Monthly Archives: February 2014

4,374,000,000 year-old zircon

[youtube_video Lnqb_5JOpP8]

(This post has been updated to add new information and — hopefully — to simplify it.)

This tiny, almost microscopic sliver of zircon, just the length that four human hairs are wide and said to be just slightly larger than a dust mite, is literally older than the hills. Older than any of the hills on earth, that is. At 4.374 billion years — yup, that’s Billion with a B — it’s almost as old as the planet itself. Earth is only estimated to be approximately 4.5 billion years old. (Only??? Only 4.5 billion years???)

Next time you hear somebody opine that the world and the universe were created in six literal 24-hour days about six or nine thousand years ago,  you’ll remember how incredibly carefully these scientists studied a few tiny zircon shards and found them to be many, many times older. 750,000 times older!

IBM Atomic Text
IBM Atomic Text

When I was in high school almost 60 years ago, it was believed we’d NEVER be able to see atoms with any kind of microscope. Atoms were said to be just too incredibly tiny to ever be seen. Now you can see them right here. (No, I haven’t changed the subject. I’m still telling the same story, but with a slight diversion.)

Only 30 or so years later, IBM showed they could not only see atoms but move them around on a  contrasting surface to form a message.

It must have been fun, because they didn’t stop there. They went ahead and made the world’s tiniest video by moving individual atoms, frame by frame, and then magnifying them a hundred million times. Here it is for your viewing pleasure.

[youtube_video oSCX78-8-q0]

A competing group of scientists — No, not competing with IBM. Competing with the ones studying the rocks. — Anyway, the competing scientists said “No, these rocks are only 3.8 billion years old.” You might think, “So what? That’s still older than God.” But it does matter, because the world and the whole solar system only formed about 4.5 billion years ago; so these rocks were formed less than two hundred million years after that. I know, two hundred million years is still a long time. But it’s a lot less than the seven hundred million years implied by the other group of scientists. It matters. It matters a lot to science.

So what did the original discoverers do? They chose another one of the hundred or so methods of testing the age of rocks, and they did the whole thing again the hard way. These methods are not quick or easy. They are time consuming, tedious, expensive, and complicated. But they work.

Now these scientists have actually counted every single individual atom of the lead contaminating one of these zircon slivers so they could date it with one of the many OTHER radioactive half-life methods available for dating rocks. The lead was an impurity, because pure zircons don’t contain any lead; so every single atom of it had to be accounted for before the testing could be done. They used a technology similar to IBM’s to count the atoms.

This second dating method confirmed the first and improved on it. The first had dated the formation of the rocks at 4.4 billion years ago. The second was more accurate, and provided the better formation date at 4.374 billion years ago. Well “within tolerances” of the first, but far more precise.

The original zircon had been destroyed in the original testing, but they used another one from the same place to test again. And came up with the same result, only more precise. 4.374 instead of the earlier 4.4.

You can’t get much more careful about your procedures than that. This is science at its best, and it is exactly how science is supposed to work. A cynic will say, “See? They were wrong. They can’t even date the rocks twice and come up with the same answer.” The truth is they did. It was the same answer, but more precise. Science seldom works by overthrowing what has already been learned. It progresses by making the answers even more accurate.

Side note: It turns out the competing scientists were right, too. Their rocks from the same area were just 3.8 billion years old. An ancient volcano in the area had erupted at least 50 times in the distant past and formed that many layers of rock of different ages in the same general location.

The two groups of scientists were working so close together that they assumed originally they were working with the same age of rocks, but they were not. With that understanding, it all makes sense. Once again, it’s great science.

For Texans Only

Women's health in Texas
Women’s health in Texas








However, most of you others probably need to take similar measures wherever you live, too.

I sent this letter to my State Senators just a few minutes ago. It’s late, since the committee meeting started today, but you can still have your voice heard if you hurry.

Texas citizens deserve a serious discussion of women’s health and an honest assessment of the consequences of legislative decisions affecting reproductive healthcare in our state. That discussion must include a comprehensive assessment of access to abortion care in Texas, The recent legislation that made abortion access so much harder to find in our state is completely unacceptable.

The failed abstinence-only sex education policies we have pursued in our schools for almost two decades are equally deplorable.

It should have been obvious to reasonable people 20 years ago that”abstinence-only” sex education will never work. Most young people are going to have sex no matter what their teachers tell them, and they need to know how to protect themselves from pregnancy, disease, and rape.

The proposed hearing in Sen. Nelson’s Health and Human Services committee on February 20 will apparently include neither of those critical issues. Please be sure they are added to the agenda.

Texas Freedom Network has provided a form here to be sure your message gets to the right Senators.




Thanks, Bill and Steve

Thanks to Bill Moyers and Steve Mirsky for letting us know about this guy.

How can an ignoramus like this get elected to Congress? Much less become Chairman of the Science Subcommittee on Oversight of  the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology? He doesn’t understand the science he is supposed to regulate. He thinks it is “lies from the pit of hell.”

I first read about Paul Broun in Scientific American, December2012, Antigravity, by Steve Mirsky. He was in this position then, and he still is. As well as being a member of several other important committees.

Surely the State of Georgia can do better than to let this man run un-opposed again. Get him out of the House of Representatives and back into medical practice where he can only hurt one person at a time.

On second thought, he ought to have his license to practice medicine revoked, too. Do you really want a doctor who thinks that much of what he was taught in medical school is “straight from the pit of hell”? Including not just evolution and cosmology, but embryology, too?

And if Georgia won’t stop electing him, isn’t there at least some way to get him off any science-related committees?

The last great ape

(Update 10/16/2014: Sorry. I just discovered this video has been removed from Youtube by the owner. I regret that very much, because it was a good one.)

The bonobo was the last of the great apes to be discovered. And even then, it was thought for a long time to be just a smaller variety of chimpanzee. It was, in fact, known as the “dwarf chimpanzee” for many years.

Eventually, with further study, it was realized that bonobos and chimps are separate species which separated from each other around 2 million to 3 million years ago. They are both our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. Our ancestors separated from their ancestors around 6 million to 7 million years ago. We are evolutionarily closer to both chimps and bonobos than they are to gorillas.

It is interesting — and undoubtedly informative — that bonobos have their forests all to themselves, with no other apes to contend with. Much fruit falls to the ground where they can collect it at their leisure.

Chimpanzees, on the other hand, have to contend with gorillas in the best parts of their range. The giant gorillas rule the ground and monopolize fallen fruit, while the chimps are forced to remain mostly in the trees. Life is much harder for them, and this may very well account for most of the differences that have developed between the two species.

Really smart bird? Maybe.

The crow appears to solve a complex puzzle to get food. It’s no surprise that crows are smart, of course. We’ve seen a lot of illustrations of that lately. But this is a more complex stunt than I’ve seen before. If it’s real, this is one brainy bird.

Still, there are several things to be skeptical about. In the first place, we are not told who Dr. Alex Taylor is or where he works. All we know is that he is young and he studies birds. When I google “Dr. Alex Taylor”, I get a list of medical doctors. Nobody I can easily identify as this particular researcher. With no more information than this, the guy could easily be a fraud. (Note that I am not calling him a fraud. I’m only saying we have no way to tell.)

Second, who is that other guy he left in the cage with 007? He might be signalling to the crow some way. It happened with Ed the horse. Again, I doubt this. I’m just saying that, if this was a genuine experiment, it was a sloppy one. Definitely not very scientific. And we weren’t given enough info to assess it.

It’s interesting. Amazing, even. But it deserves a lot of skepticism.


And I Thought I Was Getting Old!

Shell of an Arctica islandica clam, the longest living animal known
Shell of an Arctica islandica clam, one of the longest living animals known

The shell above is from the Arctica islandica species of edible clam, one of the longest living species of animal on earth. Researchers captured one in 2006 near Iceland that proved to be 507 years old. Unfortunately, Ming (as they named it) died shortly after being captured.

They named it after the Ming Dynasty in China, which was in power when the clam was spawned.

So how did they come to the conclusion Ming was 507 years old? Were any of the researchers there when Ming was spawned? “As is well known, trees make rings in their trunks for each year that passes while they live. By counting these rings, scientists can tell how long a tree has lived. Clams do something similar, creating grooves in their shells for every year they live. Ming had 507 tiny grooves.” (Popular Science) They had to be tiny to get that many grooves on a shell only about two inches (five cm) high.

Wikipedia reports this species is also known by such common names as ocean quahog, Icelandic cyprine, mahogany clam, mahogany quahog, black quahog, and black clam, and is harvested commercially as a food source.

A few species of land animal can also live quite long lives, though not comparable to Ming’s:

  • Adwaita, was an Aldabra Giant Tortoise that died at the age of 255 in March 2006 in Alipore Zoo, Kolkata, India. It was recorded as the oldest terrestrial animal in the world.
  • Henry, a New Zealand tuatara, sexully active in 2009 at the age of 111.
    Henry, a New Zealand tuatara, sexully active in 2009 at the age of 111.

    Henry, a tuatara at the Southland Museum in New Zealand, is a lizard-like animal, though actually more distantly related to lizards than snakes are.  He mated (believed to be for the first time) in 2009 at the age of 111 years with an 80-year-old female and fathered 11 baby tuatara. As far as I can learn, Henry is still alive and would be 116 years old now.

  • Lin Wang, an Asian elephant died at the age of 86 in February 2003 in the Taipei Zoo.

There ave been reports of many other animals living exceptionally long lives, but most cannot be verified.


Nye vs Ham creation debate

Nye-Ham-debate-Feb 4, 2014
The Lexington Herald-Leader, in Kentucky, published this cartoon by Joel Pett, about the Nye-Ham debate on evolution a few days ago.

Bill Nye “The Science Guy” squared off against Ken Ham “CEO of Answers In Genesis” Tuesday night in a debate about the question “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” The science guy won, of course, in my opinion and the opinions of many others. He had the facts, while all Ham had was an old book. One of his favorite arguments was”There’s a book out there . . .” Creation is not science; it is religion, and should NEVER be taught as science

When asked what would change his mind, Ham answered “Nothing.” Nye gave the same answer any reasonable person would: “Evidence.” Some said Ham lost the debate at that point.

See below what others thought about the debate.

Nye vs Ham: Lots of facts vs a very old book.
Nye vs Ham: Lots of facts vs a very old book.

That’s about how it was.

At the Creation Museum in Kentucky, a kid rides the triceratops statue. Just like thedy claim our ancestors did

Ham believes the world and the universe are about 6,000 years old and that humans lived with — and probably rode — dinosaurs. This picture is from his Creation Museum.

Is this guy joking? I'm not sure. But I like the picture.

Is this guy joking? I’m not sure. But I like the picture. He is correct, of course. Evolution cannot explain the owl and the apple similarity. Neither can it probably explain why I find this amusing. I just do.

Neil D. Tyson - Science is real whether you believe it or not

Neil DeGrasse Tyson pretty much sums it up. As usual.

But don’t take our word for it. See it for yourself.

Click here to see the debate.

Toward the end of the 2 1/2 hour video, as you might expect, both men seemed to tire and began to repeat themselves quite a bit. It tired me, too. I enjoyed watching, but it should have ended much sooner.