Preposterous Universe

Wednesday, October 06, 2004
Tangled Bank #13

Welcome to the Lucky Thirteenth edition of Tangled Bank! A carnival of bloggy excellence in which we collect some of the best science-oriented posts of the previous two weeks. (We have taken a loose interpretation of the "previous two weeks" requirement, to feature some worthy authors that don't have a recent science post. As you will see, we have even taken a loose interpretation of the "science" requirement!)

The next Tangled Bank will be hosted by Prashant Mullick, and is scheduled to appear on October 20th. You can email your contribution directly to Prashant at mullickprashant@gmail.com, or to host@tangledbank.net. We are always looking for new hosts (it's really not so hard); if you're interested, email PZ Myers at pzmyers@pharyngula.org.

This edition's nineteen (count 'em!) entries will be listed in apparently-random order, according to a convoluted algorithm known only to me.

From Richard Hoppe at The Panda's Thumb we have an Introduction to Multiple Designers Theory. When advocates of the Intelligent Design movement claim to be thinking purely scientifically rather than theologically, what if they were telling the truth? What conclusions would they be drawn to?
Mainstream Intelligent Design is proving itself to be scientifically vacuous. While Dembski has his Explanatory Filter and Complex Specified Information and Specified Complexity, and Behe has his Irreducible Complexity, no actual research program utilizing those concepts has emerged from the mainstream Intelligent Design movement. Therefore a revolutionary change in the conception of ID is necessary to rouse it from its empirical and theoretical slumber and to provide appropriate material for school boards and legislatures who want an alternative to modern evolutionary theory to be taught in secondary schools. Multiple Designers Theory is that revolutionary change.
From Selva at The Scientific Indian we have The Story of Shit. No comment on this, I'm getting in enough trouble already.
I cooked up this story at a lighter moment (pun intended). Shit is second law of thermodynamics in action. Looking at feces from a thermodynamical perspective may somewhat unburden our mind from the inherent unpleasantness of the subject matter. Besides, I have been mulling over the second law of thermodynamics, evolution and human form for a while now. All these different ideas are connected in strange ways. As part of the story of shit I am going to explain the connections I see.
From Chris Clarke Creek Running North we have Puma, an essay on predation including a personal account of a puma encounter.
As I rounded yet another bend in the road, the wind picked up. The breeze off the ocean had been a little gusty that afternoon, more so as I got deeper into the ravines on the east side of the ridge. That's the only way I can explain what happened next; that the wind was too loud for the puma to hear me walking down the road. It must not have known I was there. Why else would it have leapt the guardrail to cross the road at precisely the time I arrived at said guardrail?
From Samuel Conway we have PSA: Save a life while you sleep! It's a personal story of bone marrow donation.
What is the first thing that pops into your mind when I say the words "bone marrow donation"?

I'll tell you what it is: PAIN. That is what everyone always talks about. We read stories about donors, usually in places like Readers' Digest, and we shudder and squirm at the thought of how agonizing it must be. My word, we say, aren't these people heroic? The truth, however, is that the majority of donors experience only moderate discomfort, and some report feeling little or no pain at all. True, for some the procedure can be painful, but even those donors say that they would be ready to do it again in a heartbeat.
From George Wilkinson at Keats' telescope we have Grab that glutamate, about the natural history of GLUD2.
This month's Nature Genetics (subscription required) has a cool short communication by Fabien Burki and Henrik Kaessmann about a gene that is most likely only expressed in the brain, and is only found in humans and apes. This gene, GLUD2, and its more widespread relative, GLUD1, encode proteins which help break down glutamate. Glutamate is an important neurotransmitter in the brain, and can be released in large amounts during intense neural activity. However too much released glutamate can be toxic, and these two genes are important for control of glutamate levels.
From ema at The Well-Timed Period we have Womanhood and Menses. "Having a menstrual period does not make women inferior, nor does it empower them to rule the world."
There is a tendency to infuse the menstrual period with all sorts of societal meanings of almost mythical proportions (e.g., the essence of womanhood, woman power, etc.). This is detrimental, especially when it comes to women making informed period-related health decisions. Why? Because, by definition, myths aren't to be explained; they're to be believed. This is a dangerous proposition when it comes to your health.
From Prashant Mullick we have Fibonacci Spiral Phyllotaxis. He must be reading the Da Vinci Code!
Phyllotaxis is the arrangement of leaves on a stem. There are several types of arrangements. One of them is a spiral pattern.

It turns out that among plants displaying spiral phyllotaxis about 92% of them have Fibonacci phyllotaxis - the number of visible spirals are two successive elements of the Fibonacci sequence.
From PZ Myers at Pharyngula we have PZ Myers' Own Original, Cosmic, and Eccentric Analogy for How the Genome Works -OR- High Geekology. Is the genome a recipe, or a village of idiots? Nope, it's a power spectrum.
I'm a long-time microscopy and image processing geek, and you know what that means: Fourier transforms (and if you don't know what it means, I'm telling you now: Fourier transforms). I'm going to be kind and spare you all mathematics of any kind and do a simplified, operational summary of what they're all about, but if bizarre transformations of images aren't your thing, you can bail out now.
(By the way, a Fourier transform is just a change of basis in the space of functions, from one where the basis functions are delta-functions to one where they are sines and cosines. Clear now?)

From Charlie Wagner we have A Scientific Case for Intelligent Input. Not our usual Tangled Bank fare -- it's an apologia for intelligent design, included here in the spirit of the free market of ideas. (Without any implied promise to include pseudoscience posts in future editions!)
As you probably know, empirical data can be either observational or experimental. Observations usually come first, and hypotheses are developed. When a sufficient number of observations are collected, a pattern emerges and a theory is formulated. Additional experiments are then performed in an attempt to falsify the theory. After numerous attempts to falsify the theory, it may be elevated to the status of Law. Of course, any theory or law is subject to new data which may or may not overturn it. I have proposed Nelson's Law and, so far as I can tell, it has not been falsified by any observational or experimental data and must be assumed to be highly likely to be true.
From Radagast at Rhosgobel we have a set of three connected posts -- They're not so little anymore, More Manduca Pictures: Spiracles and Tracheae, and Manduca Update: They're Wandering! I have to admit, those caterpillars are pretty cute.
You may or may not know that insects are supposed to have three pairs of legs (six legs total), while spiders have four pairs of legs (eight legs total). Knowing this, let's count the legs on the caterpillar pictured above. A quick count reveals that the caterpillar has sixteen legs (eight pairs), significantly more than the six it's supposed to have. Are caterpillars not insects? Have we been wrong all along in believing that insects have six legs?
From Jenn at Invasive Species Weblog we have Invasive Species: The Newest Threat to Property...Rights? Science meets the pervasive phenomenon of annoying neighbors.
Invasive species, indeed any weedy species, don't give a hoot about your property boundaries. Sometimes things that happen on your property affect others, and it's not fair to say tough luck just because you own that plot of land. I'm sorry, but if someone notices that a bunch of trees on your property are infested with Asian longhorn beetles, I don't think you have a right to not do anything about it. I also don't think you should have to pay to remove the trees, and I would like to see the government help you out by maybe replanting or giving you some money. But unless you're going to build a biodome over your land, this is about more than you and what you "own."
From Stephen Brophy we have Meaning Well is No Excuse. Following Richard Dawkins, he argues that it's not okay to make people feel better by giving them false hope.
So, the news that yet another Cancer remedy has been touted should really come as no surprise. Nevertheless, the sight of this article made my blood boil. The con-artist pushing this particular miracle cure seems to be claiming that "It works by creating an alkaline environment in which acidic cancer cells cannot survive" (So there you have it dear reader, curing cancer turns out to be one of the many uses of baking soda!). The individual making the above quoted claim is apparently a doctor. This is obscene, and the fool should be kept away from patients (It seems clear to me that his treatment represents a gross violation of his Hippopotamus Oath).
From Ted Woollet at Dark Energy2 we have The Anthropic Principle: Good Physics or Not?? With the surprising observational result that the universe is dominated by vacuum energy that has a much smaller value than it should, cosmologists have been tempted by the idea that our observable universe is just one of many.
According to these ideas, we exist in a "pocket universe" with a tiny (but non-zero) effective cosmological constant. Without the cosmological constant having a value in a small range around a tiny number, our variety of intelligent observers could not have evolved to a state like the present. The tiny non-zero value of the effective cosmological constant is hard to understand using traditional particle physics arguments.
From John Fleck at inkstain we have Extinction. Can major extinctions of 10,000 years ago be blamed on weather, or are they our fault?
One of the classic scientific debates, on a par with "nature vs. nurture," albeit far more obscure, is the question of what caused the great megafaunal extinction at the end of the Pleistocene.

Pretty much everywhere you look, you find evidence of big critters roaming the earth - mastodons, mammoths, big camels, and my favorite, beavers the size of black bears. And then they "blink out," to borrow a lovely phrase I heard a biologist use recently. In a very short period of time in geologic terms, they're gone.
From me at Preposterous Universe we have What is this quintessence of dust? A needlessly showy quote from Hamlet, by way of introduction to different possibilities for what dark energy might be.
I think it was Tolstoy who said, "Cosmological constants are all alike; every model of dynamical dark energy is dynamical in its own way." Tautological enough, but it points to an important feature of dynamical dark energy candidates -- because they have more features than simply their energy density, there are more ways they could be detected and thus more parameters you need to fine-tune to explain why we haven't noticed them yet.
From David Winter at Science and Sensibility we have the Plight of a Bumble Bee, Part One and Part Two. This is why other people can't understand scientists -- when confronted with a bumblebee infestation, they contemplate the essence of bees rather than just spraying them dead.
Over the last few weeks my flat has been beset by slow, confused looking bumble bees. Most days at least one gets itself stuck in the house, usually trying valiantly but ultimately futilely to fly through one of our closed windows. Of course I usually try and help these wayfarers out but I was too late for one, which I found dead in our living room. I have tried to get a photo of the unfortunate bumble bee for you but technology has conspired against me, so here is one of the same species.
From Mike at 10,000 Birds we have Flyways And Byways. Examining the remarkably well-defined migration corridors of North American birds.
You don't need to be a birder to know that most birds fly from temperate northern climes to more tropical southern locales for the winter. Changes in light, temperature, and food availability trigger the instinct to migrate, an urge so powerful that only a really well-stocked backyard bird feeder can override it. Migratory birds follow a variety of routes, most of which are are far more complicated than just due south. Every species has its own path.
From Pyracantha at Electron Blue we have One of those little victories which keep me going. Pyracantha is an artist who is teaching herself math and physics.
The fireworks are out and it's back to math. I'm working my way through lots of logarithm problems. As you may remember from last time, I spoke in a rather agricultural way about "raising" and "rooting" numbers. How would I describe a logarithm, then? It's a number seed which when planted, both raises and roots at the same time.
From Wolverine Tom we have San Andreas Fault. I was only in an earthquake once, and it was a tiny one -- as if the building was suddenly floating on water rather than anchored to dry land, and just as suddenly back again.
A few days ago, a 6.0 magnitude earthquake occurred in the San Andreas Fault out in California. For those people living in the area, this is a common occurance. But why is this area so prone to earthquakes? To understand this, the geologic of the area must be known.
Many thanks to everyone (most of whom I didn't get a chance to thank individually) for contributing. And if I've left anyone out, it was just an email snafu, not a cold-hearted editorial decision -- so please let me know.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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