free debate

February 26, 2010

What is Science? A Musical Take

Recently, there's being a series of autotuned videos going around. While autotuning isn't all that new, these are unique because they are made up of clips of various scientists and skeptics speaking about what they know best: science. A new one was just released, titled "The Poetry of Reality." It addresses the same question we often tackle here at Scientifica Phenomena. It's beautifully done, so... enjoy.

The other videos, if you're interested, can be found at Symphony of Science.

February 25, 2010

Practical Science: Spectroscopy

A few times in the past I have written about how astronomers use light in various ways to learn about objects millions of miles away. Spectroscopy is simply one of the fundamentals of astronomy, but the other day I had someone ask me what the more everyday uses for spectroscopy are. Why is spectroscopy important to the everyday person? As we sat and talked, we came up with more and more ways it's used.

Spectroscopy is the study of light. In astronomy, we use it to find everything from composition, to temperature, to velocity, to extrasolar planets, and the list goes on. But how does this affect us? One of the first things that came to mind was communication. Our cell phones use radio waves to communicate with cell towers. These are the same radio waves we use to study the earliest moments of the universe. The microwaves that we use to cook our food are also part of the radio spectrum.

Healthcare is another area where examples are plentiful. X-rays and CT scans are both used in hospitals on a regular basis. They are also used to help us understand some of the most energetic places in the universe. You can get a sunburn because of ultraviolet light that penetrates our atmosphere. This same form of light gives us insight into the structure of the clouds of Venus.

Gamma rays are the highest energy form of light and are used by geologists to find minerals or other materials under the earths surface. Infrared, a much lower energy form of light, is used by weather satellites to help us know the forecast tomorrow.

All of these technologies are things we have come to rely on, and none of them would be possible without this obscure part of physics.

February 22, 2010

What is Science? (Flaws of the Mind)

One of things that is of great interest to scientists and skeptics alike is how we fool ourselves. We like to think of our mind as a type of recorder that takes in what we experience and feel. In many ways, this is not a bad analogy, but it is easy for us fall victim to the faults of this recorder. These are faults that we need to be aware of if we want to avoid them

If you ever have any doubts that our minds can be fooled, see a magic trick. The entire profession of magic and illusion takes advantage of these faults. This video by psychologist Richard Wiseman is a great example.

This video is a great example of how easy it is for our brains to fall prey to illusions. This could be the cause of many UFO and ghost sightings. Think of times in your own life where you might have thought you saw something, but it turned out to be something else.

Science is very aware of this fact, this is why there are standards for the evidence it will accept. Anecdotal evidence is the most obviously affected, and is not considered any more than a starting point for scientific inquiry. One method that is used for correcting this is the requirement that a test be repeatable. For any result you come up with, someone halfway around the world should be able to repeat under the same conditions. Paranormal researchers often complain that they are being picked on by mainstream researchers. There is a lot that goes into this, deserving a post all to its own. The bottom line is that they have never developed a replicable experiment, showing any psychic ability or connection of any kind.

Whenever we look at the world, we need to be careful when deciding what is true. This doesn't mean that we can't trust anything we see, but we need to give any sight that appears miraculous careful consideration. The fact that our minds can be tricked is something we must be careful never to forget, but we shouldn't let it stop us in our quest to explore reality.

February 17, 2010

Dynamic Earth: Introduction to Weather

Where I grew up, there was a common saying regarding the weather: "If you don't like it, wait a few minutes. It will change." While not precisely true, it did seem that the weather changed quite a lot. It could be snowing in the morning and 65 and sunny by the afternoon. We've all experienced many forms of weather, and so have a general understanding of what it is. However, there are more precise ways to define the weather.

What is weather?
Weather is defined by meteorologists as the state of the atmosphere at a given point in time. Typically, they are only referring to the troposphere, the lowest layer of the atmosphere. The weather is determined by 7 main factors: air temperature, air pressure, cloud type, precipitation type, precipitation amount, wind speed, and wind direction. As an example, the full weather report of where I live right now is: 29.8o F; 30.02 in pressure; cumulus clouds; light snow; up to 2 in; 1.0 mph winds, from the south-east. 

Weather vs. Climate
Weather is not the same thing as climate. This is a really common misconception with all the news about "global warming" and "climate change." Weather is local and short term. It is snowing here right now, but it was sunny yesterday. Also, it's probably not snowing all over the Midwest, just here. Climate, on the other hand, is long-term and broad, covering regions to the entire planet. Thus, on average, over much of the planet, annual temperatures over the past 100 years have been getting warmer. A freak snowstorm does not mean climate change is not occurring, nor is it necessarily caused by climate change. The two are related, but are not directly connected. So, as much as people like to claim that this bitter cold winter disproves global warming, that's simply not how it works.

That's basically all there is to weather. It's a local set of atmospheric conditions. For sounding so simple, and even boring, however, there's a lot of unpredictability in weather, which can lead to some pretty terrifying phenomena.

More on weather.

February 16, 2010

Practical Science: Shooting Mosquitoes with Lasers

I think that there is a disconnect between science and everyday people. To try and help bridge this gap, I want to start writing more articles about how science is effecting us everyday.

Malaria killed about one million people in 2006. A child dies of malaria every 30 seconds, and more than half the world's population is at risk. Malaria is preventable and treatable with modern medicine, but with such a large problem we need to use multiple approaches to try and fight it. This is why I am such a big fan of this work by Intellectual Ventures.

Intellectual Ventures is a group that first gained my attention with their awesome quarter shrinker. This is still one of the coolest pieces of technology I have ever seen, but they didn't stop there. They have teamed up with Bill Gates to implement a new way to fight Malaria.

Malaria is spread by mosquitoes. So, one way you can prevent the spread of malaria is get rid of the mosquitoes. We are not talking about total eradication of all mosquitoes, but prevent them from getting into heavily populated areas. "How might you do this?" you might ask? With a laser, of course. The system uses a camera to identify the mosquitos, and then shoots them midair with a laser. This laser is powerful enough to kill a mosquito, but still harmless to human tissue. The identification system is one of the coolest parts of this setup.
When an invading insect is detected, our software identifies it by training a nonlethal laser beam on the bug and using that illumination to estimate the insect’s size and also to measure how fast its wings are beating. Using this method, the system can not only distinguish among mosquitoes, butterflies, and bumblebees, but it can even determine whether a mosquito is male or female! (Females are significantly larger than males and have slower wingbeats.) This is useful because only female mosquitoes bite humans.
And after one unlucky bug gets identified, it gets zapped. The bottom video is by far the best, but the others are still well worth watching. This is not totally new technology (although I can't find exactly when it first came out). What Intellectual Ventures is trying to do is make it cost effective. If they succeed I could imagine a "forcefield" protecting small towns or even just clinics from malaria-carrying mosquitoes. This is a really cool invention, and is a great example of a creative solution to a huge problem.

February 15, 2010

Bad Science: The Argument From Final Consequences

In many of the articles I read supporting non-scientific ideas or in informal debates, one extremely common logical fallacy I run across is the argument from final consequences. I see it often enough that I think it deserves it own post so you can try to avoid this logical pitfall.

There are two main ways this fallacy is usually presented, but both share a common trait. They basically invert cause and effect. One way this is done is to say that if someone benefited from X, that person caused X. You can imagine in a murder investigation that if someone benefited highly from the death, they will be a suspect. The fallacy is to say that because they benefited, they must have caused it. Motivation is separate from actually committing the crime. There is a reality to the world that coincidences happen. Everyone, and in particular politicians, will try to capitalize on these coincidences, but that doesn't mean they caused them.

The other way this fallacy often comes up is to say the implications of an idea determine its truth. An example is 'Fairies must exist, because that would make the world more interesting.' Whether or not they would make the world more interesting is completely irrelevant to the question of their existence. This is the equivalent of arguing that gravity can't exist, because flying is fun. One of the most common contexts you will hear this agreement is that evolution must be wrong because otherwise life has no meaning and their would be no morality.

I should mention again that just because someone uses bad logic to defend their point, doesn't mean that their conclusion is wrong. All it means is that particular argument does not support that conclusion. I have heard people on both sides of different issues make poor logical arguments, so you need to evaluate each argument on its own merits. Bad logic should however, serve as a red flag to see if any of their other arguments hold up to strong scrutiny.

February 12, 2010

Darwin Day

Today, February 12, marks the 201th birthday of Charles Darwin. His landmark work, On the Origin of Species, revolutionized biology, and the scientific view of how the diversity of life that exists today came into being. Whether dealing with biology, genetics, paleontology, psychology, or even philosophy, the idea of evolution via natural selection comes into play.
Natural selection is an elegantly simple idea: All populations have some amount of variation in it. Most of these differences are neutral; some are harmful; other provide an advantage. Neutral variation comes and goes. Harmful variations die out. Beneficial variations become more common. Over time, these variations add up, causing significant changes and eventually fundamentally changing a species. It makes a lot of logical sense. It is a common legend that when Thomas Henry Huxley, a contemporary of Darwin and self-proclaimed "Darwin's bulldog," first read it, he asked how he didn't see it first, it seemed so clear and obvious. It is this clarity and the thoughtfulness Darwin put into The Origin of Species that has allowed the theory to remain with relatively minor revision through the past 150 years.

Because of Origin and the theory of evolution by natural selection, Charles Darwin is now a name found throughout science. Another interesting note on him is that he wasn't the top of his class. In fact, at university, he was a little below the average. But he had a dogged persistence that shows through his drafts of Origin. Once he hit on that idea, which seemed so simple, he spend nearly 30 years perfecting it and finding examples, so as to make it as clear to anyone else as it was to him. He's a great example of how really anyone can make a big contribution to science, without being the valedictorian or the nerd at school. Science is great because, in its simplest form, it only requires a question, an open mind, and a determination to learn how the world works.

More on Darwin Day.
Read Darwin's publications.

February 10, 2010

Volcanic Lightning Show

Lightning and volcanoes are two of my personal favorite forces of nature. Both are capable of a lot of destruction, and are pretty unpredictable. A combination of the two would be terrifying, and spectacular. Perhaps something like this:

What is picture shows is a potentially new type of lightning, detected over the Redoubt Volcano in Alaska. The bolts you see are very small and very fast: each is only about a yard (3 feet) long and lasts only a couple milliseconds (for reference, a human eye blink lasts around 350 milliseconds). Even cooler, the lightning only occurs during the volcanic eruption. In fact, it is one of three types of volcanic lightning: these "tiny sparks", a "natural fireworks" (large, spectacular bolts), and an intermediate type, between the other two. The bigger bolts are caused when water and volcanic ash meet, causing a sudden thunderstorm. How the smaller sparks form, however, is still unknown. Now that they have been confirmed, researchers know how to look for them, and will be able to gain more data, which will in turn help us learn what causes this new volcanic lightning.

Source: National Geographic- New Lightning Type Found Over Volcano

February 8, 2010

Creationists Misuse New Research on the Origins of Life

Last week we reported on a new hypothesis on how life originally arose on the Earth. The next day the creationists took the story, and twisted it. The new research argued that instead of life arising in a "soup" of organic powered by the sun and lighting, it happened in deep sea vents. The research is very interesting and I highly recommend reading it.

Creationists are notorious for twisting scientific results for their own purposes. In this case they have made two main arguments.
Anyway, the lame retreat from a stance previously thumped with tremendous vigor sounds Pythonesque but no, a quick Internet search reveals it’s actually from Get Smart. Along with “Missed it by that much” and “Sorry about that, Chief,” “Would you believe…” was a repeated line from the classic 1960s TV show. It always introduced Agent Maxwell Smart’s attempt to climb down from an earlier, bolder claim in favor of increasingly pitiable ones: “I happen to be an expert in karate, Judo and tempura. Would you believe that I can break eight boards with one karate chop? No? Would you believe three boards? Would you believe a loaf of bread?”
This is a gross misinterpretation of the story. Scientist are not backtracking to a simpler story, quite the opposite. I don't even necessarily agree that this hypothesis is less complex. Science works by overturning bad ideas with better ones. We were not backtracking when we added relativity to Newtonian gravity. This new idea actually shares many commonalities with the old "soup" model. They both agree that life arose in a organically rich body of water, with some sort of energy source to power the chemical reactions. The only real difference is where in the water, and what the energy source was.

The other argument they make is one based on information.
The soup-spilling team writing in BioEssays concentrates on the source of energy needed to power life into existence. Was it from UV radiation, as J.B.S. Haldane theorized in 1929? Or from a hydrothermal vent? This overlooks a much trickier problem: the source not of the relevant energy but the relevant biological information.
This is a old argument that has been thoroughly debunked. To begin with, this a glaring argument from ignorance. They are making the claim, 'we don't know what caused it now, it is therefore a creator.' In addition to that, it is based on a false premise. Dr. Zachary Moore has covered this in great detail on his podcast Evolution 101. There is also a short article on

It should also be pointed out that this is a new idea and not yet part of any scientific consensus. I'm sure that it will take many more years of research before we will have anything like a solid answer. That is why science is exciting: there are always new ideas and none of those ideas are beyond scrutiny.

February 6, 2010

UPDATE: Dinosaurs: Now in Color

Right on the tail of Sinosauropteryx, researchers have determined the colors of a second feathered dinosaur. A team from Yale took a fossil of Anchiornis huxleyi, a four-winged feathered dinosaur from China, and studied it in precise detail. Like the team studying Sinosauropteryx, the Yale team looked at the microscopic melanosomes in the fossil feathers. Unlike the Sinosauropteryx team, however, they looked at every single feather, to determine the full coloration of the dinosaur. They came up with this:

It's amazing. Between Sinosauropteryx and Anchiornis, we have a far more interesting view of dinosaurs than the drab greens and grays used only a decade back. It's also another piece of evidence tying birds back to their dinosaurian ancestors. It makes sense that many birds are brightly colored, if the dinosaurs were too. I expect we'll only see even more discoveries that solidify the colors of feathered dinosaur. I can't wait to see what we find.

Read the original post
Source: Science Daily: Dinosaur had Vibrant Colors, Microscopic Fossil Clues Reveal

February 4, 2010

A New Idea on the Origin of Life

We don't know how life first appeared on Planet Earth. It is perhaps the biggest scientific unknown. If we knew how life developed, then we could a) find it more easily and b) create simple bacterium ourselves, allowing us to really watch the early evolution of life. Unfortunately, there is pretty much no record of the very first life forms, as there are few, if any, rocks around from 4+ billion years ago. There are still many theories as to the origin of life, however, including a brand new one.

The most commonly accepted hypothesis of how life first came into being is a "primordial soup." In early tide pools and muddy puddles, there would have been amino acids floating about. These are the building blocks of proteins, which in turn are the building block that make life possible. We have found asteroids with amino acids on them, so a "soup" of them on early Earth is certainly not out of the question. These amino acids could have just bumped around, randomly sticking to each other as sunlight beamed down, gradually building into simple, prokaryotic bacteria. Others have suggested that lightning could spark amino acids into life. In fact, most ideas on how life first appeared are variations on this "primordial soup" concept.

New research, however, suggests that there just isn't enough energy to explain how life began in such a soup. Instead, they propose that deep sea vents were where life first showed up. The team found an interesting composition of chemicals on some of these vents: a membrane, with a gradient of protons. This is basically the same mechanism that organic cells use, in a process known as "chemiosmosis." Every organism, from the simplest bacterium to an oak tree to us, uses chemiosmosis. Therefore, the team suggests that it was a feature present in the first common ancestor, from which everything else developed, and which it first learned at the geothermal vents at the bottom of the sea. It's an interesting idea, and one that makes a lot of logical sense. Perhaps, with more research along these lines, we can finally find the answer to how life began.

Source: Science Daily-New research rejects 80-year theory of 'primordial soup' as the origin of life

February 3, 2010

First Ever Interplanetary Collision Witnessed by Hubble

Between Mars and Jupiter is the asteroid belt, a large collection of small rocks left over from the formation of the solar system. The vast number of objects within the asteroid belt has led astronomers to predict that collisions between asteroids should be relatively common. For the first time, astronomers may have found one of these impacts.

At first glance, this debris tail looks similar to that of a comet. As they approach the sun, comets (which are mostly made of various ices) will give off splendid tails as the ices warm up and turn to gasses. However, the crucial difference is in the X-shaped pattern in the close up image. You see a clear difference from these images of a fragmenting comet (also imaged by Hubble). "This is quite different from the smooth dust envelopes of normal comets," says principal investigator David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles. There are also other inconsistencies with the comet hypothesis. One such example is that the orbit of this object (creatively named P/2010 A2) is much closer to the sun than we would expect for a comet made up of ice.

So, if it's not a comet, that opens up the possibility of it being a high energy collision. Speeds in such a collision are estimated to be close to 11,000 miles per hour, five times faster than a rifle bullet! "If this interpretation is correct, two small and previously unknown asteroids recently collided, creating a shower of debris that is being swept back into a tail from the collision site by the pressure of sunlight," says Jewitt. So right now, the evidence is strong that we have fulfilled every little boys dream, watching rocks crash together at high speeds in space.

Source: HubbleSite
Collision Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)
Fragmentation Image Credit:NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (APL/JHU), M. Mutchler and Z. Levay (STScI)

February 2, 2010

Dinosaurs: Now in Color

A few months back, I talked about how they had found evidence of iridescence in fossil feathers. At the time, that was a huge step forward. We still didn't know what colors dinosaurs were, but we could find out something from microscopic structures in well-preserved feathers. Now, we've got something even cooler. Using a similar technique, scientists have discovered that at least one type of dinosaur, Sinosauropteryx, had ginger-colored feathers and a striped tail.

To the right is a picture of the Sinosauropteryx fossil. You can see the banding on the tail pretty clearly. But how did scientists determine that the dark bands were ginger? Using an SEM (a scanning electron microscope), they searched for tiny structures called melanosomes. The shape of a melanosome determines color. Dark colors - dark brown, black, and grey - are determined by long, skinny melanosomes. Lighter colors, primarily russet and ginger, are characterized by ball-shaped melanosomes. In Sinosauropteryx feathers, the melanosomes are primarily the round variety. It's a really cool discovery, that gives paleoartists the chance to draw this:

It's not just an educated guess as to this dinosaur's color. This is most likely what Sinosauropteryx really looked like. This discovery raises the possibility of examining other fossil feathers (and perhaps even fossil skin?) to learns, once and for all, what color the dinosaurs were.

Source: BBC News- Dinosaur had ginger feathers

February 1, 2010

A New Page in the Life of Spirit, The Martian Rover

Spirit and Opportunity have been exploring the surface of Mars for over 6 years. They have undoubtedly been one of the most successful missions to Mars, ever. For the last few months, Spirt has been stuck at a location called Troy. And now it looks as though Spirit may not be leaving.

Over the last few weeks, scientists have been working desperately to try and free Spirit from Troy. Right now it is sitting on the top of rock, with its wheels sinking into the regolith*. All attempts to extract the rover so far have failed (there's as of yet no tow trucks on Mars), and scientists are running out of time before the Martian winter arrives. Temperatures are expected to drop to -40 degrees (Celsius and Fahrenheit), meaning Spirit will only survive if it has the energy to run its heaters. Just as the sun gets lower on the horizon during the winter here on Earth, the same thing happens on Mars. Spirit is going to have to get its solar panels pointing towards the sun in order to generate enough energy to survive. "Getting through the winter will all come down to temperature and how cold the rover electronics will get," said John Callas, project manager at JPL for Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity. "Every bit of energy produced by Spirit's solar arrays will go into keeping the rover's critical electronics warm, either by having the electronics on or by turning on essential heaters."

If Spirit does survive, it will by no means just be a stuck piece of metal on Mars. Just as the Phoenix Mars lander was able to teach us much about current and past conditions on Mars, Spirit will just become a stationary science lab. One nice thing is that, of all the spots Spirit could have been stuck, Troy is quite a interesting one scientifically. There is a wide range of sediments and minerals that appear to be the product of a hydrothermal vent on ancient Mars. There is even the possibility of finding out if Mars has a liquid core by closely monitoring the tilt of Mars rotation. "There's a class of science we can do only with a stationary vehicle that we had put off during the years of driving," said Steve Squyres, a researcher at Cornell University and principal investigator for Spirit and Opportunity. "Degraded mobility does not mean the mission ends abruptly. Instead, it lets us transition to stationary science."

Spirit is not dead yet and its twin rover, Opportunity seems to be finding cool rock after cool rock. These rovers are still pouring out scientific discoveries. This intrepid duo have lasted more than 20 times their expected lifetimes, and have made tremendous finds into the history of Mars. And they still keep going.

Image taken by spirit on sol (a Martian day) 2154
Credit: NASA/JPL

*Cool word for dirt in places that don't have life (basically ground up rock)