Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The smell of time passing

We once owned a very peculiar border collie named Doolin.  Although from what I've heard, saying "very peculiar" in the same breath as "border collie" is kind of redundant.  The breed has a reputation for being extremely intelligent, hyperactive, job-oriented, and more than a little neurotic, and Doolin fit the bill in all respects.

As far as the "intelligent" part, she's the dog who learned to open the slide bolts on our fence by watching us do it only two or three times.  I wouldn't have believed it unless I'd seen it with my own eyes.  She also took her job very seriously, and by "job" I mean "life."  She had a passion for catching frisbees, but I always got the impression that it wasn't because it was fun.  It was because the Russian judge had only given her a 9.4 on the previous catch and she was determined to improve her score.

There were ways in which her intelligence was almost eerie at times.  I was away from home one time and called Carol to say hi, and apparently Doolin looked at her with question marks in her eyes.  Carol said, "Doolin, it's Daddy!"  Doolin responded by becoming extremely excited and running around the house looking in all of the likely spots -- my office, the recliner, the workshop -- as well as some somewhat less likely places like under the bed.  When the search was unsuccessful, apparently she seemed extremely worried for the rest of the evening.

Not that this was all that different from her usual expression.


One thing that always puzzled us, though, was her ability to sense when we were about to get home.  Doolin would routinely go to the door and stand there on guard before Carol's car pulled into the driveway.  She did the same thing, I heard, when I was about to arrive.  In each case, there was no obvious cue that she could have relied on; we live on a fairly well-traveled stretch of rural highway and even if she heard our cars in the distance, I can't imagine they sound that different from any of the other hundreds of cars that pass by daily.  And my arrival time, especially, varied considerably from day to day, because of after-school commitments.  How, then, did she figure out we were about to get home -- or was it just dart-thrower's bias again, and we were noticing the times she got it right and ignoring all the times she didn't?

According to Alexandra Horowitz, a professor of psychology at Barnard University, there's actually something to this observation.  There are hundreds of anecdotal accounts of the same kind of behavior, enough that (although there hasn't been much in the way of a systematic study) there's almost certainly a reason behind it other than chance.  Horowitz considered the well-documented ability of dogs to follow a scent trail the right direction by sensing where the signal was weakest -- presumably the oldest part of the trail -- and heading toward where it was stronger.  The difference in intensity is minuscule, especially given that to go the right direction the dog can't directly compare the scent right here to the scent a half a kilometer away, but has to compare the scent here to the scent a couple of meters away.

What Horowitz wondered is if dogs are using scent intensity as a kind of clock -- the diminishment of a person's scent signal after they leave the house gives the dog a way of knowing how much time has elapsed.  This makes more sense than any other explanation I've heard, which include (no lie) that dogs are psychic and are telepathically sensing your approach.  Biological clocks of all kinds are only now being investigated and understood, including how they are entrained -- how the internal state is aligned to external cues.  (The most obvious examples of entrainment are the alignment of our sleep cycle to light/dark fluctuations, and seasonal behaviors in other animals like hibernation and migration in response to cues like decreasing day length.)

So it's possible that dogs are entraining this bit of their behavior using their phenomenally sensitive noses.  It'll be interesting to see what Horowitz does with her hypothesis; it's certainly worth testing.  Now, I need to wrap this up because Guinness's biological clock just went off and told him it was time to play ball.  Of course, that happens about fifty times a day, so there may not be anything particularly surprising there.

***********************

This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is brand new; Brian Clegg's wonderful Dark Matter and Dark Energy: The Hidden 95% of the Universe.  In this book, Clegg outlines "the biggest puzzle science has ever faced" -- the evidence for the substances that provide the majority of the gravitational force holding the nearby universe together, while simultaneously making the universe as a whole fly apart -- and which has (thus far) completely resisted all attempts to ascertain its nature.

Clegg also gives us some of the cutting-edge explanations physicists are now proposing, and the experiments that are being done to test them.  The science is sure to change quickly -- every week we seem to hear about new data providing information on the dark 95% of what's around us -- but if you want the most recently-crafted lens on the subject, this is it.

[Note: if you purchase this book from the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]





Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Misremembering the truth

There are two distinct, but similar-sounding, cognitive biases that I've written about many times here at Skeptophilia because they are such tenacious barriers to rational thinking.

The first, confirmation bias, is our tendency to uncritically accept claims when they fit with our preconceived notions.  It's why a lot of conservative viewers of Fox News and liberal viewers of MSNBC sit there watching and nodding enthusiastically without ever stopping and saying, "... wait a moment."

The other, dart-thrower's bias, is more built-in.  It's our tendency to notice outliers (because of their obvious evolutionary significance as danger signals) and ignore, or at least underestimate, the ordinary as background noise.  The name comes from the thought experiment of being in a bar while there's a darts game going on across the room.  You'll tend to notice the game only when there's an unusual throw -- a bullseye, or perhaps impaling the bartender in the forehead -- and not even be aware of it otherwise.

Well, we thought dart-thrower's bias was more built into our cognitive processing system and confirmation bias more "on the surface" -- and the latter therefore more culpable, conscious, and/or controllable.  Now, it appears that confirmation bias might be just as hard-wired into our brains as dart-thrower's bias is.

A paper appeared this week in Human Communication Research, describing research conducted by a team led by Jason Coronel of Ohio State University.  In "Investigating the Generation and Spread of Numerical Misinformation: A Combined Eye Movement Monitoring and Social Transmission Approach," Coronel, along with Shannon Poulsen and Matthew D. Sweitzer, did a fascinating series of experiments that showed we not only tend to accept information that agrees with our previous beliefs without question, we honestly misremember information that disagrees -- and we misremember it in such a way that in our memories, it further confirms our beliefs!

The location of memories (from Memory and Intellectual Improvement Applied to Self-Education and Juvenile Instruction, by Orson Squire Fowler, 1850) [Image is in the Public Domain]

What Coronel and his team did was to present 110 volunteers with passages containing true numerical information on social issues (such as support for same-sex marriage and rates of illegal immigration).  In some cases, the passages agreed with what (according to polls) most people believe to be true, such as that the majority of Americans support same-sex marriage.  In other cases, the passages contained information that (while true) is widely thought to be untrue -- such as the fact that illegal immigration across the Mexican border has been dropping for years and is now at its lowest rates since the mid-1990s.

Across the board, people tended to recall the information that aligned with the conventional wisdom correctly, and the information that didn't incorrectly.  Further -- and what makes this experiment even more fascinating -- is that when people read the unexpected information, data that contradicted the general opinion, eye-tracking monitors recorded that they hesitated while reading, as if they recognized that something was strange.  In the immigration passage, for example, they read that the rate of immigration had decreased from 12.8 million in 2007 to 11.7 million in 2014, and the readers' eyes bounced back and forth between the two numbers as if their brains were saying, "Wait, am I reading that right?"

So they spent longer on the passage that conflicted with what most people think -- and still tended to remember it incorrectly.  In fact, the majority of people who did remember wrong got the numbers right -- 12.8 million and 11.7 million -- showing that they'd paid attention and didn't just scoff and gloss over it when they hit something they thought was incorrect.  But when questioned afterward, they remembered the numbers backwards, as if the passage had actually supported what they'd believed prior to the experiment!

If that's not bad enough, Coronel's team then ran a second experiment, where the test subjects read the passage, then had to repeat the gist to another person, who then passed it to another, and so on.  (Remember the elementary school game of "Telephone?")  Not only did the data get flipped -- usually in the first transfer -- subsequently, the difference between the two numbers got greater and greater (thus bolstering the false, but popular, opinion even more strongly).  In the case of the immigration statistics, the gap between 2007 and 2014 not only changed direction, but by the end of the game it had widened from 1.1 million to 4.7 million.

This gives you an idea what we're up against in trying to counter disinformation campaigns.  And it also illustrates that I was wrong in one of my preconceived notions; that people falling for confirmation bias are somehow guilty of locking themselves deliberately into an echo chamber.  Apparently, both dart-thrower's bias and confirmation bias are somehow built into the way we process information.  We become so certain we're right that our brain subconsciously rejects any evidence to the contrary.

Why our brains are built this way is a matter of conjecture.  I wonder if perhaps it might be our tribal heritage at work; that conforming to the norm, and therefore remaining a member of the tribe, has a greater survival value than being the maverick who sticks to his/her guns about a true but unpopular belief.  That's pure speculation, of course.  But what it illustrates is that once again, our very brains are working against us in fighting Fake News -- which these days is positively frightening, given how many powerful individuals and groups are, in a cold and calculated fashion, disseminating false information in an attempt to mislead us, frighten us, or anger us, and so maintain their positions of power.

***********************

This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is brand new; Brian Clegg's wonderful Dark Matter and Dark Energy: The Hidden 95% of the Universe.  In this book, Clegg outlines "the biggest puzzle science has ever faced" -- the evidence for the substances that provide the majority of the gravitational force holding the nearby universe together, while simultaneously making the universe as a whole fly apart -- and which has (thus far) completely resisted all attempts to ascertain its nature.

Clegg also gives us some of the cutting-edge explanations physicists are now proposing, and the experiments that are being done to test them.  The science is sure to change quickly -- every week we seem to hear about new data providing information on the dark 95% of what's around us -- but if you want the most recently-crafted lens on the subject, this is it.

[Note: if you purchase this book from the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]





Monday, December 9, 2019

The fluid Earth

I've always had a fascination for maps, and when I was a kid spent many happy hours perusing a huge old world atlas my parents owned.

I remember how impossibly exotic a lot of those places seemed.  Some of them, too, seemed awfully oddly-shaped.  I remember being struck, for example, by the peculiar contour of the island of Celebes (now known as Sulawesi):

Map from The Birds of Celebes and the Neighouring Islands (1898) [Image is in the Public Domain]

What on earth gave the place its strange shape?  I was years away from finding out about plate tectonics, seafloor spreading, and continental drift -- this would have been 1968 or so, and the seminal paper by Fred Vine and Drummond Matthews confirming the truth of plate tectonics had only been published five years earlier, so the idea had yet to make its way into elementary school science classes.

The first inkling I had that the current map of the world was only the latest of a myriad configurations that Earth's land masses had taken was when I found out about marine fossils on the top of Mount Everest and tropical fossils in Antarctica in a book I had on prehistoric life.  Everything was shifting around, apparently, in some mysterious fashion, and the familiar maps from my parents' atlas would have been completely incorrect in the past.  For example, India broke off from what is now Madagascar, sliding across the ocean on its piece of plate, and rammed into Asia only fifty or so million years ago -- which may seem like a long time, but at that point the dinosaurs had already been extinct for fifteen million years (as I always feel obliged to add, except for birds).

Still, I didn't know much in the way of details.  When I took two geology courses in graduate school, however, I hit the idea head-on, including the now-familiar idea of Pangaea -- that there was a time when all of the continents were joined into one enormous land mass.  Even more mindblowing was the fact that this wasn't the only time this had happened -- the accretion and disintegration had occurred at least three or four times before, each time ending when rifts formed and forced the place apart.

The traces of these repeated hookups and breakups are still with us.  In fact, one was just announced in a paper recently in Geology, by a team led by Adam Nordsvan of Curtin University, in which evidence was uncovered that a piece of Australia -- the region of Georgetown in far northeastern Queensland -- was actually geologically related not to the rocks immediately adjacent to it, but to rocks in (of all places) Canada.

The Canadian (or Laurentian) Shield is one of the oldest relatively unaltered blocks of rock on the Earth, of Precambrian age -- on the order of three and a half billion years old -- so to a geologist, they're pretty distinct from the geology of the nearby Mount Isa formation, which is only half that old.  (I realize how ridiculous it is to use the word "only" to describe something 1.8 billion years old, but I'm trying to think like a geologist, here.)

The coolest thing is that the piece of Canada left behind in Australia wasn't from the most recent continental pile-up, which occurred on the order of three hundred million years ago, nor even the one before that.  The most likely time that Canada and Australia were joined together was three supercontinents ago, when all the Earth's land masses were fused around a billion years ago into a huge clump called Rodinia:

[Image is in the Public Domain]

So apparently when that rifted apart, around 750 million years ago, a chunk of Canada decided to split off and ended up (literally) on the other side of the world.

The whole thing is pretty cool.  I'm still fascinated by maps in general, and thinking about what the world was like when Antarctica was in the tropics of the Northern Hemisphere and the equator cut across what is now Labrador will never fail to spark my imagination.  Add to that the bizarre thought (to me, at least) that at that point, all living things were confined to the oceans -- there was not a bug, not a worm, not so much as a sprig of moss anywhere on land, the whole place was completely devoid of life -- well, it brings to mind the line from Contact about a universe empty of all life except for us being an "awful waste of space."

Fortunately for us, though, at that point the conquest of dry land was right around the corner.

"Only" three hundred million years later.

I'll end with the prescient lines from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, penned in 1849, long before continental drift was even considered:
There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
O Earth, what changes hast thou seen?
There where the long road roars has been
The stillness of the central sea;
The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands,
They melt like mists, the solid lands,
Like clouds, they shape themselves and go.
***********************

This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is brand new; Brian Clegg's wonderful Dark Matter and Dark Energy: The Hidden 95% of the Universe.  In this book, Clegg outlines "the biggest puzzle science has ever faced" -- the evidence for the substances that provide the majority of the gravitational force holding the nearby universe together, while simultaneously making the universe as a whole fly apart -- and which has (thus far) completely resisted all attempts to ascertain its nature.

Clegg also gives us some of the cutting-edge explanations physicists are now proposing, and the experiments that are being done to test them.  The science is sure to change quickly -- every week we seem to hear about new data providing information on the dark 95% of what's around us -- but if you want the most recently-crafted lens on the subject, this is it.

[Note: if you purchase this book from the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]





Saturday, December 7, 2019

All ears

One of the coolest things about evolution is how structures get repurposed -- a process that results in numerous examples of homologous structures (similar in structure, different in function), the best-known of which is the wing of a bat, the paw of a cat, the flipper of a whale, and the hand of a human.  Each of these, as every student in an introductory biology class knows, contains 29 bones -- a humerus in the upper part, a radius and an ulna in the lower part, seven carpal bones, five metacarpals, and fourteen phalanges.  The differences are in the sizes and shapes of each, and the distribution of soft tissue around them, adapting each to its specific purpose.

A little hard to explain that if you don't believe there's common ancestry.

That example shows up in just about every biology textbook ever written, but there are scads of others, including homology at the molecular level.  A phenomenal discovery over thirty years ago shows that the proteins that make up the lens of the vertebrate eye -- the alpha-crystallins -- are related to a family of proteins called heat-shock proteins that protect our tissues from stress of various kinds, including temperature fluctuations.  Apparently some time in a collective ancestor, the gene coding for a heat-shock protein acquired a mutation that gave it a new property -- transparency.  Once that happened, it took evolution off in a completely new direction, a phenomenon that has been observed often enough that there's a name for it (three, actually; preaptation, preadaptation, and exaptation).

One long-theorized example of both homologous structures and preaptation is the collection of three little bones in our middle ear -- the malleus (hammer), incus (anvil), and stipes (stirrup).  They act as sound-conducting devices, the vibrations being passed from the eardrum to the little bones, where they resonate at the same frequency and transfer those sound waves into the organ of hearing, the snail-shell-shaped cochlea.  They're pretty critical; a friend of mine had a congenital defect in those bones, where as she got older the hammer progressively tilted away from the anvil, and the loss of contact was gradually robbing her of her hearing.  Amazingly enough, microsurgery on this tiny (eight-millimeter-long) bone was able to correct the defect and restore 90% of her hearing, a testimony to the phenomenal advances medical science has made in the last decades.

Their position and shape clued in evolutionary biologists that as odd as it sounds, the three bones in the middle ear of a human are homologous to three much larger bones in the jaw of a reptile.  You might imagine that given the delicate nature of these structures and the general paucity of fossils, it'd be difficult to find intermediate points in the lineage that showed the transition -- and indeed, that "missing link" (much as I hate that term) was absent for years.

Not any more.

Just this week, a paper came out in Science called, "Integrated Hearing and Chewing Modules Decoupled in a Cretaceous Stem Therian Mammal," by Fangyuan Mao, Yaoming Hu, Chuankui Li,  and Yuanqing Wang (of the Chinese Academy of Sciences), and Morgan Hill Chase, Andrew K. Smith, and Jin Meng (of the American Museum of Natural History).  It describes a little shrew-like early mammal called Origolestes lii, which lived in what is now China between 133 and 120 million years ago.  This places it in the early Cretaceous Period, contemporaneous with a huge variety of dinosaurs (although still a good bit earlier than the Cretaceous usual suspects such as Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex).

The phenomenal degree of preservation of this little mammal allowed scientists to study the fine structure of the middle ear bones, and they found exactly what had been theorized -- that the three little bones in our ears had unhooked themselves from the jaw joint, moved, and gotten smaller, and Origolestes was right in the middle of that transition.  The authors write:
The auditory bones, including the surangular [a bone found in the jaws of all vertebrates except mammals, homologous to our malleus bone], have no bone contact with the ossified Meckel’s cartilage; the latter is loosely lodged on the medial rear of the dentary.  This configuration probably represents the initial morphological stage of the definitive mammalian middle ear.  Evidence shows that hearing and chewing apparatuses have evolved in a modular fashion.  Starting as an integrated complex in non-mammaliaform cynodonts, the two modules, regulated by similar developmental and genetic mechanisms, eventually decoupled during the evolution of mammals, allowing further improvement for more efficient hearing and mastication.
So that's pretty spectacular.


Once again, evolution wins the day, not that there should be any doubt at all left.  The evidence for the evolutionary model is abundant even if you discount the fossils entirely, but this kind of thing is just the icing on the cake, similar to the missing intermediate forms between land mammals and whales, which were found -- precisely as predicted -- in an amazing fossil bed in Pakistan in 1994.

Astonishing as it may seem, evolution rarely produces completely novel structures; it molds and repurposes what's already there for new functions.  The tired old canard of finding an automobile in the middle of a field implying a manufacturer is woefully far off the mark; a closer analogy would be taking a car, and gradually modifying it part by part so that each change confers an advantage (or at least confers no disadvantage), and over millions of little transitions, ending up with a Boeing 747.

I'll end with the most direct statement on this topic ever made, a statement wholly supported by little Origolestes with its not-quite-jaws, not-quite-ears, from twentieth-century biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky:

"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

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Long-time readers of Skeptophilia have probably read enough of my rants about creationism and the other flavors of evolution-denial that they're sick unto death of the subject, but if you're up for one more excursion into this, I have a book that is a must-read.

British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has made a name for himself both as an outspoken atheist and as a champion for the evolutionary model, and it is in this latter capacity that he wrote the brilliant The Greatest Show on Earth.  Here, he presents the evidence for evolution in lucid prose easily accessible to the layperson, and one by one demolishes the "arguments" (if you can dignify them by that name) that you find in places like the infamous Answers in Genesis.

If you're someone who wants more ammunition for your own defense of the topic, or you want to find out why the scientists believe all that stuff about natural selection, or you're a creationist yourself and (to your credit) want to find out what the other side is saying, this book is about the best introduction to the logic of the evolutionary model I've ever read.  My focus in biology was evolution and population genetics, so you'd think all this stuff would be old hat to me, but I found something new to savor on virtually every page.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough!

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]






Friday, December 6, 2019

Widening the Goldilocks Zone

The oft-quoted line from Jurassic Park, "Life finds a way," got interesting support from an (unrelated) pair of studies that came out this week, which show that life is a great deal more resilient than we realized.

The first, by a team led by Maxwell Lechte of McGill University, resulted in a paper that appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Entitled, "Subglacial Meltwater Supported Aerobic Marine Habitats During Snowball Earth," and looked at a curious (and to us, completely inhospitable) time in Earth's history.  Current models support the conclusion that for a significant chunk of time in the Precambrian Period, between 720 and 635 million years ago, the entire surface of the Earth was covered with ice.  Called the "Snowball Earth" period, it's long been a question in evolutionary biology how any living thing could survive this -- the entire land area of the Earth under a sheet of ice, and the ocean cut off from the atmosphere because its surface is frozen solid.

The authors think they've found the answer.  According to their models, subglacial meltwater streaming through stress cracks in the ice would have been sufficient to generate oxygen-rich "oases" in which life could have survive the deep freeze.  The authors write:
The Earth’s most severe ice ages interrupted a crucial interval in eukaryotic evolution with widespread ice coverage during the Cryogenian Period (720 to 635 Ma).  Aerobic eukaryotes must have survived the “Snowball Earth” glaciations, requiring the persistence of oxygenated marine habitats, yet evidence for these environments is lacking.  We examine iron formations within globally distributed Cryogenian glacial successions to reconstruct the redox state of the synglacial oceans. Iron isotope ratios and cerium anomalies from a range of glaciomarine environments reveal pervasive anoxia in the ice-covered oceans but increasing oxidation with proximity to the ice shelf grounding line.  We propose that the outwash of subglacial meltwater supplied oxygen to the synglacial oceans, creating glaciomarine oxygen oases.  The confluence of oxygen-rich meltwater and iron-rich seawater may have provided sufficient energy to sustain chemosynthetic communities.  These processes could have supplied the requisite oxygen and organic carbon source for the survival of early animals and other eukaryotic heterotrophs through these extreme glaciations.
"The evidence suggests that although much of the oceans during the deep freeze would have been uninhabitable due to a lack of oxygen, in areas where the grounded ice sheet begins to float there was a critical supply of oxygenated meltwater," said study lead author Maxwell Lechte in a press release.  "This trend can be explained by what we call a ‘glacial oxygen pump’; air bubbles trapped in the glacial ice are released into the water as it melts, enriching it with oxygen...  The fact that the global freeze occurred before the evolution of complex animals suggests a link between Snowball Earth and animal evolution.  These harsh conditions could have stimulated their diversification into more complex forms."

The second study is of a very peculiar species of bacteria, Metallosphaera sedula, which is from a curious group of microbes called chemolithotrophs -- they "eat rocks" as part of their required metabolism.  Some chemolithotrophs break down minerals like pyrite (iron sulfide), but Metallosphaera is even weirder than that.  It requires minerals -- more specifically, the elements in those minerals -- found in significant quantities only in meteorites.

Metallosphaera sedula  [Image by T. Milojevic et al.]

In "Exploring the Microbial Biotransformation of Extraterrestrial Material on Nanometer Scale," by a team led by Tetyana Milojevic of the University of Vienna, we find out that this bizarre bacteria thrives only with provided with minerals rich with nickel and copper, and in fact was discovered on a stony meteorite called Northwest Africa 1172.

"Meteorite-fitness seems to be more beneficial for this ancient microorganism than a diet on terrestrial mineral sources," said lead author Milojevic in a press release in Science Alert.  "Our investigations validate the ability of M. sedula to perform the biotransformation of meteorite minerals, unravel microbial fingerprints left on meteorite material, and provide the next step towards an understanding of meteorite biogeochemistry."

Besides that, it also brings up a couple of interesting questions -- first, it immediately made me wonder about the largely-ignored idea of panspermia -- that the earliest life on Earth came here from elsewhere in the universe.  The objection has always been that it'd have to be a pretty hardy life form to survive both both the vacuum of interstellar space and the fiery descent and collision of the meteorite with Earth's surface.  The Milojevic et al. study suggests that the first part might be entirely possible -- if the earliest life forms were chemolithotrophs, there's no reason they couldn't have been out there on a piece of space rock, nestled in a crack and chowing down on the minerals.

The other question, though, it the extent to which we're doing the reverse -- bringing terrestrial microbes out into space, contaminating every world we visit.  The conventional wisdom always was that the trip through space would effectively destroy any microorganisms riding on the outside of the spacecraft, but Metallosphaera sedula shows that might be more of an issue than we thought.

In any case, it does show that life is a great deal more resilient than we ever dreamed, further bolstering my contention that it's common out there in the universe.  The so-called "Goldilocks Zone," in which there are Earth-like conditions that foster the generation of life, might be a great deal larger than we ever dreamed.

*******************************

Long-time readers of Skeptophilia have probably read enough of my rants about creationism and the other flavors of evolution-denial that they're sick unto death of the subject, but if you're up for one more excursion into this, I have a book that is a must-read.

British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has made a name for himself both as an outspoken atheist and as a champion for the evolutionary model, and it is in this latter capacity that he wrote the brilliant The Greatest Show on Earth.  Here, he presents the evidence for evolution in lucid prose easily accessible to the layperson, and one by one demolishes the "arguments" (if you can dignify them by that name) that you find in places like the infamous Answers in Genesis.

If you're someone who wants more ammunition for your own defense of the topic, or you want to find out why the scientists believe all that stuff about natural selection, or you're a creationist yourself and (to your credit) want to find out what the other side is saying, this book is about the best introduction to the logic of the evolutionary model I've ever read.  My focus in biology was evolution and population genetics, so you'd think all this stuff would be old hat to me, but I found something new to savor on virtually every page.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough!

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]






Thursday, December 5, 2019

Rings in the sky

Sometimes I enjoy mysteries just because they're mysteries.

I ran across an astronomical curiosity yesterday that I'd never heard of before, and one that has had no convincing explanation; a ring galaxy.  The most famous example is "Hoag's Object," a ring galaxy discovered by astronomer Arthur Hoag.  It's about six hundred million light years away -- so not exactly in our neighborhood -- but that hasn't stopped the Hubble Space Telescope from getting an amazing photograph of it:

Hoag's Object [Image is in the Public Domain, courtesy of NASA]

As you can see, it's a torus (donut) of stars with a bright, dense cluster in the middle, and a gap where there's not much in the way of anything.  The estimate is that it's a hundred thousand light years across, so a bit larger than the Milky Way.

The curiosity is the gap.  It's hard to imagine what would cause this arrangement of matter; the stars in the ring must be orbiting fast enough to compensate for the gravitational pull of the stars in the center, but why were there none orbiting with the right velocity to end up in between?  My first thought was that it might be something similar to what caused Cassini's Division in the rings of Saturn, but when I looked into this, it turns out that the physicists don't know what caused that, either.

Various ideas were fielded to explain the odd structure.  Hoag himself thought at first that it was a case of gravitational lensing -- the bending of light when it passes through a strong gravitational field between the emitter and observer.  Sometimes, if the heavy object causing the bending is right between the two, light passing around it gets deflected into a bullseye shape called an Einstein ring (because the great man predicted the effect before it was observed):

[Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of NASA]

Even though the two photographs look superficially alike, the explanation was discarded when it was found that the ring of Hoag's Object showed no distortion on a smaller scale, and also the ring and the bright spot at the center had exactly the same degree of red shift, which would not be the case if the light emitted by it had passed through a strong gravitational field.

Other explanations were also proposed and discarded.  Perhaps it was caused by a collision between galaxies -- but there's no evidence of that, and the object's amazing symmetry argues against its having been the product of a chaotic merger.  Another was that it was the result of bar instability, which is when the matter distribution of a barred spiral galaxy results in a gravity field that is insufficient to keep the whole thing together, resulting in the furthest ones getting flung outward in an ever-increasing bubble.  But the almost perfectly spherical nature of the center of Hoag's Object caused astrophysicists to dismiss that explanation, too.

Long story short, we still have no idea how Hoag's Object formed, or even what exactly it is.  Other ring galaxies are known, but they're extremely rare, accounting for less than one in a thousand observed galaxies.  Another curiosity is that the stars in Hoag's Object are all very young, very hot blue-white stars -- but no one knows if that's relevant or a coincidence.

So we're left with a mystery.  I will say, however, that whatever it is, Hoag's Object is beautiful.  The idea that even our best scientists can't explain it adds to the mystique.  And it further reinforces something I've said many times; if you get interested in science, you'll never be bored.  There will always be questions to answer.

*******************************

Long-time readers of Skeptophilia have probably read enough of my rants about creationism and the other flavors of evolution-denial that they're sick unto death of the subject, but if you're up for one more excursion into this, I have a book that is a must-read.

British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has made a name for himself both as an outspoken atheist and as a champion for the evolutionary model, and it is in this latter capacity that he wrote the brilliant The Greatest Show on Earth.  Here, he presents the evidence for evolution in lucid prose easily accessible to the layperson, and one by one demolishes the "arguments" (if you can dignify them by that name) that you find in places like the infamous Answers in Genesis.

If you're someone who wants more ammunition for your own defense of the topic, or you want to find out why the scientists believe all that stuff about natural selection, or you're a creationist yourself and (to your credit) want to find out what the other side is saying, this book is about the best introduction to the logic of the evolutionary model I've ever read.  My focus in biology was evolution and population genetics, so you'd think all this stuff would be old hat to me, but I found something new to savor on virtually every page.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough!

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]






Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Bats in the belfry

Over at the site Pararational I ran into an article describing a cryptid I'd never heard of.  Huge, brawny, with pointed ears and enormous, leathery wings, this character haunts the forests of the Pacific Northwest.  As if they didn't already have enough problems with their Sasquatch infestation.

And despite living for ten years in Seattle, I'd never heard of him. So, dear readers, meet...

... Batsquatch.


The first thing I notice, being a biologist, is that Batsquatch seems to have no... equipment.  If you get my drift.  Above the waist, he's built like a bodybuilder, and below the waist he's built like a Ken doll.  So you have to wonder how there'd be more than one of them.  Maybe they reproduce from spores, or something.

The other thing is that he's got kind of a small head in comparison to his body, and a rather derpish expression.  Low cranial capacity, you know?  A knuckle-dragger type.  The overall impression is of a demon from the redneck part of hell, where instead of stealing your soul, they just down a six-pack of Miller Lite and then take a baseball bat to your mailbox.

Beelzebubba, is kind of how I think of him.

Be that as it may, Batsquatch has apparently been seen a number of times, starting back in 1980, and has generated reports with some regularity since then.  Here's one from 2009:
Me and my friend were hiking around Mt. Shasta and out of one of the crevices, flew out this big creature.  I mean this thing was huge.  It was as tall as a man, as stocky as Hulk Hogan and had leathery wings.  I believe the wing span was at least 50 feet from one end to the other.  I was holding up my camera, but was paralyzed with fear as this thing flew by.  I didn’t get a picture, sorry.  What do you think this might be?  Could it have been a pterodactyl?  It was flying or gliding fast, it seemed to have a head of a bat.  Thinking about it, it doesn’t have the head of a pterodactyl,  I just saw a picture of a pterodactyl and the heads are not similar.  I would think it had the head of a bat or maybe more like a fox.  The damn thing finally flew into a clump of trees and vanished.  I heard you guys might be going back to Mt. Shasta, if you do, please look out for this thing.  If you see it, you will piss all over yourself, I kid you not.
Well, yeah, I guess that'd be a natural enough reaction to seeing Hulk Hogan with fifty-foot wings.

Then, we're told of several "fake" reports of Batsquatch.  I'm not entirely sure how one vague story with no proof differs from another vague story with no proof, but the author of the website says that some of the accounts are real and some are not, so there you are.

Because the fact remains that there isn't a scrap of hard evidence that Batsquatch exists, just a lot of anecdotal reports and a sketch of a sketch.  That didn't stop the folks over at Pararational from coming up with what may be the all-time silliest explanation for a cryptid sighting that I've ever read:
(Perhaps) Batsquatch is an extra-dimensional creature that dropped through a rift and got stuck here.  If the first sighting really was in close proximity to the Mt. St. Helens eruption, it seems probably that the force of the blast may have ruptured time/space allowing something to get sucked through. In that case, it may have flown around for a while and died in some remote location, or else found a way home.
Because, of course, "rupturing space-time" is what happens when a volcano erupts.  Probably also happens during earthquakes, thunderstorms, and early cold snaps.  You know how fragile space-time is, at least if Star Trek: The Next Generation is to be believed.

So anyway.  If you're in the Northwest, look out for Batsquatch.  Given how big he supposedly is, I don't see how you could miss him, frankly.  If you see him, maybe he won't hurt you if you offer him a Miller Lite.

*******************************

Long-time readers of Skeptophilia have probably read enough of my rants about creationism and the other flavors of evolution-denial that they're sick unto death of the subject, but if you're up for one more excursion into this, I have a book that is a must-read.

British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has made a name for himself both as an outspoken atheist and as a champion for the evolutionary model, and it is in this latter capacity that he wrote the brilliant The Greatest Show on Earth.  Here, he presents the evidence for evolution in lucid prose easily accessible to the layperson, and one by one demolishes the "arguments" (if you can dignify them by that name) that you find in places like the infamous Answers in Genesis.

If you're someone who wants more ammunition for your own defense of the topic, or you want to find out why the scientists believe all that stuff about natural selection, or you're a creationist yourself and (to your credit) want to find out what the other side is saying, this book is about the best introduction to the logic of the evolutionary model I've ever read.  My focus in biology was evolution and population genetics, so you'd think all this stuff would be old hat to me, but I found something new to savor on virtually every page.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough!

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]






Tuesday, December 3, 2019

A botanical messiah

Given all the horrible and discouraging news we're bombarded with on a daily basis, sometimes it's nice to focus on some of the positive things humans are doing.

Today we'll look at Carlos Magdalena, the Spanish-born botanical horticulturist who works with saving severely endangered plant species in his lab at Kew Gardens, near London.  As a brief aside, Kew is one of those places I think everyone should visit at some point in their lives.  Besides simply being gorgeous, it has one of the most extensive collections of rare plants in the world, and a half-day's walk through their greenhouses (or "glasshouses" as they call them in the UK) will open your eyes to the astonishing diversity gifted to us by the process of evolution.

The darker side of this, however, is the extent to which the world's plant species are threatened.  It's a general rule in evolutionary biology that when conditions are stable, natural selection favors specialization (witness the hundreds of species of hummingbirds in the Andes, many of which specialize in living at a narrow range of altitudes and feeding on only one or two species of flowers).  Changing conditions, however, favor generalists -- such as the preponderance of rats and pigeons in most of the world's cities.

The problem is that human actions have caused formerly stable ecosystems to start changing quickly, and the specialists are being hit hard.  Nowhere is this more obvious than the Amazonian rain forest, where a policy of turning over tracts of woodland on what honestly is marginal soil to agricultural and mining interests, something that has only accelerated with the reckless and ignorant policies of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.  (Encouraged, it must be added, by Donald Trump, whose attitude toward the environment seems to be "use it up and who gives a shit what happens afterward.")

The result has been devastating.  Magdalena estimates that one in five plant species worldwide is on the way to extinction, and that species go extinct every day -- some without ever being catalogued and studied.

But I said this was going to be an upbeat post, so I want to look at what Magdalena is doing to fight against this -- and how his efforts may be saving dozens of species from disappearing forever.

Magdalena's specialty is figuring out how to germinate seeds.  It's trickier than it sounds; if you're a gardener you probably buy packets of seeds at your local home and garden store, but what you may not realize is that the reason those varieties are sold is because they've got the unusual feature of being easy to germinate.  Where I live, here in upstate New York, seeds of most native species need to be stratified in order to germinate -- they need to be exposed to a period of cold, simulating passage through the winter.

Explaining why my attempts as a kid to grow an apple tree from a seed in an apple I'd eaten all resulted in failure.

Other plants, though, have additional complications.  Despite my background in evolutionary biology, one thing I've never quite understood is why some plants have seeds that are ridiculously difficult to germinate (many types of orchids come to mind).  The only reason I've come up with goes back to specialization; if a plant lives in a very stable ecosystem with an extremely narrow range of conditions, evolving to require those conditions and no others isn't a significant disadvantage.  It only becomes a problem if you take the seeds and try to sprout them elsewhere -- because then you have to somehow emulate all of those factors in your greenhouse.

But Magdalena might be the world's expert on solving this problem.  He single-handedly saved the world's smallest water lily, Nymphaea thermarum, when the only known population of the plant (in Rwanda) was destroyed in 2008.  His work with this and other species of severely endangered plants led to his being dubbed in a Spanish newspaper as el mesias de las plantas -- "the messiah of plants."

It's an apt moniker.

Nymphaea thermarum [Image courtesy of Carlos Magdalena and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew]

What Magdalena is trying to accomplish, however, sometimes must seem an uphill battle.  "There are seventy species of plants that we know of that have less than ten individuals left," he said in the interview linked above.  "In some cases, there is just the last individual plant left, or there are the last three individuals left.  Those will probably be more of a priority because the clock is ticking, and these specimens might have only few minutes left.  These last individuals could disappear by the end of this week.  Maybe the individuals could disappear with the next cyclone, or when the next pest gets introduced."

He's currently working on plant species from the island of Mauritius, best known to biologists as the former home of the dodo.  He was successful at germinating the seeds of a species in the genus Elaeocarpus for which only two individuals were left alive, but has been unsuccessful thus far at propagating the palm Hyophorbe amaricaulus -- which is down to a population of one.

However difficult his job can be, Magdalena is impelled to keep at it because of its critical importance.  "We cannot stabilize the planet’s climate if there is no tropical forest," he said.  "We cannot ensure that we will have resources to support humankind in terms of medicines, food, water and more without protecting these forests...  Plants are going extinct every single day, probably every single hour.  It’s like killing all your golden-egg hens systematically.  It is so nonsensical.

"We really need to realize that protecting the forests is not optional," he added.  "This is not something that’s just idealistic.  This is at the very core of our survival."

*******************************

Long-time readers of Skeptophilia have probably read enough of my rants about creationism and the other flavors of evolution-denial that they're sick unto death of the subject, but if you're up for one more excursion into this, I have a book that is a must-read.

British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has made a name for himself both as an outspoken atheist and as a champion for the evolutionary model, and it is in this latter capacity that he wrote the brilliant The Greatest Show on Earth.  Here, he presents the evidence for evolution in lucid prose easily accessible to the layperson, and one by one demolishes the "arguments" (if you can dignify them by that name) that you find in places like the infamous Answers in Genesis.

If you're someone who wants more ammunition for your own defense of the topic, or you want to find out why the scientists believe all that stuff about natural selection, or you're a creationist yourself and (to your credit) want to find out what the other side is saying, this book is about the best introduction to the logic of the evolutionary model I've ever read.  My focus in biology was evolution and population genetics, so you'd think all this stuff would be old hat to me, but I found something new to savor on virtually every page.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough!

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]






Monday, December 2, 2019

Let the sun shine in

Every time I think that the "natural health" movement has plumbed the absolute depths of credulous stupidity, I find out there's plenty of room down below.

It turns out that "down below" is an apt metaphor, because as I found out from about a dozen loyal readers of Skeptophilia, the latest craze is "perineum sunning."  For those of you not well-versed in anatomical terminology, the perineum is the region between the genitals and the anus.

So, yes, it's exactly what it sounds like.  You're supposed to take off all your clothes, and expose your nether orifice to the direct sunlight.


I would like to be able to say, "ha-ha, I made that up," but sadly, I didn't.  Practitioners claim that exposing your butthole to the sun activates the vibrational frequencies of your chakras, or something like that.  "In a mere thirty seconds of sunlight on your butthole, you will receive more energy from this electric node than you would in an entire day being outside with your clothes on," said one guy in an informational YouTube video.

"My experience with perineum sunning has been profound," said another enthusiast.  "I have been practicing this for a few months now.  I start my day with five minutes of perineum sunning and feel energized for hours.  I no longer rely on coffee for energy to start my day because I am getting my energy from the sun."

I have just a few things to say about this:
  1. What the actual fuck?
  2. Given the choice of a nice cup of coffee and lying on my back with my ass in the air, I think I'll stick with the coffee.
  3. As dermatologist Nazanin Saedi pointed out in an interview with Health, the perineum is a thin and very sensitive bit of skin, which you'd think most people would already know.  A sunburned perineum would hurt like a mofo, and it's also not a place you'd want to risk skin cancer.
  4. As far as absorbing usable energy through your skin -- what do you think your asshole is, a plant?
  5. Not only is your anus not photosynthetic, it is also not an "electric node."  The very idea makes me wince.
  6. Despite my being dubious about the practice, I have to say that "Butthole Sunshine" would make a great name for a band.  Maybe they could be like the Butthole Surfers, only more upbeat.
  7. At the risk of repeating myself: what the actual fuck?
Look, it's not that I have anything against nudity.  Given the choice, I'd never wear swim trunks while swimming, and when the weather's warm I enjoy a nice outdoor naked romp as much as the next guy.  But deliberately and repeatedly exposing one of the most sensitive parts of the body to the direct, harsh rays of the sun is not "alternative health," it's "absolute nonsense."

And potentially dangerous as well.

So by all means shuck the clothes if you want to and have an opportunity that will not result in your being arrested for indecent exposure.  But take care not to scorch your naughty bits.

And for cryin' in the sink, learn a little actual science so you can tell the difference between a healthful practice and the latest idiotic fad.  Because I can nearly guarantee that if you think this is as stupid as it gets, all you'll need to do is wait awhile and see what they come up with next.

*******************************

Long-time readers of Skeptophilia have probably read enough of my rants about creationism and the other flavors of evolution-denial that they're sick unto death of the subject, but if you're up for one more excursion into this, I have a book that is a must-read.

British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has made a name for himself both as an outspoken atheist and as a champion for the evolutionary model, and it is in this latter capacity that he wrote the brilliant The Greatest Show on Earth.  Here, he presents the evidence for evolution in lucid prose easily accessible to the layperson, and one by one demolishes the "arguments" (if you can dignify them by that name) that you find in places like the infamous Answers in Genesis.

If you're someone who wants more ammunition for your own defense of the topic, or you want to find out why the scientists believe all that stuff about natural selection, or you're a creationist yourself and (to your credit) want to find out what the other side is saying, this book is about the best introduction to the logic of the evolutionary model I've ever read.  My focus in biology was evolution and population genetics, so you'd think all this stuff would be old hat to me, but I found something new to savor on virtually every page.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough!

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]