Catching Fire: The double-edged chef’s knife

In Victorian England, the aesthetic writer John Ruskin argued that household labor was divided harmoniously and that women were superior to men. He credited women with greater organizational skills than men and explained that women were therefore better at managing households. But to philosopher John Stuart Mill, it was obvious that women were treated unfairly. Ruskin’s gallantry, he said, was “an empty compliment … since there is no other situation in life in which it is the established order, and considered quite natural and suitable, that the better should obey the worse. If this piece of talk is good for anything, it is only as an admission by men, of the corrupting influence of power.”

Mill’s accusation that Victorian British men used power to their own advantage might be applied equally well to all nonindustrial societies. The women living on Vanatinai had as much control over their lives as in any society. They were not regarded as inferior to men, and in the public realm they were not subject to male authority. But even when they were tired and men were relaxing, they still had to cook. [Anthropologist] Maria Lepowsky does not report what would have happened if a woman had refused to cook, but among hunter-gatherers who are similarly egalitarian, husbands are liable to beat wives if the evening meal is merely late or poorly cooked. When there is a conflict, most women have no choice: they have to cook, because cultural rules, ultimately enforced by men for their own benefit, demand it

The idea that cooking led to our pair-bonds suggests a worldwide irony. Cooking brought huge nutritional benefits. But for women, the adoptions of cooking has also led to a major increase in their vulnerability to male authority. Men were the greater beneficiaries. Cooking freed women’s time and fed their children, but it also trapped women into a newly subservient role enforced by male-dominated culture. Cooking created and perpetuated a novel system of male cultural superiority. It is not a pretty picture.

—Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

This is one of the most depressing chapters I’ve read in a while. Up until this point I was enjoying the idea that cooking made us human, that it shaped our bodies and brains to be what they are today. But the idea that cooking also made us patriarchal is decidedly uncomfortable, especially since I am on the receiving end of that patriarchy. I am fortunate to live in a time and place where I don’t need a husband to guard my food (or books!) from marauders, but men still do make most of the decisions in the world, and let’s just say that there is some room for improvement there. I can only hope that we will continue to evolve in the direction of equality so that we can all enjoy being human.

Catching Fire: Men, Women, and Cooking

This may explain why I’m not keen on either marriage or cooking:

Relying on cooked food creates opportunities for cooperation, but just as important, it exposes cooks to being exploited. Cooking takes time, so lone cooks cannot easily guard their wares from determined thieves such as hungry males without their own food. Pair-bonds solve the problem. Having a husband ensures that a woman’s gathered foods will not be taken by others; having a wife ensures the man will have an evening meal. According to this idea, cooking created a simple marriage system; or perhaps it solidified a preexisting version of married life that could have been prompted by hunting or sexual competition. Either way, the result was a primitive protection racket in which husbands used their bonds with other men in the community to protect their wives from being robbed, and women returned the favour by preparing their husbands’ meals. The many beneficial aspects of the household, such as provisioning by males, increases in labor efficiency, and creating of a social network for child-rearing, were additions consequent to solving the more basic problem: females needed male protection, specifically because of cooking. A male used his social power both to ensure that a female did not lose her food, and to guarantee his own meal by assigning to work of cooking to the female.

—Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

A while back I read a book that argued that our bodies our designed to run. This book argues that our bodies are designed to eat cooked food. Both theories seem to be correct, but it’s the cooking that would have made the running possible. Cooking dramatically increases the energy we can get from food, and this allowed our early ancestors to downsize their jaws and intestines in favour of growing bigger brains. It also cuts down on chewing time (our primate cousins spend much of the day just chewing raw food) which frees up time for chasing animals across the veldt. Of course one must cook on the ground, and it may be fire that encouraged us to leave the trees in the first place by making it safe to live on the ground full-time. From there it was just an evolutionary hop, skip, and jump to standing, walking, and running.

The trade-off for the technological miracle of cooking seems to be the subjugation of half of the species. Women are responsible for daily household cooking in nearly every culture ever studied, past and present, even though there is no biological reason for it. The division of labour in this case seems to be, as Wrangham so aptly puts it, a protection racket. “Cook for me and there won’t be any trouble.” Apparently it was an offer our foremothers could not refuse, and to this day women in every society are burdened with the vast majority of the cooking and other household work. What is amazing is that after nearly 2 million years of evolution, in every culture from the Kalahari to downtown Tokyo, women still know it’s a raw deal. Perhaps it’s time to renegotiate?

Biodiversity of Mexico 2010

It’s down to the wire with my 2010 reading challenges and I must confess that I haven’t done very well on either of them. I blame Twitter and soccer! But there is still time to salvage something before the new year, and I started with the Species of the Mexican Bicentennial (which conveniently combines both challenges!). It is a web companion to a special 2010 wall calendar that features plants and animals that have some connection to Romerolagus diazi - Volcano rabbitMexico’s centennial and bicentennial, mainly by virtue of being named after important historical figures. Many of them are endangered, such as the adorable volcano rabbit (Romerolagus diazi). This tiny rabbit lives only on the volcanoes near Mexico City, and has been decimated by habitat destruction and attempts by farmers to eradicate them. There are two national parks in their range but even there they are not entirely safe because of lack of enforcement. Killing them anywhere is now illegal and so their numbers are rebounding slowly, but their habitat continues to shrink.

One doesn’t often think of desert plants as being endangered, but there are two endangered cacti on the calendar, including the pretty artichoke cactus (Obregonia dengrii). This plant has been over-harvested for the horticultural trade (it is a popular garden plant in arid zones) and also as a remedy for rheumatism. Obregonia dengrii - artichoke cactusIt is now protected by law both nationally and internationally, and there is hope that a proposed nature reserve will help reverse its rapid decline.

The Species of the Mexican Bicentennial is only a tiny sampling of Mexico’s biodiversity. Mexico is one of 12 “megadiverse” countries and is home to more than 10% of the world’s species, including 45% of cacti and 75% of agaves. The IUCN lists nearly 1000 vulnerable or endangered species in Mexico, and those are only the ones we know about. You don’t need to go to the Amazon to see amazing biodiversity, there is still much to discover right in our own back yard.

Species of the Mexican Bicentennial

Viva Natura – Biodiversity of Mexico

IUCN Red List

UNAM: Año Internacional de la Biodiversidad (UNAM, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, is also celebrating its centennial this year.)

CONABIO: Biodiversidad Mexicana

Species of the Mexican Bicentennial

International Year of Biodiversity Reading Challenge

International Year of Biodiversity 2010

Welcome to the International Year of Biodiversity! This year is dedicated to celebrating the world’s biodiversity and making progress on the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which was established at the 1992 Rio “Earth Summit.” The Convention on Biological Diversity, which has been signed by almost every country in the world (*cough* USA *cough*), has three main goals:

  1. To conserve biological diversity
  2. The use biological diversity in a sustainable fashion
  3. To share the benefits of biological diversity fairly and equitably

The parties to the Convention decided to make 2010 their deadline for achieving a “significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss,” and so this year was declared the International Year of Biodiversity.

As a biologist, I naturally couldn’t let this international year go by without putting together a reading challenge for it! By learning more about biodiversity we can better appreciate its value and do more to ensure its protection at home and around the world. To that end I’ve put together a selection of reading challenges for this year:

Basic: 3 books on any biodiversity topic.

Biomes: 3 books about major world ecosystems: open ocean; coral reefs; lakes and rivers; arctic tundra; boreal forests; temperate forests; tropical forests; savannah; grassland/steppe/ deserts.

Branches: 3 books on different life forms: plants; fungi; invertebrates (including insects); reptiles and amphibians; birds; mammals.

Bye-bye: 2 books about endangered or extinct species or about extinction or conservation.

Back yard: Buy 2 or more field guides to your local flora & fauna and get to know your neighbours.

Biodiversity Bonanza: One of each of the above!

I’ve also devised some “field trips” to get you closer to your subject:

Level 1—Indoorsy: Visit a natural history museum or watch a documentary series on biodiversity (e.g. Planet Earth)

Level 2—Outdoorsy: Take a guided walk or hike in a local park. Check park system websites for schedules.

Level 3—Full Granola: Design your own field trip to go birding, botanizing, field-journaling, or whatever you like. Alternatively, join a local natural history club, or take a course in natural history online or at a college or community centre.

To make all this easier I’ve gathered together some helpful resources here, and will be adding to them throughout the year as I make more discoveries. Just below are a number of web resources on the International Year of Biodiversity and biodiversity in general. Further down I’ve posted a collection of suggested books for the reading challenges. I haven’t read them all myself but I tried to pick out titles that come highly recommended. Suggestions are welcome!

If you’d like to participate in this challenge, I have created a badge for your blog, available in various sizes at the bottom of this post. Leave a comment if you intend to participate so I can follow your bio-adventures. I do hope you’ll join me on this very special and important challenge!


Global Initiatives:

International Year of Biodiversity

Convention on Biological Diversity

Countdown 2010

International Day for Biological Diversity —May 22

Biodiversity Indicators Partnership

International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

United Nations Environment Program: Biodiversity

Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)

Biodiversity Information:

Tree of Life web project

NatureServe (US & Canada)

Canadian Biodiversity Information Network

Viva Natura (Mexico)

InfoNatura (Latin America & Caribbean)

European Nature Information System

European Centre for Nature Conservation

ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity

African Biodiversity Network

For Young People:

Biodiversity 911

Natural History

Kamana Naturalist Training Program

Biodiversity Reading Challenge 2010 Biodiversity Reading Challenge 2010

Biodiversity Reading Challenge 2010 Biodiversity Reading Challenge 2010


Stefanie at So Many Books


Kristen at BookNAround

Eva at A Striped Armchair

Lynda at Lynda’s Book Blog

Heather at The Library Ladder


Christy at A Good Stopping Point

Gavin at Page247

Andi at Andi lit

Kristine at Wild Oak Academy

chicory cottage

Caroline at Uh, Yeah, I Have A Blog (love that blog title!)

Jenn at Once Upon A Time…


International Year of Astronomy Wrap-up

International Year of Astronomy 2009 For us poor creatures stuck in Newtonian reality, time marches steadfastly in one direction only, and that means the International Year of Astronomy must end. For me this global event has been an unqualified success and a complete delight. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about our Universe in the past year and had a great time doing it. The worldwide community of astronomers really rose to the occasion and developed a wide variety of innovative public programs. One of my favourites was Around the World in 80 Telescopes, a 24-hour live webcast from observatories all around the world during which astronomers showed what they’re working on right now. If you missed it you can click on the link and watch the segments on demand.

Another project of the IYA was to develop an inexpensive, quality telescope to make astronomy accessible to all. The Galileoscope was modelled after Galileo’s own invention, but has improved optics and is light and portable. Through their give-one-get-one program people could donate a discounted Galileoscope to an underprivileged school somewhere in the world while ordering one for themselves. The program has been so successful that they have had trouble keeping up with orders, but they plan to continue the program through 2010 and beyond so it’s not too late to get or give a Galileoscope.

The grass roots nature of the IYA really came out in the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. A call was put out for astronomers to put together podcasts for the series and the result has been outstanding and incredibly diverse. Professional astronomers, amateur enthusiasts, students, writers, and artists of all ages presented informative and entertaining podcasts on every imaginable astronomical topic. I listen to the podcast almost every day and it has been great for reinforcing things I have learned elsewhere, and it rarely fails to make me laugh. Astronomers have a great sense of humour, which is evident from the podcast’s theme song (click on one of the podcasts to hear it). I was thrilled to find out that they plan to continue the podcast in 2010, so I can look forward to many more fascinating voyages through the Universe.

My other daily dose of astronomy came from the Astronomical Picture of the Day (APOD) website, which has been around for years but obviously has special significance this year. The night sky has no shortage of beautiful sights and that is the focus of The World at Night project. I could (and have) spent many happy hours browsing their spectacular photography of our shared sky. Alas, many of those sights are invisible in areas where there is a lot of wasteful outdoor lighting. That was the focus of the Dark Skies Awareness project, which ran education programs on proper outdoor lighting design to minimize light pollution and preserve night vision. Ironically, by destroying our night vision and obliterating the stars, outdoor lighting actually makes the night seem darker rather than lighter.

Astronomy isn’t just about sights, though, there are sounds too. There is a historical connection between astronomy in music, thanks to the ancient Greek theory that celestial bodies are arranged in much the same way that notes are arranged in a scale. Since then musicians, including Galileo himself, have been inspired by the heavens. This year in various countries concerts were presented on astronomical themes, with telescopes made available for stargazing during intermission. Canada’s own Tafelmusik put together a program of music and imagery called The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres, which can be heard on the CBC Concerts on Demand website. For a more scientific astronomical soundscape, check out the sound of the Big Bang. Yes, we know what the Big Bang sounded like, and it wasn’t a bang.

My own humble contribution to the IYA was the International Year of Astronomy Reading Challenge. How did everyone do? I read three densely-packed “Very Short Introductions,” The History of Astronomy, Galaxies, and Cosmology, as well as Benford & Brin’s Heart of the Comet for my dose of sci-fi. For my EVAs I went to an open-house at my local astronomical observatory, and spent some evenings trying out my Galileoscope with the help of Stellarium, an excellent, free planetarium program for navigating the night sky.

The International Year of Astronomy may be coming to an end, but that certainly won’t be the end of my astronomical adventures. I’ve just started listening to the audio version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in advance of watching 2010: The Year We Make Contact on New Year’s Day. I also want to read more about Galileo, and have just received the very daunting The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, which should take me at least all of 2010 to finish! There seems to be a mathematical equation on nearly every one of its 1100 pages, but it’s supposedly a book for the general public so I will give it a try. There are so many other great astronomy books I’d like to read too, so it looks like the astronomy year is going to turn into an astronomy decade! Well done, IYA!

Fox Fur, a Unicorn, and a Christmas Tree (NGC 2264)

Fox Fur, a Unicorn, and a Christmas Tree (NGC 2264). Source: APOD.

Galileo’s Instruments

“It was the summer of 1609 when on one of my trips to Venice, some startling news reached my ears. A spectacle maker in Holland had presented to Count Maurice of Nassau a glass, manufactured in such a way as to make distant objects appear very near, so that a man at the distance of two miles could be clearly seen. This seemed to me so marvellous an invention that I began to think about it. What if I could make such a device—only more powerful? It appeared to me to have a foundation in the science of perspective. Once again I turned to my lute for inspiration as I contemplated such an instrument.”

—Galileo Galilei, Sidereus Nuncius (via Galileo and His Lute)

Here is some lute music composed by Galileo’s brother, Michelangelo Galilei:

“Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction” by Peter Coles

Cosmology by Peter ColesCosmology: A Very Short IntroductionPeter Coles
Oxford University Press

This was the third and best of the astronomy-related Very Short Introductions I have read for my International Year of Astronomy Reading Challenge. Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction is well written and organized, and treats extremely difficult subjects in a very down to earth and sometimes humorous way. Relativity, particle physics, quantum mechanics, and the Big Bang are all presented in a way anyone can understand and see how they relate to cosmology, without getting into all the nasty mathematics.  But Peter Coles does more than explain the science of cosmology—the search to understand the nature, origins, and fate of the universe—he also shares some of the journeys science has taken towards understanding the universe. He shows how discoveries are built, one upon the other, how work in disparate fields can be brought together to find answers, and how the work of some scientists can be lost and forgotten, or recovered and brought forward. When he reaches the limits of knowledge, he doesn’t stop but describes some of the theories competing to make the next step forward.  That makes this an excellent book not just for teaching some basics of cosmology, but also teaching how science works.

There is just one little problem with this otherwise excellent book: it is out of date. In the mere 8 years since it was published, cosmologists have made phenomenal progress in substantiating some of the theories that Coles presents as mere possible alternatives. For instance we now know what the Universe is made of: 4% “baryonic” matter, of which we are made; 23% cold dark matter, which doesn’t do much other than gravitate; and 73% dark energy, which seems to gravitate in reverse. This adds up to a Universe that is geometrically “flat,” a concept that is difficult to explain but absolutely fundamental to cosmology. Most people have also heard by now that the Universe is expanding, and at an ever-increasing rate—thanks to dark energy. That answers another major question in cosmology, and has reduced the age of the Universe from an estimate of 15 billion years when this book was written to about 13.7 billion years.

The reason I know all this is because I had already read Galaxies: A Very Short Introduction, which describes these great discoveries at some length. At the time I criticized the book for straying off topic, but now I am glad of it because I might not have known about them otherwise. I don’t think I can overstate the importance of these discoveries—it is a privilege to be alive at a time when a picture of the whole universe, from beginning to end, is starting to come together. There is still the problem of the initial state of the Big Bang—as far as our theories can tell, it was a time (if time even existed then) of infinite density and infinite temperature, which is impossible—not to mention trying to figure out what the heck cold dark matter and dark energy are. But knowing the fundamental properties of the Universe—the “ΛCDM” or “standard” model—is, as the author of Galaxies puts it, “one of the great triumphs of science.” Hurrah for humans!

I would still recommend reading this book, but I would read it with, and before, Galaxies. The two books complement each other well, and by reading Cosmology first you set up a delicious mystery that gets solved, at least partially, in Galaxies. The two books together are a wild ride through all that is. I can only hope that both of them will soon be obsolete as we discover more about this amazing Universe of ours.

Galaxy M101 from the Hubble Space Telescope

The “Pinwheel Galaxy” (M101/NGC 5457) as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope.

“Galaxies: A Very Short Introduction” by John Gribbin

“Galaxies: A Very Short Introduction” by John GribbinGalaxies: A Very Short Introduction
John Gribbin
Oxford University Press

Galaxies was my second Very Short Introduction on astronomy, and I found it to be more of a challenge than the first. In fact I had to read it twice in order to get my head around some of the concepts. The book was rather inconsistent when it came to explaining astronomical terms and concepts—some are explained in the text, some are defined in the glossary, but others are not explained at all—and this made it hard to follow some of the discussion. I’ve filled some of the gaps serendipitously in the course of listening to the very entertaining 365 Days of Astronomy podcast daily, but it shouldn’t have to come to that with a book that purports to be an introduction for the average reader.

I did learn quite a lot from the book in spite of the occasional difficulties. The first section covers the history of the study of galaxies which is very recent, since it takes a powerful telescope to distinguish the individual stars in a galaxy. It was not until the 1920s that Edwin Hubble, working with the largest telescope yet built, established that previously observed nebulae are not clouds of gas but clouds of stars, and that our galaxy is not the only one in the Universe. Indeed astronomers now estimate that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the Universe, each of which can contain hundreds of billions of stars.

I’ll just let that sink in for a moment…

OK. Although the book does cover the development, structure, distribution, and dynamics of galaxies, most of it is really about what we have learned about the Universe from studying galaxies. I won’t go into detail here (and I’m not sure I could explain it anyway), but the study of galaxies has led to profound discoveries about the nature of the Universe. It’s a perfect example of how studying one thing in detail can contribute greatly to a better understanding of something much greater. However, I think the book dwelt on the subject too long, at the expense of describing galaxies themselves in more detail, and perhaps straying into the territory of Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction, my next astronomy book. I look forward to that book filling in more of the gaps in my understanding of what we know about this astounding Universe of ours.

Hubble Ultra Deep Field

Hubble Ultra Deep Field: This is what they saw when they pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at an “empty” patch of sky: over 10,000 galaxies never seen before.

International Year of Astronomy Reading Challenge