May I take a few closeups of your genitals?

Here’s another wintertime project I’ve got to work on. I’ve got all these spiders I collected, and I’m confident that they’re all of genus Parasteatoda. However, we’ve got two species in this genus here in Minnesota: P. tepidariorum, which is the darling model system in developmental biology, and P. tabulata, which is more obscure, but I suspect is fairly common around here. In the literature, P. tabulata is the one that builds nests of debris suspended in their webs; P. tepidariorum isn’t described as doing that, but who knows? I’ve collected a lot of spiders in outdoor environments with the fancy cribs made of leaves and gravel, and the ones I collect indoors don’t do that. Is this just an environmentally-induced variant?

That’s not what the taxonomic literature says. Rather, there is some contentious debate about distinguishing the two, which is made clear by close-up inspections of dissected genitalia. Their epigynes have subtly different shapes.

This is not a playing field I’m competent to contest. You should see this stuff: intricate, carefully drawn illustrations of the P. tepidariorum epigyne vs. equally detailed drawings of the P. tabulata epigyne. OK, gang, I surrender — I struggle to figure out what the heck I’m looking at there. I clearly need to work on my knowledge of spider sexual organs, not something I ever expected I’d have to do. I’m also handicapped by the fact that I’m working with live animals, and killing them and ripping out their genitals and clearing them in clove oil is kind of antithetical to breeding them. Also, I like my little spider friends.

So I’m trying to get photos of their genitals to see if I can distinguish them. Here’s one. Pretty racy, I know.

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You’re supposed to talk out your cool idea before you embarrass yourself publicly

So that’s how unicorns fly through space — by pooping out rainbow-colored slinkies. I’ve always wondered.

The brain-twisting image comes from a review of NASA’s “helical drive” proposal, the idea that you could get massless thrust by accelerating particles to the speed of light as they traveled forward, gaining mass, and then slowing them down as they bounce back so they’d lose mass. Presto! Net acceleration forward. Only it won’t work, because:

The problem is that, even though the author does a very nice simulation, he has left out the fields that do the accelerating. When we accelerate ions using a magnetic or electric field, the ions push back on the field. There is an equal and opposite force exerted on the electrodes and coils that produce the fields, and those just happen to be in the spaceship, too.

The concept is trivially dismissed. What’s odd about it all is that the guy who proposed it to NASA is at NASA, and even admitted in his proposal that there are a few weaknesses.

  • Basic concept is unproven
  • Has not been reviewed by subject-matter experts
  • Math errors may exist!

His proposal is full of charts and calculations, and is obviously carefully thought out and represents a substantial investment of work, yet he never rolled his office chair out into the hallway and asked an engineer in one of the cubicles nearby for a quick reality check, before going public with a crazy idea that was going to get shot down in a few seconds by some smart guy on the internet? Is this what NASA managers do all day?

This is a good example of how communication is an essential component of science. Individual minds can get led down the garden path by a tantalizing notion, but a group of minds can ferret out the problems before you make a big splashy investment of your reputation in something with a fatal flaw.

Adventures in Spider Husbandry #arachtober

I’m done with seeking out spiders in their natural environment, for a while. I’m keeping an eye on a few outdoors (Jenny By-The-Front-Door still lives, despite the recent snow, and there’s a nearby compost bin I have my eye on), but mainly I’m settling in for a winter of laboratory observations now. So here’s a quick review of how I’m raising my spider family.

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The Discovery Institute is getting better at shooting themselves in the foot

Abby Hafer has pissed off the Discovery Institute. Good.

Hafer is a professor at Curry College who has done two horrible things: she helped draft a bill for the Massachusetts legislature that would require some rigor in what can be taught in public schools — specifically excluding the use of non-scientific materials for instruction in the classroom — and she has written about the lack of rigor in the Discovery Institute’s propaganda. Uh-oh. That’s a one-two punch that hits the DI right in the gut, so they’ve tried to counter it, ineffectively.

First, they tried to defend their strengths and weaknesses tactic, and claim that the Massachusetts bill weakened academic freedom.

As I’ve noted previously, academic freedom laws are very limited in their scope. They do not authorize bringing in material on intelligent design, nor make teachers teach anything differently. They simply provide freedom for teachers and students to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of controversial scientific issues in the curriculum in an objective fashion. They protect teachers and students who want to engage in scientific inquiry, which means examining evidence critically. If science is defined as investigating nature objectively, then they represent the opposite of “science denial.”

Note the bit I highlighted. There is nothing in the bill against the use of evidence, or critical thinking. To the contrary, it requires that ideas be supported by good fact-based, scientific evidence. The DI claims to support that. The problem is that no one considers the religion-based speculations of Intelligent Design creationism to be either fact-based or scientific.

So what does the Discovery Institute do? They decided to attack the author. They explicitly claimed that Hafer is not a biologist, nor a biology teacher in an article initially titled When non-biologists speak to biology teachers, which is easily discredited by simply looking up her credentials. How lazy are the hacks at the DI? They apparently just assumed that only a non-biologist would ever cooperate with their state legislators, and barreled in, guns blazing. It’s revealing that they’d do so little investigating, a quick googling would have revealed the facts, and further, they’re complaining about an article she published in — get ready for it — The American Biology Teacher, which right there on the front page lists her affiliations: “Dr. Abby Hafer is a Professor at Curry College”. Remarkable. That’s how bad the DI’s “research” is.

Furthermore, all the DI does is fund-raising, lobbying, and the production of propaganda, and they want to complain about an imaginary “non-biologist” trying to dictate to biology teachers? They keep killing irony.

When it was pointed out that their leading claims were trivially false, they hastily changed the title and edited the text to obliterate their stupidities. It is now titled When Biologists Speak to Biology Teachers, Cont.. It’s written by Sarah Chaffee, who is the Program Officer in Education and Public Policy at Discovery Institute, not a biologist. It’s revised to follow an article titled When Biologists Speak to Biology Teachers, no Cont., written by David Klinghoffer, who is also not a biologist. It’s kind of obvious that their preference is to have only non-biologists tell teachers what to do, except when the imaginary non-biologist disagrees with them.

What they’re doing in this edited article is complaining about an article Hafer wrote, titled “No Data Required: Why Intelligent Design Is Not Science”. It’s a straight-forward bit of analysis. She asks a simple question, do the papers promoted by the DI include data and reference evidence, or do they cobble together arguments without presenting supporting data? Here’s the abstract.

Intelligent Design (ID) proposes that biological species were created by an intelligent Designer, and not by evolution. ID’s proponents insist that it is as valid a theory of how biological organisms and species came into existence as evolution by natural selection. They insist, therefore, that ID be taught as science in public schools. These claims were defeated in the Kitzmiller case. However, ID’s proponents are still influential and cannot be considered a spent force. The question addressed here is whether ID’s claim of scientific legitimacy is reinforced by quantified results. That is, do they have any data, or do they just argue? The ID articles that I analyzed claimed to present real science, but they rarely referred to data and never tested a hypothesis. Argumentation, however, was frequent. By contrast, peer-reviewed articles by evolutionary biologists rarely argued but referred frequently to data. The results were statistically significant. These findings negate claims by ID proponents that their articles report rigorous scientific research. Teachers will find this article helpful in defending evolution, distinguishing science from non-science, and discussing the weaknesses of ID.

She contrasted the DI’s “work” with peer-reviewed papers published by real scientists. The DI fails on this simple criterion — they don’t talk about the evidence. They’d rather just say there is doubt and debate, instead of backing up their claims.

Now for the hilarious part: that awkwardly revised DI article simply asserts that Hafer’s claims are wrong, and then to show that she’s got it all wrong, it doesn’t show contrary data — it just says that some scientists question neo-Darwinism! We don’t need no data, all we have to say is that there is a debate.

We know that a significant number of scientists worldwide, such as those who attended the 2016 Royal Society meeting on evolution, question the sufficiency of neo-Darwinism in accounting for biology complexity. Yet don’t tell the biology teachers that! Because they might tell their students, and then, Katie, bar the door!

They also clumsily try to apply Hafer’s methods to a classic peer-reviewed paper in science.

Hafer’s method sounds scientific, maybe. But to see how absurd it is, perform the same analysis on the 1953 article by Watson and Crick describing the structure of DNA. Is the seriousness of this work somehow to be gauged by observing that they use the “argu” root once and “data” three times? No, what matters is what the article actually says.

Except the entirety of the Watson-Crick paper is about presenting their evidence for the structure of DNA, and the DI’s analysis actually supports Hafer’s point, that the words used focus attention on the data, not the arguments, and that their result is entirely congruent with Hafer’s analysis. Just to hammer it home, I had to look up the paper to see how they’re using the word “argument”.

The previously published X-ray data on deoxyribose nucleic acid are insufficient for a rigorous test of our structure. So far as we can tell, it is roughly compatible with the experimental data, but it must be regarded as unproved until it has been checked against more exact results. Some of these are given in the following communications. We were not aware of the details of the results presented there when we devised our structure, which rests mainly though not entirely on published experimental data and stereochemical arguments.

Data, results, results, data, stereochemical arguments. Does the Discovery Institute even realize that in this usage “arguments” is being used to refer to stereochemical structures as evidence for their model of DNA?

Everyone at the Discovery Institute is either a fool or a fraud or both.

Shinya Inoué has died

Another great scientist is gone. Inoué wrote my Bible that I relied on greatly in the 80s and 90s, Video Microscopy: The Fundamentals (which now costs $129? Wow), a very thorough overview of television and closed-circuit TV, as well as microscope optics. It’s now rather dated — it’s quaint to imagine there was a time we relied on RS-170 and NTSC to do video microscopy, and the extensive discussion of tape formats and antique gadgetry isn’t of much use any more, unless you’re planning to pick up an OMDR on eBay. Once upon a time, though, it was an indispensable guide to the thicket of rapidly emerging imaging technologies.

I never met Inoué, but I’d also heard he was a great teacher, and I can believe it. The book is dense but extremely well written and thorough. I’ve still got my copy in an honored position on my bookshelf, even if I probably haven’t cracked it open in 10 or 20 years. But in its time…I even taught a course a couple of times that was built around it as a reference text. It would still be useful if I were splicing together antique devices now and then for use in the lab.

#Arachtober: The #Spider Swarm!

My colleague, Chris Atkinson, told me yesterday that he’d been seeing a lot of spiders in his compost heap. “Interesting,” I thought. Then he sent me this photo:

WHOA. Look at all those spiders.

So I stopped by this morning (how could I not?), and the photo doesn’t do it justice. It is spider paradise. It’s a spider commune. There are all kinds of bugs living in the compost, and all over above them is a dense communal spider web, packed with spiders. I’d suspected it from the first picture, but I stuck my face down there and confirmed it — Steatoda borealis, the Northern Combfoot, which I’ve occasionally found while prowling about town, but this was the Mother Lode. I got a few closeups of one of their number in their web.

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