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September 2010 Archives

This post's triggered by the fact that I've just spent several hours reading through draft essays that students have asked me to check for them. I definitely don't go through & correct every last thing, but I do identify areas that need work, & I'll give examples of how to improve things. For example, I'll re-write a paragraph as an example of how to tighten up a piece of writing, making it more concise without losing any of the information therein. And a lot of what I've said to my students is equally relevant to those of you intending to sit Schol Bio exams at the end of the year.

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Orac often talks about 'crank magnetism' - the tendency for people who believe strange stuff in one area, to be attracted to other areas of oddness as well. (As far as I can tell, the terms was originally formulated on the denialism blog.) Anyway, having an hypothesis (the above crank magnetism) one must test it - in this case, perhaps most easily done on an observational basis. 'Letters to the editor' are potentially a good source of such information. And so we get...

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Oh noes! I am doomed!! It seems (fictional) biologists are almost as likely to be mad scientists as those of the nucular persuasion (click on the graphic for a better-quality image, courtesy of Mad Science):


I should hang out with the chemists more often... 



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This one's for both teachers & students (& of course, anyone else interested in evolution and evolutionary trees): the Evolutionary Genealogy website :) It's a site that "seeks to promote the teaching and acceptance of the biological theory of evolution by emphasizing one of its great lessons: that life on Earth is one big extended family, and therefore we are related in an exact way to not only every other living thing, but also to every thing that ever lived."

(And hat-tip to PZ for pointing me in this direction, and also towards the paper describing how the Time Tree was developed & how it works.)

Evolutionary Genealogy has information on the 'great tree of life', and how to use it to look at relationships between any 2 organisms on the tree; the concept of evolutionary genealogy, and a link to the Tree of Life project. (There's also a shop with some rather wonderful t-shirts - I can't decide between the border collie & the kitten...)

Related to this is the Time Tree - an on-line calculator that will work out the degrees of seperation/relatedness for you, plus data from both nuclear & mitochondrial DNA, plus links to the sources of the data used in the calculation. Bearing in mind that the dates are perhaps best described as 'fluid' - see PZ's comments thread for an interesting discussion on this), the Time Tree's looks like it could be a useful teaching tool if one wanted to set an exercise in developing a phylogenetic tree for a group of organisms :) (NB I did this for 'cat' & 'human' & the ensuing table of molecular timing data has these words at its head: Laurasiatheria/Euarchontoglires. Looks strange (where did my cat & human go?) - until you remember that neither cats nor humans have been around all that long, & the most recent common ancestor would have been a placental mammal that in all likelihood looked nothing like either modern species :)

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What follows is a re-post of something I originally wrote for my 'other' blog over on Talking Teaching.

One of the things that I find profoundly irritating is hearing tertiary teaching staff decrying the efforts of their colleagues in the secondary education system. [Edit: here I must add that it's not something I hear regularly - but I do hear it.] (And yes, sometimes I respond & make myself rather unpopular.) Comments along the lines of "teachers teach [insert topic name here] really badly; the kids come into my classes & they don't know anything." Or "secondary teachers do a really bad job of preparing students to study [my subject] at university." As well as being patronising, these comments are generally just plain wrong, & they reflect a real lack of understanding of the current nature of science teaching in our secondary schools and of the science curriculum itself.

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This one's for anyone with an interest in chemistry - the Prized Science video series, which aims to look at the significance of chemistry in our lives. My colleague Merilyn Manley-Harris alerted me to this site, & the information she sent through to me follows below. So far there's just the first video of the series up on the site, but it alone is well worth the visit :)

Did life on Mars become life on Earth? What technology worked invisibly behind the headlines to make the Human Genome Project possible? How did wisps of material barely 1/50,000th the width if a human hair become forerunners of a new genre of medicines?

Those topics highlight the premier episode of a ACS new video series, Prized Science:  How the Science Behind ACS Awards Impacts Your Life. It features 2010 Priestley Medalist Richard N. Zare. Rich with high-definition graphics and animations, and commentary suitable for classroom use and other audiences of students and non-scientists, the videos are available without charge at the Prized Science website, YouTube, iTunes and on DVD.  
ACS encourages educators, schools, museums, science centers, news organizations, and others to embed links to Prized Science on their websites. Additional episodes in the series, which focuses on ACS’ 2010 award recipients, will be issued periodically in the months ahead.
“Estimates suggest that more than 30,000 significant prizes - most for scientific or medical research - are awarded annually,” noted ACS President Joseph S. Francisco, Ph.D. “For many of them, the spotlight of news media publicity rightly focuses on the recipients. Often lost behind the headlines, is an explanation of how the science honored in the award impacts the everyday lives of people throughout the world. That is Prized Science’s goal, to give greater visibility to the science that won the prize. In doing so, Prized Science strives to give people who may have no special scientific knowledge the opportunity to watch, listen, and discover how the chemistry behind ACS’ awards transforms life.”


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Or at least, they are, the way I do things :) 

(Had a busy weekend that included spending much of yesterday out here at work running a Scholarship preparation day for local bio students - hence the lack of posts & my desire to do something light & fluffy today!)

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I'm a regular visitor to Science-Based Medicine. Today there's a post about aspartame by Steven Novella, which caught my eye given my own interest in this topic. The first paragraph follows below, but I encourage readers to go across to SBM for the full article :)

If you believe everything you read on the internet, then is seems that a chemical found in thousands of products is causing an epidemic of severe neurological and systemic diseases, like multiple sclerosis and lupus. The FDA, the companies that make the product, and the “medical industrial complex” all know about the dangers of this chemical but are hiding the truth from the public in order to protect corporate profits and avoid the pesky paper work that would accompany the truth being revealed. The only glimmer of hope is a dedicated band of bloggers and anonymous e-mail chain letter authors who aren’t afraid to speak the truth. Armed with the latest anecdotal evidence, unverified speculation, and scientifically implausible claims, they have been tirelessly ranting about the evils of this chemical for years. Undeterred by the countless published studies manufactured by the food cartel that show this chemical is safe, they continue to protect the public by spreading baseless fear and hysteria.

Read Steven's complete post on Science-Based Medicine.

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From the UK's Telegraph (& via the NZ Herald) comes the attention-grabbing headline: 'Finding a bargain feels as good as sex'. Well, I'm a fan of a good bargain (mmmm, coats...) so of course I read on.

And was, as usual with such headlines, disappointed.

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Or should that be octopodes? Anyway, this is so much more interesting than so-called psychic octopuses: an octopus whose mimicry can make it more conspicuous, not less.

The 'mimic' octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus - now, there's a name that Terry Pratchett would appreciate) is arguably the best colour-changer on the block, & it combines its colour-trickery with changes in apparent shape that allow it to be beautifully camouflaged. This sort of cryptic behaviour (aka 'crypsis') is well-known in cephalopods, which have very flexible bodies & so can take on a whole range of different postures (aka polyphenism) that may result in them looking nothing like an octopus or squid, at all. Huffard et al. (2010) comment that this sort of shape-changing ability "may impair their predators' formation and use of a search image." In other words, the poor old predator can never be quite sure what its potential dinner is going to look like.

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The need (not urge, need!) to do housework finally caught up with me this weekend, & now that's over I really need to do some final preparation for my classes tomorrow. So here are a few snippets to tide you over...

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I've just read an article by Joanne Kenen, who discusses the ever-difficult question faced by emergency-room doctors of when to raise end-of-life issues with a patient. Because I've had a bit of a discussion over at SciBlogs on the issue of how well we communicate about science in general, I thought (it being Friday) that I might muse a bit more on the topic here.

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It's that time of year again, & I'm working on my resources for the sessions I'll be giving (in Hamilton on September 19th) & over in Hawkes Bay in October) on preparing for the Scholarship Biology exams. By now many of you will have made the decision to sit these exams, & I hope I'll see some of you at my preparation days :) (I've sent invites out to your teachers; and I believe Marcus is running a day for Physics students as well.) Anyway, I'm just reading the examiner's report for last year's paper & thought I'd share some of their comments with you, by way of helping you to focus on what's going to be required in the exam.

(PS yes, Marcus is running a Schol Physics preparation day - it'll be on October 2nd. Contact him through his blog if you'd like to know more about this.)

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One of my readers has forwarded an e-mail purporting to warn of the dangers of so-called aspartame poisoning. This particular e-mail has been circulating since at least 1998 & has been eviscerated on sites such as the hoax-busting, but I thought I might address some of its wilder claims here anyway (I feel like something 'lighter' today!).

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I suspect that many people, asked where you'd find marsupials, would answer 'Australia' & leave it at that. But while we may be most familiar with Skippy & his ilk, those pouched mammals across the Tasman have close cousins half a world away - in South America.

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Beery bladders... yes, OK, if you drink enough beer your bladder will fill up, but that's not the focus of a delightful post by Scicurious on Neurotic physiology. It's a tale of how doctors followed their noses to find that several seriously ill patients had yeast infections - and a decidedly beery odour. And no, they hadn't been drinking contraband after lights-out on the wards.

Lose weight by taking public transport? Sounds almost too good to be true  - but Paul Statt reports that a recent study does seem to show that taking the bus or train is good for you, as well as good for the planet.

And for the ecologists: in 'War & Fish' David Malakoff of Conservation Magazine describes the results of a study looking at the impact of World War II on fish stocks in the North Sea. Bombs, mines, torpedos, & the general call-up of fishermen to join the war effort saw an effective cessation of North Sea fishing & a big bounce-back in fish stocks. An argument for marine reseves in that part of the world?

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I know I've said it before, but you really do learn something new every day :) I was browsing through my collection of Science alerts & an item about Legionella caught my eye. Legionella pneumophila is the bacterium that causes Legionnaires' disease, so named because it was first identified when several people attending a 1976 meeting of the American Legion came down with a serious form of pneumonia. But what I didn't know was that this bacterium is able to grow inside the cells of those affected with it - it's what's known as a 'facultative' intracellular pathogen (where 'facultative' means that it doesn't have to live this way & can also live outside of the host's cells). This raises a couple of interesting questions - how does it manage to avoid being digested by the cells it infects, and how does it get the various bits & pieces that it needs in order to survive & reproduce?

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A week or so back, one of the weekend papers ran a story on just how many beers someone needed to drink before they'd be legally too drunk to drive. The Significant Other & I were staggered to find that the answer was, A Lot. (Around 9, as I recall.) Speaking for myself, about 2 would do it for me - after that, I wouldn't feel safe to drive. And yet, as Christian Jarrett points out in BPS Research Digest, most people are hopelessly bad at recognising the signs of inebriation in others.

Those of you preparing for Level 3 or Scholarship exams at the end of the year will (among other things) be learning about human cultural evolution. Some of the evidence for the development of culture comes in the form of carvings, including of the human form - the various 'Venus' figurines are a good example. Over at Gambler's House, teofilo presents information on another type of representation: human effigy vases.

And on Deep-Sea News,  Kevin Zelnio writes about a beautiful arthropod fossil, new to science but very old in the scale of arthropod evolution. Just occasionally palaeontologists find spots (lagerstatten) where the fossil assemblages are rich and amazingly well-preserved. From one such site in China comes Yicaris, an ancient crustacean, and one that's probably very close to the point at which crustacea diverged from the other arthropod lineages. (The late Stephen Jay Gould would have loved this one!)

I do like being on leave - it's nice to have the chance to roam the science blogs more widely :)

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