"Our sense of wonder grows exponentially; the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery."

-- E.O. Wilson

Web scienceontap.blogspot.com

Monday, November 30, 2009

Neuroscience Breakthrough

In a major brain chemistry finding, Nature reports that the glutamate receptor in the brain has now been characterized:


On Becoming a Naturalist

Chet Raymo muses on ditches and children:


And a slightly related post (on nature in our lives) from ThisLivelyEarth blog here:


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Science, String Theory, and the Public

Physicist Peter Woit on science, string theory, pseudo-science, and religious thinking here:


Minimal Cell and Complexity

Complexity of a minimal cell studied... Report from several research groups on the bacterium Mycoplasma pneumoniae indicates this prokaryote cell operates in many ways like a eukaryote.


Friday, November 27, 2009

Neuronal Wiring

Friday video:

The human brain -- machine... or miracle:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Pinker-Wright Discussion

Robert Wright and Steven Pinker in an interesting hour-long dialogue from a recent "Bloggingheads.TV":


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Polymath Project

The Polymath Project uses the 'Net to prove complex mathematical theorems (faster than they could be solved by individuals working apart). Fascinating concept... read all about it:


Monday, November 23, 2009

"A Year On the Wing" Enthralls

 Dee-licious, Dee-lightful!

"A Year on the Wing: Four Seasons in a Life With Birds" by Tim Dee

I'll cut to the chase: this is the most beautiful piece of nature-writing I have ever read. Period. There are other contenders, other great reads, but this taut, marvelous volume blew me away like no other.

I'd already been browsing this offering in a local bookstore for a couple of weeks when, serendipitously, the publisher sent along a copy for review. Brit Tim Dee is a BBC radio producer and writer, but "A Year On the Wing: Four Seasons In a Life With Birds" is his book-writing debut... And WHAT a debut!: This book sings... and soars... and sizzles, with prose that doesn't seem so much written, as poured onto each page from a wonderful carafe, like fine wine. Promotional material for the book uses words like "mesmerizing," "mystical," "moving," "gorgeous," "thrilling," "luminous," "poignant, "compelling," "poetic"... and all are apt for the rich text.  I'd additionally call this book intensely 'biophilic' --- a sendoff on E.O. Wilson's famously-coined term "biophilia," referring to the innate human need for connection with nature.

Generally, I like science books to bowl me over with empiricism, interesting facts, logic, reasoning, thought-provoking ideas. But nature books are a different ballgame... here I like to be swept away in lyricism, feeling, sentiment, connection, imagery. And Dee's book delivers in spades; a tour de force of nature-writing, reminiscent of early Annie Dillard.

Despite Dee's references being to British birds and locales, any American birder will easily follow and be swept up in the images and feelings evoked here.
The second chapter of the book narrates at length on the Woodcock, a fascinating bird familiar to both Americans and Brits. Here's a paragraph to give you the flavor of Dee's prose (if not the flavor of a Woodcock itself!!):
"Eating a woodcock, as I did once, is like eating earth. No wine has ever released its terroir to me as that bird did. It tasted like a prune, sweet and sour at once, a mixture of loam and chalk. The bird's dark purple flesh crumbled on my plate like a dried worm cast and the worms that made its meat. I had held the bird in my hand before it was plucked and cooked among the white surfaces and steel utensils of a smart London kitchen. Its cryptic moth-wing colors gave it the look of a worn fireside rug. To hold its book of browns, the wings falling open on either side of its body, was to sense the humus of dead leaves mulched into a bird over thousands of years --- the woodcock as a surviving fragment of an old earth, from a time when leaves became birds, branches grew wings, and the dark moved."

And this is the norm... There isn't a mundane page, a weak paragraph, a dull sentence in this amazing volume, as the author dances from woodcocks, to classic bird books, to swirling starlings, ravens, poetry, migration, nightjars, and other topics unforeseen, like literature, childhood escapades, and a suicide. I've always loved warblers, but I attained a new appreciation for Redstarts, in particular (another bird shared by America and Britain), from Dee's treatment of them here. And nightjars will never be the same for me again either. But every bird Dee touches turns magical and memorable. And there are dozens of species that take flight in these pages, some but briefly, some more front-and-center.

Each of the book's twelve chapters address a different month of the year and Tim's birding activities therein, but he really weaves his entire life into the narrative, sometimes hauntingly or sadly, or contemplatively or joyously. August is focused around bird banding, September on migration. The "October" chapter interestingly recounts Dee's own dual background in birding and nature-writing, telling which writers impacted him most growing up. His mini-discussions of literature, writers, and natural history are as interesting as his verbal portraiture of nature and birds.

I wanted this book to go on and on (it is only 200 pages), and was expecting some sort of profound crescendo as it did approach the end. Instead, it seemed to me to end in mid-air, a tad abruptly (the last chapters just as good as the prior chapters, but with no climactic finale), but maybe I missed something along the way. I'll be reading it again to see if the ending brings more closure, or if it simply makes you want to start over and read it again... and again.

I have to believe this volume is in line to win several awards for 2009 books, in nature writing and possibly other categories as well. And I hesitate to even look forward to Dee's next book --- I mean how could he equal, let alone top this?!! The volume is a bit reminiscent of Jonathan Rosen's wonderful work and ode to birds, "The Life of the Skies" which I previously rated a high "A-" --- what's left for me to give Dee's volume, except an A++ (...and no, I've never given that before).

Having heaped on all this praise though I must add that the potency of Dee's prose may be lost on those who lack great experience with the subjects he is addressing: nature and birds. Anyone with no interest in these topics just won't feel the power of Dee's vividness, passion, imagery. So this is not necessarily a book for everyone, or for non-nature readers, nor even beginning ones; it is for those already somewhat seasoned, even immersed... and ready, or primed, to be carried away.
But hey, I'll quit beating around the bush... I liked this book... A WHOLE... DANG... LOT!!!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Altruism In Plants!

 Fascinating... Plants recognize, and share light/nutrients with, their own kind:


Friday, November 20, 2009

LHC Restart Begins Tonight!

 The Large Hadron Collider, under repair and preparation for the last 14 months since it's initial startup shutdown, is finally due to re-startup tonight (the beginning of a lengthy process):


Science and the Cosmos

The Friday video: Classic Carl Sagan from "Cosmos" on the triumph of science:

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Blindness and Hallucinations

Do blind people experience visual hallucinations on LSD:


Butterflies In Space

Somehow it's a lovely image; Monarch and Painted Lady butterflies are headed to the International Space Station aboard the shuttle Atlantis as part of a 'science outreach project':


Paradox of Light

 The strange nature of light:


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Insect Brains

Pinhead-sized brains still allow for complexity:


Giant Stingray... WOW

Couple of clips of the fascinating, elusive "giant stingray":



Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Garrett Lisi Speculates

 Yo Man, surfer dude proposes 'theory of everything' (the Holy Grail of physics):



I've used this TED talk of Lisi's earlier in the year :

Wish I understood it well enough to comment... but I don't, except that the mathematics are intriguing.

Be Careful What You Wish For

 'Brain diseases' that someone says he wishes he had!:


Monday, November 16, 2009

Dawkins On Display

Dawkins Dazzles... Mostly

A brief look today at Richard Dawkins' latest two books...

First let me say that what I like best about Richard Dawkins is his British accent ;-) and his videos are all over the internet so one can partake of that... but of course his writing ain't half-bad either.

Of his last two works however, I give "The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing," an anthology actually of other scientists' writings, the higher "A" mark. I like anthologies in general, and this is a particularly excellent volume of well-selected, modern scientific writing (in fact I'm tempted to deem it the best such anthology I've ever come across! --- an endorsement blurb from "New Scientist" on the back cover says, "A brilliant collection... If you could only ever read one science book, this should probably be it." I might agree.).

One might've expected Dawkins, a biologist, to weight biological writings heaviest in his selection, but really it is a very admirable, representative, and fair mix of scientists across a wide swathe of disciplines, including a variety of writing styles and content. Dawkins says his only regret is that so many good writers and pieces had to be left out, but his selections are superb within a 400 page framework --- the sole weakness is probably a shortage of cognitive science representation. Neuroscience has really come into its own in the last half century, but unfortunately not much of it found here. My other regret is simply that many of the pieces are so short (often 2 pages or less, and rarely more than 5) that you really wish they'd continue on. Just as you're getting some real meat to chew on, an entry is over and off to the next author. Dawkins' very short subjective intros to each writer, by the way, are also absolutely delightful gems, almost whimsical sometimes; not stuffy or mundane in the way people-introductions can sometimes be.  Also nice, is Dawkins' deliberate avoidance of very famous or well-quoted passages/essays of a given writer, in favor of pieces of lesser familiarity, but equally high caliber from said author.

 The book is organized in four parts: "What Scientists Study," "Who Scientists Are," "What Scientists Think," and "What Scientists Delight In." But it is the sort of work that can be read in any order; open to any page randomly and dive in to a fine reading experience. Indeed, I suspect I will be pulling this volume off my shelf every few months to randomly open it and re-read a few pages here and there to much satisfaction, like sipping fine wine. I highly recommend it to all lay science readers.

Moving on, I'll say up front that 'evolution' volumes in general somewhat bore me at this point (there are innumerable fine such volumes out there, and for most of us this debate was over a loooong time ago). I do still enjoy some of the anthologies in which the likes of Gould, Eldredge, Lewontin, Dawkins, Wilson, Pinker etc. wrestle the nuances and fine points of evolutionary theory through essays and excerpts, serving to show how much disagreement there is among the experts, despite agreement on basics. I'm less a fan of reading Dawkins in isolation. Having said that, it's good that he is around to keep fighting the good fight for those too tired and bored to do so.

Thusly, a brief overview of the 2009 edition of Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene".... no just kidding, rather, a look at his latest offering, "The Greatest Show On Earth"... But Dawkins has been accused from time-to-time of writing the same book over-and-over again, just changing the words around. He once responded to such criticism by saying that he HAD to keep writing the same book in different ways to try to get through to all those people who still don't 'get it.' He actually goes to pains early in this volume to maintain that this book IS different from his others because it focuses deliberately on "evidence" for evolution, whereas previous works focused moreso on the underlying theory and mechanisms of evolution.
It is true that this volume is heavy on the perceived evidence for evolution, to the point of sometimes being a tad more pedagogical than some of Dawkins' earlier writing, but only a tad. Still, he is as always a good explicator (one might almost contend he's more a writer than a scientist), even if the writing is slightly less engaging than some prior volumes.

I'm not sure though who this book is really for... Dawkins fans will of course read it, but may gain little from it they don't already know. Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates won't find it convincing (even if they're persuaded that yes, evolution happens, they won't go the extra mile of concluding that humans necessarily resulted therefrom), and there's nothing newly profound in Dawkins' arguments here that hasn't appeared in print elsewhere. It's as if he's expending his breath for a paycheck, or attempting a knock-out blow he can't achieve. I s'pose there are still some newbies out there, fresh to the whole debate who haven't made their minds up, and the book may be best targeted at them, as a good intro to the evolutionary view, but surely by now they are a small percentage.

Dawkins claims unconvincingly that there are not great gaps in the fossil evidence; that intermediate forms and 'missing links' as it were, abound. But of course there are large 'gaps' and millions of smaller ones --- he rightfully asserts that we are lucky to have any fossils at all, let alone the number we have (which is still not many) --- but for some reason he doesn't simply then acknowledge that this scarcity accounts for the large "gaps" in the evolutionary record; evolution stretches over unimaginable millions of years; there SHOULD BE millions of gaps (most transitional forms disappear, and the fossil history that does exist is often the result of concocting entire anatomies from but a very few bones or fragments and a whole lot of assumptions). Otherwise, Dawkins offers plenty of good, but always limited, examples and argumentation.

Remissfully, he doesn't even delve into epigenetics, one of the hotter topics in biology today, and one that any new book purporting to address evolution ought spend at least a few passages on, especially since it has the potential to alter some of the genetics 'facts' he is wedded to. 100 years from now we'll have a good handle on epigenetics, but by then something new, along the lines of epi-epigenetics will no doubt appear and require yet further understanding/elucidation --- that is the nature of science; peel off a layer of the onion and just as many layers still remain.

Scientists of each given age tend to think they have very advanced knowledge, just because they are on the cutting edge of science for their day --- but all is relative; in looking back, we snicker at the primitive beliefs from scientists of 1000 years ago, and similarly 1000 years from now, scientists will look back and chuckle at much of what today's Dawkinses have written (or Stephen Hawking for that matter). Some of today's inviolable "facts," in a 1000 years, will be seen as simple-mindedness and sophistry of another age; over the eons science is quite fluid; it just appears very static at any given point... and that is what Dawkins fails to comprehend, so spellbound and myopic is he on the accomplishments of present-day methods/theory/evidence/science. The variables and intervening factors on a process as broad as "evolution" are enormous, complex, and yes, still largely unknown (maybe even unknowable), but Dawkins writes with a blind acceptance and certainty of it all based on little more than 100 puny years of evidence, a miniscule blip in time and knowledge. Sometimes he reminds me of those who wrote at the turn of the 20th century that all the essential physical laws of science had been discovered and there was nothing left to learn except the application of those laws. There is likely an infinite amount left to learn.

In his final opus, "The Structure of Evolutionary Theory" Stephen Jay Gould took over 1300 pages (and probably knew he was leaving a lot out) to explain evolution. Dawkins gives us a Cliff Notes version, and seems to think it invincible, with his self-selected examples. I guess it is his tone moreso than his content that leaves me uneasy, though at the same time, I understand his frustration with the antagonists he is battling.

Having said all that, this is a very good book (Dawkins doesn't write bad books) and I give it a B+, easily recommending it as a popular science read, or as a good introduction to evolutionary theory for anyone needing such. But it does need to be read critically, not merely lapped up like honey. And for the general science reader, if I had to choose where to spend $20+ I'd spend it first on his Oxford anthology, and then maybe pick up a used copy of "The Selfish Gene" for 50 cents in the local used bookstore.

Dawkins personal webpage here:  http://richarddawkins.net/

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Golf Balls As Toxic Waste

Story with funny headline... but not altogether so funny:


The hazard of lost golf balls....


 Appropriate for a Sunday morning post... Chet Raymo on "religious naturalism" :


Friday, November 13, 2009

Amazing Survival Mechanism

The Friday video: the incomparable David Attenborough narrates the amazing evolved escape tactic of the pebble toad:

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Science Journalism Awards

See all the winners of the 2009 AAAS Kavil Science Journalism Awards here:


a worthy, deserving bunch.

The FOXP2 Gene and Human Language

 The FOXP2 gene continues to show promise as a precursor to human development of language:


(the chimp/human differences)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Copenhagen, Climate Change, Catastrophe

The urgency of the upcoming Copenhagen climate change conference here:


Well, I'll Be an Orangutan's Uncle (Maybe)

Controversial study wants to alter our family tree:


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Genetic Dating

Based on the results from well-preserved penguin bones in Antarctica, the accuracy (and assumptions) of genetic dating is being questioned by researchers at Oregon State University:


"We believe that traditional DNA dating techniques are fundamentally flawed, and that the rates of evolution are in fact much faster than conventional technologies have led us to believe."

Really not too surprising, but the dust will take awhile to settle. A lot of current molecular techniques are probably way cruder than they're portrayed as.

Asteroid Near-Miss

Asteroid misses Earth by 14,000 km last Friday :


(...I thought I felt a breeze!) 

Genomes 'R Us

Got $1700 to spare... get your genome sequenced:


Monday, November 9, 2009

"...craziness has a fine history in physics"

...so says a NY Times piece on the start-up attempts for the Large Hadron Collider, and a new theory pushed by some that the device is doomed or at least jinxed, by the very Higgs boson for which it is searching... this is cosmology gone wild... but, hey, that's almost the normal state for cosmology, so read all about it:


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Are We Rare or the Norm?

Speculation from Scientific American on what advanced extraterrestrials might or might not look lilke:


(probably only UFO abductees know for sure... ;-))

Saturday, November 7, 2009

What A View!

"Cosmic web" of galaxies viewed for first time:


Friday, November 6, 2009

Why Boys Will Be Boys

Friday video:

The physiology of male sex drive explained simply:

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Was It Whole Wheat

A bird with some bread shut down the hapless LHC if this story is to be believed:


Penrose Interview...

Nice interview with phenonemal British thinker/physicist Roger Penrose HERE.

And videos with Penrose available HERE.


For science Twitterers there are now lists of science Twitterers compiled:


(There are even lists of lists --- these are by no means all science however):


Personally, I won't be satisfied though until we have lists of lists of lists of lists ;-))

Don't Think Too Fast

Clever little brain teaser at Sean Carroll's "Cosmic Variance" blog recently HERE.

Good example of how language, and in this case just a few simple words, can lead one's logic astray.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Cell

Ya got a youngin' exhibiting an interest in biology or genetics...? This quickie essay from Chet Raymo may just pique their interest and advance it along. (Also, okay to show it to oldsters you know who possess a sense of wonder! :-))

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


"The tip of the iceberg" according to a new "Red List" report is that "more than one in five of all known mammals, over a quarter of reptiles and 70 percent of plants are under threat" of extinction. If you happen to be a Rabb's fringe-limbed tree frog you don't want to read this report:



Nice introduction to human genetics/epigenetics from the BBC here:


("The Ghost In Your Genes," also available on YouTube in multiple parts)

Our comprehension of the workings of genetics remains crude and primitive, despite advances. In 50-100 years we'll have a keener understanding of epigenetics... at which point no doubt some form of epi-epigenetics will be discovered and require further unraveling!

Monday, November 2, 2009

H1N1 More Serious Than Many Realize

This report on a CDC study concludes that, "The number of confirmed cases of H1N1 flu from April to July represents just 2% of the actual people who were infected with the virus, according to a report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention."

and adds:

"The study estimates that for every confirmed case, there was likely a median of 79 actual people infected with the virus. Using the same model, the authors estimate about 800 people died from the virus during the same time frame."

(bold added)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Science, Spirituality, Biophilia

One person's take HERE.

Not-so-simple Lichens

If you love lichens like I love lichens, this article (long, interesting) may be for you: