Friday, December 7, 2007

monsters, mermaids, & chickens

Have you ever noticed that events, ideas, and memes tend to cluster together in time? Once you hear about something distinctive or unusual--say, baked potato art--you start to hear about it and see it everywhere. One of your friends sends you an article on baked potato art (knowing you to be a potato connoisseur). The next day you see a poster in the library advertising an art opening of sculpted yams. Then you hear on the radio that a local artist has been hired to do an installation of sweet potatoes on Main Street. And so on.

Anyway, something similar has been happening to me with quirky scientific publications. First my brother drew my attention to this new journal, Rejecta Mathematica. Their sole criterion for publication is prior rejection:

Rejecta Mathematica is a new, open access, online journal that publishes only papers that have been rejected from peer-reviewed journals in the mathematical sciences. . . One very unique* aspect of Rejecta Mathematica is that each paper includes an open letter from the authors discussing the paper's original review process, disclosing any known flaws in the paper and stating the case for the paper's value to the community.

Just a few days later, a colleague told me about two papers published in Limnology and Oceanography, a reputable title in the aquatic sciences. These two scholarly articles treat the subjects of Monsters and Mermaids. References, links, synopses, reviews and excerpts follow:

Sheldon, R.W., and S.R. Kerr, 1972. The Population Density of Monsters in Loch Ness. Limnology and Oceanography, 17(5) pp. 796-798.

The authors use methods of trophic dynamics and population biology to make reasonable estimates of the number and size of monsters in Loch Ness. They conclude the loch must contain a small (10-20 individuals) breeding population of large (up to 1500 kg) monsters. Personally, I worry that the extremely small population size may lead to inbreeding depression, but perhaps the loch environment is stable enough that low genetic diversity hasn't been a problem?
It has been suggested from time to time that as the monsters are never caught it must therefore follow that they do not exist. This is both irresponsible and illogical. . . As they are rarely seen and never caught (characteristic features) it is particularly difficult to study their population dynamics. . . The minimum average size is taken arbitrarily as 100 kg; anything smaller is not suitably monstrous. . . Fear of ridicule is the main reason why many observers do not make their observations known to science. But it is the skeptics who are at fault. Monster observers should be encouraged. . . We would like to thank Kate Kranck for drawing our attention to this problem, because until she mentioned it we were unaware that monsters were a problem.**

Banse, K., 1990. Mermaids--Their Biology, Culture, and Demise. Limnology and Oceanography, 35(1) pp. 148-153.

The author sets out to describe the available evidence for the genus Siren, and to justify introduction of a new suborder Nixi (juxtaposed to Manati). He discusses potential scenarios for the cultural and socio-political system of this advanced group, and finally hypothesizes that their extinction sometime in the 20th century was caused by a world increase in jellyfish abundance. Unfortunately, the authors of the famed Jellyfish Take Over the World paper fail to cite Banse when discussing the "profound ecosystem change"--but what could be more profound than the extinction of mermaids?
Hypotheses are continually erected, then torn down, but the latter process often results in perfectly good data being buried among masses of rejected material. In modern science, though, imagination is often discouraged by present-day scientific journals for lack of space, stifling full discourse on alternative but untestable interpretations of observations. . . The generic mermaid possessed binocular vision and forelimbs with opposable thumbs. . . With regard to reproduction and associated behavior, we are on relatively firm ground. With two mammary glands, the females probably bore one young and occasionally two at a time. . . Alternatively, using somewhat different allometric reasoning and considering foodchain efficiency, Sheldon and Kerr (1972) calculated the numbers of monsters Loch Ness could support, i.e. their population density. Difficult as this method would be for omnivores like the Nixi that competed with a host of other species of unknown abundance for the same food base, it cannot be used to estimate population sizes because of the likelihood of mariculture by Siren. . . Also, an increasing bias in reporting may have arisen, first (i.e. since the Period of Enlightenment) only for fear of ridicule but later from the "weeding" action by editors of scholarly journals who more and more are among the guardians of Science as the new faith.

The following week, the Monster article was sent around on an e-mail list. The person sending it was the famed designer of Fig. 1 wear and he was bemoaning the fact that Sheldon and Kerr neglected to include a Fig. 1 suitable for his brave new world of fasion. Quickly I fired an e-mail back, attaching the Mermaid article and pointing out the obviously appropriate "Fig. 1. The Brazilian specimen of Siren indica on exhibit in Leyden (from Landrin 1877)."

At about the same time, the colleague who had brought up the L&O articles sent me another article. It's by a fellow named Doug Zongker, and it's called "Chicken Chicken Chicken: Chicken Chicken." Unfortunately it wasn't published in any big-name, peer-reviewed journal like L&O, but he was asked to present his paper at conference.

Finally, just a few days later, a mailing list dropped this jewel into my inbox:
10 Most Bizarre Scientific Articles.

That "Love and Sex with Robots" article reminds me that I recently registered the domain robotboyandsquidgirl. I realize as I write this that the name might draw a certain audience that will be rather disappointed to discover that it's just a project blog for a couple of science and tech geeks.

While I was at it ("it" being domainmonger), I also registered cephalopodiatrist, which will by 2008 be hosting my long-neglected personal website--and probably this blog as well.

* Wouldn't you think that a bunch of math nerds would know that uniqueness is binary? A thing is unique or it isn't. You can't be "very unique" or "a little unique" or "unique-ish".

** As an obscure and unknown grad student, I daren't write like that. I worry that this sentence is too whimsical to get published: "It seems quite likely that [predator avoidance and horizontal dispersal] would be admirable goals for an oceanic squid paralarva as well." I suspect my advisor will tell me to re-write it before I re-submit the paper. I'll keep you posted.

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