How To Fall In Love With Ants

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Some friends and I run a website called Download the Universe, where we review ebooks about science. Here is a review that I recently published that I thought would be of interest to readers of the Loom.

Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants. Text by Eleanor Spicer Rice. Photographs by Alex Wild. Available at The School of Ants. iPad or pdf. Free.

Many plants grow a thick coat around their seeds. The coat, called an elaiosome, doesn’t do the seed any good, at least directly. Its immediate job is to attract an insect known as the winnow ant. (The photo above shows winnow ants discovering blood root seeds.) The eliaosome releases fragrant odors that lure the ants, which then carry the seed into their nest. There the ants gnaw away at the seed’s coating but spare the seed itself. The ants then carry the shucked seed back out to the forest floor, where it germinates.

The winnow ant thus act like a gardener, caring for the plants. It protects the seeds from predators that would destroy them, and it spreads them far from their parent plant. Remove winnow ants from a forest, and its populations of wildflowers will shrink.

As a resident of the northeastern United States, I always assume that all the magnificent examples of coevolution must be going on somewhere else. The jungles of Ecuador, the Mountains of the Moon–these are the places where nature-film producers go to find species exquisitely adapted to each other. This, of course, just belies my far-less-than-complete education in natural history. While reading Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants, I discovered that winnow ants are abundant here in New England, along with the rest of the eastern United States. The next time I am out on a walk in the local woods, I’m going to keep an eye out for these elegant little insects.

Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants is itself an elegant little book–and an instructive example of how ebooks can become a tool in the growing citizen science movement. “Citizen science” typically refers to research that relies not just on a handful of Ph.D. researchers, but also on a large-scale network of members of the public. Birders have been doing citizen science for over a century, and now the Internet enables people to collaborate on many other projects, from mapping neurons in the eye to folding proteins to recognizing galaxies. Many of these projects yield solid scientific results (see this paper in Nature, with over 57,000 co-authors as an example). They also provide a new way for research to draw non-scientists into their world.

At North Carolina State University, biologist Rob Dunn and his colleagues have built a little empire of citizen science projects. I myself eagerly participated in his survey of the microbial life dwelling in the human belly button. (I’ve got 58 species, which turns out to be below average.) More recently, they’ve created a project they’ve dubbed The School of Ants. Here’s how they describe it:

The School of Ants project is a citizen-scientist driven study of the ants that live in urban areas, particularly around homes and schools. Teachers, students, parents, kids, junior-scientists, senior citizens and enthusiasts of all stripes are involved in collecting ants in schoolyards and backyards using a standardized protocol so that we can make detailed maps of the wildlife that lives just outside our doorsteps. The maps that we create with these data are telling us quite a lot about native and introduced ants in cities, not just here in North Carolina, but across the United States.

The School of Ants web site has plenty of information to help amateur ant hunters recognize the species trundling across a nearby sidewalk and then share their findings. But, like most web sites, it one works best as a sprawling reference. Its architecture doesn’t lend itself well to the sustained education required to become a backyard myrmecologist. For that experience, it’s hard to beat a book.

Hence, Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants. Eleanor Spicer Rice has written a 142-page introduction to these insects. She describes 13 common American species, such as the winnow ants, and also provides a general introduction to their biology. Rice writes for a young audience, but fortunately she doesn’t see that as an opportunity to write badly. Her style is clear, fluid, and engaging. (I’m fond of the way she described winnow ants as “rusty ballerinas.”)

The design and artwork in the book are also excellent. Neil McCoy created the book using iBook Author, Apple’s free software for making ebooks for the iPad. The design is clean, despite the fact it combines text, maps, photo galleries, and videos. I still use a first-generation iPad, waiting (or hoping?) for it to die, but it never struggled as it displayed the elements of Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants. What makes it especially lovely is the abundance of photographs by Alex Wild, the Ansel Adams of arthropods. The tiny size of the photo I included with this review doesn’t do justice to his work, but the large-scale format of his images on the iPad does.

I can quibble, but not for very long. This ebook is only available for iPad, for which I blame Apple, not McCoy. (You can get a pdf version, which lacks the galleries and video.) The ebook includes Google maps for each species, but they’re not interactive. Readers are instructed to go to the School of Ants web site for interactive versions, with no link on the page to take you there. But I can’t follow this line of grousing very long before I remember that this ebook is free (thanks to the support that the project gets from sources such as the Burroughs Wellcome Fund). I would have gladly paid for it. I heartily recommended it not just to people who want to join the School of Ants project, but anyone who wants to appreciate the miniature beauty and complexity of ants. And I hope that Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants inspires other citizen science projects to produce informative ebooks of their own.

Rewiring Life: Learning About Synthetic Biology In Debates, Videos, and Comic Books

Today scientists at Stanford University reported they had implanted transistor-like bundles of genes into E. coli, making it possible to transform cells into biological computers. At Download the Universe, a science ebook review where I’m an editor, I take a look at the history of synthetic biology that led up to this remarkable feat. I also reflect on how to help young people become both excited and wise about these new kinds of technology. Check it out!


Download the Universe: A Year of Science Ebooks

DTU banner-crop-600A year ago, some friends (including my three fellow Phenomena writers) and I put together a web site to review science ebooks. We dubbed it Download the Universe, and we’ve reviewed about 80 titles since then, on everything from avalanches to Leonardo da Vinci. I’ve just written an anniversary post, in which I reflect on what works and doesn’t work in this new medium, and the things that give us as reviewers hope, along with a touch with anger. Check it out.

Flea-Ridden Page Turners, The Forensics of Vengeance, and More: Catching Up with Download the Universe

Download the Universe, the science ebook review I started up with some colleagues nine months ago, continues to grow. Here’s the latest batch of reviews:

The Most Ingenious Book: How to Rediscover Micrographia My survey of the digital experiences of Robert Hooke’s 1665 masterpiece.

NASA’s 30 years of Shuttle Missions Is Both Dull and Compelling John Timmer explores NASA’s online history

The Long Quest to Catch a Poisoner Deborah Blum finds the science in a true-crime thriller.

A Medieval Bestiary: When a Book Breaks Your Heart Maggie Koerth-Baker has great hopes for an ebook from the British Library. Hopes are dashed.

Did You Like My Ebook? Don’t Lie! Maia Szalavitz reviews Sam Harris’s ebook on lying.

The Beautiful Planet Meets The Immortal Cassini I take a look at an elegant collection of NASA’s images of Saturn.

Death and Other Options: How To Think (Hopefully!) About Global Health Tom Levenson reviews a TED book on the medical future of our species

Deep Water: A Pretty Good TED Ebook (Really!) About Climate Change John Dupuis considers the strengths and weaknesses of an ebook on climate change.

Interplanetary Cuisine What do people eat in space? Veronique Greenwood tucks in.

The Science of Sports: An eBook Goes for the Gold, Gets A Bronze Jaime Green reviews an ebook from Scientific American on the Olympics. (Remember the Olympics? That creepy giant baby on opening night? Remember?)

A Hot Planet and a Twisted Gut: Catching Up With Download the Universe

Over at Download the Universe, we’re continuing to explore the growing world of science ebooks. Here’s the latest batch of reviews:

Going to Extremes: An Ebook About the Climate Forest and the Weather Trees Dan Fagin writes about what our weird weather these days can tell us about our warming future.

An overstuffed colon and a perfectly sized Kindle Single Seth Mnookin on Andy Borowitz’s very funny take on a horrendous bowel disorder. (Really!)

eBooks and the democratization of crackpottery John Timmer muses on the digital future of self-published pseudoscience.

Rudy Rucker Resurrects a Lost Classic of Psychedelia Steve Silberman writes an impassioned review about a forgotten tale of mind-altering drugs, now rescued from obscurity as an ebook.

Telegraphing What Technology Wants John Hawks takes a look at a digital retooling of a science book and wonders if ebooks will become the new Cliff Notes.

A Journey to the Island of Tree Kangaroos Matthew Power enjoys a good old-fashioned tale of jungles, exploration, and weird marsupials.

Can the wonders of the universe fit on an iPad? Jennifer Ouellette  Jaime Green reviews an app by physicist-celebrity Brian Cox.

The Frankenstein Universe: How The New York Public Library Blew Up the Ebook I review an enormous virtual museum exhibit about biotechnology’s founding allegory.

Wonders of Geology: Getting High On Mountains Veronique Greenwood enjoys what might once have been called a coffee-table book about our planet’s stunning surface.

"From Page to Pixel" on Slideshare

I had the pleasure of kicking off the annual meeting of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections with a keynote lecture on the impact of the Internet on science writing and museums. One audience member asked if she could see the slides again to follow some of the links. So here they are, courtesy of SlideShare.

Of Victorian Chemists and Online Pornographers: Catching Up With Download the Universe

Here’s a round-up of the latest pieces over at Download the Universe, the science ebook review.

How a Locked-in Woman Took Control of a Robot Arm You may have read in the news last month. Ed Yong admires an ebook that gets behind the headlines and tells the personal story of the paralyzed woman who made cybernetic history.

What the Moon is Really Made of Veronique Greenwood takes a lunar adventure with an ebook written by a team of geologists

Inside the Atavist: A conversation with Evan Ratliff The innovative ebook publisher the Atavist has just attracted investment from the likes of Eric Schmidt at Google. I Skyped the Atavist’s co-founder Evan Ratliff to talk about his experiences and plans for the future.

Science by Candlelight There are lots of fantastic free science ebooks waiting for you to read–historical works that are now in public domain. Deborah Blum looks at a delightful classic–Victorian chemist Michael Faraday’s meditation on the world in a candle flame.

At the Edge of Life Jude Isabella reviews an ebook about the science of near death experiences and ponders how science writers should cover such charged topics.

I Point To TED Talks and I Point to Kim Kardashian. That Is All. I read an ebook based on a TED talk. It was about videogames and pornography and how they’re destroying the world. I got fed up. I wrote a review. I feel better now.


Lost voyages to the North Pole and more: Catching up with Download the Universe

Over at Download the Universe, we’ve added another crop of entertaining reviews about ebooks that you definitely should–or, in some cases, definitely should not–check out:

“When an Autism Diagnosis Comes as a Blessing”: Steve Silberman writes a powerful review about the reality of autism and a Kindle memoir about living with the condition.

“Meandering Mississippi: An early journalism iBook is all wet”: Seth Mnookin reads an account of last year’s Mississippi floods and wonders why newspapers are squandering the opportunities that ebooks are offering them.

“A Lost Explorer Returns: Todd Balf’s Farthest North: David Dobbs revels in a well-told story of an ill-fated scientific voyage across the Arctic.

“Leonardo: The First Great Science Ebook”: I take a look at a lavishly-produced ebook about Leonardo da Vinci’s forgotten work as a pioneer of anatomy. Staggeringly impressive.

“A Time Machine for the Face of Earth”: My review of a coffee-table-like ebook about how humans (and other forces) are changing the surface of the planet.

“Artificial Epidemics: You’re Not Sick, You’re Just Overdiagnosed”: Neuroscience blogger “Scicurious” is unimpressed with an ebook that claims that depression and prostate cancer are all in your head. (Confused? You should be.)

“Titanic: The e-Book Nobody Loved”: Jennifer Ouellette looks at one of the least successful Titanic anniversary tie-ins. Again, a wasted opportunity.

And, finally, Seth Mnookin, Annalee Newitz, Maia Szavalitz, and I engaged in a three-day roundtable discussion about ebooks: how people read them, how they get published, and the future of books:

Day 1: Crap futurism, pleasure reading, and DRM

Day 2: Walled gardens, cruftiness, and a race to the bottom

Day 3: Pirates, parties, pulps, and PowerPoint: Part 3 of a Download the Universe roundtable on e-reading

Monet's Ultraviolet Eye and other Ebook Epiphanies: Catching Up With Download the Universe

Over at Download the Universe, we’ve posted a bunch of new reviews of science ebooks. We fell in love with some titles, we hated others, and we had a love-hate relationship with ebooks that were great in some ways and awful in others. When we started Download the Universe, we thought we were coming together to start something pretty straightforward: a book review dedicated to a neglected category of creations–namely, science ebooks. But ebooks are in such an early stage that our reviews often end up being contemplations of the form itself. In 10 years, I wonder if these questions will be sorted out, or if a new raft of questions will float in to take their place.

Here are the reviews we’ve published since I last posted an update on the Loom, in reverse order:

Monet’s Ultraviolet Eye My review of an app about color, and some thoughts on what ebook designers can learn from museum exhibits

A Disorganized Celebration of Skulls Brian Switek reviews an ebook about the box of bones on top of our spines

Blowing Windmills and Seeing the Future: Al Gore’s Our Choice Dan Fagin reviews Gore’s ebook about energy and climate

A Big Minimalism Win for eBooks: Robin Sloan’s Fish David Dobbs is pleasantly surprised by a very small ebook

Slog of the Dinosaurs Brian reviews a dinosaur ebook. You can guess what he thinks of it from the title

Look Up In The Sky! It’s A Book! It’s An App! It’s a Bat! I take a look at a children’s ebook about bats and consider the economics of calling your ebook and app. (With wise words from my 8-year-old daughter Veronica.)

Have I Got A Moon Rock For You… Tom Levenson reviews an ebook about the black market in extraterrestrial geology.

Steven Gilbert Really, Really Wants You to Know About Poison Deborah Blum reviews a self-published book by a toxicologist

I Heard the Sirens Scream: Laurie Garrett Takes on 9/11 & Anthrax Maia Szavalitz reviews a Pulitzer-prize-winning health journalist’s weighty e-tome about bioterrorism.

The Frozen Future of Nonfiction Our new editor Seth Mnookin reviews Why the Net Matters by neuroscientist David Eagleman

Dazzling Material, Lackluster Story Virginia Hughes is disappointed by an opulent ebook about gems

“Life on Earth”: the future of textbooks? John Hawks reviews E. O. Wilson’s ambitious iPad-only biology textbook and looks ahead to the future of academic publishing


Gutenberg, the Solar System, and Biological Cities: New Reviews at Download the Universe

Here’s the latest batch of reviews from Download the Universe. Check out these science ebooks:

Living Architecture: How Synthetic Biology Can Remake Our Cities: A contemplation of how tinkering with cells can change civilization.

The Solar System: An interactive guide to the planets.

Gutenberg the Geek: How the explosion of the Internet today mirrors the birth of movable type.

Natural History: Mammals – Carnivores: Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

The Stir of Waters: Radiation, Risk, and the Radon Spa of Jáchymov. A journey to a bizarre resort where people bathe in radioactive waters.

Catching up with Download the Universe: Alien worlds, killer meteorites, and meaningless smiles

Download the Universe, a new science ebook review, is now entering its third week of life. We’ve been publishing a string of new reviews since I last blogged about it. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, now is a great time to do so. Here are the latest:

Worlds Without End: Sean Carroll on Journey to the Exoplanets

One man and his superorganism: Ed Yong on Before the Swarm

Doomsday Deflected Tom Levenson on Planet Killers

SMILE: The Astonishing Destructive Power of Positive Thinking David Dobbs disembowels SMILE; The Astonishing Power of a Simple Act.

Much more to come!


Controlling Cancer: Today's ebook review at Download the Universe

Download the Universe, the new science ebook review that I and a group of other writers and scientists recently launched, is now entering its second week. I’ve written this week’s first review, of an ebook called Controlling Cancer, by evolutionary biologist Paul Ewald. Ewald argues that the best way to reduce the death rate from cancer is to treat it like an infectious disease–which, to a surprising extent, it really is. Check it out.

[Image: Dividing lung cancer cell/NIH]

Download the Universe: Week One!

We’ve come to the end of the first week of Download the Universe, a science ebook review. Today’s review is from Maggie Koerth-Baker, the science editor of Boing-Boing and author of the forthcoming Before the Lights Go Out, a book about the future of energy. She reviews Into the Forbidden Zone by William Vollmann, in which the author recounts his journey into Japan’s post-tsunami hell. Maggie weaves in her own reflections on how hard it can be for us to judge the real risks we face from nature and from our own technology.

It’s been a great experience to see the idea for this project go from conference-hallway gabbing to actual publication. Here are the rest of this week’s offerings:

“A New Kind of Review for a New Kind of Book”–my introduction to the site and some thoughts about the history of science in books.

“A Cabinet of (Chemical) Curiosities”–Deborah Blum reviews The Elements, an iPad app about chemistry

“The State of the ebook, Early 2012”–John Timmer surveys the business and creative possibilities of ebooks today.

“Narrative and Neuroscience”–Annalee Newitz reviews Blindsight, an Atavist publication about a brain injury that sends a man into a different kind of existence.

Stay tuned (or rss’d)–there’s a lot more to come.