Ask a Biologist

David Hone reminds me that I’ve been remiss in mentioning this new and very useful website, Ask a Biologist. The idea is so simple, you’ll wonder why there aren’t many more like it—it’s a kind of central clearinghouse where young people can ask questions about biology and get answers from real biologists and experts. If you’re a teacher, turn your kids on to it; tell them to submit a question to the list, and somebody with some expertise will try to answer.

in betenden Händen ist die Waffe vor Mißbrauch sicher

Hey, you mean America isn’t the sole refuge of pious war-mongers? I was sent this remarkable quote from Cardinal Meisner of Köln:

Einem Gott lobenden Soldaten kann man guten
Gewissens Verantwortung über Leben und Tod anderer
übertragen, weil sie
bei ihm gleichsam von der Heiligkeit Gottes mitabgesegnet sind … Wem käme es in den Sinn, Soldaten, die auch Beter sind , dann
noch als Mörder zu diskriminieren. Nein, in betenden Händen ist die
Waffe vor
Mißbrauch sicher.

It begins “One can in good conscience give a God-praising soldier responsibility over the life and death of others” and ends with the fine sentiment that “In praying hands weapons are safe from abuse.” My German is rusty enough that I would have great difficulty detecting sarcasm in that language, so someone should tell me if I’m missing some essential subtlety in the translation.

So, I’m wondering … if a soldier faithfully wears a “Gott mit uns” belt buckle, does that suggest that he can do no evil?

Shall we assume that any Muslim who hits the prayer mat four times a day is harmless?

Is Germany planning to disarm any atheists in the ranks, because they can’t be trusted with their weapons?

Open Enrollment Day—too much success!

Whoa, people…I expected I’d be adding 10 or 20 new blogs to the blogroll with my open enrollment day, not 125. I’ve added them all (and I’ve also made it easier to find the complete listing with a link on the sidebar), but right now I feel a bit bloated, like a tick who was aiming for a tasty capillary and managed to tap into the carotid instead.

Don’t be disappointed if I have to shed a few next month—there’s tons of good stuff there, but the volume is a little bit on the side of indigestible. I’ll have to reduce it a bit if I hope to have another of these open enrollment days in the future.

I’ll go see it

A new movie about Darwin is in the works—

Jeremy Thomas is set to produce Annie’s Box about Charles Darwin, and hiring John Collee to write and directed by Jon Amiel.

The film will be based on a biography of Darwin by Randall Keynes, the great-great grandson of the Victorian scientist. Variety notes it focuses on the period when Darwin was writing The Origin of the Species, his ground-breaking treatise on evolution, while living a family life at Down House in Kent, near London.

The ‘Annie’ of the title is Darwin’s first daughter, whose death aged 10 left him grief-stricken. With his scientific discoveries leading him toward agnosticism, he was unable to find consolation in belief in an afterlife, but coped with his loss by plunging into his work.

Thomas plans to start production on Annie’s Box next year in Down House; he’s hoping for a release in 2009, the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth.

The book it is based on is Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) by Randal Keynes, and it’s an excellent choice. There’s a great deal of potential for family-centered drama in the story—it’s all about his family life, and in particular the effect of the death of a daughter at the age of 10—but there’s also some difficult material on Darwin’s tussle with religion that’s going to be hard to capture. (It’s also not easily summarized; Darwin left Christianity behind, but his ideas about a deity were conflicted).

The manimal will have a British accent

Well, not really—but the UK government will tolerate and support research into human-animal hybrids. No one is interested in raising a half-pig/half-man creature to adulthood, but instead this work is all about understanding basic mechanisms of development and human disease.

Scientists want to create the hybrid embryos to study the subtle molecular glitches that give rise to intractable diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and cystic fibrosis. The researchers would take a cell from a patient and insert it into a hollowed out animal egg to make an embryo, which would be 99.9% human and 0.1% animal. Embryonic stem cells extracted from the week-old embryo would then be grown into nerves and other tissues, giving scientists unprecedented insight into how the disease develops in the body. Under existing laws, the embryos must be destroyed no later than 14 days after being created and cannot be implanted.

(I don’t care for how they phrased it: these will be a collection of animal-derived cells that contain human nuclear DNA. They will not be human.)

This is precisely the kind of useful biomedical research our American president called one of the “most egregious abuses of medical research” in his state of the union speech last year. Essentially, the only people who oppose it are confused wackos with delusions about the ‘sanctity’ of human life who think a few cells in a dish should have more rights and privileges than an adult woman—a substantial chunk of the Republican base.

We see once again where the so-far eminently successful American scientific machine is stymied by the religious twits who have looked at the possibilities of 21st century biology, and turned away, allowing other countries the opportunity to pass us by.

I should have included a link to this other article, in which government ministers declare that they will no longer oppose the research.

The Crucifixion of St PZ

Many people have noticed the ad for the ghastly Jesus documentary at the top of the pages here. I’m not thrilled, as you might guess—I think this is almost certainly a load of pseudoscientific fluff. Since it is so prominently promenaded across the pages, I’m now feeling obligated to watch the silly thing, so the ad has won them one viewer, at the cost of personal pain to me.

Since I am taking on the sins of our advertiser, however, I will suggest to you readers that you can consider yourselves redeemed and should feel no compulsion to watch it yourselves. If you want to, you may, of course…or you can just wait for my summary on the day after.

Also, since our family TV is in the basement which gets awfully cold this time of year, I’ll probably watch it on Skatje‘s TV, so she’ll probably see it, too. Maybe I’ll have her pass judgement as well. (Maybe the metaphor would be more apt if Skatje is Jesus, and I can be her father who forces her to experience torment to relieve the rest of the world of sin? Ah, it doesn’t matter, the whole story makes no sense anyway.)

Cafe Scientifique, or Lewis Wolpert

You are going to have to make a choice about tonight’s educational experience. You could come out to the Common Cup Coffeehouse in Morris, Minnesota at 6:00 to attend our Cafe Scientifique, in which Arne Kildegaard will make the electricity industry and current renewable energy policy fascinating, OR if you happen to be in London at 7:30, you could listen to Lewis Wolpert debate William Lane Craig on “Is God a delusion?” There is a six hour time difference between London and Morris, but I don’t think it’s possible to both attend the debate and fly across the Atlantic in 4½ hours, so you should just face the fact that you’re going to have to pick one or the other.

Sorry about that. We should have consulted each other before scheduling these events.

Raymond Finney asks questions, I got answers

State senatory Raymond Finney of Tennessee (a retired physician—hey, we’ve been making Orac squirm uncomfortably a lot lately) has just filed a resolution that asks a few questions. Actually, he’s demanding that the Tennessee Department of Education answer these questions within a year or … well, I don’t know what. He might stamp his foot and have a snit.

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