Series highlights science for average Joe and Jane 

Conservationist, activist and acclaimed journalist Mary Ellen Hannibal was pleased to assist in creating a new Commonwealth Club lecture and panel series dedicated to science.

The author of "The Spine of the Continent," which chronicles a new approach to sustaining American ecosystems, was approached last year by Carol Fleming, chairwoman of the Commonwealth Club's member-led forums, who wanted to design a program around her area of expertise.

But Hannibal said she told her, "We need a broader umbrella."

Eventually, the pair decided to focus on the role of the average person in nature conservation. The resulting "Citizen Science" series kicks off today at the California Academy of Science's Nightlife event (most programs throughout August are at Commonwealth Club offices).

The series' modern ideas belie an approach as timeless as human curiosity.

"The dichotomy between nature and technology is, I think, a false one," says Ken-ichi Ueda, featured speaker at "The Snake, the Seeker, and the Smartphone: Can Tech Save Biodiversity?" a panel Tuesday exploring how apps and social media can help environmental activists.

"Technology enhances nature. I view smartphones as another type of binoculars, a way to enrich the natural world that we didn't have before," he says.

Ueda, a "citizen scientist" himself, is a computer programmer who created iNaturalist for his graduate studies at UC Berkeley in 2008, later enlisting help from scientist Scott Loarie.

It has become a hub for freelance biologists, who capture natural phenomena on smartphone cameras and upload the images to an online database. So far, iNaturalists have identified a new species of poison dart frog in Honduras and recovered a species of mollusk thought to be extinct in Pennsylvania.

"It's interesting," Hannibal remarked about the app's potential to engage humans in the nature movement. "Because we do have this natural desire to touch things, to engage with our world. That's why we're so into our iPhones, right? Everything's happening on there."

Hannibal's book "The Spine of the Continent" is a pithy read with anecdotes supporting its central idea, that a spine — a rocky, interconnected pathway across the continental U.S. — could supplant a failing national park system.

One chapter follows Hannibal as she helps a hairdresser scoop up beavers and relocate them around the Fishlake National Forest in Utah. Another describes working with Michael Soule, founder of conservation biology.

Hannibal will talk about her work Aug. 29 in the final presentation of the series. Other speakers include Ghanaian venture capitalists, designers of "living exhibits," and experts on the link between water and Middle Eastern conflicts.


Citizen Science series

Presented by Commonwealth Club

Where: Most programs at Commonwealth Club, 595 Market St., S.F.

When: Today through Aug. 29

Tickets: $20 general for most programs; discounts for members and students

Contact: (415) 597-6700,

Note: Ken-ichi Ueda speaks at 6 p.m. Tuesday; Mary Ellen Hannibal at 6 p.m. Aug. 29

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