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Archive: August, 2012

POSTED: Thursday, August 30, 2012, 3:29 PM

Her name is Venus. She's a fast-rising video and social media star, noted for her strikingly unusual coloration. Half her face is black and half is orange and the two colors are split down the middle. And her eyes are different colors.

Higgs (an orange tabby) has been quite intrigued. He says before he was neutered he would have enjoyed conducting some genetic experiments with her, but now that he lives a life of the mind, he’d just like to know how such an interesting look comes about. 

Some people have speculated that Venus is a chimera – a term that refers to an animal with two different kinds of cells each with a distinct genetic code. Scientists can create chimeric mice and monkeys in the laboratory by mixing cells from two genetically distinct embryos.

Faye Flam @ 3:29 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Wednesday, August 29, 2012, 4:51 PM

This was originally posted in the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. I thought it was also relevant to planet-of-the-apes, so I'm posting it here, too?

There are plenty of reasons not to teach kids creationism as science – the primary ones being that creationism has no scientific merit and it's nutty. So when Bill Nye the science guy posted something on CNN’s website urging parents not to impose creationism on their kids, I was surprised with one of his reasons: “We need engineers that can build stuff and solve problems," he said. He made the same plea on a widely circulated video.

Of course we need engineers, but is there any evidence that creationism prevents people from becoming engineers, or that it interferes with the ability of engineers to do good engineering?
Nye ended his plea to parents by saying that there’s no evidence for creationism. What I want to know is whether there’s any evidence that creationism is bad for engineering. If we’re going to take people to task for believing unfounded things, we should be rigorous about it.

Faye Flam @ 4:51 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Monday, August 27, 2012, 12:21 PM
Fossil of Homo Rudolfensis - a member of the human extended family. (Credit: Nature)

Here's my evolution column for this week. It also appeared today in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The image shows the fossilized remains of a human dubbed Homo rudolfensis. It comes courtesy of the journal Nature:

Are we alone? It’s a question that drives our forays into space, robotic adventures on Mars, and the searches that have revealed thousands of planets orbiting distant suns.

Perhaps we want to reach out because on our planet, we are more alone now than we have ever been. The fossil record shows that for most of the existence of our kind, Homo sapiens, and eons before, the world was shared by multiple species roughly considered human.
Long before Homo sapiens appeared about 200,000 years ago, Homo erectus and other Homo species roamed Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The name Homo refers to our larger grouping, our genus, as scientists say. Homo is Latin for human.

Faye Flam @ 12:21 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Friday, August 24, 2012, 5:33 PM

Starting next month I’ll be moonlighting for another blog – the esteemed Knight Science Journalism Tracker. As this is a slow season, the current Trackers asked me if I wanted to warm up with some guest posts. For my first entry, I chose an interview with Richard Dawkins that appeared in, of all places, Playboy.

Overall I liked the interview, which meandered through atheism, science and religion, death, morality, creationist canards and even animal rights. I did think the piece was too long to sustain interest with the Q&A format, unless perhaps readers were simultaneously “entertaining” themselves with the T&A. Read the post here.
(Warning - clicking on the Playboy link within the piece may call up some Adult images)

Faye Flam @ 5:33 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Friday, August 24, 2012, 12:40 PM

In his plenary talk at the American Chemical Society last week, Nobel winner Mari Molina painted a picture of our atmosphere as wafer thin – like the skin of an apple. So it shouldn’t be too surprising, he said, that our activities have changed its composition. Molina shared the Nobel Prize for his work connecting refrigerants, spray can propellants and other pollutants to the depletion of atmospheric ozone and the ozone hole. 

Now he’s turned his attention to climate change. Molina pointed out that CO2 is a trace gas, but it has a profound effect. Its absence would turn our planet into an iceball, with global average temperatures falling from about 60 degrees F to less than 0 F.
Now, fossil fuel burning and deforestation have nearly doubled Earth’s atmospheric CO2 from before the industrial revolution.  Earth has seen high levels like this in earlier eras during periods of extreme heat. 

“We’re not breaking any paradigms here,” he told the audience. “We’re using very basic science.” But the atmosphere is a complex system and we can’t predict exactly what’s going to happen. To illustrate the point, he showed a drawing of two roulette wheels, each one showing a different range of temperature increases. One represented a future with business and usual and showed a higher range of possibilities. The other wheel represented a future in which we curtail global fossil fuel burning and it displayed a more moderate range of possibilities. Either way we have to play roulette, he said, but which wheel would you rather spin?

Faye Flam @ 12:40 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Thursday, August 23, 2012, 12:11 PM

I have plenty to report on the American Chemical Society taking place this week, but my weekly column deadline looms, so for now I’ll just offer this provocative statement by Eugenie Scott, who is executive director of the National Center for Science Education. She spoke Tuesday at an all-day seminar devoted to communicating controversial areas of science.

In an engaging talk, titled, “It’s not just about the science” she noted that a disproportionate number of chemists denied evolution when compared with scientists in other disciplines. (Scientists on the whole are of course much less likely to be creationists than members of the general public). She said she thought the elevated incidence of creationism in chemistry had to do with the fact that chemistry doesn’t have a historical component, and so chemists think differently from other scientists.

I would modify that to say some chemists can get away with the type of magical thinking that can lead to creationism.  It is possible to believe in supernatural entities, and even use them to fill gaps in scientific knowledge, and still do good work in some sub-fields of chemistry, engineering and other technical disciplines. In an earlier column we heard from a physical chemist who was also a creationist. Such people can be good, competent contributors to American competitiveness. They’re still wrong.

Faye Flam @ 12:11 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Tuesday, August 21, 2012, 4:23 PM

People are still chattering about a July 28 New York Times piece titled “Is Algebra Necessary?” Author Andrew Hacker argued that American schools should drop algebra from the list of required courses. Hacker claims that algebra wasn’t useful to him, and, beyond that, it’s so fearsome a subject that it puts students at risk of dropping out of school entirely. 

A number of science bloggers made counter-arguments. Two good ones include this post by Jennifer Ouellette at Cocktail Party Physics and this one by P.Z. Myers at the always interesting Pharyngula.

Why not come up with a solution that reduces math anxiety without having to trash algebra? Why not, for example, allow a throw–out or two when calculating GPA?  What’s a throw-out? I got this idea from sailboat racing. In regattas with multiple races, competitors are sometimes allowed to eliminate their worst race from the final scoring. If you have, say, six races, you can remain in the competition even if in one of those races something broke on your boat or someone ran into you or some other disaster struck.

Faye Flam @ 4:23 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Sunday, August 19, 2012, 7:54 PM

This is my evolution column for this week. It will also run in Monday’s Philadelphia Inquirer:

A while back, a reader wanted me to investigate whether there was an evolutionary explanation for women sleeping around.

He didn’t come at the question directly, but asked me to look at female low self-esteem and evolution. I pressed on how such low self-esteem was manifested, and that’s when the sex question came out. He said he was worried about his daughters.

Faye Flam @ 7:54 PM  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 Reach Planet of the at

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