I must purge the mailbox of a few worthy links…so here they are.

There are a couple of calls for submissions:

A few carnivals I failed to mention this week:

Freethought Filter is back up and running again!

Darksyde addresses the Fermi “paradox”. I don’t think it’s a paradox at all, and that the answer from his list is the rarity solution.

News from Enceladus

There were all kinds of rumors today (from Drudge, of all places) that NASA was going to announce some major discovery related to life elsewhere in the solar system. While that would be incredibly cool, I was dubious—anyone remember the Martian “bacteria”? NASA has a rather poor reputation for this sort of thing.

Anyway, Bad Astronomy has the actual news: it’s interesting, but the media blew it way out of proportion. Plumes of water (they think) have been observed on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn.

I’d be more enthused if the earlier hype hadn’t switched on my skeptical gland and flooded my system with cyniclin, the hormone of disillusionment.

Snuppy is a real clone!


Remember Snuppy, the cloned puppy? He’s been living under a cloud for a while now, since one of his creators was Woo-Suk Hwang, the Korean scientist who was found to have faked data and exploited his workers, and there was concern that perhaps the dog cloning experiment was also tainted.

Put those fears to rest. Two groups of researchers have independently analyzed Snuppy and its putative clone parent, and both agree that it is most likely a clone. The nuclear markers between the two were identical, while mitochondrial markers were different—exactly what you’d expect in this kind of clone, and not what you’d see from simple twins, for instance, or if someone had faked the samples.

Parker HG, Kruglyak L, Ostrander EA (2006) DNA analysis of a putative dog clone. Nature 440:E1-E2.

Seoul National University Investigation Committee, Lee JB, Park C (2006) Verification that Snuppy is a clone. Nature 440:E2-E3.

Hug a high school teacher today!

My morning was spent at the local high school today, talking to the biology classes about the evidence for evolution. This wasn’t in response to any specific worries—in fact, talking to the instructor, it’s clear that they’re doing a decent job of covering the basic concepts here already—but that my daughter is in the class, and she thought it would be fun to have her Dad join in the conversation. I will say that it was very obliging of the Chronicle of Higher Ed to publish this today:

In a packed IMAX theater in St. Louis last month, a middle-school teacher took the stage and lectured some of the leaders in the American scientific establishment. In a friendly but commanding style honed by three decades in the classroom, Linda K. Froschauer told scientists that it was time for them to get involved in elementary and secondary education.

“Go home. Identify science teachers in your own neighborhood. Offer to help them,” she said. “Go to the board of education and speak up.”

Excellent advice! It gives an overworked teacher a brief break, lets you see what’s going on in the classrooms, makes the students a little more familiar with college faculty, and maybe it makes a few of them think and gives them a tiny bit more background. It was generally a very positive experience, although it does make me appreciate the work our secondary ed teachers have to do.

I gave a very informal lecture in which I confronted the whole ‘controversy’ about humans evolving from apes. I brought along a few transparencies and a human skull, and gave them an overview of three lines of evidence: transitional fossils, similarities in genes and chromosome structure, and “plagiarized errors”. I kept it fairly simple, using little of the technical vocabulary and defining what little I had to use, but tried to introduce some important concepts, like the taxonomic hierarchy and diagnostic characters and repetitive DNA and pseudogenes. I was also impressed that the students asked good questions, so I think they were grasping what I was talking about.

Boy, but high school teachers have a very different burden than I do. Having to give the same talk 3 times in a row is challenging—I was getting bored with me! The students also range in ability and interest far more than I’m used to…there were many who were attentive and curious (more than I’d expected, which is a very good sign), and there were some who were bored and rather disruptive (but not as many as I’d feared.) I tried not to completely neglect the troublemakers and engaged them a few times with questions, but I had it fairly easy since the regular teacher was there to hover over them and keep them in line. There’s a bit of drill sergeant rigor required in high school teachers that I don’t need at the university as much, I think.

I’d do it again, gladly…as long as I’ve got a few weeks to recover between days at the high school. The grade schools are where we have the most need to get more science into play anyway, so it feels like a productive birthday for me when I can talk to a few 10th graders. And any high school teachers out there—you’re doing an important job, and those of us up in the ivory tower of the university really do care about what’s going on in our schools. Don’t be shy about asking your local college science departments if we’d be willing to contribute in your classroom, I think there is a fair number of us who’d be happy to share our perspective.

PZ Myers’ Own Original, Cosmic, and Eccentric Analogy for How the Genome Works -OR- High Geekology


I’m teaching my developmental biology course this afternoon, and I have a slightly peculiar approach to the teaching the subject. One of the difficulties with introducing undergraduates to an immense and complicated topic like development is that there is a continual war between making sure they’re introduced to the all-important details, and stepping back and giving them the big picture of the process. I do this explicitly by dividing my week; Mondays are lecture days where I stand up and talk about Molecule X interacting with Molecule Y in Tissue Z, and we go over textbook stuff. I’m probably going too fast, but I want students to come out of the class having at least heard of Sonic Hedgehog and β-catenin and fasciclins and induction and cis regulatory elements and so forth.

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Swamps are lovely

Darksyde’s latest Science Friday is an interview with Michael Grunwald on the subject of the Florida Everglades. It’s a mostly bad news with threads of forlorn hope scattered throughout, like most environmental news.

The bad news is that the ecosystem is in a state of near-collapse. Lake Okeechobee is going to hell; it’s the color of espresso. The Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries are just gross. And CERP is already way over budget, behind schedule, and off track; Congress is losing interest in funding it. The good news is that there are signs that Floridians are beginning to recognize that their way of life is not sustainable. Posh towns like Fort Myers, Sanibel, Stuart and Jupiter are in revolt over the decline of the estuaries; retirees are having trouble breathing at the beach. Governor Bush shocked enviros by taking their side in a battle over sprawl in Miami-Dade County. A plan to build a massive biotech campus at the edge of the Everglades–maybe the biggest project in Florida since Disney–was blocked by an environmental lawsuit; now it looks like it’s going to move to a more sensible location. And remember: several million acres of the Everglades ecosystem is already in public ownership. So there’s hope.

Spider Kama Sutra



I’ve been savoring this lovely used book I picked up a little while ago, The Book of Spiders and Scorpions by Rod Preston-Mafham, and am appreciating more than the fact that it is full of beautiful photography of spiders and lots of general information on arachnid behavior and physiology; it’s also true that spiders are awfully sexy beasts. They are playful and romantic and kinky and enthusiastic and ferocious and savage and exotic, and really know how to have a good time. I thought I’d share a few of the pretty pictures and details of the arachnid sex life with the readers of Pharyngula—so if you’re mature enough to handle it, exuberant enough to enjoy reading about interesting animals doing fun things, and aren’t too squicked out at the idea of closeups of spider genitalia, read on.

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Elsewhere next week

If you live near Austin, on 9 March there will be A Debate on the History of Life on Earth with Sahotra Sarkar and Paul Nelson. I scowl disapprovingly on the debate format: it means half the time is going to be wasted with some creationist babbling on stage. The topic, “Can the history of life on Earth be explained by purely natural processes?”, doesn’t sound particularly promising, and simply invites the creationist to say “no”, although he won’t have any evidence to support that conclusion. Go to hear Sarkar, though, which should be interesting.

New Yorkers can attend the Bridges symposium at NYU on 4 March. This is what I like: more young scientists presenting their work, with none of the creationist wibbly-wobbly nonsense in sight. Douglas J. Futuyma is the keynote speaker.