Thursday, December 31, 2009

Want to extract some DNA?

It’s so easy you can actually do it at home. Try it like this:

  1. Take some animal or vegetable, like uncooked steak or leaves.
  2. Add some salt water.
  3. Toss it in a blender and liquefy.
  4. Add some dish soap. This dissolves the cell membranes the blender doesn’t.
  5. Then add some meat tenderizer, which breaks down the proteins attached to DNA.
  6. Then add some rubbing alcohol. Do not mix!

By the end, you’ll have a mush on the bottom and clear alcohol on top. Alcohol has a real attraction to DNA, and if you’ve done it right, a lumpy white ball should appear in the alcohol. This is DNA.

Do it yourself!

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Science of Avatar

It’s not often that I recommend a movie for the scientific content, but James Cameron’s “Avatar” is downright mindblowing. “Avatar” is one of the most scientifically literate movies seen in some time. What “Jurassic Park” was to genetics, “Avatar” is to ecology and biology. In addition to the pretty colors and effects, it’s obvious that a lot of work was placed into figuring out the plausibility of the rain forest planet Pandora’s life forms.

You can always expect scientific accuracy from Cameron, who knows his oysters, and proved it, with "The Abyss." I actually first saw that film in high school Marine Biology!

You know, usually I’m irritated by all the tie-in books that accompany a major movie release, but this time, I’d actually be interested in checking them out. It’s obvious that a lot of thought was placed into the scientific verisimilitude of this world ecology, and that one of the limitations of a movie like this one is that we don’t see any of that work, as it is in the background. I’d love to read more about the world and then come back and see the film. I’m sure my appreciation would be improved.

One of the occasions where it was obvious they knew what they were doing was in a sequence where the characters meet a weird carnivorous creature, who goes after a herd of herbivores…but backs off when he sees them in a herd. Only then does he think about attacking our human heroes. This was a startlingly logical set of behaviors! Incidentally, the ratio of herbivores to carnivores is spot-on. Carnivores are rare in any ecosystem, since they require a lot of herbivores to maintain themselves.

Some of the great sky-shots are dominated by a giant Jupiter-like planet in the distance, which leads me to think that Pandora may not be a planet in the traditional sense, but a moon of a gas giant. The idea of Pandora as a moon may be a little unimpressive, but consider that there are moons in our solar system that are near planet-sized. Saturn’s moon Titan, the largest moon in the solar system, is bigger than Mercury and Pluto.

Actually, this makes a great deal of sense of you consider the vast biodiversity of Pandora life. I mean, a single, big planet-killer asteroid and the whole ecosystems would have to start from scratch. But imagine a very close, huge gas giant nearby, with gravity that deflect nearly all objects. Considering how many stellar objects are deflected by earth’s moon and multiply that.

All of the most exhilarating moments of the film are set on winged riding birds, which the Na’Vi, the blue furry space monsters, can actually ride. The idea of birds growing to be that huge…and able to carry 12 foot giant riders…defies the laws of biology at least on earth. There is no more expensive biological process than flight, after all.

But the movie, in a first, actually pays attention to why flight for huge creatures is possible, which surprised me. The atmosphere is far denser than that of Earth's, which means it can provide greater buoyancy. It's also stated that Pandora has a lower gravity, which also reduces the force of drag.

What I find impressive is that most of the reptilian flying creatures have four wings, two for control on the legs. This sounds a little exotic, but it is true that a dinosaur, discovered in China, called microraptor had this very feature!

The script states that Pandora orbits Alpha Centauri A, the second closest visible star to earth that is 4.3 light years away and it takes five years to get there, which means that the ships in this future can travel at around 85% of the speed of light. I know Alpha Centauri gets mentioned a lot in science fiction, but I kind of like that Cameron felt the need to specify Alpha Centauri A, since Alpha Centauri is a double-star (technically a triple if you count Proxima, a brown dwarf), both of which are 23 AUs apart.

All of this is nothing before a science fiction idea that appears near the two-thirds mark that is so original and unexpected and entertaining that, in all honesty, I think revealing it counts as a spoiler. You’ve been warned!

Early on in the film, it is established that the giant natives venerate a type of life-force existing on the planet, which the main character says consists of . They have nerves at the base of their ponytails that let them “plug in” and link up to animals that they ride. That’s cool enough, but what’s interesting is that all the trees on the planet link up to form a gigantic neural computer network. Sigourney Weaver, who plays a brassy female scientist, said that each tree had 104 connections to the trees around it, and there were 1012 trees on the planet, which means this giant biological/chemical computer network has more processing power than the human brain. (This is not only true but an understatement. Each person has 1010 neurons and each has 7,000 connections) This means the entire planet is one giant living computer.

I was expecting some dull, unoriginal idea about life forces and mother goddesses – as unwelcome in a science fiction movie as an abortion in a Disney cartoon. This was actually a great idea.

As for the visual look, it really is everything everybody says it is. Me, a science student, and my friend getting her masters in visual arts, were equally blown away.

As for the film’s creative elements, I have to admit that it was not one of Cameron’s best movies at all, even though it's obvious the movie has a conscience. The biggest problem is that it is predictable. I can see every plot development coming from a mile away. There was one that was especially ridiculous one that goes something like, “only our greatest warriors have ridden the magical orange pterodactyl.” Followed by, “gasp! He has ridden the magical orange pterodactyl!” Still, it’s great to see Sigourney Weaver in anything again. And yes, she has an avatar too, something not a single trailer mentions.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Pluto is NOT a planet

I was startled to see so many people disappointed that Pluto isn’t considered a planet anymore. To anyone that knows much about Pluto, it makes perfect sense. Considering Pluto a planet is like considering Greenland a continent.

Pluto is one of the largest of the trans-Neptunian Kuiper Belt (a second asteroid belt outside the boundaries of the Solar System, over 20 times larger and 200 times more massive than the one between Mars and Jupiter), but is one-fifth the size of our moon. Pluto’s composition of ices means that if Pluto was brought into the inner solar system, it would acquire a tail like a comet and eventually burn off.

What’s even more embarrassing is that another Kuiper Belt object, Eris, was discovered in 2005 that is actually even bigger than Pluto! Pluto isn’t even the biggest of the objects out there! What’s more, they are constantly discovering huge objects on the Kuiper Belt. Most of them have the same general look as Pluto: rocky balls of frozen ices. It’s also commonly believed some moons in the solar system, some many times larger than Pluto, are originally Kuiper Belt objects.

In other words, Pluto isn’t that special, as astronomers are now finding out. Does an object this dubious really deserve the honor of being called a planet, in the same category as Earth and Jupiter?

Lots of people get sentimental about Pluto, but what about poor Ceres? Now there’s a world left off from our childhood nursery rhymes! Ceres, as you might know, is the largest of the asteroids and composes at least a third of the mass in the Mars-Jupiter asteroid belt, a much greater percentage than Pluto has in the Kuiper Belt. Ceres is smaller than Pluto but rock all the way through and is, in many ways, a much better candidate than Pluto for planethood.

The specific definition of what constitutes a planet is a definition that is long overdue – this is one of the many occasions where words mean things, and that definition should be specific as possible. The solar system has a lot of junk in it and not all of it is a planet. In fact, I once heard a great way an alien space probe would define our solar system: the Sun, Jupiter, and some debris!

Monday, November 30, 2009

An Open Letter to YouTuber AronRa from a Fan

Dear AronRa,

I wish to tell you how deeply I appreciate your video series on the Fundamental Falsehoods of Creationism. Science has nothing to say on whether a God exists or not. The existence of a God may be true. Creationism however, is not true. I appreciate deeply your at times extremely entertaining efforts to set the record straight and preserve rationalism from pseudoscience.

However, I feel the need to set the record straight about the reputation of a great scientist that has been impugned by your video series and who, as he is dead, cannot defend himself.

I’m talking about arguably one of the greatest naturalists of his age, Sir Richard Owen, who totally transformed the institution of the British Museum and was a pioneer in the field of vertebrate paleontology, best known for coming up with the term “dinosaur” in 1848. He also made other crucial contributions to an emerging field, like the identification of two groups of ungulates (even and odd-toed), and recognized classes of extinct South American mammals like the great ground sloth and the glyptodon. In short, Richard Owen was a real scientist and significant figure in paleontology, anatomy, and zoology.

First, allow me to make one thing clear: Sir Richard Owen was not, and never had been, a creationist and his methodology is and always has been entirely naturalistic. Yes, he disliked Darwin and his theory, but his opposition was on rational, scientific grounds. Sir Richard Owen did subscribe to evolution – in fact, one of his crucial, breakthrough achievements was the identification of the relationship between South American and Australian extinct species and their modern-day descendants like the kangaroo, sloth and armadillo. Sir Richard Owen even mocked the theories of Lamarck and his disciples.

Where Darwin and Owen passionately disagreed was on the mechanism of evolution, not on its truth of whether it happened or not. Sir Owen, years and years before Darwin, pointed out homologous structures as evidence of common descent.

As a paleontologist, you should know this. You should know that Sir Owen was not a “creation scientist,” as you say, and did not “believe in magical manifestations.”

Sir Richard Owen did not believe in evolution by the mechanism of natural selection or in developmental theories of evolution, but that rather, species and family trees had “lifespans” determined by a growth energy. This explained for instance, why some species had obviously disadvantageous elements like the sabertooth tiger, as the species was exhausted and “old.”

Sir Richard Owen also did not believe that human beings were related to apes, and thought that human beings were distinct from them. Perhaps he did so partially for religious reasons that led his thinking in that direction as your video suggested – to deny scientists aren’t motivated by ego or cultural forces is frankly, an extremely na├»ve point of view on the scientific method and the operation of peer review, and denies that scientists are human beings with prejudices and egos. But whatever the origin, the opposition that Sir Richard Owen presented to the claim that man and gorillas were related, was scientific in nature, not theological. His point was that humans are distinct because we have faculties that great apes do not and a greater relationship between brain and body weight is a valid scientific point, and no anatomist in the world would ever argue the obvious, that there is a difference between humans and apes in many key ways.

You further make the claim that Sir Richard Owen flatly misrepresented Archeopteryx because he did not believe it was a transitional fossil. This is, once again, untrue. Where Sir Richard Owen disagreed with others was whether Archeopteryx came from thecodont dinosaurs or from reptiles. Once again, Sir Richard Owen did not deliberately misrepresent anything, but had a different view of Archeopteryx on the tree of life. This was not misrepresentation but a legitimate difference of scientific opinion.

Was Sir Richard Owen correct about either the mechanism of evolution, or the similarities between man and ape? Was he correct about Archeopteryx as a relative of reptiles as opposed to thecodont dinosaurs? No, he wasn’t. But there are times in science when you’re just plain wrong, and that’s okay. Sir Richard Owen should go down in history as a noble dissenter that was wrong, like V.V. Beloussov’s opposition to the theory of continental drift, who came up with other interpretations for data that the continental drift theory could account for.

Sir Richard Owen was a man with an ego, but he was a real scientist having a dialogue with science. The mention that Sir Richard Owen was a devout Anglican was a low and ugly smear meant to hint ever-so-subtly that he was disreputable…because in his private, personal life he was religious. Many scientists have no problem with reconciling their private faith with the scientific worldview, with too many examples to list – including another giant in your own field, Robert T. Bakker, who moonlights as a pentacostal preacher. Frankly, the most troubling thing about your videos is the idea that there is something slightly irrational about religion…which is not paying attention to anything theologians have said in the past 2,000 years.

The most outrageously untrue part of your video is the claim that Sir Richard Owen believed religious beliefs should override science. This is easily countered. In 1849, a full ten years prior to the publication of Origin of Species, Owen claimed that humans developed from fish by natural processes, a theory that isn’t so shocking to any given anatomist and anyone that has ever read Neil Schubin’s Your Inner Fish. It is important to note that this proclamation got Owen into trouble with the English clergy! Does that sound like someone that would put religion before science?

Finally, the paragraph from U.C. Berkeley that Owen finally accepted evolution was ridiculous since Owen argued for evolution decades before Darwin – the difference was in the mechanism.

The comparison to creationists like Michael Behe was a low blow. You say that Creationists have never produced any workable research and don’t submit to peer review. This is true. But considering the list of his very real achievements and workable research that stands the test of time to day within your very own field which Sir Owen produced, I find this a monstrous comparison. And I hate to keep on repeating this to the point of nausea, but I will: Richard Owen was not a creationist!

Also, the claim that religion in general retards the growth of rationalism is occasionally true but does not do justice to the historical interrelationship of religion and the rise of modern science. The modern scientific method owes a historic debt in the West to religious thought. The view that the world could be understood by observation and reason came from St. Thomas Aquinas, not Galileo.

To summarize: I am not saying that Richard Owen was an always honest man, nor am I saying that he did not have an ego that often guided his research and made him at times arrogantly wrong, an extremely unsavory trait in a scientist. I am saying that he was not a creationist, he did subscribe to evolution, and your video tragically misrepresents one of the key figures of his time.

I would like to close by saying despite these differences I remain an eager fan of all of your videos and I hope you produce many more.

Scientifically yours,

Esperanto Grrl
(Cristina Fernandez)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Homo Floresiensis, the Little People

The previous article was about science fiction, and this is an article about actual science that sounds like science fiction. Really! People compared the discovery of Homo floresiensis to Hobbits, but to me they sound more like H. Beam Piper's "Little Fuzzies." Or really, really pissed off Ewoks.

The little people of the island of Flores, Indonesia were three-foot humanoids that used spears to hunt pygmy elephants and komodo dragons. I'm serious, there's actually evidence they hunted giant monitor lizards with poisonous bites! They had brains the size of chimpanzees, yet there is evidence of stone tool use (tiny, tiny stone tools!). Even more amazingly, they lived at least until 18,000 BC, far more recently than even Neanderthal. Homo sapiens arrived at Flores around 40,000 BC as a part of the island-hopping that gave us populations like Australian Aborigines. Which means that for thousands of years, modern humans and the Hobbits lived at the same time and possibly had contact.

Nothing about Homo floresiensis makes sense, everything is a mystery, and if several skeletons hadn't been found, I would have thought that it was just the skeleton of a particularly diseased individual, because something like it couldn't possibly exist. The time frame (up to 18,000 BC) is too recent. The idea of three foot tall people living on only one island is just too strange. And finally, if they have craniums the size of chimps, why would they use stone tools and hunt communally? It reminds me a little of how until the discovery of multiple skeletons, many more conservative scientists thought early discoveries of Neanderthal were just severely deformed individuals with rickets.

When I first acquired an interest in Paleoanthropology, the study of the evolution and descent of early human beings, I came on a field that had great mysteries but very little in the way of finding things that were truly outre and shocking. Paleoanthropology had entered into what the great Time-Life "Early Man" books called "an era of nitpicking," where we have the rough, basic outline of human descent and everything else is filling in details.

What astonished me is how even though Time-Life's "Early Man" was written in 1968, its chain of human origins is still mostly accepted as true today. A few questions have been definitively resolved thanks to genetic evidence...for instance, Neanderthal was not a human ancestor but a closely related cousin, but the weight of evidence was on that perspective even back then.

So here comes Homo floresiensis, a "Hobbit," who totally shakes up our entire idea of human evolution, and puts an end to the idea that there isn't really any huge mysteries left in paleoanthropology. For years and years, I learned to tune out news about human origins, because for the most part, it was usually a discovery of some new kind of ape that walked erect, a branch of the human family that included paranthropus, sivapithecus and other extremely unmemorable species of flatlined intelligence that died out, and did not result in either humans or modern apes.

And here's another thing I found shocking about the Flores little people discovery, namely, the press coverage. If there's one thing that is the plague of paleoanthropology, it is overly sensationalistic press coverage. But here, scientists were every bit as shocked as the press was. And let's face it, those diagrams comparing a modern man to Homo floresiensis made for pretty good newspaper copy.

And as of yet, here's the most exciting thing about the little men of Flores: we know so very little, and their appearance was so recent and such a sudden shock that science is still reeling from it like a body blow. What we know is overshadowed by what we don't know. Which means one thing is for sure: the paleoanthropology books written now will probably be out of date ten years down the road. And considering how long Time-Life's "Early Man" was mostly right, that's not bad at all.

And I wouldn't bet the farm on this...and nobody is more skeptical than me of the laughable claims of cryptozoologists...but there may be a distant, outside chance that a few hobbits survived. If they can last to 18,000 BC, it's at least possible they may have made it to today on a small, mostly unexplored island. Little furry people are a part of the native folklore, after all.

Friday, November 27, 2009

V for Vexation

It may seem strange I’m reviewing a pop culture event on a science blog, but it actually isn’t, and I’ll explain why.

First, a little background: I grew up with the original V. My Dad was a big fan of the concept of the television miniseries and felt that it could tell stories in a big way that a regular series couldn’t. My older brother and I had all of the minis, often on original VHS (with the tang commercials intact!) and we loved to curl up at Christmas and watch our parents’ old tapes of Shogun, V, Marco Polo (my personal favorite!). In fact, whenever I go home there is a Christmas tradition at our house was to watch all ten hours of Shaka Zulu.

I recently watched the original V again for the first time since age 12, and I was expecting a cheesefest like the original ugh-inducing Battlestar: Galactica. I was actually surprised at how truly scary, smart and subtle it was; it was four hours long, but it felt much less because of how economical and fast-moving the plot was. Mark Singer was Harrison Ford-esque in his breezy, cool-guy charm, and I always liked how the blonde female resistance leader was disabled and walked with a cane as opposed to being the physically perfect leading lady. What was most startling was how, despite the fact she stole the show and became symbolic of the series, Jane Badler’s Diana was actually only in four or five scenes in the original V. I have no idea why Jane Badler didn’t become more famous than she actually did, as she was undoubtedly the breakout actor.

The original V had a real sense of creeping fear. The scenes where the aliens were revealed was a downright horrifying revelation. And the speed and ease with which the alien Visitors took over Earth was chilling.

In many ways, the original V was a disturbing reminder of what a different country we were in 1982. For instance, the “Jews” of the original V were scientists, and viewing scientists as valuable and sympathetic feels like an alien planet compared to an America that thrives on slamming intellectuals and “academic elites.” This was never as true in the past as it is now, where entire segments of discourse (e.g. the Global Warming debate) are centered around telling those smarty-pants pointy-heads to shut up, and an entire demographic can be appealed to with political theater about “regular guys” that stand up to “self-proclaimed experts.”

In addition, one of the main heroes included a Mexican border hopper who is not only shown as clever, sympathetic and resourceful (and even heroic, standing up to alien torture without breaking) but who actually uses his skills to benefit the other characters. I had forgotten this and I was nothing short of totally blindsided, especially in today’s absolutely poisoned political climate, where expressing sympathy for Mexican immigrants is beyond the pale of the arbitrarily acceptable window of debate. Personally, I think regardless of race, language or place of birth, anyone that is willing to work hard and get an education deserves to be here, and a whole lot of “natural born Americans” that jam firecrackers up the assholes of cats don’t.

What’s more, the Visitors are not shown as genetically evil…something a lesser alien invasion story would have done - as Independence Day, a rip-off of the original V in every way except the ones that matter (and why that slow-witted effects film has its defenders downright baffles me). A few of them were presented as heroic and willing to help earthlings, a great concession to the complexity of thinking, moral beings.

As for the current series…

The current V is a critique of the Obama administration. I have no idea why that is even in doubt at all, since it’s the only way for it to have anything like coherent metaphoric power, with a charismatic leader (played, incidentally, by Monica Baccarin, and here, her inability to deliver dialogue like a human being is actually an advantage!). The clincher that made this inarguable was the out-of-left-field and explicit use of “universal health care” as the spookiest word imaginable.

Now, there is nothing wrong with a decent social critique, particularly of a big-time social phenomenon like the current national direction. The problem is not their target but the way they go about it and the images they invoke.

In the original V, those that doubted the sincerity of the Visitors were smart, skeptical people that asked more questions than average. Those that doubted the sincerity of the Visitors in the new version are cranks and crackpots and conspiracy theorists…who we are meant to empathize with!

I’m serious! I finally only realized what it was that troubled me about the current series when the new V did an episode about secret evil chemicals placed into tampered flu vaccines. Let me repeat that: the episode’s dramatic power comes from playing on fears about the safety of vaccination. This, friends, is what would happen if that guy on your street that is always yelling things finally got to executive produce a television series.

There was even a scene where the FBI agent played by Juliet from Lost decides to go through every listing for every message ever sent to law enforcement about UFOs or aliens pretending to be human. The series ought to be entitled “V: We Told You So!” There was even one character that is a scruffy, dysfunctional, indigent loner meant to appeal to the demographic that padlocks their refrigerators, which judging by the popularity of the new series is a big segment of the audience.

With my astonishing powers of foresight, allow me to predict the plot of the next few episodes:

1) The Visitors have been sending people tormenting radio messages through dental fillings.

2) Floridation of the water supply is revealed to be a Visitor plot.

3) The Visitors create a ray that plants mind-control compulsions via every fifth word in advertising. Only tinfoil can deflect the rays.

Now does everyone understand why my review of the new V belongs on a science and rationalism blog? This is a series about the schizophrenic crank view of reality.

There are many valid reasons to be skeptical about President Obama. However, this series doesn’t go for that, but instead appeals to conspiratorial themes of hidden evil and infiltration, with anxieties about charismatic leaders with secret, hidden motives. This is particularly relevant because Obama attracts much, much more than his fair share of crank theories. Whether one agrees with Obama’s policies or not, he was inarguably born an American citizen. One of the major plot points of the new V concerns itself with a group of “Peace Ambassadors.” Those with poor memories of the 2008 elections may not remember a sinister (and of course, untrue) rumor that Obama wanted to create a civilian peace organization that conspiracy theorists saw as a modern Gestapo. The fact that the rumors were untrue and the domestic organization never happened and never was going to happen did little to end the panic among the schizos (it never is, is it?).

On a final note, here’s the one thing that I definitely liked about the new V: the way it handled, intelligently, the way the television news functions. There was a great quote from the Devil’s Dictionary: “the media is always run by the people whose political views you don’t agree with.” I always laughed at that. There’s no way the press could have a liberal and conservative slant simultaneously. Nonetheless, it is obvious there is great suspicion of the journalistic profession. What V seems to argue is that media bias is due to careerism. It’s much easier to advance yourself by sucking up to powerful people. The single most sympathetic and intriguing character was Party of Five’s Scott Wolf (all growed up!) and his conflict between his journalistic instincts and his ambition.

Gah. I just did a post that touched on politics. I feel...dirty inside, in a way no soap can clean. I swear, I promise, guys, I'll do a dozen posts on minor chemical elements or insects to make up for this.

On Another Note...Marco Polo

The story of Marco Polo always captured my imagination. He lived the adventure most merely dream about, traveling to Asia and China during the age of the Great Khan.

What is often forgotten about the story of Marco Polo is that skepticism about it is nothing new. Indeed, most people assumed he was a liar for the simple reason that his message was that, in the 12th Century, European civilization was downright second-rate, compared to places like China that had paper money and indoor plumbing. In other words, most Europeans just assumed he was a liar and read the book because they liked the adventure and the romance.

More modern critics have brought out a the old claim that Marco Polo might have been lying based on very basic things about China and Chinese culture that Polo just didn't mention. For instance, tea drinking, women's foot binding, and the Great Wall of China. Not to mention that no Chinese records mention him.

As for why Marco Polo could have spent years in China but never mentioned these things...

Tea drinking, at least at the time in question, was not universal in Chinese culture, and started in the southern regions. As Polo's visits were mostly to the northern part of the country, he could have gone for quite some time without seeing any tea.

As for women's foot binding, it was only practiced by upper class women, who were frequently kept at home and out of sight from visiting men, especially foreigners.

And as for the Great the 13th Century, there was very little that was "Great" about it, since much of it had fallen into disrepair. In fact, the most famous and visible parts of the Great Wall seen today were portions rebuilt in the 16th Century.

As for why no Chinese records mention him...okay, obviously Marco Polo may have exaggerated how important he was to Kublai Khan. This is human nature. I had a friend that interned at a Hollywood agency and loved to talk about his best buddy Samuel L. Jackson. Do I doubt that he ever met Samuel L. Jackson and went to Los Angeles? No. But I doubt Samuel L. Jackson will remember him as clearly!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Science errors movies make over and over that drive me crazy

I actually have no problem with sound in space. It's an obvious way the director uses to heighten and emphasize the events of a scene. I like to think of it as another kind of background music.

There are a few scientific errors that are so common I really hope I never see them again in any movie. Hollywood does it so often, they ought to have learned better by now.

Rivers of Lava

I always wondered how it is there are these gushing rivers of lava that seem to ignore the principles of thermal equilibrium. If there really were rivers of lava underground, the heat would spread until the walls and eventually ceiling are molten hot.

Also, I'm a little tired, too, of those flimsy, rickety bridges that always seem to be draped over lava perilously, although perhaps that's for another blog entry.

"The Nuclear Reactor Turns Into a Bomb"

With this one, I specifically mean the absolute worst offender, the otherwise factually accurate K-19 The Widowmaker, which perpetuated the Hollywood voodoo science that a submarine nuclear reactor can be transformed into a bomb. A nuclear explosion requires a very precise series of explosions and a particularly refined, "weaponized" variety of plutonium to take place and can't happen because some dummy sneezes in the general direction of a nuclear warhead. It is literally impossible for a nuclear power reactor to turn into a hydrogen bomb.

One of the slimiest moments in recent American political memory was the saber-rattling over Iran's nuclear power reactors, which can in no way be used to produce nuclear weaponry. The reason that bothered me was that it banked on the scientific illiteracy of the American public to scaremonger.

Nuclear power is occasionally very dangerous for many reasons. The biggest is contamination from its deadly and poisonous byproducts: many kids that live around nuclear power plants find they have Strontium-90 instead of calcium in their bones and teeth.

"You only use 10% of your brain"

Actually, you use 100% of your brain, but usually not all at the same time, because parts of the brain are dedicated to different tasks. One of the best parts of my psychology graduate school experience was watching the brain light up in an EKG scan during different tasks.

Anyway, think of it like this: did you ever hear of anyone that got shot in the head and survived because the bullet passed through the 90% of the brain that most people don't use?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Pseudoscience of Race

I tend to divide fringe beliefs unsupported by science into two groups.

The first kind includes harmless, titillation-centered pseudoscience dealing with the pursuit of nonexistent phantoms, like the UFO phenomenon, ghosthunting, the search for mysterious creatures like Bigfoot, and (my personal favorite) the Hollow Earth.

I must confess, I'm something of a fan of these theories because I deeply sympathize with the desire for them to be true. No one would be more excited than me if scientists found a previously undiscovered North American primate! Even today, I have daydreams about encounters with alien life, mermaids, and strange monsters, as well as becoming a witch or having mind powers. At the same time, I understand through critical thinking there is no there there behind theories of this type, and their supporters tend to have an extremely naive definition of what constitutes proof.

The second type of pseudoscientific theory is much nastier, because they are discredited beliefs with an extremely negative and manipulative influence on discourse, that usurp science and attempt to manipulate its fundamental doubt and skepticism to undercut it. Global warming denial is one such theory, as is Creationism and Intelligent Design. One of the oldest and slowest to die is race theory, or the idea that the human race is broken up into distinct racial subgroups, some of whom are culture creators and others are culture destroyers.

The reason we know Race Theory to be unscientific is because differences in phenotype (external appearance) do not indicate differences in genotype (genetic traits). Modern Europeans, for instance, according to modern genetics, share two-thirds of their ancestral DNA with African groups, despite the fact the external appearance of these groups could not be more different. Africans and Europeans tend to have similar blood types. When looked at from a view of human history involving migration, this is not only not shocking but entirely expected, as Africa and Europe are close to one another.

Another strike against racial theory is how non-immutable and truly undefinable racial categories are. Some classification systems include 3 main human races, others go up to 80. Species are a very real category, but subgroups of this type are not. In fact, no genetic test can reveal with certainty what race a person is. The reason is that there is greater variability within groups than between groups.

In fact, one of the greatest signs of how nonscientific racial categories are is the arbitrary determination of what groups are "pure" and which are "mixed." The earliest racial schema is from around 1500, from around the start of the Age of Exploration and the discovery of the New World. Racial schemes after this time list a few "new" groups that began to exist in the New World: mulattos, or mixed African/Europeans, and mestizos, or mixed European/Indians. The question is, in the long term scope of human history and migrations and intermingling, groups like the mulattos and mestizos are considered blended groups but others are not? The modern English population for instance has traces of Angle, Saxon, Danish, Norman, Roman and Celtic, yet the English are not considered a "blended" group.

What is really interesting is how group characteristics have vanished into greater populations, and many populations no longer exist. For instance, many remains of modern humans have characteristics not similar to populations in the area. Kennewick Man, a skeleton found in Washington and dated to around 9,300 BC, has been famously compared to sexy deep voiced Star Trek actor Patrick Stewart. There was another Homo Sapiens skeleton found in Herto, Ethiopia and dated to 155,000 (!) BC, which more closely resembles Australian Aborigines than any modern group.

In fact, I have a pretty funny personal story about the degree of genetic variability within groups. As someone close to the biology department, they were doing testing of people and genetic markers in populations, and they paid students $30 and a Starbucks gift card to do some blood tests.

I jumped at the chance to help! It all sounded very exciting. For those that don't know, I am of Cuban descent and my family tree is almost equally divided into thirds between three racial groups: Southern European (specifically, Galician), African, and Chinese.

(That last one tends to surprise people that don't know much about Cuban history, but Havana has one of the largest Chinatowns except for Chicago and San Francisco in this hemisphere.)

I expected that my test results would show I have genetics in common with Mediterranean European, African or Chinese groups. Wrong! Apparently, most of my genetic markers are held in common with (of all the damn populations in the world) the Basque. To my knowledge, I don't have a single drop of Basque blood!

One of the vilest non-science attitudes is the view that there is something apelike about African blacks. This is extraordinary because, in the view of most physical anthropologists, the various groups we call "African negroes" were actually the most recent of all human populations, dating to 9,000 to 7,000 BC. For most of its history, the African continent was inhabited by the ancestors of the Hottentots, Bushmen and Ituri ("pygmies"), who are no more related to African negroes than Polynesian Islanders are.

To be clear: I am not going on about the illegitimacy of race because I want to get "street cred" for being "hip" and "progressive" and "liberal." I am pointing racial theory is pseudoscience because there is no evidence whatsoever to support it.

However, it is important to see how theories of race change with social forces in society as a whole. There have been times in American history for instance where the Irish and Italians have not been considered "white" at all. When both groups acquired political power and joined the middle class (and internalized middle class values and culture), they ended up becoming just another kind of suburban white people. This is my general point: race is a social and (at times) economic category, not a scientific one. Racial categorization is as much "junk science" as creationism.

Finally, I think it is important to point out that the discipline of physical anthropology is both fascinating and a legitimate field, and the study of different groups and populations is an intriguing one. One of the most interesting results is the discovery that sickle-cell anemia is incredibly common among West Africans. The reason? The gene that gives resistance to Malaria is actually closely connected to the mutation that results in sickle-cell.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Overly Optimistic Future Technology

If there’s one totally inexhaustible vein of comedy, it is in previous generations’ excessively optimistic view of the potential of technologies and blindness to its limitations.

There are a few technologies that were originally seen with so much enthusiasm, with wildly optimistic predictions, before more is learned about them.


In short, biometrics are the use of a person’s unique physical characteristics to identify them.

The simplest biometric device are fingerprint readers, but a very common one, used in military intelligence, is the Retina Scan, a staple of the cheeseball military and espionage story trying so hard to be high tech. Retina Scans work because optic nerve in the back of the eye is unusually reflective to light, and it can easily be seen with a flash of light (even handheld ones, which is what those little devices at the Optometrists’ office do). Since everyone’s optic nerve is different, it gives a relatively reliable identification, and since optic nerves can’t be changed, it is unfalsifiable. It sounds relatively ideal for security purposes.

But there are so many problems with retina scan technology, that they have never been used on a wide scale. Take for instance the cost of equipment; a good old fashioned lock is cheap, and even retina scan bolts doors in much the same way. Then you have the fact that it is possible to be falsely identified when a user gets glaucoma or astigmatism. Sometimes low tech is just better.

What I find absolutely amazing is how the very movies that feature “futuristic” biometric security also show exactly how easy it is to circumvent them. The fingerprint scan device can always be fooled by getting a shotglass belonging to a person and dusting it for fingerprints, then using sticky tape to get the prints. The more hardcore way is to chop off a guy’s eye and press it against a retina reader!

The Bussard Ramjet

Back in the sixties, the Buzzard Ramjet was believed by most rocket scientists to be THE solution to interstellar travel.

The biggest problem with interstellar travel is fuel. It weighs a lot and eventually you run out of it. Continued acceleration is also impossible. The faster you go, the greater mass a ship has, and the more fuel is needed to continue to speed up, which imposes an absolute limit on space travel speeds.

But wait! Space isn’t entirely empty. In fact, the interstellar vacuum is filled with loose hydrogen atoms. (Hydrogen is actually the most common element in the universe.)

The Bussard Ramjet involves a space ship that doesn’t carry its fuel with it. Instead, it would use a charged ionic collector, several miles wide, and gather together the hydrogen necessary. As these are ions (in essence, loose protons as they have no electrons) a negative charge can thrust them inside. Using magnetic force, they can be merged into a fusion drive that is constantly self-replenishing. As a result, it’s possible to accelerate up to a point where thrust and drag forces even out, which some guess is around 80% of the speed of light.

(For those not up on their avionics, the original meaning of a “ramjet” is a jet engine that doesn’t use a turbine, which forces air inside and expels it. It only functions at speeds above 375 mph, which means some other means of travel is required to get to that velocity. Ramjets can always be identified as “pods” on the end of the wingtips of jet fighters. There are also turbo-scramjets, for supersonic combustion ramjets, which only operate at speeds above Mach 3.)

The biggest blow to the idea of the Bussard Ramjet came when it was discovered the interstellar medium was much thinner than suspected, with a lot less hydrogen. Second, it was demonstrated in 1985 that the output of a magnetic fusion reactor would require more energy than it produced by a factor of one billion!

So, what's the moral of the story?

Glad you asked, reader. A little earlier I was talking about how silly previous generations and their scientific predictions often were. In some ways, it's almost wrong to laugh, because the history of science technology are littered with the debris of ultimately unfeasable or limited technology that made engineers and science fiction writers go ga-ga. In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that nanotechnology is to today what atomic energy was to the 1950s and 1960s, and electricity was to the turn of the century: a “Snake Oil” that futurists predict will do just about anything, both a floor cleaner and a desert topping.

The end result of all this is science as a humbling endeavor.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

How to eat locusts

Bert Christensen's Weird & Different Recipes

Since I live entirely on a diet of hot tea, cottage cheese and tomato sandwiches and spinach, zucchini and tofu salads these days, these recipes may not apply to me. But they're worth checking out for their sheer weirdness.

My all time favorite recipe on the site has to be the locust bisque. I had a boyfriend once that swore by locusts. Apparently not only do they taste good, but they have more protein than beef. All you
really have to do is pull their legs off and dip the head in salt, and they can be eaten on their own.

Interestingly enough, according to the Torah, two species of locust are kosher and five are non-kosher!

A Primer on Centipedes and Millipedes

A while back, I talked about how there were no vertebrates on land for the first 400 million years of this planet's existence.

What was the first land animal?

Stay with me...

That's right, centipedes and millipedes! The family collectively known as "Myriapods." One fossil manylegged myriapod goes back 428 million years, which makes them the first creatures on land. I don't think myriapedes get enough credit for that sort of innovation.

I find these bugs incredibly fascinating. There's one species of South American millipede that produces an oil on its exoskeleton that keeps insects away. Capuchin monkeys love to grab these millipedes and rub them all over their faces as perfect tropical bug repellent. There's even one type with the ability to glow in the dark!

The body plan of millipedes and centipedes are truly alien and strange. For instance, each individual segment of their bodies not only has legs that it uses to move in a "wave" fashion, but also an identical set of internal organs. Each has spiracles, little holes through which each segment nearly breathes independently.

What's the difference between a centipede and a millipede, you may ask?

Centipedes are poisonous and carnivorous. Come to think of it, the largest species of South American giants are even able to catch bats! It's worth pointing out the only place in the history of the world where a human has ever died from a centipede bite was in a Fu Manchu novel.

Millipedes on the other hand, are a little more gentle and feed on decaying vegetation at the bottom of forest floors. Some species can even roll into a ball to protect themselves! Not to mention one kind that can actually shoot hydrogen cyanide gas...

One sure way to tell by sight if something is a centipede or a millipede: centipedes have two leg sets in each body segment. It's incredible how many legs one of these bugs can have, with the upper limit at 300. In fact, millipedes in general are defensive fighters, able to produce a terrible stink to get predators away.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Science Videos on Youtube: the Evolution of the Platypus

Check this video out, about what the duck-billed platypus can tell us about evolution:

And don't forget this music video about Tiktaalik, the missing link between fish and tetrapod life:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

If a god actually did make the universe recently, how would it be different?

One of the great misconceptions of anti-science creationists is the idea that evolution is only a “theory,” instead of a fact. Actually, in science, a theory has a status above even that of facts, in that they are frameworks that provide a way for us to interpret facts. In general, the theory of evolution is bedrock solid and able to do what any good theory can do: it is testable and can be used to make predictions, and has succeeded so often that, along with a variety of other theories, it is a part of our directly observable physical world, to the point where the study of life would be near-nonsensical without it.

But what if…(and this is just a thought exercise in the realm of science fiction) what if there actually was a divine hand that created the universe? How would the universe and life on earth be different?

If a divine being…and it can be anyone you like, really, take your pick: Zeus, Wotan, anyone…really did create the universe, anything could be possible. We could have mountain ranges made of ice cream, and 1 + 1 = 3. But let’s assume for the moment that it’s a universe very much like our own, only different in that life came into being as a result of supernatural forces instead of any gradual change over time. What could we expect to be different?

1. Unusual body components. In evolution, any feature has to develop from a previously existing one. Teeth, for instance, developed from specialized scales on jawless fishes. To this day, the scales on more “primitive” fish like sharks are made of enamel (and are called “denticles”). But in a world where Zeus made everything, anything goes! Why not feature butterflies with metallic wings? Metal in general isn’t used in the construction of any living thing, which is a shame as it would make great armor, especially a light material like aluminum.

2. Wheels! One feature that isn’t found (well, at least in multicellular organisms anyway) are wheels, which would be a handy means to get around. Why is it there aren’t any? If life evolved, then where would the blood vessels go, the nerves? How could something not attached to the body grow with an organism? But in a universe of created beings, a feature not attached to the body can develop. (Incidentally, in Philip Pullman’s the Amber Spyglass there was a great science fiction way around this).

3. Expect radically different vertebrate body plans. Even whales have hip bones. Small and vestigial ones, but they’re there. In a created universe, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect hexapod beings (creatures with six limbs). As land vertebrates emerged from the water at the same time, we all have a similar four limb body plan. As the crawly weirdness of the arthropods and other creatures show, there are definitely other ways the body structure can go.

4. Imagine a nearly dark sky.
There sure as heck wouldn’t be a Milky Way band. If the universe is created in less than 10,000 years old, the light from distant stars wouldn’t even have reached us yet.

Blood Clotting Makes a Better Spaceship

Just like flight borrowed its scientific principles from a bird's wings, science is now coming up with a "self-healing" spaceship that uses a technique like blood clotting to stop bleeding.

The spaceship hull has hundreds of microscopically tiny vessels containing either a resin or a chemical agent that causes the resin to harden. If it's punctured, both types mix and plug the hole.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Good Science Reading: “Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature”

“I have a crush on science.”

“Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature” is a book about Mena, a quiet, doormat of a girl that grew up in a near cultlike community centered around a charismatic, pentacostal, Evangelical church, who suddenly finds herself a pariah when she did the right thing and spoke out against cruelty to her gay friend. We’re talking a society where women don’t wear makeup, Mena isn’t allowed to read or watch Lord of the Rings because of the witchcraft (poor girl!), and her parents don’t like her to ever see either boys or Papist Catholics. No wonder she’s a doormat…in that sort of situation it’s much easier to not fight and just give up.

In the story, Mena rediscovers confidence thanks to Ms. Shepherd, the coolest Tina Fey-esque science teacher ever…and a cute nerd boy, funny and smart, that is one of the few novel characters other than Mr. Darcy that gives me palpitations. She falls in love with science, and the obvious enthusiasm about discovery of learning and the physical world is certainly thrilling. At some level, this book is a love letter to science and science teachers.

What’s more, Mena and the rest have to take a stand against a group of kids at her former church, whipped up against her science teacher by Mena’s sleazy and charismatic former preacher, when Ms. Shepherd starts to teach evolution. The book really goes deep into the psychology of anti-science evolutionists, especially kids: the love of feeling of belonging that a church can give, the way many of them are the exhibitionist type that go after hot issues for the attention.

The defense of science from anti-science forces is beside the point in many ways; if it was all there was, it would have come off as a shrill defense, something that everyone except creationists have read before.

Rather, the reason to read this book is for the main character. She grows and changes from the start to the end: at first she finds herself a pariah, but has to rebuild her entire worldview. She still believes in God, but is an enthusiastic convert to science and rationalism and is deeply troubled by the evangelical world she left behind. Evolution is an important metaphor in the book for Mena’s personal growth.

One thing that troubles me about this story, and perhaps this may qualify as a spoiler, is the insistence that the characters be religious, and the way that it insists constantly that it is possible to be a person of faith and a believer in science as well. This does not trouble me because I do not think it is true: it certainly is possible to be both a scientist and religious. There are many examples of this. It bothers me the same reason that, at political conventions, Republicans often place their minority members front and center. It’s done because they’ve got something to prove.

As a person without religious beliefs, it bugs me how in debates with creationists, scientists are always quick to de-emphasize the atheism and skepticism of many scientists about religion. Fully two-thirds of scientists are nonbelievers, atheists or agnostic. Many creationists think there is something malevolent about that, but the response to that attitude should be to say that nonbelievers have a right to their beliefs, as opposed to trotting out token Catholics like show dogs.

One attitude about the book I like is the contrast between the austere world of Mena’s family, where appearances in front of others is everything, to the homey, lived-in, and much more fun lives of the secular kids she befriends. One theme that often troubles me in fiction is the idea that “small-town” and rural people that arrive in big cities or the cosmopolitan, larger world and are consequently “corrupted.” In reality, I’ve found the opposite is true: rural people that arrive in cities lose their provinciality and attitudes and in general, often become better people.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

After Man: A Zoology of the Future

I've been on a history of life kick lately, rereading a ton of books like "The Long Road to Man" by Robert L. Lehrman, one of the best books ever written about human evolution.

And it means going back to what has to be my all time favorite, "After Man: A Zoology of the Future," a book that takes what is currently known about the laws of evolution and makes educated guesses about the flora and fauna of the future.

The book is painted and fully illustrated and describes the strange way life has evolved after human beings, with fully-accurate scientific speculations about the direction life might take, like penguins the size of whales with bahleen-strained beaks, or a swimming monkey with froglike legs and webbed feet and hands that grabs fish.

By far the weirdest speculation was the idea that, eventually a predator would emerge to claim the last mostly predator-free ecosystem, the treetops, where monkeys live happily and nature can slack off with useless mammals like the sloth.

The striger was a nightmare, a jungle cat with the body of a monkey. I love the idea of a treetop predator shocking the monkeys out of their aloof complacency. Take that, suckers!

If you find this in your library, don't hesitate to check it out...or buy it. It's the sort of book that you want close by to periodically reread.

Triumph of the Lazy

At the age of eight or nine, I used to watch science fiction reruns with my Dad on PBS, which is very important to me because it was something we used to have together, just like the New York Mets.

It was around age eight or nine I saw reruns of a Doctor Who serial on PBS, The Silurians. The basic premise of it was that an intelligent race evolved on earth before human beings, and thus have a moral right to the earth. It was another one of those stories that has a heroic scientist opposing a reactionary military that wants to eliminate an "alien" threat. So far, so good.

Supposedly, the intelligent race was named "The Silurians" because supposedly that was the time their civilization rose and evolved.

What a darn weird choice for a time to set the evolution of a land-dwelling intelligent race! The Silurian era lasted until 440 million years ago. The dominant life forms of this period were jawless lamprey-like fishes (true fishes only showed up near the end) and freaky sea scorpions. Leeches and coral reefs first showed up at this time, and there were. NO. Land. Animals!

When I first saw that serial at age eight, I had a few picture-heavy kids' science books about the history of life. Even from this information-lite, low-density medium, at age eight, I knew there were no land animals on earth at the time there was supposed to have been an intelligent, evolved race on earth.

This sounds like such a silly science-geek nitpick, but this error always bothered me because it was so unforgiveably lazy. In almost any encyclopedia, the first thing they say about the Silurian era is that reptiles and amphibians had to wait. Couldn't the guys that wrote this have cracked open even a kids' illustrated science book? Especially when they're writing a science fiction series?

I suppose what bugs me about this is not so much that they got a science error, which is understandable and actually par the course for science fiction TV. It's just the error showed such a type of incuriousness, one easily corrected with at least a minimal five second act of research.

To the blog readers, I guess this is my point: next time you have a question or want to know something, do me a favor and look it up. It can be in the library, or hell, even Wikipedia. This kind of intellectual incuriousness and laziness has to be fought.

Heck, I'm not going to get all high and mighty here: Wikipedia is a great tool if you want to know something fast and right now. If you need to go in depth, not so much. If I read an article in a science mag that mentions Bose-Einstein Condensates, and I'm not sure what that is, I can pop something in a search and get a brief answer.

To the producers of Dr. Who...guys - ask me!

I can think of a half-dozen possible places in earth's history where an intelligent life form could have evolved on this planet prior to human beings.

Take the latter part of the Permian era, for example, at the end of the Paleozoic. It's totally farfetched to expect large brains from jawless fishes or amphibians, but the Permian was the era of mammal-like reptiles that had physiologies that could feed and support large brains. Like Dimetrodon above, who lived millions of years before the dinosaurs and was actually more closely related to mammals than the dinosaurs' thecodont ancestors.

(Incidentally, to those silly creationists that insist there are no "transitional fossils," I have personally witnessed, with my own two eyes, two evolutionary biologists get into a fistfight over whether a fossil is of a mammal-like reptile or a reptile-like mammal!)

What's more, the Permian era had a big sexy mass extinction - the biggest in earth's history, in fact, one that made the end of the dinosaurs look like an underachiever in comparison. If any could have covered a lost civilization, it'd be that one.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Hey, Esperanto Grrl, what can I do with a degree in pure Mathematics?

The truth is, I went into Mathematics because I was good at it and I loved it. I especially loved the "pure" kind of mathematics, and to this day, I'm involved with GIMPS, the search for Marsenne prime numbers. And while prime numbers have applications today in modern cryptography, it's basically pure math. Likewise, topology (geometry on a non-flat plane) always intrigued me most of all.

But the truth is, as I've discovered, a Mathematics degree is a stepping stone to graduate school.

What I'm saying is, don't listen to the people that tell you an undergrad degree in Mathematics is useless. Good math skills are useful wherever you go. Who do you think designs IQ tests, eh? Psych PhDs with skills that are better than the average bear, that's who!

And if you've got a lower division mathematics degree, try going into physics or engineering. The problem with the mathematics used by those two groups is, their use of math is extremely heuristic. Math, to them, is almost magical, like a kind of voodoo. A math background gives you the ability to actually reason and work with numbers.

If you're in the process of getting your mathematics degree, try to concentrate on linear algebra, as it is at the heart of ordinary and partial differential equations. Don't forget numerical analysis and linear programming (as well as optimization theory) as that may be helpful to a computer-centered field.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Carl Sagan Sings!

A great musical tribute to a great scientist and great showman.

And they resisted the urge to use a gag around the "billions and billions" line, which technically he never really said.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Treatment of Indians in Pop Culture

One of the great little narratives programmed into our culture, showed over and over in our fiction and stories, is that youth and new ideas are superior to tradition, that tradition is the source of backwardness and oppression, and that change is an inevitability and usually for the best. Likewise, it is shown that seeking personal authenticity instead of letting one’s identity be defined by the place they came from or their tribe, is a positive act of independence and human growth.

There is one exception, of course: all of the above values are reversed in any given portrayal of Native American culture. In stories about Indian heroes, the elder that tells the kid to respect tradition is portrayed as absolutely right, wise and sympathetic, and the young modernist is portrayed as ignorant or willfully arrogant that has strayed from the path and is soon to learn the err of his ways.

With stories featuring protagonists of other ethnicities, our loyalties are with the young people trying to go their own way and be themselves. The Dad that tells his daughter to stop dressing “like a slut” and wear something more conservative is portrayed as an authoritarian prude and his devotion to traditionalism makes him both unsympathetic and a little silly.

This tendency to write Indian heroes with perversely inverted values was driven home in one particularly revolting episode of Gargoyles, “Heritage,” easily the worst episode of the entire series, and I include the godawful and near decanonized third season in this analysis as well.

In the episode, Natsilane is a young Indian that became a Harvard scientist and a scientific-minded modernist who returned to his tribe to discover that it is under a type of supernatural attack by Raven, a villain that only traditional techniques can handle. In one scene, he is portrayed as prideful, arrogantly disdainful of traditional ways and “closed-minded” when he sees an elder, his Grandmother use a traditional herbal potion as medicine.

Nowhere is it stated that the Natsilane might be, well, right. There is a lot of superstition in traditional beliefs and to object to them ought to be a heroic attitude instead of an arrogant one. It is true that there have been a lot of occasions where traditional medicine has taught the West a thing or two (for instance, Indians in South America ate yams for their contraceptive properties, and many modern birth control pills have a chemical derived from yams as their main ingredient) but in general the young doctor was absolutely and totally right: a sick person is better off under the care of a doctor as opposed to a tribal healer. Western medicine, based on in-depth analysis of the body, has been factually demonstrated as better than traditional care and cures.

Natsilane is suspicious of the supernatural causes for the tribe’s maladies, but he eventually comes around and adopts his tribe’s traditional beliefs and assumes his group’s expectations for him, and at the end charges into battle against the monsters with an Indian traditional headdress.

What’s more, the acquisition of a scientific education at a university as prestigious as Harvard, particularly by a member of America’s worst-off and poorest ethnic group, ought to make him a heroic person. In fact, he’s a goddamn role model! If I were a Native American I’d tell my kids to grow up to be this guy. But in “Heritage,” his education and profession are just a sign of how “lost” he is, how he turned his back on his heritage, and “change” (which he personifies) is something to be feared. It reminds me of many Chicanos that oppose studying hard in school because that would be “acting white.” His role as a scientist makes him a sell-out, if not an outright traitor.

This was why I hated that episode. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated that episode. Because it punished a character for being a rationalist. Because it privileged tradition over youth and new ideas. Because it denigrated reason and science to valorize the supernatural fairy-story view of reality.

This episode is, in a nutshell, why I just can’t stand fairy-and-dragon fantasy stories anymore. In reality, if a community thought it was attacked by supernatural forces like Raven, it would just be mass hysteria at work. But because the writers control the universe, the forces are very, very real and the guy that understandably points out there aren’t any supernatural forces to attack people is dead-wrong and delusional and comes to see the error of his ways. It reminds me of lots of racist novels where Arab immigrant communities are hotbeds of scheming terrorists and the multiculturalists that point out they’re mostly just ordinary immigrants that practice their religion in an ordinary way are delusional and misled and dead-wrong, at least when not outright villainous. This is only true because the writer makes it so in the story, which is a misuse of the power of the author.

Don’t even get me fucking started on Chakotay from Voyager.

FACT: Native American cultures change all the time. The entire way of life of the Plains Indians was defined by the horse and the gun, both of which were brought by European explorers. In fact, all cultures, not just Indian cultures, are constantly changing as a result of contact with other cultures. Salsa and tortilla chips are a favorite of every American mixer or garden party, and they’re from northern Mexico. To enjoy these at a barbecue doesn’t make one less American. Why then, would obtaining an education or learning science, medicine or mathematics then make Indians less Indian?

I do not in any way mean to demean the struggle of Native Americans, who I am very sympathetic towards as they have higher rates of poverty and drug addiction than even blacks. However, I find the current American fascination and valorization of the Indian to be incredibly patronizing and disingenuous. Americans only started to find the Indians heroic when they were beaten.

It reminds me of the equally insincere Scotchophilia of the English, as exemplified by Queen Victoria’s museum of Scottish culture. The English only started to love the Highlanders and their ways after Bonnie Prince Charlie died and Scottish aspirations of self-government were squashed forever and the highlands became a servile, “museum culture,” with tartars and step-dances for tourists and so forth.

American Indians do not have magical powers. Indian magic doesn’t work. If it did, the Ghost Dance would have made them immune to the white man’s bullets the way Chief Joseph promised…and perhaps my sense of humor will get a little too dark here for some people, but I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t get a tingle of glee when I imagine a few poor pious suckers finding this out the hard way. Whatever Indians have had to struggle against and overcome, they did it as ordinary human beings.

Welcome to Daughter of Hypatia!

Science geeks of the world, unite!

Welcome to my all-new science blog, "Daughter of Hypatia." You might know me best as the muscle growth erotic fiction author that runs Confessions of a Muscle Lovin' Femme.

Hypatia of Alexandria, as you probably already know, was the greatest scientist of her age, a mathematician and "natural philosopher." Among the great men of antiquity, Hypatia stood out as a great woman.

In the chapter of my Mathematics Honors Society, we were required to take a name from antiquity as our own. I wanted Hypatia, but that chapter already had a Hypatia, and I was, to put it mildly, miffed I couldn't have that name. Come to think of it, I remember looking at the slim, gooselike neck of that Asian girl and imagining how quick my fingers could squeeze around her throat.

Thankfully, Athena was available. (You wouldn't think so, but there weren't many women.)

The focus of this blog is on science, but also rationalism, arguably the greatest attribute of Western civilization and one of mankind's most wildly successful endeavors and means of understanding the universe. Part of being pro-reason means combating and debunking pseudoscience, too. After all, skepticism is a big part of science.