Tuesday, August 24, 2010


"A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every breathing heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glance into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always that individuality, and which I shall carry in mind to my life's end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?"

- Charles Dickens, "A Tale of Two Cities"

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Changing structure of scientific inquiry

At ESA the other week (this post got slowed down by my now traditional post ESA cold), I attended an intriguing symposium on Ecoinformatics that led my thoughts in an interesting direction. Ecoinformatics (short for Ecological informatics) is, broadly, concerned with solving the technological challenges of making the increasing wealth of ecological data broadly available, accessible, and analyzable (?). In the symposium, several presentations were given on different efforts to unite existing ecological databases (DataONE) and to create a system for authors to submit datasets related to their publications (Dryad - which currently focuses on evolutionary biology, not ecology specifically).

This second project I find particularly exciting. There are many challenges that need to be worked out to make it a reality, but I really just want to comment on a few of the things that I found especially cool:

1) Authors will be expected to submit properly formatted and annotated data related to their papers for archival at the time they submit papers for publication. If done well, with an appropriate system, this means lots of cool data available to the scientific community allowing many interesting synthesis and modeling projects, and potentially fostering many cool collaborations. (Obviously lots of interesting challenges involving appropriate citations, etc, embargoing sensitive data or allowing authors more time to publish follow up papers, infrastructure issues, funding, etc.)

2) I was amused thinking about how this would mark a further step in the Ford-ification of Science; already within big lab groups, PI's have Big Ideas and write grants and get funding that supports various post docs and grad students and technicians who experiment, collect data, and analyze it. Open access data sets could compartmentalize science even more, making it totally possible to do great science and synthesis without ever collecting data. Fascinating to think about. Specialization can bring rewards in terms of skill levels at particular tasks, and increased efficiency, along with new challenges, such as making sure that appropriate data are gathered, and that communication between roles is good.

Anyways; fun to think about.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Back from ESA

Just returned from an intense week of ecology thanks to the ESA's annual conference in Pittsburgh. It was a stimulating and eventful meeting for me, and has me motivated to start blogging again occasionally. As soon as I unpack, do laundry, water my plants, attempt to rescue my garden besieged with weeds, make dinner.........