Archive for the 'Science' category

Debris Threat to International Space Station; Crew Evacuating to Soyuz as Precaution

Mar 12 2009 Published by under Science

A moderately large piece of space debris has only recently been identified as a threat to the International Space Station - too recently for the station to be moved out of the way. The object is now projected to pass close enough to the ISS to put it into the high threat category. As a result, the astronauts onboard the ISS will be moving from the station into the Soyuz escape capsule as a safety precaution.

The closest approach is predicted to occur at 11:39 CDT - about 20 minutes from now. The crew is currently preparing to board the Soyuz. If all goes well, they'll be in the Soyuz from 11:34-11:44 - the ten minute period that brackets the closest approach.

(Via Universe Today)

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Guest Book Review: Death From The Skies

Mar 06 2009 Published by under Misc Science, Science

A few weeks ago, I read, enjoyed, and reviewed Phil Plait's Death From the Skies. After I caught my daughter looking at the book a couple of times, I managed to bribe convince her to write a review of the book. The result is the following review. I fixed the formatting a little bit, but I had absolutely no role in the development of the text.

Death From the Skies

When I got death from the skies I thought that it would be about people getting an unpleasant visit from flaming meteors, I was wrong. It was about the ways the world will end. I then got depressed and then got an unsettling rush of emotions all at once. Now many people are convinced that I'm bi-polar! But seriously, the book is good. I'll give it that much.

I like that the book isn't full of made up stuff. I like that it has something to do with people getting a wake up call from meteors as well. But what I like the most is that Philip Plait addresses it calmly. He says it as calmly as saying that dinner is ready. So that makes me a little calm instead of losing my mind and making my will with crayons.

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Two cool fossil finds

Feb 04 2009 Published by under Science

Ed Yong has a nice article up about a new fossil find. This one is megafauna that probably wouldn't be very charismatic up close - a fifty foot, two thousand pound + snake.

Over at Wired Science, there's an article about some fossilized traces that represent the earliest evidence of multicellular life yet found - a chemical that's produced only by sponges that's turned up in 635 million year old rocks.

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A Fossil Fetus and what it can tell us about the life history of early whales.

Feb 03 2009 Published by under Biology, Geology, Science
An article published tonight in the journal PLoS ONE is forcing scientists to rethink everything they thought they knew about whale evolution.

OK. That's not actually true. But I've got a bet going that "someone" is going to use the phrase "rethink everything" in their story about this find, so better safe than sorry. Plus, it's a way cooler lede than "new whale fossil discovery matches predictions beautifully", even if the mundane description is the one that's just the tiniest bit more accurate.

Seriously, though, a multinational team of authors led by University of Michigan rock star Philip Gingerich is reporting a huge paleontological find - a fossilized pregnant early whale. It's the first time that an early cetacean has been found with a fetus. They also report finding the remains of a male of the same species. This combination of fossils - male, female, and fetus - is absolutely fantastic, because it provides information about so may different parts of the life history of this species.

Since one of the fossils found was a pregnant female, the researchers have named the new species Maiacetus inuus. The Maiacetus part of the name comes from the Greek for "mother whale". The inuus comes from the ancient Roman god Inuus, who was apparently the deity who handled (so to speak) sexual intercourse. That conjugation of names might be a bit unfortunate. It isn't as bad as some I've seen (Amorphophallus geei immediately springs to mind), but it does look like one possible translation of this whale's name would be "holy mother whale...

But anyway.

The fossils in question were found in 2000 and 2004, in an area of Pakistan that's already taught us a great deal of what we know about early whales. The newly-reported remains date to the early middle Eocene epoch (about 47.5 million years ago). This was a really interesting period in whale evolution, because it was a time when whales had not yet become fully marine organisms.

The skeleton of the male is the most complete of the three, and provides the best view of what the animal would have looked like while alive:


Artist's conception of male Maiacetus inuus with transparent overlay of skeleton. (Click to enlarge)

Credit: John Klausmeyer and Bonnie Miljour, University of Michigan Museums of Natural History

image courtesy of PLoS

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Global Warming, The Carbon Cycle, and Fish Poop.

When we talk about the role of fossil fuels in climate chance, what we're really talking about is the carbon cycle. That's the term that scientists use to describe the different forms that carbon is stored in on the earth, and the different ways that it can move from form to form. Understanding the carbon cycle is one of the keys to understanding both the effect of burning carbon-based fuels and the issues involved in trying to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. According to a paper in the latest edition of Science, there may still be some pretty significant gaps in our knowledge of the carbon cycle. In particular, it looks like our understanding of the way carbon moves through the oceans may have been suffering because we didn't know poop about fish poop.

Before we get down to the gritty details and talk about what poop has to do with anything, it might be good to start with a quick review of the carbon cycle. Actually, it might be even better to start with a quick review of one of those concepts that we all learn in third-grade physics, but don't think about much in our day to day world: the law of conservation of mass/matter.

Matter is not created or destroyed. Therefore the amount of mass in a closed system will remain constant no matter what happens.

Like most things in science, that might be a bit of a simplification, but when we're looking at something the size of the Earth, it's good enough. Relativity, quantum mechanics, and space dust might all complicate things a bit, but not enough to matter. For our purposes, we can reasonably assume that all the carbon that we're putting into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide has been here since the earth was formed, and that if we want to take the carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere, we're going to have to find somewhere on this planet to store the carbon.

With that in mind, let's look at the some of the more important ways that carbon can move through the crust, oceans, and biosphere, and atmosphere.

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Armor in Freshwater Sticklebacks: Selection Against, or Just No Selection For?

Jan 12 2009 Published by under Anti-Evolutionism, Biology, Science

There are certain organisms that you hear about a lot in evolutionary biology. In some cases, like Drosophila flies or E. coli bacteria, that's because the organisms are easy to use in experimental studies. Other organisms, like Hawaiian silversword plants or Galapagos finches, come up frequently because they're fantastic examples of evolution happening out in the "real world". And then there are those rare cases where an organism is both a fantastic example of evolution in the field, and a convenient organism to work with in more controlled circumstances. The three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) is one of those doubly-convenient organisms.

There are populations of three-spined sticklebacks in the ocean and in many freshwater streams and ponds. The oceanic populations have been around for a long time, but the freshwater populations are all relatively recent in evolutionary terms - they're found in bodies of freshwater that were formed after the ice sheets retreated about 12,000 years ago. These populations appear to have evolved independently of each other, but they share a number of similar traits.

One of the more notable of the traits concerns the bony "armor" along the sides of the fish. The marine populations typically have a line of over 30 bony plates along their sides. The freshwater populations typically have only 6-9 of these plates. Why this is the case is a classic evolutionary biology question: do the freshwater populations lose the armor because there is a real advantage to losing the plates, or do they just lose them because there's no real disadvantage to losing them.

Casey Luskin cites a news story about a recent scientific paper to support his view that the loss of the armor is just the result of the freshwater populations not facing the selective pressure seen in the oceans:

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I've got a hunch that NASA's getting a new Administrator soon.

Apparently, NASA administrator Mike Griffin is a complete bonehead. There's really no other way to describe his recent interactions with the Obama transition team. From an Orlando Sentinel report:

NASA administrator Mike Griffin is not cooperating with President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, is obstructing its efforts to get information and has told its leader that she is "not qualified" to judge his rocket program, the Orlando Sentinel has learned.

In a heated 40-minute conversation last week with Lori Garver, a former NASA associate administrator who heads the space transition team, a red-faced Griffin demanded to speak directly to Obama, according to witnesses.

I'm not an expert in the intricate political maneuverings involved in transitions, but I've got a hunch that telling the head of the transition team that she's not qualified to judge his program has got to be right up near the top of the list of things to not do. She might not be qualified to judge Griffin's programs, but she's sure as hell qualified to judge his behavior.

Alert readers might note that I said that questioning the qualifications of the transition advisor assigned to your department is near the top of the list of things not to do. I didn't say that it's right at the top of the list. I think that position is occupied by something else Griffin said recently.

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There might be someone better for Energy Secretary.

Dec 11 2008 Published by under Science, Science and Politics

But I really don't know who it could possibly be.

If the latest set of transition leaks are as accurate as the previous few have been, President-Elect Obama will announce the nomination of Steven Chu for Energy Secretary.

And. The. Crowd. Goes. Wild.

Chu's background is a bit light on the politics side - no DC job, no elected political office - but even if you consider that to be a down side, the rest of his resume more than makes up for the lack. He's a career scientist. He's a world-class physicist, one of the 1997 recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics, and has been the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 2004.

He understands the scientific process. He knows what it takes to do good science, and how to get in the way of that as little as possible. He's been an effective head of a national laboratory. He's served on international panels on a variety of issues, including climate change. He's an advocate for the use of good science in public policy, and for better science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. All of those things are good indications that this is a guy who might just be able to rebuild the Department of Energy.

Possibly the best thing about Dr. Chu is this: not only does he understand just how much we know about the relationship between climate, energy efficiency, and the environment, he also understands just how much we don't know. He understands how important it is to close that gap, how little time we have to do it, and just why these issues are so important:

I will leave you with this final image. This is -- I was an undergraduate when this picture was taken by Apollo 8 -- and it shows the moon and the Earth's rise. A beautiful planet, a desolate moon. And focus on the fact that there's nowhere else to go.

54427Main Mm Image Feature 102 Jw4

(image source: NASA)

It's a little too early to know for sure, of course, but I don't think Obama went to the right for this particular cabinet appointment.

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Egnor shoots! He scores!

(another own goal, of course.)

There he goes again. Creationist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor's latest post over at the Discovery Institute's Why's Everybody Always Picking On Me blog may have actually reached a new standard for missing the point. And, as both my loyal regular readers know, that's not an easy mark for Egnor to hit.

The current contender is his latest post in a back-and-forth that he's been having with PZ and Orac. Once again, Egnor is attempting to argue that evolutionary biology has not provided any useful insights to the field of medicine. That much is familiar ground. What's new this time is the hypothetical that he's dredged up in an attempt to prove his point. His hypothetical is long and involved, which should provide you with your first warning that the argument is perhaps not as sound as he believes:

What I'm arguing is that the truth or falsehood of Darwinian stories is of no tangible value to medicine. Consider the following example.

I would suspect that careful epidemiological studies of the British population would show that the prevalence and incidence of spina bifida increased following World War One. To my knowledge, this has not been investigated, but it would make sense if it were true, for the following reasons:

Britain suffered enormous casualties during the Great War, as did many other European nations. (I'm just using Britain as an example). It has been said, with asperity, that Britain lost a generation of men on the Western Front. Britain suffered 2,300,000 war casualties -- forty four percent of mobilized men, with 703,000 men killed in battle or by disease. On just one day -- July 1,1916 -- 19,240 British soldiers died in the battle of the Somme. The young men who died were the best of their generation -- healthy, and by definition capable of meeting the rigorous physical standards required for military service.

Of course, other British men with debilitating genetic disorders, such as men with spina bifida (which renders the afflicted congenitally paralyzed), were not in the trenches that day, because they were physically unfit for military service, or at least service on the front lines as infantrymen. It's safe to say that military age British men without spinal bifida were at greater risk of death in the war than were military age British men with spina bifida. Whatever the impediments faced by people with spina bifida -- and they face many impediments -- they were not called to serve and die in the trenches.

Spina bifida would then be a fine example of an environmental adaptation; it was protective against "acute lead poisoning" -- protective against being mowed down by German machine gun fire on the Western Front. So, assuming for argument's sake that my hypothesis about the post-war epidemiology of spina bifida is true, the genes that give rise to spina bifida conferred a selective advantage on young British men in the period 1914 to 1918, and the differential survival (and reproduction) of that age cohort would explain a (hypothetical) increase in the incidence and prevalence of spina bifida in England in the post war period.

Where to begin?

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Hurricane Ike Storm Surge in Pensacola

If you have any doubt about how dangerous Hurricane Ike is likely to be, I've got some pictures for you. These pictures were taken within the past two hours, on the shoreline along the grounds of Naval Air Station Pensacola.

This is a sheltered shoreline, protected by both barrier islands and sandbars, and typical wave heights run under one foot. Currently, they're running at about 3 feet, on top of a water level that looks to be at least 3-5 feet above where it should be. So far, this storm has done more to reshape the beaches I looked at than Gustav did, and Gustav came closer and was moving toward us.

The conditions I was looking at were taking place at a time when the storm center was more than 350 miles to the south, and moving more or less parallel to the shoreline. This storm is moving a hell of a lot of water around. You do not want to be in front of it. If you've been told to get out of the way, get out of the way.

The pictures can be found below the fold.

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