Holding the world hostage.

August 1, 2011

Imagine, if you will, a small group of people keeping a large group of people hostage, threatening harm to them and with uncertain outcome, unless another group concedes to their ideological demands. If the ideology in question is Islamic fundamentalism, then these people would likely be labeled terrorists. But what if the ideology is ultra-right-wing conservatism? That is the scenario playing out right now with the Tea Party.

This vocal and intensely ideological faction of the Republican Party is holding the entire economy of the United States, and by extension the people of the United States – not to mention economies around the world – hostage. Why? Because they stubbornly adhere to an ideology of reduced taxation, and refuse to allow new taxation to resolve the debt crisis. Never mind the economic theory, and to hell with actual common sense. It’s their way or the highway.

The frightening thing is that this group is the same group that criticized Obama for opening dialog with Iran. They criticized him for even thinking of “negotiating with the enemy”. So we know, and Obama should have known, that these people will not negotiate, and yet the Tea Party knows that Obama will, and they are willing to recklessly bet the global economy that Obama will blink first. Unless the President can find a way to bypass the impasse through executive orders, I suspect he will have no choice but to cave to their demands – because unlike them, he has enough of a conscience to recognize that the needs of the many far outweigh the ideological standpoint of the few.

The Tea Party are terrorists. Fuck you, Tea Party.

Gliese 581g – Define “Habitable”

October 1, 2010

Much has been made of the announcement about the recently announced discovery of a potentially habitable planet around a nearby sun. The planet, dubbed Gliese 581g is estimated to be around 3 times the Earth’s mass, and about 1.5 x it’s diameter (depending on composition).

The excitment over this particular exoplanet – the 492nd discovered – is that it lies in the “goldilocks zone” where th etemperature is not too hot, not too cold. That is, its distance from the star is such that the surface temperature is likely to be such that liquid water could exist on the surface, something that is key to life as we know it.

However, the announcements touting “Scientists discover habitable planet” and “Earthlike planet discovered around nearby star” are grossly misleading.

It is true that Gliese 581g lies in the goldilocks zone. However, we know nothing of its composition, its amosphere, or its rotation. This latter is important, as the planet lies only 0.15 AU’s from its parent star. In contrast, Mercury 0.39 AU’s from our sun. 581g’s proximity to the star means the planet is likely tidally locked – in other words, one side always faces the star, the other away. One side would be a permanent, hot day, the other a permanent, frozen night. Even with an atmosphere to carry heat back and forth between the two sides, much of the water and other atmospheric gases could freeze out on the night side, leaving a thinner atmosphere, and permanent desert on the day side. The temperature along the terminator (the “twilight zone”) should be intermediate, allowing for liquid water, but not if all the water is frozen on the night side.

On the other hand, the star Gliese 581 is a red dwarf star (which is why the goldilocks zone i sso close), which is very stable and long lived, so if there were conditions suitable to life, it would have a good ling time to evolve.

Until we have the tools available to analyze the spectrum of the atmosphere, we really can’t know any more, as much as we want to speculate.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get excited – far from it. The discovery of Gliese 581g tells us something very important. It tells us that there are two earth(ish) size planets orbiting in the goldilocks zone in a tiny volume of space (relatively speaking) – Gliese 581g and our own. the statistical implication is that goldilocks planets are likely common in the galaxy. And that means that even if 581g is a lifeless, half-frozen wasteland, there are more earthlike planets out there.

The Triceratops that Never Wasn’t

August 11, 2010


I recently returned from a holiday abroad to find headlines proclaiming that Triceratops Never Existed! My first thought was of course, WTF? And my second thought was, just how stupid are they? And then the little pessimistic third thought was that the way this story is being waved about, it will be used as “ammunition” by antievolutionists, one more little item with which to further wrap themselves in ignorance.

So here is the story.

Ceratopsian dinosaurs were (mostly) large, quadrupedal herbivoves with a frill behind the skull, and many bore horns from the nose and/or the top of the skull over the eyes. There is substantial diversity in the group in the shape and size of the frill and horns, leading to the definition of many different genera and species. But there is also variation within each species, blurring the boundaries between the different classifications. Because of this, the group as a whole has undergone taxonomic revision several times. The recent work by John Scanella and Jack Horner continues this trend by further clarifying the taxonomy of this intriguing group.

Scanella and Horner surveyed known specimens of the ceratopsian classified as Torosaurus, and concluded that the developmental and morphological evidence suggests they are not members of a separate genus, but in fact “fully grown” members of Triceratops. This is bolstered by the fact that there are no known juvenile Torosaurus remains – though the discovery of such remains would, of course, reverse this change in classification. Since the name Triceratops was coined first, it remains while Torosaurus becomes obsolete (pending further study and corroboration by other researchers). This sort of thing happens all the time, partly because defining “species” for organisms that have been dead for 70 million years with only a limited dataset is tricky business, and partly because we learn more. Science progresses.

So, in fact, the story headlines should have read “Torosaurus reclassified as adult Triceratops“. But a) that requires understanding what is being written, and b) wouldn’t sell papers. It really ticks me off just how wrong the statement “Triceratops never existed” really is. Animals classified as Triceratops and Torosaurus did exist, which is why we have their fossils. The classification of one of these groups may be in error, but it would be Torosaurus that ceases to be as a genus.

On the Verge

March 30, 2010

We are now only hours away from the first attempted collisions in the LHC at an energy level of 7 TeV. This is the single largest scientific experiment in human history. The status can be followed online in real time:


More on global warming and the hacked emails

December 5, 2009

New Scientist has published a thorough overview of global warming, and why the hacked emails are largely irrelevant.

The leaking of emails and other documents from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, UK, has led to a media and political storm. The affair is being portrayed as a scandal that undermines the science behind climate change. It is no such thing, and here’s why.

We can be 100 per cent sure the world is getting warmer

Read the full article.

On East Anglia CRU’s hacked files

November 24, 2009

One scientific issue that may polarize people even more than evolution is anthropogenic global warming – the idea that CO2 from human activity is throwing off the natural balance, leading to significant, possibly irreversible,  greenhouse warming.

The proponents argue that there is significant evidence that CO2 levels have risen faster since industrialization than any time in the geologic record, and that the temperature and climate profile are consistent with rising temperatures induced by GHG’s. Increased energy in the atmosphere could not only lead to rising temperatures, but increased storm activity, melting ice caps, increasing sea levels, and ultimately economic disaster and the displacement of a significant portion of humanity.

The naysayers claim that the evidence is inconclusive (at best) or nonexistant (at worst). Further, they argue that Global Warming Propagandists (or “Warmers”) are threatening global economic stability for personal agenda, or even personal gain.

Significant fuel for this dispute was tossed into the flames this week with the “hacking” of emails and data files from the University of East Anglia Climate Reasearch Unit (CRU). Selected exerpts mention using “tricks” in the data, and “hiding” a decline in temperatures. Sites sharing this information – purporting to blow the whistle – go over the top with rhetoric about how ALL of climate research from “warmers” and alarmists can immediately be dismissed because of clear evidence of fraud and conspiracy.

Folks, chill.

This leak of private information in no way informs the debate. None. This is private communication, out of context, taken illegally. Third party interpretation and trumpeting is not even remotely reliable. Why? because those spreading the files have as much of an agenda as they purport the “warmists” to have. Innuendo and quote mining is not the way to win an argument upon which the future of humanity may rest. Sorry, but it’s not.

There are legitimate scientific questions still outstanding about climate change, because we don’t have a control earth to compare with. But the venue to resolve those problems is in the scientific literature, not FOX news. But, you cry, how can we trust the Warmist conspirators to allow unbiased peer review? Well, the criminal responsible for stealing and publishing the CRU files has seen to that. Climate research will now undergo an extra-thorough level of review, simply because everyone is watching. Carefully. Of course, that goes for all climate research, including that indicating minimal anthropogenic effect. So perhaps the theft will have a beneficial effect in that scrutiny will be even more thorough (not that it wasn’t before), but perhaps it will also delay important research.

In the end, I suspect nothing useful will come from the stolen files, but the potential for setbacks to important research is significant.

Newly discovered mutation protects against prion disease

November 19, 2009

A recent article in New Scientist is a perfect illustration of how mutations can be beneficial, how beneficial genes can spread rapidly, and how humans are still evolving.

The mutation is a single amino acid change that appears to provide complete resistance to kuru, a prion disease similar to CJD or mad cow disease. Kuru was passed on through ritual cannibalism in Papua New Guinea, when family members ate the brain of the dead out of respect. Of course, once the disease began to spread, more funerals would lead to more cannibalism, which lead to more disease.

The protective gene is thought to have arisen within the last 200 years, and spread rapidly due to the selective pressure of kuru on the community.

Something from Nothing

September 3, 2009

This story from New Scientist  illustrates the power behind the complexity of living things. It was once thought that all new genes had to come from modifications of existing genes. This is of course great fodder for creationists, who then ask “where did the first genes come from?” A few years ago, de novo genes – genes that arose from scratch from previously non-coding DNA – were found in fruit flies. It now turns out that humans, too, carry de novo genes. Three genes carried by humans, but no other primates, appear to be the result of mutations in nonsense, or non-coding sequences of DNA. The fact that these genes are active in all sequenced human genomes implies that they do perform a beneficial function, though what that is, is as yet unknown.

On Health Care

August 20, 2009

This is somewhat off topic from my usual posts, but it is something I feel rather strongly about. With the current US administration discussing socialized health care, the conservative critics are once again screaming that this would raise the cost, limit accessibility, stifle innovation, infringe on personal rights, yada yada.
Let me just say this:
Those in the US with scads of cash who can afford premium health care and premium insurance have access to some of the best medical care in the world. And the most expensive. These people are the minority. The majority of the population has access to public clinics, or limited-insurance sponsored clinics that get paid extra for not referring patients to the tests they need. Oh, and they can’t afford the outrageous cost of prescription meds, which can be many times the cost of the same meds in other countries.
Let me make a comparison with other state-operated social services, such as, say, police and fire departments.
Imagine the following scenario:
You get mugged at knifepoint, the thief steals your wallet and runs into an alley. You call for help, a policeman shows up, but refuses to help until you have paid up front. You protest that the whole point is that you just had your wallet stolen with all your money, and the thief is standing right over there. Still, he refuses to assist until a deposit is given.
Or imagine your house catches fire, you get your family out, the fire truck arrives, and the driver says they cannot begin until they are paid. You explain that your money is inside the burning house, and would they be able to bill you afterward. They could, says the fireman, but they would need some collateral. Like your house. Which is rapidly loosing value…
These same scenarios are panning out in emergency rooms and medical offices across the country. But it’s an issue of liberty. My ass.
Properly run healthcare is cheaper, with greater accessibility for more people. And as for innovation, most of it comes from research institutions (ie universities), not private medical offices.
These arguments are simply smokescreens from idealogues who are rabidly allergic to anything even remotely resembling socialism. But socilaized medicine is not communism. And if you think it is, well, we can just tell that to the police and fire departments as well the next time you run into trouble.

Stupid Quote of the Decade

May 22, 2009

Don McLeroy, chair of the Board of Education in Texas has this to say about Science:

Somebody has to stand up to the experts!

He even goes on to describe these experts as

…very brilliant, wonderful people

who certainly know a shitload more about evolution than McLeroy too, but somebody has to stand up to ’em. Just ’cause.

Video courtesy of the wonderful people at the NCSE