Recently in Slightly Off Topic Category

Extended trolley problem


I just ran across this article, Should a self-driving car kill its passengers in a “greater good” scenario? Though the article does not say so, it is the trolley problem, but with a twist: You are the driver of the trolley, and you have to ask whether you ought to be sacrificed for the greater good. That is, there are now three possibilities, not two: do nothing and kill five people; swerve and kill one; or (the added possibility) swerve and kill yourself. Any thoughts?

College internships are like test-driving a new car. They are a great way to get a first-hand look at a specific company and field and see if the work atmosphere is a good fit for you.

Last academic year, I wrote blog posts about evolutionary biology for the Cartwright Lab at ASU. But over the summer, I had an opportunity to learn more about my undergraduate field of study–biomedical engineering–as an intern at a major medical device company in its R&D engineering department.

I had previously worked in academic research labs so I was looking forward to gaining a better understanding of the differences between academia and industry R&D. In my personal experience, academic research involves the discovery and refinement of new technologies that industry can then further develop and market to customers (which are, in the medical device industry, patients, doctors, and hospitals). They have their obvious differences. Industry employees must focus on the company’s bottom line, legal image, and regulatory requirements, while academic researchers must secure grants; at a company, a well-structured 9-to-5 day is standard, while academia offers more flexibility and freedom. But ultimately, early-stage academic research and industry research and development often go hand-in-hand in creating cutting-edge medical care for patients. I enjoyed both for different reasons - academia for its flexibility, and industry for its organization.

I was also eager to observe the state of the gender gap in the engineering industry. The numbers show that this is a huge problem in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines - in 2011, a mere 25% of STEM employees were women, and of that total, only 13% of engineers were female. Moreover, women in STEM jobs make an average of $75,100, compared to $91,000 for men (according to the Census Bureau). But while the numbers are discouraging, I have hope for the future based on my summer experience. I did observe that a slight majority of engineers I interacted with at the company were men, but I met several women in engineering management positions, and of the group of about 50 interns, nearly half were women. I suspect that the gender gap will continue to shrink and might even disappear in my lifetime, as long as we continue to encourage young girls and women to pursue STEM and have the confidence to compete with their male counterparts in these fields.

So what’s your opinion? Do you have a different experience of academia vs. industry or gender issues in STEM disciplines?

Stay tuned for future posts about the exciting evolutionary biology research going on in the Cartwright Lab.

Noah’s Ark was a basket


By Nile and Tigris Journeys in Egypt and Mesopotamia on behalf of the British Museum between the years 1886 and 1913 (1920), showing coracles, or circular boats woven from reeds and sealed with pitch. Wikimedia, public domain.

The other day I watched a Nova program, Secrets of Noah’s Ark. Not much wholly new, and not a whole lot of secrets, but if you watch the program, you will learn of cuneiform inscriptions that describe how the gods precipitate a universal flood, Atrahasis builds an “ark” in the form of a circular basket 220 ft in diameter (70 m for those with better taste), and life begins again, precisely as in the Noah story. Or perhaps it is the other way around: the Jews during the Babylonian captivity took the story of Atrahasis and embellished it by making it a sort of morality play.

At any rate, if you watch the video, you will find that the Ark was more than likely a round, woven boat, known as a coracle, as in the picture above. Such boats are woven from reed ropes and sealed with pitch; they have been used for several millennia. The attempt to manufacture a coracle on a large scale was also interesting, even though it ended in only partial success.

Noah’s Ark is said to have been a rectangular box (Genesis 6:15). Doubtful. More than likely, the Ark was a coracle. It was not, at any rate, shaped the least bit like a certain model being built in Kentucky right now.

Pluto and Spiderman


Spiderman Shpiderman – a penpal of mine, who can identify himself if he likes (I will of course understand if he demurs), asks,

There’s a lot of excitement and amazement about the lack of cratering and the height and sharpness of the geological features on Pluto. It appears that, contrary to earlier speculation, Pluto is geologically active and thus geologically young…though “young” in the sense that these features are probably less than 100 million years old.

Now that the results are in, how long do you think it’ll be until AIG posts something about how a “Young Pluto Supports Recent Creation” and “Secular scientists with atheistic uniformitarian assumptions predicted that Pluto would be a dead planet pockmarked by craters, but the evidence of recent geologic activity should come as no surprise to Christians, who know that Pluto was created along with all the other celestial bodies on the Fourth Day just over 6,000 years ago!”

The closest approach of the New Horizons spacecraft was last Tuesday, around noon UTC, and my penpal wrote, “I will give them until Friday morning.” Friday has come and gone, and Saturday is nearly gone in Kentucky, but the latest post from AIG concerns the burning question of whether Spiderman really exists.

Perhaps the AIG-ites can use a little help. We invite our readers to suggest explanations (post hoc, of course, and within a creationist framework) for why Pluto and Charon are geologically active even though they are so small and so distant from the Sun.

We also suggest a Pluto Pool, wherein our readers try to guess the date and time of AIG’s first comment on the fascinating geology of Pluto and Charon. The winner of the pool is the person who most closely predicts the correct date and time, but whose prediction predates that date and time. Entry into the pool costs nothing, and the winner receives a commensurate amount, because AIG’s comment on the subject is bound to be worth that amount.

I have got to stop following links in e-mails from AIG. Today I read the most bizarre article by Dr. Danny Faulkner, an astrophysicist who must have slept through his celestial mechanics courses. Dr. Faulkner discusses the leap second that will be added at 23:59:59 UTC (GMT) on June 30. He notes correctly that the rotation of the Earth is slowing down, and the moon is consequently drifting farther from the Earth. He then observes,

Finally, there is a long-term secular (non-periodic) slowing in the earth’s rotation caused by the tidal interaction of the earth and moon. As the earth slows its rotation, the moon spirals away from the earth. Therefore, in the past the earth spun more rapidly and the moon was much closer to the earth. Direct computation shows that the earth and moon would have been in contact about 1.3 billion years ago. Even a billion years ago the moon would have been so close to the earth that tides would have been a mile high. No one–including those who believe that the earth is far older than a billion years–thinks that tides were ever that high or that the moon and the earth touched a little more than a billion years ago.

However, since the earth and moon are only thousands of years old as the Bible clearly indicates, the long-term change in the earth-moon system is no problem. Indeed, what we see in the interaction between the earth and moon offers powerful evidence that the earth and moon are young.

I do not know the nature of the “direct computation,” but I would bet that it is based on the radius of the moon’s orbit increasing at a constant rate. Not obviously a good assumption; an article from Cornell University (which has a scientific reputation at least as distinguished as that of AIG) notes,

The exact rate of the Moon’s movement away from Earth has varied a lot over time. It depends both on the distance between the Earth and the Moon, and the exact shape of the Earth. The details of continents and oceans moving around on Earth actually change the rate, which make it a very hard thing to estimate. The rate is currently slowing down slightly, .…

Worse, look at Dr. Faulkner’s statement that “the earth and moon would have been in contact about 1.3 billion years ago.” An absolutely remarkable statement from a person who purports to have a PhD in physics and astronomy! Has he never heard of Roche’s limit? Roche’s limit is the smallest radius that a large satellite can maintain without being torn apart by tidal forces caused by the gravitational field of the main planet. According to NASA, Roche’s limit for the Moon is about 20 000 km, so I can assure Dr. Faulkner that the Earth and the Moon have never been in contact – not 1.3 billion years ago, not ever. When the Moon was formed, it had to have been formed outside Roche’s limit, and then it drifted away from the Earth at a rate that is not a constant and therefore not amenable to simple calculations.

Modern astronomy is not threatened, and the Earth is not young.

The Washington Post reported the other day that Justice Antonin Scalia, in a commencement address, said,

Humanity has been around for at least some 5,000 years or so, and I doubt that the basic challenges as confronted are any worse now, or alas even much different, from what they ever were.

I suppose that “at least 5000 years” gives you some wiggle room, but I would hardly call, say, 200,000 years “at least 5000 years.” That is a bit like saying, “The trip from Boulder to New York is at least 20 kilometers.”

Jerry Coyne, who is much nicer than I am, thinks that it might have been “just an offhand remark that’s been blown out of proportion.” Well, maybe, but I watched most of the speech on Professor Coyne’s website, and I could not help but notice that Justice Scalia was reading that text: he did not misspeak.

Justice Scalia dissented in Edwards vs. Aguillar, but he seemed more concerned with whether the legislature intended creation “science” as a religious doctrine than with its scientific merit. He also supported the “balanced treatment” argument to the effect that students who learn evolution are entitled to the opposing view as well. His argument was well reasoned but depended on the assumption that creation science is not a religious doctrine if its supporters think it is not.

Contrary to some reports, Justice Scalia did not say, “The body of scientific evidence supporting creation science is as strong as that supporting evolution”; rather, he was paraphrasing the testimony of witnesses and states explicitly “that I by no means intend to endorse its accuracy” but that “what is crucial is not [the legislature’s] wisdom in believing that [a certain secular] purpose would be achieved by the bill, but their sincerity in believing it would be” [italics in original].

Still, Justice Scalia generally comes across as an authoritarian, uncomfortable with ambiguity and guided by literalist interpretations. If he takes the Bible as literally as he takes the Constitution, then it is easy to see that he might well believe in a young Earth. I hope I am wrong and Professor Coyne is right.

School’s out, and I discovered a new website,, which appears to be a project of a group of Modern Orthodox Jews to promulgate their acceptance of higher criticism (also called historical criticism). In other words, these are scholars who practice Orthodox Judaism but are not Biblical literalists. Their website proclaims a need for a “historical and contextual approach” to Torah study. Amen, and good luck to them!

Most of the articles on the Website are of no particular interest to me, but two caught my eye. Under “Biblical Scholarship 101,” an article on Noah’s flood shows in considerable detail how the story is composed of two interwoven and sometimes contradictory tales. The argument is used to support what is often known as the Documentary Hypothesis. It is hard to see how anyone could argue that both tales are literally true, and indeed I once used a shorter version of the same argument on Panda’s Thumb. I consider the Documentary Hypothesis to be so convincing that it is frankly a fact that the Bible is composed of four or more threads. Which leads me to the second article that caught my eye, below the figurative fold.



From David Young on Facebook:

Number nerd warning: Today at 8:25.5 pm (local time) it will be 5 / 10 / 15 20 : 25 : 30.

Pi Day


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


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

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?


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


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.


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,, 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


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


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.


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).

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