Archive for April, 2012

Apr 10 2012

Simple Brain Wiring

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As a general rule it’s a safe bet that things in nature will turn out to be more complex than we initially imagine. We seem to pass through several general phases in our understanding of any phenomenon. First we have no idea what’s really going on and essentially invent fanciful superstitious ideas that are in line with our prejudices and desires. Then when we actually study the phenomenon scientifically we begin to see some regular patterns and some basic rules present themselves. We then are at high risk for assuming that we actually understand the phenomenon because we have developed simple rules to explain them, and certainly we know much more than we did in the pre-scientific superstitious phase.

But then as we make further observations and experiments those simple theories break down and we discover there are layers of depth and complexity to the phenomenon. We may feel for a while that our ignorance is growing more rapidly than our knowledge, as every discovery leads to yet more questions. Khunians may describe this as a period of scientific crisis leading to paradigm shift, when we are searching for radically new theories to solve the growing problems with existing theories.
This is a familiar story, but science does not always progress in this manner. Sometimes our observations and experiments lead us to an elegant simplicity, rather than a hoary complexity. As scientists we like to find regular patterns, and I particularly like finding meta-patterns – ways in which the scientific process itself tends to operate. What, then, do phenomena that appear to yield to elegant simplicity have in common? One feature, I suspect, is that the phenomenon is the result of emergent complexity.

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Apr 09 2012

The Sunken City of Cambay

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According to a BBC article by reporter Tom Housden, scientists have discovered the ruins of an ancient city off the coast of India in the Gulf of Cambay. Artifacts from the city have been carbon dated to about 9,500 years ago. According to the article:

The remains of what has been described as a huge lost city may force historians and archaeologists to radically reconsider their view of ancient human history.

To put the significance of such a find in perspective, the oldest human cities are about 7,000 years old, and the oldest Indian city is Harrappa, about 4,600 years old. If the Cambay ruins are genuine, then that would predate the oldest known human city by more than two thousand years and the oldest Indian city by 5,000 years. The implications of this, if true, would indeed be huge. The BBC article offers this quote:

“There’s a huge chronological problem in this discovery. It means that the whole model of the origins of civilization with which archaeologists have been working will have to be remade from scratch,” he said.

It doesn’t take long, however, for the entire story to begin to unravel, once a critical eye it turned toward the claims. I always like to consider the plausibility of such claims. In this case, finding a city older than any previously known city is not entirely implausible. It’s possible that a culture in one location developed a city which did not survive and was forgotten to history. The oldest example of anything is always only as old as the oldest example discovered, and so scientists are frequently pushing back the date of the “oldest” something as new discoveries are made.

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Apr 05 2012

A Feathered Tyrannosauroid

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Yet another feathered dinosaur has been discovered in China – this one is a relative of T. rex and is the largest creature with feathers, extant or extinct, to have been discovered. Yutyrannus lived about 125 million years ago and is an early cousin of the T. rex.

This is one of my favorite paleontological stories – in fact, it’s one of my favorite science stories because it demonstrates one of the ways in which evolution is testable. When Darwin first proposed his theory the fossil record was very scant. Further, the number of species currently alive is a very small portion of the number of species to have ever lived (scientists are fond of saying that most species to have ever lived are extinct).

This means that when we look at living things in order to infer the relationships among them, different plants and animals might appear to cluster in separate groups. Actually a thorough survey of living things shows a pattern of nestled categories that are blurry at the edges (I’m looking at you, platypus) and nicely reflects a branching pattern of common descent. But still, there do appear to be distinct groups. This appearance, however, is an artifact of the incompleteness of the sample of all living things represented by those species that are still alive.

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Apr 03 2012

Donald Trump – Anti-Vaccine Crank

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From time to time celebrities publicly discuss their opinions on scientific topics, and the results are usually not pretty. I have discussed previously the folly of Jenny McCarthy, for example, in using her dubious celebrity to promote anti-vaccine nonsense. Now The Donald has joined the ranks of people who are mostly famous for being famous who feel their celebrity gives them license to pontificate publicly about complex scientific issues. Trump told a Fox News audience that he strongly believes vaccines are causing the increase in autism diagnosis. He based this upon his scientific training, thorough reading of the relevant scientific literature, and consultation with experts – no, I mean based upon his casual observation and naive assumptions. Hey, he has an anecdote.

Here is the core of his rant:

“I’ve gotten to be pretty familiar with the subject. You know, I have a theory — and it’s a theory that some people believe in — and that’s the vaccinations. We never had anything like this. This is now an epidemic. It’s way, way up over the past 10 years. It’s way up over the past two years. And, you know, when you take a little baby that weighs like 12 pounds into a doctor’s office and they pump them with many, many simultaneous vaccinations — I’m all for vaccinations, but I think when you add all of these vaccinations together and then two months later the baby is so different then lots of different things have happened. I really — I’ve known cases.”

OK, it’s easy for a lay person to get caught up in a complex scientific question and get overwhelmed by information from one side. If you naively watch Loose Change, for example, without being familiar with the whole 911 conspiracy thing you might be led to believe there is something sinister going on. That’s how propaganda of that sort often works – overwhelm your audience with factoids, distorted and cherry-picked information, and apparent correlations and weave them into an emotionally compelling story. If you listen to just one side of any scientific debate you will probably be convinced that that side has a strong and perhaps even iron-clad case. Only when the other side has an opportunity to make their case do you see how the information you were given was systematically biased in one direction.

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Apr 02 2012

Are Evolution and Creationism Compatible?

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The Tennessee bill that requires science teachers to teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of “controversial” topics has sparked public discussion on evolution and creationism once again. This means that we will cycle through the same series of arguments that have already been worked through, but that is the nature of the popularization of any topic, such as science. Inevitably in these discussions some people, wanting to be accommodating to all sides, ask some version of the famous question, “Can’t we all just get along?”

This view touches our democratic and individualistic sensibilities and our sense of fairness. Further, the political process is often one of compromise. Creationists are happy to exploit these facts, and claim that they just want what’s fair, they want “equal time,” they want to “teach the controversy,” and they just don’t think evolution should get any special treatment. They use these strategies because they resonate with the American culture. Also it’s easy to portray egg-headed intellectual scientists as ivory tower elitists. This all may be effective politics, but it is bad science and bad for education.

A recent editorial in the Tennessean plays the “compatible” card – here it is in its entirety:

Science has proved the universe began with a collision of two specks moving in an oversize void a very long time ago, evolving into what we have today.

How did they get together? Where did they come from? That is where God came in.

What I don’t understand is, why argue over evolution and creation when both theories are true?

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