Friday, December 31, 2010
Thursday, December 2, 2010
Monday, November 8, 2010
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Some people wear goofy scientific t-shirts, and some people prefer to wear their scientific passions on their flesh. If you happen to be one such decorated scientist, let Carl Zimmer know so he can include you in his forthcoming book of science tattoos, Science Ink. For the curious, his blog has a large collection of pictures that range from artful to humorous to downright geeky.
Thursday, September 30, 2010
Today is a flag day in structural genomics: 1000 human proteins have had their structure determined. Many proteins have a complex 3D structure, and the functioning of a protein (such as enzymes, transport proteins, molecular signals and gene control mechanisms) is entirely dependent upon this structure. If we can figure out what a protein should look like we have a good starting place to try and work out what is happening when something goes wrong, such as in cancer and many other diseases.
The article heralding this milestone can be found here, and there is a slideshow that shows 10 of the most important discoveries along with details of why they are so important here.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
This story from the NYT (click for the link) was sent to me by Paul Monheimer, and it ticks many of the boxes required for a good Coverslip post - science, technology, neuroscience, education etc.
Pens that record audio or use "e-ink" to link parts of written documents to computer files or to upload written notes onto your computer have been around for a while, and always struck me as rather gimmicky. It seems, however, that this latest incarnation has real promise for enhancing teaching and learning if used carefully (as with all technology, we should use it to enhance learning rather than as a novelty which quickly loses its appeal). It does, however, raise a question that I have often thought about - if we have all these devices doing our remembering for us, what is happening to our ability to store memories in both the short and long term? Whilst highly apocryphal and unscientific, personal experience leads me to suspect that I rely on technology in place of simply remembering things: how many phone numbers can you recall without referring to your phone? How many addresses do you know off the top of your head? Do you ever forget appointments if your planner doesn't beep at you? Perhaps it is simply down to aging, but I'm convinced I used to remember a lot more things before I had all these devices around me........
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Monday, September 13, 2010
A new technology revealed today demonstrates the ability of an artificial skin that can detect the pressure of a butterfly landing - this opens up incredible possibilities for robot-controlled processes or even artificial limbs. The skin uses a polymer that, when compressed, changes the capacitance of the skin which can then be detected by a transistor. If an array of transistors is used, it can track differences in pressure applied to the skin.
The original Nature News article can be found here, and a layman's description on the BBC News site is here.
Friday, September 10, 2010
Ever wondered why some people look good on the dancefloor whilst others resemble chimps with a cerebellar deficit? Science has now answered this question by analyzing the dance moves of a variety of men and created avatars to distinguish between the good, the bad and the downright ugly (click here and/or here to read the whole story).
Men who were judged to be good dancers had a varied repertoire and more moves that involved tilting and twisting the torso and neck.But the majority of men displayed highly repetitive moves that used their arms and legs, but not the rest of their bodies.
"It's rare that someone is described as a good dancer if they are flinging their arms about but not much else," said Nick Neave, a psychologist at the University of Northumbria, who led the study.
The scientists believe that being a good dancer is an honest indication of the health of a male, just like in the animal world. in nature, being a good dancer sends signals to observing females that you are a good potential mate, or at least better than the other males with a limited repertoire of moves. The good news for us humans is that we can learn to get better, and there are dance lessons available.....
For one of the most famous example of good dancing technique, check out Ricky Gervais as David Brent in The Office, showing off a stunning variety of whole-body movements. To diagnose your own dance style, there is a guide here
My personal favourite, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, will be judged and displayed online at the end of Oct, so check back in then for some more incredible photography.
Send us any interesting ideas/stories you find and we'll share them here with everyone who is interested.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
In June, a group of San Francisco-based designers and engineers launched a balloon into near space, capturing the flight with two cameras that went along for the ride. Two hours into the flight, and at 80,000 feet of altitude, the balloon gives up the ghost and comes crashing back down to Earth. It all happens around the 2:20 mark of the video, and the images are … um … out of this world. Amazingly, all of the equipment onboard survives the fall – cameras and all – thanks to the parachute.I am impressed. It only takes two hours to reach 80,000 feet of altitude? That's about twice as high as where commercial aircraft fly. Why did the balloon burst? Heat? Cold? How did the rate of acceleration vary during the climb?
Friday, August 6, 2010
Researchers at the University of Arkansas have found evidence of what we all probably thought was inevitable - genes implanted into canola plants have "escaped" and found their way into the wild population. Canola plants growing at the side of a road were found to have pesticide resistant genes present in their DNA, and some even had a combination of resistance genes that is not available commercially. This, rather worryingly, proved that different GM crops were intermixing with each other and both contributing to wild plants.
Ironically it seems that we have now entered into a genetic arms race with ourselves, as weeds are becoming resistant to our control methods via genes that we introduced into the environment to help eliminate undesirable plants. In what could be considered something of an understatement, the graduate student who conducted the research said "Things can escape from cultivation, and we need to be careful about what we stick into plants".
Sunday, July 4, 2010
I'm attending a chemistry workshop in Connecticut and have science on the brain (anyone else out there spend their Independence Day deriving the Nernst equation??), so July 4th brings to mind the science behind fireworks.
- Check out this NOVA website for a neat description of the anatomy of a firework.
- Here's a C&E News article about environmentally friendly fireworks
- While watching the show tonight, you can figure out which chemicals are in the fireworks, based on color. Here's a nifty chart correlating which compounds produce which colors:
|Red||strontium salts, lithium salts |
lithium carbonate, Li2CO3 = red
strontium carbonate, SrCO3 = bright red
|Orange||calcium salts |
calcium chloride, CaCl2
calcium sulfate, CaSO4·xH2O, where x = 0,2,3,5
|Gold||incandescence of iron (with carbon), charcoal, or lampblack|
|Yellow||sodium compounds |
sodium nitrate, NaNO3
|Electric White||white-hot metal, such as magnesium or aluminum |
barium oxide, BaO
|Green||barium compounds + chlorine producer |
barium chloride, BaCl+ = bright green
|Blue||copper compounds + chlorine producer |
copper acetoarsenite (Paris Green), Cu3As2O3Cu(C2H3O2)2 = blue
copper (I) chloride, CuCl = turquoise blue
|Purple||mixture of strontium (red) and copper (blue) compounds|
|Silver||burning aluminum, titanium, or magnesium powder or flakes|
For me, it doesn't get any better than combining cognition, evolution and Led Zeppelin...... Click here to listen to Jarvis's dulcet Yorkshire tones describing how sound is created and subsequently processed in the ear and brain.
Monday, June 7, 2010
The northern quoll, an endangered marsupial native to Australia, is doing itself no favors by eating the tasty but poisonous cane toad, an invasive species that is rapidly moving into the quoll's habitats. As the toads move into quoll territory, the quoll population crashes. The toads are so pervasive that removing them from the environment isn't a feasible way to protect the quolls.
A recent research project found that conditioned taste aversion might be a useful way of preventing the quolls from eating the toxic toads. Scientists painted dead toads with a nauseating, but safe, chemical and fed them to quolls, who learned to associate the ensuing tummyaches with eating the cane toads. Released back into the wild and tracked with radiocollars, these toad-smart quolls lived five times as long as toad-naive quolls, presumably because they were now smart enough to not eat the toxic toads.
Conditioned taste aversion is well-known learning paradigm in neurobiology research, but this is the first time I've seen it suggested as a mechanism for preserving native populations when an invading population cannot be eradicated from the environment. Neat!
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Inspired by a recent senior project that involved working on documenting endangered species in the United States, I thought I would start a series of posts about the rare and unusual animals that few people have heard of, starting with the Hispaniolan solenodon. Its name sounds more like that of a dinosaur than a mammal, and that is pretty appropriate - it is thought that this furry little sniffing machine has changed very little in the last 75 million years and something similar to its current form co-existed with the dinosaurs. They are found, as the name suggests, on the island of Hispaniola and are threatened by deforestation in Haiti. There is a great video of the solenodon here.
Left: The slow loris has allergenic armpits - it licks up the allergen then bites potential attackers.
Below: How does a slow loris react to being tickled?
Friday, May 21, 2010
It has indeed made it to the Coverslip - thanks for the link. Any song that contains the lines "trans-placental inheritance" and "transcription factors" and rhymes "rent" with "hypothalamic development" is more than qualified to be featured here. So, here it is, dedicated to all mothers......
Thursday, May 20, 2010
In what is considered a huge scientific breakthrough, scientists have created an artificial genome and implanted into a bacterial host cell. The host cell subsequently "behaves" as instructed by the artificial DNA, raising hopes that simple cells can be created to do our bidding in such areas as biomedical science and fighting global warming. A summary of the story published in Science can be found here.
Many researchers and philosophers, however, are extremely worried about the potential of this research and are imploring research labs to take a responsible and cautious approach. What do you think? Should scientists be allowed to pursue such research? What is the limit to what scientific research should be allowed to work on? Such ethical decisions are going to play an increasing role in our lifetime, so are definitely worth thinking about.....
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
--George Will, Washington Post columnist 5/9/10
Hmm, does he have a point? No. True, wind turbines do affect avian populations, but they're not the dire threat that oil mavericks might have you believe they are.
The Audubon Society supports wind power.
This peer-reviewed report examines number of birds killed by various energy sources.
The Exxon Valdez spill is estimated to have killed a quarter million birds outright, plus reduced food availability and destroyed habitat for survivors and several future generations (there's still 20,000 gallons of oil on Alaska's shores, 21 years later!).
Here's a chart estimating annual bird deaths:
Building strikes: 100 million to 1 billion
Car strikes: 200 to 300 million
Communication towers: 4 to 50 million
Power lines: around 75 million
Cats: 365 million (1 million per day)
Wind farms: 100,000 to 300,000
Note that cats are a far bigger threat to avian populations than wind farms (but we all knew that from watching Sylvester and Tweety Bird cartoons).
Monday, May 10, 2010
This is a sad story of an injured beaver trying to escape from the Audobon Society in Portland Oregon. Five doors, it chewed through five doors in no time at all. Beavers are not large in stature, they are about thirty five pound and thirty inches long. They have a massive skull and jaw. Pretty amazing that this rodent has close-able nostrils.
Friday, May 7, 2010
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute managed to extract DNA from Neanderthal bones found in Croatia, and found that there was up to 4% overlap between this DNA and modern human DNA from Europe, Asia and Oceania. This suggests that there was some gene flow between Neanderthals and humans during the 10,000 years during which they co-existed. "They are not totally extinct. In some of us they live on, a little bit," said Professor Svante Paabo, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
Monday, May 3, 2010
This editorial in today's Oregonian discusses ocean acidification, a topic well understood by Catlin's sophomores, who just last month performed a lab activity in which they observed increasing amounts of calcium carbonate seashells dissolving as they decreased the pH of the solution it was in. Scary!
The Oregonian editorial is in response to a new report from the Ocean Studies Board that makes a strong case for the harmful effects of too much carbon dioxide in the ocean. This report was commissioned by Congress, who now must decide whether to pay for the increased ocean monitoring that the report advises.
Thanks to Bob S. for spotting the Oregonian article this morning.
Monday, April 26, 2010
Sunday, April 25, 2010
The Advanced Bio class had to come up with their own dances using the bees as inspiration to find their candy "caches" hidden around campus. The results can be seen in the video below....
There have been only 60 recorded cases of Foreign Accent Syndrome, the first being a Norwegian woman who suffered head injuries during an air raid during WWII and subsequently started speaking with a German accent (people in her town then suspected her of being a spy).
Thursday, April 22, 2010
HeLa cells, a line of immortal human cells, have a long and murky scientific past. They also have an important human in their past, Henrietta Lacks. This new book, by a woman who grew up in Portland, explores both stories.
The following is a thoughtful review by sophomore Ilana:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is not a science book, nor is it a book about the people who study science. It is about the rest of the people. Those who depend on science, and on whom science depends: the people who require and test the solutions science promises, and the ways in which they are often not given the chance to be involved in scientific studies on their own terms, in part because they have not had the education to be able to understand the information which would make up “informed consent”. The topic of the book is the mass of cells which Henrietta’s cancer biopsy has grown over the last 50 years and the medical advances those cells have enabled, but the point of the book is to not be a science article to add to the 60,000+ (Skloot, p.312) articles concerning the cells which have already been published. The point of the book is to tell the story of Henrietta in human terms in equal parts a way for her family to come to terms and to an understanding of what was done and why her cells are famous, and recognition of all of the unnamed people whose bodies have contributed to scientific achievement. Read this book to learn about the horrific clinical trials and inspiring scientific discoveries. Read this book glimpse the technicalities which have limited the abilities of lawyers to enact informed consent laws and to be awed by the life Henrietta’s daughter displays even after a childhood of abuse. This is a people book to be recommended for its scientific value and its capacity to spark interest in fields from reporter, to lawyer, to scientist to human rights activist, and, if for no other reason, to carry on the legacy of the person Henrietta who unknowingly gave her genes to scientific progress.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
A less obvious result is that the carbon dioxide emissions regularly caused by these flights have been suspended, and even though the volcano is emitting 15,000 tons of carbon dioxide daily (small red triangle), that's still far less than the airline traffic regularly generates (giant red triangle).
image from: http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/2010/planes-or-volcano/
data from: http://bit.ly/planevolcano
Friday, April 16, 2010
Here, in Vignesh's own words, is a quick rundown on what it represents...
The rigid drum rhythm represents the nigh-mechanical nature of the DNA
The two piano melodies at the beginning together represent the spiraling
double helix of DNA.
The harsh, distorted part represents the helicase breaking up the double
Afterward, the organ chords represent the the RNA primer.
The legato layered piano represents the leading strand from 5' to 3'.
Then, the staccato piano and the slower, somewhat arrhythmic drum beat
represent the "fragmented" lagging strand from 3' to 5'. This part is
more repetitive as the process is more repetitive.
The two piano melodies come back, but in stereo and with different
timbres, to represent two DNA helices, the products of semiconservative
The second piece, submitted by Paul (CO 2011) is described as follows:
At the beginning, nothing is happening to the DNA. Then helicase separates it with staccato dissonance. Binding proteins are a sustained, rising melody. (We modulate down 1 half step to E flat. E natural represents completed DNA. Primase gets everything started on the leading strand with 3 sharp chords, and then polymerase 3 makes some chords as the rapid notes are the new strand of DNA forming. An E natural chord indicates that the strand of DNA has formed. Primase then starts the lagging strand (same 3 chords) and Okazaki fragments are formed as polymerase 3 makes more chords (back to E flat here). Ligase smoothly joins the Okazaki fragments with arpeggios. At the end, it resolves on E because the DNA has finished replicating.
Thanks to Veronica for sending me this for submission.
Learn about cutting-edge topics in science and technology from leading researchers and scientists, all while enjoying food and drinks. Don't expect a remote speaker behind a distant podium. Instead, experience an informal atmosphere where you can interact with experts and where there are no silly questions. No scientific background is required; just bring your curiosity, sense of humor, and appetite for food, drinks, and knowledge!
The next topic is about forensics, and those who did 8th grade science with Pongi or enjoy CSI-style TV may be interested by this upcoming lecture:
Learn the “Top 10 CSI Myths” and hear responses to each from a real forensic scientist. This Science Pub will focus on the major areas of forensic analysis, including firearms, latent prints, drug chemistry, and DNA.
Kori Barnum is a scientist at the Oregon State Police Forensic Laboratory in Clackamas, with a background inanthropology, firearms identification, and forensic biology (examining physical evidence for biological stains.)
Several of the current science faculty intend to be there, so any Catlin Gabel alum that fancies an evening of forensics in the company of Mr Science, Pongi and others should come to the Bagdad Theater on Tues 27th April - doors open at 5pm for a 7pm start and you need to get there early to ensure a seat.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Also, here is the link to a NYTimes article with a bunch of cool maps and such.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Some other interesting stats:
- We have been visited by readers from 17 countries from 4 continents (we are still waiting for S America and Africa to join the party.....)
- Most readers just visit the main page, but the next most popular page is the Chemistry Magic Show video
(statistics courtesy of Google Analytics)
Monday, April 12, 2010
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Students from grades 9-12 were asked to come up with innovative ideas in the areas of renewable energy, aerospace exploration, green schools and space nutrition. Teams competed by constructing their ideas and preparing to market them. There is a $5000 prize awaiting the winner. You can read about the best ideas to reach the finals and vote for the one you think should win. You have from March 29 to April 9 to vote. Some of the ideas are quite remarkable. Take a look at www.conradawards.org
Monday, March 22, 2010
The slideshow below documents the process from start to (almost) finish - I'll add more photos and a movie of the project when we get back from Spring Break (as long as Matthew has got it done by then)
The BBC Wildlife/Discovery Channel's latest wildlife documentary series "Life" started last night, and it is a truly amazing feat of film making. Expecting to hear David Attenborough's hushed tones describing the action, I was horrified to hear the voice of Oprah Winfrey telling us about nature's wonders (I will admit I am slightly biased, because Attenborough is one of my personal heroes and high up on the list of people I'd like to meet). Despite this shock the footage of flies with inflatable eyes, the macaque with a hammer and the usual (but still incredible) predator-prey chases were captivating. It is well worth watching, especially for those with HD.
I also found the Arkive website with lots of wildlife images and footage when searching for clips of a dancing sifaka - a nimble lemur that I spent a whole Adv Bio class trying to remember the name of. It is a great site on which you could spend hours browsing the videos and images. Perfect for when the spring break weather is not cooperating and you are stuck inside.....
Monday, March 15, 2010
This is a must see. If you think Lost is a good show, you have another thing coming. Here is a live web-cam on a nest with hummingbirds. I can't wait until they hatch, neither can 4,975 other bird enthusiasts right now. She just left, here are the eggs.
The advanced biology class recently covered the role of the pineal gland and melatonin in the control of circadian rhythms (better known as your "body clock"). Melatonin secretion fluctuates during a 24h period to signal when to sleep and when to be awake. Anyone who has made the trek across the atlantic is all to familiar of the consequences of a confused pineal gland, with scientific fingers pointing at it as the culprit behind jet lag. Our circadian rhythms are affected by day length, so what happens when you don't have any nights (or any days), like the reindeer of the arctic? Researchers have discovered that they have switched off their biological clock, and you can read the full article here. (Thanks to Kent Hayes for bringing this to my attention).
In the environmental science class, we looked at how useful poop can be. Electricity can be generated by fermenting cow waste, and our near neighbors in Washington are investigating this option (the NPR story and broadcast can be found here). Avid gardeners are adding manure to their soil as spring arrives, and it turns out that we are not the only ones making use of others' waste. Carnivorous plants are famous for their elaborate mechanisms for catching and digesting animals to supplement their nutrient supply from the soil (think of venus flytraps and pitcher plants), but it now seems that some of them are more coprophagous than bloodthirsty: researchers in Malaysia have discovered that the giant pitcher plants found there are more interested in the rodent droppings than the rodents themselves - click here for the full story.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Thanks to the seniors involved, to Becky and Chris for organizing this and to Nathaniel for stepping in to supervise the rehearsals whilst Becky hikes through the Himalayas.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Every time someone says "welcome to the future" after hearing about or seeing a new piece of technology we fell in love with watching our Saturday cartoons growing up I think, the future is now.
This is a way cool application of our dermal landscape.
Monday, March 8, 2010
When we decided in a whole-school science dept meeting to set up this blog, I immediately thought of the efforts of my former colleagues at St. Columba's College in Dublin, Ireland. They set up "The Frog Blog" just over a year ago, and recently celebrated their 500th post. They have recently expanded into podcasting and have added a Twitter feed and Facebook page. Whilst we are still embryonic (maybe foetal now, and I make no apologies for my spelling) compared to their infant site, those 500 posts in such a short space of time are something we can aspire to. Hopefully, we could even appear on their list of "sites we like"....
So, if you have any interesting science stories or want to contribute in any way to this site, please contact us with your ideas and we will happily post them and give you full credit.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Finally, a prefix that is easy to remember, HELLA. Austin Sendek a graduate student at UC Davis has started a facebook petition to establish a new prefix to denote 10 to the 27th power. That's a 1 followed by 27 zeros.
A Suggestion for 10 ^-27 is hello-
Just in case you are rusty in your System Internationale Prefixes:
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
"The billion-dollar question is, is it possible to become happier?" said psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside. "Despite the finding that happiness is partially genetically determined, and despite the finding that life situations have a smaller influence on our happiness than we think they do, we argue that still a large portion of happiness is in our power to change." Sonja asserts that there a few simple things we can do to boost or happiness, the full results can be found in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
Here is what Clara Moskowitz, LiveScience Senior Writer, has to say about happiness. Follow these five simple rules to a scientifically chipper existence.
1. Be grateful – Some study participants were asked to write letters of gratitude to people who had helped them in some way. The study found that these people reported a lasting increase in happiness – over weeks and even months – after implementing the habit. What's even more surprising: Sending the letter is not necessary. Even when people wrote letters but never delivered them to the addressee, they still reported feeling better afterwards.
2. Be optimistic – Another practice that seems to help is optimistic thinking. Study participants were asked to visualize an ideal future – for example, living with a loving and supportive partner, or finding a job that was fulfilling – and describe the image in a journal entry. After doing this for a few weeks, these people too reported increased feelings of well-being.
3. Count your blessings – People who practice writing down three good things that have happened to them every week show significant boosts in happiness, studies have found. It seems the act of focusing on the positive helps people remember reasons to be glad.
4. Use your strengths – Another study asked people to identify their greatest strengths, and then to try to use these strengths in new ways. For example, someone who says they have a good sense of humor could try telling jokes to lighten up business meetings or cheer up sad friends. This habit, too, seems to heighten happiness.
5. Commit acts of kindness – It turns out helping others also helps ourselves. People who donate time or money to charity, or who altruistically assist people in need, report improvements in their own happiness.
Lyubomirsky has also created a free iPhone application, called Live Happy, to help people boost their well-being.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
The BBC website reports today on a physicist from Emory University who has called on Hollywood studios to limit their scientific inaccuracies to one per film and generally obey the laws of science. They have nominated three films that are the worst offenders (Deep Blue Sea would definitely make my list in this category). Do you agree?
My personal favorites in this category are "Mission to Mars" (click for a list of all their goofs - "That DNA looks human (looks at a single double helix) - no, it's missing the last 2 chromosomes...." being particularly memorable (youtube video here - jump to 2 mins in) and "Spiderman" (left hand DNA helix, transformation from boy to spiderman with the insertion of a couple of base pairs, and individual bases labeled as the source of jumping and spideryness....). I can forgive Spiderman, because after all, it's Spiderman and Uncle Ben Parker delivers one of the great moral messages of the 21st century that we can all take note of (particularly as scientists): "Remember, with great power comes great responsibility....."
Friday, February 19, 2010
Not so much a news story or an insightful comment on teaching and learning, rather an uplifting picture of the coming of spring. As inevitable as night following day, the appearance of the sunshine after a long Oregon winter invariably brings out the question "Can we have class outside?". Yesterday, the answer was yes - we needed the extra space to build the longest protein model we could in a block period, then combined the efforts of two BPC III classes. Those of you with good eyesight can check that they are indeed all structurally correct with impeccable peptide bonds linking each amino acid. I'll be particularly impressed if anyone can tell me which amino acid is on the far right of the chain........
Friday, February 12, 2010
Working with a team or in a group involves lots of decisions in order to complete a task, hit a goal or to keep moving froward in a positive manner. In the sciences we have been trained to ask questions, ferret the weasels and point out the misses instead of selecting hits. Carl Sagan, scientist, author and host of Cosmos, the television program that inspired a generation to think outside of this world, authored "The Demon Haunted World" a book to inspire lay people to be critical thinkers. Below is a great interview and an excert from the chapter, "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection"
In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions. Among these fallacies are:
- ad hominem -- Latin for "to the man," attacking the arguer and not the argument (e.g., The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously);
- argument from authority (e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia -- but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake, as it turned out);
- argument from adverse consequences (e.g., A God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn't, society would be much more lawless and dangerous -- perhaps even ungovernable.* Or: The defendant in a widely publicized murder trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement for other men to murder their wives);
* NOTE: A more cynical formulation by the Roman historian Polybius:
Since the masses of the people are inconstant, full of unruly desires, passionate, and reckless of consequences, they must be filled with fears to keep them in order. The ancients did well, therefore, to invent gods, and the belief in punishment after death.
- appeal to ignorance -- the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist -- and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we're still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
- special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble (e.g., How can a merciful God condemn future generations to torment because, against orders, one woman induced one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you don't understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will. Or: How can there be an equally godlike Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same Person? Special plead: You don't understand the Divine Mystery of the Trinity. Or: How could God permit the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- each in their own way enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness and compassion -- to have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long? Special plead: You don't understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in mysterious ways.)
- begging the question, also called assuming the answer (e.g., We must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime. But does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the death penalty is imposed? Or: The stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors -- but is there any independent evidence for the causal role of "adjustment" and profit-taking; have we learned anything at all from this purported explanation?);
- observational selection, also called the enumeration of favorable circumstances, or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses* (e.g., A state boasts of the Presidents it has produced, but is silent on its serial killers);
* NOTE: My favorite example is this story, told about the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, newly arrived on American shores, enlisted in the Manhattan nuclear weapons Project, and brought face-to-face in the midst of World War II with U.S. flag officers:
So-and-so is a great general, he was told.
What is the definition of a great general? Fermi characteristically asked.
I guess it's a general who's won many consecutive battles.
After some back and forth, they settled on five.
What fraction of American generals are great?
After some more back and forth, they settled on a few percent.
But imagine, Fermi rejoined, that there is no such thing as a great general, that all armies are equally matched, and that winning a battle is purely a matter of chance. Then the chance of winning one battle is one out of two, or 1/2, two battles 1/4, three 1/8, four 1/16, and five consecutive battles 1/32 -- which is about 3 percent. You would expect a few percent of American generals to win five consecutive battles -- purely by chance. Now, has any of them won ten consecutive battles ...?
- statistics of small numbers -- a close relative of observational selection (e.g., "They say 1 out of every 5 people is Chinese. How is this possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. Yours truly." Or: "I've thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can't lose.");
- misunderstanding of the nature of statistics (e.g., President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence);
- inconsistency (e.g., Prudently plan for the worst of which a potential military adversary is capable, but thriftily ignore scientific projections on environmental dangers because they're not "proved." Or: Attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States (now highest of the major industrial nations) to the failures of capitalism. Or: Consider it reasonable for the Universe to continue to exist forever into the future, but judge absurd the possibility that it has infinite duration into the past);
- non sequitur -- Latin for "It doesn't follow" (e.g., Our nation will prevail because God is great. But nearly every nation pretends this to be true; the German formulation was "Gott mit uns"). Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply failed to recognize alternative possibilities;
- post hoc, ergo propter hoc -- Latin for "It happened after, so it was caused by" (e.g., Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila: "I know of ... a 26-year-old who looks 60 because she takes [contraceptive] pills." Or: Before women got the vote, there were no nuclear weapons);
- meaningless question (e.g., What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa);
- excluded middle, or false dichotomy -- considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities (e.g., "Sure, take his side; my husband's perfect; I'm always wrong." Or: "Either you love your country or you hate it." Or: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem");
- short-term vs. long-term -- a subset of the excluded middle, but so important I've pulled it out for special attention (e.g., We can't afford programs to feed malnourished children and educate pre-school kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets. Or: Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?);
- slippery slope, related to excluded middle (e.g., If we allow abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant. Or, conversely: If the state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of conception);
- confusion of correlation and causation (e.g., A survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual than those with lesser education; therefore education makes people gay. Or: Andean earthquakes are correlated with closest approaches of the planet Uranus; therefore -- despite the absence of any such correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter -- the latter causes the former*);
* NOTE: Children who watch violent TV programs tend to be more violent when they grow up. But did the TV cause the violence, or do violent children preferentially enjoy watching violent programs? Very likely both are true. Commercial defenders of TV violence argue that anyone can distinguish between television and reality. But Saturday morning children's programs now average 25 acts of violence per hour. At the very least this desensitizes young children to aggression and random cruelty. And if impressionable adults can have false memories implanted in their brains, what are we implanting in our children when we expose them to some 100,000 acts of violence before they graduate from elementary school?
- straw man -- caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack (e.g., Scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by chance -- a formulation that willfully ignores the central Darwinian insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and discarding what doesn't. Or -- this is also a short-term/
long-term fallacy -- environmentalists care more for snail darters and spotted owls than they do for people);
- suppressed evidence, or half-truths (e.g., An amazingly accurate and widely quoted "prophecy" of the assassination attempt on President Reagan is shown on television; but -- an important detail -- was it recorded before or after the event? Or: These government abuses demand revolution, even if you can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Yes, but is this likely to be a revolution in which far more people are killed than under the previous regime? What does the experience of other revolutions suggest? Are all revolutions against oppressive regimes desirable and in the interests of the people?);
- weasel words (e.g., The separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else -- "police actions," "armed incursions," "protective reaction strikes," "pacification," "safeguarding American interests," and a wide variety of "operations," such as "Operation Just Cause." Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political purposes. Talleyrand said, "An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public").
Knowing the existence of such logical and rhetorical fallacies rounds out our toolkit. Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the difference in the world -- not least in evaluating our own arguments before we present them to others.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
The New York Times has a series of great videos analyzing the physics of Winter Olympics events such as ski jumping and ice skating. Ever wonder how a ski jumper launches into a "double full full full" rotation before landing? By manipulating his or her center of gravity and rotational momentum during each second of airtime, of course. Click for classical mechanics in action.
Image originally posted to Flickr as Lysgårdsbakkene Ski Jumping Arena. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Monday, February 8, 2010
I love 8th Grade Science!
Yesterday, a team of students took second place in the Regional Science Bowl. This is the best ever performance by a Catlin team, beating 59 other teams from Oregon and SW Washington for a place in the final. Details of their fantastic performance can be found here
Sunday, February 7, 2010
Mendeleev arranged the known elements into columns based on their chemical properties and rows based on their atomic weights and based on his system, even predicted the properties of as-yet undiscovered elements. Quite impressive!
On Monday, Feb 8th, celebrate Dmitri 's 176th birthday by stopping by US Science 3, named for Mendeleev, to join in the trivia, treats, and for a rousing chorus of The Elements song!
Dmitri Mendeleev in 1897
photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Friday, February 5, 2010
Submitted by Art Leo, Upper School English teacher (and closet scientist) this morning. Click on the hyperlinks within the post for more details of the various aspects of this story.....
Parents face many difficult decisions, among the most difficult of which is what to name those hungry little blobs. Decisions about whether or not to vaccinate your children against disease have become complicated in recent years by scientific studies about the potential dangers of inoculation. In 1998, physician Andrew Wakefield published a study in Britain’s leading medical journal, The Lancet, claiming a connection between the Measles Mumps Rubella vaccine (MMR) and the onset of autism in children. Some parents in Great Britain panicked, leading to a rise in Measles cases, especially in Wales, where cases rose by 36% in 2008.
Some critics quickly pointed out problems with the study. Bad Science columnist Ben Goldacre, led the charge, gleefully attacking those responsible for the panic.
This week, The Lancet formally retracted Wakefield’s MMR research. Scott Hensley of NPR summarizes the story.
(Because I’m an English teacher, I highly recommend that you check out Matthew Herper’s complaint (“The Lancet's Incomprehensible Autism Retraction”) about the obfuscatory and misleading language employed in the retraction.)
For seven years the man lay in a hospital bed, showing no signs of consciousness since sustaining a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. His doctors were convinced he was in a vegetative state. Until now.
To the astonishment of his medical team, the patient has been able to communicate with the outside world after scientists worked out, in effect, a way to read his thoughts.
They devised a technique to enable the man, now 29, to answer yes and no to simple questions through the use of a hi-tech scanner, monitoring his brain activity.
To answer yes, he was told to think of playing tennis, a motor activity. To answer no, he was told to think of wandering from room to room in his home, visualising everything he would expect to see there, creating activity in the part of the brain governing spatial awareness.
His doctors were amazed when the patient gave the correct answers to a series of questions about his family. The experiment will fuel the controversy of when a patient should have life support removed.
It also raises the prospect of some form of communication with those who have been shut off from life, perhaps for years. To read the rest of the story, click here