Here in the OSLab (oz' lab) we explore how scientific knowledge is produced and shared. We're exhuming the beliefs, noodling around in the biases, and OSblog is our invitation to you to view some of what we find along the way. Please, drop us a line, answer the question we will inevitably ask when we meet you on the mean streets of science -- "So - what do you believe?"

Nov 21, 2013

Arm Around a Monster

In photos, when you drape an arm around someone's shoulder, lean your head in toward theirs, it says something about what they mean to you.

If that special someone happens to be a monster, the message could still be that you care and, in this case, that they are also your legacy to the world. Ray Harryhausen, animator and special-effects wizard, died on May 7 of this year. He was 92. He is cited by George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Peter Jackson as a creative inspiration for their films, and the eponymous Harryhausen’s restaurant in Pixar's Monsters, Inc. 
is a nod to his genius.  

Throughout his career he created rollicking good monster-stomps-through-city films, like Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, in which a hibernating rhedosaurus jolted from its slumber by an atom bomb tramples downtown Los Angeles, and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) wherein a 30 foot tall Venusian whomps along the streets of Rome. He lured monsters up from the sea (ICame from Beneath the Seaand down from the skies (Earth Versus Flying Saucers). He was famous in certain circles. He made the pterodactyl that carries off Raquel Welch in “One Million Years B.C.”, and as a teenager formed a friendship with Ray Bradbury, spending hours talking with him at a local science fiction club.

He plied his art through monstrosity and biology, and was a master of film; an interdisciplinary craftsman. We salute him, and in memoriam say: 

Everyone out there should use their imaginations so fervently. Everyone should be so lucky, to have the opportunity to dig down and dredge up a beast or two to share. And in some epilogue, somewhere, each of us should have our arm around a monster. 

May 20, 2013


Mother Nature has a growing catalogue of images of herself done up in style - weird, snarling, matronly, demure - you name it. We think we'd now include this video.

(Thanks, biologist Stanford Chen, for alerting us to this!)

There are so many ways a Westerner can celebrate Nature. Maybe a solstice festival. A sustainably-farmed-pig roast. A salty ship's-bow reading of Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us. Or you could, employing your famous-actress mad skills, your eyes wide like a doe's, dress up like a hamster and birth, then munch on, your babies. We are not sure we want to show this video to our young children. We are very sure we watched it more than once. We're laughing. We're thinking about the heft of biology, the efficiency of the food chain, how glad we each are not to have a loose cannon hamster mother. We're also chagrined, shifting in our seats; we're just as red in tooth and claw as she is, that wonderful teacher of biology, fuzzy Ms. Rosselini. 

Mother Nature's debut as a character in the western world began as early as the 3rd millennium BCE, on Mesopotamian writing tablets which personified Nature as creative and nurturing, suggesting a feminine side. Greek pre-Socratic philosophers then summed up the entirety of the natural world's phenomena in the word physis, and presented the idea of Nature as a singular entity. The one, feminine icon began to take hold, but medieval Christians couldn't allow her dominion over everything (that's God's job) and conceded only Earth as her stomping grounds. Then, the Enlightenment. The explorers, the naturalists, the academics - all wanted to dig in and examine Nature, taxonomize it, tame it and translate it, sounding their barbaric YAWPS over the rooftops, but you can't do that to God's property. So Victorian scientists utilized enough sexual metaphors to once and for all draw a neat line betwixt Mother Nature and God and created a feminine domain, ready to be studied and exploited. Linnaeus, taxonomer extraordinaire, when describing reproduction, talked about trees and shrubs "donning wedding gowns" before their "nuptials." Adjectives including "chicks," "foxes," and "old hens" became common ways to describe women...and so on.

Jump to 1972. Mother Nature's starring in a television commercial, flowers in her hair, holding a tub of margarine.
When she mistakenly praises the contents as her own, lovely, natural butter, an offscreen narrator rudely disabuses her of this notion, revealing the identity of the tub in hand - Chiffon Margarine. She responds by meting out some punitive thunder and lightening, along with the trademarked slogan, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”  

Given the state of Earth (we'll not get into specifics, but merely hail back to the popcorned seat from which we first saw on screen a raucous version of the Desert of the Real)... Mother Nature, mammas, mamalia, it's all food for thought, i'nnit?

Apr 7, 2013

inclined to decline

Cornelia Konrads' sculptures - made of found, local, natural materials - hover in midair. They have been described as "playful links" between worlds, invoking "the possibility of an entrance or the removal of a path, depending upon one’s interpretation of the direction... " 

Land Art by Cornelia Konrads, via Colossal

Konrads is an artist, with a background is in the philosophy and culture of science. This dual history seemed appropriate to us when we first saw her work, mostly because of this philosophy-of-science-favored question: how do you know whether a thing (the intelligence of a species, the universe...) is becoming or declining? The question warrants a pause for breath, to watch the thing hovering in mid-air.

Humans tend to fetishize objects that oscillate on our timeline, simultaneously decaying and giving every indication that they are historic in nature, and yet becoming more vibrantly alive with meaning, flourishing as they move into the future. We adore them - relics, restored ancient buildings, artifacts, time capsules. The last on that list is fascinating, and a bit embarrassing. The International Time Capsule Society estimates that there are approximately 10,000 time capsules in existence world wide. We bury these vessels deep in the earth, deftly certain that our message is the right one to send into the future, hopeful that it will be of interest, or help. The lists of time capsules are emblematic of how we see historic significance, and time. The global list includes:

A July 15, 1979 was found in Vulkanny, Russia, in 2012 under a statue of Lenin, containing messages to 2024's "socialist society."

An 1834 time capsule was discovered in 2009 under a statue of Miguel de Cervantes in Madrid, containing a guide, and four volumes of the 1819 edition of Don Quixote.

The largest time capsule in the world, a 45 ton vault, is buried in Seward, Nebraska. It was created by Harold Keith Davisson, a local store owner (and now celebrity) who had it buried under a mound of dirt on the front lawn of his home furnishings and appliances store, and filled it with over 5,000 items, including a pair of bikini panties, a man's aquamarine leisure suit with stitched yellow flowers, and a brand-new Chevy Vega, "the cheapest car he could find." When his time capsule's ranking was later threatened, he built another vault on top of it, and put a car in that one as well.

We're fashioning a capsule ourselves, here in the OSLab. A small one. We'd be happy to hear of any items or words of everlasting wisdom you think we should include...and feel free to send us a car.

Mar 30, 2013

the eye of the (be)holder

still from George Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la lune

This week at OSLab we're thinking about what happens when we realize we're being gazed at (is there a loss of autonomy, a surrender to the other? are we only imagining the extent to which we are seen?) and the impact we have when we gaze (is it a normative gaze? do we construct a person as we view them?) We're jostling things about over here, trying to turn our lenses inward on...our lenses. You know the drill. We decided we can't say it any more clearly than this cheeky cephalopod did, when it stole a diver's camera and became the one holding the lens. (You'll want to watch full screen to see the subtitles, and odds are you'll be humming I Love You...Octopus when you're through.)

Mar 24, 2013

Unreliable Narrator

If a parasite sucks the blood out of your tongue until it atrophies, and then becomes your tongue, 
who, then, is doing the talking?

Cymothoa exigua, the tongue-eating louse,  from WTF, Evolution?

Historically, unreliable narrators have been somewhat less gruesome - more classic and captivating - Holden Caufield, Humbert Humbert, Huckleberry Finn (...though there is Alex in A Clockwork Orange). The term was coined by Wayne C. Booth in his 1961 The Rhetoric of Fiction, and its definition includes unreliability due to: ignorance, bias, psychological instability, self-deception, lack of worldliness, or deliberate deceit. It is a popular trope in post-modern literature and film, and because of its hip-ness reactions range from "it's way over-used and the effect is over-produced," to "it's a true representation of the range of selves within every human."   

The idea is intriguing - knowingly spending time with someone who is lying to you, allowing them to tell you their story. The one-sidedness of reading a book or watching a movie provides the right dynamic for this. You, on a comfortable couch, the perfect receptacle. The unreliable narrator, cozily embedded in their medium, the scoundrel you can safely love.

You can bound across a field of flowers into the situation because, dear reader, the unreliable narrator is reliably unreliable. Suspend disbelief, celebrate your fraudulent counterpart, created by an author just for you. It's our favorite kind of OSLab opening. There's an agreed upon space of tension, and maybe a nervous sort of co-creativity. Whatever is happening is real, and not real.

It's all in good fun, so there's nothing to fear.

"I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”