Geography and Skin Color

Professor Jared Diamond, of UCLA, has written a review in the journal Nature regarding human skin color. The usual explanation for why humans have different skin color had to do with geography. Those populations living closer to the equator had darker skin to protect them against sunlight. This view has many exceptions, however, and was therefore incomplete. More recent studies have shed light on the subject (no pun intended).

A couple of scientists, Jablonski and Chaplin, identified new criteria to gauge what skin color should be based on geography. Instead of using latitude, they examined ultraviolet radiation (UVR) on the earth's surface. While it is true that UVR is less at higher latitudes, there are exceptions to this. High altitudes tend to have more UVR even at high latitudes, and UVR decreases with increased water vapor due to clouds, rain, or humidity. So, simply looking at latitude is not enough.

What Jablonski and Chaplin found was a series of trade-offs to UVR exposure. UVR is harmful in that it breaks down many compounds in the body (through photolysis). Of particular importance is vitamin B folate. A positive consequence of UVR is the synthesis of vitamin D, which everyone requires. So, skin color evolved to balance these two physiological properties.

Again, there are exceptions, but they are understood and make sense in light of this balance. The Inuit have dark skin despite living in high latitudes. This was due to the fact they consumed marine mammals, rich in vitamin D, and therefore selection had no need to push them in the direction of lighter skin. Modern Inuit now suffer severe vitamin D deficiencies since their subsistence strategies have changed (i.e. supermarkets for food).
Similar examples are provided, where human migration of some populations has not given them time to evolve skin colors appropriate to their location. But there are examples that cannot be explained just by the vitamin trade-offs, such as the Tasmanian aborigine's. Here, the authors link to sexual selection. Skin provides a visual cue to someone's age, health, and ancestry, not to mention a place for decoration. This might override the selective pressure to evolve skin tones better adapted to the location, especially if diet provides the necessary compensation.

It is scientific studies such as these that demonstrate how ridiculous racism is, and the arguments for lesser or inferior races. Hopefully, as Diamond points out, more researchers will tackle the issue of skin color so that we might better understand our origins and distribution. Diamond, J. 2005. Geography and skin colour. Nature 435: 283-284.


Cell Phone/Battery Disposal

Ever wondered what to do with old cell phones or used batteries? Go visit www.call2recycle.org to find out how to dispose of them safely.


Would We Be Better Off With A Chimp As President

President Bush, while on a trip to promote Social Security reform, joked with a student about his grades. "Well, you don't need A's to qualify to be president." This drew a huge laugh from the crowd. Isn't it great that we have a president who seems to relish his mediocrity; and even better, the crowd applauds him for it.


Black Hole Son

Most people don't realize how many cool missions NASA has underway, or are yet to be launched. The most well recognized are the Mars Rovers and they have provided some amazing science. NASA also has their Discovery Program, meant to explore the sun, planets, asteroids, and comets of our solar system. One of the probes, Genesis, which collected solar particles from the Sun, crashed in the Utah desert when a component was installed upside down (the perfect example of Murphy's Law!). Other notable instruments are the Hubble Telescope, The Chandra Observatory, SOHO, Spitzer Space Telescope, and the planned James Webb Telescope.

In November of 2004, NASA launched the Swift Observatory whose express purpose is to study Gamma Ray Bursts' (GRB). Gamma ray's are the most energetic form of the electromagnetic spectrum (> 1 million eV). They are produced by nuclear transitions, which leads us to the different types.

UVOT "first light" picture (Credit: NASA/GFSC)

UVOT "first light" picture (Credit: NASA/GFSC)

Gamma ray bursts are classisfied by their duration. Long bursts last more than two seconds and are thought to occur through stellar explosions in distant galaxies. Shorter bursts, less than two seconds and often times only milliseconds, were thought to be caused by merger's between a black hole and a neutron star, or perhaps a collision between two neutron stars. Enter Swift.

Swift has three main instruments that are able to quickly lock onto gamma ray bursts to identify their source. The Burst Alert Telescope detects initial sources of energy and determines the stellar coordinates. An X-ray telescope then scans the appropriate region of space for the afterglow and provides spectral analysis. Lastly, the Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope can provide follow-up images and analysis. Where does all of this lead us?

On May 9th, Swift detected a short burst, lasting only 50 milliseconds. This means that astronomers have detected, for the first time, the formation (or birth) of a black hole. There is still speculation as to what caused the burst; again, black hole/black hole merger, neutron star/neutron star collision, or neutron star/black hole merger. More data will hopefully illuminate the question marks. The energy source itself is located approximately 2.7 billion light years away and is full of old stars, which supports the hypothesis involving neutron stars and black holes.

Further observations are going to be done with the Hubble Telescope and the Keck Telescopes, located in Hawaii. All in all, an exiciting time to be an astronomer.

Black Hole Illustration
Illustration: CXC/M.Weiss

Open Letter to Kansas School Board

This is pretty funny, from Panda's Thumb:

Posted by Reed A. Cartwright on May 23, 2005 09:10 PM

Bobby Henderson, a concerned citizen, has written an open letter to the Kansas school board about the attempts to put “intelligent design” creationism into the science curriculium. In the letter, he advocates for his view of creation to be included as well:

Let us remember that there are multiple theories of Intelligent Design. I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was He who created all that we see and all that we feel. We feel strongly that the overwhelming scientific evidence pointing towards evolutionary processes is nothing but a coincidence, put in place by Him.

I’m sure you now realize how important it is that your students are taught this alternate theory. It is absolutely imperative that they realize that observable evidence is at the discretion of a Flying Spaghetti Monster. Furthermore, it is disrespectful to teach our beliefs without wearing His chosen outfit, which of course is full pirate regalia. I cannot stress the importance of this, and unfortunately cannot describe in detail why this must be done as I fear this letter is already becoming to long. The concise explanation is that He becomes angry if we don’t.

Prof. Steve Steve is convinced.



Episode III

I went and saw Star Wars last night and I'm feeling a little conflicted. As a long time fan of all things Star Wars (especially the books) I really want to love this movie. And there are things to love about it. The acting and dialogue are much better, the visuals are again stunning. Every scene with Yoda is fantastic. The Wookies, although short in duration, were fun to see, especially Chewbacca. I feel Lucas repaired many of the deficiencies from the first two movies.

I do have some hang-ups, however. If I hadn't read all of the books leading up to the movie, including the Episode III novelization, I probably would have been really dissapointed. The movie jumps around too much, the characters actions and behaviors (e.g. Dooku, Windu, Yoda, and even Anakin) doesn''t seem to make sense, or are implausible. There have been complaints that Anakin's turn to the Dark Side happens so fast, and it's true. The book leads up to the moment very well; you can see the conflicts raging inside Anakin and the way he is pulled from all sides. You only get a brief glimpse of this in the movie. The death of Dooku just happens; the book has much more to offer during this scene. The final battle with General Grievous seemed underwhelming. A guy who can wield four lightsabres should have been given more time to show them off. These are just a few of the downsides I found. So my advice is, read the book to get some background and you'll enjoy the experience that much more.


Frist As A Fraud

From Brad DeLong:

Why Did They Choose Bill Frist, Anyway?

The pool of Republican talent is amazingly thin, isn't it?

: "This morning on the floor of the Senate, Sen. Chuck Schumer asked Majority Leader Bill Frist a simple question:

SEN. SCHUMER: Isn't it correct that on March 8, 2000, my colleague [Sen. Frist] voted to uphold the filibuster of Judge Richard Paez?

Here was Frist's response:

The president, the um, in response, uh, the Paez nomination - we'll come back and discuss this further.... Actually I'd like to, and it really brings to what I believe - a point - and it really brings to, oddly, a point, what is the issue. The issue is we have leadership-led partisan filibusters that have, um, obstructed, not one nominee, but two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, in a routine way.

So, Frist is arguing that one filibuster is OK. His problem is that several Bush nominees have been filibustered. This position completely undercuts Frist's argument that judicial filibusters are unconstitutional. (Which is, in turn, the justification for the nuclear option.) If judicial filibusters are unconstitutional there is no freebee. But Frist digs his hole even deeper:

The issue is not cloture votes per se, it's the partisan, leadership-led use of cloture votes to kill - to defeat - to assassinate these nominees. That's the difference. Cloture has been used in the past on this floor to postpone, to get more info, to ask further questions. When Frist voted to filibuster Paez's nomination it had been pending for four years. It's hard to believe he couldn't get all the info he needed or ask all the questions he had during that time. Make no mistake about it: Bill Frist was trying to kill the Paez nomination. A press release issued the following day by former Sen. Bob Smith, who organized the filibuster effort, read "Smith Leads Effort to Block Activist Judges."...


My Star Wars Persona

Take the quiz by clicking on da man!


Here is a nice little article comparing President Roosevelt and President Bush.



Album Cover


The God Of Music Is Back!

Robert Plant has a new album:

Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation - Mighty Rearranger


Computers For Science Unite!

For the last several years now I've been running SETI@home on my computer. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the program, it refers to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a program run by the University of California at Berkeley. SETI folks realized that they had far more data (in the form of radio signals coming from stars) to analyze than computers to do it. Rather than just giving up and attributing all the info to ID (pardon me, I couldn't resist) they developed a program that allows home computers to download a small chunk of info, analyze if for artificial signals (which would indicate extraterrestrial intelligence), and send it back to SETI. The nice thing about the program is that you don't have to do anything except the initial download; the program downloads new info packages and sends them back to SETI for you. SETI is now running on roughly 500,000 home computers, the equivalent of around 100 trillion flops.

Since SETI (and the first distributed computing project, the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search) a whole host of other distributed projects have sprung up (you can find most of them at http://distributedcomputing.info/projects/html).

One major group is associated with the Berkeley Open Source Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC). They now host SETI as well as several other projects that I'll describe below.

Climateprediction.net - Like the title suggests, this program creates climate models to help predict climage change in the future. A paper was recently published in the journal Nature describing some of their early results.

Einstein@Home - This program searches for pulsars in the attempt discover gravity waves. It uses data from the LIGO and GEO gravitation wave detectors.

LHC@home - Help particle physicists at CERN determine through simulations whether particles traveling through the Large Hadron Collider will have stable orbits.

Predictor@home - The ultimate goal of this program is to predict protein structures from protein sequences.

Two other programs will be added to the BOINC network soon, PlanetQuest and Orbit@home.

Some other interesting programs:.

evolution@home - Its purpose? To help uncover the genetic causes for species extinction.

Folding@home - Help determine how proteins self-assemble.

fightAIDS@home - This program seeks to design new drugs in the battle against AIDS.

BOLERO - An attempt to create a new antibiotic based on an antifungoid peptide.

CHRONOS - Analyzes the relationships between the chromosomes of the human genome.

There are many more programs out there, but these are the ones I found to be the most interesting. So, no matter your taste, you too can aid science. All it takes is a few clicks of the mouse and you can say you're doing your part. And you get some pretty nifty looking screen savers as well!


And Congress Wonders Why Our Opinions Of Politicians Are Low

From a Washington Times article (via my brother, a lieutenant in the Navy, who is familiar and extremely annoyed by this).

Congress recently passed an 82 billion supplemental bill to fight the war on terror. Here are some things that were added:

1. 20 million for a road project in Mississippi

2. 5 million for the Fort Peck Fish Hatchery in Montana

3. 2 million to upgrade the chemisty labs at Drew University in New Jersey

4. 1 million for Woody Island and historic structures in Philadelphia

This is but a sample of the pork. And we still have troops without the proper gear. Go figure.

Side note: Both the Army and Marines have missed their recruitment quotas for the third or fourth consecutive month. This is unheard of for the Marines.

The Wisdom of Garfield

The feisty feline has some sage advice concerning eating:

1. Never eat anything that's on fire (this goes along with: If it's wet, don't breathe it).

2. Never leave your food dish under a bird cage.

3. Only play with your food if you've eaten your toys.

4. Only snack between meals.

5. Chew your food at least once.


Books, Movies, Music

Here are some of the things I've watched, listened to, and read recently, in case you need any ideas.


Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy- Fun, irreverent, great actors. If you need some brain candy, this will do.

Kindgom of Heaven- I liked this movie. It provided some interesting thoughts on religion and history to ponder. I don't know how historically accurate it is (probably not very much) but if you enjoy historical epics, this is it. Other reviewers have complained that there isn't a clear side to root for in this movie, and that somehow makes it bad. Personally, I think that is a lazy criticism; the point of the movie is in the motives and deeds of the characters. Each side can have heroes; neither side may be more right or wrong than the other.


Blue Orchid- The White Stripes (single)
Black Betty - Lynyrd Skynyrd (original version)
Black Betty - Dukes of Hazzard Soundtrack (new album)
Jack Johnson - his whole new album
Beck - E Pro (single)


Star Wars: Episode III by Matthew Stover - If you just can't wait. Personally, I think I'll enjoy the movie more after reading this.

Resurrection by Paul Kemp - Another fantasy. Great writer of a good series. Dark and evil!

Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins - Dawkins starts with humanity and traces back the common ancestors of all living things to our bacterial beginnings. Very interesting and well told.

The European Dream by Jeremy Rifkin - A look at the American Dream, past and present, contrasted with the emerging European Dream. Excellent.

Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis - Looks at the early Republic through five or six crucial events in history. I learned a lot about Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, and Madison reading this. There is quite a bit concerning these men I did not know, and you probably don't either! This book is especially important these days when we have Republicans trying to tell us what the Founding Fathers were like (it's not what they tell you) and what our country was founded on (which they seem to ignore).


It Was Going to Happen

A pastor in a church in North Carolina kicked out all the members of the congregation who did not vote for President Bush in the last election. Who's next?


Republican Antics

From Brad DeLong:

Republican Pond Scum

John Stuart Mill was wrong. The conservative party is not the stupid party. The conservative party is the bizarro mind-numbingly extreme stupid party.

Ezra Klein informs us of the Carpetbagger's report on House Judiciary Committee Chair James Sensenbrenner:

Ezra Klein: Doesn't this sound more like... Saturday Night Live... than an actual strategy tried out on the floor of Congress?

About a week ago, the House Judiciary Committee was prepared to approve the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act. Dem committee members offered some fairly reasonable amendments to shield some parties from criminal responsibility...For example, one amendment, offered by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), sought to exempt "cab drivers, bus drivers and others in the business transportation profession from the criminal provisions in the bill." So, if an underage woman takes a bus to another state to have an abortion, the bus driver, who probably wouldn't have any knowledge of the abortion, couldn't be charged with a federal crime. Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) not only helped kill the amendment, he decided to rephrase it for the official record:

'Mr. Scott offered an amendment that would have exempted sexual predators from prosecution if they are taxicab drivers, bus drivers, or others in the business of professional transport.'

Sensenbrenner did this multiple times. Every Dem attempt to amend the legislation was manipulated to make it appear Dems were trying to protect sexual predators. Whether one supports the bill or not, this was pathetic.

Yesterday, Sensennbrenner backed down and removed the 'sexual predator' language from the record. Fact is, however, it stil happened, and the floor of Congress, is, officially, one poorly-conceived skit.... Welcome to Congress.


How To Spend Your Money

I heard on NPR this morning about a gentleman who bought at auction a VW Bug that belonged to Pope Benedict XVI. He payed $250,000. I assume he bought it because he is a devout Catholic. If that is the case, wouldn't it have been a better use of his money to help, ya know, the poor? It seems to me that his decision to spend an enormous sum of money on a relatively useless souvenir could have been better spent elsewhere. I really don't understand the mindset in a decision like this.


Furthering Education

Beth and I finished Phase I of our Professional Certification program tonight. All new teachers have to go through this three year process to meet state standards. I'm still not convinced it's anything but a hoop to jump at this point. I could better use my time directly in my classroom. Hopefully, it will be more focused when it starts up again in the fall. Only two more years to go!

On another note, I start up my master's program in a month. I've had the last couple of months off, which has been nice. I'll be taking microbiology this summer, with a focus on the evolution and ecology of these interesting beasties. I'll also get to study more thoroughly the Archaea, which I've had limited exposure to thus far. If all goes according to plan, I'll have my master's by next summer. Then I'll be able to relax for a little while before deciding what to do next!


Evolution on Trial?

If you haven't heard, a riduculous, staged trial is going to take place in Kansas to evaluate the validity of evolution. The ring leaders (it will be a circus, after all) are all pushing to get Intelligent Design in the science curriculum of high school biology classes. As far as I know, scientists are boycotting the evern, rightfully so. Evolution, as fact and theory, does not need to be defended as the science is overwhelming on its behalf. ID proponents don't particulary care and in many cases don't even understand the science itself. Especially the school board members, who take their cues from places like the Discovery Institute. Some of the board members say that there are serious problems with evolution (they can't say what though) and that there is scientific evidence for ID that should be evaluated by students. Again, they cannot cite what the evidence is (Hint: it's because there isn't any). If you peruse the web in search of info, you might find a common DI pamphlet called '10 Questions Students Should Ask Their Biology Teacher.' Again, it's crap, and PZ Myers has a nice succinct reply to it here. If you happen to live in a school district that starts to have a debate about whether or not to teach ID, here is a good place to get info, the National Center for Science Education.