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June 2010 Archives




Last year I commented that the following image, while funny, was a 'fail' in scientific terms:

evolution of the cat.jpg

A recent commenter asked, so is this image scientifically correct or incorrect? (My first thought was that teh lolcat at the end should be a clue...) 

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I'm catching up on my reading of other people's blogs, so here are some interesting posts to share with you.

At Laelaps Brian Switek has commented on the latest fossil hominin find. Dubbed 'Kadanuumuu' (or 'Big Man'), this is a partial Australopithecus afarensis skeleton.Kadanuumuu was much larger than the more familiar (& more recent) 'Lucy', & because of this & because of features of the pelvis, the scientists who described the remains feel they were probably those of a male. There's also the suggestion (see the comments thread for Brian's article) that these remains may overturn the current hypothesis that afarensis's ribcage was funnel-shaped. Or may not - we probably need more data on this one.

There's an interesting discussion on Pharyngula  around the separation of science & belief. Part of the post, & the ensuing comments thread, focus on a post by another blogger that appears to be making an argument for students' personal beliefs to count as valid answers in science exams. Every now & then I've seen a student answer a question in this way, rather than giving a reasoned scientific response to said question. In each case I have marked them down, & it's not because I deny students the right to personal belief systems. It's because the question has been science-based, & that's what I expect the answer to be as well. Anyway, the post & discussion are interesting & thought-provoking.

And the Silly Beliefs team have taken a critical look at a recent item on '60 Minutes' that took an extremely credulous stance on the issue of UFOs & alien visitations. I had wondered whether to watch the program but the promos made me think that this would do damage to my blood pressure. Presenting information that turns out to be at least a decade old as something new & exciting doesn't strike me as particularly good journalism...

Enjoy :-)

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Some time ago now I wrote about lactose intolerance in humans & the domestication of cattle. Last year the Schol Bio exam included a question that looked more deeply into lactase non-persistence (which is the normal genetic condition: around 70% of all adults can't digest the milk sugar lactose because the gene coding for the necessary enzyme is 'switched off' in early childhood). The examiner asked students to 

[D]iscuss the presence & occurrence of lactase persistence in different regions of the world. In your discussion consider: the genetics & inheritance of the lactase persistence allele in humans; the role of cultural evolution in the selection of lactase persistence in only certain regions of the world; & the reasons for the current frequency distribution of lactase persistence.

It's an interesting question & so I thought I'd talk more about the whole lactase thing here.

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Sponges are strange organisms - classified as animals, they definitely look the odd one out. I rather like them: no real tissue development, no organs, immobile, & a growth habit that looks distinctly plant-like. Instead, what you get is an organism formed from just a few types of loosely-organised cells, all sitting (& moving) on & within a 'skeleton' made either of a protein (aptly enough, called 'spongin') or of spicules, which are something like fibreglass. You would not want to use a spicule-sponge in the bath, unless you were intending some serious exfoliating.

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Right now, like many of my colleagues, I'm busy marking end-of-semester exams. (In my case this process is complicated by the worst cold I've had in ages...) However, I'm happily procrastinating - as far as the marking's concerned - because something a student wrote in an essay triggered this post :-)

One of my essay questions asked for a discussion of the ways in which terrestrial animals manage the problem of water loss in what is a rather dehydrating environment. With examples. Anyhow, in the course of their answer someone mentioned camels & the widely-believed-but-inaccurate factoid that these desert-dwelling mammals store quantities of water in their humps...

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Trawling through my 'blogging' folder, wondering what to write about, I came across a paper from the New England Journal of Medicine that discusses problems with contaminated dietary supplements in the US (Cohen, 2009). I've previously written about the recall of 'natural' treatments for impotence, & Grant's talked on more than one occasion for the need for 'truth in labelling' for such supplements & other forms of complementary & alternative medicine. So I thought it was about time for a follow-up.

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A couple of days ago, on my post about World Blood Donor day, one of my commenters noted that the NZ Blood Service is apparently going to follow their Canadian & Australian counterparts in banning people from giving blood if they've ever had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. (At the moment folks who've had CFS are OK to donate once they're fully recovered.) The reason for doing so is a purported link between CFS & a particular retrovirus (XMRV, or xenotropic murine retrovirus). 

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This one struck a chord with me - it highlights the 'Intelligent Design' (cdesign proponentsists) tactics during in the Dover trial, and also various anti-vaccination shenanigans such as the use of celebrity endorsements. Well, any anti-science shenanigans, actually...

From Tree Lobsters, via the Millenium Project.

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Today (June 14) is World Blood Donor Day. Blood's not a product that keeps particularly well (about a month, if we're talking whole blood) & blood banks are always looking for new donors. In New Zealand, around 3,000 donations per week are needed in order to meet the demand.

So, if you're been considering giving blood, put the thought into action & rock on down to your nearest NZ Blood Service centre. Giving blood's a straightforward process & can make a profound difference to the lives of others.

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I began my university teaching career in the years B.P. (Before Powerpoint). Blackboards, chalk, & overhead transparencies (often hand-written & hand-drawn) were the order of the day. Since then, Powerpoint has become an almost universal tool & 'chalk-&-talk' is a rarity. But Powerpoint is just a tool, & using it doesn't guarantee a good presentation. (Slides that simply present large blocks of text; blocks of text in tiny fonts; lines of text that 'fly' in from one side or the other; typewriter sounds as letters appear on the screen - don't do it! Please don't go there!)

Anyway, a colleague has just given me a copy of Yiannis Gabriel's 2008 paper looking at the use (& abuse) of Poweroint as a teaching tool. And it's really got me thinking.

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I've heard back from my correspondent on evolution. While I suspect we're talking at cross-purposes & will probably continue to do so, it's worth continuing to address his arguments.

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I've had another e-mail - with the fastest invocation of Godwin's Law that I can remember seeing in a while:

I am horrified to find that neo-Darwinists have hijacked the New Zealand Science Syllabus and are now using it to propogate their religion. As a Christian minister, I'm alarmed that the Atheists, Bioethicists and Nazi Apologists are supported by New Zealand taxpayers to advance their theories as "facts".
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This is a re-post of something I originally wrote for the 'other' blog that I share with Marcus & Fabiana.

A couple of days ago I took part in a discussion around reflective writing. It was organised by the University's Student Learning Support team, with the intention of helping students working towards their PhDs to think - in a reflective way - about what they are writing. I was asked along because the organisers felt that some of my blog posts were a good example of reflective writing - showing in my writing how my thoughts about a particular topic develop. (This is the example they chose as a basis for the discussion.) It was an interesting & productive session, & I think I probably learned as much as the students (albeit about different things).

One of the students asked me how thinking about science & reflecting on research affected my teaching. There followed a brief pause for thought :-)

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A couple of days ago the morning paper carried a story about acupuncture. More specifically, a story saying that researchers had shown how acupuncture works to reduce pain. The study was done in mice (& so presumably used very small needles) & found that 'needling' was followed by release of adenosine, a substance which has been known for some time to reduce sensations of pain.

It sounded interesting & I filed it away mentally for further examination. Unfortunately time is passing & I haven't a huge amount of it to spare. Fortunately Orac has done his usual thorough job of reviewing the original research paper (& identifying some of the more overheated reactions to the publication). So go over there to read his review & join in the discussion :-)

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You're probably fairly familiar with some of the iconography associated with human evolution. Here's a frequently-used image:

and there's another similar one, which uses a visual joke to make a serious point about where dietary habits in the West may lead us.



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