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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

September 8, 2009

Iridescent Feathers... Fossil Feathers

The field of paleontology has a sister field in the art realms. Any picture or sculpture of a dinosaur (or other prehistoric creature) that you see was created by a paleoartist. They're the ones with the creative licence to guess what colors the dinosaurs might have been, among other physical characteristics. They use modern birds and the largest animals alive today to guess at what the dinosaurs might have looked like, but don't know specifically. New observations of fossilized feathers may give them, and anyone interested in paleontology, a better clue about what ancient birds, and perhaps even the dinosaurs, looked like.

There are quite a few species of birds alive today that have iridescent feathers. Think of a raven, for instance; in some light, it looks solid black. However, if the light strikes it correctly, it has a blue sheen. This color change is caused by the difference in the angle the bird is seen from. Oil slicks also have iridescence; that's what causes the rainbow colors on it.

Some fossil feathers have odd, microscopic structures on them. When they were first noticed, around 25 years ago, paleontologists thought they were bacteria, working the decompose the feathers before and during fossilization. The paleontologists and ornithologists re-evaluating these structures on a 40 million year old fossil discovered they were actually melanosomes, a protein that scatters light. These indicate that the feathers would have been iridescent.

The fact that they've been able to document this iridenscence is awesome. Perhaps even cooler, however, is that this insight might lead to being able to determine the actual colors of ancient birds and dinosaurs, or at least the ones with feathers. It's an exciting prospect. The color of dinosaurs has been a mystery bothering paleontologists since paleontology came into being.

Credit: Science Daily- Evidence of Iridescence in 40 Million-year-old Feather Fossil

September 7, 2009

Flat Earth Theory and Ways to Spot Pseudoscience

People will believe anything.  This is just the way the world is.  Some of these beliefs can be fun to look at and give us ways to spot the clever forms of nonsense.

Flat Earth "Theory" is a really interesting example of a pseudoscience, because obviously the proponents have jumped off the deep end.  Their arguments however, are very similar to many other brands of pseudosciences.  This makes it an excellent example of things you can look out for when you examine claims.

The first thing that should make you question any idea is when it requires the rewriting of all science textbooks.  If the Earth is flat, you need to come up with new explanations for gravity.  The usual explanation for this is that the Earth is accelerating at 9.8m/s2.  The problem with this is that as we moved faster and faster, you would need more and more energy to keep accelerating the earth (this is one of the effects of relativity).  Flat Earther's also believe the Earth to be 6000 years old.  A constant acceleration of 9.8m/s2 for 6000 years would mean that the Earth would now be traveling a significant fraction of the speed of light.

Another red flag for any idea is the necessity of a mass conspiracy.  For the Earth to be flat and not have it be common knowledge, you need to assume that every government in the world is working to keep it quiet.    You also have to include all astronauts, all of NASA, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, high altitude pilots, the list goes on.  When you have so many people involved in such a large conspiracy, you have to question why we don't have tons of whistle blowers.  This is usually explained away by saying that the government threatens people of pays them off.  That may work within a small group of people, but do you really think that with hundreds of thousands of people involved, not even a small number of them would be speaking out?

It is easy to laugh at someone who thinks that the Earth is flat.  We might call them a stupid or a kook, but we must be careful.  The idea that the earth is flat is ridiculous.  Very smart people can however, be brought to believe very stupid things.  Unless we make a concerted effort not to, it is easy to believe convincing rhetoric.  This is why we must ask for evidence before accepting a claim.  Skepticism is a tool that allows us to tell the difference between a flat earth and the wondrous claims of science.

September 5, 2009

Google and Unexplained Phenomena

Today, September 5th, Google put up a doodle on its homepage. This isn't particularly unusual, as Google puts up a doodle for most holidays, birthdays of important people, or other major event. But, today's doodle doesn't seem to have anything to do with an event. Instead, it simply shows an alien spacecraft stealing one of the Os. If you click it, it takes you to a search on unexplained phenomenon.

The September 5th Google Doodle

As to why this is the doodle for today, I have no idea. But there are lots of interesting, unexplained phenomena out there. And, along with all of these, are paranormal and pseudoscientific explanations. One of the top search results, from LiveScience, lists 10 of the top phenomena that science has yet to explain.
  • The connection between the between body and mind: this includes things like the placebo effect. Medical science is just uncovering some of these complex connections, but specific answers haven't been reached yet.
  • Psychic powers: There is no scientific evidence that psychic powers or ESP actually exist. It cannot be proved in controlled, experimental conditions. However, the idea of psychics is highly popular, for whatever reason. So, it is also considered an unexplained phenomenon, even though its very existence is unlikely.
  • Near-death experience and the afterlife: Individuals who have had near-death experiences often report some "light at the end of a tunnel" experience. This may suggest a mystic afterlife. However, this is impossible to prove scientifically. There is no way to die, conduct research on the afterlife, and then return to publish a scientific paper on it. Many skeptics suggest that this experience of the "other side" is simply hallucination caused by brain trauma.
  • UFOs: Technically, a UFO is simply an unidentified flying object. Typically, these get attributed to alien spacecraft. Further investigation normally reveals them to be much more mundane things: meteors, military aircraft, a thrown hubcap, etc. There are some objects that simply can't be identified, though. The probability that these are aliens visiting planet Earth, however, is extremely slim, as the universe is a gigantic place. (Carver has discussed the idea of UFO's before, here.)
  • Deja vu: This is that sneaking feeling that you've already done something before. For instance, you might be walking down the street in a state you've never been, and feel like it's very familiar, and that you've been there before, despite the fact that that's impossible. There are scientific explanations, suggesting why deja vu might be triggered. Psychology still hasn't shown why exactly it occurs, or the nature of these "memories" yet, though. It's still unexplained.
  • Ghosts: Shows such as "Ghost Hunters" on SyFy suggest the existence of spirits of the deceased. However, there isn't any scientific evidence proving the existence of these either. There are many individuals who consider themselves "ghost investigators," and try to definitively prove that ghosts are there. But, as I mentioned above in regards to the afterlife, there is no person who has died, come back to life, and published a scientific paper on the nature of death and beyond. So, ghosts are also an unexplained phenomenon, which science does not support.
  • Mysterious disappearences: Unfortunately, people often vanish, whether because they ran away, were kidnapped, or had some sort of accident. Sometimes, police work and forensic science can help to find them, or at least determine what happened. Other times, people vanish without a trace, like Amelia Earhart or the crew of the Marie Celeste. When there is no evidence and no leads, not even the best forensic scientist can find them.
  • Intuition: Also known as instinct, a gut feeling, or a "sixth sense", intuition is easy to observe. What is more difficult to explain is why these gut feelings are often correct. Psychologist speculate that we subconsciously pick up information and cues, and then can consciously apply them to a situation. How exactly this works, though, is undetermined.
  • Mythical creatures: Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and other mythical creatures are also unexplained. The likelihood of their existence is small, and the evidence proving they exist is not there. (See It's Nessie on Google Earth!) However, science cannot definitively prove a negative. These creatures might exist. Until we have strong evidence, however, these creatures are just a myth.
  • Strange sights and sounds: There are certain locations that people claim to hear unusual sounds, hallucinate, or see unusual activity, such as Area 51 or Taos, New Mexico. The Taos Hum is a common one. Visitors claim to hear a buzz in the area, which is supposedly very annoying. However, many residents do not hear it, and neither do some visitors. The sound is probably natural or psychological; however, its source is indeterminate.
With nearly all of these phenomena, there is simply not enough evidence to draw solid conclusions. I'll try to go more in depth with each of these, and other unexplained phenomena, in the future. They pose interesting questions, and can be areas of research in the future.

Thanks to Google for the inspiration, even though no one really understands why this doodle is there.

Bad Science: The Bandwagon Fallacy

Logical fallacies are types of arguments that are invalid.  Once you know the logical fallacies, you can recognize them in arguments constantly.  Knowing these can really help to decipher what is true and is what is pure baloney.

The first logical fallacy I wanted to do is a clear example of just how ridiculous these arguments can be.  The argument basically says lots of people agree with what I am saying, therefore I am right.  The number of people who agree with something has no bearing on whether or not it is true.  For thousands of years people believed the Earth was flat; that didn't make it true.

You hear this fallacy used in advertisements a lot.  They try to convince you that because other people use their product, it works.  Just think of how many times you have heard the line "the trend that is sweeping the nation."  This says nothing about the product being advertised except that it is widely used.  Don't believe in or use something just because it's popular. Look for the evidence.

September 4, 2009

Googling Extinctions

If I had to hazard a guess, most of you reading this right now have used Google. In fact, maybe you found us using Google. You've probably noticed as well that Google has a system for ranking the pages for a search. This algorithm is very useful for finding what you're looking for on the web. For ecologists, a very similar algorithm is now being used to rank food webs.

The idea behind the ecological Page Rank algorithm isn't all that different from the Internet one. Online, Google says a page is important if other important pages link to it. The ecologists put in a series of species (instead of websites), then use the equation to determine which species is most important to the ecosystem. It's a simple idea, but a very important one for deciding how to protect the natural environments.

Even better, this new application of a useful algorithm may trigger similar developments for network-related sciences: gene regulation, for instance, or protein interaction. Basically, any process that works on a "web" could make use of the Page Rank algorithm to determine the key elements. Who knew that the math behind Google would reach out beyond the realms of the Internet?

Credit: Science Daily- Web Page Ranking Algorithm Detects Critical Species in Ecosystems

September 1, 2009

Dynamic Earth: Volcanoes, Part 1

Volcanoes are one of the showiest geological processes. Any kid can show you their baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano, and explain the eruption with great excitement. In reality, though, volcanoes are a little more complicated... and a lot less amusing.

A volcano forms over a magma chamber deep in the Earth's crust. These magma chambers are connected the mantle, a molten layer of the planet, beneath the crust. Often, these pools of molten rock form along active zones of plate tectonics. The best example of this is the Ring of Fire. All along the Pacific Plate is a rim of active volcanoes that form as the plate is melting as it subducts beneath continental plates.

There are really several distinct kinds of volcanoes. The most well-known, of course, is the classic cone-shaped volcano, called a strato-volcano or a composite volcano. These are the majestic, towering peaks, rising as much as 10,000 feet into the air. They are made up of alternative layers of cooled lava, ash, and rocks thrown out of the volcano in an eruption. Mt. St. Helens was a strato-volcano, as is Mt. Fuji.

Shield volcanoes are also relatively common. Unlike the mountain-like strato-volcanoes, shield volcanoes form a broad dome, composed primarily of lava flows. Shield volcanoes are not particularly explosive, making them the easiest, and safest, to study. The Hawaiian Islands are shield volcanoes, as is Olympus Mons on Mars.

Another type of volcano is the cinder cone. These are simple, small volcanoes, composed mostly of lava ejected in an eruption. A cinder cone has formed in the middle of Crater Lake.

Finally, there are supervolcanoes: calderas. At first glance, it is hard to see a caldera. This is because they are gigantic, covering hundreds to thousands of square miles. They form when a massive magma chamber forms in the Earth's crust. Pressure builds in it, eventually buckling the crust above it. This collapses in on itself, ejecting lava and debris across as much as half a continent. The best example of a caldera is the Yellowstone supervolcano, which covers 1500 square miles. If it were to collapse, the resulting eruption would devastate the western United States and Canada, and have effects world-wide. It would be about 8000 times bigger than Mt. St. Helens. Fortunately, scientists are monitoring it closely, and believe that the Yellowstone caldera has reached an equilibrium point, and isn't likely to erupt in our lifetime.

In the next part, I'll discuss more about volcanic eruptions, and the impacts those have on the planet.

For more information of volcanoes, check out Windows to the Universe. For more on supervolcanoes, look at the Discovery Channel website.