Zenaida macroura

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Zenaida macroura – mourning dove, Walden Ponds Wildlife Habitat, Boulder, Colorado, spring, 2015. I have not seen nor heard a mourning dove within the city limits since the collared doves took over.

Photography contest finalists next week, July 6, noon, CST.

I have got to stop following links in e-mails from AIG. Today I read the most bizarre article by Dr. Danny Faulkner, an astrophysicist who must have slept through his celestial mechanics courses. Dr. Faulkner discusses the leap second that will be added at 23:59:59 UTC (GMT) on June 30. He notes correctly that the rotation of the Earth is slowing down, and the moon is consequently drifting farther from the Earth. He then observes,

Finally, there is a long-term secular (non-periodic) slowing in the earth’s rotation caused by the tidal interaction of the earth and moon. As the earth slows its rotation, the moon spirals away from the earth. Therefore, in the past the earth spun more rapidly and the moon was much closer to the earth. Direct computation shows that the earth and moon would have been in contact about 1.3 billion years ago. Even a billion years ago the moon would have been so close to the earth that tides would have been a mile high. No one–including those who believe that the earth is far older than a billion years–thinks that tides were ever that high or that the moon and the earth touched a little more than a billion years ago.

However, since the earth and moon are only thousands of years old as the Bible clearly indicates, the long-term change in the earth-moon system is no problem. Indeed, what we see in the interaction between the earth and moon offers powerful evidence that the earth and moon are young.

I do not know the nature of the “direct computation,” but I would bet that it is based on the radius of the moon’s orbit increasing at a constant rate. Not obviously a good assumption; an article from Cornell University (which has a scientific reputation at least as distinguished as that of AIG) notes,

The exact rate of the Moon’s movement away from Earth has varied a lot over time. It depends both on the distance between the Earth and the Moon, and the exact shape of the Earth. The details of continents and oceans moving around on Earth actually change the rate, which make it a very hard thing to estimate. The rate is currently slowing down slightly, .…

Worse, look at Dr. Faulkner’s statement that “the earth and moon would have been in contact about 1.3 billion years ago.” An absolutely remarkable statement from a person who purports to have a PhD in physics and astronomy! Has he never heard of Roche’s limit? Roche’s limit is the smallest radius that a large satellite can maintain without being torn apart by tidal forces caused by the gravitational field of the main planet. According to NASA, Roche’s limit for the Moon is about 20 000 km, so I can assure Dr. Faulkner that the Earth and the Moon have never been in contact – not 1.3 billion years ago, not ever. When the Moon was formed, it had to have been formed outside Roche’s limit, and then it drifted away from the Earth at a rate that is not a constant and therefore not amenable to simple calculations.

Modern astronomy is not threatened, and the Earth is not young.

You can read it for yourself here. But, for my money, Mr. Kopplin exposes Gov. Bobby Jindal’s inner hypocrite with these too kind words:

“I mean, who knows? I could be totally wrong, and maybe Jindal believes this [creationism] with his whole heart. Which is more why I go back to what his kids are learning. I had their seventh-grade biology teacher at [University Laboratory School] where I went for middle school, and I know she doesn’t just teach evolution–she’s absolutely obsessive about it. If Jindal actually was a creationist, I think he’d have a much bigger problem with his kids being taught what evolution is.”

Mr. Kopplin, who is on the verge of graduating from Rice University,

has continued to beat the drum on what he views as the erosion of public schools. He has broadened his focus to include the governor’s voucher program, which diverts state money to religious schools that question evolution and openly discriminate against students who violate their moral code. … And Kopplin has expanded his push to Texas, where he discovered that students at the state’s biggest charter school network were being taught that the “sketchy” fossil record undermines the theory of evolution.

Dan Phelps alerted us to the fact that AIG’s Allosaurus fossil had been donated by an organization headed by Michael Peroutka, a man affiliated with “a white supremacist, neo-Confederate and pro-secessionist organization that has been named a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.” Mr. Phelps now writes,

Interesting that this press release didn’t get any coverage when I sent out the information last year. The Creation Museum received an Allosaurus dinosaur fossil appraised at $1 million from a donor who was on the Board of Directors of the League of the South. Various politicians are returning donations from hate groups after the recent Charleston shooting. According to the Encyclopedia of Modern American Extremists and Extremist Groups (by Steven E. Atkins, 2002, Greenwood Press), “Close ties have been formed between the LOS [League of the South] and the Council of Conservative Citizens with a significant cross-membership” (p. 174). Horrifyingly, Dylann Roof received some of his inspiration from the Council of Conservative Citizens [a direct descendant of the White Citizens’ Councils that were established in the 1950’s, primarily to oppose school integration].

Answers in Genesis (the owners of the Creation Museum) admirably makes anti-racist statements at times, but has taken a valuable donation from Michael Peroutka, a former Board Member of the racist hate group known as the League of the South. Why doesn’t the Creation Museum return the fossil or give it to a real science museum?

Unidentified fossil

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David MacMillan, who wrote an 8-part series on creationism for us, sent us these 4 photographs, along with the following request:

“I recently moved back to central Kentucky. One of the things I came across while visiting my family was this fossilized object I discovered near my home here when I was about 9 or 10 years old.

“Back in the late 90s, we were living in a new development and there was a lot of excavation going on near our house. I believe I found this half-buried in the bottom of a rain-fed creek just after a particularly heavy period of excavation followed by some heavy rainstorms.

“It appears to be a vertebra, due to the shape and orientation of the various spurs, and what seems to be a very large nerve opening going in the side. The exterior is dotted with what appear to be marine fossil concretions, including scallops and similar creatures.

“This region of Kentucky comprises primarily Ordovician limestone and shales, which is puzzling because this would have to be a pretty large marine vertebrate, and there were virtually no large bony vertebrates in the Ordovician. Perhaps this is actually not a vertebra at all and is rather some sort of oddly-shaped shell?

“The largest human lumbar vertebrae are around 13 mm thick, while this measures over 5 cm thick. If it is a vertebra, it would have to come from an animal with a spinal column at least five times the length of a human spine.

“Basically, I’m stumped. Any idea whether any of the readers of Panda’s Thumb might be able to identify it?”

Ondatra zibethicus

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Ondatra zibethicus – muskrat, Elmer’s Two-Mile Creek, Boulder, Colorado, May, 2015. The muskrat shown here disappeared after the 2013 flood, and I did not see any muskrats again till this spring.

Don’t forget to enter the photography contest – 1 week remaining!

The Washington Post reported the other day that Justice Antonin Scalia, in a commencement address, said,

Humanity has been around for at least some 5,000 years or so, and I doubt that the basic challenges as confronted are any worse now, or alas even much different, from what they ever were.

I suppose that “at least 5000 years” gives you some wiggle room, but I would hardly call, say, 200,000 years “at least 5000 years.” That is a bit like saying, “The trip from Boulder to New York is at least 20 kilometers.”

Jerry Coyne, who is much nicer than I am, thinks that it might have been “just an offhand remark that’s been blown out of proportion.” Well, maybe, but I watched most of the speech on Professor Coyne’s website, and I could not help but notice that Justice Scalia was reading that text: he did not misspeak.

Justice Scalia dissented in Edwards vs. Aguillar, but he seemed more concerned with whether the legislature intended creation “science” as a religious doctrine than with its scientific merit. He also supported the “balanced treatment” argument to the effect that students who learn evolution are entitled to the opposing view as well. His argument was well reasoned but depended on the assumption that creation science is not a religious doctrine if its supporters think it is not.

Contrary to some reports, Justice Scalia did not say, “The body of scientific evidence supporting creation science is as strong as that supporting evolution”; rather, he was paraphrasing the testimony of witnesses and states explicitly “that I by no means intend to endorse its accuracy” but that “what is crucial is not [the legislature’s] wisdom in believing that [a certain secular] purpose would be achieved by the bill, but their sincerity in believing it would be” [italics in original].

Still, Justice Scalia generally comes across as an authoritarian, uncomfortable with ambiguity and guided by literalist interpretations. If he takes the Bible as literally as he takes the Constitution, then it is easy to see that he might well believe in a young Earth. I hope I am wrong and Professor Coyne is right.

Photography Contest VII

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Polish your lenses, oil your tripods, search your archives – the seventh Panda’s Thumb photography contest, begins – now!


Polaroid Land Camera, Model 160, 1962-1965. Apologies for the moiré pattern on the face of camera!

We will accept entries from 12:00 CST, June 8, through 12:00 CST, June 22. We encourage pictures of just about anything of scientific interest. If we get enough entries, consistently with Rules 11 and 12, we may assign entries to different categories and award additional prizes, presuming, of course, that we can find more prizes.

The first-place winner will receive a signed copy of Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails), which has been donated by one of the authors. The second-place winner will receive a copy of The Devil in Dover, which has been generously donated by the National Center for Science Education.

Selasphorus platycercus

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Photograph by David Young.


Selasphorus platycercus – broad-tailed hummingbird, Boulder, Colorado, May, 2015.

… June 8. That is, we will accept entries from noon, June 8, to noon, June 22, where noon is defined by the Panda’s Thumb server, which thinks it is still in Central Standard Time, or UTC(GMT) – 5 h. The rules will be essentially the same as previous years’. We have not chosen categories yet, but please be assured that they (or it) will be all-inclusive. So wipe your lenses, grease your shutters, and be ready!

Chrysemys picta

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Chrysemys picta – painted turtle, Walden Ponds Wildlife Habitat, Boulder, yesterday. See also here.

School’s out, and I discovered a new website, TheTorah.com, which appears to be a project of a group of Modern Orthodox Jews to promulgate their acceptance of higher criticism (also called historical criticism). In other words, these are scholars who practice Orthodox Judaism but are not Biblical literalists. Their website proclaims a need for a “historical and contextual approach” to Torah study. Amen, and good luck to them!

Most of the articles on the Website are of no particular interest to me, but two caught my eye. Under “Biblical Scholarship 101,” an article on Noah’s flood shows in considerable detail how the story is composed of two interwoven and sometimes contradictory tales. The argument is used to support what is often known as the Documentary Hypothesis. It is hard to see how anyone could argue that both tales are literally true, and indeed I once used a shorter version of the same argument on Panda’s Thumb. I consider the Documentary Hypothesis to be so convincing that it is frankly a fact that the Bible is composed of four or more threads. Which leads me to the second article that caught my eye, below the figurative fold.

The majority of U.S. medical schools do not require evolutionary biology as a prerequisite for acceptance and do not offer courses dedicated to the subject. But as we talked about last time, adopting an evolutionary perspective on medical issues can potentially give new insights into disease treatment, prevention, and diagnosis. Where do we and should we begin to teach this kind of thinking? What resources are available to teachers and students to learn about evolution and its application to modern day problems?

Evolutionary training can help doctors look at diseases in a different light (Nesse et al, 2006). Take, for instance, sickle cell anemia: carriers of the sickle cell trait, a disease which is highly prevalent in tropical regions, are resistant to malaria, likely as a result of natural selection. This knowledge is helpful in developing ways to prevent malaria and perhaps similar evolutionary links between other diseases or infections and protective traits exist, but examining this hypothesis requires a thorough understanding of evolution and population genetics. Based on examples like this proponents of evolutionary medicine believe evolutionary biology should be considered a core subject for medical students, side by side with anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and embryology, and that medical license exams should include questions about evolutionary biology.

People with sickle-cell anemia, whose bodies produce abnormal, crescent-shaped red blood cells, also carry genes that protect against malaria. This is most likely the reason sickle cell anemia is so common in areas where malaria is highly prevalent.

Image source: National Health Service

But while most medical schools do not offer much in the way of evolutionary education, there are some resources available for K-12 students and teachers as well as college undergraduates and graduates. One example is the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action at Michigan State, an interdisciplinary research team working on applying evolutionary principles to a wide range of problems in fields such as medicine, computer science, ecology, and engineering. Along with research, BEACON is focused on evolution outreach and education: researchers are conducting studies to see if integrating undergraduate cellular and molecular biology courses with evolution improves evolutionary understanding. The center also organizes K-12 summer programs, activities for K-12 teachers, and undergraduate and graduate-level courses.

While BEACON is enjoying great success, the NESCent (National Evolutionary Synthesis) Center, a center in North Carolina promoting multidisciplinary evolutionary research, will be closing this year after a decade of operation. Like BEACON, NEScent was also active in public outreach and education, organizing events like Darwin Day for K-12 students and training workshops for graduate students and teachers. But a new center is opening in the wake of NESCent: the Triangle Center for Evolutionary Medicine (TriCEM), which will focus on the partnership of evolutionary biology with human and veterinary medicine.

We’ve made the case for why an evolutionary understanding can improve research in medicine. But if we want to shift the paradigm of medical thought to one that emphasizes evolutionary biology, we need to reevaluate how we teach evolution from the earliest levels of education through medical school.

This series is supported by NSF Grant #DBI-1356548 to RA Cartwright.


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From David Young on Facebook:

Number nerd warning: Today at 8:25.5 pm (local time) it will be 5 / 10 / 15 20 : 25 : 30.

“Measles vaccine protects against other deadly diseases,” proclaims an article in ScienceInsider. In reality, the protection is indirect: Getting measles disposes you to getting other potentially fatal diseases over the next several years. Evidently, measles, unlike, for example, whooping cough, not only weakens your immune system but also makes it “forget,” so you may even contract a disease that you already had and thought you were immune to. (As an aside, though it was supposedly impossible, I contracted mumps twice, as diagnosed both times by a physician. I now wonder whether I had contracted measles between the two cases of mumps.)

As described in the ScienceInsider article, Michael Mina and colleagues at the Emory University School of Medicine demonstrated a correlation between a child’s getting measles and subsequently dying of other diseases. Specifically, they showed that children who survive measles are especially vulnerable to contracting a fatal illness for an average of approximately 2.5 years after the measles infection. The result held true both before and after the widespread use of the measles vaccine. The researchers found no such vulnerability among children who had contracted whooping cough, so the result is apparently specific to measles.

Vaccination had practically eliminated measles from the United States by 2000. Since 2013 or so, we have experienced hundreds of cases, largely if not entirely due to the anti-vaccination movement (see, for example, MMR vaccine controversy, which details the fraudulent but influential paper by Andrew Wakefield). Little did we know that the anti-vaxxers have put children in danger of contracting not only measles (a serious disease on its own, incidentally), but also other serious and potentially fatal diseases as well.

Colaptes auratus

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Photograph by Louis Shackleton.


Colaptes auratus – female yellow-shafted northern flicker, University of North Carolina at Wilmington campus. Mr. Shackleton writes, “She is gaping, that is, thermoregulating by opening her beak and just breathing, because birds do not sweat.”

Google Logins

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We are aware of the issue with Google comment logins and are working on a fix.

It is going to take us a while to implement one due to various personal and software reasons.

Cereopsis novaehollandiae

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Cereopsis novaehollandiae – Cape Barren Goose, Flinders Chase National Park, Kangaroo Island, Australia.

NCSE tells us,

April 18-25, 2015, is the inaugural Climate Education Week, sponsored by Earth Day Network. To celebrate, the Climate Education Week website is providing K-12 educators with the Climate Education Toolkit – “a free, easy-to-use, ready-to-go resource with everything you need. The Toolkit includes a week’s worth of lesson plans, activities, and contests for K-12 students that meet Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core. Each day covers a different theme related to climate change with two highlighted activities handpicked by Earth Day Network for your use.” There are videos, contests, a downloadable Earth Day poster, and even an interactive on-line textbook for middle school students – all aimed at helping to promote climate education!

You may find NCSE’s resources on climate science and climate education on their Website.

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