Keeping Up With Science

I love science. I have no science background, but I’ve always been fascinated with it. I regularly love to peruse some of the Science Blogs, and I have a few of them down there in my blogroll. Here’s a few posts and other tidbits that I recently found interesting. Perhaps you will too.

1. Trees used for toxic waste clean-up.

Quaking Aspen trees are being engineered to take advantage of their natural propensity to convert highly toxic trichloroethylene (TCE) into harmless byproducts at rates 100 times faster than control plants. There seems to be other advantages. The trees grow to sexual maturity within three years, they convert CO2 to oxygen while they are working on the toxic waste problem, and since they need to be harvested before reaching the capacity to cross-pollinate native trees, their wood might be usable in the production of ethanol. Apparently, three years is sufficient time for them to clean up a toxic waste site.

Isn’t that so much better than simply wringing your hands over what humans are doing to the environment? Science to the rescue!

H/T to Mike at Tangled Up In Blue Guy, a fellow Dylan aficionado.

2. Evolution of Whales

Have you ever wondered where whales come from? I don’t mean, from their mommies. I mean in the evolutionary sense. We know that mammals arrived on the evolutionary scene well after fish, but then how did whales end up looking like fish, and living in the sea, if they were mammals? Clearly, a land based mammal eventually continued on a path of evolution that led back to the sea, but who were the whale’s ancestors?

Recently, fossils have been discovered of an immediate ancestor to the whale. It is Indoyhus, “a small deer-like animal that waded in lagoons and munched on vegetation.” It doesn’t look much like what we know as whales, and it’s only about the size of a domestic cat, but it shares characteristics with modern whales that other fossils don’t, such as bone structure.

Whale evolution is thought to have begun with creatures like Indohyus becoming more adapted to a watery environment to avoid land-based predators. The animal’s heavy bones would have made Indohyus a slow beast on land, but in the water, they would help it stay on the bottom, where it could forage and hide.

Scientists say that this find is comparable to Archaeopteryx, one of the first fossils to fill in the gap between dinosaurs and birds. It looks like another gap, previously ascribed to god, has been filled. Are there any left?

H/T Carl Zimmer at The Loom.

3. Your Inner Fish

It is probably fallacious to assume that evolution accounts for every anomaly in the human body, as I’m often wont to think. Or maybe not. I’ve been told that my herniated disc in my lower back is a direct result of a direct connection to my quadra-pedal ancestors. Man wasn’t designed (a metaphoric, not literal verb) to stand upright. The lower back, as such, is not built to carry my weight, without the assistance of some knuckle dragging on my part.

This article, by Neil Shubin, (which is actually an excerpt from his recently published book) explains that many of the other ailments I suffer from can actually be traced back farther than the primates, to my distant piscine cousins. For instance, hernias:

Our gonads begin their development in much the same place as a shark’s: up near our livers. As they grow and develop, our gonads descend… In males the descent goes farther.The descent of the gonads, particularly in males, creates a weak spot in the body wall. To envision what happens when the testes and spermatic cord descend to form a scrotum, imagine pushing your fist against a rubber sheet. In this example, your fist becomes equivalent to the testes and your arm to the spermatic cord. The problem is that you have created a weak space where your arm sits. Where once the rubber sheet was a simple wall, you’ve now made another space, between your arm and the rubber sheet, where things can slip. This is essentially what happens in many types of inguinal hernias in men. Some of these inguinal hernias are congenital—when a piece of the gut travels with the testes as it descends. Another kind of inguinal hernia is acquired. When we contract our abdominal muscles, our guts push against the body wall. A weakness in the body wall means that guts can escape the body cavity and be squeezed to lie next to the spermatic cord.

Females are far tougher than males, particularly in this part of the body. Because females do not have a giant tube running through it, their abdominal wall is much stronger than a man’s.

This is a good thing when you think of the enormous stresses that female body walls go through during pregnancy and childbirth. A tube through the body wall just wouldn’t do. Men’s tendency to develop hernias is a trade-off between our fish ancestry and our mammal present.

Other problems, like hemorrhoids, hiccups and cardioencephalomyopathy (whatever that is) can also be traced back to our evolutionary connection with fish.

Take the body plan of a fish, dress it up to be a mammal, then tweak and twist that mammal until it walks on two legs, talks, thinks, and has superfine control of its fingers—and you have a recipe for problems. We can dress up a fish only so much without paying a price.

There is also a good Bloggingheads interview with Carl Zimmer, of my previous H/T, here. Neil was also interviewed recently on the Colbert Report.

H/T Richard Dawkins

4. The Age of Sexual Maturity in Dinosaurs.

Some might say, who cares? Well, scientists do. Paleontologists, evolutionary biologists, hell, everybody should be interested in this, but perhaps that’s just my inner geek showing through.

Medullary bone, a type of tissue present in modern birds when they are developing eggs, has been found in three dinosaur fossils, researchers report in Monday’s online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The dinosaurs were aged 8, 10 and 18, indicating they reached sexual maturity earlier than previously thought.

In modern birds, medullary tissue lines bones for only a few weeks when they are producing eggs and is then reabsorbed. Finding it in dinosaurs, which are believed to be the ancestors of birds, sheds light on their reproduction also.

Most dinosaurs lived to only about age 30, though some reached 60, the researchers said.

We know that dinosaurs are actually ancestors of birds. There have been many findings of transitional fossils between those large amphibians (or whatever the hell they are) and our present fowl. This finding just adds another layer of evidence, showing that dinosaurs and birds share a biological process that occurs prior to reproduction.

What I can’t tell from the article is how they determine the age of dinosaurs that existed millions of years ago.

5. Darwin Day

Finally, February 12 will mark the 199th anniversary of the Birth of Charles Darwin. Darwin epitomizes the concept of the scientist’s scientist – an idea, meticulous and rigorous research and plenty of hypothesis, testing and formulation of theory. There may be more brilliant scientists in the history of science, but there are very few who have had such an impact on the everyday lives of humanity. Risking a Lennonesque gaffe, I’ll stick my head out on the block and say that Darwin has had a greater positive impact on humanity than Jesus Christ.

The man certainly deserves a holiday to himself.

38 thoughts on “Keeping Up With Science

  1. Excellent stuff. I also enjoy perusing the paleo based blogs. So, who wants to bet on how many posts before a YECh or IDiot posts, especially about the whales?

  2. Good point, ex. Though the exact cladistic relationship between reptile, dinosaur, archosaur and bird is still in flux.

  3. Great info and link. The NYT article is good too. It’s impossible to keep up with all the new stuff that’s being discovered every day in both the natural and social sciences (I’m more at home with the latter, which you’ve probably figured out by now).

  4. Thank you for this information., particularly about the Aspen trees and the Indyohus. I am continually amazed how nature adapts and often has solutions to problems we create.

  5. SI said: Some might say, who cares? Well, scientists do. Paleontologists, evolutionary biologists, hell, everybody should be interested in this, but perhaps that’s just my inner geek showing through.

    Philly said: Good stuff. For a moment I thought I was on Evo’s blog.

    Ex said: Evo will be proud.

    Indeed. SI, you are showing both of our inner geeks. I actually saw the Bloggingheads with Zimmer/Shubin and was so impressed with Shubin that his book “Your Inner Fish” went onto my “to read” list and jumped up over several others that are in waiting for my slow reading skills.

    Ex, I don’t know what SI was talking about with the “amphibian” thing, but here’s my generalized understanding – birds are descendants of some groups of dinosaurs (the raptors are a “suspect” group), dinosaurs are descended from (and then separate from) reptiles which are descended from (and then separate from) amphibians. Mammals were descended from (and then separate from) reptiles also – they just went off a completely different way from the Dino/bird line. Basically, it is thought that all land animals can trace back to an amphibian ancestor about 330 million years ago. This guy Shubin was one of the leaders of a team that found “a” missing link (not necessarily “the” one that led to all later animals). It is basically a fish that has some amphibian characteristics and dates back to the rough time of land animal emergence. Or, God did it all 6,000 years ago. One of the two.

  6. I thought I read somewhere that hippos and whales shared a common ancestry. Hippos live in the water too, and like whales, they certainly are bulky.

  7. Tommy

    I read that too. I think Hippos are the closest relatives we have today. This fossil, however, is the creature that so far seems closest at the time. I think that’s the distiction. Both the Hippo and the Whale may be related back to this creature.

    Mike (tuibguy)

    Congrats to you too! I hope I was the straw that broke…erm…the link that put you over the top. Wanna borrow my L’il Inquisitors for some marketing?

  8. I feel that due to my christian “education”, I’m always behind everyone else when it comes to science. So, I may be the slow kid in the classroom, but I’m getting there. This kind of stuff is absolutely fascinating.

    Please, no spitwads aimed at the dorky girl in the back row.

  9. Happy to find your blog. I’m in the same boat — not a scientist, but it’s my passion. I’ll be reading!

  10. Ace post. I agree that Darwin’s impact is an enormous one. Evolution versus creationism/intelligent design is my area of fascination right now. I’ll be sure to raise my tea (ack, I sound like an old lady now..hehe) in a toast to him on Darwin Day. 🙂

  11. Wow.. great!! I love to know all about historical things including dinasaurs. They look awesome.. Yeah, science is really interesting! 🙂

  12. if you’re a geek span, so am i. i’ve always loved science too, i don’t know how anyone could fail to – even a perusal of what it has to offer is fascinating and awe-inspiring. it is truly the greatest revolution in human history. almost as good as your blog itself! 🙂

  13. uhmm Im assuming that by IDiot(clever) you mean creationist…. and it looks like im the first one lol.

    Anywhoo, Im not gonna claim to have all the answers because most of this stuff is a little over my head, I fell in love with chemistry and biology last year in 11th grade, and while I still dont have as much of a grasp as im sure most of you do(and im sure you’ll point it out) I would like to leave my thoughts.

    The thing that I have to say is actually about your ideas on common descent. I see the same from you that I have seen everywhere else that I have been.

    “look at bone structures, look at this, look at that… SEE!! you’d have to be an idiot not to believe this”.

    I however must say that I dont believe everything just because I see it, the mind is a wonderful thing, however given a result to look for, and enough pressure to see it, and your mind will begin to formulate the sight that you want it to.


  14. !)avid

    Hi, Thanks for stopping by.

    I however must say that I don’t believe everything just because I see it, the mind is a wonderful thing, however given a result to look for, and enough pressure to see it, and your mind will begin to formulate the sight that you want it to.

    If I understand properly what you are saying, the logical result is that you don’t believe everything scientists tell you simply because they tell you. If that’s the case, then I would agree. That would be the equivalent of accepting authority because they claim to be the authority.

    As I indicated, I’m not a scientist. However, I have read enough science, and found it to be logically and internally consistent. I have also found that through history, science has always explained the previously unexplainable, with unerring precision. I use the example of lightning. Religion told us it was god that was angry. Science tells us that it is electricity, a natural function of physics.

    The track record of scientists, along with the explanatory power of the theories they propose, and the volumes of work that forms the basis of their theories, is enough for me to accept their theories, at least provisionally.

    So when a scientist tells me his latest theory, while I may accept it, my acceptance is provisional, meaning that if another scientist comes out and refutes it with a better theory, I’ll change my mind.

    Just because I report a new discovery doesn’t mean that I accept it as dogma, as “people of the book” would do. I put it out there for further study. If you find it interesting, great. If you reject it because it conflicts with your religion, then well, ignorance is bliss. Don’t worry, Be happy.

    The appeal from authority is exactly what theists do. They say “My god is the ultimate authority” and believe what he is interpreted to have said, without question. They gather in groups that use peer pressure to enforce this thinking. They are called churches. This is what I think of when you say:

    …the mind is a wonderful thing, however given a result to look for, and enough pressure to see it, and your mind will begin to formulate the sight that you want it to.

  15. whiteman0o0:

    I used the “IDiot” up above. I actually have no real problem with creationism. If someone feels more comfortable with a creation myth, that’s not a problem. I do, however, have a real problem with the Intelligent Design crowd.

    Creationism has no place in the science curriculum of public schools (except, possibly, in a literature class). The proponents of Intelligent Design claim that it is ‘Science’ and therefore must be presented in the classroom as a logical alternative to the theory of natural selection and macro-evolution.

    IDers claim that there has never been a ‘transitional’ fossil. Well, every time palaeontologists find a new transitional fossil, the IDers ask, well, where is the transitional fossil between the new one and the two older ones it is supposed to link? I have seen this referred to as the “god of gaps.” If this were applied to mathematics, it would look like this.

    “1, 2, 3, 4, 5 . . .”

    “Well, what about the transition between 1 & 2?”

    “Okay, 1, 1.5, 2, 2,5 . . .”

    “Wait, what about the transition from 1 to 1.5?”

    Repeat ad nauseum

    IDers also point to ‘irreducibly complex structures’ such as eyes, lungs, and even individual cellular components. Yet every single time researches show how, say, eyes have come about (in multiple designs, I might add (my favorite is the trilobytes, which used mineral crystals as lenses)), this research is either ignored or, more commonly, derided as insufficient. I recently saw one post at a science blog (don’t remember which one) in which the paper stated that the exact reason that ‘X’ happened is unknown, and this honesy was used to invalidate the entire paper.

    The biggest problem is that the ID crowd is trying to show creationism as a scientific discipline. But the ID crowd refuses to play by the rules. Scientific papers are reviewed prior to publication by other experts in the field. If a writer is attempting to overthrow the existing paradigm, they better have mountains of evidence showing why the writer is wrong, and scientific orthodoxy is wrong. The ID crowd uses gaps in the record as evidence.

    You cannot prove anything arguing from lack of evidence. There is no evidence of extra-terrestrials therefore they must exist. There is no evidence for god, therefore god must exist. There is no evidence for Weapons of Mass Destruction, therefore they must exist. There is no evidence (yet) for a transitional form between these two trilobytes, therefore there is no evolution.

    Again, I have no problem with creationism, but when someone (or some group) tries to repackage it and sell it as science which should be taught in the classroom, then I do have a problem.

    Referring to Intelligent Design proponents as IDiots is my little way of protesting their willful ignorance regarding both evidence and scientific method.


    Things will never be the same in academia after this.

    There is a new discipline on the scene: physical science, the old science of cause and effect.
    Against the backdrop of a nation embroiled in debate and legal battles over whether creationism or evolution, or both, should be taught in the classroom, The Quest for Right proclaims a


    The Quest for Right, a series of seven textbooks designed for the public schools, represents the ultimate marriage between an in-depth knowledge of biblical phenomena and natural and physical sciences. As a result, the several volumes have accomplished that which, heretofore, was deemed impossible: to level the playing field between those who desire a return to physical science in the classroom and those who embrace the theory of evolution. The Quest for Right turns the tide by providing an authoritative and enlightening scientific explanation of natural phenomena which will ultimately replace the unprofitable Darwinian view.

    The backbone of Darwinism is not biological evolution per se, but electronic interpretation, the tenet that all physical, chemical, and biological processes result from a change in the electron structure of the atom which, in turn, may be deciphered through the orderly application of mathematics, as outlined in quantum mechanics. A few of the supporting theories are: degrading stars, neutron stars, black holes, extraterrestrial water, antimatter, the absolute dating systems, and the big bang, the explosion of a singularity infinitely smaller than the dot of an “i” from which space, time, and the massive stellar bodies supposedly sprang into being.

    The philosophy rejects any divine intervention. Therefore, let the philosophy of Darwinism be judged on these specifics: electron interpretation and quantum mechanics. Conversely, the view that God is both responsible for and rules all the phenomena of the universe will stand or fall when the facts are applied. The view will not hinge on faith alone, but will be tested by the weightier principle of verifiable truths – the new discipline.

    The Quest for Right is not only better at explaining natural phenomena, but also may be verified through testing. As a result, the material in the several volumes will not violate the so-called constitutional separation of church and state. Physical science, the old science of cause and effect, will have a long-term sustainability, replacing irresponsible doctrines based on whim. Teachers and students will rejoice in the simplicity of earthly phenomena when entertained by the new discipline. You will not want to miss the adventure of a lifetime that awaits you in Volume 1 of The Quest for Right, by C. David Parsons.

    Visit the official website for additional information:

    “A book that will change the world.” – Wayne Lin, Editor, Tate Publishing LLC

  17. Must be a hell of a science textbook series considering it has no idea what evolution is and thinks a synonym for it is “Darwinism”. A change in the electron structure of the atom?

    Good stuff. I say leave it for laughs.

  18. Unfortunately, I don’t think he is kidding.

    I now participate in blog-whoring (actually, guest-post-whoring (did I just coin a new phrase?)), but this is a good example of the development of two America’s I discussed over at vjack’s Atheist Revolution.

  19. Spanish Inquisitor, thanks for leaving the news release for The Quest for Right on your site. C. David Parsons, Author The Quest for Right.


    I left the original ad on for a laugh. The rest is simple self promotion, bordering on proselytizing. It has been, and will continue to be, deleted.

    You do realize this is an atheist site, don’t you?

  20. SI: I used to wonder what the definition of “Troll” was in regards to blog posting. I no longer wonder.

  21. I got a great belly-busting laugh out of this bit from C. David Pearson: the unprofitable Darwinian view.

    Right, Darwin was so off-base that science, especially in the realm of biology, has been hopelessly stagnant for the past 150 years.

  22. In addition, Darwin was a FLAMING HOMOSEXUAL. Do you want your kids to learn theorys by a raging

    HOMO? Fags want to insert there penises into other mens anuses. Is that what you want taught in

    public schools? Sounds like it to me. Have fun in hell.

  23. What would being a flaming homosexual have to do with teaching kids science? Likewise, how would wanting to put your penis in a man’s anus affect your ability to teach?

    I think the worry is not WHO is teaching but HOW they are teaching and of course WHAT they are teaching. Here’s an example Mr. Parson, which teacher would you choose to teach your kid:
    • Homosexual teaching creationism
    • Straight teaching evolution
    I’d be curious to hear your answer.

    As for teaching that anal thing in school, yeah, I think it would something to include in a sex ed class along with the importance of using condoms. Of course thanks to Abstinence programs, kids today are having tons of anal and oral sex because they don’t think it’s sex. But not to fear, plenty are having regular old sex too, only without condoms, so teen pregnancy has skyrocketed.

    Sounds like you’re already having fun in hell sir, a hell of willful ignorance, denial and hatred.

  24. So THAT’S why you’re all anti-gay, you’re a self hating homosexual. That does explain a lot, Mr. Parsons. Unfortunately for you, I don’t roll that way but the fact that you’re coming out like this and asking for sexual favors from another man is an important step forward for you. Congratulation and I wish you the best in coming to terms with your homosexuality. 🙂

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