Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Note, however, that this is not a case of a bird trying to fight its way out of they hawk's gullet - more an accident when you try to swallow sharp objects that can rupture your crop and burst through your skin! This poor little Sharp-shinned Hawk had properly killed the small bird it was trying to eat, but appears to have bitten off more than it could swallow, resulting in a rather bizarre death. Can we nominate this hawk for a Darwin Award?
After the week we've had in these parts with assorted god-botherers turning up to sell snake-oil throughout town, it was so refreshing to catch this interview with the author of "The Age of American Unreason":
I'm impressed with how well she kept pace with Colbert! Must have something to do with that elitist reason thing she touts...
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
At least I expect it to be more substantial than the other stuff that's been going on around here lately. The last lecture of the Ethics Center's spring seminar series will be by Ted Peters, a theologian who has published extensively on the connections between science and religion and ethics.
In today's lecture "The Stem Cell Controversy: Who is Fighting Whom About What?" Peters will discuss religious and ethical issues that arise in the context of debates about stem cell research and biotechnology. This talk will be based in part on Peters’ recent book, The Stem Cell Debate.
The lecture will be at noon in the Alice Peters Auditorium at the University Business Center.
Ted Peters is Professor of Systematic Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. His recent books include: Science, Theology, and Ethics, Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom and the forthcoming Sacred Cells?: Why Christians Should Support Stem Cell Research. Peters also serves on the Scientific and Medical Accountability Standards Working Group for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).
Andrew Fiala reminds me to add that Peters will also be meeting with students in the philosophy club from 2-3 in USU 311, where he will lead an informal and general discussion of religious studies, theology, science, free will and determinism, and whatever else students want to talk about. Faculty and students are welcome to attend.
And students, if you attend, consider submitting your impressions/reflections on the talk and the general topic of stem cell ethics for this class blog.
Monday, April 21, 2008
That was one of the questions I was going to ask Dr. Don Patton at the much ballyhooed lecture today on "what is creation science" which turned out to be something of a damp squib. And I'm not just saying that because I didn't get to ask it or any of my other questions - there were so many students' hands up that I didn't get my turn, which was great to see! I was promised at the end by one of the mike-wranglers that I would get the first question at tomorrow's lecture - but, meh, I didn't see much today to draw me back for more. I hope some of you students who did ask those great questions chime in here so we can talk about it, because you sure didn't get much of an answer from Patton, did you? I'll try to address some things more specifically in detail soon - am too tired to deal with it right now and I have a field trip early tomorrow morning, so let me just give a quick summary of the lecture for now. Those of you who attended the lecture, and can't wait to get some real answers, go play here and see if you can find all the main arguments on display today. And read why John Wilkins thinks such talks can, on the whole, be good for evolution education... I hope he is right!
Despite all the promise of a dialog on science made to us (in public and private) by the promoters of this event, what we saw was a typical presentation (from what I've read of such talks) with the following not-unexpected ingredients:
- repeated mischaracterizations of science and of evolution
- plenty of arguments-by-analogy
- a great big pile of selectively mined quotes from eminent evolutionary biologists
- arguments from popularity including results from public opinion polls to show how creationism is "winning" despite the efforts of us evilutionists
- lists of "hundreds of scientists" who support creationism (which raised the question I never got the chance to ask, about how many Steves)
- a defense of Patton's academic credentials (which is an irrelevant issue if you ask me, but more on this later; and Scott Hatfield has more on that and on his talk radio appearance during the first half of this lecture)
- when questioned by students, a fine display of slipperiness to smoothly evade probing questions, including rapid re-definition of terms just used, "not-blaming" the poor student because "this is what you've been told", complete refusal to address any alternative creationist hypotheses, yet declaring the unspecified creationism as the winner because Gould at some point somewhere said some argument about evolution was dead, etc., etc...!!
- And, of course, absolutely no actual data on anything other than the polls despite repeated proclamations that we were gathered to examine evidence!!
Like I said - meh! - I have better things to do tomorrow evening, including a choice of two other presentations that should be much more educational: on Earth Day by Dr. Chris Pluhar of our EES Dept., and on the ethics of stem cells and genetics by Dr. Andy Fiala, Director of the Ethics Center here @ CSUF. I don't have the links handy, so I will add them tomorrow sometime - or look out for flyers in the Science building.
And speaking of flyers, there was a miraculous appearance of the Great FSM in the lecture hall, and even a "ramen" was heard from a questioner! Unfortunately, I got there just seconds before the talk started, and the FSM disapparated sometime during the second segment of the lecture (leaving me in agony wondering why I had been left behind!) so I couldn't take a picture. I hope someone else did, and if so I will try obtain a copy for posting here!
Friday, April 18, 2008
With Earth Day coming up (in its 38th year) next week, we have two interesting options for celebrating it tomorrow (funny how weekends cause these temporal rearrangements!):
- The Fresno Cohousing folks, who are getting ever closer to completing construction on their complex of green homes, are inviting us all to celebrate Earth Day this weekend with the "greenest neighborhood in Fresno"! Several of my colleagues here are part of this co-housing group, and I am intrigued about the possibilities. Here's a flyer with details - check it out!
- The Intermountain Nursery is also celebrating Earth Day tomorrow at their Sierra foothills location with several local artists playing music on the creek, some hands-on classes, and a seed ball booth for children! That last part, of course, draws our children - and we wouldn't mind getting out of the city for a few hours either. So it looks like this is where we are going!
What are you doing for Earth Day this year?
I've been trying to read up on cartography again, what with the Fresno Bird Count now in progress, for which my friends at NiJeL are helping me put together a nice map interface to display results. Here I am, still excited about being able to make a simple google mashup, when I come across this:
Google Maps is an impressive application. It’s fast, responsive, and nicely rendered, and it exposes a ton of functionality via its well-documented and well-understood API. Why on earth wouldn’t you outsource this bit of functionality to Google?
Ask yourself this question: why would you, as a website developer who controls all aspects of your site, from typography to layout, to color palette to photography, to UI functionality, allow a big, alien blob to be plopped down in the middle of your otherwise meticulously designed application? Think about it. You accept whatever colors, fonts, and map layers Google chooses for their map tiles. Sure, you try to rein it back in with custom markers and overlays, but at the root, the core component—the map itself—is out of your hands.
The result is Google Maps fatigue. We’ve all experienced it. It manifests not only when we yawn at YAGMM (Yet Another Google Maps Mashup), because there are high-quality web apps deploying the Google Maps API seamlessly and with great success. Despite this, and despite the fact that Google itself continues to refine and improve the base application, the fatigue remains. It’s the effect of seeing the same elements over and over again across the web. As web developers, we live with constraints, so to a certain extent, the Google Maps API is similar to Verdana and Georgia—they’re common components we know will work well. But if it were possible and practical to make a substitution, wouldn’t you do so?
Intrigued? Interested in doing your own maps? You might want to check out the rest of the article on how to take control of your maps. Some pretty nifty information there, but in the midst of this busy semester, I sure am glad NiJeL's got my back when it comes to mapping our data! They tell me that they do something similar to what's described in this article, but with some different open-source software choices.
So concludes this LA Times feature which actually tries to get two alternative perspectives on Ben Stein's movie Expelled (opening today at least according to all the previews on the telly, although I'm not sure even this turkey will open in Fresno at the same time as elsewhere) but fails! Not surprisingly, both Michael Shermer (well known skeptic) and Greg Lukianoff (lawyer on a mission to defend individual rights in education) end up panning the movie, although Lukianoff feels compelled to end his piece by appealing to Ben Stein for help:
We could use some high-profile help here, Ben. With your power and influence you really could help bring a missing dose of liberty back to campuses. But if you only care about ID education, I suspect that you will only be preaching to people who already agree with you.
Really? Why would Lukianoff want to seek help from someone who failed to convince even him (a champion of other students' rights cases) that there is any there there when it comes to intelligent design? A has-been "celebrity" whose latest film, though marketed as this big controversial challenge to the scientific establishment, fails to raise the dust even in the middle of this dust-up involving someone as sympathetic as Lukianoff? Given the spate of bad reviews this documentary is getting, the prospects don't look too good for Ben's profile, nor his "power and influence". So one has to wonder how things are going to turn out for Lukianoff if he still wants to appeal for Ben's help! Just seems odd... but what do I know?
BTW, Michael Shermer is coming to Fresno this evening for another dustup on our campus - a debate with that towering intellect among religious conservatives, Dinesh D'souza, on the little matter of "Does God Exist?". Should be fun, and I hope Shermer is up to the task of maintaining the bar on D'Souza as high as this guy set it last year:
and in part 2:
If he wants to pick up that gauntlet (in addition to the debate), Shermer surely has a big task on his hands, no?
Thursday, April 17, 2008
... and even more, those who would expose the scientific conspiracy that I thought had successfully Expelled the Stork Theorists from the ranks of reproductive academia! Now what? Do I have to start digging up the old Storkology books buried behind the Biology dept. greenhouse? I guess I better start rewriting the syllabus for my upcoming fall Birds and Reptiles course too while I'm at it. Gimme a break with all this academic freedom, would you now?
Sigh!! Watch and weep, my fellow Astorkist conspirators...
And once you're done wiping your tears, go read the comments thread on this video on YouTube (just click on the above video to get to it). Seriously!
The Darwin Online project has now made all of Darwin's papers from the Cambridge University Library, including drafts of chapters from "On the Origin of Species" available to the public online! They have images of the original writing including all his scribbling in margins, and transcriptions to make them readable. For example, it has this page from one of his notebooks, which induced shivers in my spine when I was able to actually see it (in the cellulose, so to speak) a couple of years ago when we visited the Darwin Exhibit at AMNH:
Or rather, two words, actually: Plastic Bags. They are finally being recognized as the one convenient invention that we must learn to live without, and soon - for much as they make our lives easier in the short term, their environmental impact is not pretty. But the good news is that the world is finally recognizing the peril of this convenience and beginning to put a stop to it. Not surprisingly, the US is once again not leading the world's march away from plastic bags. This may surprise some of my California friends for in this state we are seeing recent aggressive actions against plastic bags, with San Francisco becoming the first US city to ban non-biodegradable/recyclable grocery bags from markets a year ago, and legislators now considering adding a "tax" on plastic bags throughout the state. These days, many big stores even in Fresno are selling reusable cloth bags to shoppers, with a 5-cent discount for bringing one's own bag. But this is happening here just now, whereas my hometown of Bombay banned plastic shopping bags some years ago, with the entire state of Maharashtra following suit! Meanwhile the ban has spread to many other cities and states across India. And Uganda recently banned them throughout the country!
I started thinking about this earlier today because I was reminded that a friend recently started selling a nice multiple-use alternative to plastic bags here in the US. Manufactured in Australia, these Onya Bags are an interesting upgrade to the rough cloth bags my mom always used in my youth. And later in the day I came across this analysis of the options we have for addressing this problem.
When I was growing up just outside Bombay, plastic bags were still very much in the future, and we always had on hand several sturdy hand-crafted cloth bags (often made from jute or cotton) which we used for all our shopping. Even paper bags were unheard of, although shopkeepers would often wrap things in newspaper. The only plastic bags we first saw were of the sturdy department store variety given out only by upscale stores in the city, and preserved and reused for a long time! The more flimsy use-once-and-throw-away kind appeared only in the late 80s as I recall, and within a few years every store down to the street-corner vegetable-and-fruit stand was handing them out, so that people stopped keeping those old cloth bags around. But in a little over a decade Bombay decided to ban them, in part because they severely compounded the city's already gargantuan solid-waste management problem. Given that the low-lying city (which used to be a small archipelago before land-"reclamation") even normally experienced at least one flood strong enough to stop the trains (bringing the city to a standstill) every monsoon, it didn't take long for the free-floating plastic bag debris to start clogging up drains making the floods much worse. So the city got its act together rapidly (for once) and banned the bags - effectively solving the problem, even though the enforcement of the ban may be less than 100% in practice.
And so, it appears, this marvel of technology lasted barely a generation's time in Bombay before being discarded, and people are now getting back (grudgingly) to using the old cloth bags! Its certainly taken a lot longer for American cities to feel the danger from plastic bags - so this may be one ironic example of how the poor waste-management of Bombay helped that city recognize the problem of this pollutant much faster than the cleaner cities of the west! I love it!! Remind you of the hygiene hypothesis?
Meanwhile, do you remember this advice to a young man, from two generations ago?
Good thing that young man did not take that advice to heart, eh? But without plastic bags, where would this other, more recent, cinematic young man have found beauty?
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
For your reading pleasure, the latest edition of this traveling carnival of evolutionary and medical blog writings is now up at Nature Network. Enjoy!
He even starts with a prayer and a blessing!
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Today marks the launch of a new citizen science project from my lab: the Fresno Bird Count, which will be conducted between April 15-May 15, 2008. Check out the website for all the details, and consider volunteering (or roping someone else in!) if you are a birdwatcher living in this area, or know someone who is. We held an orientation workshop for volunteers a weekend ago, and were pleasantly surprised (well, at least Brad, my grad student coordinating this project was surprised - and we were both pleased) by the turnout. Till date we have c.30 volunteers signed up (including members of my lab), each of whom promises to count birds on at least 7-8 out of the total 460 point-count sites scattered randomly throughout a 1kmX1km grid covering most of urban-suburban Fresno-Clovis. So we should get data on species diversity and abundance from over half of all the sites - which is not bad for the first season of a volunteer project on this scale, I think! Results from this first spring census (to be published on the website through an interactive data portal soon), and word of mouth from current volunteers, should both lead to recruitment of more volunteers for the next round, I hope.
I have to give a shout-out to my friend Will Turner, creator of the Tucson Bird Count for inspiring this project, which is another link (after Ottawa) in what we hope will be a global network of urban biodiversity monitoring sites.
I'll let you read more on the project on the above websites, but I can't leave you without a map of our sites now, can I? If you've spent any time here on this blog at all, you know I love maps and Google mashups, right? So how can I not share the most busy mashup I've created yet? Check out the maps section of fresnobirds.org, and prepare to get dizzy! (I hope the text there is enough to explain what you are seeing all mashed up - but isn't it fun?).
And check back in a bit over a month to learn what what we've discovered about Fresno's bird life!
Hat-tip to Pharyngula for this wonderful video. As I pondered what those sage rocks would think of our ephemeral evolution-creation culture wars, and scratched my head (and keyboard) for a title for this blog post, I stumbled upon this. Some added context for the show coming into town next week, I suppose!
The above film, on the other hand, would have gone nicely with our Café Scientifique meeting last week.
... almost like I too have been pre-emptively Expelled - being the only biology faculty member (as far as I know) not to receive a personal invitation to the lecture series by "Don Patton, Ph.D." in my campus mail today!! Where have I gone wrong (or right?) to not get on their mailing list? (And how can I keep it that way?). I'm putting the text of the invitation letters below the fold (and hope the organizers don't mind that because they are encouraging recipients to spread the word), so read on if you are interested. Note that these letters, addressed individually to tenured and tenure-track faculty alike, all of whom have a well-earned Ph.D., invariably address the recipient as "Mr." or Ms." even as they tout "Dr. Don Patton, Ph.D."! Now why would someone do that?
Perhaps the answer lies in the email response my colleague Paul Crosbie received from an elder of the Sun Garden CoC (a different elder from the one who signed those invitation letters) upon asking, politely, why they were associating themselves with someone with dubious academic credentials. I won't quote the whole arrogant email response here, although I can't help but note something. Here's the gist: the elder first invites Paul to challenge Patton with his "obvious vast knowledge of truth", and bring his class along, before predicting that Paul will do neither because "aren't closed academic elitist minds convenient and wonderful?". He then berates Paul for questioning Patton's credentials because "it is a way not to have to listen to anything different than you already believe".
Huh-whaaaa?? Seriously?! Do these people ever read their own writing or look in the mirror? Who is the party claiming to have the "truth" on their side? Who has the closed minds? And who, above all, relies on a single ancient text as a way to not to have to listen to anything different? Really now!! Pot-kettle-black?
As for that invitation letter which came via campus mail (possibly in violation of campus regulations about use of official intra-campus mail channels for promoting private religious functions) read for yourself:
Dear Mr. [or Ms.] not-Madhu-Katti,
Please consider this letter your personal invitation to attend a free series of lectures with question and answer sessions on the broad subject of "Does Planet Earth Reveal a Creator?" The dates for these lectures are April 21-22, 2008, in the Satellite Student Union on the Fresno State University campus, and April 22-25, 2008, in the Rotary Theater on the Bullard High School campus. Each evening's program will begin at 7:00 p.m., include two 30 minute presentations with 15 minute question and answer periods following each, and conclude by 9:00 p.m.
As a person of both science and academe, we believe you will be vitally interested in what the speaker, Dr. Don Patton, of Dallas, Tx, has to say. Dr. Patton has devoted his life to finding and evaluating geologic and archaeological evidences of human history and finds the evidence to present a compelling argument for special creation in contrast to the popular hypothesis that we are a result of evolutionary forces.
We believe you will find this program to be extremely interesting, informative, and conforming to rigorous scientific scrutiny. So, please mark your calendar to join us for as many evenings of this program as you can and add to the program by addressing your comments and questions to Dr. Patton during the question and answer periods.
P.S. Feel free to bring other colleagues and your students to these presentations. All are Welcome.
Now how can one turn down an invitation like that? Even if one is not on the list of people getting this official invitation letter? So I'll show up, and ask my class to show up - and hope I don't get Expelled like a more illustrious evilutionist
Monday, April 14, 2008
I was surprised to see a little advert in our campus newspaper, the Collegian, last friday for an upcoming event on campus - part of a lecture series titled "Does Planet Earth Reveal A Creator? There IS Compelling Evidence" to be given by a Dr. Don Patton, Ph.D.! How can a scientist, especially one who teaches evolution, not be intrigued by that? So I followed the link on the advert and discovered that Patton is in Fresno all week, hosted by the Sun Garden Church of Christ around the corner from campus. He will speak first at the church, but they are advertising a series of free "science" themed talks for Fresno State (2 nights) and Bullard High School (3 nights) - aren't we blessed?! So I shared the news with colleagues on campus and my friend Scott Hatfield, a biology teacher at Bullard High, who was really alarmed and sent out a call for help. PZ Myers then picked up Scott's distress call over the weekend, weighing in with much advice on strategy to deal with such an incursion of religion into the public school space.
Scott has just posted an update indicating that Bullard High School will
not be a venue for these lectures [UPDATE to the update: Scott's frustration is back because apparently the talks will still be held at Bullard High], and that Patton's local handlers have known this for two weeks - yet they continue to advertise the event as occurring at the school! As far as I know, the Fresno State lectures are still on - but I will find out how much truth there is to that as well. Given the other evidence I see from video snippets of Patton's talks posted on their website, it is hard to believe anything they say. I am curious also to learn more about how our campus came to be chosen as a venue in the first place. After all, its not every day that such blatant "challenges" to science are brought to the Satellite Student Union, right next to the Science building that is my academic home! Is it simply a case of the university happily taking the money from whomever wants to rent our space, without regard to what they will use it for? Or is some campus organization / entity actively hosting this event? Given that the advertising mentions no such CSUF entity, I hope the former is the case, although I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there are people/groups sympathetic to Patton's anti-science agenda on campus. But, odd as it may seem, for once I do hope Fresno State is being merely a money-grubber in this case - and that some campus entity is not giving these people a free ride because they are a religious organization!
Bear in mind that I'm not really worried about any "challenge" to evolution from this "geologist" who, among other things, is known to claim that humans and dinosaurs coexisted (although I haven't been able to ascertain whether he also believes that T. rex was a vegetarian before Eve bit the apple). Evolutionary biology thrives on plenty of real challenges and unanswered questions, and new critical questions and perspectives are always welcomed, not Expelled. So bring it on, if you have any real alternative hypotheses that we can test - but I doubt Patton has any such to offer. His goal seems to be merely to exploit the lack of knowledge on the part of naive religious people, and to sow further confusion about - not to mention potential hostility against - good scientific evidence by filtering it through his own particular interpretation based on a particularly literal reading of the bible. (And I emphasize "particular" because not even many other creationists, let alone intelligent design proponents buy into Patton's twisted version of the geological/fossil evidence.) Moreover, being a university open to free exchange of ideas, we need not worry as Scott does about violating any state education standards. In principle I shouldn't have to worry about this kind of thing corrupting any young minds either, given that we are at a university with mostly adult students - but I'm not entirely convinced of that around here; I'm not that confident that we are reaching our critical thinking goals in our education here, having seen enough uncritical students, and being aware of the strongly religious / conservative culture of the Central Valley. As such, I would encourage my students to attend, but with their critical faculties turned on (and they better be turned on this late in the semester if you are taking my class!), and to ask good questions. Especially those of you who have engaged me in some thoughtful discussion of religion/science issues on the class blog or via email.
I do have a different concern where I do question the university however, and that has to do with whether we want to be used by charlatans to promote their own agendas that are blatantly against everything we are supposed to stand for. The promotional materials for the lecture series already proclaims that Patton is a "popular" speaker at colleges and universities, on top of highlighting his geoscience "expertise" and touting his "Ph.D.". I most certainly do not want him using the fact that he merely had access to our lecture hall to bolster his "academic" credentials among the uncritical believers victim to his deceptions. And on that ground alone, I do seriously question the appropriateness of Fresno State playing host (even if unwitting) to this event.
In response to my own "advertising" of these lectures, several of my colleagues have responded with ideas on how we might counter this propaganda / proselytization. I will post updates here when I've learnt more, so stay tuned!
Saturday, April 12, 2008
ABC's Nightline aired this report a couple of nights ago, on the challenges facing rhino conservation in Nepal. I was pleasantly surprised to find in it an old colleague from the Wildlife Institute of India, Christy Williams, astride an elephant guiding the Nightline crew as the main rhino expert interviewed for the story. Christy, who now works for the World Wildlife Fund's Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS), offers the same kind of refreshingly straight talk I remember him for! Which only highlights, starkly, how dire the situation is for the Asian rhino: being driven to extinction right in front of us, and all "for stupid reasons"!
Friday, April 11, 2008
A couple of must-read articles for the weekend (and I'm sorry if it ruins your weekend), from (perhaps) unlikely sources - Time and the New York Times - on how the "green energy" biofuels boom is destroying rainforests, putting more carbon into the atmosphere, turning US farmland conservation schemes upside down, and increasing world hunger, all at the same time! Isn't it wonderful to live in such a globally connected one-world? How many case studies might future students of our current environmental catastrophe find here as perfect examples of how broader governmental policy purportedly intended to stave off global warming influences individual farmer decisions in ways that completely fubar the common good, the environment, and bring about the opposite outcome? See if you can follow the trail of destruction... and tell me if you still think trading in your lightbulb for some compact fluorescents will be enough!
And here is a story from Nightline about this upcoming National Geographic feature.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
James Hrynyshyn of the Island of Doubt sure seems to think so. If you've seen Al Gore's oscar-winning slideshow, or perhaps seen a presentation by one of the communicators trained by Gore's Climate Project, you may agree with Hrynshyn's point. See for yourself:
Hrynshyn's criticism of Gore's tiptoeing around some of the more serious political implications of his own message echoes some of the discussion I remember from my Reconciliation Ecology class a year ago when we viewed the slide show. It seemed like Gore was doing a bit too much of the "middle-of-the-road" framing for the American audience, even as he was also a bit too uncritical of some of the changes being promised by other countries like China. And I have been increasingly unhappy with the all-too-common strategy among environmentalists (especially in the US) to focus a great deal on (necessary) changes in individual lifestyles, but not enough on changes at institutional and societal levels. Admittedly that sort of larger-scale transformation, requiring radical policy changes, is much harder to bring about - but that is what will matter in the long run; changing our lightbulbs can only take us so far. So I hope Hrynshyn is right - and that Gore is indeed sharpening his message and rhetoric, putting his celebrity/notoriety to more effective use. We could sure use some real political leadership on global warming!
Ain't evolution cool! Its never about "progress" in a certain direction, or increasing complexity, or any other "upward" trajectory we may think of. Its always about what works best for a given organism in its particular environmental circumstance: if a trait (such as lungs or skin to breathe through) works well enough to let you survive and make lots of babies, it may prevail and become the norm in your lineage; OTOH, if an existing trait (such as your newly evolved lungs) get in the way of surviving and procreating, natural selection might well get rid of it! Sometimes, your entire lineage goes with the trait - natural selection isn't really all that particular in that way. But if, like this frog, you have one troublesome big trait that is chafing against the filter of selection, and also have a backup system to perform the same physiological function, you may get away with losing the big new innovation!
These frogs apparently live in fast, cold, mountain streams rich enough in oxygen that they can get enough through their skins. Of course all amphibians can breathe through their skin to some extent, but the big innovation that allowed them to plant the tetrapod flag in the terrestrial realm in the first place, was of course lungs! Yet these little guys have given up on lungs, and, unable to re-invent more ancestral gills, reverted to the skin - and it'll be fascinating now to study how that skin has evolved in this species.
Meanwhile, the serendipitous discovery of this wonder must give pause to my friends who are against vivisection (for many good reasons, and some poor ones), and even against collecting specimens at all for museum collections or scientific study. And it becomes harder to argue with activists of that persuasion when it comes to rare new species. Yet, this amazing discovery would not have been possible if someone hadn't thought to look inside the body of the frog! Contrary to what the romantic Wordsworth wrote, I have to contend that we biologists do not always "murder to dissect"!
Can't remember? Well, it was a while back, and fossils of legged snakes have been hard to come by. Another one of those pesky gaps in the fossil record, although we know from the precious few specimens we have and a whole range of other evidence that snakes evolved from lizards that had legs. Not just that - loss of limbs is a recurring theme among a bunch of squamate lineages with snakes being the most prominent. And one of the problems with fossils, especially when you don't have many specimens to play with, is that its not easy to study anatomical detail without risking destroying the fossil! And without such detail, it is difficult to reconstruct exactly what might have happened in the evolutionary trajectory from lizards to snakes. What to do? Well, high energy physics to the rescue, of course!
As reported today by the BBC, a new study used intense X-rays - with much higher energy, one guesses, than found in your dentist's office - to examine one such rare snake fossil to look beneath the surface of the fossil and take a picture of a hidden leg! Here's an excerpt (with photo below the fold):
Researchers at the European Light Source (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, used intense X-rays to confirm that a creature imprinted on a rock, and with one visible leg, had another appendage buried just under the surface of the slab.
"We were sure he had two legs but it was great to see it, and we hope to find other characteristics that we couldn't see on the other limb," said Alexandra Houssaye from the National Museum of Natural History, Paris.
The 85cm-long (33in) creature, known as Eupodophis descouensi, comes from the Late Cretaceous, about 92 million years ago.
Unearthed near the village of al-Nammoura [in Lebanon], it was originally described in 2000.
Its remains are divided across the two interior faces of a thin limestone block that has been broken apart.
A portion of the vertebral column is missing; and in the process of preservation, the "tail" has become detached and positioned near the head.
But it is the unmistakable leg bones - fibula, tibia and femur - that catch the eye. The stumpy hind-limb is only 2cm (0.8in) long, and was presumably utterly useless to the animal in life.
Still how much can one do with one such tantalizing glimpse from a single fossil?
The top picture is a synchrotron view of the visible snake leg;
Synchrotron light in the bottom view illuminates the hidden limb
"Every detail can be very important in establishing the great relationships and that's why we must know them very well," explained Ms Houssaye.
"I wanted to study the inner structure of different bones and so for that you would usually use destructive methods; but given that this is the only specimen [of E. descouensi ], it is totally impossible to do that.
"3D reconstruction techniques were the only solution. We needed a good resolution and only this machine can do that," she told BBC News.
That machine is the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. This giant complex on the edge of the Alps produces an intense, high-energy light that can pierce just about any material, revealing its inner structure.
For this study, the fossil snake was clamped to an inclined table and rotated in front of the facility's brilliant X-ray beam.
In a process known as computed laminography, many hundreds of 2D images are produced which can be woven, with the aid of a smart algorithm, into a detailed 3D picture.
The finished product, which can be spun around on a computer screen, reveals details that will be measured in just millionths of a metre.
The E. descouensi investigation shows the second leg hidden inside the limestone is bent at the knee.
"We can even see ankle bones," ESRF's resident palaeontologist Paul Tafforeau said.
"In most cases, we can't find digits; but that may be because they are not preserved or because, as this is a vestigial leg, they were never present."
Cool, huh? The only uncool part of the story is that the BBC does not tell us where this is being published in the peer-reviewed literature! I suppose we'll know soon enough. Meanwhile, check out these earlier papers, linked above:
Apesteguía, S., Zaher, H. (2006). A Cretaceous terrestrial snake with robust hindlimbs and a sacrum. Nature, 440(7087), 1037-1040. DOI: 10.1038/nature04413
Wiens, J.J., Brandley, M.C., Reeder, T.W. (2006). Why does a trait evolve multiple times within a clade? Repeated evolution of snakelike body form in squamate reptiles. Evolution, 60(1), 123. DOI: 10.1554/05-328.1
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
A year ago, around the time the great framing debate first started raging on ScienceBlogs (with some ripples reaching even these distant shores), famed violin virtuoso Joshua Bell was conducting a different experiment in framing:
As described in the resulting Washington Post piece by Gene Weingarten:
No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?
The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. That was not the test. These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls.
The acoustics proved surprisingly kind. Though the arcade is of utilitarian design, a buffer between the Metro escalator and the outdoors, it somehow caught the sound and bounced it back round and resonant. The violin is an instrument that is said to be much like the human voice, and in this musician's masterly hands, it sobbed and laughed and sang -- ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.
And the outcome of the experiment? Very few of the hundreds of commuters streaming past realized what a treat they were getting in the public square, let alone recognize the artist! As Bora and others pointed out, this seemed to demonstrate poor framing - put a famous concert violinist almost incognito and out of context, and no one will recognize or appreciate the genius!
Meanwhile, within the tunnels of another subway system in another city, another virtuoso was probably making his living doing this:
Who is this energetic drummer with his ersatz plastic bucket drum kit? Prem Panicker of Smoke Signals has this story:
One day, I paused in the midst of a headlong rush, captivated by music emerging from some corner of the 42nd Street subway. Ignoring the train pulling in, I went looking for the source—and saw this muscular black guy producing compelling percussive patterns out of a ‘drum kit’ made up entirely of plastic paint cans. I play the drums [or at least, I used to, back in my thoroughly misspent youth], hence it was doubly engaging to watch the drummer produce, on his ersatz kit, patterns I would have struggled to reproduce on high end equipment.
I’ve seen such drummers elsewhere, in the bowels of New York’s subway system, and it was always a stop-you-in-your-tracks sight—rippling muscles limned in sweat, total absorption in the throbbing beat, sounds that bounce endlessly off the cavernous insides of subway stations, occasionally counterpointed by the roar of a train pulling in...
That day, that guy, was different from the other dozens of his ilk, though—because the more I looked at him, the more I had the feeling that I had seen him somewhere before. Trains came and went; I lingered on, listening to him, marking time with palm on thigh, and trying to work out why he seemed familiar. After a while, he caught my eye and grinned; a little later, he took a break—and when I went up to say hello, he asked me if I was trying to work out where I had seen him before. ‘Think movies, my man’, he said—and then the penny dropped. In Green Card, Peter Weir’s 1990 film starring Gerard Depardieu and Andie McDowell, the opening credits run against the backdrop of a small boy sitting on a New York sidewalk, banging out an impressive drum solo on plastic paint cans. That boy had grown up into this man—Larry Wright—and graduated from the sidewalks to this semi-permanent spot in the 42nd Street subway.
A year has passed since that unheeded subway violin concert, and Weingarten has just won the Pulitzer prize for his beautiful report on Joshua Bell's performance / social commentary / experiment. Meanwhile framing continues to inflame the scienceblogs family in the wake of another, much shoddier public performance attempt, and somewhere in the bowels of the Big Apple, no doubt, Larry Wright is probably banging away on those plastic buckets producing that astonishing sound!
Monday, April 7, 2008
Yes, its the first Monday of the month, which means we are meeting again tonight for our April Café Scientifique.
Physicist Ray Hall will speak about "Deep Time: The Amazing Age of the Earth and Universe ":
This presentation will offer an exploration of the extraordinary time scales associated with astronomy, geology, and biology, with an emphasis on how the findings of these diverse disciplines intertwine and reinforce each other. Humans have long wondered and speculated-- yet the age of the Earth has only become know with any precision a few decades ago, and the age of the Universe was determined even more recently. Come to find out the clever methods developed and the astonishing evidence uncovered by scientists as they came to answer these questions of deep time.
As usual, we meet at Lucy's Lair from 6:30 - 8:30 PM. Be there!
Friday, April 4, 2008
I mean, really:
If this technology catches on, can the world's navy's then start settling military disputes via kite-fighting? That would be so much cooler - more fun and less bloody - don't you think? One can only wish!
When the cargo ship Beluga SkySails left the port of Bremen, Germany, in January, it carried with it a high-tech version of an ancient means of propulsion.
During its 11,952-nautical-mile voyage to Venezuela and back, the ship launched a giant kite from its bow, sending it hundreds of feet into the air to capture the stronger and more consistent winds found above. The 1,720-square-foot kite, controlled by onboard electronics, exerted enough pull on the ship to provide about 20 percent of the engine power required for the journey.
"We can once again actually 'sail' with cargo ships, thus opening a new chapter in the history of commercial shipping," said Capt. Lutz Heldt following his return.
Larger, more powerful kites are planned for the future. Savings of 10 to 35 percent will be possible, depending on specific routes and weather conditions, says Stephen Wrage, founder and CEO of SkySails, a company in Hamburg, Germany, that makes the kites. It is planning to equip as many as 35 ships with its kites in 2009 and hopes to increase that to 1,500 ships by 2015.
From kites to new propeller designs to blasting air bubbles along hulls to make them slicker, ways to make ships more energy-efficient have been gaining momentum. The reasons aren't surprising: Fuel costs have ballooned and public pressure to reduce the air pollution and greenhouse gases that ships emit has increased.[read the whole story at csmonitor.com]
[Hat-tip to Prem Panicker]
Thursday, April 3, 2008
The IDiots can't stop providing us with more funny moments it seems! The latest blooper involves their
sole respectable academic biologist notable cDesign Proponentsist Michael Behe, who, you may recall, had played such a stellar role as the star witness in the Dover trial several years ago. This time he was called upon, once again (I guess they don't really have too many options when it comes to finding "expert" witnesses on their side), to testify on behalf of several christian school groups who had sued the University of California for refusing to accept some "biology" courses taught at various christian schools as meeting UC admissions criteria. The UC refused to buckle down to pressure and fought it out in court, and a partial summary judgment came down last friday - you guessed it - in favor of the UC! A key argument that really convinced the judge was made by none other than Behe - but boy was he pissing into the wind with this one:
Plaintiffs' evidence also supports Defendants' conclusion that these biology texts are inappropriate for use as the primary or sole text. Plaintiffs' own biology expert, Professor Michael Behe testified that "it is personally abusive and pedagogically damaging to de facto require students to subscribe to an idea . . . . Requiring a student to, effectively, consent to an idea violates [her] personal integrity. Such a wrenching violation [may cause] a terrible educational outcome."
Yet, the two Christian biology texts at issue commit this "wrenching violation." For example, Biology for Christian Schools declares on the very first page that:
(1) "'Whatever the Bible says is so; whatever man says may or may not be so,' is the only [position] a Christian can take . . . ."
(2) "If [scientific] conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them."
(3) "Christians must disregard [scientific hypotheses or theories] that contradict the Bible."
Talk about building up a record of own goals! Who needs any other so-called "reality tv" when these guys keep providing us with such nonstop entertainment! And we can just sit back and enjoy the game as long as the likes of Behe (and Ben Stein et al) are on the creationist team, eh?
So the judge summarily ruled that the UC has every right to reject inadequate courses from religious schools to ensure that only properly qualified students are admitted. Invoking a religious
education indoctrination does not give you an exemption from having to meet the requirements of a proper university education in the sciences. And I'm proud to see my alma mater holding the line on proper science education for the reality-based community. There may be another chapter to this suit, however, because the christian plaintiffs want the court to rule on the acceptability of the textbooks in question as well - and I have to wonder how that will go in light of the above judgment which is based on some content from the book.
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Will somebody please tell me that this is just a bad April Fool's joke?! Please!! Well some people sure are laughing with the Bush administration's Dept. of Homeland Security happily waiving off all environmental and land-management laws to build a fence to keep those illegal Mexicans out! That's right! Really, this just happened: Michael Chertoff and Dubya Bush just waved their national security want, and *poof* - all the laws that protect landowners and the environment and wildlife - they are all gone!! Bye-bye to all those pesky regulations that constrain the construction of such large-scale monstrosities (the proposed fence is some 670-miles long) that can fundamentally alter the very landscape for the foreseeable future, by requiring that such projects do everything possible to minimize their impact on the environment, landscape, wildlife, and people living in those landscapes. Which one of those things needs protecting anyway, when we're facing them Mexicans, for surely that is the biggest threat to the American Way Of Life! Those immigrants must surely be stopped, along with the jaguars and the ocelots who might be trespassing if not fornicating in them border regions. Who needs them anyway?
The LA Times has more on the story, so go read it there: I can't write any more for fear of turning into blithering incoherence as I try to comprehend this latest horror. How long can they get away and keep getting away with shit like this?! Who can stop them? Maybe you (at least the US citizens reading this) can reverse this if you get on the phone/fax/email/horn and yell at your congressperson and senator and anyone else who might listen - or make them listen - to do something about this.
Or give me a shout back if you can tell me this is all an April Fool's joke! Otherwise the joke really is on all of us, especially in the border regions - and who knows where else they will waive these laws next?
And this new discovery suggests that perhaps these penguins will survive the ongoing changes in the Antarctic due to global warming (or even future cooling episodes) easily enough without too much help from us. So that's one less thing to worry about; now let's double our efforts to save those polar bears next, shall we?
We humans like to set ourselves apart from other species in terms of how self-aware we are, even though that line separating us keeps getting thinner as we learn more about our primate cousins and many other species. So do you still feel superior to elephants after watching this video? Or do you (like some commenters on YouTube) think this is a hoax, using some editing trick if not CGI?Reminds me, of course, of the study several years ago where elephants were shown to pass the "mirror test" for self awareness, joining but a handful of non-primates to do so.
And I have to wonder (and perhaps some reader from India has the answer), why is elephant art not encouraged the same way as in Thailand? You may remember my post about elephant art. Why aren't elephant conservationists and the various camps of captive elephants promoting more art among those pachyderms?