All Atwitter

Phil Plait has an interesting report on the recent Texas fireball. His account gives a pretty good picture of the epidemiology of rumor. “Within a few minutes I had a post up and tweeted about it myself. I started to receive dozens of tweets over the next hour (I’m not sure how many total, but probably well over 100) with information. After an hour or so the misinformation (FAA officials, satellite debris, etc.) started coming in. Someone posted on iReport their own description, and added a photo of a totally different event as an example, and at least ten tweets referred to it as the actual Texas fireball. ”

Just the same, Phil thinks that having twitter and other social media such as blogs enabled him to investigate the event quite thoroughly. Although he would have preferred a more durable medium for incoming information, “Between the blog and Twitter I think this went pretty well, with a minimum of bad information being spread.”

Essential science books

I have apparently contracted a case of The Dreaded Lurgi.  The only way to get rid of it is to pass it on.  The particulars of the malady are that my blog has been tagged by Epiphenom in a blog meme called ‘Science Books for Undergrads’.

“Imagine: YOU are asked to assign a half-dozen-or-so books as required reading for ALL science majors at a college as part of their 4-year degree; NOT technical or text books, but other works, old or new, touching upon the nature of science, philosophy, thought, or methodology in a way that a practicing scientist might gain from.”

I”ve chosen five books.

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Simon Conway Morris still thinks “God did it” is a scientific statement

I’ve just picked up Larry Moran’s teaser “Can You Guess Who Wrote This?” on his Sandwalk blog. As the words are a restatement of Paley’s classic but long ago debunked Watchmaker analogy and the Sandwalk article is accompanied by a photograph of the paleontologist and champion of theistic evolution, Simon Conway Morris, there isn’t much of a mystery.  There original article by Conway Morris, Darwin was right. Up to a point, appeared in Thursday’s Guardian as part of its Darwin 200 coverage.

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David Attenborough: Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life

David Attenborough’s new documentary, Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, was broadcast earlier this evening on BBC1 in the UK, and will be available on iPlayer for a few days.  Watch it while you can, grab the DVD when it’s made available.

Meanwhile even if you’re outside the UK (and therefore unable to see this documentary immediately) you might like to pop over to to see the animation that forms the central core of one of the segments of  Attenborough’s 60 minute documentary.

Attenborough takes an ecological theme, starting with a reading from Genesis, in leading to Gen 1:28 implying that man has dominion over living creatures and can use them for his purposes, and moving on through Darwin’s “long argument”, which leads to a very different message: we do not have dominion over the animals, we are animals, and we are controlled by the same forces that control them.

“A faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a great height”

The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Our contemplations of the cosmos stir us. There’s a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.

“The size and age of the cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity, is our tiny planetary home, the earth. For the first time, we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves. This is a time of great danger. But our species is young and curious and brave, it shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the cosmos and our place within it. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.”

(Cosmos, Episode One: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean)

Electron transport chain may provide a mechanism for evolutionary feedback

Science Daily reports that a team working in the Frick Laboratory at Princeton has investigated the Electron Transport Chain (ETC) in mitochondria and believe it has found evidence that the protein chains involved in the transport generate mutations in response to suboptimal conditions by generating mutations, thus providing a positive feedback mechanism driving evolution.

A member of the team associate research scholar Raj Chakrabarti, says:

The discovery answers an age-old question that has puzzled biologists since the time of Darwin: How can organisms be so exquisitely complex, if evolution is completely random, operating like a ‘blind watchmaker’?  Our new theory extends Darwin’s model, demonstrating how organisms can subtly direct aspects of their own evolution to create order out of randomness.

Their findings were published recently in Physical Review Letters.

The team identifies the underlying optimization process as a phenomenon in Control Theory known as “bang-bang extremization.”  Chakrabarti explains:

In this paper, we present what is ostensibly the first quantitative experimental evidence, since Wallace’s original proposal, that nature employs evolutionary control strategies to maximize the fitness of biological networks.  Control theory offers a direct explanation for an otherwise perplexing observation and indicates that evolution is operating according to principles that every engineer knows.

Sunspots bring disappointment to climate change skeptics

A couple of months ago, in “Ice Age predictions are premature”,  I discussed an alternative climate theory that has been exciting anthropogenic climate change skeptics this year.  Climate change, it was argued, was overwhelmingly influenced by sunspot incidence, and the current dying solar cycle 23 had led to a period of quiescence that, if continued, would lead to a minor ice age.

Since then the sun has continued to be alarmingly quiescent–this isn’t unprecedented, but you have to go back about a century to find similar periods.  However,  David Hathaway of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center reports that there has been recent activity, and in October, for the first time, sunspots from the new solar cycle, 24, have outnumbered those from the dying cycle.  Hathaway takes this as a sign that solar cycle 24 is kicking off, but sounds a note of caution: “We’re still years away from solar maximum and, in the meantime, the sun is going to have some more quiet stretches.”

As I noted in my previous piece, the anthropogenic climate change skeptics had been getting quite excited by the quiet sun because they believe this would cause significant drops in global temperature lasting for several decades, similar to the “little ice ages” that accompanied previous long-lasting mimima.  If their hypothesis is right, a small ice age like that would show rather conclusively that existing climate models were grossly inaccurate.   The recent solar activity, which has also produced solar flares. means that the sun probably isn’t as quiescent as some of the solar activity climate change proponents had hoped.  Irrespective of whether their alternative climate theory is correct, we probably won’t get any new data to test it with.

CNN uses “hologram” effect in election coverage

In the CNN election coverage last night, November 4, 2008, Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper were seen talking to life-sized holograms resembling the hologram of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in the film Star Wars.

The holograms were produced, as the Baltimore Sun reports, by pointing 35 HD cameras at each subject during the interview; green screen-style technology was then used to superimpose a three-dimensional image in a predetermined location in the studio.

The holograms were not actually visible in the studio.

I liked the effect, though really it’s something of a gimmick.  One practical side-effect of the process was that the background noise was filtered out, so that who was in Grant Park, Chicago was heard clearly despite the surrounding chatter.

Credit where it’s due: John McCain has consistently advocated for embryonic stem cell research has reported on a grossly inaccurate claim by the Obama campaign the Mr Obama’s Republican opponent in the Presidential election, 2008, has “has stood in the way–he’s opposed stem cell research.”  In fact, McCain has consistently supported moves in the Senata to provide funding for embryonic stem cell research.

McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, has said that she opposes embryonic stem cell research where there are alternatives such as adult stem cells.  Their party calls for a blanket ban on the embryonic stem cell research, going considerably further than the Bush government.

Asteroid detected on course for direct collision with earth.

Reported by New Scientist, October 6, 2008. Relax, it was only about 5 meters across and was due to burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere on the morning of 7 October.  The significance of this collision, of a type thought to occur every few months, is that it is believed to be the first of its kind to be detected in advance.

There is one early report of an apparent sighting of the object’s collision with the atmosphere.  The object has been named “2008 TC3″.