welcome to the family

Scientists have been debating for some time whether skeletons discovered on a small island in Indonesia constitute a new species of human, or just a variation of a known species, and some new evidence suggests that this really is a new human species.

In some ways it is very human. The big toe is aligned with the others and the joints make it possible to extend the toes as the body’s full weight falls on the foot, attributes not found in great apes.

But, in other respects, it is startlingly primitive: far longer than its modern human equivalent, and equipped with a very small big toe, long, curved lateral toes, and a weight-bearing structure closer to a chimpanzee’s. Continue reading “welcome to the family”

mom, who were the first people in the world?

And thus began Kid’s immersion into evolution, a couple months ago in the car on the way to swim class. And I knew I’d love teaching Kid about evolution–it’s possible that Husband thinks I am too excited about it–but what I didn’t see coming is how much Kid loves it, too. Why? First, because there are dinosaurs. Kid loves dinosaurs. And second, because it’s about him. Kid loves stories about him. And a story that puts him and T-Rex into the same family tree? That is golden.

I’m no evolutionary biologist, though, so I knew I needed some help. Continue reading “mom, who were the first people in the world?”

drek, this contest is for you

Poor Drek, besotted with argumentative conspiracy theorists and burdened by his duties as one of only a handful of sociology royalty. He is surely on the path to madness as he struggles against Conservapedians. But, alas, a contest worthy of Drek’s passion and matched to his artistic skills. I give you, Drek, the Stick Figure Science Contest:

Your job is to create a cartoon that can be used to educate the general public and especially decision makers (state legislators, school board members) about the truth behind one false argument. Choose an argument …and create a cartoon that corrects the record.

Go, Drek, Go! Take your sharpened pencil and sketch up some science! We await your xkcd-like masterpiece.

science will be stimulated

After our lively discussion of what if about the proposal to cut science funding from the stimulus package, you may want to know what happened. The Republicans gave up substantial ground, but some cuts were secured. The NY Times story didn’t have the specifics I was looking for, but ScienceDebate2008 sent it in an email:


They have a link to the full excel spreadsheet, too. The NSF will get a substantial chunk of stimulating cash: $1.2 billion. Of course, the deal is not yet done, but the other hurdles are much smaller than this one posed by Senate Republicans, so it is looking good.

racism: a great way to liven up a boring story

A groan of dismay for Discovery News, a source that usually stays out of politics, and now I know why. Faced with placing a headline on a non-news item about Barack Obama’s pending decision to keep his Blackberry during his presidency, the editorial staff chooses this:

Obama Likely to Give Up ‘CrackBerry’ as President

I know that people call it a CrackBerry. I know that they will claim that they didn’t mean to associate President Elect Obama with the street drug that has crippled black communities for decades. And yet, there it is. I imagine the editorial staff is a dozen or so well meaning, middle-aged, middle-class white guys, which would once again demonstrate that diversity in the workplace is a good idea.

the hollow state: economism and the evacuation of the public

A common concern raised lately about the incoming Obama administration is that the past eight years have vastly reduced the capacity of the US federal state to do anything. This is principally a function of the incredibly reckless economic behavior of the Bush administration, but it’s also because the rhetoric of “Homeland Security” and “War on Terror” have, IMHO, been used to erect an artificial barrier between state-as-police (which has been ascendant, both domestically and overseas) and state-as-ally (which has been on the decline). The outcome: a radically constrained notion of publicness; the evacuation of the public. Continue reading “the hollow state: economism and the evacuation of the public”

overheard (boston T edition)


The same joke has been in the past two books I’ve read.

What’s the joke?

Something like “Two behaviorist psychologists have sex. And then afterwards, one says to the other, ‘It was good for you. How was it for me?'”

I read that in a book, too!


A lot of Irish people immigrated to the U.S., and particularly to Boston, when a blight destroyed the potato crop in Ireland.

Oh, right. It was a fungus, actually, phytophthora infestans. We just sequenced it at the Broad!

deep like space

From a friend: “There is a cluster of galaxies called the Perseus Cluster, which is 250 million miles away from Earth. Scientists found that all of the sound waves it is emitting form a single note…B flat. ”

Apparently, this is the deepest note ever generated in the cosmos (?!).

In other geekly weekend highlights: Quantum Hoops is the history-of-science-and-underdog-sports-team-documentary for which we’ve all been waiting.  I’m assuming here that you’ll grant that a 21 year losing streak qualifies the Cal Tech basketball team as underdogs (that’s over 240 consecutive conference losses). 

Among the many great lines in the film, here’s the current coach noting with clear pride that the Beavers (Nature’s Engineers!) reduced the point spread for their losses from 60 points every game (in 2003) to only 10 points (in 2006):

We’re only losing by ten points this season. Winning has gone from impossible to improbable!

protons and politics

At a dinner party tonight, I was asked by an Italian postdoc to explain the process by which either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will become the Democratic Party’s nominee in the general election in November. As I got to the part about the super-delegates, it was clear from the expectant smiles on my friends’ faces that they were glad that someone else had gotten this question. Because what makes these delegates so *super* (technically, they are “unpledged party leaders and elected officials delegates”)? And doesn’t it seem undemocratic that they are not bound by the popular vote?

Also tonight, Democrat and Fermilab physicist Bill Foster defeated Republican Jim Oberweis in Illinois’ 14th Congressional District special election to replace Dennis Hastert. Call me a geek, but I like the idea of the co-inventor of Fermilab’s Recycler Ring in the U.S. Congress.

And yes, Foster will be a super-delegate (or, UPLEOD?). He supports Obama.

race, narcotics, and kidney stones

As someone who suffers from kidney stones, I’m always on the lookout for news about them and how I might better avoid another round of the excruciating pain that come with them. I recently noted several reports recounting a recent study in JAMA on how kidney stone pain is treated in emergency rooms by RACE.

You probably won’t be entirely surprised to find out that Continue reading “race, narcotics, and kidney stones”

much love for the 12.2

Happy Darwin Day to the 12.2%* of Americans who believe that “man”** came to be by evolving from earlier forms of life over millions of years. So, if this means you, you might want to send your Valentine’s Day card a couple days early this year.

Darwin Valentine

*This number jumps up to almost 54% if you add in the “God guided evolution and created man” responses. These data are from the 2004 GSS, variable name: CREATION.

**Let me tell you something, GSS Question Writers: if women weren’t around, evolution wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.

goodbye sociology

I had a very interesting experience yesterday. Very interesting. Perhaps life-changing. You see a couple of weeks ago, I received a call from someone in the computer science department informing me they had a visitor coming to campus from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory who wanted to meet with me. “Ah,” thought I, “finally my 250 line C++ Kaplan-Meier Product-Limit Estimator program is going to get the recognition it deserves.”* Actually, I had no idea what this guy could want, but I said yes to the appointment, out of both courtesy and curiosity. Continue reading “goodbye sociology”