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August 09, 2005

Tangled Bank #34

Attention Tangled Bank Readers: welcome to Creek Running North. I'm Chris Clarke, this week's host.

Attention Creek Running North readers: Welcome to the 34th edition of the Tangled Bank, a carnival of the scientific vanities. Every two weeks, the host, whoever it may be, compiles science-related blog posts submitted by their authors into an irreducibly complex concordium of tangled bankiness.

Public service announcement: Hosting is a voluntary gig, and there's a roster of upcoming volunteer hosts which is often somewhat lengthy. But it isn't now. There are two hosts signed up after me, and that's it. If you've been longing to host the Tangled Bank but despair o'er the previously long lines, now's your chance to get a good seat. I'm writing these first paragraphs last, which means I've already done all the compiling, and so you can trust me when I say that hosting is a lot of fun. I've learned some fascinating things reading all these posts. Just email PZ Myers to volunteer.

Speaking of the posts, let's get the Tangled Bank Host self-promotion out of the way first. Data collection is both the joy and the bane of workers in the sciences, and auto-didact naturalist wannabes like this week's Tangled Bank host are no exception to the rule. An efficient naturalist will take his or her data where he or she can find it, even if it involves recruiting famous rock stars as involuntary colleagues. Eventually he or she will find something, whether or not it is what he or she was looking for.

The estimable coturnix offers How to become a biologist, which might have more accurately been entitled "How an alert Yugoslavian kid decided, out of a few less-than-compelling alternatives, to become a biologist." Those with experience as either workers or clients in the American school system will likely feel an intense longing at this passage:

"In school, I think Darwin was mentioned in fourth grade for the first time, then again almost every year. By the time I finished high school I had behind me eight years of biology, a year of bio lab, a year each of botany, zoology, microbiology, biochemistry, molecular biology and ecology."

But feel not outclassed, USAians. Coturnix goes on to say "...I remembered where I was - in America. The best place in the world to do basic science. By far the best."

Fuck yeah!

Up next is Technogypsy, a blog by materials scientist Kevin, with a post entitled First Freon, then chlorine, now Teflon discussing environmental concerns about that last-named substance and no, we're not talking the long-term effects of Reagan's environmental policy (though well we might.) Kevin, who is not precisely an environmental extremist, criticizes environmentalists who claim that Teflon contains one of its chemical precursors, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), as a residual toxic substance. Kevin offers, among other things, an argument (or more precisely, links to other folks' arguments) that Teflon's manufacturing process likely precludes the presence of residual PFOE.

Full disclosure: This blog has connections with Environmental Working Group, one of the main activist groups working on toxic industrial pollutants, especially the halogenated ones. That doesn't mean this blog will accept all pollution scare stories uncritically. The Creek Running North Teflon grand jury is still out, Kevin argues persuasively, and I'll be giving what he says further consideration. I'm not going to bother with the "Junk Science" link, though: I read enough climate "skepticism" at my real job.

Hedwig the Owl at Living the Scientific Life, without whom no Tangled Bank would be complete, offers the obligatory J.K. Rowling reference in The Wizard's Apprentices' Last Day, a retelling of the final lab exam she gave college students in her "basic 'survey of biology and chemistry' course." (Cast your eyes again at coturnix's high school curriculum and weep.) This post is a definite contender for this Tangled Bank's best photo award, with a big image up top which at first glance seemed to be Karl Rove's family coat of arms but which actually turned out to be a preserved fetal pig patiently awaiting its turn under the scalpel. Hedwig's thoughtful consideration of her more squeamish readers extended to making sure the actual dissection photo was available only by clicking on a tiny thumbnail. Looks like sausage to me. The Grrlscientist's post has the kind of happy ending any teacher will appreciate.

Dr. Charles doesn't offer a happy ending at his Examining Room, but his post is fascinating without one. If Only for Seeds of Barley tells of a patient who came to him in the full throes of labor. Or so it seemed. His patient was suffering from hysterical pregnancy, a thankfully rare condition with a name that seems at once oxymoronic and redundant. A thoughtful retelling of the history of pregnancy diagnosis includes an explanation of the post's title, which might just be the coolest thing I've learned all week. Let's hope some of those old diagnostic methods remain historical curiosities.

Hsien Hsien Lei at the Genetics and Public Health Blog sends along a shortish news item on a new technique for rapid and accurate identification of mutations in a large number of individuals. Researchers surveyed almost 10,000 people, looking for the breast cancer 1 (BRCA1) and low density lipoprotein receptor (LDLR) genes, both of which have significant public health implications. They found a range of mutations in the genes, some dangerous, some less so. Lei imagines a day when the rapid, detailed screening might allow individually targeted therapies for gene-influenced ailments. Hope so. Hope there isn't a ten-thousand-dollar co-pay.

Andrew Jaffe sends along news that's just a bit older than Lei's, dating from about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. That's when the matter in the universe cooled enough that subatomic particles combined into atoms, thus allowing photons to move about in a universe suddenly not completely filled with charged particles and nothing else. The resulting burst of radiation can still be detected thirteen billion years later. We call it the Cosmic Microwave Background. Andrew writes about some measurements of the CMB by his colleagues in the intriguingly named Boomerang Collaboration, who have made some of the most detailed and accurate measurements to date of the CMB from a (how cool is this?) balloon-based instrument launched from Antarctica. This CMB map may provide further hints as to the actual shape of the universe. Andrew says the team has also measured the polarization of the CMB, and who knows what intriguing conclusions will result from the massive crunching of numbers already in progress?

In a bit more of a "hands-on" mode but still with broad Theory implications, Brian at Backseat Driving suggests a classroom experiment in macroevolution, involving a broad petri dish whose medium's pH is low at one end; much, much neutraler in the middle; and then alkaline at the far end. Will acidophilic bacteria placed in the low-pH end evolve as they attempt to colonize less-acidic regions? Could a cline result, or even a new, alkaline-tolerant species of bacterium? Will creationists dismiss any new species that results because this is an Intelligently Designed experiment?

If that last happens, those creationists can no longer count on Matt Yglesias' acquiescence in their attempts to say so in textbooks. Faced with outrage from the scientifically literate community, the Pundit of Tepid Liberalism this week retracted his statement that he didn't think it worth the effort to defend classrooom teaching of evolution from its fundamentalist foes. Of the many, many wonderful blog posts taking Matt to task for his misstep, I thought Mike the Mad Biologist's Is Our Children Learning: Why Yglesias Is Wrong About Evolution especially fine. Especially point number 6, which should be boiled down to bumper-sticker length and tattooed backwards on certain people's foreheads so they can read it in the mirror while shaving each morning.

If you're terminally fed up by the whole onslaught and find yourself wanting to hurl invective at creationists, you'll do well to read this contribution on Respectful Insolence, in which Orac riffs on a DarkSyde post comparing creationists to Holocaust deniers. Orac grants DarkSyde's point that the two schools of (for lack of a better word) thought have much in common, but suggests - with interesting citations - that the comparison is far too toxic to sway either opponent or potential sympathizer.

I don't have a ready segue at hand from creationism and Nazis to purple loosestrife. Sorry. This horticultural introduction to North America, now one of the main invaders of temperate wetlands, seems to be developing its own little ecosystem. As Jenn points out at the Invasive Species Weblog, she's found ants "farming" aphids on this pervasive plant. The insects have gone to the lab for identification. (After they get it, they'll be able to buy beer.) Jenn has been photodocumenting organisms that live on purple loosestrife, and you can see (and contribute photographs to) her work at her flickr site.

There's more than one kind of invasive exotic, of course, and Dr. Andy provides an annotated link to a couple of articles on the category of ecosystem invasion that commands the most public attention: that of infectious diseases. Graphs of human life span over time indicate that human life expectancy at birth didn't change much from the Paleolithic to the end of the 19th century, at which point, for the first time, the average child in what was becoming the developed world had a more than one in three chance of surviving past age 40. Most of the reason for the increase in survivability is due to antibiotics, vaccines and (perhaps most importantly) hygiene. Dr. Andy quotes a tantalizing (though obvious in retrospect) line:

By selecting for evermore-devious parasites, the immune system is the cause of its own necessity

You want a reason to teach kids evolution unfettered by religious dogma? There's one right there.

One of the most pernicious invasive species, as you may know, is the brown tree snake, which has pretty much wiped out the avian population of Guam and a number of other Pacific Islands. But Guam had its share of problems even before modern trade accidentally imported the snake. At Keats Telescope, gaw3 tells of lytico-bodig, a degenerative neurological disorder endemic to Guam's indigenous Chamorro population. Fortunately, the disease has a much lower incidence since the 1970s, and a host of explanations have been offered, from waterborne pathogens to toxins in traditional plant foods. One of the explanations, magnesium deficiency, just got a leg up, as researchers have uncovered a point mutation in a calcium/magnesium channel in people who died of lytico-bodig. But no conclusions are being drawn yet, as not all sufferers exhibit the mutation.

From Guam to Ancient Greece... Anaximander is often credited... OK, that's not quite right, because Anaximander is not "often" mentioned at all in contexts other than ancient history or the history of philosophy, and sometimes not even then. Socrates has his hemlock, Plato his fun factory, but generally, despite being the guy who introduced the sundial and the gnomon to Olde Hellas, Anaximander gets no props at all. That's probably because most of what's known of him is from secondary sources: only two sentences of his writings are known.
But there are those who credit him with being the first known evolutionist, for his contention, quoted by Censorinus, that the first humans may have been born precocially to large fish. According to Alun at Archaeoastronomy, it's probably not fair to either Anaximander or evolutionists to put the two in the same school. But to biologists, and in fact to anyone else whose work relies on inquiry and critical thought, Anaximander pretty much makes up the root of their clade. Alun's essay on Anaximader's influences on modern thought is interesting and informative.

In more telegraphic fashion, Copernicus Sashimi offers a bunch of web links for a consummate practitioner of inquiry. You know, the one who didn't really say "eppur si muove."

Galileo would tell you that inquiry is aided by clear vision, often augmented by lenses. So you should remember to visit your optome... opthalmol... um, eye doctor regularly. Josh Cohen did, and his report on the experience may surprise those of you who've been stumbling around with a ten-year-old prescription. New, non-invasive technology allows optometrists to measure your vision to a much greater degree of accuracy than did the old "This one? orrrrrrrrr This one?" from back in the 1990s.

Once you get your new specs, you might wonder about their environmental impact. If you succumb to the temptation to run out and get your first real good look at wildlife in years, are you having an unpleasant effect on that wildlife? Mike at 10,000 Birds points to work done at Arizona's Southwestern Research Station indicating that, for some bird species at least, the answer may be "yes." Owls in the Chiricahua Mountains, a birders' mecca, may show differences in nesting behavior under heavy observation. If you've spent any time observing wildlife, you probably have anecdotal supporting evidence that critters don't always like being ogled. Mike ends on a hopeful note, pointing out that well-meaning watchers are still less disruptive than a new WalMart going in where once there was habitat.

Futurama fans (and possibly no one else) will enjoy this post by Mark Rayner on the Skwib, in which he points out a recent example of ethnopharmacology gone horribly, horribly wrong. I'll take my snails sans slime, thanks very much, and some garlic butter would be nice if you have it. And I'm pretty sure he's joking with that last sentence about the snails forming a union, because I don't think there's such a thing as left-wing snails.

Left-handed snails, now, that's another matter, and Tangled Bank meta-host PZ Myers' entry concerns "handedness," less awkwardly known as chirality, in the Japanese snail Euhadra. The genus' chirality is determined by a single gene, though a snail with the left-handed allele born to a right-handed mother will exhibit a right-handed phenotype. There's just no escaping that nature-nurture problem, is there?

Or if it's snails in general you want to escape, how's 7.4799 times 10 to the 12 meters sound? That's 50 Astronomical Units, or about 50 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun, or about the distance from the Sun to 2003 EL61. EL61, of course, is a giant ball of ice, about three quarters the size of Pluto, Phil, the Bad Astronomer, has photos. EL61 orbits the Sun about every 375 years, it has a moon with a 49-day orbit, and there are no known Asimov novels using it as a setting.

You think a new planet you've never heard of is cool? How about this: they've discovered a fourth RNA polymerase. All your life there were three and only three, and now there's four. It's like waking up and discovering all traffic lights actually have a purple lens between the red and amber which no one bothered to find until last week. The fourth polymerase, says The Mad Scientist, is encoded in a mitochondrial gene. MadSci speculates that "Pol IV" might be a remnant of a cross-platform kludge between mitochondrial and nuclear genome operating systems from the early days of Eukaryosis.

Paleontology is as good a place to end as any, and we're fortunate to have a late entrant in that field. Matt Celeskey's The Hairy Museum of Natural History (a great blog name if ever I heard one) has a post describing a dig in Cobre Cańon, NM, a Late Pennsylvanian-Early Permian fossil site. Matt spends a paragraph or two describing what the setting would have looked like, and links to some lovely sketches of Permocarboniferous natives.

That's it for this Tangled Bank, which it has been a distinct pleasure to compile. Don't forget, the Bank needs hosts, so please consider tossing your hat into the ring by emailing PZ Myers to volunteer.

And as always, consider submitting one of your science-related posts to the Tangled Bank by sending a link to the host! Your next host will be The Talented Munger Family at Cognitive Daily. Keep watching the snails!

Posted by Chris Clarke at August 9, 2005 10:06 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.faultline.org/cgi-bin/mt-tb.cgi/1238

3 blog(s) linking to this post:

Tangled Bank #34: Science and Medicine Blog Posts
Excerpt: Chris Clarke at Creek Running North has done a fantastic job of making the 34th edition of Tangled Bank, a collection of science and medicine blog posts, entertaining and readable. You'll find...
Weblog: Genetics and Public Health Blog
Tracked: August 9, 2005 11:33 PM
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Tangled Bank #34
Excerpt: Tangled Bank #34 is now online at Creek Running North. If you haven't heard of the Tangled Bank before, it's a biweekly collection of weblog articles on science—just go there and you'll find links to lots of other science fans a...
Weblog: Pharyngula
Tracked: August 10, 2005 05:48 AM
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Items of Interest #53
Excerpt: In this issue: a couple of good long articles, pictures from Iraq, and someone who doesn't worship the ground Michelle Malkin walks upon.
Weblog: Multiple Mentality | www.multiplementality.com
Tracked: August 15, 2005 01:16 PM
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Comments

Thanks, Chris! You did a great job, and I am pleased to be included in this issue of TB.

GrrlScientist

Posted by: GrrlScientist at August 10, 2005 05:27 AM
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Actually Chris I used the link to Junk Science 'cause I couldn't find a link on the PTFE thing that was non-technical enough for my artsy reader (the lady who does my cartoons). If you find one that is less political, let me know. As to what Dupont has done to the local enviroment with the manufacturer of PFTE, I have no position as I haven't seen the data. Coated pans however...

Nice job thru and I love the moonbat icon

Posted by: Kevin at August 10, 2005 07:45 AM
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Great job Chris. Well above average, which I think says a lot given the batch of regular participants. Thanks for hosting.

Posted by: TroutGrrrl at August 10, 2005 08:25 AM
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Wow.

This "Tangled Bank" of which you speak so convincingly makes me miss my sleep.

Now I've wandered so many twisty passages I can't remember if I got to The Nonist from here.

Oh well, I was eating crackers all the way, so there are probably crumbs.

Posted by: de Selby at August 10, 2005 08:19 PM
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Great TB, Chris! Lovely editorializing, too ;-)

Posted by: coturnix at August 10, 2005 09:56 PM
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