Archive December 2009

Video: Ardipithecus ramidus, evolution of man, chimps have more evolved hands Grant Jacobs Dec 31

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Science has an excellent video exploring the science of Ardipithecus ramidus on their website.

I can’t embed it (as far as I can tell), so you’ll have to go over there to view it.

There’s excerpts from the authors, lots of good graphics showing the skeleton, it’s features and how they ties in with the evolution of man.

Captions are provided for the hard-of-hearing: select this by clicking on the tab to the top-right of the video.

There is an interesting remark that:

More primitive morphological characters and systems have been retained [in humans] and as a consequence, even the human hand today is probably more primitive than the chimpanzee hand today is.

This makes sense if you think of human and chimpanzees evolving independently, with chimpanzees developing the hand further than we as a species have. (‘Primitive’ to someone studying evolution simply means more resembling the earlier forms.)

You can read additional material on-line, free.

Although it’s a bit of a long-winded registration, it gives you access to all papers older than one year as well as the current additional material: some might find it worthwhile for that, too.

Laelaps, among many other places, has an article with some of the back story and more images than the one I’ve shown here.

My only gripe, a small one, is that I wish the video were larger. While it is very sharp, it’s also small! Then again, the small size probably ensures a fast uninterrupted replay over slower networks.

Media thought: Ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion Grant Jacobs Dec 31


I’ve written a number of posts related to science writing; one recurring theme is the distinction between opinion and evidence.

In my previous post I wrote:

…unless the audience has deep knowledge of the evidence for the subject in question, it’s merits and weaknesses, and is honestly presenting what can be concluded from that evidence, not ’opinion’. [emphasis added.]

A (partial) solution might be for interviewers to not ask experts for the “their opinion”.

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Consensus, evidence, wikipedia and blogs Grant Jacobs Dec 30

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A consensus of opinions is not as worthy as a consensus of the evidence.

Not unless you’re a politician of the kind that only cares for what they can ride on the public with and doesn’t give a toss about what is correct.

That’s not to say that there are things outside of science that matter for some policies, just that the two types of consensus are not the same and when evidence matters, opinions cannot be considered more worthy.

bioemphemera has an excellent post on this topic. Among other things, she points out that wikipedia entries and blogs can be–if done poorly–an indirect form of consensus.

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Monkeys have a smarter way to eat bananas than most humans? Grant Jacobs Dec 29

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A light-weight post to get this blog back on the road after the Christmas break…

There’s a video doing the rounds (again, it’s not a new theme) that the “right” way to peel a banana is from the tip of the fruit, not using the stem, and that this is how monkeys peel bananas:

YouTube Preview Image

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Happy (late) solstice Grant Jacobs Dec 23

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Done those Christmas things? We’re all late.

The solstice was on the 21st.

Ha! Got you worried?

Some of you will have noticed that my blog posts have been a little erratic lately. I do a lot of research for many of my articles. Yup, I check those facts I toss at you…! Posts will continue to be erratic for a few more days; apologies to loyal readers, but family comes first.

Solstices are the longest or shortest days of the year. It’s more formally defined as the times when the earth’s axis is most tilted towards or away from the sun. There are many explanations on the WWW, but for the moment I like Janet Stemwedel’s explanation, complete with wonderful “hand-crafted” drawings. Aside from her usual clear explanations, she has the decency to recognise those of us in the southern hemisphere. It’s a nice touch.

There’s also an article on the National Geographic website, which puts the solstice into anthropological terms, in terms of man’s cultural activities celebrating the solstice. Religions have been observing the solstices for thousands of years, with some more recent religions overlaying other stories onto the older solstice celebrations, the best known example in the West being Christianity’s celebrations of the birth of Jesus at the time ancients celebrated the “rebirth” of the sun.

St. Nicholas rescuing murdered children Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky

St. Nicholas rescuing murdered children Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky

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Scientists who died during 2009 Grant Jacobs Dec 22

No Comments has put up a list of famous people that died last ten years. Not one is a scientist.

Funny old world, eh? You can make the top ten NZers (never mind people world-wide) as a scientist, the obits in the paper, but not the famous who died in the last decade. What’s with that?

Below I have given a short list of some of those who have died this year. It’s biased to those I feel able to “nominate”. I don’t claim this to be definitive or even representative. One or two are people I’d know that most readers won’t; a couple won’t be well-known outside NZ, but others should be more widely known. The links are to obituaries. I’ve limited myself to the “hard” sciences.

If I were to extend this to ten years, to make a fair comparison to the list, we’d have include the likes of Francis Crick, Sir Fred Hoyle, Stephen Jay Gould, Max Perutz, Erwin Chargaff, Edsger Dijkstra, Martha Chase, Ernst Mayr, John Backus, Leslie Orgel, Arthur Kornberg, Edward Lorenz to name just a few that I’m familiar with. (Arthur C. Clarke inspired many would-be scientists, but I feel his achievements are in science fiction, not science.)

Here’s this year’s list (ordered by surname):

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Scientists in “New Zealanders of the Year” media lists Grant Jacobs Dec 21

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Those end-of-year lists keep coming… Emerging are a number of lists representing “New Zealanders of the Year”. Not all have announced their nominees, but two of those that have started to announce them include scientists amongst their number.

The New Zealand Herald New Zealanders of the Year for 2009 recognises two scientists, Dame Anne Salmond and Al Rowland from a list of nominations submitted by staff.

Associate Professor Al Rowland (Massey University, now retired) was nominated for this pivotal role enabling military veterans to seek compensation for exposure to nuclear tests through demonstrating that military personnel exposed to nuclear testing had substantially more chromosomal damage than age-matched men who had not been exposed to nuclear tests.

Dame Anne Salmond (Professor, University of Auckland) is both a distinguished anthropologist and a historical non-fiction writer. Over and above many recognitions within NZ for her work, she has been honoured internationally. For anthropology she is a foreign associate in the National Academy of Sciences for her long services to anthropology of Maori and Pacific Islanders. She is also a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy humanities and social sciences. Her work includes studies of the history of exploration of the Pacific; her books have won numerous awards.

The last scientist recognised as the NZer of the year by the NZ Herald was Sir Peter Gluckman in 2004.

TV3 opens its list today with an account of nominee Peter Beck’s recent rocket exploits.  (They start at “10″, so I presume they are counting down to “1″.)

Older entertainment or fun posts in Code for life:

Explore ancient science books on-line

Science talks: 100 of the best

Neti pots now validated as sound science?

Royal science

Visual illusions, change blindness and autism

Monkey business, or is my uncle also my Dad?

Small world pictures

Friday Geek Comedy Hour: Pick-up lines Grant Jacobs Dec 18


A short collection of “scientific” pick up lines.

The list below is inspired by a short blog post “Best Geek Pickup Line Ever”  by Ed Brayton who writes Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

I’ve trawled the ‘net and added a few more, avoiding the truly tasteless. Trust me, there are plenty of those… Even without those, this is a list of truly unrealistic pick-up lines!

As commenters at Ed’s site said, most of these would get you slapped. Hard. And if you didn’t get slapped you’d either get some damn funny looks followed by the target of your delicately crafted pearl of erudition carefully retreating backwards or gales of hysterical giggling.

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TIME’s top ten scientific discoveries for 2009 Grant Jacobs Dec 18


TIME magazine’s top ten scientific discoveries for 2009 are…

    1. Our Oldest Ancestor, “Ardi”
    2. The Human Epigenome, Decoded
    3. Gene Therapy Cures Color Blindness
    4. A Robot Performs Science
    5. Breeding Tuna on Land
    6. Water on the Moon
    7. The Fundamental Lemma, Solved
    8. Teleportation!
    9. The Large Hadron Collider, Revived
    10. A New Planet (or Brown Dwarf?) Discovered

Or head to the page for the first one, and page your way through them. (Much easier…)

Once you get there, you’ll find a pull-down menu that leads you to a top ten in Medicine, in fact a top ten in just about anything you could think of!

Have fun!

HT: Sandwalk

Passengers on NZ509 Auckland to Christchurch Dec 7th, measles call Grant Jacobs Dec 17

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The Canterbury Public and Community Health staff are trying to locate passengers in rows 11-17 of flight NZ509 from Auckland to Christchurch on December 7th (arriving in Christchurch at 3:45pm) in response to learning that a baby on the flight had measles. The phone number to call is (03) 364 1777.

The original story is on

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