Into The Night
Discover, November 1998
Nancy Simmons went down to the jungles of French Guiana in 1991 with
the seemingly simple mission of determining how many species of bats
live in one place. Each afternoon she and her colleagues headed out
from their camp and set up their nets, sometimes arranging them
artfully over the opening of hollowed tress where bats like to roost.
Then they waited for the sun to fall.
"The forest is noisy and active at night," says Simmons. "Armadillos
come walking by, and kinkajous are knocking around in the tress above
your head. You sit there in the dark and you wait, and you never know
what is going to come next." When the bats emerged from their roosts,
Simmons would hear them thump into the nests. At times she could even
hear the chatter of their teeth as they tried to gnaw their way free.
Simmons surveyed her site for three field seasons. She was overwhelmed
by the results. "We ended up getting 78 species of bats from an area
that was within a three-kilometer walk of our camp, just a pinprick on
the map." One species had previously been reported only from a site 800
miles away in Brazil; another was altogether new. How so many kinds of
bats can live in one place is an utter mystery. What stunned Simmons in
particular was that her forest site, which has relatively poor soil,
probably doesn't harbor much diversity. She's sure that there are many
lusher places in the world where even more bats live side by side.
The great variety of bats seen today is just part of the larger
evolutionary mystery surrounding these creatures. Simmons, who works at
the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is a paleontologist
by training. Before she entered the jungle to look for live bats, she
had spent years studying a miserably scrappy record of bat fossils.
Bats are not good candidates for paleontological study. When they die,
they usually disappear. Often they are eaten by scavengers; if not,
they decompose on the ground. The muscles and membranous skin that make
up their wings rot away. Any wonderful equipment they might carry to
navigate by the echoes of their own cries--a strange leaf-shaped nose,
or giant frilled ears--vanishes. Soon all that remains are their frail,
thin bones, which rarely end up in a place like a nice quiet lake bed
where they can fossilize. As a result there are only a handful of
complete bat fossils in the entire world.
Paleontologists like Simmons have studied those few relics assiduously
because, living or dead, bats pose one of evolution's supreme puzzles.
A few other mammals may be able to glide from tree to tree, but only
bats have evolved true powered flight. In fact, only two other
vertebrates--birds and pterosaurs--ever managed this feat. But with
little fossil evidence to go by, it's hard to figure out how bats did
How Many More Eurekas Left in the Bath?
, November 12, 1998 Link
A review of What Remains To Be Discovered: Mapping the Secrets of the Universe, the Origins of Life, and the Future of the Human Race,
by John Maddox
One can only imagine how annoyed John Maddox must have become in 1996. He had retired from Nature a year earlier, after an impressive 23-year stint as its editor. Having successfully guided this journal into the age of space-based telescopes and genome projects, he decided it was a good time to write a book. There he would lay out the most important questions still left unanswered by scientists. And then, just as he was getting elbow-deep in the project, everyone suddenly started talking about another book on what the future will bring: John Horgan's The End of Science (Helix, 1996).
Horgan, a journalist, had interviewed leading scientists and strung profiles of them together into an argument that science as we've known it in the past few centuries--unveiling the Universe's fundamental secrets--is coming to a close. Much of the important stuff, such as relativity and DNA, has already been discovered, and the things that haven't, Horgan claimed, are either minor details or dreamy notions beyond our powers to verify. Many scientists loathed the book, and Maddox himself wrote in a review that it was "intelligent but perverse".
Now, two years later, we have What Remains To Be Discovered. Nowhere does Maddox mention Horgan by name, and yet Maddox often addresses him implicitly. When Maddox writes, "Who, now, dares say that the days of surprise are over?" it is hard not to imagine Horgan lurking in his mind.
A SLEEPING STORM
Discover, August 1998
Winner of the 1999 Pan-American Health Organization Award for International Health Reporting
Sleeping sickness--once thought to be vanquished-- is raging back across Africa. At the center of the epidemic, an American doctor, Mickey Richer, is trying to clear a small patch of good health.