Morris, Minnesota is Number One!

In shortest commutes, that is.

Add it all up and the best place for commuters in Minnesota is Morris, where the overwhelming majority of those going to work spend 10 minutes or less on the roads, according which used data from the U.S. Census Bureau to determine the cities with the best and worst commutes in all 50 states.

The farming community in western Minnesota came in at No. 1 on the list of shortest one-way commute times followed by International Falls, where the average commute time is 11.7 minutes. Coming in third was Marshall at 12.4 minutes, with Wheaton at 12.8 minutes and Duluth at 13.3 minutes rounding out the top five.

I might skew the data a bit. I’d have to amble slowly, sniff the flowers, and catch a few spiders for it to take ten minutes to cross the street to the university. Some of our faculty live “way out” on the opposite side of town, about as far as you can get and still claim residence in Morris, and they walk or bicycle in about that amount of time to get to work.

I moved here from the Philadelphia suburbs where my commute to work was about an hour and a half each way. That move was about the most pleasant shock I could imagine.

Bye-bye, dino soft tissue

A lot of e-ink has been spilled over the claim, primarily by Schweitzer, that intact, ancient soft tissue can be found inside fossilized dinosaur bones. She made some interesting observations of mysterious stuff extracted from fossils, but what it is and whether it’s actually preserved dinosaur tissue has been contentious. It’s baffled me, that’s for sure, since it didn’t jibe with my understanding of chemistry, and I couldn’t imagine some SF stasis field operating inside old bones. Here’s an excellent summary of the problem.

Reports of dinosaur protein and complex organic structure preservation are problematic for several reasons. Firstly, it remains unclear how such organics would be preserved for tens of millions of years. If endogenous, putative dinosaur soft tissues should contain diagenetically unstable proteins and phospholipids, vulnerable to hydrolysis, although the released fatty acid moieties from phospholipids could be stabilized through in situ polymerization into kerogen-like aliphatic structures. At 25°C and neutral pH, peptide bond half-lives from uncatalyzed hydrolysis are too short to allow for Mesozoic peptide preservation, although hydrolysis rates can be decreased through terminal modifications and steric effects on internal bonds. Estimates based on experimental gelatinization suggest that, even when frozen (0°C), relatively intact collagen has an upper age limit of only 2,700,000 years. Secondly, the instances of dinosaur peptide preservation reported are older than the oldest uncontested protein preservation reported by at least an order of magnitude. The oldest non-controversial peptides include partially intact peptides from 3.4 Ma in exceptionally cold environments, as well as short peptides bound to eggshell calcite crystals from 3.8 Ma stabilized via unique molecular preservation mechanisms. The youngest non-avian dinosaur bones are 66 million years old; on both theoretical and empirical grounds, it seems exceptional that original proteins could persist for so long.

Yeah, what he said. Complex molecules like proteins and nucleotides are going to degrade slowly over time, so what’s preventing breakdown in these fossils? Idea like polymerization or chemical modification into more stable molecules have been floating around, but it’s hard to get around the empirical fact that even a molecule as stable as collagen is going to fall apart, eventually.

These authors do an exhaustive analysis of the organic compounds found in ancient fossil bones, and most persuasively, do positive controls with recent bones and bones that are fossilized, but younger, and what they find is that the original organic material degrades steadily and somewhat predictably, and that dinosaur bones are destitute of original dinosaur soft tissue. They can find collagen in, for instance, shark teeth from the Pleistocene-Holocene, but it’s undetectable in older specimens.

So how to explain the spongy soft stuff found by some investigators inside dinosaur bones? Previous investigators failed to take into account the ubiquity of microbes.

Previous studies have often reported purported endogenous ‘soft tissues’ within fossil dinosaur bone. However, these studies often do not fully address fossil bones being open systems that are biologically active. This can be seen in field observations, in Dinosaur Provincial Park and elsewhere, where fossil bone is frequently colonized by lichen on the surface or overgrown and penetrated by plant roots in the subsurface. This forces researchers to consider that subsurface biota (e.g. plant roots, fungi, animals, protists, and bacteria) could contaminate bone. Given that fungi can produce collagen, the need to rule out exogenous sources of organics in fossil bone is made all the greater. Even deeply buried bone has the potential to be biologically active, given the high concentration of microorganisms in continental subsurface sedimentary rock. The analyses presented here are consistent with the idea that far from being biologically ‘dead’, fossil bone supports a diverse, active, and specialized microbial community. Given this, it is necessary to rule out the hypothesis of subsurface contamination before concluding that fossils preserve geochemically unstable endogenous organics, like proteins.

I find the idea that bacteria and fungi can successfully infiltrate rocks and bones far more likely than that bone chemistry can somehow suspend the laws of thermodynamics for a hundred million years. I’m going to tentatively accept the explanation of recent bacterial contamination for the soft tissue in fossil bone controversy.

The study of fossil organics must consider potential microbial presence throughout a specimen’s taphonomic history, from early to late. Microbial communities interact with fossils immediately following death and after burial, but prior to diagenesis. Microbes are known to utilize bone and tooth proteins and fossil evidence of early fungal colonization has even been detected. More recent microbial colonization of fossil bone will occur as it nears the surface during uplift and erosion in the late stages of the taphonomic process. Furthermore, given that microbes can inhabit the crust kilometres below the surface, it might be predicted that bone remains a biologically active habitat even when buried hundreds of meters deep for millions of years. The extensive potential for microbial contamination and metabolic consumption makes verifying claims of Mesozoic bone protein extremely challenging.

Remember, dino fans, “life will find a way”. Bacteria are amazing.

Also, it seems to me that Schweitzer et al. have discovered an interesting and possibly important phenomenon, but it needs to be studied from the perspective of microbiology, not paleontology.

Saitta ET, Liang R, Lau MC, Brown CM, Longrich NR, Kaye TG, Novak BJ, Salzberg SL, Norell MA, Abbott GD, Dickinson MR, Vinther J, Bull ID, Brooker RA, Martin P, Donohoe P, Knowles TD, Penkman KE, Onstott T (2019) Cretaceous dinosaur bone contains recent organic material and provides an environment conducive to microbial communities. Elife. 2019 Jun 18;8. pii: e46205. doi: 10.7554/eLife.46205.

Tired, not wired

Wired, the magazine, has a promotional spot for their Team of Experts. I hate it.

Bill Nye, James Cameron, Ken Jeong, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and neuroscientist Anil Seth answer the most interesting science questions from Twitter.

Let me count the ways this is bad.

  1. It’s all men. Did you notice? Let’s foster the impression that cool science nerds are only boys.
  2. These are all men who are comfortable with pontificating on science — that seems to be the primary criterion for their selection. James Cameron, for instance, is not good at engaging with an audience of learners. Bill Nye’s answer to a stupid question isn’t at all insightful, and is somewhat wrong, because he’s not an evolutionary biologist.>
  3. The format is stupid: those are not “the most interesting science questions from Twitter”.
    In fact, I’d say that if you’re going to Twitter for science questions, you’re already fucked. If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys? Just shoot me now.
  4. What’s with the sciencey toys scattered on the desk? They don’t use them. They’re only there because someone thought a scientist’s desk would be covered with toys. Nope. My desk is covered with books and papers and computer cables. So many cables…
  5. Getting bad questions from Twitter means you’re going to get short, glib answers. It’s blipvert science. They’ve taken a complex process and boiled it down to a game of snappy answers to stupid questions.
  6. The worst thing to me — that women are ignored would be the worst, except that it’s a blessing to women that they aren’t associated with this crap — is that this is exactly the attitude that wrecks TV, YouTube, and other media as tools for education. It encourages the idea that the purpose of learning about science is to enable you to crush fools with your witty erudition. The people who rise to the top are those best able to punch down, which turns the whole thing into an aggressive hierarchy. That’s not science, although it may reflect the ugly side of the social institution of science.

You know what might make for a good science show? Go to scientists, and ask them what difficult questions are bugging them. Then have them explain the background to the question, what’s been done so far, and speculate about what the answer might be, and how they’d know it if they saw it and how it would affect their perspective on the field. Unfortunately, that’s hard and wouldn’t give you snappy blipverts that make people feel smarter than the rubes. It would require a goddamn conversation.

But this Wired thing? It’s a vision of science as an authoritarian cult as imagined by a libertarian who learned his science on Reddit.

Wasn’t Bret Weinstein supposed to be the biologist brother?

I have to ask because he wrote one of the most absurd evolutionary arguments ever.

The hair in your armpits broadcasts adaptive messages we don’t know much about, therefore there is no patriarchy. You wouldn’t be stinky if it weren’t adaptive.

Everything in that is just wrong.

Gardens provide fresh vegetables and spiders

I’m getting a little worried about my wife. She’s been getting a bit…obsessive. She’s been gardening this summer, and sure, it’s great getting fresh vegetables, but she’s taken to getting down on her knees and looking under every leaf and at every stem, and I think she’s currently spending more effort pursuing spiders than anything else. It’s a little weird. So she just had me run to the lab and bring back a dozen vials so she can continue her perverse hobby of peering at arachnids.

This is her latest discovery, a lovely tetragnathid.

Do you think she’s getting rather carried away with this spider mania? What should I do?

What? Convergence is next week?

It is. I’m doing a few panels at Convergence…a fairly light load, compared to previous years. They didn’t have as many sciencey panels to sign up for this time around, perhaps in part because I and several others contributed more to panel suggestions in previous years, and I was a terrible slacker this year. That might be a good thing, or I’d have stuffed the place with spiders. Stephanie Zvan has posted her panel list, and here’s mine:

Friday, July 5
Insects, in Sex
Insects are already wildly fascinating but do you know some of the mating behaviors and outcomes? Praying mantis may be one insect you think of, because the female will often eat the male after copulation, but what are other examples of unusual behaviors? Participants: Arthur Kneeland (mod), Jessica Wyn Miller, PZ Myers, Kelly Jo Fredrickson

I’m going to pretend that one is actually about arthropods, so I can talk about spiders.

Saturday, July 6
Weird Biology
Animals that don’t exactly die, terminal reproduction, and aspen tree colonies. Weird and cool stuff about the world around us. Participants: Laura Okagaki-Vraspir, Lathan Murrell, Brittany Ann Kerschner, PZ Myers, Colleen C Caldwell (mod)

There is no such thing as weird biology. Or rather, there is no such thing as normal biology.

Sunday, July 7
Ask a Scientist
Kid-friendly panel to ask questions to scientists. Participants: Renate Marie Fiora (mod), Miriam Krause, Shannon Negaard-Paper, PZ Myers, Sarah Molasky

I don’t have to prepare for that one. Who knows what oddball questions people will ask? Maybe they’ll ask about spiders.


Steatoda triangulosa, hovering watchfully over her egg sac.

We also set up 8 Parasteatoda tepidariorum with mates today. For the most part, all went well, with the males approaching tentatively and plucking at the female’s web, as they should. One female went berserk when we added a male, chasing him all over the cage while he frantically scurried away. We were concerned that we ought to split them up, but they’d reached a cautious détente after about 20 minutes, so maybe their relationship will work out.

We’ll know in a week or two if we see more egg sacs.

The Spider Times

I’m trying to keep my spider-squad informed about plans for the lab, so I’ll be periodically sending out notifications to them. I figured maybe other people might be interested in the goings-on, at least those of you who aren’t currently horrified at my arachnological obsession of late.

Hey, spider-people! I bring you news.

1. Two weeks ago, we set up new cages for the female Parasteatoda in the colony: spacious, clean, with cardboard frames to clamber on. The spiders seem very happy, and have been busy filling the frames with cobwebs.

2. Last week, I was away at an arachnology conference that extended longer than expected, because of terrible airline delays. When I got back on Sunday, I fed everyone. They were hungry. All the spiders dived for the flies with impressive speed and were munching away ferociously.

3. I’m planning on regular feeding times every Monday and Thursday at noon — but not today, since I fed them yesterday. Feel free to stop by to watch the spectacle!

4. Today is a special day for another reason. After giving the females a week to construct webs in their new housing, today at noon is the day we’re going to introduce males into their chambers. We’re hoping the roomier quarters means they won’t immediately eat their mates. Come on by for the nuptials!

5. I’m planning the next phase of the Stevens County spider survey. We’re going to start on 8 July, and we have over 30 houses to visit. We’ll have the goal of doing 6 houses per day, with each house taking half an hour or so to screen. Let me know if you want to participate.

6. The new Spider-Man movie also comes out the week of 4 July. Anyone want to join me some evening that week? My treat, we just have to work out a good day. (Alternatively, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse is on Netflix, starting in a few days…we could take over one of the classrooms and project it there.)

7. In other news, I’ve been posting photos of the spiders we meet to iNaturalist, in the Spiders of Minnesota project. We have the honor of the first recorded observation of Pholcus manueli in Stevens county! It was caught right here in the Science Atrium. It’s a good thing we caught it, too, because our diligent custodians eradicate any spider web they encounter.

8. You all saw the article in the Stevens County Times, right?

9. We have an egg sac that’s over a week old in the incubator, laid by Steatoda triangulosa, which isn’t the species I was planning to work on, but I’ll take anything now. The egg case is gauzy and semi-transparent, and you can see the embryos right through it. It could hatch out any day now, giving us a swarm of spiderlings.

So, things to look forward to:

  • Regular spider feedings at noon on Monday and Thursday
  • Mass wedding of a dozen spiders today at noon
  • Spider survey resumes on 8 July
  • Possible S. triangulosa spiderling hatch any day now

And now for the official word from American Airlines

American Airlines responded to my complaints, sort of. Actually, they evaded and lied, which is exactly what I expected.

We’ve taken a closer look and again we are sorry for the frustration. We never want to cancel our flights, however, due to the safety of our passengers and crew sometimes it is unavoidable. After further research we found your flight was delayed due to the weather. This situation was largely out of our control and we do not issue compensation or reimbursement of additional expenses.

No. My first flight was cancelled due to weather (I didn’t see any sign of storms on the ground, but I’ll trust that the atmosphere might well have been more complex, especially at altitude above mountains). The flight from Charlotte to Minneapolis was delayed for a day and dragged out over a long night of abandonment because of a maintenance problem — they told us quite clearly that there was a broken part in the cockpit air conditioning.

Maintenance is something that is in AA’s control, I assume.

Anyway, I don’t care. I expected nothing from them. If they want to run their business into the ground with terrible customer service, they are free to do so. I won’t be flying with them in the future.

Holy crap, turn off your irony meters before you read this one!

Jesus, no. They can’t do this to me. Can a creationist say something so ironic, so oblivious, so un-selfaware, so stupid that my head might explode? Danny Faulkner comes very close. He’s a young earth creationist associated with Answers in Genesis, he was ponderously featured in Eric Hovind’s creation movie, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy.

He thinks the Earth is less than ten thousand years old, and that the Big Bang is bunk, but he is also confident that the Earth is a sphere, and he patiently explains how flat-earth dogma is wrong. He is very concerned about the flat-earth movement, and tries to explain why they are wrong.

Flat-earthers raise an excellent epistemological question: how do we know what shape is the earth? For three decades, I asked this very question of students in the first semester of my introductory astronomy class. The context of this question was the early history of astronomy. I would ask my students what shape they thought the earth had. All my students would answer that the earth was a sphere. I retired from the university more than six years ago, just about the time the modern flat-earth movement was starting, so I expect that if I were teaching classes now, I frequently would encounter students who think that the earth is flat. When I asked my students how they knew the earth was a globe, not one student could give me a good reason.

Aww, the ignorance of students concerns him. Me, too. I’m not retired, I still engage with students, and I can say that I’ve never met one who thinks the Earth is flat, but I’ve met more than a few who think the Earth is young. I was not prepared for the degree of irony to come, though.

…few students ever develop proper critical thinking skills. When someone comes along with a few arguments for the earth being flat, most people have absolutely no knowledge or resources to counter them. Flat-earthers, for example, typically testify that when they first heard about the earth being flat, they thought it was the dumbest thing that they ever heard. The soon-to-be converts thought that they easily could disprove that the earth was flat, but they quickly realized that they couldn’t. Perhaps out of frustration, they finally concluded that the earth must be flat. It never occurred to them that perhaps their education had failed them in not better preparing them for refuting the notion that the earth is flat.

Just as an exercise, reread that paragraph, but change the word “flat” to “young”. It stops being a description of students, and instead is an indictment of…Danny Faulkner.

Keep going. Keep changing “flat” to “young”. It’s amazing.

There is an important difference between gossip and flat-earth cosmology. Mere gossip rarely is life-changing (except perhaps for the poor victim of gossip). But if one becomes convinced that the earth is flat rather than being spherical, that is a major change in one’s worldview. If the earth truly is flat, then we have been lied to about the earth’s shape our entire lives. One must ask how and why this lie was created and perpetuated. Ultimately, this line of thinking leads to the conclusion that there must be a vast conspiracy about the earth’s shape that has been going on for a long time (since the time of Columbus in most flat-earthers’ estimation, since they generally subscribe to the Columbus mythology). And coming to believe that a vast conspiracy is responsible is a relatively small step for most flat-earthers, because, by definition, a conspiracy is a secret knowledge, and the allure of secret knowledge generally was a major factor that led them into flat-earth belief in the first place. The thirst for secret knowledge is why so many people find belief in all sorts of conspiracies so appealing.

We’re not done yet. Let us look at the Bible through this lens.

In their new-found fervor, flat-earthers often become very bold. Flat-earth Christians think they have found cosmological truth in the Bible, and they aren’t about to let anyone dissuade them from this belief. It doesn’t matter that until very recently virtually no one within the church saw the Bible as teaching that the earth is flat.

Has Danny Faulkner read Danny Faulkner’s testimony?

I had never given much thought about what I would do with my life, though I had always loved astronomy. Almost immediately after my rededication, I came to realize three things: that one could make a living doing astronomy, that I had the ability to do that, and that I believed God had called me to do this. About this time I read The Bible and Modern Science, by Henry M Morris. This was the first book of his that I read, and I’d eventually read many more. A year or two earlier I had read two books that taught day-age and probably even theistic evolution. I realized that what these books espoused was a bit different from what I had understood the Bible to mean, but I respected these men and thought that they probably were right. But I quickly saw that what Henry Morris wrote made much more sense biblically, so I immediately became a recent creationist.

Four decades ago, I learned a valuable lesson from a Bible professor from whom I took two semesters of Pauline epistles. He said that if you see something in a passage that no one else has seen before, there’s probably a very good reason: it isn’t there.

Until very recently, no one within the church saw the Bible as teaching that the Earth is 6000 years old. The day-age explanation he mentions, as well as the gap theory, were more common among educated theologians a hundred years ago, and in fact protestant churches were interested in reconciling the Bible with the science of geology. The Catholic church even today is just fine with the Earth being ancient. There was a trickle of a strain of belief over the last few hundred years (thanks, Archbishop Ussher), but no one saw the Bible as explicitly setting a date for geological events.

That is, until Whitcomb and Morris stole some prophecy from the Seventh Day Adventists and published The Genesis Flood in 1961, claiming to see something in the Bible that no one else had seen before.

Faulkner just charges on, completely unaware that he’s talking to a mirror.

Some flat-earthers also fashion themselves to be experts on science and the methodology of science. Consequently, they think of themselves as competent to dictate to scientists, both godly and ungodly, on how science ought to be conducted. But their definitions and practice of science appear to be formulated to make science as generally understood impossible.

Where do these flat-earthers get the notion that they are capable of rewriting so many disciplines of study? This is particularly galling when one considers the limited science education that most flat-earthers seem to have achieved.

OMG. I am so done here. I refuse to explode, though, because this is the only fate appropriate to Mr Faulkner.