Owen Duncan
Creative Assistance

Octopus yoga (posted 1/2/18)

octopus doing a pull-up

We’ve had many revealing minus tides this season, and I’ve been especially lucky this year. In late December, I found an octopus den at Coal Oil Point.

COP is actually part of the University of California’s Natural Reserve System, which spans more than 750,000 acres across 39 locations. In many of the reserves, public access is limited, leaving the area to protected local flora and fauna, and the researchers who study them. By comparison, COP is a real free-for-all, where hundreds of humans congregate to forage for entertainment in the intertidal. A small area is restricted to create safe nesting territory for Snowy Plovers, but most of the beach is OK to roam. It’s also a popular surf beach, one of the best local beaches for beginning surfers, I’ve heard.

The actual point part of COP has a rocky surface with a lot of good sites for critters to cling and hollows for tidepools to form. Some of the topology changes over time—as storms push around rocks and sand—but other features are pretty stable. In one of these reasonably stable pools, there’s a crevice that is A-1 octopus real estate. The crack is narrow and goes deep under a firmly-settled rock. It has a good view of a fairly large pool, and there’s access to the ocean even at very low tides, because the pool is part of a larger channel that extends out to sea. The water is deep enough here to deter most meddling humans from stepping in it. But I am bolder than most, at least when it comes to getting my butt wet for the sake of tidepooling.

I was photographing pelicans from a nearby rock when I looked down, about to head off, and saw this octopus looking at me. Its eyes protruded warily from the crevice in a manner I can only describe as cartoonish. When I moved towards it, it slid back under its rock. Too late, octopus…I know where you live.

I came back to visit this octopus several times during succeeding minus tides, and it was still in residence. However, my most eventful encounter was certainly the first. After it fled into its crack, I went around behind its hiding spot and waited patiently until it emerged again. Then I caught it on camera as it moved about the pool, trying different strategies to hide from (and intimidate?) my GoPro. While this interaction was thrilling, I couldn’t actually see too much of it myself, because the octopus was concealed by algae most of the time. However, I did my best to point my other stick—technically it’s a selfie stick, but I only use it to photograph others, so there you go—in the general direction of the octopus.

The camera caught some cool maneuverings, including two reps of a pretty weird octopus yoga move. Check out the evidence here on YouTube. More to come on this octopus den later, when I’ve had time to edit footage of subsequent visits and other neat COP finds.

back to top

Biology Blues (posted 10/26/17)

Biology Blues

Have you ever wondered about the color blue in nature? Thought about where you see it and where you don’t? The piece I produced on this topic aired on KCSB-FM 91.9 in Santa Barbara, on Tuesday, October 10. The host show was Yon Visell and Irene Moon’s science show The Unknown Territories, which runs every Tuesday from 6-7 p.m. If you missed the show, you can still listen to the piece YouTube.

While our curiosity about the rarity or abundance of blue in nature was the reason for creating this piece, I found that blue actually just turned out to be a great excuse to talk about floating snails, deceiving octopuses, sexual dimorphism, and perception. It was also a great excuse for me to spend time with five cool researchers. Here’s a little information about the participants:

Eric Hochberg is a Curator Emeritus at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, and an all-around man of distinction in biology. He even lived and worked in an underwater research lab for three weeks in the early 1970s. In his work as a taxonomist, Eric has described many species new to science, and therefore had the privilege of giving them fantastic names like Wonderpus photogenicus. He is also an artist who works in the curious medium of nature printing, in which natural objects and specimens are essentially used as elaborate rubber stamps.

Michelle Paddack teaches marine biology and related topics at Santa Barbara City College in the Biological Sciences program. She is also a research scientist working with One People One Reef, an organization that collaborates with the people of Ulithi Atoll in Micronesia to collect and analyze fisheries and ecology data that directly inform local conservation measures. You can check out the research group’s recent publication on PLOS ONE.

Our blue talk took us on some strange tangents, ranging from the meditations of the late, great Oliver Sacks on using hallucinogens to see the color indigo, to the controversy surrounding the sea snail source of the holy blue dye mentioned in the Old Testament and Talmud. Oh yeah, and she had to show me this video of disco clams.

Jennifer Maupin is a colleague of Michelle’s in the Biological Sciences program at SBCC. She teaches evolution and natural history. To learn more from her, you should watch out for her occasional appearance doing special programs at SBMNH, or take some of her classes. Her field-trip-based course in the natural history of the Santa Barbara area is particularly fun. Because of her background researching spider mating systems, she has a unique talent for talking about spiders while making the whole subject seem very romantic.

I met Paul Valentich-Scott at my favorite place, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, where he is the Curator of Malacology. We bonded over the fact that Paul was the curator who first put on display my favorite item at the museum, a giant squid specimen preserved in alcohol in a big plexiglass case. The squid has since been retired to the collections behind the scenes—where all kinds of oddities lurk in wait for researchers to make use of them—but during the many years it graced the marine life exhibit, it made an impact on my imagination.

You can meet Paul if you visit the museum’s Department of Invertebrate Zoology during one of their periodic open house events. Mollusk nerds should check out the facebook community he runs, Mollusca Scientia. It started with a group of malacologists who participated in a conference a few years back, but has ballooned to include anyone who feels like they can’t get enough octopus videos into their day.

For those of you who are curious about the pelagic mollusks mentioned by Paul in the piece, they belong to genus Janthina (the one with the bubble raft) and genus Glaucus (the one that looks like an alien).

Milton Love is a research scientist with UCSB’s Marine Science Institute. Like a limpet in its limpet-shaped niche in a rock, he found a Milton-Love-shaped hole in Santa Barbara and has remained here, doing his thing, for untold decades. He often appears in the news, interpreting various marine events and fish behaviors.

Milton is also a family friend of mine. When I was seven or eight, like all other seven-or-eight-year-olds, I wanted to be a marine biologist. Although Milton has expended some energy deflecting unsuitable candidates for marine biology, he was indulgent of this passion of mine, and kindly let me visit the Love Lab back in 1992. It was the best day in my life. You can see the evidence for this below:

the best day of my life was visiting the marine lab

If you hunger for knowledge about fishes of the region, you should definitely buy Milton's book, Certainly More Than You Want to Know About Fishes of the Pacific Coast: A Postmodern Experience.  It generates hours of pleasurable edutainment and is very cheap for the weight. I also invite you to check out the whole Love Lab website, where, among other diversions, you can see and contribute to the Sea Life Tattoo Gallery.

If you have an opportunity to see Milton give a talk, don’t miss it. He gave a riveting talk about fish sex at the Santa Barbara Zoo a couple years ago, which I recorded. I would like to work up that material into a radio piece or podcast miniseries, pending the creation of a funky, sexy musical soundtrack for it. Please get in touch if you have a funk band that will work for science.

back to top

Three skills for the bunker (posted 8/1/17)

eggs, collection of SBMNH

eggs, collection of SBMNH

I’m not a prepper, but I believe in developing a mental bunker of sorts. I know it’s necessary to protect me from the incessant stimulation of media that is my lot, and, as you are reading this, we can infer it’s your lot as well. Overwhelmed by the onslaught of terrible news—each disclosure of fresh hell accompanied by torturous analyses—we retreat into our bunkers.

To the extent that I have a physical bunker, it’s not so strong. I live in an apartment without weapons, fortifications, or backup power. My food supply only lasts as long as a standard period of grocery procrastination. But in the sense that a bunker provides isolation, it’s peerless. I can close doors and window shades to block out all but the shrillest of whining babies. The only intruders are smoke and ash from seasonal wildfires, or canvassers who politely knock on my door but never cross the threshold.

In the seclusion of my bunker I play board games with my friends after work. We enjoy the games not because we savor the thrill of winning—by and large, we aren’t competitive people—but because we enjoy testing our abilities with an insignificant challenge. Nothing rests on the outcome. Our pleasure flies in the face of every Hollywood script-writing manual that tells us entertainment relies on raising the stakes.

To return to the manifold and immense problems facing humanity, the stakes are now so high that we can no longer grasp them. The scale and time span involved are similarly incomprehensible. It’s as if we’re watching the dogged approach of a heavily-armed suicide bomber who just happens to be a snail. Surely he’ll never get here.

This approach to the temporarily abstract results in either a state of ignorance or a state of fatalistic detachment. The two may be functionally the same in that both involve the erection of a mental bunker protecting us from the unthinkable. Yet when the unthinkable physically manifests, mental isolation won’t help us adapt to new circumstances. Therefore I suggest that we cultivate three skills which could help us adapt. They are educational objectives. You needn’t be an educator to advance them, though being an educator does multiply your opportunities to help others develop them. The three skills are critical thinking, compassion, and algebra.

These three are interwoven by connections which are not only logical, but philosophical and cosmic. To know them better is to accept the world in its complexity. The world is complex. Simple, easy answers are inviting in the short term, but deadly in the long term. Critical thought allows us to see easy answers for what they are, to evaluate the credibility of their sources, the evidence supporting their claims, and the validity of their underlying logic. It allows us to build on and improve our knowledge of the world. Compassion relies on being able to appreciate the complexity of the world in the most fundamental way: acknowledging the existence (and therefore the perspectives) of others. And critical thought—far from being dispassionate—can actually lead to compassion because it requires us to examine a topic from multiple perspectives and to examine our own bias. This much is probably obvious. But why algebra?

Many researchers who study education have dubbed algebra the gateway or gatekeeper to success and higher knowledge, because of the documented relationship between the performance of students in algebra and their subsequent scholastic and career achievements. This idea understandably chafes a lot of folks—some of whom are wildly successful by any measure—who struggled with math in school and don’t see it as significant to their daily life. I don’t intend to rankle such people; in fact, I’m among them. In grade school, I joylessly memorized multiplication tables, most of which I have comfortably forgotten. In middle school, math was a scourge. I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be learning, and I resented that this made me feel stupid.

I probably would have continued to hate math if I hadn’t been introduced to a different curriculum in high school. The more visual approach taken by my new textbook made the topic suddenly understandable to my learning style. The next four years of math stretched and astounded me. I learned that problems I would have previously thought unsolvable by humankind —questions with real, tangible applications—could be trivially calculated by me, a high school student with a cheap graphing calculator. If I had concurrently taken a science curriculum that required me to wield my new tools, who knows, I may even have been seduced away from my love of the humanities. Instead, my math journey came to a halt with the specialization of college, and those abilities atrophied.

These days, when I go out to eat, I defer to my mathematically-inclined friends to calculate an appropriate tip. I periodically relearn and forget how to perform even the most basic arithmetical operations. I have relapsed into ignorance, but without any real inconvenience to myself. The reason I don’t feel too bad about this—it’s the same reason I don’t feel too bad about having devoted years of my life to the esoteric study of silent film—is that the brief period during which I did have this knowledge made a lasting change in the way I see the world.

Algebra is distinguished by the introduction of variables, symbols representing changeable or unknown quantities. The transition between the rote-memorization arithmetic of grade school and the manipulation of the unknown in basic algebra is unmooring for just about everyone. It’s also a golden opportunity to learn that the unknown need not always be feared, that we can often use what we do know to discover what we don’t. Algebra invites students to approach the seemingly abstract as a potentially solvable puzzle, rather than untouchable dogma. It’s not only a gateway to diplomas and jobs, but a gateway to appreciating the complexity of the world, to touch its beautiful and lively machinery.

The word algebra derives from the Arabic al-jabr, meaning “the reunion of broken parts.” Everyone knows that has to be our work. I think these three things—critical thinking, compassion, and algebra—are all worth fostering as we go about it.

back to top