In a world dominated by magical thinking, superstition and misinformation, give yourself the benefit of doubt. This is one skeptic's view of the Universe; natural wonders and supernatural blunders.

"Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."

-George Carlin

“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”.

-Albert Einstein

“Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”

-Carl Sagan

The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.

-Christopher Hitchens

 

God, Darwin and My College Biology Class

EVERY year around this time, with the college year starting, I give my students The Talk. It isn’t, as you might expect, about sex, but about evolution and religion, and how they get along. More to the point, how they don’t.

I’m a biologist, in fact an evolutionary biologist, although no biologist, and no biology course, can help being “evolutionary.” My animal behavior class, with 200 undergraduates, is built on a scaffolding of evolutionary biology.

And that’s where The Talk comes in. It’s irresponsible to teach biology without evolution, and yet many students worry about reconciling their beliefs with evolutionary science. Just as many Americans don’t grasp the fact that evolution is not merely a “theory,” but the underpinning of all biological science, a substantial minority of my students are troubled to discover that their beliefs conflict with the course material.

Until recently, I had pretty much ignored such discomfort, assuming that it was their problem, not mine. Teaching biology without evolution would be like teaching chemistry without molecules, or physics without mass and energy. But instead of students’ growing more comfortable with the tension between evolution and religion over time, the opposite seems to have happened. Thus, The Talk….

Newsflash: Birds didn't evolve from dinosaurs in one fell swoop, but over millions of years

Dinosaurs didn’t suddenly give way to birds, a new study finds, but slowly transitioned into fowl though a piecemeal evolutionary process. Scientists have long understood that birds evolved from their more grounded brethren, but research into exactly how the transition took place has largely revolved around the search for the “missing link” that would tie the earliest known bird to his dinosaur ancestors. In the past few decades, however, paleontologists have unearthed a variety of dinosaurs with bird-like qualities, such as feathers, wings and smaller, more aerodynamic bodies, but none have quite been “birdy” enough to constitute the elusive “missing link.”

The study, which was published on Thursday in the journal Current Biology, uses statistics to show that there is no single missing link, but rather a painfully slow development of certain bird characteristics. Steve Brusatte, co-author of the study and paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, told Live Science that “it’s basically impossible to draw a line on the tree between dinosaurs and birds.” Once the general bird form was in place, however, an evolutionary explosion took place, resulting in a hodgepodge of different bird-like creatures existing at once, “something was unlocked, and [birds] began to evolve at a supercharged rate,” said Brusatte….

A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.

Saul Bellow

Stewart Blows Up on GOP Over Climate Change: ‘Pushing a Million Pounds of Idiot Up a Mountain’

Jon Stewart on Monday slammed a U.S House hearing regarding climate change, comparing the Republican-led session to “pushing a million pounds of idiot up a mountain.”

The Wednesday hearing featured testimony from John Holdren, President Barack Obama‘s adviser on science and technology. Stewart showed clips of Republicans Steve Stockman of Texas, Dana Rohrabacher of California and Larry Bucshon of Indiana doubting the effects of climate change.

Stewart labeled Holdren the hearing’s “Sysyphus, charged with the impossible task of pushing a million pounds of idiot up a mountain.”

“How far back to the elementary school curriculum do we have to go to get someone on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology caught up?” Stewart said. “Do we have to bring out the paper-machet and the baking soda so you can make a volcano?”

Click through for video.

jtotheizzoe:

teded:

View the TED-Ed Lesson Where do genes come from?

When life emerged on Earth about 4 billion years ago, the earliest microbes had a set of basic genes that succeeded in keeping them alive. In the age of humans and other large organisms, there are a lot more genes to go around. Where did all of those new genes come from? Carl Zimmer examines the mutation and multiplication of genes.

Seriously, if I could recommend anyone to explain this kind of thing (besides myself), it would be the great Carl Zimmer. 

Great video about where new genes come from and how we went from early organisms with just a few to the mélange of molecular instructions that we see on Earth today.

This is how evolution gets creative.

Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.

Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth (via whats-out-there)

s-c-i-guy:

600 Million Years and Counting…

I was pretty bored so I decided to make some GIFs of the last 600 million years of our planet’s plate tectonics.

The first GIF is a global mollewide projection. The second one is of the Colorado Plateau and the North American Southwest. The next GIF is of the entire formation of the North American Continent. The fourth GIF is of geologic and tectonic evolution of Europe. And finally the last one is the same as the first except in rectangular format.

I obtained the images from Global Paleogeography and them compiled them one by one into Photoshop with the end result being the above GIFs.

Geology rocks

The fossil record implies trial and error, the inability to anticipate the future - features inconsistent with a Great Designer.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos (via whats-out-there)

Ask an Astrophysicist

Looking through the Ask an Astrophysicist archives this morning, this one was my favorite. A super tactful way of saying, “yeah, we actually understand quite a bit about the origins of the universe and of life. It’s not a tie between religion and science. We have actual methods and theories, with actual observations.”

The Question

(Submitted February 17, 1997)
I am puzzled between my beliefs and religion. I do not know what to tell my child about the creation of the Universe. She seems really interested in knowing how all that we know exists.

I personally believe that no one knows for sure how the Universe was created or how we were created. Why are we here, a place in the Universe, this infinite Universe. Where did we come from?

The Answer

This is a pretty big question! I admire both of you for struggling with it.
Our work — like those of scientists everywhere — is concerned with the ‘whats’ and ‘hows’ of the Universe, rather than whether or not there is a ‘why’. While it is not our role to discuss beliefs or religion, we can help you by telling you what astronomers have learned about the creation of the Universe. The scientific method (based on testing and modifying explanations until they agree with observations - and then making more observations to be explained!) has been astoundingly effective in investigating the history of the Universe and showing how one event followed another in a way understandable and predictable from a small number of physical principles (such as Newton’s Laws of Motion and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity).

We now have a very good picture of how the Universe has evolved since the so-called Big Bang (some 15 billion years or so ago) to the present. Even twenty years ago, Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg was able to write a popular book “The First Three Minutes” which describes in some detail the particle interactions likely to have occurred during the first 180 seconds of the Universe!

Many non-scientific groups in human history have also thought they had a good picture of the Universe, but the crucial difference was that their explanations were either not tested or not testable. The scientific view is tested by many thousands of scientists every day and wrong ideas cannot survive very long. Of course there are still many mysteries remaining, but most of them concern quite fine details of galactic and stellar evolution.

Even the origin and evolution of life are much better understood than is usually realized. The mechanisms causing the simple life forms present on the earth more than 3 billion years ago to diversify into the tremendous biological variety we see today are well known. Many of the chemical steps required to produce the first life forms from simple and abundant molecules have been reproduced in the laboratory. Others have not, but the evidence for life in the oldest rocks we have examined (and the recently discovered similar evidence for ancient life on Mars) suggests that life may begin readily when the right materials and conditions are together for enough time.

To explore the work of our laboratory go to: http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/ Note that the StarChild part of our site has been written for children between the ages of 4 and 14.

For other discussions concerning the origin and evolution of the Universe, books by Hawking (“A Brief History of Time” and others), Gribbin (“In the Beginning”), and Abrams (“The Birth of the Universe: The Big Bang and After”) are worth a look.

For discussions of the origin and evolution of life, books by Steven Jay Gould might give you a place to start.

For more on the scientific method, Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”, Morrison’s “Nothing is too Wonderful to be True” and Sagan’s “Cosmos” and “The Demon Haunted World” contain interesting discussions of how science works. You might also want to check out the bi-monthly magazine “Skeptical Inquirer”.

I had hoped to be able to recommend a much longer list of sites for you to visit on the World Wide Web, but I was very disappointed when I explored what is currently available. The average quality of information for the areas you are interested in is extremely low — because anyone can make material available on the Web, so the few good sites are lost in the noise. I suggest that you will make much more progress by visiting good libraries and bookstores and reading widely.

I hope that both you and your daughter will continue to enjoy reading about, thinking about, and discussing these important questions.

Paul Butterworth
for Imagine the Universe!

ucresearch:

The blood falls of Antarctica

In some remote regions of the antarctic there are glaciers that appear to be bleeding.  This makes for a stunning visual on the bright white snow, but what is going on here?  

The falls are actually the product of a subglacial lake that is seeping out from a rupture in the glacier.  The red color comes from the microbes living in the dark cold lake that use iron to produce energy (think rust).  Scientists think that this population of organisms have been able to evolve separately from the rest of the world for over 1.5 million years.

UC Santa Cruz glaciologist Slawek Tulaczyk studies these types of environments and says they’re great for theorizing life on other planets:

A place like this would be as close of an analog as we can find on this planet for subpermafrost life habitats on Mars.

Tulaczyk and his team drill into Antarctic ice in the hopes of finding these types of ecosystems deep below the surface.  

Read more about Blood Falls here

Even today, interplanetary dust rains down on Earth in vast quantities – typically a hundred tons of it a day – though only a small fraction reaches Earth’s surface. The rest harmlessly vaporizes in Earth’s atmosphere as shooting stars.

More hazardous are the billions, likely trillions, of leftover rocks – comets and asteroids – that have been orbiting the Sun since the early years of our solar system but haven’t yet managed to join up with a larger object.

Neil deGrasse Tyson (via whats-out-there)