Category: Science

Are Sharks Really the Biggest Threat at the Beach?

Stephen P. Leatherman—

Beaches are the most popular recreational areas in the United States; more than 200 million Americans trek to the shore each year. Beaches help fulfill our desire to return to nature. While families reminisce, they often recall their beach vacations as being among the most memorable. Yet ocean beaches can also be hazardous, and few people understand or know how to recognize potential trouble.

Humans have a primordial fear of sharks—these great teethy predators. Although gruesome shark attacks do occur, sharks are statistically not a real danger for beachgoers. On average, only one person a year is killed by sharks in the United States, and most of these people are far offshore surfing or diving for abalone. Far more people are killed by bee stings, bathtub falls, and lightning strikes than by shark attacks. In fact, you have a better chance of winning the state lottery than being killed by a shark.

The real threat to swimmers and bathers at beaches are rip currents, often misnamed undertow or rip tides. These powerful, narrow currents originate close to shore as the water from breaking waves rushes offshore in particular locations along the beach. These nearly invisible currents are responsible for about 100 drownings and more than 50,000 rescues annually!

Graphics tell the tale—rips are the real killer.Weather and Marine Related Deaths


So what can you do to keep yourself safe from rip currents?

Look for signs of rips before entering the ocean

  • Change in water color from the surrounding water (either murkier from sediments, seaweed, and flotsam, or darker because of the depth of the underwater channel where the rip flows).
  • Gap in the breaking waves, where the rip is forcing its way seaward through the surf zone.
  • Agitated (choppy) surface that extends beyond the breaker zone.
  • Floating objects moving steadily seaward.
  • Temperature of water—water in the rip may be colder than the surrounding water.

What to do if caught in a rip current

  • Don’t panic, which wastes your energy and keeps you from thinking clearly.
  • Don’t attempt to swim against the current directly back to shore.
  • Swim parallel to shore until you are out of the current as the offshore flow is restricted to the narrow rip neck.
  • Float calmly out with the rip if you cannot break out by swimming perpendicular to the current. When it subsides, just beyond the surf zone, swim diagonally back to shore.
  • Wave your arms in the direction of the lifeguards.

Stephen P. Leatherman, popularly known as Dr. Beach, announces his “Top Beaches List” on national television every Memorial Day weekend. He is chair, professor, and director, International Hurricane Center and Laboratory for Coastal Research, Florida International University and the author or editor of fifteen books on coastal science, including Dr. Beach’s Survival Guide.


Featured image of great white shark in South Africa courtesy of travelbagltd / flickr

Should You Invest in Bitcoin? Here’s a Flowchart to Help You Decide.

Wildcat Currency CoverBitcoin is on the rise. The completely digital currency has been covered by Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, among others. Bitcoins have the power to buy anything from a hot dog at a Sacramento Kings NBA game to a hotel room at a Holiday Inn in Brooklyn. It’s a brave new financial world, or at least it might seem that way. According to Edward Castronova, author of Wildcat Currency: How the Virtual Money Revolution is Transforming the Economy, forms of monetary exchange not created by the federal government have existed for a long time. He cites airline miles and S&H Green Stamps as examples, but his underlying argument for Bitcoin’s legitimacy has less to do with 20th century precedents than with the nature of money itself.

Castronova discusses the ways economies spring up everywhere: in online games with internal currencies and in prisons where cigarettes become a medium of exchange.These economies tend to behave the same way “real” economies do, and as Castronova goes into the specifics of each financial community he sheds light on the general principles they confirm. The definition of money, the core idea behind banking, the way inflation works, and debates surrounding these and other issues all become clearer through the book’s telling case studies. These gestures allow the later sections of Wildcat Currency to delve into the implications of virtual currencies, and to seriously consider both the benefits and the drawbacks surrounding Bitcoin as economic, legal, and political entities begin to create policy to address it.

If you are interested in learning more, you can enter our Goodreads Giveaway for a chance to win a copy of Wildcat Currency! In addition, Edward Castronova has been answering questions in a Reddit AMA. And if you are thinking about trying Bitcoin yourself, take a look at this handy flowchart to find out whether you should invest.


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Wildcat Currency by Edward Castronova

Wildcat Currency

by Edward Castronova

Giveaway ends July 31, 2014. See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win


Your Backyard Summer Reading: 10 Facts on Coexisting with Wildlife

Looking for a little motivation to reconnect with your backyard now that summer is officially hereJames Barilla’s My Backyard Jungle: The Adventures of an Urban Wildlife Lover Who Turned His Yard into Habitat and Learned with It is the summer reading book for you. Now available in paperback, the book makes an excellent summer companion as you venture back out into the great outdoors. Barilla’s honest and engaging journey to cohabitate with wildlife inspires readers to asses on their own relationships with nature in an increasingly urban and suburban world, as former Yale Press intern Cara Borelli shared last summer.

Whether or not we welcome wildlife into our habitats, we do coexist in the same environments. Barilla opens each chapter with a statistic revealing the benefits and challenges of sharing our environment with wildlife. These facts, shared below, provide additional perspective on the intertwined relationships between human society and the natural environment.


1. “Twenty-two percent of endangered plant species are found in large metropolitan areas in the United States. Sixty-seven federally listed species are found in the San Francisco Bay area, fifteen around New York City.”

2. ”The Christmas Bird Count has used citizen scientists to gather data on wintering bird populations for more than a century. Last year, sixty thousand volunteers participated in counts that spanned the continent. Volunteers also conduct the Breeding Bird Survey every spring, covering three thousand routes across the country.”

3. ”United States fruit, vegetable, and nut growers lose $146 million worth of crops to wildlife damage each year. The primary culprits are deer, squirrels, and starlings.”

4. ”In India, ten primate species and subspecies live in proximity to human settlements. Of these, four are relatively abundant. The other six, however, are listed as Near Threatened, Vulnerable, or Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

5. ”Based on estimates of one rat per person, approximately 250 million rats inhabit urban and suburban areas in the United States. An estimated 1 billion more inhabit poultry farms, causing $19 billion in feed losses per year.”


Like My Backyard Jungle on Facebook for updates from James Barilla’s backyard

6. ”Approximately three thousand black bears inhabited Massachusetts before European colonization. By 1900, that number had been reduced to fewer than one hundred. Today, the bear population has reached three thousand again and is increasing by 8–10 percent each year.”

7. ”Approximately seventeen thousand native plant species inhabit the United States, and five thousand nonnative plants have escaped into native ecosystems. The “hotspots” for nonnative species in the United States are Florida, Hawaii, California, Louisiana, and the Great Lakes region.”

8. ”Managed European honeybees pollinate an estimated $14.5 billion worth of crops each year in the United States. Other “wild” pollinators service approximately $3 billion worth of crops.”

9. ”Wildlife trafficking is the third largest illegal trade in the world after drugs and weapons. In Brazil, an estimated forty million animals are taken from the wild every year. Only one in ten of these animals survives long enough to be sold.”

10. “Peregrine falcons nest on bridges, window ledges, rooftops, and clock towers. Fourteen pairs currently nest in New York City. Twenty pairs nest in London.”

For more from the author:


For more on the book:

YUP June Green Tip: Sustainability in the Office


This June the Yale Press Green Team welcomed a new group of talented summer interns with an introduction to recycling at Yale. Reaching out to new office-mates is a great way to maintain an office culture of sustainability. Many of the tips we shared with our interns could be applied in your own workplace, or at home.


Reuse “gently used” paper:

  • All too often, someone prints a document that they end up forgetting about or not needing. Instead of recycling this paper, reuse it by either printing draft documents on the other side *or*
  • Create scrap paper pads! Use a paper cutter or even just a ruler to cut or rip 8 ½ x 11 sheets of scrap paper in half, and fasten the sheets of paper together with a binder clip. Voilà, instant note pad! This also reduces the need to order note pads through our office supply manager.

Double‐sided printing and photocopying:

  • Most printers and photocopiers have an option for double‐sided printing. Make this your default setting. You can also choose double‐sided printing at your computer when you print out a document.

Bring your own mug and glass to work:

  • Try not to use paper cups, and take your own travel mug to the coffee shop.

Recycling with Terracycle:

  • Terracycle is a company that upcycles used product wrappers into new products like purses, soap dispensers, notebooks and clipboards!
  • For Terracycle you can collect:
    • Empty candy wrappers (all brands, all sizes [this includes fun size and king size!], all types of candy)
    • Empty Starbucks coffee bags (Starbucks only, any size bag of coffee beans)
    • Empty chip bags (all brands, all sizes, and all kinds of chips [pretzels, too!]).
  • For every bag you send in, a contribution of 2 cents will be paid to the organization of our choice. In addition, Terracycle will turn the bags into cool products.
  • Terracycle also collects other difficult to recycle items including old pens, toner and ink cartridges, and more. Find out more about their programs on their website.


Here are a few books for further reflection on the effect our workplace culture has on the environment:

The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science by Akiko Busch

The Very Hungry City: Urban Energy Efficiency and the Economic Fate of Cities by Austin Troy

Law’s Environment: How the Law Shapes the Places We Live by John Copeland Nagle


What does your office do to reduce, reuse, and recycle? Share your tips with us in the comments below.

Thoreau: Fully Annotated

Walden JacketIn a month, it will have been ten years since Jeffrey S. Cramer published Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition. Cramer has had a prolific and successful decade, editing numerous volumes on Henry David Thoreau and racking up awards and praise. In 2012, radio host Jim Fleming said that Cramer “may know more about the bard at Walden Pond than anyone else alive.” He has earned that reputation, at least in part, on the basis of his annotations.

Cramer has published three fully annotated volumes by Thoreau: Walden (2004), The Maine Woods (2009), and Essays (2013). To begin to understand why these books are “fully annotated” and not merely “edited,” one need only take a quick glance at Walden. Thoreau’s text occupies the half of the page closest to the spine and Cramer’s copious annotations run along the outside. Between the transcendentalist’s prose and the scholar’s commentary, most of the pages are, indeed, completely full. There are only a handful of places where Thoreau’s text proceeds without Cramer’s accompaniment, and rarely for longer than a few paragraphs. Far more commonly, Cramer’s annotations outstrip Thoreau’s chapters.

The fullness of the fully annotated edition comes not only from the volume of the commentary but also from its breadth and depth. Cramer provides the expected historical, philosophical, and geographical contexts for Walden and goes well beyond their bounds. He explains the writer’s puns, calls him on his exaggerations, and knowingly undercuts his more bombastic pronouncements. When Thoreau declares that “Those who have not learned to read the ancient classics in the language in which they were written must have a very imperfect knowledge of the history of the human race,” Cramer chimes in to say that “Although Thoreau could read Greek, he did not always read the Greek authors in the original, but would use Latin, French, or English translations.”[1]


Cramer annotates Walden with the care and thoroughness usually reserved for Shakespeare plays or the Bible, and one might ask why the scholar feels compelled to explicate Thoreau so fully. Perhaps it is simply Cramer’s passion that leads him onwards. Most people will expound upon their favorite subject to an attentive audience for hours if given the opportunity. Indeed, some of that spirit comes through in Cramer’s interviews. In 2012, he was asked what three scenes from Thoreau’s life he would include in a biopic. The scholar begins carefully, selecting major life events, but quickly finds himself on a roll, listing scene after scene, finishing with “and— and— how long can we make this movie?”

Benjamin_D._Maxham_-_Henry_David_Thoreau_-_RestoredYet even as Cramer’s interviews imply that his breathless enthusiasm may be the impetus for the full annotations, his introduction hints at a justification rooted in Walden itself. Cramer quotes Thoreau’s claim that “The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have.”[2] Thoreau, Cramer argues, is suggesting a way of approaching Walden. To “seek the meaning of each word and line” is precisely the task of the annotator, who identifies the precise significance of each moment. At the same time, the annotator expands the language beyond its common use, and does so with “wisdom and valor and generosity.” Cramer’s wisdom lies in his paramount knowledge of the bard at Walden Pond, his valor in his perseverant attention, and his generosity in the abundance of his commentary. It is in this sense, in fulfilling a need Thoreau himself seems to recognize, that Cramer’s editions are fully annotated.


[1] Thoreau, Henry. Walden. 1854. Ed. Jeffrey Cramer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 101.

[2] Jeffrey S. Cramer. Introduction. Walden. By Henry D. Thoreau. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. xx.

Madness and Memory: A Conversation with Nobel Laureate Stanley B. Prusiner, M.D.

Madness and Memory CoverAlthough he encountered enormous skepticism, Dr. Stanley B. Prusiner persevered in his research on the causes of degenerative brain diseases, convinced the scientific community of his findings, and, in 1997, received the Nobel Prize.  He argued that conditions including scrapie in sheep and goats, mad cow disease in cattle, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans were caused by “prions”–a term he arrived at by combining “protein” and “infection.”  The idea that proteins could cause infectious diseases contradicted the scientific understanding of the time, which held that only agents with genetic material–viruses, bacteria, fungi–were potential infectious agents. Prusiner’s book, Madness and Memory, tells the story of his remarkable discovery and recounts the obstacles he overcame before others would recognize his work’s importance. We sat down with Prusiner to discuss the origins of his hypothesis, the nature of discovery, and what yet remains to be done.

Yale University Press: In a time when research into infectious disease depended on the assumption that infection was caused by the presence of a living agent, what prompted you to posit that proteins (prions) were at the heart of neurological diseases/ “transmissible spongiform encephalopathies?”

Dr. Stanley B. Prusiner: What prompted me to suggest that the scrapie agent was composed only of a protein is that as we enriched scrapie infectivity relative to other molecules, we kept finding evidence for protein and less and less evidence for a nucleic acid (DNA or RNA). These results were unexpected but eventually we were able to study preparations in which we had removed 99% of the contaminating proteins and nucleic acids. Such preparations were subjected to six procedures that modified nucleic acids and six other procedures but altered proteins; only the procedures that modified proteins were found to reduce scrapie infectivity. In contrast, procedures that damaged or modified nucleic acids did not change the infectivity.

YUP: You cite your “vaunted self-confidence” on a few occasions in Madness and Memory. Do you think this, in addition to private funding, is what allowed you to persevere in the face of hurdles, such as lack of laboratory space, mice, and other resources, along with your peers’ derision and hesitation to collaborate?

SBP: Before venturing into studies of the scrapie agent, I believed that I had a reasonable grasp of how to do the good science with sufficient controls and well-thought-out experiments. I also believed it would be possible to make modest progress if I remained focused and was lucky. What I did not know is how the work would turn out and whether the progress would be sufficient to maintain the needed funding. Yes, private support was very important but government grants were equally critical — without both, the work would have floundered.

Dr. Stanley B. Prusiner; Photo by Russ Fischella

Dr. Stanley B. Prusiner; Photo by Russ Fischella

YUP: How did you react to others’ attempts to take credit for your work, and what did you do to remain in the public consciousness as the originator of the term, prion?

SBP: Proper credit in science is very important. Many scientists work very hard for years and never make a big discovery. Only a few are lucky enough to stumble into an important discovery. More than any other profession, proper credit for being the first person or group to make a discovery is critical. A particular discovery only happens once, and whether you are second, third, or twentieth, it makes no difference. It is important to recognize that there will be no re-discovery: there will be no rematch, no new World Series, or no new Super Bowl next year. Once the discovery is made, it is final. Obviously, all scientific discoveries must be independently confirmed and only then does it become part of the body of scientific knowledge. One of the great aspects of scientific investigation is that discoveries are accorded to those that publish first in peer-reviewed, scholarly journals — this is the currency of scientific discovery.

YUP: Now that your work, once deemed heretical, is widely accepted and serves as the basis for diagnosis and eventual cures, how soon do you feel the scientific community will be able to tackle cures for other fatal neurological diseases, such as Lou Gehrig’s, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s?

SBP: While the work on PrP prions causing Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is now well accepted, there is not universal acceptance of prions causing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s, and other neurodegenerative diseases. But the evidence is mounting, and in time, I believe such ideas will become widely accepted. We are working diligently on developing drugs that will slow and possibly halt the progression of neurodegenerative diseases.

YUP: In your speech at the 1996 Nobel Banquet, you mentioned that the course of prion study has reflected an odyssey that has taken you from “heresy to orthodoxy.” Considering the various sentiments about prions (Protein-only hypothesis, viral hypothesis, etc.), do you feel that the odyssey is over?

SBP: The scientific odyssey that began several decades ago is still not over. Only when we and others have developed therapeutics that prevent Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s diseases, the frontotemporal dementias, and many other neurodegenerative disorders will the end of these devastating illnesses come into focus. Once we can eradicate these diseases, then this odyssey will come to a proper close.

Stanley Prusiner, M.D. is director of the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases and professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco. The recipient of an array of scientific honors, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1997. He lives in San Francisco.

How to Love the Uncuddly and Endangered Double-Crested Cormorant

cormorantJennifer Doerr—

As long as I can remember, I’ve loved birds.  As a child, I would spend long stretches of time planted, crossed-legged on the floor, in front of our glass sliders. I was waiting for the sudden, magical arrival of birds—chickadees, cardinals, juncos, goldfinches, blue jays, Carolina wrens, tufted titmice, red-bellied woodpeckers. It didn’t matter what appeared on the railings and floorboards of our deck. Even the bland and too-abundant sparrows had something that drew me in.

From childhood until the present, I have been fascinated by birds’ behaviors, personalities, appearances, and the sense of cosmic connection that time spent watching and interacting with them provided. There wasn’t a single bird that didn’t appeal to me.

Except one: the double-crested cormorant.

I first spotted the cormorant through the soot-shellaced windows of Metro North trains. On weekends, when I fled from New York City to Connecticut for family visits, I generally was in a nature-starved state. I enjoyed the train trips home. They represented the first stage of escape from the city and my conduit to reconnection with the outdoors.

I could feel the crush of the city lift off of me with each mile as I peered out at the landscape.  Relaxing, I would look eagerly across the green tracts of trees and then into the marshlands and tidewaters, searching for animals and birds.

I would savor the sight of an elegant great white egret or a crimson-beaked laughing gull. But my sense of wonder would always be jarred and cut short when I caught sight of a cormorant.

The double-crested cormorant is a dark waterbird that is ink black, and mid-sized, with a long goose-like neck.   Spotting them for the first time through the train windows, it was definitely their pose that stoked aversion. Small groups of them were gathered, each standing singly on a rock. And on their rocks, they each stood motionless, with their sizable wings expanded out on either side of them.  They held this pose—wings extended in the air—unmoving, for minutes at a time. They seemed unearthly and portentous.

In short: they gave me the creeps.

Wires fig 6

From then on, when I saw them, and got the associated mini-shiver, I turned my attention away.  Wouldn’t our marshes be perfect, I thought, if they would go elsewhere?

In 2012, I happily made the shift out of New York to work at Yale University Press.  I rented a cottage that gave me great proximity to a walking along the water and tide marshes. I could finally make a birdwalk part of my day whenever I wanted.  Just a few steps outside my door was the chance to see an enormous variety of birds, from native species to migrants that made brief, glorious appearances during spring and fall. I bought a pair of binoculars and guidebooks, and began to take daily walks.

It was there, on a trail that ran over a tide pool, that I came face-to-face with a double-crested cormorant. There was no train window between us. And this time it wasn’t perched on a rock. It was fishing.

I’d never seen a cormorant do this, and the speed with which it dove under water and reappeared—yards away from where it dove under—amazed me. It was incredibly efficient, slicing the silver water with its dive and bobbing to the surface with a fish.

Wires fig 23

Oh, come on, I told myself. Give this bird a chance.

I brought the binoculars up and looked more closely. In an instant, my sense of the bird shifted.

It had a bright sparkling teal eye. I had not been able to see that before. It was remarkable. The orange, cracked-plaster skin of the beak also was stunning. Contrasted against the bright eye, the whole face was a revelation.

A new, alternative personality for the bird, nudged at my original prejudice. What had seemed ghoulish and ominous now seemed powerful and prehistoric.  The bird’s essence deepened for me from an eerie figure into something more nuanced, intelligent, and fascinating to look at. I could easily picture this bird being a character or inspiration for a mythological creature.

Western subspecies showing white crests

I became curious about the cormorant. So it was a wonderful opportunity for me, as a publicist, to see a book on our spring list, The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah, by Linda Wires. Our talented science editor Jean Thomson Black, presented it. I was smitten (and eager to represent it).

As I read Linda’s book, I learned an enormous amount about the bird (some additional fun facts about double-crested cormorants can be found here on the excellent website run by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology). But I also learned that this initial dread-response drummed up by the bird’s eerie pose and aesthetics was a common reaction. That this initial response, unquestioned, morphed for many people into knee-jerk reactions of dislike. This often led to common misconceptions about the bird taking hold. And in some cases, an (unjustified by science) it formed beliefs that the birds would threaten our fishing industries, and that they should be destroyed.

Wires fig 24

As I discovered from Linda’s book there is no need to take such measures. Cormorants can safely coexist with humans and will not wipe out fish populations or threaten the fishing industry. Depredation orders (government policies that allow the killing of large numbers of cormorants without a permit)unfairly target these birds. In fact, these birds need our stewardship and protection.

Now when I see the cormorant descend and land in the tidewaters first thing in the morning, my responses are respect and curiosity. I watch them glide and dive and remerge. I see how little they disturb the surface of the water in their stealthy diving and I smile and silently wish them good luck in their search for breakfast. I think how advanced and skillful they seem against some of their more nice-to-look at, but plodding fellow shorebirds.

But I won’t lie: That frozen wing-extended pose, can still give me a shiver.. Maybe at this time next year, I won’t even notice.

Wires fig 7

Jennifer Doerr is a senior publicist at Yale University Press.

Illustrations by Barry Kent Mackay, original creations for The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of  a Feathered Pariah (Wires, 2014)

YUP April Green Tip: Celebrate Book Swap Month!

Green Tip Photo

April’s known for its spring showers, but April is also book swap month

Our 4th annual Book Swap took place here at YUP during the week of April 21st– 25th. We invite all of you to celebrate in spirit with us–wherever you are–and participate in a book swap in your area. This is your chance to refresh your bookshelves at home – bring in the books you’ve read (but don’t need to keep forever and ever) or haven’t read (and have finally admitted to yourself you’re never going to read) and browse the volumes brought in by your friends and colleagues for replacements!

Consider setting up a book swap at your workplace, school, or neighborhood! Here’s how we’re organized our own:

  • The YUP Book Swap took place in the basement kitchen of our building. Baked goods appeared periodically throughout the week to keep you from getting too hungry as you shop for free books. (We highly recommend having baked goods if you’re setting up your own book swap!)
  • Please DON’T bring: damaged books, encyclopedias, magazines, outdated material (e.g. science, medicine), foreign language books

Video: Ship of Death, A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World

In 1792, a ship set sail from England with the best of intentions. Its tragic journey would change the course of history forever.

Historian Billy Smith uncovered a remarkable story of tragedy unleashed from misguided humanitarianism in his book Ship of Death: A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World. The Hankey was engaged to ferry abolitionists seeking to establish a colony free of slavery to West Africa. Lack of understanding and respect for the cultures they encountered doomed the ship’s original mission. The video below, narrated by Smith, traces the far-reaching results—the changes to the fate of the Haitian Slave Rebellion, contributions to the Louisiana Purchase and the death of hundreds of thousands across several continents.

YUP March Green Tip: Take this Month’s Sustainability Challenge!

Green Tip Photo

Did you know March is Trash Month here at Yale?
Read about the life cycle of your garbage and take this month’s Sustainability Challenge by visiting the Yale Sustainability website.