Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Al dente

Studying the skeletal structure of an animal can give a reasonable idea of how its overlying musculature would have been attached, and often more detailed information such as muscle mass can be estimated. Results aren't always fully testable, however, and direct comparison is difficult. As such, interpretation is subjective.

The Tyrannosaurus rex could bite very, very hard. That's not particularly subjective, within our understanding. I mean - there might well be enormous monsters out there somewhere that crack planets with a bite. But we don't know about those as yet. That T. rex had mighty jaws isn't really headline news, but an anatomical study at Liverpool University does estimate the power of its bite at considerably more than previous studies suggested - they say four times more. That seems a surprising leap. The articles in the press focus - naturally - on the headline topic of bite power, but the actual content of the research goes a bit further, looking at the development of feeding habits and diet of the animal as it matured. In the tests, comparisons were made with the bites of humans, Allosaurus and the Nile crocodile. The team claim the croc as the current living holder of the 'World's most powerful bite' title - for terrestrial animals, at least. This claim would seem up for debate to some extent - a quick search finds similar claims for the American alligator and even for hyenas.

It's a shame only one other dinosaur was included in the tests. Allosaurus was a considerably smaller animal and while the test figures were scaled up to equivalent adult T. rex size, there's potential for error in that process. It'd have been nice to have the results for other big therapods to compare, too - Giganotosaurus, Carcharodontsaurus and Spinosaurus, for example. And the Great White's scary great aunt - Carcharocles megalodon. No point saying there's a big difference between aquatic and terrestrial animals. The public want to know.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Great outdoors

Now and then there will be a stream of students looking for hand lenses. This means a field trip. Geology field trips have to be to cold, wet, windy places - there is some secret law about this. There is usually one trip to a hot, sunny place just to remind you that you could have been a geography student and spent your trips in Malta, Italy and Greece. Geologists are obliged to go to Scotland, Iceland and Siberia. Or a bleak moorland. Bleak moorlands with rocky outcrops, of course. And swamp.

An important part of my geology degree was the mapping project. So important, actually, that it should have capitals: The Mapping Project. For this you were given free rein. Get funding and you can go wherever you like. St Lucia. Peru. Tanzania. Interesting, sunny places. I picked Durness, on the North coast of Scotland. I can't remember why. Probably the funding thing.

A friend decided to pick an area adjacent to mine so we could share accommodation. This accommodation, on our departmental budget of 76p a day (approximately), turned out to be a caravan in Mrs Campbell's garden. Actually getting to Durness meant a train journey part of the way, followed by a ride in the post bus to the town. Our instructions took us East of the town, past fields of sheep and a tiny petrol station to Mrs Campbell's and our temporary home. It wasn't a tiny caravan and we started out with a bedroom each, though my friend felt it was better, for our mutual benefit, to give over his room to the containment of his walking boots and their associated stench. We had a radio, a toaster, two rings on the hob and a tiny oven. We were here for 6 weeks and we had to make a map. Difficult to know where to start.

The obvious thing was to go and see if there was a pub.

(I'll come back to this.)

Monday, 13 February 2012

Temperature's rising

If there's one thing that brings the militant atheist in me to the fore it's the uncomfortable mix of religion and politics. Well, okay there are a few more than one thing, but I do try to keep that particular side of me tucked away. Sometimes, though, it's like the Hulk. Someone mentions a new US bill asking that Intelligent Design be given equal educational billing to evolution and my skin turns bright green, most of my clothes rip off and my trousers turn purple.

So everyone ran off screaming when I saw there are six bills along these lines being put before US state legislature already this year. And worse. Two prominent bodies of the willfully ignorant are ganging together; forming a giant angry mob. Pitchforks and spittle-flecked, rage-filled faces pointed at things they don't want to believe in. 'Scientific controversies', they say. Deniers of both evolution and global warming have teamed up to pressure their government. To demand that the way they see things be considered as valid as the way the overwhelming majority of people who have made a career of studying these certain things see them. Well, it's not valid. They're wrong. Demonstrably wrong. And that should not be passed on to future generations in school classrooms. You can't give an equal platform for these alternative views. You can't teach schoolchildren an alternative opinion to reality. There isn't just one alternative to reality, anyway. There are an infinite number - make one up.

Of course there are some scientifically qualified people in the world who hold views that would seem to support Intelligent Design. There are a great many of people in the world and I'd be very surprised if there weren't a few scientists who choose to believe otherwise. But the point is there are only a very few. Usually it doesn't take much digging to find an ulterior motive for their thinking, too. I have yet to hear of a biologist or geologist who doubts evolution and isn't religious. Most religious people tend to have no problem believing in evolution and most I've discussed it with see ID and old-fashioned Creationism as harmful to the integrity of their faith. This isn't some paradigm shift being championed by a handful of foresighted geniuses. These people want a return to an old way of thinking, a step back from knowledge.

Climate change has a little more grey to it. There's certainly a sliding scale of opinion on the level of humanity's contribution to the present temperature rise, but there's no doubt it is rising. Oil companies have shown a reluctance to accept this, as fuel austerity measures and alternative solutions are not really in their interests. And oil companies have a great deal of money. Pair this money up with the passion of the ID zealot and we seem to have arrived at a new mutant breed of anti-science bill. Worrying, but you'd hope there would be the sense to discard this sort of nonsense as soon as it gets to any form of political platform. After all, the clear division of religion and politics was a founding principle of the US, as Thomas Jefferson pointed out:

'Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.'

Denial of the obvious has no place in school curricula. The elevation of contrasting ideas to the science class would lend them an undeserving credence and burden a generation with misinformation. 'Teach the controversy' is the catchphrase. Teach the facts, I'd say. Disgraceful this is still an issue.