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December 28, 2009

Skepticism and Climate Change

Recently there has been a lot of discussing regarding climate change within the skeptical community. Famous skeptic James Randi and science educator Johnny Ball, have both expressed their doubts as to the effect humans are having on climate change. The was a media storm as some embarrassing private e-mails between climate scientists were made public. This has raised several questions including what is the evidence for climate change and what is the role of skepticism in this issue.

Any issue that is highly politicized is hard to find good information on. We have discussed the issue of climate change a few times before on this blog (here and here) but I want to quickly review some of the science. There are several claims made with regard to climate change. The first is that the globe is, on average, warming. I think most people accept this fact. The debate is over the cause. The Earth is in a time period where we would expect to see temperatures rising naturally to a degree. The debate is over how much of the current warming trend is natural, and how much is caused by the human emissions of greenhouse gasses like CO2.

When we are dealing with an issue as complicated as climate change, we want to look at the scientific consensus. We don't want to look at the opinion of every scientist on the planet, but of those scientists who are doing work in relevant fields. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a group composed of thousands of scientists from countries around the world. They have said in their most recent publication, "Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG [greenhouse gas] concentrations." There is a growing amount of evidence that backs up this conclusion.

There is another debate on how we should react to climate change, but that is for a future post. My question here is what is the role of skepticism in regard to this evidence.

In science, opinions that go against the consensus play an important role. Grants will often go to people doing research that goes against the grain. I am glad that there are scientists that are working on finding problems with climate models and trying to poke holes in the other lines of evidence for climate change. This said, I think we have to remember this is a minority view.  Skepticism is about forming views based on the evidence. So far, the evidence points strongly towards a human contribution for climate change. I think that regardless of our personal viewpoints we need to respect that. I have no problem with people like James Randi expressing doubts about the human influences on the climate. I have said before skepticism is not a set of views, but a process for forming ones own views about the world. I do think though that to be responsible, leaders like Randi need to be clear that they are disagreeing with the scientific consensus. There are sill places for their doubt. We are still are developing climate models, and their are error bars for the evidence (see the image above). I don't find these arguments convincing, but others do and that's where the dialogue should be.

I personally find the evidence for the human influences on climate change overwhelming. I always welcome people to disagree with me, but please do so with evidence and logic. Recognize that the scientific community has overwhelmingly showed their support for this view. I think it is unfortunate that there are people who disagree with me based solely on its implications or for other political reasons. I have have talked with scientists on both sides of this issue, and I think that the most reasonable thing to do is respect the conclusion of the majority of working climate scientists.

December 18, 2009

A Glimpse of Lakes on Titan

Imagine a world so cold that temperatures like -270 Fahrenheit are not uncommon.Water acts more like rock, and a thick orange atmosphere looms overhead. Instead of water carving up the landscape, you have methane. This is Saturn's moon Titan.

This image is of sunlight bouncing of the lake Kraken Mare taken by the Cassini spacecraft. This lake of liquid methane is larger than the Caspian Sea here on Earth. Titan is a fascinating world because of how it compares to the Earth. “These results remind us how unique Titan is in the solar system,” said Ralf Jaumann, a visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team member on Cassini. “But they also show us that liquid has a universal power to shape geological surfaces in the same way, no matter what the liquid is.”

There has been building evidence for lakes on Titan even before Cassini arrived at Titan. This picture is a elegant piece of evidence confirming those weird lakes. “This one image communicates so much about Titan -- thick atmosphere, surface lakes and an otherworldliness,” said Bob Pappalardo, Cassini project scientist, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “It’s an unsettling combination of strangeness yet similarity to Earth. This picture is one of Cassini’s iconic images.”

Titan is one of the most exciting places in the solar system to explore. I think this just gives a taste of what awaits us.

For more information: Cassini Homepage
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/DLR

December 16, 2009

Mobile Home for an Octopus

Tool usage was once considered to be one of the key features separating us from other animals. However, recently we have discovered that most primates, some birds, and a few other mammals use tools as well. And now, for the first time, we have found an invertebrate using tools. The best way to describe this is simply to watch:

These octopi, Amphioctopus marginatus, are using the coconut shells are a protective home. Now, you might think that this is similar to what hermit crabs do. After all, they are also an invertebrate which uses discarded shells to protect themselves. However, a hermit crab's shell is more like a hat for us: just put it on and forget about it. The coconut shells of these octopi are much different. As you could see in the video above, the creatures hold the shells under their bodies and "run" along the sea floor. They also go through an elaborate process to put two coconut halves together, completely encasing themselves. Far more effort than simply putting on a shell and forgetting about it.

The adaptations that life on this planet have come up with are pretty incredible. We've just scratched the surface in learning about our fellow creatures on this planet. More research is certain to reveal even more amazing behaviors.

For more information, visit National Geographic.

December 15, 2009

Dinosaur Debate: What Killed the Dinosaurs?

Like the warm versus cold blooded debate, this argument has been around since the first dinosaurs were identified. It's pretty easy to tell when the dinosaurs went extinct: dinosaurs are found in rocks older that 65.5 million years, and are not found in rocks younger than 65.5 million years (with the exception, of course, of birds. But, for the purpose of this post, assume that dinosaurs are non-avian dinosaurs). But what killed them is a much more challenging question. There are several popular hypotheses, with varying scientific support, as to the cause of this mass extinction.

December 14, 2009

What is Science? (Using Unknowns to Prove a Point)

Carl Sagan famously said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." On the flip side, proponents of a nonscientific idea will sometimes invoke a lack of evidence as proof of something. Evidence is a tricky thing, and a lack of evidence can easily fool many people.

A absence of evidence is often cited in the debate regarding the existence of other life in the universe. We have never received signals from ET and, while there have been tantalizing hints of life on Mars, nothing has even come close to being confirmed. So with no evidence, are we forced to just admit that we are the only lifeforms in the universe? No, we have just begun to scratch the surface of looking for life beyond the Earth. Just because we don't have evidence yet doesn't mean we won't find it.

This idea can be taken too far. Just as we have a absence of evidence for life on other worlds, we also have a absence of evidence for unicorns. It is logically impossible to prove a negative (like unicorns don't exist) so are we forced to accept them as equal possibilites? In science, we can assess the plausibility of a claim. It is highly plausible that there is life outside the Earth that we have yet to find considering how little of the universe we have explored. We have however, explored a vast majority of the land mass of the Earth and have yet to find unicorns. While there is nothing intrinsically impossible about a horse evolving a horn, we just haven't found it in our explorations. So, while a absence of evidence may not be evidence of absence, we can still use current knowledge to judge the likelihood of different claims.

The other way people try to use the gaps in our knowledge is to prove claims. This is known as the argument from ignorance. In my experience, this is one of the most common logical fallacies. The basic argument goes because we don't understand X, Y is true. This is often invoked with quantum mechanics. People will make arguments to the effect that because we don't understand the quantum world, psychics really have powers. The same argument could have been used only a few centuries ago to say because we don't understand flight, humans can fly by flapping their arms. You can't use our lack of understanding to prove anything.

It is not hard to find people on the internet and in real life committing both forms of this flawed logic. Whenever you encounter a claim, make sure you ask yourself if they are using unknowns to make their arguments. Are they asserting someone is true because we don't understand something? When it comes down to it, a lack of evidence is evidence for nothing.

December 7, 2009

Ancient Practices in Modern Medicine

Whenever I debate people on unscientific medical practices like acupuncture or homeopathy, it seems that people will inevitably cite ancient wisdom as proof that it works. This is actually a logical fallacy, the appeal to age or tradition. Pointing out logical fallacies in informal debates, however, rarely helps (which is a topic for another post). Normally, people rationalize it by saying things like "Well, only the good cures stuck around." Unfortunately, in debates like this, I get branded as the one who thinks that the ancients couldn't get anything right. So, I want to set the record straight as to what the role of ancient wisdom is in science-based medicine.

In the ancient world, medicine was rudimentary at best. In many cases, you were better off receiving no medical intervention then if you went to a "doctor". Ideas for the cause of illness ranged from witches to unbalanced humors. "Cures" included everything from leaches to exorcism, and a little more recently, radioactive water. It is practices like this that I will speak out against, because they are not supported by evidence. However, we can't just say that all ancient cures are bunk.

Willow bark was a well-know pain reliever to ancient peoples. Willow bark was also quick to enter the scientific literature. As early as 1763, research was being done on the benefits of willow bark for fevers and pain relief. After observing its therapeutic effects, scientists found the active ingredient (salicylic acid) in the bark and isolated it. Now we know this as aspirin. Science did not ignore the effect of the natural cure (willow bark), but instead figured out how to refine its to make it even more safe and effective.

Science does not ignore ancient cures; in fact, it does the opposite. Particularly as it was getting its footing, science-based medicine has looked at traditional cures to see which ones work. Some like homeopathy and acupuncture have fallen by the wayside, while aspirin and the Indian Neti pot have be completely validated. We should look for plausibility and evidence for every medical intervention. Science doesn't assume that just because people still do it, it works. Neither should we.

Image Credit: Bruce Marlin

December 3, 2009

Massive Supernova reveals a Supermassive Star

Type II supernova are the result of a massive star running out of fuel at the end of its life. Normally what is leftover is a neutron star or black hole, the super compact remnant of the dead star. I had always assumed that as the mass of the star went up, you just got a more massive object leftover. Astronomers have found a star so massive that nothing remains after it dies.

Located in a nearby galaxy, this supernova lasted 50-100 times longer than its typical counterpart. "It was much brighter, and it was bright for a very long time," said researcher Paolo Mazzali of the Max-Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Germany. "We could observe this thing almost two years after it was discovered, where you normally don't see anything anymore." The star is estimated to have been 200 solar masses, the biggest star ever found. Astronomers were beginning to doubt that stars this massive could even exist.

This a wonderful example of observation confirming prediction. It was hypothesized that if these massive supernova existed, they would have a specific signature. This supernova matched that signature. Because this star was so massive it went supernova early. When smaller stars (but at still least 2 solar masses) would be fusing iron in their cores, this star created matter anti-matter pairs that set off a nuclear chain reaction. It is always exciting when astronomers discover a new type of object, especially when those objects involve a really big explosion.


November 27, 2009

Obama's New Science Initiative

On November 23rd President Obama made a really exciting speech. He has started a new program called "Educate to Innovate." The aim of this program is to improve science education across the country. This initiative was announced in front of a large audience including Sally Ride, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, and the Mythbusters Adam and Jamie.

This initiative is going to use private companies, more support of the STEM* Education Coalition, and additional programs to try and get students interested in science. This is a great move because it shows some motivation to try and improve our scientific standing in the world. Obama announced that there is going to be an annual science fair at the White house. What a great way to motivate kids to really try and exceed when they are coming up with their science fair projects.

I was really excited when the President said "It goes beyond the facts in a biology textbook or the questions on an algebra quiz. It's about the ability to understand our world: to harness and train that human capacity to solve problems and think critically, a set of skills that informs the decisions we make throughout our lives." YES

I hope we see a growing commitment to science and science education from both parties over the next decade. This is a great first step. Lets teach the our students not how to beat a test, but how to think critically about the world. In the words of the President "We're going to show young people how cool science can be."

*Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

November 16, 2009

Dinosaur Debate: Warm or Cold Blood?

Today, it's easy to tell if a creature is "cold-blooded" (ectothermic) or "warm-blooded" (endothermic). Reptiles, fish, and amphibians all slow down when the temperature is too cold. They do not produce their own body heat. That's why snakes coil up in the middle of the road: that's the warmest surface, and ideal to heat themselves up. Mammals and birds, on the other hand, are warm-blooded. They don't rely on their surroundings for body warmth; they stay at a warm, pretty constant temperature. Therefore, if you pet a dog, it's nice and warm.

But what about dinosaurs? Were they more reptilian, like the creatures they evolved from? Or were they more like their later descendants, the birds of today? This debate has been going on in the paleontology community for decades. A new study points towards the "warm-blooded" model, and the implications help change how we think of dinosaurs.

Obviously, today, we can watch animal behavior to determine if a creature is ectothermic or endothermic. We can also use morphology. Endothermic animals use more energy to move around than ectothermic creatures. The length of an organism's legs is directly related to this energy usage. Fossils give us this information beautifully. Thus, in the study, the hip heights of various dinosaur species were measured. The scientists also used some musculature reconstructions to help approximate the energy each creature would have used to walk. The results? Most, if not all, dinosaurs were most likely warm-blooded. In fact, this trait might have developed in the earliest dinosaurs, making it older than previously thought. It certainly presents a different view of the Mesozoic world.

The Cold-Blooded View
Take a trip back to the Jurassic. You end up in a fern-meadow, with a few trees scattered about. It's a cool morning, but the day will be warm. A herd of Diplodocus are lying in the sun, warming up. A lone Allosaurus is around near some trees. It is tearing hunks off of a dead juvenile Diplodocus. Based on the insects and decay, it's been dead for a while. While the carnivore looks impressive, it lumbers slowly, and is probably not intelligent enough to take down a even a juvenile. One of the more intelligent dinosaurs would have been little Compsognathus, which was only the size of a chicken. As you watch, it catches a dragonfly.

The Warm-Blooded View
Through the benefits of imagination, the scene blurs and changes. You're still in the same fern-meadow, on the same day. The behavior of the dinosaurs has changed radically, however. You find yourself between two very different hunts. The Compsognathus has climbed up onto a tree stump, and is intently watching a hole in the ground. A small lizard darts out. Before it gets more than a foot, however, the Compsognathus pounces on it, grabbing it in long-fingered hands. The lizards struggles feebly, before the dinosaur decapitates it.
Meanwhile, the Diplodocus herd has been walking through the meadow, whip-like tails drawing patterns in the air. A young one is limping near the outside of the herd. The Allosaurus is standing motionless in the shadow of a tree, watching it. Suddenly, it stumbles, and the creature springs to life. It springs out, along with two other Allosaurs, quickly biting on the the Diplodocus. One bites its neck, while another tears a chunk out of the already injured leg. The third guards, snapping at an adult to distract the herd from the little one. In a matter of minutes, the ambush is over. The juvenile is motionless, and the two Allosaurs are dragging it away, while the third retreats and rejoins the pack. The Diplodocus herd lets out some bellows, and reconfigures. All the young ones are now concentrated in the center, protected by adults. They will not be caught off-guard again.

As you can see, the warm-blooded idea of dinosaurs makes them far more intelligent (and possibly more interesting) creatures. It's been a controversial idea since it was first proposed by Robert Bakker in the early 1970's, however, and the debate is still going on today. It is evidence like this study which allows us to finally solve this question.

November 13, 2009

Water on the Moon!

In October, I wrote about how NASA was crashing LCROSS into the moon to see how much water was there. The data is in and the result is a massive YES. This is really exciting and has some intriguing implications. Water on the moon could be used by future astronauts as a source of oxygen, as well as drinking water. It also gives us a better idea as to how common water is in the solar system. "We're unlocking the mysteries of our nearest neighbor, and by extension the solar system. It turns out the moon harbors many secrets, and LCROSS has added a new layer to our understanding," said Michael Wargo, chief lunar scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

I was surprised that these results came out so soon, and NASA says there is more on the way. Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS project scientist and principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA, said, "The full understanding of the LCROSS data may take some time. The data is that rich. Along with the water in Cabeus, there are hints of other intriguing substances. The permanently shadowed regions of the moon are truly cold traps, collecting and preserving material over billions of years." A big round of applause to NASA for a job well done and getting this information out so fast.

For more information see the NASA article
Image Credit: NASA

November 12, 2009

Some Cool Astronomy Pareidolia

Pareidolia is our brains ability to see familiar images in random noise. This is what gives us the images of Jesus appearing in everything from grilled cheese to grease stains. I have always thought that pareidolia is also really fun. Astronomy is famous for its great imagery. As would be expected, some of the images have a familiar ring to them.

November 6, 2009

Dynamic Earth: Tsumanis

When I first introduced plate tectonics, it sounded like a relatively boring force. It's kind of cool that the Earth's surface is made up of gigantic slabs, which move around and collide. But these slabs move at the same rate that fingernails grow. Even with the huge mass of each plate, you wouldn't expect things moving at 5 cm a year to do much. However, as demonstrated by earthquakes and some types of volcanoes, the slow-moving plates can have pretty devastating effects. Along with these, there's a third type of natural disaster often associated with plate tectonics. And this one comes by sea.

Tsunamis, also called tidal waves (although this is a misnomer) are some of the most impressive natural disasters, second only to volcanoes. They are a gigantic wave of water that crashes onto land. The 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean was over 50 ft tall (15 m) in some areas. This, like most tsunamis, was caused by an earthquake. A tsunami is basically a series of enormous ripples, when a large amount of water is displaced. In the deep ocean, tsunami waves are very small, barely enough to rock a boat. It is when they get to land that they become devastating. The column of water drags along the ocean bottom, while the top part continues to move quickly. This speed difference causes the tsunami to reach devastating heights. The animation below shows how this works.

Like I mentioned above, tsunamis are caused by displacement. Underwater earthquakes are the primary cause of these. However, large landslides into the ocean can also cause tsunamis. This occurred in Lituya Bay Alaska, in 1958 causing one of the largest tsunamis ever recorded. Geologists and oceanographers also predict that the next mega-tsunami will occur if volcanic activity causes a landslide in the Canary Islands. A good portion of the island would collapse into the ocean, sending a tsunami wave towards the east coast of the United States. Between that, and the Yellowstone caldera, there is not a lot of the United States that will be secure from natural disasters. Fortunately, these gigantic events are rare, and can be monitored using seismographs and other devices, so there will should be plenty of warning before a giant tsunami, or some other mega-disaster occurs.

Sagan Day

Carl Sagan was one of the greatest science educators of the last few decades. He inspired many people, including myself, to explore through the world though the tools of science. November 9th would have been his 75th birthday. In honor of this, Broward College is hosting the first-ever "Sagan Day." I think this is a great idea. They have some excellent speakers lined up, including Phil Plait (The Bad Astronomer) and James Randi.

A similar event has been growing over the last few years as well, called "Darwin Day."  I think that events like these are great ways to spread enthusiasm about science. While this event is on November 7th, I will try to do something on the 9th (maybe some star gazing). Spread the word and maybe do a small gathering of your own.

November 5, 2009

The 123rd Skeptics' Circle

The 123rd Skeptics' Circle is here. A big thanks to Blue Genes for including us this time. If you haven't checked it out before, it is a great conglomeration of skeptical articles. One that caught my eye this time was over at Evolving Mind on common sense. Enjoy.

For more of the Skeptics' Circle, check out

October 30, 2009

Vampires, Werewolves, and Zombies: Oh My!

With Halloween approaching, I've heard a lot about various mythological creatures. Vampires, ghosts, werewolves, zombies, goblins, witches... you name it, someone's talking about it in relation to Halloween. At this point, I find it much easier to accept conversations about, say, survival plans for when the zombies attack than I do at any other point in the year. It's Halloween. People are using these old myths and superstitions to both amuse and scare themselves. There's often a lot of history behind these superstitions, and I'd like to share some of the more interesting ones with you.

October 29, 2009

A Smattering of Cool News from Space

Yesterday was big in the world of space sciences. Three stories particularly caught my eye.

More Great Images from the LRO

A few months back I wrote about the images the LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) took of the Apollo landers. Now they have done one better. When I show students the Moon through a telescope, they often ask if they will be able to see the flag on the moon.  Well, now we can!  To be able to see the flag on the moon is just incredible.  If you don't zoom in quite as much, you can see the where the regolith was disturbed as astronauts walked around. These images are about twice the resolution as the previous ones, and the improvement is spectacular.
Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

New Object Smashes Distance Record
Gamma ray bursts are the biggest explosions in the universe. Astronomers using radio telescopes at the Very Large Array (VLA)*, detected this new object which represents the death of one of the first generations of stars ever to form. At a distance of roughly 13 billion lightyears, this gamma ray burst occured just 680 million years after the big bang. Dale Frail from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory said, "This explosion provides an unprecedented look at an era when the universe was very young and also was undergoing drastic changes. The primal cosmic darkness was being pierced by the light of the first stars and the first galaxies were beginning to form. The star that exploded in this event was a member of one of these earliest generations of stars."
For more information, check out NARO.

Ares Launch Begins a New Age of Space Flight
Watching the test of NASA's new launch veicle, the Ares I-X, was spectacular. The excitement in that control room was so high, as they found a gap in the storms that were rolling over Kennedy Space Center. Test flight director Ed Mango said to his team just after the flight ended, "The only thing we were waiting for was weather, and that means all of you did fricking fantastic!" This is a great start to NASA's new manned spaceflight program. You can watch the launch on the NASA Site or on YouTube.

Special thanks to Universe Today for their coverage

*Yes, astronomers are very creative with telescope names.

October 28, 2009

Having Fun with Skepticism

I think that too often, skeptics are painted as this serious group that just go around denouncing other people's beliefs. I know that even I can come off that way sometimes. One of the reasons I actually like skepticism so much is because they have fun while maintaining rationality. This cartoon is an excellent example. One of the first things I learned about confronting people with these kinds of beliefs, is that they are quick to point out other people's superstitions as nonsense. Inspired by this I also wanted to point out some other comical cases of rationality.

The Onion is a great place to go if you want a laugh. Recently they posted this article "God Introduces New Bird." Targeted towards creationism, the article is a fun example of something that would actually prove creationism if it happened. Mark Crislip has a great article over on Science-Based Medicine taking the ideas of alterative medicine, and applying them to Alternative Flight.

If you are a video person, Dara O'Brian and Mitchell and Webb have both put together great videos that point out the absurdities of alternative medicine. They both do a good job of just taking what proponents of these therapies are saying, and looking at it critically. One of my personal favorites is Tim Minchin. His most famous skeptical work is probably Storm, but I think that Tony the Fish is my personal favorite.

The list goes on and on. Skepticism is fun and interesting. None of this can be really counted as evidence for anything, but I think, in some ways, this kind of material does more to change people's minds than any number of studies.  If you have a personal favorite in skeptical humor, feel free to post it in the comments.

October 26, 2009

Why Creationism is Not Science

Here in the U.S., there is a huge debate in school boards and courtrooms as to whether or not creationism/creation science/intelligent design (yes, they are all the same thing), should be taught in science class. Creationism is a ideology. It is based on a religious view that ignores new evidence. Science, on the other hand is a process by which evidence is evaluated and conclusions are held only as long as the evidence supports them. So, even at the most basic level, science and creationism are two completely separate ways of thinking about the world.

Science is taught in schools because it it a powerful tool in exploring the world. Again, let me stress that science is not a set of conclusions, but a process. Science does, however, recognize that some ideas are better than others at explaining the available data. For example, the germ theory of disease best explains how some illness is transfered between different people. In fact, there is so much data to support this theory that it is accepted as the scientific consensus. These are the ideas we teach in a science class, ideas well supported by evidence. By and large, I don't think anyone objects to teaching science in schools, except when it contradicts their own ideology.

Just to be clear, I am not going to address the creationist arguments like flood geology and irreducible complexity here. I think that has been done exceptionably well all over the Internet, including at (which is a site I highly recommend). I just want to explain why their ideas are not science.

First of all, falsifiability is a basic requirement of a scientific idea. I have written about this before, but to recap: for an idea to be scientifically legitimate, there has to be a way to prove it false. Religious ideas, like creationism, are designed so that no matter what is observed, belief can be maintained. This alone is enough reason why creationism, in any of its various forms, can not be considered a scientific idea.

Second, creationism is not a single belief. Creationists (although intelligent design proponents will sometimes leave this out) often argue that creationism should be taught side-by-side with evolution; giving both sides equal time. This assumes that there is one form of creationism, when in reality there are as many different forms of creationism as there are religions. This was comicality pointed out in a letter to the Kansas School Board of Education. This letter says that alternative views of creation should be taught, including the belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. This is what started the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, if you were wondering. If you want to teach creationism, you have to decide which one.

The reason I write this today is because of a recent article in the Telegraph. This article suggests that a more accurate translation of the Judeo-Christian bible reads "In the beginning, God separated the Heaven and the Earth," not "In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth." This brings up a huge point.  One of the major differences between science and religion is that science always adjusts to new evidence.  I would however, be shocked if die-hard creationists even give this new evidence a passing glance. Their beliefs are more important than the evidence that may contradict them, and this is justified through faith.

My goal is not to impose my beliefs on anyone else.  Science is a strict and rigorous process.  For any idea to pass as scientific, you have to build a scientifically valid hypothesis, and then come up with the evidence.  Creationists have tried to skip this step. They are trying to use pressure on school boards and lawsuits to push their way into the science class.  Science class is not for teaching ideologies. It is for exactly what the name implies: teaching science.

October 23, 2009

Happy Mole Day!

Happy Mole Day 2009!!!
So, unless you're familiar with a lot of chemistry, you're probably wondering what on earth I'm talking about. It's a "holiday," of sorts. October 23rd is recognized as mole day. This does not refer to the little furry animals, or to birthmarks. A mole is a unit of counting, like a dozen. In fact, you might say a mole is a chemist's dozen.

One mole of something is an Avogadro's number of individual parts. Avogadro's number is equal to 6.0221x1023. This is a huge number on a macroscopic scale. However, we don't typically use Avogadro's number to count things like cars or people. We use it to count the number of molecules in a sample. So, say you have... a tank of helium, to fill your Mole Day balloons. There's 5 pounds (approximately 2268 grams) of helium in the tank. So, how many moles of helium do we have? And how many molecules is that?

Well, the molar mass (number of grams in a mole) for helium is 4.00 g/mole. So, we have:

2268 g x 1 mole/4.00 g = 567 moles
567 moles x Na (this is the abbreviation for Avogadro's number) = 3.41x1026 molecules of helium
That's a very large number of molecules. Yet, we only have 5 pounds of the gas. Avogadro's number, and the mole, help scientists to work with molecules on a scale we can comprehend. We can fill balloons with 5 pounds of helium. If we had to collect each of 3.41x1026 molecules, we'd never finish filling even one. That's what makes the mole such an important concept.

And why today? Well... 1023, 10/23. There's no better day to celebrate the mole.

For more on Mole Day, you can look at the National Mole Day Foundation site.

October 20, 2009

A Slew of New Exoplanets

Scientists from the European Southern Observatory, (ESO) have just released the finding of 32 new exoplanets. These findings are just one piece in discovering just how common planets are. It seems like every time we find a new group of planets, we are forced to change what we think about how solar systems could form and the potential for life in the universe.

The astronomers found these new planets using the "wobble" method. As a planet orbits its parent star, the gravity from the planet tugs slightly on the star.  The result is that the planet and the star end up both orbiting their common gravitational center of mass. While the planet itself can be almost impossible to see, the wobble of the star is quite visible. This will even let you detect multiple planet systems. These stars, like our own Sun, are being pulled by the gravity of all their planets. This creates a complex motion within the star that can be dissected to infer where the planets are.

The really exciting thing about this discovery is not the method, but what they found. The team targeted low mass stars that had low metal content. Stars and their planets are formed out of the same disk of material.   So, if a star has only a small amount of metal, you would expect planets to be an unlikely treat. They showed this is not the case. “These observations have given astronomers a great insight into the diversity of planetary systems and help us understand how they can form,” said research team member Nuno Santos. Many of these planets were also found just on the border of or inside of the region around the star called the habitable zone. This is where a planet could potentially have water on its surface, and, so the thinking goes, potentially life. This opens up a whole new class of stars that could be incubating distant life forms.

24 of the planets found have masses less than 20 times that of the earth. This is incredibly exciting. This gets us even closer to finding truly earth-sized planets, in the right spot around their host star to have life. As we refine our planet finding techniques, I expect that we will find smaller and smaller planets until we reach that long sought-after point.  This study is exciting, because it does exactly what every good scientific study should. It has changed how we think about something we thought we understood and given us a exciting glimpse into what is to come.

October 19, 2009

Glymetrol, and the Dangers of Alt Med

I teach thousands of students a year. Many of those students have diabetes. Diabetes can be fatal if not properly controlled. Luckily, with modern medical advances, we can control diabetes. The students I see live good lives. A new supplement threatens their health and quality of life.

Diabetes is caused by problems with pancreas. Without a properly working pancreas, your body can't properly control your blood sugar levels. Let me say now that unregulated diabetes can be fatal. This is not something to mess around with. Some cases of diabetes can be controlled with changes in diet, and others require injections of insulin. With these careful measures, people affected by diabetes can live fairly normal lives; without them, they can die.

The other night, I was watching TV and saw an ad that is incredibly dangerous. The ad was for a supplement called Glymetrol. They are making a few simple claims: that it is safe and effective, and that you will receive the first bottle free. I want to review these clams, and try to make it clear why this ad frustrates me so much.

First, let's look at "safe and effective." Glymetrol is catching the wave of the natural medicine fad. One of the underlying fallacies throughout the advertisement of Glymetrol is the "all-natural" fallacy. The idea is that if it's natural, it's good for you, or at least better than processed items. This is just wrong, arsenic is natural too. Whether or not it's natural bears no relation to its safety or effectiveness. The bottom line on this note is that no one knows if Glymetrol works or not. It has not been tested clinically. There is some plausibility to some of the ingredients, but we need to remember we are dealing with a life-threatening disease. Because there is no clinical data, it could be helpful... or just as easily harmful. If you are going to be relying on anything to regulate your diabetes, it should be shown to work, and to work safely. "Safe and effective?" We have no idea.

The other really despicable part of this whole deal is who they are marketing it to. They say you get your first bottle free, and that it is part of a "market trial offer." When I was watching the commercial, I thought that market trial offer meant that it was part of a study. The fine print let me know otherwise. Unless you read those tiny letters at the bottom of the screen, you could easily be tricked into thinking that Glymetrol was being tested in a clinical trial. The first bottle is also not quite free. Again, the problem is in the fine print.
If you are enjoying the product and loving the results after 30 days, do nothing. Only then will your credit card be automatically billed 1 easy payment for the 2 bottles at just $49.99 PER bottle.
So after the thirty days you not only get charged for the first bottle, but for a second bottle as well. Bottom line, this is a complete scam.

I could go on and on about the other claims in their FAQ areas, and about similar products. For me this highlights the reason I am so against alternative medicine. They are asking people with a life-threatening disease to rely solely on them for treatment. Beyond that, they are making deceptive marketing claims to lure people into purchasing their product. Medicine needs to be shown to a reasonable extent that it is both effective and safe before it is sold to the general public. Just look back to radioactive water. I can't stand of thought of the diabetic kids I work with being without their insulin. I want them to be able to live healthy lives, and have the information they need to avoid scams like this.

For a more detailed breakdown I recommend this article.

October 16, 2009

Archaeopteryx Revisited

For years, Archaeopteryx has been considered the oldest bird on record. Because it is a transitionary fossil, several scientists have suggested that Archaeopteryx is a hoax. Astronomer Fred Hoyle, for instance, suggested in 1985, that the Archaeopteryx specimens are actually Compsognathus fossils with feather imprints carved in a thin layer of cement. Most of these arguments are ridiculous, and based off of a poor understanding of geology. The calls against the authenticity have never shaken Archaeopteryx's claim of earliest bird.

A new evaluation of the bones has, however. Since the first Archaeopteryx was discovered, there have been 10 more found, including a juvenile. Bone samples were taken from this fossil, and looked at on a microscopic level. Surprisingly, the bone structure did not match that of a fast-growing bird; instead, the bone was dense, and apparently took several years to grow, matching dinosaurs.

However, Archaeopteryx does have well-developed wings, something that only makes sense if this ancient creature could fly. So, the question is: Was Archaeopteryx a bird, or just a feathered, avian dinosaur? The team suggests that, because Archaeopteryx has a similar growth pattern to the dinosaurs it evolved from, that it is not actually a true bird. Despite this, it does still show the transition from dinosaurs to birds, and is a fascinating fossil.

Credit: Science Daily- Archaeopteryx Was Not Very Bird-Like: Inside the First Bird, Surprising Signs of a Dinosaur
Image Credit: Wyoming Dinosaur Center ; Science Daily

October 15, 2009

Climate Change: Science or Fiction? (Blog Action Day 2009)

Over the course of the Earth's history, climate has changed dramatically. Some periods are extremely warm; in the Eocene, around 55 million years ago, there was a period of time, known as the PETM, where average global temperature was around 7o C warmer than it is today (13.39o C). We are currently in an "icebox" time. These are relatively rare, and are defined as points in time where there is ice at the poles. Because of this, the Earth would naturally warm again. Virtually no scientist disputes this; there is a solid base of evidence.

The controversy about climate change comes not from whether or not it exists, however. It's more a question of how much of an impact humanity has had on it. I'd like to take a moment and address a few of the myths and facts about climate change.

Myth #1a: The current warming trend is entirely natural.

Well, no. CO2, a major greenhouse gas, is stored in fossil fuels: natural gas, oil, and coal. These fuels are compressed, ancient organic matter, which is full of CO2. Burning these fuels puts lots of CO2 into the atmosphere. CO2 traps heat energy and reflects it back at the planet. So, when we put carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we do contribute to the warming of the planet, especially when you consider the rate at which we add this gas to the atmosphere.

Myth #1b: The current warming trend is entirely man-made.
This is a popular converse to #1a. No, humans are not entirely responsible for climate change. The planet undergoes climate changes on a fairly regular cycle, and we are nearing a warm stretch anyway. The rate is what is different; the fact that the Earth is beginning to warm again is not.

Myth #2: Carbon Dioxide is the only greenhouse gas. So, if we can get rid of that, then the Earth will cool back down.
Nice try, but no. If we could remove all greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, we'd need to get rid of a lot more that just CO2. Methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2), and water vapor (H2O) are all greenhouse gases as well. In fact, water vapor has the strongest of these greenhouse gases. We could not possibly remove all the water from the air, and doing so would be far worse to life than climate change. The water cycle keeps water vapor from being too large of a problem, with respect to climate.
Also, simply removing greenhouse gases wouldn't fix the warming trend. There are other factors, such as the solar cycle and changes in Earth's orbit. Airborne particles and aerosols can also affect climate change.

Myth #3: Climate change would be great! It's way too cold where I live.
This one is especially tempting to those living in places like Minnesota, the Dakotas, or anywhere else where the average winter temperature is below 0. Unfortunately, it's not necessarily true. The term "global warming" is incredibly misleading in this respect. The Earth will not uniformly warm up by 5o C. Some areas will get warmer, sure. Others will get colder. The entire planet, land and sea surface, is warming, on average. This is not a promise of South Dakota becoming the new Arizona.

Myth #4: The Earth is warming faster each year, especially over the last decade.
Factually wrong. 2008 tied with 2001 for being the 8th warmest year on record. It's certainly still warmer than, say, 100 years ago. However, it's not exponential growth of the annual global temperature.

Myth #5: The weather's weird this year. It's global warming!
The weather is weird this year. But, no, it's not due to climate change. The unusual weather patterns this year (for instance, the repeated afternoon rainshowers early this summer in areas like Colorado) are due to the El Niño. It's an interesting weather phenomenon, but it a much shorter cycle than the climate cycle.
There is a hint of truth in this one, though. Weather patterns will change, causing drought, flooding, and other changes in weather globally.

Climate change is a complex issue. It's definitely science: it's occurring, and we can't stop it. We couldn't prevent it, no matter what we did. It's a natural process. However, we have had some impact on the speed that the warming trend has occurred. So far, it's not the fastest climate change: the PETM was a larger jump. in 10,000 years. We haven't had that long for this one yet, so it has yet to be seen if this is the fastest climate has changed. However, on the bright side: life didn't die out during the PETM. Instead, they flourished. The fact that we have polluted the air with so much carbon dioxide is problematic, but not as much as the other pollutants we've released. The Earth will survive and recover from any human impacts on climate change. A bigger question is how we humans will adapt and ride it out.

Thanks to Blog Action Day for posing the question about climate change, human impacts, and what action we need to take.

Graph credit: Paleomap Project
Credit for the annual temperature data to Science Daily.

October 12, 2009

Wikipedia's Evil Cousin, Conservapedia

I am in college, and this semester I am taking some online classes.  Like most teachers, my astronomy professor said that we could not use Wikipedia as a source in class assignments.  So, in a recent group project, one fellow student linked to a site that is about a million times worse: Conservapedia.  I had heard of Conservapedia before, but I had never visited the site.

The link my classmate posted was to the article about Europa, one of the most interesting moons in the Solar System. The first thing that made me cautious was the section titled "Problems for Uniformitarian Theories." Uniformitarian is the idea that natural process over long periods of time shape the universe as we see it today.  The most famous example of this is the Colorado River carving the Grand Canyon over hundreds of years.

Their argument is that Europa's young surface means that Europa is actually young, when its orbital character implies an old age.  To any astronomer, this argument is ridiculous. Europa is a old world (it was formed with the rest of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago) with a young surface because of the ice. We date surfaces based on the number of craters, more craters = older surface.  Europa's surface is constantly being reshaped by ice moving, cracking, and stretching.  This, over time, erases craters and viola, young surface.

The other atrocious bit was their section call "Speculation about Life."  My real problem with this was they make is sound like Richard C. Hoagland is the only person considering the idea that there is life on Europa.  The reality is that we have no idea whether or not there is life in the oceans of Europa, but there is reason to think life could exist.  And then there is the endorsement of Hoagland.  This is the face on Mars guy, whom I have written about before.  Not only is Hoagland not a real scientist, but there are other legitimate scientists who are looking into the plausibility of life on Europa.

Yes, any Wiki is going to have bad articles. The problem is that horrible information is the standard on Conservapedia.  If it at all disagrees with their political and ideological views, it won't make the final edit.  While they accuse "Darwinists" of censoring the scientific literature, they simply ignore any evidence that conflicts with their sacred cows.  Sometimes Wikipedia is wrong. Conservapedia is outright deceitful.

October 6, 2009

More Pond Scum Energy

Back in June, I discussed the potential of getting oil from algae. You can read that article here.

This is sort of a follow-up. While I haven't seen anything new about oil from algae, there is a new potential for gaining an alternative energy from algae. There's an enzyme in green algae that causes the organism to produce hydrogen. However, oxygen attacks this enzyme. Since oxygen is by-product of photosynthesis, it is often in high concentrations near the enzyme. Scientists have used complex electro-kinetic methods and X-ray spectroscopy to learn how oxygen attacks the enzyme, damaging it and shutting off the hydrogen production.

Initially, this sounds like bad news. After all, if the hydrogen production relies on an enzyme that oxygen destroys, but the algae is constantly producing oxygen, it seems unlikely that these algae could be useful as hydrogen factories. However, the team feels that this obstacle is not hard to overcome. Understanding how the oxygen attacks the enzyme allows them to look for more oxygen-resistance enzymes that produce oxygen. It also gives them some idea how to prevent oxygen from attacking the enzyme. While there is a lot more research that needs to go into this technique, it is a promising source of a major alternative energy. Algae has a lot of potential for meeting the needs of our technological world.

October 5, 2009

T. rex's Cousin

For paleontology right now, Asia is the place to be. A few days ago, I wrote about Raptorex, the miniature tyrannosaur. Now, not far away, in Mongolia, another tyrannosaur has been added to the family tree: Alioramus altai. Specimens of this creature that had been found previously were very poorly preserved, and it was difficult to tell if Alioramus was even a tyrannosaurid at all. The newest specimen is extremely well-preserved, shedding light on the nature of this dinosaur. It also throws another wrench into what we know about the tyrannosaurs.

Tyrannosaurus rex, and its close cousin Tabrosaurus, are known for enormous bulk. They look the part of the ferocious carnivore. Most striking are the gargantuan heads, with banana-sized, serrated teeth and a powerful bite. Alioramus has a very different body type. In fact, Stephen Bursette, a graduate student associated with the project, described it as being "like a ballerina," in comparison to other tyrannosaurs. It is half the size of Tabrosaurus, probably weighing only 810 pounds. Its skull is what truly sets it apart, however. Alioramus has a slender, gracile skull, with a long snout and eight horns. Horns have never been found on tyrannosaurs before, so this is a bizarre feature. Yet, looking at the brain case, Alioramus has all the hallmarks of a tyrannosaur: large air sacks, a great sense of smell, and a small inner ear.

One final feature that makes this discovery so interesting is that Alioramus was found in a quarry with a Tabrosaurus. Obviously, they must have shared some of their range. Perhaps Alioramus and Tabrosaurus had a similar relationship to that of lions and cheetahs today. Both are large cats, but they hunt in different ways and don't often interfere with each other.

The discovery of Alioramus completely changes what we know about tyrannosaurs. Between it and Raptorex, scientists are rethinking this branch of dinosaur entirely. T. rex and its relatives are interesting; there has been a lot of research done on them. Many paleontologists believed we even understood tyrannosaurs. These new discoveries go to show that nothing in science is absolutely determined; just when we think we know it all, something new pops up that makes us take another look.

Credit: Science Daily-Bizarre New Horned Tyrannosaur From Asia: Carnivorous But Smaller T. Rex Relative  'Like Ballerina'

Water Found on the Surface of the Moon; Is There More Underground?

Life has been more than a little crazy, so I haven't had much time to write recently. This coming Friday is going to be a historic day in our exploration of the moon.

Last week, scientists found water on the moon.  You read that right, water on the moon!  This is incredible.  The amount of water is really small, but they could only see what was on the surface.  Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA said "[this discovery] is truly astounding, and generating much excitement. But please keep in mind that even the driest deserts on the Earth have more water than is at the poles and the surfaces of the moon."  So now the question becomes 'What is under the lunar regolith?"

This coming Friday, at way too early in the morning, NASA will crash LCROSS into the Moon.  NASA is going to have live coverage on NASA TV as it crashes into the moon.  This is really exciting because scientists will be able to study the plume of material from the impact.  This will give us a glimpse of what is under that regolith.  LCROSS will impact near the south pole in a crater called Cabeus.  With a large telescope you should be able to see the plume.  This is a once in a lifetime event.  The impact itself will be taking place around 5:30 Mountain Time.  The results will be exciting. Who knows what we will find?

Image credit: ISRO/NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS/Brown Univ.

October 4, 2009

Introducing Ardi

Human evolution is one of the most interesting, and controversial, topics in paleontology and paleoanthropology. We've found specimens of many early homonids, primarily in Africa. One of the oldest of these was 'Lucy', a partial skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis. There were few, to no, remains of any hominids older than it.

That is, until the discovery of 'Ardi', an Ardipithecus ramidus, in modern Ethiopia. It is about 1 million years older than Australopithecus, and has an interesting mosaic of traits. Some are very "primitive:" an opposable big toe, for instance. Others are "derived," existing in later homonids. Curiously, it has many traits that are not in modern African apes. Thus, chimpanzees and gorillas have evolved significantly in the past 4.4 million years. This means they are also poor examples of what our common ancestor may have looked and acted like. Ardi brings us closer to that elusive creature, but is still not the branching points scientists are looking for. Nevertheless, Ardi is an exciting new addition to the hominid family tree. It brings some new insights, and, as with most new discoveries, a whole bunch of new questions. Only further discoveries will clear up the questions of human evolution.

Discovery Channel will be airing a special on Ardi and the importance of this discovery on October 11. Check their website for more information.

Credit: Science Daily- Before 'Lucy', There was 'Ardi': First Major Analysis of Early Hominid Published in Science.

October 3, 2009

Who Killed Sue?

The mystery of how Sue died has been 67 millions years in the making. Sue is a Tyrannosaurus rex, and currently lives at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, although it was initially discovered in South Dakota. It is the largest, most complete, and best preserved specimen ever discovered. Paleontologists have intricate detail on the fossil bones, including muscle scars and bone density. More interesting, however, are a series of small holes on the side of Sue's skull. Investigating these holes has helped paleontologists to learn about how this massive creature died.

One early guess about these holes is that another T. rex bit Sue here. It seems like a reasonable guess; the size and position of Tyrannosaur teeth about match up with the series of holes. Several scientists, including Ewan D.S. Wolff of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Steven W. Salisbury of the University of Queensland, Australia, felt there was something "off" about that explanation. If these holes, and similar lesions on other Tyrannosaur jaws, were bite marks, they should be more ragged, and the jaw would appear more crushed. Also, bite marks were rarely consistent between specimens; however, the holes in the T. rex jaws were very consistent. They turned to a more mundane explanation.

In modern raptors, there is a parasite that causes something called trichomonosis. It attacks the jaw of these raptors, leaving a pattern of lesions that is very similar to that on the Tyrannosaur jaws. The scientists now suspect that the trichomonosis parasite, or something similar, was passed within Tyrannosaurs (there is no evidence of the disease in other dinosaurs). These creatures were known to attack, and even cannabalize each other, so the parasite could spread easily.

In Sue, the infection was very severe to drill holes in the jaw. It would have also created a film across the back of the dinosaur's throat. This would have made it very difficult for Sue to eat. This parasite could have easily lead to Sue's death, by starvation.

Credit: Science Daily: Was the Mighty T. Rex 'Sue' Felled By A Lowly Parasite?
See the Field Museum site for more information about Sue.

October 1, 2009

A Sweet Energy Source

A few months ago, I wrote about the potential of "pee power." A little weird, but, hey. It's not like we need it for anything else.

Another odd energy source caught my eye recently. "Sugar + Weed Killer = Potential Clean Energy Source." I was intrigued. I knew sugar was an energy source for living creatures. We break down sugars all the time, and gain energy from them. That's part of why little kids start bouncing off the wall when you give them a chocolate bar. They metabolize the sugar really quickly, giving them a huge energy spike.

Scientists at Brigham Young University saw the potential of sugars as an energy source outside of living things. The question was how to take the electrons in the glucose (sugar) and transfer them to the electrode. Another household item ended up being the answer. A common herbicide acts as a catalyst for the reaction. Currently, the prototype fuel cell takes 7 of 24 available electrons from glucose. The team hope to refine the process, so that it becomes commercially attractive. It's already doing better than some hydrogen fuel cells, which use expensive platinum as a catalyst. Neither sugar or weed killer is expensive or hard to find. This is a promising, unique approach to creating a feasible carbohydrate-based fuel cell.

Credit: Science Daily- Sugar + Weed Killer = Potential Clean Energy Source 

September 26, 2009

Dino Feathers

Archaeopteryx is generally recognized as the first bird, despite some dinosaur-like features. When it was first discovered, many scientists did not accept it as proof that birds evolved from dinosaurs. It was a nice hypothesis, but there was little supporting evidence.

Since then, the body of evidence has grown quite a lot. In China, there are fossils of Velociraptors and other small theropods that have feathery imprints along the neck, skull, and arms. These feathers resemble pin feathers on a young bird, however; they are not fully developed feathers, like those you'd see on a bird.  Also, none of these feathers were much older that Archaeopteryx itself. This was a time paradox that needed resolution before paleontologists could definitely say that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

I said "was": the oldest feathers discovered to date were recently unearthed in China. In two separate locations, a species known as Anchiornis huxleyi was discovered. One of these specimens is incredibly well-preserved, showing detailed imprints of feathers all over its body. The way these feathers are structured shows that Anchiornis had 4 wings: two on the arms, two on the legs. And, the creature is over 150 million years old... 10 million years older than Archaeopteryx.

As paleontologist Michael Benton puts it, "Now these fantastic new discoveries by Professor Xu prove that [feathers arouse before Archaeopteryx appears in the fossil record] once and for all." It is an exciting, and fairly conclusive, piece of evidence, showing that birds truly are the dinosaurs among us.

Credit: BBC News-Dinosaurs had 'earliest feathers'
Archaeopteryx Image Credit: Wyoming Dinosaur Center

September 21, 2009

The Curious Case of the Cottingley Fairies

Sir Arthur Conan Dolye was without a doubt one of the great mystery writers. His famous detective, Sherlock Homes, had a sharp mind that was able to deduce the answer from a swarm of deception. Unfortunately, the mind that created one of the most famous detectives of all time could still be fooled by two little girls.

In July of 1917, two girls by the names of Elsie and Polly borrowed a camera and started taking pictures. By 1920, Doyle was asking them to take more of these amazing photos. The picture above is their first one. In total, there were five. At the time, spiritualists were accepting these as hard evidence that fairies are real. Doyle even wrote a book by the title "The Coming of the Fairies." Photographic experts came forward making various cases as to why the photographs could not have been faked. It was also argued that the two girls had no motivation for faking the photos. All of these things together lead the fairy photos to become very popular, but no more real.

This case is a great example of the many pieces of "evidence" that are often put forward for claims of the supernatural. First is the "Argument from Authority." Just because someone famous like Sir Conan Doyle agrees with a claim doesn't mean that it's right. Even the photographic experts were fooled. The simple reality of life is that no one is above being fooled. Just because a someone in a white lab coat says X is true, doesn't make it so.

They also accept the photographs and anecdotal reports as hard evidence. Photos can be faked in any number of ways. This is even more true now in the age of Photoshop than it was in the 1920's. Anecdotes are a good place to start a investigation, but are just too unreliable to base such extraordinary claims on.

In the end, the Cuttingly fairies were revealed to just be paper cutouts. It is so simple, and still it was dismissed as a possibility at the time. Before we accept fairies, maybe we should ask how even the researchers could have been fooled. Never underestimate how easy it is to trick even the experts.

September 18, 2009

Tiny T-Rex

Tyrannosaurus rex is possibly the most famous dinosaur of all time. It's a very impressive dinosaur. They could be as much as 50 feet long and 20 feet tall, weighing in at at least 5 tons. It sported a massive head, teeth the length of bananas (but much deadlier), lanky feet to run with, and two arms that seem puny compared to the rest of it. T. rex was one of the largest carnivores to ever walk this planet, and certainly seems to fit its name: "Tyrant Lizard King."

Millions of years before T. rex wandered the Earth, however, its "mini-me" was wandering China. Raptorex is very nearly a scale model of Tyrannosaurus rex, but it is 1/100th of the size. That makes Raptorex about the same weight as a human! It lived around 125 million years ago, and had all the Tyrannosaur halmarks: massive head, tiny arms, runner's feet, and a great sense of smell. According to Paul Sereno, from the University of Chicago, the scaleability of the tyrannosaurid body type is very impressive. Over the course of 90 million years, little Raptorex evolved and grew into a creature that dominated Asia and North America, until the end of the dinosaurs 65.5 million years ago.

September 17, 2009

Dynamic Earth: Volcanoes, Part 2

Volcanic eruptions are what make volcanoes exciting, and dangerous. There are a multitude of different types of eruptions, but I'll just cover some of the basic ones here. But before I can go into types, I should discuss why volcanoes erupt.

As I mentioned in Part 1, volcanoes form where molten rock from the mantle has bubbled up into the crust. This usually happens at subduction zones, but can occur elsewhere. For instance, the Hawaiian islands are located over a "hot spot" in the center of the Pacific Plate. There is a lot of pressure built up in these magma chambers, between the intense heat and the steam created by any water in the chamber. When this pressure reaches a critical point, the rock sealing the volcano breaks, causing an eruption.

There are a number of different types of volcanic eruptions, though they all occur this basic way. In no particular order, they are:
  • Hawaiian: This type of eruption occurs on relatively small cracks or at a main crater. They shoot jets of incandescent lava into the air. They are very impressive, but less dangerous than other types of eruptions.
  • Strombolian: This type of eruption, like the Hawaiian type, is very impressive. Clods of molten lava burst into the air, arcing down to the ground, where they run as fiery streams. These are less dangerous than other types of eruptions.
  • Phreatic: Also known as "steam-blast" eruptions. They occur when water and a magma chamber meet. The superheated water shoots out of the ground as steam, breaking off bits of rock and shooting them into the air. There is no lava involved in this type of eruption. These tend to be weak, though are occasionally quite explosive.
  • Peléan: Also known as Nuée Ardente or glowing cloud eruptions. These occur when a a plume of gas, dust, rock, and bits of molten lava shoot into the air, collapse back down, and roll down the side of the volcano in a fiery avalanche, known as a pyroclastic flow. These can be very devastating if they hit a populated area.
  • Vulcanian: In this types, a tall cloud of white ash and gas forms above the cone of the volcano. Little magma is released.
  • Vesuvian: This types of eruption is similar to the the Vulcanian types. A large amount of gas and ash is released, forming a massive, cauliflower shaped cloud. They can also have pyroclastic flows.
  • Plinian: These are the most powerful volcanic eruptions. They erupt violently, shooting gas, ash, and molten rock high into the air. The ash fallout can travel hundreds of miles from the volcano, and pyroclastic flows often occur as well.
As I mentioned earlier, there are also the eruptions of calderas (supervolcanoes), which do not fall into any of these categories. So far, there are no eye witness accounts of a caldera eruption, as one has not occured in human history. It would be similar to a plinian eruption, shooting debris, ash, and molten rock high into the atmosphere. It would be on a massive scale, though, easily 2500 times larger than the Mt. St. Helens eruption (also a plinian eruption). According to research, the last time the Yellowstone caldera erupted, it sent 600 cubic miles of material into the air, having world-wide effects. The ash in the atmosphere would temporarily cool global temperatures. Most of the Western United States would be severely impacted, and much of it totally destroyed. Fortunately, scientists believe that the Yellowstone caldera is currently at an equilibrium, and so probably will not go off in our lifetimes. Nevertheless, it is an area under constant monitor. For, while volcanic eruptions are spectacular, they are also deadly. There is still a lot to learn about their effects on life and on the Earth as a whole.

For more information on eruptions, visit Windows to the Universe, the USGS, and the Extreme Science/Extreme Earth webpage.

September 11, 2009

Radioactive Water- "The Cure of the Century"

In the beginning of the 1900's, scientists discovered radioactivity.  With this discovery, it was found that many natural hot water spas were radioactive.  Some people made the correlation of health spa to radioactivity and boom; you had the birth of a medical pseudoscience.  So, why did so many people buy into something that we now know to be so harmful?

In the 1920's and 30's, ads for radioactive water, as well as other radioactive products, were very similar.  The Radium Spa was an at-home radioactive water cooler. One of their advertising slogans was "Radium Spä Duplicates Nature's Process! The Radium-Spa is a Water Jar, permanently lined, with especially selected high grade radium ore. This ore imparts to any water placed therein, millions of tiny gaseous particles known as Radio-activity, in exactly the same manner as Nature does herself."  

Notice that the ad tries to use scientific sounding language to build credibility.  They also invoke the all-natural claim.  Another ad for the "Curie Re-Generator Jar" uses that same approach.  "The Curie RadioActive Re-Generator and Stone Water Filter is a Water Jar in which is placed your local drinking water. In  this jar is also placed a Radium Ore Disc  -  this Disc throws off light Rays thereby forming Niton Gas, making the water RadioActive, the same as the Great Health Springs.  Radioactive Water is a proven means to Health as millions can testify."  Notice the use of anecdotal evidence to try to bolster the claim.

At the time, little was known about radioactivity. The medical community, however, showed their opinion in the November issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), in review of one of these radioactive water dispensers (ad pictured above).  The articles states "As is commonly the case with latter-day pseudo-medicine having large financial resources behind it, the Revigator concern puts forward an hypothesis for which there is no foundation."  In the same article, the effectiveness of radioactive treatments is equated to that of a two dollar watch.

The advertising techniques for these quack cures are, unfortunately, all too familiar.  We look back on this, and it is easy to say that these people must have been really gullible.  Maybe so, but are we any less gullible now? There are many, very popular, alternative medicine practices and "cures" today that the medical community has spoken out against.  Science-based medicine works by sorting out what works from what doesn't.  Treatments that are unsupported by evidence, even if they are popular, can be very dangerous.  Radioactive water was popular until a wealthy spokesperson and celebrity, Eben Byers, died of radiation poisoning in 1932.  

For more on radioactive treatments see
and you can read the JAMA article at