Category: Science


I’ve never been big on bumper stickers, politically I’ve tended towards magnets or taping a sticker inside the rear window so I could remove it (who wants to be that guy driving around with a Mondale sticker they can’t get off the bumper). But the other day I saw  a car that used to have a Jesus fish on the back. Someone had attempted to remove it, leaving behind a fairly permanent black residue, still unmistakably a Jesus fish.

Suddenly I was struck by a strong desire to put a Darwin fish on my car. It’s a cheap old car, and will be older by the time I sell it, so I’m largely unconcerned with resale value. I Googled Darwin fish to find a place to buy one and I came across this:

http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-goldberg1apr01,0,5893988.column

I’ve never heard of anything like this before. It never would have occurred to me, even if I were a Christian. It seems incredibly thin skinned and lacking in a sense of humor. I could dissect the arguments piece by piece, but it all seems to me to come down to one thing: when the powerful ridicule the powerless, that’s called bullying. When the powerless ridicule the powerful, that’s called comedy. According to a 2010 Pew survey 80% of Americans consider themselves Christians.

I’ll also note that Goldberg suggests that the Darwin fish is cowardly when one could be speaking out against Islam. This is still wrapped up in the definition of comedy versus bullying, but frankly, I think the speaking out against Islam thing is pretty well covered in this country. As for which is more courageous, if I insulted Islam it is highly unlikely I would end up under a fatwa. On the other hand, shortly after the 2008 election I returned to my car after eating in a restaurant near my home to find my Obama magnet missing and the air let out of my tire. My yard signs have been repeatedly stolen as well. I submit that there is at least a smidgen of threat from having a Darwin fish in my neighborhood, if Christians indeed feel as insulted as Mr. Goldberg thinks they should, but there is essentially zero threat of an attack by Muslims around me.

But I’m really interested in what other people think. Is the Darwin fish a grave insult to Christianity, or just a tame, if a bit stale, joke?

There is a serious problem in the United States that boys tend to be encouraged to go into science far more than girls (though even boys are not encouraged enough to go into science). Boys who show the least interest in science get chemistry sets, toy microscopes, all sorts of science related toys. In toy stores the science toys are in the “boys” area while girls get pretty pink tea sets and play kitchens. There’s nothing wrong with play kitchens, my boys enjoy theirs immensely, but this kind of separation of toys tends to guide girls away from science. Ask many Americans to name a woman scientist and they may come up with Marie Curie. That’s usually the best you’ll get. But in spite of the barriers placed in front of young women interested in science, there have been, and are, many great female scientists. I’ve mentioned Rosalind Franklin, who didn’t get nearly the credit she deserved, but some women, still unknown to most of the wider public, have received the accolades their work deserved.

Dorothy Hodgkin was a chemist who developed the field of protein crystallography using X-ray imaging. The techniques she discovered enabled scientists to see the most minute and intricate molecular structures. In 1964 Hodgkin received the Nobel Prize for her discover of the internal structure of vitamin B-12. Later she further refined her techniques until she was able to uncover the structure of insulin. She spent a great deal of time educating other scientists and the public about insulin and it’s relationship to diabetes. In addition to her scientific work, Hodgkin was an advocate for world peace and belonged to a number of international peace organizations.

Two of the most famous names in science are Watson and Crick. Even if you don’t recall exactly what they’re known for, they probably sound familiar. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, along with Maurice Wilkins, for the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. You may not know the name of the woman whose work made the discovery possible and who probably deserves at least as much credit as Watson and Crick.

Rosalind Franklin grew up in a world where women were not supposed to seek higher education, but she earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from Cambridge. When she became a researcher at King’s College in London she was forbidden from the dining hall and the pubs where her colleagues socialized because she was a woman. When Maurice Wilkins returned from a sabbatical to find her running DNA research, he naturally assumed she was just a technical assistant and not one of his peers. Their working relationship never recovered from his gaffe.

Nevertheless, it was Franklin who made the first X-ray photographs of DNA in which its structure was visible. Wilkins apparently showed the images to James Watson, who promptly published an article in Nature describing the structure of DNA. Watson certainly knew what he was looking at and contributed plenty of his own scholarship to the work, but Franklin’s discovery was the key. By the time the Nobel was awarded Franklin had died and Nobels are never given posthumously. Those who study biology learn about Franklin, but most of the general public has never heard of this woman who was instrumental in one of the most important scientific discoveries of the twentieth century.

L.A. Theater Works has recorded a radio broadcast of their performance of a play, Photograph 51, about the competition and the relationships behind this discovery. I found it a bit hard to follow on the radio because there are so many similar voices. As a play you also have the playwright’s interpretation, the director’s interpretation, and the actors’ impersonations all between you and the facts. Still, it’s a fascinating story and worth checking out and I’d love to see a live production.

The extent of human radio broadcasts, or why we haven’t made contact with alien life and aren’t likely to do so (click through to the full size image, make sure it’s displayed full size in your browser, and find the blue dot in the black square):

One of the hardest things for the human brain to comprehend is the scale of the universe, both in physical size and in time. It’s really not possible for our brains to make sense of really big numbers, and simply impossible to grasp things on a scale far beyond what we evolved to interact with. But the universe we live in is “vastly hugely mindbogglingly big”, so we need to do our best to understand it, and technology can help. I love creative uses of technology to demonstrate all this. We need as many different demonstrations as we can get just to try to keep in mind our place in the Universe and this is one of the best (click that link to see it, I can’t figure out how to embed flash in WordPress). My only complaint is the music (which you can turn of by clicking the music note icon in the upper right of the animation). And since this is showing up all over the place without attribution, it was created by a couple of 14 year olds, Michael and Cary Huang.  I found the link to the original creators at ABC News. Oh, and the quote above is from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe.

Here’s the music I would have used:

Basic Facts

Let’s get this started by establishing some basic, incontrovertible facts about the universe we live in. I expect people to disagree with me on a lot of things, but if you don’t accept the following then you and I live in fundamentally different realities, and unless you are very willing to adjust your reality, you aren’t going to like it around here much. This was almost an 11 point list, but I decided not to include a couple of things that might require some convincing. This is really the uncontroversial stuff:
  1.  The universe began sometime around 14 billion years ago (13.75 plus or minus 130 million is the current estimate).
  2. The Earth came into existence around 4.5 billion years ago.
  3. The Earth is an oblate spheroid, which is a fancy way of saying round, but lumpy and bigger around the middle.
  4. The Earth revolves around the Sun.
  5. Life on earth began sometime around 3.8 billion years ago, and evolved over time through a process of random mutation and natural selection from single celled organisms to plants, simple animals, fish, amphibians, insects, reptiles, birds, and finally, mammals and the full proliferation of life on this planet.
  6. The first thing resembling a human didn’t exist until about 2.5 million years ago, and modern humans about 200,000 years ago. So we haven’t been around for very long at all.
  7. Human’s first organized themselves into cities around 5,000 years ago, but there is every indication of thriving cultures creating ingenious tools and symbolic artwork long before that.
  8. All humans first evolved in Africa and migrated outward to cover the world.