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Inquirer Daily News

Archive: January, 2012

POSTED: Tuesday, January 31, 2012, 6:14 PM

No news on the particle. Sorry. I was referring to the cat. I spent all morning at the University of Pennsylvania Vet School, where poor Higgs was examined and X-rayed. He’s been unable to climb and has experienced some scary looking muscle spasms in his back. The veterinarians suspect a slipped disc, exacerbated by the steroids he takes for his allergies.

Higgs is in good hands at Penn, even though they don’t yet realize they’re working with a famous patient. I brought the laptop but was too nervous to blog from the waiting room.

So, in happier news, February looks like a great month for science lectures. As always seems to happen, the good ones pile up on the same day. Tomorrow (Wednesday, Feb 1) the Academy of Natural Sciences is hosting author Ross MacPhee, who will talk about his book on the race to the South Pole. It starts at 6:30 and it’s free. I have a particular interest in this because I got to go to the South Pole to write a freelance piece. That was back in the late 1990s, during the glory days of science writing when there was travel money and you could hang out with real people and nobody had to stop to "Tweet" anything. 

Faye Flam @ 6:14 PM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Monday, January 30, 2012, 5:08 PM

Scientists have been fascinated with the origin of Native Americans for decades. Now, molecular genetics is helping scientists put together a detailed story about when people migrated to the New World, how they got here, and even what might have driven their journey.

This is a regular news story, as opposed to a Planet-of-the-Apes column, but it relates to evolution. It ran under Health, which is odd since it’s not a health story. It was originally supposed to run Friday in a longer version with pictures and a map, but factors beyond my control changed things. I'm still trying to track down the map. Here's the story:  

By comparing DNA samples from hundreds of volunteers, a Penn anthropologist and his colleagues have tied Native Americans to a group of people living in a small region of Russia called the Altai, near the borders of Mongolia, China, and Kazakstan.

Faye Flam @ 5:08 PM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Sunday, January 29, 2012, 9:43 PM
The excesses of Wing Bowl may have their roots in the most basic human evolutionary impulses. (File photo from Wing Bowl 19 in 2011.)

Anyone doubting our evolutionary tie to other apes should check out that Philadelphia festival of food and fun known as Wing Bowl. The annual event has some striking parallels to behavior outlined in the article “Chimpanzee Hunting Behavior and Human Evolution,” which appeared in the magazine American Scientist.

Chimpanzees sometimes “go on hunting binges, in which they kill a large number of monkeys and other animals over a period of several days or weeks,” the article states. The hunting is done mostly by males, though there are a few female hunters and the party is joined by many other females in estrus (heat), who help turn the event into an orgy of sex and monkey eating.

Wing Bowl, which will take place this Friday, has much in common with this chimpanzee ritual, except the monkeys are replaced by pre-killed chicken wings, and the abundantly fertile females may just be advertising, not delivering.

Faye Flam @ 9:43 PM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Sunday, January 29, 2012, 9:43 AM

We heard back from our unhappy reader Brian again, and now Higgs wants to answer his second email. To review, I’ve pasted Brian’s first correspondence with me. He indeed caught two typos in a post I’d dashed off Friday about more bills aimed at inserting creation science into public school science classes.

Flim Flam,
Hey genius, in your haste to post yet another anti-Christian rant about Indiana you misspelled "pseudoscience" and used incorrect grammar in "A number of scientists and religions figures testified...". You meant religious, perhaps? I think you need to "dress up" your English writing skills before "foisting" your opinions on others.  In the least you would look more intelligent while trying to mock the intelligence of others.  But that's the Inquirer today where ideology trumps journalistic talent and skill.

I usually erase anything that makes fun of my name, but since I was using it for blog fodder, I decided a minimal response was in order.  

Faye Flam @ 9:43 AM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Friday, January 27, 2012, 11:09 AM

It's not all gloom and doom in American science education. This week brought some good news, as some of Philadelphia's experts in science, history and public education are stepping up to the plate, offering a program on evolution geared for middle and high school teachers. It will happen Feb. 11, which is the day before Darwin's birthday.

One of the lecturers, Michael Weisberg, has been a great friend to Planet-of-the-Apes. There were a number of hurdles I had to cross before I could start the weekly column, not least of which was an assignment to write the definitive history of evolution. Dr. Weisberg was a great help, guiding me through parts of "On the Origin of Species," and making sure I didn't make any mistakes or, heaven forbid, tpyos. The result is in the Evolution 101 link on the blog home page. It's not the definitive history, but it's been vetted by experts.

An undergraduate student, Paul Mitchell, is also heavily involved. Kudos to him. Here's what the Penn Museum sent me about the program. I'll try to go if I'm in town that day:

Faye Flam @ 11:09 AM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Thursday, January 26, 2012, 7:03 PM

I apologize for the typos in the previous post. I'm on double deadline with a story and a column and was a little hasty with the last post. Apparently some haters were just waiting for this moment:  

Flim Flam,
Hey genius, in your haste to post yet another anti-Christian rant about Indiana you misspelled "pseudoscience" and used incorrect grammar in "A number of scientists and religions figures testified...". You meant religious, perhaps? I think you need to "dress up" your English writing skills before "foisting" your opinions on others.  In the least you would look more intelligent while trying to mock the intelligence of others.  But that's the Inquirer today where ideology trumps journalistic talent and skill.

Brian

Faye Flam @ 7:03 PM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Thursday, January 26, 2012, 5:04 PM

The struggle to keep creationism out of American public schools continues. The National Center for Science Education reports that the latest skirmish is taking place in Indiana:

“Indiana's Senate Bill 89, which if enacted would allow local school districts to "require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science," was passed by the Senate Committee on Education and Career Development on January 25, 2012. The vote was 8-2.”

The votes for the bill came primarily from Republicans and those against, from Democrats.  "Creation science" could refer to one of several branches of pseudoscience that attempt to dress up religion in scientific terminology. A number of scientists and religious authorities testified against the bill, according to NCSE:

Faye Flam @ 5:04 PM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Wednesday, January 25, 2012, 2:15 PM

A reader posed an interesting question about the last column through Facebook.  

Why is it a "fatal flaw" if "the only way to make a theory work is to invoke the supernatural"? It seems to me that that statement indicates you are taking naturalism as a given.

There follows a back and forth with another reader about why gods aren’t part of science. Both invoked philosopher Karl Popper who is famous for the idea that to qualify as scientific, a theory has to be falsifiable.  One reader says magical things are not falsifiable and the other says they are. The reader who is more favorable to magic offers the following comments:

Faye Flam @ 2:15 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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