Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The new super-coyotes of eastern North America

November 25, 2015


Eastern North America is home to millions of a new breed of coyote, or maybe new species — the coy wolf, which typically has 25 percent wolf DNA and 10 percent dog DNA.

The eastern coyote, or coy wolf, has the cunning of a coyote and the ferocity of a wolf.  Like the western coyote and unlike the eastern timber wolf, it is at home on the open prairie.  Like the timber wolf and unlike the western coyote, it is at home in the deep woods.  Unlike both, it is at home in cities.

An estimated 20 coy wolves inhabit New York City, living on garbage, rodents and small pets.  They have been seen in Boston and Washington, D.C.  Evolution never stops.


Greater than the sum of its parts from The Economist.

The passing scene: Links & comments 10/24/2015

October 24, 2015

Anxious Hours in Pivotland: Where’s My Sailthrough? by Peter Lee for China Matters.

Neither South Korea nor Australia support the U.S.-Japanese opposition to Chinese efforts to claim islands in the South China Sea.  The Chinese Navy meanwhile made a point about freedom of the seas by sailing through Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

Trey Gowdy Just Elected Hillary Clinton President by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

Or at least greatly strengthened her bid for the Democratic nomination.  The Benghazi hearings made Republicans look like fools and showed Clinton as someone who is a match for them.

Are Canadian progressives showing Americans the way? by Miles Corak for Economics for public policy (via Economist’s View)

America’s Civilian Killings Are No Accident by Peter Van Buren for We Meant Well.

The bombing of the hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, had many precedents.

What Is life? by Matthew Francis for Mosaic.  (via Barry Ritholtz)

If humans encountered extraterrestrial life, would we know it when we saw it?


The passing scene – October 7, 2015

October 7, 2015

Why Free Markets Make Fools of Us by Cass R. Sunstein for The New York Review of Books.  (Hat tip to my expatriate e-mail pen pal Jack)

The TPP has a provision that many will love to hate: ISDS.  What is it, and why does it matter? by Todd Tucker for the Washington Post.  (Hat tip to naked capitalism)

Hillary Clinton says she does not support Trans Pacific Partnership by the PBS Newshour.

Q: Is the Obama Administration Complicit With Slavery? A: Yes by Eric Loomis for Lawyers, Guns and Money.  Slavery in Malaysia is overlooked for the sake of the TPP.

Houston is a lot more tolerant of immigrants than Copenhagen is on Science Codex.  (Hat tip to Jack)

Science Saves: The Young Iraqis Promoting Evolutionary Theory and Rational Thought to Save Iraq by Marwan Jabbar for Niqash: briefings from inside and across Iraq.  (Hat tip to Informed Comment)

The Amazing Inner Lives of Animals by Tim Flannery for The New York Review of Books.  (Hat tip to Jack)

Is the chilli pepper friend or foe? by William Kremer for BBC World Service.  (Hat tip to Jack)

What would a space alien see on Earth?

September 13, 2015

alienHat tip to my expatriate e-mail pen pal Jack and his friend Marty.

It’s a big strange universe out there

August 20, 2015

Hat tip to

What it means to be truly pro-life

August 16, 2015

In 2010, a woman named Sarah Gray gave birth to identical twin boys.  One of them had birth defects and died after a few days.  She and her husband Ross donated the Thomas’s eyes and liver, along with cord blood from Thomas and his twin brother Callum, for scientific research.

A few years later Sarah and Ross Gray learned what use had been made of their child’s remains.

The Schlepens Eye Research Institute in Boston used Ross’s eyes in a study that one day might contribute to a cure for corneal blindness.

Sarah Gray looks at RNA sample from donated retinas

Sarah Gray looks at RNA sample from donated retinas.  Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

Thomas’s retinas were given to the University of Pennsylvania, where they were used in a study that one day might contribute to a cure for retinoblastoma, the most common form of eye cancer in children.   The retina tissue is so valuable that some of it is being saved for future research.

Researchers at the Duke University Center for Human Genetics found subtle genetic differences in the cord blood that might help explain anencephaly, the genetic defect that killed Thomas.  The liver went to a biotech company named Cytonet, which used it to study the best way to freeze liver tissue.

Sarah Gray, who already had worked in public relations for non-profit organizations, became director of marketing for the American Association of Tissue Banks.

The Grays’ decision to donate their baby’s remains for scientific research shows what it means to be truly pro-life.


Thomas Gray lived six days, but his life has lasting impact by Michael Vitez for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Gray’s Donation, a Radiolab broadcast.

The passing scene – August 9, 2015

August 9, 2015

These are links to interesting articles I’ve come across in the past day or so.  I may add links during the day.  Please feel free to make general or off-topic comments.

Coyotes in New York and Chicago by Lance Richardson for Slate. now inhabit New York, Chicago and other big American cities.  Lance Richardson thinks they may well fit the urban and suburban environment better than the rural environment.

Coyotes eat rats and mice.  They eat feral cats, which prey on songbirds.  In suburbs, where hunters are forbidden to discharge firearms, they keep the deer population down.

Farmers and ranchers kill coyotes because coyotes destroy poultry and livestock.  But in cities and suburbs, most pets and other domestic animals are locked up, and coyotes survive by eating vermin.

Meet the electric life forms that live on pure energy by Catherine Brahic for New Scientist.

Scientists have discovered bacteria that eat and breathe electrons, and they can be found nearly everywhere.  All life and all chemical reactions are based on a flow of electrons, but these bacteria survive on electricity in its purest form.

Kropotkin on the Hudson by Polly Howells for In These Times.

Members of the Long Spoon Collective in Saugerties, New York, try to live by the anarchist values of voluntary sharing.   I highly approve of what they’re attempting and wish them well.  I’m not sure such communities can work without extra-ordinary dedication, but I’d be happy to be proved wrong.  I don’t have it in me to live as they do myself.


Scientists under siege by climate change deniers

July 12, 2015

Climate scientists have spent the past several decades warning humanity about a dire threat to civilization—a threat they think is much worse than the public realizes.  But their reward for this warning has been to be villified and harassed.  Some of them suffer burnout under the stress of being relentlessly attacked.

As John H. Richardson pointed out in Esquire, the scientists have been right so far—

The physical evidence becomes more dramatic every year: forests retreating, animals moving north, glaciers melting, wildfire seasons getting longer, higher rates of droughts, floods, and storms—five times as many in the 2000s as in the 1970s.

hottestyearIn the blunt words of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, conducted by three hundred of America’s most distinguished experts at the request of the U. S. government, human-induced climate change is real—U. S. temperatures have gone up between 1.3 and 1.9 degrees, mostly since 1970—and the change is already affecting “agriculture, water, human health, energy, transportation, forests, and ecosystems.”

But that’s not the worst of it. Arctic air temperatures are increasing at twice the rate of the rest of the world—a study by the U. S. Navy says that the Arctic could lose its summer sea ice by next year, eighty-four years ahead of the models—and evidence little more than a year old suggests the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is doomed, which will add between twenty and twenty-five feet to ocean levels.

The one hundred million people in Bangladesh will need another place to live and coastal cities globally will be forced to relocate, a task complicated by economic crisis and famine—with continental interiors drying out, the chief scientist at the U. S. State Department in 2009 predicted a billion people will suffer famine within twenty or thirty years.

And what has been the scientists’ reward for alerting us to this peril?

The scientists … … have been the targets of an unrelenting and well-organized attack that includes death threats, summonses from a hostile Congress, attempts to get them fired, legal harassment, and intrusive discovery demands so severe they had to start their own legal-defense fund, all amplified by a relentless propaganda campaign nakedly financed by the fossil-fuel companies.  [snip]

which-makes-more-sense-smlNo one has experienced that hostility more vividly than Michael Mann, who was a young Ph.D. researcher when he helped come up with the historical data that came to be known as the hockey stick—the most incendiary display graph in human history, with its temperature and emissions lines going straight up at the end like the blade of a hockey stick.

He was investigated, was denounced in Congress, got death threats, was accused of fraud, received white powder in the mail, and got thousands of e-mails with suggestions like, You should be “shot, quartered, and fed to the pigs along with your whole damn families.”  Conservative legal foundations pressured his university, a British journalist suggested the electric chair.

In 2003, Senator James Inhofe’s committee called him to testify, flanking him with two professional climate-change deniers, and in 2011 the committee threatened him with federal prosecution, along with sixteen other scientists.

via How Climate Scientists Feel About Climate Change Deniers by John H. Richardson for Esquire.

Technology primarily benefits those who own it

June 29, 2015

jobs.5x650I can remember 50 and 60 years ago when people worried about what Americans would do with all the affluence and leisure time that would result from automation.   Today that seems like a cruel joke.

Technology primarily benefits those who own it.  Applied science primarily benefits those who fund it, or at least reflects what the funders are interested in.  There can be spillover effects that benefit everyone, but these don’t necessarily happen of their own accord.

I came across a good article on this topic in Technology Review.  The lesson I draw from it is (1) technology is not a substitute for social and economic reform and (2) there is a need for scientific and technological research outside the domains of for-profit corporations and the military.


Who Will Own the Robots? in Technology Review.  (Hat tip to naked capitalism}

The economic argument against the paranormal

June 16, 2015

Source: xkcd.

Anatomy of a tornado

June 6, 2015

Hat tip to Avedon’s Sideshow.

Whom do you believe about climate change?

June 3, 2015

global-warming-planetPaul Craig Roberts, who was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury during the Reagan administration, has this to say about climate change.

Climate change is a controversy.  What appear to be independent scientists say that the climate is warming due to greenhouse gases produced by human activity. This warming, apparently measurable, has many impacts on sea levels, and on plant, animal, sea, and bird life, as well as food supply for a heavily populated earth.  [snip]

As far as I can tell the polluting corporations have sufficient think tanks and research institutes to neutralize the independent scientists.  If one is not a climate expert, which I am not, one doesn’t really know.  However, I have learned in my many years that an independent voice is far more reliable than a paid voice. 

Possibly climate change is occurring because of solar activity or because of activity inside the earth itself.  The attention should not be on the cause but on the fact.  First establish the fact, then look for the cause.

My view of this is that life depends on climate, and it doesn’t take a lot of change in one direction or the other to create problems for life.  This fact makes climate change an important issue, and corporations should stop paying people to lie about it.  [snip]

Climate change, if real, is clearly a much greater threat than Muslim terrorists or alleged Chinese and Russian hegemonic aspirations.  Therefore, Washington should spend some of the one trillion dollars Washington blows on the military/security complex on arriving at the best conclusion about climate change and its remedies, if any.

The United States is a strange country.  The population accepts the destruction of privacy and civil liberty out of fear of essentially non-existent terrorists created by propaganda, but ignores the threat of climate change presented by independent scientists, a threat amplified by the ongoing multi-year drought in California and the western US.

via Climate Change – The Unz Review.

Those who accept the reality of human-caused climate change are the U.S. Department of Defense, Pope Francis and Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, who has announced his country’s intention convert to solar energy for its needs by 2040-2050.


Pro-science religion and anti-science religion

May 27, 2015


What this chart indicates is that the big religious split in the United States is not between Protestants and Catholics, or among Christians, Jews and Muslims, but between pro-science religion and anti-science religion.

This chart is based on a 2007 survey by Pew Research.  It will be interesting to see if the 2014 survey is significantly different.


Evolution, Science and Religion by Josh Rosenau for the Science League of America.

Our new pro-science pontiff: Pope Francis on climate change, evolution and the Big Bang by Chris Mooney for the Washington Post.

Science and stamp collecting

May 12, 2015

science and stamp collectingSource: xkcd

A look at the galaxy next door

April 27, 2015

The Andromeda galaxy, aka M-31, is the one closest to our Milky Way galaxy.  It has 100 million stars.  The Hubble telescope gave a better image of that galaxy than every before.  Each little dot in the video is a star equivalent to our sun.


Strong opposition to Darwinism in Israel

March 30, 2015


The United States is exceptional among economically-advanced nations in the large percentage of the population who reject Darwin’s theory of evolution.

But the USA has a partner in this respect.  A large percentage of the population of Israel also reject evolution.


Religious fundamentalists—that is, those who believe that Scripture should be taken as literal fact as well as teaching a lesson—are strong in both countries, and are politically allied to right-wing nationalists.

Right-wing nationalism is not inherent in religious fundamentalism.  The Old Order Amish are fundamentalists.  But when fundamentalism and nationalism are allied, they make a powerful and dangerous force, because the nation and its military are treated as if they are sacred.

The Likud Party in Israel is close to the Republican Party in the United States, in spite of the fact that most Jewish citizens in the United States support the Democrats.

I believe that is because the Likud supporters and Republicans have an affinity in their leaders’ assertive nationalism and in their appeal to religious fundamentalist voters.   The majority of Jewish people in the United States, on the other hand, are liberal humanitarians who accept the conclusions of modern science.


In Israel, Will Creationists Reign? by Josh Rosenau for the Science League of America.

A Shande Vor De Goyim: Israelis Are as Creationist as U.S. Non-Jews by Josh Rosenau for the Science League of America.

Israeli politicians views on evolution: more waffling and denialism by Jerry Coyne.

Global warming skipped Washington this winter

March 23, 2015


The world is getting warmer, but not everywhere at the same time.  I hope our decision-makers in Washington, D.C., can accept the fact that the world as a whole is warming up even though it’s cold where they live.


This has been the warmest winter on record, except in the most politically important part of the world by Philip Bump for the Washington Post.   [Hat tip to Barry Ritholtz.]


There’s no proof human sex pheronomes exist

March 14, 2015

There’s no scientific evidence that human sex pheronomes exist.  Belief in human sex pheronomes derives from a an inconclusive paper at a scientific conference sponsored by a perfume company.

A fragrance company named Erox supplied two scientists with molecules called androstadiene and estratetraenol, which it identified as “putative human pheronomes”.   The scientists determined that these substances, when injected into the human nose, caused a response in the human nasal passages, and published a paper in 1991 saying they could indeed be pheronomes.

Erox was founded by David Berliner, a former professor at the University of Utah.   The university and Luis Monti-Bloch, one of the two psychiatrists who did the study, owned stock in Erox.   The scientific paper was published at a 1994 scientific conference on mammalian pheronomes sponsored by Erox.   Monti-Bloch later went to work for Erox, which patented androstadiene and estratetraenol and incorporated them into its new perfumes and advertising campaigns.

In 2000, a respected scientist named Martha McClintock did a study indicating that androstadiene improved the mood of women and that estratraenol improved the mood of men, but neither her study nor the earlier study made the claim that they were human sex pheronomes nor cited any evidence they produced human sexual arousal.

Human pheronomes might exist.  It’s possible.  But at the present time, the scientific evidence is lacking.


How one perfume company misled scientists into believing in human sex pheronomes by Joseph Stromberg for Vox.  My post is a summary of the facts in this article.  (Hat tip to naked capitalism)

Where are we in the universe?

February 15, 2015

As my friend Jack Belli once remarked, every new astronomical discovery and cosmological theory shows a universe that is bigger, stranger and more awesome than what had we had previously thought.

Source: This is the most detailed map yet of our place in the universe by Brad Plumer for Vox

Darwin’s theory and American exceptionalism

January 20, 2015

20150119_differnt_0Source: Calamities of Nature via Zero Hedge.

As this chart shows, we Americans are less likely to believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution than the people of any European nation.

Oddly, though, we are more likely to believe in social Darwinism (although we don’t call it that)—the idea the law of life is survival of the fittest, and society does not exist so that people can cooperate for mutually beneficial ends, but so that the population can be sorted into winners and losers.


Our place in a really big universe

December 24, 2014


The passing scene: Links & comments 10/6/14

October 6, 2014

Populist Former Senator Jim Webb Could Give Hillary Clinton Major Headaches in 2016 by Lynn Stuart Parramore for Alternet.

I’ve long admired Senator James Webb, the former Senator from Virginia.  A Vietnam veteran and Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, he switched from the Republican to the Democratic party out of disgust for the Bush administration’s subservience to Wall Street.  He has criticized the Obama administration on the same grounds.

Webb is an opponent of reckless military intervention abroad, a critic of the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration and a friend of working people.

I admire Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for the way she stands up to Wall Street, but I agree with Webb on a broader range of issues than I do with her (for example, she goes along with the administration’s war policies).

Tech gives the rich new toys while perpetuating the criminalization of poverty by Nathaniel Mott for Pando Daily (via Naked Capitalism)

A new device allows subprime auto lenders to track the location of a debtor’s car and to disable the car if the debtor falls behind on payments.  The New York Times reported this has happened when the car is in motion.


David Graeber on funding scientific research

September 22, 2014

Common sense suggests that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you find some bright people, give them the resources they need to pursue whatever idea comes into their heads, and then leave them alone. Most will turn up nothing, but one or two may well discover something.

But if you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover.

via Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit – The Baffler.

Is the progress of science itself winding down?

September 17, 2014

Is progress in science itself winding down?  I don’t know, but I think it is possible.

I don’t know of any new scientific theories or discoveries in my adult lifetime that compare to Newton’s theory of gravitation, Darwin’s theory of natural selection or Einstein’s theory of relativity.  While I don’t have any basis for ruling out a new scientific revolution, I do have some thoughts about the possible limits of scientific discovery.

There have been two periods of scientific advance, one in ancient Greece and Roman and one in modern European times.

pic_7bwThe ancient Greek scientists did some remarkable things.  They figured out that the world was round, and made a good informed guess as to how large it was, based on nothing more than the science of geometry and observations that could be made with the naked eye.

What made the ancient Greeks different from other peoples is that they based their thinking on observation, reasoning from evidence and discussion among peers, rather than arguing from authority and hoarding knowledge.  And with Euclid’s geometry, they had a powerful new tool of thought.

What brought ancient Greek science to an end was partly that they made all the easy discoveries that could be made with geometric reasoning and naked-eye observation, but also, as Prof. Gilbert Murray wrote in Five Stages of Greek Religion, a failure of nerve.

Murray said the Greeks didn’t like where Greek science was taking them—the idea that the sun and moon were not gods, but that the sun was a ball of fire and the moon was a ball of rock.   They turned to the occult and to cults from Asia, much like the New Age philosophies today.

Science revived partly because of a revival of interest in Greek science during the Renaissance.  It also was aided by inventions that increased the power of observation.  The microscope and the telescope revealed worlds that no human being had seen before.   Arabic-Hindu algebra provided a powerful new tool of thought, to which was added the calculus and mathematical logic.  The process of testing theories by discussion of evidence became systematized.

It is possible that human powers of observation have, at least for now, reached their limits.  Scientists have discovered the structure of the atom, and of sub-atomic particles.   Aided by billions of dollars worth of equipment, they have confirmed the existence of sub-sub-atomic particles, such as the Higgs boson.  Maybe there are sub-sub-sub atomic particles, but it is hard to see how physicists could learn anything about them.

Astronomers seem to have reached the same limits in knowledge of the cosmos.

Physics is not the only science, of course.  Remarkable discoveries are being made in cognitive science and the study of the human brain, and this science is not so capital-intensive as astronomy or particle physics.

But that comes up against the other limitation—the failure of nerve.   Science reveals a strange world that is alien to human common sense, and in which human beings are not the center.

This has produced a backlash, reflected in the demand for teaching of creationism and its little brother, intelligent design, neither of which is based on discussion of evidence based on observation.

The backlash is covertly supported by vested interests who are threatened by scientific research—fossil fuel companies by climate research, tobacco companies by epidemiology.

Along with that, there has been a decline in support for curiosity-based science.  It does not have an economic benefit that is obvious beforehand.  There is an economic incentive to concentrate on research with a predictable payoff.

So even if scientific discovery has not reached its reality-based limits, the fear of scientific reasoning could bring about a cessation of scientific discovery.

I am not a scientist.  All this is speculation.  Maybe science has reached a natural limit, and all that remains is a filling in of detail.  Maybe science is an open-ended endless process.  Maybe someday there will be a Grand Theory of Everything.  The future progress of science may be represented by the straight line or the upward slope in the chart, and it may be represented by an S-shaped curve or even a bell curve.  This is unknowable, at least by me.

Why then do I write about it?  I think that whatever the future of scientific discovery, the moral values of science are important.  These values are objectivity, curiosity, free discussion and evidence-based reasoning, and they are worth defending against magic, mystery and authority.


Is there a creativity deficit in science? by Ben McNeil for ArsTechnica.  (Via Mike the Mad Biologist)

Science, Superstars and Stocks by Paul Kedrosky (2011)


Haldane vs. Russell on science and the future

September 12, 2014

by Phil Ebersole

These are notes for my talk to the Rochester Russell Forum on Sept. 11, 2014.

My presentation tonight is based on two essays, Daedalus: Science and the Future, written in 1923, in which the mathematical biologist, J.B.S. Haldane said that science held the seeds of a possible utopian future, and Icarus: the Future of Science, written by 1924 by Bertrand Russell in rebuttal, warning of the dangers in the development of scientific technique.

These conflicting claims about science are still with us, and I think these older essays shed light on the question precisely because they are old.  Both Haldane and Russell made predictions about the future which we are in a position to judge.

I think most of us know something about Bertrand Russell, but maybe not so much about John Burton Sanderson Haldane.

J.B.S. Haldane

J.B.S. Haldane

He was born in 1892 to an aristocratic and secular Scottish family.  He made important contributions to science.

He helped lay the groundwork for combining Mendelian genetics with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which is the current basis of evolutionary theory, and for the idea of kin selection, popularized by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene.  He developed a theory of the origin of primitive life from complex non-living molecules, and constructed a human gene map for color blindness and hemophilia.

Like Richard Dawkins, he was both a successful popularizer of science and a militant atheist.  He was a staunch socialist and Marxist, and edited the London Daily Worker from 1940 to 1949.

In 1956, he emigrated to India in order, he said, to enjoy the freedom “not to wear socks”.  He became a naturalized citizen of India and worked at the Indian Statistical Institute until his death in 1964.

It is interesting that he entitled his essay “Daedalus,” who was, according to the legend, a morally ambiguous figure.  Daedalus was a technological genius who supposedly fled his native city of Athens to Crete after murdering his nephew, whom he feared would surpass him in achievement.  He constructed a wooden cow for the Cretan Queen Pasiphae (pas-if-eye) to hide in while she had sex with a white bull sent by Poseidon.  She became pregnant with the Minotaur, half bull and half man, so Daedalus, as Haldane pointed out, was the first genetic engineer.  He designed the Labyrinth to contain the Minotaur, which fed on youths and maidens, and he gave Ariadne, daughter of Pasiphae and King Minos, a thread by which her lover Theseus could find his way out after killing the beast.

King Minos shut Daedalus and his son Icarus in the Labyrinth, but Daedalus made feathered wings for himself and his son so they could escape by flying to Sicily.  But Icarus flew too close to the sun and the wax attaching the feathers to his body melted, and he drowned.  There’s more, but I’m going to turn to Haldane’s essay.

Haldane said the science is —
(1) the free activity of humanity’s divine faculty of reason and imagination
(2) the answer of a few to the demands of the many for wealth, comfort and victory, and
(3) humanity’s gradual conquest of
(a) space and time,
(b) matter as such
(c) the bodies of living things, including the human body, and
(d) the human soul



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