The female orgasm: a story about sex and questions about natural selection

It's an Epipactus gigantea, from a spring in the Mojave Desert.

In general, science writers love to tell stories about the quirks of evolution, the strange ways in which Darwinian natural selection has created the living world around us. And there are tons of great stories to tell.  The danger, however, lies in assuming that natural selection has created every interesting trait we find in the living world.  It can be too easy to theorize adaptive advantages and imagine evolutionary stories about how traits could have increased the reproductive success of those who possess it.

My favorite un-adaptive story comes from Elisabeth Lloyd’s brilliant book, The Case for the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution, published in 2006.  She writes about two of my favorite things: sex and science. But this is real science, a serious meta-analysis, not pop-sci sex fluff (which can be fun too sometimes, don’t get me wrong) But Lloyd’s book is fascinating. Continue reading

Data Journalism Calling My Name?

View from Hubble Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

The past few weeks, it seems like the universe has been trying to tell me something. Something besides the fact that I needed more sleep and more interviews with nuclear scientists, which was pretty obvious.  No, I believe that the universe is trying to point me into data journalism.  Here’s the evidence:

1. John Keefe, the newly minted “Data News and Technology” chief at WNYC came to talk to my class about using data for both finding and enhancing stories.  He talked about the free online tools, like google fusion tables and map builders that allow even beginners to present data on top of google maps to convey all kinds of information, from political donations across the city to snow-plowed streets. It’s amazing how fast you can build a map with these tools, compared to the complexity of the ArcGIS programs I am used to making maps with. John believes in showing his work, and on his website,, he explains how he made some of his coolest maps.  Continue reading

Greening the Grid 2011

The University of Wisconsin EnergyHub sponsored a conference on Friday on the future of energy and the potential for greening the grid.

The event featured a variety of speakers, from the state public utility commission to a professionally trained futurist. I learned a lot of really interesting stuff. Some highlights include that the future of wind and solar energy depends on the future of batteries, that building a smart, efficient grid brings privacy and security concerns, and that several local companies have devised some really interesting ways to increase their sustainability.

Many of us take the constant presence of electricity for granted. Whenever we want it, we flip a switch, and the power is there, waiting to charge a laptop or crisp some cold bread into toast. However, the tricky thing about the electricity is that we continuously have to be making as much as we are using.  Make too much, we can’t store it. Make too little, we’d have blackouts.  So forecasting precisely how much electricity is needed every day, and scaling production to that need is critical to a functioning power grid.

The problem is, for any given day, it’s hard to forecast exactly how much the sun will shine or the wind will blow. These renewable resources are called Intermittent Resources, because we can’t use them at a consistent rate, like a nuclear plant or adjust their production like a natural gas power facility.  Continue reading