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.