April 2014
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Etsy Wednesday – trees

Etsy suggestion submitted by Lea, whose photos I used in Lab Waste. She writes: “This pendant, along with many other pieces in this shop, instantly reminded me of evolutionary trees. It isn’t explicitly sciencey (beyond the fact it’s a tree), but it sure did the trick for me.”

Maple Tree by silentgoddess.

Things to read

A thing I wrote:
The article I wrote on OpenCourseWare is available in an easy to read online format after all!

A thing I read:
I read this awesome New Yorker article “Darwin’s Surprise” about human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) when I was preparing my last Facts behind the Fiction piece for ReGenesis. I don’t know why I even bothered writing stuff myself, because this piece is so clearly much better. I put it as the first reference, but don’t know if people ever click on the references (I don’t even know if people actually ever read my pieces!) so I’m telling you now, this article is great, and you should read it.


Through Facebook (of all places) I found this “Survival of the Fittest” story relating to M&M’s. Credited to this Tampa Bay best of Craigslist page, but I found other/older instances of it on the web as well.
An excerpt:

“I have found that, in general, the brown and red M&Ms are tougher, and the newer blue ones are genetically inferior. I have hypothesized that the blue M&Ms as a race cannot survive long in the intense theater of competition that is the modern candy and snack-food world.
Occasionally I will get a mutation, a candy that is misshapen, or pointier, or flatter than the rest. Almost invariably this proves to be a weakness, but on very rare occasions it gives the candy extra strength. In this way, the species continues to adapt to its environment. “

In addition, I found a slightly more serious attempt at using M&M’s for “survival of the fittest” experiments: This time, like many other times, the M&M’s are prey to hungry school children. They try to find out whether, for example, brown M&M’s are slightly safer against a brown background. Does this work? I can imagine that kids would grab them all extremely fast regardless of the background colour. And nobody would dare bring candies that were processed in the same factory as peanuts into the classroom anymore.

_39856015_mm_science_203long.jpgSome very serious M&M research was published in Science several years ago: M&M’s take up less space than spheres. “The researchers filled these containers with M&M sweets and determined the packing fractions for them. They measured these for both the “regular” and “mini” varieties of the chocolates.” See, this is why I’m not a physicist: Whenever I fill a container with M&M’s, I just end up eating them, much like a hungry school child.

Now, I wonder how Smarties hold up to all these rigorous M&M experiments… Nestlé vs. Mars in a battle of sugar coated chocolates — can I get funding for this? I gladly accept candy.

Creation Science 101

A funny folk song about creationism, by Roy Zimmerman.

A War On Science

warsci.jpgThere is a new movie theatre in Toronto, the Brunswick Theatre, which screens predominantly socio-political documentaries. Among the movies they’re currently screening are a few science-oriented docs: “The God Delusion”, “Living Amidst The Pine Beetle”, “Big Bucks, Big Pharma”, and the BBC documentary “A War On Science”. I went to the “A War On Science” screening last Friday, and it was quite interesting. It started out with an introduction of where the Intelligent Design proponents are coming from, and for a few minutes they even seem to make some sense, until the word is given to their debunkers and it’s clear that their arguments just don’t hold up at all. For example, Behe’s “irreducible complexity” idea uses the premise that the flagellae of bacteria are only functional as 50-part machine and none of the components have a function of their own. If that was true he may have had a point, but Ken Miller easily proved that this wasn’t even true to begin with (some components do have independent functions), collapsing the whole argument.
Another part of the movie focussed on the Dover case, interviewing the concerned parents and teachers who immediately recognized ID as creationism (which isn’t allowed to be taught) and took the Dover school board to court.
There was also an interview with the head of the Vatican astronomy observatory. He explained that the scientific facts were just so overwhelming that the catholic church in general could simply not deny the validity of the arguments and has overcome any issues it had with evolution.

After all screenings, the Brunswick Theatre encourages discussion about the topic of the documentary, and last Friday’s discussion was quite lively. Interestingly, while all people present (about ten people stayed for the discussion) seemed to identify as atheist, and agreed without a doubt that evolution is real, there was a lot of disagreement on how to get this message across to proponents of ID. (It reminded a lot of the current “framing” debate in the science-blogosphere…) Discussions and opinions varied from “science is just the final answer to everything, and religious people should simply accept that there is no God the same way we accept it” to “why is this only an issue in the US?” and “what if there is a biological explanation for religion?” and “what if people need to have everything explained and they can have a “God of the Gaps” that might fill in the gaps of what we don’t currently know, but as we get more scientific knowledge the gaps will get smaller until there are no more gaps and there is no more need of a God”.

For Torontonians: “A War on Science” screens at the Brunswick Theatre Apr 21 at 4:30pm, and Apr 26 at 5pm. You can also catch the related “A God Delusion” on April 24 at 9:30pm, but that’s just Dawkins again, and “A War on Science” has Dawkins plus other people’s opinions.
The Brunswick Theatre also has all movies they screen available to borrow from them if you become a member, and since they just started up they could really use some memberships. They’re located just south of Bloor Street on Brunswick, and are tiny, but marked clearly with coloured documentary announcement flyers.

I believe in science

If you’re looking for a biology/evolution/science related Christmas gift, I Believe in Science sells T-shirts with this pretty tree of life on it and the text “I Believe in Science”. There are lots of different colours and models to choose from.
(from the site) “(…) the statement I believe in science makes a firm declaration without openly bashing those with opposing viewpoints on the origins of life.”

I Believe in Science is a project of Kate Lane, a New York based designer.

Darwin Online

Darwinonline.jpgThe complete work of Charles Darwin is available online, on a well-organized site called “The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online“. Sometimes the world just makes perfect sense! You can have a look at The Origin of Species or his notes from the Beagle, all on your computer!

Galapagos Finches, from the Beagle notes