Head links

Links, of course, make the web go round. They put the Hyper in HTML. But today the links I found were made in my head, the old-fashioned way.

The day started with me riding in to work listening to The Science Show podcast from ABC Radio National. That’s ABC, as in Australian Broadcasting Corporation, not the folks who bring you Dancing With The Stars. I’m not sure why the Commonwealth countries can’t come up with more original network names, but there you go.

One of the stories in the current Science Show episode is about climate change’s affect on mountain-dwelling reptiles and amphibians in Madagascar. Chris Raxworthy of the American Museum of Natural History has been studying how certain populations have been gradually shifting their habitats to higher elevations as temperatures have increased. The concern is that eventually they’ll move to the tops of the mountains and have nowhere else to go. Wait a minute, I thought, didn’t I just read about this? Yes, it’s the same problem discussed by Chris Clarke in his most recent Coyote Crossing post, although the mountains he talks about are in the American Southwest. My first link of the day.

Another current Science Show story is about a highly portable chemical analysis instruments developed by Emily Hilder of the University of Tasmania. Much of the story is about the use of these devices by bomb squads, but there’s a later mention of using them for early detection of Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease (DFTD). As an American, when I hear about Tasmanian devils, I can’t help but smile and think of Warner Brothers, but this disease, a facial cancer that looks horrible, has killed 80-90% of the devil population in some areas. Where’s the link here? Patience.

(This Science Show episode also has an audio essay by David Attenborough about salamanders. I can’t think of any connection to salamanders, so it doesn’t fit in with the theme of this post, but the essay is informative and entertaining in that way Attenborough always seems to be, so I felt I had to mention it. Best line: “Salamanders I’m afraid are not really very quick on the uptake.”)

By the time The Science Show had ended, I was at work, where I spent eight or nine hours doing things of no interest to anyone. Then it was time to ride home, and I fired up the most recent episode of Radiolab, the sciencey radio show/podcast with Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad. The current episode is entitled “Famous Tumors,” and one of the stories is about, yes, Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease.1 The description of the disease is both fascinating and creepy. Apparently, tumors taken from different devils are genetically identical—the cancer is, in effect, a single organism that grows by spreading from one host to another.

So, two podcasts created on opposite sides of the world. I listen to both of them on the same day and they both talk about tumors on Tasmanian devils. Weird.

The final Radiolab story is about Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cells—which came to be known as the HeLa line—taken during a biopsy, were the first human cells to be successfully grown and maintained in a laboratory. It’s based on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a recent book by Rebecca Skloot, who does some of the narration. The Radiolab story and the book cover not only the importance of the HeLa line to medical advances in the 20th century (it was heavily used, for example, in the development of the polio vaccine), but how the knowledge that Henrietta’s cells lived on after her death affected her family.

I haven’t actually read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but it’s on my list of books to read because it’s been praised often by Tom Levenson on his Inverse Square Blog, one of my favorite RSS subscriptions. He’s also the author of Newton and the Counterfeiter, an excellent book I have read,2 because most of my professional life—that eight or nine hours we skipped over—involves adapting and applying Newton’s Laws, and I have a longstanding interest in Newtoniana.

The Henrietta Lacks story ended as I arrived home, where I expected to be greeted by James Burke.

  1. I told you we’d get to a link. 

  2. I also listened to Tom give a talk on the book at Fermilab a couple of months ago. He’s an excellent speaker—able hold an audience’s interest without props or slides.