Archive for the ‘Biology’ Category

A rap about the table of elements
October 2, 2008

British hip-hop duo dan le sac Vs Scroobius Pip rapped about the periodic table of elements in their song “Development.” It’s not the most helpful take on the subject, but at least somebody is teaching science to our kids.

Hydrogen is number one
Cause hydrogen is what puts the shine in the sun
Through nuclear fusion and when it’s done
It leaves element number two: Helium
Helium is the second lightest gas that there is
So we use it in balloons we give to little kids
Then there’s lithium often used to treat mental problems
Beryllium don’t conduct electric currents, it stops them
Boron can be used to make things harden
And that smoke that’s coming out of your exhaust, carbon
Carbon is arguably the most important element
And nitrogen in the air is almost eighty percent
The rest of the air is mainly oxygen
And fluorine is the lightest of the halogens

See here for the full song lyrics.


Why are Bugs Attracted to Light?
September 19, 2008

Mark Leyner and Billy Goldberg wrote Why Do Men Fall Asleep After Sex?, a collection of “questions you’d only ask your doctor after your third whiskey sour.” Many of them are potentially embarrassing: What does a chimpanzee do with the umbilical cord after it has a baby? Can you breast-feed wih fake boobs? Is douching dangerous? Is there such a thing as a death erection? And some, like this one, respond to an everyday curiosity:

Why are bugs attracted to light?

Phototaxis is an organism’s automatic movement toward or away from light. Cockroaches are negatively phototactic. Turn on that kitchen light and off they scurry to their dark little holes. But many insects are positively phototactic – as evidenced by teh mass bug graves in your light fixtures. Many people are also phototactic, especially for the “limelight” – those of us who secretly crave the strobe fusillade of paparazzi flashbulbs and murmer, “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up” in our dreams… But, back to bugs. There are a variety of reasons that various insects are positively phototactic. Many insects, including bees, orient themselves in relation to the sun. Certain nocturnal bugs – moths, for instance – use moonlight to navigate, flying at a certain angle to the moon’s light rays to maintain a straight trajectory. When it approaches a source closer than the moon – say, a lightbulb – a moth perceives the light as stronger in one eye than the other, causing one wing to beat faster, so it flies in a tightening spiral, ever closer the the light. Some bugs are sensitive to ultraviolet light reflected by flowers at night. Artificial lights that emit UV rays will also be attractive to these guys. Other bugs are drawn to the heat that incandescent bulbs produce at night. Fireflies are bugs and bulbs all in one. They use their bioluminescence to attract each other.

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Good and Bad Science
September 11, 2008

Richard Feynman was a well-known physicist. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! is one of his memoirs. He ends it with an essay about some differences between good and bad science.

During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas – which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact, that we have difficulty in understanding how witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked – or very little of it did.

But even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFO’s, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth. And I’ve concluded that it’s not a scientific world.

Most people believe so many wonderful things that I decided to investigate why they did… First I started out by investigating various ideas of mysticism and mystic experiences. I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that… I became overwhelmed. I didn’t realize how MUCH there was.

I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you’ll see the reading scores keep going down – or hardly going up – in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There’s a witch doctor remedy that doesn’t work. It ought to be looked into; how do they know that their method should work? Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress – lots of theory, but no progress – in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.

So we really ought to look into theories that don’t work, and science that isn’t science.

…there have been many experiments running rats through all kinds of mazes, and so on – with little clear result. But in 1937 a man named Young did a very interesting one. He had a long corridor with doors all along one side where the rats came in, and doors along the other side where the food was. He wanted to see if he could train the rats to go in at the third door down from wherever he started them off. No. The rats went immediately to the door where the food had been the time before.

The question was, how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before? Obviously there was something about the door that was different from the other doors. So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same. Still the rats could tell. Then he thought maybe the rats were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run. Still the rats could tell. Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person. So he covered the corridor, and still the rats could tell.

He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it. And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go in the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.

Now, from a scientific standpoint, that is an A-number-one experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat-running experiments sensible, because it uncovers that clues that the rat is really using – not what you think it’s using. And that is the experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to use in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat-running.

I looked up the subsequent history of this research. The next experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. Young. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or being very careful. They just went right on running the rats in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn’t discover anything about the rats. In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic example of [bad] science.

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Revolutionary New Insoles Combine Five Forms of Pseudoscience
September 10, 2008

As The Daily Show proves, sometimes fake news gets at the truth better than real news. This article, from fake newspaper The Onion, is a perfect mockery of common pseudoscience and superstition.

Stressed and sore-footed Americans everywhere are clamoring for the exciting new MagnaSoles shoe inserts, which stimulate and soothe the wearer’s feet using no fewer than five forms of pseudoscience.

“What makes MagnaSoles different from other insoles is the way it harnesses the power of magnetism to properly align the biomagnetic field around your foot,” said Dr. Arthur Bluni, the pseudoscientist who developed the product for Massillon-based Integrated Products. “Its patented Magna-Grid design, which features more than 200 isometrically aligned Contour Points™, actually soothes while it heals, restoring the foot’s natural bio-flow.”

“MagnaSoles is not just a shoe insert,” Bluni continued, “it’s a total foot-rejuvenation system.”

According to scientific-sounding literature trumpeting the new insoles, the Contour Points™ also take advantage of the semi-plausible medical technique known as reflexology. Practiced in the Occident for over 11 years, reflexology, the literature explains, establishes a correspondence between every point on the human foot and another part of the body, enabling your soles to heal your entire body as you walk.

But while other insoles have used magnets and reflexology as keys to their appearance of usefulness, MagnaSoles go several steps further. According to the product’s website, “Only MagnaSoles utilize the healing power of crystals to re-stimulate dead foot cells with vibrational biofeedback… a process similar to that by which medicine makes people better.”

In addition, MagnaSoles employ a brand-new, cutting-edge form of pseudoscience known as Terranometry, developed specially for Integrated Products by some of the nation’s top pseudoscientists.

“The principles of Terranometry state that the Earth resonates on a very precise frequency, which it imparts to the surfaces it touches,” said Dr. Wayne Frankel, the California State University biotrician who discovered Terranometry. “If the frequency of one’s foot is out of alignment with the Earth, the entire body will suffer. Special resonator nodules implanted at key spots in MagnaSoles convert the wearer’s own energy to match the Earth’s natural vibrational rate of 32.805 kilofrankels. The resultant harmonic energy field rearranges the foot’s naturally occurring atoms, converting the pain-nuclei into pleasing comfortrons.”

Released less than a week ago, the $19.95 insoles are already proving popular among consumers, who are hailing them as a welcome alternative to expensive, effective forms of traditional medicine.

“I twisted my ankle something awful a few months ago, and the pain was so bad, I could barely walk a single step,” said Helene Kuhn of Edison, NJ. “But after wearing MagnaSoles for seven weeks, I’ve noticed a significant decrease in pain and can now walk comfortably. Just try to prove that MagnaSoles didn’t heal me!”

Equally impressed was chronic back-pain sufferer Geoff DeAngelis of Tacoma, WA.

“Why should I pay thousands of dollars to have my spine realigned with physical therapy when I can pay $20 for insoles clearly endorsed by an intelligent-looking man in a white lab coat?” DeAngelis asked. “MagnaSoles really seem like they’re working.”

Read the original article here.

The Rarity of Old Fossils
August 29, 2008

Don Lindsay is a computer scientist who likes to debate creationists and Scientologists. He has a knack for saying things in the simplest possible way. Here he explains why we don’t have many really old fossils.

We have lots of seashells. We’re very short of jellyfish fossils. That’s not too surprising.

We have a few T. Rex fossils, but we’re short on small, fragile creatures. This is easy to explain. First, it’s just easier to find the great big fossils. Second, fragile skeletons are, well, fragile. They are more likely to be scavenged or crushed before they can form a fossil.

But there is another pattern, which is that there just aren’t very many really old fossils. Why?

There are at least four reasons. For one, the earth’s surface has been rebuilt many times. Regions have been uplifted and then eroded away. Erosion destroys rock, and destroys any fossils in that rock. The new rock that forms contains new fossils. So, much of the earth’s surface is recent, compared to the age of the planet itself. Old rocks are rare, so of course old fossils are rare too.

The second reason is that many old rocks have spent time buried. While buried, they experienced great heat and/or pressure, and are now metamorphic rocks. Their fossils have turned to smudges.

Worse again is that the best fossils are found in ocean-bottom sediments. But as the continents move, they ride over the ocean floor. Old floor is sucked down towards the center of the earth at subduction zones, never to be seen again. (Places like the North Atlantic Ridge are creating new ocean floor to replace the old.)

Continents travel at about an inch a year. So, if you look at the size of an ocean, and do some simple arithmetic, you will see that most of the world’s ocean floor should be less than 200-300 million years old. But dating methods say that animal life arose 800 million to 1000 million years ago, and it moved onto the land about 400 million years ago. So, this is a frustrating situation. The oceans have been repaved since the really interesting stuff happened. We have to make do with the very few old ocean rockbeds that escaped destruction.

And the fourth reason is that the first creatures didn’t have skeletons, and they were tiny, too. We can tell in two ways. First, we’ve been lucky, and found a few very old deposits that preserved soft things. And secondly, we’ve found tracks.

Why didn’t they have skeletons? Well, because skeletons had to be invented at some point, and that point was about 600 million years ago.

Visit Don’s website.

Seeing Through Stone
August 24, 2008

Richard Fortey loves fossils. In Trilobite! he waxes poetic about the trilobite’s stone eyes.

Trilobite eyes are made of calcite. This makes them unique in the animal kingdom.

Calcite is one of the most abundant minerals. The white cliffs of Dover are calcite… Limestones (which are calcite) have been used to build… the sublime crescents of Bath, the pyramids of Gizeh, the amphitheatres and Corinthian columns of classical times. Polished slabs composed of calcite deck the doors of Renaissance churches in Italy, still grace the interiors of Hyatt–Regency hotels, or conference halls, or wherever architects wish to suggest the dignity that only real rock seems to confer.

The purest forms of calcite are transparent. In building stones and decorative slabs it is the impurities and fine crystal masses that provide the colour and design… The dark red of the scaglio rosso so typical of Italian church doors is a deep stain of ferric iron. But when a calcite crystal grows more slowly in nature, then it may acquire its perfect crystal form, and be glassy clear…

Look into a crystal of Iceland spar and you can see the secret of the trilobite’s vision. For trilobites used clear calcite crystals to make lenses in their eyes; in this they were unique. Other arthropods have mostly developed ‘soft’ eyes, the lenses made of cuticle similar to that constructing the rest of the body.

The science of the eye demands a little explanation. It all depends on the optical properties of calcite… If you break a large piece of crystalline calcite it will fracture in a fashion related to its fine atomic structure… You are left with a regular, six-sided chunk of the mineral in your hand, termed a rhomb… The clear calcite of this not-quite-a-cube treats light in a peculiar way. If a beam of light is shone at the sides of the rhomb it splits in two; this is known as double refraction. The rays of light so produced are the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘extraordinary’ rays: their course is determined, just like the shape of the rhomb, by the stacking of the individual atoms. There is a huge specimen of Iceland spar on the first floor of London’s Natural History Museum through which you may peer to see two images of a Maltese cross, one generated by the extraordinary, and the other by the ordinary rays. But there is one direction, and one direction only, in which light is not subjected to this optical splitting… from this direction it does not split into two rays at all but passes straight through.

If to travel back to the time of the trilobite is a historical sea-change then there can be nothing stranger than the calcareous eyes of the trilobite. And pearls are chemically the same as the trilobite’s unblinking lenses, being yet another manifestation of calcium carbonate, although pearls are exquisite reflectors of light rather than transmitters of it… The trilobite saw the submarine world with eyes tessellated into a mosaic of calcified lenses… his stony eyes read the world through the medium of the living rock.

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