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October 2009 Archives

Well, Marcus & I have just completed a Scholarship preparation session in New Plymouth - it was (I hope!) a useful & enjoyable time for all involved. Marcus & I enjoyed it anyway - we both get a buzz out of working with groups like this (one of the reasons, as far as I'm concerned anyway, is the very perceptive questions & suggestions that students come up with.)

Anyway, my group spent a fair bit of time working through last year's Schol Bio paper, including this question: Identify  and discuss the patterns and processes of antifreeze glycoprotein (AFGP) evolution in polar fishes. The question also provides quite a bit of contextual information - and it's really important that you read this carefully! It contains a lot of useful data that you can integrate into your answer (& the markers would have been looking for this).

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A while back I wrote about the wolves of Yellowstone & what they can tell us about the ecological impacts of a top predator. Wolves were reintroduced to the US's Yellowstone National Park in 1995, after an absence of around 50 years, & wildlife biologists were having a field day (pardon the pun!) examining the ecological impact of this reintroduction.

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I thought it would be hard to beat 'When zombies attack'. That was, until Grant alerted me to this one: 'Fellatio by fruit bats prolongs copulation time'. The fiend! How did he beat me to this?? Ed Yong has written all about it on his blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science, and you can find the original PLoS paper here. (Now I come to think of it, I did see a male fruit bat doing a spot of what looked awfully like masturbation against the mesh of his cage, when we were in Vanuatu last year...)

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I was spurred to write this by reading the latest post on the Quackometer. Dr Luc Montagnier shared the 2008 Nobel prize for medicine or physiology, for the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus, a discovery with a significant impact on our understanding of the evolution and spread of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

However, as the Quackometer notes, he's recently published in a different area. A rather strange area...

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From time to time my Significant Other's thoughts turn to life in the country. This can manifest itself in the purchase of lifestyle-block magazines. I was flipping through one this morning & came across an item on self-grooming in cows, & thought I'd look into it a bit further as it seemed to fit with my last post on cows learning to run mazes. Also I thought it was a rather neat idea :-)

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I originally wrote the material in this post for the Science on the Farm websiteIt's re-posted here because I thought it might be an interesting extension for those of you currently studying animal behaviour.

Automatic milking is an exciting technological innovation facing the dairy industry in New Zealand, with the potential to affect farming lifestyles and boost productivity. This technology is quite well-established in Europe, where it's fairly straightforward to train cows to move from an indoors feedlot to a robotic milking system. However, in New Zealand, with its pasture-based farming systems, things are not quite so simple.  Tania Blackmore, whose PhD research is examining how best to help cows find their way to the milking robot, comments that "It's not so easy to ensure that individual animals flow smoothly from the paddock to the shed and back to fresh pasture." Automatic milking requires cows to find their own way to the milking shed, without being driven by humans and often on their own, without herd-mates to follow. This means they are faced with learning how to do this, as well as a range of new behaviours distinctly separate from conventional milking. 

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Today the Science Media Centre carried an item about the just-announced Prime Minister's science prizes (blogged about here by Peter Griffin). These awards (for a top research team, an emerging researcher, the MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year, a science teacher, & a science media communicator) carry a lot of money. They're sure to be hotly contested & will draw out & showcase some of the best that New Zealand has to offer. And this is a Good Thing.

But at the same time, we hear that next year, primary schools won't get any additional support for teaching science (or music, or the arts): any additional funding they receive will be tied to bedding in & supporting the new national standards in numeracy & literacy (the three 'R's).  Yes, our children need to be literate & numerate - but we also need to be ensuring that schools can help them to see the passion, creativity, joy & excitement of science. Where else are our future emerging scientists going to come from?

(And besides, literacy & numeracy aren't stand-alone subjects; they can be taugjht across the curriculum. Think of that report you had to write on a current issue, or the Schol examiner's comments about the need for good communication skills!)

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Apologies in advance - this is way off my usual beaten track but it's been a hard week & I am in need of diversion :-)

Over the last few days there've been a couple of letters to the editor of the Waikato Times, talking about our electricity supply. The first suggested that Nikola Tesla had invented a way of transmitting electricity without wires and without loss of much energy - but that the secret of this was being suppressed by the electricity supply companies (the naughty people!). Tonight we learned that money given to a variety of Marsden fund projects would be much better spent on investigating this lost discovery,due to its enormous significance to our economy (with the implication that much of what scientists & other researchers do is a total waste of time & money).

Now, Tesla is rightly regarded as one of the key players in the development of electricity as an energy source (Marcus could tell you much more!), and he certainly gave more than a little thought to the concept of transmitting energy without wires (the basis of today's induction coils, for example), but the idea of evil Big Business suppressing key discoveries as a way of making money sounds awfully like a conspiracy theory to me :-) After all, no-one's hiding the fact that he investigated the idea (you can find it on wikipedia, after all!), & the eponymous Tesla coil is based on the idea of resonant induction. (Apparently their discharges could be described as 'man-made lightning' - not something to try in your bedroom, then...)

Certainly there are some wild claims out there about Tesla - that he was able to somehow harness the Earth's magnetic field to generate electriciity enough to power an electric car (this is back in 1931). And I suspect that the letter-writer's claims are based on statements such as thiswhen Tesla was determining the resonant frequencies of the earth to potentially transmit unlimited electric power... (And, regretably, pedlars of all sorts of woo have used Tesla's name & work as a way to add a science-y stamp to their out-there claims.)

But anyway, back to the evil Big Electricity Companies - surely they'd be as interested as anyone in this technology? After all, any mechanism by which they could sell us more energy, rather than lose it via resistance in the power lines, would represent profits for them, wouldn't it? (But perhaps I'm being hopelessly naive!) No, it sounds like a conspiracy theory all right: shadowy powerful players (Illuminati, anyone? - warning: don't read too much of this site or your brain cells may suffer uncontrolled apoptosis!), un-named sources, misunderstood geniuses, lack of credible published sources, huge benefits for mankind if only we knew The Truth...

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While driving home on Sunday I listened to another Skeptics Guide podcast. The 'science, or fiction?' segment included the statement that 'scientists had found that a blind man was able to navigate flawlessly around obstacles without using any other senses.' Science, or fiction, indeed. I was inclined to pick it as the 'fiction' statement, until I remembered reading something about the phenomenon known as 'blindsight'.

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I hope not.

Some of my fellow Sciblings have written quite a bit lately about various 'alternative & complementary' health claims. And I've thoroughly enjoyed reading their posts (here & here, for example). So I wonder what their take would be on a story from the UK, helpfully publicised by the Quackometer. Not only is a British MP calling for more & better public health funding for various 'complementary & alternative' therapies - but their Minister of Health is reported as saying “that the Government's position on complementary and alternative medicines, which I shall refer to as CAM, is the same as our position on mainstream medicines. “ In other words, that homeopathy, iridology, relexology & all the other non-scientific, lacking-in-evidence-of-effectiveness modalities should be treated the same as mainstream medical practice when it comes to funding & publicity, and the euros/pounds sterling allocated to health should stretch even further than they have to now. As the Quackometer says, "[to] treat the claims of pseudo-medical cults in the same way as you treat the claims of scientific medical research is an absurdity."

If I was a health consumer in the UK, I'd be worried. But it couldn't happen here. Could it? I hope not.

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... says the blackboard outside the National Aquarium of New Zealand, over in Napier, Hawkes Bay. It also offers tuatara, kiwi, a cafe... Good for an hour or so of investigation, I thought - I was on my way back to Hamilton from a Schol Bio day in Hastings, & wasn't in any particular hurry. I remembered the Aquarium from when it was just the Napier Aquarium, way back when I was rather younger, & was interested to see how it had changed.

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In the last few days I've been lucky enough to spend some time with the latest crop of up-&-coming young scientists :-)

Yesterday I spent the day doing a Scholarship Biology preparation day for students in Hawkes Bay(very kindly hosted by Lindsfarne College in Hastings). I always get a real buzz out of working with the schol students - they ask such thoughtful, penetrating questions & I find that really stimulating. (Hopefully they enjoyed the day as much as I did!) We got through a lot of work (reviewing scholarship, doing some work on critical thinking skills, & applying them to last year's exam) - & there was still time for me to visit a couple of vineyards before the sun went down!

And last Wednesday I was at Morrinsville College, with a bunch of other scientists, judging the East Waikato Science Fair. This is quite a small Fair but it punches well above its weight - students from it have gone on to win the national Realise the Dream competition on a regular basis. I'm always hugely impressed (& at times rather awed, truth be told) by the amazing work that some of these young people are doing in science & technology. An elegantly simple device for getting bulls out of drains (not  a job I'd want to do in any circumstances), a novel post-puller, a way to collect feijoas as they fall, an examination of the contributions of taste & smell in identifying food... & lots more besides. Wondeful stuff!

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On the way to work this morning I was listening to a Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, & one of the topics under discussion was vampires. Vampire moths! How cool is that? Vampire bats I know about, & vampire finches, but blood-sucking moths? I had to find out more...

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In a couple of weeks I'm heading off (with my colleague Marcus Wilson) to Taranaki, for another Schol Bio preparation day. These are always fairly full-on, but there's still time for a bit of R&R. Last year Marcus & I went along to New Plymouth's excellent museum, Puke Ariki, which was hosting a dinosaur exhibition - "A T.rex naimed Sue."

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Coming back from last night's Cafe Scientifique over in Tauranga, the speaker** & I were talking about the nature of science, and moved from there to the seemingly quite widespread acceptance of what could be called 'non-science'. One of the modalities that falls in the 'non-science' group, we agreed, is homeopathy. And this led us to wonder, why can you buy homeopathic 'remedies' in most pharmacies? Doesn't this sit a bit uncomfortably with the science-based training of the pharmacists?

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At the end of my first-year lecture on evolutionary theory, I said that I didn't believe in the theory of evolution - I accepted it as the best possible current explanation for for the enormous body of information we have about life's diversity & relationships. One of my students was quite puzzled by this (at least, I hope it's just one!) - how, they said, could I stand up there & teach them something I didn't believe in?

This caused me to wonder about my teaching - perhaps I hadn't explained myself as clearly as I might have done... But it also highlights the difference between science & what we might call 'other ways of knowing' about the world. Science simply isn't a matter of blind faith (belief) - it's evidence-based. And the data scientists gain is assessed for accuracy & relevance. If the weight of the evidence suggests that a re-think is necessary, then that's what will happen. Nor are scientific theories cast in concrete - they are always subject to change if the evidence warrants this. And in fact they're constantly undergoing rather rigorous testing - after all, if someone could conclusively demonstrate that the theory of evolution was not an accurate explanation, then that someone would be in line for a Nobel prize.

So that's why I don't 'believe' in evolution :-)

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My students & I spent our last couple of tutorials talking about how the mammalian immune system functions: innate immunity, acquired immunity, the whole lot. Our immune system is a wonderful & complex thing. But, just as we tend to overlook the fact that plants show a variety of behavioural responses to their environment, I suspect most people wouldm't recognise that plants also have an immune system of sorts.

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There are a lot of creative people out there :-) A week or so back I showed my first-year class a rap video about DNA. One of them just asked me to put it on Moodle for them, so I went looking...

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While doing a little bedtime reading I came across a recent post by Orac that deconstructs some anti-vaccination nonsense spouted by a blogger (writing about some upcoming H1N1 flu vaccines) in the US. I don't want to repeat it all - pop over to Orac's place for the whole post. But one bit of foolishness made me laugh out loud:

Potassium chloride (30), calcium chloride (31), and sodium chloride (32) are also listed as ingredients for CSL. All three are considered mutagenic for mammalian somatic cells.

In large doses these common chemicals may well be problematic - but they are present in vaccines in concentrations several orders of magnitude lower. Good grief - those of us who love bananas (a good source of potassium chloride), or a sprinkling of table salt (sodium chloride) on our food, or who drink 'sports' drinks after a workout at the gym (calcium chloride) would be in serious trouble if that blogger was correct. And so would the very many hospital patients who've received saline solution intravenously.

Just as well that blogger is very very wrong, then... 

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I've known for ages about the enzyme called telomerase, & I've known why it's important - but I have to confess that I've never actually thought particularly hard about why we need it. 'Why' being in the practical, 'what's going on in the cell?' sense. Lazy thinking on my part, I guess. But today I found out, & learned something new :-)

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... but there may be a brief interruption to regular programming for the next few days. I'm off to Wellington for a meeting & may not have a lot of time for blogging, although I'll try to pull something together in the evenings. If the opportunity doesn't arise (& remember - there are a lot of rather nice restaurants down there!), then things should get back to normal over the weekend. If you are looking for something to read in the interim, may I suggest you visit SciBlogs, our new 'science blogging' community - a wide range of blogs by some most excellent writers :-) You're bound to find something there that takes your fancy!

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After writing about 'Ardi', I remembered that this wasn't the only paper I'd read recently suggesting that our ancestors were not knucklewalkers and that knuckle-walking must have evolved independently in the gorilla & chimp lineages. (We can say this because, if the last common ancestor of chimps & humans didn't get around by knuckle-walking, then neither did the earlier last common ancestor of chimps-humans & gorillas.) Also in my 'to write about' folder is a paper by Tracy Kivell & Daniel Schmitt (2009), entitled Independent evolution of knuckle-walking in African apes shows that humans did not evolve from a knuckle-walking ancestor.

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A friend of mine's sent me an item from National Geographic with the headline 'Oldest "human" skeleton found - disproves "missing link"'. (Thanks, Heather!) The story itself is based on the publication this week of a series of papers describing aspects of Ardipithecus ramidus, & they make extremely interesting reading. But before I start talking about them, please allow me a little vent...

really dislike headlines like this! OK, they attract attention, but... Essentially what it's saying is that the last common ancestor that humans share with our sister species, chimpanzees, wasn't particularly chimp-like, so we can kiss the idea of that sort of 'missing link' goodbye. But is there any good reason why that last common ancestor might have been like modern chimps? After all, they've been progressing down their own evolutionary path over the last 6 million years or so, just like us. The article also notes that 'Lucy' aka Australopithecus afarensis is no longer 'it'. But then, at 3.2 million years old, she was always going to be too young to be even remotely representative of that common ancestor, which DNA analyses suggest lived around 6my ago. Anyway, back to the chase...

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Last night I caught parts of Caveman (starring Ringo Starr & a dinosaur) while playing with the puppy - the daughter & her friend were watching it. Um, er, what can I say? ...?? I liked the dinosaur, he had personality & panache :-)

Anyway, Ringo & the other human cast members were scurrying around (in a sort of troglodytic way - some of them couldn't remember whether they were supposed to be bipedal or not....) dressed in fetching ensembles of what may or may not have been faux fur which still allowed them to flash quite a bit of flesh. Archetypical caveman get-up, in other words. We can be fairly sure that our ancestors would have done this, although not when the practice originated - but I'd suspect any naked ape living in a cold climate would have hit on some way of keeping warm, so maybe erectus living in China would have wrapped themselves in animal skins. But when did we become more sophisticated, & develop textiles? A paper published in Science last month suggests that the manufacture of cords from plant material was happening around 30,000 years ago.

In 2007 & 2008 Eliso Kvavadze and his colleagues collected 86 clay samples from the floor of a Georgian cave. During the Upper Palaeolithic the cave was lived in by H.sapiens populations over  some thousands of years. Among the many microfossils contained in the clay (pollen, fungal spores, algae and animal hair), they found hundreds of fibres of wild flax that had been twisted and knotted - & in some cases dyed. While cords made from the fibres could have been used in a variety of ways, the fact that some of them were coloured led the team (Kvavadze et all) to hypothesise that they'd been used to manufacture textiles. While this may sound a bit tenuous, there does seem to be a bit of supporting evidence; the presence of animal hair, the remains of skin beetles (which attack preserved skins) & the spores of a fungus that these days grows on & destroys fabric. So, if this interpretation's correct (& hopefully there'll be other, similar finds), then our ancestors were beginning to manufacture textiles not long after they migrated out of Africa & into Georgia around 30,000 years ago.

E.Kvavadze, O.Bar-Josef, A.Belfer-Cohen, E.Boaretto, N.Jakeli, Z.Matskevich & T.Meshveliani (2009) 30,000-year-old wild flax fibres. Science 325: 1359

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