By Stephen Hill and Amanda Fischer. Stephen wrote the text and Amanda provided the images.
The geology you can see from an airplane is truly spectacular- the sights of the world below have enchanted most everyone who has taken an airplane. In this post, we walk you through the geology behind some of the sights you might see from the skies going across the western United States. Next time you take a flight, look out the window and learn more about the geology all around us!
Most people are aware that there are volcanoes in the western United States (U.S.) thanks to the frequent headlines of some of the large strato-volcanoes (e.g., more cone-shaped volcanoes, like Mt. Saint Helens) in the Cascades of Washington and of course the “doomsday” headline-maker, the Yellowstone caldera or “super-volcano.” What many folks are not aware of are the many smaller volcanic fields that dot the South-Western U.S. including Arizona and New Mexico, even though they are often responsible for some of the iconic mesas and plateaus associated with those states. The 8,000 square mile (about the area of Vermont) Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field of New Mexico is one such example.
The first occurrence of volcanism at the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field in New Mexico is thought to have occurred around 50 million years ago and has had sporadic eruption events to as recent as 30,000 years ago. Image 1 was taken while flying over this volcanic field. Visible in the center of the frame is a textbook example of what geoscientists call a cinder cone (or scoria cone) volcano: this one in particular is called Capulin Volcano. Cinder cones are the most common type of intraplate volcano (i.e., a volcano not located on the boundary of a tectonic plate) and are formed when fountains of lava erupt from a volcanic vent. As the lava is ejected into the air, it cools into rock and ash and begins to collect around the vent. Over a period of constant or spaced-out eruptions, this accumulation will form the cone shape you see. Capulin represents some of the younger activity in the field, estimated to be 30,000 years old which is why it retains its textbook shape–– it hasn’t yet been weathered away, like some of the older features of the field.
The older a feature is, the more time it has spent exposed to the weathering processes of Earth’s surface; this can drastically alter the way some volcanic features look. If we look at Image 2, we can see an expanded view of Image 1. Now, a second cinder cone is visible at the bottom of the frame. In between the two cinder cones, we can see two features that look like squiggly outlines with flat tops. These are called mesas now, and they’ve been worn down over many, many years of weathering and erosion, primarily from wind and rain.
Weathering and erosion are also responsible for some of the most spectacular aerial scenery you will see over the Western US (e.g., the Grand Canyon). Visible in Image 3 is Glen Canyon, which, just like the Grand Canyon, has been cut by the mighty waters of the Colorado River. The geology of this area is primarily dominated by sandstone (i.e., Navajo & Wingate sandstones) which have been eroded by the flow of the river over the course of millions of years. The meanders of the river are cut into the sandstones and leave traces of the river’s path from years gone by: this produces many spectacular views. Viewing erosive patterns from a bird’s eye view can also help inquisitive minds better understand runoff and the creation of rivers/watersheds, as seen in Image 4.
Its main focus is the rich, high-quality taxidermy collection used to educate people about animals and their habitats, as well as environmental issues. The collection is also – as the name and affiliation of the museum implies – heavily used for biodiversity and zoology research. The museum was named after its founder Prof. Alexander Koenig, who worked on zoology with an expertise in bird biodiversity in the 19th and early 20th century. The museum still hosts many specimens that were collected by Koenig himself (for example two giraffes and many bird eggs).
Upon entering the building, visitors are greeted by a quite impressive diorama of African savanna fauna and flora ensembles, with naturalized pieces in dynamic poses (Fig. 1). Each animal seems almost alive, with real water dripping out of the mouth of a zebra drinking in a pond, while a leopard bites an antelope’s throat.
In addition to telling interesting stories, the diorama scenes allow the spectators to learn more about animals’ habits and behaviors. Often, audio tracks of both animal and environmental sounds are played in the background and many information sheets and panels (in German and English) are displayed on a variety of scientific topics.
In the next room you find yourself in a tropical jungle, where light effects play a huge role in the display of the naturalized specimens (Fig. 2). Here, the interactions between animals, plants and their environment are the main focus of the dioramas. The extremely realistic appearance of plants inside the cases is fascinating, as each and every of the hundreds of thousands leaves and twigs are actually plastic replicas that were hand painted by skilled artists, no two leaves are the same. In the dark forest, you can sit and watch short documentaries about apes or listen to an audio guide explaining interactions between ants and mushrooms in the tropical forests. The day we visited, on the first floor, we couldn’t visit the canopy of the rainforest, as the displays were still under construction. It has since then been opened to the public: A massive forest canopy diorama and multiple activities educating visitors further about the impact humans have on the rainforest, and people taking action to protect it.
The museum then takes you along on a trip around the world, from Antarctica (seemingly the oldest part of the permanent exhibition, that maybe needs to be updated a little bit from a public outreach point of view, especially when compared to the brilliantly done new tropical forest exhibition) to the deserts, which has surprising and very educative, interactive displays (Fig. 3).
A substantial part of the permanent exhibition is dedicated to the history of the museum and the problems associated with it (e.g. colonialism), and its historic specimens (Fig. 4). This section also tackles the role of humans in the disappearance of species and the destruction of natural habitats. These themes, along with other important topics such as climate change, are brought up in several instances all across the museum. Visitors are invited to sit at the ‘consumer’s table’ interactive display, a great (but also eye-opening and saddening) tactile table with graphic representations that estimate and illustrate your use of natural resources and your impact as a consumer on deforestation. As you select lifestyle choices such as updating your phone for the newest model, selecting a car or public transport, choosing exotic woods over locally produced items, selecting your food choices, you can watch the forest deteriorate or heal with every choice you make (Fig. 5). On the other side of the first floor is an exhibition dedicated to the beautiful and colorful world of insects (Fig. 6). This area also gives insights into research work including an interactive exhibit of a taxonomist’s lab, including microscopes, maps, games and many many books.
Then, there’s the more ‘ancient’ part of the collection, displaying naturalized specimens in glass cases with a systematic approach (for example showing a large number of birds together regardless of their habitat), and some more amazing, though old, dioramas that transport you to the seaside, into the forest or into a field, with a focus on the local german fauna.
The museum’s top floor is dedicated to temporary exhibitions. At the time of our visit, one side consisted of a huge photograph exhibition, highlighting the beauty of nature through the seasons. The other side was dedicated to an exhibition showcasing horse evolution and especially the eocene horses of the Messel pit (Fig. 7). The main element of this exhibition was an exquisitely preserved specimen of Eurohippus; an extinct genus of a relative of modern horses, discovered in Messel. The Messel pit is an eocene maar lake in which hundreds of fossils from a large range of plant and animal species have been preserved exceptionally well (a location comparable in age, fossil assemblage, environmental conditions and depositional setting as the Eckfelder Maar we already wrote about, though much larger) – including several specimens of Eurohippus – allowing paleontologists to have a good insight into these extinct animals’ biology and life. Several specimens have been preserved so well, their internal organs could be investigated and at least 6 specimens are known to have been pregnant when they died.
In this exhibit, Eurohippus was shown both as a replica of a fossil, as well as as a reconstructed version. An entirely white model was used as a canvas, the visitors could play with different patterns and colors of light being projected on the model, mimicking extant animals’ fur patterns to show possible colorations the extinct horse relatives could have had. As the color and patterns of Eurohippus’ fur is still a mystery, this is still up to imagination (Fig. 8).
One of the previous temporary exhibitions of the Museum Koenig was called ‘Big, bigger, dinosaurs’, and because this was not only very cool, but our local paleontological preparator Blandine also got to help dismantle it in the end, we will cover this exhibition in a separate post very soon! Until then, you can already find a post on her instagram about the dismantling (together with a large range of various dinosaur-related content) @dinosaur_forensics
A bit more than half of the informative text appearing on screens and panels in the permanent exhibition is also available in English, as well as much of the audio and video content. Apparently, the museum is working on translating their content from German as they redesign display areas.
In addition to their efforts in making the museum accessible to english-speaking, we also noticed a large amount of available seating throughout all of the rooms, lifts in addition to stairs, and playing areas for children, making the museum a very welcoming environment.
We highly recommend a visit!
Here are some more impressions of our visit (Figs. 9-12):
Thanks to the generous support of the Tilly Edinger Travel Grant, I was able to take part in the 2022 annual meeting of the German Geological Society (DGGV) in Cologne (or Köln). In many ways, this conference was unlike any other I attended thus far. It was the first conference that I went to without the support of my supervisor and subsequently I had to navigate the shallow waters of networking on my own. It was also the first conference after I got involved with the young scientist section of the DGGV and thus I was busy organising ECR events, distributing merch and meeting all the people I had only known from endless zoom sessions, since the group was founded in midst of a global pandemic. However, the most significant difference was the work I presented – I have no other way of stating this: I pulled a bold move and the results were unexpected.
But let us start at the beginning.
It began with a pre-icebreaker for students and early career researchers on Sunday (September 11th.), that I missed, because I was stuck in Cologne’s unforgiving traffic. Great start – especially given that I am part of the group that organised the event, the JungeDGGV (YoungDGGV). Luckily, I was still received with a warm welcome afterwards – probably because I brought with me a box of t-shirts and hoodies that we designed for the JungeDGGV and were eagerly awaited. Wrapped in our new attire we were more than ready for the “grown-up” ice-breaker.
Networking without my Ph.D.-supervisor by my side who knows and is loved by everyone and everything in the German geoscience community, was harder than I expected. I have to admit that I felt a little lost at times. Although I had made a plan of who to talk to beforehand – I realised that a crowded ice-breaker was not the ideal place to find these individuals. However, the efforts of the JungeDGGV to make the kick-off less awkward for young scientists paid off well and while getting to know the PIs had to wait, I met lots of inspiring people from my own career stage.
My time to present came during the poster sessions on Monday and Tuesday evening and boy was I nervous. My poster on Tuesday was titled “What beachrock can and can’t do as a sea level indicator” and a wrap up of all the work I did during my 4 years as a Ph.D. student. The conference was very mineralogy heavy, which meant that there were not a lot of sedimentologists and no sea-level researchers present. Under these circumstances I am more than happy with the turn up. Everything I did during the last four years was talk about beachrock – so, you guessed it, this was not the poster I was worried about.
The second poster I presented on Monday, titled “Shards of glass” was a shot in the dark. Being at a point where my Ph.D. is finished and searching for postdoc opportunities, I currently focus on future research. Apart from the idea, the most critical aspect of this is acquiring funding and finding a PI who is willing to support you during the process. During a Summer School in May 2022, a fellow student and I had an idea to investigate anthropogenic materials like plastic, glass and plastitar that we found cemented into a beachrock on Eleuthera Island (Bahamas). We want to find out where the trash comes from, how it is transported around the island, if it influences the beach rock cementation process and if cemented coastal sediments function as an effective sink for trash and thus keep it from drifting off into the open ocean. Beautiful idea – but who to work with and how to get funded? We thought why not produce a flashy poster that describes the idea even though we haven`t produced any data yet? When I found myself standing next to a poster that looked pretty but had essentially no content apart from “please hire me”, I asked myself more than once: is this a good idea? Turns out: it was. I have never presented a poster that attracted so much attention. People wanted to discuss the idea, gave tips on what methods to use and how to structure fieldwork, and left so, so many business cards.
So what is my take away from the GeoMinKöln2022? I’d say: put yourself and your research out there even if it is just an idea and go and join a scientific society, because it helps.
I recently visited the Waloseum, a museum organised by the seal sanctuary Nationalpark-Haus Norddeich in Norden, on the German North Sea coast. While the seal sanctuary has its own exhibition, focussing on everything related to seals, the Waloseum showcases the local fauna with a strong specialisation on cetaceans and shore birds. Even though their name sounds a bit like it, they have no live whales, they show models, skeletons, videos, and audio recordings of whales. But since the Waloseum is part of the local seal sanctuary, the ground floor of the building also hosts the quarantine station for baby seals which were found sick, injured or abandoned on the beach. The visitors can spend some time observing baby seals; though to be honest, while very cute, a sick baby seal is not really doing a lot of interesting activities, so let’s move on, so they can rest and recover. Other live animals exhibited here include an aquarium with local fish that live close to the sea floor such as catsharks or flatfish, and benthic invertebrates like echinoderms, allowing visitors for example to closely observe the complicated anatomy of sea star locomotion in action (fig 1). Also included in this area is a wonderful collection of mollusc shells such as cone snails, fearsome predators.
The lower floor of the Museum hosts the whale exhibition, beginning with whale evolution (fig 2) and anatomy, for example showing a life size model of a blue whale’s heart (fig 3), which is illuminated in red light pulsating with the same frequency as a blue whale’s heartbeat. Across the museum and between the exhibits, hand painted wall decorations illustrate whale behaviour or anatomy, such as for example the feeding mechanism of baleen whales (fig.4). I especially enjoyed the displays showing the different extant whale species grouped by geographic area in which they live, such as this display of species of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica (fig. 5).
But everyone agrees that the absolute highlight of the museum is the 15m (~50 feet) long skeleton of a male sperm whale that is exhibited in its own room (fig. 6). The skeleton is shown together with a replica of a human skull for size comparison, as well as a giant squid model, an important prey species for sperm whales. What is extra special about this specimen is the fact that the skeleton comes from a sperm whale that was washed up dead at the German coast in 2003 just a few kilometres from the museum. The whale weighed about 40 metric tons! Pictures of the washed up specimen are included on one of the walls, together with information on migration routes and many other interesting details. The entire room is very dark, only the whale is illuminated, the entire atmosphere feels like the deep sea. Sperm whale songs are played in the background. Everything about this is very impressive, the first step into the room takes your breath away.
A small side room branching off here shows very special deep sea ecosystems: hydrothermal vents! Lots of information about the geological processes leading to hydrothermal vents are shown in figures and illustrations, but the nicest part of this section is the hydrothermal vent model, which even includes tiny vent crabs and tube worms (fig. 7).
Following the natural environmental sequence, one floor above the sea floor and open ocean exhibit, sea and shore birds of the local area are showcased (fig. 8). Just like in the sperm whale room, the background is full of animal sounds, in this case seagulls’ and other birds’ calls. The upper floor also includes important information about human-environment interactions, a big topic is environmental destruction through pollution but also the importance of the local Lower Saxon Wadden Sea National Park, which has a size of almost 346,000 hectares (~1,300 square miles) and is the largest national park in Germany.
Even though this museum is very small, through modern exhibits, the very smart use of light and background sound, detailed models and illustrations, the museum creates the perfect atmosphere for learning about marine and coastal life. I highly recommend a visit, especially if you’re looking for something fun to do on one of the many, many rainy days this area gets.
Faith Frings, Ohav Harris, and Kaleb Smallwood *Authors listed alphabetically; all contributed equally to this piece
The teaching of evolution has always been a polemical topic. People often consider evolution and religion to be in direct opposition to one another, when in actuality the two are concerned with separate realms of reality. Many teachers, and even college professors, often feel nervous about bringing up the topic because they worry about how not only students will respond, but also, in the case of K-12 educators, how their parents might react. In fact, a survey conducted in 2007 and published in 2010 concluded that roughly 532,000 students in Florida were taught by teachers who either felt uncomfortable teaching the subject or refrained from teaching evolution entirely (Fowler and Meisels, 2010). This discomfort with discussing evolution has been present since before Darwin published his theory in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859. Darwin himself feared how religious and scientific authorities would respond, as scientists such as Georges Cuvier, a lauded naturalist of the time, decried the belief that the extant species had changed much since they first came into being. This caused him to delay his publication after his return to England in 1836 (Pew Research Center, 2009). The controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution reached a head in the United States in 1925, during the Scopes trial.
The Scopes Trial of 1925 (also called the Monkey Trial) is one very infamous example of the aggravation evolution can bring about in the classroom. John Thomas Scopes, a Tennessee high school science teacher, was accused of teaching evolution, which was against Tennessee law at the time due to the Butler Act, which outlawed any philosophy that opposed creationism and taught that mankind descended from animals (Arnold-Forster, 2022). Scopes did so intentionally, as he was working with the ACLU to defy this law as the defendant. Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan aided the prosecution. Citizens acted as chimps to mock the defense. Unfortunately, since Scopes himself was on trial and not the law he acted against, the defense was not allowed to call scientists in to provide testimony and Scopes was found guilty of breaking the law and fined $100. The verdict was overturned in 1927, but this was only on a technicality. This means that for two years, it was illegal to teach evolution in schools in Tennessee. Two years may not be much in hindsight, but ideas can become entrenched in a person’s mind in that amount of time. Numerous people would have been ignorant of evolution or told that it was a lie in some cases, breeding a lack of scientific literacy that would have made it more difficult for people to accept evolution or science in general in the future. Worse still, laws of this nature persisted in places such as Mississippi and Arkansas (Arnold-Forster, 2022).
While the thoughts and feelings that led to events like the Scopes Trial may seem like a thing of the past now, such vehement sentiments against evolution have flared up more recently than one might think, leading to yet another court case regarding the teaching of evolution in 2005, this time in Pennsylvania. Kitzmiller et al. v Dover Area School District et al. differed from the Scopes Trial in two crucial ways. First, the issue was not a law banning the teaching of evolution, but the school district teaching evolution alongside intelligent design, a philosophy often used as an alternative to creationism. Second, the defense was allowed to call expert scientists as witnesses, turning the trial into something of an educational seminar for those in attendance, showing them that there is plenty of evidence in favor of evolution and that a scientific theory differs from a theory in the colloquial sense (Humes, 2008). Rather than a denial of science in favor of religion, this trial showed not only that evolution is valid, but also that it can be accepted while holding religious beliefs. Many opponents to the teaching of evolution, due to religious beliefs, came to understand the evidence for evolution over the course of the trial and came to accept it without sacrificing their religious values. While the significance of this trial and its subsequent ruling cannot be understated as they allowed the legal teaching of evolution to continue, the most important note to take from this trial is the masterful teaching put on display. Rather than chide the crowd and opposing litigants for their lack of comprehension of science, the scientists brought on by the defense were considerate, respectful, and humorous. There are important lessons to be learned from this trial by those who aspire to teach evolution or subjects such as paleontology or biology where evolution is integral to a comprehension of the subject.
For example, one important point established by the defense in the Kitzmiller case is the fact that science and religion are not mutually exclusive, but they deal in different areas of reality. Religious explanations of phenomena and other things observable in the world often tend to be supernatural, going outside of the confines of what science can and should be used to explain. Science deals strictly with the natural, observable world. Science uses what evidence exists in the natural world to come to conclusions best supported by that evidence. As such, scientific explanations of processes observable in the world do not rule out the existence of a god or other greater power. Science cannot broach the subject at all. Consequently, acceptance of evolution does not require a rejection of one’s faith, nor are the two in conflict at all. It may be helpful to point out this fact for those in a class who feel strongly about their religious affiliations to ease their worries in that regard. Additionally, this trial shows the significance of preparing thoughtful and clear answers for any questions raised by students in class. One outlandish argument brought up during the trial was that of irreducible complexity. It was argued that cars and planes are made using similar parts, but neither a car nor plane came from the other. Additionally, if one vital part of a car or plane was removed, the object would cease to function. It was argued that the same went for organisms. Ken Miller’s response was complete and used the relevant example of the multipurpose proteins in bacterial flagellum, which was something discussed ad nauseum in the trial, to show that organisms are not irreducibly complex (Humes, 2008). The proteins that make up the flagellum can also be used for various other functions, so it is not accurate to say that the system is irreducibly complex. In another setting, those proteins can be seen performing completely different functions. Being ready to address questions and detractors is crucial to getting an audience to listen to and respect you. Doing so while respecting people’s lack of knowledge or their skepticism is equally crucial. Through proper teaching, evolution can transition from the controversial topic it is sometimes seen as into being well-accepted as the scientific theory that it is by the public, similar to the theory of gravity or cell theory. Calmly explaining to students that we did not come from monkeys, assuaging their worries regarding religion, and encouraging scientific thinking are all important steps along this road. Evolution is just as important a scientific subject to understand as any other to allow people to understand the natural world around them and how it functions.
Arnold-Forster, Tom. “Rethinking the Scopes Trial: Cultural Conflict, Media Spectacle, and Circus Politics.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 56, no. 1, 2022, pp. 142–166., doi:10.1017/S0021875821000529.
Humes, Edward. Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul. Harper Perennial, 2008.
Alyssa Anderson, Aaron Avery, and Stephen Hill *All authors contributed equally
As humanity embarks into the twenty-first century, the importance of understanding the theory of evolution has never been greater. This importance is not rested solely in understanding human existence, but on the natural world as a whole. If humanity hopes to tackle such issues as curing cancer, fighting antibiotic resistant bacteria, and finding crops better adapted to global climate change, then we must impart a broad understanding of the theory of evolution to the next generation. Misconceptions in the understanding of evolution are a common occurrence and can be difficult to approach in the classroom, but because of the importance of this issue the scientists and educators of today should be well versed in how to teach evolution in both a confident and equitable manner that does not foster resentment from their students. This article seeks to address some of the more common misconceptions and supply responses to them, for educators and for evolution learners
1) Evolution is a theory, not a law
This misconception stems from a mix-up between casual and scientific use of the word theory. In everyday language, theory is often used to mean a hunch with little evidential support. Scientific theories, on the other hand, are broad explanations for a wide range of phenomena. In order to be accepted by the scientific community, a theory must be strongly supported by many different lines of evidence. Evolution is a well-supported and broadly accepted scientific theory; it is not ‘just’ a hunch. Evolution is a theory and it is also a fact- meaning that it is extremely well supported in scientific studies.
2) Evolution goes against religious beliefs
Accepting religion does not discredit evolution and science, and vice versa. Many may believe that science is inherently atheist or agnostic, or that science requires one to forgo their faith entirely. Not true! Evolution is a means to explain an unknown phenomenon in the world by using what we can test in the world around us; in this case, evidence that shows organisms changing over time. It’s the same way people use science to understand nature today, such as answering why the sky is blue instead of only wondering. Religion seeks to explain phenomena outside of nature. But understanding how nature works does not discredit faith! The goal of scientific theory and explanation is not to prove something wrong, it simply seeks to understand by testing naturally occurring phenomena around us.
3) Evolution doesn’t explain the origin of life
Evolutionary theory discusses ideas and evidence surrounding the idea of the origin of life, but this is not central to what evolutionary studies aim to learn. Evolution describes the processes involved in life changing over time, not how it started. Evolution considers factors such as adaptation, mutation, and natural selection as mechanisms for driving biotic change throughout Earth’s history. Random (mutation) and non-random (selection) processes contribute to evolutionary change. The idea that the study of evolution seeks to understand how life changed after it started gives us an advantage when teaching science to students who may have differing opinions on how life appeared on this planet. Science and religion are not at odds as they each seek to answer fundamentally different questions in fundamentally different ways. Science and religion in this way do not have to be diametrically opposed, and therefore we are able to discuss the principles of evolution without engaging in dialogue refuting any particular belief system on creation.
4) Evolution is Slow and Gradual
Evolution occurs at many different rates. Yes, it is a gradual process that is constantly taking place over millennia. However, it can also be a rapid process, geologically speaking. One thing to remember that is always hard to fathom, is just the sheer massive scale of time being discussed whenever talking about evolution on geologic time scales. When we see “rapid” evolutionary change, it is often rapid relative to longer time scale phenomena. However, rapid geologically often means hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. We find evidence for this in the fossil record. The Cambrian Explosion is one such example. This was a time period of exceptional adaptive radiation that resulted in a figurative “explosion” in the number and type of organisms we find in the geologic record. This “explosion” should be considered relative to what we see in the fossil record during other time periods. This never indicates a sudden rise of a brand new species from an existing one, as if a chicken laid an egg that hatched an eagle.
However, we do observe instances of rapid evolution going on around us all of the time. The most prescient example of this would be microbes, like bacteria, developing resistances to antibiotics in very short time frames. There have also been experiments conducted watching bacterial colonies respond to toxins that show they are able to adapt to deal with an environment that includes the toxins in only a few bacterial generations! Additionally, most of us can simply look into our backyards to find some species (even squirrels) that have developed adaptations to climate change over only a few decades. One example would be that red squirrels have been observed to have changed their breeding habits to adapt to warmer temperatures earlier in the year as the climate has warmed progressively.
5) Organisms aren’t always optimally adapted
Good enough is fine! Organisms do not need to achieve perfection, and it is not a race to climb up the ladder. They just need to be ‘fit’ enough to survive and reproduce (in fact, fitness truly refers to the number of offspring one has: the more offspring, the higher fitness). Also, ‘fitness’ depends on the environment. When the environment changes, a fit organism’s adaptation may become less successful (thus, the organism may no longer be adapted to the environment).
6) The goal of evolution is always to improve organisms
Evolution never “seeks” a specific goal. Evolution doesn’t have conscious thought; no matter how wonderfully complex nature may seem, it can’t force progress and can’t make decisions. Natural selection works on a scale of “more likely”—when random processes such as mutation and genetic drift occur, it can make organisms more likely to survive, but it’s not a guarantee. Most genetic shifts are minor or benign anyways, and don’t even result in what we may perceive as progress within single generations. Evolution is not a race, and there’s certainly no finish line to create the perfect organism! Evolution (much like a jedi) simply doesn’t deal in absolutes.
It is important to remember that when a student or individual brings up a misconception about evolution, it is not okay to alienate or ridicule them. It is often the case that this could be a person’s first time encountering this concept and their background or upbringing could make this a difficult subject to approach. By embarrassing or making someone feel alienated, a person will often not want to learn more on the subject. Above all, be respectful and help people learn about the amazing world around us!
As an undergrad wrapping up my first year of college this past spring, I remember sitting in my dorm room with a thermos of hot tea, scanning website after website, asking myself what I was going to do with my summer. At the time, I was about halfway through my first-ever geology class, which had sent me on an earth and climate science kick that inspired most of my searches. Eventually, my professor sent me a link to the TimeScavengers website and internship information page. It seemed like a perfect opportunity – something that would allow me to geek out about science from the comfort of my own home, where I could still spend time with my friends and family. I decided to apply.
Naively, I assumed the internship would be a breeze. Looking back, I’m ashamed of how smug I felt about it – I had grown up hearing people telling me that I was a good writer, and that I was a good scientist, so I imagined that it wouldn’t be that hard to combine the two. Within the first week, I quickly found out I was mistaken. It turned out that there’s likely a reason most scientists aren’t writers, and vice versa: because it is hard.
For me, the biggest challenge was the time and effort it took to dissect each article to a level where I could rewrite it for others. I remember multiple occasions when I put my highlighter away, thinking I fully understood an article, only to sit in front of an empty Google Doc and realize I had to go back and reread an entire section. I discovered there was a huge difference between understanding something in my brain and putting it in words. (This, of course, was shortly followed by the realization that the understanding locked in my brain was probably not all that complete to begin with). Point being, there’s another layer of insight that comes with trying to explain science, and, as painful as that layer might be to reach, it will definitely be beneficial in the long run.
While nothing about the internship proved impossible, it certainly challenged me in ways I didn’t expect. However, I was also struck by how much easier these processes became over time. In one of my first articles, I remember essentially skipping over a methods section that had too many big, scientific-looking words. The task of sorting through all of them, looking them up, rereading and rewriting seemed too daunting, and my mentors, Sam and Alex, had to explain the whole thing to me. On a more recent article, however, I was able to plow through an equally challenging methods section on my own. I sprawled out at a table at a library nearby, a printed out and highlighted article in front of me, with a notebook on one side and my laptop to look up words with on the other side. It still took quite a while, but it was satisfying in the end to see the improvements I had made over the course of the internship.
In the end, I don’t think my time with TimeScavengers has changed the path I hope to take as a scientist. If anything, the hours reading articles made me realize how much I itched to be out in the field doing my own research, rather than pouring over someone else’s. However, this internship definitely changed my perspective on science communication going forward. It seems to me that anyone who seeks the fancy title of “scientist” should also seek the title of “science communicator.” After all, earth-shattering research is worth nothing if only the researcher themself knows about it – they must be able to convey their findings to everyone else in order for it to make an impact. I also hope to make accessibility a priority in any research that I do in the future, so that aspiring scientists feel encouraged, rather than intimidated, when reading my findings.
Science communication has been a part of my life for longer than I could name the concept. I grew up in a family of science lovers, so reading, watching, and listening to science-based publications and entertainment has been something I have enjoyed since early childhood. Interning at Time Scavengers for the summer of 2022 was my first time creating science content in a professional capacity. It was a challenging and rewarding experience to be on the other side of the words. I learned a lot about myself and what science communication meant to me, namely:
There are many ways to be a science communicator, from creating short-form content on social media to writing policy. All of those levels are important, and more people than ever are needed on all platforms producing and distributing clear, accurate information. There are endless avenues to explore with science communication, one only needs to be inspired to pursue them.
As necessary as it is, summarizing research articles and studies in an easily consumable way is not a simple task! At times it felt like I was translating from a language I wasn’t entirely fluent in. It was constantly necessary for me to remind myself of what my intention was with every piece I wrote: to make the information interesting, relatable, and concise. That helped me to focus on the core of the information and organize it in a way that did justice to the source material while still being accessible to those who may not be experts in the subject matter.
Not all science news and articles have to be shocking and dazzling. As wonderful as new discoveries are, there can be just as much impact in reinforcing simple, close-to-home ideas. Proof that a hot desert is slowly but surely getting hotter is not what most people would consider exciting news, but it’s the job of a science communicator to express why information like that is just as if not more significant as the discovery of a new exoplanet.
Communication is lost without consideration. While there is a time for jargon and complicated graphics, as certain ideas can only be expressed in a technical manner, care should be taken when trying to reach the masses that everyone has different levels of ability, understanding, and education. Choosing to communicate science means choosing to share information that affects everyone. Part of the job is ensuring that everyone gains as much as possible from what is being shared. Accessibility and diversity are as important to the dissemination of science communication as clarity and precision are to writing it. It is worth the extra time and words to make sure that a key term is explained thoroughly, or the alternative text of a graph gives accurate values.
Writing for Time Scavengers gave me skills and insight that I will use throughout my education and career. I had a great time, am thrilled to have been a part of it, and can’t wait to use what I learned to make the world a more informed place.
I have changed a lot since I began my journey into sci-comm. While I do attribute some of it to post-high school maturity, I think pursuing sci-comm has helped me become more empathetic, a better listener, and it has helped me reframe my focus to hone in on connections with others. My goal in this essay is to share a bit of that journey with you.
I remember being taught that science was objective, and implicitly learned to take the human-ness out of science. The science came first: if someone wanted to interject their own experiences or feelings into the science, but it should be treated separately from the science.Science, especially the science that deals with the history of the Earth, can feel contentious for people. The history of our planet ultimately says something about our origins, and people have very strong opinions about the implications for those origins. The mystery of origins, about us, earth, and life itself is what got me interested in geology–it keeps me awake at night, wondering how all of these big ideas connect. I realized about five years into my thought journey that I was thinking through all of this the wrong way. Having attended scientific conferences and now wrapping up the Time Scavengers virtual internship, I know how important it is to strive for connection with others rooted in the personal, especially in science.
I have always enjoyed writing and telling stories, and because of how I learned science (i.e., how I thought you had to separate the facts from the emotions), I thought these things were mutually exclusive. I took my writing and geology classes and did not think much of it until I met my geology advisor. In the beginning of the semester, she described geology as being a storyteller, with the privilege of being able to learn more about the world around us. Especially during the pandemic, she made efforts to get us to see local geology in (socially distanced) outings. Ultimately, she wanted us to know we all had voices, and that we had the ability to tell these stories to others. She helped me understand how important it was to promote diversity and how integral connection with others was to doing good science.
This changed my perspective quite a lot because before this, I spent my time learning to build walls. I had a lot of people walk out on me or lose my trust. I desperately wanted to make connections, but it felt like it was getting more and more difficult. Being raised in a politically and religiously conservative environment did not help this attitude, especially as a science major. With a conservative Christian background, I was sharpening my swords for the secular institutions that I was told would try to snatch my faith from me with their long ages and fossils. Since graduating and stepping into the academic field, I realized what I learned all those years ago couldn’t be further from the truth- science and faith don’t have to be mutually exclusive at all. Meeting with my advisor and talking with her about my background helped me realized I could blend my knack for storytelling and my desire for connections with my love for geology
The Time Scavengers Internship was something I excitedly took on because I wanted to learn more about sci-comm while earning some summer cash. What I did not expect was to learn from people who have made an impact in science communication and hear their personal stories. This was a unique opportunity for me to see that I can blend my passions for studying origins, philosophy and religion with my enthusiasm for science. The first speaker, Riley Black, is my sci-comm hero. Her book, My Beloved Brontosaurus, was a huge part in my realization that science and storytelling can intertwine. The second speaker, Dr. Liz Hare, talked about accessibility and making figures/images/graphs interpretable for people who cannot see them. Her overarching theme of accessibility was really insightful because it points to a role of connection that is overlooked by people who are not disabled. Another speaker, Priya Shukla, spoke about embracing our individual pasts and experiences because they can deepen the meanings of our scientific work. This was affirming to me, as I have always been hesitant to share my religious background in a scientific setting. I want to embrace my unique position and hopefully be helpful to those who may also be navigating similar journeys. The more I am in the academic/scientific community, the more I see people who want to connect with others, and I am learning to be more vulnerable in sharing my story. The more I have learned to let down the walls of protection, the more connection I’ve been able to have with others and learn from them.
Science writers, professors, and content creators these days all punctuate the same point: science is for everyone, and we can connect with each other through it, a shift that I think is a positive move for the community. Our stories matter and the science we are interested in and want to pursue is affected by our past, the culture we live in, and how we see the world around us. Science is not objective because people carry their experiences with them, and understanding this idea allows “doing science” to reach further depths than the raw numbers or data would by themselves.
Since learning to become a better science communicator, my goal is to help others enjoy science and see the stories it offers us about ourselves, how we got here, and what we can learn about our past. Learning to see science communication as a way to connect with people brings a richness and unifying feeling, that we can begin to understand something bigger than all of us.
Science has been a consistently developing field, with tons of new finds, new scientists, and a general increase in how many people are involved and engaged with the discipline. However, my undergraduate peers and I have found that effective communication is an often underdeveloped skill within science. We spend so much time learning calculus, learning physics, learning about environmental systems, yet never seem to spend much learning how to effectively share what we learn with others.
As of 2022, I’m entering my second year of undergraduate studies, and I’ve already seen the aforementioned communication divide as I share what I learn with family and friends. I entered science because I found the developments in biotechnology to be super interesting and to have great potential to better our world. However, science isn’t exclusive to scientists. There are policymakers, governments, educators, stakeholders, voters, and tons of other people who need to engage and interact with science, and often cannot because of the language and lack of accessibility regarding scientific research. As a result, I still want to pursue research in biotechnology, but I want much of my work to center open communication and accessibility within science.
Thankfully, I was offered an internship with the Time Scavengers organization, and was granted the opportunity to further develop my communication skills through practice and learning opportunities. Weekly, me and the other interns got to hear a variety of scientists of various backgrounds teach about different factors of communications, which was an amazing opportunity. The major topics covered were effective storytelling, identities’ role in communication, effective teaching methods, accessibility, and compromise. However, although each of these topics was spoken on, there was so much more with each presenter having a unique background and journey into communications.
Besides these presentations, I also could practice communication through summarizing scientific research on topics from as broad as chimpanzee communication to global water evaporation with varying degrees of challenge. It was through this work that I truly realized how essential science communications work is. Much of the research I read through used jargon or failed to explain concepts or methods in a way that someone outside of the subjects’ field would understand. This meant that with most of the research I read through, to even understand a page, there was a lot of additional research and dictionary searching that had to be done. If I can’t understand their work without lots of additional effort, how can we expect those without a science background to do so? This was the biggest challenge I felt my experience within this internship helped bridge.
Each article presented a unique challenge of learning something brand new and learning all the language and nuance to a degree where I could communicate that information to others. This was by far the most challenging part of the internship, but luckily, I had a lot of help. Every week I’d write about two articles summarizing papers I had chosen on a variety of topics. Sometimes this was a pretty straightforward process, but more often the not required the aforementioned searching and struggling to understand. After I finished this, though, I’d sent my article off to my mentor and we could discuss and edit. I got a lot of really useful tips about writing, especially having another perspective on my work. I think the most helpful information I got was just trying to be simple. A lot of writing, both academic and artistic, encourages high-level vocabulary or complex ways of communicating things. Which sometimes is valuable and arguably necessary, but for accessibility is not always the best. Many of the challenges in my writing were related to this either in complex words or structure that could be easily simplified down to something else. This not only makes it easier for non-native English speakers but also maybe those who are not as familiar with academic writing or the topic to understand. It seems like such basic advice, but really being simple when appropriate is so valuable, and something writers might not consider because of the culture around writing.
In addition to this advice, within both my written articles and the presentations, there was a general focus on how to better connect with a variety of audiences. Sometimes this meant trying to use comparisons or more ordinary language to reach others, and sometimes it meant including more of yourself or relevant applications of your work to allow the audience to engage more with the topic. This type of discussion was something I hadn’t really engaged much with and felt as if there were so many perspectives that got to share and be heard in this experience, both intern and expert alike.
Furthermore, I think it’s really important to acknowledge a lot of the direct and indirect discussion on accessibility that went on. Besides language and comprehension accessibility, there was an amazing presentation on alt text. Although I’ve heard of alt text, I never really knew how to properly put it into my work, what its true value is, and what makes good alt text. These things were touched on and discussed, and I could practice creating alt text for each of my articles. This meant describing images or graphs and really focusing on what information is being communicated through visual means, as well as how to explain that in full value to someone who is using a screen reader. For graphs, this meant describing the type of graph, variables, general structure, and any other important information. While for pictures, this meant explaining things like the perspective, the context, color, or any other important visual cues and information needed to properly create meaningful alt text. This forced me to really think about how to analyze what information is portrayed through visual means both directly and indirectly, later converting this into written information. This is going to be imperative to my future work and really opened my eyes more in terms of digital accessibility.
Overall, this internship was an extremely valuable opportunity. I not only got to engage and practice communicating challenging topics, but I also got to hear from so many perspectives and other amazing scientists. Each of the interns, presenters, and mentors all had something to contribute and expanded my view on what science communication is. Science communication isn’t just for National Geographic Writers, it’s not just for podcasts hosts, it’s something all scientists, both writing-focused and non-writing focused, should consider developing skills in. It’s in the way we describe a figure, in the way we share our findings with policymakers, it’s in the way we describe our job positions to others. Science communication is all around us, and to ineffectively communicate in science is to lessen the value of your work. This opportunity brought a lot of practice and new ideas to my writing, and I hope to continue to use these in all facets of my work in the future, as well as encourage others to think more critically about the way we communicate even if it’s not the core of their work.