Tag Archives: Science

Sophia Tabors: 10-year-old Science Fair Hero

Sophia TaborsWhen smart kids speak, pay attention. Sophia Tabors’ mother did.

Ten-year-old Sophia Tabors saw her grandpa drop a bag of apples and asked him if he was OK. He said something, but she couldn’t understand it. Then she noticed one side of his face was sagging, and she knew. Her grandpa was having a stroke!

How did this fourth-grade girl know what was happening to her grandpa?

“My other grandpa had a stroke and during that stroke I’m like, ‘Well it’d be interesting to find out why strokes happen and what causes them,’” she said. So she did. Sophia learned all she could about strokes and turned what she learned into a prize-winning science fair project. Even though one teacher told her this wasn’t a good subject for a science fair, she took a second-place ribbon anyway.

It was only two months later that she was at the grocery store with her mother and her other grandpa, and she realized this grandfather was also having a stroke. “He dropped a bag of apples,” she said. “He was staring at it and I was trying to ask him if he was okay. He was saying something, but I didn’t get it and his face was droopy on one side…I told my mom what was happening and she called 911.”

Her grandfather’s doctor credits her with saving his life, as well as physical abilities. “I have no doubt she saved a lot of his functions and probably his life too,” Dr. Alshekhlee said.

Sophia’s grandpa is recovering well now, largely because she was prepared and alert.

Well done, Sophia. Very well done indeed. We are all proud of you. The report says you love reading and learning and science. I hope you’ll keep on reading and learning all you can. People say “curiosity killed the cat,” but that’s nonsense. Curiosity is good. Very few things are as satisfying as learning, and you never know when something you’ve learned will save somebody’s life again. Or be useful in some other way.

You referred to yourself as a bookworm. This is great! Be sure to finish your education, but also learn all you can on your own. Good books, science magazines, and the internet make this easier than it has ever been before.

Since you’re interested, think about studying some branch of science.  You’d make a great scientist!



Dan Barker: Gravity Is Real, Real, Real

Dan Barker - gravity is real
Dan Barker – gravity is real

Dan Barker should know

Dan Barker was an evangelical preacher and gospel song writer until he realized it was all superstition. Now he is co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the largest freethought association in North America.

With more than 22,500 members, the nonprofit FFRF works as an effective state/church watchdog and voice for freethought (atheism, agnosticism, skepticism).

You can read Dan Barker’s story in his new book, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists.

Source: https://ffrf.org/

D. medinensis: Dragon Worms in Your Body

I have to agree with this one. Some extinctions might be OK. The extinction of Dracunculus medinensis, the “dragon worm,” also known as the guinea worm, is one example.

D. medinensis is almost extinct now.

Unlike smallpox, which the UN World Health Organization wiped out in 1977, the Guinea worm (D. medinensis) has been driven almost to extinction by the efforts of former President Carter and his Carter Center. The Carter Center is a non-governmental organization.

The disease is caused by the female which, at up to 800 mm (31 in) in length, is among the longest nematodes infecting humans. In contrast, the longest recorded male Guinea worm is only 40 mm (1.6 in).


The Dracunculus medinensis life cycle starts when somebody drinks water contaminated with tiny, almost invisible crustaceans known as copepods–Anna Rothschild called them “water fleas”–that have been infected with larval guinea worms. Once swallowed by a human, the copepod is digested, but the larval worms inside it live on and infect the human.

D. medinensis larvae
D. medinensis larvae

After the D. medinensis larvae are released, they migrate through the intestinal wall into the abdominal cavity, where they mature and mate. No wonder people get sick, with playful 31-inch worms crawling around inside their bellies.

When the appropriate time comes, the pregnant female worm eats her way through subcutaneous tissues, usually until she reaches an ankle, where she releases just a few larvae at first. These produce a blister on the skin that itches so badly that people usually put their feet in water to relieve the itching, whereupon she releases the rest of them into  the water to infect the resident copepods and start the cycle all over again.

The female guinea worm slowly starts to come out a little way from the host’s skin after the blister ruptures, and patients keep their feet under water to encourage her to emerge enough so they can very gently get hold of her and begin winding her around a piece of gauze, if available. More commonly, they use a small stick. They wind her very gently, so as not to break her. If they break part of her body off, the rest will stay inside and die and rot and cause serious infection. Complete extraction usually takes several days.

Winding the worm around the stick this way is thought by some to be the source of the Rod of Asclepius, the symbol of medicine.

Ex-President Jimmy Carter and his Carter Center, working with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the UN World Health Organization, began a program in the 1980s to eradicate D. medinensis. In 1986, 20 countries were affected by the worms.

The program included educating people in the affected areas to know that the disease was caused by drinking contaminated water, isolating and supporting sufferers, distributing filters for drinking water, and educating people about using them.

As of this year, D. medinensis has been reported to be almost extinct.

This is surely a very good thing, and I admire President Carter and his Carter Center tremendously for their work.

A caution

Nevertheless, this is tampering with nature. I wonder whether or not anybody knows what the effects will be? Have there been environmental studies? Do we know what water creatures may prey on the larvae that we may starve into extinction by robbing them of their food? We know the copepods do, and they may not be the only thing. Besides, what eats the copepods that may also starve if we starve the copepods? All I’m saying is that it’s complicated. Everything in nature is, and somebody probably ought to look at it. Maybe somebody did and I’m just not finding it.

On the other hand, it seems like very minor tampering compared to what we do all the time. I’m not suggesting we stop preventing infections. I’m just suggesting that next time we start to deliberately drive an organism extinct, maybe we ought to do a study while we’re getting started. Just in case.


Note: August 21, 2015 – I just heard President Carter say (on a video) that when he started his eradication program, there were 3.6 million cases of guinea worm and now we are down to 11 cases. He has recently had a cancer removed from his liver and he still has four melanomas in his brain, but he hopes the last guinea worm will die before he does. The video is here.



MERS Virus Attacking a Monkey Cell

MERS Virus attacking a monkey cell
MERS Virus attacking a monkey cell

South Korea has closed schools and canceled some public events amid concerns that an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome, known as MERS, could become a pandemic. But officials from the World Health Organization say they expect standard infection-control measures to contain the outbreak. So far, the virus has been known to spread between people mostly inside of hospitals and among family members in close contact with a sick person.

Science News

As of yesterday, 30 people were known to be infected in this latest outbreak of MERS virus, including one infected person who travelled to China. This is China’s first case of the disease. 1,369 people were under quarantine in South Korea. The entire outbreak originated from one infected man who flew to South Korea from the Middle East. The first known human cases of MERS virus were in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Scientists have just determined the infection is carried by camels, but they haven’t yet determined how it spread to humans. Possibly by drinking raw camel milk, which is common there.

This is an extremely serious condition, since it is spreading person-to-person and about 30 percent of infected patients die from it. Because it is so new to us, there is no vaccine and no cure yet, and we don’t even know how it spreads. And as I research this, I have learned that an infected health worker travelling from Saudi Arabia brought the disease to the United States just a few hours ago. It’s ebola all over again.

MERS Virus Picture

It was this picture that first caught my attention. When I saw it and realized it was a single, microscopic monkey cell, greatly enlarged, I was intrigued  by the tiny viruses attacking it. They’re glomming all over it!

The colors aren’t natural, of course. It’s been rendered in “false color” to make it possible for us to see what’s happening. The big blue mass is a single cell taken from an animal. The tiny yellow things are viruses. I had no idea there’d be so many of them. In fact, I had wondered how it was possible to find such an incredibly small thing as a virus in an animal’s body. This answers that question.

A virus is nothing but a bit of genetic material with a protein shell to protect it. Nobody knows where  viruses originated, although there are hypotheses. The problem is, there’s not much evidence to support any of them.

One hypothesis that seems reasonable to me is that, of all the many trillions of trillions of bits of inert DNA that flake off from living organisms and float around in our environment, one of them just happened to contain genes that made it infectious. Just by accident. It entered a living cell and joined temporarily with the host’s DNA, forcing the cell to produce copies of it. The copies, being also infectious, would find other cells and infect them. Some would be in different organisms.

As this continued, many of the copies would be imperfect and die. A few, though, would be able to infect better and faster. Or they were able to infect different kinds of creatures. Viruses mutate a lot and evolve fast. So from that one scrap fragment of DNA sprang all the viruses we know of today. Maybe it even happened more than once. It could’ve happened any number of times.

But that doesn’t seem to explain that many of our most destructive human viruses aren’t actually DNA. Flu viruses and some cold viruses are RNA. So are HIV, and several others. And they’re by no means limited to humans. So where did RNA viruses come from? We don’t know that either. Not yet.

Tools like the microscope that made this picture obviously help us understand viruses and other microbes better.



Northern Lights

Mar 25, 2015 – Sunspot AR2297 was extremely active in the middle of March sending out many flares and CME’s (coronal mass ejections). It triggered several nights of extreme aurora activity including the highest level seen in this solar cycle.

From the notes on Youtube

I’ve never seen the Northern lights in person. It’s one of the things I would love to do  before I die. The pictures and videos are so beautiful, they must be magnificent in person. Usually they’re only visible in the northern latitudes, too far north to see from anywhere I ever lived. Dad was supposed to have seen them once from somewhere in North Texas, but I never have. Occasionally, they are much brighter than other times.

Northern lights is a common name for the Aurora Borealis (Polar Aurorae) in the northern hemisphere. They are matched by the Aurora Australis in the southern hemisphere. They are caused primarily by particles from the sun (the solar wind) being funneled by earth’s magnetic field into the north and south polar areas. The charged particles, mostly electrons and protons, enter the atmosphere from above. Magnetospheric plasma interacting with the upper atmosphere also contributes its part.

Northern Lights
Northern Lights

Electrons and protons travelling at very high speeds interact with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the upper atmosphere. This ionizes the molecules, causes them to emit light, and produces the brilliant colors. The protons can also gain an electron from the atmosphere, become hydrogen, and then produce emissions of a different color.

At the highest altitudes, excited atomic oxygen emits light at a wavelength of 630.0 nm  (red). At lower altitudes the more frequent collisions suppress the red mode and emit more light at 557.7 nm (green). High concentration of atomic oxygen and higher eye sensitivity for green make green auroras the most common. The excited molecular nitrogen plays its role here as well, as it can transfer energy by collision to an oxygen atom, which then radiates it away at the green wavelength. (Red and green can also mix together to produce pink or yellow hues.)

Northern Lights
Northern Lights

Other shades of red as well as orange may be seen on rare occasions; yellow-green is moderately common. As red, green, and blue are the primary additive colours, in theory practically any colour might be possible; but the ones mentioned here are most common.

Blue, from atomic oxygen is uncommon; ionized molecular nitrogen emits light at several wavelengths in both red and blue areas of the spectrum, with 428 nm (blue) being dominant. Blue and purple emissions, typically at the lower edges of the “curtains”, show up at the highest levels of solar activity.

Ultraviolet light from aurorae (within the optical window but invisible to most people) has been observed. Ultraviolet aurorae have also been seen on Mars. Infrared light, in wavelengths that are visible to some people, also occur.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurora

Jerry Coyne’s “Faith Vs. Fact” Out Today

Faith vs Fact by Jerry CoyneGod is an hypothesis, and, as such, stands in need of proof: the onus probandi [burden of proof] rests on the theist. —Percy Bysshe Shelley

Coyne, Jerry A. (2015-05-19). Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible . Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


I can’t personally speak about Jerry Coyne’s new book because I haven’t read it yet. After all, it just came out today. But I will. I already have it on my Kindle.

You’ll find it for sale through Amazon on page 4 of our bookstore. (See the menu at the top of any page.)

Coyne is a biologist and a Professor in the Biology Department of the University of Chicago. He co-wrote a widely used textbook on biology and a trade book Why Evolution Is True (also available in our bookstore).

I have read Why Evolution Is True, and I read his website of the same name almost daily. I look forward to the same vast knowledge and clarity of thought I am used to.

Below are a few comments about the man and his books by people whose names you may recognize.

Biologist Jerry Coyne
Jerry Coyne’s New Book in Bookstores Today

“Many people are confused about science—about what it is, how it is practiced, and why it is the most powerful method for understanding ourselves and the universe that our species has ever devised. In Faith vs. Fact, Coyne has written a wonderful primer on what it means to think scientifically, showing that the honest doubts of science are better—and more noble—than the false certainties of religion. This is a profound and lovely book. It should be required reading at every college on earth.”
—Sam Harris, author of  The End of Faith, The Moral Landscape, and Waking Up

“The distinguished geneticist Jerry Coyne trains his formidable intellectual firepower on religious faith, and it’s hard to see how any reasonable person can resist the conclusions of his superbly argued book. Though religion will live on in the minds of the unlettered, in educated circles faith is entering its death throes. Symptomatic of its terminal desperation are the ‘apophatic’ pretensions of ‘sophisticated theologians,’ for whose empty obscurantism Coyne reserves his most devastating sallies. Read this book and recommend it to two friends.”
—Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion

“The truth is not always halfway between two extremes: some propositions are flat wrong. In this timely and important book, Jerry Coyne expertly exposes the incoherence of the increasingly popular belief that you can have it both ways: that God (or something God-ish, God-like, or God-oid) sort-of exists;  that miracles kind-of happen; and that the truthiness of dogma is somewhat-a-little-bit-more-or-less-who’s-to-say-it-isn’t like the truths of science and reason.”
—Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; author of The Better Angels of Our Nature

About Why Evolution Is True

“In this 200th anniversary year of Darwin’s birth, Why Evolution is True ranks among the best new titles flooding bookstores.”
Christian Science Monitor

Why Evolution is True is the book I was hoping would be written someday: an engaging and accessible account of one of the most important ideas ever conceived by mankind. The book is a stunning achievement, written by one of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists. Coyne has produced a classic—whether you are an expert or novice in science, a friend or foe of evolutionary biology, reading Why Evolution is True is bound to be an enlightening experience.”
—Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish

Earliest Known Ancestor of Modern Birds Spectacularly Well Preserved

Oldest Known Bird Fossil
Oldest Known Bird Fossil

Archaeornithura meemannae pushes back the earliest known ancestor of modern birds by five million years.

Rosa Rubicondior explains, “A team of Chinese paleontologists has discovered a spectacularly well preserved fossil bird from 130 million years ago which neatly fills the gap in the fossil record between proto-birds such as archaeopteryx and modern birds.” She cleverly titled her May 5 article Early Bird Catches the Creationist Worms.

This bird’s feathers were exceptionally well preserved. “The feathers are really beautiful. It is incredible how they were preserved so well for 130 million years,” as  Min Wang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences exclaims.

It’s extremely difficult to fossilize any part of an animal except bones, shells, and teeth. That’s why we have few fossils of anything until animals developed such hard parts around 500 million years ago. These exceptional feathers allow close comparison with modern birds and make the gorgeous artist’s conception above possible.

Put yourself on the planet 130 million years ago. Most of the animals, from horned dinosaurs to swimming, predatory plesiosaurs, would be deeply alien, not to say terrifying. But rising from the wetlands and winging across the sky were birds startlingly like today’s. That’s the message from two bird skeletons—spectacularly preserved with feathers and all—reported this week. 


The bird’s well developed adaptations show that most features of modern birds had already evolved. This bird was evidently capable of skillful flight; but it had long legs adapted for wading, much like today’s plovers. This shows that birds had already specialized to some degree, filling new new niches made possible by feathers and flight.

These fossils were found in northeast China by paleontologists Min Wang and Zhonghe Zhou of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology from Beijing. They are at least 5 million years older than the previously oldest-known birds. It is almost certain from the development of this specimen that the lineage is much older still.

Earliest known ancestor of modern birds was found embedded in siltstone

The hummingbird-sized creatures were embedded in siltstone slabs that were probably once a lake bed. Stubby feathers cover their bodies, except for part of the legs.

Archaeornithura meemannae, earliest known ancestor of modern birds
Archaeornithura meemannae, earliest known ancestor of modern birds

“But of all the new specimens, this is one of the most important found over the last decade,” says paleontologist Stephen Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.

Archaeornithura meemannae, earliest known ancestor of modern birds
Archaeornithura meemannae, earliest known ancestor of modern birds

Group of meat-eating dinosaurs spread their feathered wings and took to the skies.

Birds evolved around 150 million years ago when the flying dinosaurs stopped breeding with ground-bound ones, letting them evolve separately to fly better. The Ornithurae branch still survives as modern birds. Since they descended from feathered dinosaurs, birds are the last living descendants of the creatures that once dominated our planet.

Not all dinosaurs spawned surviving bird lineages. Even some dinosaurs that did evolve into animals we’d call birds didn’t make it. The Enantiornithes, for example, early birds with clawed wings and teeth apparently didn’t get the first worm after all. They went extinct along with the ground-bound dinosaurs.

Birds soon evolved huge chest muscles to power their wings. We’ve encouraged them to grow even larger in some species, and often refer to them as “chicken tenders.” Their wings grew many layers of different types of feathers for expert flight.

Before finding this bird, researchers had not known when some of these features had emerged.


Hubble Telescope 25th Anniversary Show Tonight

HST Spiral Galaxy M100
HST Spiral Galaxy M100

Twenty-five years ago, NASA launched one of the most ambitious experiments in the history of astronomy: the Hubble Space Telescope. This Friday is Hubble’s 25th anniversary. In honor of this anniversary, NOVA tells the remarkable story of the telescope that forever changed our understanding of the cosmos. Airs at 9 p.m. April 22 on PBS. (Check local listings for airtime.)

From the PBS website

HST Orion Nebula
HST Orion Nebula

That’s tonight, folks. It’s Channel 13 where I live, and I plan to be watching. And recording.

The pictures here are from the HST, and they’re just a sample of the many thousands of wonderful pictures it’s taken since it went to space aboard a shuttle.

You know this is going to be spectacular!

Is Evolution in Trouble?

Is evolution in Trouble? Obviously not!

Despite what you may hear, there is NO CONTROVERSY among scientists about whether you descended from an extinct ape-like creature.
You did.
So did I.
Most American’s say, “Teach the controversy!” But there is no scientific controversy to teach. If they knew a little bit more about how science works, they might understand that.
Maybe science teachers should spend a few minutes explaining to their students that it doesn’t matter what people think. What matters is what the evidence shows, and all the evidence in every museum and laboratory on earth shows the same truth. Evolution is real.
The only controversy is about the details. And there are trillions of details, so there’ll always be plenty of discussion and disagreement. But the evidence is overwhelming that all life on earth, including humans, evolved from a single-celled microbe that lived almost four billion years ago.
This video has just a little bit of that evidence.