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January 2010 Archives

Yesterday we went across to Tauranga to see my in-laws. It was a terrible day for driving; the forecast was for periods of heavy rain & it was pouring down when we arrived. My father-in-law had emptied the rain gauge that morning (23mm, he said), & by 1pm it was back up to 80mm & rising. There was a lot of surface flooding on the road coming home, the roadside drains had turned to foaming brown torrents, and many paddocks were more like pools, with cattle standing close to hedges to avoid at least some of the driving rain.

And seeing those pools my thoughts turned (as they do) - to rotifers.

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The family finally got its act together & went to see Avatar. In 3D :-) (Actually our act was arranged by friends, who also organised us into an al fresco meal of fish'n'chips beforehand.) I carefully didn't read anything much about the movie before I went, so I'm aware that what I've got to say has probably been said before - but here goes, anyway.  

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Frm PHD Comics (via Pharyngula):

 

I couldn't agree more :-)

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A while ago I wrote a post on the so-called 'miracle mineral supplement', aka MMS. I thought I'd re-post it following an article debunking this nostrum in the Sunday Star-Times. My original post attracted a couple of comments from people claiming that MMS will cure a multitude of ills; I've reproduced them, & my responses, after the re-post.

After reading & commenting on that letter, which attributed health benefits to sodium chlorite, I found my interest had been piqued. Just what has been claimed for this chemical? So I went looking...

 

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A colleague sent me advance notice of an upcoming protest: a 'mass overdose' of sugar pills being organised as a protest against 'homeopathic remedies'. (Grant picked up on this & has blogged on it over at SciBlogs. This got me thinking (as these things do) about an interesting podcast by Mark Crislip, who focuses on supplements & 'complementary & alternative medicines'. This particular episode concerned claims that a particular food, supplement or treatment 'boosts the immune system'. There are a few questions you should ask when you hear such statements.

 

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The following is from the Young Australian Skeptics website - I've copied the whole post across because it's a brief one (& I've added links to book reviews):

We probably have all encountered scientifically ignorant people, for some people knowing the complexities of the universe is simply not interesting. This ignorance is generally spawned within the Medias interpretation of science and scientists; however a scientist known as Len Fisher is doing something about this by communicating science to the general community. Earlier in Brisbane  this year (as part of the BrisScience and BWF Festival) he held a seminar on how science should be communicated to the public. Len Fisher is best known for his ignoble prize for physics; it related to the topic why biscuits go soggy when you dip them in your tea.

He was contacted by a biscuit company to conduct this research, much to the derision of his colleagues; however his aim was to show to the media how real scientists think about everyday problems. He made it very clear to the reporters that the research was not really “life or death” serious research but it was to illustrate that science is not just a collections of immaterial facts and figures, but the study of reality. This was also seen in his desire for the motto and aim of the ignoble prize completion to be changed; it was originally an award for “Science that should not and cannot be reproduced”, he morphed this to “Science that first makes you laugh, then makes you think”.

This aim was to elevate respect for science within the community and to inspire interest in education. Len fisher has also authored several novels on a variety of topics: Rock, Paper and Scissors: Game Theory in everyday life, How to dunk a doughnut: The science of everyday life, Weighing the soul: The evolution of Scientific ideas, The perfect swarm: The science of Complexity in everyday life. By illustrating common science to the community Fisher is attempting to stir interest within the community, young and old, and this approach might help fellow communicators to attract and maintain interest in how the world works.

As a result of reading the above I've come to a number of conclusions: a) I want to meet Len Fisher & learn stuff from him! b) I need to keep an eye open for future BrisScience events; & c) there isn't enough time in the future timespan of the universe to read all the good science books I come across. (Well, OK, that last is pure exaggeration, but you know what I mean!) 

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I'll be using this lolcat in my classes for sure :-)

funny pictures of cats with captions

And seeing it spurred me to write a bit about studying at university, for those of you who'll be heading that way this year. Namely, that it's not like being at school.

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Over at Terrapin Procrastination there is a lovely long list of zoological videos for you to watch. (I don't know whether or not to thank PZ for directing me there - right now I don't have time to procrastinate!). My favourite description from the list would have to be "“sea angel” (pelagic nudibranch) kills and eats a “sea butterfly” (pelagic snail)(with disconcerting Japanese soundtrack!)", but they all sound good & I think I will be up for a little evening video-viewing for a while. (Yes, I do watch films from time to time, but these are rather different from Dean Spanley & that ilk!) I hope there's something there to titillate your fancy :-)
 

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One of the things that sets science apart is the way that it operates, building on the work of others and accepting, rejecting or altering understandings as new data come to hand. The idea that science is so open to change seems to be one of the hardest things to get across, in the classroom & in society at large: there seems to be constant surprise that scientists might alter their conclusions on an issue in the light of new information, and that each generation of scientists builds on the work of those who have gone before them.

That last point is perhaps exemplified by this quote from Isaac Newton: 'If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants' (Newton was writing to his colleague, Robert Hooke, at the time, & I have heard it said that he was being rather snarky; Hooke was a small man.) Now Orac has a wonderful post about stepping back into the past in the medical world - how much of what doctors do today is dependent on the discoveries & advances of previous generations. You could substitute 'scientists' for 'medical doctors' & the message would be the same. [Warning: there is a graphic description of a pre-anaesthesia operation on a malignant breast tumour - perhaps not best for reading over lunch...]

(Orac's post could be a good basis for a classroom thought experiment; some of his commenters give some good supporting reading material, in the form of science-fiction novels based on the back-in-time premise. Now, if I could only think of a way to fit this into my lectures...)

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By now, my readers, you have probably cottoned on to the fact that I enjoy lolcats :-) But it's OK - because they're scientific! (For some reason the cats appear to be more into physics than biology...)

funny pictures of cats with captions

I actually quite like using images like this occasionally in my lectures, to liven things up or make a point. Anyway, hopefully you'll get a giggle out of some of them.

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Ben Goldacre has written an interesting post on a 'news' item comparing pay scales for UK workers in the public & private sectors. The original story drew a number of comparisons between the two, several of which turn out, on closer examination, to be spurious. For example, the item comments that public servants work fewer hours than those in the private sector - but as Ben points out, in the UK there is a higher proportion of part-time workers in the public sector, & those doing the analysis hadn't bothered to distinguish between the two but lumped them all in together. The story also suggests that public sector employees in the UK are paid more than their peers in the private arena. But this comparison is also a tricky one, because many state-employee roles don't have an exact match with private sector positions (policemen & firemen, for example). And this works both ways: some of the lowest-paid UK private sector employees work in retail - not something the state sector is involved in.

So, another example of the need for caution when interpreting statistical data. (And worth remembering next time private:public comparisons are made here in NZ...)

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Plants have a fascinating array of adaptations that function to maximise the odds of successful reproduction. Flamboyantly shaped & coloured flowers spring to mind, not to mention nectar rewards & attractive scents (which are not necessarily pleasant to the human nose, but then, Rafflesia isn't out to attract us!). One of the more unusual adaptations is cauliflory - the flowers are produced on the main trunk or branches of the plant, rather than on a separate flower stem. (Ironically, cauliflower is not an example of a cauliflorous plant. That tightly bunched white head - so yummy with a nice tasty cheese sauce - is derived from a 'normal' flower, borne like a lily, orchid or rose on a young leafy stem that develops from an apical or axillary bud.)

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 When I was an undergraduate a joke about wide-mouthed frogs went the rounds...

Frog mouths are quite interesting, actually. Look into that gape & you'll see a tongue (which is rooted at the front of the mouth, allowing it a greater forward reach). Back of the tongue is the glottis, opening into the trachea, & behind it the entrance to the oesophagus (showing, yet again, that if life was designed then the designer did a fairly poor job of it - having the airway & food passage cross over in the back of the throat is not really a good thing...). And on either side, in from the jaw joint, are the openings to the eustachian tubes that link the throat & inner ear. Another thing I find fascinating is that if you look at the roof of a frog's mouth, you'll see two bulges that mark the underside of the eyeballs. (Once a zoologist, always a zoologist...)

But this post is about another type of frog mouth altogether. Or, to be correct, a frogmouth:

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And no, I'm not talking about triffids here. More a part of the continuing series on plant root adaptations. I've mentioned mangroves in passing before (to do with their pneumatophores), but the thing that stood out for me about the mangroves we saw in Queensland was the fact that they looked like they were on stilts:

mangroves at low tide.JPGThese trees looked quite different from the familiar NZ mangrove. Mangroves here belong to a single species, Avecennia marina, which is found around the coastline of the top third of our North Island (reaching its southern limits - linked to average daily temperatures - in Kawhia & Ohiwa harbours). A.marina is just one of a group of species grouped under the name 'mangroves' (around 30 different species in Australia), characterised by their habitat as much as anything: they grow in muddy intertidal zones along coastlines & in estuaries. That is, 'mangrove' is an ecological rather than a taxonomic classification. 'Our' mangrove differs from the ones we saw over the ditch in that 'theirs' have those rather wonderful stilt roots.

Well, some of 'theirs' do. It seems that mangroves can be put into 3 groups: 'red', 'black', & 'white' mangroves. The 'red' mangroves grow closest to the water and put down stilt-like 'prop' roots, like the ones shown above. 'Black' mangroves - belonging to the genus Avicennia - put up pneumatophores to allow them to obtain oxygen from the atmosphere. They tend to grow inland of the 'red' trees. "White' mangroves grow even further inland & don't usually have either type of specialised roots.

I learn something new every day :-) 

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