Tagged: Science

That global warming thing still happening

NASA has a nice animation visualizing global temperatures from the late 1880’s. This might be a good thing to share with that relative or workmate who still thinks warming is just some Marxist conspiracy. These data and analysis are brought to you by the same organization that landed a man on the moon in 1969, and a nuclear powered car on Mars in 2012. I would hope that these credentials would be enough to give a “climate skeptic” pause. But then there’s probably a huge overlap between those who deny that warming is a reality and those who insist the moon landing was faked. And with those who think evolution is “just a theory”. And the 9-11 truthers. Basically I’m talking about, you know, morons.

Stabilised MSL Curiosity Descent

This is a version I stabilised using YouTube’s online video editor. The original is here.

I also highly recommend this animation from JPL showing entire landing sequence and basic operations of the vehicle. It’s great because there is no voice over, no infographics, no music, just mechanical sound effects.

Falaco Solitons

Do try this at home!

Falaco Solitons are long lived topological defects in the discontinuity free surface of water. They have remarkably long life times and will persist for 15 to 30 minutes. The black disks are created from the Snell refraction of a surface of rotational symmetry with negative Gauss curvature.

Weird that I’ve never noticed or heard of these things before.


This is rather sobering; take a look at the teeny tiny amount of available fresh water we depend on in the world.

NB the “all fresh water” sphere does not include ice and snow, which would increase its volume by a factor of 3.

link to source

Tiny Things

Got a new toy today, a cheap USB microscope. Even though the quality isn’t great, it’s so much better than looking through an eyepiece, with the obvious bonus that you can record images and movies.

Here’s a clip I put together with it and a couple of hours of swearing at iMovie (warning: contains gametes!). I also added Jon Brion’s Spotless Mind for a soundtrack, because it fit the length almost perfectly.

Hopefully that wasn’t too disturbing for anyone. It’s the first time I’ve ever verified that anything motile comes out of my gonads, so that’s an interesting thing for me at least.

One weak point of the microscope is the camera itself, which is basically a super cheap and shitty web cam. Would be nice to have something like this with a bracket for an iPhone (which has a much better camera sensor).

PS if you’re a fertility specialist let me know if there’s anything I should be worried about here.

Rom Houben and facilitated communication

houben.jpgA few months back, a long term coma patient named Rom Houben hit the news when it was revealed that he was in a “locked-in” state, ie fully conscious but unable to communicate this in any meaningful way. The breakthrough was made when he began speaking through “facilitated communication”, a technique where an intermediary would hold his hand and amplify his slight muscle movements enough to type his thoughts on a keyboard.

‘I screamed, but there was nothing to hear,’ said Mr Houben, now 46, who doctors thought was in a persistent vegatative state.

‘I dreamed myself away,’ he added, tapping his tale out with the aid of a computer.

Many skeptics called bullshit immediately, being well aware of the lack of credible evidence that facilitated communication was anything more than a variety of the ideomotor effect (also the mechanism behind dowsing, which is also bullshit).

Even if it hadn’t been largely discredited as a technique, video footage showed Houben and his facilitator tapping away on a keyboard at a remarkable rate, even when his eyes were closed or not directed towards his hand. Anyone with half a brain immediately called for a basic test to be performed to verify whether it was Houben or his facilitator speaking for him. This would involve telling him something while his facilitator was out of the room, and then inviting her back to help him describe what had been said.

Well it appears they finally got around to performing such a test*, and wouldn’t you know it… he [ie his facilitator] failed!

Dr Steven Laureys, one of the doctors treating him, acknowledged that his patient could not make himself understood after all. Facilitated communication, the technique said to have made Houben’s apparent contact with the outside world possible, did not work, Laureys declared.

“We did not have all the facts before,” he said. “To me, it’s enough to say that this method doesn’t work.” Just three months ago the doctor was proclaiming that Houben had been trapped in his own body, the victim of a horrendous misdiagnosis, and only rescued from his terrible plight thanks to medical advances.

The part of this new article that bugs me most [apart from the fact that it avoids pointing out that everyone clearly fucked up and should be ashamed of themselves] is this paragraph:

The sceptics said it was impossible – and it was.

No they did not say it was impossible; as mentioned above they expressed great skepticism and called for the claim to be verified in a simple and scientific manner. Skeptics don’t declare anything impossible; they simply don’t accept extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence to support them. That throw away sentence also implies that we thought it was impossible outright, as though we could not accept that someone in a coma might be fully conscious (as completely horrible as that would be).

Skeptics never cry “Impossible!” – they simply cry “Prove it!”


* the testing was carried out by Belgian skeptic group SKEPP who describe their findings here and conclude:

The international news coverage of this case has given many relatives of coma patients false hope, and the advocates of the illusionary facilitated communication got an undeserved publicity boost. The emotional impact on patients′ families can’t be underestimated. The decision to present this case before the international media was premature, to say the least.

Creation, a movie about Darwin


Well worth seeing if you want to see a portrait of Darwin the man, as opposed to the naturalist and explorer, since most of the movie covers him wrestling with his conscience over the logically imminent demise of God as the creator of all living things, as well as his grief over the loss of his precociously smart (but slightly creepy) oldest child, Annie.

And look, here’s what some hilarious Christians had to say about Darwin recently (note the Godwin-troll in the middle):

The Darwin Anniversary

November 24, 2009, is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species. How should we respond?

Joshua McLoughlin

by standing strong

Angela Posey-Arnold

maybe we should not respond at all.

Paul Askin

Perhaps watch “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”?

Ross Nixon

I tweeted, perhaps unwisely, “Darwin sucks more than Hitler”.

Mitchell Robert Kriss

Why dont we celebrate jean lemark while we’re at it? Both theories are just as false as each other.

Rhonda Blunt

yeah Mitchell Lemarks therory that a a species will change one a period of time is stupid. I always look at those African people who over a couple of centuries have lengthened their necks with large rings. None of their offspring have ever been born with long necks, just the ones God gave them!

Darrell Yip

@Rhonda: all too true!!

Patricia Flynn

Rhonda, that is the best comment – wish I had thought of it!

I honestly don’t see how pointing out the inadequacy of Lamarckian theory is supposed to support their opposition to the Darwinian model, but then I guess this is Christian logic, which by definition transcends actual logic.

Happy Darwin Day!

Charles Darwin

All Hail Darwin, God of Atheists and sworn enemy of Jesus Christ!

Worst. Building Codes. Ever.

It’s the middle of summer here in Auckland, and I am baking. Not because it is unbelievably hot (currently a pleasant 24°C outside), but because a) my little wooden house has virtually no ceiling insulation, and b) at some point some total dipshit decided it would be a great idea to paint my tin roof black.

So I have this situation that while the sun is shining, the temperature inside rapidly climbs beyond the ambient temperature outside. The only time of year where this makes any sense at all is on sunny winter mornings, and even this won’t begin to compensate for the fact that a black-roofed house with no insulation will radiate ALL of its heat away during the night, making winter nights and mornings unbelievably cold.

Builders here just don’t seem to get thermodynamics.

Lots of other houses with tin roofs have theirs painted red, I guess to make them fit in with tiled roofs better, and red is only going to be slightly better than black. The best color for a metal roof is silver, because just as silver tends to reflect a lot of energy outwards, it also reflects it inwards. That’s why “space blankets” are silver… it’s not because they want to look more sci-fi, it’s because the shiny foil provides much of the insulating property of the blanket.

Hopefully in the near future governments will include the cost of non-reflective surfaces in estimates for global warming and maybe strike all the stupid neighborhood laws that might require people to paint their perfectly good silver roofs for some aesthetic reason. If anything we should have goddamn mirrors coating our houses… that would provide some truly excellent insulation and reflect a large amount of shorter wavelength solar energy back into space before it can be absorbed, re-emitted and trapped as atmospheric heat.

See also: New anti-warming tool: white roofs


The Scientific Case for Intelligent Design

ID proponent: Wow, these bacterial flagella sure are complex!

Biologist: Hey they sure are, isn’t that neat! I wonder if we can work out how they got that – hey where are you going?

ID proponent: To write a paper showing how flagella support my thesis for intelligent design!

Biologist: But why? Shouldn’t we study this further and try to understand the–

ID proponent: It’s too complex! It clearly can’t have evolved. Finally I have proof for my religious bel… I mean my completely naturalistic proposition that life is too complex to have simply evolved without intervention.

Biologist: But since there’s so much evidence in support of evolution, maybe we should look a little harder?

ID proponent: lalalalala!

Biologist: But surely you understand that the first step in testing any hypothesis is to try to prove it wrong? We have an obligation to investigate further!

ID proponent: Oh alright, if you insist…

— The following day —

ID proponent: Well, I’m stumped. The only explanation is that Go… I mean some organizing intelligence… designed this little wiggly thing. I mean, come on, it’s so effective and clever a design– and a design needs a designer right?

Biologist: Honestly, I’m starting to suspect that you’re not trying very hard here. You can’t seriously be planning to use your inability to explain something as proof of such a proposition?

ID proponent: Ok wise guy, tell me how it evolved then?

Biologist: Well I don’t know, we need to investigate further before simply assuming it’s impossible…

ID proponent: Oh, nice. So you get to assume that this feature evolved, but I don’t get to assume that it didn’t. You’re an atheist aren’t you!

Biologist: What does that have to do with anything? And I just want to explore how it might have evolved.

ID proponent: Ha! As an atheist you have an ideological predisposition to ignore evidence of a creator! You’re biased!

Biologist: What evidence of a creator?

ID proponent: It’s right in front of you on that slide! Flagella man, flagella! What are you thick or something?

Biologist: Sorry… how exactly is this evidence for a creator?

ID proponent: Well if you found a watch wouldn’t you consider that proof that there was a watchmaker?

Biologist: Sure.

ID proponent: Because watches don’t make themselves right? They are a complex machine of many working parts, one isn’t just going to fall together.

Biologist: Sure.

ID proponent: So someone designed this bacterium! It’s obvious! It didn’t just fall together either!

Biologist: Well, a bacterium made this bacterium, which was in turn made by another bacterium… I’m pretty sure you know this. And watches don’t reproduce, so we know that some other entity must have created it. I honestly fail to see the equivalence here.

ID proponent: Honestly you just hate God don’t you. Admit it!

Biologist: Look, all living organisms have an ancestry, and we can observe bacteria evolve even in the lab, so I really can’t see why on earth you wouldn’t want to try to explore the evolutionary path of this mechanism. At least to its most primitive form? I mean, even if there was some original bacterium designed by a supreme being or alien race or something….

ID proponent: Hmmmph! Aliens! Yeah right!

Biologist:… I’m saying even if it was designed… this sample is still going to be a descendant millions of generations removed from the original isn’t it? So there’s still an incentive to trace the lineage back as far as we can go.

ID proponent: Only if you believe in evolution.

Biologist: Wait… what? Are you saying you don’t believe in evolution? At all?

ID proponent: Only micro evolution, not macro. Animals evolve only within species, that’s why cats can never turn into dogs.

Biologist: What the… What the hell are you even talking about? This bacterium reproduces asexually… there is no delineation of species here.

ID proponent: Why are you atheists so angry all the time?

Biologist: You are so fucking fired…

ID proponent: Oooo this is just like Nazi Germany… I’m going to tell Ben Stein!

Yes, I trust scientists…

… more than politicians

… more than religious leaders and their holy scriptures

… more than the man in the street

… more than my gut

… more than the voices in my head

And you should too.

Today’s post is snipped from a recent discussion I had about energy consumption and the need to reduce it, where I articulated my thoughts on global warming and specifically those who doubt it. I was surprised that a number of workmates were rather cynical about the idea, based on personal observations of weather, winters etc, so felt obliged to pipe up (Sorry for the recycled content; time goes too fast lately)

Observation of global warming is not based on individual persons’ subjective/anecdotal experiences, but rather vast amounts of corroborating data gathered by climate scientists. It does not predict that the world will be uniformly warmer; in fact it predicts that weather will be more random and extreme (higher overall energy in a system means more chaos + turbulence).

Note that even though a lot of people are wondering if the apparent increase in the incidence of monster hurricanes is due to global warming, climatologists are not yet saying that this is definitely the case. This is because they are scientists, not lobbyists, and they are conditioned to test their theories and models as much as possible before attributing causality, and this in turn means that it is completely reasonable to respect the opinions of the vast majority of experts in the field when they say that global warming is happening and that it is affected to a significant degree by human activity.

This is not just an argument from authority (as some would argue) because the authority is in fact a consensus among thousands of scientists from every country and cultural background. Scientific opinion on an issue is not dictated by some supreme council, but by the convergence of research by thousands of individuals. It’s funny how no one questions the consensus on other atmospheric effects, el Nino etc, but when something requires a lifestyle change suddenly everyone is a "skeptic".

Almost all the energy used by humans in the last 100 years has come from fossil fuels… which are all extracted from the ground, and are all based on carbon. That carbon is not leaving the planet, but neither is it going back into the ground (nor transmuting into other elements)– so where is it? The bulk of it is either in the atmosphere or dissolved in the ocean, the net effect of which is that the atmosphere traps more heat and the ocean is more acidic (causing corals and anything that has to form a carapace to suffer, because they dissolve too easily as acidity rises).*

As complicated and flawed as models and simulations are, basic physics and chemistry tells us that we can′t keep taking all the carbon out of the ground without expecting consequences.

Plus, the more we use fossil fuels the faster we run out (and the more painful it will be) and then we will be totally screwed.

I should elaborate here: when I say I trust scientists, I mean simply that the qualified opinion of a scientist (and especially a large number of scientists) is more likely to be true than an opinion ventured by just about anyone else you can think of, and ironically it is also more likely to be accompanied by an acknowledgement of uncertainty.

Certain people like to harp on the idea that Hitler was inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution, and although I think that this connection is total bullshit (did Hitler even mention Darwin?), what difference would it make if he was? Would it make evolution any less true?

Science isn’t about telling you what you want to believe; it’s about finding out how things are, and wherever possible understanding why they are so. Science is more concerned with truth than any other discipline and yet, unlike religion and politics, science is often the last to assert any particular truth, because humility is built right in to the scientific method.


* Interestingly, if we started growing forests just for fuel (ie burning wood) that would at least be carbon neutral, since all the carbon in a tree is effectively coming out of the atmosphere in the first place. I′m guessing the particulate pollution would cause overwhelming health problems though…

Ben Stein’s Grand Unified Theory of Stupid

If you haven’t heard of the alleged documentary film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, it’s basically a slimy turd of a propaganda piece designed to sell the ideas that:

a) Evolution (or "Darwinism") is an outmoded theory being unfairly promoted by atheistic biologists who refuse to accept evidence that life and its complexity can be attributed to an intelligent designer, and

b) Evolution/Darwinism is a philosophy which leads to things like mass-murder, genocide, eugenics etc.

The star of the show is Ben Stein, an intellectual luminary whose credits include being a speech writer for disgraced former president Richard M Nixon, starring as the droning teacher in the 1980s classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and hosting some shit game/reality shows such as Win Ben Stein’s Money and America’s Most Smartest Model.

Until now I assumed he was just another anti-science nutjob who failed to understand that intellectual freedom does not include the right to be paid to teach bullshit at an educational institution. But hearing some of the things he says in this YouTube compilation I realize he is in fact quite horribly stupid, and more ignorant than the average 13 year old when it comes to science.

To clarify my position on stupid: there is nothing inherently evil about it per se… I harbour no ill will toward the stupid in general, except where they exercise their stupid in a detrimental way, and Stein’s attempt to rouse the heaving masses of latent stupidity against the scientific "establishment" is a very good example of what I consider beyond stupid and well into very fucking evil territory.

Some of the stupid things Stein appears to believe about the Theory of Darwinism (he believes these things enough to spout them in TV interviews and press conferences)

  • Evolution claims that life arose from non-life via natural selection – it does not; evolution is concerned with speciation, ie how life diverges into new and complex species, as it clearly does based on fossil and genetic records.
  • A keystone of the theory is that new species can arise from existing ones, and yet this has never been observed – in fact it has been observed in multiple instances, but even had it not this wouldn’t be a deal breaker anyway… evolution has taken place over hundreds of millions of years, so new species can’t be expected to crop up in front of your eyes.
  • Evolution is flawed because it does not account for the origin of the universe – WTF? Here his stupidity burns so bright it hurts. Because in his tiny brain he is seeing Darwinism as the key opposition to Creationism, I think he forgets that evolution is a theory specific to the origin of the biological diversity we see today; it was not invented to replace creationism, but Stein is unable to grasp this very simple fact. He also complains that evolution fails to explain gravity, thermodynamics and astronomy…!?!

It’s kind of ironic that Stein is the host of America’s Most Smartest Model, where he plays the sneering intellectual tripping up models with trivial questions like "what is the square root of 144?"– The ignorance of the pretty boys and girls he mocks will never do the kind of damage that his own much more potent and willful stupidity might under the guise of intellectual freedom.