It took eight years, countless hours crouched high in the New Guinea rain-forest canopy, and new photographic techniques tested out on the turkeys that strutted into Tim Laman’s Lexington backyard to photograph all 39 species of visually stunning and flamboyant birds of paradise.
Laman, a field biologist and photographer affiliated with the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, teamed up with Edwin Scholes, an ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in 2003. Through rain, floods, and interminable waiting for birds to show up at the right time, on the right branch, in the right light, they sought birds of paradise at 51 field sites. The results, featured in the December issue of National Geographic, are breathtaking, weird, and delightful.
There is something a little alien about birds of paradise; some species more closely resemble our conceptions of UFOs than birds. The male parotia flares out its breast feathers and dances like a crazed ballerina, swooping his head like a hip-hop star, and flashing iridescent feathers to woo females. To check whether an area was being used by a male bird, scientists took advantage of the fact that male parotias are neat freaks. They scattered leaves over the area, and sure enough, a male showed up and started cleaning house to make room for its courtship display.
Birds of paradise raise fascinating questions about how evolution could have such gaudy results. New Guinea, Laman explained, is a unique environment. There aren’t natural predators for these birds, the landscape is undeveloped, and the birds live in a world of plenty, so females do not need help from males to raise their young. That has allowed sexual selection — the whims and desires of the females — to go out of control.
“It sort of freed the male up to not have to do any work, be flamboyant — and the females can just choose them based on whatever they decide,” Laman said. “Once they get down some path of choosing longer and longer tails and brighter and brighter colors, sexual selection has kind of gone wild.”
A window on Watson’s Mass. history
A couple of months ago, in the middle of an interview at MIT about a new collaboration in cancer research, I noticed something odd on the office wall: a framed piece of glass with the words “D-365 J.D. Watson” written on it.
It turned out the Watson window was a cool artifact of science history that had traveled an unusual path.
The “J.D. Watson” of the window was James D. Watson, part of the team that elucidated DNA’s elegant twisting double-helix structure and shared the Nobel Prize for it in 1962. Watson worked at Harvard in the “BioLabs” building that has two rhino statues guarding its entrance. But in the late 1960s, he began to spend time at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, in New York.
After Watson left, a scientist named David Dressler became the new inhabitant of office D-365, and the window in the door was replaced.
“I took and saved that plate of glass . . . when they replaced it with a piece of glass that . . . had my name on it,” Dressler said.
Tyler Jacks was an ambitious sophomore at Harvard who worked in Dressler’s lab. He first spied the door window sitting in a corner of the laboratory, uncelebrated. By the time Jacks was a senior, Dressler had moved on to Princeton University and Jacks and another student cleaned up the lab.
“Rather than tossing the door glass, I decided to take it to my parents’ house in Southborough, where it sat in their garage for another five years,” Jacks wrote in an e-mail. They had it framed for him. Now, Jacks has become prominent in his own right as a leading cancer researcher at MIT.
When Watson recently made a visit to MIT, Jacks showed him the window hanging on his wall. Watson recognized his old door right away, Jacks said, and seemed amused and pleased to see that it had been salvaged.
A working hypothesis on headaches
Scientists have found yet another reason to be glad it’s Friday. A new study found that the feeling we all have from time to time — that the workweek gives us a headache — might not be all in our minds.
Sparked by curiosity about what online behavior could tell them about pain, researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School probed search engine queries and Twitter posts that mentioned “migraine” or “headache.” What they found, in a study published online in the journal Cephalalgia, is that mention of headaches peaked on weekdays, hitting its high early in the week and receding on Fridays.
First, the researchers analyzed 5½ years of search activity on Google. They found that “migraine” searches seemed to take a break when people did — occurring far less frequently on the weekends or on Thanksgiving or Memorial Day than on the weekdays. The most migraine searches occurred on Tuesdays and the fewest on Fridays.
Then, they looked at activity on Twitter and found that Monday had the highest number of migraine mentions and Friday the lowest.
Seeking meaning seems a basic urge
Most scientists carefully avoid the idea that nature has a purpose, at least in their professional lives. But humans are also natural storytellers, and stories often have reasons.
Psychologists at Boston University decided to examine just how deep-seated the impulse to find meaning in nature is. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, they found that professional scientists from top universities became more likely to rate statements that found purpose in nature as true when they were put under time pressure, compared with when they were not racing the clock. Deborah Kelemen, a BU associate professor of psychology, reflected on the research, which suggests that even the most reasonable among us may have a default tendency to look for purpose.
Did your own experiences motivate this research?
The work with professional scientists was actually motivated by child research from our lab. . . . For little kids, it makes perfect sense to say that rivers exist so crocodiles have a place to live, that rocks are pointy so that animals will not sit on them and smash them. . . . It seemed possible that purpose-based explanations remain as the default way of thinking about nature even among professional physical scientists despite all of their countervailing scientific biases and knowledge.
Under time pressure, scientists became more likely to say statements like “trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe” are true. Why?
Under time pressure, people give their gut reactions. Human beings naturally find purpose-based explanations very attractive and satisfying. When they aren’t under time pressure, scientists can use the conscious, reflective parts of their minds and can reject purpose-based ideas.