10/14/13

Why Creationists Don’t Win the Nobel Prize


Looking at the list of Nobel prizes awarded in 2013 for science, we see three prestigious entries:

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2013
François Englert and Peter W. Higgs

“For the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2013
Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel

“For the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.”

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2013
James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof

“For their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells”

Impressive stuff. If you want more detail on why these three were chosen, read this National Geographic article.

Dinosaur flood jokeHmm. No ‘creation science”  in that list. In fact, not a single “creation scientist” was even nominated.

Not that the Nobel Prize hasn’t been without its controversies, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a list that showed a single creationist nominated for the award. Something along the line of “For proving dinosaurs and humans shared the planet before an angry, vengeful deity wiped out everything living including humans which it created only a few years earlier, except a pair each of  those creatures that could comfortably fit in a large boat, but on which dinosaurs and all but a single family of humans were not invited to board.”*

Probably because creationism isn’t science, not even when you try to gussy it up by labelling it “creation science.” It’s a political viewpoint based on a literalist take on Biblical mythology.”Creation science” is an oxymoron.**

You’d think if they had God (their particular god, not everyone’s god, mind you, and not every Christian’s god…) on their side, that God would belly up to the award committee bar and make sure at least one creationist won the damn prize. Not some folks doing experiments with particles no one can even see and that 99.9% of us don’t really understand.

But nope, creationists get shut out again.

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10/13/13

Hijack the Starship


Space station conceptNineteen seventy. A great year for music, and a sad year, too. The death of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin.* Many of the great acts were kicked off their record labels and would struggle to find new publishers.**

The great psychedelic band, Jefferson Airplane was breaking up, but before it did, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick put together a new band, named Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Starship (which would change its lineup before finalizing as the Jefferson Starship a few years later). They released a science fiction-counterculture concept album called Blows Against the Empire in 1970. It would go on to be nominated for a Hugo Award in 1971.

It was the voice of our dreams. Wikipedia tells us of the album:

Side Two is an integrated suite of songs which opens with “Sunrise”, Grace Slick’s allegory describing the breaking dawn the couple was awaiting, while also symbolizing the dawn of an Utopian civilization, freed from conservative mores and violent influences. “Sunrise” leads directly into “Hijack,” in which the revolutionaries storm the transport to the orbiting starship and head off into space, boarding the ship by the end of “Hijack” and leaving orbit in “Home.” As the story progresses with “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite,” hopes and misgivings are revealed. After the ship’s engines and systems are readied in “X-M,” “Starship” relates a mutiny fought for control of the ship, to determine whether to surrender and return or to continue. Eventually the idealists win control and the ship is flung by gravity sling-shot around the sun and out of the solar system.
By Kantner’s admission, the underlying premise of the narrative was derived in part from the works of science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, particularly the novel Methuselah’s Children. Kantner went so far as to write to Heinlein to obtain permission to use his ideas. Heinlein wrote back that over the years, many people had used his ideas but Paul was the first one to ask for permission, which he granted. Blows was the first rock album to ever be nominated for a Hugo Award, in 1971 in the category of Best Dramatic Presentation. In voting, the album garnered the second most votes for the award, losing to “No Award”, which received the most votes.


The lyrics of Hijack the Starship start with:

You know – a starship circlin’ in the sky –
It ought to be ready by 1990
They’ll be buildin’ it up in the air, ever since 1980
People with a clever plan can assume the role of the mighty
and HIJACK THE STARSHIP
Carry 7,000 people past the sun
And our babes’ll wander naked thru
the cities of the universe.

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10/12/13

The Smallest Helper


Yeast - Saccharomyces cerevisiaeWhile I was pondering the nature of flour in my cogitations about bread machines (I’m still debating which model, by the way – suggestions welcome, but local stores have few options), I turned my grey matter to the business of yeast. Yeast is, of course, important in bread making because it makes bread rise.

Why? You ask. Well, dear reader, the answer is simple but not pretty: farts.

Yep. Yeast flatulence makes bread rise. Yeast out-gases carbon dioxide after it eats. The gas gets trapped in the gooey dough and, since it can’t escape, the dough expands. Food writer Linda Stradley puts it more genteelly:

The main purpose of yeast is to serve as a catalyst in the process of fermentation, which is essential in the making of bread. The purpose of any leavener is to produce the gas that makes bread rise. Yeast does this by feeding on the sugars in flour, and expelling carbon dioxide in the process.  As the yeast feeds on the sugar, it produces carbon dioxide. With no place to go but up, this gas slowly fills the balloon. A very similar process happens as bread rises. Carbon dioxide from yeast fills thousands of balloon-like bubbles in the dough. Once the bread has baked, this is what gives the loaf its airy texture.

You’d think something as simple as a single-celled plant would be pretty easy, but it’s a rich topic with a lot of considerations, opinions and options.

Not all yeasts are the same, although all have characteristics in common. Yeast is one of many species of a mono-cellular plant – a eukaryote – which Wikipedia somewhat stuffily describes as:

Yeasts are eukaryotic microorganisms classified in the kingdom Fungi, with 1,500 species currently described (estimated to be 1% of all fungal species).  Yeasts are unicellular, although some species with yeast forms may become multicellular through the formation of strings of connected budding cells known as pseudohyphae, or false hyphae, as seen in most molds.
Yeast size can vary greatly depending on the species, typically measuring 3–4 µm in diameter, although some yeasts can reach over 40 µm. Most yeasts reproduce asexually by mitosis, and many do so by an asymmetric division process called budding.
By fermentation, the yeast species Saccharomyces cerevisiae converts carbohydrates to carbon dioxide and alcohols – for thousands of years the carbon dioxide has been used in baking and the alcohol in alcoholic beverages. It is also a centrally important model organism in modern cell biology research, and is one of the most thoroughly researched eukaryotic microorganisms. Researchers have used it to gather information about the biology of the eukaryotic cell and ultimately human biology.
Other species of yeasts, such as Candida albicans, are opportunistic pathogens and can cause infections in humans. Yeasts have recently been used to generate electricity in microbial fuel cells, and produce ethanol for the biofuel industry.
Yeasts do not form a single taxonomic or phylogenetic grouping. The term “yeast” is often taken as a synonym for Saccharomyces cerevisiae, but the phylogenetic diversity of yeasts is shown by their placement in two separate phyla: the Ascomycota and the Basidiomycota. The budding yeasts (“true yeasts”) are classified in the order Saccharomycetales.

Got that? Good yeasts, bad yeasts and not all are helpful. In fact, many are downright harmful. Right now, you’re covered in yeast. It’s on your skin, growing merrily in your navel and every crevice and fold. It’s in the air you breathe. On your pets and children. Much of it is benign, but some is troublesome and can cause food to spoil. Hint: wash your hands before handling foods.

Airborne yeast is what makes sourdough breads work (the wild yeast settles on the starter and colonizes it, reproducing merrily). Sourdoughs are always regional, even local breads because they depend on the yeasts in the air in the room where the starter is laid out. You can buy sourdough starters with embedded yeasts, but  first try making your own. Instructions are on many sites.

PoolishAnd then there’s the poolish – a pre-fermented mix (I used to prepare something like this when I made my own bread, 20+ years ago):

A pre-ferment is a fermentation starter used in bread making, and is referred to as an indirect[1][2] method. It may also be called mother dough.
A pre-ferment and a longer fermentation in the bread-making process have several benefits: there is more time for yeast, enzyme and, if sourdough, bacterial actions on the starch and proteins in the dough; this in turn improves the keeping time of the baked bread, and it creates greater complexities of flavor. Though pre-ferments have declined in popularity as direct additions of yeast in bread recipes have streamlined the process on a commercial level, pre-ferments of various forms are widely used in artisanal bread recipes and formulas.

For us the main type of yeast we want to discuss here is the minuscule powerhouse, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It’s the mainstay of both baking and brewing. But in each it has a different role to play. You might note the Latin connection through the Spanish word for beer – cerveza.

What’s really remarkable is that humans have put these little plants to work for our benefit. Without domesticating yeast, we would have no bread, no beer, no wine, no tequila. Unthinkable! yet they toil at our pleasure for not cost, just the food they eat.

Yeast is our oldest domesticated organism, going back at least 8,000 years in our service. And more recently it has served us well in the lab when trying to work through human genetic issues:

…yeast and humans share about 40 % of highly conserved gene products. Human genes (cDNA), once transferred into yeast, can fully replace the functions of their counterparts.

Several facts underline the importance of yeast research: (i) within the last fifty years, seven Nobel Prize winners (at minimum) have worked with this system; (ii) the yeast genome harbors hundreds of genes that are highly related to ‘disease genes’ in humans: in many cases, the human genes were detected only by comparisons with the yeast genome; and (iii) yeast is successfully used in the research of neurodegenerative diseases, even though yeast has no nervous system whatsoever.

Modern, commercially available yeasts are like laboratory rats: created to serve a purpose and not natural:

Few people realize that the yeast in grocery stores is not a naturally-occurring substance. Laboratory created in 1984, the yeast sold today is so foreign to our digestive systems that some people develop allergies to the yeast itself. This quick-rising yeast appears increasingly connected to the nutritional and digestive disorders that plague so many today, including Celiac’s disease, gluten-intolerance, acid-reflux disease, wheat allergies and even diabetes. Both modern science and traditional wisdom tell us that natural yeast has health benefits that simply cannot be matched by modern yeast.

Without some technical, scientific research to back that up, it’s hard to digest those claims. And I have yet to find authentication of the 1984 date. It’s a complex history:

It appears that bread making dates back at least 6000 years, but use of leavening, which required the development of suitable cereal grains with easily removable hulls, gluten, and the introduction of yeast cells, did not appear until around 500 BC. With the development of agriculture, it was probably found that addition of some of the fermenting wine to dough resulted in a lighter, more pleasant bread. Alternatively, insects may have landed on the dough and inoculated it with yeast.

Yeast has a really fascinating history in human company. Science Daily reports it was a stowaway on European ships travelling to North America 500 years ago:

In the 15th century, when Europeans first began moving people and goods across the Atlantic, a microscopic stowaway somehow made its way to the caves and monasteries of Bavaria.
The stowaway, a yeast that may have been transported from a distant shore on a piece of wood or in the stomach of a fruit fly, was destined for great things. In the dank caves and monastery cellars where 15th century brewmeisters stored their product, the newly arrived yeast fused with a distant relative, the domesticated yeast used for millennia to make leavened bread and ferment wine and ale. The resulting hybrid — representing a marriage of species as evolutionarily separated as humans and chickens — would give us lager, the clear, cold-fermented beer first brewed by 15th century Bavarians and that today is among the most popular — if not the most popular — alcoholic beverage in the world.

And while scientists and brewers have long known that the yeast that gives beer the capacity to ferment at cold temperatures was a hybrid, only one player was known: Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast used to make leavened bread and ferment wine and ale. Its partner, which conferred on beer the ability to ferment in the cold, remained a puzzle, as scientists were unable to find it among the 1,000 or so species of yeast known to science.
Now, an international team of researchers believes it has identified the wild yeast that, in the age of sail, apparently traveled more than 7,000 miles to those Bavarian caves to make a fortuitous microbial match that today underpins the $250 billion a year lager beer industry.

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10/12/13

Something so basic, yet so different stands between us


My kinda bread!You’d think it should be this easy: just take a bread machine, throw in all the ingredients listed in the recipe, push a button, wait, remove loaf and eat. Yum.

Nah, of course not. Never is. And there are reasons for this, I’ve been learning.

I have an old bread machine – must be 20 years old or near as dammit – and my results were always mixed, using the recipes in the manual. I constantly tinkered with them. The best loaves were qualified successes. I ate them, Susan balked. The worst were, well, inedible, even for a guy who puts hot sauce on peanut butter.

The machine’s been in the basement fort so long now I’m not sure it still works. Even if it does, it’s a vertical pan and I never liked the crust that produced or the round loaves (when it worked, that is). But I recalled that device last week, with some – possibly misplaced – nostalgia.

Some economic considerations first. I pay $2-$4 for most breads I buy. Some elite types are $5-$7. The small loaves at the $2-$3 range generally last a week, the larger may last two. Depends on what we have for weekend lunch – soup, sandwiches or beans-on-toast. But that’s an average of $2-$3.50 a week on bread. Not a lot of money (Susan has her own bread, but that’s a different tale…).

So a bread maker costs (he checks his notes…) roughly between $100 and $300, depending on whether I want the family sedan or the Rolls Royce model. To justify that cost, the bread I make has to cost less than what I buy. So if I can make a one-week loaf for $1 (most recipes suggest somewhere between 50¢ and $1 per loaf depending on what you add to the mix), it will take me two to six years to amortize the cost. Ouch. But at half that cost, I can justify an inexpensive machine in about a year.

Okay, I can live with that. Just need to convince Susan (this is where the bottle of nice old-vine Zinfandel we’d been saving comes into play…)

Time, I thought, for another one. Bread machine. Not bottle of wine. Or wife.

Last time I bought one, I went into stores, spoke to staff, and essentially chose one at random (as random as my then-threadbare chequebook would allow). This time I have the internet to help me choose. Just read a gazillion reviews, find a model sold in Canada (and, I hope, locally), buy and bake. Fire up the browser and start surfing…

Nah. Not that easy. Nothing ever is.

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10/11/13

1927, a Year to Remember


The Jazz Singer1927. It was the year America sent troops to Nicaragua, forcing a US-supervised election. The year Alfred Hitchcock released his first movie. And the year when Fritz Lang released his masterpiece, Metropolis. Buster Keaton released The General that year, although it bombed at the box office. Clara Bow starred in Wings. Sergei Eisenstein released October: Ten Days That Shook the World.

Silent films, all, although the Movietone sound system came out that year at Fox Studios, presaging a new world of talkies in another few months when The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, premiered in New York City. That same year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded.

While most films were shot in monochrome, color films were also released including Abel Gance’s great bio-flick, Napoleon (which was restored in 1981 and played in Toronto around 1983, when I saw it).

It was a time of excitement, of exploration and optimism. The Great Depression was hiding two years away,  but in the meantime the world sang and danced. It was a time of inventiveness and creativity. Ingenuity. And also imperialism,

In 1927 polystyrene was invented. Edwin Perkins invented Kool-Aid. Garnet Carter built the first public miniature golf course, Tom Thumb Golf, on Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. The jukebox was invented by The Automatic Music Instrument Company. John Hammes invented the first under-the-sink garbage disposal unit. Frank Ofeldt invented the power washer. The pop-up toaster was invented.

Capablanca was the darling of the chess world, holding the title of world chess champion since 1921. But he lost the 1927 World Chess Championship to Alexander Alekhine. Alekhine would hold that title until 1935.

Charles Lindbergh, 25, flew the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic, a 33-hour trip, landing in Paris. He would become Time Magazine’s first, and the youngest, person to be named “man of the year” for 1927, on the cover of the first issue of 1928.

The first commercial airline service to Hawaii opened.

Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) launched a network of 18 radio stations, soon to be 47. The BBC was given a Royal Charter.

Adolph Hitler was making speeches in Germany whiles Nazis and Communists clashed on the streets and the German economy collapsed.

Chiang Kai-Shek formed an alternative government (the Kuomintang  or Nationalist Chinese) in China during its long civil war. America and Great Britain sent troops to China to protect their interests and property.  The Communist Chinese People’s Liberation Army was formed in 1927 during the Nanchang Uprising.

Telephone service  between the USA and Mexico was launched. The first transatlantic telephone call was made via radio connection from New York City and London. A diamond rush started in South Africa.

The U.S. Bureau of Prohibition was founded under the Department of the Treasury. Determined to eradicate the misuse of industrial alcohol (designed for antifreeze, embalming, and so forth), the state added strychnine to it. As a result, 11,700 citizens died that year, poisoned by their  own government.

Philo Farnsworth transmitted the first electronic TV motion pictures. Gutzon Borglum began sculpting the Mt. Rushmore monument. The first automatic traffic lights were installed in Wolverhampton, England.

Leon Trotsky, one of the original Communist leaders, was expelled from the Communist Party (at the 15th Congress) and and sent into internal exile.  Joseph Stalin became the party’s undisputed  ruler. Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. Stalin had him murdered in Mexico, in 1940. Along with Trotsky, Grigori Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev were also expelled from the Communist Party. They would reappear at the Show trials of 1934, to be executed shortly after.

The Great Syrian Revolt against French imperialism ended with a defeat of the rebels:  during the two-year conflict least 6,000 rebels were killed, and over 100,000 were left homeless.

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10/10/13

Why do so few Canadians get a flu shot?


VaccinationThat’s the headline for a recent Toronto Star story. It suggests that as few as one third of Canadians get a flu vaccine, and in some place the number may be as low as 20 percent.

This despite Ontario having the world’s first universal free flu shot program, introduced in 2000. The 2013-14 vaccine is on its way to doctors’ offices now. It’s also available at pharmacists’ offices. It’s free, easily accessible, it prevents and helps stop the spread of many kinds of influenza, it can save the life of anyone at risk – so why don’t people get one?

Superstition and pseudoscience. Gullible people turn to untrained, celebrity wingnuts in the anti-vaccine movement – like Jenny McCarthy – for medical advice rather than to doctors, health care professionals and pharmacists. They turn to dangerous cranks and pseudo-science wingnuts like homeopaths, “faith healers,” astrologers and psychics instead of doctors.*

Many of these people deliberately and purposefully distort or misrepresent the facts about vaccines, disease, scientific research and health. Others are simply ignorant of the facts and accept what others say, without bothering to verify it through independent sources or published research.**

I know, you’re probably thinking like I was when I read this story, “are people this crazy?” And the answer, it seems, is yes.

McCarthy’s anti-vaccine preaching was called “belligerent ignorance” by the Toronto Star earlier this year, noting,

From McCarthy’s point of view, it’s a major victory in her battle to get her message out: vaccines are bad and autism can be cured, if you just ignore the scientists and sawbones who insist on pesky factual data.
It’s David vs. Goliath, Warrior Mom vs. Stuffed Shirt Medical Establishment, New Age Rebel vs. The Man.
Ah, but there’s another side: those who value facts over opinions and view McCarthy as a fear mongering dimwit whose sanctimonious crusade, however well-intentioned, threatens to turn the clock back on medical science.
Given that measles and whooping cough have already staged a comeback as parents panic and vaccination rates drop, it’s also potentially dangerous.
To be clear, there is no medical evidence to support her assertion — based on a discredited study — that vaccines cause autism, no evidence that the alternative treatments she promotes will have any positive effect on this ballooning developmental disorder and no evidence that her own son was, as she insists, “cured” of autism (the diagnosis has been disputed by experts).

The LA Times concluded the same about McCarthy:

She also peddles the discredited, poisonous claims that the way we vaccinate our children against the diseases that were once regular killers of children places our young ones at greater risk of developing autism — the kind of conspiracy theorizing that will draw only more eyeballs.

And the New Yorker wrote of McCarthy:

McCarthy has spent much of the past ten years campaigning against vaccines—which, it must be said, are the most effective instruments of public health in human history, aside from clean water. That does not mean that vaccines carry no risk: nothing is entirely without risk, and there is a small but measurable possibility that any vaccine can cause a serious adverse reaction. Still, the benefits for society so powerfully outweigh the risks that suggesting otherwise is irresponsible at best. It spreads fear and incites the type of ignorance that makes people sick. That is exactly what McCarthy has been doing. By preaching her message of scientific illiteracy from one end of this country to the other, she has helped make it possible for people to turn away from rational thought. And that is deadly.

And The Nation wrote,

Oprah Winfrey’s decision to let McCarthy act as an expert, to dismiss science with alchemy, without asking any tough questions, was unconscionable. The same could be said of the producers of Larry King Live and Good Morning America, both of which hosted McCarthy soon after. Even though they at least asked questions about her views, Larry King had her debate a doctor, as though her disproven ideas should be given the same equivalence as those of a medical expert.

In fact, McCarthy’s beliefs—that vaccines and mercury cause autism, that a good diet cures autism and that “diagnosticians and pediatricians have made a career out of telling parents autism is a hopeless condition”—have been roundly dismissed and discredited by doctors and scientists, who insist that her claims are based on no scientific data or research. McCarthy wasn’t deterred. “The University of Google,” she said to Oprah, “is where I got my degree from.”

Let’s be clear: there is no connection between vaccines and autism.

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10/9/13

Poor Lao Tzu: He Gets Blamed for So Much


Not a Lao Tzu quotePoor Lao Tzu. He gets saddled with the most atrocious of the New Age codswallop. As if it wasn’t enough to be for founder of one of the most obscure  philosophies (not a religion, since it has no deity), he gets to be the poster boy for all sorts of twaddle from people who clearly have never read his actual writing.

This time it’s a mushy feel-good quote on Facebook (mercifully without kittens or angels) that reads,

If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.

Well, it’s not by Lao Tzu. Or more properly, Laozi. That’s not his name, by the way: it’s an honorific, a title that roughly translates to “Old Master.” His real name was likely Li Er, Wikipedia tells us. But his name doesn’t matter: it’s the single book he left us that is relevant.

That book – the Tao Teh Ching – consists of 81 short “chapters” – although they’d be better described as poems. Or pithy epithets. It can be ready cover to cover in an hour.

For all its brevity, the Tao Teh Ching is a weighty work. It’s the underpinning of an entire school of  Chinese metaphysics and philosophy: Taoism, that dates back to the Axial Age, circa 500 BCE. That makes Lao Tzu contemporary with Confucius and in the same rough time frame as Siddhartha Gautama.

Lap Tzu was clearly a deep thinker, which makes it all the more ironic that he gets accused of spouting all sorts of saccharine New Age piffle.

One of the stories of how the book came about goes like this: Lao Tzu was the Keeper of the Royal Archives. Late in his life, he wearied of the intrigues, the corruption and the crassness of life at court. He decided to go live the remainder of his life as a hermit in the mountains. At the city gate, the sentry asked him to write down his wisdom. The result was the Tao Teh Ching.

Like with many religious, political or philosophical figures, take any story or claims with a grain of salt. Stories get embellished by both supporters and enemies over the centuries.*

Others say the work is really a collection of sayings by many people, collated into a single work. Since the earliest copy of the text is at least 100 years younger than Lao Tzu, and there are no verifiable records that identify him as the sole author, this theory strikes me as having some merit.

After all, every single religious work I can think of has been edited, added to, cut away from and interpreted by hundreds of human hands in the interim since it was first penned. Why not this one?

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