Evolve Culturally or Die

Posted on 16th January 2012 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment
Cavefish and Zebrafish Embryos
Cavefish and Zebrafish Embryos
Credit: wellcome images

An important rule of evolution is that species lose adaptations they aren’t using. Cave fish have eyes that do not work because they live in an environment without light. Crocodile icefish blood has lost its hemogloblin because they live in oxygen-rich water where they don’t need the protein to transport oxygen throughout their bodies. Kiwis, chickens, and ostriches have wings but can’t fly. Humans lack the gene to make Vitamin C, forcing us to get our ascorbic acid from dietary sources.

This happens because when a trait isn’t in use, natural selection does not discriminate against mutations that break the trait. For example, when an individual impala is born with a mutation that gives it bad eyes, it gets eaten by a lion, but when a fish in the total darkness of a cave gets bad eyes, they are just as likely to survive as the fish with working vision; in fact, they have a slight advantage for not having to put resources into building and maintaining eyes that provide no advantage.

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Powers of Eleven Day

Posted on 11th November 2011 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment,science holidays
Pascal's Triangle, Odd Numbers Highlighted
Pascal’s Triangle, Odd Numbers Highlighted

One of the great joys of being human is our incredible powers of pattern recognition. Our brain’s ability to manifest meaningful associations out of the complex morass of sensory stimuli perpetually assaulting us is a cognitive expertise into which computers are only just starting to venture successfully. It’s what allows us to recognize faces, raed wrdos wtih smrelcabd ltretes, identify with our fellow humans, and compartmentalize the sounds, tastes, and sights around us.

The number 11 has always been my favorite whole number. Ever since I was a kid, I appreciated the way the first nine multiples of 11 are numbers that mirror the tens and ones places (in a base-10 numbers system): {11, 22, 33, 44 … 77, 88, 99}.

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Archeological Narratives that Enchant the Imagination

Posted on 7th November 2011 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment
Shonisaur vertebral disks arranged in curious linear patterns
Shonisaur vertebral disks arranged in curious linear patterns
Credit: Mark McMenamin

I admit it. I knew better when I posted the story about the kraken lair to my Facebook for my less scientifically literate friends to awe and wonder at. I could tell from the scant evidence provided in the press release that there really wasn’t anything there but a collection of bones from 45-foot-long ichthyosaurs mysteriously piled together at a site in Nevada. To infer the bones were gathered together by a gigantic ancient cephalopod whose soft tissues left no trace in the fossil record was an admirably imaginative idea, but I knew this extraordinary claim didn’t pass the Sagan Standard’s “extraordinary evidence” requirement. As Samuel Clemens best expressed it, “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such trifling investment of fact.”

And still I posted it to Facebook, where it got eight Likes, three comments, and one share. That’s eight more Likes than my link to Discovery’s Faces of Our Ancestors gallery, featuring facial reconstructions for 11 ancestors of Homo sapiens and for which there is plenty of direct fossilized evidence to support their stories.

Stories. We only have a few millennias’ worth of stories from the written and oral history of the human race, but the archeological record is brimming with billions of years’ worth of them. Like detectives at the scene of a crime, archeologists have reconstructed events out of the shared story of our origins to tell engaging tales of our ancestors trials and tribulations.

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Our Childbirth Experience

Posted on 10th October 2011 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment

Jump To:
Researching Pregnancy
Pregnancy Lifestyle
Where to Deliver
Labor and Delivery
Our Parenting Choices
What We’ve Learned
Further Reading

Stages of Fetal Development
Stages of Fetal Development
Credit: NHS Pregnancy Desktop

One of the first things Vicky and I established when we first became romantically involved is that we both wanted to have children. We share a deep love of science and the natural world and wanted to share our sense of wonder with children of our own. At the same time, in our sharing we were hoping to experience the world vicariously through fresh eyes, reliving the thrill of learning and discovery.

When the pregnancy test finally came up positive, we were launched into a whole new realm of learning: reading up on diet, lifestyle, and fetal development. We were also put into an unanticipated tour of various types and standards of prenatal care. This post covers what we learned and what we are continuing to learn about pregnancy and childcare.

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Is Archeopteryx a Bird or Dinosaur? The Fuzzy Lines Drawn between Species

Posted on 1st August 2011 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment
Archeopteryx
Archeopteryx
Credit: digital cat

ResearchBlogging.org On top of Pluto being demoted, the non-existence of Brontosaurus, and whether it’s okay to proposition a woman on an elevator at 4:00 in the morning we can now add a fun new debate for the online scientific community: is Archeopteryx a Bird or Dinosaur?

Analysis of a Xiaotingia zhengi fossil is driving the debate. The animal is “very closely related” to Arhceopteryx according to the researchers, but its characteristics more closely relate it to Velociraptors than birds:

After analysing the traits present in Xiaotingia and its relations, Xu and his colleagues are suggesting that the creatures bear more resemblance to the dinosaurs Velociraptor and Microraptor than to early birds, and so belong in the dinosaur group Deinonychosauria rather than in the bird group, Avialae. Many features led the team to this decision, but the most immediately noticeable are that Xiaotingia, Archaeopteryx and Anchiornis have shallow snouts and expanded regions behind their eye sockets. Microraptor has similar traits, but the early birds in Avialae have very different skulls.

Xiaotingia zhengi
Xiaotingia zhengi
Copyright Xing Lida and Liu Yi

To summarize: Back when Archeopteryx was the only fossil we had that possessed both dinosaur and bird traits, it made sense to consider it the “link” between dinosaurs and birds. Now that we have lots of other bird-dinosaur hybrid fossils from this same period in evolutionary history, we no longer know which of them, if any, is a direct ancestor of modern birds. Therefore, it is no longer accurate to call Archeopteryx the first bird, because there are so many other contenders in the mix now.

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Yuri’s Night Space Party and the 50th Anniversary of Manned Space Flight

Posted on 11th April 2011 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment,science holidays

Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship I marveled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty — not destroy it!” ~ Yuri Gagarin

Yuri's Night 2011
Yuri’s Night 2011

50 years ago, on April 12th, 1961 cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin piloted the Vostok 1 into space, entering the history books as the first human to achieve space flight. It follows the 50th anniversary of the first artificial satellite in orbit, Sputnik, the first living passenger to make it into space, Laika, and America throwing our hat into the space race. It will be eight long years until we can celebrate the next big semicentennial event, the Apollo Moon landing.

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Our Science Wedding

Posted on 21st March 2011 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment - Tags: ,
Mad Scientist Groom and His Lovely Bride
Mad Scientist Groom and His Lovely Bride

Atheist, agnostic, humanist, secularist, skeptic, empiricist, Ockhamist, and Patafarianist are all different flavors of the philosophy of life my wife and I share, but Vicky and I prefer the term “Spiritual Naturalist” to describe the deeply fulfilling sense of wonder we get from engaging the natural world around us. This ionian enchantment, as it’s known, emerges from an understanding that our reality is comprehensible through natural scientific laws, and just as members of the plethora of diverse religions of the world celebrate their spiritualism in sanctifying their marriages, we wanted to celebrate our sense of wonder for the world on our wedding day.

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Memetic Association Exercizes with Science Tarot

Posted on 29th November 2010 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment,Mediaphilism
Visconti-Sforza tarot deck, 15th Century
Visconti-Sforza tarot deck, 15th Century

If you’re looking to part a fool and their money, psychic readings are a great business*. Through the art of cold reading,by making statements that seem personal, but are true for most people, the psychic creates the illusion of having supernatural intuition about their client. For instance, they may say “I sense that you are sometimes insecure, especially with people you don’t know very well.” Who isn’t? Or, if the client is older, they may say, “Your father passed on due to problems in his chest or abdomen,” which would be true for the majority of causes of death. Psychics also use the rainbow ruse strategy of making a statement that is vague and contradictory about the client, such as “Most of the time you are positive and cheerful, but there has been a time in the past when you were very upset.” It’s probably not hard to find experiences in your life that match this statement to yourself, and if you can’t, the psychic can claim you need to look deeper or that you are suppressing something.

A favorite tool of psychics in performing their readings are tarot cards. These cards come in a wide variety of themes, with fantastic artwork, and generalized symbolism that takes on different meanings depending on where the card appears in a spread. They work because they exploit both the cold reading technique and generate rainbow statements in their symbolism.

Tarot Universal de Dali
Tarot Universal de Dali
Credit: Le.Mat

I occasionally do Tarot readings for myself. Over the years, when confronted with a challenging life issue, I would turn to The Mythic Tarot set for help figuring out what to do. This set portrays four different Greek Myths in the four different suits, and I always have to keep the book open when doing a reading because I find it impossible to remember what the cards mean.

I expect many scientists out there would say that my playing with the tarot harms my credibility as a skeptic, but I am completely aware of what makes the tarot work, and have no delusions that the meanings I appear to find in the cards are self-generated. The cards are like the old Principia Discordia quote about books, “…a mirror, when a monkey looks in, no apostle looks out.”

That doesn’t mean the cards are useless. The tarot meme has survived five centuries, in part for the solace it provides, but also because it serves a useful function. A tarot reading provides an exercise in deep, sustained thought on a subject, each new card challenging the practitioner to look at the subject of inquiry from a different angle. The tarot spread doesn’t answer any questions, but like a Rogerian Psychologist it prompts us to find the correct answers within ourselves.

Science Tarot
Science Tarot


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Relating Thermodynamic Entropy to Information Entropy with Maxwell’s Demon

Posted on 22nd November 2010 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment

Brownian motion, the natural vibrations of atoms not at an absolute zero temperature, has long been the strategic key for anyone looking for a way to achieve the holy grail of reversing the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that a closed system will always move toward a state of increasing disorder. I previously covered Richard Feynman’s Brownian Ratchet, which harnessed the power of Brownian motion to turn a rotor, and, as Feynman explains, wouldn’t work because the device would need to be so small that it would vibrate apart from the Brownian motion of its own molecules. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” to quote the old adage, or “You can’t stuff the mushroom cloud back into the shiny uranium sphere,” to quote Robert Heinlein, or “Things fall apart. It’s scientific,” to quote the Talking Heads.

Illustration of a Particle Rising in Potential Energy Through Information Alone
Illustration of a Particle Rising in Potential Energy through Information Alone
Credit: Nature Physics, doi:10.1038/nphys1821

Last week, a paper published in Nature Physics, Experimental demonstration of information-to-energy conversion and validation of the generalized Jarzynski equality, described an experiment where information was converted into energy by exploiting Brownian motion. It involved using the vibrations of an atom and observations of its changing position to let it naturally work its way up a sine wave, increasing its potential energy, which could, theoretically, be used to perform work when it vibrates back down the wave. It was a real-world demonstration of another thought experiment that challenged the Second Law. In 1867 Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell crafted a scenario whereby Brownian motion could be exploited to sort atoms according to their energy states, which later became known as Maxwell’s Demon1, an apparent violation of the second law:

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Happy Super-Duper-Mega-Maxi-Utra-Omni-Uber Awesome Powers of Ten Day!!!

Posted on 10th October 2010 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment,science holidays

Happy Super-Duper-Mega-Maxi-Utra-Omni-Uber Awesome Powers of Ten Day!!!

Ten Ten Ten

10/10/10 is not only an entire power of ten more awesome than the other 99 years’ worth of 10/10 days in this century, 101010 is also the meaning of life in binary! Take a moment of silent reflection at 1010 AM, for yet even two more powers of awesomeness (within your timezone)!

The History of Exploring Powers of 10

Begin with the 1957 book Cosmic View, The Universe in 40 Jumps by Dutch educator Kees Boeke, which used illustrations and text to zoom out from a girl holding a cat, inexplicably sitting next to a blue whale. The linked website has all the illustrations and text for exploration.

Cosmic View
Cosmic View


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