Monday – You Know What

Well, Darwin Day is right around the corner, and (surprise!) I haven’t got a plan yet. Last year was the big double bi-centennial for Darwin and Lincoln, but this year the nearest events I can track down are in Baton Rouge. I’m still searching, so if anything interesting comes up, I’ll blag about it.

A lot of you have been asking “When is the next meeting going to be?” and pointing out things like “Hey, weren’t the meetings going to be monthly?” Well SHAZAM – February 23rd – it’s a Tuesday. Historically, it’s also the day in 1870 that the state of Mississippi was re-admitted into the United States after the Civil War, but don’t ask me why I know that. I won’t be able to answer.

This may not bring us up to the hoped-for goal of an average of one meeting per month, but we’re getting closer (we’re right at .4). It’s my fault. Promise.

Well, it’s Monday, so you know what that means: A great big ole’ stack of links.

First up: Evolution in Medicine This is an interesting article that points to a real, non-manufactured debate in the vaccination world. At hand is the problem of making sure that your vaccinations select against more virulent strains of disease rather than the less virulent ones, allowing them to survive and integrate their less-virulent genes into the viral population.

This sort of thing takes place in nature, as well. There is the “trade off hypothesis,” for instance. If a virus (or other pathogen, but viruses serve as excellent examples) kills the host organism too quickly, there is a loss of survival fitness. Allowing the host to continue to linger ensures that the host (which is an entire ecosystem, as far as the pathogenic organism is concerned) stays around long enough to keep spawning more disease.

And if there are no other hosts for the pathogen, then being less virulent is a good thing from the viewpoint of the pathogen (and the host, for that matter). Of course, this is not a universal rule (so few things are!); if an organism is not really hampered by the death of the host, or if it is highly transmissible, then the cost of virulence is much lower.

Most things in evolution have this sort of trade-off; in The Greatest Show on Earth Richard Dawkins uses the example of the gazelle legs; longer legs make you faster, allowing greater survivability, up until a point where the legs become brittle and break too easily, making you an easy meal.

Ah, on to other pastures. If you happen to be one of those “experts” from Ghost Hunters, Ghost TV, Ghostvision, Paranormal Patrol, or whatever the hell is on the History channel at the moment; Ben Goldacre has found you a new job. You’d be working for the same people who make the head lice repellent badge, and have this to say about it:

1. How does it work?
Without a comprehensive understanding of technology e.g. that used in space travel, it is not really possible to provide a very satisfactory answer.

So if you’re a rocket scientist and school nurse dealing with head lice, you should write these guys a letter.

Not that it would be as relentless and classical as this gem from Mark Twain written to a patent-medicine salesman.

Twain was a great wit of his time. His writings on religion, the tragic medicine of his time, and (my personal favorite) Christian Science show a deep skepticism about human nature, education, and authority, while revealing a man who has a bit of faith in the abilities of reason, sees them as accessible to most people, even if they don’t, perhaps, use them.

Things have changed a lot since Twains’ day, but patent medicine salesmen are still out there and education is still in a laughable state. Take, for instance, the autism-vaccination link crowd. You might have heard about this recently – Andrew Wakefield was dishonest and unethical in his research that showed the only link between autism and vaccination.

Bad science AND unethical experimentation on children, combined with a heap of undeclared conflict of interests? It makes you wonder who the anti-vaxx crowd is screaming about when they say these things about actual doctors.

On to Convergent Evolution.

You may remember this one if you tuned in to Skeptics Guide this week. Apparently, researchers in China and Michigan mapped out the gene responsible for the super-sensitive inner-ear hairs that make echolocation possible. The Chinese team was studying bats, and the Michigan team was studying dolphins. Surprise, surprise, the exact same gene was altered in both animals, a gene that made these hairs super-short and sensitive. More research is underway to see if other animals who have crude sonar systems – shrews, oilbirds, and swiftlets to name a few.

Of course, these aren’t the only single-gene convergences in biological history. One of my favorites is the case of the Northern Short Tailed Shrew and the Beaded Lizard.

These two animals have mutated versions of the same ancestral gene to create the toxic protein they employ.
Now – Get your ass to Mars! There you’ll find the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Now you’ve doubtlessly heard this week that Spirit isn’t doing too well. By that I mean that it’s stuck. Stuck in a hole. On Mars. But it’s still going! The team at the JPL/NASA is going to shut it down for a few months so that it can survive the insane Martian winter. While it will no longer be doing any roving, it is now an immobile laboratory – on another world. The lack of focus on moving it around means that the team can get down to some more science after the winter.

Some people are upset, but Spirit is doing pretty damn well. After all, it only had a ninety day mission. In human lifespan terms, this would be like getting upset that someone only survived to be 1400 years old. The folks at the Planetary Society have more to say on the subject, and don’t seem to be too excited about the fact that NASA, not the JPL, is calling the final shot on this one. Of course, Spirit is still valuable, and they’ll be kicking her around to try and get into a survivable position, so we’ll have to wait until next year to see what’s up. One thing a stationary Spirit might be able to model quite well is the wobble of the Martian orbit – a clue to the nature of the core of the planet.

Plus, let’s not forget that Opportunity is still kicking, heading to a relatively new crater (the youngest crater examined on Mars) and is within 100 meters of it.

If only all our NASA news could be so good. The new NASA budget, which actually seems to have been crafted with an eye to a lot of astronomical complaints, is run-down in a nice manner on Bad Astronomy. The bad news: It might not pass the Congress.


One response to “Monday – You Know What

  1. but wait! i has exposeded the darwin!! cant you see?? what about piltdown man?! what about thomas huxley?!

    hilarious intro to crankology 101

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