Wednesday, July 4, 2012

CERN's Announcement

As many of you are no doubt aware, earlier today CERN made an announcment about the discovery of a new Boson that fits the bill for the Higgs Boson.  While it has yet to be confirmed with complete certainty that it is the Higgs, it is in the right energy range as has been expected for the Higgs and is being called a "Higgs-like Boson".

For further information, follow the link to my latest post over at Mike's Mad America.
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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Europa, The Frozen Ocean

The Moon Europa as seen by the Galileo probe, via NASA.
Between 1609 and 1610, using his improved telescope design, Galileo Galilei observed four bodies orbiting Jupiter.  These bodies, later named the Galilean Moons, are the largest satellites of the Jovian System (Jupiter and its moons).  The second of these moons and the smallest of the first four observed, Europa has become one of the focal points for the search for life outside of Earth.

Despite most sources giving credit to Galileo for its discovery, Europa and the other three Galilean Moons were also likely discovered at the same time by Simon Marius.  Originally Galileo named the moons the Medician Stars, partly out of his initial uncertainty of their nature and as a way of faltering his future patrons.  Marius, however, named the moons according to the suggestion of fellow astronomer Johannes Kepler, invoking the names of the mistresses of Zeus (who was later renamed Jupiter according to Roman mythology), a tradition that has been used in the naming of all of Jupiter's moons since.

Europa was named after a Cretan moon goddess who was absorbed into Greek mythology as a Phoenician Princess who was abducted and raped by Zeus as he took the form as Bull.  Sought out by Zeus for her beauty, the Jovian moon of Europa follows in the steps of its namesake.

The first human probe to observe Europa was Pioneer 10 in 1973 and was followed the next year by Pioneer 11.  The first images of this sixth moon of Jupiter were grainy and lacked any distinguishing detail.  It wasn't until 1979 when the first Voyager probe passed by that images detailed enough to discern surface features were available.  It was with these first images that scientific curiosity and debate surrounding Europa bloomed.

While studying images obtained from both Voyager 1 and 2, certain anomalous features were noticed.  The most striking were striations that seemed to cover the moon.  Named Lineae, these features reached widths of 20 kms (12 mi) across and hundreds to thousands of kilometers in length. 

Europa with its prominent Lineae, via NASA.
To confound things further, the surface of Europa was surprisingly smooth.  Few craters were observed which suggests that the surface is constantly being remade.  In the cosmic shooting gallery that is the solar system, craters are a common feature.  The older the visible surface, the more craters that will be observed as only changes in surface features will wipe away craters that form.  A quick look at Mercury or our own moon Luna and you will see how a geologically inactive body collects craters.  Europa, on the other hand, has very few craters and those few that do exist are visibly 'young'.  Combined with Europa having a very high reflectivity, or albedo, at 0.64, the surface of the moon can be estimated to be between 20 and 180 million years.  In comparison, regions of the Martian surface have been dated to around 3.3 billion years.

These and other unexpected features seen by future missions such as the the Galileo mission to the Jovian system and the New Horizon probe as it passed by Europa on its way to visit Pluto suggested that the source of the strange features was ice, water ice.  But these surface structures suggests something more then just a cold frozen moon.  The renewing of the surface and the formation of the long Lineae lent credence to the hypothesis that there was liquid water hidden beneath the icy surface.  Not just a little water, but a vast, possibly global ocean.

But with an average surface temperature of 110 K (−160 °C; −260 °F) at the equator, how could there be a subsurface ocean of liquid water?  The answer seems to come from the same process that causes the tides here on Earth.  As Europa and the other Jovian moons orbit Jupiter, they are pulled on gravitationally at different rates at different times.  Similar to the processes that cause the nigh constant volcanism on the innermost of the Galilean Moons of Io, Jupiter's gravity causes tidal forces that heat up the plant.  This could, potentially, cause volcanism akin to the deep ocean hydrothermal vents on Earth.

The 'Ice Rafts' of the Conamara Chaos, via Wikipedia Commons.
With such internal heating, a warm, liquid water ocean is likely to exist.  This isn't a fringe idea either, it has become the leading hypothesis to explain the observable features of Europa.  The liquid ocean has been calculated to have an average depth of 100 km (over 62 miles) with depths up to 170 km (over 105 miles).  This liquid ocean would exist below a cold, hard cap of ice reaching 10 -30 km (6 - 19 miles) slowly becoming a more ductile warm ice before eventually becoming the liquid water below.  This warm ice would be capable of moving up into any cracks that form in the hard surface ice, creating the Linaea.  Still further evidence from the chaoses suggest that there may even be liquid water 'lakes' trapped in the ice.

The amount of water that can be found on Europa is staggering.  If one takes the average depth of 100 km, there is a volume of 3 × 1018 miles cubed of liquid water.  This is over two times the amount of water that can be found here on Earth.

Europa next to Earth, along with the comparable spheres of water contained by each, via NASA.
In the search for life elsewhere in our solar system, Mars tends to steal the show in the popular media.  With its relatively close proximity, potential for human colonization, and its history of once possessing large quantities of liquid water on the surface, it is understandable.  Liquid water seems to be the key for life as we know it.  Everywhere on Earth that it is found, life can be observed as well.  This being considered, Europa seems to be one of the best sites for the future search for life and the astronomical community knows this.  While there have been many probes proposed to visit Europa, most have fallen through until JUICE.

JUICE is the somewhat tortured acronym for the planned European Space Agency (ESA) probe known as the JUpiter ICy moon Explorer.  Planned for a 2022 launch, JUICE would reach the Jovian system in 2030 where it will serve out at least a three year mission to visit Europa and two other of the Galilean moons, Callisto and Ganymede.  Like Europa, Callisto and Ganymede also appear to have liquid water as well as the observed water ice.  While all have the potential for harboring conditions that could be conducive to life, Europa is seen as the most likely to contain such an environment due to its larger amounts of water, hotter internal environments and a far more dynamic surface.

Artist rendition of the JUICE probe, via ESA.
As a final boost to the potential for the development of life is the oxygen content of Europa.  Oxygen is, as far as we know, required for the development of complex life and was directly responsible for the explosion of multicellular life here on Earth.  Based on new calculations by Richard Greenberg, there could be enough oxygen to support a biomass of around 3 billion kilograms if such multicellular life had developed on Europa.  Even better, the proliferation of oxygen most likely occurred later in its existence which would be required for the formation of life based on how life progressed here on Earth.

Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2007. ISBN 0-684-31559-9.

Geissler, Paul E.; Greenberg, Richard; et al. (1998). "Evolution of Lineaments on Europa: Clues from Galileo Multispectral Imaging Observations".

McFadden, Lucy-Ann; Weissman, Paul; and Johnson, Torrence (2007). The Encyclopedia of the Solar System. Elsevier. pp. 432. ISBN 0-12-226805-9.

Schmidt BE, Blankenship DD, Patterson GW, & Schenk PM. (2011) Active formation of 'chaos terrain' over shallow subsurface water on Europa. Nature, 479(7374), 502-5. PMID: 22089135

Cosmos Magazine.

Hartmann, William K., and Gerhard Neukum. "Cratering Chronology and the Evolution
of Mars." Space Science Reviews 96 (2001): 165-194.
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Friday, June 15, 2012

The Kakapo

Evolution is a strange thing.  Change the selective pressures on a species a bit and it will take take any path to survival it can, no matter how absurd.  Familiar body plans begin to diverge and change and every so often, these adaptations add up to what can only be called odd.

Approximately 85 million years ago, the microcontinent of Zealandia -the tectonic plate containing New Zealand- split from the super continent East Gondwana.  As it did so, the resident organisms became isolated from their mainland relatives.  One group of birds, the ancestors to the New Zealand Parrots (superfamily Strigopoidea) became trapped on the islands.  While most of the parrot species retained a recognizable, if unique form, one species adapted itself to its new environment in the most unexpected of ways.

Enter Strigops habroptila, more commonly known as the Kakapo.  The Kakapo is what a parrot would look like, if it were to be described by someone who had only the vaguest idea of what one was.  Instead of flying through the trees seeking food in the light of the sun, the Kakapo prefer to run about the underbrush at night using their wings for little more then as a means to fall a bit slower.

When flight is no longer an issue, neither is size.
Meaning Night Parrot in Maori, the Kakapo is a rotund bird that inhabits both the underbrush and trees.  An avid climber, it has not lost its preference for high places despite the lack of any native land predators that could threaten the bird.  The only native predators are diurnal (active during the day) birds of prey which have helped push the species towards its flightless and nocturnal nature to escape the threat.

While flightless birds tend to be relatively uncommon, the Kakapo is even more so as no other known species of parrot, living or extinct, has lost the ability to fly.  Since weight is of little concern for the Kakapo any longer, it has been able to grow into the heaviest of all parrots, weighing up to 8 lbs (3.5 kg).  Instead of flight, they will use their strong legs to 'jog' about.  While not exceedingly fast, they are able to cover a few kilometers a night if need be, as can be seen both when females leave their nest in search of food and during the mating season.

Generally solitary, the Kakapo only gathers for breeding purposes.  The mating rituals of the Kakapo also set it aside as it is the only flightless bird to have what is known as a lek mating system.  A lek is a gathering of indiviudals in an area for breeding purposes.  When available food is abundant, the males will leave their territories to gather around hilltops and ridges specifically for breeding.   Here they will compete with other males to attract females.  Each male attempts to control their own patch of ground that is typically seperated by around 160 ft (50 m) from any other male.  While direct confrontation does occur between males, females tend to pick mates based on the loudness of the males calls.  During mating seasons, the males will let out a series of loud 'booms' that can be heard for miles.  The males call out on average 1,000 times an hour for 6 to 7 hours each night.  After finding a mate, the female will leave the lek and retains no connection to the male.

Kakapo chicks, courtesy

While the Kakapo was once revered by the Maori and even kept as pets due to their calm and curious nature, the species now faces an uncertain future.  As humans began to arrive on New Zealand, they brought with them new species that began to threaten the Kakapo.  Starting with rats brought to the island by the Maori's Polynesian ancestors and continuing to include domestic cats and stoats, the introduction of mammalian predators along with changes to the environment led to a dramatic drop in the Kakapo population. 

Now critically endangered, only 126 individuals survive in both captivity and the wild.  While there have been multiple attempts at reintroduction of Kakapo to various islands with minimal predators, success has been limited.  This is not helped by the fact that Kakapo typically breed only once every 3 to 4 years.  Since the start of programs to save the Kakapo, its plight has gained a certain amount of attention with multiple books and television programs being made about the dying species.  While its future is uncertain, continued research and breeding programs have made it possible for the Kakapo to, at the very least, hold on for a bit longer.  If you wish to aid in the survival of this unusual species, the Kakapo Recovery Program accepts donations to help maintain the future of the Kakapo.
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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

SpaceX's Falcon 9 headed for ISS

The Falcon 9 launching from Cape Canaveral (courtesy SpaceX).

On Tuesday, May 22, at 3:44 a.m. EDT (0744 GMT) SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.  This third flight of the independently designed and operated rocket system carries along with it the Dragon capsule for its second flight.  While the first two launches of the Falcon 9 and the previous launch with the Dragon were for test purposes, this flight has a different mission.  It is to be the first commercial resupply of the International Space Station (ISS).

Based out of Hawthorne, California, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, won a $278 million contract with NASA to develop their Falcon rocket systems for eventual resupply mission to ISS.  Since the retirement of NASA's Space Shuttle program, the space station has not had a single American spacecraft dock and all resupply missions have been carried out by other ISS member nations.  Currently SpaceX has a contract with NASA that runs until 2015 and includes 12 resupply visits to ISS. 

This launch is actually the second attempt for the Falcon 9 to deliver the Dragon to ISS.  The first attempt, on May 19, was canceled when an on-board computer detected an error with one of the engine's check valves.  After repairs were made to the Merlin 1C engine, the launch was rescheduled for the early morning of May 22, making for the first night launch of the Falcon 9.

The Dragon capsule (PDF) is set to deliver its payload to ISS on May 25.  While the CRS version of the Dragon that was launched is unmanned, other capsules are being built that will be capable of carrying up to nine individuals.  The CRS Dragon is composed of two storage sections.  The main pressurized section which can carry 7,300 lbs (2,210 kg) and a unpressurized section known as the trunk which can carry 7,300 lbs (3,310 kg).  The Dragon was named after the 1963 song by Peter, Paul and Mary "Puff, the Magic Dragon".

Computer Model of the Dragon approaching ISS (courtesy NASA).

The Falcon 9, named after the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, is a two stage, medium-lift rocket system.  It utilizes nine of SpaceX's Merlin 1C rockets to power the first stage and a tenth Merlin engine that has been modified for use in a vacuum.  The Falcon 9 is capable of carrying 23,00 lbs (10,450 kg) to low Earth orbit and 9,800 lbs (4,450 kg) to a geostationary transfer orbit (this carries payloads through a specific trajectory to safely insert it into a geostationary orbit).

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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

How to make a black hole

Black holes are, well, odd.  They are the place where common sense goes to die.  Physics takes such a beating when it comes to black holes that when it comes to the central point of a black hole, its singularity, physicists are often left smiling and nodding as their equations are chewed up and turned into useless infinities.

But don't let this make you think that we know nothing about these cosmic anomalies.  We have gone from the days of black holes being nothing more than mathematical oddities to one of the most intriguing areas of studies in modern cosmology.

The idea of an object so dense as to have a mass greater than the escape velocity of light was first proposed in 1783 by John Michell, but it wasn't until 1916 that mathematical evidence for such an object was proposed.  Using Einstein's Theory of General Relativity (which was published a year earlier), Karl Schwarzchild was able to show that black holes were, at the very least, mathematically consistent.  But for the longest time, the process that led to stellar mass black holes was a mystery.  It was believed to involve dying stars, but little else was known.

With an increasing array of tools that are constantly becoming more sensitive and precise, physicists have been able to assemble a basic recipe for a stellar mass black hole.  Before I go on, I should clarify what I mean by a stellar mass black hole.  There are multiple kinds of black holes, each sharing the same physics but with a difference of scale.  From the supermassive black holes lurking in the cores if nearly, if not all major galaxies to the hypothetical primordial black holes left over from the big bang, there is more variety than the uninitiated would expect.  The best studied form is the stellar black hole.  These are all made through a similar process in the core of dying stars.

But not any star can form a black hole.  In fact, the theoretical lower limit of a star large enough to produce one of these stellar black holes is around 20 times the mass of our own sun.  Anything smaller just doesn't have the mass required to form a black hole.  They will either cool down into a white dwarf like our sun or form another bizarre stellar remnant such as a neutron star.  However, there are a lot of stars in the universe.  In our galaxy, the Milky Way, there is predicted to be around 100 million stellar black holes.

Now that we have a star of the right size, how does it become a black hole?  The answer lies in the core of a star.  Stars work by fusing matter together using their enormous gravity.  Normally, the nuclei of atoms are kept apart thanks to the electromagnetic force.  But with enough energy, the electromagnetic force can be overcome allowing things such as the strong nuclear force to take over.  When this happens, the atomic nuclei are forced together into a new, more massive nuclei.  Thanks to a little equation known as E=MC2, some of that mass is converted to energy.  This left over energy is what powers a star.

Stars primarily are composed of hydrogen and, as such, fuse more hydrogen into helium than anything else.  Our sun alone fuses 700 million tons of hydrogen into 695 million tons of helium every second.  The remaining 5 million tons is the left over energy that powers our sun and helps to keep us from, you know, dying.  But not all stars fuse at the same rate, it all depends on mass.  A star twice as massive as our sun will fuse hydrogen at ten times the rate of our sun, while a star twenty times will fuse 36,000 times as quickly.  The larger the star, the shorter the life time.

But a star never uses up all its hydrogen.  It is only in its core that the environment is right for nuclear fusion.  As the star's life continues, eventually the available hydrogen in its core begins to dwindle.  Soon helium has to be fused into carbon, carbon into neon, and so on.  The denser material settling at the core with the easy to fuse hydrogen being pushed further out.  Each step takes less time then the last with every element forming a ring around its denser counterpart.  Eventually, if a star is massive enough, it will fuse atomic nuclei all the way up to iron, but this is as far as it can go. 

Unfortunately for such massive stars, iron resists fusion and outside extreme conditions such as supernovae and hypernovae, iron nuclei cannot be fused into heavier elements.  For such massive stars, this is the beginning of the end.  For lighter stars that cannot fuse up to iron, the process is quite similar, the only difference is that the masses required to fuse up to iron are lacking and a lighter element will become the dense core that cools or collapses into one of a variety of stellar remnants.

The iron core, as I mentioned, cannot be fused inside a star.  Stars are kept from collapsing by the energy released through the fusion of its mass.  Since the iron cannot fuse, the star begins to lose its internal support, placing even greater force on the core.  This force, coupled with the cores already massive size, begins to cause the electrons that have been stripped from their atoms due to the extreme temperature and forces to be crammed together when the iron nuclei.  Thanks to the Pauli exclusion principle, these particles cannot inhabit the same locations in time-space and begin to form a counter pressure known as degeneracy pressure.  This pressure helps to keep the star together, but only for a time.

Once this degenerate matter core reaches a mass of at least 1.4 solar masses, it can no longer hold back the massive pressures and the pull of gravity. The core then collapses in an extraordinary way.  In a thousandth of a second this core collapses at speeds of around 45,000 miles a second, shrinking a core thousands of miles across to just a few miles across.  The resulting vacuum causes the remaining shell of the star to collapse, adding further pressure, before rebounding.  The star would continue to collapse, rebound and shrink again if not for the affects of a ghost like particle known as the neutrino.

Neutrinos are very weakly interacting particles.  About 65 billion of these particles are passing through every square centimeter of the Earth every second and nearly all of these particles pass through it as if there was nothing there.  But in the conditions found inside a dying star, the 10 to the 58th power neutrinos released in a ten second burst from the core are enough to shred the outer star leading to a supernova.  It is only here, in the final moments of a dying star, that the core of a massive enough star collapses into a black hole.

First the degenerate core will see such extreme pressure and gravity to force the electrons and protons together into neutrons.  This new material, neutronium, is the component of neutron stars.  If there is enough mass, the core will continue to collapse all the way into a black hole.  The resulting black hole will then begin to feed on the remnants of its parent star with an accretion disk forming around it.  Some of this material may find a stable orbit around the black hole while the rest is heated up through friction to the point of emitting light across the electromagnetic spectrum.

With thanks to Phil Plait, Ph.D. and his book Death From The Skies.
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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Mantidflies, family Mantispidea

For those who are afraid of insects, the above image will probably haunt your dreams for years to come.  For the rest who are unfamiliar with this unusual insect, your first reaction may be to stare in disbelief at what, for the sake of your sanity, you hope must be photoshopped.  But it is a very real insect.  Appearing to be what happens when you graft the front end of a Praying Mantid on to the body of a wasp, this bizarre amalgamate of a creature is actually not closely related to either.

The Mantidflies or Mantsipids, family Mantispidae, are a group of insects who are most closely related to the Lacewings and Antlions.  Belonging to order Neuroptera (the net-winged insects), these predatory insects are, despite their potentially disturbing appearance, harmless to humans.  With over 400 species currently recognized and with ranges throughout much of the world, they are a surprisingly common, if poorly known group of insects. 

Nearly all Mantidflies have an appearance closer to a fusion between Lacewings and Mantids, but a couple species have developed a form of mimicry to avoid their own predators.  These, like the above Climaciella brunnea, have an appearance that is close enough to those of wasps to deter most predators.  Their Batesian Mimicry --the process of a harmless species having the appearance of a dangerous one-- has gone so far as to take on the form of whatever the most populous species of paper wasp from the genus Polistes is in their area.  Because of this, their appearance will vary from region to region despite all being members of the same species.

The Green Mantidfly, Zeugomantispa minuta

The larvae of Mantidflies are, like their adult form, strict carnivores.  In some species, the larvae will actively hunt the larvae of other insects, such as beetles and flies, where as others are known to be parasitoids of wasps, bees, and even spiders.  It is the case of the spider parasitoids there is a disturbingly high degree of specialization to be found.

Those species that target spiders can be divided into those with two distinct strategies.  The egg penetrators and the spider boarders.  The egg penetrators, like the above Green Mantidfly, have active larvae that seek out spider egg cases and, upon finding one, chew through the top and climb inside.  They then begin to feed on the developing spiders as they go through their various stages of metamorphosis safe within the spider's egg sac.  Eventually, an adult emerges from the empty cocoon and flies off.

The spider boarders, however, have lost the ability to chew into a spider's egg case and instead waits for a spider to walk by.  While this may seem close to suicidal, the tiny larvae can often climb on to a spider and latch on without difficulty.  The small, flattened larvae attaches itself to the underside of the abdomen where it can patiently wait.  It nourishes itself by feeding on the hemolymph, the blood, of the spider.  If the larvae has found itself on an immature spider, some species are known to simply crawl into the book lungs of the spider where it will be safe from being dislodged when the spider molts.

If the larvae is lucky, it will have found a female, but it will make do with a male as well.  Here, it will simply wait for the male to find a female to mate with and jump ship as the two mate.  Once on the female, it waits for its host to lay its eggs.  As the spider is spinning the silken cocoon around the eggs, the Mantidfly larvae crawls inside undetected.  It then enters its next stage, a grub-like form that has only one goal, feed.  Once it has consumed the contents of the egg cocoon, it will spin its own cocoon and metamorphosize into its adult form.

Such spider parasitoid Mantidflies are far from rare.  They are so common that all major groups of hunting spiders are attacked by these spider boarding larvae.  While web building spiders are safe from this fate, many still end up being the targets of the egg penetrating species.

Such spider boarders are so common that a fossil of one has actually been recently found.  Discovered by Michael Ohl of Berlin's Museum of Natural History, the larvae was found attached to a spider that had been unlucky enough to find itself not only with the parasitoid Mantidfly larvae but also caught in tree sap.  As the sap hardened over time, the two were preserved perfectly in amber.  Dating to around 44 million years ago, the specimen shows that this form of symbiosis has been used in what is essentially its present form for quite some time.  It is possible that this tactic goes back even farther as the earliest Mantidfly fossils date to the early Jurassic, 180 million years ago.

A spider in amber with a Mantidfly larvae still clinging to its host.

Images courtesy of, and Discover Magazine.
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Sunday, April 1, 2012

An encounter with god botherers

On Saturday, I was relaxing at home and there was a knock at the door.  This already irritated me as I had a long night at work.  I hadn't slept for a while and I just wanted to relax.  So after running to get a shirt, I opened the door and I immediately knew the fate that was in store for me.  There were two people standing there smiling and holding pamphlets.  There was only one possibility, god botherers...

I wanted to be polite so I resisted the immediate urge to say "I don't feel like playing make believe today" followed by closing the door and going back to my computer.  Instead, I listened to what they might have to say.  After all, it might prove fun to turn the tables on them in the process.

They started out by asking me how I was that day and I responded that I was fine, hiding my annoyance.  I asked the same in turn and they said they were well and then asked if I wanted to attend their church.  I knew this was coming and I responded with a no, thank you.  They further asked if I went to church, perhaps thinking that I was content with the one I went to (I do live in Oklahoma after all, where there is one on nearly every corner).  I replied that I did not go to one.  I did not directly say that I thought the idea was foolish as I did not think it was necessary.

One of them, who was obviously the younger and more enthusiastic of the two, asked me if I knew what happened to me when I died.  I said that yes, I did have a good idea of what happened.  I went on to elaborate by saying that as my neurons would begin to die and the synapses of my brain broke down, the being that was me would fade away.  Then, the atoms that composed my body would be dispersed back into the environment.

The younger and more talkative of the two asked "What about God? What about heaven and hell?"  I said that I saw no evidence or need for a deity and that the idea of hell was absurd if one believed in anything close to an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god.  But instead of hearing a well informed reply I was treated to a line that would kill a little more of my hope for the American education system.

The older and, at this point, visibly agitated one, asked me this: "What do you believe in then, the Big Bang?  Not even Darwin believed in that."

I was stunned.  If I was a less polite person I might have told them that I didn't have time for that kind of stupid and would have shut the door.  But instead I pointed out the tiny detail that the theory of the Big Bang didn't even exist till well after Charles Darwin's death and that there was no way for him to even know about it.

Unfazed, the now previously irritated and now slightly hostile one barked back that they weren't there to debate this.  I found this more than a little dishonest as that was clearly what they were there to do and I called them out on it.  I said that they were going door to door to try and make the argument that their particular god was the correct one and that others should believe in it.

They then said that they were leaving and I, despite myself, apologized if I had come across as rude.  I knew I hadn't despite being irritated by the whole ordeal, yet I defaulted to what is the 'proper' response in my society.  I did what equated to apologizing for not believing in a magic man in the sky and preferring little things like evidence and facts.  Afterwards I realized just how absurd this was and I felt a bit bad for it.  I shouldn't have to apologize to such door to door sales persons trying to con me into buying their pathetic excuse for  knowledge.

I didn't take one of their pamphlets as I thought that they had spent their money on it and I would just throw it away anyway, so what was the point.  It would end up in a landfill anyway, but I would rather it not be by my hand.  I somewhat regret this as I've often found that such pamphlets are a wealth of unintentional comedy.  Poor graphical design and laughable arguments are par for the course in such material.

I later wondered if I had invited them inside and let them go on a bit more while putting forth my own questions, or even asking them if they would be willing to talk about alternatives, if I might have done more good.  But, in retrospect, I doubt this.  In a different setting it might have worked, but not this one, both for those involved and my own mood and tiredness.  These were not well educated individuals but lackeys for their church.  They didn't understand the reasoning or concepts, just that they were taught that it was right.

I imagine they will remember the event as involving an angry atheist who hates god, but this doesn't bother me.  I know they are wrong and would only be seeking to fit the mornings events into their established world views.  Though I wish this wasn't the standard response, it is one that could not be helped.  If nothing else, maybe it will plant a little doubt into one of them.  Sadly though, it will most likely do nothing one way or the other.
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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Beauty of Science

To me, science can be summed up as thus: a tool that may allow us to appreciate the supreme beauty of the universe.

The natural world has fascinated me as long as I can remember. From observing various creatures I would stumble across, both in their natural setting and in captivity, to laying outside for hours just gazing at the beauty of night sky. I grew to love knowledge as a key to wonderment that no novel could hope to match.

In the years since, I have never lost that spark. It has driven me and consumed me. Every time I learn something new about the universe, I cannot help but be struck by the beauty of it all. This feeling is always coupled with a fervent desire to explore the idea more. Knowledge is addictive. I always need to have more, for each piece unveils a new shade and texture to an already breathtaking image.

Take the idea of evolution. All life, no matter how familiar or strange, simple or complex, rare or populous, is all connected. Bacteria activity converting the sulfides belched out by the Earth itself into energy and myself, a complex and awkward primate subsisting on the labours of other life forms are, in a very real way, one and the same. That if you look back far enough into time, you shall find a moment when our last common ancestors thrived and took its first tentative steps in the different directions that would lead to two vastly different organisms.

Or the idea of Dark Matter. That there are mind boggling amounts of a substance that is invisible to light, but whose gravitational affects can shape the formation of galaxies, stars, and planets, and in turn, the rise of life itself.

Our understanding of the universe around us has changed drastically with each piece of the puzzle. Each part builds upon the natural tapestry that would, without the tool of science, be forever invisible to us. No matter how strange or unfamiliar a new idea may be, if it stands up to the rigors of the scientific method, it will shape all that it touches. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything is a part of something else, and those other somethings are, in turn, a part of an even larger world. Something as simple as an annoyingly persistent radio interference can lead to an understanding of the formation of the universe itself

In a world filled with hate, bigotry and horrendous suffering for countless peoples, the idea that we can overcome all our tribulations to uncover the inner workings of the existence around us proves to me that, perhaps, we as a species can correct the errors of our past. That we can become more if only we set aside our petty hatreds and work together to find our place in a universe more vast and diverse then we can ever hope to fully comprehend. We shall never be the center of the universe, but we do have the potential to be the center of its comprehension. To quote Neil deGrasse Tyson, “We are not simply in the universe, we are part of it. We are born from it. One might even say we have been empowered by the universe to figure itself out—and we have only just begun.”
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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Ten (idiotic) reasons why Christianity is superior to any other religion

Ah, lists.  They are so often written with complete sincerity, with the author seeming to believe that a few lines will convince anyone of their point.  They appear to believe that by using a series of numbers or bullets that their stated reasons will be built up into an insurmountable wall of truth.

Then, after taking so much time to compile their compelling reasons, some asshole such as myself comes along to burn the whole thing to the ground while dancing upon its ashes and laughing maniacally the whole time.

My current target is entitled "Ten Reasons Why Christianity if Superior to any Other Religion".  When I saw the title I knew I had a winner and it certainly did not disappoint.
1. Christianity is the only religion in which God reaches out to man. All other religions are attempts by man to reach up to God.
Apparently, no other religion ever claims to be divinely inspired by this god person.  All the others were just written by ignorant humans trying to understand the world around them through allegory and myth.  But not Christianity!  God specifically took time out of his busy day to talk to them directly and anyone else hearing god's voice is just schizophrenic or are hearing the devil.  And they know this because their book tells them so of course!  Just like god did for the Judaic peoples, and the Muslims, and the Hindi, and the Janis, and the....
2. Christianity is the only religion that fully deals with sin because of Christ’s atoning work on the Cross.
And what great work it was.  I was really impressed by his ability to bleed profusely as he slowly suffocated.  As god knows, nothing makes up for the actions of millions like crazy people's blood.  So next time you feel horrible for stealing a candy bar, just bath in the blood of that hobo on the corner who hears god through his shoe and all will be amended!
3. Christianity is the only religion that allows followers into the presence of the Father.
We get to go to heaven and you don't!  Ha-ha you stupid heathens!  What, the other religions often have some sort of heaven as well?  Well they aren't the real heaven.  Ours is better and has a super cool club house that you aren't allowed inside.  We have a slide and a tire swing and the Virgin Mary bakes us cookies every day!
4. Christianity is the only religion that offers its followers true assurance of salvation because our salvation is based upon Christ’s works, not our own.
So don't worry about that prostitute rotting in your basement or the alter boys you 'blessed with your holy water', as long as you say the magic words Jesus will vouch for you!
5. Christianity is the only religion in which the Holy Spirit is promised to us, and dwells in us.
So, this Holy Spirit is some kind of eldritch horror that is implanted within us on the day of conversion and feeds off our intellect?
6. Christianity is the only religion in the world where its leader is the judge of all mankind.
Because Christianity is the only religion that thinks it holds the secrets to the universe and all of humanity must bow before its wisdom.  It is as if this person thinks Christianity is the only Bond villain to try and take over the world.
7. Christianity is the only religion in which our leader was raised from the dead.
Am I the only one who thinks that Christianity is the hipster of religions?  They are constantly going on about how they were into zombies before it was cool.  Thankfully due to the internet and lax gun laws, if Jesus ever rises forth once more to feast upon our brains he will discover a legion of fanatical George A. Romero fans ready to stop him.
8. Christianity is the only religion in which death is truly conquered.
And what a glorious battle it was! Hundreds fell before Death's scythe, but even the mighty reaper was no match for for Jesus' mighty Kung Fu!
9. Christianity is the only religion in which it’s leader was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life according to God’s Law, and fulfilled countless Old Testament prophecies.
So Jesus is the result of holy parthenogenesis? Does this make Mary some kind of divine Komodo Dragon, because I would could totally get behind a sacred monitor lizard.
10. All the leaders of every other religion, need Christ as their Savior as well as their followers.
Translation: I ran out of ideas but still wanted to tell the followers of all other religions to suck it.  Such a classy and logical way to end such a wonderfully stimulating and well thought out list.
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Friday, March 2, 2012

The Green-Banded Broodsac - Leucochloridium paradoxum

The Green-Banded Broodsac is name that is equally horrifying and mysterious.  The fact that they were given the descriptive title of 'green-banded' suggests that we live in a world so full of organisms befitting the name of a broodsac to need clarifiers.  This alone should be enough to haunt your dreams for weeks to come. But it does leave one with the simple question of what it could possibly be, other then horrifying.

The Green-Banded Broodsac (Leucochloridium pardoxum) is a trematode, a class of flatworms (phylum Platyhelminthes) known for their exclusively parasitic nature.  Trematodes, more commonly known as flukes--and in the case of the Broodsac, a Digenean--go through a series of developmental stages that take them through multiple host species.  In  L. pardoxum, the lucky contenders are the Amber Snails (genus Succinea) and various species of shore birds.

The Broodsac's primary hosts are the shore birds. Here they live in the digestive tract like many other Trematodes, feeding off of allthe extra nutrients. Other than depriving their host of some nutrients, they don’t really hurt the birds, which is good for the Broodsac as if the bird dies, so do they. 

The adults live out their lives passing their eggs out through the digestive tract of the infected birds. They are monecious, meaning they possess both sexes and can either self-fertilize or cross fertilize when multiple individuals are close enough together, so there is always a 'healthy' supply of eggs.

The eggs lie in wait for a hungry snail to come along to feed on the bird droppings that they reside in.  Once consumed, the eggs hatch into the initial larval stage, the miricidia. These miricidia start out by thriving in the gut but soon begin to spread through the body of the snail as their numbers grow, with the luckiest finding themselves near the head.  It is here that they metamorphose into their next stage, the sporocyst.

While the miricidia are capable of movement, the sporocyst is not.  At first they begin to rapidly reproduce themselves until they have developed into a large ‘brood sacs’.  It is from this stage that they get their shiver inducing name.  As the brood sac grows in size, it begins to invade the eye stalks of the snail, preferring the left one for some utterly unknown and possibly terrifying reason, though it is not uncommon to see snails with both eye stalks infested.

The sporocysts within the brood sac can either divide into more sporocysts or they can produce for yet another stage, known as the cercaria.  The brood sac quickly becomes filled with hundreds of cercariae which are the final larval stage of these horrors, and the first stage that can actively infect their primary hosts.  Many of the cercaria will encyst themselves, becoming metacercaria, to preserve themselves for when they enter a more suitable habitat, namely the gut of a bird.

But how can such tiny creatures hope to go from their comfy, bloated sack of a home inside the head of a snail to the promised land that is the intestines of a bird?  Once again the titular broodsac comes into play.  There is a reason why the broodsac forms specifically in the eye stalk and head.  As it grows in size, it begins to gain a very specific coloring, hence the green-banded portion of L. paradoxum's common name.  The bands of green and yellow very closely resemble the markings on certain species of caterpillars.  Particularly, species of caterpillars that are commonly fed upon by birds.

But the broodsac doesn't stop there.  It has already reduced the vision of the snail enough to hinder its ability to hide but evolution was not content with merely impairing the depth perception of the hapless snail.  Instead it begins to alter the behavior of the snail.  Snails naturally prefer the dark; this is because there is more rotting detritus for them to feast upon and fewer predators to eat them. But L. paradoxum wants desperately to get back into its primary host. So it over rides the snails preference for the dark and causes it to seek out the light where it will be more noticeable to birds.

Once in the light, the brood sac begins to twitch.  The more light it is exposed to, the more rapidly it will convulse in a way that, to a bird, resembles a snack that cannot be turned down.  This behavior, known as aggressive mimicry, is usually reserved for predators so that they can sneak up on their prey, but here, the broodsac has used the technique to attract its future primary host.

Once the snail is eaten--or just the infected eye-stalk which can potentially grow back and become re-infected by the miracidiae still thriving inside the snails gut--the cecariae collect inside the intestines and develop into the adult form.  Any metacecariae will come out of their stasis as the surrounding tissue they have encysted themselves within is digested away and the remaining sporocytes will develop into cecariae as well, which in turn also develop into the adult form; thus creating a large and stable population.  

The adult worms, then go about their happy lives doing little more than reproducing and feeding off the various nutrients they are constantly bathed in.  Spewing out a steady stream of eggs that, with any luck, will go on to infect and deform other helpless slime crawlers.

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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Rush Limbaugh calls Sandra Fluke a prostitute

Rush Limbaugh once again proves to the slightly more sane of us that he is still a raving idiot.  I'm sure for most of you reading, this is far from a revelation.  But there are times when someone says something so horribly wrong and offensive that they must be called out on it.

It is all the more important to bring this quote under scrutiny as it very clearly states what many of the religious 'right' and their puppets in the GOP have been stating as of late.  If this has been done by someone else, I would probably consider it a great sardonic remark against such idiocy.  But instead it shows that Poe's Law is alive and well. 

In a comment in reference to Sandra Fluke's being refused the chance to speak before a congressional committee on contraception, Rush stated:

"What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex -- what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute."
When I first read this line, I was unsure of exactly how to react.  I was torn in equal directions of being disgusted, furious, and trying my best not to laugh.

I was disgusted because this is purest form of the current Republican view on women's rights.  It is everything they have been striving for against about half of the human population under the guise of 'morality'.  When the rhetoric is removed, this is what is left.  The view that if any woman dares to want to take control of her own body and what could happen to them if they dare to speak out.  After all, to such individuals they are nothing more than dirty, filthy whores.

I was furious because I know that Rush Limbaugh is not some crazy living in a box somewhere talking about how his underwear is blessed by Jesus (that would be closer to Mitt Romney, now wouldn't it).  He is listened to by many and there will be quite a few who will believe his blatantly offensive and painful inaccurate remark.  And his remark will be used by others to continue to perpetuate the mistreatment and oppression of millions.

I nearly died laughing because the statement and its sentiment are so utterly disconnected from reality.  In my head, I could see Rush hiding under his bed in terror because the evil feminists might come for him in his sleep.

This is the mentality the rational of this country are up against.  It is equal parts vile bigotry and pant staining lunacy.  In a world where the secrets of the universe are being unveiled through massive particle accelerators and we combat diseases through our understanding of evolution, the sentiments such as those espoused by Rush Limbaugh and his ilk should have no place other than the scrawling found on a bathroom wall.  But, unfortunately, this kind of hatred is alive and well.  It threatens all we have and will work for. 

It must be raged against, it must be demonstrated against and it must even be lampooned.  There may always be those who vomit forth such bile as Rush Limbaugh has spewed here, but we can make such individuals so utterly non-relevant that laughter and/or pity become the only appropriate responses.
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Friday, February 24, 2012

DNA Defence Systems

What is fundamental to all life that we have ever encountered?  The answer, is DNA.  Unless you count RNA viruses as alive, every single bit of life on this planet encodes the genes for its offspring using DNA.  While DNA may be the tool life uses to reproduce, this is actually a bit of a self-centered way of looking at things.  We don't so much use DNA as DNA uses us.

We are taught that the basic unit of life is the cell.  And a cell is simply a self replicating structure built around a particular collection of DNA.  Granted the DNA couldn't self replicate without all the supportive proteins, but those very proteins would not have their particular arrangement without DNA.  But this wasn't a problem for some of the earliest strands of replicating nucleic acids.  The conditions they formed in gave them just enough material to, by pure chance, construct a way to replicate themselves.

As mutations accumulated in the various offspring of this first replicating DNA strand, different populations began to compete over resources.  Those early units of DNA that could make the most efficient use of resources, as well as gather it the fastest, were able to replicate the most readily.  As time went on, the accumulation of mutations would guide different populations down different roads.

Some would eventually construct full cells around them so that they could move out of the chemical cradle that formed them.  Some would have only the most basic of covering and would hijack the support structure of the self-replicating ones.  Novel forms that made the best use of the environment would soon thrive where as those that stagnated would be out competed at faster and faster rates.

More complex cellular structures became required if the DNA that operated the cell hoped to be able to continue to replicate.  Competition became fierce and the changing forms constantly found more exotic forms to be able to survive.  These new forms were expensive to form and maintain, but as other niches filled up, they became the only way a lineage of DNA could hope to compete with other lines.

Some lines that diverged eons ago would begin to work together for the common goal of self-replication.  The first Eukaryotes arose and, with their larger and more complex cells, found their own niche to exploit.  Some of these newer models for DNA replication began to work together for the common goal.  For if even one of them would replicate, then the shared DNA lineage would continue.  Such communal behavior allowed for the first multicellular life.  DNA no longer would just encode for a single replicating unit, but for the eventual diversification of its own progeny into more efficient ways for the DNA itself to replicate.

Eventually such multicelled life would take on even more elaborate formations to compete with other lineages of the first DNA.  Such larger forms allowed for new resources to be exploited, including the dismantling of other DNA and their cells to maintain their own functionality.  While such tactics was not new, the size of multicellular life allowed for an arms race of size to develop.

As size increases, more regulatory systems were required, especially with other complex DNA structures to contend with.  One of these regulatory systems is the first nervous system.  It allows for quick communication between cells so that the whole can find resources faster, escape predation more efficiently, as well as reproduce more readily.

The DNA strands that had the more efficient variations in this nervous system would become more successful under different conditions.  It became so successful that the nervous system had to centralize if it had any hopes to quickly responding to the new stimuli its nervous system allowed it to detect.  This line of DNA, began finding itself quite successful in a myriad of environments. All thanks to the DNAs extended support structure that we know as the central nervous system.  Lines of DNA with this trait would compete amongst themselves just as their ancestors did and, eventually, the nervous system became able to make predictions about its environment.  Intelligence is born.

Intelligence allowed for an understanding of the outside world.  It allowed the DNA to respond to even more complex stimuli then it ever had before.  One line of DNA eventually amassed the requisite genes so that the nervous system became advanced enough so that it could ask, "What am I?"

Being an imperfect system, this newly formed self-aware intellect could only make wild guesses as to what it was and where it came.  Myths began to form to answer these questions.  These myths would compete amongst one another, extensions of the DNA that spawned the minds themselves, if indirectly.  Some would allow for greater survival, some less so and thus, were selected for.

The idea of experimentation arose and the DNA that exploited such refined ways of understanding the world thrived enough so that this tool of science was passed on.  Eventually, after millenia, this intelligence had uncovered enough about itself and its world through its questions and resulting experiments that it could begin to accurately describe its own origins. 

This line of DNA had, for the first time, understood what it was that life had been doing blindly for billions of years.  Here, the supportive structure the DNA used to propagate had actually described its very existence.  Natural selection, after going through a seemingly endless menagerie of new DNA defense and replication systems, developed a form that could see itself for what it really was.

There was no soul, no creation event, no supernatural guidance.  Just strands of interconnected nucleic acids doing its best to out compete itself. 
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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Porbeagle Shark, Lamna nasus

Courtesy University of Denver
The Porbeagle (Lamna nasus) appears to be, at first glance, the very stereotype of the shark.  Its streamlined body and strong jaw give it away as a fast and efficient predator.  But there is more to this shark then one would expect.  In fact, it can even be described as adorable.

Other than the vaguely smile like appearance of the mouth, you might be asking yourself what one could find cute about this shark.  The reason can be found in their behavior.  Porbeagles have become well known for actions that can be described only as playing.  Young sharks have been seen rolling around in kelp until they are covered in it and then speed off, while other Porbeagles will then give chase trying to grab bits of the kept off, but never harming the entangled shark.  Soon, another shark will start rolling around until tangled as well and the group then begins chasing this individual.

Some originally thought that the sharks were trying to find small prey items hidden within the kelp, but they were never observed eating anything.  Others suggested that the action was done to remove parasites, but this idea was also shown to be lacking.  The only explanation that has been provided that makes any sense is that the behavior is done for play.

Another play like behavior can be seen when these sharks come across a floating object.  They will grab at the object in a way that goes beyond mere investigation and will even go so far as to throw their 'toy' out of the water repeatedly.  The idea that it is more then just curiosity at a novel object can be seen when multiple Porbeagles gather around a single object.  They will each attempt to play with it and have even been seen passing the object from one to another!

The leading hypothesis as to why Porbeagles engage in play is related to why most other organisms are thought to play.  It is a learning process, helping to develop and maintain their hunting techniques.  If this is accurate, then such playfulness likely gave these sharks an evolutionary advantage over those species that never developed this unusual behavior.

Porbeagles can be either solitary or gregarious, especially in the case of juveniles, but adults have been witnessed in groups for reasons other than mating as well.  Though these groups are often transitory.

They primarily reside in colder waters though the females will migrate to warmer climates to birth their pups.  To combat the cold, they are able to thermoregulate, making them endothermic.  They conserve heat produced by their muscles through a series of specialized blood vessels known as the retia mirabilia, or wonderful net.  This allows them to maintain an active lifestyle despite living primarily in cold waters.  Their ability to raise their body temperate is among the best of all sharks, second only to its close relative the Salmon Shark (Lamna ditropis).

A member of the order Lamniformes, the Mackerel Sharks, they are closely related to other more well known fast swimming predatory sharks such as the Great White and the Makos.  The Porbeagle is, like its relatives, aplacental viviparous, which means that the eggs are internally fertilized and the young will hatch before being fully developed and continue their gestation internally.  The Porbeagle also displays what is known as oophagy.  When the pups, still within the uterus, have exhausted their yolk supply, the female will begin to release unfertilized, yolk rich eggs that the young can feed on.  Once fully developed, the female Porbeagle can give birth to, on average, a litter of four, two from each uterus.

These sharks are harmless to humans with only three attacks being recorded.  One was a provoked non-lethal attack on a person, the other two were on boats.  Considering that they are common game fish, this is not surprising.  In fact, the over fishing of these sharks has led to them being listed as vulnerable.

Have a request for an article?  Leave your suggestion in the comments and I shall do the best I can to answer your question.
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Monday, February 20, 2012

Why a unified fight for rights is vital

The idea that there is a schism between various human rights issues is dangerous.  While there is often a variety of reasons for the lack of basic human rights in differing groups, this does not mean they are unrelated.  Nor does it mean that each individual struggle against oppression operates in a vacuum.

The belief that different human rights movements should not work together is one of the single greatest ways for any and all of those movements to be greatly hindered, or even blocked entirely.  For a group to say that it only wants the aid of those fighting the same fight does nothing but strengthens the opposition and reduce the support base of those working for their own rights.

I mention this because of Erin Nanasi's recent post "Women’s rights and LGBT: It’s not a competition".  Both in her article and in the comments that follow, there is mention that women are in no place to complain when the LGBT community has it so much worse.  There is also mention that for the LGBT rights movement to join forces with women's rights and the atheist community would "cloud the issue at hand".

These claims utterly ignores certain key facts, ones that have consequences for all human rights groups.  Whenever any group of individuals has its basic rights under attack, those that look to revoke these rights are rarely content to stop there.  To those in any of these groups who think that the fight for their rights is a stand alone issue, I ask you this:  Do you really think that they will be content to stop with just one group?

Time and time again we have seen such bigots and hate mongers use their successes in opposing or removing the rights of one group as a test bed for future attacks.  If their backwards views can be accepted against one group, they will quickly begin to branch out and start targeting other groups more openly and with increased vigor.

The rolling back of women's rights has dire consequences for the LGBT movement, and vice versa.  For the more radical of a 'win' against one group, the more bold they will become and the more they will want.  It tells them that just because rights have been established in the past, there is nothing stopping them from stepping in and taking that all away.  If they succeed in their attack on women, what is to stop them from more aggressive attacks against the LGBT community?

In fact, the LGBT community has a lot to lose with the loss of rights for women.  By setting up such a standard, not only does it make future attacks against them more likely, but it also reduces the influence of half of its own population.  When women's rights are mentioned, it is not just straight women, it is every woman.  This would be a set back the LGBT community can not afford.

But the inverse is true as well.  Any gains in rights of one group can strengthen the cause of the others.  Any win for those who see all humans as deserving of basic rights not only stop the advancements of the bigots, but it also frees up many supporters to help in the fight for rights in other areas.  While this has, sadly, not always happened, we must not let dissension from the past carry over into our future.  With every win, those in favor of rights have had other violations revealed to them for which they can fight against.  We cannot afford to be content with one area of success and must strive for more as the forces against us never tire.
With disgustingly large numbers of those in the LGBT community faced with the possibility of rape, women's rights become even more vital.  For if a straight woman cannot get the proper care after being raped, what hope will someone that the establishment sees as less have?

To those who claim that such a unified fight clouds the issues at hand, I will admit there is some truth to this based on the nature of politics.  It is impossible to strive for all rights in one fell swoop and they must be fought on a myriad of fronts.  Sometimes, the establishment will use the connection of one group to another against them, saying that they are supported by 'immoral' individuals.  But this misses that such statements are attempts to scatter and dis-empower those who fight for their rights.  It is a move to shatter the support base and reduce the number of voters in support of an issue.  We cannot allow such tactics to win because we believe that we have to play by their rules.  We are the ones who are in the right after all.

Now this should not be seen as a statement in support of those who struggle in one area to drop what they are doing and focus on something else.  This would only destroy what those groups have fought so hard for.  Instead, I am stating that the work of one group does not negate the work of another and can help their ultimate cause in the end.  The fight for human rights is a universal thing, it is something everyone who has been seen by society as less deserving wishes to correct.

So to every group that has been pushed aside by those in power.  To everyone who has had their rights kept from them because of the beliefs of the religious.  To all that want more for their future, let us not fall into petty quarreling that will only hinder us all.  Let us fight side by side against a common enemy so that, one day, none of us will have to be afraid.
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Friday, February 17, 2012

The We Are Woman March

With all the idiocies that the GOP led congress has put forth and all the state led offenses, enough is far more than enough.  Bearing the blunt of such assaults has, quite often, been women.  A prime example of this being the recent congressional hearing on contraception that denied women the chance to speak.

The list of offenses is both large and infuriating.  Still more seem to be coming daily.  So to combat this, a new group is starting up and plans to demonstrate against such ignorance and intolerance.  And by new I mean it is just being organized now.

The group has been named The We Are Woman March on Washington D.C.  It has been started by Erin Nanasi, fellow writer and, I would like to think, friend over at Mad Mike's America.  Erin composed a video to explain the reasoning and need for this, which I have included to help spread the word (the original post can be seen here).

So please, spread the word, the time for this sort of action is well past due.  If this idea can come to fruition, then perhaps there is a chance to work towards getting some change done.  Or at the very least, prove to the GOP that we are not about to stand back and let them do as they wish, that, as Erin said, women are not chattel.

I shall include more information in future posts as it becomes available.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The song of Archobollus musicus Within a sparsely populated coniferous forest, night is quickly approaching.  As twilight pushes on and the sun slowly disappears from the horizon, the nocturnal singers of the forest begin to awaken.  Joining the choir of amphibians and other mistrals of the night a lone katydid begins to play its chirping melody.

Staying low to the ground, the katydid hides amongst the foliage of the giant fern Caniopteris.  It sings its song as it scrapes its wings together, passing one along the rides of the other.  Quieting down only when a small mammal or dinosaur becomes too curious about the source of the ethereal sound.  A scene that would play out nightly for millions of years.

For, like the katydid, the forest died long ago.  But in the mid-Jurassic, both thrived in what is now northwest China.  This particular katydid, known as Archabollus musicus belonged to a family known as Haglidae, a group of Orthopterans that existed from the early Triassic until ultimately becoming extinct in the late Cretaceous.

Orthoptera is the order of insects that includes all crickets, grasshoppers, locusts and katydids.  Like so many of its now living relatives Archabollus musicus produced sound through the process of stridulation (the action of creating sound by the rubbing together of the wings or the legs).  This process can produce one of two types of sound, resonant or non-resonant.  The non-resonant producing insects create a wide variety of tones where as the resonant, or musical insects, produce pure-tones.  A. musicus was a member of the later and more ancestral group, producing a resonant sound at 6.4 khz, well within the threshold for human hearing.

One might wonder how we can know the specific frequency of sound produced by an insect that lived 165 million years ago.  The answer comes from a particularly well preserved fossil recently unearthed.  In it, the wing is so well preserved that the stidulatory file, the series of ridges along one of the wings that the other wing scrapes along to produce sound, is almost perfectly preserved.

As the plectrum, the appendage that scrapes along the file, passes over each tooth, the resulting vibrations produce sound.  The shape and spacing of the teeth dictate the kind of sound that will be produced, just like how the sound of running your thumb over different combs produce different sounds.  And just like with combs, how fast the plectrum passes over the stidulatory file affects what kind of sound will be produced.  Based on the shape and size of the teeth, there is a specific speed that produces the optimum tone.

The fossil wing of Archabollus musicus next to a representation of the stridulatory file.
Using this knowledge, Fernando Montealegre-Zapata of the University of Bristol in the UK and his colleges Jun-Jie Gu, Daniel Roberts, Michael S. Engel, Ge-Xia Qiao, and Dong Ren were able to begin work on reproducing the sound of this long extinct katydid.

From the cavernous expanse of deep time, a sound that has not been heard upon this Earth for 165 millions years begins to resonate.  It is a sound both familiar and haunting.  While it is a simple sound, it is one that deserves respect and elicits awe.  It is the sound of our own curiosity and ingenuity.  It is the sound of beauty.

Gu, J., Montealegre-Z, F., Robert, D., Engel, M., Qiao, G., & Ren, D. (2012). Wing stridulation in a Jurassic katydid (Insecta, Orthoptera) produced low-pitched musical calls to attract females Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1118372109
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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy Darwin Day

On this day in 1809 in the town of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, a man was born who's name would become synonymous with the diversification of life.  Described as a "gentleman naturalist" by his friend and botanist, John Stevens Henslow, Charles Darwin would become one of the most celebrated scientists in history.  On this day, 203 years later, we celebrate the life of a man who's curiosity and passion for the natural world allowed humanity to understand its connection to every other organism that we share this planet with.

His insights gave us the first scientifically rigorous explanation for the diversification of species.  While his concept of evolution through natural selection has seen many changes throughout the years as new data has been incorporated, the core tenants of his idea are still essential to all of biology.

In fact, one cannot even hope to understand any part of biology without viewing it through the lens of evolution.  To do so otherwise would be like trying to understand cosmology without taking gravity into account.  And while his revelation has changed the very way we see ourselves and all life, his young self would never have guessed what he would one day accomplish

He started out confused about his future and eventually found himself enrolled in a theological school as a last resort.  It was here, oddly enough, that he began his in depth exploration of the natural world.  It was through the writings and his friendships with various 'natural theologians', those that believed that through the study of the natural world one could understand the mind of god, that he got a varied training in the sciences and his recommendation for a spot on the H.M.S. Beagle.

He began the trip with the belief that the Bible was a true account and quoted it frequently.  But as his work during the voyage continued, he quickly began to have doubts.  He noticed that many of the fossils of mammals he unearthed in South America resembled those of living organisms.  He started to see connections between organisms all around him.  He saw geological evidence for a changing world that acted through entirly natural processes.

He could not fathom how a deity would allow for the extinction of entire species, nor why those extinct species and living ones would share so many common traits.  As he continued his sampling of the natural world and his eventual study of those samples over many years, he could not doubt the connections between the various animal species around him.  By the time he returned from his voyage, he was openly critical of the bible that he once held so dear and began asking why Christianity would hold a special place in the pantheon of religions.

The more questions he asked and studied, the more he doubted.  By the time of his father's death, he had abandoned religion entirely.  Though he still would attend a Unitarian church with his wife, Emma, for her sake.  He loved her immensely and knew that she did not share his lack of belief.  Though many of his children did inherit their father's curious nature and love of science, three of which would go on to become members of the Royal Society, one of the most prestigious scientific groups of the time.

Besides his great insights, Charles Darwin was also remembered for his talent as a writer.  Even while still away exploring the world, he gained notoriety within both scientific and popular circles.  His notes and journal entries became so well known that his journal, originally a part of a collection of books revolving around the second voyage of the Beagle, had to be published independently to meet public demands.  Everything he wrote sold astonishingly well, from his On the Origin of Species to his final work The Formation of Vegtable Mould Through the Action of Worms.

He had a love of the natural world and through it, found inspiration and understanding.  And today, on the aniversary of his birth, we celebrate a life that has forever changed our views on the world and ourselves.

To find out if there are any planned events today in your area, look at those registered through The International Darwin Day Foundation.
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Friday, February 10, 2012

Earliest animal fossil was the size of a grain of rice. During the Cryogenian, a tiny organism began to spread across the shallow seas.  750 to 550 million years ago, these tiny organisms, just  0.3 to 5mm in length became a dominant force in the ancient oceans.  But despite their size, their importance cannot be underestimated.  For they are the oldest animals to be discovered, predating any other animal fossil by 100 to 150 million years.
Scanning Electron Microscopy of Otavia antiqua taken from the Kuibis Subgroup of the Zaris Formation near Kliphoek in southern Namibia.
Given the name Otavia antiqua and found in the oldest rocks in Namibia, they show that animal life has it roots much further in the past then had been previously expected based upon earlier fossil evidence.  They thrived during a time known as the Cryogenian, the second period of the Neoproterozoic that lasted from of 830 to 635 million years ago.  A period that gains its name from two events where global temperatures plummeted causing the most extensive glaciation events in our planets history, known as the Snow Ball Earth events. During these occurrences glaciation covered most, if not all of the planet, if the hypothesis is correct that is.

The earliest Otavia a. fossils predate the first of the two predicted glaciation events, known as the Sturtian.  Fossils persist up until till the end of Precambrian, where the rise in numbers of complex animals truly begins.  They were simple animals, believed to be Poriferans, sponges.  They have most of the features shared by modern sponges with the exception of spicules (shards of hardened material that are produced by the sponge for structural support), though they may have possessed these too but due to their tiny size and ancient age, little trace is left of them.

They had a very simple body plan.  Most were ovoid to globular in appearance with three distinct sections.  The outer layer was covered in many small pores, known as ostia with a size of 5 to 20 microns in diameter.  These let water into the second section, the peripheral labyrinth.

This section most likely allowed for the start of absorption of nutrients via consumption of algae and bacteria, making Otavia a simple, if sessile, predator.  This section lived up to its name with many winding passages, allowing for the most surface area, increasing nutrient absorbtion as well as gas exchange.

Water would then pass into the central chamber that made up the majority of the internal space of the animal.  This spongocoel (called a paragastric chamber in the paper) would have, most likely, been lined with choanocytes, just as the peripherial labyrinth would have been.

These cells, common to all sponges, beat the water with their flagellum to create a current to aid in respiration and bring in new nutrients.  Water is then evacuated from the spongocoel through the largest opening, known as the osculum.  In Otavia, this opening would have attained a size of many tens of microns in diameter in the larger individuals. 

Otavia also features a trait common to most sponges, mineralization.  While the exact mineral is still in question, Calcium Carbonate or Dolomite are the two most likely suspects based on the composition of Otavia fossils.  This shows that by the time these tiny sponges evolved, they had already begun mastering the process of depositing minerals within their internal structure to provide a more rigid structure.  In essence, the earliest evidence for something akin to a skeleton.  While non-living and quite different from the skeletons that would emerge later within the animal kingdom, it still sets a precedent.

The genus name for these tiny creatures comes from the rock structure where the most specimens were discovered, and by chance, the oldest known individuals.  They were removed from a black limestone portion of the Otavi Group of Namibia.  Combined with the other rock structures that Otavia specimens have been recovered, over a thousand fossils have been recovered, suggesting that they were an incredibly successful group.

While the emergence of these creatures predates the occurrence of any other animal fossil by at least a hundred million years, the discovery was not totally unexpected.  In what is sure to become yet another famous success story in the field of molecular biology, the first animals were predicted to have a common ancestor at exactly the time period when Otavia dominated.

Using a process known as a molecular clock, genomes of various organisms are compared to one another to look for both commonalities and how far apart various genes are.  By understanding just how differences in genes arise through evolution, we can look into the deep past and predict when organisms shared their last common ancestor.  These predictions have been supported by fossil evidence time and time again.  The emergence of Otavia at precisely the time when the last common ancestor of all metazoans was predicted to have lived, suggesting that it may very well be the ancestor of all modern animals, or lived along side it.

This suggests that we owe our very existence to an organism hardly the size of a grain of rice.  A rice grain that survived some of the most hostile climatic changes that our planet has ever experienced, allowing for the vast array or animals seen today to differentiate and spread into every ecosystem on the planet.


Brain, C., Prave, A., Hoffmann, K., Fallick, A., Botha, A., Herd, D., Sturrock, C., Young, I., Condon, D., & Allison, S. (2012). The first animals: ca. 760-million-year-old sponge-like fossils from Namibia South African Journal of Science, 108 (1/2) DOI: 10.4102/sajs.v108i1/2.658
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