Unexpected Science: Sixth Grade Edition

Lionfish live in the ocean
Little Lauren gets a notion:
Might they live in rivers, too?
Would they thrive in brackish water?
Lauren, ichthyologist’s daughter,
Knows just what to do

Slowly starts desalination
Learns some brand-new information
Of which we’re now aware
New understanding’s always great
So, never underestimate
The sixth-grade science fair!

Via NPR, new information from a young scientist–a sixth grade science project demonstrates that invasive lionfish would be able to survive in brackish river water, widening the range of potentially threatened ecosystems.

“Scientists were doing plenty of tests on them, but they just always assumed they were in the ocean,” Lauren, now 13, tells NPR’s Kelly McEvers. “So I was like, ‘Well, hey guys, what about the river?’ ”

In the beginning, she wanted to conduct her test by placing the lionfish in cages at different points in the river, but she had to simplify the project.

“It was just a small, sixth-grade project, and I really didn’t have all the tools necessary,” she says. Her dad, who has a Ph.D. in fish ecology, suggested that she put the fish in tanks instead.

Now, there are a lot of problems with science fairs, and frankly, Lauren’s very good research points out some of them–for instance, the odds of any random kid from her class having access to six different aquarium tanks (and the equipment needed to maintain them) are remote. This sort of science fair shows the role privilege can play.

But it also shows that a great question, and an elegant test of the answer, can sometimes come from unexpected places. Reminds me a bit of Emily Rosa. And we should not be surprised in the least when kids’ science fair ideas are influenced by what they have grown up listening to around the dinner table.

Vials Labeled “Variola” Found. Could Have Been Worse.

Unless you are from Brazil, the scariest news today may have been the discovery of forgotten, unsecured, vials labeled “variola” (smallpox, to you and me) in an NIH lab.

Hey, at least it was labeled! I’ve been cleaning out my office these past weeks, and if that NIH lab had been anything like my office, the detritus of decades would still be present, but virtually none of it would have been labeled.

One small unlabeled vial
Sitting there, forgotten
One small unlabeled vial
Lurking in the lab
It might be dehydrated spores
Of a weaponized fungus
Just waiting for wars
It might be a virulent pox
An assistant mistakenly
Left in a box
It might be a deadly disease
That could devastate countries
As quick as you please
It might be a parasite fluke
Or an isotope ready
To power a nuke
It might be some chemical goo
That can turn your cheeks’ roses
To cyanide blue
It might be a germ that’s evolved
So an antibiotic’s
A problem that’s solved
It might be the ultimate cure
Unless we uncap it,
We can’t know for sure…
There’s little more frightening, no denial,
Than one small unknown, unlabeled vial

With sincere apologies to everyone’s favorite Uncle Shelby, who did all the heavy lifting.

PZ Gets Demoted

You should make a major issue
Of incinerating tissue
If you don’t, we’ll make you wissue
Had a different point of view!
Cos abortion can’t be easy
And the doctors must be sleazy
So the comments made by PZ
Are a special sort of woo!

If his scientific training
Contradicts what we’re maintaining
Does it really need explaining?
Why, the scientist is wrong!
When the issue is abortion
Then we must preserve proportion—
Give his title some distortion
Just a “blogger” all along

That’s right–PZ Myers got demoted from “Atheist scientist” to “blogger”. By a bunch of people who disagree with him but can’t actually argue with what he says.

Demoted? Yes! See, my aggregator alerted me to this post, but when I clicked, it told me there was no such file! This is what it used to look like…
Screen shot 2014-03-31 at 5.55.48 PM

See? “Atheist Scientist”. But if you look at the comments (protip: NEVER READ THE COMMENTS!!!), you’ll see that they quickly start with ad hom attacks on PZ. And at some point, the post itself changes. Now, if you look, PZ’s description has changed:

~ Blogger P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula, March 26, responding to news that the bodies of thousands of aborted and miscarried babies were incinerated at UK hospitals, some to provide heat –

Now, I’m not saying the description changed to minimize PZ’s credentials and to hype the actual story (despite the actual information in PZ’s post that exposed the hype as a lie)… ok, actually, I *am* saying that. Because, intentionally or not, that’s exactly what happened.

Now… just a thought… I’ve seen a handful of different numbers cited as the “average times a journal article is read”. I honestly have no idea which is correct (which is why I’m linking to none, rather than to a dozen that differ). I do know that every single one of them is shockingly smaller than I would have hoped (not smaller than I realize after thinking about it–many of these articles are of such hair-splitting particularity that I really can’t expect more than a handful or two of people to really care–but those are the people who should and do read them!). PZ’s blog gets more hits daily than the vast majority of academic journal articles. If we limit PZ only to the times he blogs on scientific topics, I suspect his blog is at least an order of magnitude greater exposure than the average paper he writes about. Different audience, certainly–different function. Still terribly important. (and yeah, thus far none of the commenters on that piece seem remotely willing to put their own publication records up against his.)

So, yeah, the commenters are wrong on that… and still, it doesn’t matter. They don’t address what he actually says. Their comments make that clear. But when you don’t have a good argument… rule of thumb… attack the presenter. That is, Atheist Scientist blogger PZ Myers.

The Paradox Of The First Common Ancestor

We have no appropriate label
And it seems, well, insulting, a bit
But I really can’t see
Using “He”, or else “She”,
And it almost feels weird using “It”

It’s the most insignificant being
Just a blip—microscopically small
It may not have been strong
But it passed life along—
It’s the ancestor…thing…to us all!

The precise “when and where” it existed
Back some three and a half billion years
Can’t be known, quite precisely
(We’ve asked really nicely),
But just one was the first, it appears.

It was likely short-lived and untraveled
Left no record in stone for today
It was so un-colossal
It left not a fossil
Except, as it were… DNA

No one ever was less influential
No one ever has been so unknown!
So uncommon, so small,
No disciples at all!
And it died—or divided—alone.

No one ever was more influential
More than Presidents, Prophets, or Kings
From completely unknown
How this “first thing” has grown
To the grand-it of all living things

Ok, so this one is inspired by a really annoying post–just a small part of a post I really wanted to vivisect and devour, but which ultimately I found just too distasteful. A theologist–indeed, an associate minister–who, in this post, claims he is “not religious”. Because, you see, his particular approach to christianity is different from all other religions–in fact, he agrees with atheists about all those other religions!

He begins by invoking the muse… that is, by making the tired claim that as soon as a believer says something online, the ravenous dogs of atheism will attack. This will allow him to dismiss anything, say, I might write about his argument. A silly argument is a silly argument, and that is not an attack on a believer–it is calling a pig a pig.

He spends some time making sure you know he has seen those silly other religions, and that he finds them as silly as you do. He refers to Mircea Eliade’s “The Sacred and the Profane”, and allows that it describes religion quite well… though it does seem to have failed to encompass Protestant Christianity! Well, of course his own faith is categorically different from all these other religions! (Mind you, I read “The Sacred and the Profane” back when I was a Protestant Christian, and I was astonished at what similarities my own religion had with all these others! Indeed, Eliade is one of the eye-openers that showed me that my teachers were wrong–that my religion was not, in fact, categorically different!)

Yes, Protestant Christianity is different, because of its rationality. Seriously. Well, because of its apologetics, actually, but those are really the same thing–arguing from premises to conclusions or from conclusions to premises is just quibbling.

Which leads us to “transcendence”. Which cannot possibly be explained without a god. Order, hope, play, humor, and damnation are transcendent because ipse dixit. Evolution could not select for a belief in the transcendent, after all! (Nor peacock’s tails, nor altruism, nor pareidolia, given a sufficiently simplistic understanding of evolution.)

Lastly, he speaks of the “Paradox of Jesus”, which is the inspiration for today’s verse.

How is it that a man who lived a short life, died as a criminal, left no writings and few followers, never travelled more than a few days’ walk from his birthplace, and lived and died in an obscure corner of a vast empire end up having so much influence in the world? No other religious leader lived a life like this—all others lived lives from which you could explain their influence. And yet few have come close in terms of global and historical impact.

Really? The humble beginnings of the First Common Ancestor are more remote, more humble, more improbable by every measure than some cult-leading rabbi some mere thousands of years back. And that rabbi is followed by tens of thousands of splinter groups that interpret his words differently–globally, about a third of the population of one species. The First Common Ancestor has influenced every creature currently living on earth, from archaea to bacteria to fungi to plants to animals to the top of the evolutionary ladder, cephalopods.

Ok, if you really want to see the original post, it’s here. But if you get as annoyed as I did, don’t blame me.

On Coughing And Sneezing My Way Through Valentines Day

It’s Valentine’s Day (and that never gets old)
I could give you my love, but I’d give you my cold
So, much as the Hallmark folks wish to inspire us
I’ll stick to my couch, here, alone with my virus
You’d think some affection is not much to ask
But a kiss ain’t a kiss through a surgical mask
And hugging’s not hugging, I think you can tell,
If, immediately after, you bathe in Purell;
With Lysol’s protection, and thick nitrile gloves
We’ll just have to trust in each other’s true loves
So my gift, from my heart, on this Valentines Day
On behalf of my germs, is to stay far away.

For those who prefer the older Cuttle-valentines, the more-or-less complete collection is here.

Backyard Dinosaur Count This Weekend

It’s time to count the dinosaurs—
It shouldn’t be that hard
Just grab yourself a window
That overlooks your yard
A pencil and some paper
To make a little list
A “field guide to the dinosaurs”
To name the ones you missed
The count begins this Friday,
And by Sunday night, it’s done
It’s time to count the dinosaurs…
So won’t you join the fun?

That’s right, this weekend (which has already started in Australia, so I’d better post this!) is the annual Great Backyard Dinosaur Count (ok, they call it the Great Backyard Bird Count, but as cool as birds are, everything about them is cooler when you remember that they are dinosaurs).

It’s very easy to do, and can take as little as 15 minutes at some point over the weekend, or (if you happen to be an obsessive birder… which phrase might well be redundant…) you can spend every waking moment and a substantial portion of your dreams, from Friday morning to Sunday night, looking out your window and noting the different dinosaur species.

You can guess which end of the spectrum I fall on.

Did You Ever Consider The Possibility That Maybe God Is A Parasitic Worm?

There’s a little kid, infested with a parasitic worm
His extremities are swollen and in pain
But this doesn’t pose a problem, or disprove a loving God
As philosopher Plantinga will explain:

See, God created Eden, which his favorite—Man—beheld,
But of course, the fruit of knowledge, He forbids
It was absolutely perfect, but humanity rebelled
As a consequence, there’s parasites in kids

You can treat the kid for parasites, and have the worms removed
And observe their squirming bodies, tightly curled…
Rejoicing in the agony that must be God-approved,
Knowing this is His created perfect world

From the horrible interview at the NY Times Opinionator Blog:

A.P.: I suppose your thinking is that it is suffering and sin that make this world less than perfect. But then your question makes sense only if the best possible worlds contain no sin or suffering. And is that true? Maybe the best worlds contain free creatures some of whom sometimes do what is wrong. Indeed, maybe the best worlds contain a scenario very like the Christian story.

Think about it: The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might — e.g., having them boiled in oil — God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures.

I’d say a world in which this story is true would be a truly magnificent possible world. It would be so good that no world could be appreciably better. But then the best worlds contain sin and suffering.

I would *not* say that such a world would be truly magnificent. Far more people are suffering than in a world I would create if I could. But then, I care about people; I am a person, myself, when I’m not a cuttlefish.

Maybe it is a perfect world, for parasitic worms.

Genesis II (Or III, or IV, or…)

A puddle full of chemicals
Was baking in the sun
When some combined a different way
And new life was begun
It replicated, once or twice
Till now there were a bunch—
They chanced on an amoeba, though,
Which ate them all for lunch.

Some inorganic molecules
Embedded in some clay
Began a new reaction, and
They sprang to life one day
They started reproducing
Was it brand new life? Well, yup…
Till they found a paramecium
Which promptly ate them up.

It is said, abiogenesis
Is really very rare
Perhaps it happens all the time
Without observers there
The only time we’ll know for sure
That brand-new life begins…
Is when it meets established forms
But this time, new life wins.

I don’t know where this one came from, but it took all of 10 minutes to write itself. A new, successful mutation, I suppose.

Are there any biologists reading this who can tell me if my thinking is off? It seems to me that the various abiogenesis experiments (think Miller-Urey) have one fatal flaw–they are miniscule in comparison to the real world. In the real world, we have the same, or similar, experiments happening all the time. There are theories of life beginning in tidal pools, or in a clay substrate, or in geysers or mudpots, or steam vents… well, why not all of the above, and more? The world is a big place; unlikely events happen all the time, in large enough populations. Of course, any abiogenesis event that happens now has a serious disadvantage: the parking spot is already taken. And so, of course we don’t see abiogenesis happening in the world around us; something else has already snacked on it–probably a bacterium.

But (because time is patient), isn’t it possible that one of these times, Life 2.0 will disagree with that bacterium. Then eat it. And its cousins. And establish a toehold on the planet. Could already be pockets of Life 2.0 v1-vn in places we have not yet looked. (Or maybe not; this is idle speculation.) It took a staggeringly long time for our own ancestors to get beyond that stage, so there is no reason to suspect we will be alive to answer this question… but rare things do happen. Not just a mutation of a current life form, but something altogether different. Wouldn’t that be astonishing? Wouldn’t that just scare you to death?

I gotta work on the screenplay.

Neurophrenology

Scannily, cannily,
Neuropsychologists
Use pretty pictures to
Search for the mind;

Sadly, it’s no more than
Neophrenology—
Looking for lumps of a
Different kind

I think if I read one more article using fMRI (or any other brain scan) to find the substrate for this that or the other experiential phenomenon, I may have to hurt somebody.

And not just because it is technologically inadequate; it is also that they are looking at the wrong thing. What we call “mind” is not (and, I would wager all my ink, can never be) found in snapshots of the brain–it is extended both in time and space. Don’t get me wrong–I am not proposing any sort of supernatural mind, of non-physical stuff; rather, that which we call mind is inferred from our own and others’ behavior, as we and they interact with a changing world over time. Such things are no more reducible to instantaneous brain states than “War and Peace” is reducible to a limerick.