How strange to call this planet 'Earth' when quite clearly it is ocean. Arthur C. Clarke

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Experimental design

Before I can begin any actual experiments, I need to get scientific collection permits so I can legally take animals from the field. In order to get scientific collection permits, I have to know how many animals I will be taking. In order to know that, I have to plan out my experiment in great detail so I know how many animals I will need.

Today I spent all day doing just that! I did so by making LOTS of figures. I tried to think of several ways to do what I wanted, then choose which was the best for the question I was asking. Of course, I messed up and had to reorganize so many times that the number of figures I created and their level of detail soon became overwhelming! I want to share them with you so you can have a glimpse at how hard my brain has been working. They are approximately in the order in which I created them. The last red and blue one is all I'm going to do for today. The rest are updates from later on when I needed to plan a design not using pH as an independent variable; instead, I use average site mussel shell thickness.

Please don't try to understand them all! Just appreciate them as part of the process of experimental design.

Friday, December 5, 2014

How cool would it be

to own a blue whale skeleton?! The Seymour Center lights up its blue whale skeleton at night, and it's pretty awesome. See below for an actual recent post.

Whelk surprise

About a month ago, I put some whelks in a tank of flowing seawater and gave them a hundred mussels.

The water level was a bit high, so I set up some slightly precarious way to siphon it out of one hose as it entered from another hose, and then I promptly forgot about it.

I took my comprehensive exam, applied for the NSF grant, and visited Oregon, and when I came back to Santa Cruz, I knew I'd have to deal with whatever nonsense was going on in that tank. Since I wasn't doing any actual experiments, I didn't care too much if when I finally checked on it again the hoses were out of place, the tank empty, and it reeked of decaying snails and mussels (i.e. if they were all dead). 

So one not-too-rainy afternoon last week, I meandered into the dungeon-like RC wet lab #1, inhaled the familiar musty organic smell that comes with a shared biological research space (regrettably, I am getting used to this smell--I don't like the idea of offensive odors becoming a normal part of my life), switched on the lights and was pleased to find that my tank was still flowing with seawater just as I had left it. The mussels had moved, and they were alive! But when I looked for the whelks, I didn't see any.

Since it didn't reek of decaying snails, I figured there were still in there somewhere out of view. I emptied the tank, tried with difficulty to rinse out much of the silty particles that I could only assume were whelk and mussel poop, and picked through the mussels in search of whelks. Sure enough, I found at least a dozen under and in the mussel matrix. There was the familiar brown-striped one, the black ones, and the big pearl-colored one (my favorite. It has purple undertones).

The whelks as of December 1, 2014.

After rummaging through the matrix some more, I found a whole bunch of empty mussel shells with tiny holes in them--obvious signs of whelk predation. I've been dying to collect some data, so I decided to gather all these empty shells with holes in them and measure them (length, width, dry mass, hole diameter, etc.).

Check out that hole right in the middle of mussel #17. 
(Click here to learn the dot tally method.)

Then, after rummaging even more, I found the most exciting thing: whelk egg capsules! All this time I thought I was irresponsibly neglecting the whelks, I was actually giving them privacy to mate. Now I'm excited to see if I get whelk babies in three months. I just have to find mussels small enough to feed them, because they start feeding exogenously just two days after hatching! 

These are whelk capsules: beige-colored, vase-shaped gelatinous "cups" that contain not only a dozen or so whelk embryos but also hundreds of nurse eggs. The nurse eggs are food for the embryos as they develop into juveniles inside the capsule. Then they emerge as 1 mm baby whelks and crawl away to live in the real world--or in this case, in my tank. 

Now that I have this awesomeness going on, I'll promptly forget about it for another few months and see if the babies hatch! If only kitties and puppies were this easy to raise. One more reason to study invertebrates. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Checkered snail

Yesterday, I was helping a fellow graduate student replace the recruitment collectors she had drilled to the rocks just outside the marine lab. The purpose of these is to collect the very tiny mussel larvae that would be settling on the rock to begin their development into adults. The collectors are small dish sponges called tuffys, about six inches in diameter, and we replaced five of them just below the mussel beds she is studying. 

A tuffy dish scrubber. Image from Google images.

Changing the tuffys wasn't the cool part, though (okay, it was kinda cool, but not the subject of this post). After we were done, we explored the local intertidal area a bit, trying to identify all the species present. I am still so overwhelmed by the diversity of organisms in this habitat. I had an eye out for whelks, of course, and we found a few with some nice stripes, as they usually have. After looking a bit closer, though, we found a snail with the coolest design I have ever seen! Instead of stripes, it had checkers! 

According to the PISCO* intertidal experts, this snail is Littorina scutulata. Now, I will always be on the lookout for snails with checkers!

*Partnership for the Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Comprehensive Exam

As a graduate student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz, when I take a class, I never have to take a test. There are no midterms or final exams. We don't even get graded. It's a self-motivated student's dream! Instead of learning in order to receive a good grade, we learn them to increase our personal knowledge and improve our own research.

We also learn in order to pass the most important exam we'll ever take. It is quite literally a final exam; there are no more exams after the Comprehensive Exam.

This upper room is where I took my Comprehensive Exam orals on Tuesday, October 28 at noon.

Preparing and taking the Comprehensive Exam happens in four main parts:

(1) Forming the committee of professors who will deliver the exam. In Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, this includes one ecologist, one evolutionary biologist, one study system specialist, and one scientist whose specialty you get to choose. These members assign you books and papers to read for the exam.

(2) Reading and studying the material assigned by the committee. This takes anywhere from two to four months and is extremely time consuming.

(3) Taking the written portion of the exam. You have four days to answer the questions the committee members ask of you. Answer one set per day.

(4) Being orally examined. This is distinct from dental care, because instead of opening up for someone to poke around inside your mouth, your committee members poke around in your head, trying to figure out the breadth and depth of your knowledge. Also unlike the dentist, this lasts about 2.5 hours, eating junk food is encouraged, and there is no relaxing fish tank. After the first hour of questioning, there is a ten minute break in in which the committee members deliberate in your absence. After twiddling your thumbs outside the room, you are allowed to reenter and continue to be drilled on things you've studied and things you may know nothing about, like banana slugs or corn refuges. After another hour, you leave, and they decide if you pass. When you reenter the room the second time, you are either greeted with furrowed brows or congratulations.

Can you guess with which I was greeted?! :D

In case you can't, I'll tell you: I passed unconditionally, meaning I proved to my committee I understood as much as any Ph.D. student should about ecology, evolution, my study system (intertidal), and behavioral ecology. It is an enormous relief to be done; now I can focus on applying for grants and getting collection permits so I can start my own experiments!

Here are some memorable questions I was asked:

Are banana slugs hermaphrodites? (Yes.)

What does this picture mean in the context of evolution in metapopulations?

(Plant a refuge crop of corn that is not genetically modified to have insect resistance, otherwise the insects will quickly evolve resistance to the modified corn.)

What else eats sea urchins? (California sheephead!)

Monday, October 6, 2014


Here is a picture of whelks in the lab. There may be as many as three species here--it's very hard to tell them apart without a genetic analysis. As you can see, there is a lot of variation in their shell color. The one in the upper right is on a mussel--probably drilling through its shell to eat it!

The three species are all in the genus Nucella: emarginata, ostrina, and canaliculata. The mussel is Mytilus californianus. In the bottom photo, can you see the soft white foot of the whelks below their shells? Look for their antennae, too. There is one whelk with two hitchhikers--limpets that have stuck themselves to the whelk's shell for a free ride. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Once a Kayak Guide, Always a Kayak Guide

Did I tell you I figured out how to get paid to kayak again? This time in Santa Cruz!

Since I don't get summers off from school anymore and I couldn't move to San Juan Island and kayak there again, I got a job as a kayak guide with a small company on the Santa Cruz Wharf.

View from the wharf of the dock where we launch the kayaks.

Even compared to the San Juans, working in Santa Cruz is totally fantastic. It's a great job with great people and very diverse and exciting marine life. On every tour, I lead the group along the one-half-mile-long wharf, then around it and to the kelp forest just off lighthouse point. There, we see snails, sea otters, and the occasional kelp or decorator crab. Recently there were by-the-wind sailors (Velella velella) with their bright-blue tentacles floating on the surface, but their presence was quite ephemeral--just a few days later only their clear membranes remained tangled in the kelp canopy. There are always California sea lions and harbor seals, and it's not too rare to see pods of dolphins and harbor porpoises. We even came close to a grey whale once! 

Today, I helped lead a tour in Moss Landing, which is about 30 minutes south of Santa Cruz. This was exclusively a whale watching tour, because humpback whales are feeding in Moss Landing a lot this time of year. Since it was foggy, we heard the whales calling and breathing at the surface before seeing them swiftly emerge from the fog, swimming and diving past us.

After seeing the whales, we sailed and paddled into Elkhorn Slough. There are dozens of different birds there, including brown and white pelicans, three species of cormorants, grebes, gulls, and godwits. I am very lucky to live in and be able to fully enjoy such an enriching place. Come visit me sometime!

A kayak tour with my Ecology and Evolutionary Biology cohort. I was only
mildly reprimanded for bringing 12 friends on a private tour in the middle
of a busy Saturday afternoon. Woops.

Humpbacks in Moss Landing.

Sailing into Elkhorn Slough.

A double-crested cormorant about to take flight.

Brown pelicans in Elkhorn Slough. I liked to see them stretching their necks
because they are so long and fleshy! 

Mostly, the job is great because I get to share beautiful marine life with people who haven't seen it before or just don't know much about it. It's very easy to inspire a sense of appreciation in people for the ocean when they get to see, hear, feel, taste, and (usually unfortunately) smell it all around them. I love this job because it is so much bigger than me. 

I wanted to post about that since the only other thing I've been doing recently is studying for my comprehensive exam. I'm sure I'll have something to say about that after I take it in late October. 
Bye for now!

A sample of what I am reading for my comprehensive exam.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Update to new research project

I think I finally know what I'm going to study for the next five years. Check out the "Research Interests" page for more details!

To entice you to read what's in that page, here's a picture I took June 17, 2014 in Oregon of my study system:

Here you can see whelks surrounded by their food, barnacles and mussels. Not a bad way to live!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

New research project

My new research project involves examining local adaptation in the intertidal snail Nucella canaliculata. I am interested in examining how it is locally adapted to its mussel prey and seawater pH. I hope to identify adaptive traits and quantify their genetic basis. My study sites will be along the west coast of the US. I will of course post more details on this when I have written a formal proposal. I'm excited!

Here is a picture from Sanford and Worth 2009 of the Nucella canaliculata with its egg mass:

I'll need help with field work starting in about a year, so if you are interested in looking through some rocky intertidal habitats, keep it in the back of your mind, and I will ask for formal help when the time comes. 

Paper reference: Sanford, E., and D. J. Worth. 2009. Genetic differences among populations of a marine snail drive geographic variation in predation. Ecology 90:3108–18.

Friday, April 25, 2014

New study system ideas

Someone at UC Santa Barbara has basically already done my sheephead project, but she hasn't published anything on it yet, so I didn't know until I emailed her. I should probably switch study systems! Follow the link to this google presentation about my ideas for a new study system.

Plastic fast--the last few weeks

Happy Easter!
That means my new plastic fast is over. Here are my results and reflections.

Though I haven't posted about it every week, I've certainly been trying to avoid plastic the whole time. I got to the point where there are things I need that I was just waiting to buy until the plastic fast was over. Overall, I wasn't able to totally avoid plastic, but I got better as the fast went on.

  • Things I needed that normally come with new plastic: SCUBA gear, ground flaxseed, cheap coconut oil
  • Things I bought that have new plastic (if any; hopefully this will be none): Stickers on fruit, an underwater compass, half of a diving manual (I split the cost with a friend), a small bag of crystallized ginger (I couldn't resist), a racing number to pin to my shirt.
  • Things I bought in plastic-free form: another strainer and a whisk.
  • Things I did to avoid buying new plastic: I refilled old flour containers, I didn't buy prepackaged food, and I've still been making my own bread like crazy.
  • Things with new plastic that were given to me: a half marathon finisher shirt (well, I guess I paid for it when I registered).
  • Plastic things I politely rejected: none.
  • People who learned about my plastic fast (optional): maybe people who read my blog.
  • What was the hardest part of my fast this week?: buying SCUBA gear. Does any of it come plastic-free? 
  • What was the easiest part of my fast this week?: buying fresh food. 
  • What can I not find a non-plastic alternative for, and can I give up this item entirely?: SCUBA gear, cheap coconut oil. I cannot give up SCUBA gear if I want to keep diving, but I can give up cheap coconut oil and buy more expensive oil in a glass jar.

Here's all the plastic trash (and a bit of non-plastic trash) I used during the fast. I didn't want to dump it out so you can see each item, but at least you can get an idea of volume. It's a paper-grocery-bag full. On top are some old plastic produce bags I had from before the fast, and they make up for the things I forgot to keep.

I learned from this fast that single-use plastics are the easier to avoid, while durable plastic items are sometimes impossible to avoid (for example, when buying SCUBA gear). Since the everyone else thinks plastic is a safe and useful material, it is extremely difficult to avoid it entirely. The most striking observation I made about plastic is how much food comes in really cheap plastic. This is why I lived off the fresh produce and bulk sections of New Leaf.  Unfortunately, all the bulk foods are stored in plastic bins. 

Another striking observation I made was how useful plastic is when backpacking. Storing food in plastic bags one of the best ways to pack food for backpacking trips because plastic bags are super lightweight and collapse-able. It was really hard to plan for my trip without plastic.

Now that the official fast is over, I plan to continue avoiding single-use plastic, but I'm not going to try quite as hard to avoid those durable plastic things I need (like SCUBA gear). In fact, I will probably buy my usual 54 oz. plastic jar of coconut oil as soon as I get paid next month. This is because it's 50% cheaper than what I can get in glass, and I struggle with money for food (probably largely due to my dietary choices). But once I'm being paid like a middle-class American and 51% of my income doesn't go toward paying rent, I will buy only plastic-free coconut oil.

I hope you are inspired to think about your use of plastic! To conclude, here's a picture of what I might study instead of California sheephead. I'll post about how my project is changing later.

Owl limpet Lottia gigantea. Photo by me this year.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Toxicity of all plastic

I stumbled upon this while looking for examples for a class assignment. This table is a good reminder of why I am giving up new plastic. These effects were all familiar to me, but it's good to see them again to keep me really motivated to continue avoiding plastic.

Why do we believe that plastic is safe?

Table from

Friday, April 4, 2014

Plastic fast weeks 2--4

It's been a crazy three weeks, and a lot happened that required me to buy some new plastic. See below.

  • Things I needed that normally come with new plastic: Most of the things below.
  • Things I bought that have new plastic (if any; hopefully this will be none): Fuel for a backpacking stove, the label on some iodine tablets, a waterproof map, the lids to glass food containers, part of a paper bag of pasta (why do they have to put a little plastic window in it?), stickers on stainless steel kitchen utensils, Italian sausage (for my boyfriend), a waterproof bird ID field guide, food-to-go containers with plastic silverware (how horrible!), fruit and vegetable stickers, tags on clothing, the pot that came with a tomato plant.
  • Things I bought in plastic-free form: a strainer, food storage containers, plant pots.
  • Things I did to avoid buying new plastic: I refilled a glass peanut butter jar and put produce directly into my backpack. I buy bulk soap. I bought a used bread machine so I never have to buy bread in plastic bags again. I have also been working on growing my own food plants, and started a compost pile so I won't have to buy as much potting soil for my new garden, although it will be several months or years until I get soil from my compost. 
  • Things with new plastic that were given to me: The lid to a jar of homemade maple syrup, a notebook with a plastic snap, a magnet with a plastic picture of a sea otter.
  • Plastic things I politely rejected: The plastic bag some homemade granola came in, but that's about it. I wasn't about to reject the maple syrup my friend from upstate New York spent weeks making, tapping maple trees and boiling the sap, and the notebook and magnet were a gift for graduating my volunteer course, which inspired this plastic fast. I really have a hard time rejecting gifts.
  • People who learned about my plastic fast (optional): my visiting friends, my lab group, and visitors to my lab group.
  • What was the hardest part of my fast this week?: buying food for my visitors and supplies for backpacking. Also paying so much for soap is annoying, even though it smells divine. It's $22.24 per pound! I should look for cheaper bulk soap.
  • What was the easiest part of my fast this week?: buying fresh food. 
  • What can I not find a non-plastic alternative for, and can I give up this item entirely?: I have never seen a bread machine without a plastic exterior, but I haven't looked. Even if I found one, I wouldn't be able to afford it. Also, all salad spinners have plastic.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Fellowship application results

Recent news in my research life: I heard back from two fellowships I applied for! I got really good reviews, but I was awarded neither. These were the Nancy Foster Scholarship and the National Science Foundation Graduate Student Research Fellowship. I'm still waiting to hear back from one more fellowship I applied for, and you can count on me posting about it when I know. Peace!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Plastic fast: Week 1 Summary

Plastic fast update! I will work on making these more visually appealing. Here's an unrelated picture for now!

Orcas! Sept. 2013

  • Things I needed that normally come with new plastic: nothing
  • Things I bought that have new plastic (if any; hopefully this will be none): fruit with stickers. This seems to be pretty unavoidable unless I take off all the stickers at the store, but that's not saving any plastic.
  • Things I bought in plastic-free form: salad tossers, spatula, colander, camping plate
  • Things I did to avoid buying new plastic: I bought material at Goodwill to make produce bags, so I don't have to use those plastic bags to buy bulk items!
  • Things with new plastic that were given to me: sandwich, retractable clothes line
  • Plastic things I politely rejected: I'm going to reject the clothes line
  • People who learned about my plastic fast (optional): my boyfriend
  • What was the hardest part of my fast this week?: accepting the retractable clothes line knowing that it was wrapped in and made of plastic, then realizing I'm going to have to politely reject it
  • What was the easiest part of my fast this week?: buying food
  • What can I not find a non-plastic alternative for, and can I give up this item entirely?: food processor. Um, I'll keep looking, but I would eat significantly less healthy food if I didn't have a food processor. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Plastic Fast

The best way to appreciate something is to let it go. Don't it always seem to go that we don't know what we've got 'til it's gone?*

Image from

Ash Wednesday, March 5th this year, marks the beginning of the Catholic season of Lent. During Lent, we remember that life is challenging and people suffer. We also remember that our human sinfulness often keeps us from happiness and distances us from God. Catholics often give up something during Lent to remind them not to get too comfortable in their lifestyles, and to break habits that cause us and others to suffer.

People usually give up things that are personally physically or emotionally unhealthy, like smoking, junk food, or TV. In the past, I've given up chocolate (several times), complaining, and cracking my knuckles. I've also done extra things like devoting more time to prayer and reading scripture. One year I wrote a letter of appreciation to a different person every day of Lent. At the end of the six weeks I had over forty letters and I mailed them all out. I got a lot of wonderful response letters that I still have in my room.

I think what you give up for Lent is even more meaningful if it benefits others. That brings me to this year:

I will give up plastic.

There are lots of reasons to avoid plastic, and the most important for me are that it's harmful for human health and land, sea, and air. No matter how safe it seems, plastic is full of really unhealthy compounds that disrupt normal biological functions. Plus, plastic lasts forever. So as we keep making it, the Earth is becoming fuller and fuller of plastic. I repeat: each day, the Earth is made up of more plastic. That's not okay with me. By giving up plastic, I am not contributing to this linear process and helping keep the Earth a safe place for all Life. I believe that Life is an irreplaceable gift from God, and my love of God and all creation, including you, my reader, compels me to take care of it not for my sake or God's sake alone, but also for your sake, Mosquito's sake, Poison ivy's sake, diatoms' sakes, and the sake of everything that ever has or ever will incorporates into itself that molecule of carbon dioxide you just exhaled.

I have to make rules for my plastic fast so I can reach my goals:
1. I will not buy plastic. This includes packaging.
2. I will not use anything newly purchased that is made of plastic. This includes newly purchased food items that came in plastic wrapping.
3. I will not accept plastic items given to me.
4. If I do somehow end up getting plastic, I will keep it for the duration of the fast and take a picture of it on Easter.
5. I can use long-lasting plastic items I already have (i.e. my computer and my refrigerator), but if I find an affordable non-plastic alternative, I will buy and use that and discard of the plastic item.
6. I will write about my experience in this blog. That includes updates to the rules.
7. If anyone buys a non-plastic alternative item and tell me how much the plastic version cost, I will donate that much in my rice bowl.
8. I will structure my posts in the following way:
  • Week number:
  • Things I needed that normally come with new plastic:
  • Things I bought that have new plastic (if any; hopefully this will be none):
  • Things I bought in plastic-free form:
  • Things I did to avoid buying new plastic:
  • Things with new plastic that were given to me:
  • Plastic things I politely rejected:
  • People who learned about my plastic fast (optional): so far, most of my facebook friends.
  • What was the hardest part of my fast this week?:
  • What was the easiest part of my fast this week?:
  • What can I not find a non-plastic alternative for, and can I give up this item entirely?:
I am excited to see what challenges I encounter. I know plastic is ubiquitous in my life. Already I am noticing I am running out of spices that I bought in plastic containers, and I'm wondering if I will have to eat bland food for the next six weeks.

I appreciate your support and comments. Please send me your ideas for plastic-free alternatives, and I challenge you to spend just one day not buying or using anything plastic!

Peace and Love!

Image from

*I realize now that two-liner intro isn't totally applicable to the rest of this post. It implies that I'm going to appreciate plastic more once I've given it up, but there isn't much if anything about plastic to appreciate. I'll leave the intro there anyway because it's sorta catchy and I don't want to write another one. :D

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Año Nuevo State Park

As part of my Seymour Center docent training, I went with the other volunteers to Año Nuevo State Park to experience the rookery of elephant seals.

Map of Año Nuevo from

A sign near the visitor's center.

View from a trail.

Año Nuevo State Park is close to Santa Cruz, only about 30 miles north on Hwy 1. Normally, visitors must schedule a guided tour of the rookery if they want to see the seals, because the seals don't care much about visitor safety. They are on the beach once a year to give birth and breed from about December to March (excluding March). During this time, they don't eat or drink, and the males try to gain control of a harem of females in which to obtain mates. This system is actually beneficial for the females, because the dominant male defends her from other males that may harass her.

My favorite facts I learned while at the park were about weight: when mothers feed their pups milk for a few weeks, the moms lose about 200 lbs and the pups gain about 200 lbs! Then the moms leave for the rest of the year to eat back their weight, and the pups stay on the beach for two months while their bodies process all the fat they just gained until they are ready to swim.

We learned a lot about the research being done through UCSC under scientist Dr. Colleen Reichmuth and colleagues. They are trying to understand how the seals communicate vocally, and were on the beach with us recording seal sounds. I can't share the pictures I took of the seals unless it is education-related, so if you learned something from the above paragraphs, email me and I can send you a cool picture or two that you should not share publicly.

*Update: I have since helped Dr. Dan Costa's lab members weigh the weaned pups on the beach. Their research is focused on the life history and feeding ecology of the seals. There were hundreds of them at the beach, looking like sacs of blubber and making cute, guttural screaming noises. Some of them were farther up in the shrubs chewing on leaves. When we would walk by to check their flippers, they would throw their heads back to let out a baby scream and reveal bright green foliage inside their hot pink-colored mouths. We weighed, tagged, and measured them from 7 to 10 am.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Catholic Evolutionary Ecologist

Before I begin, a few basics:
1. I am a practicing Catholic
2. I am studying for a PhD in Ecology and Evolution
3. This post reflects only my own personal opinions and ideas

Due to these two facts, I have been confronted at least once (and this one time I am thinking of was a very serious and prolonged encounter) about how I can reconcile being Catholic, i.e. believing in intelligent design, and believing in evolution. When this encounter happened, I didn't know how to respond because it never occurred to me that these ideas must conflict and that this should elicit a prolonged discussion.

There are innumerable ideas regarding the relationship between intelligent design and the origin of life on Earth. I would like to write a detailed report on this topic, but I don't have time for that. Instead, I would like to report my opinion.

My Feelings on the Interaction between the Ideas of Intelligent Design and Evolution
The popularized idea of intelligent design is that one day there were no biological organisms, and then the next day* God created them all. The popularized idea of evolution is that one day* there was no Earth and the next day BANG!, there it was, and billions of years later, atoms eventually arranged themselves in multicellular organisms.

Image from

Image from

The problem with these popular ideas is that they appear to be mutually exclusive. This is a similar problem to one in the medieval times when astronomy was being well-studied in Catholic institutions in order to learn more about God and Heaven. People were seeking theological knowledge through science to support their belief that Earth was the center of the universe. However, in this process they found evidence that Earth revolved around the Sun. Since this was contrary to the theology at the time, and the idea was largely rejected.

Hundreds of years later, this fact is common knowledge and not a single well-respected theologian contests it. Somehow, despite biblical verses that suggest otherwise, Christians accepted an alternate explanation of the universe. In fact, Pope John Paul II apologized for the lifetime house arrest imposed on Galileo in 1655 for disseminating his at the time outrageous astronomical research.

Is it because the astronomical facts were logical and clear, and simply couldn't be denied? Is it because this fact did not fundamentally challenge Christian beliefs, but more of a traditional way of thinking?

Image from

This story parallels that of the origin of evolutionary biology. Charles Darwin, an aspiring pastor, was interested in God's creation and set off on a boat to study it scientifically. This pursuit led him to observe changes in the beaks of birds over time, which led to his theory of natural selection. (Lucky for Darwin, he wasn't condemned to house arrest as a result of his research.) I don't believe he went so far as to suggest that all life on Earth began this way from a single cell, and as my Evolutionary Ecology professor put it in class today, his work On the Origin of Species perhaps would have better been named On the Origin of Local Adaptation because local adaptation is what Darwin was witnessing, not complete speciation. However, as more ecologists and geneticists studied how organisms change, such a theory of the origin of life became inevitable.

Currently, at least in the United States, this theory is contested by those that believe literally in the Biblical creation story. Does resistance to this evolutionary idea reflect a challenge to a fundamental Christian truth or a traditional way of thinking? If this resistance prevents further understanding about God's creation, is it worth it?

Just as modern astronomy can coexist with the Christian belief system, so can modern ecology and evolution. Christianity can continue to be a wonderful and enriching way of living even if humans evolved from primates. (For the record, modern Catholicism, which is quite liberal if you ask me, does not deny that humans evolved from primates.) I think both the popularized ideas of intelligent design and modern ecology can be taken too literally. Intelligent design doesn't have to exclude the process of evolution, and evolution doesn't have to be so random; I would argue that intelligent design has to include evolution, and evolution can't be totally random.

Perhaps in a hundred years or so, no well-respected theologian will deny the evolution of life from a single cell. Or perhaps scientists will find evidence for another theory of the origin of life. Either way, there is no reason why our observations about the world should contradict religious beliefs or vice versa.

If you ask me, the apparent conflict between Christianity and Evolution is a an excellent way to miss a lot of really important things in life.

Image from

*The word "day" is not used to imply a 24-hour period, since before Earth and the Sun were created there were no 24-hour days as we now know them. It is used as an nondescript measure of time.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Sound of Doom

In Douglas Adam's book Life, the Universe, and Everything, part of his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (HGG) series, the sound of one hundred thousand people saying "wop" is a very important and ominous onomatopoeia*:

What happened next they could not ignore. With a noise like a hundred thousand people saying "wop", a steely white spaceship suddenly seemed to create itself out of nothing in the air directly above the cricket pitch and hung there with infinite menace and a slight hum.

Such is the sound of the landing of the warship of a race of people who want to destroy the entire universe. This onomatopoeia is brilliant, because it is a sound we can imagine and conceive of recreating, yet no one has heard it.

I am dying to know how it sounds. 

How much like the word "wop" would it actually sound? Would it be so loud that I would need to cover my ears? Would it startle me? Does it sound like anything I have ever heard before? Can I imagine more than 20 people saying this word? Can I get 20 of my friends to say the word for me simultaneously? Can my ears detect the difference between 100 and 100,000 people saying "wop" at the same time? These questions buzz through my head day after day and keep me up at night.

Fortunately, I am not the only one. Other readers of HGG are also plagued by the same unknowing, and we need your help (and the help of 99,998 others (I already contributed))! The site below is a "wop" project.

With your voice, we will someday hear the sound of 100,000 people saying "wop," and cure our insomnia. All you need to do is use your computer's sound recording software or download Audacity and record yourself casually saying "wop" with a few seconds before and after you say it (no need to shout it). Then email it to, and, as an added bonus, CC me in the email so I can hear your "wop!" That would make me giggle.

Just imagine what a great ringtone it will make!

Here's another "wop" project on a website dedicated to HGG craziness. However, I was unable to upload my "wop" file to this site, so I suggest submitting to the first site I mentioned.

Zaphod stopped stomping. He had been stomping around the Heart of Gold for days, and so far no door had said 'wop' to him. He was fairly certain that no door had said "wop" to him now. It was not the sort of thing doors said. Too concise. Furthermore, there were not enough doors. It sounded as if a hundred thousand people had said "wop," which puzzled him because he was the only person on the ship.

It was dark. Most of the ship's non-essential systems were closed down. It was drifting in a remote area of the Galaxy, deep in the inky blackness of space. So which particular hundred thousand people would turn up at this point and say a totally unexpected "wop?"

He listened but could hear nothing.
All there had been was the "wop."
It seemed an awfully long way to bring an awfully large number of people just to say one word.

There was a sad and terrible pause at this point in the conversation during which a hundred thousand people seemed unexpectedly to say "wop" and a team of white robots descended from the sky like dandelion seeds drifting on the wind in tight military formation. For a sudden violent moment they were all there, in the swamp, wrenching Marvin's false leg off, and then they were gone again in their ship, which said "foop."

"A Rory. It's just a small silver thing set on a large black base. What did you say?"
"I didn't say anything. I was just about to ask what the silver ...'"
"Oh, I thought you said 'wop'. "
"Said what?"

Hear the sound of 11 people saying "wop" (downloads an mp3).

*"Wop" is not intended as a racial slur, and in some American versions of this English book, it is spelled "whop."