Bonk by Mary Roach

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach is a fun exploration of sex from a scientific view.  The emphasis is more on entertainment than on science, but you do manage to learn quite a bit along the way.  You know you’re in for some grins when you have chapter titles such as “Mind Over Vagina” and “Dating the Penis-Camera.”

There are some parts of the book that may make you cringe, especially if you are a man.  If you’re particularly squeamish about things like penises getting operated on and chopped off (and perhaps eaten by ducks) I’d advise skipping the “Re-Member Me” chapter.  With apologies to all males, I have to admit that I laughed when reading, “The paper does not provide the exact number of penises eaten by ducks, but the author says there have been enough over the years to prompt the coining of a popular saying: ‘I better get home or the ducks will have something to eat.'”

The most amusing part of the book to me was the description in “The Upsuck Chronicles” chapter of the Danish pig-farmers.  A study has shown that fertility is increased in artificially inseminated pigs when they are, well, let’s just say happy pigs.  So these dour pig-farmers are taught how to sexually stimulate the pigs.  There is even a government backed “Five Point Stimulation Plan” complete with DVD.

Reading about the early experiments in human sexuality was very interesting.  I knew a little bit about Kinsey and Masters & Johnson, but nothing beyond that.  We really owe a debt to all those brave pioneers, even if they weren’t always very successful.  It’s certainly not an easy field to do research in and it’s even harder to get funding. 

I’d recommend the New York Times bestseller Bonk as an amusing read that will teach you about the science of sex.

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Ice Age Flower Blooms Again

(Image: Yashina et al/PNAS)

Silene Stenophylla last bloomed 30,000 years ago but it is now blossoming again thanks to an ancient squirrel.  Russian scientists found a squirrel’s burrow in the Siberian permafrost that contained fruits and seeds, according to a study published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” 

Radiocarbon dating shows an age of 31,800 years.  This is by far the oldest plant ever to be regenerated.  The second oldest is a lotus that was grown from a 1,200 year old fruit. 

There is a modern version of the flower that still grows in that area of Siberia, but it has larger seeds, fewer buds and faster growing roots.  Studying the ways the two plants differ will give insight into the evolutionary process.

Squirrels dug down into the frozen ground and lined a cavity with hay and fur, making what one of the authors of the study called “a natural cryobank.”  Since there are more burrows of this type in Alaska and Canada as well as Siberia, there are hopes that more viable plant materials will be found, and perhaps even animal tissue.

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The Little Ice Age

The Little Ice Age is a period of cooling in the Northern Hemisphere which is generally thought to have lasted from around 1300-1500 to the mid-1800’s.  I first became familiar with it when I read about people ice skating on the Thames and going to Frost Fairs in the 1800’s.  There were 24 winters during the Little Ice Age when the Thames froze over at London and in the winter of 1683-84 it was frozen completely solid for 2 months. 

Although the actual temperature change was small (perhaps 2 degrees F, varying by region,) the impact was enormous.  Crop failures led to malnutrition and starvation, as well as social unrest.  Glaciers advanced, in some cases destroying whole towns in their path.  Diseases that thrived in cool, damp summers spread, and severe storms killed hundreds of thousands and changed coastlines. 

There has been considerable uncertainty about exactly when the Little Ice Age began, how much of the Earth was involved and what the causes were.  A study in Geophysical Research Letters provides some new information. 

A team of scientists from the University of Colorado, Boulder, went to Baffin Island in Canada.  They collected dead sea plants from the edge of the ice where they had been preserved.  Radiocarbon dating showed there was a mass die-off in the years 1275-1300.  That matched up with other evidence from the geologic record of a large volcanic eruption in the tropics at that time.  They also did research in Iceland and looked at sediments near a glacier.  The lead geologist, Dr. Gifford Miller, said, “This is the first time anyone has clearly identified the specific onset of the cold times marking the start of the Little Ice Age.”

They not only identified the beginning of the period, they explained how volcanic eruptions could have such a lasting effect on climate.  The particles from the eruptions blocked part of the energy of the sun, which resulted in a cold snap that killed off Arctic plants and created more sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.  That ice drifted south, where it melted in the Atlantic and stalled the usual ocean currents that bring warm water north.  Cold water means more sea ice.  Three more massive eruptions occurred within 50 years after the first to intensify the cooling.  It became a self-perpetuating system that lasted hundreds of years. 

More field research and climate simulations will follow.  This is especially important work in light of our current climate change.  It shows us how small changes in temperature can have devastating results.

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Update on Creationism in Indiana

The Indiana Senate passed SB89, which now goes to the House.  It says: The governing body of a school corporation may offer instruction on various theories of the origin of life. The curriculum for the course must include theories from multiple religions, which may include, but is not limited to, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Scientology.

While this is an improvement on the original language, it still opens the door to teaching religion in science classes.  Interestingly, the Indiana State Senate Minority Leader, Vi Simpson, who proposed the change in language is against teaching “creation science” and hoped that it might prevent the bill passing.  She said, “I was a bit surprised that it was adopted, to tell you the truth.”  There’s an interesting article on her by Tony Ortega that you can read here: http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2012/02/vi_simpson_the.php#more

I was wondering why Scientology was mentioned in the bill and was glad to find out it’s because of its unusual creation myth, not because we have a huge number of Scientologists in the state.  I looked up the top religions in Indiana and of course various Christian denominations are by far the largest, followed by Islam (approximately 100,000 people) and Judaism (about 17,000.)  I tried to find numbers on other religions without success, though I did find that less than .5% of the population is Buddhist and 4% is “other.”  There is a Hindu temple in Indianapolis, so we must have at least a few Hindus.  There’s a Scientology Church listed online, but it’s a house in the suburbs, so I’m not sure how official it is. 

To be fair, all religions should be included, which isn’t as bad as it sounds because some of them share the same creation story (Christianity and Judaism, for instance.)  That’s good, because it leaves more time to discuss the origin beliefs of religions such as Voodoo, Satanism, Rosicrucianism, and the Amica Temple of Radiance, as well as the many interesting Native American stories.  I’m particularly fond of the myths where life is formed from the bodily secretions of the creator.

I would actually be in favor of teaching a comparative religion class, as long as it wasn’t considered a science class, and as long as it considered all religions equally.  I think that would not only teach children about different cultures and the amazing diversity of the human population, but it would also result in a lot more atheists once they realize there is no essential difference between one religion and another.  They are all based on believing something for which there is no proof and they all think they are the one true religion. 

If the House passes this bill without any more amendments, it will be interesting to see what the school boards do with it.  If it is actually put into practice, I think the resulting legal fees should be paid by the legislators who voted for it and not the Indiana taxpayers.

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Dan Burton

Dan Burton, long-time Republican Representative from Indiana, announced that he will not be seeking re-election.  Good riddance to a politician who is even more stupid, greedy and hypocritical than most of them.  Yes, I am aware that there are honest and intelligent legislators, but “good public servant” and “Dan Burton” certainly don’t belong in the same post.

Burton was member of the Indiana General Assembly before he won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1982.  He’s handily won every election since then in his gerrymandered district which encompasses the area to the north and east of Indianapolis. 

I guess I shouldn’t claim someone is stupid, greedy and hypocritical without giving some evidence, since I’m all about the facts.  Okay, stupid first.  In 1995, during congressional hearings, he said our military should, “should place an aircraft carrier off the coast of Bolivia and crop dust the coca fields.”  Bolivia, of course, is a land-locked country and F-18’s can’t crop dust. 

Greedy?  That’s an easy one.  When the House passed a measure in 2007 to prohibit members from accepting gifts and trips from lobbyists, it passed by a vote of 430 to 1.  Guess who cast the one “nay” vote.

Hypocritical?  He had a real hatred of President Clinton and was one of the primary critics of Clinton during the impeachment proceedings.  He said, “No one, regardless of what party they serve, no one, regardless of what branch of government they serve, should be allowed to get away with these alleged sexual improprieties.”  You probably saw this one coming–yep, he committed adultery with a state employee while he was a member of the Indiana Senate and had a child out-of-wedlock.

There are many other reasons for my dislike of Burton, but to prevent this from becoming longer than his tenure in politics, I’ll mention just one more.  When his grandchild developed autism after having a vaccination, he apparently forgot (or never knew) that correlation does not imply causation.  He did a great disservice to the children of this country by promoting the idea that vaccinations caused autism with no proof whatsoever.  His legacy will live on for quite some time with every needless death because of his vaccine fear-mongering. 

In the words of Steve Hammer, Burton “was batshit-crazy 25 years before Sarah Palin made batshit-crazy cool.”  Bye-bye, Burton.

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The Scientific Method

The Indiana Senate has proposed a bill to require the teaching of creationism in public schools.  It has passed two readings and is on the schedule for the third.  If the Senate approves it, as seems likely, it will go to the House.  Monday the wording was amended from “require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science” to “offer instruction on various theories of the origin of life.  The curriculum for the course must include theories from multiple religions, which may include, but is not limited to, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Scientology.”

There are numerous problems with this, perhaps most important is that it is clearly unconstitutional.  But I’m going to write about a different aspect.  There is no such thing as “creation science.”  There is no other theory of the origin of life other than evolution.  Our politicians need a basic science class because apparently they were all absent on the day when the scientific method was discussed. 

The scientific method is the most basic, elementary foundation of science.  If you don’t understand it, you don’t understand what science is.  It’s like studying English without knowing the alphabet.  And the cool thing is, it’s really simple. 

First you come up with a hypothesis, usually based on observations.  A hypothesis is an educated guess, or more formally, “a tentative explanation for an observation, phenomenon, or scientific problem that can be tested by further investigation.” 

Note that part about “tested by further investigation”?  Yeah, hard to do that when you’re dealing with religion.  Religion doesn’t deal in facts, it deals in faith.  If you have evidence, you don’t need faith.  In the words of Tim Minchin, “Science adjusts its views based on what’s observed.  Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.”

So after you have your hypothesis, you test it through experiments or observations.  You gather data, you get other people to try to replicate your results, and you come up with conclusions.  I’ve tried to find out how creationists propose to test their “theory” and have not come up with any answers that make sense (though I did get a headache reading their sites.)  They seem to think the Bible provides their proof, thereby demonstrating an essential lack of understanding of the scientific method. 

Now we come to the part that really has me feeling annoyed with the legislature.  In common use, theory means speculation.  To a scientist, the definition of theory is quite different.  This is something that people should have learned in middle school.  A theory is an explanation that can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena that has been so widely tested and accepted that it is held with great confidence.  In other words, based on all the evidence we have, we believe this hypothesis to be true–voila, we have a theory.

Although a theory is as close as science comes to something being proven, it is impossible to absolutely prove a theory to be true.  A theory can always be disproven with new evidence.  It is one of the most important tenets of science.  Unless creationists agree that their “theory” of a divine origin of life can be disproven, then by definition it can not be a theory. 

A Republican member of the Indiana General Assembly has proposed drug tests for the legislators.  I would suggest that instead of drug tests, a basic science test would be more useful.

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The KKK in Indiana

Our local newspaper recently published an article on the Ku Klux Klan after Klan literature was dropped off at businesses in our county.  The police charged the man who dropped it off with littering, but the charges were dropped because of free speech issues. 

It surprised me that the KKK has a presence in this area and it shocked me to find out that their numbers are growing and they are becoming more active.  This isn’t the South, after all, and we are very close to the 12th largest city in the U.S.  I tend to think of the KKK as the punchline to some nasty joke, not as a viable organization.  It seems I may be wrong. 

With a bit of online research I learned that the KKK first gained strength in the state in 1920.  They appealed to anti-Catholic and anti-foreigner sentiment and promoted themselves as a brotherhood upholding Christian morality.  In 1925 the Governor and over half of the General Assembly were members of the Klan.  At its height over 30% of the white male citizens of Indiana were members.  The Grand Dragon of the Indiana KKK was so powerful that he said, “I am the law.” 

It all fell apart when the Grand Dragon was arrested for the brutal rape and second-degree murder of a woman.  When the Governor refused to pardon him, he started talking to journalists and a huge ring of bribery and corruption came to light.  The Klan never recovered from the resulting wave of resignations and arrests. 

This new resurgence of the Klan may be due to the poor economy and issues in the news such as immigration reform and same-sex marriage.  The Anti-Defamation League says there has been “a noticeable spike in activity by Klan chapters across the country” and groups have “increased their activity and experienced a rapid expansion in size.”

The Imperial Wizard of the Klan says that the KKK is a Christian group and they believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible.  Oddly, he says that the KKK do not burn the cross, they light the cross.  He claims this is no different from any church that has a lighted cross on their property.  Unlike in the 1920’s, however, most Christian churches today speak out against the message of the Klan.  A Methodist pastor in our community said, “Any group that purposely isolates any group by skin color or their ethnic origin goes against the unified message of the body Christ.”

The news is not entirely bad.  There is a lot of contention between the various KKK factions, each one saying the others are not the true Klan.  They admit that many of the Klansmen in the area have served time in prison, which hopefully means they are being watched by the authorities.  They don’t seem to have a coherent message.  Much of what they say sounds like what we hear from the Tea Party. 

Although the KKK may consist of immature, uneducated men, that doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous.  We need only look at what happened recently in Norway when an anti-immigration Christian terrorist killed 77 people.  We need to speak out against ignorance and bigotry whenever we can.  There’s no place in our state for the lies and hate the KKK promotes.

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