Radio Freethinker

Vancouver's Number 1 Skeptical Podcast and Radio Show

Posts Tagged ‘science’

Radio Freethinker Episode 196 – Goodbye Aaron Edition

Posted by Don McLenaghen on January 15, 2013


This week:
– Lead violence,
– Calgary’s Flaming Flu Controversy,

– Eulogy for Aaron Swartz
, and
– Sam Harris ain’t a good skeptic, its guns this time

Download the episode here!

Lead violence

56834116-lead-poisoningMore and more research is pointing to a possible cause for the REDUCTION of violence in the west…lead, or the reduction of it in our urban environments. We discuss the research and some of the implications towards social studies and race relations.

Find out more:

Calgary’s Flaming Flu Controversy

ghrn132lEthan discusses the ongoing controversy in Calgary revolving around how the Calgary Flames players and families ‘jumped’ the cue when it came to getting the H1N1 flu vaccine in 2009.

Find out more:

Eulogy for Aaron Swartz

184472_542876089056707_1319108737_nDon give an impassioned and emotional eulogy to one of the promising progressive lights – Aaron Swartz, and how state bullying contributed to his suicide.

Find out more:

Aaron inspired

Aaron inspired

Sam Harris ain’t a good skeptic, its guns this time.

cbe0109cd-gun-sales-500A recent controversy yet again arisen over what WAS one of the leading figures of the atheist skeptical community. Sam Harris yet again shows that at least on some subjects, he is far more the dogmatist than the enlightened skeptic.

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Skeptical Highlights:

The Harper Monologue: The Politics of Hate and Fear

RageResistRebel details the predatory politics of Stephen Harper, the “Prime Manipulator of Canada”.

When:  Thursday, Jan 17 at 8pm

Where: Rhizome Caf on East Broadway, Vancouver

Cost: Tix $10-20

Philosophers’ Jam
How We Create Life’s Meaning

Sigmund Freud once said that if you question life’s meaning, you’re sick. But existential philosophers think that if you never question life’s meaning, you’re not only naïve – you’re inauthentic. In this session,  Kurt Preinsperg  will examine the ‘Meaning Quadrangle’ and consider a step-by- step method for how an individual can take the creation of life’s meaning firmly into their own hands.

When: Thursday, Jan 17 at 7pm

Where: Faculty & Staff Dining Lounge, Lanagra Collage, Vancouver

Cost: Free

Albert Camus, the Absurd Man’s Path

Robin Durand presents a lecture on Camus’s thinking, its topicality, who is the absurd man, and what his path of thoughts is.

Camus was French philosopher who promoted the philosophy of the absurd. Absurdism refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any. In this context, absurd does not mean “logically impossible”, but rather “humanly impossible”.

When: Thursday, Jan 17 at 7pm

Where: Alliance Fran on Cambie, Vancouver

Cost: Free

CFI Cafe Inquiry – Has Violence Declined?

January 19th at 1pm
Room 2200 of SFU Harbour Centre
This cafe will discuss of Steven Pinker’s latest book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” The central thesis of the book is that human beings have become less violent over the course of our history. From war to violent assault, Pinker believes that there is convincing evidence that we are living in the most peaceful time in human history.



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Radio Freethinker Episode 173 – Dis-Education Edition

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 3, 2012

This week:

– Hitting kids crazy,

– What’s to hate about standardized testing, and

– Dis-education – A look at the harms of Christian home schooling

Download the episode here!


Hitting you kids crazy

We talk about a new study about the correlation between mental illness and levels of corporal punishment on children.  

Find out more:

What’s to hate about standardized testing?

Responding to an article published in Washington Post, we discuss the pros and cons of standardized testing. And yes, there will be an exam on this.

Find out more:

Dis-education – A look at the harms of Christian home schooling

We take an extended look at the ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) curriculum and what some home schooling text-book are actually teach our children about the physical sciences as well as the social sciences.

Find out more:

Skeptical Highlights:

Mind Lab

“Mind Lab,” laboratory of the mind, houses four short introductory movies and sixteen trials with those you can experience visual phenomena and illusions used for study in psychological experiments.

Mind Lab


The Skeptical Studies Curriculum Resource Center – has released a new resource for teachers and skeptics for class rooms and public education. THE SKEPTICAL STUDIES CURRICULUM RESOURCE CENTER its a comprehensive, free repository of resources for teaching students how to think skeptically. This Center contains an ever-growing selection of books, reading lists, course syllabi, in-class exercises, PowerPoint presentations, student projects, papers, and videos that you may download and use in your own classes.


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South Korea Creationist Controversy

Posted by Ethan Clow on June 13, 2012

In all time science fails committed on a national scale, this one has to be near the top. South Korea has banned evolution from its text books across the country, giving into pressure from creationists.

Nature reported on this shocking national “dumbening” (my words) of S. Korea.

It began when a petition to remove references to evolution from high-school textbooks succeeded last month after the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) revealed that many of the publishers would produce revised editions that exclude examples of the evolution of the horse or of avian ancestor Archaeopteryx. Not surprisingly, the country’s leading biologists were not consulted.

The campaign was led by the Society for Textbook Revise (STR), which aims to delete the “error” of evolution from textbooks to “correct” students’ views of the world, according to the society’s website.

The STR is an independent offshoot of the Korea Association for Creation Research (KACR), according to KACR spokesman Jungyeol Han. Thanks in part to the KACR’s efforts, creation science — which seeks to provide evidence in support of the creation myth described in the Book of Genesis — has had a growing influence in South Korea.

In a 2009 survey conducted for the South Korean documentary The Era of God and Darwin, almost one-third of the respondents didn’t believe in evolution. Of those, 41% said that there was insufficient scientific evidence to support it; 39% said that it contradicted their religious beliefs; and 17% did not understand the theory. The numbers approach those in the United States, where a survey by the research firm Gallup has shown that around 40% of Americans do not believe that humans evolved from less advanced forms of life.

About half the people of South Korea practice religion, of which the two most popular are Christianity and Buddhism.

Specifically, references to Archaeopteryx (one of the most famous transitional fossils ever) have been removed. The Society for Textbook Revision also plans to have references to human evolution and finch beaks as well.

As I was reading more about this story I saw a few comments from South Koreans who were taking issue with some of the phrasing of the story. A few have suggested this is at most a hollow victory for creationists. They attest that evolution will still be taught in South Korean high schools and the removal of material from the text books is small in comparison to the amount of science that is being taught.

I can understand that. This clearly isn’t a death blow to science. It’s not like universities are being closed down and biologists are being fired and locked up in prison. That being said, this is a big deal. We’ve seen the direction that creationist activists in the US have been working to undermine the science in America. They frequently infiltrate school boards and rely on support from their conservative religious public to help them manipulate the system.

They also disguise their attack as scientific criticism, referring to creationism as “creation science” or “intelligent design”. These tactics are meant to sew doubt amongst moderate believers. Give them the impression that perhaps there is scientific debate about evolution. This manufactured controversy then fuels more “revision” and “debate” which further drives this wedge of misunderstanding and undermines the teaching of evolution.

South Koreans should be very worried about this and not try to shrug this off as a small victory for creationists.

I saw something else while I was researching this. Have you heard of the TIMSS? Beginning in 1995 and every four years thereafter, The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has been conducted. TIMSS tests fourth, eighth and 12th grade students around the globe on both science and mathematics and the huge data set allows knowledge levels to be compared by country.

In science, students in the United States ranked third at the fourth grade level but fell to 17th at the eighth grade level and rose slightly to 16th at the 12th grade level. Students from South Korea, in comparison, were first and fourth in fourth and eighth grade, respectively. (South Korea didn’t test their 12th grade students.)

to quote Dr. Michael Zimmerman in his article on the Huffington Post

“Koreans will soon realize that when biology education removes evolution as the organizing principle for the discipline, students will no longer be able to make sense of the science. Without evolution serving as the central idea tying all facets of biology together, all that’s left is a collection of random facts and experiments. Teaching biology without evolution is akin to teaching history simply by asking students to memorize dates. No context, no integration of ideas, no learning.”

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Radio Freethinker Episode 166 – SkyTrain Fare-ness Edition

Posted by Don McLenaghen on May 15, 2012

This week:

Apostate Norway,
A most atheist country ,
Religion and sports don’t mix,
The Vatican Bubble,
SkyTrain Fare-Gates.

Download the episode here!

Apostate Norway

Norway this week moved to change its constitution by removing reference to Norway as a Christian nation and cutting links between the state and the Church of Norway. A vote to happen Monday is expected to pass easily because even the Christian Democrats and the Conservative party supports this move.

Find out more:

A most atheist country

We discuss the recent meta study that showed the strength of atheism and religion among nations with some surprising discoveries

Find out more:

Religion and sports don’t mix

We give a brief overview about a controversy in Arizona where a catholic charter school refused to play the championship game because there was a girl on the opposition team.

Find out more:

The Vatican Bubble

The Vatican has recently asked board members of its BioEthical committee to resign because the dared to ask scientific advice from non-catholics.

Find out more:

SkyTrain Fare-Gates

We discuss the controversy regarding the soon to be installed fare-gates at SkyTrain stations with the aim of reducing ‘fair evasion’. We discuss how cost effective this tactic is, who is its target and ultimately are there better solutions to the issue of funding public mass transit in the GVRD.

Find out more:

Skeptical Highlights:

Vancouver Earth Run

The 2012 Vancouver Earth Run will focus on the oceans. All proceeds will go to nonprofit organizations in the Vancouver area that work toward better understanding and management of our marine resources.

Where: Jericho Beach, Vancouver
When: Sunday, June 3, 2012

$25 for the 5K run/walk
$35 for the 10K race

Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs
At Pacific Science Center in Seattle – May 24, 2012-January 6, 2013
The exhibition features more than 100 objects from King Tut’s tomb and ancient sites representing some of the most important rulers throughout 2,000 years of ancient Egyptian history. Tickets range from 24 to $27 depending on when you go.

Skeptics in the Pub – Down-town

Join us on Tuesday, May 15 at 7:30pm for another evening of skeptical fun, food, drinks, and conversation in the Railway Club’s back bar. Come out and discuss skepticism-related activities in Vancouver with your fellow science enthusiasts, rationalists, and critical thinkers, and maybe meet some new friends. As always, if you arrive late and they’re collecting a cover charge at the door, just tell them you’re with the skeptics’ group to get in for free.

Where: The Railway Club, 579 Dunsmuir Street, Vancouver
When: Thursday, May 15, 2012, 7:30 pm
Cost: Free

Skeptics in the Pub Richmond

Skeptics in the Pub is a casual social event for local science enthusiasts who value critical thinking and skepticism.

Join us for drinks and food in a friendly atmosphere. It’s a great place to meet local skeptics, make new friends, and get involved and informed about new events and activities.

Where: Legends Pub in Richmond, 6511 Buswell Street, minutes from the Brighouse Skytrain station and Richmond Centre
When: Thursday, May 24, 2012, 7:30 pm
Cost: Free

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Math the Gateway Drug to Atheism

Posted by Ethan Clow on May 4, 2012

Are you good at math? You might be an atheist. At least in theory. I’m terrible at math and I’m an atheist.

But a new study is making the rounds these days regarding your ability to do math and whether or not your an atheists. Or to put it more accurately, how likely you are to be a non-believer. The study produced out of UBC by Psychologist Will Gervais, the author of the study about trusting atheists which we discussed in a previous episode.


This new study which Gervais conducted with fellow psychologist Ara Norenzayan, posed some analytical math questions to subjects. The hypothesis was that people who answered with more analytical answers, opposed to more innate and intuitively which would predict a religious believer.

If a baseball and bat cost $110, and the bat costs $100 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

The wrong answer — the one you come up with when you don’t put any thought into it or simply go with your gut, which is what I would do, so don’t feel bad. — would be $10.

The right answer — which requires a bit of analysis — would be $5. (The bat costs $105.)

The study has certainly caught the public’s attention with numerous write up in science blogs and newspapers.

The study, which looked at 179 Canadian undergraduate students, showed that people who tend to solve problems more analytically also tended to be religious disbelievers. This was demonstrated by giving the students a series of questions like the one above and then scoring them on the basis of whether they used intuition or analytic logic to reach the answers. Afterward, the researchers surveyed the students on whether or not they held religious beliefs. The results showed that the intuitive thinkers were much more likely to believe in religion.

Now being good skeptics, what do we have here? Correlation but do we have causation? Turns out we do.

To test for a causal relationship between analytical thinking and religious disbelief, the researchers devised four different ways to promote analytic thinking and then surveyed the students to see if their religious disbelief had increased by the interventions that boosted critical thinking.

Basically they tried to see if they could prime subjects for analytical thinking which would then increase the subjects disbelief. Subjects would be shown various images which previous psychological studies had shown a connection to increasing performance on analytical problems. Sort of like the way listening to classical music or certain kinds of art can prime the viewer to behave a certain way.

Subconscious suggestions about thinking apparently gets the cognitive juices flowing and suppresses intuitive processes. The researchers confirmed this effect but also found that the self-reported religious disbelief also increased compared with subjects shown a different image before being tested that did not suggest critical thinking.

The same result was found after boosting critical reasoning in three other ways known to stimulate logical reasoning and improve performance on reasoning tests. This included having subjects rearrange jumbles of words into a meaningful phrase, for example. When the list of words connoted thought (for example, “think, reason, analyze, ponder, rational,” as opposed to control lists like “hammer, shoes, jump, retrace, brown”), manipulating the thought-provoking words improved performance on a subsequent analytic thinking task and also increased religious disbelief significantly.

So okay, what about all the non-believers like me out there who are saying “hold on, I suck at math” Of course the thing is, math is only one area where one can be analytical. As I’m sure we can all agree, sitting down and thinking rationally about a topic, math, history, science, art… that will stimulate the cognitive juices and this effect of decreasing religious belief would be seen as well, regardless of the field of study.

What’s also interesting about this, especially with all the press its getting, is the reaction from various religious groups and people. I saw one interview where the religious proponent suggested this wasn’t an issue of science vs religion because science can only answer questions of what is, compared to religion which provides a moral compass to civilization. Not surprisingly I rather disagree with that assessment.

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Radio Freethinker Episode 159 – Trans-Atlantic Conservative

Posted by Don McLenaghen on March 28, 2012

This week Posthumous weddings, Pink Slime Warnings and Don’s interview with Tony Sobrado – Part 3(of 3), conservatism here and across the pond.

Download the episode here!


In France, two men can’t marry but you can marry a corpse!

Another one of those weird things  you learn in the weirdest places. It seems there are many things you can learn from mass murder. Last week France was rocked by the multi-murders executed by a one of its citizens.

Now, of all the important facts that arose from this wasn’t that France was not the ‘nation of origin’ of the shooter…apparently of Algerian extraction, although he was born in France…not the failure of French security services (the DCRI)…nor even the rapidity of French politicians to ratchet up the xenophobia in this an election year.

. No, none of that seems nearly as interesting as that France, a country that does NOT allow same-sex marriage none the less does allow you to marry the dead.

Find out more:

Pink Slime – the really worrying issue

We talk about what pink slime is, where it comes from, its origin story and why people seem so upset about something that is actually healthier than the ‘ground chuck’ it serves to supplement.

Find out more:

Tony Sobrado interview Part 3 – Conservatism around the world…well English world.

This week we finish our three part series with Tony Sobrado. Tony Sabrado Tony is a research analyst and social scientist currently based in London. Author of the soon to be published book “Who rules the world: An analysis to conspiracy theory”. He also contributes to the Huffington Post.

Part 3 – We talk about the changing face of conservatism in England, the USA and Canada. Tony give us his own unique perspective both as a social scientist and keen observer of political life.

Learn more about Tony Sobrado:

Skeptical Highlights:

TAM 10 in 2012…an end of the world event?

TAM Las Vegas is a four-day conference, featuring workshops, panel discussions, and presentations by leading thinkers and celebrities, and evening performances and parties for attendees.
<From the poster>
he James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has hosted its annual Amaz!ng Meeting since 2003 as a way to promote science, skepticism and critical thinking about paranormal and supernatural claims to the broader public. “TAM,” as it’s known by regular attendees, has been held in Las Vegas, NV since 2004 and has become the world’s largest gathering of like-minded science-advocates and skeptics. People from all over the world come to the Amaz!ng Meeting each year to share learning and laughs with fellow skeptics and distinguished guest speakers. Nearly 1,700 people attended The Amaz!ng Meeting 2011 in Las Vegas.

When: July 12-15, 2012,
Location: South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa, Las Vegas
Cost: Registration $325 to $600 / Workshops $40/ea or $100/all / + added events
TAM 10

Genius on line

The Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has made available for free the complete archive of Albert Einstein’s writings. This included his scientific works as well as his personal correspondence and other documents. There are over 7000 high-quality digitized images displayed from over 2000 documents.

The Archival Database included approximately 43,000 records of Einstein and Einstein related documents. Supplementary archival holdings and databases pertaining to Einstein documents have been established at both the Einstein Papers Project and the Albert Einstein Archives for scholarly research.

Einstein Archives Online

Science vs. Moral Rhetoric: Sex Work, Policies and Public Health

As part of the Super Rounds Lecture, Dr. Kate Shannon discussed the issues surrounding the sex trade.

<From the poster>

(not from the poster)

Sex workers experience the worst health outcomes globally, with escalating rates of violence, HIV infection and premature mortality worldwide. Unfortunately recent history has shown that all too often moral debates dominate the public health response in sex work, and science continues to take a backseat to punitive approaches aimed at eliminating sex work and “rescue” operations. This is despite the ample evidence of the failures of criminalization in preventing harms among sex workers both locally and internationally, and the inadvertent role of these policies and enforcement-based approaches in exacerbating violence and poor health among sex workers. Growing evidence points to the need for global account-ability by policy makers, governments, scientists, and international bodies to public health efforts that redress the health inequity gaps among some of the most marginalized individuals.

When: Wed. April. 1, 5pm,
Location: Theatre, Robson Square, 800 Robson St, Vancouver
Cost: Free
Super Rounds Lectures

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Radio Freethinker Episode 158 – Citing Canada Edition

Posted by Don McLenaghen on March 20, 2012

This week  Selling Canadian Science, NASA sued by ‘Intelligent’ Design, St. Patrick’s day and Don’s interview with Tony Sobrado – Part 2(of 3), conspiracy theories as political ideology.

Download the episode here!


Harper Government plan to make NRC more business friendly!

Two part talk, first it turns out in raw science Canada punched well above its weight class. Although only producing about 1/10 the papers in science as the USA or UK, our papers are cited more. We have the most influential scientist in the world based on citations…and that is everything in the world of academia.
On this topic, word has come out from Ottawa about an ongoing effort to transform the National Research Council’s directions. The NRC is a government agency that funds the majority of research in Canada. The Harper government would like to see the agency focus less on “blue sky” projects and develop a ‘concierge’ or “1-800 number” service for businesses. We take a short and balance look at how this could affect our place in the science community.

Find out more:

CFI newly “Elected” board of directors

We review the new members and the slow but steady move towards democratic governance and CFI.

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NASA Sued by “Intelligent” Design

NASA is facing a lawsuit by David Coppedge. Coppedge claims religious discrimination and wrongful dismissal when he was laid off during recent NASA budget cuts. We examine his claim and its implications for NASA, the work place and the possibility of legally imposing ‘intelligent’ design.

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St. Patrick’s Day Debate?

We have an interesting discussion about the origins of St. Patrick’s Day and should we as atheist celebrate a Catholic Feast Day? Ethan also questions if the holiday as we now have perpetuating ‘racist’ stereotypes of the Irish.


Find out more:

Tony Sobrado interview Part 2 – Conspiracy theory as political ideology

This week we start a three part series with Tony Sobrado. Tony Sabrado Tony is a research analyst and social scientist currently based in London. Author of the soon to be published book “Who rules the world: An analysis to conspiracy theory”. He also contributes to the Huffington Post.

Part 2 – We define what a conspiracy is, the sociological history of conspiracy theory and the frame-work Tony has developed to help analyse conspiracy theories from a social/political science perspective.

Learn more about Tony Sobrado:

Skeptical Highlights:

It’s Wrong to Wreck the World: Climate Change and the Moral Obligation to the Future

Kathleen Dean Moore, co-founder of the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word and professor of Philosophy at Oregon State University, will talk on the importance of viewing climate change as a moral crisis and taking a moral response towards the issue.
<From the poster>
“In our generation, as Thomas Berry writes, we have done to the Earth what no previous generation has done, because they lacked the technological power, and what no future generation will be able to do, because the planet will never again be so beautiful or abundant. In the process, we have degraded, and perhaps changed forever, the great systems that sustain our lives. This is a scientific and technological crisis, assuredly.  But it is fundamentally a moral crisis, and it calls for a moral response. Why has climate-change science elicited such stunning indifference?  What calls us to act? How can we respond to the crisis in ways that honor duties of compassion, justice, and respect for human rights?  How can we discuss these values across differences?  How do we live, when we truly understand that we live in complete dependence on an Earth that is interconnected, interdependent, finite, resilient, and heart-breakingly beautiful?”

When: Wed. Mar. 21, 7pm,
Location: Alma VanDusen Room, Vancouver Public Library
Cost: Free
SFU Continuing Studies in Science and Environment Lecture Series

Seeing the Strings: Capitalism and You

Our aim is to initiate meaningful deliberation in Vancouver around how capitalism operates, and its reliance on both visible and invisible forms of domination and exploitation in order to function.

Each event will be split into three equally important components that will work to build both personal and community-wide understanding of the topics.
First, a discussion will explore the themes of the event within a historical and theoretical context. This will create a system-wide explanation or “big picture,” demonstrating not only what the specific form of oppression addressed is, but also how it operates within capitalism.
Then, a second speaker will explore the topic in a historically present context, using examples from living communities to reveal the connections between past and present, theory and practice.
The third component of the night will be a participatory workshop, with strong facilitation, involving all attendees. There will be small group discussions with small or large group movement activities that will enable individuals to explore how the topic at hand functions in their own life, to learn about the experiences of others, and to see that oppression functions systemically, affecting everyone in different ways.

When: Fri. Mar. 23, 7pm,
Location: Alma VanDusen Room, Vancouver Public Library
Cost: By donation, no one turned away for lack of funds
Vancouver Media Co-op

University of Lethbridge new chair in Alt-Med

It was recently announced that the University of Lethbridge has received funds and is creating a chair of Complementary and Alternative Health Care.

This is more of a low-light than highlight but something to keep our eyes on. Recent moves in Canada, Australian and the USA by proponents of Alt-Med are intended to bring legitimacy by association where actually achieving scientific success as failed them.

Droog gift establishes Chair in alternative health care

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Science Sunday #18

Posted by Don McLenaghen on October 17, 2011

– and on the seventh day we learn.
Each week I hope to give a synopsis of the interesting science stories I have heard on my plethora of science podcasts I listen to each week plus anything I pick up scanning the inter-web. This week’s top stories:

Words of the Week:

Glaciation – an interval of time (thousands of years) within an ice age that is marked by colder temperatures and glacier advances. interglacial, on the other hand, are periods of warmer climate within an ice age. The last glacial period ended about 15,000 years ago; The Holocene epoch is the current interglacial.

Ochre  – the term for both a golden-yellow or light yellow brown color and for a form of earth pigment which produces the color. The pigment can also be used to create a reddish tint known as “red ochre”. The more rarely used terms “purple ochre” and “brown ochre” also exist for variant hues. Because of these other hues, the color ochre is sometimes referred to as “yellow ochre” or “gold ochre”.
Ochres are among the earliest pigments used by mankind, derived from naturally tinted clay containing mineral oxides. Chemically, it is hydrated iron (III) oxide. Modern artists’ pigments continue to use the terms “yellow ochre” and “red ochre” for specific hues.

Geologic time scale – provides a system of chronologic measurement relating stratigraphy to time that is used by geologists, paleontologists and other earth scientists to describe the timing and relationships between events that have occurred during the history of the Earth. The table of geologic time spans presented here agrees with the dates and nomenclature proposed by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, and uses the standard color codes of the United States Geological Survey. The terms eonothem, erathem, system, series, and stage are used to refer to the layers of rock that correspond to these periods of geologic time. The definitions tend to be ‘arbitrary’ and circular; that is a rock layer is defined by the length of time it took to occur, while a length of time is defined by how long a rock layer took to form. Each of the following is in descending order of length of time.

  • Super-eon  – All the eons, essentially all time on earth.
  • Eon – Largest unit of time – 4 total, half a billion years or more – eonothem
  • Era – a major division of geological time – 12 total, several hundred million years – erathem
  • Period – a subdivision of the geologic timescale based on rock layering  – System
  • Epoch – tens of millions of years – Series
  • Age – millions of years – Stage
  • Chron – a slice of time that begins at a given identifiable event and ends at another. In the fossil record such tracer events are usually keyed to disappearance (extinction) of a widely distributed and rapidly changing species or the appearance of such a species in the geological record. – Chronozone

Holocene – a geological epoch which began at the end of the Pleistocene [1] (around 10,000 14C years ago) and continues to the present. The Holocene is part of the Quaternary period.
It has been identified with the current warm period, known as MIS 1 and based on that past evidence, can be considered an interglacial in the current ice age.

This week’s top stories:

Machine, heal thy self! –

Scientists at Northwestern University have developed a new nanomaterial that can “steer” electrical currents. The development could lead to a computer that can simply reconfigure its internal wiring and become an entirely different device, based on changing needs.

“Our new steering technology allows use to direct current flow through a piece of continuous material,” said Bartosz A. Grzybowski, who led the research. “Like redirecting a river, streams of electrons can be steered in multiple directions through a block of the material — even multiple streams flowing in opposing directions at the same time.”

The Northwestern material combines different aspects of silicon- and polymer-based electronics to create a new classification of electronic materials: nanoparticle-based electronics.

The hybrid material is composed of electrically conductive particles, each five nanometers in width, coated with a special positively charged chemical. The particles are surrounded by a sea of negatively charged atoms. By applying an electrical charge across the material, the small negative atoms can be moved and reconfigured, but the relatively larger positive particles are not able to move.

By moving this sea of negative atoms around the material, regions of low and high conductance can be modulated; the result is the creation of a directed path that allows electrons to flow through the material. Old paths can be erased and new paths created by pushing and pulling the sea of negative atoms. More complex electrical components, such as diodes and transistors, can be made when multiple types of nanoparticles are used.

Imagine a single device that reconfigures itself into a resistor, a rectifier, a diode and a transistor based on signals from a computer. The multi-dimensional circuitry could be reconfigured into new electronic circuits using a varied input sequence of electrical pulses.

Science Daily

Eureka Alert


Escaping Snowball Earth –

Growing glaciation lead to Snowball Earth

Earth has experienced several extreme glacial events, two of which took place during the aptly named Cryogenian period (710-630 million years ago). In 1992 and 1998 scientists hypothesized that around 635 million years ago our planet underwent a major glacial episode that left it entirely smothered in ice. Today still, the question of how this episode came to an end remains unanswered, given that ice reflects more solar radiation back into space than rocks do.

In the Snowball Earth hypothesis, it is assumed that enough CO2 of volcanic origin had built up in the atmosphere for this greenhouse gas to warm up the surface of the planet and cause the ice to melt. According to this scenario, CO2 concentrations must have fluctuated around 120,000 ppmv — i.e.,12%, which is 300 times greater than CO2 concentrations today.

This mechanism for ending the snowball earth seems to has been given a blow. A paper to be published in Nature, reports that nowhere near enough CO2 was available to end the extended period of glaciation.

In order to assess the atmospheric concentration of CO2 at that time, the French, Brazilian and US researchers studied carbonates deposited 635 million years ago (the Marinoan glaciation). These sediments cap the glacial deposits of that period, believed to have witnessed a global glaciation known as Snowball Earth.

The study is based on the difference in carbon isotopic composition between carbonates and organic matter in fossilized organisms, which reflects atmospheric concentrations of CO2. The results show that CO2 concentrations were very close to what they are today (less than 3,200 ppmv), which is far from being sufficient to bring about the end of a glacial episode of this magnitude.

Science Daily



Choice in healthcare not so good –

Research which claims to show that the introduction of patient choice in the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) reduced deaths from heart attacks is flawed and misleading, according to a report published in The Lancet.

The original study was used by the Government to advance its controversial Health and Social Care Bill 2011 and was the basis for the Prime Minister’s statement that ‘competition is one way we can make things work better for patients’. The study examined the mortality rates for heart attack patients measured against the number of hospitals within travelling distance of the patient’s GP surgery. It also looked at data on elective surgery for hernia, cataract repair, knee arthroscopy, hip replacement and knee replacement, and claims to show that introducing greater choice in elective surgery led to lower death rates from heart attacks.

In the report, academics — led by Professor Allyson Pollock of Queen Mary, University of London — point out a series of errors in the study and conclude that it is ‘fundamentally flawed’.

A primary complaint as the study offers no explanation as to why the availability of choice for such elective procedures should have any effect on whether heart attack patients survive.

The Lancet report also points out the following:

  • The researchers do not look at whether the availability of choice has any effect on where patients go for treatment,
  • They do not look at whether or how GPs’ patterns of referrals changed when choice became available,
  • Recent research indicates the majority of patients who have been offered a choice pick their nearest hospital,
  • Heart attack is a medical emergency and patients generally have no choice about where they are treated,
  • Outcomes for heart attack patients tend to be better when they are treated in specialist centres in urban areas,
  • The authors ignore the possible effects of major changes in primary care prevention and secondary care intervention for heart attacks,
  • That there is no evidence that the data on elective operations is in any way a good measure of choice or competition.

Professor Pollock said: “The Government’s Health Bill has faced enormous opposition from the public and from health professionals. In trying to win over his critics the Prime Minister has used the study by Zack Cooper to justify competition within the National Health Service.

“Our examination of this research reveals it to be fundamentally flawed, amounting to the conclusion that the paper simply doesn’t prove either cause or effect between patient choice and death rates.

“This work should not be quoted as scientific evidence to support choice, competition or the new Health and Social Care Bill.”

Science Daily

Eureka Alert

The Lancet


The birth place of art? – 

Discoveries at the caves

An ochre-rich mixture, possibly used for decoration, painting and skin protection 100,000 years ago, and stored in two abalone shells, was discovered at Blombos Cave in Cape Town, South Africa. The earliest previous example of early art dates back to cave painting in France dating to 35,000 bc.

“Ochre may have been applied with symbolic intent as decoration on bodies and clothing during the Middle Stone Age,” says Professor Christopher Henshilwood who helped discover a processing workshop in 2008 where a liquefied ochre-rich mixture was produced.

The findings will be published By Henshilwood et al in the prestigious international journal Science, on Friday, 14 October 2011.

The two coeval, spatially associated toolkits were discovered in situ (not been moved from its original place of deposition) and the kits included ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstones and hammerstones. The grinding and scraping of ochre to produce a powder for use as a pigment was common practice in Africa and the Near East only after about 100,000 years ago.

“This discovery represents an important benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition (mental processes) in that it shows that humans had the conceptual ability to source, combine and store substances that were then possibly used to enhance their social practices,” explains Henshilwood.

I should note, in the Quirks and Quarks interview, mention was made that some archeologist have been investigating the use of Ochre on arrowheads. Apparently the application of the paste makes an arrow/spearhead more likely to remain embedded (and thus more lethal); and that this practical use was the original use of Ochre. As such, it is possible this discovery was not evidence of ‘complex human cognition’ but an improvement of weapons technology (which of course could have helped lead to ‘complex human cognition’ by provided a material for art)

Quirks & Quarks

Eureka Alert

CBC News

Science – A 100,000-Year-Old Ochre-Processing Workshop at Blombos Cave


A new geological age, and it OUR fault! –

A new term has been coined to express the vast and dramatic impact humanity has had on the planet Earth itself on a global, environmental and geological scale. This term is Anthropocene. The term was coined by ecologist Eugene Stoermer but has been widely popularized by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, who regards the influence of human behavior on the Earth’s atmosphere in recent centuries as so significant as to constitute a new geological era for its lithosphere.

Geological Society of America titled its 2011 annual meeting: Archean to Anthropocene: The past is the key to the future. The Anthropocene has no precise start date, but based on atmospheric evidence may be considered to start with the Industrial Revolution (late 18th century). Other scientists link it to earlier events, such as the rise of agriculture.

Evidence of relative human impact such as the growing human influence on land use, ecosystems, biodiversity and species extinction is controversial, some scientists believe the human impact has significantly changed (or halted) the growth of biodiversity.

The Anthropocene may have begun as early as 14,000 to 15,000 years before present, based on lithospheric evidence; this has led other scientists to suggest that “the onset of the Anthropocene should be extended back many thousand years”; this would be closely synchronous with the current term, Holocene.

New Scientist


National Geographic

Antarctic’s hidden lakes to be explored! 

Explorers depart next week for Antarctica on the first stage of an ambitious scientific mission to collect water and sediment samples from the sub-glacial Lake Ellsworth on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet buried beneath 1.8 miles (3 kilometers) of solid ice. This mission will hopefully yield new knowledge about the evolution of life on Earth and other planets, and will provide vital clues about the Earth’s past climate.

Lake Ellsworth is likely to be the first of Antarctica’s sub-glacial lakes to be measured and sampled directly through the design and manufacture of space-industry standard “clean technology,”

Antarctica is home to 387 known sub-glacial lakes, some of the most pristine environments on Earth. Lake Vostok in East Antarctica is the most well-known of these lakes. A Russian team has been trying to drill and collect samples from Vostok, but were unable to do so before winter set in this year.

David Pearce, science coordinator at the British Antarctic Survey “Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated from the rest of the biosphere for up to half a million years will tell us so much about the potential origin of and constraints for life on Earth, and may provide clues to the evolution of life on other extraterrestrial environments. If we find nothing, this will be even more significant because it will define limits at which life can no longer exist on the planet.”

This technology is also important because it can act as test runs for interplanetary exploration for life on Europa, Enceladus and other frozen water worlds.

The Guardian

British Antarctic Survey

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Raising the Black Death from the Dead

Posted by Ethan Clow on October 13, 2011

Scientists have recently pieced together the DNA of one of history’s greatest killers, the Black Death. The New York Times has an article documenting the process and explaining the science behind this amazing advancement. You can read the actual science paper here.

To summarize, a group of scientists, led by Kirsten I. Bos of McMaster University in Ontario and Johannes Krause of the University of Tübingen in Germany, began to sample DNA from human remains in graveyards and cemeteries across Europe that dated back to the 14th century.

Specifically, they used DNA from teeth. Dr. Bos explains the process:

“If you actually crack open an ancient tooth you see this dark black powdery material and that’s very likely to be dried up blood and other biological tissues.

“So what I did was I opened the tooth and opened the pulp chamber and with a drill bit made one pass through and I took out only about 30 milligrams of material, a very very small amount and that’s the material I used to do the DNA work.” – source

So that’s pretty cool, they were able to reconstruct the DNA of an ancient pathogen by examining old bones and dried blood. By analyzing the DNA of the old Bubonic plague, scientist can learn a bit more about the current variation of it. Obviously bacteria will evolve over time like all living things but it turns out that this particular bacteria is a slow evolver. Of the bacterium’s chromosome, which is about 4.6 million DNA units long, only 97 of these DNA units have changed and only a dozen of these changes occur in genes and therefore would affect the organism’s physical properties.

The goal is to create a living version of the ancient Bubonic plague. Wait, what?

“Such a microbe could be handled only in special secure facilities. But even if it did infect a person, the bacterium would be susceptible to antibiotics, like its living descendants, said Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University, a team member.” – source

So aside from the troubling question of why these scientists are playing Frankenstein with the Black Death, this is pretty cool research. Here’s another question arises, if the ancient bacterium is so closely related to the current strain, why does the current strain seem to be far less deadly? What does “less deadly” mean? Apparently the modern plague has a mortality rate of 1-15% in treated cases and a 40-60% mortality rate in untreated cases.  Additionally from 1987-2001,the World Health Organization has reported an annual average of 38,876 cases of the plague with 2847 deaths worldwide.

Granted, that’s not the most reassuring numbers but when you compare the way the plague cut through the population of Europe, it was like a hot knife through butter.

How to explain this discrepancy? What we need is some Historic Context!!

When the Black Death hit Europe in the 1300’s things weren’t going well for the average European. The average person was extremely malnourished. Food was scarce and what little food you got wasn’t particularly healthy for you. Major famine had repeatedly struck western Europe at this time, which was only exasperated by the climate getting colder (the Little Ice Age)

Economically, Europe was in trouble (sound familiar?) there is evidence that the average person was basically scrapped for cash and having trouble making ends meet. People couldn’t buy enough food or live in great conditions. And then to make matters worse, a giant war broke out. The Hundred Years’ War (although it didn’t last 100 years) between England and France broke out in 1337 and left the countryside of Europe decimated.

It was a perfect storm for an invading microbe. When the Black Death hit, people thought it was the end of the world. It almost was. People would get infected and if they didn’t die within hours, would be dead in a few days. Since the disease (pasteurella pestis) was spread by fleas who liked to hang out on rats, the unsanitary conditions of medieval Europe were like a smorgasbord for the bacteria.

It’s estimated that the Black Death killed off about 30 – 60% of Europe’s population. The disease spread fast as well. It entered Europe in 1347 and by 1352 it had spread all across the continent and into Russia.

If for some reason you ever travel back in time to this period and want to escape the plague, head to central Europe, somewhere between Prague, Cracow and Warsaw, for some reason, we aren’t too sure why, the plague didn’t really spread there and those areas remained largely uninfected.

Getting back to the science of the Black Death, this research also solves a few debates over the origins of the plague. The majority of scientists accept the theory that the plague was caused by pasteurella pestis however, some have maintained that could not be the case. Other theories suggesting the culprit was an Ebola-like virus or perhaps something related to Anthrax. For many of these theories, the evidence often comes up that the description of symptoms doesn’t match what Bubonic plague does. I’m skeptical of such claims for a few reasons.

A) Medical science wasn’t very good back then. Doctors, if you want to call them that, for the most part stood around and when “duuuhhhhh” at the mountain of bodies that piled up during the plague. So I’m not surprised that descriptions of symptoms are spotty or appear inconsistent.


B) People weren’t really aware of disease as communicable in our sense of the word. Sure they would isolate people who had the illness but they didn’t get the idea of washing your hands or not living in squalor. The treatments they did have, like bloodletting were just making things worse. So again, people might also be dying from treatment, let alone the Black Death.

But this new research really points to pasteurella pestis being the culprit here. DNA doesn’t lie and this is really a slam dunk in that department. Especially if they are able to take the DNA code and make a living sample of the ancient plague.

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Baby Steps: Why Small Science Stories are Boring

Posted by Jenna Capyk on September 27, 2011

We’ve all heard of them, the “Eureka!” moments. Those heart-stopping instances of blinding discovery, overturning paradigms in an instant and making whole fields take notice at once. Yes, we’ve all heard of them. Even in the most complicated scientific fields with the most technical language and concepts a half-decent communicator can make this moments into great news stories that can truly capture the attention and imaginations of the general public. The problem? The vast majority of the time this is not the way that science moves.
For the most part, scientific discovery is like constructing something large and strong out of many many small pieces. In reading the scientific literature it quickly becomes apparent that not only is each piece of the puzzle small, but that standing alone, most of them are pretty unconvincing. Often it’s the mutual consistency of many findings that give them weight within our current theories. In many fields, building scientific understanding involves a model with pieces of evidence either confirming or calling into question this model. These two types of results then lead to either strengthening of the model and current theories, or revision of the model to take into account newer findings. Consider putting together a puzzle with all of the pieces but no template for what it’s supposed to look like. You might have an idea from the individual pieces that it’s a scene of a house and sky. As the pieces come together you might confirm that there is a sky, but find that it’s a fence and not a house. Sometimes, especially if the pieces are small and numerous enough, you might find that what you thought was a sky is actually an ocean, or a mirror, or something else that really changes the model all together. At this point you begin working to test this new premise.

In this metaphor, each puzzle piece represents one small discovery, one finding, one scientific paper. This is what makes it so difficult to write traditional news stories about most scientific findings: they just don’t say much on their own. Imagine trying to get a balanced, accurate, and vivid picture of a whole puzzle by interviewing someone very familiar with one piece. Unless the interviewee is uncommonly enlightened, that interview is going to be slanted toward the minutiae of that piece. Don’t get me wrong, those details can be incredibly fascinating to the correct audience, but will not necessarily capture the attention of many people outside of the immediate field. Further problematic, from a reporting point of view, is the need for endless qualifiers and indefinite language in the description of a single discovery. Because each piece on it’s own doesn’t say too much, a conscientious scientist really can’t say that it does. Often this has the effect of watering down a discovery to the point of complete irrelevance in the minds of many consumers.

As I see it, it follows that one problem with scientific communication in the mainstream media is a need to adapt reporting methodologies to reflect the nature of scientific subjects. Often interviewing a single voice about a “new discovery” results in an unbalanced story or one that is simply boring to most people. For the most part, scientific advancement is pretty hard to pigeon-hole into the “breaking news” category. They’re different kinds of stories, requiring a different communication approach to help everyone see just how amazing they really are.

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