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after the sleeping comes the waking up.

Posts Tagged ‘science’

The Difference Between the Theoretical and the Practical

Posted by c. wagner on February 1, 2010

Scientists such as Thomas Huxley and the anatomist Carl Gegenbaur found lungfish to be essentially a cross between an amphibian and a fish. Locals found them delicious. [page 33]

What’s important depends on your perspective.

(from Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish)

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Back to Blogging with a Movie Commentary

Posted by c. wagner on January 27, 2010

So, it’s about time I get back on the blogging bandwagon. Since I’m home sick with a sore throat and runny nose (the same one that put my girlfriend out of commission for three days), it seems like a good time to start back up.

I went to see Avatar the other night….

That was a long three hours.

Of course, part of the problem may have been that I was reading Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish at the time. Shubin’s book shows how you can track evolution through the similarities between humans and other animals in body design and structures. His major point is that all forms of life have something in common, especially the more complex the animals are. He writes:

When you see these deep similarities among different organs and bodies, you begin to recognize that the diverse inhabitants of our world are just variations on a theme. [page 80]

For example [my example], just about every animal non-insect land animal has its air intake (otherwise known as a nose) in its head. The air then follows a tube to a pair of lungs in the chest. The humanoids in Avatar have this arrangement. But some of the major animals (the flying lizard-bird things, the “horses”) on their world have a different setup. Their air intakes were in their chests. I couldn’t make sense of this and it distracted me from what there was of a plot. How does one explain such radically different body plans? Were the scientists studying this? Was there even an evolutionary biologist on staff? We sure didn’t hear about him or her.

They also didn’t think about the unlikelihood that an alien planet would have DNA (or something compatible with DNA) as the encoder of genetic information, how odd it would be for so many Earth-like plants and animals to evolve in an environment with a radically different atmosphere, how the tidal forces of being a moon in a gas giant / multi-moon system might make the planet violently volcanically active (like Jupiter’s moon Io), or the odds against the dominant life form being a large-brained, bipedal mammal, like humans.

Of course, the answer is that Avatar is just a movie and some creature designer thought nostrils in chests looked cool (“like jet intakes” according to the girlfriend) and didn’t really think about the evolutionary biology necessary to create that sort of structure. Darn.

Somehow, I think that movie would have been more interesting than the one I saw.

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Studying the solar system in grade school

Posted by c. wagner on November 18, 2009

Everybody reading this remember memorizing the names of the planets (nine for me, probably eight now)? Maybe building a model solar system out of painted styrofoam balls and straightened coat hangers? Maybe some mentions of asteroids and comets, yeah? Neil deGrasse Tyson has some words for you and your teachers.

Because of exercises such as this, elementary school curricula have unwittingly stunted an entire generation of children by teaching them that a memorized sequence of planet names is the path to understand the solar system. … But today, the rote exercise of planet counting rings hollow and impedes the inquiry of a vastly richer landscape of science drawn from all that populates our cosmic environment. [page 153]

As I wander through more reading on life, the universe, and everything (in this case, mostly the stuff about the universe), I’m coming to agree with him. There’s a lot of stuff out there a lot cooler than what was covered in that chapter in my grade school science book. Weirder, too.

And encouraging kids to explore that, rather than teaching them fill-in-the-blank answers, can only make their worlds–and ours–a little bit brighter.

(Quote from The Pluto Files.)

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T. Rex, mass extinctions, and serendipity

Posted by c. wagner on November 12, 2009

I’ve probably said this already, but I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. A lot of reading. I had yesterday off and went through two good-sized hunks of non-fiction. One title I stumbled across after following a link from a Twitter feed to a blog to a magazine article to my library and finally the book. The other I spotted in the hand of one of the hosts of a documentary I was watching.

The documentary-inspired title was T. rex and the Crater of Doom by Walter Alvarez. It details the hunt for the meteor impact crater linked to the extinction of the dinosaurs (and just about everything else on Earth at the time). This would be the monstrous, but nigh-invisible crater called Chicxulub just off the Yucatan peninsula.

Alvarez’s description of the immediate effects of the dinosaur-killer is terrifying and strangely beautiful. There’s nothing like the image of a mushroom cloud reaching up all the way through the atmosphere or the very air glowing red from bits of rock screaming back down. And there’s nothing like that sort of image to make you feel for the fragility of life on our beautiful little planet.

It is worth pondering the realization that each of us is descended from unknown ancestors who were alive on that day when the fatal rock fell from the sky. They survived and the dinosaurs did not, and that is the reason why we are here now–as individuals and as a species. That one terrible day undid the benefits which 150 million years of natural selection had conferred upon the dinosaurs, making them ever fitter to be the large land animals of Earth. Evolution had not equipped them to survive the environmental disasters inflicted by a huge impact, and when the holocaust was over, they were gone. [page 130]

I feel very, very small.

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Large Hadron Collider having trouble again

Posted by c. wagner on November 12, 2009

Too funny.

The Large Hadron Collider, the giant atom-smasher that’s supposed to destroy the world, was shut down this week after overheating.

The cause?

A bird dropped some baguette onto an exposed heat vent.

Read the story from CNN.

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Is there some parallel behavior in humans?

Posted by c. wagner on November 6, 2009

Huh. I had no idea that females of some species trade sex for special treatment from mails. Female fiddler crabs get protection, red-winged blackbirds get hunting rights, and Adelie penguins get nest-building materials. Huh.

Read the article from the New Scientist.

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More computing power than Hubble?

Posted by c. wagner on November 5, 2009

It surprises most people to learn that the typical computer in space is as much as a decade behind the technology you can buy in a local store. That’s because of the lengthy process involved in radiation-hardening equipment. Your home computer may be faster than the one on board the Hubble Space Telescope, but it would last perhaps 15 seconds in space before turning into a heap of useless metal. [page 161]

It certainly surprised me.

If Hubble can do amazing things with as much power as an internet-enabled toaster, I should be able to do something wicked cool with my little laptop. Nothing like a little perspective.

Quote from Phil Plait’s book Bad Astronomy.

Read more from the entertaining and informative Dr. Plait at his Bad Astronomy blog.

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Think they’ve got enough imaginative ways to die?

Posted by c. wagner on November 5, 2009

So, the latest set of “it’s the end of the world as we know it” theories is making the rounds. The prophets of doom have come up with a nice long list of ways we might all bite the dust come December 21, 2012. There’s even a major movie about it.

Apparently, questions about the various scenarios have been driving the good folks at NASA and other astronomy-related places nuts. Rebuttals to all of the methods of doom are all over the internet, but the Discovery Channel has done a great job of summarizing them.

I’ll cut it down even further. Solar flares won’t fry us, the Earth’s magnetic field won’t reverse, Earth’s axis won’t tip, a planetary alignment won’t screw with us, a black hole won’t eat us, an asteroid won’t hit us, there’s no Nibiru, a supernova won’t cook us, and a cloud of negative energy won’t dissolve us.

Read the full list at the Discovery Channel.

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