Saturday, October 18, 2014

Tangled Bank 59

Welcome to Tangled Bank #59 at Science and Reason.

I assume you all know what this is about -- why else would you be here? (But if not, you can read more here.)

Before we begin, I have a question for the audience. As far as I can tell, from just noting links to carnivals at other science blogs, as well as a little more focused research at the Blog Carnival index, there doesnt seem to be any carnival of bloggers writing about the physical sciences in general -- mathematics, physics, astronomy, cosmology, chemistry, Earth science, and all that. Or about advanced technology as a whole -- stuff like nanotech, artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, etc. The Tangled Bank is wonderful for the life sciences and allied fields like medicine, neuroscience, biotechnology, etc. It even graciously accepts articles from the physical sciences and technology, though they are few in number. But still....

The question is: are there readers out there whod like to see a similar carnival for physical sciences and technology, as well as bloggers whod like to contribute? If so, Id be willing to work on organizing such a thing. All thats needed are bloggers whod like to contibute articles (or nonblogging readers who find articles by others to recommend). If interested, contact me: cgd AT I can host the first couple or three editions. Volunteers to host are also welcome, of course.

Check back here at Science and Reason in a week or three to see what, if anything, comes of this. If it happens, there will be a link for more, somewhere on this page.


And now, to this editions submissions. Theyre ordered loosely by date of receipt, as modified arbitrarily and capriciously by stream of consciousness.

GrrlScientist at Living the Scientific Life reviews Birds of Washington State, by Brian Bell and Gregory Kennedy. I guess she really liked it, as she says it "is the most user-friendly bird field guide Ive seen." She also notes that "To encourage beginners to learn the proper vocabulary, scientifically accurate descriptive terms are often used as well, and are defined with a reference illustration in the glossary." I wish that could be said for all science books aimed at a general audience.

Speaking of birds, how can we not raise the subject of bird flu? Fortunately, Tara Smith of Aetiology reports on a study about how easy it is for humans to become infected with a type of avian influenza (not H5N1). The tricky part is, they may not show any symptoms of infection, which is both good and bad.

Since birds are natural predators of bugs, even if butterflies could read, they might not be too keen on bird books. However, we have predation (partially) to thank for the marvelous variety of life forms, including butterflies. David Winter of Science and sensibility examines detailed questions about evolution and speciation driven by predation in his article Did forest islands or Dr Moreaus Island generate the present day distribution of Heliconius?

More about bugs. André Brown -- a physics grad student interested in biology -- writes at Biocurious about a large deceased insect he found on campus. Though he has no pretensions of being an entomologist and couldnt identify the bug, he applied the tools of his trade -- in this case, an atomic force microscope -- to the wings of the subject at hand. In Insect Wing Nanostructure he shares the resulting image and the questions it raises.

Jeremy Bruno at The Voltage Gate offers another essay in a series on why spiders arent insects, and in the process gives a clear introduction to cladistics.

Darren Naish at Tetrapod Zoology invites us to learn more about peccaries (which arent insects either). Very educational. I mean, did you know that "Collared peccaries release an odour like cheese or chicken soup"? No word on what they taste like, though.... Limburger? Consommé of Rhode Island Red?

Lets talk more about comestibles. Budak, at The annotated budak (natch), warns us of the impending crisis possibly facing bananas, while holding out hope due to the efforts of small-scale growers devoted to varieties less familiar than the common (U. S.) supermarket banana.

Regarding another sweet -- but healthy -- treat, Joe Kissel at Interesting Thing of the Day writes about honey as medicine. Besides soothing sore throats, it may help to heal wounds, prevent tooth decay, and perhaps even reduce the risk of heart disease.

And still on the topic of stuff to eat, Coturnix at Blog Around the Clock educates us about why, from an evolutionary point of view, peppers are hot stuff. As to why some humans are especially fond of incindiary edibles, check back later... an article on that is promised.

Jim Cambias at Science Made Cool ponders the reasons that motivate people to engage in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). A number of good reasons are adduced (William Proxmire be damned). But it seems to me that theres a simple and obvious reason -- the same as what motivates most pure science -- curiosity. And maybe a less obvious reason, too: humans seem to be encumbered with an inferiority complex (perhaps well-deserved) that goads them to seek sentient beings "higher" or more advanced than humans. Same thing that explains religion and Star Trek fandom too. Yknow, you read the daily news and think surely there has to be something out there smarter than humans....

We see this same fascination with space aliens in the occasional temptation to interpret mysterious archaeological finds as alien artifacts. Or at least, as prehistoric astronomical devices. Martin Rundkvist at Salto Sobrius is inclined to take a skeptical attitude towards such interpretations.

But another archaeologist does not eschew the romance of the subject. The most estimable Oxford University Press, without which our reading choices would be much diminished, has its own blog -- affording authors the opportunity to tout their latest labors of love. Veteran archaeologist Brian Fagan does so in a bittersweet reflection on the contrast between famous archaeological sites as they were on his first visit and now, when they suffer from an excess of cultural tourism.

Speaking of extraterrestrial life, has any reader not wondered what forms the critters of an alien planet might assume? Perhaps there are clues in the very alien life forms that were crawling around in our own seas more than half a billion years ago during the "Cambrian Explosion". I was first really aware of these through Simon Conway Morris book Crucible of Creation. Some stunning illustrations by Yukio Sato in that book. Could extraterrestrial creatures be much weirder than Anomalocaris, Wiwaxia, or Hallucigenia? You need not buy the book to see what I mean. Just take a look at this illustration by Carel Brest van Kempen at Rigor Vitae.

One thing you notice in these illustrations of Cambrian critters is that most have symmetries, at least approximately, of some sort or another. Some are rotationally symmetric about an axis (though seldom with discrete rotations like the 5-fold symmetry of many starfish). A very few are spherically symmetric. Only a small number have little or no symmetry (like a saguaro cactus). But the most common (approximate) symmetry is mirror symmetry across a plane -- bilateral symmetry. How such symmetry arises in the animals development from a roughly spherical blastula is a fascinating topic. It comes about from the breaking of the original symmetry due to the asymmetric expression of genes. And thats what PZ Myers of Pharyngula discusses in his article, Ancient rules for Bilaterian development.

But returning again to extraterrestrial life, Steinn Sigurðsson at Dynamics of Cats is vexed by the possibility that alien cows dont fart. This is a problem, you understand, since Steinn is concerned with biosignatures which might be detected on an extrasolar planet to indicate the presence of life. Methane is an example. Unfortunately, that would be possible only with carbon-based life. What signatures could we look for to indicate life with some non-carbon chemistry?

Motivated by this story by Nicholas Wade in the New York Times, Hsien-Hsien Lei at Genetics and Health invites you to respond to a poll on the question: how much would you pay for your DNA sequence? (And incidentally, for the uninitiated, theres a trick to getting permanent links to NYT articles -- here.)

Dougal Stanton gives us a nice, elementary introduction to hash functions. <rant>Apologies to Dougal, but as a mathematician I cant help venting about a pet peeve of mine: writing about mathematics without actually showing, you know, any real math. The metaphor of "fingerprints" is very good for giving an intuitive sense of what hash functions are about. But how much would it hurt to add a paragraph with a simple example of how such a function is computed? It need not involve anything more than simple arithmetic. Must we really perpetuate the misapprehension that "math is so haaaaard"? </rant>

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy asks the question on everyones mind these days: Is the government trying to kill us? Actually, hes thinking about the apparent circumvention of good science in the process by which the FDA approves new drugs. Let me just submit that there may be a difference here in the way that the drugs of large pharmaceutical companies are treated vs. the drugs of small, impecunious biotech companies (which cant wield sufficient inside influence). Yet the FDA has also been known to deal roughly even with large pharma companies, as for instance the rocky road to approval experienced by the cancer drug Erbitux of Bristol-Myers and ImClone. No big deal, you say? Well, it was enough to land the CEO of ImClone and his pal Martha Stewart in the slammer (for financial, not scientific, misbehavior).

"Life extension" as a scientific study has an aroma of controversy about it, not unlike, say "artificial intelligence". Not just about its aims and methods, but even about its status as a science. Writing at the pro-life-extension Fight Aging site, "Reason" argues here for investing in explicit life extension research. Related essays here and here and here supplement the argument.

An appreciative reader nominated Peter Pesics essay on why the sky is blue. The question is older, and the answer less clear-cut, than you probably suppose.

John Wheaton, of Wheat-doggs world, is a teacher of physics. In Gravity deniers and the gravity of ignorance he describes his experiences interacting at another blog with science skeptics -- people who mistrust or deny even fundamental and well-accepted principles of physics and gravity. His reflections suggest that, while knowledge is power, ignorance is also very powerful. Although skepticism is a fundamental part of the scientific method, another part of the deal is that skepticism has to yield in the face of accumulated evidence that supports a particular model of the world. Unfortunately, this cannot help convince people who dont understand the model and are ignorant of the evidence. Doesnt matter whether its the theory of gravity or the theory of evolution.

Pedro Beltrão, at Public Rambling, has metathoughts of a different kind about the scientific process. Hes concerned about the waste and inefficiency of different research groups working on the same problem with little communication among them. In Opening up the scientific process he sketches how some kind of "open science" might work.


Thats all folks. The next edition of Tangled Bank will be August 16 at FrinkTank. Submissions may be sent here.

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