Recently in Slightly Off Topic Category

Pi Day

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Today is Pi Day, and the time will be exactly pi at 3/14/15 9:26:53, or a little thereafter. We will not see another Pi Day till 2115, but I am sure that someone next year will point out that pi = 3.1416 within a thousandth of 1 percent or so. Won’t be the same, though!

Q&A in the WASP nest

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By Steven Mahone.

What would happen if a dyed-in-the-wool secularist was given the opportunity to speak with students from one of the most religiously conservative school districts in the country? Well, I had the privilege of finding out first hand.

The Classical Academy (TCA) is an affluent, public charter high school in north Colorado Springs, so imagine my surprise at receiving an invitation to represent the secular and scientific viewpoint for a week-long seminar titled “Worldviews: The Scientific, Religious, and Cultural Underpinnings of Our Society”. The school is situated two miles from Focus on the Family (an evangelical stronghold for 19th century Christian “values”) and New Life Church, a 10,000-member mega-church that was once pastored by Ted Haggard. (You might recall that Haggard had a parking lot “altercation” with Richard Dawkins when Dawkins attempted to interview him for a BBC special. You can’t help but appreciate the irony when six months after he admonished Dawkins for living a lie behind the veil of science, Haggard was caught with methamphetamines and a male prostitute.) Also sharing the same zip code with the school are the corporate headquarters for Compassion International, The Association of Christian Schools International, and Cook Ministries. I bring this up only to set the stage for my mindset before I ever arrived at the school’s parking lot.

Chinese pandas have canine distemper

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Four pandas in a captive breeding population have died of canine distemper, one is “stable,” and four are “sick,” according to an article in today’s Science magazine. The pandas have been quarantined, and close contact with tourists, who may carry the disease, has been eliminated. The authorities have also repaired fences to keep dogs out. There is, fortunately, no indication that the disease has spread to a wild breeding population, which is apparently on the far side of a mountain range. The article notes that there is a vaccine to protect against canine distemper, but it is “unclear” whether the breeding center has used the vaccine.

The article goes on to describe the practice of introducing adults bred in captivity into the wild. The government maintains reserves for the pandas and has established corridors that, according to the article, cover 85 % of the pandas’ natural habitat. The article also describes a controversy over the breeding program, in particular, over the practice of taking cubs in the wild from their mothers prematurely, so that the mothers can breed more often, without regard to the needs of individual pandas.

Finally, researchers are awaiting the results of a survey which will ascertain the quality of the protected habitat and help scientists decide how many pandas they may introduce.

A somewhat outraged (but entirely justified) article by Timothy Egan in the Times reminded me of an interview I heard the other day on Fresh Air.

First, the Egan article: Mr. Egan is properly outraged at the New York Attorney General’s finding that dietary “supplements” sold by major retailers often contain none of the “active ingredient.” Sorry, the scare quotes are mine, not Mr. Egan’s, but I think they are entirely apt. Indeed, the fact that the “supplements” contains no active ingredient and people write testimonials to their efficacy hints that even dietary supplements that actually contain the active ingredient may be no more than placebos. Nobody knows, in part, because the dietary supplement industry in the US is virtually unregulated (see also the Times editorial here).

Which brings me to Fresh Air. Terry Gross interviewed Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David Linden, the author of a recent book on the science of touch. Fascinating interview, but then, at the 29-min mark, Ms. Gross asked Professor Linden about the placebo effect. He paused and then answered,

The general thing I take from this is that, in the end, the substrate is biology. When things work, whether they are drugs or the placebo effect or acupuncture or meditation or psychotherapy, they work because they are changing the functions of brain circuitry, and my feeling is that, if it works, it works, and it should be used. There is no reason to abandon something that works just because we don’t understand all the biological steps in the way it works. In truth, many of the most popular drugs in the armamentarium for neuropsychiatric disorders – we don’t understand how they work anyway. We don’t understand how antidepressants work. We don’t understand how lithium works for bipolar disorder. So if the placebo effect works, then let’s use it.

I cannot disagree that, if the placebo effect works, then we should use it. But how? Is it OK to lie to a patient and claim that some worthless herb is in fact a medication or that sticking needles here and there has some specific therapeutic effect? Or is there potentially a better way to harness the placebo effect and really make it work? Professor Linden may have been taken aback by the question, but I thought his response was a bit facile; I will be especially curious to read comments on how others, especially medical professionals, answer these questions.

Are men idiots?

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That is, are male members of the species Homo sapiens idiots? No, but according to a recent article, they are more likely to be idiots than women are.

The only thing surprising about this conclusion is that it is so unsurprising. For years now, whenever my daughter or I see a bicyclist dash madly across 4 lanes of traffic, we announce to each other, “Another male trying to improve the gene pool.” We are uncertain who said it first, but my daughter somewhat sheepishly thinks it was she. Which, of course, makes me think that we brought her up right.

The study that drew the unsurprising conclusion looked at the recipients of the Darwin Awards over the past 20 years. To qualify for a Darwin Award, you have to remove yourself from the gene pool, generally by killing yourself, but I suppose that castration would do about as well.

After the usual mutterings about selection bias and noting that the study was retrospective (double-blind would have been kind of tricky), the authors conclude that ~90 % of Darwin Award winners were male. They propose a Male Idiot Theory, which to my mind is at least as good as Molière’s diagnosis, she is mute because she has lost her speech.

NPR reported on the article here. Some of the comments are interesting, and some suggest a sociobiological explanation, which I will leave to your imagination – suffice it to say that among our early ancestors, only the men had to take the risk of hunting elephants. Or whatever.

The authors of the original article assure us that they plan an observational study and even now are scheduling holiday parties, both with and without alcohol.

Meditation on The Mind’s Eye

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I am a physicist, with a specialty in optics, so I was especially interested in The Mind’s Eye, by Oliver Sacks (not to mention the less well known The Island of the Colorblind). The Mind’s Eye is a fascinating book about the visual system, many of the things that can go wrong with it, and what we learn from them. It is also the book in which Dr. Sacks reveals that he suffers from prosopagnosia, or face blindness; is not a surgeon because he cannot visualize; and functions only with great difficulty now that he has monocular vision as a result of a retinal cancer. I have great difficulty recognizing faces, but nothing approaching prosopagnosia, and it is a marvel to me that he could cover it up for the better part of 80 years.

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Credit: Abnormal Interests. Creative Commons copyright CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US.

Kang Lee, a 2014 Ig Nobel Prize* winner, asks, “Have you ever seen the face of Jesus on toast? No? … Your brain is completely normal if you see nonexistent faces in everyday objects. In fact, if you don’t, your brain may actually lack the essential ingredients for a vivid imagination.”

The research was actually mildly interesting, if unsurprising. I could not read the original article, which was published in a proprietary journal, but I found synopses here and here. The gist, at any rate, seems to have been that when observers think they see a face, even in random noise, the face-recognition area in their brain lights up.

OK, it is normal to see patterns where none exist. More-imaginative people see more patterns. Fine.

But too many people who ought to know better think that such patterns are real.

*The Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded in September, but I did not catch up with them till a broadcast on NPR the other day. Dr. Lee added, by the way, “And I have some good news for you, for those without a good imagination, I just found out, you can buy a Jesus toaster on eBay .…” You may see him at about 19 min into the tape. For the record, seeing patterns where none exist is known as pareidolia.

… because it (gasp!) uses the word, “abortion.” But wait – there is a glimmer of hope: The new superintendent, who was ordered to offer a plan for redacting the textbooks, says that the books comply with the law already and instead plans to hold a public discussion.

Meanwhile, as a service to the affected high-school students, Rachel Maddow has posted the offending page on a blog, ArizonaHonorsBiology.com, which her show apparently owns. If you are curious or have a prurient interest, you may also see the verso of The Page, as well as several other pages on human reproduction.

For the record, the book is Reece, et al., Biology: Concepts and Connections.

Philae craft lands on comet

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Rosetta headquarters announced a few moments ago that the Philae lander is now sitting on the surface of the comet and transmitting data. Unfortunately, the European Space Agency is not exactly releasing a trove of pictures. I know this is not biology, but where did you think those hydrocarbons came from in the first place?

Or, as Right-Wing Watch puts it, Neo-Confederate Republican Michael Peroutka Wins Maryland Election. Mr. Peroutka operates the family foundation that donated the allosaurus fossil to the Creation “Museum,” as we reported here. I will not synopsize the Right-Wing Watch article, but I think that you will find that being a neo-Confederate is the least of Mr. Peroutka’s problems; if he is not completely crackers, he is giving a convincing imitation.

Kent Hovind in trouble again

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I haven’t got time to investigate further, but Hovind watchers might be interested that Mr, Hovind (Dr. Dino) has been charged with filing a lien on property that had already been forfeited. Or something. A Forbes columnist, Peter Reilly, suggests that the government is piling on, and I suspect he is right; you may read about it here.

Acknowledgement. Link provided by the truly indefatigable Dan Phelps.

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Pinhole-camera images of solar eclipse formed by spaces between leaves in canopy. According to Jon Grepstad, this phenomenon was explained by Aristotle. The eclipse is just ending; the picture was as close to total as it got here (Boulder, Colorado).

Giant panda fakes pregnancy

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The Xinhua news agency reported the other day that a giant panda, Ai Hin, had faked pregnancy, possibly in order to receive better treatment in the form of a private room, air conditioning, and luscious bamboo. This observant and inventive panda is, of course, a distant relative of Professor Steve Steve.

Panda cub is 1 year old

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That cub is Bao Bao, the cub born at the National Zoo in Washington. See here for a short video or here for still photos. Bao Bao is the second panda to have been born at the zoo and survived to her first birthday. She is, of course, a distant cousin, once removed, of Professor Steve Steve.

A dam at a toxic waste pond burst last week and spilled 10 Mm3 of water and about half as much presumably toxic sludge into a tributary of the Fraser River in British Columbia. If you want to see what 10 Mm3 of water looks like, watch the video posted by The Guardian.

The Fraser River empties into the newly named Salish Sea at Vancouver, B. C.

The Guardian article barely mentions salmon, but the Seattle Post-Intelligencer calls it British Columbia’s Exxon Valdez and suggests that over 2.5 million salmon could be affected. Although the water is apparently safe to drink now, no one knows what the long-term effects might be, after the toxic sludge enters the food chain. NBC news reports that the spill has already destroyed spawning beds for endangered Coho salmon, and there is fear that chinook and sockeye salmon, which are running upstream right now, may also be in danger.

The Provincial government is minimizing the danger.

You may get an idea how science really works from an article by Boston science writer Kate Becker in today’s Boulder Daily Camera. (I think the column is exclusive to the Daily Camera.)

Becker describes the Bicep2 experiment, which looked for evidence of cosmic inflation by examining the polarization of the cosmic background radiation. The authors of the paper announced its conclusion before the paper had been submitted for review; since then, others have criticized their method and thrown the conclusion of the paper into doubt. Specifically, some think that cosmic dust may polarize the radiation in such a way as to give a false positive, in this case a polarization that mimics that of the cosmic background. The researchers have considered cosmic dust and disagree. At any rate, their article has finally been published, and you may find the abstract here. I read the abstract, but as Casca said, it was Greek to me, and I have no opinion concerning the conclusion. We will, as Becker notes, wait until other telescopes weigh in or the Bicep2 data are further evaluated.

This novel by Lauren Grodstein is about Andy, a once promising biology professor now languishing in the tenure-track of a third-rank university in New Jersey. Andy teaches a course nicknamed There Is No God, whose principles are these:

1: Evolution is the explanation for everything

2: Darwin is right

3: And people who don’t believe Darwin are wrong

That is about right, at least to first order and as far as biology is concerned, but naturally such an explicit statement is bound to attract attention. Indeed, it attracts the attention of Lionel, a Campus Crusade type who has received permission to take Andy’s course for a second time in order to make a case against Andy. More importantly, as it turns out, Lionel sets Andy up by encouraging another student, Melissa, to ask Andy to mentor her in a reading course on intelligent-design creationism. Andy resists but finally gives in, with predictably dire consequences.

Quote without comment

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Ken Ham, who runs a tax-exempt nonprofit and has received various tax breaks and subsidies from the city and the state, writes,

“The Nation’s T. Rex” will be a centerpiece for the Smithsonian–a museum funded by our tax dollars. In reality, then, the government is imposing the religion of evolution and millions of years on children visiting the Smithsonian, while also claiming a supposed separation of church and state! Our tax dollars are funding the religion of naturalism (atheism) and its evolutionary story to be exhibited in the Smithsonian in the nation’s capital!

Since everyone is all het up about Noah, I thought I would resurrect (sorry) a narrative I wrote 15 years ago for my book on science and religion. The “Friedman” I cite is Richard Elliott Friedman, author of Who Wrote the Bible? I used the section primarily to explain why scholars are convinced that the Hebrew Bible is a composite of two different but related methodologies (the documentary hypothesis), but it also shows the utter incoherence of the Bible when read as a literal history. The excerpt may be found below the fold.

I occasionally receive a request to print or post a photograph that has appeared on Panda’s Thumb, but this one takes the cake: A magazine called Creation Illustrated, which bills itself as “The Christian answer to National Geographic,” requested permission to publish this photograph

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in its magazine. Fat chance!

Their e-mail was datelined, “URGENT - Matt Young’s photo of Table Mountain needed.” Needed, eh? I am afraid I was not very kind to them:

Thank you; I am glad you liked my photograph. Unfortunately, under no conditions will I allow this photograph (or any other to which I own the copyright) to be published in any creationist publication. So my answer is, “No.” Did you not notice that the website, Panda’s Thumb, where the photograph was published, is devoted to scientific reality, that is, evolutionary science? “Christian answer to National Geographic,” indeed!

Until now, I was blissfully unaware that National Geographic needed an answer of any kind.

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