Sunday, December 28, 2008

Miracle on 34th Street - or Merry Xmas

I've been gone a while, I apologize to anyone who may have missed me. I've had a number of major life changes in the last few months, and I had a hard time deciding how to write about them. So I didn't.

But it's the holiday, and I'm finding I have a little extra time in between cooking extravagant meals, and playing with my now near three year-old son. (Wow, he's nearly three already?!?) I recently watched Miracle on 34th Street for the first time in my life. I saw it with my wife's family over the Thanksgiving holiday. For anyone who hasn't seen it, it's the story of a crazy old man who claims he's Santa Claus. Hijinks ensue.

It's an appalling movie. It demonizes people who point out the obvious (this old dude is insane) and over and over it paints a gauzy, pretty picture of people who just "believe". Why do we as a society place a value on people believing things that are demonstrably untrue? Why do we think it's cute to lie to our children, and tell them that a creepy old fat man broke into our houses on Christmas Eve, and left presents under the tree ready for the morning? Why do we go to lengths to prevent them from discovering the inevitable truth? I could barely sit still during Miracle on 34 Street, as they heroically show the conversion of a woman who's a realist into a woman who breaks down and cries that she believes, she believes, she believes.

My son recently asked me where Santa is. His teachers at school and the other children talk to him about Santa. (And I read him The Night Before Christmas every Christmas Eve - I also read him The Cat in the Hat and Deep in the Swamp - I don't tell him that any of them are anything more than stories). Now we have a dilemma. How do we tell him the truth, without turning him into the villain-kid at his daycare. The one who runs around telling the other kids that Santa doesn't exist. The one who gets demonized. The one who gets beat up.

At the moment, we're handling it like we handle all the other imaginary questions. When he asks us where Bob the Builder is, we ask him. He's often in the closet, so we pretend with him that Bob the Builder is in the closet. On Christmas, he pretended that he was Santa, so we played along. And when he asks us where Santa is, we either ask him where he is, or we point to our beat up old copy of "The Night Before Christmas". That'll do for now.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Reporters "skeptical". Bah.

And CNN is supposed to be the "serious" news channel.


Friday, July 4, 2008

Friday beautiful science

I was alerted about this image from Bad Astronomy.  Check this out:  

It shows a ribbon of gas, compressed and glowing due to a shock wave that slammed into it. The shock came from Supernova 1006, a star that detonated 7000 light years away from us. This was not a massive star that exploded, but a low-mass white dwarf, the dense core left over when a star like the Sun runs out of fuel. Still, the forces are roughly the same, with a titanic explosion ripping the star apart and creating eerie, unearthly beauty even in death.


Friday, June 27, 2008

Friday beautiful science

Today's Friday beautiful science comes from The Vector Site. They have a nice primer for young students on how evolution by natural selection works. One of the photos they show is of the leafy sea dragon. They look like kelp, but they're sea dragons. Look again?

I've seen these in tanks at an aquarium before, and they are truly stunning to behold. As much as I hate to admit it, Wikipedia has a pretty good description of them here.


Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, 1937-2008

George Carlin died of a heart attack yesterday. He was 71.


Friday, June 20, 2008

Friday beautiful science

Today's Friday beautiful science shows the construction of a Buckeyball in action.  From the News Release:  

heating bends single-atomic-layer carbon sheets into nano bowls, and then adds more carbon atoms to the edge of the bowls until the formation of giant fullerenes — larger, less stable versions of the C-60 molecule. Continued application of heat reduces these fullerenes — “shrink-wrapping” is the favored term — to the size of stable C-60 molecules, the buckyball: the smallest stable arrangement of carbon atoms in that shape.

In further heating, the buckyball vanishes, providing more proof that the buckyball stage had been reached.

Buckyball codiscoverer (1985) and Nobel laureate (1996) Richard Smalley had hypothesized that buckyballs are formed in this fashion, but at his death in 2005 no experimental confirmation was yet available and other methods have been proposed.
Way cool. Follow the link to check out a live-action movie. Neat!


Friday, June 13, 2008

Don't let it happen again

This gave me chills. Carl Sagan contemplates the possibility of the loss of past discoveries. While on the surface of it, it seems unlikely, and most people will say, "That could only happen in Islamic fundamentalist cultures", keep in mind that there are organizations here in the U.S. devoted to rolling back the Enlightenment.

Hat tip: Pharyngula


Friday beautiful science

Today's Friday beautiful science comes a bit late.  It's a picture of the Phoenix lander, landing on Mars.  Check it out:  

This amazing image was captured as Phoenix came in for its Mars landing on May 25, 2008. The HiRISE camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter pointed at Phoenix, which is seen here against the background of a 10-kilometer-diameter crater called Heimdall. The dramatic view makes it appear that Phoenix is falling into the crater, but in fact Phoenix was 20 kilometers closer to HiRISE than Heimdall, and it landed nowhere near the crater. The photo was taken 20 seconds after Phoenix' parachute opened.

Posts should become more frequent again. I'm preparing to move to California, but some of the most brutal parts are behind me (I hope) and I should be able to at least keep a regular Friday beautiful science coming.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sucked out into space!

How long could you survive in the vacuum of space?
OnePlusYou Quizzes and Widgets


Thursday, June 5, 2008


New Wearable Feedbags Let Americans Eat More, Move Less


Saturday, May 31, 2008

Life changes

Well, it's official. I have become a paid shill of the biotech industry. This week I accepted a job at a biotech company in California, and will be leaving my post-doctoral position at a medical school. For the next few weeks posting will likely be lighter than normal, as I have to move my family across the country and get settled. I'm going to try to keep the Friday beautiful sciences coming, at the very least, but I've missed several of those in the last few weeks.

As an aside, I intend to continue writing about biotech issues of societal relevance, but in this case, I won't write at all about the industry I am working with. This is for two reasons (one more important than the other) --- One, as it will look like I am biased (but I try to write about data, and not about conclusions, so this shouldn't be all that important). Two, I don't want to anger my new biotech overlords, should they ever learn of my blog.

As I've always intended to maintain anonymity, that shouldn't be hard.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Science: You're doing it wrong

Hat tip to Orac.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

How big is big?

This cool video shows size scales. It's a useful and entertaining description of powers of 10.

As it turns out, we're very small...


Thursday, May 22, 2008

87th Skeptics' Circle

The 87th Skeptics' Circle is up at Action Skeptics. Go have a gander.


Friday, May 16, 2008

American Association for the Advancement of Science on Expelled

Folks may have already seen this statement about the Expelled movie, but here it is to reiterate the position of the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

AAAS further decries the profound dishonesty and lack of civility demonstrated by this effort. The movie includes interviews with scientists who report that they were deceived into appearing as part of such a production, and advance segments [of the film] broadly depict those who accept evolution as racist and sympathetic to Nazis. Such generalized insults are untrue and grossly unfair to millions of scientists in the United States and worldwide who are working to cure disease, solve hunger, improve national security, and otherwise advance science to improve the quality of human life.


Friday beautiful science

Sorry I've been quiet for a while. Various personal issues have kept me fairly occupied (including flying out to California for a job interview at a biotech company).

Today's Friday beautiful science is something I've lusted after ever since I first saw it. It's a 3-dimensional map of our best data about the Milky Way galaxy, mapped out in painstaking detail inside of a cube of glass. It's simply beautiful.

Behold: a galaxy suspended in a glass cube.

A laser was used to etch around 80,000 of the stars in the Milky Way, using three-dimensional data from the Japan’s National Astronomical Observatory.

Production of the cube was motivated by the urge to see a galaxy in three dimensions. In encyclopedias and such, galaxies can only be viewed in two: we wanted to do so from all directions. Even the Magellan Cloud, comparatively close to us, is outside this cube. Space can be sparsely filled, one could say…or rather, there are great extremes in density.
I've made prints of many of my other Friday beautiful science photos. Perhaps some day I'll save enough Japanese yen to be able to purchase this little beauty...


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Colbert in space.


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

I have a job interview.

And for what it's worth, I hope they have pizza. ;)


Monday, May 5, 2008

Where do they come from?

As a funny aside post, I've been getting more visits lately. Really, in the last month, I've seen a pretty large increase in what has been otherwise a relative trickle of traffic, compared to some of my science blogging compadres.

And where are these people headed? To this post. Yep, in the last month, 2/3 of my traffic is headed to my Leap Year Skeptics' Circle post. I admit, I was a little proud of that post. I like writing ironic, tongue-in-cheek stories for the Skeptics' Circle.

I was going to point out to Orac that the Skeptics' Circle had seen an upsurge in popularity, until I poked around a little further to discover *why* I'm getting all this traffic... It turns out, that as of a few weeks ago, my little blog shows up as the number one hit on Google image searches for sex (if you have safe search turned on - I rather doubt that I'm at the top of the heap if you turn off safe search). Go figure. Not quite the demographic that this post was aiming for, but what the hell. Hopefully they learn something while ogling the photo of this woman:

Edited for Brigit.


Friday, May 2, 2008

Friday beautiful science

Today's Friday beautiful science comes from a shot taken of a Saudi Arabian lava field from the International Space Station:

Harrat Khaybar, Saudi Arabia is featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 16 crewmember on the International Space Station. The western half of the Arabian peninsula contains not only large expanses of sand and gravel, but extensive lava fields known as haraat (harrat for a named field). One such field is the 14,000-square kilometer Harrat Khaybar, located approximately 137 kilometers to the northeast of the city of Al Madinah (Medina). According to scientists, the volcanic field was formed by eruptions along a 100-kilometer long north-south linear vent system over the past 5 million years; the most recent recorded eruption took place between 600 - 700 A.D. Harrat Khaybar contains a wide range of volcanic rock types and spectacular landforms, several of which are represented in this view. Jabal al Quidr is built from several generations of dark, fluid basalt lava flows; the flows surround the 322--meter high stratovolcano (Jabal is translated as "mountain" in Arabic). Jabal Abyad, in the center of the image, was formed from a more viscous, silica-rich lava classified as a rhyolite.


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Be mindful of a plant's dignity.

This from Nature:

The Swiss federal government's ethics committee on non-human biotechnology has mapped out guidelines to help granting agencies decide which research applications deeply offend the dignity of plants — and hence become unfundable.
Ummm... dignity of plants? Oy. When I eat plants, do I offend their dignity?
Although most people might be bewildered that a discussion on how to define 'plant dignity' should be taking place at all, the stakes for Swiss plant scientists are high. The Gene Technology Law, which came into effect in 2004, stipulates that 'the dignity of creatures' should be considered in any research. The phrase has been widely criticized for its general woolliness, but it indisputably includes plants.

All plant biotechnology grant applications must now include a paragraph explaining the extent to which plant dignity is considered. “But scientists don't know what it means,” says Beat Keller of the Institute of Plant Biology at the University of Zurich who is running the first field trial — of disease-resistant corn (maize) — to be approved under the new legislation.

“At the moment not even authorities who decide on grants know what the 'dignity of plants' really means,” says Markus Schefer, a constitution lawyer at the University of Basel and a member of the ethics committee. “That's why we were asked to deliberate.”

The constitution says that the 'dignity of creatures' must be taken into account in the gene-technology arena, which is why the term has been adopted into the regulations. The government called on the advice of its ethics committee two years ago to help develop a definition for plants. “My first reaction was — what the heck are we doing considering the dignity of plants,” says Schefer. “But this very broad provision exists, and we have to help to prevent a legal mire.”
This deserves no more comment than to say it is absolutely and totally nutty. Please, someone, take the keys away from the nuts who wrote this law.


Dishonesty from the producers of Expelled? Say it ain't so!!!

Recently, someone tried to impersonate the Office of Research Integrity, a branch of the National Institutes of Health. They sent e-mails to the biology faculty of Vanderbilt University, expecting to be able to con them into seeing the creationist movie Expelled. Can you believe it? From the e-mail:

Intelligent design is widely regarded as the idiot-savant stepchild of creationism.
Well, I can agree with half of "idiot-savant".

What else can they say?
For all the movie's flaws, it underscores the need for greater openness in the discussion of biological origins. We live in a free society that cherishes rational discourse. We are committed to arguing our ideas across the table from others without fear of reprisal or coercion. Science most of all should exemplify freedom of thought and expression.

The movie's chief flaw, in our view, is its failure to argue that intelligent design possesses real intellectual and scientific merit. The Center for Scientific Integrity has learned that to remedy this defect, the producers of EXPELLED have officially endorsed a book by William Dembski and Jonathan Wells titled THE DESIGN OF LIFE ( We urge that you watch this movie and read this book before weighing into the national debate that Ben Stein is initiating.
Go see it! Buy my book!

Hugs and kisses,
Jake Akins, Executive Director Center for Scientific Integrity ( (Website under construction)
Advancing Freedom of Thought and Expression in Science
Oh, wait. No website. What, the NIH can't afford a website??!!? Who do they think they're fooling?

Go to the Faithful Penguin and read the whole thing. Simply amazing.


Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Quote of the Day

Yep, Ben Stein has finally jumped the shark. Just when you thought he couldn't get more ridiculous:

Ben Stein: … Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.
Wow. And I can hardly even remember the last time I killed anybody.

Hat tip: Friendly Atheist.


Friday, April 25, 2008

Friday beautiful science

Today's Friday beautiful science was inspired by the obituary of Edward Lorenz:

In discovering “deterministic chaos,” Dr. Lorenz established a principle that “profoundly influenced a wide range of basic sciences and brought about one of the most dramatic changes in mankind’s view of nature since Sir Isaac Newton,” said a committee that awarded him the 1991 Kyoto Prize for basic sciences.

Dr. Lorenz is best known for the notion of the “butterfly effect,” the idea that a small disturbance like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can induce enormous consequences.

As recounted in the book “Chaos” by James Gleick, Dr. Lorenz’s accidental discovery of chaos came in the winter of 1961. Dr. Lorenz was running simulations of weather using a simple computer model. One day, he wanted to repeat one of the simulations for a longer time, but instead of repeating the whole simulation, he started the second run in the middle, typing in numbers from the first run for the initial conditions.

The computer program was the same, so the weather patterns of the second run should have exactly followed those of the first. Instead, the two weather trajectories quickly diverged on completely separate paths.

At first, he thought the computer was malfunctioning. Then he realized that he had not entered the initial conditions exactly. The computer stored numbers to an accuracy of six decimal places, like 0.506127, while, to save space, the printout of results shortened the numbers to three decimal places, 0.506. When typing in the new conditions, Dr. Lorenz had entered the rounded-off numbers, and even this small discrepancy, of less than 0.1 percent, completely changed the end result.
The photo above is a demonstration of chaos theory. It's a Mandelbrot set, that is seen to contain the same patterns at large and small magnification. You can zoom and explore a Mandelbrot set here. For more on Chaos Theory (written for non-mathematicians), see:


Thursday, April 24, 2008

85th Skeptics' Circle

The 85th Skeptics' Circle is up at Andrea's Buzzing About: Go have a gander.


Exposed: the great GM-food scare made up by the Independent

The Independent recently published an article with the startling headline:

Exposed: the great GM crops myth
Major new study shows that modified soya produces 10 per cent less food than its conventional equivalent
Wow. That's a pretty bold statement. Let's look further into it, shall we?
Genetic modification actually cuts the productivity of crops, an authoritative new study shows, undermining repeated claims that a switch to the controversial technology is needed to solve the growing world food crisis.

The study – carried out over the past three years at the University of Kansas in the US grain belt – has found that GM soya produces about 10 per cent less food than its conventional equivalent, contradicting assertions by advocates of the technology that it increases yields.
Professor Barney Gordon, of the university's department of agronomy, said he started the research – reported in the journal Better Crops – because many farmers who had changed over to the GM crop had "noticed that yields are not as high as expected even under optimal conditions".
I've noticed in the past that news organizations don't always do the best job with science stories, so let's look at the original citation, shall we?

But first, some background (yes, yes, I know that the Independent wouldn't require any background, but they also wrote a factually wrong, irresponsible, scaremongering article, so we'll do some background). Soybean plants have been genetically modified in recent years to be resistant to a broad-spectrum herbicide called Roundup (aka glyphosate). This provides a neat trick for farmers, because they can grow their Roundup resistant soybeans, and spray them with Roundup to kill any weeds (without killing the soybeans). This is a neat trick, because Roundup isn't very toxic to people, and breaks down pretty readily in the soil, providing a neat way for farmers to decrease weeds in their fields, without having to use more expensive and toxic compounds.

Ok, so what was the question that Dr. Gordon asked? From the paper:
There is evidence to suggest that glyphosate may interfere with Mn metabolism and also adversely affect populations of soil micro-organisms responsible for reduction of Mn to a plant-available form. Manganese availablity is also strongly influenced by soil pH. As soil pH increases, plant-available Mn decreases. It is unlikely that Mn deficiencies will occur on acid soils. It stands to reason that the addition of supplemental Mn at the proper time may correct deficiencies and result in greater GR soybean yields.
Ok, so he wanted to ask if there are manganese deficiencies in plants that are treated with glyphosate. And what did he see?

He sees that he can increase yield of soybeans by applying manganese to the soil. Cool, huh? Now, if you're a journalist at the Independent, you may look at that graph and say, "Hey, wait, the conventional soybeans have higher levels of production than the Roundup resistant soybeans!". Well, you could say that, but you'd be wrong. You can't ask that question from these data. Firstly, these strains aren't isogenic. Meaning that their genetic content isn't just differentiated by the fact that the GM strain is Roundup resistant, so increased growth could be due to different genetic content. Secondly, the Roundup resistant strain was sprayed with Roundup. And the other one wasn't. That's a rather large difference. Indeed, the conventional strain of soybean is really only a control to show that increasing manganese levels doesn't increase yield in the absence of Roundup. Thirdly, both these crops were worked over by hand to remove weeds, as they were interested in only studying the effect of manganese on the experiment, not on the effect of weeds in the crop. So this experiment simply can't be used to ask "Do Roundup resistant crops produce more or less than conventional crops?" The experiment wasn't designed to ask that question, and you can't use these data even incidentally to ask that question. And what does the Independent say?
The GM crop – engineered to resist Monsanto's own weedkiller, Roundup – recovered only when he added extra manganese, leading to suggestions that the modification hindered the crop's take-up of the essential element from the soil.
Hmmm.... but they applied Roundup to the Roundup resistant plants. That's another pretty huge difference.

Indeed, the author of the study, Dr. Barney Gordon, concurs. From an e-mail he wrote me:
The article you saw in the Independant was a total distortion of the research. My research concerned manganese application on soils that are known to respond to Mn application. We used one conventional variety and a glyphosate-tolerant near isoline (not genetically identical). The objective of the research was to improve soybean yields under optimum management conditions, not to make any statement about GM crops.
Now, I can almost hear the anti-GM crowd crowing now, "Just because he didn't ask that question, doesn't mean you can't extrapolate from the data he gathered", but as I've outlined above, you can't even extrapolate. The experiment isn't properly controlled to ask that particular question, just to ask the question about manganese suplementation.

And it's rather disingenuous of the Independent to say otherwise.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I don't support torture.


Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday beautiful science

Today's Friday beautiful science is a shot of bacteria spreading across a petri plate, with false color added to make them more beautiful. This looks like a Bacillus mycoides type of growth, but I couldn't find the identity on the original website.

Go on over to Eshel Ben-Jacob's website, where there are all kinds of beautifully rendered shots of bacterial growth.




Thursday, April 17, 2008

Quote of the Day

MaryAnn Johanson:

In a parallel universe even crazier than our own, Ben Stein is making a documentary about how the Nazis utilized the controversial theory of gravity to make bombs that fall from the sky to the earth, and so the theory of gravity must be wrong.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Just a theory

Via freethoughtpedia.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On doubt.

I am a scientist. I am unable to separate the doubting part of my scientist training from the rest of my daily life. Take this little anecdote:

When my son was about 9 months old, Mrs. Factician was playing with some little plastic animals on the coffee table with him. When she said, "Where is the giraffe?" he reached for the giraffe. We were astounded (he was 9 months old, mind you, and hadn't shown an indication that he knew which animal was which prior to this point). She put the animal back, and asked him again, "Where is the giraffe?". Again, he picked up the giraffe.

Mrs. Factician and I started to talk about this. She was of the opinion that he had now learned which animal was the giraffe.

I was a bit more skeptical (perhaps not a good thing for a father, to be skeptical of his son, but like I said, I am unable to turn off doubt when I go home from the lab).

So I tested him. I moved the animals around. "Where is the giraffe?". Again, he reached for the giraffe. Wow, 9 months and he's already demonstrated an ability to identify animals. I was absolutely floored. Every test so far had shown that he could identify the giraffe. But still, I had nagging doubt.

I moved the animals around again. "Ok, now where is the monkey?" He reached for the giraffe. He hadn't identified it with the sound "giraffe" at all. A few repeats of the experiment verified it. The giraffe was merely his favourite animal. It would be weeks still until he positively understood the word "giraffe".

A scientist's life is like this. Constant doubt. Constant testing. Constant experimentation with appropriate controls. Re-evaluating old data. Talking about experiments with other scientists.

The new movie "Expelled" will try to make the point that we have stopped testing evolution by natural selection, and have (as scientists) accepted it as some gospel truth. This is total and complete nonsense. We have continued to doubt it, to test it, and to run experiments with controls. But every test, for over 150 years, has come back confirming that evolution by natural selection is true. That's a boatload of data. That's an amazing amount of confirmation.

While it remains possible that there is another, better explanation, but data suggesting that has not been forthcoming. For now, evolution by natural selection is the best description of the data.


I care about your health

And that's why I bring you this important health update, courtesy of Stephen Colbert.


Monday, April 14, 2008

What can one blogger do?

Whenever I feel powerless to change anything, something like this comes along. I can help put Expelled high in the rankings. And get some real information out there. As Carl Sagan says:

"Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time ... when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstitions and darkness."


Friday, April 11, 2008

Friday beautiful science

Today's Friday Beautiful Science is a photo of the moon Phobos. Phobos orbits Mars, and is orders of magnitude smaller than Earth's moon (compare Earth's moon at 3400 km in diameter to Phobos at 19-21 km in diameter). As you can clearly see in the photo, Phobos is not regularly shaped. From the Planetary Science blog:

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter approached to within 6,800 kilometers (4,200 miles) of Phobos to capture this enhanced-color view of the Martian moon on March 23, 2008. The color is from infrared, red, and blue-green channels on the camera, so it represents light shifted slightly longer in wavelength than human eues can see, which emphasizes subtle colorations on the moon. The color view shows that the material surrounding the giant crater Stickney (on the left side of the moon) appears gray while the rest of the moon appears reddish. The grayer material is likely fresher material.
Click on the photo to get a large majestic view of Phobos.


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A creationist, a scientist and a lawyer walk into a bar...

Go here for the punchline. This just cries out for massive linkage.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Quote of the Day

" If you are in possession of this revolutionary secret of science, why not prove it and be hailed as the new Newton? Of course, we know the answer. You can't do it. You are a fake."

-Richard Dawkins

h/t Pal MD


Saturday, April 5, 2008


Expelled, the Musical is about to hit theaters! In theaters across the country! Well, in a few theaters. This has inspired creationist mathematician and philosopher William Dembski to fire up his prognostication machine!

Hmmm... try these predictions on for size.

A controversial documentary set for release nationwide April 18 could foster a cultural shift "equivalent to the fall of the Berlin Wall," says William Dembski, research professor of philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Wow! The fall of the Berlin Wall, that's huge! Bill Dembski has a long run of predictions. He made a prediction during the trial in Dover, Pennsylvania. What did he say about that?
As a consequence, this [court] case really could be a Waterloo for the other side.
Waterloo! Berlin Wall! Hmmm... He might do well to read a little more Twain:
The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.
Mr. Dembski, please get back to work, and publish some papers that have data in them. Really. Movies and court cases don't make creationism intelligent design a science. Data, Mr. Dembski. Data. If you're interested in what it looks like, try this little search on evolution.


Friday, April 4, 2008

Westboro Baptist Church Rickrolled!

The Westboro Baptist Church is a group of hatemongers, frequently written up by the Southern Poverty Law Center. They're quite a nasty group of folks. They show up at any prominent funerals, saying that the death of these people is due to America's tolerance of homosexuals. The odd part is that these hatemongers seem to not care whether the deceased people are homosexual or not. It just matters whether or not the news media are there to cover it. They've made themselves notorious by promoting their slogan "God hates fags", and by suing anyone who offends them. I try to avoid calling whole groups of people nasty, but these folks are really hideous. To get an idea of the lengths these weirdos take, see this article:

The [Westboro Baptist Church family] don't just picket, they also fax. And what faxes. Sent out to dozens of government offices, law firms, businesses and homes across Kansas several times a week, the faxes are grotesque, non-stop political commentary lambasting local and national figures.

Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone is a "bug-eye faggy baby-killer." Sailors in the U.S. Navy are "blasphemous fag beasts." Jerry Berger, the Vintage owner, is a "[b]loody Jew... merchant of anal copulating."

Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's Democratic running mate last fall, is "an anti-Christ Jew" who "has sold his soul to fags." Elizabeth Taylor is "an evil woman" who led a "wicked, Christ-rejecting, Satan-worshipping life." Jesse Jackson is a "fag" and a "black Judas goat leading his people to hell."

Thanksgiving was established as a "pagan feast" so the Massachusetts governor could "lust after the semi-naked bodies of the Indians he invited." Poet Maya Angelou is the "filthy face of fag evil."

Maya Angelou as a face of evil? What? Wow. Okay, so if you find that offensive, please donate money to the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Mrs. Factician and I give them money twice a year). And after you're done, watch this guy do an in-person Rickrolling of a Westboro Baptist Church protest. Bravo, dude.

Westboro Baptist Church gets Rick Rolld - Watch more free videos


Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Lab meeting

So I just had lab meeting. A 5th year graduate student was presenting her work on mutational analysis of one of the proteins we study. An interesting lab meeting, but not normally noteworthy for the blog. (I reserve this blog for only the most important events in my exciting life - see Death Star Troofers, below).

So I'm quietly enjoying my coffee, my mind wandering away from the introduction (I've heard it too many times over the last five years) and I hear a voice from the back of our darkened conference room, "Balderdash! I'm going to Expel you from science, because I think your model for DNA rearrangments is absolute crap! Consider yourself Expelled!"

I just couldn't believe it! Apparently PZ Myers gatecrashed our lab meeting! He really does have a problem!


Monday, March 31, 2008


One of the predictions of creationism intelligent design is that the hand of God the intelligent designer will be found in creation in the Design.

Well, I have finally found it. And wouldn't Behe be impressed, I found it in Plasmodium yoelli, a malarial parasite that infects rodents. Just like Craig Venter, who inscribed his name into the organism that he designed, God the Intelligent Designer placed his watermark on the chromosome of that totally improbable rodent parasite, Plasmodium. Are you ready? This is what he wrote:

It's found in the impossibly large hypothetical protein PY01329 in Plasmodium yoelli. GodThe Disembodied Telic entity has marked his work in there. And he did it *before* Craig Venter did it. And in the 3rd person. So there.

(Note: Searches for GODDIDIT so far haven't found any perfect matches, but give me time and a few more genomic sequences, and we'll find it)

For those folks totally lacking a sense of humor - I'm being sarcastic. While this sequence of amino acids is in the genome of the Plasmodium parasite, it is not an indication of God'sthe Designer's hand.


Friday, March 28, 2008

Friday beautiful science

Today's Friday Beautiful Science comes from the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute. They're genetically engineering mosquitoes, with the hopes of making a malaria resistant mosquito. See more pictures here.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

83rd Skeptics' Circle

This week's Skeptics' Circle is up at Mike's Weekly Skeptic Rant. Go have a gander, and win Ben Stein's Knickers!


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Please, pretty please, read my blog?

An Open Letter to PZ,

funny pictures

I'm just begging for more traffic. It's worked for others, why not for me?


Deathstar Troofers Unite!

Deathstar troofers:

We’ve all heard the “official conspiracy theory” of the Death Star attack. We all know about Luke Skywalker and his ragtag bunch of rebels, how they mounted a foolhardy attack on the most powerful, well-defended battle station ever built. And we’ve all seen the video over, and over, and over, of the one-in-a-million shot that resulted in a massive chain reaction that not just damaged, but completely obliterated that massive technological wonder.

Like many citizens of the Empire, I was fed this story when I was growing up. But as I watched the video, I began to realize that all was not as it seemed. And the more I questioned the official story, the deeper into the rabbit hole I went.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Death strike to my naiveté

I don't like to think of myself as naive. Who does? But this has been an eye opener for me.

When I first started following the evolution/creationism 'debate', I thought that the creationists were merely mistaken. I was raised a Christian, and while my immediate family aren't biblical literalists, many of my aunts and uncles are. I understand these people. I was raised as one of them. And I discovered, through science, that many of the suppositions that these people hold are incorrect.

That said, I assumed that all creationists were merely incorrect. I didn't like folks who railed against the dishonesty of creationists. After all, many of my family are creationists, and I don't think they're dishonest.

But professional creationists are of a completely other breed. These people lie for a living. If you doubt it, take a look at the recent movie "Expelled". It's a movie that portrays creationists as martyrs to an unkind establishment (see quote at the top of my blog about unkind establishments). Currently, they're offering free showings of this movie to the public, all you have to do is sign up on their website. It's free. I've been thinking of going. The only restrictions listed are:

Please fill out one entry form per attendee. Once confirmed, your name will be on a list at the door of the theater. IDs will be checked.

For security, no bags, cell phones, or recording devices of any kind will be allowed into the theater. Please leave them in your car.
That's it. Recently, PZ Myers registered to go, and then was stopped at the door, and told he couldn't enter. Juvenile, right? Fine. His guest, Richard Dawkins, was allowed in.

Look what professional creationists say about it:
Amazingly, the best selling Oxford scientist/author Richard Dawkins also crashed a showing of Expelled in Minnesota last night
Crashed? Crashed? Come on, he registered and showed his ID at the door.
Dawkins apparently acknowledged that he had not been invited and did not have a ticket. A sophomoric side to his ideological campaign is thus revealed.
He acknowledged he wasn't invited? Likely none of the other people were either. You can register to go on their website. Are you trying to be dishonest?

When even little details like these get twisted and embellished, one wonders what credibility they have at all.


Friday, March 21, 2008

Expelled, the musical!

Okay, this deserves all kinds of linkage. It contains humiliation! Armed guards! Nazis! (No, really, it contains Nazis. Well, it contains footage of Nazis). The makers of the pseudo-scientific "Expelled" movie tossed PZ Myers out of the movie (and he's even a subject in the movie!). Or, rather, they Expelled him. Oh the irony! Very funny! Read it! Link it! This deserves to be widely read!


Friday beautiful science

Okay, I've been doing a lot of astronomy photos for my Friday's, but it's only because those damn astronomers have been pumping out all kinds of great photos. This photo comes from the Cassini probe. From the Jet Propulsion Lab:

Cassini's March 2008 flyby of Enceladus was designed to directly investigate the ongoing plume activity at the moon's south pole, but the path of the spacecraft allowed investigation of older evidence for internal activity near the north pole.

Compared to much of the moon's southern hemisphere—the south polar region in particular—the north polar region is much older and covered with craters. These craters are captured at different stages of disruption and alteration by tectonic activity and probably past heating from below. Many of the craters seen here are sliced by small parallel cracks that seem to be ubiquitous throughout the old cratered terrains on Enceladus. The mosaic also shows a variety of impact crater shapes, some with bowed-up floors and smaller craters within, very likely indicating that the icy crust in this area was at some time warmer than at present. While this conclusion was previously reached from NASA Voyager spacecraft images, these new data provide a much more detailed look at the fractures that modify the surface. This data will give a significantly improved comparison of the geologic history at the satellite's north pole with that at the south pole.
Hat tip to Emily.


Friday, March 14, 2008

Friday beautiful science

Today's Friday beautiful science comes from an 5200-year old Assyrian bowl, with the oldest known moving animation:

The artefact bears five images depicting a wild goat jumping up to eat the leaves of a tree, which the members of the team at that time had not recognised the relationship between the pictures.

Several years later,Iranian archaeologist Dr Mansur Sadjadi, who became later appointed as the new director of the archaeological team working at the Burnt City discovered that the pictures formed a related series.
I wasn't able to upload the movie (darn blogger) I was able to convert the movie to an mpg, Blogger still hates this movie, but you can watch it in it's original form at Millard Fillmore's Bathtub or the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies. Very cool!


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Science is a crazy business.

What a strange business this is: We stay in school forever. We have to battle the system with only a one in eight or one in ten chance of getting funded. We give up making a living until our forties. And we do it because we want to help the world. What kind of crazy person would go for that?
Nancy Andrews, M.D., Ph.D.
Dean, Duke University Medical School

Via Orac, I learned of this new lobbying effort to increase NIH funding. argues that a generation of researchers will be lost if we don't fix the NIH. They're right.

Currently, universities aren't hiring new researchers. They're poaching researchers from other universities. So folks in a position like me, where they're finishing a post-doc, and starting to look for work, are in the position that there are no new jobs available. It's a crazy time. Read more here.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

82nd Skeptics' Circle.

The 82nd Skeptics' Circle is up at Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes. Go take a gander.


Sex Conspiracy!

political statement?
Originally uploaded by kerusdotorg
Okay, this isn't really relevant, but it made me laugh, and is in reference to the Larry Craig scandal.

(Cue Eliot Spitzer jokes for fair and balanced joking).

(Edited for clarity).


Monday, March 10, 2008

John McCain is anti-science.

I wrote last week how John McCain has no plan for science. This week, we discover via the Washington Post that he points to basic science studies as a waste of money:

The federal government, he declares with horror and astonishment, has spent $3 million to study grizzly bear DNA. "I don't know if it was a paternity issue or criminal," he jokes, "but it was a waste of money."
Head over to the Washington Post for the whole story.


Oklahoma turns to relativistic, post-modern theocracy

The Oklahoma state legislature is in the process of passing a bill that codifies a student's right to remain ignorant - so long as they have a religious reason for doing so.

From ERV:

The bill requires public schools to guarantee students the right to express their religious viewpoints in a public forum, in class, in homework and in other ways without being penalized. If a student’s religious beliefs were in conflict with scientific theory, and the student chose to express those beliefs rather than explain the theory in response to an exam question, the student’s incorrect response would be deemed satisfactory, according to this bill.
Yow. So as long as you say your God told you that 1 + 1 = 3, you get to have the right answer.

From the actual text of the bill, HB2211:
Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions. Homework and classroom assignments shall be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school district. Students shall not be penalized or rewarded on account of the religious content of their work. (my bold)
I think Oklahoma's in for some good, old-fashioned grade inflation.
"No, all of my answers on all of my tests are divinely inspired. I get an A+"
I can't wait until some Buddhists, Sikhs and Rastafarians sue for their right under this law to answer their own creation stories in science class. I find this bill *very* funny.

Clearly, the good Oklahoma Legislature isn't busy with anything important.


Teach the controversy!

It's a conspiracy!


Friday, March 7, 2008

Friday beautiful science

Today's Friday beautiful science is us. Here's a shot of our tiny little planet, as seen from Mars. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HIRISE) is orbiting Mars:

Launched in August 2005, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) is flying onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) mission. HiRISE will investigate deposits and landforms resulting from geologic and climatic processes and assist in the evaluation of candidate landing sites.
But in this particular image, they've pointed their cameras at earth to get a shot of the earth and the moon.

As an aside, I wanted to put this shot down as the Friday beautiful science this week, but Mrs. Factician thinks it's too difficult to look at. I'll let you be the judge.

This is another shot taken by the HIRISE. It's catching an avalanche in real time. The top of the mountain is on the left side of the photo, sloping downwards to the right. Those clouds to the right are dust thrown up by the avalanche. Absolutely beautiful. This photo is false colored.
Material, likely including fine-grained ice and dust and possibly including large blocks, has detached from a towering cliff and cascaded to the gentler slopes below. The occurrence of the avalanches is spectacularly revealed by the accompanying clouds of fine material that continue to settle out of the air. The largest cloud (upper images) traces the path of the debris as it fell down the slope, hit the lower slope, and continues downhill, forming a billowing cloud front. This cloud is about 180 meters (590 feet) across and extends about 190 m (625 ft) from the base of the steep cliff. Shadows to the lower left of each cloud illustrate further that these are three dimensional features hanging in the air in front of the cliff face, and not markings on the ground (sun is from the upper right).


Wednesday, March 5, 2008

If McCain wins, science loses.

I'm a post-doctoral fellow at a large medical school in the U.S. I'm looking for a 'permanent' position for me to conduct research. These positions largely don't exist.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) are the largest organization for funding basic biomedical research in the United States. If you want basic research done, these are the folks who pay for it. The NIH budget hasn't been keeping up with inflation over the last few years. The purchasing power of the NIH has decreased every year. That said, funding rates for new grants are going down. My wife's advisor, who is one of the top 3 scientists in his field, failed to get a grant renewed that he has had for nearly 20 years. It's a tough funding situation, and basic scientists are the first to feel the crunch.

Here's the way getting a job as an assistant professor usually works: After successfully interviewing for a position, the department offers you a startup package. This startup package is money that belongs to the department, and in my field, ranges from $500,000 to $1 million. For the department, this represents a fairly substantial investment in you (for which they will expect returns). The money is used to buy new equipment and hire people to work for you while you try to get grant support from the NIH (or any other organization that is hiring). The department will get a cut from your grant, so this is why it is an investment for them.

Currently, many universities see this as too big a gamble. The funding situation is so bad, that many new investigators will fail to get a grant, and the departments know it. So to hedge their bets, many new research positions are requiring that you have a grant before you apply for the position. But, the NIH doesn't allow temporary trainees (post-docs) to apply for grant money. But universities are mostly only hiring people who have a grant. But you need a permanent position to get a grant.

That's some catch, that Catch-22.
Here's where things get even trickier. I'm currently paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. They will only pay post-docs for 6 years. So in January, I'm out of a job. I need to find a permanent position in the next 10 months. Anyone who is nearing the end of a post-doc position is this funding era will have a *very* hard time finding an academic job.

So, what does this have to do with McCain? Clinton and Obama both have explicit science policies that they describe on their web pages. Here's the first three of Clinton's science points:
1. Establish a $50-billion Strategic Energy Fund.

2. Increase the basic research budgets 50% over 10 years at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Defense Department.

3. Increase the NIH budget by 50% over 5 years and aim to double it over 10 years.
Here's a short excerpt of Obama's:
Double federal science and research funding for clean energy projects, relying on the resources and ability of our national laboratories, universities and land grant colleges.

Barack Obama supports doubling federal funding for basic research, changing the posture of our federal government from being one of the most anti-science administrations in American history to one that embraces science and technology.
Here's McCain's:

Oh. He doesn't have one.

If John McCain wins, and we continue starving the NIH, there will be a whole generation of post-docs who will complete their training to find no jobs available for them. And all of their ideas, and all of the science they would have done will be moved elsewhere (either to other countries, or into industry). All of the biotech companies that would have been started, all of the basic science that could be done, and all of the young, fresh ideas that could be hatched will be moved elsewhere.


Friday, February 29, 2008

Friday beautiful science

Today's Friday beautiful science is a shot of a fruitfly (Drosophila melanogaster) larva trapped in a water droplet. From the Nature website:

This image of a live Drosophila larva in a water droplet has won the photographic competition that forms part of celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). Winner Robert Markus, of the Biological Research Center of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Szeged, received the award at a ceremony on 25 February in Amsterdam.


Markus took his photograph to show how blood cells affect the fruitfly's immune system. "By identifying blood-cell-specific genes, we can generate transgenic Drosophila strains in which the blood cells express green fluorescent protein, so that they are visualized in vivo, making in vivo research possible on the immune system," he explained.
If you know Dutch, head on over to the prize website, and check out more info.