Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Tangled Bank

Welcome to the 30th edition of the Tangled Bank, a regular round up of the best blog writing on science and medicine. For those of you who are reading the Tangled Bank for the first time, here's how it works: every couple of weeks (and every week starting from this one), science bloggers send nominations for their favorite posts to the next host of the TB, who collates the posts, writes a little bit about each article, and organizes them into categories. The idea is to get a sampling of the varied and excellent science writing on the web, a 'blog-digest', if you will.

It's often thought that it is hard to write accurately and clearly about science, that if you emphasize one, you give up on the other. The posts in this installment should disabuse you of that notion. Since this is after all the GEOMblog, I have created a new twist; posts on mathematically oriented topics tend to be in short supply on the web, and physicists tend to be under-represented in the TB, so I have gone hunting for posts that I think represent a sample of some of the best in mathematical and physics writing. If you like what the authors have to say, add their blogs to your feeds, and visit their sites !

And away we go:

Evolution, ID and the great non-debate.

It is an unfortunate consequence of the times we live in that most science discussions tend to get bogged down in ID-related controversies. Thankfully PZ Myers has help swatting at the swarms of FUD that emanate from a certain building in Seattle. And by all accounts, he might have just acquired a new army. Phil Plait @ Bad Astronomy points out that the ambitions of the Discovery Institute extend far beyond biology, and vows to fight the good fight. Ernest Miller makes a plea for all scientists (not just biologists) to speak out against creationist nonsense, and Orac gently tries to deprogram a 14 year old proud creationist. Josh Rosenau has a four part debate with William Dembski, to which my first response (BLINK!) was 'Mud wrestling with a pig....'

One might think that mathematicians are safe from this nonsense. But doesn't Godel's theorem imply that there is a limit to what computational and (if you believe quantum computing) physical processes can accomplish ? Does this not imply the existence of an intelligent designer ? Ok, just kidding....

But how does one really test the components of evolution ? After all, we can't wait a million years ! RPM provides an explanation of how biologists study evolution today. The Blinne Blog reminds us that religion and science are not mutually exclusive, and explains how an evangelical scientist views the ID controversy.

Mechanisms of Evolution

But enough controvery. How about some beautiful explanations of actual species evolution ? DarkSyd presents the story of whale evolution, complete with pictures of detailed bone structures (via an assist from PZ) and evolutionary trees. Although today is not Friday, (the traditional cat blogging day in the blogosphere), I cannot help pointing to DarkSyd's post on the evolution of cats: did you know that cats and mongooses (mongeese ?) are closely related ?

Survival of the fittest

Bora Zivkovic, in his Science and Politics avatar, takes the recent controversy about a genetic basis for the female orgasm as a starting point for a discussion of how sexual reproduction, sexual pleasure and the orgasm might have evolved. Pharyngula (aka PZ Myers) discusses the biological mechanisms underlying pre-eclampsia and how this represents a kind of evolutionary resource contention between fetus and mother.

Arachibutyrophobic discusses the new and surprising finding that modifying a single gene in Drosophila can cause female flies to court other female flies. I remember this finding quite vividly because I first heard about it when on holiday recently, and my wife the biologist, who knew all about fru, was able to explain the finding in much greater detail than the original news report did.

David Pescovitz discusses new research on the evolution of the highly complex eye of the mantis shrimp. The mantis shrimp is the Bruce Lee of the ocean, known for having "the fastest kick in the animal kingdom".

A rather different 'survival of the fittest' is the (soon-to-be)annual goby massacre known as the Goby Assault Party. Read the article, at the Invasive Species Weblog, if only to be regaled with phrases like 'Goby Dick' and 'Goby Gallows'.

Grad school can feel rather Darwinian at times. Here's advice from The World of BotanicalGirl on how to survive it.

Environmentally speaking...

Tom Kimmerer reports on the dwindling lowland forests of Borneo, one of the most naturally diverse areas in the world, with over 360 new species having been discovered in the past 11 years ! Birdwatcher are challenged in this article from 10,000 birds on the genus Empidonax, apparently one of the most difficult bird groups to spot correctly. Take the quiz !

Things not biological...

I have it on good authority that certain astronomers would like nothing better than to curl up with a book on dust. By examining different wavelenghts of light filtered through cosmic dust, astronomers can infer all kinds of things about far-away star systems. EGAD tells us about the balloon BLAST that was just launched by the National Scientific Balloon Facility (didn't think such an organization existed, did ya ?). DarkSyd, in a determined attempt to become the most cited Tangled Banker, presents an audiovisual treat to explain what looking at wavelengths outside the visible range tells us about the universe.

Like building bridges ? Dr. Bob picks the brain of a construction engineer to bring us the story of building the bridge over the Tacoma Narrows, in three parts. Part II is aptly titled 'Concrete Thinking'.

Getting heartburn from too much web surfing ? Culture of Chemistry explains the structural difference between Prilosec and Nexium.

Pictures, Pictures.

Botany Photo of the Day has an almost-geometric picture of the plant Raoulia Australis, and descriptions of its background. Snail's Tales discusses some of the snails commonly found in M. C. Escher paintings.

Department of icky things...

McDonald's fries are highly sanitary ! Well, sort of. Carrie McLaren of Stay Free Daily has the germs (er...dirt... er.. details). And here's an icky thought: want to give up coffee ? Steve Pavlina has options (the mere thought makes me crave an espresso).


And finally, 2+2...

As promised, some mathematically inclined posts. These posts are not necesarily recent, but are good examples of some of the better material out there. WARNING: for some reason, it is much harder to do mathematical writing in a way that conveys intuition without jargon, so some of the links might be a lot more technical than any of the links above.

We'll start off with probably the most well known and most misunderstood theorem, Godel's incompleteness theorem. Dilip D'Souza brings the skill of a writer to a rather technical topic, explaining the basic idea quite lucidly. Once you've digested that, pop over to Cosma Shalizi's Notebooks and read the more detailed explanation, as well as some of the common misunderstandings. Cosma's notebook on information theory explains the mathematics underlying electronic communications.

John Baez writes one of the few (and probably the best) math blogs around. His posts are rather difficult to follow if you don't have at least some mathematical background, but I found this post on the basics of topology quite entertaining. At Preposterous Universe, Sean Carroll explains how our sense of the arrow of time is in a sense a consequence of the fact that entropy always increases (which must mean that time was designed intelligently ... just teasing, PZ :)). The Quantum Pontiff explains how the Pigeonhole principle has connections to problems that are hard for naive quantum algorithms. David Pescovitz interviews Edward Frenkel on the power of symmetry in mathematics, and its connections to string theory.

Finally, for those of you who like your thousand words in colors, check out the Astronomy Picture of the Day, where yesterday's entry discusses the recent discovery of an Earth-like planet orbiting a distant normal star.

This seems like an opportune time to give a shout out to two of the best science journalists in the hated MSM. If you haven't read Carl Zimmer and Chris Mooney, you are missing out on high quality science writing.

Hope you enjoyed this week's Tangled Bank ! TB #31 will be hosted on June 22 by Science and Sensibility. Please send your submissions to winda002@studet.otago.ac.nz, host@tangledbank.net, or pzmyers@pharyngula.org.
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