Posts tagged with The Sciences

Dragonfly day!

One group of insects that most people love or at least appreciate are dragonflies. Of course dragonflies are not flies but belong to the order Odonata. The other insects you may know in this order are damselflies. I always think of my mom when I think of dragonflies. She had this this notion the the big green darners around our house would sting and she told me to watch out for them.

These big green dragonflies are commonly called darners or darning needles. One day I found out why when I manged to catch one in my hand. The insect twisted its abdomen around and poked repeatedly at my hand. It started me but I hung on to the insect, the mystery of my mother's fear and the name resolved.

No darners in my yard but I do have some interesting dragonflies, mainly in a group called skimmers. They get their name, as I recall, because they seem to skim the surface of the water when they lay their eggs.

12 Spot Skimmer

This wonderful 12 spot skimmer nicely cooperated and kept returning to its perch in my garden, letting me get pretty close before leaving. Click on the image to go to my Flickr stream for a larger view.

There are are also widow skimmers in my yard. I had forgotten just how much sexual dimorphism there can be in dragonflies.

First the male with a greyish bloom and the same sort of grey in the wings as the 12 spot:

Male widow skimmer

Next the female. Note she has no grey bloom at all.

Female widow skimmer

Hoping every one has a good Independence Day.


Ah Summer!


By the way this picture was taken with my cell phone as I was walking to my SLR camera with me today. I find that even when I have my SLR its often useful to take a picture with my cell phone as well. It forces me to really frame the image. I wonder if other folks use their cell phone cameras in the same way.


The Singularity and the Selling of Junk Science

A friend sent me a really interesting article that looks at how people sell junk science. The article focuses on Ray Kurzweil who has proposed an idea called the Singularity at which point he claims we will be able to move from human bodies to computers. Kurzweil sees this as the natural outcome of advances in "artificial intelligence", computer power and biology. The article draws parallels between Kurzweil and a 1930's huckster, John Brinkley who tried to sell the notion that he could treat impotence by implanting goat gonads into his victims (I mean patients).

The article gives an interesting checklist about how to sell junk science. One ought to be able to use to detect junk science:

  1. Tie your product to the customer's fears
  2. Tie your product to popular culture
  3. Have multiple products to sell
  4. Use social proof rather than scientific proof (aside maybe evidence would have been a better word choice)
  5. Argue from authority rather than fact
  6. Spread the BS as thickly as possible
  7. Treat real science as junk science
  8. When all else fails trot out your family
  9. Use gullible reporters to get your message out. (Hmmmm how about in the LJWorld?)

Here is the checklist from the article:

The article is at:;post-10552

For those interested in the controversies surrounding artificial intelligence the article has a reference to an article in Skeptic magazine about the difficulties involved in developing artificial intelligence and the different approaches to this problem.

What are some sorts of junk science do you see reflected in BNet's checklist?

Here's a partial list of mine:

Creationism and intelligent design Chiropractic (or at least some versions of it) Natural supplements and herbal medicines (not all but a large number of them) The autism/vaccine controversy Scientology Some non empirically based forms of psychology So called energy work Of course "traditional medicine" is not immune to the junk science syndrome Shampoos and skin care products (Think Botanicals-what the heck is that?)

What do you think of the checklist and my list of activities? What would you add to the list? Where am I wrong?

Am I just being a curmudgeon?


A Creature Feature

At Baker wetlands today I found this wonderful fishing spider. These guys hunt for other critters walking on the surface of the water, much like water striders or "Jesus bugs" do.

Fishing spider ( Dolomedes)

Now to me this creature is beautiful and wonderful and yet many people I know just don't see it that way; in fact there is some evidence that fear of things such as spiders and snakes may be innate in humans. Of course this is reflected in how we portray spiders, insects and in fact arthropods in general. For example last week my wife and I watched part of a horrible grade B movie called Princesss of Mars. The good guys-even the alien good guys clearly were vertebrate type critters. But of course bad guy spider like critters put in several appearances.

Now sometimes the arthropoid critters are the good guys-and I am thinking of District 9 where the arthropoid aliens, appropriately called "prawns" are meant to provide the audience with away to examine our own human failings.

Speaking of movies that make us examine ourselves, I highly recommend Splice. I had seen the trailiers on TV but had pretty much dismissed the movies as yet another science gone awry horror flick. However my son urged us to give it a look and I was pleasantly surprised. And there were no arthropoid monsters. Only human ones.


Burning Prairie Park.

Today I decided to celebrate the return of the sun by visiting Prairie Park. Turns out today Parks and Rec was burning the prairie areas. According to Marty Birrell at the Prairie Park Nature Center, the prairie areas are on a three year burn cycle.

prairie park burning

Clicking on the image will take you to my photo stream and more pictures of the burn.


Meanwhile on the Climate Change Front:

Yesterday one of my readers sent a link to a set of videos called Climate Crock of the Week by Peter Sinclair. These videos provide thoughtful analysis of what we know about climate change. You can find them here on You Tube:

This video in particular gives a reasonable overview of the history of what we know about climate change:

Another reader sent a link to a report from the National Science Foundation about increased release of methane from the arctic shelf. Methane is of particular concern because it is a much more potent green house gas than carbon dioxide. According to the report, more methane currently is released from the shallow waters off of Siberia than from the rest of the ocean. Check the report out for yourself at:

Remember that the arctic regions are warming faster than the rest of the world, so much methane locked in the permafrost will be released as the climate warms and since methane itself is such a potent greenhouse gas we could end up with much greater warming than we expect just focusing on carbon dioxide.

One more trend worth mentioning is that according to the New York Times anti-evolutionists at the Discovery Institute are making linkages with climate change skeptics. The idea is to push bills through state legislatures to promote critical analysis of controversial theories. Of course climate change and evolution are mentioned. By taking this tact, anti-evolutionists hope to get their ideas into the public school system under the guise of teaching critical thinking.

This article, Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets is at:

This tactic though is not new. It is exactly the tactic taken by the creationists on the Board of Education in Kansas in their Science Standards rewrite of 1999. So the Times is, well behind the times on this one.

Being skeptical and critical is a good thing, but only if it is based on search for truth- not to maintain a cherished metaphysical or ideological position. Quite frankly, I see little of that sort of constructiveness in either global warming skeptics or anti-evolutionists. Lest you think I am being political here I have seen plenty of misplaced skepticism from the Left as well as the Right and it is reprehensible where ever it is found.


Practical Pantheism?

The movie Avatar must really be a great movie because it has struck so many nerves on the left and the right. My favorite (and I use that word advisedly) take is from the loony right by Phil Kline Kansas's former attorney general. I am not going to dissect his whole scree which you can read on his blog:

Kline predictably thinks Avatar is pro-environmental propaganda (he may be correct by the way), for he writes:

"The natives are one with their native planet, including their mother-god Eywa. Eywa is the planet, and the natives reach oneness by entwining fibers from their bodies with the fibers of the planet. This representative sexual union allows them to hear their departed ancestors and gain rhythm with the planet — a séance orgy so to speak. All life on the planet is one, with one spirit and one energy."

Notice how nicely he works in the evil SEX into his rhetoric.

Later on we get the evil bugaboo of evolution:

"Such a prayer represents atheistic Hollywood's dilemma. The only way to reconcile a godless Darwinistic worldview with a deeply spiritual American culture is to convert environmentalism into religion. For what greater purpose for man than to save mother earth, or Pandora? And thus, our purpose in a purposeless world."

And he says that that culture of the Pandorans is Pantheistic. Well that is true I suppose but if Kline would take off his blinders a bit he would see that it is really a practical pantheism. After all, on Pandora evolution (sorry Phil that is the way the world works) has led to a system where the Pandorans can little plug into each other and indeed that is necessary for their survival. So it's not some really some sort of mystical new age Pantheism, but quite practical.

Now we don't have the same explicit connections to our environment that the Pandorans have but we are interconnected much more and need the rest of the biosphere a lot more than Kline seems to care about. At simplest level we are not even a single organism but a community of roughly 100 trillion human cells and 10 times that many bacterial cells that are symbiotic with us. And I don't think that includes the mitochondria which were believed derived from free living bacteria. And examples of how we are interconnected can be multiplied repeatedly at other levels of biological organization.

So Kline and company may scream but maybe we need a good dose of practical pantheism.


Electromagnetic allergies?

OK maybe not, but a fellow in Santa Fe is suing his neighbor because she refuses to turn of her electronic devices when not in use including WiFi. He claims to be suffering from something called an electromagnetic "allergy". The whole thing reminds me of the controversy about alleged risks to human health associated with living near power lines. People who claim to have electromagnetic "allergies" exhibit a host of vague symptoms. I'm trying to keep an open mind about this but the limited information I have seen on this suggests that this sort of "allergy" is largely psychosomatic. But hey, I'm open minded here. After all other animals are sensitive to magnetic fields and electromagnetic radiation so why not people? But does that sensitivity really translate into health risks?

Do electromagnetic "allergies" really exist? Do you think you have this sort of syndrome (a better term than allergy by the way)? Is my new Droid a health risk? Or can I breathe easy and use my G3 and WiFi with impunity?

See this link for details about the man's claim.


Cats against global cooling!


Hope for the Devil?

It's good to start 2010 on a hopeful note, in this case new clues about the origin of the infectious cancer threatening the Tasmanian Devil.

In addition to the LJW article, readers might want to check out this article in the NYTimes Science section.

The research study's abstract is at

The Science site also has a pod cast with the research study's lead author:;327/5961/84/DC2

The authors of the report in science suggest that the infectious cancer originated once in a mutated Schwann cell in a devil about 20 years ago. Schwann cells wrap around the axons of many nerve cells and speed up the transmission of nerve signals. The hope is that knowing the origin of the cancer will help in the development of a vaccine to protect the remaining Devils, assuming we can figure out why the devil's immune system doesn't reject the foreign tumor cells.