Food consumption and global change

A conversation today at lunch time made me think about some notes I took on this topic, which I reproduce here:

Jonathan Foley gave a pretty convincing talk at ESA 2013 showing that meat consumption is unsustainable for the environment (i.e. land use + CO2 emissions). This was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”* for me and since then I reduced my meat consumption quite drastically.

However, I read a few days ago this paper showing that changing meat for vegetables and fruits can be even worse if you take also into account water footprint and energy use (e.g. transport and storage). I skip the details, but the bottom line is that the story is complicated and the best way to save the world is to reduce calorie intake and eat lots of grains. Here is Figure 2 from the paper (the paper style and figures are quite poor, by the way).

Tom_2015flexiterian_pdf__page_5_of_12_.png

It’s hard because even if you want to do the best is not easy. Is it better for the environment to use bacon or eggplant with my pasta? No idea!**. If I knew the Y axe of the following graph things would be easier.

Blank.png

*this is what google suggest for translating “la gota que colma el vaso”.

**Is the bacon from pigs next door? Is the eggplant from Nicaragua?

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Darwin’s autobiography

I read Darwin’s autobiography when I started my PhD and I liked it a lot. I found it by chance last week and I read its less than 100 pages again. It’s simply amazing to be able to read what Darwin thought about himself. I share a few thoughts here, but I recommend its reading insistently. First is cristal clear that part of the success of Darwin was a curiosity driven instinct. But it worths nothing to me that a will to put his name among top scientists also contributed a lot in his endeavour. Do not be ashamed to cultivate both things then! Another thing that I loved is how he puts data always in front and uses a strict scientific method. It’s also cool to se how geology is his main field during most of his life, and not biology. In fact, I think he approaches biodiversity as a geologist (more used to the idea of change) and this is key to think differently. Also note that investing at least 4 years in a given project was the norm. That gave him the chance to refine the theory and get the best of it. Luckily for him, not a publish or perish culture yet. Other passages about his life, how chance is involved in his Beagle enrolment or how he judge his wits are also cool to read.

Happy new year!

Dear Journal

As a reviewer you should be allowed to answer review request using the same journal slang. Here is my version adapted to Science:

“Thank you for offering me to review the manuscript [Insert title here]. Competition for my time allocated to review is becoming increasingly fierce; I currently receive close to 30 requests a year, but I am only able to review roughly 12. The topic is certainly in my area of expertise and the analysis is interesting, however it was given a lower priority ranking than others. Unfortunately, this means that I will not be able to review it in-depth. My decisions are made on the basis of current workload as well as interest and significance. Due to my time limitations, I must reject excellent, exciting, and potentially important papers every month. Thus, my inability to review this work should not be taken as a direct comment on its quality or importance.” *

This is clearly ironic, and highlights the pressure to find reviewers, but honestly, I feel sorry every single time I have to say no to a review request, and I always want to write back explaining why I can’t this time.

*The acceptance to review version can also be quite interesting.

Ramon Y Cajal advice

This post has two purposes, first, celebrate that I was awarded a RyC fellowship to go back to Spain, which is very exciting. Second to recommend to everyone the reading of Ramón y Cajal advice for a young researcher [PDF here].

It was written in 1920’s and is surprisingly modern. He makes a strong argument to let the data talk for your science and he make some very relevant points against the inclusion of honorary authors. I also love his steps to write a paper:

(1) Have something to say, (2) say it, (3) stop once it is said, and (4) give the article a suitable title and order of presentation.

He is a little bit too harsh on substituting talent by working hard, but I agree that working hard (i.e. don’t expect discoveries to come easy) is a good advice. Putting that together with his advice on how to criticise others work without hurting any feeling (i.e,  always acknowledging the good points first), I can summarise it with a quote borrowed from my father: “work hard and be nice to people”. On my own experience, I recommend anyone to maximize the feeling that Science is a big community of helpful people with a common purpose rather than a competition among researchers.

The advice for the Spaniards (how to do science from a country on the cue of scientific production and with very limited funding in 1920) is not as up-to-date nowadays, but I am affraid we will have to apply some of his advide on that soon, if things keep that way.

I don’t agree with everything. For example, I think working in group and establish collaborations is basic to get the most of our imagination and talent, instead of working alone for long hours. I also think is funny the advise he gives in order to find an appropriate wife, and it may look even a bit offensive nowadays, although the bottom line is quite true: find someone who understands you!

The last thing I want to highlight is that i love how he transmit the ideal of a scientist as a nobel pursuser of the truth, unbiased, humble, honorable, almost kind of a knight extracted from a tale. But I’ll let you read the rest. Enjoy.

Happy biRthday

Today is my birthday. It’s also the birthday of a close friend. What an incredible coincidence! Or wait, may be is just expected. One more time R comes into our help, because it has a built-in function to answer our question.

Which is the probability of two coincident anniversaries among a group of 17 people? (yes we have a mailing list, so I can count my friends semi-objectively without the fear of not counting them all). Just type:

pbirthday(n= 17, classes = 365, coincident = 2)

The answer is approximately 0.3, that is 3 of every 10 friend groups (of that size) have at least two anniversaries that coincide. Not that impressive, isn’t it?. But the beauty of stats is that stats are here to correct your intuition. To have an impressive coincidence (and statistical significant) you will need a group of 47 people, none of them with coinciding birthdays. And then, probably nobody will be amazed.

qbirthday(prob = 0.95, classes = 365, coincident = 2)

Anyway, happy birthday to all readers celebrating today (if any)!

Storytelling (communicating science with comics!)

On one hand I think scientists should stick to doing science and communicators should work with them to communicate Science. On the other hand, scientists tend to be very versatile, and doing outreach is one more fun thing to do. Moreover, by explaining your science to general public you force yourself to really understand what you are doing and think about it from a different perspective.

This christmas I had a rather long break and during this break quite a lot of people ask me what the hell I am doing for living. This breaks are also good to get inspired. My inspiration led me to explain what I am doing in a comic book [Read it here: science_comic_en, It’s just a few pages and I think is fun, I talk about bees, but also about beer, dinosaurs and sex (I hope that these last words have finally convinced everybody to give it a try)]. I think the format works pretty well. While writing it I thought my readers would be mainly family and friends, but who knows? I don’t think a full comic about my research will be super-popular among the general public, but if other Scientists in different fields explain their story too, I believe that the resulting comic would be a blast. Any taker to write another chapter?

The spanish version translated by Belén (always an invaluable help) is available here (science_comic_es). I did it in ComicLife software (for Mac), in case anyone is curious. I may do another chapter when I get more papers accepted. Well, only if people looks interested!

The beard of the quetzal

I’m in Sweden, it’s been snowing for two weeks now, reaching -20 and all the stuff, and I am happy. However, I can stop noticing that swedish guys at my department have no beards. All came perfectly shaved everyday, and take note that I am in an ecology department! My only explanation is that this is his quetzal tail. Only by showing that they have enough energy to bike for 30 minutes at -10 without the protection of a beard they have the possibility to find an appropriate mate. Things got that far that I am afraid that is becoming fixated at the population level, and his beards are becoming thinner. I plan to ignore the other alfa males this winter and show proudly my thick beard, even at expenses of my fitness.