free debate

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