Posts filed under 'Science'

Whistling Past The Great Filter

I am just not buying the happy theory that we have already passed through “The Great Filter” that prevents the rise of spacefaring civilizations.  It completely overlooks the possibility that advanced technological civilizations become so enormous and voracious that they are very much at risk of depleting their resources and bringing about the ecological collapse of their planet long before they develop the capacity for interstellar travel.

That certainly seems to be the path that we’re on, unless we come up with a technological fix or finally develop the will to rely on less destructive forms of energy, neither of which seems to be happening anytime soon.

3 comments September 3rd, 2014 at 07:23am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Energy,Environment,Science

They Distort, We Deride

Apparently it wasn’t enough for Fox News to insist on calling the public option “the government option” or “the so-called public option” (whatever that means). Chief propagandist Managing editor Bill Sammon also insisted that Fox News talking heads “refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based on data that critics have called into question.”

This is either truly shocking ignorance or appalling dishonesty on Fox’s part. Sammon isn’t just trying to deny that global warming is caused by manmade activity, he’s trying to deny that it’s happening at all, as if historical temperature measurements are somehow subjective or a matter of opinion.

That the 2000s were the warmest decade on record isn’t a “theory” (I’m not even sure what that’s supposed to mean), it’s an indisputable fact, and the so-called Climategate scandal had nothing to do with it. If you want to argue over whether that was caused by carbon emissions or sunspots or geological cycles, fine – I still think you’re a dishonest hack, but at least you’d be arguing about facts on the ground instead of being one of those idiots who claims that because it’s cold today global warming must be a hoax.

And tens of millions of Americans get their “news” from these shameless corporate liars. I weep.

(Crossposted at My FDL)

1 comment December 15th, 2010 at 11:35am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Environment,Media,Republicans,Science,Wankers

The Real Villains

It’s those damn scientists, of course:

MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell: Some of the scientific estimates, Mr Dudley, have been vastly hugher. The Perdue scientist Steve Wereley said that as much as 100,000 barrels a day – 4.2 million gallons of oil every day were leaking. Could it be that bad?

BP’s Dudley: Andrea, it’s not anything like that, and I find those statements alarming. I think they’re alarming to the people on the Gulf Coast. I think it actually damages the Gulf Coast. There are people now saying, “I don’t want to near Florida, Alabama, Mississippi.” Those beaches are clean, the fishing is good. I think it’s actually hurting the local economy with that sort of alarmist statements. No. I think it’s highly unlikely oil will actually reach the beaches of Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi.

It’s a well-known fact that the leading cause of fish kills is actually alarmist scientists.  Sea life is very sensitive to bad vibes, you see.

May 21st, 2010 at 11:35am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Energy,Environment,Science,Wankers

Evolution And Culture

Fascinating story in yesterday’s NYT about how culture has shaped human evolution (the prime example was how the domestication of cattle led to the development of lactose tolerance in adults).  What was particularly surprising to me was that the notion of culture driving evolution was until recently in disfavor, on the grounds that the development of civilization has sheltered us from the harshness of nature.

While it’s true  that civilized life protects us from some physical dangers, it has its own completely new set of dangers, opportunities, and pressures: New foods, new social and technological complexities, new living environments.  In effect, every time our culture progresses to a new level, it’s like we’ve migrated to an entirely new habitat.  How could that not cause us to change?

3 comments March 3rd, 2010 at 06:20pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Science

Dreaming Is Free

Yet another new theory on the purpose of dreams:

In a paper published last month in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Dr. J. Allan Hobson, a psychiatrist and longtime sleep researcher at Harvard, argues that the main function of rapid-eye-movement sleep, or REM, when most dreaming occurs, is physiological. The brain is warming its circuits, anticipating the sights and sounds and emotions of waking.

“It helps explain a lot of things, like why people forget so many dreams,” Dr. Hobson said in an interview. “It’s like jogging; the body doesn’t remember every step, but it knows it has exercised. It has been tuned up. It’s the same idea here: dreams are tuning the mind for conscious awareness.”

Drawing on work of his own and others, Dr. Hobson argues that dreaming is a parallel state of consciousness that is continually running but normally suppressed during waking.


In study published in September in the journal Sleep, Ursula Voss of J. W. Goethe-University in Frankfurt led a team that analyzed brain waves during REM sleep, waking and lucid dreaming. It found that lucid dreaming had elements of REM and of waking — most notably in the frontal areas of the brain, which are quiet during normal dreaming. Dr. Hobson was a co-author on the paper.

“You are seeing this split brain in action,” he said. “This tells me that there are these two systems, and that in fact they can be running at the same time.”

I’m not entirely sure I buy the parallel systems theory, unless that parallel system serves some other function when we’re awake.  Another sleep scientist mentioned in the story believes that dreaming is simply what happens when our consciousness is cut off from sensory inputs, but I don’t think I buy that either, but perhaps it was inelegantly explained.  I have a hard time believing that our whole consciousness is online when we’re dreaming, but I can certainly believe that there’s some kernel or submodule of consciousness that’s always on, and which produces strange and unpredictable output when separated from the rest of the mind and senses.  In which case it’s not really all that different from Hobson’s theory.

Anyway, I’m fascinated by brain stuff, especially anything that suggests that there are multiple semi-autonomous modules in there.

1 comment November 10th, 2009 at 07:43am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science

People Who It Sucks To Be

You know, if I’m going to spend 100, or even 520 days in sanity-imperiling near-isolation, I damn well better be on Mars when it’s all over.

July 14th, 2009 at 09:57pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Science

The Fats Of Life?

It looks like biologists are closing in on the answers to some longstanding questions about how life first evolved:

The origins of life on Earth bristle with puzzle and paradox. Which came first, the proteins of living cells or the genetic information that makes them? How could the metabolism of living things get started without an enclosing membrane to keep all the necessary chemicals together? But if life started inside a cell membrane, how did the necessary nutrients get in?


The three researchers, Jack W. Szostak, David P. Bartel and P. Luigi Luisi, published a somewhat adventurous manifesto in Nature in 2001, declaring that the way to make a synthetic cell was to get a protocell and a genetic molecule to grow and divide in parallel, with the molecules being encapsulated in the cell. If the molecules gave the cell a survival advantage over other cells, the outcome would be “a sustainable, autonomously replicating system, capable of Darwinian evolution,” they wrote.


Simple fatty acids, of the sort likely to have been around on the primitive Earth, will spontaneously form double-layered spheres, much like the double-layered membrane of today’s living cells. These protocells will incorporate new fatty acids fed into the water, and eventually divide.

Living cells are generally impermeable and have elaborate mechanisms for admitting only the nutrients they need. But Dr. Szostak and his colleagues have shown that small molecules can easily enter the protocells. If they combine into larger molecules, however, they cannot get out, just the arrangement a primitive cell would need. If a protocell is made to encapsulate a short piece of DNA and is then fed with nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA, the nucleotides will spontaneously enter the cell and link into another DNA molecule.

IANAB (I am not a biologist), but this does sound promising.  Cell formation isn’t the only question about how life got started – the article goes on to describe advances in understanding RNA replication, nucleotide pair formation, and some things about the “handedness” of the various component molecules.  Fascinating stuff.

June 16th, 2009 at 07:34am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science

Paleontology Fail

fail owned pwned pictures has a most entertaining Top 10 list of embarrassing moments in the history of paleontology.  The middle four are my favorites:

4. The Caterpillars that Killed the Dinosaurs

Caterpillars evolved in the late Cretaceous period, shortly before the dinosaurs went extinct. Coincidence, or something more sinister? A while back, scientists were semi-convinced by the theory that hordes of voracious caterpillars stripped ancient forests of their leaves, causing the starvation of herbivorous dinosaurs (and of the carnivorous dinosaurs that fed on them). Death-by-caterpillar still has its adherents, but today, most experts believe the dinosaurs were done in by a massive meteor impact–which somehow sounds more convincing!

5. The Elasmosaurus with a Head on its Tail

In 1868, one of the longest-running feuds in modern science got off to a rousing start when paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope reconstructed an Elasmosaurus skeleton with its head on its tail, rather than its neck (to be fair, no one had ever seen such a long-necked reptile before). According to legend, the error was quickly pointed out (in a not-very-friendly way) by Cope’s rival, Othniel C. Marsh, the first shot in what came to be known as the “Bone Wars” of the late 19th century.

6. Hydrarchos, the Ruler of the Sea

The early 19th century was the “Gold Rush” of dinosaur paleontology, with biologists, anatomists, geologists, and just plain amateurs rushing to unearth the latest spectacular fossils. The culmination of this trend happened in 1845, when Albert Koch displayed a gigantic aquatic reptile he named Hydrarchos, which had actually been pieced together from the skeletal remains of five separate whales. After his hoax was exposed, one wag appended the species name “sillimani” to the fearsome “Hydrarchos” genus.

7. The Oviraptor that Kidnapped its Own Eggs

When the fossil of this small Mongolian theropod was discovered in 1923, its skull was only four inches away from a clutch of Protoceratops eggs, prompting paleontologist Henry Osborn to assign it the name Oviraptor (Greek for “egg thief”). For years afterward, Oviraptor lingered in the popular imagination as a wily, hungry, none-too-nice gobbler of other dinosaurs’ young. The trouble is, it was later shown that those “Protoceratops” eggs were really Oviraptor eggs, and the misunderstood reptile was simply guarding its own brood!

Shorter Paleontology: D’oh!

June 5th, 2009 at 09:33pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science

The Faces Of Our Ancestors

Sarah Krulwich/New York Times

Today’s NYT Science Times has a fascinating profile of Victor Deak, who uses facial reconstruction techniques to turn hominid skulls into faces.  But not just any faces – no matter how primitive (or in some cases outright bizarre), Deak somehow manages to give our long-dead ancestors and cousins dignity, serenity, curiosity, intelligence and, yes, humanity.

Well, except for the neanderthal, who just looks confused and dismayed.

Be sure to check out Deak’s physical and virtual reconstructions at his own website. It’s absolutely mesmerizing.

2 comments June 2nd, 2009 at 11:40am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Art/Architecture,Coolness,Science

Mike Pence Is Not Anti-Science

…Except for, y’know, the whole Science part:

In a contentious debate with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews today, the third-ranking House Republican claimed that the science behind climate change is “mixed.” Pence did, however, admit that it is “fair” to question whether that makes him a discredited messenger on energy issues:

PENCE: Well let me tell you. I think the science is very mixed on the subject of global warming, Chris.


“In the mainstream media, there is a denial of the growing skepticism in the scientific community on global warming,” Pence bellowed. Watch it:

It’s unclear what “growing skepticism” on man-made climate change Pence is seeing. But his anti-science tirade was just beginning. Pence then defended his party’s opposition to embryonic stem cell research, falsely claiming there were alternatives that “obviated” the need for embryonic research. And when Matthews pressed Pence on whether he believes in evolution — an undeniable fact and the foundation of biology — Pence said he believes in creationism:

PENCE: Uh, do I believe in evolution? I embrace the view that God created the Heavens and the Earth, the Seas and all that’s in them. The means that he used to do that, I can’t say, but I do believe in that fundamental truth.

“Did you take biology in school?” asked an incredulous Matthews. “If your party wants to be credible on science, you gotta accept science. … I don’t think your party is passionately committed to science, or fighting global warming, or dealing with the scientific facts we live with.”

“Tell me what you really think, Chris,” Pence retorted. “This anti-science thing is a little bit weak.”

Yeah, smooth move saying that “the anti-science thing” is weak… immediately after denying a whole bunch of it.  I’m sure Americans are just dying to put the anti-reality party back in power.

May 6th, 2009 at 07:13am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Republicans,Science,Wankers

One More Thing To Worry About

As if the swine flu (also known as “flu”) wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that there’s a microscopically slim chance that the Large Hadron Collider could create a black hole which would devour the Earth very, very slowly.

Now I’ll never get to sleep.

May 5th, 2009 at 06:10pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Science

John Tierney, Unconcern Troll

Shorter John Tierney: We don’t have to worry about reducing carbon emissions, it’ll just magically take care of itself because we’ll all be rich!

…Or something.

April 21st, 2009 at 07:05am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Energy,Environment,Media,Republicans,Science,Wankers

Kung Fu Gland

Just a little something I stumbled upon at Stumbleupon:

Kung Fu Gland

I always wondered where my kung fu gland was located.  And whether I even had one.

April 9th, 2009 at 07:58pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Comics,Coolness,Science,Weirdness

Schizophrenics 1, Hollow Mask 0

It’s ironic that at least in this one small way, schizophrenics have a firmer grasp on reality than the rest of us.

Schizophrenia sufferers aren’t fooled by an optical illusion known as the “hollow mask” that the rest of us fall for because connections between the sensory and conceptual areas of their brains might be on the fritz.

In the hollow mask illusion, viewers perceive a concave face (like the back side of a hollow mask) as a normal convex face. The illusion exploits our brain’s strategy for making sense of the visual world: uniting what it actually sees — known as bottom-up processing — with what it expects to see based on prior experience — known as top-down processing.


This powerful expectation overrides visual cues, like shadows and depth information, that indicate anything to the contrary.

But patients with schizophrenia are undeterred by implausibility: They see the hollow face for what it is…. Some psychologists believe [their] dissociation from reality may result from an imbalance between bottom-up and top-down processing — a hypothesis ripe for testing using the hollow mask illusion.


When healthy subjects looked at the concave faces, connections strengthened between the frontoparietal network, which is involved in top-down processing, and the visual areas of the brain that receive information from the eyes. In patients with schizophrenia, no such strengthening occurred.

Dima thinks when healthy subjects see the illusion, which is somewhat ambiguous, their brains strengthen this connection such that what they expect — a normal face — becomes more influential, overpowering the actual, though unlikely, visual information. Schizophrenia patients, meanwhile, may be unable to modulate this pathway, accepting the concave face as reality.

It makes sense.  The brain uses all kinds of behind-the-scenes processing and shortcuts to (usually) simplify and manage our perceptions – anyone whose brain is unable to do that is necessarily going to experience the world in a very different way.  In some cases malfunctioning filters might make someone more perceptive, but it’s more likely that they’ll be flooded and overwhelmed (the filters are there for a reason, after all).  This was actually the explanation for the Joker’s insanity in the Arkham Asylum graphic novel: He’s mad because he perceives everything.

2 comments April 7th, 2009 at 08:34pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science,Weirdness

Museum Musings

So I was in Philadelphia for a few days this week, and found myself with time to kill on Thursday.  I found a Thai/Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown that had avocado milkshakes, then walked up to the Franklin Institute and the Mutter Museum, taking pictures as I went.

As I kind of expected, most of the Franklin Institute was pretty mobbed with school groups, but the exhibit on Galileo and astronomy in the time of the Medicis was blissfully quiet.  It was mostly books (behind glass, strategically opened to key pages) and scientific instruments like compasses, astrolabes, armillary spheres, and, of course, telescopes.  And as I browsed through the various accomplishments of people like Galileo and Kepler and Huygens, I was struck by just how much of the knowledge that we take for granted was discovered by just a few very smart guys.

I had a pretty good idea of what Galileo achieved, and I knew that Kepler figured out that the planets orbited in ellipses and Huygens figured out that Saturn had rings, but they did a lot more than that.  Kepler actually studied the optics of the eye to improve the telescope; Huygens also designed his own telescope, the pendulum clock, the balance spring clock, and a pocket watch.  Huygens also helped advance calculus, probability theory, and the wave concept of light.  These guys were creative in multiple directions, and in many cases their discoveries were very much at odds with the consensus of accepted (and acceptable) knowledge.  Sure, it all makes sense now, but back then they had to come up with their theories entirely on their own in a time when their ideas were counterintuitive if not heretical.

The Mutter Museum, as I also kind of expected, had no kids at all.  It’s basically a museum of medical oddities, with all manner of cancers, growths, deformities and rot.  It’s like a crash course in everything that can possibly go wrong with the human body.  Sure, most of the time everything works pretty well, but some of the glitches are spectacular and disturbing.  Skulls rotted away by syphilis, conjoined twins, fetuses without brains or skulls (or even heads), a giant colon, ovarian cysts the size of beagles.  It was morbidly fascinating, and I came out of there very grateful for all the bullets I’ve been lucky enough to dodge – so far, at least.  I can’t recommend it enough, but only if you’re not squeamish.

April 4th, 2009 at 07:36pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Science

Space Travel, Hold The Space

Wood Panel To Fake Mars

This is cool but strange:

On Tuesday, six people will be voluntarily locked into a cloister of cramped, hermetically sealed tubes woven inside a Moscow research facility the size of a high school gymnasium. They will eat dehydrated food, breathe recycled air and be denied conversation with practically everyone else but one another.

And they must stay inside for 105 days.

In a small step in the direction of Mars, the international crew is embarking on a simulated flight to the planet to test the limits of human tolerance for the isolation and monotony of interplanetary travel.

“It is really like a real space flight without the weightlessness and the danger to our lives,” said Sergei N. Ryazansky, a cosmonaut-in-training who will lead the mission. “On the inside, we will have a lack of incoming information, so it’s the science of sensory deprivation.”

Called Mars-500, the Russian-led project based at the Institute for Biomedical Problems here will culminate in a 520-day simulation beginning early next year of a complete manned mission to the planet — a time frame that incorporates launching to Mars touchdown and back — that scientists hope will edge humanity a little closer to that next giant leap.

It sounds a little crazy, but maintaining crew sanity for a year-and-a-half trip is at least as important and perhaps even as daunting as the engineering challenges of making such a trip technically  possible.

I just didn’t expect it to involve quite so much wood paneling.

3 comments March 31st, 2009 at 07:12am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science,Weirdness

Dogs: So Like Us

Not sure I totally buy this, but it’s interesting:

Chimpanzees share many of our genes, but dogs have lived with us for so long and undergone so much domestication that they are now serving as a model for understanding human social behavior, according to a new paper.

Cooperation, attachment to people, understanding human verbal and non-verbal communications, and the ability to imitate are just a handful of the social behaviors we share with dogs. They might even think like us at times too, according to the paper, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Advances in the Study of Behavior.


Topal, who is based at the Institute for Psychology at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, is one of the world’s leading canine researchers. He and his team argue that dogs should serve as the “new chimpanzees” in comparative studies designed to shed light on human uniqueness.

“In my view, pet dogs can be regarded in many respects as ‘preverbal infants in canine’s clothing,'” he said, adding that many dog-owner relationships mirror human parental bonds with children.

My money’s still on chimps as being far more human-like, but it’s certainly true that dogs are more integrated into our world, and probably have been for long enough that some sort of co-evolution with humans has occurred.

March 26th, 2009 at 08:38pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Science

Fun With CAT Scans

Separated at birth?


CAT Barbie

And Ghost Rider?

Ghost Rider

This is way cool:

Doctors and researchers regularly rely on CT scanners to create images of body parts like brains, chests and knees. But an artist-turned-medical-student in Manhattan is using one such machine to peer into the meat and guts of cultural icons like the Big Mac, the Barbie and the iPhone, creating whimsical and occasionally creepy images.

Satre Stuelke, 44, said his aim was to penetrate the metal, plastic or organic interiors of pop objects and foods, asking people to “think about how things are constructed.”

Check out the guy’s website. Amazing stuff.

March 24th, 2009 at 11:29am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Art/Architecture,Coolness,Science,Technology

Creationists At The Smithsonian

This is surreal on so many levels…

Every winter, David DeWitt takes his biology class to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, but for a purpose far different from that of other professors.

DeWitt brings his Advanced Creation Studies class (CRST 390, Origins) up from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., hoping to strengthen his students’ belief in a biblical view of natural history, even in the lion’s den of evolution.

Advanced Creation Studies?  I have a hard time imagining what such a class would be like.

“Hey, what’d you have for #12 on the midterm?”


“Hey, me too!  What about #27?”


“Wow, it’s like we’re psychic twins or something!”

His yearly visit to the Smithsonian is part of a wider movement by creationists to confront Darwinism in some of its most redoubtable secular strongholds. As scientists celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, his doubters are taking themselves on Genesis-based tours of natural history museums, aquariums, geologic sites and even dinosaur parks.


A 2006 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 42 percent of Americans believe humans have always existed in their present form. At universities such as Liberty, founded by the late Jerry Falwell, those views inform the entire science curriculum.

We’re doomed.

1 comment March 11th, 2009 at 07:11am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Education,Religion,Science,Weirdness

Jurassic Chicken

What could possibly go wrong?

Some of the world’s leading paleontologists are attempting to recreate a dinosaur — or something a lot like a dinosaur — by starting with a chicken embryo and working backward to engineer a “chickenosaurus” or “dinochicken,” project leader Jack Horner told Discovery News.


“Birds are dinosaurs, so technically we’re making a dinosaur out of a dinosaur,” said Horner, a professor of paleontology at Montana State University and curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies.


“A number of people in a number of different places are moving forward with the project slowly and carefully,” he said.

One such researcher is Hans Laarson of McGill University in Montreal. Laarson and his team are analyzing the genes involved in tail development and researching ways of manipulating chicken embryos in order to “awaken the dinosaur within.”


Other medical breakthroughs could also occur, he said, since “genomes made of genes made of switches” function similarly in all animals, including humans.

There is no danger of the proposed dinochicken escaping and populating the world with dinosaurs, Horner said, since only the chicken’s development, and not its genome, would have been affected. If the creature did somehow escape and could mate, the result would just be a regular chicken.


Kevin Padian, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California at Berkeley and a curator at the UC Museum of Paleontology, told Discovery News he supports the project.

“The important thing that Jack and Jim are saying here is that there is a lot of information stored in our genes that we don’t use — genes that determine features that evolution has suppressed, for various reasons,” Padian said.

“We now have the tools to ‘reverse-engineer’ some of those constraints and produce traits that look a bit more like those ancient features,” he added. “This tells us how genetics, development and evolution are related, so it’s tremendously important.”

When and if the dinochicken is created, Horner looks forward to bringing it out on a leash during lectures.

So how long before someone tries this with other animals, or even people?  The bioethicists will have a field day.

March 7th, 2009 at 01:12pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science,Weirdness

Wanker Of The Day

John Tierney takes on the tyrannical hubris of science:

Most researchers, Dr. Pielke writes, like to think of themselves in one of two roles: as a pure researcher who remains aloof from messy politics, or an impartial arbiter offering expert answers to politicians’ questions. Either way, they believe their research can point the way to correct public policies, and sometimes it does — when the science is clear and people’s values aren’t in conflict.

But climate change, like most political issues, isn’t so simple. While most scientists agree that anthropogenic global warming is a threat, they’re not certain about its scale or its timing or its precise consequences (like the condition of California’s water supply in 2090). And while most members of the public want to avoid future harm from climate change, they have conflicting values about which sacrifices are worthwhile today.

A scientist can enter the fray by becoming an advocate for certain policies, like limits on carbon emissions or subsidies for wind power. That’s a perfectly legitimate role for scientists, as long as they acknowledge that they’re promoting their own agendas.

But too often, Dr. Pielke says, they pose as impartial experts pointing politicians to the only option that makes scientific sense. To bolster their case, they’re prone to exaggerate their expertise (like enumerating the catastrophes that would occur if their policies aren’t adopted), while denigrating their political opponents as “unqualified” or “unscientific.”

“Some scientists want to influence policy in a certain direction and still be able to claim to be above politics,” Dr. Pielke says. “So they engage in what I call ‘stealth issue advocacy’ by smuggling political arguments into putative scientific ones.”

In Dr. Pielke’s book, one example of this stealthy advocate is the nominee for White House science adviser, Dr. Holdren, a longtime proponent of policies to slow population growth and control energy use. (See TierneyLab, for more on his background.) He appears in a chapter analyzing the reaction of scientists to “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” a 2001 book arguing that many ecological dangers had been exaggerated.

Dr. Holdren called it his “scientific duty” to expose the “complete incompetence” of the book’s author, Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish political scientist. Dr. Holdren was one of the authors of an extraordinary 11-page attack on the book that ran in Scientific American under the headline, “Science defends itself against ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’ ” — as if “science” spoke with one voice.

After reviewing the criticisms, Dr. Pielke concludes that a more accurate headline would have been, “Our political perspective defends itself against the political agenda of ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist.’ ”


Dr. Pielke suggests that scientists could do more good if, instead of discrediting rivals’ expertise, they acknowledge political differences and don’t expect them to be resolved by science. Instead of steering politicians to a preferred policy, these honest brokers would use their expertise to expand the array of technically feasible options.

What would honest brokers tell the president about global warming? Dr. Pielke, who calls himself an Obamite, says he’s concerned that the presidents’ advisers seem uniformly focused on cutting carbon emissions through a domestic cap-and-trade law and a new international treaty.

It’s fine to try that strategy, he says, but there are too many technological, economic and political uncertainties to count on it making a significant global difference. If people around the world can’t be cajoled — or frightened by apocalyptic scenarios — into cutting carbon emissions, then politicians need backup strategies.

One possibility, Dr. Pielke says, would be to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the future. He calculates that it could cost about the same, in the long run, as making drastic cuts in emissions today, and could be cheaper if the technology improves. It could also be a lot easier sell to the public.

Yet research into this strategy has received little financing in past budgets or the new stimulus package because it doesn’t jibe with the agenda of either side in the global-warming debate. Greens don’t want this sort of “technological fix”; their opponents don’t want to admit there’s anything to fix. And neither side’s advocates will compromise as long as they think that science will prove them right.

So, let’s see…   According to Tierney and his new BFF Pielke:

o Scientists are just as biased and political as the anti-scientists of the Bush administration, and therefore their conclusions and recommendations have no credibility.

o The science still isn’t settled on global warming.

o Holdren attacked Lomborg for purely political reasons, and not because Lomborg is a denialist hack.

o We don’t need to worry about limiting carbon emissions (and it’s too hard anyway), because the Magickal Technology Of Teh Future will conveniently be able to scrub all the carbon from the atmosphere.

Yeah, giving a science column to an anti-scientist was a great idea.

February 24th, 2009 at 07:28am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Media,Republicans,Science,Wankers

The Search For Alien Life Begins At Home

Scientists are exploring the possibility that “alien” life may have evolved right here on Earth:

If life arose not just once, but multiple times on Earth, life as we don’t know it could be here on our own planet, perhaps using different chemical processes than we’ve ever seen before. And because scientists have only studied a tiny slice of the world’s microbes in depth, the microscopic remnants of a second (or third or fourth) biogenesis could be hiding right beneath our noses.

“If life did happen many times, there could be something like a shadow biosphere that either was, or is, all around us,” Arizona State Univeristy astrobiologist Paul Davies said here Sunday at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences meeting. “It’s entirely possible that some fraction of microbial life could turn out to be alien or ‘weird’ life as we prefer to call it.”

Davies’ contention challenges the relatively accepted orthodoxy that life arose once on Earth and colonized the entire planet. This weird life would the best possible analog for extraterrestrial life. Finding it, or even creating it in a laboratory, would give researchers clues about both how life began on Earth and how common life is on other planets. If a second sample of life on Earth exists, it would raise the probability for extraterrestrial life and help provide knowledge about other plausible structures for life in the universe.

This strange life could be far more simple than the life that we know after 4 billion years of evolution, or it could use different chemical machinery to carry out the processes of life, like using arsenic in the same way that all living things we know use phosphorous.


Truly “weird” life… would function using different elements or have different basic genetic material. Stumbling upon this life could be quite difficult, as the likeliest spot for one of these life forms would appear to be one of the thousands of unexplored deep sea vents. But Davies thinks a fairly simple endeavor could determine whether arsenic-using life exists: Find a virus that incorporates arsenic and you have suggestive evidence that the cells exist.

“The idea I did have is that if there are weird cells lurking somewhere, that they’ve probably got weird viruses that prey on them. Viruses get everywhere. The oceans are like virus soup,” Davies said. “Just looking for viruses with arsenic in there seems fairly straightforward.”

I can’t see any reason why life could not have arisen multiple times on Earth, or in parallel in different isolated environments.  If anything, it seems kind of odd that it wouldn’t.  Unless the spark of life really is a truly rare occurrence and it’s a minor miracle that it happened at all.  I don’t think we know quite where that threshold is – does it just require the right conditions, or is there a large element of chance involved as well?

February 17th, 2009 at 11:14am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science

Clean Coal = More Coal

Apparently, making coal “clean” uses so much energy that you end up needing 25% more coal to compensate:

In fact, because carbon capture requires a roughly 25-percent increase in energy from the coal plant, about 25 percent more coal is needed, increasing mountaintop removal and increasing non-carbon air pollution from power plants, he said.

My question is, would that be considered a bug or a feature for the coal-producing states that the clean-coal gospel panders to?  I mean, not only does clean coal make coal magically okay, but it means coal consumers would have to buy 25% more of it.  It’s a win-win!

(Why yes, I am assuming that environmental impacts are not a consideration – why do you ask?)

(h/t kirk)

1 comment January 27th, 2009 at 10:27pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Energy,Environment,Politics,Science

111-Year-Old Lizard Daddy

AP Photo/Karori Sanctuary

I know, technically he’s not actually a lizard, but he’s pretty close…

A captive reptile in New Zealand has unexpectedly become a father at the ripe old age of 111 after receiving treatment for a cancer that made him hostile toward prospective mates.

The centenarian tuatara, named Henry, was thought well past the mating game until he was caught canoodling with a female named Mildred last March — a consummation that resulted in 11 babies being hatched on Monday.

Tuatara are indigenous New Zealand creatures that resemble lizards but descend from a distinct lineage of reptile that walked the earth with the dinosaurs 225 million years ago, zoologists say.


Henry was at least 70 years old when he arrived at the museum, “a grumpy old man” who attacked other reptiles, including females, until a cancerous tumor was removed from his genitals in 2002, said Hazley.

“I went off the idea he was good for breeding,” Hazley said, but once the tumor was removed, “he was no longer aggressive.”


A male Tuatara takes 70 years to fully mature but reaches sexual maturity about age 20.

While there’s no scientific data on the life span of the ancient reptiles, “they go beyond 100 well and truly,” Hazley said. “They can be around for 150 to 250 years.”

Huh.  So today I learned that it’s not just tortoises that live forever, and that untreated genital cancer makes you cranky.  Who knew.

January 27th, 2009 at 11:18am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science


Today’s NYT Science Times section has a beautiful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter slideshow. My favorite shots:

Mars 1
Ridge with impact crater.

Mars 2
Crater interior, displaying evidence of water erosion.


January 6th, 2009 at 11:24am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science

Commodo Dragon?

It’s… Toiletosaurus!

A peculiar amphibian that was clad in bony armor prowled warm lakes 210 million years ago, catching fish and other tasty snacks with one of the most unusual bites in the history of life on Earth.

The creature called Gerrothorax pulcherrimus, which lived alongside some of the early dinosaurs, opened its mouth not by dropping its lower jaw, as other vertebrate animals do.

Instead, it lifted back the top of its head in a way that looked a lot like lifting the lid of a toilet seat.

“It’s weird. It’s the ugliest animal in the world,” Harvard University’s Farish Jenkins, one of the scientists who describe the mechanics of its bite in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, said in a telephone interview on Friday.


With a special adaptation of the joint between its skull and first neck vertebra, Gerrothorax could raise its head relative to its lower jaw by as much as 50 degrees, giving it the wide gape necessary to swallow its prey.

Bizarre.  It sounds like a cross between a crocodile and Fernando Valenzuela.

December 16th, 2008 at 08:39pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science,Weirdness

Why Waste Time On Bananas And Peanut Butter?

You know, if I were a Creationist/Intelligent Design nut trying to convince people that God exists, I wouldn’t  bother with the axis of Elvis. I wouldn’t blather on about how perfectly designed bananas are, or the fact that life does not spontaneously generate in peanut butter jars (no, seriously, WTF?) as if that somehow proves something.

No, if I wanted to argue the case for some kind of blatantly obvious divine intervention, I would choose water.  More specifically, the fact that unlike just about everything else, water is denser in liquid form than solid.  If it weren’t, oceans and rivers and lakes would freeze from the bottom up, because the ice couldn’t to rise to the top to be warmed and thawed.  With a good chunk of their volume frozen, the oceans’ temperature-regulating capabilities would be pretty seriously reduced as well.

Earth has a relatively temperate climate and healthy biodiversity largely because of this one simple quirk of fate.  I’m not religious, but if I wanted to make a case for the existence of God, water is where I’d start.  (Granted, it doesn’t really address evolution one way or the other, but the fundies are calling peanut butter and bananas “The Atheist’s Nightmare,” not “The Evolutionist’s Nightmare.”  Or “Elvis’s Nutritionist’s Nightmare.”)

November 29th, 2008 at 03:11pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Religion,Science

CSI: History

Sometimes, a grassy knoll is just a grassy knoll:

A team of experts assembled by the Discovery Channel has recreated the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Using modern blood spatter analysis, new artificial human body surrogates, and 3-D computer simulations, the team determined that the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository was the most likely origin of the shot that killed the 35th president of the United States.


A mock-up of the Dallas, Texas crime scene was set up, including the depository, the “grassy knoll,” and other nearby landmarks. Artificial surrogates of Kennedy were placed in a car. Sharpshooters then shot the surrogates from the model depository, the grassy knoll, and four other plausible locations.

Schliebe, along with Tom Bevel, an independent expert forensic investigator, were brought in to examine the simulated crime scene. Both scientists had no idea what the experiment was for or that it was a reenactment of the JFK assassination.

The two experts found a simulated gunshot would to the head that closely matched the wound Kennedy suffered. Most of the simulated body material had spattered forward into the car, consistent with a shot that entered the back of the head and exited toward the front. There was some back-spatter — material that flew back in the opposite direction of the bullet’s trajectory — but not much.

The general lack of back spatter and the preponderance of spatter in another direction are two of the clues, among others, that the investigators used to pinpoint the origin of the shots.

“After Tom and I looked at the scene, we pointed up and back away from the vehicle,” said Schliebe. “Apparently that lined up perfectly with where the sharpshooter had hit the model head.”


The team used some of the most advanced artificial human heads in the world for the ballistic tests. Made from a proprietary mixture by Australia-based Adelaide T&E Systems, the heads have three different materials which simulate the brain, skull and external soft tissue (skin) — that together respond to the trauma the same way a human head would.

The simulated brain material was made from a pig-skin-derived gelatin, dyed green. The skull surrogate is made from a special vinyl ester resin filled with calcium and proprietary fibers. The artificial skin uses a polyurethane and plasticizers to mimic human skin’s physical properties. The head was even custom-fitted, based on Kennedy’s hat size.


“We might never know if Oswald pulled the trigger, but when you look at the wind pattern, the spread of the debris, the angles and distances involved, it’s consistent with a shot from the sixth floor depository,” said Martin.

…Or maybe that’s just what they want us to think.

1 comment November 16th, 2008 at 07:57pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science


NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Apparently Saturn has a “beanie cap” of unexplained aurora activity.

Yes, that’s an actual (infrared) photo.

November 15th, 2008 at 09:48pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science


Technically, they’re ordinary lab mice, but the wonder drug makes them uber:

Eat more than you should. Stay skinny. Run twice as far. Those are the big claims coming from a new drug study from Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, Inc., based in Cambridge, Mass. This latest study clears the way for human clinical trials of SRT1720, often touted as an “anti-aging pill.”

SRT1720 activates the same receptor as the much-discussed resveratrol, the chemical in red wine that may slow some effects of aging. Both resveratrol and SRT1720 are being tested as a way to treat type-two diabetes first, and possibly other age-related diseases, later.


After 15 weeks of eating the high-calorie diet, the control mice gained significant weight. The mice taking 500 mg of the drug, however, gained no weight. The cholesterol levels of the mice on the drug also improved.

The animals’ exercise habits were also recorded. Mice without SRT1720 ran for roughly half a mile. Mice given 100 mg ran roughly seven-tenths of a mile. And mice on 500 mg of SRT1720 were able to run a full mile, twice the distance of untreated mice.


The new study echoes results published earlier in Nature with resveratrol, the chemical in red wine that led to much discussion about the “French paradox,” the seeming ability of French people to eat high-calorie meals, with a glass of red wine, and remain thin. (To get the levels in the study, a person would have to drink dozens of bottles a day.)

SRT1720 is about 1,000 times more powerful that resveratrol, say the researchers. The two chemicals are not related structurally, but both influence the same chemical pathway in the body — in particular, a type of receptor called SIRT1.


The SIRT1 receptor is also activated during caloric restriction diets, which have been shown to lengthen life span in multiple animal models, and during exercise.

Um, hey, if they need any subjects for human trials…

November 8th, 2008 at 02:17pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science

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