How to move a big rock

Sometimes we’re a little bit mean to engineers here — there’s the Salem hypothesis, for instance, that notes that creationist apologists who claim to be scientists often turn out to be engineers. In compensation, though, watch this video of a Michigan man with simple, clever strategies for moving massive objects. I was impressed. I guess the ancients didn’t need the assistance of high-tech alien astronauts to build impressive stone structures, all they needed was a Wally Wallington.

Acres of gore

The archives of Natural History magazine contain some strange old stories—like this tale from 1933, when whales were casually slaughtered, and you could write about their death throes in a popular magazine. There’s a memorable image in it, at least.

Unimaginable numbers of squids, which occur in practically all parts of the oceans, are devoured by sperm whales. The certainty of this is, of course, obvious from the bulk of the mighty foragers and the size and number of the schools engaged in an unceasing quest for food throughout all the warmer sea waters of the globe. It was indelibly impressed upon my mind, however, by an incident witnessed during a South Atlantic cruise in the old New Bedford whaling brig “Daisy.” I manned stroke oar in the mate’s boat, and on one occasion our harpooner made fast to a medium-sized sperm whale, perhaps thirty-five feet in length, which showed very little fight, and which we overtook soon after the iron had been planted. The first pricks of the terrible lance, thrust and “churned” by the mate, evidently found its life, for the whale went immediately into a flurry, swimming desperately around the boat, and rolling over and over so that the line encircled it many times. Then, while we watched its dying struggles at close range, the beast began to belch up squids. Barrelful after barrelful of the tentacled creatures, some but freshly swallowed, others in advanced stages of disintegration, floated to the surface all about our boat. Most of them seemed to have bodies a foot and a half or two feet long, but some were larger. By the time the whale floated fin-out and lay still, the slimy carcasses and fragments of squids covered the space of an acre or more.

Biology isn’t always pretty.

Lost Tomb of Jesus

Last week, I promised I’d watch this documentary about the “lost tomb of Jesus” because it was being advertised here on Pharyngula. Promise fulfilled, but the ghastly program was two hours long—two hours of nothing but fluff. I’ve put a bit of a summary of the whole show below the fold, but I’m afraid there’s nothing very persuasive about any of it, and it was stretched out to a hopelessly tedious length.

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Classic octopus

Adam Cuerden sent me a scan of this interesting article from the 1871 Illustrated London News, and I decided I was being terribly selfish keeping it to myself, so here you go — don’t say I never share. The image that accompanies it is a wonderful example of old-time illustration; click on it for a larger version.

As the media usually does, it plays up the horrible danger of this alien creature.


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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).

Basics: Gastrulation, invertebrate style

The article about gastrulation from the other day was dreadfully vertebrate-centric, so let me correct that with a little addendum that mentions a few invertebrate patterns of gastrulation—and you’ll see that the story hasn’t changed.

Remember, this is the definition of gastrulation that I explained with some vertebrate examples:

The process in animal embryos in which endoderm and mesoderm move from the outer surface of the embryo to the inside, where they give rise to internal organs.

I described frogs and birds and mammals the other day, so lets take a look at sea urchins and fruit flies.

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The Haeckel-Wells Chronicles

Lately, the Discovery Institute has stuck its neck out in response to the popularity of showings of Randy Olson’s movie, Flock of Dodos, which I reviewed a while back. They slapped together some lame critiques packaged on the web as Hoax of Dodos (a clunker of a name; it’s especially ironic since the film tries to portray the Institute as good at PR), which mainly seem to be driven by the sloppy delusions of that poor excuse for a developmental biologist, Jonathan Wells. In the past week, I’ve also put up my responses to the Wells deceptions—as a developmental biologist myself, I get a little cranky when a creationist clown abuses my discipline.

In case you are completely baffled by this whole episode, here’s a shorter summary.

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Miss Prism has a brilliant idea

You all recall the Beagle Project that I recently mentioned was trying to raise money to reconstruct the Beagle and sail off to Patagonia (with me hiding belowdecks, of course). Miss Prism had a terrific idea: she’s knitting a Darwin puppet that she’ll sell off to some lucky commenter on Darwin’s birthday, with all the proceeds sent off to build the Beagle.

I should get in on this, although I have no talent for knitting. Any suggestions? Is there some little personal Pharyngula tchotchke I could convince people to bid on, knowing that their pennies would go to the construction of a boat? I was thinking that one possibility would be to draw a cartoon about the lovable character, Squidbert, and get the Dilbonians lining up to buy it so they could put it on the web for mocking/savaging purposes (since I have no talent for cartooning, either, that would be easy to do.) It seems a little unfair to give those baying hounds a bit of red meat to sate their appetites, when others here are more deserving of reward. Make suggestions, and I’ll see what I can do.