Talking to Squid

Megan McGrath's Resume & Blog

Month: July, 2013

Recording the World (and why it’s a good idea)

I haven’t talked much about my boyfriend on this blog, mostly because I love him so much that I figure writing about him would make everyone hate me. That might be a risk I’m willing to take, so here I go:

He’s a scientist who studies dolphin calls, and I would like to become a scientist who studies dolphin calls. Much of our relationship consists of doffing headphones on our long subway rides home, pulling up graphed calls of killer whales and finless porpoises and Weddell seals on our laptops, wondering why they sound like aliens, and then wandering around Central Park and recording birdsong.

He is currently in Belize, where he occasionally takes to the sandy wilderness wearing a digital recorder, stereo headphones, a boom-style shotgun microphone, and a fanny pack. This makes him look extremely odd, perhaps the host of a Discovery Channel show for small children called “Mr. Bird Goes Exploring.”

Why am I talking about this? Because sound is a big part of our lives. It’s a big part of the lives of most animals: birds sing, whales moan, monkeys howl and so do wolves. The magic 17-year cicadas everyone was losing their minds about this year saw and whine like banshees. Frogs chirp and belch and patter. Living things go about their lives yelling.

That’s why some research that came out this week is especially exciting, and I want everyone to know about it.

Check out my story on ARBIMON here:

ARBIMON stands for Automated Remote Biodiversity Monitoring Network. Let me rattle off their accomplishments for you:

  1. They’ve designed software that can take a recording of a rainforest and can tell you, fast, what species of animals are calling.
  2. They’ve designed recorders that are cheap, repurposed iPods to take short recordings every ten minutes around the clock and send them to the computers in real time.
  3. They’ve been doing this in certain sites, like a rainforest in Puerto Rico, for years, and anyone can listen to the sounds they’ve collected (or use their software) for free at

After a few years, we get graphs that look like this:

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 4.56.17 PM

Look at this! Mysteries of the universe uncovered!

The density of potential information is phenomenal. These are the calling habits of three species in a Puerto Rican rainforest, over a single day (left) and over years (right). The frog on top, E. juanariveroi, is considered endangered; the second frog, Rana grylio, is not. The third is, well, insect #1. Look what we can know from these graphs: that the endangered frog sings its most as dawn and dusk, and all three seem to sing in yearly cycles; that the Rana frog has sort of a low-ish population, except for the infamous Summer of ’09; and that these are nocturnal insects.

Most important for now is that top-right graph, the many-years call volume of E. juanariveroi. From 2008 to 2012, they were steadily calling less and less. Uh oh! They’re endangered! Maybe the planet has gotten too hot for them! Maybe this is the swan song of the frog! But this year, they all came back. How could we have known that these frogs are doing OK if not for data like this?

These one-minute recordings over days or weeks or years are like brushstrokes on a painting of a rainforest, or pixels on a map. The longer ARBIMON collects them, the better a picture they will have of how the forest sings and breathes and functions.

And did I mention it’s free?

My boyfriend, Mr. Bird the Explorer, has been helping an ARBIMON colleague to supervise an underwater recorder that they plunge into lagoons and seagrass beds. Same deal: brief, frequent recordings. Sometimes all you hear is clucky snapping shrimp, sometimes it’s an array of fish. Over time, though, it’s everything.

Read my story for VOA News.

Read ARBIMON’s most recent paper.

Check out ARBIMON’s library of sound.


Death Cry of an Iceberg

I love the sound that ice makes when you pour warm water on it—that splitting, rending, singing sound. It turns out that an iceberg the size of an island will make those same noises when it melts and cracks apart. But the sound, like the ice, is much, much bigger.

Listen to this story for VOA News about a team of scientists who were listening for underwater volcanoes in Antarctica when they overheard an iceberg being born, living, and dying:

Here’s the written version of the story.

Here’s something to think about: sound is vibration of molecules. It travels in waves of moving particles that bump into each other, creating the buzz you hear as sound.

Sound travels just fine in air: there are tons of particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, it does make … something. The air vibrates, but there are no ears to interpret it.

Sound doesn’t travel in space. A tree falls in space and nothing vibrates at all. There’s nothing to vibrate. Space is, famously, a vacuum. There are next to no particles to move around and bump each other. This is why sci-fi movies should never have noisy space scenes: space is totally silent to us.

But water is just about the opposite. Water is dense, particulate, and syrupy. Sound zips right through water, traveling four times faster and farther than it would in air. That’s why—as one of my favorite scientists Chris Clark has said—if you live in the ocean, you listen. Light decays and sight is difficult. Smell gets washed away. But in the ocean sound is everywhere, and bounteous, and large.

I went out on a limb and called Chris for this story, and was really jazzed to get a chance to interview him. He’s one of the most eloquent educators I’ve ever heard, and he studies the interaction of marine animals with their acoustic environment—which is an environment that humans are stepping on. The drone of ships and clang of sonar. We can’t hear the sound we make underwater, so we tend not to care. But everyone else can hear us, and only us. The whales stop calling when a ship goes by. A ship goes by many times a day. It’s like living under strobe lights.

Melting icebergs aren’t such a problem. Even if one is as loud as an earthquake and can be heard at the equator, it still only rumbles for 20 minutes or so. But the ships keep going by.

Here’s the original article about the iceberg.

Here’s an article I wrote about Chris’s work awhile ago.

How the bomb remnants can help us catch ivory poachers & save elephants from certain demise

When the US and the USSR were busy flexing at each other by blowing up bombs on testing fields, they were spraying the atmosphere with radioactive carbon. (What could be more obnoxiously macho, right?)

That carbon is being eaten up by the ocean at a certain rate, and it can let us know how old certain growing organic structures are.

Like teeth…or tusks.

Listen in to learn about some interesting new technology that could help us find elephant poachers (before they kill off all our elephants in twenty years or so):

The written version is here.

Sing a song with your sweetheart

Anyone out there in the mood to live out a Disney fairy tale for a hot sec? Grab someone you feel very strongly about and sing a ditty or something together. New research suggests that your hearts will literally beat as one.

Well, at least they’ll slow down and speed up together.

Take a listen to my story for VOA News:

If you’d rather, the written version is here.

Want more? The open-access research article is here.

If you think about this finding, it’s not out-of-nowhere. When you sing together, your breathe together at the same moments. Your heart rate is affected by inhalations and exhalations.

Bingo: We have a new reason why my college showtunes a capella group was even cheesier and more adorable than we seemed at the time, standing in drunken circles at dingy parties and harmonizing Sondheim.

God, I miss college.

Tiny Ouroboros, Photographed: Here are the first images of molecular bonds.

I don’t know about you, but I hate chemistry. I battled through every one of my classes and failed two of them. I played dirty, and so did the chemistry. I cried a lot. But in the end, I’m grateful to know the damn stuff. We know the minute structure of the building blocks of life, matter, all things.

These new images should get shown in every chemistry class from now on:


Y’all, I’m tempted to say that this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I do tend to be too superlative, but wow. These photos are nuts.

Atoms of each chemical element have their own unique number of electrons, and depending on that number, different elements interact with each other in wildly variable, but individually predictable, ways. So when we throw atoms together to make larger aggregations of matter, they tend to bond to each other in predictable molecular structures, based on the numbers of electrons they all bring to the group.

This is the FIRST TIME anyone has gotten images of the bonds that the atoms form between each other. These are the structures I drew out, torturously, repetitively, again and again in my lab notebooks til I thought my hands would fall off—these are the structures of molecules, of matter. We’ve never seen them before! And just look how right we are about those structures, how visible that geometry actually is! You can even see, in those brighter spots, places where the bonds are doubled and stronger—represented by a double line in the drawings. This is just unreal, folks.

The research was published in this paper in May, and written up very nicely in this article from WIRED.

Carbons eating their own tails

Now for my favorite chemistry story. You see those six-sided rings with a lot of double bonds? Those are benzene rings: neat rings of six carbon atoms that are very stable. It’s very important in organic functions, partially for its stability: carbon is one of the main building blocks of living matter.

For a long time, chemists knew that carbon liked to team up in stable groups of six. But when they tried to draw the molecule, with bonds—one carbon over here, holding hands with this next one, and the next—they found it impossible to draw something that made sense, given the number of electrons carbon atoms have. The scientists were stumped for years.

One man, August Kekulé, ruminated and struggled over benzene with all the rest. Then, as the story goes, he had a dream, or a day-dream, or a vision. He saw a mythical Ouroboros, a snake curled up, eating its own tail. Suddenly he knew that the carbon atoms were joined in a ring, and with a rightly satisfying alternating pattern of single and double bonds, the structure worked:


The veracity of this delightful story is debated, as the greatest stories always are. But luckily not too much–we can probably go ahead and believe it, and feel alright about ourselves.

And if it is true, August Kekulé had his dream around 1865. Look back up at those images, taken in 2013. There are your benzene rings, with bonds in place right where they should be. I can only imagine that if Kekulé could see them, he would be overjoyed.

Maybe I don’t hate chemistry after all.