Thursday, May 25, 2006

What is it...

About people who don’t explain their research projects in any meaningful level of detail, claim to have done all their own standardization, say they only need ballpark figures, and then show up wondering why they don’t have parts per squillion precision and accuracy on samples that haven’t even been spiked?

Monday, May 22, 2006

The member from Whoop Whoop and his perpetual motion.

I was listening to the radio this afternoon while doing some hand picking. Because I am a docile lab rodent, I didn’t bother adjusting the frequency, I just listened to whatever the radio was tuned to. Today that was the Australian radio equivalent of C-span. Members of parliament were talking, for five minutes each, about whatever was on their minds. Topics ranged from superannuation rights of same-sex couples to poverty in aboriginal communities.

One of the members, who I will kindly refer to as the Honorable Member from Whoop Whoop, started talking about drought in inland Australia, and ways to address it. He suggested that part of the solution to this continent’s water shortage could be desalination plants. These could be set up on the east coast, and water could be pumped up over the Great Dividing Range. And then he came up with the cleverest idea of all: Pump the water....

“...via a new hydro-electric power station. The power generated by a new hydro-electric generation plant could offset the substantial energy costs associated with desalinization.” *

In other words, use the water running down the western side of the divide to pump the water up from the ocean, and use any excess power for the desalinization. He could have stopped there, but no, he wanted to prove that he was a rational, circumspect, professional statesman.

“I realise this sounds simple, but obviously it requires a more thorough examination than I am able to provide, especially in the time allowed in this debate.” *

Simple indeed. so simple, it even ignores the CONSERVATION OF FUCKING ENERGY! I mean really- without a more thorough examination, who can authoritatively discount it?

I have a better idea. Take the money needed to build a desalinization plant big enough to service agriculture, and spend it on science education in public schools. Or better yet, on science education in parliament house.

I shouldn’t be that surprised. The entire corporate agricultural industry is built on subsidies and protectionism, so getting something for nothing probably seems perfectly natural to this bonehead’s core constituents. Why not apply the same reasoning to the natural world?

So, I’m no longer surprised that Australia has shown no interest in addressing global warming. If the politicians don’t understand conservation of energy, then how can you even start to explain the heat budget of the atmosphere? We’d be better off suggesting that they simply retire those old fashioned coal plants for perpetual motion machines. After all, they’re infinitely more efficient. And closing all the coal mines would weaken the unions.

* Quotes are from the official parliamentary Hansard- Page 66.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The rennovations are getting old.

It's the time of year where I leave for work before sunrise and leave work at sunset. And with half of our house still a construction zone, I don't have a whole lot of time or energy left over for blogging. Hopefully by the end of the month we'll have a kitchen again.

Monday, May 08, 2006

A self-limiting factor

Todd and Brant are still buried alive, 3000 feet below Tasmania. The rescuers were expecting to reach them over the weekend, so there was a bit of expectation and an obnoxious mob of reporters, sound guys, camera men, and all the other loathsome symbiotes of the media scavenging organism. And as it turned out, they ended up having a casualty after all. One of the reporters had a heart attack moments after asking an inflammatory question.

On the radio this morning, they were doing a tribute to the guy, and the show was eerily illuminating. The spoke to numerous colleagues, associates, and interviewees whom this guy met over his 35 year career, and not a single one of them had anything nice to say about him. The closest anyone came was to say that they felt bad for his wife, because she was a lovely person. Here was the deceased reporter’s own network trying to do a retrospective on his career, and the unintended subtext was that the guy was an obnoxious provocateur, and was a good reporter as a result.

No wonder people don’t respect journalists. To be sure, geology has its share of first class dickheads. Some of them are even good scientists. But none of them are good scientists because they are obnoxious. It simply isn’t relevant to our profession. But these guys on the radio seemed to believe that a reporter’s highest calling was to get under the skin of those politicians brave enough to host press conferences.

On the bright side, perhaps this is a sign that the ability of the media to promote stress and anxiety is self-limiting. After all, if the tension that they generate gets to the point where their own reporters start keeling over from coronaries, then it will be difficult for them to continue to ramp up the panic factor. I hope. Unfortunately, I have a suspicion that this may just be wishful thinking.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

I have a scientific name

Lemmus labyrinthi var. subrostrani

Friday, May 05, 2006

Blessed are the oysters

It is a common fallacy in biology that human kind is the pinnacle of evolution. Mostly this is because as humans, we are both smart and vain. We are smart enough to figure out where we come from (56% of redneck America notwithstanding), and vain enough to believe that this must make us special. But what does it mean to be evolutionarily advanced?

One approach is to look for the tried and true. The less a gene changes, the more superior it must be over any possible alternative that might arise throughout the depths of time. In fact, one could argue that the more something changes, the less evolutionary fitness it possesses. By this argument, the most advanced creatures on earth are not the most different, they are the most simple. So the most evolved creatures on Earth are the Archaea, those primitive, bacteria-like creatures that have been living in hot springs, unchanged, for as long as we have rocks for. These creatures are so advanced that any random mutation makes them less fit than their parent, so they remained genetically static through the entire evolution of multicellular life.

However, the existence of other, more recent forms does tend to suggest that the tried and true is not the only possibility. After all, one of the reasons Archaea are only found in extreme environments is that they get turned into lunch everywhere else. So what other quality could we use to determine the most advanced life form. Most new genes? Dunno how we stack up there, but I doubt we can hold a finger to the conifers, which have single chromosomes that are larger than many creatures’ entire genomes.

Of course, plants are notorious for doubling and quadrupling their genome at the drop of a (pine) needle. The red spruce genome has more repetition than a primary school arithmetic lesson. So perhaps instead of the most genes, it should be the highest number of different genes. But determining that could be rather difficult, considering that each year only a handful of species have their genomes sequenced, while hundreds of new species are discovered.

For this reason, looking at actual genes themselves is a fairly impractical task. After all, natural selection doesn’t work directly on genes anyway. It works on the chemicals and mechanisms for which they code.

This is where the whole idea of human intelligence as the epitome of evolution comes from. Intelligence is not a gene, it the expression of a (or more likely, many) genes.

This is a more interesting argument for the rest of us non-geneticists anyway, since we appreciate eyes and wings and brains more than interminable strings of the same four letters.

It also makes it easier for us to stroke our own egos. After all, we only need to show that the evolution of intelligence is the largest and most unique step ever taken in the history of evolution in order to crown ourselves as the cream-du-jour of this process.

Unfortunately, this may not be so easy. While vertebrate evolution has shown a tendency towards larger and more complicated brains, we are not, pardon the pun, the only fish in the sea. Back when our phyla was just a twinkle in a segmented worm’s eye, other creatures with brains far more developed than our forbearers were taking the Palaeozoic oceans by storm.

I am talking, of course, about the molluscs. The most intelligent creatures alive today outside the vertebrate kingdom are the free-swimming, many tentacled molluscs known as cephalopods. In fact, some of the octopi currently on display the world’s aquariums are actually smarter than the toddlers who come to gawk at them.

But cephalopods are not the most successful molluscs. They are third.

Starting in the late Cambrian, and continuing until the event that wiped out the dinosaurs, cephalopods were doing pretty well. For a time, way back when men were men, graptolites were graptolites, and continents were bare and devoid of multicellular life, they were the most complex and dangerous creatures on the planet. However, they were not the most numerous, or widespread. The molluscs that out-diversified them, gastropods and bivalves, lost their big brains, their free swimming ways, and their manipulative tentacles. Most of them became scavengers or filter feeders. This change to simplicity allowed them to colonize fresh water, and even land. In the process, some of them lost the mobility, the eyesight, even the prehensile manipulators that made their ancestors so complex. So from this point of view, the most evolved mollusc alive today is not the intelligent, free-swimming, predatory nautilus. It is the brainless, sessile, omnivorous oyster.

Is this our future? To evolve from mobile, free thinking predators to sessile filter feeders? It may seem unlikely, but consider that in the last 200 years, hunting and gathering societies have become all but extinct. And what have we invented to fill the time once occupied by devising plans to kill creatures faster and stronger than ourselves?

Oh, sure, some of us have composed symphonies, built cathedrals, and gone to the moon. But have you? I can count the number of men who have been to the moon on both of my six-fingered hands. And the last of these men left the dusty lunar surface before I was born.

No, to judge the true aspirations of mankind, we need to look a little closer. We need to look at ourselves. We need to look at a selection of inventions that all of us have used, and that some of us may be using right now.

I nominate three: The couch, the pizza delivery truck, and the television remote control. We are no longer intelligent, free-ranging, pretatory primates. Brainless, sessile, omnivorous primates are what we have become. It is my prediction that in 300 million years, hyper-intelligent beetles will be harvesting our progeny for pearls.

Of course, pizza on the couch is not the best possible position to be in, it is simply the one most easily obtained on a Friday night. With a little effort, we could evolve our way towards greater comfort. Instead of pizza, it could be nectar and ambrosia, those divine foods of the primordial gods. Instead of the delivery truck, we could have shapely handmaidens of an attractive, fertile phenotype. Instead of the couch, it could be the Jacuzzi. Or a hot spring. The Archaea have known this all along, which is why they have not left their bubbling spas for several billion years. Ladies and gentleworms, we have a winner.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Say a prayer for Todd and Brant

On April 25, a small earthquake in northern Tasmania caused a mine collapse in the Beaconsfield Gold mine. One miner was killed, and two others were reported missing.

Last Sunday, 5 days after the accident, the two missing miners, Todd Russell and Brant Webb, were found to be alive, having been protected by the safety cage of their mining equipment. By yesterday, rescuers were able to drill a 4 inch hole to the cavity where these men are trapped, through which they could pass water, food, and supplies.

The good news is that both men are in fairly good health and spirits. The accident occurred 925 meters (3035 feet) below the surface, so hypothermia is not an issue due to geothermal heat. And at least one miner asked that his supplies include a weekend paper, so that he could look for a new job.

The bad news is that the rockfall in which they are trapped is quite unstable, so that the rescue team thinks that it will be at least three more days before they can drill a hole large enough to evacuate the men. So here’s hoping that they hang in there, and that no complications occur.

A geologic overview of the orebody can be found here: (pdf file)

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