Posts in Science

Pluto: The Journey Begins

Written By | July 13, 2015 | Posted in Space Program | No Comments

The New Horizons probe is already closer to Pluto than any human object has ever been. Tomorrow, July 14, it will reach its closest point in a flyby that will involve a flurry of scientific activity. It will take a year for all of New Horizons’ data to be downloaded to Earth. Long-term, New Horizons is heading for the Kuiper belt where, it is hoped, we will be able to perform similar examinations of objects beyond Pluto.

Surprisingly, I have seen several tweets and comments around the interwebs speaking as though the Pluto mission marks an ending point of the exploration of space. Not that we will not keep exploring, but that New Horizons marks the limits of what humans can achieve. I beg to differ. Emphatically.

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Approaching Pluto

Written By | July 7, 2015 | Posted in Astronomy | No Comments

Human beings are explorers. As a species, we are not content to sit in our corners, cut off from the rest of the Cosmos. We want to see, we want to know. We have set out to explore new lands and find new wonders and we have labored to understand the ins and outs of the world around us. Our attitude is well expressed by The Doctor when he said, “There’s something that doesn’t make sense. Let’s go poke it with a stick.”

In a few days, a human craft will go where no craft (as far as we know) has gone before. Launched in 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft will reach Pluto on July 14. We did not even know Pluto was a thing until 1930 when it was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh. Poor Pluto was originally designated a planet but was demoted to dwarf planet status in 2006, just months after New Horizons was launched. Pluto is tiny, so tiny that it does not have enough mass to gravitationally clear its orbit.

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Gender: Equality Versus Sameness (or… of Bathrooms and Boxing Rings)

Written By | July 1, 2015 | Posted in Atheist Life Biology Uncategorized | No Comments

In the gender series we have examined gender from the standpoint of who gets to define you from a gender standpoint, why social boundaries trump biology for gender identification, and why the same cannot be said for race (thus the invalidity of the term “transracial”). In this fourth and final (for now) entry in the series, I will address some difficult and emotionally-charged issues around when transgender individuals should be integrated into current gender-based social categories and, critically, when they should not.

I will begin with the story of Fallon Fox, a transgender woman (born biologically male) who at 30 years old had gender reassignment surgery. A few years later, she joined the ranks of professional female mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters. This created significant controversy. She has had a fairly successful MMA fighting record and has left opponents injured in ways that are uncommon in female MMA matches. Should a person who was born male and up until 30 years of age experienced all of the hormonal strength and body-structural benefits of being male be allowed to participate in a potentially dangerous competitive female sport later in life?

My answer might surprise you. (more…)

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Morality: Redefining Self

Written By | February 24, 2015 | Posted in Apologetics Biology Philosophy | No Comments

Morality as an end result of self-interest causes people fits. For some, there is little more reason needed to reject the idea other than it negates the need for gods to have handed down our moral code. For others, however, they look at examples of super-morality – Gandhi being the most frequently expressed example of this – where a person’s self-sacrificing behavior seems to go beyond what you can explain via self-interest. In this post, I’m going to address that issue, and unless other great questions come up as a result, will close the loop on this part of the morality series.

For starters, let’s review some examples of moral behavior that results from self-interest. In my last post, I contrasted the behavior of human mothers to some marsupial mothers. Why is it that a human mother would go farther to defend her offspring than a marsupial? Can you explain that *just* via evolutionary biology? Well, yes you can. Life history theory posits that organisms develop behaviors that will result in the largest number of highest quality offspring, and furthermore, the higher the biological cost of reproduction, the more investment that is made in each one. Let’s examine our story in this light.

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The Central Dogma: From DNA to RNA to Proteins

Written By | February 23, 2015 | Posted in Biology | No Comments

As a kid, I would rush to watch Saturday Morning Cartoons. My sisters and I would watch our shows, munch pop tarts, and try to stay quiet so that our parents would sleep a bit longer, giving us more time watching whatever adventure was being displayed in color or Technicolor. I didn’t really know how any of the technology worked – I just knew if I pushed a button, the TV turned on. Push another and the channel changed. My knowledge of the arcane workings of television has not progressed much over the years. I know how to make it do what it does and that’s good enough for me.

Most of us have a similar relationship with DNA. We know DNA holds genetic information for organisms, that our genes are encoded in DNA, and that’s about it. We know it looks like a double helix, might remember base pairs from High School science, but we would be hard pressed to explain how the information in DNA controls things like eye color, nose size, or height.

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The Marvelous Effectiveness of Mathematics

Written By | February 16, 2015 | Posted in Mathematics | 2 Comments

(Opening disclaimer: as with most of my writings on science, I have no formal training in the area. Perhaps someday, but for now I am merely a curious bystander. What I present below is my best attempt at understanding the topic, but for detailed information (and fact-checking), follow the various provided links.)

Mathematics is a language with its own grammar and syntax. Mathematicians work to see what coherent sentences can be written with that language. Many times they do not know what to do with the sentences they compose, and many times those sentences later turn out to be accurate depictions of physical phenomena. Because they form complete sentences, they can also reveal things previously unknown in physics.

Imagine you are working on a physics problem and you are able to string together a theory that looks something like, “The quick brown fox…” You are absolutely certain that this phrase is part of the solution to your problem, but you are also certain that it is incomplete. Your friend the mathematical grammarian happens to stop by for a visit and she looks at your discovery. “Well that’s funny,” she says, “that looks just like the first part of a sentence I uncovered with the language of mathematics.” You look at her sentence, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog,” and you realize her complete sentence is not only a perfect match to the fragment you already have, it helps to explain things you previously could not figure out. Your friend had no idea that her sentence corresponded to the real world. To her it was just a beautiful formulation from mathematical grammar. For you, this abstract piece of math helps to open a new window into the world.

This basic analogy points toward a broader reality: mathematics has the uncanny ability to describe the world around us.

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God Arguments: A Grand Universal Design?

Written By | February 5, 2015 | Posted in Apologetics Philosophy Physics | No Comments

The next argument often used to point towards the existence of a supernatural creator is the Teleological Argument, also known as the argument from design. It goes something like this:

  1. Designs imply a designer
  2. The universe is a grand design
    Therefore
  3. The universe had a grand designer

Once again we will look at the validity of the first two statements, and then try to determine whether the third statement is actually valid given the best available evidence.

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The Natural Selection of Reeces

Written By | February 4, 2015 | Posted in Biology Uncategorized | No Comments

My wife and I have been on a recent miniature health kick. We are looking to replace common household snacks with healthy alternatives. Many alternatives exist, the trick is finding the ones actually good for you. We have cut out many of our typical snack items and replaced them with a nut mix. This mix is typically composed of items such as peanuts, cashews, yogurt covered cranberries, and various other odds and ends.

Recently, we have been including a hint of that taste of nature’s sweetness known as Reece’s Pieces. With every batch of our nut mix, we stir in a bag of the sugary concoction.

I have developed the nasty habit of pulling items from our nut mix bowl. My particular habits tend toward the cashews and Reece’s Pieces – I can’t get enough of them. Whenever I think I can get away with it, I sneak away supplies.

I recently noticed a trend with the Reece’s Pieces – these bits of chocolaty goodness come ready to attract the eye with three standard colors: yellow, orange, and brown. Humans have evolved to notice things that stand out from the environment, and the yellow and orange Reece’s tend to stand out when surrounded by an ocean of brown nuts. Safely hidden are the brown Reece’s Pieces.

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God Arguments: The Nature of Nothing

Written By | February 2, 2015 | Posted in Mathematics Philosophy Physics | 2 Comments

Now that we have defined some ground rules of our discussions and defined some terms that are commonly misused, it is time to start digging into some of the hard questions. In this first series, I am going to look at arguments for the existence of a supernatural creator and how to evaluate them given our previously agreed-upon rules of engagement.

Our first foray into this *very* heavy question will be into what I consider to be the best argument that believers have for the notion of gods: the Kalam Cosmological Argument, otherwise known as the argument from creation. At its most basic level, it states the following:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause;
  2. The universe began to exist;
    Therefore:
  3. The universe has a cause. (Wikipedia)

We need to evaluate both the initial claims and the conclusion of this classic argument. How does it hold up to scrutiny?

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Thinking About Thinking: Evidence and Statistics

Written By | January 21, 2015 | Posted in Mathematics Philosophy Science | 3 Comments

In the first post in this series, we defined the first principle of all decision-making: the laws of logic, and specifically the Law of Noncontradiction. In the second post, we explored the concept of confirmation bias and the two tests to correct for it: treating similar evidence equally and devising tests to falsify your own beliefs. In this third post in the Thinking About Thinking series we are going to discuss how to determine if evidence actually supports your claims using statistical analysis.

For starters, let’s look at a brief overview of the science of statistics and some of its important concepts.

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