March 2010 Archives

Aquila chrysaetos

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Photograph by Karen Dobson.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Aquila chrysaetos – Golden Eagle.

This may be slightly off task for PT, but the latest issue of The Nation magazine has a disturbing article suggesting that US environmental groups have been co-opted by the corporations whose activities they purport to oppose.

The article, by Johann Hari, shows how conservation organizations such as the National Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy have accepted millions of dollars from companies like Shell and British Petroleum in return for touting their supposedly “green” activities and soft-pedaling their not-so-green activities. Thus, the World Wildlife Fund defends IKEA against (accurate) charges that some of its furniture is made from trees harvested from endangered forests, and the Sierra Club endorses supposedly green products from Clorox without serious investigation.

Ada Lovelace Day

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Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, was a pioneer in computer science. She wrote what is said to be the first computer program in her notes on an article on Charles Babbage’s analytical engine she translated from Italian. Today is “Ada Lovelace Day,” and Finding Ada has a compendium of sites blogging about women in computer science in celebration of the day.

As a partly relevant aside, as I do every year, last week I judged at the North Central Ohio District Science Day and the Marion Area Science and Engineering Fair, and my subjective impression (I haven’t done a count) is that girls dominated the awards, including one 9th grade girl who was selected to participate in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in San Jose, CA. That was great fun to see.

Accretionary lapilli

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Photograph by Matt W. Ford.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Accretionary lapilli from the area around an extinct shield volcano in Idaho.

Life on the Discovery Channel

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Last night, I watched the the first two episodes of the series Life on the Discovery Channel. Although it had some fascinating footage (who knew that Komodo dragons were poisonous?), I thought the program as a whole was episodic and unfocused – more like a travelogue than a science program. Still, it was a pleasure to hear narrator Oprah Winfrey refer to evolution and geologic time as the uncontroversial facts that they are. The series is on every Sunday night through April 18, and I will probably try to catch most of it.

Creationism in Connecticut

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Mike Zimmerman, founder of the Clergy Letter Project, has a post on HuffPo calling attention to a situation in a public school district in Connecticut where a new creationist school board member, Chester Harris, met with science teachers. In the Hartford Courant newspaper article on Harris is quoted as saying

“I sort of got stuck on one thing with [the science teachers], which was basically the teaching of evolution in the schools and how it tends to ride roughshod over the fact that various religions – Christian, Hebrew, Muslim – hold a theistic world view,” Harris said one morning during a break from his job driving a school van. “Evolution is basically an assumption that there is no God.”

Right. Just what Connecticut needs: A school bus driver leaning on science teachers about evolution in aid of the Abrahamic religions.

And a school administrator weighed in with the usual spinelessness of such apparatchiks:

Charles J. Macunas, principal of Haddam-Killingworth High School, attended the meeting and characterized it as “very pleasant, not the least bit adversarial.”

“As a new board member, he was just trying to get a handle on content that’s taught in an area he’s very passionate about,” Macunas said.

Sounds like the brave superintendent of the Dover Area School District.

Disco ‘Tute spokesweasel Casy Luskin weighed in, too:

“People should weigh the evidence and draw their own conclusions,” said Casey Luskin, a policy analyst with the institute. “We’re talking about one of the most foundational questions of humanity: Where did we come from? There are credible scientists that challenge Darwinism. It is unconscionable to censor those views from students in the classroom.”

Incidentally, the Disco ‘Tute is described as “…a think tank in Seattle that funds research into alternative theories of human origin,…”. Sure it does.

The Disco Dancers had better get a leash on Harris, though. He is quoted as saying

“I’m not going to be fighting for the overthrow of any one way of doing things because we’ve gone past that,” he said. “It’s time for balance. … And I just want to be there so there’s a voice that says there’s room for all of us.”

“Balance”? Someone should refer Harris to Edwards v. Aguillard for some legal background on that “balanced treatment” idea. Between his listing of the Abrahamic religions as part of his talk with science teachers and his “balance” comments, he’s already blown the gaff. Lenny Flank’s rule still holds.

New findings about the Hobbit

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Since the “Hobbit” fossil LB1 was discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2004, debate has raged as to whether it is a new species of hominid (Homo floresiensis), or a pathological modern human specimen. And, if it is a new species, where it should fit in the human family tree - a near-human relative, a dwarf Homo erectus, or something else?

The November issue of the Journal of Human Evolution was devoted to Homo floresiensis, with a number of papers on various aspects of its anatomy and environment.

Argue et al. have performed the first cladistic study of LB1. Cladistics uses comparisons of characteristics of specimens to try and determine their evolutionary relationships. Their results showed that LB1 most likely split from the rest of the genus Homo either after H. rudolfensis but before H. habilis, or after H. habilis. It therefore apparently evolved from an early Homo species, sometime between about 1.5 and 1.9 million years ago. They also tested whether LB1 could have shared a unique common ancestor with either Homo erectus or Homo sapiens, but both of these hypotheses were strongly rejected. Their full conclusion was:

Argue et al. 2009 Wrote:

Based on rigorous cladistic analyses, we propose that H. floresiensis evolved in the Late Pliocene or Early Pleistocene. The first of our two equally parsimonious trees suggests that H. floresiensis branched after H. rudolfensis (represented by KNM-ER 1470) but prior to the divergence of H. habilis (represented by KNM-ER 1813 and OH 24). Alternatively, our results are equally supportive of H. floresiensis branching after the emergence of H. habilis. Our results sustain H. floresiensis as a new species (Brown et al., 2004; Morwood et al., 2005) and favor the hypothesis that H. floresiensis descended from an early species of Homo (Falk et al., 2005; Argue et al., 2006; Larson et al., 2007; Tocheri et al., 2007). We find no evidence of close phylogenetic relations to H. sapiens, and reject the idea that the Liang Bua remains represent a pathological modern human. Importantly, we also are unable to link H. floresiensis phylogenetically to H. erectus, rejecting the hypothesis that the small enigmatic bones resulted from insular dwarfing of H. erectus. It is surely time we accepted the reality of H. floresiensis as a species and seek answers to the questions that this species poses, not least of which is: who were its ancestors?”

Other papers reach similar conclusions:

How to make a snake

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

First, you start with a lizard.

Really, I’m not joking. Snakes didn’t just appear out of nowhere, nor was there simply some massive cosmic zot of a mutation in some primordial legged ancestor that turned their progeny into slithery limbless serpents. One of the tougher lessons to get across to people is that evolution is not about abrupt transmutations of one form into another, but the gradual accumulation of many changes at the genetic level which are typically buffered and have minimal effects on the phenotype, only rarely expanding into a lineage with a marked difference in morphology.

What this means in a practical sense is that if you take a distinct form of a modern clade, such as the snakes, and you look at a distinctly different form in a related clade, such as the lizards, what you may find is that the differences are resting atop a common suite of genetic changes; that snakes, for instance, are extremes in a range of genetic possibilities that are defined by novel attributes shared by all squamates (squamates being the lizards and snakes together). Lizards are not snakes, but they will have inherited some of the shared genetic differences that enabled snakes to arise from the squamate last common ancestor.

Pics of Homo floresiensis site

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The Sacramento Bee has good pictures of the Lianga Bua, Indonesia, site where Homo floriesiensis remains have been found. As you will notice, they’re not just scraping the floor of a nice shallow cave with trowels.

Hat tip to James Kidder.

Conophytum bachelorum

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Photograph by Matt Opel.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Conophytum bachelorum – a desert plant from South Africa, in cultivation. The plant body is a pair of fused, succulent leaves.

Pity the poor inverts

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How did all those “kinds” of animals survive aboard the Ark during Noah’s Flood? Ken Ham has a novel answer. See below the fold.

Rob Pennock has a new article out in Science and Education. It analyzes how Phillip Johnson brought postmodernist elements to the ID movement, tracing these elements back to Johnson’s midlife crisis, his gradual turn to evangelicalism, and his move into “Critical Legal Studies” in legal studies, wherein he made up the entire “right wing” of that field. Pennock compares Johnson’s 1984 article on critical legal studies to his later arguments against evolution and for a conservative evangelical Christianity (Johnson didn’t actually argue very much for ID!).

Smithsonian’s Human Origins Initiative

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The Smithsonian Institution has launched a new web site focused on human origins. It includes a good deal of material on the evidence (behavior, fossils, genetics, and dating) and Smithsonian’s research projects, along with what looks like a very useful set of education resources including lesson plans for teachers, a teachers forum, and student resources including an interactive mystery skull interactive exercise (I had trouble with that in Chrome but not in Firefox; apparently there’s a Flash glitch in the interaction of the site with Chrome).

And just to stir the pot a little, the page on the Broader Social Impacts Committee will provide some fuel to the accommodationist/hardliner feud. In particular, notice who is not represented on it.

At any rate, I strongly commend the site to your attention.

Hat tip to ASA Voices.

Science blogs: ur doin it wrong.

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An open access paper just out looks at science blogging. According to the abstract, the paper

… focuses on one of the ICTs [Information and Communication Technologies] that have already been adopted in science communication, on science blogging. The findings from the analysis of eleven blogs are presented in an attempt to understand current practices of science blogging and to provide insight into the role of blogging in the promotion of more interactive forms of science communication.

Bora has a critical look at it, as does Cosmic Variance. Panda’s Thumb is one of the 11 blogs examined in the paper.

One of the main conclusions of the (pretty chancy) analysis is that

To become a tool for non-scientist participation, science blogs need to stabilize as a genre or as a set of subgenres where smaller conversations may facilitate more meaningful participation from members of the public. Science bloggers need to become more aware of their audience, welcome non-scientists, and focus on explanatory, interpretative, and critical modes of communication rather than on reporting and opinionating.

The author goes on to suggest that

An interesting practical experiment would also be to reverse the roles of writers and readers and invite the so called “ordinary persons” to create and publish science blogs, i.e., to engage them in the practices of science blog writing rather than reading or commenting.

Hm? Why would that be interesting? And, for that matter, “ordinary persons” have the same access to blogging software as do scientists; nothing (except disinclination or disinterest) is stopping “ordinary persons” from blogging about anything they wish.

The author clearly has a particular model in mind as a referent, implicit in the title of the paper: “Science blogs and public engagement with science: practices, challenges, and opportunities.” That’s tantamount to “blogs as an extension of science education.” But while many of us are interested in science education, that’s an institutional goal while blogs are, by and large, personal vehicles. It seems to me that institutionalization is not a state to be desired. (After writing this paragraph, I found that Scholarly Kitchen made much the same point.)

(I invite my PT colleagues to comment. This post is based on a fast read-through with contractors waiting to abduct me to force a decision on the color of house siding.)

Rimstone Formation

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Photograph by James Rice.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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8-meter Rimstone Formation, from the first science and mapping expedition to Haunted Forest Cave in Belize.

Some Big News Items

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Some big stories came out this week.

Science Daily reported on March 3rd that

A fossil that was celebrated last year as a possible “missing link” between humans and early primates is actually a forebearer of modern-day lemurs and lorises, according to two papers by scientists at The University of Texas at Austin, Duke University and the University of Chicago. In an article now available online in the Journal of Human Evolution, four scientists present evidence that the 47-million-year-old Darwinius masillae is not a haplorhine primate like humans, apes and monkeys, as the 2009 research claimed. They also note that the article on Darwinius published last year in the journal PLoS ONE ignores two decades of published research showing that similar fossils are actually strepsirrhines, the primate group that includes lemurs and lorises. ‘Many lines of evidence indicate that Darwinius has nothing at all to do with human evolution,’ says Chris Kirk, associate professor of anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin. ‘Every year, scientists describe new fossils that contribute to our understanding of primate evolution. What’s amazing about Darwinius is, despite the fact that it’s nearly complete, it tells us very little that we didn’t already know from fossils of closely related species.’ ..

And, the BBC reports on March 4th that

An international panel of experts has strongly endorsed evidence that a space impact was behind the mass extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs. They reached the consensus after conducting the most wide-ranging analysis yet of the evidence. Writing in Science journal, they rule out alternative theories such as large-scale volcanism. The analysis has been discussed at the 41st Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in the US. A panel of 41 international experts reviewed 20 years’ worth of research to determine the cause of the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) mass extinction, around 65 million years ago. The extinction wiped out more than half of all species on the planet, including the dinosaurs, bird-like pterosaurs and large marine reptiles, clearing the way for mammals to become the dominant species on Earth. Their review of the evidence shows that the extinction was caused by a massive asteroid or comet smashing into Earth at Chicxulub on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula…

While creationists are sure to glom onto these stories as evidence that any change of opinions over time means entire disciplines are simply nonsense, both of these stories show science incorporating new information, and improving with age.

Contrast that with creationism or “intelligent design,” for which nothing becomes clearer or better understood over time. Hmm - what is the actual mechanism by which the Designer infuses new designs into actual, living organisms? Search me!

Discuss.

The Austin American-Statesman reports that Thomas Ratliff has narrowly defeated Don McLeroy in the Republican primary race for Texas State Board of Education. McLeroy is the right-wing extremist who wants to doctor the state science standards so they reflect his own disbelief in the theory of evolution. Since there is no Democratic candidate, Ratliff will automatically assume McLeroy’s seat.

The Dallas Morning News reports that Ratliff had received the support of “mainstream public education groups” and quotes him as saying, “I want to take politics out of our public schools,” and added that Ratliff

told gatherings across the district that Texans are tired of political posturing on the board as the social conservative [sic] bloc – led by McLeroy – tries to impose its views in history, science and other areas of the curriculum.

“Our kids don’t go to red schools. They don’t go to blue schools. They go to local schools,” he said, also criticizing attempts by some board members to inject their religious beliefs into what children are taught.

The News reports further that McLeroy was “unapologetic about the actions of the social conservatives” and bragged about the “incredible accomplishments that will help our children.”

Thanks to a commenter known to me only as Aagcobb for the tip.

Agelaius phoeniceus

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Photograph by Peter Psyhos Burns.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Agelaius phoeniceus – red-winged blackbird, Falmouth, Massachusetts.

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