Green Meat?

Green cowIt takes about 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of edible beef. That’s a lot of food going to feed a cow that will arguably become less food. People don’t eat grass, but it can still be argued that a lot more food could be grown on the land (or a lot of trees, or switchgrass…) that it takes to feed a single cow. But what if we could produce a pound of meat and leave the grain to feed people, or the trees to filter polluted air, or the switchgrass to create new clean-burning fuels? This afternoon on the Kojo Nnambi Show, on WAMU, Mark Post, Professor of Vascular Physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and Michael Specter, a staff writer for the The New Yorker, and author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Livestalked about new developments that may eventually allow scientists to grow meat in sterile laboratories–no animals harmed.

The piece is interesting mostly because at the same time that it conjures slightly grotesque science gone awry images of cuts of beef hanging from wires and tubes in sterile, climate controlled laboratories, it also forces us to confront some deeply held misconceptions about genetic modification, organic foods and the nature of nature itself. It forces conversations–somewhat uncomfortable conversations in fact–about technology and nature, ecology and genetic manipulation, natural and processed foods, vegetarian/vegan ethics and making meat in a test tube that doesn’t harm animals, emotion and reason, as well as a host of other topics. It poses questions that increasingly a becoming a lot harder to answer.

I appreciated Michael Specter’s ability to be the guy I so badly wanted to hate, but who became the guy instead who forced me to confront some basic prejudices and to really assess my values at a core level. Am I more concerned about ecology or some idealized, pastoral sense of nature and purity? Does the ability to feed people, even if it’s by growing meat in a test-tube,  trump my desire for supporting locally-raised, sustainable, back to the land husbandry? Does my repulsion at the over-processed, candy-coated, hydrogenated foods I find in my supermarket cloud my vision when it comes to how we produce and deliver calories and nutrients to starving people?

In the end, being forced into an uncomfortable position, having to honestly confront values to which we may believed ourselves inextricably tied is an important exercise. We’re not often really asked to do that.



Printer Perfect: The future is here

This video from the Laboritori de Fabricacio in Barcelona’s Disseny HUB museum shows the present and future potential of on-demand 3D printing. In this future, everyone becomes a designer to suit their own specific needs, the means of production is at everyone’s fingertips, and every mug has the perfect handle…

Think this is a fantasy? Then check this out…

From the Make magazine blog:

Customize Replacement Parts with 3D Printing

German maker Thorsten Wilms wanted to add a nice headlight to his new bike, but a couple of cables got in the way of a clean installation. He ordered a new clamp to compensate for the cables, but it ended up positioning the business end in the opposite direction. So he did what everyone with access to FreeCAD and should do: he redesigned the part to position it in the proper direction and printed a copy using a similar material. [via bikehacks]


stemsteam valveIn order for America to remain competitive–or more accurately, to regain our competitive edge–we need to focus on education. Specifically, we are told we need to focus on STEM education–Sience, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Prophets (as well as charlatans) of growth, economic development, and good public policy from the White House to the school-house to the work-house tout the importance of STEM education to the nation’s future. These advocates of a new American exceptionalism see a future tied to the steady progress of science, the power of innovative new technologies, the efficiencies of enlightened engineering and an understanding gained through the judicious application of mathematical principles to an ever-increasing cauldron of useful data. In large part, they are correct. Our educational system is hopelessly out of date, we are not educating students for the present let alone for a successful, self-directed future. STEM education recognizes the need to keep up with new discoveries and changing technology, to build an understanding of the hardware Unfortunately, this vision of the future comes up wanting in some important ways, with STEM education reifying false partitions between the “serious” disciplines of science and mathematics, and the more “liberal” and “fine” arts–the very areas that are spurring new innovations that will shape our future.

A growing chorus of voices, however, is not so much eschewing the call for STEM education as it is questioning the completeness, and yes even the wisdom, of an educational paradigm that neglects the arts. This chorus calls for reconsidering the STEM movement, to develop a more complete STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Art) paradigm of education. The reasoning goes that without arts education, future workers will lack necessary creative and collaborative skills that are increasingly important. John Tarnoff’s recent piece in the Huffington Post does a good job making the argument that many of the new jobs created by the technology boom are in fact in creative areas. “Companies want workers who can brainstorm, problem-solve, collaborate creatively and contribute/communicate new ideas,” Tarnoff notes. And those workers are not always easy to find.  There is, therefore, a basic economic argument for creating systems and policies that encourage STEAM education.

But is an economic argument the only way to justify STEAM focused education? I won’t get into a long discussion on the nature of education (publicly funded education in particular), or ask whether we shouldn’t be considering factors beyond worker training when developing goals and drafting policy– educating an informed and able citizenry for example, or promoting democratic ideals and ethics. No, what I’m talking about is a more basic principle, but one that continues to be demonstrated as we evolve socially, culturally, and technologically. I call it the principle of connections.

We too often divorce the “hard science” disciplines from the arts (and here I include the liberal arts), just as we often assume that “nature” and “technology” (or even industry) are mutually exclusive, perhaps even conflicting ideas. Throughout history, however, such dichotomies have been consistently discredited. It is equally as wrong to assume that the engineer or scientist lacks creative capacity as it is to write off the observational, technical and analytic skills of the artist or philosopher. From Leonardo da Vinci to E.O. Wilson our greatest scientific thinkers have also often displayed immense artistic talent, each grounded in their abilities to observe, analyze, document and most of all imagine. In fact scientists and engineers are among the most ardent advocates for STEAM over STEM thinking.

There is one more connection, I’d like to add to this discussion, though. That is making, or the manual arts (would that be STEAMM education?). Shop classes, home economics and all forms of manual learning (what we might call labor) continue to be stripped from our school curricula in order to make room for more reading, writing, science and math. From a purely economic standpoint this makes little sense, especially in light of the Obama administration’s focus on bringing manufacturing strength back to the American economy. From an educational standpoint, though, it’s nothing short of disastrous. Instead of stripping manual arts from the curriculum we would do better to more thoroughly integrate them into every aspect of learning. Math, science, art and all the rest would likely benefit from providing hands-on experiential opportunities for students to learn. Take students out of the classroom and away from the textbooks and computer screens for a significant part of each day and lets see if achievement (not to mention satisfaction) doesn’t increase.

What Words Can’t Convey: Illustrations Promote Scientific Understanding

cucumber skinHumankind has long used illustrations to represent complex ideas and concepts. When words just can’t quite convey our meaning images often becomes necessary. From cave paintings to modern-day microscopy our ability to understand and influence our environment has relied on our evolving ability to create read images.

To quote the National Science Foundation (NSF):

Some of science’s most powerful statements are not made in words. From the diagrams of DaVinci to Rosalind Franklin’s X-rays, visualization of research has a long and literally illustrious history. To illustrate is to enlighten.

How many people would have heard of fractal geometry or the double helix or solar flares if they had been described solely in words? In a world where science literacy is dismayingly rare, illustrations provide the most immediate and influential connection between scientists and other citizens, and the best hope for nurturing popular interest. Indeed, they are now a necessity for public understanding of research developments.

cell divisionTo that end the NSF and the journal Science have created the International Science and Engineering Visualization ChallengeYou can see these and other images (as well as some of the winners from previous years) at the website. Categories include, photography, illustration, video and even interactive games. We’ve come a long way from the cave wall. I wish I’d had images like this when I was studying biology in high school. Stained potato cells just don’t give you the whole picture.metabolomic eye

Camouflage: Art Meets Science Again

The other day I was out with my sons and their friend, walking through Rock Creek Park. When we reached a little grassy field along a hillside trail William, my youngest, decided to test our powers of observation.

It’s a game both my boys love to play, and one that they have raised to the level of performance. The casual passer-by often takes little enough note of the obvious, let alone the animals, objects, and even young boys hidden in plain site. Observation, I think, is the connection between the naturalist and the artist.

William’s game reminded me of an exhibit we saw a while back at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Included in this exhibit of artists sketches and journals were the notebooks of American artist and naturalist Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921).

Working in the late 19th – early 20th century, Thayer has since become known as the father of camouflage for his writings on countershading and high-difference patterning. Ideas that would later be adapted by Norman Wilkinson to provide what still, to the untrained eye, seems like a counterintuitive camouflage patterning for British naval vessels.

What Thayer and his colleague George de Forest Brush noticed was not, as you might expect, that animals that closely mimicked the patterns of nature–the ones that best matched the color and texture of their surroundings–had a distinct camouflaging advantage. Of course, similarity in color and texture does help disguise potential prey, and assists the predator in stealthy attack. But by studying optics and applying the artistic concept of countershading, the two determined that the real secret to camouflage is to break up the patterns in order to confuse the viewer. The way the white belly of a fish or frog for instance serves to break up the hard lines that distinguish its shape. The effect, rather than to completely hide an animal from its predator, or a ship from its enemy, is to confuse the viewer. To break the pattern of recognition.


My son’s game works on the same principles. The idea, of course is to hide, to become invisible. But becoming invisible is only really fun if someone sees you doing it.

When we look at the natural world, or at art the disruption of our view often results in misrecognition and at times mild confusion. With art as with nature, close observation is necessary to distinguish the patterns, to see the connections, and eventually for the object to to become recognizable and meaningful–whether it’s food for the belly or the mind.