The Ivory Trade Lives On


John Frederick Walker's new book discusses the ivory trade.Long before gold and gemstones, humans were drawn to ivory. Europeans and Americans were especially found of the material, considered the plastic of its age. It was used to make everyday objects from combs to piano keys. By the 1980s, elephant poaching reached record levels in East Africa, provoking a worldwide outcry that led to an ivory trade ban still in effect.

But that’s not the end of the story. The ivory trade still resonates today. Journalist and conservationist John Frederick Walker discusses the past and future of the ivory trade in his new book, “Ivory Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants.” He will be speaking at the Harvard Museum of Natural History this Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 2:00 pm.

What kinds of issues does the ivory trade continue to raise? Science Metropolis editor Joseph Caputo asked Walker about his research.

Q: Why are elephants still being killed for their tusks? Who’s buying it?

The ivory ban only governs international trade in ivory. It doesn’t have anything to do with the internal buying, selling, possessing, collecting of ivory within each country. In North America and Europe, there are vast amounts of worked ivory, that is ivory that’s been carved into something. The issue that is disturbing is that some of it might be masquerading as ivory that is pre-ban when actually it’s poached ivory being snuck into the country.

Q: What role does the online auction-site eBay play in the modern ivory story?

EBay, under pressure from animal advocacy groups, decided that the possibility that there might be some objects being sold on eBay coming from poached ivory was enough to convince them to shut down all ivory sales. I’m not so sure that’s going to help reduce poaching or the flow of illegal ivory. It  was a very well organized and central site and that it probably could have been monitored for that kind of illegal activity.

Q: Why would officials at Kruger National Park in South Africa need to thin their elephant herds?

That disturbs a lot of people but they’re so used to thinking of elephants being persecuted in most parts of Africa. They don’t understand that in the southern tier of Africa, those countries have been very successful with their elephant conservation. They’ve had such success that they have too many elephants for the habitat that’s available.

In Kruger National Park, which is the size of New Jersey, has a population of over 12,000 elephants. The habitat there can only support about 8,000 unless you’re willing to let the park’s biodiversity deteriorate. Elephants can literally transform their landscape into a desert. They are slowly eating up the park and having a huge impact on the vegetation.

After much outcry and discussion, park officials have decided they cannot take culling off the list of possible management techniques. They will use it as a last resort if there’s no other way to bring their numbers under control. But, it’s almost certain that they’re going to have to do that.

Q. Is there a possible end for the ivory trade?

I do not believe the ivory trade will ever end because as long as there are elephants there’s going to be ivory. You don’t have to kill elephants to get their ivory, you just have to wait for them to die. Their tusks are routinely stockpiled in the warehouses of African parks and reserves. Given its status as a desirable material in human history, many people around the world can’t understand why there’s anything wrong with the ivory that comes from elephants that die of natural causes.

For more talks covering history, culture and science, visit the Harvard Museum of Natural History Website.

Posted by Joseph, under history  |  Date: January 15, 2009

Science on Screen: “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey”


Science on Screen at the Coolidge Corner Theatre delves into electronic music with a screening of THEREMIN: AN ELECTRONIC ODYSSEY, the 1994 documentary about the unusual electronic instrument and the strange life of its inventor and namesake Leon Theremin, on Monday, Jan 19, 2009 at 7:00 p.m. Before the film, MIT Professor of Music and Media Tod Machover will discuss his own pioneering work as a composer and inventor of new technologies for music. This program will include Q&A and a short performance by thereminist Dalit Hadass Warshaw.

Leon Theremin made music as strange as the life he lived. In 1918, the Russian-born scientist invented a musical instrument unlike any the world had seen before: one that uses electronic oscillation to produce its sound and is played entirely without human contact. Theremin toured the United States and Europe giving public recitals, and became the toast of New York City’s artists and intellectuals during the roaring ’20s. But in 1938, at the height of his promising career in the U.S., Theremin mysteriously disappeared.

Over the decades, the ethereal, otherworldly sounds of the theremin became the backdrop to scores of science fiction and horror films (particularly in the ‘50s), and have inspired numerous musicians, from the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson to synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog.

While there have been no KGB abductions in his background (at least not that we know of), Tod Machover is himself a remarkable figure. He has pioneered many new technologies for music, most notably his Hyperinstruments that use smart computers to augment musical expression and creativity. He has designed Hyperinstruments for some of the world’s greatest musicians, from Yo-Yo Ma to Prince, as well as for the general public and for children. He and his team also created the interface for the video-game sensation Guitar Hero.

Machover is widely recognized as one of the most significant and innovative composers of his generation. His music has been acclaimed for breaking traditional artistic and cultural boundaries, offering a unique synthesis of acoustic and electronic sound. Machover’s compositions have been commissioned and performed by many of the world’s most prestigious ensembles and soloists.

With Science on Screen, the Coolidge presents a feature film or documentary with a basis in science, paired with exciting introductions by notable scientific figures. This monthly series is co-presented by The Museum of Science and New Scientist magazine.

Science on Screen programs are $9.75 regular admission or $7.75 for students, seniors, and Museum of Science members. Coolidge Corner Theatre members get free admission to these shows. Tickets are available in advance at the box office, located at 290 Harvard Street in Brookline, or on-line at www.coolidgeorg/showtimes

For more details, visit or call 617/734-2500. Upcoming shows include “Groundhog Day” on Feb. 2 with science historian Peter Galison and on March 2, the 1967 classic “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” with social psychologist Mahzarin R. Banaji.

Posted by Joseph, under For: Science Hobbyists  |  Date: December 25, 2008
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Salamander Hunt


Spotted salamanders are one of several New England amphibians that use regeneration as a survival mechanism. (Credit: Tom Tyning)

— by Joseph Caputo and Nuño Dominguez

A trip through conservation land with wildlife biologist Scott Smyers becomes a lesson in evolution. Why does the complex salamander regenerate while its close cousin, the frog cannot? When wouldn’t it be a good idea to regenerate? What does this mean for humans?

For more on Smyer’s conservation work in Central Massachusetts, vist the Friends of Waschusett Mountain Website.

Posted by Joseph, under nature  |  Date: December 16, 2008

Pavlov’s Fish


Black Sea Bass became Pavlov’s Fish in an experiment conducted at the Marine Biological Laboratory

— by Joseph Caputo and Nuño Dominguez

Fish aren’t known to be exciting. They can’t roll over, shake hands or play dead. But when two Marine Biological Laboratory scientists train fish to catch themselves, a fish school takes on a whole new meaning.

Posted by Joseph, under marine biology  |  Date: December 10, 2008
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Searching for Global Talent: European Career Fair at MIT


European Career Fair

A scene from last year’s fair. (Credit: Daniel Pressl)

The 13th annual European Career Fair (ECF), matching candidates from America’s best universities with the top echelon of employers from Europe, will be held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), January 24-26, 2009.

Supported by the European Commission and leading European employers, the career fair is the largest event of its kind. Given the state of the global economy, it is increasingly important to have the ability to mobilize and attract creative employees. The European Career Fair is not merely a stepping stone for Europeans to continue their career back in Europe, but it also attracts many non-European candidates from a number of different fields.

At the last fair in February 2008, the ECF attracted over 4000 job seekers from 114 countries, with roughly equal numbers from Europe, US and the rest of the world. The majority of them came from MIT and Harvard or other Ivy League universities. The number of companies and non-profit organizations attending the career fair has grown by over 40% in recent years, reflecting the increase in global competition for talent and the high quality of the fair. Owing to its success, the ECF has been endorsed by the Ambassador of the European Commission Delegation to the United States – John Bruton, Nobel Prize winner – Roger Kornberg, and the MIT president – Susan Hockfield, among others. Organized by the European Club of MIT with the support of the European Commission and the MIT International Sciences and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), the transatlantic nature of the ECF is underscored by the cooperation with the IKOM Career Fair in Munich.

The 13th European Career Fair will take place on the MIT campus, January 24-26, 2009. Candidates who wish to participate are invited to submit their resumes to by November 28, 2008. Participating employers can select candidates from the online database and hold interviews at the fair. Companies and non-profit employers may register until December 15, 2008.

The fair will also include several panel discussions. On January 23rd, 2009 the European Commission and MISTI will host a panel discussion focusing on renewable energy and the knowledge economy.In addition, ScienceCareers, the career section of the journal Science, will present a discussion on transitioning from US academia to European industry on January 25th.

The above is a press release from the Press Team of the European Career Fair 2009.

Posted by Joseph, under uncategorized  |  Date: November 21, 2008

Science on Screen Presents “CONTACT”


Science on Screen at the Coolidge Corner Theatre explores the possibility of life beyond Earth with a special presentation of CONTACT, the 1997 big-screen adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name, on Monday, Dec. 1 at 7:00 p.m. Before the film, astrophysicist Paul Horowitz will speak on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). A true pioneer in this field, Horowitz and his work are believed to have been the inspiration for Sagan’s novel.

In the Robert Zemeckis film, Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway (Jodie Foster) is a free thinker seeking evidence of the existence of extraterrestrial life by listening for contact via radio astronomy. When Ellie discovers an intelligent message from deep space, her assumptions regarding science and spirituality are challenged, and she must decide whether to play it safe or risk her life in order to make first contact.

Paul Horowitz is Professor of Physics and of Electrical Engineering at Harvard. At age 8, he achieved distinction as the world’s youngest amateur radio operator. His research group is focused on several problems in experimental astrophysics, including the search for intentional radio signals or laser flashes from extraterrestrial intelligent civilizations. The group’s evolving SETI effort has inspired groundbreaking experiments at Harvard, including a 250-million-channel radio receiving system and a pair of optical searches that process a trillion measurements per second. Dr. Horowitz is renowned for his work in electronics design and is the co-author of The Art of Electronics, a bestselling book widely regarded as the electronics bible.

With Science on Screen, the Coolidge presents a feature film or documentary with a basis in science, paired with commentary by notable scientific figures. This monthly series is co-presented by The Museum of Science, Boston and New Scientist magazine.

Science on Screen programs are $7.75 for students, seniors, and Museum of Science members, or $9.75 regular admission. Tickets are available in advance at the box office, located at 290 Harvard Street in Brookline, or on-line at

For more details, visit: or call 617/734-2500.

Posted by Joseph, under For: Science Hobbyists  |  Date: November 17, 2008

Introducing Gonzalo Giribet: A Curator of Invertebrate Zoology


Gonzalo Giribet

Dr. Gonzalo Giribet, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology

If it is slimy, spindly, has more than four legs, maybe more than two eyes, is multi-segmented, and would be a critter worthy of a starring role in the next Alien movie, chances are, it is a friend of Dr. Gonzalo Giribet.  He loves all creatures that might terrify you at night.  A professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and the Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, Dr. Giribet’s research focuses on a smorgasbord of creatures that most people would probably associate with a phobia.  Dr. Giribet loves his work, and it shows through as he speaks of his beloved creepy crawleys with a boy-like enthusiasm.

As a child, he assembled collections of mollusks and insects that he gathered along the beaches and in the forests of his home in southern Spain.  While both he and his collections grew, he became increasingly interested in taxonomy and evolution, and was gradually more and more determined to become a biologist.  Later, at the University of Barcelona, he specialized in both zoology and fundamental biology as an undergraduate, staying on to earn his PhD investigating the evolutionary relationships of arthropods, a phylum including insects, arachnids and crustaceans, through molecular genetics.  Dr. Giribet’s study was one of the first to employ this type of analysis called molecular systematics, though it has since become a mainstay of investigations in evolutionary biology.  For his post-doc, Dr. Giribet went to the American Museum of Natural History where he worked with the curator of Invertebrate Zoology, Ward Wheeler.

In 2000, he came to Harvard to investigate the phylogeography, or the genetic relationships of various invertebrate animals and how they relate to the geographic distribution of populations.  As a man who can’t decide what particular organism he wants to focus on, he just decided to study all invertebrates.  It has been a decision that has swung him all around the world into environments containing some of the strangest creatures on Earth.  When he isn’t teaching, Dr. Giribet spends most of his days sifting through leaf litter and turning over rocks and logs in the nether regions of the world.  He is in Australia studying centipedes one week and flies to Gabon the next to collect Cyphophthalmi, a primitive version of a daddy longlegs.  After that, he swings back to Cambridge to teach a couple of classes at Harvard before he shoots off to Hawaii to study orb weaving spiders or to collect a roundworm or two, stopping off in Sweden to grab a few mollusks on the way home. What he described as “perhaps, a little too much traveling,” is, to a normal human being, exhausting to think about.  “I can’t complain about my work,” he said, “but it is work.”  Invertebrates are everywhere, after all.

When asked where he will take his research next, his eyes grew unnaturally wide.  “Have you ever seen a velvet worm?” he asks.

Posted by Joseph, under biology  |  Date: October 21, 2008

The Great Glass Pumpkin Patch: Not Just for the Holidays


A scene from the glass pumpkin patch at MIT (Credit: MIT Glass Lab)

— by Jennifer Berglund

Deep in MIT’s labyrinthine innards, a small team of goggled MIT professors and students busy themselves around glowing furnaces and flesh-frying ovens.  It is the epicenter of the MIT Glass Program, and from its fiery furnaces glow its bread and butter, the great glass pumpkins.

Throughout the year, a group of volunteers comprised of students, professors and local glass blowers donate their free time to produce a colorful cocktail of pumpkins.  Come fall, the crop is gathered to sell in a peculiar fall market called The Great Glass Pumpkin Patch. This year is the seventh anniversary of this quirky MIT tradition. During the last weekends in September, students, faculty and the Boston community alike gathered at MIT’s Kresge Oval to pick over the harvest of the thousand or so pumpkins that were made.  Each pumpkin was unique, crafted by hand in varying shapes, sizes and colors, and created to generate funding for the MIT Glass Program.

Peter Houk, Vulcan of the glass studio, is the mastermind behind the event.  Serving his eleventh year as the program’s director and his sixteenth as an instructor, Houk has watched an interest in glass blowing blossom at MIT.  The two classes offered, Beginning and Intermediate Glass Blowing, are the two most popular extracurricular classes at MIT.  They have become so popular that admittance into them is decided according to a lottery.  For the 16 available spots in the beginners class, 120 students showed to sign up, “that means only one in every 8.56 students are admitted into the class – it works out to be almost exactly the percentage of applicants accepted into MIT,” said Houk in a very stereotypical MIT professor moment.

Although incredible numbers of pumpkins are made each year, the program itself doesn’t focus on the production of the Pumpkin Patch.  “I want to make it clear that the object of the program is not to make pumpkins,” Houk says, “that is strictly voluntary.” Once a student has participated in the beginner’s class, mastering the sequences of coordinated movements necessary to blow glass, or “the dance,” as Houk calls it, he or she can participate in pumpkin making, and, for this, there is no shortage of volunteers.

With the proceeds, Houk intends to one day move the program to a bigger and better lab, but it will take several more pumpkin patches to do so.  For now, most of the money earned pays for necessary equipment and materials, allowing for only a small fraction to be saved for expanding the lab.  Until then, the lab will remain buried in MIT’s basement – a not so secret secret that displays its bounty every fall at a most unnatural market.

Posted by Joseph, under profile  |  Date: October 13, 2008

Science on Screen Series Presents Psychological Thriller “Marnie”



The Coolidge Corner Theatre continues the fall season of its acclaimed Science on Screen series with Alfred Hitchcock’s classic psychological thriller MARNIE on Mon, Oct 13 at 7:00 pm. Before the film, noted psychiatrist Phillip Freeman will talk about Hitchcock’s use of the language of cinema to cultivate a sense of disorientation that lends depth to the film’s narrative of traumatic memory.

Alfred Hitchcock reunited with Tippi Hedren, his leading lady from THE BIRDS on MARNIE. Marnie Edgar (Hedren) is a habitual thief who uses her ample charm and good looks to gain the trust of her employers, only to rob them. She eventually meets her match in Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), a publisher who decides to observe her more closely rather than turn her in to the police. After marrying her, Mark gradually uncovers incidents from Marnie’s childhood that are to blame for her split personality.

Dr. Freeman is a practicing psychiatrist a training and supervising psychoanalyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute. He has faculty appointments at Harvard Medical School and Boston University Medical School, where he was director of Medical Student Education and a vice chair in the Department of Psychiatry. Dr. Freeman has published extensively on psychopathology, and applied psychoanalysis, and has also served as a consultant on films and plays in the Boston area.

With Science on Screen, the Coolidge presents a feature film or documentary with a basis in science, paired with exciting remarks by notable scientific figures. The Boston Globe has called this monthly series “one of the most accessible local forums for exploring the realities of the scientific world and how they’re depicted in mainstream culture.”

Science on Screen is co-presented by the Museum of Science, Boston and New Scientist magazine. For details and ticketing information, visit or call 617/734-2500.

Posted by Joseph, under For: Science Hobbyists  |  Date: October 8, 2008

The 100-Mile Diet


by Saw/iStockPhoto

Local produce fuels the 100-Mile diet (Credit: saw/iStockPhoto)

— by Nuño Dominguez

For decades, diets were designed to make people lose some extra pounds or push them into healthier lifestyles. Now, things are going holistic: Eat better while you fight global warming and save your local economy. It is the 100-mile diet.

Thousands of people looking for fresh and sustainable bites across the US and Canada are shifting to local food from a 100-mile radius from their homes. The local food networks are also getting bigger with hundreds of new farmer’s markets appearing every year. 

It all started in March 2005, when freelance writers Alissa Smith and James McKinnon ran out of food up in their holiday cabin in a remote region of British Columbia, Canada. Far from any road to reach the closest town, they decided to feast on what the wilderness had to offer. They fished a Dolly Varden trout in the nearby stream and harvested chanterelle mushrooms and dandelion greens in the woods. They also used some of the potatoes they planted in their garden the previous spring. “It was delicious, because everything was so fresh,” says Smith. Driven by the soft bouquet of wild trout and the juicy taste of those wilderness-thriving mushrooms, the couple decided that, for a year, they would eat only products within 100 miles of Vancouver, where their apartment is.

The couple quickly realized their shift to local food was not precisely a smooth change. As they figured out which products were inside their food zone, they found out there was no source of local wheat or rice, so forget about good old pasta or bread. Sugar – not your typical British Columbia produce – was also a bitter drop-out. Smith and McKinnon are mainly vegetarians -they only eat meat and fish once in a while- so their local diet had to stick to seasonal greens, which were scarce from March to late May. They mainly fed on kale, cabbage, turnips, rutabagas and leeks. There was also an ever present star: the potato. The couple had to wrack their brains to fight monotony in their dishes. A veggie sandwich using sliced roasted turnip instead of bread was one of their outstanding innovations. During the first six weeks, they lost 15 pounds.

Just as Smith and McKinnon thought they could not go on with their challenge, the new season started and fresh vegetables returned to markets again. From May, the couple enjoyed a culinary spring that turned into a tasty summer with juicy strawberries, crunchy carrots and multiple salad greens. Even in the midst of their green feast, they had a premonition of the long Canadian winter. Like in the old fable, they started playing the ant’s role and preserved as much food for the cold months as they could. Their one bedroom apartment became a small grocery store with boxes of sauerkraut under every chair, rows of chilli peppers drying in the closet next to their coats and a three feet tall by two feet wide cube freezer stuffed with reserves seizing most part of their kitchen. “It invaded our decor a little bit,” says Smith, who nevertheless says their new lifestyle was worth the starving and the hard work. “I learned that I didn’t want to go back to my old way of supermarket eating,” she says. Although the couple now consumes 85% of their food locally, they have indulged in some hard-to-leave goods like beer, olive oil and rice…… (Click here to read the rest of this story.) 

Check out farmer’s markets in the Boston/Cambridge area – Listing courtesy of

Posted by Joseph, under environment  |  Date: October 6, 2008