Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

How a hawk flies through little openings

March 25, 2014

Hat tip to

The cosmic perspective of Neil deGrasse Tyson

February 13, 2014

My friend Jack Belli once remarked that the history of science is a succession of visions of the universe, each a cosmic perspective greater and more awe-inspiring than the one that came before.

The late Carl Sagan was one who was able to communication the cosmic perspective.  His 13-part TV series, “Cosmos: a Personal Journal”, was the most viewed show ever to appear on the Public Broadcasting Network.

Another is Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium.  In the video above and in this interview, Tyson talks about the cosmic perspective and what it means.  Starting March 9 at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time, Tyson will begin a successor series, “Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey”, on Fox.

This is a rewording of the original post and a correction of the statement that Tyson’s “Cosmos” would air on the National Geographic Channel.

Can global warming be real if there still is snow?

December 13, 2013


Click on Jen Sorensen for more of her cartoons.

Ghosts of evolution: Ginkgo trees and avocados

December 9, 2013

Hat tip to Hal Bauer.

Optical illusions that fool the brain

October 17, 2013

What we see is when we look at something is not “sense data”.  It is not the pattern of photons of different wave lengths falling on the rods and cones of our eyes.  Something in our brains that is the equivalent of image processing software translates this raw data into an image that has meaning.

As my friend Bill Hickok said, that is why we can look at cartoons and see an image rather than just lines on a surface.  And that is why it is possible to fool the brain with optical illusions like the one above.

Hat tip to

Weird science: links & comments 9/16/13

September 16, 2013

The natural world is a source of beauty, awesomeness and knowledge, but we human beings have to seek justice, mercy and the means of survival within ourselves.

They’re Taking Over by Tim Flannery for New York Review of Books.

This review of Stung! Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Oceans by Lisa-ann Gershwin tells how the rich ecology of vast areas of the world’s oceans are dominated by jellyfish.  That is because much marine life is sensitive to pollution and climate change, while the jellyfish can survive almost any conditions.  Flannery sees nothing to prevent jellyfish displacing all other surface marine life.

Evolutionary fitness is different from being high on the food chain.  Jellyfishes and cockroaches may be better able to survive radical changes in the environment than whales, dolphins or humans.  I hope Flannery and Gershwin are wrong, although I don’t know any facts that prove them wrong.

Stop pretending we aren’t living in the Space Age by Annalee Newitz for io9.

The Space Age is already here.  We depend on space satellites for communications, global positioning and much else and, at any given time, there are scientists, engineers and technicians working in interplanetary space.

The First Gear Discovered in Nature by William Herkewitz for Popular Mechanics.

Wheels were not thought to occur in nature, but scientists of discovered a tiny insect with biological gears that increase its jumping power.

Architect in London Accidentally Builds Solar Death Ray by Sam Webb for London Daily Mail.  Hat tip to Bored Panda.

The curved reflective surface of a London skyscraper focused the sun’s rays so as to partially melt a businessman’s car.  Nobody actually was killed.

The Radical Challenge of Building a Dorm for the Deaf by Liz Stinson for Wired magazine.

Gaullaudet University in Washington, D.C., is the largest U.S. educational institution for the deaf.  This article tells how its new residence hall was designed to create the equivalent of good acoustics—to minimize the occasions in which deaf students would not be able to face each other.  There is much more to this than I would have thought.

As Humans Change Landscape, Brains of Animals Change, Too by Carl Zimmer for the New York Times.

Scientific studies indicate that the sophisticated city mouse may have a larger brain than the old-fashioned country mouse.

Our galactic home: the Solar System

August 31, 2013

Just to keep a sense of perspective.

Hat tip to

A rationalist martyr in India

August 23, 2013

Reason has its martyrs, just as faith does.

Narendra Dabholkar

Narendra Dabholkar

Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, a brave rationalist who devoted his life to exposing fake faith healers and miracle workers in India, was murdered Tuesday.

His organization, the Maharashtra Blind Faith Eradication Association, offered a prize of 500,000 rupees to any diviner who could prove he or she could summon spirits.

At the time of his death, he was pushing for a law in Maharashtra state outlawing the practice of black magic.  My own belief is that rationalists should restrict themselves to the rational method, and not try to enforce their beliefs through government power.  There is a subtle but important difference between outlawing fraud and outlawing beliefs and practices which can be a mask for fraud.

Dabholkar didn’t see it that way.  He said his proposed law never mentioned God or religion, and did not touch the doctrines of Hinduism or any other religion.  Whatever the merits of that argument, it can be said that he never went outside the law or threatened his opponents with death.

And it also is true that religious believers in India have used the law to suppress rationalist criticism.  Sanal Edamaruku, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association, fled India to escape arrest for blasphemy because he investigated a weeping statue of Jesus in a Catholic church in Mumbai and concluded it was the result of a plumbing problem.

Dabholkar’s proposed anti-magic law, which was opposed by conservative Hindus, was in fact enacted a few days after his death, but needs approval of Parliament before it can become law.


Why are even the animals getting fat?

August 12, 2013

The World Health Organization predicts that, in a few years, obesity-related diseases—diabetes, heart disease, strokes and kidney failure—will be the world’s major causes of death.

The reason most commonly given for the increase in obesity, especially in the United States, is that people don’t get enough exercise or eat healthy food.

Fat CatBut a research team headed by a bio-statistician named David B. Allison has found that American animals also are getting fatter—pet dogs and cats, alley rats, laboratory mice, and marmosets, chimpanzees, macaques and vervet monkeys in primate research centers.

Now it could be the case that pet dogs and cats are not getting enough exercise, and alley rats are eating more junk food.  But what about the primates and the laboratory mice?  They live in controlled environments in which their diet and activities don’t change from year to year.

Obviously people who exercise regularly and eat fresh fruit and vegetables will on average be healthier than those who don’t.  But scientists are coming to doubt that exercise and diet alone are the keys to the obesity epidemic.   They look for biochemical factors that cause the body to store more fat.

Allison’s team studied 12 different animal populations, subdivided into male and female.

The biggest weight gainers were the chimpanzees, whose average weight increased 33.6 percent every 10 years.  Marmosets gained 9.3 percent and vervet monkeys gained 8.8 percent.  Macaques gained an average of 11.5 percent per decade in a California primate research center, 9.6 percent in an Oregon center and 5.3 percent in a Wisconsin center.

Cats gained 9.7 percent and dogs gained 2.8 percent

Laboratory mice gained 12.5 percent and laboratory rats gained 3.4 percent.  Feral city rats gained 6.9 percent and feral country rats gained 4.8 percent.

The only sub-group to show no appreciable weight gain over the decades were female laboratory rats, with an average increase of only 0.2 percent every 10 years, barely enough to measure.  Male rats gained an average of 6 percent per decade.

David Berreby, writing in Aeon magazine, reviewed some possible factors.  Stress and sleeplessness, for example, are linked to disruptions in leptin, the hormone that tells the body when it has had enough to eat.   The prevalence of artificial light, interfering with natural sleep and biological rhythms may be a factor.

Other possibilities are a virus, bacteria or industrial chemical.  Candidates include Bisphenol-A (BSA), a chemical found in most household plastics, and the Ad-36 virus, an endocrine disrupter. If there is a common factor affecting humans and animals, my guess is that these are the most likely.

But at this point we just don’t know.


An end to progress? Arguments pro and con

August 6, 2013



An economist named Robert J. Gordon, and Erik Byrnjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, had an interesting debate at a TED forum on whether the days of rapid economic growth are over.

Gordon said improvements in world living standards are the result of two historical events that may not be repeated—the first industrial revolution, based on coal, iron and steam, beginning in the late 1700s in Britain, and the second industrial revolution, based on oil, electricity and the internal combustion engine, beginning in the late 1800s in the USA.

Both these revolutions have run their course, he said, and there’s no reason to think that the current technological revolution in information technology will have the same impact.  The i-phone is nice, but it will not change society in the same way that Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone did.

Byrnjolfsson said computer and information technology are in their infancy, and will have as great an impact as the earlier technological revolutions.  Human beings haven’t as yet learned how to work most effectively with the new technology, he said.

Much depends on which one is right.  With rapid economic growth, it is possible for all classes of society, rich, middle and poor, to improve their condition without hurting the others, except maybe in relative terms.  With flat or declining economic growth, the struggle for economic and political power becomes much more of a zero sum game, a sorting of society into winners and losers.

I think the videos are interesting and worth watching, but I also think both speakers fail to emphasize an important thing—that improvement in the material standard of living requires not only progress in science and technology, but public policies that make the fruits of science and technology available to the wider public.

Improvements in public health, for example, are based not only on discoveries about vaccination, antiseptics and antibiotics, but also from public water and sewerage systems, food inspections and mass vaccinations of school children.   Universal telephone service is based not only on a technology, but also on a commitment by AT&T as a condition of maintaining its monopoly position.

Advances in technology don’t automatically abolish poverty.  George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier, which is about unemployed British coal miners in the 1930s, pointed out that every miner’s family owned a radio, a technological wonder unavailable to kings and emperors 50 years before.  And yet these same miners had difficulty putting food on the table.  Not having radios would not have enabled them to pay for it.

Brynjolfsson could be right.  Factory automation could produce a world of leisure and well-being for everyone.  But, depending on who is running things, it could produce a world like that imagined by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in his 1952 novel Player Piano.

I can easily imagine a future USA with amazing information technology, communications technology and virtual reality entertainment technology, not to mention science-fictional war-making and surveillance technology.  And along with this, growing shortages of affordable housing, medical care and higher education, and a deterioration of public services and the physical environment.

I’m neither foolish enough nor brave enough to attempt to predict the future.  I don’t think decline is inevitable.  But all it requires is for us to continue on our present path.  We’re halfway there now.



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