Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

WORLD STUNNED AND AWED AS SCIENTISTS ANNOUNCE THE DISCOVERY OF A NEW SPECIES OF CAT!

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cat-fox

Woohoo! A new species of cat has been semi-officially announced. That’s worth taking a break from my vacation to write about. Not the sort of thing that happens every day, or every decade even. This would bring the grand total to 41 species of cat. Cats are few in species, but a very successful animal in other respects. The ultimate ambush predator. Found in more habitats than any other animal but man. Small tropical islands, deserts, high mountains, they and many more have their cats. And now, the Corsican Cat-Fox! And while it has been announced, it hasn’t yet been officially named as a species. The people studying it believe it is a newly discovered species endemic to the Mediterranean island of Corsica.

How was it discovered? What’s it like? How come no one noticed it before? What’s it called? Where can I get one. One question at a time, I know it’s exciting. No you can’t get one! Some people, sheesh. It’s actually been around awhile, the local shepherds call it “Ghjattu volpe.” I’m guessing that means Cat Fox, and that Corisan shepherds aren’t known for poetically naming things. Long story short, one was caught in a chicken coop a few years back, and a couple of French scientists have been observing, live trapping, and studying the DNA of them since then.

I’d say it’s pictured above, but no, no public domain images are yet available. The above image  is a European Wildcat and it is very similar, and closely related, to the Corsican Cat-Fox. The Cat-Fox has shorter whiskers, and differs in some minor coloration details. It’s about three foot (1m) long, so a bit bigger than the familiar house fleabus. Great pictures can be found here, including possibly the most awkwardly held cat in history. Way to introduce a new species, scientists and PR mix poorly.

Is the Cat-Fox really a new species? Well, the jury is still out. It’s got DNA from both the European Wildcat and the African Wildcat. There may have been a Cretan Wildcat, but scientists are still debating that. Wildcats, for my American readers, are a type of cat found all over Europe, Asia, and Africa. Bigger than a housecat, huge furry club tail, your basic grey tabby markings. Very wild. The domestic cat was indeed descended from them some thousands of years ago. At this point, since they can crossbreed, a lot of housecat DNA is mixed into the Wildcat gene pool, so figuring out just what is what is tricky.

The Cat-Fox may have evolved from a Wildcat population stranded on the Corsica millions of years ago, or it may have been introduced by humans somehow in the past 10,000 years. IE it might be an unremarkable Wildcat-housecat hybrid. Whatever the ultimate verdict, I think it’s remarkable. Wildcats are gorgeous as well, at least to my cat aesthetics. Wikipedia has some nice images on their Wildcat page. And the cover pic on this page, what a stunning cat.

So hang in there fluffy guys, hopefully efforts will now be made to keep you safe. So far my vacation is going well this year without a summer. Have a great weekend everyone.

Copyright © 2019 Doug Stych. All rights reserved.

(Image: European Wildcat. Credit: WPClipart, Public Domain under US copyright law.)

Written by unitedcats

June 21, 2019 at 4:53 am

Posted in Cats, Science

HUMANS ARE CAUSING GLOBAL WARMING AND IT’S A BAD THING

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retreat

Global warming. There’s been a lot of bad news about it lately. Not surprising, no more surprising than damage occurring when a building is on fire. The difference of course is that when a building is on fire, people band together to fight the fire. They don’t stand around arguing about who set the fire, or claiming that the fire really is a good thing and people should just let the house burn down. Especially if it’s their only house. There is no real doubt humans are causing global warming, but because science deals in probabilities, not certainties, it makes it really easy for deniers to claim there is controversy where there isn’t any. And there’s no doubt global warming is a bad thing, the only complication is there’s uncertainty as to how bad.

This is a favorite tactic of deniers of all stripes. Biblical literalists love to claim there is debate about evolution, evolution is just a theory, evolution is a theory in crisis, etc. In point of fact the scientific debate about evolution was over by about 1870. It’s a bedrock theory in biology that has been demonstrated in the field and in the lab countless times. Until someone comes up with a theory that better explains over a century of experiment and observation, evolution is fact for all practical purposes. Or even something as solid as the Sun coming up tomorrow. Scientists cannot say for certainty that the Sun will come up tomorrow, just that the probability that it will do so approaches certainty. That subatomic sliver of uncertainty is all deniers need to create the illusion of controversy.

It’s frustrating to say the least. In many areas it doesn’t really matter what people believe no matter how unscientific, flat earthers or Moon landing deniers aren’t going to cause any real problems. (Knock on wood.) Global warming deniers, yeah, major problem. An extremely well funded industry, fossil fuels are the world’s number one industry, is literally putting humanity’s future at stake in order to keep raking in profits. It was bad enough when industry did the same regarding cigarettes and leaded paint/gas, this is far worse. Granted global warming isn’t the only thing humans are doing to destroy Earth’s habitability, but it’s easily the worst.

And one of the most frustrating things about the situation is that human caused global warming is really simple. It doesn’t depend on obscure theories, complicated models, or rocket science. A freaking fourth grader can understand it. Simple physics and measurements, neither of which is debatable. We know that the huge increase in atmospheric CO2 the past two centuries is caused by humans. And we know this is warming the globe. There aren’t any alternatives, this has been settled science for decades.

Wait, how do we know these are facts? As follows. The huge increase in atmospheric CO2 the past two centuries is beyond dispute. It’s simply a matter of direct measurement, I don’t think even the hardcore deniers dispute this. And we know it was caused by human activities. How? Basically there are two types of carbon, C-12 and C-14. C-14 is an unstable radioactive isotope of carbon that is created by cosmic rays striking carbon atoms in the atmosphere. It’s created at a certain rate, and it decays at a certain rate, so the percentage of C-14 to C-12 in the atmosphere is basically constant. And since living organisms get virtually all their carbon from the atmosphere, the ratio of C-14 to C-12 in living tissue matches that of atmospheric carbon.

This is how carbon dating works, when an organism dies, it stops absorbing Carbon. The C-14 in its tissues continues to decay into C-12 though, so the older organic tissue is, the less C-14 it contains. Thus the ratio of C-12 to C-14 in organic tissue tells us when the tissue died, making it very useful for dating organic artifacts. Well, all the new carbon in the atmosphere contains no C-14. There’s only two possible sources of carbon devoid of C-14, human activity or volcanoes. Burning fossil fuels produce only C-12, the carbon in them having been sequestered in the ground for millions of years. And volcanoes can only account for less than 1% of the new carbon in the atmosphere, they contribute about 200 million tons of C02 per year. About 29 billion tons of new CO2 is added to the atmosphere every year, and burning fossil fuels are the only other possible source for this. Both these numbers are gotten from actual measurement, again, no room for debate.

So it’s a slam dunk that the huge increase in atmospheric CO2 in the atmosphere is caused by humans burning fossil fuels. The second part of the picture is even simpler. Different gases reflect heat at different rates. So one can go outside, point a spectroscope at the sky, and determine what gases are reflecting heat back towards the ground. And turns out there are five main gases that account for almost all of the heat trapped by the atmosphere: CO2, methane, water vapor, nitrous oxide, and ozone. We’ve known this for like 200 years, simple measurement and physics. Increase the amount of these gases in the atmosphere, and the amount of heat trapped by the atmosphere goes up. Solid, well established science.

Backed up by over a century of increasingly sophisticated measurements. Earth is warming up, and it’s warming up at an unprecedented rate. Sure, the CO2 has been as high as it is now in the distant past, and Earth was wildly warmer then too. Neither fact in any way, shape, or form implies that humans aren’t behind the current rise in CO2 or global warming. Worse, sometimes deniers like to claim “It’s been like this before, what’s the big deal?” The big deal is when it was like this before the Earth was a wildly different place, the oceans were hundreds of feet higher, and the tropics and continental interiors were uninhabitable.

So we are literally racing towards global calamity, all so the fossil fuel industry can keep raking in the profits. I thought about naming this post “Global Warming for Dummies” but decided against it. I want to engage the deniers, not insult them. And sadly conspiracy ideation is no indication of lack of intelligence, smart people can be anti-vaxxers or Moon landing deniers. Our brains are simply not wired for logic, and thus easily get led astray. I sometimes think that if formal logic was standard school curriculum, maybe someday progress can be made out of the scientific Dark Age we are sliding into. Still, we can’t even get teachers to stop hawking their religion in schools, let alone get them to teach logic.

So make hay while the world burns I guess. So far the effects of global warming are running considerably ahead of the worst case models, and there’s no reason to think this trend won’t continue. Unfortunately the American Empire, the new Roman Empire, is sustained entirely by fossil fuel exploitation, so it’s not going to willingly give up its oil addiction. Many actually seem to think it’s no big deal. Yes Mr Pompeo “The climate’s been changing a long time. There’s always changes that take place.” Unfortunately for your facile “analysis” Mr Pompeo the changes that took place over the past 11,000 years or so have been mild, and the Earth has enjoyed a very stable climate regime. The changes taking place now are extreme, unlike anything the Earth has seen for millions of year, and it’s only just begun.

Oh well, like always, half the reason I wrote this post was to increase my own understanding. So all I’ve done is depress myself. Our only hope is that the future is mutable, it looks grim now, but maybe our civilization will evolve to meet the challenge. We have come some ways since the Roman Empire, and despite all the parallels, at least wholesale politically motivated murder is no longer practised in Rome. I mean Washington. Those Emperors were a homicidal lot. Tell me this is an improvement. Please.

Copyright © 2019 Doug Stych. All rights reserved.

(Image: I put together the above image from images I found on Wikipedia. Credit: Public Domain under US copyright law.)

Written by unitedcats

June 10, 2019 at 6:47 pm

FIGHTING THE WRONG FIGHT

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glyphosate

I see ads on Facebook now: “Do you or a family member have Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL)? Call our lawyers now, big settlement awaits!” Yes, if someone with NHL was ever within a hundred miles of a glyphosate application, bingo, they just won the lottery! Their disease could be worth as much as 2 billion dollars! Hundreds of cases have already been filed against the makers of glyphosate. Monsanto will finally be forced to pay for poisoning the planet with Round-Up, the trade name for glyphosate. Ecowarriors are celebrating everywhere.

Me, I scream and pound my forehead bloody on my desktop every time I see one of those ads. Because the only people getting rich are lawyers and a tiny number of NHL sufferers. And the makers of glyphosate will just pass the additional costs on to the consumer, so ultimately farmers and consumers get to foot the bill. Even worse, this wave of lawsuits might ultimately result in glyphosate bans, resulting in the use of far more dangerous herbicides.

All of this cashing in is because of a freaking hoax. Or lie if more accuracy is desired. Or misunderstanding if I’m going to be diplomatic. My frustration is because glyphosate doesn’t cause cancer! Let’s review: Glyphosate can’t be absorbed through the skin. If ingested it’s less toxic than salt and quickly breaks down into harmless organic components. It doesn’t bioaccumulate in tissue. In fact its only biological effect is that it breaks down exactly one specific enzyme. An enzyme found only in plants. Add that to the fact that decades of studies have found no link between glyphosate and any health problems. Which is not surprising because no one has even proposed a plausible mechanism by which glyphosate could harm animal tissue in any way, let alone cause cancer.

In other words, science is not decided by court cases. Because juries have been bamboozled into huge payouts for Glyphosate “victims” doesn’t actually mean glyphosate is dangerous. Science says it’s safe beyond any reasonable doubt. In any event, here’s a link about how this nonsense about Glyphosate got promulgated through society. And another about Glyphosate’s safety. And no, no one at the links works for Monsanto, nor do I.

It’s infuriating because lawyers are making piles of money because in America if you get sick suing is often your only option, unlike civilized countries that take care of their citizens’ health. And of course now the idea that glyphosate causes cancer will become even more established. Farmers may even be prohibited from using glyphosate, forcing them to use more dangerous alternatives. And no, the global agriculture system that feeds humanity can’t switch over to organic farmer, that’s as realistic as giving up cars and going back to horses. Organic farming has its place, but it’s not a magical solution to our problems.

Possibly the thing that annoys me most is all the energy activists waste on this, when there are plenty of other corporate practices that do cause harm. The fossil fuel industry being the biggest one. And CAFOs, OMG I wish more activists were fighting CAFOs. If all the activists wasting their time on opposing glyphosate, GMOs, and cell phones spent their time fighting climate change and CAFOs they might make a difference. Or not. The older I get the clearer it gets just how much common knowledge is just plain wrong, the more I think the world really is a hopeless mess. And all I can do is try and spread the gospel … science and logic are wonderful things, we just need to embrace them.

In local news, my housemate turned on the radio last night and a man was saying: “A tornado is on the ground, take shelter immediately.” Possibly the creepiest thing I have ever heard on the radio, fortunately the tornado was one county over. Iowa does get a fair number of tornadoes, my little town has a tornado alarm that goes off occasionally. I made sure to sleep with the window open so I could hear it, just in case. Living on the surface of a planet is hazardous, but what is one to do?

And yes, I did slip GMOs and cell phones in there. Same as glyphosate: no evidence of harm despite widespread use and good studies failing to find any ill effects from exposure, combined with a complete lack of any plausible mechanism by which they could harm animal tissue. Back to science and logic again. Happy to debate anyone that wants to contest my understanding of the topics. I can change my beliefs if presented with logical argument and evidence.

I hope so at least. Have a great weekend everyone.

Copyright © 2019 Doug Stych. All rights reserved.

(Image: Glyphosate model. Credit: Public Domain image from Snappygoat.

Written by unitedcats

May 31, 2019 at 8:53 am

LIBRARIES CAN BE DANGEROUS

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Public domain Image from Snappygoat.

I was in the library the other day, as is often my wont, minding my own business. Which consists of wandering through the shelves looking for interesting books. And, well, keeping an eye open for interesting women, one never knows. I digress, books though. I am scanning the new books shelf. And I see a book. “Replacing Darwin, the New Origin of Species.” A scientific illustration on the cover. A bunch of quotes by people with alphabet soup after their names on the back cover. Lots of technical science illustrations inside. 2018 book. OK, new developments in evolutionary theory, could be interesting. I check it out along with my usual eclectic assortment of books.

I get home. I open “Replacing Darwin.” Within minutes I realize I was terribly terribly wrong about this book. While it is filled with scientific illustrations and jargon, and to all outward appearance is a science book, it’s not. Not even close.  This book is a religious tract disguised as a science book. The word “evolutionist” was the first big clue, but it didn’t take much review to find stuff where I was like, wait, what? I didn’t read “Replacing Darwin, and am not going to read it, but this actual scientist read it twice, and here’s what he had to say.

Before I get into just why I find this book so disturbing, a brief deconstruction of a few paragraphs I came across, just to illustrate how intellectually dishonest this exercise in evolution denial is. Basically page 190 of the second printing. It starts off with a few pictures of fossil fish, one giving birth, the other eating another fish. Then makes the claim that fossils of such events must have been created by some cataclysm, the odds against them settling to the bottom without being scavenged etc are astronomical. The dishonest part is that paleontologists don’t claim fossils just form after animals die and settle to the bottom, fossilization is extremely rare, and often does result when an animal is quickly buried in a landslide or volcanic eruption. That the occasional animal is killed and buried suddenly is normal, no global cataclysm required to explain such, or any, fossils.

The next paragraph claims such fossils present a problem for geology and paleontology. Um, no, they don’t. And then mentions that some rock layers in the Grand Canyon once thought to be deposited in deserts now appear to be oceanic landslide deposits. Um, so what? That’s how science works, it is constantly correcting itself and improving our understanding of the world. Because science corrects its mistakes doesn’t imply some problem with the scientific method.

The book then goes on to state that a flood at Mount Saint Helens after the 1980 eruption cut a 100 foot deep canyon through new layers of volcanic ash in one day, and that the Grand Canyon could have been made just as quickly in a big enough flood. Um, volcanic ash is very soft and water easily erodes it away. A mile of freaking solid rock is in no way, shape, or form comparable to 100 feet of ash. No matter how big a flood is, it’s still going to take millions of years to make something like the Grand Canyon.

“Replacing Darwin” then goes on to make the sweeping generalization that the world’s fossils had all been made by catastrophic forces in the recent past. And the author trots out the soft tissue found in some dinosaur bones as “proof” of this. I guess if one already believed in a 6,000 year old Earth, this page must seem like a convincing argument. It just neglects to mention the literally nearly two centuries of evidence that the Earth is billions of years old. Basically the scientific debate about the age of the Earth was over in the early 19th century. The very Christian scientists of the day, people who had confidently thought that science would prove Genesis true, reluctantly realized that the evidence showed the Earth was at least millions of years old, and there was no evidence for a global flood. And no, the soft tissue found in some dinosaur bones is not evidence for a young Earth.

I could go on, but in a nutshell this book pretends that the scientific debate about the age of the Earth and the origin of species is ongoing. And carefully cherry picks all sorts of out of context scientific facts to use as windrow dressing that appear to support its position, while ignoring nearly two centuries of evidence and experiment that show beyond any reasonable doubt that the Earth is billions of years old and evolution is a fact. The book  also reinforces the creationist trope that science is basically opinion, and scientists more or less make stuff up to support their atheistic outlook on the Universe. Thus the term “evolutionists” to imply that belief in evolution is equivalent to a belief in creationism. No. Scientists study the evidence and follow where it goes. Creationists start with a conclusion then search for “evidence” that supports it. Big difference.

The sad thing is that a lot of people will fall for this book, and use it to “teach” children about a “controversy” that doesn’t exist, and worse, to promote the idea that there is scientific support for creationism. Basically if one wants to believe a God created Earth 6,000 odd years ago, then for whatever reason God created an Earth that appears to be about 4 ½ billion years old down to the finest detail. Not sure why a God would do that, but theology isn’t an interest of mine. Want to make up sciency props to support one’s beliefs that are contravened by evidence, one is not only insulting science and logic, one is admitting the weakness of their belief. If Young Earth Creationism was supported by the geologic and fossil record, there would be no need for fake evidence like this book or the Creation Museum. There would be plenty of science books and museums devoted to teaching it.

Myself, God’s not a problem. If a God did make me and the Universe, they did so via the Big Bang and Evolution. Generations of very smart people used the brains God gave them to figure that out. Pretty sure that’s why God gave us brains, to figure out the amazing Universe he has been creating for billions of years. Not to memorize and regurgitate Iron Age myths.

Have a great week everyone. God bless.

(Copyright © 2019 Doug Stych. All rights reserved.

Written by unitedcats

May 22, 2019 at 11:03 am

Posted in Religion, Science

Still Alone in the Universe

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mars

Alas, yet another well intentioned and optimistic attempt has been made to search for alien civilizations. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for SETI (The search for alien technological civilizations) and am glad it gets done.  I just don’t think they are going to find anything, and am not surprised this latest search is a failure. Why? Some background first:

NASA has a satellite, the WISE satellite. Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. It basically made a survey of the sky in infrared. It was a big deal. Many new discoveries, thousands of asteroids, numerous star clusters, and a whole wealth of data about the skies. Including information on millions of galaxies. Then scientists with private funding (our precious tax dollars saved for ever more drone strikes) computer sifted through this data to find 100,000 promising galactic candidates for further investigation. They then hand searched these galaxies, looking for galaxies with signs of widespread industrial civilization. How is that? Well, the idea being that aliens that colonized a galaxy would use starlight to power industry, and thus the galaxy in question would be shy on starlight, but long on infrared, the waste product of industrial processes. The results? Nada. None of the galaxies showed anything that was obviously unnatural. A few warrant further looking, but there was certainly no smoking gun.

What can we glean from this? On the first pass, a Star Trek or Star Wars galaxy is ruled out. Bad news on one level, we won’t be joining any Galactic Federation anytime soon, because it doesn’t exist. That’s not surprising, the aliens in these sorts of imagined galaxies are pretty much just people with funny costumes. While it would be fun and comforting to find out that’s what aliens are like, there’s simply no reason to think aliens would be anything like us. In fact essentially all SETI has been doing is steadily eroding the idea of a universe populated by anthropomorphic aliens. At this point, it’s looking pretty grim for the Star Trek galaxy.

So what’s left? Well, maybe our idea of how advanced alien civilizations would look needs some tweaking. Most, if not all,  of our ideas about SETI involve searching for aliens who are acting like us. Granted, how to imagine aliens who aren’t like us is a bit tricky. I suspect the goal shouldn’t be to decide what to look for and look for it, but try to look for anything that doesn’t have a good natural explanation. Granted that’s a pretty nebulous concept in and of itself, but it has the advantage of eliminating our own prejudices about what aliens will be doing. And yes, it’s also limited by the fact that our understanding of what is and isn’t natural in the Universe is also pretty nebulous at this stage. Still, it would be a start, and I hope at least some in the SETI community are looking into searching for the unexpected.

Lastly, and the point that seems to distress so many people, it’s possible that we are alone. We simply don’t know how likely it is for species like ours to come along and start building technological stuff. Maybe it’s so incredibly unlikely that it’s only happened once. People love to claim that the size of the Universe means there “has” to be others, but that’s simply an argument from big numbers. What are the chances that one grain of sand on Earth contains an exact miniature replica of a McDonalds® outlet down to the smallest detail? Saying, there’s trillions of grains of sand so one must contain a miniature McDonalds® because there are so many grains of sand, is an absurd argument.

In any event I hope SETI continues. Heck, I wish it was better funded, but it’s too easy an idea to ridicule and there’s no SETI lobby to speak of, and certainly no SETI industry, so it’s going to continue to be a privately funded search. I wish SETI all the luck in the world, I just don’t recommend making any bets on it succeeding any time soon.

Have a great weekend everyone.

(The above image was taken on Mars about a year ago by the Curiosity rover. As a NASA photograph, it is for most practical purposes, including inclusion in this blog, a public domain image. NASA does not in any way endorse Doug’s Darkworld. I used this image because, gee, Mars is sure looking like a barren lifeless rock. And because I still think its effing incredible that we have machines on Mars able to send pics like this. The blue sky means it’s sunset. On Mars the sky is normally scarlet or a bright orangeish-red colour. It turns rose at sunset and sunrise.)

Written by unitedcats

June 19, 2015 at 1:15 pm

Patomskiy Crater, a Real Earth Mystery

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patomsky

Well, there it is. Patomsky Crater. A 40m high crater in remote Siberia. Discovered in 1949 by a geologist named Vadim Kolpakov. Well, discovered by the outside world, the locals had known of it. It was made sometime in the past few centuries. How was it made? That’s the mystery. Geologists have been studying it for decades, and they still don’t know. Yes, scientists don’t know how this pile of rock was made. I’d say it was like a crop circle made of stones, but scientists know how crop circles are made.

What could it be? At first it was thought maybe it was something that Stalin had made by gulag labour. It’s certainly possible, he had some odd things done.  However, geologists visiting the site ruled that out, it is clearly a natural formation. One possibility was that maybe it was some sort of explosion caused by uranium ore going critical. Something similar happened in Gabon, Africa, some 1.3 billion years ago. Alas, no Uranium or radioactivity has been found, so that idea was ruled out. Impact? Well, some scientists still think so. In fact for awhile it was thought it might be related to the Tunguska impact of 1908. Alas, no meteoric material has been found. And its date has been pinned down to about 250 years ago, long before the Tunguska event.

So, volcano? Well, there’s no volcanic rock in the region. The crater itself is made of limestone, hardly a volcanic materiel. There’s no volcanoes or extinct volcanoes in the region. And it doesn’t resemble any known volcanic crater. Still, most geologists think it must be some sort of eruptive process. Some geologic process heated ground water causing one or more phreatic eruptions. Research continues.

The significance of this discovery? It’s interesting on several levels. The first thing is that it is an example of the limits of science. Lay people, especially fundamentalist religious types, often seem to be under the impression that scientists know everything. No, they don’t. In fact it’s safe to say that what scientists don’t know is vastly, maybe infinitely, greater than what they do know. Every new scientific discovery expands the boundaries of what we know … and expands the boundaries of what we don’t know. It’s certain religions that claim to understand everything, most scientists long ago got over that conceit.

Anything else? Well, the woo woo crowd has weighed in. Some have claimed that Patomskiy Crater is a crashed UFO. Some reports claim that a cylindrical object has been identified buried in the crater. I’m pretty sure if Russian geologists had actually identified some mysterious object was buried in the crater, it would have been excavated promptly. Still, it’s not a big topic in the woo woo crowd. Which in and of itself says something. they aren’t really interested in mysteries, only mysteries that can be easily folded into their pseudoscience view of the world.

Yes, I’ve become more intolerant of science deniers. The religious ones are worse, because they are destroying the political process in the USA. That’s a story for another post. The woo woo ones, well, they aren’t helping. Because science doesn’t yet doesn’t have an answer for something, UFOs aren’t the default. Or angels. It’s the beauty and wonder of the world, science has discovered that there is no need for supernatural explanations, and right now UFOs are as supernatural as angels and demons.

So, what created Patomskiy Crater? I’ll certainly go with the scientific consensus. Some sort of as yet unexplained geologic process. Still, the exotic impact theory hasn’t yet been ruled out. Exotic as being an impact of something other than the typical stone or ion meteorite. Something much denser than either. The universe is stranger than we can imagine, Patomskiy Crater is proof of that.

And the most wonderful thing about science, when it does explain Patomskiy Crater, it will make our understanding of the world a little bit bigger. We will not understand everything, but the more we understand, the safer we are. Our campfire in the dark gets a little brighter.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the case. I don’t know who the copyright holder is. And lastly, a joke. Some claim that the Tunguska event was caused by Nikola Tesla. Enjoy.)

Written by unitedcats

May 28, 2014 at 11:36 pm

Posted in History, Science, World

Kanzi, the Talking Bonobo?

with 9 comments

Kanzi

Well, an acquaintance showed me some exciting video the other day. It was of Kanzi, a Bonobo that has learned to communicate with humans by pointing at symbols. Kanzi knows thousands of symbols, and videos of him are all over youtube. It’s pretty impressive stuff. Kanzi can give and understand a vast array of commands, and interacts with his handlers regularly using the symbols. To primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who has been studying Kanzi all Kanzi’s life, Kanzi exhibits “advanced linguistic aptitude.” Kanzi has even been interviewed on TV, heck, how many people can say that? Is the Kanzi the breakthrough primatologists have been striving for for decades, have humans and an animal learned to communicate? Well, yes. The more important question though is this, is Kanzi the the holy grail of animal communication research, has Kanzi learned to speak?

Alas, while there is a lot to be learned from Kanzi research, don’t place any pre-orders for handy Bonobo house servants. Let’s start from the beginning. In 1969 a chimpanzee named Washoe rocked the scientific world, the first chimp to learn sign language. Washoe was a media sensation, and launched a whole raft of primate sign language research. People everywhere loved the idea that chimps could talk. Sure, their vocal cords can’t pronounce human words, but with sign language, that barrier was broken! Unfortunately, upon closer examination, Washoe well, washed out. Her handlers had been wildly optimistic about their interpretations of many of her hand movements. Even one of her most famous examples of “speech,” her making the signs for water and bird upon seeing a swan, isn’t particularly amazing. A swan is a bird, and it was on water, all it really showed was that Washoe knew the signs for water and bird. Science moved on, and while a few researchers went forward, other than in the popular perception, signing chimps were a dead end.

Then, along came Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Kanzi. No messing around with ambiguous hand movements, by learning actual symbols, his communications were clear. Kanzi learned thousands of symbols, and could use them to signal his wants and even to some extent communicate his internal states. Watching the videos of him is pretty amazing, at least on a  superficial level. Kanzi can hear complex commands and act on them, surely that means he is using language similar to how humans do. Had Sue Savage-Rumbaugh done it, was Kanzi the first animal to speak with a human?

Alas, no. There’s a number of problems with the “Kanzi is speaking” scenario. The first is how he acquired language. When human babies start learning words, they almost immediately begin constructing sentences out of them. And as they learn more words, their sentences get longer and more complex. When Kanzi (or other “talking” chimps) start to learn words, they pretty much don’t make sentences out of them. And as they learn ever more words, their sentence construction remains at their initial very modest levels. Kanzi’s average sentence length is … 1.15 words. In other words, Kanzi for the most part uses exactly one symbol to express himself. And while Kanzi’s understanding of symbols might seem impressive, it’s more substance than real. Yes, Kanzi seemingly can understand commands involving several words, but that is not necessarily language. IE if one tells Kanzi to “put the doll in the bucket in the other room” all Kanzi really has to know is that he is expected to manipulate the doll, the bucket, and the room. That’s not language.

More accurately, Kanzi does not appear to understand grammar at all. Grammar is how words strung together modify each other, the essence of language. IE take these two sentences, “Man bites dog.” and “Dog bites man.” A human child can understand the clear distinction between these two sentences almost as soon as they start learning to speak. Kanzi can’t, when carefully tested with simple sentence pairs like this, his “understanding” doesn’t rise above chance levels. Despite learning language for decades, Kanzi is 26, he doesn’t understand grammar at all. As one primatologist puts it, no ape has ever asked a question or expressed an opinion.

Will humans ever communicate with animals? Not looking good, human’s facility with language most definitely is something that no animal, no matter how clever, has ever demonstrated. Is there a lesson here? Of course, I’m always illustrating some point or other. The main point being how people’s public perception of science is often at odds with reality. Most people one talks to about signing and symbol using chimps are absolutely convinced that indeed, these animals are “speaking.” I suspect this is a combination of wishful thinking; both on the part of the public, the media, and on the part of the very sincere researchers involved. Sadly, just because a handful of researchers and the public thinks that something is a scientific reality, doesn’t actually make it so.

Lastly, Kanzi is a curious example of borderline research. Nothing is ever black and white, the boundaries between science and nonsense aren’t as clear cut as many would believe. Talking apes aren’t pseudoscience, actual scientists are working in the field. And they sincerely believe they are onto something. I suspect the amount of research devoted to this will decline over time, that’s usually the case with unproductive lines of research. Still, all this talking chimp research has at least cleared up one thing: Chimps can’t be taught to talk.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. I got it from this fine site, which presumably holds the credit and copyright. And yes, I have been ill. I have returned and am blogging again. That’s good or bad depending on one’s perspective I suppose.)

Written by unitedcats

December 18, 2013 at 7:58 pm

Posted in History, Science