Archive | January 2010

Elysia chlorotica: It’s so easy when I’m green!

This is actually kind of neat, the first example I’ve heard of of an animal that shares plant traits, namely the ability to use photosynthesis, in this article by Susan Milius. It’s a species of algae-eating sea-slug that can incorporate the genes for making chloroplasts, the organelles that green plants use for making sugars from carbon dioxide, water and sunlight.

Anyhoo, the Science News article had this to say…

Shaped like a leaf itself, the slug Elysia chlorotica already has a reputation for kidnapping the photosynthesizing organelles and some genes from algae. Now it turns out that the slug has acquired enough stolen goods to make an entire plant chemical-making pathway work inside an animal body, says Sidney K. Pierce of the University of South Florida in Tampa.

The slugs can manufacture the most common form of chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants that captures energy from sunlight, Pierce reported January 7 at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology.

This kind of reminds me of the green woman with the pixie wings from the Dominion Tank Police anime series, at least in terms of the possibilities of engineering something with a human-like metabolism to use photosynthesis, though admittedly I’m inclined to agree with this article by Catherine Brahic on New Scientist.

Aside from the points raised there, as a layman I would speculate at the most feasibly that any bioengineered photosynthetic human retaining a warm-blooded metabolism would have to spend the entire daylight period absorbing sunlight and could only be active at night, which would make for a very different world. We humans, with the possible exception of couch potatoes, use up an awful lot of calories in our daily routine, probably more than photosynthesis alone can practically provide.

Hmmm, nocturnal humans — might be interesting in a world where everyone is afraid of the daytime — after all, that’s when monsters come out to eat you while you’re sleeping/sunbathing, and can’t run away! Sounds like the plot of a science-fiction novel I may have read…

One of the statements from the first article linked to echos my sentiments well…

“This could be a fusion of a plant and an animal — that’s just cool,” said invertebrate zoologist John Zardus of The Citadel in Charleston, S.C.

Zardus, who says that he tries to maintain healthy skepticism as a matter of principle, would like to hear more about how the team controlled for algal contamination.

…as does another from the same…

“Bizarre,” said Gary Martin, a crustacean biologist at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “Steps in evolution can be more creative than I ever imagined.”

After over a week, there’s been an awful lot of rather…lively discussion in the scientific community, and if this finding holds up under the peer-review process, it will be very interesting to know something about the possibility of finding more ‘plantimals’ like this, and the practical applications of the cross-over of genetic traits, between multicellular organisms. Fnord.

Workers’ tombs discovered near pyramids

Well, here’s yet another nail in the coffin of pyramidiotic claims that unknown or unidentified precursor civilizations like Atlantis, or alien astronauts, or even alien astronauts from Atlantis, built the pyramids and other ancient monuments according to this AP post on Yahoo

CAIRO – Egyptian archaeologists discovered a new set of tombs belonging to the workers who built the great pyramids, shedding light on how the laborers lived and ate more than 4,000 years ago, the antiquities department said Sunday.

The thousands of men who built the last remaining wonder of the ancient world ate meat regularly, worked in three months shifts and were given the honor of being buried in mud brick tombs within the shadow of the sacred pyramids they worked on.

The newly discovered tombs date to Egypt’s 4th Dynasty (2575 B.C. to 2467 B.C.) when the great pyramids were built, according to the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass.

Graves of the pyramid builders were first discovered in the area in 1990, he said, and discoveries such as these show that the workers were paid laborers, rather than the slaves of popular imagination.

It’s cool that piece by piece, the entire puzzle is ever nearing completion, and the claims of those who seek to impose their own cognitive limits on reality regarding the origin of certain ancient monuments, who wish to sell our ancestors short, who assert that early civilizations were too backward, too primitive, no, too stupid to pile rocks atop each other, are being revealed as the house of cards they are. I’m sorry, Mr. Von Däniken, but you have failed me, and your followers, yet again — Bwa ha ha ha ha!

I am a Paranormalist

On nearly every pro-paranormal Web site I’ve been on, and book I’ve read written by believers, the claim is almost universally trotted around that skeptics are not only afraid of the implications of psychic phenomena, but vehemently deny the very possibility of it to calm their fears — and that skepticism toward it centers on the argument that it is impossible, contradicting to all known physical laws.

This claim is not only patently unfounded, a straw man argument, derived from an impatience with skeptics and misunderstanding of skeptical arguments, but in my view is downright silly.

No, the Argument from Impossibility is not the mainstay of skeptical criticism of psi, contrary to popular belief…

Allow me to present my perspective regarding this and what I know of the matter at present.

First, no prominent skeptic of psi whom I can name off the top of my head really argues for its impossibility, since only that which is logically inconsistent can truly be deemed impossible, and skeptics fully admit that our understanding of reality is far from exhaustive.

Second, modern skepticism is all about science, and skeptics do take the time and effort to educate themselves on particulars of this very subject: what it is, how it works, its purpose, its philosophical underpinnings, its findings, and especially its limitations. This means that most who have been skeptics for some time are aware of the fact that modern science is in its infancy, and that we are only now beginning to arrive at an understanding of how the Cosmos operates.

Most skeptics are acutely aware that there are very probably laws of nature, or parts thereof, of which we do not yet know, that our present understanding of the universe is necessarily incomplete, that the most we can say about the current state of our knowledge is just that, that it is simply the current state of our knowledge, and not even close to final, absolute understanding of how the natural world is ‘necessarily so.’

In this sense, skeptics, and myself included, concede that there are unknown facts about the universe that we may yet discover. Scientists are quite aware that they don’t ‘have it all figured out’ yet, or science would have ground to a halt long ago.

The physical science of later on this century, or afterward, may uncover those laws, theories, and facts which allow our use of strange and potentially powerful and wondrous abilities, as our uncovering of those laws we have achieved in the previous few centuries has already done. I cannot say for certain, but I fully concede that wonderful new discoveries have yet to be made, many of which may overturn much of current physics and bring forth new views of reality, new paradigms.

If, by the term ‘paranormal’ one loosely means those mysteries that science has yet to explain, secrets it has yet to uncover, of those wondrous, marvelous, bizarre, or astounding new discoveries that I have little doubt will be made, unanticipated at present by anyone currently alive, in this sense, and in this sense only, I and most of the scientific community, and most of the skeptics I know of, could easily count ourselves as paranormalists despite our views of psi.

But only on this particular…

If on the other hand, the term ‘paranormal’ is used in the more usual sense, to describe certain non-scientific concepts, ideas, and doctrines beyond the bounds of known science that their proponents attempt to pass off as actual science, despite failings of scientific adequacy and a lack of evidential support for them, then I am most assuredly in the camp of a skeptic until better evidence is made available.

Don’t get me wrong, unorthodox ideas are essential for science to move forward, and contrary to the claims of pseudoscientists, most mainstream science journals do feature quite a few of these, a lot of which turn out to be wrong. Pick up a copy of Nature, or Scientific American, and you’ll see what I mean.

But to be acceptable, to be scientifically adequate, to mass muster as a promising idea, the concept in question must abide by standards of evidence and logic proportionate to the degree to which the claim contravenes what we can honestly say we provisionally know to be true.

The more bizarre the claim, the more solid the evidence must be, especially if the claim in question has profound implications.

Those of us skeptical of psi at worst consider said evidence to be worthless, and at best, inconclusive. Simply put, skeptics and believers have differing bars for evidence, not just in interpretation, but upon what counts as sufficient, not just necessary evidence at the present time.

Skeptical critiques of parapsychology, when done well, consist of postjudice, not prejudice, an assessment on the matter made after, not before, looking at the evidence.

Unfortunately, parapsychology is relatively stagnant as a field in contrast to almost every other area of research, and has found nothing new that truly adds to our knowledge of the universe, despite the remarkable implications of that knowledge should it ever be discovered.

I cannot say if this state of affairs will continue, and it would be disappointing if it does.

The uncovering of a new way of looking at reality would be interesting to say the least, more interesting than the only real discoveries of parapsychology made at the time of this writing: the paltry and trite excuses for why psi experiments conducted by those skeptical or unbiased toward the phenomenon in question fail to replicate.

Until parapsychologists can overcome this hurdle, their claims will never be taken seriously by the science community, and their field will continue to be regarded as pseudoscience, nothing more.

Sagittarius A* — It’s not nomming as much as we thought.

Black holes…monsters that devour everything that gets too close. They can be found all over the universe, and there’s a supermassive one at the center of many if not all galaxies — including an enormous one at the core of our own galaxy, the Milky Way — a multimillion stellar-mass monstrosity named Sagittarius A*.

When a star of sufficient mass destroys itself in a cataclysmic explosion, a supernova, it leaves behind a both a powerful blast-wave and a strange corpse — the black hole — a bottomless pit in reality whose very center, called a singularity, exists only as a dimensionless point, and whose crushing gravity, due to its infinitesimal size, allows the escape of nothing in the known universe that crosses its outer ‘surface,’ including light itself. This ‘surface,’ the event horizon, is so named because it is the horizon beyond which we cannot know what events occur. Anything happening within this region is literally outside of our ability to potentially interact with it, and therefore for all intents and purposes, outside of the universe.

But a black hole’s gravity is due to more than just mass. Had it been the case that the Earth were somehow squeezed to the size of a pea, it too would become a black hole.

Never mind that the self-styled revolutionaries of the Neo-Velikovskian electric universe doctrine claim that such gravitationally ideological things don’t actually exist, since they’ve been confirmed to almost certainly exist by every observational test to date, and they have been extremely useful in testing, and in many cases, revising earlier models of how we think the Universe works. Modern astronomy, the very science of the exotic, freely subverts its own paradigms quite nicely, thank you very much.

Sagittarius A* has been suspected to be a picky eater for some time now, but we’ve found out that it eats even less than we thought, feeding mostly on the winds emitted by massive stars relatively near to it in the galactic core, and not very much of that.

We know that these young stars, though much closer to it than we on the galactic suburbs, are distant enough to be only weakly affected by Sagittarius A*’s gravity, and so it has been going nom nom nom on relatively small amounts of the gas shed by the young but massive stars, only about .0001 of the full amount.

We’ve developed new theoretical models for how black holes feed, and how they give off massive jets of particles at near-light velocities in the entities we call blazars, quasars, and radio galaxies. The latest observations of Sagittarius A* were made using deep scans by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and have told us much about its appetite, and why it isn’t pigging out on what little it does receive from its food source.

Science-fiction stories, such as Larry Niven’s Known Space tales, have postulated a wave of radiation perhaps emitted by a massively feeding central black hole endangering all life in the galaxy, but Sag A* (for short) doesn’t seem that hungry, or inclined to give out much in the way of emissions that might threaten us in the future, at least, not until the collision of our galaxy with Andromeda, or M31, some billions of years hence.

Don’t get me wrong, there are signs that the Sag A* is a source of radiation, (We’ve detected gamma-rays from positron/electron annihilation in the direction of the galactic center. Black holes make wonderful particle accelerators…) but mostly around the vicinity of the core rather than anywhere near us, so for now, we can just sit back, collect data from our observatories, and let our findings bring forth ever more awesome models of reality. This century is such a cool time for astronomy…

Religion: Tell Them Everything

As an atheist, at least at the time of this writing, I am often faced with the accusation of being anti-religion. Well, I’m not — not a bit — though I am critical of religious fundamentalism, and even anti-religious extremism where it actually exists.

I have at times been appalled at the rabidness of both extreme atheists as well as extreme religionists, and to me, it is not religion, or non-religion that is the issue to be dealt with, but extremes of faith, belief, worldviews, ideology, and what-have-you that are the real problem at hand.

As an atheist, do I think that religion should be suppressed? Banned? Outlawed? Persecuted in any real way, as opposed to those sects which only imagine themselves to be persecuted? (We all like to imagine ourselves to belong to an embattled minority — it makes us feel special.).

To the previous I can only answer No, No, No and finally, No.

People should be allowed to believe what they want, so long as they to not infringe on the rights of others, deceive, exploit, or otherwise cause physical, psychological or financial harm to others in the exercise of their beliefs.

Those who wish to practice a religion, and raise their children by its tenets, rightly should be allowed to. But there’s a catch: Children raised in religious families should be thoroughly educated in all of the details of their faith. They should be taught absolutely everything about it, all of its doctrines, its teachings, its dogmas, its history, and especially all of its scripture, even those things — so long as they are true — that their elders do not wish them to know.

I also strongly suggest educating the young in comparative religion, so that they can knowledgeably approach the questions of faiths other than their own.

Others have suggested this, philosopher Daniel Dennett for one. I bring it up here because I feel that only through a thorough understanding of what we believe and why we believe it can we hope to avoid the errors endemic to ignorance and extremism in our global civilization, and avoid our suicide as a species. Fnord.

If Darwinism really WAS an “Ism…”

Now, this is what would happen if evolution really was a religion as creationists are often wont to call it. As you can see, it would ironically be not unlike their own…

Not that my Troythuluness has anything against religion — just blind, unthinking literalism… and the tendency of those uptight and insecure in their faith to project themselves onto those they both dislike and fear.

My view is that if you’re secure in what you believe, you need never fear anything being a threat to it, or afraid of changing your mind when evidence warrants it.