Why Boaty McBoatface Is the Best Thing to Happen to Science in a Long Time
When was the last time anyone cared about an Artic research ship? Exactly.
Update: this boat has been named for Sir David Attenborough, but one of its sub-sea vehicles has been named Boaty McBoatface in honor of the public's suggestion. This ship is being built right now in the UK and will set sail in 2019.
Scientists are usually not great at engaging the public in their work. If they allow any sort of public input, it’s usually a dry announcement in a newspaper about showing up to share an opinion between 2 and 4 pm on a Tuesday. Even then, if any public shows up, their input seldom has any lasting effect on the final project. Who would do that? Why would they do that? There must be a better way to involve the general public in science.
Thankfully there is - and its name is Boaty McBoatface.
ICYMI, Boaty McBoatface was selected as the name of a new polar research ship commissioned by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). The ship “will provide the UK with the most advanced floating research fleet in the world and will help put the UK at the forefront of ocean research for years to come,” according to the site. It’s a highly advanced ship designed to do a lot important climate-related research, as detailed in this video:
In order to drum up interest in the project, NERC asked the internet to name the ship:
Julia Maddock is NERC’s Acting Associate Director for Communications & Engagement. Confirmation from her is as official as you can get -- and she’s excited. Because the internet did get involved. Enormously. In a way that’s never happened for any other science-related project in recent memory.
The internet suggested all kinds of names for the Royal Research Ship (RRS), from Arctic explorers (RRS Henry Worsley) and renowed naturalists (RRS David Attenborough) to a 16-month old girl with terminal cancer (RRS Poppy-Mai). But the winner, in a landslide, was a silly name: Boaty McBoatface. A name so silly it seemed like a joke -- which it was, according to suggester and BBC commentator James Hand. Yet his jokey suggestion spurred far more interest in NERC’s project than they could have ever hoped for. It grabbed the attention of the internet and earned 124,109 thousands votes.
Boaty McBoatface even inspired other silly names in the NERC poll. Standouts include the RRS It’s Bloody Cold Here, Boatimus Prime, I Like Big Boats & I Cannot Lie, Science!!!, Big Metal Floating Thingy-Thing, and Clifford the Big Red Boat. There are even other takes on Boaty McBoatface as backup options, like Boaty McBoatface The Return, Boaty O’BoatFace, and Captain Boaty McBoatface. The internet seemed to trip over itself trying to one-up the joke.
Additional suggestions from the poll. Credit: NERC
But with all of that jokiness, why did Boaty McBoatface win? The best answer anyone could come up with belongs to Slate’s Katy Waldman. She wrote a fantastic roundup of the X McX naming trend and its long history of public interest. The internet embraced the trend in 2001, she writes, citing the work of lexicographer Ben Zimmer:
The first [Usenet] appearance of Hottie McHotterson (on rec.games.video.sony),” Zimmer writes, beat out “Fatty McFatterson, Stiffy McStifferson, Drinky McDrinkerson, Jewy McJewerson, etc.” Zimmer also notes a cornucopia of deprecative McNicknames for George W. Bush, including “Chimpy McBunnypants,” “Drinky McCokeSpoon,” and “Smirky McWarHardon.”
Redditor Problem119V-0800 offers an additional perspective as to why Boaty is so beloved in this Reddit thread devoted to the topic: “It's funny because "Boaty McBoatface" is such an innocently whimsical name. The internet has ruined me and I expect all polls to end up with some 4chan-esque "Hitler McRapejoke" name.” Boaty seems to be the best of everything the internet loves -- a fantastically silly response to a dead serious question in a sarcastically joking format. There is nothing about the name to not love. Even Hand admits that:
All that said, and as perfect as Boaty McBoatface is, it may never grace the research vessel. Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson called the name “unsuitable.” Former head of the Navy Admiral Lord West dismissed the name, saying: “It’s the typical thing of Brits going mad, normally silly season.” Even NERC reminded the people the final decision would be made by a panel, not by the number of votes.
What they’re all forgetting here, and what Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said in response to Johnson’s condemnation, is to “respect the will of the people.” Scientists asked the public to give a damn about a giant boat that will be stationed on the other side of the world. They did. They gave so much of a damn that they named it. They gave it the silliest possible name that could think of, one that would endear it to them and give it a longer life in public memory.
That’s a miracle in the science world.
At the end of the day, the amount of public trust NERC has built with Boaty McBoatface shouldn’t be taken lightly. They have two choices: they can either name the boat and accept the consequences of allowing the public a say in their project, or choose another name and kill public interest in the project. It’s a clear choice, and it’s the same choice of any scientist who opens their research to the public. By welcoming the public into the project, they become part of the project, plain and simple. Yes, it can be silly, as Boaty McBoatface has demonstrated, but it’s also allowed NERC’s project to spread farther than they could have hoped. It even changed the real, non-science world:
Do the right thing, NERC. Keep Boaty McBoatface and set an amazing precedent for science. Or should I say Science!!!
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?
While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.
"In the spring," the lead author Adriaan Dokter noted, "3.5 billion birds cross back into the U.S. from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern U.S. border."
In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?
Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."
The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.
What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.
Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
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