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.