free debate

November 15, 2010

Free Software Tools for Astronomy

I have been in the astronomy education world for about a half decade now. In that time, I have found many very cool pieces of software that are great to explore on your own and teach with. So, if you have a few extra minutes, poke around, explore, have fun, and maybe learn something along the way.

Want to know what stars and planets are going to be above your head tonight? Stellarium will tell you that and more. With it you can also see what the sky was like a thousand years ago, or in Antarctica. This program will get you acquainted with the constellations and is really easy to use. I have used Stellarium to give students a idea of what to look for in the night sky, and I use it myself on a regular basis.

NASA released a new piece of software recently that, while still in beta, I have been thoroughly impressed with. Eyes on the Solar System is a absolutely spectacular tool for exploring planets, moons, and spacecraft. I was flying around the solar system within minutes of visiting the site. Its ease of use sets it apart from many other such tools, and the graphics are well done.

Third on my list is probably the best known. Google Earth is hugely popular, but one of its best kept secrets is its ability to take you off the planet it is named for. Google Sky lets you look up at constellations and see exquisite images from telescopes. Google Moon and Mars let you explore in much the same way you explore the Earth. To get to these features, press the button with the picture of Saturn on the tool bar and select the option you desire. This is great for showing anyone the wonders of another planet. Such a thing should be made available for every planet. Enjoy your travels.

The programs above I use and love. There are others, such as World Wide Telescope  and Celestia, that I have not been able to master and effectively use. I know other people who make these programs do wonderful things so they are worth your time. If you are interested, I recommend that you give them a try. I hope you more luck than I have had.

If you found this useful, let me know and I can do more similar posts in the future.

November 9, 2010

Sagan Day

Today is Sagan Day! While many of the celebrations took place this last weekend, today would have been Carl Sagan's 76th birthday. Carl Sagan has inspired me as well as many others to love science and use the lens it gives us to explore the world. This year I celebrate by watching a few episodes his famous television series, Cosmos. All I ask of each of you is to watch this short video clip. It is in my opinion on of the best essays ever written. No matter how many times I read and listen to it, I am struck. It is humbling and uplifting. I think it exemplifies the responsibility he saw us having not only to our planet, but also to each other.

"The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky" - Carl Sagan

On that note, Happy Sagan Day.

October 13, 2010

National Fossil Day!

The Thermopolis Archaeopteryx
One of the most amazing fossils ever found
Today marks the first annual National Fossil Day. Sponsored by the National Park Service and the American Geological Institute, this holiday of sorts is designed to promote the scientific and educational value of fossils. There's events going on nation-wide, sharing the wonder of fossils with the public and showing how they need to be protected and preserved, so that we can continue to learn from them and so that everyone can enjoy the wonder they create.

National Fossil Day is part of Earth Science Week, October 10-16. This year, the theme of Earth Science Week is Exploring Energy, a very important topic in today's world. A huge percentage of our energy comes from fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, and natural gas. These resources, just like any other fossil, took hundreds of millions of years to form, and will take hundreds of millions more to recharge. It's a sobering issue, that certainly needs attention.

So, take a look at Earth Science Week, National Fossil Day, and the USGS Energy Information. Go learn what a trilobite, a Tully Monster, a cycad, and a Protoceratops are. Visit your local natural history museum. And enjoy National Fossil Day!

October 7, 2010

Have Scientists Found a Second Earth?

Ever since we stared finding exoplanets (planets orbiting a start other than our sun) back in 1992, the hunt has been on to find a Earth-like planet. Of course, the planets we found first were not the small rocky worlds like our own, but massive gaseous Jupiter-sized objects that are very close to their stars, appropriately called hot Jupiters. Over time, we got better at the techniques and have become able to find smaller and smaller planets farther and farther from their host stars. Now, have we finally found that long sought-after 'second Earth'?

So our first question is simply, what did they find? To really understand this situation, you need to understand the star this planet is orbiting. This is not a medium-large yellow star like our sun, but a much smaller red dwarf. Red dwarfs have about 1/3 of the mass of the sun and a luminosity of about 1.3% of our sun. This means a planet has to be much closer to the star then the Earth to our Sun to have any chance for life to survive.

That brings us to the planet Gliese 581g (such a creative name). Because of the method used to discover this planet, we know it has a minimum mass of about three times that of Earth, and it is unlikely that it is much larger than that. It is also the right distance away from the star to be in what's called the "habitable zone". This is the zone where a planet could potentially have liquid water on its surface. So far, so good.

Now is when things get tricky. There is still much astronomers don't know when it comes to rocky planets, and planets in general for that matter. Gliese 581g is large enough to hold on to an atmosphere, but atmospheres are tricky things to understand. Atmospheres are also hugely important for life. Mars and Venus can both be said to be in the habitable zone of our Sun, but because of Venus's overabundant atmosphere, and Mars' lack thereof, they are both devoid of life. To make things more complicated, Gliese 581g is probably tidally locked with its host star. This means that one side of the planet is in perpetual day while the other side never sees the sun.

Science rarely, if ever, gives us cut-and-dry answers. Does Gliese 581 harbor life, or would life even have a chance there? We can't be sure. What makes this discovery truly exciting, though, is the speed at which it happened. We have only been finding exoplanets for less than two decades and, of that time, our technology has only become sensitive enough to find small planets much more recently. We have really only begun to survey our neighbor stars in the galaxy and already we have found a planet that is a decent candidate to support life. If this trend continues, there could be millions of such worlds in our own galaxy alone. Think of the prospects if even just a small percentage of those worlds ever developed life.

I think it's time to kick up the planet hunt one more notch.

October 6, 2010

The Census of Marine Life

Around 70% of Earth's surface is covered in water. On average, this water -the ocean- is about 14,000 ft (2.65 miles, 4.267 km) deep.(source) The ocean is also one of the least well-explored places on our planet. It's practically an alien world. Recently, numerous scientists, including marine biologists, oceanographers, geologists, and others, have been working to rectify this gap in our knowledge of the planet. One exciting new step they've taken is the new Census of Marine Life.

The scale of this project was fantastic: over 2700 scientists, from more than 80 different countries, publishing 2600 papers over the course of a decade, spending countless hours on field expeditions and lab analysis. The recently published Census shows an impressive scale of oceanic diversity: 120,000 species, from plankton to whales and everything in between, were observed through the course of this project. Multiple maps were created to show where different organisms live.

Still, as impressive and large scale as this census of the oceans is, it's far from comprehensive. On the maps of organism ranges, there are places that show where the sea has yet to be explored. Dr. Ian Poiner, chair of the Census Steering Committee, claims that there are still at least 3/4 of a million species in our oceans that remain undiscovered. This is just a start to understanding our fellow creatures beneath the waves. There's a lot yet to learn. Space may be the final frontier, but the ocean holds tantilizing opportunities for exploration as well.

For more information on the Marine Life Census, and to explore the OBIS (Ocean Biogeographic Information System) database, visit the Census of Marine Life.

Source: Science Daily: First Census of Marine Life shows ocean life is richer, more connected, more altered than expected

September 30, 2010

Dinosaur Discoveries

Dinosaurs are some of the most fascinating creatures to have ever lived. The past month has further reinforced this, with the discover of not one, but four, truly bizarre new species of dinosaur.

Horns galore
Related to Triceratops, the Kosmoceratops is a truly peculiar creature. It lived between 99 and 68 million years ago, on a land area known as Laramidia. Today, this land mass is the Western US, including Utah, where this dinosaur was discovered. Kosmoceratops takes the prize for most elaborate "horned face": it has a horn on its nose, a horn over each eye, and 10-12 additional horns along the frill. As cool as it looks, though, how much use would all these horns be? Dr. Scott Sampson, the lead researcher, suggests that the horns would have been too delicate and awkward for self-defense; instead, they may have been just for show, to attract a mate and intimidate the competition.

Giant Rhino?
Another ceratopsian, Utahceratops, was also found. It's larger than Kosmoceratops, and not nearly as ornate. It does, however, have a massive horn on its nose. According to one of the study's authors, it resembles a "giant rhino with a ridiculously oversized head."

The Hunchback of Cuenca
Imagine a camel. Now imagine a camel's hump on a 20-foot long carnivorous dinosaur, covered in protofeathers, hunting for small dinosaurs, mammals, and crocodiles. That's about what Concavenator corcovatus looks like. This weird dino lived in what's today central Spain. The researchers aren't sure what the hump was for. One idea is that it was used to store fat, like a camel's hump; another is that it was a display feature; a third is that it was used for temperature regulation. It also had quill-like feathers on its arms, perhaps another display feature.

The Stocky Dragon
Last, and least in size, is another European dinosaur, this one closely related to Velociraptor. Unlike Velociraptor, though, this Romanian cousin, Balaur bondoc, has two killer claws on each foot. It has stocky, fused legs and feet, and massive muscle attachment points. This "dragon" was likely built for strength over speed, and may have hunted creatures larger than itself.

These four new species of dinosaurs add greater diversity, and more questions, to the field of vertebrate paleontology. New discoveries of this sort are always exciting, and these are so bizarre, they just beg to be shared with the world.

Sources: BBC News- Fossils of New Species of Horned Dinos Found in Utah
National Geographic- Hunchback Dinosaur Found: Carnivorous 'Camel'
Science Daily- 'Stocky Dragon' dinosaur, relative of Velociraptor, terrorized Late Cretaceous Europe

September 18, 2010

Was Galileo Wrong? Moden Geocentricism

So, apparently while I was busy over the summer, the world did not abandon irrationality. Too bad. But the one upside is there is still something to write about. In some ways it is fitting that as I was skimming the web I found an idea I thought died centuries ago: geocentrism. I don't think I can paraphrase what they say without someone thinking that I made this up, so here is a quote straight from the horse's mouth.
The Idea

Galileo Was Wrong  is a detailed and comprehensive treatment of the scientific evidence supporting Geocentrism, the academic belief that the Earth is immobile in the center of the universe. Garnering scientific information from physics, astrophysics, astronomy and other sciences, Galileo Was Wrong shows that the debate between Galileo and the Catholic Church was much more than a difference of opinion about the interpretation of Scripture. 
Scientific evidence available to us within the last 100 years that was not available during Galileo's confrontation shows that the Church's position on the immobility of the Earth is not only scientifically supportable, but it is the most stable model of the universe and the one which best answers all the evidence we see in the cosmos.
I am not going to waste time debunking what they say. If you need proof that the Earth goes around the sun find a Foucault pendulum or look at the many spacecraft we have sent out into the solar system. If our understanding of the solar system was this seriously flawed, the beautiful pictures we have wouldn't exist.

This is a special brand of biblical literalism, but to be fair, this is fringe even for creationists. All their material makes it sound like they are supported by the Catholic Church, but I would be shocked if this were true. The reason I think this is worth noting and discussing is because, no matter how fringe they are, the way they promote themselves is the same as the more popular pseudoscientists. The website is covered with names of "scientists" that have PhD's. I also find it amusing how they claim to use science to reject an idea that (for all intensive purposes) no scientist is questioning even in the slightest. The implication is that they have the logic and evidence that has escaped the most brilliant thinkers of the last four centuries.

I recommend you not waste too much of your life dwelling on this nonsense but remember the wonderful and exciting discoveries that are being made every day. I hope to have more time to be writing articles again (which may or may not happen). So until my next rambling, remember this stuff is still out there. Science and reason still need to be openly discussed, critical thinking taught, and sometimes, nonsense ridiculed.

This article posted in honor of Jean Bernard Léon Foucault who's 191st birthday is today.

September 14, 2010

Applied Skepticism: Mice and Cheese

I spent a large part of my summer in Middle-Of-Nowhere, WY, at a paleontological dig. I was lucky enough to be able to stay at a decent trailer in town, near the dinosaur museum. The only major problem with it was a past history of mice. So, along with a cat, there were numerous mouse traps set up all over the house. They'd been baited with peanut butter, which seems perfectly natural. While I was discussing this with another volunteer, however, we both mentioned the idea of baiting the trap with cheese instead. After all, everyone knows mice like cheese, right?

In steps my critical thinking skills. It's "common knowledge" that mice are attracted to cheese. But, in the wild, there's no substance anything like cheese. Wild mice like seeds, nuts, and berries. Baby mice, like other mammals, would drink milk, but adult mice wouldn't have access to it. So, why would house mice eat cheese?

As it turns out, they don't. A study back in 2006, by Dr. David Holmes at Manchester Metropolitan University in England, showed that mice prefer foods with high carbohydrates, such as pasta, foods with high sugars, like chocolate, and grains and fruits that fit their natural diet. Cheese is too rich a food, tailored for human taste. Mice won't eat it unless given no other option.

Anecdotes confirm this. The volunteer I discussed this with had been baiting mouse traps for years. He'd often caught mice with peanut butter: the sugars and nutty taste are an ideal attractant to mice. He'd never once caught a mouse in a trap baited with cheese.

So, it turns out this "common knowledge" is yet another urban myth. It's been around for a very long time, but was certainly popularized by the cartoon Tom and Jerry. I'd thought nothing of the idea for years, but a bit of skepticism showed to me, once again, that you can't believe everything you see on TV.

Dr. Holmes discussed the study in a Scientific American podcast; you can listen to it or read the transcript here.

September 8, 2010

A Summer Review and Return from Break

This summer has turned out to be extremely busy, so we've been on hiatus here at Scientifica. As school gets back into session, we'll get back onto a regular posting schedule. There's no summer break for science news, though, so here's a quick review of stories from this summer.

  • Viruses Harnessed to Split Water: A neat application of solar energy, which uses viruses as the means to split water using sunlight. The hydrogren produced can be stored, and used as a clean energy source later on.
  • Earth Fossil Find May Lead to Martian Discoveries: New microfossils found in gypsum give astrobiologists a new place to look for evidence of life on Mars and other planets.
  • Mica Minerals Key to the Origins of Life: Another new idea on how life could have gotten started. Instead of a lightning spark or a geothermal soup, the thin, organized sheets of mica could have provided an ideal environment for the first living things to appear.
  • The Moon is Shrinking: Scarps and ridges on the Moon's surface are changing, suggesting that the Moon is shrinking as its interior cools off.
  • Oldest Material in the Solar System Found: A new test of a meteorite found in Morocco suggests that our Solar System may be as much as 2 million years older than previously thought.
  • 'Dry Water': This peculiar combination of silica and water could be used to contain harmful industrial byproducts and greenhouse gases, or to kick-start chemical reactions.
  • When Galaxies Collide- How the First Super-Massive Black Holes were Born: Computer models suggest that, within the first billion years after the Big Bang, young galaxies crashed into one another, and their central black holes merged into super-massive black holes.
  • New Solar System Discovered: It has at least 5 planets, all about the size of Neptunes, and possibly another 2, one similarly sized to Saturn, the other closer to Earth in scale. It's the biggest exoplanet system found to date.

These are just a few of the highlights from the past few months. There were a ton other fascinating discoveries, studies, innovations, and ideas that popped up, some of which I'll discuss in more detail in the next few weeks. For now, I hope you find these stories as interesting as I did.

July 19, 2010

Using Courts to Silence Science

John Adams famously said "Facts are stubborn things." In life and in science we sometimes get the answers we want, and sometimes we don't. When the facts don't go your way you only have a few options. Change your opinion, ignore them, or try to get rid of them. I'm sure we all have someone in our lives who is so stubborn they just won't change to new information. Our natural response as humans is usually to one of the latter two. Scientists strive to do the first even though it can be hard to give up a cherished idea. Personally, I like being right. This makes it hard to admit when I am wrong so I consciously work to override that gut reaction. Still there will always be those who refuse to accept those stubborn facts.

In 2008 Simon Singh wrote an article that said chiropractors were claiming to treat disease without the evidence to support those claims. In response the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) responded not by showing the evidence, not by responding with facts. Instead they tried to get rid of the facts by suing Simon for Libel. As the exposure of the trial grew it became more and more apparent that they did not have the evidence to back them at at one point they even advised chiropractors within their association to take claims off of their websites. It took almost before two years the BCA dropped the charges and only after Simon had spent over 200,000 Pounds (aprox. $307,500). The BCA couldn't change the facts, so they tried to get rid of them.

Now in the last month a similar series of events has begun here in the US. When I have questions or want information on quack or alternative medicine one of my first stops is It is an excellent resource for these issues with well written articles that cite the scientific evidence and explain its significance on lots of issues. On June 18th this year the owner of, Dr. Stephen Barrett, was sued by Doctor's Data also for libel. They neglected to tell Dr. Barrett where he mistaken in his articles but that he must take them all down. Doctor's Data can't change the facts, so they are trying to get rid of them.

Now I fully admit that in such a short article I am leaving out lots of the complexity in each of these cases. I also need to point out that many cases of libel are legitimate. That said, using libel to science your critics is dishonest, deceptive, and unscientific. This approach of using the courts is not just used by alt. med practitioners but also creationists and other groups who don't have the evidence to play by the rules of science. I find attempts to science the evidence and facts despicable. I think the best thing to do in these cases is grow awareness. The more people know this is going on and its risk to the public, the less  effective it might be as a strategy.  Dr. Stephen Barrett and Simon Singh have the resources in court but many who criticize quacks and cranks do not. "Facts are stubborn things," but they can be buried in the absence of a vigilant public.

July 16, 2010

Record Flight of the Solar Plane

The Zephyr taking to the air
A neat little follow-up: A little over a year ago, I ran across a story on a novel concept: a solar airplane. That version was a prototype for a manned version, that hopes to take flight across the Atlantic by 2012 and eventually around the world. A few days ago, I noticed that, while the solar plane of Bertrand Picard is still a ways out, there is another solar plane hoping to circuit the world.

Developed by the British research company QinetiQ, the Zephyr planes are already showing fantastic results. One prototype ran flew for a continuous 83 hours. The latest model has a 22.5 meter wingspan, state-of-the-art solar panels, and lithium-sulfur batteries that power its twin propellers. The batteries can keep it running night at night, and recharge during the day. It's light, it's efficient, and it's a plane that flies completely pollution free. The QinetiQ team is hoping to fly a Zephyr around the world by 2012, the same year that Picard's team hopes to fly a person across an ocean. We're still a very long way from solar panels replacing jet fuel, but this technology hints at a bright future for flying on alternative energy.

UPDATE (July 16): QinetiQ has announced today that the Zephyr has been up in the air over Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona continuously for over 168 hours, putting it at a full week. The goal is to keep it flying for another week, thus proving the plane can stay aloft indefinitely. This is an incredible achievement, and the applications for this kind of technology are unlimited: surveillance, communication, earth observation... It is truly a technological breakthrough, and a major win for solar and other alternative energies.

Source: BBC News: Zephyr solar plane set for record endurance flight
UPDATE: QinetiQ Zephyr UAV; QinetiQ website
BBC News- Zephyr solar plane flies 7 days non-stop

Thanks to Douglas Millard at QinetiQ's press office for the update.

July 5, 2010

The Jump to Multicellular

How life on this planet began is something I've discussed multiple times in the past, for instance here. This wasn't the only major milestone in the evolution of life as we know it, however. The step from unicellular creatures to multicellular ones is on par with the development of life itself, both in importance and in how little we understand it. Obviously, by the Cambrian explosion, life had made the jump from single-celled creatures to multicellular animals: this was about 550 million years ago. However, this was most certainly not the first time multicellular creatures appeared on the young planet Earth. A new discovery sets the date far back, to about 2.1 billion years ago.

The new species, found in Gabon
At a first glance, these new fossils don't seem that impressive. They look a bit like a squashed seashell; each is flat disc, around 5 inches long, with small slits and ridges along the edges. However, only a few other complex organisms, including Grypania spiralis, have been found at such an age (Grypania is about 2.0 billion years old). This new fossil demonstrates that Grypania was not as much of an exception as previously though. If other multicellular species existed around the 2 billion year old mark, then perhaps it wasn't so much a random accident as an evolutionary trend, arising from changing conditions on planet Earth. This is known as convergent evolution. In similar environments, filling a similar role in the ecosystem, two unrelated species may develop very similarly, as that is the ideal form to fill that role. Dolphins and sharks could be an example of this today.

For the first complex creatures, 2 billion years ago, the factor that seems to have changed is oxygen. A few million years prior (barely any time at all in geologic history), oxygen levels spiked. The development of photosynthesis proved highly successful, and the content of the atmosphere changed as single-celled, algae-like organisms began consuming carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. This in turn changed the temperature of the planet, the chemistry of the air and ocean, and created a lot of evolutionary pressure. In modern environments, when bacteria are under these sorts of stressors, they tend to clump together, communicating and sharing resources. Paleontologists suspect that something similar happened 2 billion years ago, to the point where the bacteria became so interdependent that they became a single organism, instead of many separate ones. If this is true, then they expect that more of these little disc-shaped creatures will be found in ancient rocks around the globe. It's certainly a viable explanation, and takes us one step closer to solving a great mystery in the evolution of life as we know it.

Source: Wired Science- 2-Billion-Year-Old Fossils May be Earliest Known Multicellular Life

June 21, 2010

Scientific Unknowns: Sailing Stones

On the border of California and Nevada is area of unexplained activity: the Sailing Stones of Death Valley. These are a truly peculiar phenomenon: photographs show that, every once in a while, huge boulders in the Racetrack Playa slide across the ground. No one has ever directly observed this movement. It's a strange phenomenon, which hasn't been observed anywhere else on the planet. Thus, it has been a source of speculation, both scientific and not.

Two of the "Sailing Stones"
On the science side, there seem to be a couple main hypotheses. The most prominent of these is that, during the night, freezing temperatures cause any water in the ground to freeze, forming a thin layer of ice between the boulders and the ground. Strong winds may then push the stones around, leaving shallow trenches and trails behind. Another idea is that, instead of ice, slick, clay-based mud may serve as the lubricant between rock and earth. In either case, it is suggested that, under rare conditions, the force of the wind is strong enough to set the stones in motion, and then continues to propel them hundreds of yards. Variations on this idea have existed since the 1950s, but no one has yet been able to observe the movement of the stones, making a solid call impossible.

An example of a 90o turn by a Sailing Stone
Because the "Sailing Stone" phenomenon is so unusual, and really peculiar, there are also those who believe it has a paranormal or supernatural explanation. After all, how could wind alone, even on a slick surface, move boulders in excess of 250 pounds over hundreds of feet, sometimes even turning at 90o+ angles? Some hint that there are "unseen hands" at work on the Racetrack Playa. Others hint at some connection to Roswell Area 51, the holy site of UFOers and other supernatural conspiracy theorists. A few even suggest that the stones are alive, and move themselves around the valley.

The Sailing Stones are a really bizarre phenomena, and an incredibly rare one. Without more data, it's hard to say what causes their strange behavior. Some scientists have suggested training cameras and other recording equipment on this peculiar valley, in an attempt to actually see what's going on. Until then, though, the moving rocks of Death Valley remain a mysterious curiosity, just another example of how weird and amazing our world can be.

Sources and More Information
The first three articles provide paranormal/supernatural speculation. The last three are scientific articles about the Sailing Stones and the Racetrack Playa.

June 19, 2010

Write a Blog for Yourself!

This is the one year anniversary of this blog. We made it a full year! Over the course of this year we published 181 posts, changed the site design at least three times, and learned a ton. This has been a really fun project that has become more than I would have ever hoped for it. So, my advice to everyone considering starting a blog is just do it, and do it for yourself.

One of my mottos in life is, "If you want to learn something, try to teach it." I have found few things truer then this simple statement. Teaching pushes you to really understand concepts. In order to explain a concept coherently, you often need to have a deeper understanding of the subject. Trying to teach something can reveal to yourself where there are gaps in your knowledge. By filling those gaps, you gain a more complete understanding of issues and subjects your interested in. That understanding is hugely rewarding and fulfilling.

The other reason I would recommend starting your own blog is to learn more about yourself. I have had a passion for astronomy for years now, but in writing I found something else.  I always found science exciting. I was interested in pseudoscience, fringe science, and the limits of science. One of my favorite types of articles to write quickly became about answering the question, What is Science? I loved the broadness and the intricacy of the topic. I wanted to share the methods of science with more people and in doing so found a interest in the philosophy of science. This was a field I was really unaware of before I started the blog and now I find myself studying it in my free time.

In this last year we have attracted 14,375 people to this blog. Our post on Glymetrol was a huge success and maybe, just maybe, deterred someone from taking it. To me, this is astounding. What started as a late night idea is now something I am really proud of. If you are thinking of starting a your own blog though, do it for yourself. You are probably never going to get a huge following of readers or a super high placement in search engines. By starting your own blog, however, you do two things. First is you put more good material out there on the web for someone to stumble upon. Maybe there will be a specific topic that you can become the top search result for. The more good, informative material is on the web, the better. Second, you can learn about yourself. Explore your interests and maybe find new ones. Write about what's exciting to you. If nothing else, do it for fun.

June 9, 2010

The Prestige and Dismissal of Science

Life has been really busy heading into summer. I love blogging but it simply eats up time. I'm not going to stop anytime soon and hopefully I can increase the amount of time I spend doing the research and writing. For now, here is a new article and plan to see more in the near future.

Scientific literacy in our society is a huge problem. Despite this, I think that science does entertain a level of prestige within our society. Science produces the goods from smartphones to modern computers. People can see this, even the anti-science community. This leads to some really interesting attitudes towards science from people who, for the most part, completely reject it.

The website may be one of the most anti-science sites I have come across. They claim their knowledge comes from the Vedic texts. These texts are most commonly associated with Hinduism; however, this people are not practicing any form of Hinduism I am familiar with. Their claims are extreme, ranging from denying evolution to saying that the Moon is farther from the Earth than the Sun. Their website states, "Of course the “scientists” put on a grand show and try to convince us they know everything about how the universe works. If you ask them any question they have an answer ready…... But when one closely analyses any field of science one finds nothing is really very “scientific” at all." That's about as anti-science as it gets, but then they will say things like this: "A large body of evidence is certainly there and it requires scientific study and the “Soul Theory” will enable this. Unless there are two separate entities, the body and the soul, out-of-body experiences would be impossible. But it seems they are not. This is compelling proof of the existence of the soul." So when the science supports their beliefs, they have no problem with it.

This inconsistency with regard to science is common on many pseudoscientific websites. Where science says their claims are improbable or flat out wrong, they ignore and fight it. On the flip side, when the science can be twisted to give them credibility, they will gladly accept it. This, maybe more then anything else, shows their dedication to their ideology over the evidence. They are trying to pick and choose the science they like, and get rid of the rest. Science just doesn't work that way This is a sloppy way of thinking. Still, it is surprisingly common. Whenever you are reading something, look to see if they are consistently respecting evidence. If not, why?

Science works. Few people would argue that and that's why science has the prestige it. Proponents of nonscientific ideas see that prestige and want to latch their idea to it. Science tests ideas against reality and is in that way bound to it. I think ideas based in reality better stand the test of time, then those ideas which are not.  Still, every generation has their superstitions whether they are new or morphed from previous generations. Science is a tool for discerning reality, from superstition.  Use it. Bask in the wonders it provides us. Just always be wary of when it may be misused.

May 27, 2010

News From the Martin Arctic

In this last week, there have been two news stories worth reporting from the North Pole of Mars.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
The Phoenix Mars Lander was a huge success. It was a small lander that was designed to find water ice at high latitudes on Mars. We originally lost contact with Phoenix in November of 2008. Phoenix was not built to survive the Martian winter, but some people were optimistic that it might have survived, possibly because of boosted optimism from the Mars rovers. Orbiters were listening as the ice receded form Mars northern latitudes. No signal was heard and now we know why.

The two pictures above show the extensive damage Phoenix took during the Martin winter. On the image from 2008 you can see both solar panels reflecting that blue color. In the image taken this year shows that one of the solar panels has completely broken off. This is probably from the buildup of dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) until the weight of it caused the solar panel to break. So while Phoenix may have done great science, it was not able to rise from the ice.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The other story has to do with the weird shape of Mars north pole. Looking at the picture on the left you can see the large spiral pattern. In the past planetary scientists had purposed many ideas including volcanism and glacial flows. Two new papers published in the journal Nature bring a strong new idea to the table: wind.

The details of the effect are a little technical for me to dive into here, but I did want to make some points about the research. I like to point out when scientists build models that make predictions and then either confirm or dispute their hypothesis with new evidence. In this case, they came up a model of what they thought a wind carved feature would look like. When the data came in, they found it matched their models. The scientists working this research also reported their results responsibly. They published in a peer-reviewed journal and didn't make any absolute statements. Jack Holt of The University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics said “We aren't saying they were carved by wind, rather that wind had a strong role in their formation and evolution.” I think these scientists did a great job and found a really cool result. This is science at its best.

*If you do want a more detailed breakdown of their work, I recommend Universe Today

May 24, 2010

Scientific Unknowns: Ball Lighting

Ball lighting is something I have wanted to write about now for a long time. I was first introduced to ball lightning in elementary school as just another form of lightning that moved across the ground. I never really questioned it until more recently, when I started to hear more about it. Ball lightning seems to be something that many people report seeing, but there is little in the way of physical evidence. Its a phenomena that lots of people accept without really knowing what it is, just as I did. So I decided to do some investigation on the subject.

My first questions in researching this were 'what is ball lightning?' and 'does it exist?' To my surprise, finding answers these two questions was no simple task. The is a compilation of anecdotal stories of ball lightning on the Internet. As I read these, one thing became very clear: "ball lightning" is not one thing. The stories vary wildly for each person. Some of the stories are clearly astronomical objects like Venus and bright meteors. Other stories sound like they could have other plausible ordinary explanations as well. If we dismiss these stories, we are still left with some interesting accounts.

Of those accounts I couldn't immediately explain, there were few common threads. Some people saw a blue orb and others saw a red or orange orb. Many of the stories did take place during a lightning storm or there was some other source of electricity in the immediate area. Some people saw it hovering above the ground, others near the celling, and other reports say it was following a fence or wall. Sometimes it just disappeared peacefully and other times it crashed into objects and people, causing varying amounts of damage. Some common factors in all these stories seem to be that "ball lightning" is roughly a sphere in shape and it doesn't appear to have direct contact with object without disappearing. One thing that bothers me about these reports is that the vast majority of them are based on people's memories from usually over 10 or 20 years ago.

So what do I make of these reports? It's hard for me to say there's nothing at all going on here, but if there is, it is a very rare effect. Even if ball lightning does exist, it is very overblown. Our memories as humans degrade over time, so I am very wary of these older reports. Some reports were even second or third hand. The worst of them just assumed ball lightning as the cause of some electrical explosion. So I wasn't convinced ball lightning exists, but next I wanted to see if there was any plausible explanation to explain some of these stories.

There are some interesting explanations for how ball lightning might form. Explanations vary, but all of them tend to be really technical. Some involve complex ways of refracting light and others purpose floating balls of plasma. Another idea is that nano-particles kicked up by normal lightning strikes can hover and burn for a few seconds after a strike. None of the hypothesizes I found explain the diversity of ball lightning experiences. A new idea even suggested that ball lightning is a hallucination caused by electromagnetic fields interacting with the brain. I think that this is one of the main reasons none of them have become well accepted by the scientific community.

So what's the final word on ball lighting? Personally, I'm not convinced that ball lightning is a actual phenomena. Before we start a serious investigation of anything, we need to make sure there's something to investigate. Some cool science has been done on the subject, but not enough to prove anything conclusively. I attribute ball lightning to mistaken sightings of astronomical objects, known but rare atmospheric phenomena, old distorted memories, and hallucinations. Culture gives all this the name ball lightning.

May 20, 2010

The Chemistry of Fossils

Most of the fossil evidence paleontologists analyze is what they can see. This is why so many of the fossil specimens are bones, shells, and other hard tissue: it's not as easy to decompose, so it preserves well in the fossilization process. However, soft tissue does sometimes preserve. Fossil feathers are a good example of this. The Burgess Shale fossils are another example. At a first look, these soft tissue fossils look like imprints on the rock. A new analysis technique reveals this isn't true, though. In exceptional soft tissue fossils, the imprint is also chemical.

The Thermopolis Archaeopteryx
Normal Color

The Thermopolis Archaeopteryx
False Color under Synchrotron

Using the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, a team of paleontologists shot a focused beam of high-intensity X-rays at the Thermopolis Archaeopteryx specimen. Similar sorts of experiments had been run before: CT scans and low-intensity x-rays, for instance. However, these were not ideal to triggering and detecting the fluorescence of the chemicals in the fossils. The Sychrotron was. It efficiently formed a detailed scan of the fossil, and revealing an incredible secret of the fossil. At least a half-dozen different chemicals were found that aren't native to the rock or some fluke of the preservation process. These are trace elements from the animal itself! Of these elements, the most important of the findings was the high concentration of phosphorous in the feather imprints. Modern birds have a high phosphorous concentration in their feathers as well. This adds yet another thread to the tapestry of evidence tying birds and dinosaurs together. Original zinc and copper was found in the bones as well.

Close-up of the Archeopteryx
Color Scheme: Green- zinc;
Red- calcium; Blue- Manganese
So far, the synchrotron analysis technique has only been applied to the Thermopolis Archaeopteryx. Given the exciting results, though, I expect that other well-preserved fossils, such as the ones I mentioned earlier from the Burgess Shale, or even dinosaur skin impressions, could be analyzed this way. The chemical signature gives clues to evolutionary tracks, and may eventually help in determining other characteristics, like color, for creatures that haven't walked this planet for millions of years.

Source: Science News- Archaeopteryx Fossil Seen in New Light
Science Daily- X-rays Reveal Chemical Link Between Birds and Dinosaurs

Thanks to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center for the heads-up about this finding.

May 19, 2010

The Language of Science: Part III

The language of science is designed to clearly convey ideas so that other scientists and the scientifically literate can understand them. I wish I could also say it is helpful in conveying scientific ideas to the public, but unfortunately that simply is not the case. Often times using scientific jargon will only confuse your audience. This creates two problems. First, it makes it much more challenging to educate people about science. This is a serous problem, but another problem that I think is even worse many times is the hijacking of scientific language. This misuse of scientific terminology is often referred to as "technobabble." This video below is one of the most famous pieces of technobabble on the web.

So, what's wrong with this explanation? She references creditable scientists and uses scientific formulas we are all familiar with. If you have much of any background in science, I'm sure you noticed the misuse of all these scientific terms; however, if you aren't, they can be more difficult to spot. I wanted to use this video not to prove that Dr. Werner is wrong, but to show how scientific terms can be completely taken out of context and misused. She tries to manipulate theoretical physics using very vague ideas. She talks as though she is trying to explain some scientific subject, but she is missing the scientific subject to explain.

Science does sometimes make bold claims, but only when the evidence is there to support it. If you hear someone making a bold claim that they claim is back up by science, ask for the evidence. There should at least be other researchers in relevant fields also supporting the claim. There is no perfect formula for avoiding technobabble, but it is something that we should be aware of. The better you understand basic science the easier it is to pick out when it is being misused. So try to educate yourself and those around you. Try finding other examples of technobabble in TV shows and pop culture. This is a really fun way to educate yourself and will help you detect when people are trying to sell you something that just isn't there.

May 3, 2010

Have Astronomers Found the Infamous Intermediate Black Holes?

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/UA/J.
Irwin et al. Optical: NASA/STScI
When a large star several times the size of our sun explodes as a supernova, it can create a stellar mass black hole with about the same mass as that star. At the center of galaxies, we find strong evidence for supermassive black holes that are millions or billions of times the mass as our own sun. The theory has been that stellar mass black holes may merge together over time to create the supermassive black holes, but there's one problem. If this theory is correct, shouldn't there be lots of intermediate sized black holes wandering around? So the hunt has been on and now a team of astronomers think they may have found some.

First a little more background. X-ray light is produced by high energy processes. Stars can produce some X-rays, supernova can produce large bursts of X-rays, and supermassive black holes can be some of the brightest objects in the X-ray spectrum. This is because they can form a disk of material that backs up on its way into the black hole, like water backing up on its way down a drain pipe. The particles in that disk of material, called an accretion disk, start bumping into each other creating heat and X-rays (as well as other forms of radiation). ULX stands for Ultraluminous X-ray source. A ULX puts of X-rays in amounts between what we see from stars and what we see from supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies.

What causes these ULX is a mystery. It would be easy to assume that they are the long searched for intermediate black holes, but to make that assumption without other evidence would be an argument from ignorance. So some researchers have been looking for the smoking gun that will connect intermediate black holes to these ULX. Now a team says that they have evidence of a intermediate black hole creating a ULX by tidally shredding an old star.

The team took a spectrum of this ULX that was located in a globular cluster, a very old dense collection of stars on the edge of the galaxy. The elements they observed in the spectrum were unusual for globular clusters. Large amounts of oxygen and nitrogen were detected, but a serious lack of hydrogen. "We think these unusual signatures can be explained by a white dwarf that strayed too close to a black hole and was torn apart by the extreme tidal forces," said coauthor Joel Bregman of the University of Michigan. A white dwarf is a star around the same mass as our sun at the end of its life. That would explain the large amounts of oxygen and go a long way in explaining the lack of hydrogen. The presence of nitrogen still remains a mystery.

So is this the smocking gun evidence that astrophysicists have been looking for? I would say not yet. This is very suggestive and needs further study. If the researchers are correct then this object should begin to fade over time as the star is consumed. If the astronomers are correct they have found what is almost certainly a very rare object. I still want to know where all this nitrogen is coming from. This is an extremely exciting result for one or our greatest questions in astrophysics, but I don't think we should close the book on this one quite yet.

For more information I recommend the NASA page

April 29, 2010

Algal Oil

Way back last June, I discovered an article suggesting that certain types of algae might be useful as an alternate source of oil. I wrote it up, here, and mentioned I hoped to see how it panned out. Most of these "breakthroughs" fade away after an initial media burst, however, so I rather expected this story to die out as well.

A species of microalgae:
Haematococcus pluvialis
Instead, however, a research team at the University of Michigan is further investigating the idea, and has exciting preliminary results. They've discovered that pressure-cooking the algae could be a way to make crude oil in minutes, rather than millenia. According to Philip Savage, the principle investigator on the project, the process isn't terribly complicated. "We make an algae soup. We heat it to about 300 degrees and keep the water at high enough pressure to keep it liquid as opposed to steam. We cook it for 30 minutes to an hour and we get a crude bio-oil." With the type of primitive algae the team is using, this is enough to break down the plants and release natural oil, carbohydrates, and proteins.

Now, the method is far from perfect. The oil produced can't just be pumped into an automobile; it has to be refined and processed significantly first. It looks more like tar than gasoline when it comes out of the pressure-cooker. And it is still gasoline; there are lots of pollutants released by burning any oil, whether it came out of the ground or is recently squished algae. But there are a lot of advantages to the system.
An Algae Farm
First off, using biofuels is much more sustainable than using fossil fuels. We can always grow more algae; we can't magically continue to drill 70 million barrels of crude oil out of the ground every day. Second, it is somewhat better for the environment. Using algal biofuels is carbon-neutral. During their lives, the algae consume some amount of CO2, which is released again when the oil is burned. Technically, this is true for fossil fuels as well, but the CO2 they release has been in storage for millions of years, so the amount in the atmosphere increases. Biofuels are also much easier to clean up; chemical and biological processes can be used to take sulphur and nitrogen out.
This particular method is also a breakthrough among its competitors. It is a much more efficient method. Conventionally, to create an algal biofuel, one has to take a very oily algae, dry it out, and then extract the oil. It's a time-consuming, low-yield process, which makes it expensive and not likely to compete with drilling. The pressure-cooker method, however, is faster, has a higher yield, and produces much less waste. In fact, the researchers hope that, eventually, this technique can be used in waste-free refineries. It's a promising step. While there are many advantages to heading away from oil altogether, the technology just isn't in place yet. So, waste-free biofuel refineries would be a great intermediate step until hydrogen or electric technology is ready to take the place of oil.

Source: Science Daily- Pressure-cooking algae into a better biofuel
Crude oil data from the EIA.

April 27, 2010

The Language of Science: Part II

In my last post, I talked about how scientists can sometimes use overly technical jargon that confuses non-scientists. This time I wanted to talk about something about scientific speech that doesn't so much confuse people, as it is overlooked: the use of qualifiers. To pull some examples of how scientists use qualifiers, I went over to for quotes of scientists talking about their work. I found lots of statements including these three. (italics and bold added by me)

"To our knowledge, this is the first solid evidence that microRNAs can move from one cell to another," said Philip Benfey, director of the Duke IGSP Center for Systems Biology
"Our study adds to a growing body of literature indicating that even anthropogenic habitat modifications that does not destroy a large amount of habitat can create significant barriers to gene flow," said researchers.
Dr Andy Turner, lead author of the research, says "Our work shows how, in the absence of a strong influence from the tropical Pacific, snow conditions over the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau could be used to help forecast seasonal monsoon rainfall for India, particularly over northern India during the onset month of June."
Notice in all three cases the scientists are careful not to claim to be the final word on the issue. It is actually quite rare to read a science article, and not see words like 'indicates,' 'suggests,' or 'supports.' This is just part of science. Every researcher knows that there is a entire community who will rip apart their work if they can. Using absolutes in your language will open you up to criticism for exaggerating your results, and overplaying your work (and rightfully so). This is one thing I find so refreshing when talking with scientists. They are up-front about the strengths and weaknesses of their claims.

The other thing to notice is the specificity the scientists use. The third quote is the best example of this. Dr. Turner clearly states the conditions necessary for their observations to hold true. The reason for this is twofold. The first is that any result in science should be replicable. By stating the exact conditions under which you made your observations, it makes it much easier for other researchers to confirm. The second reason comes back to what I was saying before about qualifying your statements. Imagine if Dr. Turner had said something like, 'We found that Himalayan snowfall can be used to predict Indian weather patterns.' That is so open to interpretation that it would be heavily criticized by other researchers and gives us almost no useful knowledge.

The way scientists talk is different from most people's everyday language, but for good reason. In our everyday language, we usually don't care if we leave statements a little vague or overreaching. In science, however, this is considered sloppy work. Finding examples of this is really easy because this type of language is almost taken for granted in science. Science is in some sense an enterprise of making claims. Wouldn't it be nice if claims were as clear as those made by scientists?

April 22, 2010

The Language of Science: Part I

When someone asks me a question about astronomy, I always have to actively remind myself not to slip into technical terms. This is because science really has, in some sense, its own vocabulary. I can spend hours talking about accretion disks, electromagnetic radiation, parsecs, redshifts, and so on. Unless you are pretty familiar with astronomy and physics, you may not have ever seen some of these terms. This language can at first even be intimidating, but once you understand it, it's freeing.

Scientists use technical language for more than just sounding smart. A lot of the words we use everyday have multiple meanings, or cultural nuances. Using a scientific vocabulary is a way to try and avoid the confusion that arise from that. For example in ordinary language 'light' can be referring to weight, or a light color, or to physical light. So instead scientists use terms like mass, wavelength, and electromagnetic radiation to avoid this confusion. Language is simply a tool for communicating ideas, and some ways of using it are more effective than others.

One of the major problems we have in the U.S. is a lack of science literacy. While some scientists are very good at helping educate the public, many more aren't used to explaining scientific concepts to people other than their peers. Few things can be more frustrating than for someone to be drowned with fancy language when they are trying to learn a new field. To be fair, scientists are not trained as teachers and that's not their job. On the other hand, though, if scientists are going to try and teach their field, they should look into some sort of training.

Sometimes scientists and science enthusiasts like myself forget the downsides to this complex vocabulary. Not only do we sometimes lose people, but it can also affect how our message comes across. Some people hear technical jargon and interpret it as impersonal or cold. When you ask a scientist about their research you are likely to get a long stream of super-technical terms. This is far from cold though. I have yet to meet a scientist who is not excited about their work. Scientists talk this way because they are excited, not because they are dispassionate.

Language is something we use everyday to describe our daily experiences. For a scientist, that day might include smashing high energy particles together, or discovering a totally new species of trilobite. So, the next time you hear a overly technical talk, ask for clarification. Then someday you may catch yourself talking with the accuracy of science.

April 20, 2010

Algae and Developing Genders

An interesting question in evolution has always been how the two genders evolved. Most unicellular animals don't have district genders; they can reproduce both sexually and asexually. Two little single celled algae look pretty much the same, right down to the gametes that combine to create a new algal cell. Most multicellular animals, however, can be classified pretty easily as either male or female. The majority of these are only able to reproduce sexually (there are some species of reptile that get around this, but that's a discussion for another post). Plants, too, have a distinct male and female. Considering sexual dimorphism -the development of a distinct male and female in a species- is a trait uncommon in single cell organisms and common in multicellular ones, there must have been some evolutionary change which made different genders far more beneficial. Unfortunately, neither single cell organisms nor genetic material preserve in the fossil record, so we cannot look there for answers.

Volvox carteri
A comparison of two closely related algal species has given researchers some interesting clues on this evolutionary gap. Volvox carteri is a multicellular green algae, and its cousin, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, is single celled. Their genomes are pretty much identical, with one giant exception. In the area of the genetic code that serves as the algal version of X and Y chromosomes, Volvox had some of the same genes and Chlamydomonas, along with a wide variety more. In fact, this section is five times larger in Volvox. This was a huge surprise. In the past, researchers had though that the "sex chromosomes," X and Y, had developed as a section of the genome deteriorated. These algae suggest that the opposite is true: that, for whatever reason, the bits of DNA involved with gender and reproduction can change and diversify very quickly.

There is a lot more study that has to be done to map out any sort of evolutionary path for this change. The team is looking more closely at the "new" genes in Volvox, as well as comparing both species to a third, Gonium, which is an intermediate between Volvox and Chlamydomonas. It's one of the first breakthroughs in determining how sexual dimorphism originally around. It will take time, but it's a very interesting first step to solving this evolutionary mystery.

Source: Science Daily- Lessons from the Pond: Clues from green algae on the origin of males and females

April 13, 2010

A Life Without Air

When you think of an organism, you probably think of some type of animal. These creatures need one particular element to gain energy and survive: oxygen. Most of the sugars and fats that are burned within our bodies, and those materials are made with oxygen. There are some bacteria which can survive anaerobically - without air - but certainly no animals that can, right?

An anaerobic animal,
of the group Loricifera
Image Source: Science Daily
Well... not quite. Deep in the Mediterranean Sea live little multicellular creatures that have never come across oxygen. More than that, they are submersed in sulphides, which are usually toxic to animals. Researchers had previously found some multicellular organisms in this and other deep hypersaline anoxic basics, but had assumed that they had died and floated down into this harsh environment. Not the case with these little Loricifera, however. Tests showed that not only where the animals alive, they were thriving and reproducing.

So, how do they do it? Most animals, including humans, need to metabolize oxygen using mitochondria. This process produces energy. For a short period of time, individual cells can produce enough energy to survive without oxygen, but not for any extended length of time. These creatures live in a complete absence of oxygen. The researches used an electron microscope to see what the Loricifera used to produce energy. Instead of the aerobic mitochondria common in pretty much every other animal, they have hydrogenosomes, similar to those found in bacteria that also inhabit anaerobic environments. In other words, instead of using oxygen dissolved in the water to survive, they use the hydrogen dissolved in the water.

This finding is really exciting. Before this, scientists had guessed that there must have been some form of animal that lived without oxygen, way back in the early history of life (550 to 600 million years ago). This gives us more clues about the nature of these creatures. It also opens the door to more research in other anoxic part of the ocean. It seems unlikely that the Loricifera species is the only animal that thrives in this environment, now that we've discovered it is possible.

Source: Science Daily- First Animals to Live without Oxygen Discovered

April 12, 2010

Venus May Still have Active Volcanoes

A Volcano on the Surface
Image Credit: NASA/JPL
I find Venus one of the most interesting places in our solar system because it is so hard to study. Venus is shrouded in an atmosphere 90 times thicker then ours, making the surface incredibly difficult to image. What images we do have are mainly from the early days of the space age. The European Space Agency launched the Venus Express Mission in 2005, and it has given us new insights into this mysterious planet. Still Venus is a place where we have lots of big questions with few answers. One of these questions for a long time has been if Venus is volcanically active. We have seen volcanoes on Venus's surface, but could they all be dormant?

Venus and Earth are about the same size. The heat in the Earths core that allows it to stay molten comes from when the planet originally formed, as well as the radioactive decay of elements. Since Venus should be made up of about the same stuff as the Earth, it is reasonable to assume that it also has a molten core. If there is a molten core that heat will want to escape, and it does so on the Earth via volcanoes. So what about Venus?

New data from Venus Express suggests that there may still be active volcanoes on the surface of Venus. Peeking through the clouds in infrared light, researchers looked for variations in the ground temperature. "The solidified lava flows, which radiate heat from the surface, seem hardly weathered. So we can conclude that they are younger than 2.5 million years old – and the majority are probably younger than 250,000 years," Jörn Helbert from the DLR Institute of Planetary Research. "In geological terms, this means that they are practically from the present day." This is not a slam dunk of Cytherean* volcanism though. There could be hot spots on the surface, without active volcanoes. So while this debate is certainly not over, this is an exciting new piece of the puzzle for scientists to look at.

*Cytherean, not Venusian, is the proper term for things related to the planet Venus. It also sounds cooler.

April 7, 2010

It's The End of The World!!! Again?

There are many popular issues that you really need to look at their history to understand. The best example of this might be the end of the world theorists. By now the idea that world ending in 2012 is part of mainstream culture: I even get asked about it by 12 year olds. So is there any truth is it? Are we really all doomed as the Mayans predicted? What does history have to with the apocalypse?

2012 is not the first time people predicted the end of the world. One of the more famous end of the world predictions is the Tolendo letter from 1184. This letter was sent to the Pope of the time and said the world would end in 1186. The Archbishop of Canterbury in England fasted in order to try and prevent this catastrophe. Low and behold, the world went on, and so did the letter with different dates, for years afterwards.

Even in my own lifetime the end of the world has come and gone. There was the turn of the century, where people thought that the new millennium would hail in the apocalypse. Then large groups were worried that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) would create a black hole that would destroy the world. Well, last week the LHC started up with out a problem. So far I don't think the world has ended.

So now the end of the world marches on to 2012. There are all kinds of unsupported ideas on how the world will end, and why. The reality is that 2012 is not special. People who claim it to be the end of the Mayan calendar, just don't understand the Mayan calendar. A really good through description can be found at Universe Today, but the basic idea is that the calendar doesn't end, it just turns over.* So I cannot see how this prophecy differs much in any way for the Tolendo letter.

Someday, the Earth will no longer be inhabitable to humans. Lucky for us we still have a few billion years before the sun makes the Earth into a fairly miserable place. It is possible that an asteroid will come and wipe us out, but we are getting better at finding and tracking potentially dangerous asteroids. Maybe we will develop the technology to prevent such an impact, and then travel to the stars to preserve our species. When I look at the end of the world claims, I see a pattern. The end of the world always seems to be just around the corner, and you know what, eventually they will be right (just be very very patient).

*I'm not entirely sure why the ending of an ancient calendar would signify the end of the world even if it were true.

April 2, 2010

Untangling the Truth about Autism

There are a lot of claims made about autism. What causes it? How common is it? What are the common symptoms? Is there a cure? I can't go through every single claim ever made about autism here, but I'd like to take some of the common ones and sort out myth from fact, and explain why.
  • One out of every 110 children is affected by autism in the United States, including one out of every 70 boys. (source)
    This is fact, but a bit misleading. The data that the Autism Speaks report uses is from the CDC's autism report, found here. The study compares the autism rates of 15 different communities, and includes every instance of an autism spectrum disorder. This means that both a very mild case of Asperger's syndrome will be counted as a hit equally to a debilitating case of severe autism, so long as they are diagnosed. Thus, while the numbers are accurate, the statement would be more correct stated as: "One out of every 110 children is diagnosed with an ASD in the United States, including one out of every 70 boys."
  • Studies have shown that environmental toxins like mercury and pesticides can trigger autism. (source)
    This one is plausible. There is some evidence that autism prevalence rates are higher where there are higher concentrations of heavy metals and pesticides before birth. However, the results of these studies are still fairly preliminary, as far as I could find from my research, and more studies will have to be done before there is a true consensus on this.
    • Sources:
      DeSoto, M. Catherine, 2009. Ockham's Razor and autism: The case for developmental neurotoxins contributing to a disease of neurodevelopment. NeuroToxicology, 30(3):331-337
      Abstract at PubMed
  • There has been no study that has directly linked a pure genetics basis for autism. (source)
    False. Plain and simple. There are quite a few studies that link genetics to autism. For instance, this study provides a quite strong correlations between autism and a genetic mutation. This one provides a relatively complete summary of the genetic basis for autism. Even the DeSoto article I linked to above discusses how there is a genetic predisposition to autism, depending on how sensitive an individual is to the toxins. The genetic basis for autism is well-established scientifically.
  • Vaccines cause autism (source- note that this is implied throughout the whole "Vaccines" section of the website, but is never stated directly)
    False. This is by far the biggest autism controversy. Because of this, there has been a lot of scientific research. After all, if there was something to the claim, there would be major reason to change the vaccines given. But the consensus has come back with a definitive result: autism is not caused by vaccines. A really good summary of the current evidence can be found in this article. The one study that did show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism was retracted earlier this year, as it was shown to be a fraud. There is no cause for concern that vaccinating children will give them autism. Not vaccinating them is likely to cause them polio, measles, and other potentially deadly diseases, as well as spread those illnesses to other children (source). The risks of not vaccinating far outweigh those of getting the vaccinations.
  • Autism is reversible (source)
    While there are treatments available that can help lessen the symptoms of autism, this claim that autism is completely reversible is, as of this point in type, false. As I mentioned here, autism is a disorder, not a disease. A kid doesn't "get sick" and start acting autistic; instead, something is wired differently in their minds, whether due to a genetic mutation or to exposure to toxins during development. As stated on the Autism Speaks website:

    Most parents would welcome a cure for their child, or a therapy that would alleviate all of the symptoms and challenges that make life difficult for them. Just as your child's challenges can't be summed up in one word, they can't be remedied with one therapy. Each challenge must be addressed with an appropriate therapy. No single therapy works for every child. What works for one child may not work for another. What works for one child for a period of time may stop working. Some therapies are supported by research showing their efficacy, while others are not. The skill, experience and style of the therapist are critical to the effectiveness of the intervention.
This list of claims is far from comprehensive, but these are the five I hear most often, and that cause the most controversy. If you have other questions, feel free to send me an email using the link to your right. Or, better yet, do some research of your own. Talk to a medical doctor, preferably one who specializes in neuroscience; search for relevant studies on PubMed; gather knowledge to be able to sort out fact from fiction. Be aware that not everyone uses science-based medicine, and that even the most well-meaning people can give bad, and potentially dangerous, information. With a bit of skepticism and a little work, though, it is always possible to find good information to make the best choices you can, especially concerning things like autism.

If you want more general information on what autism is, take a look at What is Autism?

March 31, 2010

What is Autism?

In the media, the topic of autism has become increasingly prominent over the past few years. Although I do believe that there needs to be more awareness of autism, the hype over autism has put out a tangled mess of myth and misinformation about what autism is, how its caused, and how it can be treated. I'd like to take some time and try to clear up what's true - and what's not - concerning autism. But before I can really do that, I think I need to define what exactly autism is.

Autism is a mental disorder that usually appears in children before the age of three. Autism is characterized by a lack of development in social interaction, language, and behavior. Some of the "warning signs," according to Mayo Clinic, include:
Social skills

  • Fails to respond to his or her name
  • Has poor eye contact
  • Appears not to hear you at times
  • Resists cuddling and holding
  • Appears unaware of others' feelings
  • Seems to prefer playing alone — retreats into his or her "own world"


  • Starts talking later than other children
  • Loses previously acquired ability to say words or sentences
  • Does not make eye contact when making requests
  • Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm — may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech
  • Can't start a conversation or keep one going
  • May repeat words or phrases verbatim, but doesn't understand how to use them


  • Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand-flapping
  • Develops specific routines or rituals
  • Becomes disturbed at the slightest change in routines or rituals
  • Moves constantly
  • May be fascinated by parts of an object, such as the spinning wheels of a toy car
  • May be unusually sensitive to light, sound and touch and yet oblivious to pain
One of the tricky things about autism is that it's not a single, easy-to-define thing; it's actually a whole range, known as the autism spectrum disorders. Some children (and adults) have such a mild case that it is never diagnosed, and they live perfectly normal lives. Many who do get diagnosed also fall in this category, and eventually learn the behaviors accepted in society by rote. Only in moderate to severe cases does autism really start to negatively impact a person's life. Some never learn to speak, and have below-average IQ. Others have high-functioning autism; that is, they have above-average intelligence, but often can't communicate what they know well due to their autism. Savants are often autistic; they are brilliant at mathematics or music, but severely socially and/or behaviorally impaired.

Another important point is that not everyone who displays some of these symptoms is autistic. The autism spectrum is very broad, and contains a lot of symptoms. So, there are certainly instances where other things, such as an auditory processing disorder or clinical shyness, may mimic autism. A person I know, for instance, has an auditory processing disorder, and he took a long time to start talking. He often didn't respond to his name or to questions, particularly when he could not see the person talking to him. He has an unusual speech pattern. In extremely crowded and loud environments, he would even sometimes sit in a corner, cover his ears, and rock back and forth. Finally, he is a very talented musician. But he's not autistic. His parents took him to have his hearing checked, and discovered the auditory processing disorder. He wore filters in his ears for a few years while he learned to manage the sound, and now it's impossible to tell that he has any sort of disorder at all.

This post is getting rather long, so I'll wait until April 2nd, a.k.a World Autism Awareness Day, to go through some of the most commonly heard tidbits about autism. Because there is so much information - and misinformation- surrounding the topic of autism, I want to do full justice to sorting out what's true and what's not, so it deserves a post of its own.

UPDATE: The post tackling autism myths, Untangling the Truth about Autism, is now up.