Category Archives: General Science

A “Transitional” Species

Despite the date, I suspect that this is on the level. They’ve apparently discovered a link between fish and amphibians.

The fossil, a 365-million-year-old arm bone, or humerus, shares features with primitive fish fins but also has characteristics of a true limb bone. Discovered near a highway roadside in north-central Penn., the bone is the earliest of its kind from any limbed animal.

“It has long been understood that the first four-legged creatures on land arose from the lobed-finned fishes in the Devonian Period,” said Rich Lane, director of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) geology and paleontology program. “Through this work, we’ve learned that fish developed the ability to prop their bodies through modification of their fins, leading to the emergence of tetrapod limbs.”

I have the word “transitional” in quotes in the post title because it’s a meaningless, superfluous adjective. All species are transitional species, in the sense that they evolved from one and are likely (assuming they don’t go extinct) to evolve into yet others in the future. Or at least that was the case until we came along.

No Double Standard

In a most disingenuous column, John West claims to be upset because federal funding is being used to “insert religion into biology classrooms.”

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is on the front lines of the battle to keep religion out of the nation’s science classrooms. A group whose self-described mission is “Defending the Teaching of Evolution in the Public Schools,” the NCSE routinely condemns anyone who wants to teach faith-based criticisms of evolutionary theory for trying to unconstitutionally mix church and state.

But in an ironic twist, it now turns out that the NCSE itself is using federal tax dollars to insert religion into biology classrooms. Earlier this year, the NCSE and the University of California Museum of Paleontology unveiled a website for teachers entitled “Understanding Evolution.” Funded in part by a nearly half-million-dollar federal grant, the website encourages teachers to use religion to promote evolution. Apparently the NCSE thinks mixing science and religion is okay after all

Loosening The Shackles

I used to have a tee shirt, that had a picture of a garden mole and exterminator. The caption was “Mole problems? Call Avogadro 6.022 x 10^23.”

It’s a chemistry joke.

[rim shot]

OK, it’s geeky. Avogadro’s number is the number of atoms in a mole, which allows us to convert the unit of mass to number of atoms, and vice versa, by converting the atomic number to grams. Carbon 12 (the most common carbon isotope) is the reference–a mole of carbon 12 atoms will, in theory, mass exactly twelve grams. Similarly, a mole of hydrogen atoms will mass one gram.

Obviously, for this to work, we have to know pretty accurately just how many atoms there are in a mole. In fact, if we knew it accurately, and precisely enough, we could use it as an atomic basis for mass (just as the meter was defined in terms of wavelengths of a specific chemical laser, and more recently as the distance light goes in a certain time interval measured by a cesium clock). The current (crude) standard for mass is a lump of metal, a kilogram by definition, kept in a bell jar in Paris.

Recent research indicates that the traditional number, first identified by Avogadro, may be a little off. If they can refine the number sufficiently, it can be established as the basis for mass, and we can free ourselves of one of the few areas in which we’re dependent on the duplicitous French…

Sniff Any Good F@rts Lately?

Hey, you think you’ve got it bad?

Go hence and read about the worst jobs in science.

[Update at 12:40 PM PDT]

Here’s a blog-relevant one:


Yes, astronaut. By many lights, being an astronaut is the best job in the solar system, though one that carries with it the ultimate risk. But set aside the mortal danger and it’s still a job of great frustration, self- sacrifice, even debasement. Astronauts are subjected to the most arduous of tasks: sitting in high-G centrifuges so that doctors can study motion sickness, deliberately enduring hypothermia for hours on end, wearing rectal probes and central IV lines in all forms of stress training like so many guinea pigs (though?mitigating factor?no shaved bellies). Shuttle and Mir veteran Norm Thagard once objected to a study designed to make him wretchedly sick. NASA’s response? “They said I could be fired for good cause, bad cause or no cause,” says Thagard, “but I was required to participate as a condition of employment.” Thagard also had the distinction of being the first person ever to clean out animal cages in orbit, on the Spacelab 3 in 1985. Engineers promised him that the cages would be at negative pressure, so none of the weightless waste of 24 rats and 2 squirrel monkeys would escape. But when Thagard opened the cages, air rushed outward, leading to a frantic floating-feces chase scene. A day later, at the other end of the craft, commander Bob Overmeyer was accosted by a truant turd.