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Inquirer Daily News

Archive: December, 2011

POSTED: Friday, December 16, 2011, 6:38 PM

NOTE TO READERS: Thank you all for making intelligent comments on this blog entry. It's wonderful for me to see the level of discussion here. Unfortunately I am not in charge of the comments. I'm not the one who decides to block them. I do know that overly long comments can be rejected. If you have a plus-sized comment please feel free to email it directly to me at fflam@phillynews.com, and I can use it in the blog to generate a new discussion. You can also break up long comments into several consecutive parts. I apologize for the inconvenience. Don't give up! We need rational discourse at newspaper websites. Faye

Jack Szostak is a Harvard biologist who won a Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine and is devoting his time to understanding the origin of life. He has been public about the importance of evolution to biology. So how could he have been quoted supporting a creationist view and undercutting his own scientific quest?

Szostak's seemingly pro-creationist quote appeared in a piece by a rabbi, Moshe Averick. It appeared on a website called Algemeiner, and the sole purpose seemed to be to attack evolutionary biologist and science popularizer Jerry Coyne. I found the piece from a link on Coyne's blog, which is called Why Evolution is True.

Faye Flam @ 6:38 PM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Thursday, December 15, 2011, 11:42 AM

I didn't choose my own sexual orientation, but apparently some Inquire readers did. I learned this from the responses I received following Monday’s column, which had the term “gay gene” in the headline but was not really about gay genes.

It was about a meeting that dealt with newer research on the biology of sexual orientation. Most of the column was devoted to a theory that male sexual orientation can be influenced during development by the actions of the mother’s immune system.

This reader seems to have missed this point:

Faye Flam @ 11:42 AM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Wednesday, December 14, 2011, 4:54 PM

Body Hair is one of those enduring mysteries of evolution.  Some scientists write papers about why we have hair, and others write about why we don’t have more of it. Since other apes are furrier than we are (well, most of us), it’s a natural assumption that we lost much of our body hair somewhere along the line. This latest hypothesis for the retention of body hair appeared in the journal Biology Letters, and was summarized here in Science:

"When it creeps into your bed at night and crawls across your skin, the bedbug (inset) has to navigate a forest of body hair before plunging its proboscis into your flesh for a meal. One wrong step, and it could get smushed. Tickled by the question of how people detect such microscopic pests, researchers recruited 19 volunteers with various amounts of body hair and shaved one of each of their arms. They then asked the subjects to look away while they dropped bedbugs onto their arms. The volunteers hit a button as soon as they felt something crawling on them. Participants, especially men, with more hair follicles per square inch and whose body hairs were longer, tended to be several seconds quicker than less hirsute individuals to notice the bugs on their unshaven arms, the researchers report online today in Biology Letters. And everyone took a long time to notice the bedbugs on the shaved arm. That might explain why humans still have hair on their bodies, the researchers conclude, since we no longer need it for keeping warm."

I hope they paid these volunteers well. This paper demonstrates a possible advantage of having body hair, but that doesn’t mean the need for bug protection was the reason people retained some hair. There are many unanswered questions here. If body hair evolved to warn us about insects, why are some of us much more naked than others? Why do men vary from smooth to furry?  

Faye Flam @ 4:54 PM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Monday, December 12, 2011, 7:57 PM

Today scientists revealed the first major results from the biggest, most elaborate scientific apparatus ever built – the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. True to predictions, they reported hints of a long-sought particle called the Higgs. You can read more in this news story. I worked really hard on this story. I talked to all kinds of people and hung out with the physicists at Penn, but my story won't get on the front page because I refuse to use the god-awful term "God particle".  

Physicist don't call the Higgs the God particle.  That “nickname” comes from the title of a 1993 book by Nobel winning physicist Leon Lederman. Lederman took a lot of criticism for calling his book, “The God Particle.” (though it was undoubtedly good for sales)

As part of my research for my story I read a more recent book on the Higgs search, Massive, by British journalist Ian Sample. It's very readable and informative, and he does a great job of weaving together current science and history, but what I found a little weird was that in one of the editions of his book, he used the subtitle, "The Search for the God Particle," and yet he has this to say about Lederman’s abuse of the Lord's name:

Faye Flam @ 7:57 PM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Sunday, December 11, 2011, 10:43 PM

Most scientists who study human sexuality agree that gay people are born that way. But that consensus raises an evolutionary puzzle: How do genes associated with homosexuality avoid being weeded out by Darwinian evolution?

Some gays and lesbians do reproduce, said Pennsylvania State University anthropologist and geneticist Mark Shriver, but not as much as straight people do. Even if a gene decreases people's fertility by 1 percent, it's going to be eliminated.

Scientists offered some possible answers to this mystery earlier this month at a Penn State symposium on the biological basis of sexual orientation. The seminar was planned weeks before the child sex-abuse scandal broke, and organizers said they never considered scrapping the program. How, they asked, could anyone fault them for talking about sex amid a scandal that centered on the failure to talk?

Faye Flam @ 10:43 PM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Saturday, December 10, 2011, 7:08 PM

A confluence of events yesterday gave me a new insight into the use and misuse of the term “dumbing down.” It all started with something weird that came on my car radio. I was returning from some errands, headed home to do a phone interview with Matt Strassler, a theoretical physicist at Rutgers. I was interviewing him for a physics story I’m writing about a big announcement planned for Tuesday – possible hints of a long-sought entity known as the Higgs particle or Higgs Boson.

I was flipping through the stations and thought I’d caught a snippet of something on NPR. There was a biologist, or what I thought was a biologist, saying something about amino acids, RNA, nucleotides, ribosomes, and pieces of genetic code with the letters ATT coming together to do something. It was such an addled interview I couldn’t believe NPR would use it. The guy came off as insufferably pompous and he didn’t seem to be trying to make sense. His point seemed to be that chemistry alone couldn’t explain some process by which these different substances interacted.  

Then an announcer came on and I realized I’d been listening to a religious station and the interview was with a promoter of “intelligent design”, a brand of creationism. No wonder he was incomprehensible. There was no way any listener could evaluate the honesty or validity of this guy’s argument because it was impossible to figure out what he’d said.

Faye Flam @ 7:08 PM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Friday, December 9, 2011, 1:34 PM

Several weird comments followed this post about women promoting evolution education. Reader Jerrold Alpern wrote to say he wanted to make a comment to dispute the other comments. It didn't post so I'm posting it for him. 

First, let's look at an excerpt from one of the comment he'd like to dispute. This writer seems to be arguing that flaws in the body and the human genetic code show that evolution didn’t happen, or isn’t happening. This was an argument I’d never seen before:

Humans have over 4600 genetic defects resulting in genetic diseases. There are only 4 "thought to be" positive mutations in the human genome. The mDNA has lost over 1200 complex genes in humans and you think there is evolution?
You are sick and have a genetic disease. All humans are degraded and have genetically caused diseases.
1 in 7 women have breast cancer a genetic disease.
1 in 12 humans have genetically caused diabetes and the numbers are rising every year.
There are over 1200 single point mutation diseases that are called rare.
Humans are degraded from a condition of far more fit, far more intelligent and way stronger. We are more primitive in thoughts than ever and even more controlled by our emotional and tribal compulsions, and we think we are evolving?
If you believe in evolution then you are supporting the continual degradation of our species and are willing to our descendants a short miserable fearful life full of low IQ ignorance even more than the rampant ignorance we have now.
There is nothing redeemable about teaching children magical , faith based religious mythological nonsense, and calling it "science". Using the word "science" does not make it science. That is the oldest academia trick there is.

Faye Flam @ 1:34 PM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Thursday, December 8, 2011, 6:46 PM

Reader Howard Wilk wrote to remind me that while the winter solstice is still almost two weeks away, tonight we in Philadelphia and others at our latitude will see the earliest sunset of the year. He has decided to name tomorrow a new holiday in honor of the now-lengthening evenings:   

"The winter solstice marks (for us) the shortest day (light hours), but it's not our date this Dec.-Jan. for the latest sunrise, which will be 5 January, or our date for the earliest sunset, which is today, Thursday, 8 December. Since night owls like me routinely experience sunset but not sunrise, today is effectively the shortest day for us. With a clock but without specific astronomical knowledge one doesn't know one has reached the day of the earliest sunset until the next day, when the sun sets later than the day before. That's a cause for celebration and I call that day, the day after the day of the earliest sunset, Seculus. Seculus is a secular holiday completely divorced from religion unlike Christmas, Hanukkah, Saturnalia, etc., or even Festivus (which is defined as 23 December, two days before Christmas)."

This report in Earthsky.org backs Wilk on the date. The sun set tonight at 4:35 and on the Winter Solstice, which is Dec. 22 this year, it will set at 4:39. Earthsky has a nice explanation for this gap between Seculus and Solstice:

Faye Flam @ 6:46 PM  Permalink | 0
About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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