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.

Monday, March 30, 2020

All that glitters

If you own anything made of gold, take a look at it now.

I'm looking at my wedding ring, made of three narrow interlocked gold bands.   It's a little scratched up after almost eighteen years, but still shines.


Have you ever wondered where gold comes from?  Not just "a gold mine," but before that.  If you know a little bit of physics, it's kind of weird that the periodic table doesn't end at 26.  The reason is a subtle but fascinating one, and has to do with the binding energy curve.


The vertical axis is a measure of how tightly the atom's nucleus is held together.  More specifically, it's the amount of energy (in millions of electron-volts) that it would take to completely disassemble the nucleus into its component protons and neutrons.  From hydrogen (atomic number = 1) up to iron (atomic number = 26), there is a relatively steady increase in binding energy.  So in that part of the graph, fusion is an energy-releasing process (moves upward on the graph) and fission is an energy-consuming process (moves downward on the graph).  This, in fact, is what powers the Sun; going from hydrogen to helium is a jump of seven million electron-volts per proton or neutron, and that energy release is what produces the light and heat that keeps us all alive.

After iron, though -- specifically after an isotope of iron, Fe-56, with 26 protons and 30 neutrons -- there's a slow downward slope in the graph.  So after iron, the situation is reversed; fusion would consume energy, and fission would release it.  This is why the fission of uranium-235 generates energy, which is how a nuclear power plant works.

It does generate a question, though.  If fusion in stars is energetically favorable, increasing stability and releasing energy, up to but not past iron -- how do the heavier elements form in the first place?  Going from iron to anywhere would require a consumption of energy, meaning those will not be spontaneous reactions.  They need a (powerful) energy driver.  And yet, some higher-atomic-number elements are quite common -- zinc, iodine, and lead come to mind.

Well, it turns out that there are two ways this can happen, and they both require a humongous energy source.  Like, one that makes the core of the Sun look like a wet firecracker.  Those are supernova explosions, and neutron star collisions.  And just last week, two astrophysicists -- Szabolcs Marka of Columbia University and Imre Bartos of the University of Florida -- found evidence that the heavy elements on the Earth were produced in a collision between two neutron stars, on the order of a hundred million years before the Solar System formed.

This is an event of staggering magnitude.  "If you look up at the sky and you see a neutron-star merger 1,000 light-years away," Marka said, "it would outshine the entire night sky."

What apparently happens is when two neutron stars -- the ridiculously dense remnants of massive stellar cores -- run into each other, it is such a high-energy event that even thermodynamically unfavorable (energy-consuming) reactions can pick up enough energy from the surroundings to occur.  Then some of the debris blasted away from the collision gets incorporated into forming stars and planets -- and here we are, with tons of lightweight elements, but a surprisingly high amount of heavier ones, too.

But how do they know it wasn't a nearby supernova?  Those are far more common in the universe than neutron star collisions.  Well, the theoretical yield of heavy elements is known for each, and the composition of the Solar System is far more consistent with a neutron star collision than with a supernova.  And as for the timing, a chunk of the heavy isotopes produced are naturally unstable, so decaying into lighter nuclei is favored (which is why heavy elements are often radioactive; the products of decay are higher on the binding energy curve than the original element was).  Since this happens at a set rate -- most often calculated as a half-life -- radioactive isotopes act like a nuclear stopwatch, analogous to the way radioisotope decay is used to calculate the ages of artifacts, fossils, and rocks.  Backtracking that stopwatch to t = 0 gives an origin of about 4.7 billion years ago, or a hundred million years before the Solar System coalesced.

So next time you look at anything made of heavier elements -- gold or silver or platinum, or (more prosaically) the zinc plating on a galvanized steel pipe -- ponder for a moment that it was formed in a catastrophically huge collision between two neutron stars, an event that released more energy in a few seconds than the Sun will produce over its entire lifetime.  Sometimes the most ordinary things have a truly extraordinary origin -- something that never fails to fascinate me.

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

In the midst of a pandemic, it's easy to fall into one of two errors -- to lose focus on the other problems we're facing, and to decide it's all hopeless and give up.  Both are dangerous mistakes.  We have a great many issues to deal with besides stemming the spread and impact of COVID-19, but humanity will weather this and the other hurdles we have ahead.  This is no time for pessimism, much less nihilism.

That's one of the main gists in Yuval Noah Harari's recent book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.  He takes a good hard look at some of our biggest concerns -- terrorism, climate change, privacy, homelessness/poverty, even the development of artificial intelligence and how that might impact our lives -- and while he's not such a Pollyanna that he proposes instant solutions for any of them, he looks at how each might be managed, both in terms of combatting the problem itself and changing our own posture toward it.

It's a fascinating book, and worth reading to brace us up against the naysayers who would have you believe it's all hopeless.  While I don't think anyone would call Harari's book a panacea, at least it's the start of a discussion we should be having at all levels, not only in our personal lives, but in the highest offices of government.





Saturday, March 28, 2020

Contagious disinformation

Well, that didn't take long.

All it took was Donald Trump harping on the "Chinese virus" thing for a few days, and all of his MAGA followers took off in a large herd, bleating angrily about how the most important thing was making China pay for causing all this.  I've already seen three people post that COVID stands for "China-Originated Viral Infectious Disease."  Worse, when someone responded that this was incorrect, that it stands for "COronaVIrus Disease," another person piped up, "Who gives a fuck?  It started in CHINA and that's all that matters."

All.  That.  Matters.

Not the fact that we currently have the highest number of cases in the world here in the United States.  Not that we are woefully behind in testing, whatever Trump and his cronies would have you believe.  Not that we're in drastic need of PPE, including masks and gloves, and that some hospitals have substituted plastic garbage bags for protective suits -- and that because Trump is a vindictive toddler, it's looking like what PPE we do have is going to be parceled out according to which states' governors kiss Trump's ass most enthusiastically.

I've said more than once recently that none of this is going to change until some miracle occurs and Fox News decides to end their nightly celebratory circle-jerk over how wonderful Dear Leader is.  Every day they're presenting nothing but lies, spin, and propaganda, and a good 50% of Americans get their news solely from Fox.

And don't even start with what-about-ism.  Yes, I know the other media sources are biased.  Show me one major American news source that lies as consistently and as maliciously as Fox.  There have been whole studies that have shown that Fox News viewers are, across the board, the least aware of the facts by comparison to viewers from six other sources -- and compared to those who don't watch the news at all.  That's right: not watching the news leaves you, on average, better informed than watching Fox.

Anyhow, because Trump et al. are now more concerned about getting people pissed off at China than they are about dealing with the problem in our own country, we also have conspiracy theories popping up all over the place that the virus didn't just originate in China, it was created by China.  In some versions, the pandemic was caused by a lab accident in Wuhan; in others, the virus was deliberately introduced into the population, for reasons that remain unclear (largely because it didn't happen, but try to tell the conspiracy theorists that).

[Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of the Center for Disease Control]

In any case, this sort of thing is becoming so widespread that a team led by virologist Kristian Andersen of Scripps just published a study analyzing the genome of the COVID-19 virus, and they found that --  beyond a shadow of a doubt -- the virus is a natural pathogen, and it looks like although it started in some non-human animal (bats and pangolins being the two top contenders), all it took was one jump to a human host to get the ball rolling.

In "The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2," we read the following:
It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus.  As noted above, the RBD [receptor-binding domain] of SARS-CoV-2 is optimized for binding to human ACE2 with an efficient solution different from those previously predicted.  Furthermore, if genetic manipulation had been performed, one of the several reverse-genetic systems available for betacoronaviruses would probably have been used.  However, the genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone.  Instead, we propose two scenarios that can plausibly explain the origin of SARS-CoV-2: (i) natural selection in an animal host before zoonotic transfer; and (ii) natural selection in humans following zoonotic transfer.  [Italics mine]
Of course, the claim that it was bioengineered never had much going for it.  Molecular epidemiologist Emma Hodcroft, of the University of Basel, said in an interview with Science News, "Essentially their claim was the same as me taking a copy of the Odyssey and saying, 'Oh, this has the word the in it,' and then opening another book, seeing the word the in it and saying,  'Oh my gosh, it’s the same word, there must be parts of the Odyssey in this other book.'  It was a really misleading claim and really bad science."

What about the claims of China mishandling the response to the epidemic, and then lying about it?  Okay, they probably did.  But the people who are bitching the most about this seem perfectly fine with Donald Trump doing the same damn thing.  "It's another Democrat hoax."  "One day, like a miracle, it will disappear."  "Anyone who needs a test, gets a test... and the tests, they're beautiful."  "Health insurance companies agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments, extend insurance coverage to these treatments, and to prevent surprise medical billing."  "[W]hen you have fifteen people, and the fifteen within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that's a pretty good job we've done."

And after all that, he had the gall to say, "I’ve always known this is a real—this is a pandemic.  I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic…  I’ve always viewed it as very serious."

But on Fox News apparently Trump can say one thing today and exactly the opposite tomorrow, and the loyal viewers will believe him both times.

Okay, I'm ranting.  But this is killing people.  There seems to be no way to compel Fox to stop lying, even when American citizens are being harmed as a direct result of what they air.  I'm all for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but I'm also for personal responsibility -- and when your lies cause people to die, there should be some kind of legal recourse available.

But thus far, they've gotten away with it scot-free, and in fact are encouraging the conspiracy theories and anti-Chinese sentiment, probably to draw attention away from the abject failure of our own government to act quickly and responsibly.  The ironic thing is that the success of their own strategies has put their own viewers into the greatest likelihood of harm -- and that even that isn't stopping them from their daily smorgasbord of disinformation.

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

Any guesses as to what was the deadliest natural disaster in United States history?

I'd speculate that if a poll was taken on the street, the odds-on favorites would be Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Camille, and the Great San Francisco Earthquake.  None of these are correct, though -- the answer is the 1900 Galveston hurricane, that killed an estimated nine thousand people and basically wiped the city of Galveston off the map.  (Galveston was on its way to becoming the busiest and fastest-growing city in Texas; the hurricane was instrumental in switching this hub to Houston, a move that was never undone.)

In the wonderful book Isaac's Storm, we read about Galveston Weather Bureau director Isaac Cline, who tried unsuccessfully to warn people about the approaching hurricane -- a failure which led to a massive overhaul of how weather information was distributed around the United States, and also spurred an effort toward more accurate forecasting.  But author Erik Larson doesn't make this simply about meteorology; it's a story about people, and brings into sharp focus how personalities can play a huge role in determining the outcome of natural events.

It's a gripping read, about a catastrophe that remarkably few people know about.  If you have any interest in weather, climate, or history, read Isaac's Storm -- you won't be able to put it down.

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





Friday, March 27, 2020

The light show of a lifetime

Because I am absolutely saturated with the bad news about COVID-19 and our government's complete balls-up of a response -- as I suspect many of us are -- today I'm going to focus on something to look forward to.

During my lifetime, comets have largely not lived up to the hype.  Oh, they're cool, no doubt about it, but compared to accounts of the double-header of "daylight comets" that occurred in 1910 -- the unnamed "Great Comet" that appeared in January, and Halley's Comet in April -- the ones I've seen have been faint, visible to the unaided eye as a vague streak, showing their unearthly beauty only through binoculars or telescopes.  The first comet I remember anticipating, Kohoutek in 1973, fizzled miserably, and the claims that it would be the "Comet of the Century" fell far short of the mark.  Even Halley's reappearance in 1986 was a bit of an anticlimax, with a display that was nowhere near as spectacular as it had been in 1910.

But this time we may just have a winner.

Discovered this past December by the automated search program with the rather terrifying name "Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System," Comet C/2019-Y4 (ATLAS) is already brightening rapidly, and has increased by four magnitudes in only three months.  (It's currently at a magnitude of +15, well below the threshold for unaided-eye visibility.)  If it continues on its current trajectory brightness-wise, by mid-May it could be at a magnitude of -8 -- four magnitudes brighter than Venus.

If that happens, it could actually be the best comet of the past hundred years.

Still, it's wise to remember the words of Canadian astronomer David Levy, co-discoverer of Comet Shoemaker-Levy in 1993, which made a spectacular collision with the planet Jupiter the following year.  "Comets are like cats," Levy said.  "They have tails and they do whatever they want."

So we really don't know for sure what it's going to do.  Writing for the website Astronomy, Alister Ling says, "The big unknown: Is Y4 ATLAS a lightly powdered rubble pile that produces a meager tail that dissolves into nothingness?  Or does luck strike us with a dust-choked snowball whose tail forms the magnificent sword we see in paintings of old?  A touch of aurora or noctilucent clouds would really top off the light show."

One bit of good news for those of you who, like me, live in the Northern Hemisphere; if ATLAS puts on a grand performance, we've got front-row seats.  The path of the comet against the backdrop of stars makes a swoop through the northern sky, starting near the Big Dipper, peaking in brightness in May as it passes the through the constellation of Perseus, finally disappearing from sight in June near Betelgeuse in Orion.

[Image courtesy of Alison Klesman (via TheSkyX)]

Ling waxes rhapsodic over what we may be in for:
The week of May 25 to 31 is the week when we take the iconic pictures of Y4 and forge our memories of a lifetime. ATLAS is literally diving past the Sun, brightening a magnitude per day. The top half of the tail remains above the horizon all night, drawing our view downward. As minutes flow by, the tail brightens, overcoming the rising oranges and yellows of dawn until it reaches the brilliant head of the comet, lifting off the horizon...  If the sky is a dark transparent blue and ATLAS exceeds our expectations, we might snag the elusive trophy of a historical daylight comet.
I know better than to get my hopes up too high; comets' catlike behavior has caught me too often before.  But even if it's not the brightest object in the night sky, it should give us some fine opportunities for viewing, and even more for aficionados of astrophotography.

Whatever it does, it's nice to have something positive to look forward to.  So keep your eye on the skies, and hope for a light show that will be something to remember.

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

Any guesses as to what was the deadliest natural disaster in United States history?

I'd speculate that if a poll was taken on the street, the odds-on favorites would be Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Camille, and the Great San Francisco Earthquake.  None of these are correct, though -- the answer is the 1900 Galveston hurricane, that killed an estimated nine thousand people and basically wiped the city of Galveston off the map.  (Galveston was on its way to becoming the busiest and fastest-growing city in Texas; the hurricane was instrumental in switching this hub to Houston, a move that was never undone.)

In the wonderful book Isaac's Storm, we read about Galveston Weather Bureau director Isaac Cline, who tried unsuccessfully to warn people about the approaching hurricane -- a failure which led to a massive overhaul of how weather information was distributed around the United States, and also spurred an effort toward more accurate forecasting.  But author Erik Larson doesn't make this simply about meteorology; it's a story about people, and brings into sharp focus how personalities can play a huge role in determining the outcome of natural events.

It's a gripping read, about a catastrophe that remarkably few people know about.  If you have any interest in weather, climate, or history, read Isaac's Storm -- you won't be able to put it down.

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





Thursday, March 26, 2020

Homing in on Tatooine

I remember the first time I ran into the concept that the Earth's relatively circular orbit might not be universal amongst the planets out there in the universe.

I shudder to admit that it was on the generally abysmal 1960s science fiction series Lost in Space.  The brave crew of the Jupiter 2 are stranded on a strange planet, and initially the whole place seems to be a frozen wasteland.  But after a journey via their "chariot" (as they call their tank-like wheeled transport vehicle), they find the temperature is seesawing wildly -- at first it seems to be heading to cold temperatures that will eliminate all possibility of life, but unexpectedly the mercury begins to rise, and what was a crossing on solid ice turns into a treacherous sea voyage (the chariot, fortunately, has amphibious capabilities).

The explanation we're given is that the planet they're on has a very elliptical orbit, so it experiences huge temperature changes.  Unfortunately, the writers of the show apparently did not understand that there's a difference between a planet's rotation and its revolution, so they depict the excruciatingly hot temperatures when the planet is at its perigee as only lasting a minute or two, so all the Robinsons had to do was hide under a reflective shelter for a little bit to avoid getting cooked.

So good idea, lousy execution, which can be said of much of that series.

A more fundamentally startling change in my perception of what it'd look like on another planet occurred when I saw Star Wars for the first time, and hit the iconic scene where Luke is looking toward the horizon as sunset occurs on Tatooine -- and there are two suns in the sky.  Tatooine, it seems, orbits a binary star -- something I'd honestly never thought about before then.


Being a science nerd type, I wondered what the shape of a planet's orbit would be if it were moving around two centers of gravity, and found pretty quickly that my rudimentary knowledge of Newton's Laws and Kepler's Law were insufficient to figure it out.

Turns out I wasn't alone; physicists have been wrestling with the three-body problem for a couple of hundred years, and there is no general solution for it.  Three objects orbiting a common center of gravity results in a chaotic system, where the paths of each depend strongly on initial conditions (and some configurations are unstable and result in either collisions or one of the objects being ejected from the system).

It is known, however, that there are points in a three-body system called Lagrange points (after their discoverer, the French mathematician and astronomer Joseph-Louis Lagrange) which result in a stable configuration in which each of the orbiting bodies stays in the same locked position relative to the other, so the entire system seems to turn as one.  Some of the moons of Jupiter (the so-called Trojan moons) sit at the Lagrange points for that system, a pattern that seems to be stable indefinitely.  (Note that from the Earth perspective, an object at the L3 Lagrange point would never be visible -- leading conspiracy wackos to postulate that it could be a place for alien spacecraft to be hiding.)

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Xander89, Lagrange points simple, CC BY 3.0]

Things only get worse when you add additional objects.  The only way to approximate the configuration of the orbits is to input the specific initial parameters and use computer modeling software to determine a solution; there is no general set of equations to predict what it will look like.

What brings this up is a paper this week in The Astrophysical Journal that went beyond the theoretical, and found actual data from binary star systems with planets to see what the various orbits looked like.  In "The Degree of Alignment between Circumbinary Disks and Their Binary Hosts," by a team led by Ian Czekala of the University of California - Berkeley, we read about new observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), which tells us that not only might objects orbiting a binary star exhibit chaotic paths, they might not all orbit in the same plane.

Because of the way planets form -- coalescence of dust and debris from a flat ring surrounding the host star -- planetary systems seem mostly to be aligned with each other.  In our own Solar System, the eight planets all orbit within seven degrees of the Earth's orbital plane (excluding, sadly, Pluto, which still hasn't recovered its planet status, and has an orbital tilt of just over seventeen degrees).

But apparently there are exceptions.  Some binary stars have planets that orbit in a highly tilted ellipse with respect to the orbit of the two stars around their own center of mass.  How this could happen -- whether the planets condensed from a ring that was already tilted for some reason, or that the three-body chaos warped the orbits after formation -- isn't known.  "We want to use existing and coming facilities like ALMA and the next generation Very Large Array to study disk structures at exquisite levels of precision," study lead author Czekala said, "and try to understand how warped or tilted disks affect the planet formation environment and how this might influence the population of planets that form within these disks."

Which is pretty cool.  While it won't solve the more general difficulty of the three-body problem (and the four-, five-, six-, etc. body problems), it will at least give some empirical data to go on with which to analyze other systems ALMA finds.

So we're homing in on Tatooine.  For what it's worth, it looks like the overall situation might be more similar to Star Wars than it is to Lost in Space.

Which is a good thing in a variety of respects.

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

Any guesses as to what was the deadliest natural disaster in United States history?

I'd speculate that if a poll was taken on the street, the odds-on favorites would be Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Camille, and the Great San Francisco Earthquake.  None of these are correct, though -- the answer is the 1900 Galveston hurricane, that killed an estimated nine thousand people and basically wiped the city of Galveston off the map.  (Galveston was on its way to becoming the busiest and fastest-growing city in Texas; the hurricane was instrumental in switching this hub to Houston, a move that was never undone.)

In the wonderful book Isaac's Storm, we read about Galveston Weather Bureau director Isaac Cline, who tried unsuccessfully to warn people about the approaching hurricane -- a failure which led to a massive overhaul of how weather information was distributed around the United States, and also spurred an effort toward more accurate forecasting.  But author Erik Larson doesn't make this simply about meteorology; it's a story about people, and brings into sharp focus how personalities can play a huge role in determining the outcome of natural events.

It's a gripping read, about a catastrophe that remarkably few people know about.  If you have any interest in weather, climate, or history, read Isaac's Storm -- you won't be able to put it down.

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





Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Thy fearful symmetry

For some of the most fundamental aspects of life, it's uncertain whether or not evolution was constrained.

This has huge implications for the search for extraterrestrial life, and whether or not we'd recognize it if we saw it.  One I've dealt with here before is the fact that terrestrial life is based on carbon -- but is that necessarily true everywhere?  Sure, carbon's pretty cool stuff, with its four snazzy valence electrons and all, but maybe there are other ways to build functional organic molecules.

What about oxygen?  Even here on Earth, we have living things that get by just fine without it; they're the anaerobes, and include such familiar fermenters as yeast and Lactobacillus acidophilus (the bacteria responsible for yogurt), and such bad guys as the causative agents of tetanus, botulism, and gangrene.  Being aerobic certainly seems like a great innovation -- it increases the efficiency of a cell's energy utilization by a factor of 18 -- but it certainly isn't a requirement.  In fact, probably the most common life form on Earth, individual for individual, are methanogens -- deep sea-floor bacteria that metabolize anaerobically and produce methane as a waste product.  By some estimates, methanogens may outnumber all other living things on Earth put together.

So maybe anaerobic respiration isn't as efficient as aerobic respiration, but apparently it works well enough.

There are other features that deserve consideration, too.  How many of the things we take for granted about animal life are ubiquitous not because they were the result of strong natural selection, but simply because one of our ancestors had those features and happened to be the one that survived?  I'm guessing that having the sensory organs, central processing unit (brain), and the mouth clustered together at the anterior end of the animal will turn out to be common; it makes sense to have your perceptive equipment and your feeding apparatus pointing basically in the direction you're most likely to move.  And speaking of movement, that's probably going to turn out to be fairly uniform everywhere, because there aren't that many ways to fashion an appendage for walking, flying, or swimming.

But what about symmetry?  The vast majority of animals are bilaterally symmetric, meaning that there's only one axis of symmetry that divides the animal into mirror-image halves.  (A few have radial symmetry, where any line through the center works -- jellyfish being the most obvious example.)  Even animals like starfish, that seem to have some weird five-way symmetry, are actually bilateral, which is obvious if you look at starfish larva, and in fact is given away by the position of the sieve plate (the opening through which they draw in water), which is off-center.

True multiple-line symmetry doesn't seem to exist in the animal world, and even in science fiction most aliens are depicted as being nicely bilateral.  An exception are the Antarctic Elder Things, an invention of H. P. Lovecraft, which have pentaradial symmetry, if you don't count the wings -- further illustrating that as unpleasant a person as Lovecraft evidently was, he had a hell of an imagination.

[Image licensed under GNU Free Documentation; original available at http://vixis24m.deviantart.com/art/The-Elder-Thing-39576904]

So are most animals bilateral because it's got some kind of selective advantage, or simply because we descend from bilateral creatures who survived well for other reasons?  In other words, is it selected for, or an accidental neutral mutation?

The reason all this comes up is because of a discovery in South Australia described in a paper that came out this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Paleontologists have discovered a fossil half the size of a grain of rice that is over half a billion years old, and is the oldest truly bilateral animal ever found -- meaning what we're looking at may be a very close cousin to the ancestor of all the current bilateral animals on Earth.

In "Discovery of the Oldest Bilaterian from the Ediacaran of South Australia," by Scott D. Evans and Mary L. Droser (of the University of California-Riverside), Ian V. Hughes (of the University of California-San Diego), and James G. Gehling (of the South Australia Museum Department of Paleontology), we read about Ikaria wariootia, a teardrop-shaped critter whose unprepossessing appearance belies its significance.  This tiny little proto-worm might actually be our great-great-great (etc. etc. etc.) grandparent.

Not only was it bilateral, it had a throughput digestive system (two openings, one-way flow of material), another innovation that has turned out to be pretty important.  "One major difference with a grain of rice is that Ikaria had a large and small end," said study lead author Scott Evans, in an interview with The Guardian.  "This may seem trivial but that means it had a distinct front and back end, which is the kind of organization that leads to the variety of things with heads and tails that are around today."

Of course, this doesn't solve the question of whether bilateral symmetry is constrained or not.  My guess is that if it turns out to be, it will be because mirror-symmetry is easier to produce genetically.  A lot of the homeotic genes (genes that guide the development of overall body plan) work by creating a gradient of some protein or another, so the polarity of structures is established (head here, butt there, and so forth).  It might simply be easier to establish a one-way gradient, with a high on one end and a low on the other, than one with multiple highs and lows arranged symmetrically.

Although we do manage to do a five-point gradient in the development of our fingers and toes, so it's doable, it just may not be common.

In any case, here we have a creature that may be the reason we're arranged bilaterally, whether or not it gives us any sort of advantage.  Kind of humbling that we might come from a millimeter-wide burrowing scavenger.  I guess that's okay, though, if it'll keep humanity from getting any more uppity than it already is.

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

Any guesses as to what was the deadliest natural disaster in United States history?

I'd speculate that if a poll was taken on the street, the odds-on favorites would be Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Camille, and the Great San Francisco Earthquake.  None of these are correct, though -- the answer is the 1900 Galveston hurricane, that killed an estimated nine thousand people and basically wiped the city of Galveston off the map.  (Galveston was on its way to becoming the busiest and fastest-growing city in Texas; the hurricane was instrumental in switching this hub to Houston, a move that was never undone.)

In the wonderful book Isaac's Storm, we read about Galveston Weather Bureau director Isaac Cline, who tried unsuccessfully to warn people about the approaching hurricane -- a failure which led to a massive overhaul of how weather information was distributed around the United States, and also spurred an effort toward more accurate forecasting.  But author Erik Larson doesn't make this simply about meteorology; it's a story about people, and brings into sharp focus how personalities can play a huge role in determining the outcome of natural events.

It's a gripping read, about a catastrophe that remarkably few people know about.  If you have any interest in weather, climate, or history, read Isaac's Storm -- you won't be able to put it down.

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





Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Diamonds in the rough

Sure, diamonds are pretty and sparkly and rare and valuable, but do you know how they form?  Because that's honestly the coolest thing about them.

Diamonds are found in geological formations called kimberlite pipes.  This is a structure shaped like a long, narrow ice cream cone, extending downward into the Earth (how far downward we'll get to in a moment), and characterized by some rocks and minerals you usually don't find lying around -- chromium-rich pyrope garnets, forsterite, and various types of ultramafic (low-silica igneous) rocks that break down to a very specific kind of clay.  Jewel hunters long ago figured out that diamonds were likely to be found in association with these rocks and minerals, and used those as indicators of where to look -- such as the diamond-rich Kimberly region of South Africa (which gave its name to kimberlite), a couple of spots in Greene and Indiana Counties, Pennsylvania, and the Udachnaya area of Siberia.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0]

All of that's just background, though.  Here's the cool part, if (like me) you like things that are big and powerful and scary and can kill you.

Geologists discovered more or less simultaneously that the composition of kimberlite pipes is consistent with magma found in the (very) deep mantle, and that known kimberlite pipes extend a (very) long way down.  The best models indicate that the eruption that forms them starts on the order of four hundred kilometers below the surface of the Earth, making it the deepest known volcanic feature.

No one knows what triggers the eruption to begin.  It seems to be a rare occurrence, whatever it is.  Fortunately.  Because once it starts, and the magma moves upward through the mantle, the drop in pressure makes dissolved gases bubble out, rather like popping the cork off a bottle of champagne.  This speeds up the movement, which lowers the pressure more, so more gas bubbles out, and so on and so forth.  Also -- gases expand as the pressure drops, so the higher it rises, the more volume it displaces.

The result is what's called a diatreme.  What seems to happen is that with no warning, there's a Plinian eruption -- the same sort that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum -- but moving at supersonic speeds.  Imagine what it must look like -- from a distance, preferably -- everything is calm, then suddenly a several-kilometer-wide chunk of land gets blown up into the stratosphere.  The conical hole left behind fills with material from the deep mantle (thus its odd composition by comparison to other igneous rocks).  Give it a few million years, and weathering results in the characteristic clay found in a typical kimberlite.

So what's all this got to do with diamonds?

Well, in the intense heat and pressure of the eruption, some of the carbonate ions in minerals in the magma are reduced to elemental carbon, and that carbon is compressed to the point that its crystalline structure changes to a hexoctahedral lattice.  The result is a transparent crystal that looks nothing like the soft, black, powdery stuff we picture when we think of carbon.  (Further illustrating that bonding pattern is everything when it comes to physical properties.)

The reason all this comes up is a discovery described in a press release from the University of British Columbia that I found out because of a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia.  Kimberlite pipes are not only unusual, they differ from each other, so the composition of each acts as a geological fingerprint.  So when a UBC geologist named Maya Kopylova tested samples of a kimberlite on Baffin Island, she found that its composition was inconsistent with the rocks of the nearby geological province -- the nearest rocks it matched were in Labrador, almost two thousand kilometers away.

This was sufficient to identify it as part of the North American craton, a (relatively) stable piece of continental crust that currently extends from eastern Canada, through southern Greenland, and over to Scotland.  (It was torn into chunks when the Mid-Atlantic Rift Zone formed on the order of two hundred million years ago, breaking up what was the supercontinent of Pangaea.)

How a chunk of a billion-year-old craton ended up two thousand kilometers away is uncertain, but it does give us a lens into how the continents have shifted during geologic history.  "The mineral composition of other portions of the North Atlantic craton is so unique there was no mistaking it,"  Kopylova said.  "It was easy to tie the pieces together.  Adjacent ancient cratons in Northern Canada—in Northern Quebec, Northern Ontario and in Nunavut—have completely different mineralogies...  Finding these 'lost' pieces is like finding a missing piece of a puzzle.  The scientific puzzle of the ancient Earth can’t be complete without all of the pieces."

Cool, too, that the discovery was made using remnants of what is very likely to be one of the most unpredictable and violent geological events on Earth.  (Okay, the formation of igneous traps is worse.  But still, kimberlites should surely come in second.)  The universe never ceases to fascinate me, and I'm always struck by the fact that no matter how much you know, there's always more to find out.

More, too, to worry about.  Although considering the current state of affairs, a supersonic volcanic eruption might actually lighten everyone's mood.

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Any guesses as to what was the deadliest natural disaster in United States history?

I'd speculate that if a poll was taken on the street, the odds-on favorites would be Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Camille, and the Great San Francisco Earthquake.  None of these are correct, though -- the answer is the 1900 Galveston hurricane, that killed an estimated nine thousand people and basically wiped the city of Galveston off the map.  (Galveston was on its way to becoming the busiest and fastest-growing city in Texas; the hurricane was instrumental in switching this hub to Houston, a move that was never undone.)

In the wonderful book Isaac's Storm, we read about Galveston Weather Bureau director Isaac Cline, who tried unsuccessfully to warn people about the approaching hurricane -- a failure which led to a massive overhaul of how weather information was distributed around the United States, and also spurred an effort toward more accurate forecasting.  But author Erik Larson doesn't make this simply about meteorology; it's a story about people, and brings into sharp focus how personalities can play a huge role in determining the outcome of natural events.

It's a gripping read, about a catastrophe that remarkably few people know about.  If you have any interest in weather, climate, or history, read Isaac's Storm -- you won't be able to put it down.

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





Monday, March 23, 2020

The power of models

I get that scientific terminology can be daunting.  Scientists, and therefore scientific papers, have become so specialized that unless you are an expert, the vocabulary by itself can be an overwhelming barrier to understanding.  That only gets worse in disciplines like physics and chemistry, where complex mathematics throws another spanner into the works.  I have a B.S. in physics, enough credits for a second major in biology, and a minor in math, and am reasonably articulate, but just about every academic paper I've ever seen loses me within a couple of paragraphs, except for the two areas I know best -- population genetics and evolutionary biology.

So I'm not expecting laypeople to become experts in scientific jargon.  But there are two words I really wish everyone would familiarize themselves with -- theory and model.

Confusion over the first one is what gives rise to the "it's only a theory" *shrug* reaction a lot of people have when discussing the theory of evolution.  Theory, in scientific discussions, does not mean "a wild guess that could as easily be wrong as right."  In scientific parlance, a theory is an explanation of a natural phenomenon that has passed repeated tests and makes predictions that are in good accordance with the data.  This is why intelligent design creationism isn't a theory; it makes no predictions.  If things get complex, it defaults to "God did it," and the conversation ends.

In science, a model is a representation of a natural object, system, or phenomenon, often idealized or simplified, that can then be manipulated -- once again, to see if the results are consistent with observed data from the real world.  As an example, the computerized three-dimensional maps of the climate are models, breaking up the atmosphere into thousands of cubical regions and the land and ocean into square blocks of area, with specifications for atmospheric composition, heat absorption capacity for land and water, solar radiation input, and so on.  The software can take the known input parameters and then run a simulation to see if what comes out matches what we actually know of the real climate data (and they have, to a startling degree of accuracy, something that is simultaneously impressive and terrifying).

The problem with the idea of modeling is that to an outside observer, it may look like the scientists are just messing around -- playing Sims with the world, with no particular expectation that what they're doing has anything in common with reality.  This, of course, is the opposite of the truth -- if a model doesn't align very well with the natural world, it's rightly abandoned for one that works better.

Even models that seem to be a little bit out there are only retained because they describe a known part of the universe sufficiently well that their predictions can be useful for describing something not yet understood.  Take, for example, the paper last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that used what's known about biochemistry to make a stab at the configuration and composition of the earliest proteins, molecules that were around 3.5 billion years ago -- produced abiotically before there were any living things on Earth.

In "Small Protein Folds at the Root of an Ancient Metabolic Network," Hagai Raanan, Saroj Poudel, Douglas Pike, Vikas Nanda, and Paul Falkowski, of Rutgers University, describe a sophisticated computer simulation that took what we know about the chemistry that is common to all living organisms (such as using oxidation/reduction reactions to power metabolism) and combined it with what is surmised about the conditions on the early Earth, and used it to infer what the earliest energy-transfer proteins looked like.  The authors write:
Life on Earth is driven by electron transfer reactions catalyzed by a suite of enzymes that comprise the superfamily of oxidoreductases (Enzyme Classification EC1).  Most modern oxidoreductases are complex in their structure and chemistry and must have evolved from a small set of ancient folds.  Ancient oxidoreductases from the Archean Eon between ca. 3.5 and 2.5 billion years ago have been long extinct, making it challenging to retrace evolution by sequence-based phylogeny or ancestral sequence reconstruction.  However, three-dimensional topologies of proteins change more slowly than sequences.  Using comparative structure and sequence profile-profile alignments, we quantify the similarity between proximal cofactor-binding folds and show that they are derived from a common ancestor.  We discovered that two recurring folds were central to the origin of metabolism: ferredoxin and Rossmann-like folds.  In turn, these two folds likely shared a common ancestor that, through duplication, recruitment, and diversification, evolved to facilitate electron transfer and catalysis at a very early stage in the origin of metabolism.
Here's one of the ancestral proteins the model generated:


Now, maybe you see this as a bunch of hand-waving in an intellectual vacuum.  After all, we have no way of going back 3.5 million years and checking to see if the model is correct.  But the key thing is that this was created within parameters of how we know proteins work, and what we see in the energy-transfer proteins of current organisms.  This model was very much constrained by reality -- meaning that its results have a really good chance of being accurate.

Further, like any good model (or theory, for that matter), it generates predictions -- in this case, what we might look for as a signature of emerging life on other planets.  "In the realm of deep-time evolutionary inference," the authors write, "we are necessarily limited to deducing what could have happened, rather than proving what did happen...  Ultimately, our goal is for the proposed effort to inform future NASA missions about detection of life on planetary bodies in habitable zones.  Our effort provides a unique window to potential planetary-scale chemical characteristics that might arise from abiotic chemistry, which must be understood if we are to recognize unique biosignatures on other worlds."

So models and theories aren't guesses, they're real-world descriptions, and the best ones give us deep insight into the workings of the universe.  As such, they are part of the scientist's stock-in-trade -- and essential to understand for laypeople who would like to know what's happening on the cutting edge of research.

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Any guesses as to what was the deadliest natural disaster in United States history?

I'd speculate that if a poll was taken on the street, the odds-on favorites would be Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Camille, and the Great San Francisco Earthquake.  None of these are correct, though -- the answer is the 1900 Galveston hurricane, that killed an estimated nine thousand people and basically wiped the city of Galveston off the map.  (Galveston was on its way to becoming the busiest and fastest-growing city in Texas; the hurricane was instrumental in switching this hub to Houston, a move that was never undone.)

In the wonderful book Isaac's Storm, we read about Galveston Weather Bureau director Isaac Cline, who tried unsuccessfully to warn people about the approaching hurricane -- a failure which led to a massive overhaul of how weather information was distributed around the United States, and also spurred an effort toward more accurate forecasting.  But author Erik Larson doesn't make this simply about meteorology; it's a story about people, and brings into sharp focus how personalities can play a huge role in determining the outcome of natural events.

It's a gripping read, about a catastrophe that remarkably few people know about.  If you have any interest in weather, climate, or history, read Isaac's Storm -- you won't be able to put it down.

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





Saturday, March 21, 2020

Meet Wonderchicken

Since Jurassic Park, it hasn't been news to most people that birds are dinosaurs.  The evidence from skeletal analysis is unequivocal; not only is your average little garden sparrow a dinosaur, it's close cousin to one of the most famous prehistoric animals, the fearful Velociraptor.  (Which apparently was a pack hunter, but probably wasn't smart enough to figure out how to unlatch a freezer door, so take what you see in the movies with a grain of salt or two.)

The mystery is why the ancestors of modern birds survived, and all of the other dinosaur lineages died out.  The old saw of "the dinosaurs were dying out anyhow, and the meteorite impact finished 'em off" is almost certainly untrue; the dinosaurs were apparently doing just fine when Chicxulub hit, flash-frying anything nearby and causing global havoc (and nearly simultaneously the colossal Deccan Traps volcanic eruptions occurred -- geologists are still debating whether those two events are causally linked).

But whatever the cause(s), the dinosaurs were clearly doing well, then whammy.  And, for what it's worth, they'd been pretty much in charge of the world for the entire Mesozoic Era, a time span of 180 million years (and to put that in perspective, that's over a hundred times longer than Homo sapiens has been in ascendancy).  It's probable that the reason most of the best-known species of dinosaurs became extinct is that when conditions suddenly become dire, the two groups to suffer most are the large species and the extreme specialists, both of whom are intolerant to a rapidly changing environment.  But hard evidence of this, in the form of fossils from right around the time of the end-Cretaceous Extinction, have been few and far between.

This week a paper in Nature added a new piece to the puzzle -- a fossil bird from 66.7 million years ago, only 700,000 years before Chicxulub et al. said finis to the Age of the Dinosaurs.  So here we have in hand a species that probably made it through the bottleneck -- because it looks like what may well be the common ancestor between galliform birds (chickens and turkeys) and waterfowl.

In "Late Cretaceous Neornithine from Europe Illuminates the Origins of Crown Birds," by Daniel Field, Juan Benito, and Albert Chen (of Cambridge University), John Jagt (of Natuurhistorisch Museum Maastricht in the Netherlands), and Daniel Ksepka (of the Bruce Museum of Greenwich, Connecticut), we read about read about a fascinating find that the researchers have dubbed "Wonderchicken:"
Our understanding of the earliest stages of crown bird evolution is hindered by an exceedingly sparse avian fossil record from the Mesozoic era.  The most ancient phylogenetic divergences among crown birds are known to have occurred in the Cretaceous period, but stem-lineage representatives of the deepest subclades of crown birds—Palaeognathae (ostriches and kin), Galloanserae (landfowl and waterfowl) and Neoaves (all other extant birds)—are unknown from the Mesozoic era.  As a result, key questions related to the ecology, biogeography, and divergence times of ancestral crown birds remain unanswered.  Here we report a new Mesozoic fossil that occupies a position close to the last common ancestor of Galloanserae and fills a key phylogenetic gap in the early evolutionary history of crown birds.  Asteriornis maastrichtensis, gen. et sp. nov., from the Maastrichtian age of Belgium (66.8–66.7 million years ago), is represented by a nearly complete, three-dimensionally preserved skull and associated postcranial elements.  The fossil represents one of the only well-supported crown birds from the Mesozoic era, and is the first Mesozoic crown bird with well-represented cranial remains.  Asteriornis maastrichtensis exhibits a previously undocumented combination of galliform (landfowl)-like and anseriform (waterfowl)-like features, and its presence alongside a previously reported Ichthyornis-like taxon from the same locality provides direct evidence of the co-occurrence of crown birds and avialan stem birds.  Its occurrence in the Northern Hemisphere challenges biogeographical hypotheses of a Gondwanan origin of crown birds, and its relatively small size and possible littoral ecology may corroborate proposed ecological filters that influenced the persistence of crown birds through the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.
This fossil is pretty spectacular -- and unique.  "It shows a never previously seen mashup of ducklike and chickenlike features," said study lead author Daniel Field, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Cambridge.  "It’s like a turducken."

This pushes forward the date estimated for the last common ancestor of all modern birds, previously estimated by molecular clock data as between 139 and 89 million years ago.  Asteriornis is a very close ally to the ancestor of two large bird groups, so it could be that true birds evolved much closer to the end-Cretaceous Extinction than we'd previously thought.

So I'm sure you're wondering what Wonderchicken looked like.  Here's an artist's reconstruction (art by Phillip Krzeminski):


Recognizably a bird, isn't it?  Not some scary toothy flying dinosaur like Archaeopteryx.  Poor thing, little did it know that hard times were coming, although maybe knowing its descendants would be some of the survivors would have cheered it up.

And its relevance was obvious the moment the team saw the results of the computerized tomography of the skull.  "The timeline was: See the skull, scream ‘Holy shit,’ give my Ph.D. student a high five, and then start calling it the Wonderchicken," Field said, in an interview with Science News.

Wonderchicken was about the size of a modern quail, further supporting the conjecture that small size was a factor in surviving the bottleneck.

So that's another piece in the evolutionary puzzle, and something to think about next time you fill the birdfeeders for the local chickadees.  Modern biodiversity has been mostly shaped by evolution, but random and unpredictable natural disasters played their own role in determining who the winners and losers would be.  And here we have hard evidence of one of the winners -- an unprepossessing bird from right before one of the biggest catastrophes the Earth has ever seen.

Wonderchicken, indeed.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a classic -- Martin Gardner's wonderful Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?

Gardner was a polymath of stupendous proportions, a mathematician, skeptic, and long-time writer of Scientific American's monthly feature "Mathematical Games."  He gained a wonderful reputation not only as a puzzle-maker but as a debunker of pseudoscience, and in this week's book he takes on some deserving targets -- numerology, UFOs, "alternative medicine," reflexology, and a host of others.

Gardner's prose is light, lucid, and often funny, but he skewers charlatans with the sharpness of a rapier.  His book is a must-read for anyone who wants to work toward a cure for gullibility -- a cure that is desperately needed these days.

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