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September 29, 2011

Happy Banned Books Week!

Normally, I write about science and skepticism here, but I am a self-professed bibliophile as well. One cause that's near-and-dear to my heart, therefore, is Banned Books Week. Many of the most contested books are science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction; however, texts like Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species often also appear on lists of banned books. Plus, part of a complete education is reading anything one can get their hands on. So, in honor of that and the joy of reading... have a wonderful banned books week!

Cross-posted from Teen Skepchick

Here in the U.S.A, the last week of September is always Banned Books Week. This campaign, started 13 years ago by the American Library Association, is designed to raise awareness about censorship and encourage everyone, particularly kids, to expand their horizons and read books that others find questionable enough to try and ban. It's a celebration of the right to read.

Every year, hundreds of books are challenged by school boards, religious groups, teachers, and particularly parents, often with the best intentions. These adults want to "protect" children from sexually explicit scenes, profane language, depictions of violence, descriptions of drugs, homosexuality, and things generally "unsuited to age group".

Turns out, though, that the most challenged books aren't always the ones you'd expect. Take And Tango Makes Three, for instance, the first book I ever heard of being banned. It's a children's picture book, about two penguins that successfully hatch and raise an orphaned egg. It's a sweet, heart-warming story. Who could possibly have a problem with it? Well, here's the twist: the parents in And Tango Makes Three are both male. And because of that, it has been the most challenged book for four out of the past five years, topped only by the ttyl series by Lauren Myracle in 2009.

Many of my all-time favorite books have been in the top 10 lists of banned and contested books from the last decade as well. For instance: the entire Harry Potter series; His Dark Materials trilogy, by Phillip Pullman; The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky; Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson; My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain; and Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George.  There's several others that I've read as well. Nearly all of them are books I'd recommend, or that had a big impact on me growing up.

Banned Books Week 2011 runs until October 1st, so there's still time to start a new (or an old favorite) story from the banned books list. Go out and exercise your right to read, and feel free to tell us about your favorite banned book.

All images credit the American Library Association

September 26, 2011

Summer Intro to Paleo: Preparation and Curation

Here's the third video in my summer introduction to paleontology course. This time, we look at how to do field work. If you haven't seen them, you can watch previous installments.

For Further Information:

Leave any questions or suggestions in the comments below!

September 23, 2011

Particles Travelling Faster than the Speed of Light: Not So Fast

"No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish." -David Hume
The Internet is a-buzz as scientists from CERN research facilities in Gran Sasso National Laboratory, Italy are saying they have been observing neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. Neutrinos are low mass particles that can literally pass through light years of lead without interacting. These scientists are claiming that the particles arrived at the detector 60 nanoseconds faster than they should have at the speed of light. That may not sound like much, but the scientists running the project say their measurements are accurate to within 10 nanoseconds. So, if true what would this mean?

The speed of light as a cosmic speed limit is fundamental to Einstein's theory of relativity. Relativity is one of the most successful theories in all of physics. Undermining the speed of light as a cosmic speed limit undermines the foundation of much of relativity. I'm not going to go into all the detials here but if you want a better understanding I recommend Why does E=mc2? (And Why Should We Care?) by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw.

For me, it comes down to the David Hume quote above. As far as physics are concerned, this is a miracle. Could it be true, but before we accept it the evidence should be overwhelming. Right now we have a very interesting result. Also, I have to say these scientists are doing awesome work. This is not some crank on YouTube saying he proved Einstein wrong. I am really interested to see what happens as labs around the world try and replicate this effect. If the result is due to some error, we still learn something new; if not, physicists are going to have some serious work to do.

September 22, 2011

Ghost Hunting: How Not to Do It

In science, we look for multiple independent corroborating lines of evidence to prove any phenomena. We also want that evidence to of the highest quality we can get. Take evolution, for example. We have genetic analysis, morphological similarities, the fossil record, and biogeography (the distribution of living things across the globe) all pointing towards this one unifying idea. When it comes to ghost hunting, however these ideas on evidence seem to go out the window. Case in point is the Paranormal News article "Do It Yourself Ghost Hunting Part 1: Getting Started."

The first recommendation they have for finding ghosts is to get yourself a camera. The article says "The most important item would be a standard digital camera. Now, you don’t need to go all out and buy an expensive camera like a Canon PowerShot, most pictures that have evidence are from cameras that you can buy at any department store for a relatively cheap price." This statement should set off alarm bells galore. Why would you want to take a lower quality evidence? Of course, the author is correct to say that most ghost photos are from cheaper cameras. This is because most (if not all) ghost photos are due to flaws in the camera or mistakes by the photographer.

Next, they recommend you get an audio recorder. I have no problem with this suggestion as it stands, or even that maybe ghosts might somehow communicate to us by this means. To me, this is no weirder than ghosts existing the first place, but for both assertions we need evidence. Here is where we have an issue. If you record and listen to hours of white noise, it would be almost miraculous if your brain was not able to find something in that randomness that sounds like a human voice. We are wired to find patterns. So what might you do to separate out the noise?

Get more data!

For a moment as I read I thought this might be what the author was suggesting next. He says to bring a friend with you to not only make it more fun but also to build your credibility. This is a great suggestion. After all, if you could record the same voice at the same time on two different devices that is a much more interesting result. Imagine a ghost photographed from two different angeles at the same time. They may be on to something here. Oh wait...
There’s been some cases where we’ll have two audio recorders going on at once and they’ll catch two completely different results or one will catch something and another, running right next to it, will catch nothing at all. Cameras are the same way. When we were doing the investigation in Bethlehem, New Hampshire where Nicole caught the picture of the blue mist behind Nancy on the stairs (Photo on my website), I was taking photos as well, but where she caught something, I caught nothing on my camera.
What? I always understood that if you have two data points that contradict each other, that is a negative result. Taking a picture of the same spot with two cameras at the same time acts as a kind of control. If something is in one photo but not the other that screams of photographic error.

So if you want to go out on a ghost hunt, do it, but do it right. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) has a great article on this by renowned ghost hunter Joe Nickell that says...
The scientific approach to hauntings does not begin with the unproven, seemingly contradictory notion that entities are at once nonmaterial and quasi physical. Rather, in scientific inquiry one seeks to gather, study, and follow the evidence, only positing a supernatural or paranormal cause when all natural explanations have been decisively eliminated. Investigation seeks neither to foster nor debunk mysteries but instead to solve them.
 There are a lot of ways we can be fooled and we can fool ourselves but there are also still a lot of mysteries out there to solve. So get out there, have fun, and be skeptical.

September 20, 2011

Using Gaming for Good

Video games have become one of the go-to activities to kill time and fight boredom in our digital age. They come in all flavors and varieties; some prefer first person shooters, while others (myself included) would rather play exploratory RPGs. There are concerns and research on the effects of those games, but that's a story for a different day. Instead, let's focus on the purpose of video games. Most are just games, with no purpose outside of entertainment. But a few help progress science, such as one that modeled an HIV enzyme in just three weeks, where the best computer models failed.

...[A] microscope gives only a flat image of what to the outsider looks like a plate of one-dimensional scrunched-up spaghetti. Pharmacologists, though, need a 3-D picture that "unfolds" the molecule and rotates it in order to reveal potential targets for drugs.

This is where Foldit comes in.

Developed in 2008 by the University of Washington, it is a fun-for-purpose video game in which gamers, divided into competing groups, compete to unfold chains of amino acids -- the building blocks of proteins -- using a set of online tools


Cracking the enzyme "provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs," says the study, referring to the lifeline medication against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

It is believed to be the first time that gamers have resolved a long-standing scientific problem.

This to be awesome, in my opinion. I've played with Fold.It a little bit, but not enough to really give a review of the game.  But the fact that it is being used to do this sort of research is fantastic, and I look forward to seeing what other discoveries can be made with it, as well as what applications those discoveries may have in the medical field.

September 5, 2011

What Not to Buy: Critical Thinking Applied

Time Moneyland has put together a great list of "12 Things you should stop buying now." This is a great application of critical thinking and has something for everyone. The list covers everything from new college textbooks to super high SPF sunscreen. One of the things I also really like about the way this is put together is that it includes the exceptions to the rule. For example, they rightly point out that some people with really fair skin may need very high SPF sunscreen, however the difference between SPF 30, and SPF 50 is much less then most people think. My personal favorite, though, was probably number 1.

The pitch: Fight back against the aches, chills and other misery-inducing symptoms of the flu with herbs or vitamin supplements.

The truth: We’ll let the CDC handle this one. From the agency’s website: “There is no scientific evidence that any herbal, homeopathic or other folk remedies have any benefit against influenza.”

The exception: Chicken soup, especially if it’s homemade. No, it won’t cure anything, but if it makes you feel a little less crummy, slurp away.
If you are unfamiliar with homeopathy, it consists of diluting a substance until none of the substance remains and then calling it a cure. Nonsense is nonsense, no exceptions. And really who can argue with some nice chicken noodle soup when you're sick?