Archive for June, 2007

Dinosaurs!

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

It’s no fun being a logical, rational-minded rejecter-of-the-absurd, is it? Say what you will about fundamentalists who refute the natural laws of our existence, at least their thrills when viewing dioramas of cave people intermingling with exotic (if erroneously-rendered) members of the Jurassic period at the new Creation Museum are not tempered by the niggling little concern that… it’s all a big load of crap! After all, if you live in a world where the laws of nature may be defied at any moment, the future holds a terribly wonderful promise of excitement. But now this excitement may be coming, kind of for real, to a city near you: North America is about to be invaded by dinosaurs. There’s no warp in the space-time continuum (naturally), just a lot of clever special effects—and $20 million invested in the for-profit spectacle, which is scheduled to tour big arenas in the U.S. and Canada starting this summer. The enterprise is called “Walking with Dinosaurs, The Live Experience” and originated in Australia. Purchase a ticket (prices look to be between $35 and $80) and you can coexist with some pretty spectacular, size-authentic, recreated dinosaurs in a football stadium. I won’t say how they do it, since that’s part of the fun of watching this clip:

Walking with Dinosaurs is the production of Immersion Edutainment, for which I can find virtually no information, in association with the BBC. The good news? The opening announcement on the show’s website thunders, “For 200 million years, the dinosaurs ruled the earth…” Obviously this is not part of some subversive young-earth agenda to hypnotize stadiums full of people with adrenaline-induced nonsense. What a relief, because everybody loves dinosaurs. It would be such a bummer if dinosaurs and our popular imagination of them were co-opted by the anti-science agenda.

Tangled Bank #82

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

tangledbank.jpg

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life and from use and disuse: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms.

–Charles Darwin

The latest installation of the Tangled Bank is up on Greg Laden’s blog, right here!

Bloomberg thinks creationalism is “scary”

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

New York city mayor Michael Bloomberg has just quit the Republican party, raising speculation that he will make a bid in the 2008 presidential race as an independent. No third-party candidate has ever won a presidential election, only disrupted things for the other two parties. The race was already looking pretty exciting, and if Bloomberg joins the fray I’m anticipating even more thrills. And why am I really happy? Because on issues of science, Bloomberg has been throwing some elbows. In a speech at Johns Hopkins, he denounced intelligent design, calling it “creationism by another name.” He also pulled no punches in accusing conservatives of distorting scientific understanding: “Today we are seeing hundreds of years of scientific discovery being challenged by people who simply disregard facts that don’t happen to agree with their agendas.” But Bloomberg’s strongest criticism came in a speech at the University of Southern California, where he again accused conservatives of endangering America by ignoring science:

It’s scary in this country, it’s probably because of our bad educational system, but the percentage of people that believe in Creationalism is really scary for a country that’s going to have to compete in the world where science and medicine require a better understanding.

Creationalism is scary, if it’s anything like creationism. I’m hoping Bloomberg’s unequivocal stance on science and evolution will embolden the Democratic candidates to defend science more vigorously and force the Republicans to clarify their own positions.

Is the golden age of beekeeping over?

Friday, June 15th, 2007

honeybee.jpgHave you heard about the honeybee crisis? Sometimes beekeepers discover that their hives have dwindled or gone extinct over the winter. Such events are usually rare, however, and multiple colony collapses are typically local phenomena. But across America, beekeepers are now reporting alarming numbers of hive deaths. A 20% loss over the winter is normal, but beekeepers in California report losses up to 60% and losses have been even higher in Texas and on the east coast.

My dad’s been keeping bees since 1977. He started the hobby when we lived in suburban Maryland, on a half-acre yard cultivated with peach, pear, apple, plum and cherry trees, hedges of blackberries and raspberries, blueberry bushes, a strawberry patch, a full vegetable garden and a perimeter of grapes. The hives were tucked between a neighbor’s evergreen and our chinese chestnut (I associated that region of the yard with painful sharp things) and got lots of sun—a perfect environment, even if the surrounding neighborhood exhibited a far more suburban landscape. In those days, my dad says, he occasionally got honey yields as high as an impressive 110 pounds per hive. But talking with him on the phone yesterday, he declared, “The golden age of beekeeping is over.” In the late 1980s, he began finding mite infestations in his hives. Soon other beekeepers at the Susquehanna Beekeepers’ Association meetings were reporting similar problems, and domestic bee colonies never really recovered. About a decade ago, my parents moved to a rural part of the county. Close by are fields farmed with soybean, corn, oats and sunflowers, but the surrounding woods shade the hives and the microenvironment is just a little too damp. Last year my dad had three hives, but this spring he’s left with just one. Is it the mites? Is it part of the nationwide trend of colony deaths?

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Making evolution relevant and interesting

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

I just stumbled across a post on Interrogating Nature that deserves some internet attention. The post summarizes a ten-point plan by David M. Hillis, published in Evolution, for making evolution relevant and interesting to biology students. I was pleased to find my pet issue given top billing at point #2: “Clarify that evolution is not a synonym for natural selection.” Other fine suggestions for improving evolution education, an exercise I consider analogous to greasing the axis our world goes round, include updating textbook examples and describing experimental research. For a topic that I thought seemed a bit boring (aren’t we ALL trying to make evolution relevant and interesting?), this paper surprised me. The ten points so obviously make evolution funner and more scientifically sound… let’s rewrite the textbooks now!

Monkey talk

Friday, June 8th, 2007

“He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.”

baboon.jpgDarwin wrote this in 1838, reflecting on the power of our close animal relatives to illuminate human dynamics. Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth of UPenn have just published a book about baboon social behavior, Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind. Marty Moss-Coane, my personal idol, interviewed Robert Seyfarth this morning on her radio show, Radio Times. It’s a great interview: Dr. Seyfarth describes how he and collaborating animal behaviorists draw their conclusions using field observations and experimental manipulations, providing a glimpse into how basic science research (in an extra-interesting field) is conducted. Definitely worth listening to the show to the very end, when he gives a positively extraordinary account of baboons goat-herding in Namibia.

Radio Times is broadcast every weekday from the Philadelphia NPR station WHYY, 90.9 FM. You can listen to this particular show from the Radio Times archive.