Scientists refer to the study of biological toxins as toxinology (not to be confused with toxicology, with a C—as I explain below). From bacterial toxins like anthrax to the deadliest snake venoms, toxinology examines the chemical warfare between animals, plants, fungi and bacteria. This is the first in a new series I call Toxinology 101, where I explain and explore the fundamentals of toxin science to reveal the unusual, often unfamiliar, and unnerving world created by our planet’s most notorious biochemists.
“Point blank,” my friend, a commander in the US Navy, said firmly, when I asked what misused word or phrase really gets under his skin. “Definitely point blank.”
I asked why, and as he explained, I realized I’d been using the phrase wrong, too. To people familiar with firearms, hearing someone call an up-close gun shot “point blank” is like dragging nails on a chalkboard because that’s not what it means at all. Point blank (which may come from the French phrase pointé à blanc, referring to an arrow being aimed at a white spot at the center of a target) has nothing to do with close proximity to the shooter. Rather, point blank range is the distance at which a weapon aimed at a target succeeds in hitting it—where point of aim (e.g. the middle of the crosshairs) is the same as point of impact.
Bullets don’t travel in a straight line; from the moment they leave the gun, they are pulled by gravity. The further away your target is, the more you have to adjust for the arc of the bullet with the angle of the barrel of the gun. But the aiming line of sight is a straight line; point blank is where the bullet’s path and the line of sight cross. Adjustable sights allow you to aim your shot for a desired distance; thus, for long-range rifles, “point blank” could be set to 100, 200, or even 300+ yards away. Meanwhile, many handguns have fixed sights, so their point blank range is limited to whatever distance the gun is is zeroed to. Point blank range for such guns can be somewhat close—within fifty feet—but even that is much further than what most people think of as “point blank.” In fact, if a gun is literally pressed against the victim, then the point in the middle of the sights (which are usually on top of the barrel) isn’t where the bullet ends up—it’s off by the width of the barrel at least—so that isn’t point blank range. Different munitions have different maximum point blank ranges, depending on the weapon’s inherent ballistic properties, the aiming device used, and the type of bullet used.
It’s no wonder, then, that every time my friend hears someone was shot “point blank” (meaning gun to the head, or within a few feet), he gets a little prickly. Of course, there are words and phrases like “point blank” for every profession. Doesn’t matter if you’re an accountant, mechanic, or CEO, your job requires an understanding of the lingo of your field, and it can be frustrating when words with specific, important meanings are flung about incorrectly by everyone else.
For me, the ‘nails on chalkboard’ feeling comes whenever I hear people talk about their everday exposure to “toxins” or “poisonous” snakes. Though they’re often used interchangeably, the words toxin, venom, and poison (and their corresponding adjectives toxic, venomous, and poisonous) have very distinct meanings to toxinologists. So, it’s only fitting to kick off my Toxinology 101 series by explaining the differences between them and when it’s appropriate to use each of these terms. Read More
The actual bite happened in less than a second. Dr. Karl Schmidt, an American herpetologist at the Field Museum in Chicago, had been sent a live snake to identify by his colleague, Richard Marlin Perkins (then the director of the Lincoln Park Zoo). The animal appeared to be a boomslang (Dispholidus typhus), a kind of rear-fanged African snake, but there was something a bit odd about its scales, so Schmidt and his colleagues discussed the matter as they examined the serpent. It didn’t take long for the agitated animal to decide it had had enough manhandling. “I took it from Dr. Inger without thinking of any precaution, and it promptly bit me on the fleshy lateral aspect of the first joint of the left thumb,” Schmidt wrote in his diary on September 25th, 1957. “The mouth was widely opened and the bite was made with the rear fangs only, only the right fang entering to its full length of about 3 mm.” A day later, he would be dead. Read More
It’s that time of the year again where I look back and see what has happened over the past 365 days in the life of this blog. So far in 2016…
…I have posted 26 posts
…that received over five hundred ten thousand views
…from 225 countries/territories
…with 1129 comments
My most viewed post of the year (#5 site-wide!) was my personal favorite: Expedition Ecstasy: Sniffing Out The Truth About Hawai‘i’s Orgasm-Inducing Mushroom (does it work? There’s one way to find out…). The closest runner up was my explainer about how GMOs have nothing to do with Zika (#11 site-wide, which also, perhaps unsurprisingly, generated the most comments of any of my posts!). Y’all loved anything about snakes, from video of a man letting deadly snakes bite him to the over-acted fake death of a hognose (last year’s description of death by boomslang also drew eyeballs). My exposé of the Discovery show Venom Hunters also made it into the top ten, as did stories about the future of GMOs, how mosquitoes feed, why cownose rays aren’t destroying fisheries, and how Neil deGrasse Tyson needs a primer on bat biology.
My words also reached beyond the boundaries of this blog to the far corners of the internet. Some of the best include how climate change impacts marine diseases for The Scientist, a newfound appreciation of salps for Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, and why we associate tentacles with aliens for Quartz. However, my favorite piece of the year was my profile of Jack Randall, ichthyologist extraordinaire, for Hakai Magazine.
I also had a big year beyond the interwebs. I had a number of articles published in print-only magazines, including a great piece on the poisonous pitohui bird for Muse and anotherall about my current work as a venom scientist in this month’s Hana Hou, the magazine for Hawaiian Airlines. In March, my first foray into editing — Science Blogging: The Essential Guide — hit shelves. Then in August, my first book, Venomous, followed suit. The reviews of both have been tremendously positive, and I couldn’t be happier with the way both books have been received. Venomous even obtained coveted slots on Amazon’s Best Books of 2016: Science and Smithsonian’s Best Books About Science of 2016.
2016 doesn’t exactly have the best reputation in most circles. From political upheaval to beloved celebrity deaths, many are happy to see the year end. I am more conflicted—while in those ways, this year has been rough, it’s been one of personal and professional joy and success for me. I’ll always remember 2016 as the year I became engaged to the man of my dreams, the year I became a published author, and the year I conceived my first child. It’s hard for me to speak ill of any year that had all those in it.
Thank you to all of you who read this blog: let’s keep this bio-nerdy party going all through 2017!
Fireworks image (c) Mark Wooding, from Wikipedia
It’s evening on Christmas Eve, and it’s cold. The early sunset was hours ago, and the insulating clouds have vanished, leaving every surface frozen and glittering like the inside of a geode wherever the light from the street lamps touch. A couple braces as they leave their car and step out into the winter air, their ears filled with the sound of the snow creaking and crunching beneath each fall of their boots, each breath precipitating into thin, gray tendrils that slide past their chilled cheeks. They reach the door of their destination; a home glowing and warm, with muffled laughter and the clatter of silverware spilling out into the dry, stratospheric cold of the street. One of them places a round of knocks below a voluminous wreath of holly, its scarlet berries already wearing a film of frost. The door opens abruptly, and after a series of joyous embraces of ugly-sweatered chests, the couple presents their gift of wine and pie. The magnetic pull of heat, smiles, and carbohydrates draws them inside for the night. As they approach the nexus of the living room, they slowly push through a cavalcade of family members, faces flush with inebriation and the radiative heat of a wood-fired stove. One of them finally reaches a table, liberally adorned with sweets and beverages. They pour two mugs of eggnog, taking care to not catch fire on the centerpiece, a gloriously over-done amalgamation of poinsettias, Christmas roses, and candles. The couple rejoins away from the social huddle of guffaws and crosstalk. They take a swig of their viscous treat, and one of them notes the mistletoe pinned on the beam above them. With a wink and smile, they participate in an age-old tradition, and their lips meet.
Not once do they stop to ponder the noxious notoriety of every plant they’ve come across. From the holly on the door to the mistletoe above their heads, they are surrounded by species with toxic reputations. How did these potential poisons come to be symbolic of a holiday celebrating life and good health? Well, that’s a good story… Read More
Many have wondered about exact nature of Donald Trump’s hair. Is it the world’s worst toupee? A poorly-executed elaborate comb-over? A weird, incredibly expensive weave? The world may never know. But I prefer to think it’s inspired by nature—not another human’s lovely locks, of course, but those of this animal, which some have taken to calling the Donald Trump Caterpillar or simply the Trumpapillar:
LIVE coverage of President Obama’s address to the Pacific Island Conference of Leaders
5:50 PM: Aloha Discover readers! I’m here in the press pool at the University of Hawaii’s East West Center, ready to hear President Obama remark on the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Stay tuned for live coverage of the event!
Hawaiʻi is now home to the largest marine protected area on the planet. Again.
Today, White House officials announced that President is acting upon the proposed expansion to the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The expansion has been a hot button issue in the islands since its proposal in January. As Governor David Ige noted, it has been the source of “tremendous” debate, especially due to the exclusion of fishing from the expanded waters. The fishing industry fought hard against the proposal, leveraging TV ads, social media, town hall meetings and in-person testimony in Washington and Honolulu to prevent the expansion. But the pro-expansion movement has been resilient. Bumper stickers, signs, bookmarks and t-shirts with the hashtags “#ExpandPNMN” and “#GoBigObama” have been everywhere on Oʻahu. A flurry of town hall meetings, educational sessions, news conferences and media interviews rallied support. Led by The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Global Ocean Legacy program, the pro-expansion movement garnered more than 1,409,000 letters and signatures of support, including more than 1500 coral reef scientists that voiced their support during the International Coral Reef Symposium in Honolulu in June. “This decision is scientifically supported and provides substantial hope of leaving a legacy of ocean resources and benefits for future generations,” the scientists’ letter stated.
Ultimately, the President agreed. He will be visiting the islands next week to address leaders from the Pacific Island Conference of Leaders and the IUCN World Conservation Congress. Read More
In the final chapter of Venomous, I explain how the deadliest animals on the planet may hold the power to save lives. Though it might seem counterintuitive, toxins aren’t really that different from cures—both specifically target some pathway in the body that is going wrong.
The therapeutic use of venoms traces back centuries to some of our oldest civilizations. That medical legacy is still with us, as the serpent wound around a staff in the symbol of the medical profession.
You can read an edited excerpt from that chapter of my book in The Wall Street Journal. But just this week, National Geographic came out with a nice little video on the topic, explaining the basics in less than two minutes:
If you want to know more about the world’s most notorious animals and how their chemical cocktails affect us, be sure to pre-order your copy of Venomous today!
In just three weeks, my debut book—Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry—hits shelves in the U.S. The book is my tribute to the most notorious animals on the planet and the awesome weaponry they wield. I talk about the diversity of venomous animals, from the serpents, spiders and scorpions on land to the ocean’s snails, octopus and jellies. It’s a trip around the world and down to the molecular level to reveal how venoms work, and how they might hold the cures to our most hated diseases. The Scientific American Books site for it has links to every which way you could possibly want to pre-order it.
It’s hard to describe how much this book means to me. It’s been a long, windy road to get to this point. Venomous is the melding of my two selves: me, the scientist, and me, the writer. I started blogging in between undergrad and grad school, but for much of my career as a writer, I kept my work separate from my studies. I didn’t write about what I worked on. It wasn’t until I dug deeper into my PhD that I began to blend my science with my blogging and writing. Now, I consider my scientific expertise and viewpoint an integral part of who I am as a writer. Venomous is an extension of what I do here, a more in depth, long-form version tying together many of the themes that I explore in Science Sushi. If you follow this blog, you already know my style, and what to expect from Venomous. If you’re new here, welcome!, and feel free to poke around to get a better sense of me as a writer; if you like what you see, then I hope you’ll check out book.
So far, the early response has been very encouraging. Booklist’s Nancy Bent called it “superbly entertaining popular science” and gave it a starred review. Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus both gave the book positive reviews, and Greg Laden from ScienceBlogs gave it a glowing review, calling it “one of the better science books I’ve read in some time,” and noting that although he’s a biologist, he was “learning something new with every page turn.” You can also hear me talk venoms with Greg and Mike Haubrich on the Ikonokast Podcast.
If you like what you read, I would be grateful for any help with getting the word out about Venomous—talking it up on social media, leaving reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, or however else you wish to show your support. If you want to buy a signed copy, hit up the Book Passage website.
Below is a brief description of the book, what others have thought of it, and a list of where you can find me in the near future. This information can also be found on my website, and will be updated regularly.
Mahalo nui loa,
I was born in 1985, which is a bit of an awkward year, culturally. I’m technically a millennial, but I was a bit too old for most of the fads that swept through the millennial generation. I never owned a Bratz doll. I missed the brief yo-yo boom. And I never played Pokémon, in game or card form. That’s not to say I was too cool for that sort of thing as a kid; I was a total geek. Heck, I had a dragon deck before the Onslaught block made tribal decks cool (that would be Magic the Gathering, for those who have no idea what I’m talking about)—I just wasn’t quite the right age at the right time to be hit by the Pokémon craze. I had never tried to catch a Pokémon until last week, when my boyfriend and roommate convinced me to try Pokémon Go. It’s… addicting.
A few days later, I was already one of “those” people, glued to my phone as I paced up and down Kohou street. THERE! I stopped abruptly as I engaged a Tentacool that appeared on my screen. My eyes narrowed as I gently flicked my Pokéball at the cp179 Tentacool perched awkwardly on the hood of a parked car. After a few rattles, the red and white ball became still, emitting the “Gotcha!” stars, and I did a slightly embarrassing victory dance (my friend once dubbed it my “T. rex dance” because of my jilted arm movements). As a box jelly scientist, I had been keeping a keen eye out for these jellyfish Pokémon for days, but I had only seen them off in the distance, some three footsteps away. Frustrated, I finally had decided to go hunting near a local canal on my way back home from running errands, hoping I would find these water Pokémon near, you know, water—a tactic that paid off. My goofy grin quickly changed, however, when I was awarded a metal for catching my 10th “Poison-type” Pokémon. “Poison!” I actually exclaimed aloud. “Jellies are venomous!”