Review: A Grand and Bold Thing, by Ann Finkbeiner
With the (somewhat excessively long) subtitle of An Extraordinary New Map of the Universe Ushering In a New Era of Discovery, this is a history of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. It's structured as a mostly chronological history of the project with background profiles on key project members, particularly James Gunn.
Those who follow my blog will know that I recently started a new job at Vera C. Rubin Observatory (formerly the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope). Our goal is to take a complete survey of the night sky several times a week for ten years. That project is the direct successor of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and it's project team includes many people who formerly worked on Sloan. This book (and another one, Giant Telescopes) was recommended to me as a way to come up to speed on the history of this branch of astronomy.
Before reading this book, I hadn't understood how deeply the ready availability of the Sloan sky survey data had changed astronomy. Prior to the availability of that survey data, astronomers would develop theories and then try to book telescope time to make observations to test those theories. That telescope time was precious and in high demand, so was not readily available, and was vulnerable to poor weather conditions (like overcast skies) once the allocated time finally arrived.
The Sloan project changed all of that. Its output was a comprehensive sky survey available digitally whenever and wherever an astronomer needed it. One could develop a theory and then search the Sloan Digital Sky Survey for relevant data and, for at least some types of theories, test that theory against the data without needing precious telescope time or new observations. It was a transformational change in astronomy, made possible by the radical decision, early in the project, to release all of the data instead of keeping it private to a specific research project.
The shape of that change is one takeaway from this book. The other is how many problems the project ran into trying to achieve that goal. About a third of the way into this book, I started wondering if the project was cursed. So many things went wrong, from institutional politics through equipment failures to software bugs and manufacturing problems with the telescope mirror. That makes it all the more impressive how much impact the project eventually had. It's also remarkable just how many bad things can happen to a telescope mirror without making the telescope unusable.
Finkbeiner provides the most relevant astronomical background as she tells the story so that the unfamiliar reader can get an idea of what questions the Sloan survey originally set out to answer (particularly about quasars), but this is more of a project history than a popular astronomy book. There's enough astronomy here for context, but not enough to satisfy curiosity. If you're like me, expect to have your curiosity piqued, possibly resulting in buying popular surveys of current astronomy research. (At least one review is coming soon.)
Obviously this book is of special interest to me because of my new field of work, my background at a research university, and because it features some of my co-workers. I'm not sure how interesting it will be to someone without that background and personal connection. But if you've ever been adjacent to or curious about how large-scale science projects are done, this is a fascinating story. Both the failures and problems and the way they were eventually solved is different than how the more common stories of successful or failed companies are told. (It helps, at least for me, that the shared goal was to do science, rather than to make money for a corporation whose fortunes are loosely connected to those of the people doing the work.)
Recommended if this is topic sounds at all interesting.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Has your cat or dog ever had to wear a “cone of shame”? Also known as an Elizabethan collar (or an E-collar), and resembling more of a lampshade, these devices are routinely prescribed by veterinarians to prevent our pets from scratching themselves, biting at sutures, or otherwise harming themselves.
Apparently the term “cone of shame” was popularized by the movie “Up” – perhaps referring to the fact that it likely feels like a punishment to the wearer. It’s no walk in the park for the pet owner either – turns out that owners are reluctant to use them on their pets, and do not use them for the full length of time recommended by their vet. Cones may even be dangerous, with at least two dogs dying due to getting tangled in plastic bags while wearing the collar.
A recent open-access study out of Australia (“The Cone of Shame”: Welfare Implications of Elizabethan Collar Use on Dogs and Cats as Reported by their Owners) surveyed pet owners with cats or dogs who had needed an E-collar in the last year, asking several questions about why the collar had been recommended, how long the pet had to wear the collar, and whether the owner had observed problems or signs of stress in their pet. There were 434 participants, primarily from Australia. They reported that their pet had a wear the collar for anywhere from 3-7 days.
More than half of owners reported welfare concerns related to the use of the collar: 60.2% said the collar interfered with drinking, and 67.5% reported that their pet was unable to play while wearing the collar. A quarter of pets experienced (mostly minor) injuries from wearing the collar such as itching, trauma, or bumping into walls or objects. Almost of quarter of animals were able to remove the collar on their own, but their owners were helping them out too: over half of owners just took the collar off their pet when they were supervising them.
The majority of owners reported that their pet had a worse quality of life while wearing the cone, and reported that their pet was “depressed”, had difficulties eating, and that the distress was worse than the behavior it was supposed to prevent. In some cases, the cone didn’t fit well, and some animals could not jump or walk normally when wearing them.
On the plus side, owners did feel that the cone of shame was effective at preventing the behavioral responses such as licking or biting. It is possible that some cats and dogs could be trained to habituate to and accept wearing a collar, but that is not the approach that most owners can take – the collar needs to go on NOW, not after the pet has been sensitized to it.
I had my own experience a few years ago with the cone and my cat. She was limping, so we took her to the emergency vet. She was diagnosed with “lameness” (okay, it still makes me chuckle) – just a soft tissue injury -- and sent home with pain killers and a cone. Why the cone? I still don’t know. She hated it, and like many pet owners, we did not comply, and we took it off her after just a few hours of her misery. She recovered just fine.
So is the cone of shame a necessary evil? Is it necessary at all? Are there other options? I decided to throw some questions at one of my favorite experts when it comes to medical care for cats, Ellen Carozza, LVT, who works at the Nova Cat Clinic in the DC area. She has specialized in feline medicine for almost two decades, and trust me, this woman knows her sh*t. But I also knew from previous conversations with her that she shared some of my concerns about the routine use of the cone of shame.
Why did your clinic stop the routine use of e-collars?
EC: We noticed it caused more stress to the patient when they wear them. When a patient is properly pain managed using a multimodal method, we have found they will not pick or groom the suture area. We barely have external sutures – we do internal and subcutaneous or subcuticular to minimize the picking as well.
The main complaints we get from clients on e-collars is that the cats won’t eat, they bonk into the walls, become depressed and overly groom the e-collar (that is a indication of pain…they just can’t get to the spot but trying to groom it sure does help!). These cats may also not rest well due to the collar propping their head and face up, so that adds to the discomfort and now the animal can’t get comfortable and sleep. And sleep and rest is very important with the healing process.
Using a local block, opiates, Gabapentin and NSAIDS (if the kidneys will allow it) along with complimentary therapies such as laser and the Assisi Loop aid in healing because the pet is kept comfortable and the acute and chronic pain is diminished and kept to a minimum.
Why do most veterinary clinics continue to rely on the “cone of shame”?
EC: They believe they really do help. What we should be focusing on is pain management to prevent them from wanting to pick at the first place. It is also taught that this is the standard of medicine: just stop the behavior. You also have the " We've always done it *insert excuse of the day here.*
You can't always trust the owners to keep the area clean and dry. Most clients don't even check incision sites daily. So putting a collar on the animal prevents the client from having to do an extra job as a pet parent and pay attention.
What are the alternatives? Is it time to end this "shameful" practice?
EC: There are lots of alternatives. Some of the newer "cloud or balloon collars" allow the animal to eat more freely, but don't allow the head to rest properly either as it’s an inflatable ring. The "No Bite" collars are neck braces that prevent the neck from bending back to function normally. Some companies go as far as making ridiculous, yet cute e-collars that resemble flowers or lion manes so something so "shameful" isn't (clever marketing). OR the best thing ever is to PROPERLY PAIN MANAGE!!! and address any underlying obsessive behaviors with mood modifying drugs and environmental changes (especially the cats who just clean obsessively and you can't find the reason why medically).
Do I think it's time to end the "shameful" practice? I think it's time for better pain management, behavior and environmental modifications to be done to limit the routine use of them in practice. Understanding the feline pain body scoring allows you to stay ahead of the issue at hand and not have to rely on a cone to suddenly halt a behavior.
Hopefully this research will help increase awareness that e-collars are not necessarily necessary or helpful to maintaining companion animal welfare while helping them heal. People hate ‘em, our pets hate ‘em, it’s time to start taking the alternatives seriously!
Shenoda, Y., Ward, M. P., McKeegan, D., & Fawcett, A. (2020). “The Cone of Shame”: Welfare Implications of Elizabethan Collar Use on Dogs and Cats as Reported by their Owners. Animals, 10(2), 333.
Shumaker, A. K. (2019). Diagnosis and treatment of canine acral lick dermatitis. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, 49(1), 105-123.
Wilson, S. (1993). Elizabethan collars and plastic bags. The Veterinary record, 132(26), 664-664.