Category Archives: Scientist

An Awful Giraffe Drawing by Leonardo da Vinci

Polymath and “Painter” Leonardo da Vinci,

On this Friday the 13th I thought it would be appropriate to post a particularly awful giraffe, and as I began searching my files I received an email. Innocently enough, I unsuspectingly opened it to find the most … I can’t even find the words. How does one describe the failed efforts of the most gifted polymath that has ever lived, Leonardo da Vinci? Do I posthumously congratulate him for the effort? Do I lie down and hope the nausea goes away? Do I try and mobilize Pretty Awful Giraffe-ites to contact the Louvreand have this mockery removed?

“Painter”? Yeah, and I’m Queen Latifah (I’m not Queen Latifah)

I think I’ll go with the second option and let Mr. Lucas Rayala take the wheel from here:

This well-known painting by LDV, while beloved by many in the world, is in fact a very horrible attempt to draw a giraffe.  Perhaps the worst ever.  While the neck length approaches believability, the snout is completely wrong, utterly failing to incorporate the mouth and nose in a cohesive semblance of an ungulate mammals jaw structure.  Intended to be a picture of a giraffe standing on its hind legs and eyeing a leafy branch somewhere behind the viewer, the front hooves have been mangled and forced into a crossed pattern to amateurishly fit inside the canvas space.  Also, proper giraffes are two-toed, not four (or five?!) as LDV depicts.  This beast’s habitat has been purposefully blurred in the background because LDV, despite his much-flaunted intellect, was obviously uncertain of its native environment.

I think I’m going to be sick.

Theoretical Physicist Lawrence Krauss Awful Giraffe 4 23 11

Theoretical Physicist and Author Lawrence Krauss

In light of the holiday season I thought I would treat everyone to a gift that has been sitting in the giraffe library for quite a while. Unfortunately, there is no exciting, adventure-filled story behind this as Dr. Krauss simply said, “Everything I do is better than Kaku” when I showed him Michio Kaku’s Uni-giraffe (he really doesn’t like that I guy), but you be the judge!

Theoretical Physicist Lawrence Krauss

Lawrence Krauss (wiki; web) is a theoretical physicist who teaches at Arizona State University and is the director of its Origins Project. Perhaps best known for his book The Physics of Star Trek (1995), Krauss is a popularizer of science who has written editorials in many publications and is a frequent guest on National Public Radio’s “Science Friday”. In January 2012 he has a book coming out that will address why there is something rather than nothing; in fact, in A Universe from Nothing he will make the case that “not only can something arise from nothing, something will always arise from nothing.”

Seems straightforward enough.

Though sometimes nothing is better than something.

David Eagleman's Pretty Awful Giraffe

Neuroscientist and Author David Eagleman

Dr. David Eagleman

Let me begin by saying that if you ever get the chance to meet Dr. David Eagleman (1) he is one of the coolest guys ever to just sit around and shoot the breeze with and (2) it may seem like a joke when he corrects your calling him “Mr. Eagleman” to “Dr. Eagleman” but he is totally serious (trust me on this). Unfortunately, my hoodie-wearing professors at my small public liberal arts college have corrupted my understanding of hierarchy, which I am slowly learning will likely lead to my inevitable inability to secure long-term employment.

(Note: it is not uncommon for me to refer to my Ph.D.-wielding professors as “Doc”, “Supreme Commander”, “Citizen”, etc. In fact, I am certain that I could have avoided some of the awkward moments between Dr. Eagleman and I had I simply referred to him by the latter title. I mean, Citizen Eagleman sounds like it should come with a slice of apple pie as the national anthem plays in the background.)

But I’ve digressed.

Dr. David Eagleman (web; twitter) is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. He author of four books (with two more forthcoming) including the bestsellers Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (2009) and Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (2011) and has written for an array of publications including Slate Magazine, New Scientist and Discover Magazine. In addition, when he is not studying synesthesia, time perception, and the intersections of neuroscience and law he spends his free time being a Renaissance Man by geographically mapping Asp Caterpillar populations and the symptoms of their venom, inventing philosophy, and drawing giraffa camelopardalis.

Actually, as I write this I am beginning to realize why he stresses the prefix before his name – it’s an act of humility.

He must know that he could easily get away with being called The All-Knowing Dr. David Eagleman, Keeper of Time and Multi-Sensation.

Michael Shermer's Awful Giraffe

Writer and Editor Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer (web; twitter) is a humanist/atheist/nontheist/skeptic thinker best known for his seventeen books on psychology, biology, history, and … cycling, the former of which includes the popular Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (2002) and his most recent The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (2011). In addition, Shermer is the editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine and also writes a monthly column for Scientific American. So, as you can probably infer, if you give this guy a pen, he will probably return it completely drained – along with an essay.

Approaching him at a convention in Fargo, ND, Shermer was happy to contribute though with the proviso that he have full artistic license to do as he wished. Having no problem with this, I let him do as he wished. After a matter of minutes he returned my notebook with what I can only call a classic. Unlike his giraffe-drawing contemporaries, Shermer saw this as an intellectual challenge; instead of just creating a reflection of the social construction we call a “giraffe” he broke it down to its barest essence. And while I am by no standard (but my own) an art critic, I do believe Shermer to be a noble successor to Duchamp and contemporary of Damien Hirst.

This is the future of art.

… And what a sad future it is.

A martian giraffe drawn by PZ Myers

Atheist Blogger and Writer PZ Myers

Professor PZ Myers in London

PZ Myers (@pzmyers) is a biologist an professor here at the University of Minnesota, Morris, who is best known for his blog Pharyngula and because of it is often ranked on lists of the most influential living atheists. He also has a book coming out in Spring 2012 that some are predicting may make him the Fifth Horseman of New Atheism. Yeah, almost-South-Dakota Minnesota is pretty great.

Unfortunately, though he lives only a few blocks from me I don’t get as many opportunities to talk to him about politics and science as I would wish. In fact, on the few occasions we’re in the same room I tend to sweat nervously and try my damndest to make sure that the buttons on my shirt are in direct vertical alignment with my belt buckle (as every good gentleman knows). The consequence of this is some of the most awkward silence I have ever been a part of. And I’m a fairly awkward guy.

Because the story of how this giraffe was obtained is not really that interesting (the Morris Freethinkers, Jen McCreight and PZ Myers were in a small town bar; he drew a giraffe to humor a kid with a giraffe fetish; I feel ashamed for killing the conversation) I will try my best to compensate by sharing a story that often comes to memory. It’s nothing exciting, I’ll admit, but meh.

In 2009 PZ was named the Humanist of the Year by The Humanist, a magazine about critical inquiry and social concern, and was given a very nice little award that he can carry around to show people that he’s not just a New Atheist but also a Humanist. At least that was the explanation he gave for lugging the award to a public lecture he was giving about the New Atheists. After a lively discussion – and at times, debate – the room cleared out and a few of those interested in continuing the conversation (including PZ) made their way across campus where the Morris Freethinkers (James, Kele and I) and the Morris Philosophy Club had an opportunity to exchange ideas and opinions. All in all, it was an exciting little event made all the more so by the fact that several of the campus’ most opinionated professors were trying to rattling each other’s cages. With the night carrying on a little later than perhaps anticipated for, the spectators (and even the participants) began to dwindle until there were only a few folks left, of which I happened to be one of them.

Getting ready to head out, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that PZ, who was already gone by this point, had forgotten his award. Uncertain as to what the next step would be, we happened to be lucky because one of my friends had his phone number was able to give him a quick ring; he was already across campus, but he was willing to wait for us to catch up. In a rush to head out the door I made the mistake of laying my bare hands upon the statue, which sent my mind into a rush – images of pain, suffering, reason, logic and Carl Sagan flashing and flaring.

Photograph taken by Milek Jakubiec

I awoke on the floor to Kele’s soft hand upon my forehead, asking, “What did you see?”

My lips could not formulate words, only tremble. As my vision began to refocus I caught myself gasping for air, unable now to breathe as a single static image held itself in my mind. Without thinking I turned to the garbage can that had been placed beside me, and lest I be too graphic (or sound too foolish), dear reader, I’ll simply say that unfortunately the great vastness of the English lexicon fails me. I can only imagine in the abstract, with the trouble expected from my mortal frame, such descriptors, but I believe them to be very themes of the Poetry of Cthulhu.

“Don’t worry,” there was nonchalance in Kele’s voice, “it happens to all of us.”

Echoes of screams and A.C. Grayling’s lecture on Darwin, Humanism and Science beat upon my skull with every pulse. There are no words.

“‘Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it yet,'” Kele said.

He could read in my eyes my confusion as I spit out, “what?”

“It’s from the Grayling lecture; again, the Humanist netherworld recycles the same lectures,” James said as he lifted me to a chair, making sure the garbage can was never too far from me. “Oddly enough though, Mark got a chapter from The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Who’s Mark?” I asked.

Their eyes failed to meet mine as they turned to the window, the evening breeze leaking in, the moon wondering how the tides go in and out. “Only the truly damned get Dawkins.”

I have never asked about nor have I ever heard about Mark ever again.

“Bu- But how?”

“Haven’t you caught on?”

The room was spinning. I was descending into the caves of madness, where even a flicker of light sends shadows dancing upon the walls. “It’s a -” I paused, unable (or was I unwilling?) to accept what these shades were whispering, miming, a carnival of specters offering hollow warnings of -

“Horcrux.”

The word rolled off my lips like raindrops upon a great canopy, collecting until the momentary burst when it all falls like a shower upon the life below. “It’s a Horcrux. A Horcrux. Horcrux.”

My answer was greeted only with nods, the room solemn that I had to learn this through experience. James filled the silence, “He’s had it for a while now.”

I was struck, “Is this it?”

“No, there are more – his iPad, his beard, the basilisk cephalopod he keeps in his office – this is but one of many, each containing a little part of the Fifth Horseman.”

Before I could ask any more questions Kele wrapped the award in a small towel, careful not to lay his skin upon it. Life was slowly returning to my legs as I was helped to my feet and led to the doorway, but before we could even close the door a soft, gentle voice greeted us.

“Oh, hello! You were taking a while so I figured I would start walking toward you, but apparently you never left.” A thin smile spread across his face, “Do you have my … award?” His arms shot out to grab it from Kele’s hands before a reply could even be uttered. “I’m sure you know how much this means to me.”

A great chill ran up my spine.

A martian giraffe drawn by PZ Myers

Anyway, here’s a “Martian Giraffe.”

1: "I think I left it on the grill too long.” 2: “Yeah, this is an Awful Giraffe.”

Blogger and Deep Sea Biologist “Southern Fried Scientist”

Late on Thursday (or was it a very early Friday?) I was surprised to find a mention to the @AwfulGiraffes  twitter account (a mention and its context now lost to my ignorance of the site’s functions) from @SFriedScientist from SouthernFriedScience.com, a science blog run by three Carolinian graduate students with an interest in marine biology. Thinking it may be a long shot, I figured I’d extend an invitation to him to contribute to the website. It didn’t take long to get the following reply:

@SFriedScientist: @AwfulGiraffes at the rate @kzelnio and I are drinking, there is real potential for a DNS/SFS collaborative giraffe.”

Shortly thereafter I received this – what I can only perceive to be a threat:

1: "I think I left it on the grill too long.” 2: “Yeah, this is an Awful Giraffe.”

1: "I think I left it on the grill too long.” 2: “Yeah, this is an Awful Giraffe.”

Offensive. Fucking offensive.

I am sick and tired of people portraying scenes of giraffes being mercilessly slaughtered. No one would like to see a dead giraffe. Even more so, no one wants to see someone eating said dead giraffe. Whether one is T.C. Boyle, a mammoth excavator [giraffe still to come] or a someone who studies “population structure and connectivity of deep-sea hydrothermal vent endemic invertebrates in the Western Pacific,”  it’s still tasteless.

Dear readers, as you may already be well aware, I am not someone one could call a “scientist.” Sure, I know what you’re thinking, my literate internet pal: “But you’re a political scientist and you’re a part time lecturer on theoretical physics!” And you’re absolutely right, friend, but my biologicy background extends as far as reading Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth (2009) and a score of 1 on an high school AP exam. The reason why I am saying all of this is because I would like to believe that I am someone who should not be drawing snarky cartoons regarding esoteric divisions of biology that are way over my head:

"I keep boiling but these fuckers dont die."

Oh, I’m so funny!

Assuming every picture I found on Google (“Hydorthermal Vent Animals” to be an actual hydrothermal vent animal (including the Cyclops Kitten and James Cameron), I can only extend, on behalf of the world, a sincere thanks to SFriedScientist for holding back from the public’s eye the creatures perhaps best confined to an H.P. Lovecraft tale. (But not too much thanks since you totally – to the misfortune of all – failed on the James Cameron front).

Theoretical Physicist Michio Kaku's Awful Giraffe (4 7 11)

Author and Theoretical Physicist Michio Kaku

Photo Credit: Zachary Maxwell Stertz

For those who do not know, Michio Kaku (website; twitter) is a theoretical physicist at City University of New York and co-founder of string field theory. Just as importantly – and this is the context in which I first discovered him – he is a popularizer of science in the stead of the late Carl Sagan. Essentially he is one of only a handful of scientists taking the initiative to condense great scientific ideas into an easily digestible form. In a world that unfortunately casts a paranoid eye to the sciences, this is a virtue; through his books Physics of the Impossible (2008) and Physics of the Future (2011) Kaku reminds us all that science is, frankly, cool.[1]

So it was under this pretense that I made my way to the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus to attend a lecture and book signing by him. Having read his short biography on Albert Einstein last summer, Einstein’s Cosmos (2004), along with some work by Hawking, Feynman, Sagan and so on, I was obsessed with the guy. Naturally, this all led to long hours on YouTube watching interviews and clips of old Nova programs. [2] So the moment I learned that Kaku would be making a stop in Minnesota for his Physics of the Future (2011) book tour, every calendar I owned was marked marked marked and any scheduling conflict would have to be skipped skipped skipped.

(My apologies, Seungho, for missing International Law)

Arriving at the UMN book store at 6:20pm, I had more than enough to pick up his book I reserved online along with the two tickets for the reserved seating that came with it. Worried that I may not be able to get a good spot – a sizeable crowd was already forming – I was actually quite surprised to see that most of the reserved seating (the first three rows of about twenty) was essentially empty. For those unfamiliar with Minnesotan culture: even when we have reserved seating to see someone that we admire, we want to be close but not that close. Sitting near the very front, I’ve included a picture to show how uncomfortably close I was to the signing table, the point at where I could probably reach out and touch him as he spoke at the podium.

Josh Preston sitting uncomfortably close to Michio Kaku's signing table

Pictured: the reason why I am not a photographer

After forcing small talk for a while with one of the physics kids next to me, one of the booksellers addresses the crowd: “The event is not starting yet, but I just have to inform everyone that while Professor Kaku was in Switzerland last week he caught a cold and has laryngitis …”

My heart jumps a beat – That motherfuckin’ bitch stood me up.

“… And because he wants to be able to answer everyone’s questions …”

I’m sorry, baby. You know I was just a little upset.

“… He has asked us to find someone willing to give his PowerPoint presentation. We do have a script so it wouldn’t be too hard.”

Impulsively, my hand goes up and she thanks me and hands me the script. It’s only when I realize that I’m now holding the script that I understand the full implications of what I have just done. My hands begin to shake. I’m becoming nauseous. Dear God, what the hell have I done?

But I take a deep breath.

And another.

Again.

I’ve given speeches to large crowds before and I have more than enough time to go over the script and the notes for the 51 slide PowerPoint. On the plus side, I can technically put “Lecturer of Theoretical Physics and Futurism” on my resume. Also, at least he can’t turn me down for a giraffe without being a total jerk.

Some time passes and I’m becoming more and more confident in my abilities by the time Kaku takes to the podium shortly after 7:00pm. He introduces himself, talks briefly about the 300 interviews he conducted with some of the best scientists and thinkers around for his book and then apologizes for not being able to give his presentation himself: “When Einstein went to Sweden he left with an equation; when I went I left with a cold.” At this point one of booksellers asks me to stand. I’m given no further direction and now I look like a complete asshole.

I approach the nearest microphone, which is a little distant from the podium but not enough to really cause me any problems. When I ask one of the tech people if the microphone works I’m reminded that the entire event is being recorded and that I should just go to the podium.

I take a deep breath.

And another.

Why Me?

Kaku thanks me for the help and when I look out to the crowd I feel a little claustrophobic (later one of the booksellers will tell me that she estimated a turnout of over 500). I forget to introduce myself even though I consider the shamelessly plugging this website (I don’t) and begin moving into the presentation. For anyone that has ever done public speaking, the first few paragraphs are often the hardest to spit out, but the moment they are done confidence balloons and one even becomes a little cocky as you incorporate inflection, intonation and ad lib and unnecessary facial gestures all while mentally revising Cicero’s epitaph to read: “Yeah, he was OK, if you’re into that.”

Or something like that.

Before I know it the presentation is over, I shake his hand and then take my seat high as hell.[3] There’s a brief video followed by questions and answers, which goes by smoothly, and now he’s finally ready to begin signing books. Already at the front of the line I decide to try to cash in the chips I earned through the evening and make the pitch …

“I can’t draw a giraffe,” says Kaku, which is perfect since I implied that fact during the pitch. Also, I’m already well aware that he’s a little sketchy when it comes to biology.

A point made all that much clearer by the fact that this uni-giraffe is apparently evolving bipedalism.


[1] I purposely use his latest books (of the 8+ in his repertoire) as demonstrative of the “coolness” in science specifically because I imagine his textbooks and 170+ journal articles have the exact opposite effect.

[2] I was going through a serious physics/astronomy phase that, thank God, I have now fallen out of and substituted with heavy drinking.

[3] If anyone is curious about his handshake: it’s disappointingly weak.

Jen McCreight 3 11

Atheist Blogger and Feminist Jennifer McCreight

Jen McCreight wearing a "Gay? Fine by me." t-shirtJennifer McCreight is an atheist and feminist blogger who writes over at BlagHag.com and  someone I had the pleasure of meeting when she visited the University of Minnesota-Morris on March 23, 2011. As part of a small lecture tour she was doing across the state during her spring spring she came to the campus to speak about “God’s Lady Problem: Breaking Up with Supernatural Beings,” which was both edgy and controversial. And how it could it not be – she equated one’s relationship to God with that of an abusive relationship according to the established and accepted signs of such a relationship? Though the turnout was about 30-40, I counted only about one walkout.

She is perhaps most known as the main organizer behind Boobquake (4/26/10), a “humorous exercise in scientific and skeptical thinking” seeking to disprove the claims of Iranian Islamic scholar Kazem Seddiqi‘s who believes that “women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes.” Needless to say the results were pretty straightforward: boobs do not cause earthquakes. Who would have thought?

Also, for someone with both activist/scientific success and a popular blog under her belt she is surprisingly apt at drawing giraffes.