free debate

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.