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Inquirer Daily News

Archive: February, 2012

POSTED: Tuesday, February 28, 2012, 3:47 PM

The separation of church and state – apparently a sickening idea to Rick Santorum - has been an important factor in keeping creationism out of public schools. This may be among the many reasons the creationist candidate says publicly that the idea makes him want to throw up. Read the New York Times account here. What I found most extraordinary wasn’t the nausea but this statement:

“What kind of country do we live in that says only people of nonfaith can come into the public square and make their case?” Mr. Santorum said on the ABC News program “This Week.”

What kind of a looking glass world is he living in? In the world I inhabit, the public square is dominated by people of faith. When was the last time we had a president who admitted to doubting the existance of God? 

Faye Flam @ 3:47 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Sunday, February 26, 2012, 7:04 PM

Among the more alarming rumors prompted by genetics research was the impending extinction of the Y chromosome. The classic male marker seemed to be shriveling. Would the human race become an all-female species? The Y is, after all, just a tiny nub of a chromosome, having undergone serious shrinkage in the past.

Luckily for those who like men, the latest results say the Y has more macho mileage left. And even if it did shrink itself out of existence, scientists say men could persevere without the Y. A few other animals have already lost their Y chromosomes and those males have adapted, fathering offspring as if nothing had happened.

Jennifer Hughes says the human Y has more or less stopped shrinking. Hughes, who works at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., drew this conclusion from a new comparison between human Y chromosomes and those from rhesus macaques. She and her colleagues found 19 common genes.

Faye Flam @ 7:04 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Thursday, February 23, 2012, 6:21 PM

It’s amazing to see the anti-science spins some people attached to the headlines last fall that physicists had observed faster-than-light travel. The alleged speed limit violators were invisible particles called neutrinos that CERN physicists sent in a beam 646 miles through the ground. The particles appeared to travel that distance 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light.

Neutrinos are a very hard-to-observe form of matter, first postulated by Enrico Fermi in the 1930s to explain why a small amount of mass seemed to be carried away from nuclear reactions. The first neutrinos were detected in the 1950s.

They’re generated in the sun and other stars in enormous quantities - 100 billion neutrinos zoom through a spot the size of your thumbnail every second. At night, they stream through the Earth and come out the other side. They’re not only invisible but they tend to pass through matter without leaving a sign.

Faye Flam @ 6:21 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Wednesday, February 22, 2012, 12:41 PM

An observant reader has identified the species of ape who performed acrobatics in the youtube video here. It’s a white-cheeked gibbon. Gibbons are “lesser” apes, though they may not agree with this classification. They’re smaller than humans and our fellow “great” apes, but according to Wikipedia they have some superior talents:

Gibbons are masters of their primary mode of locomotion, brachiation, swinging from branch to branch for distances of up to 15 m (50 ft), at speeds as high as 56 km/h (35 mph).[citation needed] They can also make leaps of up to 8 m (26 ft), and walk bipedally with their arms raised for balance. They are the fastest and most agile of all tree-dwelling, non-flying mammals.[4]

Another reader noted in two emails that there’s still some mystery to cosmology, despite efforts by Lawrence Krauss to explain it all in his new book, “A Universe from Nothing.” There, Krauss makes a case that our universe is just a bubble in a much larger "multiverse", in which different universes might run by different physical laws. Even the laws of physics themselves could be a cosmic accident, according to this view.

Faye Flam @ 12:41 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Tuesday, February 21, 2012, 5:55 PM

The National Center for Science Education just notified me that an anti-evolution bill in Oklahoma has been revived by the state legislature. The language in the bill claims that evolution is “controversial”, which wrongly implies that there’s controversy in the scientific community. There isn’t, of course, though some people in Oklahoma don’t like the implications of evolution for personal or religious reasons.  

Here’s an excerpt from the NCSE story:  

A bill in Oklahoma that would, if enacted, encourage teachers to present the "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of "controversial" topics such as "biological evolution" and "global warming" is back from the dead. Entitled the "Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act," House Bill 1551was introduced in the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 2011 by Sally Kern (R-District 84), a persistent sponsor of antievolution legislation in the Sooner State, and referred to the House Common Education Committee. It was rejected there on February 22, 2011, on a 7-9 vote. But, as The Oklahoman (February 23, 2011) reported, the vote was not final, since a sponsor "could ask the committee to bring it up again this session or next year." And indeed, on February 20, 2012, Gus Blackwell (R-District 61) resurrected the bill in the House Common Education Committee….

Faye Flam @ 5:55 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Tuesday, February 21, 2012, 12:35 PM

I was surprised how much support Newt Gingrich got for his proposal for a moon colony. The Atlantic, for example, praised this as visionary.

There’s a big difference between a colony where people settle and a research station where people go to do science and then return home. It would be visionary to have a research station on the moon, and even perhaps a program allowing students, journalists and teachers to visit too. I’d sign up immediately.  

Building real estate up there is a different story. When I visited the South Pole Station, I was excited to go but happy to have a two way ticket. People do stay for months at a time, but many have reported stresses and conflicts that result from being isolated with a small group of people. The famous Biosphere II experiment out in the Arizona Desert also gave us some insights, showing what kinds of romantic and interpersonal conflicts arose and how much stress they caused the participants.  Any place on Earth is paradise compared to the moon.

Faye Flam @ 12:35 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Monday, February 20, 2012, 4:35 PM

This adorable video is going around on YouTube. It’s labeled as a monkey attacking a man, though I thought the acrobatic act was much more impressive than the “attack”. The little guy doesn’t have a tail, making him an ape of some kind, rather than a monkey.

Faye Flam @ 4:35 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Saturday, February 18, 2012, 8:34 AM

So much interesting research is going on here in Philadelphia. Here's a study that was just published yesterday suggesting some visible brain differences show up in autistic people as young as six months. I'm collecting a file on human variation and evolution, hoping to write a series of columns that take an evolutionary view of such conditions as autism, ADHD, dyslexia and shyness. Why are we humans so different from one another? Are some of these differences holdovers from earlier eras, when different types of behavior proved advantageous? When people didn't spent their childhoods forced to sit in chairs and absorb lectures? Or are some of these conditions byproducts of the sheer complexity of the human brain?  

Variation drives evolution, and if our environment changed, some of the people who are labelled with various conditions and disorders might thrive better than those deemed "normal." Does human variation help explain why humans have become such a successful species?  

The new study was summarized in a blog post for abcnews. One thing that struck me about this post was the statement that parents  haven't done something wrong to cause autism in their children. Historians of medicine have reminded me that before the vaccine scare, there was something called the "refrigerator mother" hypothesis. Doctors blamed mothers for being too cold to their children. While the vaccine scare is a problem, the refrigerator mother idea caused pain and suffering for families as well. Here's a piece of the story from the abcnews health blogs: 

Faye Flam @ 8:34 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
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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