Darwin’s death, April 19, 1882, and his legacy today

April 19, 2014

This is an encore post.

We shouldn’t pass April 19 — a day marked by significant historic events through the past couple hundred years — without remembering that it is also the anniversary of the death of Darwin.

Charles Darwin in 1881, by John Collier

Charles Darwin in 1881, portrait by John Collier; after a Collier painting hanging in the Royal Society

Immortality?  Regardless Darwin’s religious beliefs (I’ll argue he remained Christian, thank you, if you wish to argue), he achieved immortality solely on the strength of his brilliant work in science. Of course he’s best known for being the first to figure out that natural and sexual selection worked as tools to sculpt species over time, a theory whose announcement he shared with Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently arrived at almost exactly the same theory but without the deep evidentiary backup Darwin had amassed.

But had evolution turned out to be a bum theory, Darwin’s other works would have qualified him as one of the greatest scientists of all time, including:

Darwin's theory set out a sequence of coral re...

Darwin’s theory set out a sequence of coral reef formation around an extinct volcanic island, becoming an atoll as the island and ocean floor subsided. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

US Geological Survey graphic demonstrating how coral atolls form on the sinking remains of old volcanic sea mounts, as Darwin described. Wikimedia commons image

  • World’s greatest collector of biological samples:  During his five years’ voyage on HMS Beagle, Darwin collected the largest collection of diverse plant and animal life ever by one person (I believe the record still stands); solely on the strength of his providing actual examples to the British Museum of so much life in so many different ecosystems worldwide, before he was 30 Darwin won election to the Royal Society.  (His election was engineered partly by friends who wanted to make sure he stayed in science, and didn’t follow through on his earlier plan to become a preacher.)
  • Geology puzzle solver:  Coral atolls remained a great geological mystery.  Sampling showed coral foundations well below 50 feet deep, a usual limit for coral growth.  In some cased old, dead coral were hundreds of feet deep.  In the South Pacific, Darwin looked at a number of coral atolls, marvelous “islands” that form almost perfectly circular lagoons.  Inspired partly by Lyell’s new encyclopedic review of  world geology, Darwin realized that the atolls he saw were the peaks of volcanic mounts.  Darwin hypothesized that the volcanoes grew from the ocean floor to the surface, and then the islands were colonized by corals.  The round shape of the volcano gave the atoll its shape.  Then the volcanic mounts eroded back, or sank down, and corals continued to grow on the old foundations.  It was a perfectly workable, natural explanation for a long-standing geologic puzzle.  (See Darwin’s monograph, Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs.)
  • Patient watcher of flowers:  Another great mystery, this time in biology, concerned how vines twined themselves onto other plants, rocks and structures.  Darwin’s genius in designing experiments shone here:  He put a vine in his study, and watched it.  Over several hours, he observed vine tendrils flailing around, until they latched on to something, and then the circular flailing motion wrapped the tendril around a stick or twig. Simple observation, but no one had ever attempted it before.  (See On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants.)
  • Champion of earthworms, and leaf mould:  Darwin suspected the high fertilizer value of “leaf mould” might be related to the action of earthworms.  Again, through well-designed experiments and simple observation, Darwin demonstrated that worms moved and aerated soil, and converted organic matter into even richer fertilizer. (See The Formation of Vegetable Moulds Through the Action of Worms.)
  • Creation of methodological science:  In all of this work, Darwin explained his processes for designing experiments, and controls, and made almost as many notes on how to observe things, as the observations themselves.  Probably more than any other single man, Darwin invented and demonstrated the use of a series of processes we now call “the scientific method.”  He invented modern science.

Any of those accomplishments would have been a career-capping work for a scientist.  Darwin’s mountains of work still form foundations of geology and biology, and are touchstones for genetics.

Born within a few hours of Abraham Lincoln on February 12, 1809, Darwin survived 17 years longer — 17 extremely productive years.  Ill through much of his life with mystery ailments, perhaps Chaga’s Disease, or perhaps some other odd parasite or virus he picked up on his world travels, Darwin succumbed to heart disease on April 19, 1882.

More:

 


Feynman: Last Journey of a Genius (NOVA, 1998)

May 12, 2013

Feynman and an O ring

Richard Feynman, and a rubber O ring. See materials on Feynman’s role on the commission investigating the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. Image from Callum Hackett via Nic Hammond

Geography and history teachers, you should watch this on the day after Feynman Day.  Can you make use of this in your classes — say, after the state tests?

How about you physics and science teachers?

English: Green: Tuvan People's Republic

Tuvan People’s Republic, marked in green. Wikipedia image

In 1998 NOVA produced and broadcast a film that rather defies categorization.  Biography? Drama? Humor? Frustrated travelogue?

“Last Journey of a Genius” tells a lot of biography of Dick Feynman, but it focuses on his unusual drive to learn about, and travel to an obscure Central Asian country/province/area/culture called Tannu Tuva.  Feynman’s close friend Ralph Leighton plays a big role in this film, too.  This film reveals more about the character of Richard Feynman, his overwhelming curiosity and humanity, than you can get any other place, including his memoirs (which every civil human should read).

NOVA captivates me almost every week.  Good fortune found me in front of a television somewhere when this was first broadcast.  For several reasons, I’ve been unable to get a VHS, or a DVD version of the story despite many attempts over the years.

But fortune and good history smile again.  Open Culture collected the film, and it’s available for free in their documentary section.

Drumming, story telling, geography, Cold War politics, ballet, more drumming, some nuclear physics, astronomy, a lot of good humor, and a plea for orange juice.  It still makes me smile.

From Open Culture:

In 1989, PBS’ NOVA aired The Last Journey of a Genius, a television film that documents the final days of the great physicist Richard Feynman and his obsession with traveling to Tannu Tuva, a state outside of outer Mongolia, which then remained under Soviet control. For the better part of a decade, Feynman and his friend Ralph Leighton schemed to make their way to Tannu Tuva, but Cold War politics always frustrated their efforts. The video runs roughly 50 minutes and features an ailing Feynman talking about his wanderlust and their maneuverings. He died two weeks later, having never made the trip, though Ralph Leighton and Feyman’s daughter Michelle later landed in their Shangri-La. Her journey was recorded by the Russian service of the BBC.

The film now appears in the Documentary section of our collection of Free Movies Online.

via Metafilter

Related Content:

Richard Feynman’s Physics Lectures Online

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Hang on to this link for Feynman Day 2014 (May 11).  What’s your favorite Feynman story?

This kind of history and science is exactly the sort of stuff CSCOPE critics in Texas, and critics of the Common Core standards, worry that children will see.  Very odd, because stuff this good is not even mentioned in CSCOPE, nor in CCSS.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Kenny Darrell, who found this film and let me know about it.

More:


Darwin’s death, April 19, 1882

April 20, 2013

We shouldn’t get out of April 19 — a day marked by significant historic events through the past couple hundred years — without remembering that it is also the anniversary of the death of Darwin.

Charles Darwin in 1881, by John Collier

Charles Darwin in 1881, portrait by John Collier; after a Collier painting hanging in the Royal Society

Immortality?  Regardless Darwin’s religious beliefs (I’ll argue he remained Christian, thank you, if you wish to argue), he achieved immortality solely on the strength of his brilliant work in science. Of course he’s best known for being the first to figure out that natural and sexual selection worked as tools to sculpt species over time, a theory whose announcement he shared with Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently arrived at almost exactly the same theory but without the deep evidentiary backup Darwin had amassed.

But had evolution turned out to be a bum theory, Darwin’s other works would have qualified him as one of the greatest scientists of all time, including:

Darwin's theory set out a sequence of coral re...

Darwin’s theory set out a sequence of coral reef formation around an extinct volcanic island, becoming an atoll as the island and ocean floor subsided. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

US Geological Survey graphic demonstrating how coral atolls form on the sinking remains of old volcanic sea mounts, as Darwin described. Wikimedia commons image

  • World’s greatest collector of biological samples:  During his five years’ voyage on HMS Beagle, Darwin collected the largest collection of diverse plant and animal life ever by one person (I believe the record still stands); solely on the strength of his providing actual examples to the British Museum of so much life in so many different ecosystems worldwide, before he was 30 Darwin won election to the Royal Society.  (His election was engineered partly by friends who wanted to make sure he stayed in science, and didn’t follow through on his earlier plan to become a preacher.)
  • Geology puzzle solver:  Coral atolls remained a great geological mystery.  Sampling showed coral foundations well below 50 feet deep, a usual limit for coral growth.  In some cased old, dead coral were hundreds of feet deep.  In the South Pacific, Darwin looked at a number of coral atolls, marvelous “islands” that form almost perfectly circular lagoons.  Inspired partly by Lyell’s new encyclopedic review of  world geology, Darwin realized that the atolls he saw were the peaks of volcanic mounts.  Darwin hypothesized that the volcanoes grew from the ocean floor to the surface, and then the islands were colonized by corals.  The round shape of the volcano gave the atoll its shape.  Then the volcanic mounts eroded back, or sank down, and corals continued to grow on the old foundations.  It was a perfectly workable, natural explanation for a long-standing geologic puzzle.  (See Darwin’s monograph, Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs.)
  • Patient watcher of flowers:  Another great mystery, this time in biology, concerned how vines twined themselves onto other plants, rocks and structures.  Darwin’s genius in designing experiments shone here:  He put a vine in his study, and watched it.  Over several hours, he observed vine tendrils flailing around, until they latched on to something, and then the circular flailing motion wrapped the tendril around a stick or twig. Simple observation, but no one had ever attempted it before.  (See On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants.)
  • Champion of earthworms, and leaf mould:  Darwin suspected the high fertilizer value of “leaf mould” might be related to the action of earthworms.  Again, through well-designed experiments and simple observation, Darwin demonstrated that worms moved and aerated soil, and converted organic matter into even richer fertilizer. (See The Formation of Vegetable Moulds Through the Action of Worms.)
  • Creation of methodological science:  In all of this work, Darwin explained his processes for designing experiments, and controls, and made almost as many notes on how to observe things, as the observations themselves.  Probably more than any other single man, Darwin invented and demonstrated the use of a series of processes we now call “the scientific method.”  He invented modern science.

Any of those accomplishments would have been a career-capping work for a scientist.  Darwin’s mountains of work still form foundations of geology and biology, and are touchstones for genetics.

Born within a few hours of Abraham Lincoln on February 12, 1809, Darwin survived 17 years longer — 17 extremely productive years.  Ill through much of his life with mystery ailments, perhaps Chaga’s Disease, or perhaps some other odd parasite or virus he picked up on his world travels, Darwin succumbed to heart disease on April 19, 1882.

More:

 


Especially on his birthday, don’t call Darwin racist — he wasn’t

February 12, 2013

Creationists, Intelligent Design proponents, and several other anti-science and historical revisionist groups come unglued every February about this time — February 12 is Charles Darwin’s birthday.  He was born in 1809, on the exact same day as Abraham Lincoln.

Part of creationists’ coming unglued revolves around that fact that the science behind evolution grows stronger year by year, and at this point no argument exists that creationists can make against evolution that has not been soundly, roundly and thoroughly.  This makes creationists nervous in a discussion, because even they recognize when they lose arguments.   Creationists don’t like to lose arguments about how well Darwin’s theories work, because they erroneously believe that if Darwin is right, God and Jesus are wrong.

God and Jesus cannot be wrong, in their view, but intellectually they see they are losing the argument, and they grow desperate.  In their desperation they grasp for claims that shock uneducated or unfamiliar viewers.  Since about 1970, among the more shocking arguments one can make is to claim one’s opponent is racist.

Claiming Darwin, and hence evolution, boost racism, slaps history with irony.  Creationism’s roots were in denying that Europeans and Africans are evolutionarily equal, a claim necessary to allow slave holders to enslave Africans and go to church on Sundays.  The Civil War is 150 years away, the Emancipation Proclamation 148 years old, and even die-hard creationists generally have forgotten their own history.

Creationists accuse Darwin of being a racist, they claim evolution theory is racist, and they claim, therefore, it cannot be scientifically accurate.  There are a lot of holes in that chain of logic.

This is Darwin’s birthday.  Let me deal with major wrong premise, and give creationists room to correct their views with accurate history, so we don’t have a shouting match.

Way back in 2008, nominally-liberal evangelical preacher Tony Campolo got suckered in by a conservative evangelicals claim to him that evolution and Darwin are racist.  Below is my answer to him then — I think Campolo learned his lesson — but this builds on the claims Campolo made which are really copied from creationists.

In short, Darwin is not racist, and here are some explanations why, with a few updated links and minor edits for Darwin’s birthday, and Lincoln’s birthday, in 2013:

Tony Campolo is an evangelical Christian, a sociology professor and preacher who for the past 15 years or so has been a thorn in the side of political conservatives and other evangelicals, for taking generally more liberal stands, against poverty, for tolerance in culture and politics, and so on. His trademark sermon is an upbeat call to action and one of the more plagiarized works in Christendom, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming” (listen to it here).

Tony Campolo, from his website

Tony Campolo, in a publicity still from his website. He should be more gray by now (this photo is no later than 2008, and probably earlier).

Since he’s so close to the mainstream of American political thought, Campolo is marginalized by many of the more conservative evangelists in the U.S. Campolo is not a frequent guest on the Trinity Broadcast Network, on Pat Robertson’s “700 Club,” nor on the white, nominally-Christian, low-budget knock-off of “Sabado Gigante!,” “Praise the Lord” (with purple hair and everything).

Campolo came closest to real national fame when he counseled President Bill Clinton on moral and spiritual issues during the Lewinsky scandal.

His opposite-editorial piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer back in 2008, “The real danger in Darwin is not evolution, but racism,” is out of character for Campolo as a non-conservative evangelistic thinker — far from what most Christians expect from Campolo either from the pulpit or in the college classroom. The piece looks as though it was lifted wholesale from Jerry Falwell or D. James Kennedy, showing little familiarity with the science or history of evolution, and repeating canards that careful Christians shouldn’t repeat.

Campolo’s piece is inaccurate in several places, and grossly misleading where it’s not just wrong. He pulls out several old creationist hoaxes, cites junk science as if it were golden, and generally gets the issue exactly wrong.

Evolution science is a block to racism. It has always stood against racism, in the science that undergirds the theory and in its applications by those scientists and policy makers who were not racists prior to their discovery of evolution theory. Darwin himself was anti-racist. One of the chief reasons the theory has been so despised throughout the American south is its scientific basis for saying whites and blacks are so closely related. This history should not be ignored, or distorted.

Shame on you, Tony Campolo.

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Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring at 50: Catalog of tributes

December 11, 2012

Over the year so many tributes, commentaries, and wild-hare critiques keep pushing Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring back into our memories, and relevance.  Too many to list and comment on, but I’ll make a list of those I found most informative or useful, and of a couple I found most repugnant.

I’ll update this list from time to time.  I’m using this as a file for my writing as well, but some of this stuff needs to be shared more broadly — and of course, I appreciate corrections and pointers to other good sources.

English: An image of the main entrance of Rach...

Main entrance of Rachel Carson Middle School, Falls Church Public Schools, Herndon, Virginia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A collection:

Good stuff on Carson and Silent Spring:

Informative:

People who don’t get it, are blinded by bias, or never had their mouths washed out with soap:

General news:

More, not categorized:


Creationism vs. Christianity (a reprise)

October 30, 2012

This is an encore post, a repeat post from about four years ago, back in 2008.  For some reason the post got a couple hundred hits one day this past week, probably from a reference at another blog that I could not track.  I reread it — still true, still good stuff.  In this campaign year of 2012, I am dismayed at how anti-science and the denial of reality haunts election discussions, especially on-line, but also in the newspapers and magazines, on television and radio, in diners and drugstore fountains, in churches and PTA meetings.  Denial of reality may or may not be a genuine ailment to humans.  When it becomes a core belief of a significant number of people, denial can cripple our nation, our states, cities and towns. We need to ask deep questions.  We need to have real answers, not fantasies nor dangerous delusions.

PhotonQ-Charles Darwin 's Office

Charles Darwin’s study, where he conducted experiments and made many of the observations he wrote about. Photo: PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE

Denying reality plagues us as an actual political response to several problems.  Denialists wander so far down paths of disreality, they argue that we should ignore serious problems, and that the problems will then go away.

Should we teach the science of evolution to our children, or should we pretend fairy tales will substitute?  This has deep meaning to those who understand that Charles Darwin’s greatest contribution to science probably was his strict methodology, which required observation of things in nature before writing about them as if authoritative.  Early in his life Darwin recognized that the natural world he saw, in Brazil, in the Galapagos Islands, in Australia and Tasmania, in South Africa, bore little resemblance to the world portrayed as authoritative by the great William Paley in his Natural Theology.  Throughout his science career Darwin observed real things in real time.  For his monograph on coral atolls, Darwin extensively observed the volcanic island phenomena throughout the South Pacific.  To write about barnacles, Darwin raised them in tanks in his study.  Looking at the mystery of exactly how the ivy twines, Darwin put a plant before him, and watched it, unraveling the secrets of how tendrils “knew” what to latch onto for support of the vine.  To write about leaf moulds, Darwin observed worms at work, in his lab and in his gardens.  To show the variation existing in what we now call the genome of a species, Darwin made extensive interviews and correspondence with animal husbanders of pigs, sheep and cattle, and he raised pigeons for generations himself, demonstrating how variations can be expressed that drive populations of one species to split into two through natural, everyday processes familiar to anyone who observed nature, and accessible by anyone who made methodical notes.

This familiarity with reality made Darwin a great scientist.  The methodology proved extendable into other areas when he carefully observed the mediums to whom his brother had cast great credence.  Charles revealed to Erasmus that spirit knocking on the tables at the séances did not occur so long as they held the hands of the mediums, who were then unable to feign the knocking.  Ultimately it provided some despair to Darwin:  In the face of criticism from William Thompson, Lord Kelvin, that the Earth was not old enough to allow for evolution as Darwin suggested it must have occurred, Darwin had no answer.  Lord Kelvin calculated the ages of the Earth and Sun to be no more than 200 million years.  This was shown by the present temperatures and color of the Earth and the Sun, and calculated by Lord Kelvin from how long it would take the Earth, known to be composed of much iron and nickel, to cool from white hot to current temperatures.  Lord Kelvin ventured deep into coal mines to measure the temperatures of the Earth deep underground, to confirm his calculations.  At his death, though he defended his own observations of fossils and breeding of live animals, Darwin had no response for those arguments.  Darwin thought there must be other forces at play.  Only some years later did Ernest Rutherford find the secret of the Earth’s heat:  Radioactive decay in the mantle and core of the planet keeps it warm.  Measures of heat loss for such a large body had not accounted for continuous heating from within.  A short while later astronomers and physicists discovered problems with Lord Kelvin’s calculations of the age of the Sun:  The Sun is not composed of iron, cooling from white hot temperatures, but instead is hydrogen, fusing into helium, and making its own heat.

Darwin’s calculations of the age of the Earth were more accurate than Lord Kelvin’s, based on Darwin’s crude calculations of how long it might take animals and plants to have evolved from much more primitive forms.  History demonstrated by easily observable things provided greater accuracy than history devised without benefit of grounding in reality.

In what other realms might grounding in reality produce answers different from what some expect, even producing better questions that many ask?  Should we consider the migratory pattern changes of birds, fish and mammals, as indicators of a warming climate, over rebuttals provided by untested claims that measuring stations might not be placed correctly?  Can we actually “cool” atoms with lasers, and use individual atoms to store information, no matter how counterintuitive that might sound?  Can it be true that teaching people about contraception, and about sex, actually prompts teenagers (and others) to reduce sexual activity and look for love, rather than just sex?  Does extending medical coverage to an entire population actually decrease total health care costs as observed in all other nations where that solution has been tried, or will it increase costs because the only way to reduce medical costs is to ration it, either with a bureaucracy, or by cutting off access by backdoor, death panel means testing (no money, no health care)?  Is there any place Arthur Laffer‘s “curve” of increasing tax revenues by cutting tax rates, actually does not work — or any place it actually works?  Has any society in history ever gotten rich by showering riches on the rich, and ignoring the poor, the merchants, and the working class?

In short, how does reality we know, inform us about reality yet to be?  Which is the more potent predictor, observed reality, or hoped-for results to the contrary?

Our future hangs on how we answer the question, probably more than what the answer actually is.

I believe Christians, the largest faith group in the U.S., have a duty to stand for reality, and truth discovered by observation.  That was the issue in 2008, too.

Here is my post of four years ago.  I noticed a few of the links no longer work; I’ll replace them with working links as I can.  If you find a bad link, please note it in comments; and if you have a better link, note that, too.

Several weeks ago [in 2008] I responded to a lengthy thread at Unreasonable FaithThe original post was Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” cartoon of the guy in a doctor’s office, just diagnosed with an infection.  The physician asks the guy if he’s a creationist, explaining that if he is, the doc will treat him with old antibiotics in honor of his belief that evolution of bacteria doesn’t occur.

Point being, of course, that evolution occurs in the real world.  Creationists rarely exhibit the faith of their claims when their life, or just nagging pain, is on the line.  They’ll choose the evolution-based medical treatment almost every time.  There are no creationists in the cancer or infectious disease wards.

At one point I responded to a comment loaded with typical creationist error.  It was a long post.  It covered some ground that I’ve not written about on this blog.  And partly because it took some time to assemble, I’m reposting my comments here.  Of course, without the Trudeau cartoon, it won’t get nearly the comments here.

I’ll add links here when I get a chance, which I lacked the time to do earlier.  See my post, below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »


One more time: Intelligent design is a pig that still doesn’t fly

July 26, 2012

Gee, I think I first posted this more than a year before the Pennsylvania decision.  In any case, the subject has come up once again in another forum:  Why don’t we teach intelligent design as an “alternative” idea in public school science classes?  The answer is, simply, ID is not science.  It’s not an alternative hypothesis, it’s a chunk of minority cult religious dogma.
Most bad science claims recirculate year after year, until they are simply educated out of existence in the public mind.  We can hope intelligent design falls into that category.  But we might worry that modern creationism, begun as a backlash to the anti-Soviet, National Defense Education Act‘s effects on beefing up science teaching in American schools, survives.
Picture from Flying Pig Brewery, Seattle, Washington
Image: Flying Pig Brewing Co., Everett, Washington

[From 2006 and 2007]:

We’re talking past each other now over at Right Reason, on a thread that started out lamenting Baylor’s initial decision to deny Dr. Francis Beckwith tenure last year, but quickly changed once news got out that Beckwith’s appeal of the decision was successful.

I noted that Beckwith’s getting tenure denies ID advocates of an argument that Beckwith is being persecuted for his ID views (wholly apart from the fact that there is zero indication his views on this issue had anything to do with his tenure discussions). Of course, I was wrong there — ID advocates have since continued to claim persecution where none exists. Never let the facts get in the way of a creationism rant, is the first rule of creationism.

Discussion has since turned to the legality of teaching intelligent design in a public school science class. This is well settled law — it’s not legal, not so long as there remains no undisproven science to back ID or any other form of creationism.

Background: The Supreme Court affirmed the law in a 1987 case from Louisiana, Edwards v. Aguillard (482 U.S. 578), affirming a district court’s grant of summary judgment against a state law requiring schools to teach creationism whenever evolution was covered in the curriculum. Summary judgment was issued by the district court because the issues were not materially different from those in an earlier case in Arkansas, McLean vs. Arkansas (529 F. Supp. 1255, 1266 (ED Ark. 1982)). There the court held, after trial, that there is no science in creationism that would allow it to be discussed as science in a classroom, and further that creationism is based in scripture and the advocates of creationism have religious reasons only to make such laws. (During depositions, each creationism advocate was asked, under oath, whether they knew of research that supports creationism; each answered “no.” Then they were asked where creationism comes from, and each answered that it comes from scripture. It is often noted how the testimony changes from creationists, when under oath.)

Especially after the Arkansas trial, it was clear that in order to get creationism into the textbooks, creationists would have to hit the laboratories and the field to do some science to back their claims. Oddly, they have staunchly avoided doing any such work, instead claiming victimhood, usually on religious grounds. To the extent ID differs from all other forms of creationism, the applicability of the law to ID was affirmed late last year in the Pennsylvania case, Kitzmiller v. Dover. (Please go read that case!)

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Michael Pollan at TEDS: What do potatoes think of us?

December 29, 2011

Pollan asks a provocative question:  Do we force plants to do our bidding when we breed them, or are we being manipulated by them?

Pollan is the author of Botany of Desire, a great book.  There is a PBS production based on the book.


Scenes from a beach: At the edge of the sea

December 20, 2011

Interesting little bauble in the Biloxi-Gulfport (Mississippi) Sun-Herald, I think from their columnist George Thatcher:

Cover of Rachel Carson's "The Edge of the Sea"

Good teacher resource for National Environmental Week, April 15-21, 2012

December 20 Scenes from the beach

“To stand at the edge of the sea,” wrote Rachel Carson, “… is to have knowledge of things that are as eternal, as any earthly life can be.”* The things that we see this morning–a cerulean sea and sky, the shorebirds, the sun still near the horizon — are identically the same objects that could be seen in Cambrian times, eons ago. There is a sense of the eternal in the objects viewed today. And I suppose there will be little change in a faraway eon that lies in some future age. — Diary, autumn 2011

* At the Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson; Signet Books, New York (1955)

Read more here: http://www.sunherald.com/2011/12/19/3641733/december-20-scenes-from-the-beach.html#storylink=cpy

One should read Rachel Carson to get closer to the universe, not for political reasons, not necessarily for the science.  But being scientifically accurate, and being close to the pulse of the universe, Carson’s views will change your politics for the better if you really read and listen.


Joy of pollination, according to Louie Schwartzberg

November 21, 2011

It’s a TEDS Talk, of course

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it.  Plants do it, too, but often with the help of animals.

Here are some of the most glorious pictures of sex you’ll ever see, filmed by Louie Schwartzberg.  Anyone who has ever tried to take a good photograph should marvel at these shots, and the skill and artistry and luck it took to get them:

What will we do if the bees vanish?

The lowdown:

http://www.ted.com Pollination: it’s vital to life on Earth, but largely unseen by the human eye. Filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg [of Moving Art] shows us the intricate world of pollen and pollinators with gorgeous high-speed images from his film “Wings of Life,” inspired by the vanishing of one of nature’s primary pollinators, the honeybee.


Build-a-Prairie update

October 27, 2011

For a couple of years, about this time of year, the Bathtub gets a lot of hits from people looking to play a great little environmental simulation game called “Build-a-Prairie.”  It used to be housed at the site of the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota.

Alas, money ran out, or the proprietors simply decided not to support it anymore (it was originally sponsored by AT&T), or something, but for whatever reason the game is no longer found at the Bell Museum.

Is it available somewhere else?

Someone at SmartBoard shrewdly captured the game for use with SmartBoards.   At least, I hope they captured it.

Any other places the game can be found?

Nice Update:    Mr. Higginbotham found the Build-a-Prairie game, at the Bell Museum site:  http://www.bellmuseum.umn.edu/games/prairie/build/


Evidence of evolution: Giraffe’s laryngeal nerve

October 8, 2011

One of my favorite examples of evolution and how we can see it in living things today:  The laryngeal nerve of the giraffe, linking larynx to brain, a few inches away — but because of evolutionary developments, instead dropping from the brain all the way down the neck to the heart, and then back up to the larynx.  In giraffe’s the nerve can be as much as 15 feet long, to make a connection a few inches away.  Richard Dawkins explains:

All mammals have the nerve, and as a result of our fishy ancestry, in all mammals, the nerve goes down the neck, through a heart blood vessel, and back up.  In fish, of course, the distance is shorter — fish have no necks.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Pharyngula’s Sciblogs site.

Yes, the laryngeal nerve is sometimes called the vagus nerve, because it originates off of the vagus nerve.

Giraffe's laryngeal nerve, easily explained by evolution; paints of picture of an evil, joker designer otherwise.

Giraffe’s laryngeal nerve, easily explained by evolution; paints picture of an evil, joker designer otherwise.


Crazy ants? Hey, I warned you . . .

October 2, 2011

Just over two years ago I noted the pending, rolling disaster of the introduction of Caribbean Crazy Ants, or Rasberry Crazy Ants, to the American South.

Associated Press is catching up.

Now, will you listen to me when I tell you not to vote for Rick Perry?   Will you listen when I tell you we need to control CO² emissions?


Carnival of Evolution #38 — take THAT, creationism!

August 5, 2011

Larry Moran is much the overachiever, sort of the Hermoine Granger of evolution wizards scientists.

Carnival of Evolution logo

So, we shouldn’t be surprised that his hosting of the Carnival of Evolution #38 at his rollicking blog Sandwalk resulted in one of the longest, largest, most jam-packed blog carnivals ever.

Go see — unless you’re a creationist.  If you’re a creationist you’ll see so much that you’ll begin to doubt your faith in creationism and anti-science, and then you’re likely to confuse that with doubt of God, and you can’t stand such a faith trial.

Yeah, you, Don McLeroy.  And you, Granville Sewell.  More knowledge than you can hold in your head.

Which article in the Carnival of Evolution is your favorite, Dear Reader?

Tip of the old scrub brush to P. S. Myers at Pharyngula (soon moving . . .).


How to make a dinosaur: Start with a chicken . . .

July 25, 2011

Dinosaur hunter extraordinaire Jack Horner explained to an audience at TEDS that he always wanted a pet dinosaur . . .

(From a talk recorded March 4 2011.)

Jack Horner may look familiar to you.  Or you may not recognize him without the cowboy hat.  Horner is famous enough in dinosaurphile circles that a character who looked like Horner, down to the red shirt and cowboy hat, was included in the Jurassic Park movies.

This is, in loose form, real science.  It’s the sort of stuff that somehow gets squeezed out of science curricula in middle schools and high schools.  What student will not find it interesting to talk about why we can’t clone dinosaurs from mosquitoes trapped in amber, but how we can regress a chicken to bring out atavistic traits?

Such material may cause apoplexy among some cliques at the Texas State Board of Education — because this reinforces evolution ideas.  Horner says, “We can fix the chicken — because evolution works.”

Science teachers:  Can you find some way to shoehorn this stuff back into your classes?


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