A bit early this month but I need to make space for more updates next week. The most unusual thing about this installment is that none of the three articles this month are from The Economist! Two of the three articles are about biology while the last one is very speculative, very theoretical physics.
The first of these articles discusses a controversial book about a topic that I’m sure everyone has thought of at one point or another: were our ancestors really faster, stronger and tougher than the humans living today now are? According to the author of Manthropology: The Science of the Inadequate Modern Male, Peter McAllister, the answer is yes. An anthropologist, he bases his conclusions on a wide range of evidence. For example, he examined fossilized footprints of Australian aboriginals who lived 20,000 years ago to estimate their running speed.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (October ’09)
Just three articles this month, all of them related to biology in one way or another. The first one concerns what looks like an evolutionary adaptation in humans to living in the tropics. As this article from BBC News explains, scientists have long known that the birth rates of boys and girls vary across the world and that one of the factors that determine this variance is environmental stress. Biologically, males are considered more fragile than females and since having children is a huge investment, it makes sense that in a harsh environment, women tend to give birth to more girls since they would be likelier to survive.
According to research by Dr. Kristen Navara published in Biology Letters, people who live in the tropics produce more girls than boys compared to more temperate regions, even after adjusting for differences in lifestyle and socio-economic status. As Dr. Navara explains, this could simply be because male sperm works in a different way closer to the equator or that miscarriage rates might be affected somehow, but it could also be interpreted to more generally mean that living in the tropics is itself a form of environmental stress on the human organism.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (April ’09)
Just a quick link to the news that the Texas school board is voting this week on a new curriculum that would challenge the principle of evolution. It’s pretty depressing that the chairman of the school board is someone who believes that God created the Earth less then 10,000 years ago. So again, for anyone who still has any doubt about evolution and wants to educate himself or herself on the mechanics and literature behind what is now of the most solidly well-documented principles in science, just go spend some time on the TalkOrigins Archive.
One thing that I’m somewhat grateful for is that Muslims at least don’t seem to have jumped onto the Creationism bandwagon in a big way. Then again, our Education Minister in Malaysia has just called the leader of the opposition a race traitor so that’s not much of an improvement.
Okay, this is really nothing more than a cool toy, but it is still really cool! This is made using a simple application by Roger Alsing that starts with a blank slate and then adds some random polygons to it. The result is compared to the source image and if it looks closer then it is kept, otherwise it is discarded. The kept result is then further mutated and compared again and so forth. After a while, it gets pretty close to the original source.
There was a bit of skeptism about this when this was first spread over the Internet, but the creator has since made his source code and binaries available via Google, so go download it and play with it if you’re so inclined. The author originally used the program to generate an image of the Mona Lisa and he managed to get a very good representation after about 900,000 generations and using 50 polygons. Unfortunately I happened to pick a rather more complex photo, and this is what I got after having the computer working at it whole night. As you can see, it’s up to 2.3 million generations and 172 polygons.
The author calls this an example of genetic programming, but I’m not sure if the term is appropriate because usually these things involve a population pool of multiple competitors in each generation while there is only ever one instance in each generation in this program. People have been using this as an example to implement their own versions that do involve competition between multiple mutations though, and it will be interesting to see if they are more efficient at arriving at the source image.
Well, the title says it all. I guess a late apology is better than none. It’s worth noting that the opposition to Darwin’s theory by the Church of England generated one of the famous public debates in history, the 1860 Oxford evolution debate. As the Wikipedia entry notes, the most famous line was:
The debate is best remembered today for a heated exchange in which Wilberforce supposedly asked Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey. Huxley is said to have replied that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth. The encounter is often known as the Huxley-Wilberforce debate or the Wilberforce-Huxley debate.
Anyway, regardless of how heartfelt this apology is, I doubt that it’s to change anyone’s mind on anything. The Church of England is already taking a lot of heat for its liberal stance on homosexuality and this apology won’t help it gain any more credibility with the Asian and African Anglican churches.
Probably the most talked about scientific issue that’s been making the rounds recently is the news is that not only has human evolution not stopped since the advent of modern technology, a previously popular view, but has in fact actually accelerated. As this article in ABC News notes, in a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, researchers discovered that by comparing the DNA of humans and chimpanzees since the two species diverged six million years ago there were not enough differences between the two sets of DNA to account for the currently observed rate of change. Therefore, they take this to mean that human evolution has substantially accelerated since the appearance of modern humans 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.
Moreover, they find that different populations of humans have been evolving in different ways. The lighter skin colour of Asians and Europeans compared to Africans is one example, as an adaptation to allow more absorption of vitamin D in areas with less sun. Another example is the disappearance of the lactase enzyme that allows digestion of fresh milk in China and most of Africa where dairy farming is less common than in Europe.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (Dec’07)
John Scalzi recently posted a highly entertaining account on his visit to the Creation Museum in Kentucky in the US, complete with 100 photos of the whole thing. Among some of the most ridiculous claims the museum makes is that dinosaurs lived contemporaneously with humans until as late as the Fifth Dynasty of ancient kingdom of Egypt. Even more amusingly, they claim that before Adam committed the original sin of eating the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden, all animals were herbivores, even some fearsome dinosaurs as the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex. They suggest that before Adam ate the apple, the T. Rexes used their gigantic fangs and claws to eat coconuts.
Personally, I recall going to Sunday school once at an early age and hearing the story of the Garden of Eden. Even then, my bullshit detectors went off because, well, having read stuff like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, I wondered where were the dinosaurs in the story? As Scalzi writes, you really have to admire the chutzpah of creationists who can insert dinosaurs into Paradise and still claim with a straight face that all the facts fit together just fine.
As ridiculous as this sounds, this is a pretty big deal in the United States. The Creation Museum cost US$27 million and is reportedly attracting crowds of a decent size, while approximately two thirds of Americans believe that creation science should be taught alongside evolution in schools. More worrying still, as The Economist noted earlier this year, the movement is becoming global, with Turkey in particular being a centre for Muslim creationism.
I’m particularly curious about attitudes in Malaysia. From anecdotal evidence, I believe that most Malaysians still harbour significant doubts about human evolution without actually committing themselves to so ludicrous a belief as the 6 day Young Earth Creationism taught by the museum. This is still a shame though because the consensus among scientists is that evolution is probably the most well established and well documented theory in all of science and answers to the most common questions are easily found on websites like the TalkOrigins Archive.