Friday, February 25, 2011

New Zealand Earthquake Tragedy "Mommy, I got buried."

The first text message said: "Mommy, I got buried." About 40 minutes later: "Mommy, I can't move my right hand." Then, a brief call from New Zealand's earthquake rubble to parents in the Philippines pleading to send help.

After another harrowing hour in a crumpled building, when she sent a half-dozen more texts about increasing pain, continued shaking and overwhelming smoke, came the final one: "Please make it quick."

That was the last the Amantillo family heard from 23-year-old student Louise Amantillo, who is among dozens of foreigners missing after their language school disintegrated in Tuesday's collapse of the prominent CTV building in Christchurch.

"Her voice was shaking, like she was really scared. I know she was in pain," her mother, Linda Amantillo, told The Associated Press from her hometown in the central Philippines. Three days after receiving the last text, she was desperately hoping that her daughter was still alive.

Officials have said they are virtually certain no one is surviving in the ruins of the CTV building, and that up to 120 bodies are entombed there.

The Amantillos are a medical family, from Iloilo province in the central Philippines where they speak the Ilonggo dialect.

Linda Amantillo is a nurse and her husband, Alexander, is a doctor. Their daughter followed suit and studied to become a nurse. She set her sights on working abroad and went to New Zealand to immerse herself in English.

"The nurses here don't have jobs, and she wanted to strive," Alexander Amantillo said.

The family has a sister-in-law who works in New Zealand, and she has gone around to check hospitals in Christchurch, but there has been no sign of Louise, he said Friday. The family also plans to send a son and niece to Christchurch to monitor the search.

It has been a painful three days for the Amantillos since that first text came across in the Ilonggo dialect: "Ma, naambakan ako," or "Mommy, I got buried," as dictated by Linda Amantillo in telephone interviews on Thursday.

"We told her, 'You can make it, you can make it. Be strong and pray,' " Alexander Amantillo said.

But Louise's texts, sent every five to seven minutes, were getting increasingly desperate. "I have not yet been rescued. It's painful already," she wrote at 2.45 p.m. Then, "There is no rescue in my area." Two minutes later: "The smoke is overwhelming."

At 3.32 p.m. the family received Louise's last message, giving her location — corner of Madras Street and Chassel Street — and ending it with the final plea, "Please make it quick."

Overwhelmed by worry, Linda Amantillo tried to call her daughter. But all she heard was a recorded response asking the caller to leave a message.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sir Martin Rees - Evolutionary Perspective

One of the world's leading astronomers, Rees is a professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge, and UK Astronomer Royal. Author of more than 500 research papers on cosmological topics ranging from black holes to quantum physics to the Big Bang, Rees has received countless awards for his scientific contributions. But equally significant has been his devotion to explaining the complexities of science for a general audience, in books like Before the Beginning and Our Cosmic Habitat.

Review: Sam Harris's Guide to Nearly Everything | The National Interest

Review: Sam Harris's Guide to Nearly Everything | The National Interest

FOR SAM Harris morality is “an un-developed branch of science” that is all about separating lies from truth. Evil stems from lies, willfully blind to facts and reason. Good comes from rational, evidence-based standards for debunking lies and evaluating truths about the human condition. In this worldview, “Only a rational understanding of human well-being will allow billions of us to coexist peacefully, converging on the same social, political, economic, and environmental goals.”

Over the last few centuries, many scientists and scientifically minded thinkers have expressed the hope that science might lead to a more peaceful, prosperous and happier world. In The Impact of Science on Society, Bertrand Russell wrote:

There are certain things that our age needs, and certain things that it should avoid. It needs compassion and a wish that mankind should be happy; it needs the desire for knowledge and the determination to eschew pleasant myths; it needs, above all, courageous hope and the impulse to creativeness.

Science, Russell argued, could help determine what is needed for happiness and what should be avoided. Religion, especially Christianity, should be shunned for the great harm it has done humankind and because it “encourages stupidity.”

Harris believes that recent advances in understanding the human brain now more reliably point the way to a “science of human flourishing,” that is, “a global civilization based on shared values” where religion and other forms of false and irrational beliefs that are responsible for cruelty and injustice in the world are banished forever.

For the method of good science is doubt; the religion of the sanctimonious is certainty. Yet for Harris, “the primacy of neuroscience and the other sciences of mind on questions of human experience cannot be denied.”

Zoologger: Jet-propelled living fossil with a problem - environment - 17 February 2011 - New Scientist

Zoologger: Jet-propelled living fossil with a problem - environment - 17 February 2011 - New Scientist

Take a night-time dive over a coral reef in the Philippines and you may well see a nautilus or two. Looking like a cross between an octopus and a snail, it fixes you with its pale white eyes before jetting backwards through the water, wobbling gently with the currents.

Its movement is ungainly and slow, but it has survived virtually unchanged for at least 450 million years, so it must be doing something right. Its relatives the ammonoids dominated the oceans for millions of years before going extinct along with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago – but the nautilus came through that disaster and is still with us today.

For now, anyway. Recent findings confirm something long suspected: nautiluses reproduce very slowly, so they are particularly vulnerable to overfishing. In the Philippines, they are already in decline.
Shiny shell

Nautiluses do not make good eating – you have to boil them for hours – but their shells are highly prized.

When the animals first gained those shells way back in the Cambrian, some 550 million years ago, it was a nifty new trick. The early nautiloids used it to trap layers of air, which allowed them to stay at one depth without expending any effort. Nautiluses also have muscles attached to the shell, which squeeze water out in a jet that propels the animal along.

Such jet power is a cumbersome way of getting around the seas, and most modern cephalopods have largely abandoned it. Despite its primitive way of getting around, however, the nautilus is no mental slouch.

They have a simple form of memory, despite having much simpler brains than other cephalopods. In a 2008 studyMovie Camera, nautiluses were able to learn that a blue light meant food was about to be delivered. Since then it has emerged that nautiluses can learn how to solve 3D mazes and remember them for at least two weeks, as well as use objects as landmarks to help them find their way.

Nautiluses mostly scavenge for dead crustaceans, worms and starfish, often digging for them in mud and biting into them with their sharp beaks. They hunt mostly by smell, tracking odours from up to 10 metres away. Their eyes do not have lenses, and instead work just like pinhole cameras. As a result, their vision is decidedly blurry. It may well be of little use to them, as they hide in the depths during the day and hunt by night.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wolves Can Follow a Human's Gaze - ScienceNOW

Wolves Can Follow a Human's Gaze - ScienceNOW

Of the species that have passed the gazing-in-the-distance test, only apes, rooks, ravens—and now wolves—have nailed this far more difficult exam. "It really surprised us that wolves would follow our gaze [around a barrier], because it's always been thought that wolves don't pay attention to humans, that they don't see us as social partners," says Range.

The two types of gaze-following abilities seem to require different mental skills, she adds. It may be that the talent for following another's gaze while looking in the distance is innate, almost a "reflexive reaction," she says. But the ability to understand that your social pal is looking at something behind a barrier may develop only in species that are either highly cooperative or highly competitive—something that needs further testing, Range adds.

"It's a great study and the first, I think, that really is really biologically relevant to wolves," meaning that it tests their natural propensities, says Bekoff. "It's very important" to do studies like these "on socialized wolves," adds Adam Miklosi, a cognitive ethologist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. "We can then put our knowledge" about dogs into a "wider evolutionary perspective" and ultimately arrive at a better understanding of how domestication turned the wolf into a dog.

Chris Matthews: Palin's Problems

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Wild Africa: The River & The Savanna

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The tragic life of a street vendor - Features - Al Jazeera English

The tragic life of a street vendor - Features - Al Jazeera English

Six months before his attempted suicide, police sent a fine for 400 dinars ($280) to his house – the equivalent of two months of earnings.

The harassment finally became too much for the young man on December 17.

That morning, it became physical. A policewoman confronted him on the way to market. She returned to take his scales from him, but Bouazizi refused to hand them over. They swore at each other, the policewoman slapped him and, with the help of her colleagues, forced him to the ground.

The officers took away his produce and his scale.

Publically humiliated, Bouazizi tried to seek recourse. He went to the local municipality building and demanded to a meeting with an official.

He was told it would not be possible and that the official was in a meeting.

"It's the type of lie we're used to hearing," said his friend.

Protest of last resort

With no official wiling to hear his grievances, the young man brought paint fuel, returned to the street outside the building, and set himself on fire.

For Mohamed's mother, her son's suicide was motivated not by poverty but because he had been humiliated.

"It got to him deep inside, it hurt his pride," she said, referring to the police's harassment of her son.

The uprising that followed came quick and fast. From Sidi Bouzid it spread to Kasserine, Thala, Menzel Bouzaiene. Tunisians of every age, class and profession joined the revolution.

In the beginning, however, the outrage was intensely personal.

"What really gave fire to the revolution was that Mohamed was a very well-known and popular man. He would give free fruit and vegetables to very poor families," Jaafer said.

World's Oldest Living Tree -- 9550 years old -- Discovered In Sweden

World's Oldest Living Tree -- 9550 years old -- Discovered In Sweden

For many years the spruce tree has been regarded as a relative newcomer in the Swedish mountain region. "Our results have shown the complete opposite, that the spruce is one of the oldest known trees in the mountain range," says Leif Kullman, Professor of Physical Geography at Umeå University.

A fascinating discovery was made under the crown of a spruce in Fulu Mountain in Dalarna. Scientists found four "generations" of spruce remains in the form of cones and wood produced from the highest grounds.

The discovery showed trees of 375, 5,660, 9,000 and 9,550 years old and everything displayed clear signs that they have the same genetic makeup as the trees above them. Since spruce trees can multiply with root penetrating braches, they can produce exact copies, or clones.

The tree now growing above the finding place and the wood pieces dating 9,550 years have the same genetic material. The actual has been tested by carbon-14 dating at a laboratory in Miami, Florida, USA.

Previously, pine trees in North America have been cited as the oldest at 4,000 to 5,000 years old.

In the Swedish mountains, from Lapland in the North to Dalarna in the South, scientists have found a cluster of around 20 spruces that are over 8,000 years old.

Although summers have been colder over the past 10,000 years, these trees have survived harsh weather conditions due to their ability to push out another trunk as the other one died. "The average increase in temperature during the summers over the past hundred years has risen one degree in the mountain areas," explains Leif Kullman.

Therefore, we can now see that these spruces have begun to straighten themselves out. There is also evidence that spruces are the species that can best give us insight about climate change.

The ability of spruces to survive harsh conditions also presents other questions for researchers.

Have the spruces actually migrated here during the Ice Age as seeds from the east 1,000 kilometres over the inland ice that that then covered Scandinavia? Do they really originate from the east, as taught in schools? "My research indicates that spruces have spent winters in places west or southwest of Norway where the climate was not as harsh in order to later quickly spread northerly along the ice-free coastal strip," says Leif Kullman.

"In some way they have also successfully found their way to the Swedish mountains."

Friday, February 18, 2011

Elephant Devoured High-Speed Time Lapse Shows 7 Days Of Animals Feeding

It took seven days for animals to tear this elephant to pieces, but in the video it takes just seconds.

The experiment, which is a part of footage captured for a UK Channel 4 documentary called "The Elephant: Life After Death," was put down by a veterinarian after it was mortally wounded by ivory poachers, according to New Scientist. Researchers were trying to determine what and how different animals feed on the carcass.

As can be seen in the video, the elephant is eventually reduced to nothing by a variety of animals, including hyenas, leopards and vultures.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

HIV as you've never seen it before

It's hard to visualise what something as small and complex as the HIV virus actually looks like. But now Ivan Konstantinov and his team from Visual Science have created the most-detailed 3D model of the virus to date (see video above). An image of this visualisation just won first place in the 2010 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, sponsored jointly by the journal Science and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The model contains 17 different viral and cellular proteins and the membrane incorporates 160 thousand lipid molecules, of 8 different types, in the same proportions as in an actual HIV particle. It denotes the parts encoded by the virus's own genome in orange, while grey shades indicate structures taken into the virus when it interacts with a human cell.

To create the visualisation, the team consulted over 100 articles on HIV from leading science journals and talked to experts in the field. Then they reconstructed viral proteins from X-rays before assembling the structure of an entire HIV particle. The final appearance was achieved by experienced designers and 3D graphics specialists. Thanks to software and algorithms developed by the company, the model was completed in about three months.

The illustration was featured on the cover of Nature Medicine in September 2010, as part of a special issue prepared by the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise. But because of the high resolution of the model, Konstantinov says it is suitable for a range of formats, from posters to animations and interactive applications for web and mobile platforms. For the moment, they plan to use it in schools and to popularise science research. But this model, and others created by the company such as a visualisation of the swine flu virus, are sure to be useful in medical research.

The Great Carbon-Based Hope - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

The Great Carbon-Based Hope - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

Ken Jennings relives his battle with the machine:

[U]nlike us, Watson cannot be intimidated. It never gets cocky or discouraged. It plays its game coldly, implacably, always offering a perfectly timed buzz when it's confident about an answer. ... During my 2004 Jeopardy! streak, I was accustomed to mowing down players already demoralized at having to play a long-standing winner like me. But against Watson I felt like the underdog, and as a result I started out too aggressively, blowing high-dollar-value questions on the decade in which the first crossword puzzle appeared (the 1910s) and the handicap of Olympic gymnast George Eyser (he was missing his left leg).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"The Darwin's Finches Of Religion" - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

"The Darwin's Finches Of Religion" - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

Chris Beam previews it here:

What Parker and Stone do isn't religion-bashing. It's religion-teasing. And it's born more from fascination than disdain. "I'm an atheist that admires and likes religion," Stone told me in an interview. He describes the new musical as "an atheist's love letter to religion." If you had to classify Parker and Stone's world view, you might call it Hobbesian absurdism.

In the universe they've created, random, terrible things happen with no explanation. It's no coincidence that South Park's most famous line is "Oh my God, they killed Kenny!"/ "You bastards!"—in response to the frequent death of Kenny McCormick—with no explanation of who "they" are. Parker and Stone's Book of Mormon has a similarly bleak perspective. When the two missionaries arrive in Uganda, they find the natives singing what sounds like an uplifting "Hakuna Matata"-like spiritual. It turns out what they're chanting—assa dega ebo aye—actually means "Fuck you, God." The rest of the musical chronicles the missionaries' attempt to reconcile their faith with this place that God appears to have forgotten.

Religion is good dramatic fodder for a Broadway show. Young believers are strong-willed, forward-moving, confident of their place in the universe—just the kind of hubris that makes for a good slapped-in-the-face-by-reality story. Adding to Parker and Stone's fascination is the fact that Mormonism is itself a young religion. "It's like Darwin's finches of religion—we can watch it evolve," says Stone.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Science Budget Proposal

Infographic: Science in Obama's 2012 Budget Proposal

Philosopher AC Grayling

In the face of the growing volume and assertiveness of different religious bodies asking for preferential treatment, secular opinion has hardened. The non-religious response has come largely from individuals who have a platform or the talent to speak; and they speak for themselves, not for an organisation.

In the US, the religious Right numbers about 35 million. Recent polls show that about 30 million Americans define themselves as having no religious commitment.

But whereas the religious Right is a formidable body whose constituent churches and movements have salaried administrators, vast funds, television and radio outlets, and paid Washington lobbyists, America's non-religious folk are simply unconnected individuals.

It is no surprise that the religious Right has political clout and can make a loud noise in the American public square, whereas the non-religious voice is muted.

There are two main reasons for the hardening of responses by non-religious folk.

One is that any increase in the influence of religious bodies in society threatens the de facto secular arrangement that allows all views and none to coexist. History has shown that in societies where one religious outlook becomes dominant, an uneasy situation ensues for other outlooks; at the extreme, religious control of society can degenerate into Taliban-like rule.

Look at the period in which liberty of conscience was at last secured in Christian Europe - the 16th and 17th centuries. It was an exceptionally bloody epoch: millions died as a result of a single church's reluctance to give up its control over what people can be allowed to think and believe.

The famous Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 accepted religious differences as the only way of preventing religion from being an endless source of war. Religious peace did not come straight away, but eventually it arrived, and most of Europe for most of the years since 1700 has been free of religiously motivated strife.

But this is under threat in the new climate of religious assertiveness.

Faith organisations are currently making common cause to achieve their mutual ends, but, once they have achieved them, what is to stop them remembering that their faiths are mutually exclusive and indeed mutually blaspheming, and that the history of their relationship is one of bloodshed?

The second reason why secular attitudes are hardening relates to the reflective non-religious person's attitude to religion itself.

Religious belief of all kinds shares the same intellectual respectability, evidential base, and rationality as belief in the existence of fairies.

This remark outrages the sensibilities of those who have deep religious convictions and attachments, and they regard it as insulting. But the truth is that everyone takes this attitude about all but one (or a very few) of the gods that have ever been claimed to exist.

No reasonably orthodox Christian believes in Aphrodite or the rest of the Olympian deities, or in Ganesh the Elephant God or the rest of the Hindu pantheon, or in the Japanese emperor, and so endlessly on - and officially (as a matter of Christian orthodoxy) he or she must say that anyone who sincerely believes in such deities is deluded and blasphemously in pursuit of "false gods".

The atheist adds just one more deity to the list of those not believed in; namely, the one remaining on the Christian's or Jew's or Muslim's list.

Religious belief is humankind's earliest science. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are young religions in historical terms, and came into existence after kings and emperors had more magnificently taken the place of tribal chiefs. The new religions therefore modelled their respective deities on kings with absolute powers.

But for tens of thousands of years beforehand people were fundamentally animistic, explaining the natural world by imputing agency to things - spirits or gods in the wind, in the thunder, in the rivers and sea.

As knowledge replaced these naiveties, so deities became more invisible, receding to mountain tops and then to the sky or the earth's depths. One can easily see how it was in the interests of priesthoods, most of which were hereditary, to keep these myths alive.

With such a view of religion - as ancient superstition, as a primitive form of explanation of the world sophisticated into mythology - it is hard for non-religious folk to take it seriously, and equally hard for them to accept the claim of religious folk to a disproportionate say in running society.

Against All Gods by AC Grayling

Monday, February 14, 2011

Fly sniffs molecule's quantum vibrations - life - 14 February 2011 - New Scientist

Fly sniffs molecule's quantum vibrations - life - 14 February 2011 - New Scientist

How does a nose generate the signals that the brain registers as smell? The conventional theory says it's down to the different shapes of smelly molecules. But fruit flies have now distinguished between two molecules with identical shapes, providing the first experimental evidence to support a controversial theory that the sense of smell can operate by detecting molecular vibrations.

The noses of mammals, and the antennae of flies, are lined with different folded proteins that form pocket-shaped "receptors". It has been generally assumed that a smell arises when an odour molecule slides into a receptor like a key in a lock, altering the receptor's shape and triggering a cascade of chemical events that eventually reach the brain. But this "shape" theory has limitations. For one, it can't easily explain why different molecules can have very similar smells.

In 1996, Luca Turin, a biophysicist now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, proposed a solution. He revived a theory that the way a molecule vibrates can dictate it odour, and came up with a mechanism to explain how this might work.

His idea was that electrons might only be able to pass across a receptor if it was bound to a molecule that vibrated at just the right frequency. Ordinarily, the energy needed for the electron to make this journey would be too great, but the right vibrational energy could prompt a quantum effect in which the electron "tunnels" through this energy barrier, and this would then be detected and registered as a particular smell

Primates' unique gene regulation mechanism: Little-understood DNA elements serve important purpose

Primates' unique gene regulation mechanism: Little-understood DNA elements serve important purpose

ScienceDaily (Feb. 9, 2011) — Scientists have discovered a new way genes are regulated that is unique to primates, including humans and monkeys. Though the human genome -- all the genes that an individual possesses -- was sequenced 10 years ago, greater understanding of how genes function and are regulated is needed to make advances in medicine, including changing the way we diagnose, treat and prevent a wide range of diseases.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Can a Simple Model Explain the Advent of Cells? - ScienceNOW

Can a Simple Model Explain the Advent of Cells? - ScienceNOW

Scientists still don't know how a few biomolecules got together to kick-start life. Now a pair of theoretical biophysicists have come up with a simple mathematical model of two interacting chemicals that seems to replicate an essential part of the rise of life: the emergence of primitive, reproducing "protocells."

The first task in sparking life, or at least lifelike chemical interactions, would be to coax complex molecules to reproduce themselves from the other chemicals in solution around them. Under the right conditions, some proteins and other complex molecules can produce copies of themselves by purely chemical means. But making such a process run on as reliably as, say, bacteria multiplying in a petri dish is harder than one might guess.

That's because in the process, numerous copying errors, or mutations, arise. Occasionally, a mutation is an improvement that makes the molecule more likely to reproduce, and the mutation spreads throughout the population. Most, however, hinder a molecule's ability to survive or reproduce, and decades of experiments and theoretical models show that in a simple chemical solution, these bad mutations would accumulate over time and inevitably snuff out reproduction.

Of course, nature found a way around this problem, and over the years scientists have proposed several refinements to make their models more stable. For example, instead of one type of molecule reproducing, there could have been two molecules, each of them able to duplicate itself only if the other one was present. In that case, errors would not accumulate because when one molecule produced a defective copy of itself, that defective copy would not stimulate the second molecule to reproduce. The local concentration of the second molecule would then fall, limiting the defective first molecule's ability to reproduce itself.

But this model, too, has a problem. Many defective copies would still be produced. Although they would not replicate, they could crowd the reaction space, keeping the good copies from reaching each other. Since the 1970s, researchers have realized that they could get around this problem as well if the two chemicals formed globs, or "protocells." Then, protocells polluted with too many useless mutants would die out, while those with relatively few such mutants would continue to reproduce. But how do the molecules get it together to segregate themselves into protocells in the first place?

Theoretical biophysicists Atsushi Kamimura and Kunihiko Kaneko of the University of Tokyo think they have an answer. They had previously assumed that one of two hypothetical molecules would reproduce very slowly but would last much longer than the other did. In this way, the first molecule would act a bit like genetic information that is passed from generation to generation. Now, they argue that the model also naturally produces protocells.

That's because when the first, slowly reproducing molecule copies itself, the original molecule and the copy have time to drift apart before either reproduces again, preventing crowding. Around each of these slow-reproducing molecules, a cloud of the fast-reproducing second molecule emerges to create a spherical blob with the lone copy of the first molecule at its center. Empty space opens up between the blobs where there is none of the first molecule to support the reproduction of the second. To show that this scenario works, Kamimura and Kaneko ran computer simulations in which they varied the properties of the two molecules to find the conditions under which the protocells flourish or die out, as they reported online 29 December in Physical Review Letters.

"It's a beautiful example that shows that with relatively simple assumptions concerning chemical reactions, if you couple them in a proper way, you will actually be able to generate lifelike behavior." says Steen Rasmussen, a physicist and director of the Center for Fundamental Living Technology at the University of Southern Denmark, Odense. But, he cautions, "It's a thought experiment. If you want to go out and implement such a system in the lab, you can't do that from such an abstract model." In fact, in Kamimura and Kaneko's model, the two molecules are assumed to be nothing more than spheres that somehow catalyze each other's reproduction. That's a long way from DNA and RNA.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On Evolution, Biology Teachers Stray From Lesson Plan

By NICHOLAS BAKALAR Published: February 7, 2011 Teaching creationism in public schools has consistently been ruled unconstitutional in federal courts, but according to a national survey of more than 900 public high school biology teachers, it continues to flourish in the nation’s classrooms.

Researchers found that only 28 percent of biology teachers consistently follow the recommendations of the National Research Council to describe straightforwardly the evidence for evolution and explain the ways in which it is a unifying theme in all of biology. At the other extreme, 13 percent explicitly advocate creationism, and spend at least an hour of class time presenting it in a positive light.

That leaves what the authors call “the cautious 60 percent,” who avoid controversy by endorsing neither evolution nor its unscientific alternatives. In various ways, they compromise.

The survey, published in the Jan. 28 issue of Science, found that some avoid intellectual commitment by explaining that they teach evolution only because state examinations require it, and that students do not need to “believe” in it. Others treat evolution as if it applied only on a molecular level, avoiding any discussion of the evolution of species. And a large number claim that students are free to choose evolution or creationism based on their own beliefs.

Eric Plutzer, a co-author of the paper, said that the most enthusiastic proponents of creationism were geographically widely spread across the country.

More high school students take biology than any other science course, the researchers write, and for about a quarter of them it will be the only science course they take. So the influence of these teachers looms large.

Randy Moore, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, was unsurprised by the study’s conclusions. “These kinds of data have been reported regionally, and in some cases nationally, for decades. Creationists are in the classroom, and it’s not just the South,” he said. “At least 25 percent of high school teachers in Minnesota explicitly teach creationism.”

“Students are being cheated out of a rich science education,” said Dr. Plutzer, a professor of political science at Penn State University. “We think the ‘cautious 60 percent’ represent a group of educators who, if they were better trained in science in general and in evolution in particular, would be more confident in their ability to explain controversial topics to their students, to parents, and to school board members.”

But Dr. Moore is doubtful that more education is the answer. “These courses aren’t reaching the creationists,” he said. “They already know what evolution is. They were biology majors, or former biology students. They just reject what we told them.

“With 15 to 20 percent of biology teachers teaching creationism,” he continued, “this is the biggest failure in science education. There’s no other field where teachers reject the foundations of their science like they do in biology.”

New York Times

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Biggest Bear Ever Found—"It Blew My Mind," Expert Says

Biggest Bear Ever Found—"It Blew My Mind," Expert Says

A prehistoric South American giant short-faced bear tipped the scales at up to 3,500 pounds (1,600 kilograms) and towered at least 11 feet (3.4 meters) standing up, according to a new study.

The previous heavyweight was a North American giant short-faced bear—a related extinct species—that weighed up to 2,500 pounds (1,134 kilograms). The largest bear on record in modern times was a 2,200-pound (998-kilogram) polar bear shot in Alaska in the 19th century.

The South American giant short-faced bear roamed its namesake continent about 500,000 to 2 million years ago and would have been the largest and most powerful meat-eater on land at the time, scientists say.

(Related: "Ancient Bear DNA Mapped—A First for Extinct Species.")

As carnivores go, "there's nothing else that even comes close" during the time period, said study co-author Blaine Schubert, a paleontologist at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee.

"It just blew my mind how big it was."

The bear skeleton, found in Buenos Aires Province, Argentina, in 1935, was recently reexamined by Schubert and study co-author Leopoldo Soibelzon, a paleontologist from Argentina who specializes in South American fossil bears.

By measuring its almost elephant-size humerus, or upper arm bone, the team was able to calculate the size of the rest of the bear's body, Schubert said.

Their analysis also revealed that the animal was an old male that had endured several serious injuries throughout his life.

The Nature of Existence - Original Trailer

Bill O’Reilly: tidal bore Blogs / Bad Astronomy

Bill O’Reilly: tidal bore

By now the entire planet has heard O’Reilly’s bizarre litany about tides, and how he claims they prove the existence of God. As he has said on many an occasion, "tide goes in, tide goes out, never a miscommunication." By this he means that the harmony of nature, the amazing interconnection between things, clearly argues for God.

The problem is, he’s wrong. Twice, actually. First because he’s making the "God of the Gaps" fallacy: if something can’t be explained, then God must have done it. That’s pretty silly, since of course the far more likely explanation is simply that O’Reilly can’t explain it. That doesn’t mean I can’t! And in the case of tides, I can explain them, as can my friend Neil Tyson, and pretty much every other astronomer on Earth.

The thing is, either O’Reilly cannot learn, or he hopes his audience won’t. Because on his YouTube channel — yes, O’Reilly has a YouTube channel, I believe that’s the Second Horseman of the Apocalypse — he not only makes this same claim again, he digs himself deeper:

Saying "God did it" is not an answer. It’s an evasion. O’Reilly (and so many ideologues like him) wants his ignorance to be canonized, but ignorance is not a goal. It’s an opportunity to learn more.

Look: I seriously and strongly feel that everyone has the right to believe what they want, and to find comfort in it if they need it. But you can’t let that belief narrow your view of the Universe to where it’s simply easier to avoid what you don’t understand. That’s what O’Reilly has done — or is urging his listeners to do — and he’s missing out. Nature is subtle, and amazing, and layered, and complex, and interconnected on levels we’re only just now starting to suspect. That’s where the true mystery lies.

As long as we’re curious, and keep our eyes and minds open, we’ll be able to explore the Universe, and we’ll never run out of things to question and explain.

Blogs / Bad Astronomy

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Largest Bear in the Fossil Record

A report in the forthcoming scientific publication "The Journal of Palaeontology", describes the fossil evidence in support of a claim by a group of scientists that they have identified the largest known specimen of a bear in the fossil record. This "Goliath" of a bear, an American Short-Faced bear when rearing up on its hind legs would have stood more than eleven feet high, dwarfing all the Brown and Polar bears in the world today. This huge male is believed to have weighed in excess of 3,300lbs making it at least a third as big again as the heaviest bears known today.

The South American Short-Faced bear (Arctotherium angustidens), lived in Argentina approximately 2.5 million years ago (Late Pliocene epoch).

Co-author of the paper detailing the fossil specimen, Leopoldo Soibelzon, a researcher at the Vertebrate Palaeontology Division of La Plata Museum stated:

"During its time, this bear was the largest and most powerful land predator in the world, so we think it lived free of fear of being eaten."

Soibelzon and his colleague Blaine Schubert of East Tennessee State University analysed the fossilised remains of the bear, which were originally discovered by construction workers in the 1930s and donated to La Plata Museum shortly afterwards.

The researchers conducted and extensive study of extant and extinct bears and found that the most reliable predictor of body size in bears is based on seven particular bone measurements. The team then calculated the giant bear's size using these bone measurements in conjunction with equations to assess body mass. The scientists think that the bear evolved to such a huge size due to the absence of other large carnivores in the environment. The Sabre-Toothed Cats and Terror Birds were also apex predators but not as bulky or as powerful as this bear would have been.

With the abundance of big herbivores living in the region at the time, there were plenty of dinner options available for a bear with a giant appetite.

Soibelzon commented:

"A. angustidens probably had an omnivorous diet composed of a great variety of components, but with a predominance of animal remains. Amongst them, probably the bones and flesh of large mammals were very important in its diet."

This particular beast, the scientists say, reached old age despite sustaining a number of serious injuries during its life. The pathology (disease and injuries) are preserved on the fossil bones. The research team are not certain how these injuries were caused, but the scientists have commented that "male-to-male fighting would be a possibility."

Such intra-specific competition between such large animals could have caused the injuries but also, if the bear had predated on mega fauna such as Megatherium and other powerful animals then the injuries could have been a result of attacking large prey. Disputes with other carnivores are also not ruled out by the research team, such as a quarrel with a pride of Sabre-Tooths over a carcase.

The South American Short-Faced bear is part of a family of bears known as the Tremarctines. There is just one living representative of this family, the Spectacled bear, a relatively small species. However, during the Pliocene and later Pleistocene there were many large bears both in the Americas and in the Old World (Europe).