”, first published here in June 2016.  That post got a bunch of views when I first posted it, which isn’t unexpected.  Then it was largely ignored for a year or so, which isn’t unexpected either.  Then something odd happened: exponential growth.

That’s what’s shown in the graph above: month-by-month readership statistics for Friends Don’t Let Friends Use “cf.”.  It’s a lovely curve, isn’t it?  Let’s ignore the first year (which is dominated by novelty; every post gets a spike when first published).  Let’s make a semilog plot of the remainder, because that seems right for a curve like that.  And let’s fit a line to that semilog plot, because we’re scientists and we like to do that kind of thing. Continue reading

There’s no such thing as “an unrelated genus”

 Image: Osmia rufa, André Karwath, CC BY-SA 2.5; Boletus edulis, Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0; Volvocales, Aurora M. Nedelcu, CC BY 2.5; Chimp, Aaron Logan, CC BY 2.5; Ranunculus asiaticus, Leif Stridvall, CC BY-SA 2.5; Isotricha intestinalis, Agricultural Research Service/USDA CC 0; Compilation, Vojtěch Dostál, CC BY-SA 2.5.

 (My writing pet peeves, part 4)

There I was, at the physiotherapist, reading a new manuscript by a friend and collaborator to distract myself from the indignities being visiting on my calf.  There I was, thoroughly enjoying what I was learning, when I was brought up short by a construction that drives me up the wall:

“this species, therefore, cannot be not congeneric with A. jonesi.  Instead, it actually belongs to Ethereum, a similar but unrelated genus”.*

 I gasped.  Unrelated?  No two genera on Earth are “unrelated”.  There are closely related genera and distantly related ones, but because all life on Earth shares a common ancestor, there are no unrelated ones. Continue reading

Graphic: Fisher's model of software updates

Fisher’s geometric model of software updates

Images: Fisher’s model visualization, own work; update progress bar by Jeff Attaway, somewhat dubiously CC BY 2.0.

Last month, the Toronto Star newspaper launched a “new and improved” website, which is nothing short of awful. The other day, the only game app I keep on my phone pushed an update, and now it’s noticeably harder to use than it was before. I’m nursing my laptop along because Windows 8 and Windows 10 are both worse than Windows 7. Why do “updates”, “upgrades”, and “new and improved” products so often seem worse than what they replace?

R.A. Fisher knew*. Continue reading

Science fiction, stone plants, and the certainty of improbable things

Image: Lithops stone plant, UNB greenhouse, © Stephen Heard

I love used-book sales. A little while ago I went to one at a local church, where I was amused to find all the science fiction on the children’s table*. I didn’t ask why they’d sorted it there, but I can guess, because I’ve always read a lot of science fiction and I’ve gotten used to it being routinely dismissed as beneath the dignity of serious readers. The knock is frequently that it’s just not believable: methane-breathing aliens, intelligent gas clouds, galactic civilizations, and planet-sized toroidal starships are all so improbable that they’re for childish play, not adult attention.

But I’m a biologist, and that means I know a bit about improbability. Let me tell you, as improbability goes, science fiction has nothing on nature. Continue reading

Is biology beautiful?

Photo: Glasswing butterfly, probably Greta oto, on Asclepias curassavica; Eddy Van 3000 at flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0

We could quit now, with our eyes on that glasswing butterfly: of course biology can be beautiful. Birds of paradise, lynx, ladyslipper orchids, Spanish moss*, orcas; can there be any doubt? But that’s not really what I mean. Is biology as a science beautiful, the way math is beautiful, and physics is beautiful? Continue reading