Archive for December, 2008

Oh No! I've Seen the Impossible–on Video!

By Carl Zimmer | December 31, 2008 9:39 am

Check out my update to yesterday’s post. Thanks to your collective hive mind, and Abercrombie Fitch in particular…


More Favorite Wastes of Time

By Carl Zimmer | December 30, 2008 7:37 pm

I’ve been reading some new blogs, and thought I’d share a few of them–

Culture Dish by science writer Rebecca Skloot, just moved to

monkey’s uncle  by Stanford anthropologist James Holland Jones.

Sex, Drugs, and Rockin’ Venom by Brian Fry, who studies the evolution of snake venom. I wrote two pieces for the New York Times about Fry (here and here). But reading his blog, I feel like I’m just getting to know him.

These, and many more, are listed in the blog roll. Anybody reading any particular good new blogs about science?


Oh No! I've Seen the Impossible! My Eyes!

By Carl Zimmer | December 30, 2008 3:24 pm

Ah, the things you learn from creationists…

If you’ve ever read about intelligent design (a k a “the progeny of creationism”), you’ve probably encountered their favorite buzz words, “irreducible complexity.” If you take a piece out of a complex biological system (like the cascade of blood-clotting proteins) and it fails to work, this is taken as evidence that the system could not have evolved. After all, without all the pieces in place, it couldn’t work.

Scientists have shown over and over again that this is a false argument. At the famous intelligent-design trial in Dover in 2005, Pennsylvania, for example, Brown biologist Ken Miller showed how dolphins and other species are missing various proteins found in our blood-clotting cascade, and they can still clot blood. (Here’s Miller on Youtube giving a lecture on the experience–the blood starts to clot at 39:00.)

Three years later, the creationists are still trying to salvage irreducible complexity. This generally involves a bait-and-switch game. Today, for example, the Discovery Institute tells us that the evidence of dolphins does not touch the argument for irreducible complexity. See, what you have here are two different irreducibly complex systems, with one that just happens to have an extra part. Just think about bicycles…

“Bicycles have two wheels. Unicycles, having only one wheel, are missing an obvious component found on bicycles. Does this imply that you can remove one wheel from a bicycle and it will still function? Of course not. Try removing a wheel from a bike and you’ll quickly see that it requires two wheels to function. The fact that a unicycle lacks certain components of a bicycle does not mean that the bicycle is therefore not irreducibly complex.”

Of course not. No. It’s not as if five seconds of googling could turn up a bicycle that still functioned without both wheels…

Hey! You there! Get off that bike! You’re ruining a metaphor!

[Image: Trackosaurus]

Update, 12/31: Lonely housewife in Duluth says: “To be fair, in the picture the guy has one foot on the ground…”

I, for one, believe that both feet are off the ground, judging from the angle of the rider’s body, arms, and drooping cigarette. But scholars of irreducibly complex velocipedality will no doubt debate this point fiercely for centuries. Lest we lose sight of the fundamental revelation here, let me point you to Abercrombie Fitch’s discovery on YouTube. (What’s with these commenter handles these days, you may wonder? Don’t ask me.) Behold:


For Your Listening Pleasure: Darwin and Linneaus and the Web of Life

By Carl Zimmer | December 22, 2008 6:59 pm

In August I spoke at the Chautauqua Institution as part of their celebration of Darwin and Linnaeus. I posted the written version of my talk back then, but I’ve just received the audio recording and thought some folks might prefer listening to it instead. I actually prefer it too, because whenever I give talks, I look at what I’ve written and revise it as I talk. You can listen to the talk right here on the handy Odeo player I’ve embedded at the bottom of the post. Or you can download it to listen offline.


Binary Star [Tattoo]

By Carl Zimmer | December 22, 2008 3:16 pm

binary-tattoo.jpgNicole write: “I got it 6 years ago when I was a freshman in college, starting a double major in physics and astronomy.  I was drawn to the colorful and artistic interpretation of a binary star.  Maybe one day I’ll find the film picture of when it was first taken.  Today I’m a grad student in astronomy, contemplating a second tattoo!”

Click here to go to the full Science Tattoo Emporium.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Tattoo Emporium

The National Academy of Sciences Wants To Hear From You

By Carl Zimmer | December 19, 2008 1:08 pm

The National Academy of Sciences has a survey they’d like people to fill out to help them figure out what kinds of educational materials about science, engineering, and medicine they should publish in print and on the web.

I just took it, and can assure you it’s quick and painless. And along the way they pointed me to some pdf’s that look helpful.

Update: In case my linking above wasn’t clear, here’s the survey.


Kicking off the Year of Science

By Carl Zimmer | December 19, 2008 8:35 am

good-copus-banner.jpgAttention, lovers of science: clear your 2009 calendar.

The Coalition On The Public Understanding of Science (COPUS), a grassroots network, is putting together a massive celebration of science stretching across all 12 months of the year. Museums, scientific societies, and other groups will be presenting lectures, science cafes, special blogs,  exhibits, and the occasional Banana Slug String Band concert. Every month will have a theme, from evolution (February, the month of Darwin’s birthday) to astronomy (July, in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the summer Galileo first trained his telescope to the sky). And if you want to join the happening, COPUS wants to hear from you.

I’ll be helping to kick off the festivities in January. That month’s theme will be the nature of science, and I’ll be guest-blogging each week on the subject.

I’ll also be participating in the Year of Science’s big launch at the beginning of January. At the 2009 meeting of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology in Boston, there will be a series of talks. If you belong to a group registered with COPUS, you can register at the meeting for all the COPUS events for $25.

Here’s the schedule–

JANUARY 3, 2009 7:00 p.m. – Ira Flatow, host of NPR’s Talk Of The Nation: Science Friday, opens the meeting with a plenary presentation emphasizing the importance of public understanding of science. Grand Ballroom, Concourse Level, Westin Boston Waterfront

JANUARY 5, 2009

12:00 to 12:45 p.m. – Launch of the Understanding Science Web site with Ken Miller and Natalie Kuldell. In concert with the Jan. 6th launch actvities, the new Understanding Science web site will be unveiled to the scientific community, introducing an exciting new paradigm for explaining the process and nature of science. Lewis Room, Westin Boston Waterfront

1:00 to 3:00 p.m. – “Communicating Science in Year of Science 2009: Science Blogging, Science Cafés, and Science Festivals.” Lewis Room, Westin Boston Waterfront (three sessions are as follows:)

1:00 p.m. “Off the Page: Blogging About Science” led by Carl Zimmer, Science Writer, The New York Times
1:40 p.m. “A Scientist Walks Into a Bar: Reaching New Audiences with Science Cafes,” led by Ben Wiehe, Outreach Project Director, WGBH Educa tional Foundation
2:20 p.m. “Celebrating science and technology in the community: the Cambridge Science Festival” led by John Durant, Director, MIT Museum, Executive Director, Cambridge Science Festival

6:30 to 8:30 p.m. – YoS09 Launch Science Café and Celebration: join COPUS leadership, hub members, and scientists for food, drink, and fun as we celebrate together! We’ll recap the kick-off events and make plans for the great themes coming up in the next few months: Evolution in February and Physics and Technology in March…some big anniversaries and birthdays to engage! Location: “Cambridge, 1. Fenway” at 1381 Boylston Street,

JANUARY 6, 2009

6:30 to 7:30 p.m. – “Into The Jungle: Great Adventures in the Search for Evolution and What Students Can Learn From Them,” Sean Carroll, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Harbor Ballroom, Westin Boston Waterfront


Occam's Needle [Tattoo]

By Carl Zimmer | December 19, 2008 7:25 am

occam-440.jpgJimmy writes, “This is a picture of my recent ink in commemoration of getting my Ph.D in Molecular Pharmacology. Occam’s Razor in its original Latin text —Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate–roughly translated, plurality should never be posited without necessity. I’ve always subscribed to this fundamental tenet behind the scientific method not only in my passion for science, but also in my beliefs in philosophy and religion.

Click here to go to the full Science Tattoo Emporium.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Tattoo Emporium

More Microcosm News: One of Seed Magazine's Best of 2008

By Carl Zimmer | December 18, 2008 5:43 pm

In the words of my kids: Wahoo!

I grabbed this image from Seed Magazine’s site, showing Microcosm with a few of the other picks, because I love how E. coli is sandwiched between life in the universe and humans. Seems like the right place for it to be.

PS: Amazon can still get you a copy for Xmas!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Microcosm: The Book

Jurassic Dad

By Carl Zimmer | December 18, 2008 3:21 pm

dad-dino.jpgBirds are like nothing else on Earth–in the sense that they have lots of traits in common that are not found in quite the same package in other animals. All birds have feathers, for example, and they can either fly or have evolved from birds that once flew. You don’t see some feathered reptile running around on all fours. But that distinctness is merely an artefact of extinctions. The closest living relatives of birds today are alligators and crocs, and they share a common ancestor that lived some 250 million years ago. All of the species on the lineage that led from that ancestor to birds are extinct. The ground-running dinosaurs disappeared. There are fossils of birds that could fly 120 million years ago, but they became extinct too. To see how birds became so unique, scientists have to burrow down the evolutionary tree, and burrow into the ground.

I’ve written here about some of the things they’ve discovered in the process, such as flightless dinosaurs that probably used feathers to show off to the opposite sex. Feathered dinosaurs also laid eggs in nests and incubated them much as birds do today. And today (as in, this particulary day of the week), David Varricchio of Montana State and his colleagues are reporting that it was the father dinosaurs who were sitting on the eggs.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

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