Saturday, April 30, 2011

Saturday Quotation

Great quotation from a book I'm reading - The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth's Antiquity by Jack Repcheck (Basic Books, 2003).

Repcheck writes in the Prologue, when discussing the development of the natural sciences:

Scholars who investigated fields that did not touch on church doctrine were relatively unaffected, but those who explored the natural world were playing with fire - the figurative fire of controversy, the real fire of the heretic's pyre, and the eternal fire of damnation if the church felt they had stepped too far.  It required genuine bravery even to venture into these issues; it required hard-to-imagine resolve to promote a position that conflicted with church teachings.

Why did science move away from the traditional Biblical view of an Earth divinely created in 4004 BC and the belief in a global flood around 2350 BC (according to Archbishop Ussher's famous chronology published in 1650) and risk the wrath of the church?  Because people like Scottish naturalist James Hutton started simply looking at rocks and thinking about what they saw.  It's hard to imagine how difficult that was -  intellectually, professionally, socially - when the results of such investigations were seen by many as heresy.

When Hutton wrote in 1788 that "The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,–no prospect of an end" it was a direct challenge to the church teaching of a relatively recent divine creation.  What's amazing to me is that there are still religiously-motivated people over 200 years later, at a time when there's irrefutable evidence of a multi-billion-year-old Earth, who still insist on denying reality.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Massimo Pigliucci Lecture


Dr. Massimo Pigliucci will be coming to SUNY Ulster County Community College in Stone Ridge, NY on Thursday, May 5 at 7:00 pm for a lecture titled Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk.

He's written a book of the same title.

Dr. Pigliucci is Chair of the Philosophy Department at CUNY’s Lehman College and has, not 1, not 2, but 3 PhDs (just to make the rest of us feel like lazy slackers). He has a PhD in Genetics from the University of Ferrara, Italy (1989), a PhD in Botany from the University of Connecticut (1994), and a PhD in the Philosophy of Science from the University of Kentucky (2003).

Dr. Pigliucci has published over a hundred technical papers and several books. His most recent technical book is Making Sense of Evolution: Toward a Coherent Picture of Evolutionary Theory (co-authored by Jonathan Kaplan; University of Chicago Press). He has a forthcoming book titled Evolution: The Extended Synthesis (co-edited with Gerd Muller, M.I.T. Press).

Professor Pigliucci has been awarded the Dobzhansky Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution and has been elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science "for fundamental studies of genotype by environmental interactions and for public defense of evolutionary biology from pseudoscientific attack." He maintains a blog at

The talk is aimed to general audiences and completely free. It will be great. Here's the link to a promotional poster (PDF). Feel free to post it!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Skunk Cabbage

Looks like a bumper crop of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) this spring.  I have a lot of wetlands (swamps) around my house and they're loaded with thousands of healthy-looking green plants.

For those who don't know, skunk cabbage is named for the pungent odor released when you rip or crush a leaf.  The odor attacts pollinators like flies which are drawn to the stench.  One plant in the same family as the skunk cabbage is known as the "carrion flower" or "corpse flower" (Amorphophallus titanum), for obvious reasons.  Spectacular flower, but having your garden smell like a corpse is a definite downside.

Two interesting things about skunk cabbage.  The first is that they are capable of thermogenesis - they can generate their own heat (as much as 15-35° C above ambient air temperature!).  This allows the plant to sprout and flower when the surrounding ground is still frozen.  The second is that they have contractile roots.  These are roots that contract and are slowly pulling the plant deeper into the mud (they grow in swamps, remember).  After a few years, the plants have huge root systems making them practically impossible to dig up.

Because of these contractile roots, it's been claimed that skunk cabbages can survive for hundreds of years as long as their area doesn't dry out or stay flooded for too much of the year - they're basically an edge of wetlands plant.

Skunk cabbage did have some medicinal uses amongst Native Americans but is generally not considered edible since the roots are toxic and the leaves supposedly burn your mouth (given their smell, I can't imagine anyone wanting to eat them).

When I was in British Columbia last June, we did a little walk on the Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail at Mount Revelstoke National Park.  The actual conversation was something like "Look, they have a skunk cabbage boardwalk trail.  Cool, let's stop!"  Some families go to Disneyland, we take walks in skunk cabbage wetlands.

This is actually western skunk cabbage, a slightly different species (Lysichiton americanus).  Both species, however, belong to the same subfamily (Orontioideae) of the Araceae family of plants.  Western skunk cabbage is supposedly a bit more edible and bears apparently eat the roots for its laxative effects after emerging from hibernation.

The surrounding view, by the way, was pretty impressive...

That's Mount Revelstoke above a field of equisetum (another interesting plant I'll have to write about in the future).  While I do love the Hudson Valley of New York, I really do miss places like British Columbia and wish I could spend more time there!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Beecher Trilobite Beds

My previous post of a lecture by Derek Briggs on Extraordinary Fossils mentioned the Beecher trilobite bed.  Since this is located in New York, and it's an interesting deposit, I thought I'd write more about this locality.

The Beecher bed is what paleontologists label a konservat-lagerstätte - a term from German meaning "conservation storage place." Lagerstätten are mother-lode fossil assemblages typically noted for exquisite soft-bodied preservation of organisms. This particular lagerstätte dates from the Late Ordovician Period (about 450 million years ago).

The Beecher bed is a 4-9 cm thick bed within the Frankfort Shale from a small quarry just outside of Rome in Oneinda County (43° 15.2' N, 75° 24.5' W).  Here's a photo of the quarry from the Brigg's Lab website.

The site was excavated between 1893 to 1895 by Charles Emerson Beecher, a paleontologist at Yale's Peabody Museum. Beecher died shortly thereafter and the location was lost and thought to be mined out until it was rediscovered in 1982.  The site has been periodically worked by paleontologists from Yale (and other places) since then for research.  Don't even think of collecting there - it's closed to the general public (I'd drive there tomorrow with shovel and pick if I could get in!).

The amazing thing about the Beecher bed fossils are the fact that they're pyritized - replaced by the golden iron sulfide mineral pyrite (FeS2) - and often show soft-tissure preservation.  Some 85% of the fossil specimens found are of one trilobite - Triarthus eatoni - although additional trilobites, graptolites, and a few other organisms are present as well.

Not only are the trilobites fossilized, but often antennae, appendages, gill structures, and even musculature is preserved in exceptional detail which is quite rare.

The neat images below are from Amherst College professor Whitey Hagadorn's research on Beecher bed trilobites.  On left is a pyritized Triarthus eatoni trilobite.  On right is an x-ray image of the same fossil showing antennae and appendages not visible on the surface of the specimen.  Go to the website above to see the image rotate around for a 3-D view!

Why are these trilobites so exceptionally well preserved?  They were entombed in turbidity currents - underwater flows of water and sediment that quickly buried and sealed them off from oxygen.  This prevented decomposition of their soft tissues.

Geochemical conditions were such that pore water in the sediments were enriched in iron and sulfur leading to replacement of the tissues by the mineral pyrite (FeS2) - the exact details of this process are still being argued about.

Why were there turbidity currents here?  Because during the Ordovician Period, a chain of volcanic islands (the Taconic island arc) was approaching and colliding with proto-North America.  Between was a deep trench and subduction zone where large earthquakes and would have periodically shaken the seafloor.

Here's what North America looked like during the Late Ordovician Period.  Notice that large parts of New York were under shallow sea water (the Franklin Shale was forming in this environment) and those landmasses to the east are the Taconic arc.

More recently, pyritized trilobites have been found in several other localities in the Ordovician Lorraine Group in Lewis County, NY.  Poke around, you might get lucky.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Extraordinary Fossils

Set aside 45 minutes and watch this lecture by Dr. Derek Briggs, Director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.  He spoke at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland last December on Extraordinary Fossils: Windows on the History of Life on Earth.

Thanks to the Louisville Fossils blog for drawing my attention to this.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

How is the date of Easter determined?

Many people, if they know at all, believe that Easter falls on the Sunday after the first full Moon following the Vernal Equinox. That's what I used to think myself.  The details, however, are a bit more complicated and, as we'll see, the Church doesn't calculate the date of Easter the way an astronomer would.

As I've written before, the Vernal Equinox is the half-way point between the Winter Solstice and the Summer Solstice - the times when the Earth's Northern Hemisphere has its maximum tilt away from or toward the Sun.

So the Equinox is when the Earth's axis of rotation is neither tilted toward nor away from the Sun - technically that occurs where the plane of the ecliptic passes through the celestial equator at a right ascension of zero hours (don't worry if you don't understand this).

From the perspective of us on Earth, the Vernal Equinox is when the Sun passes over the Equator (in the winter, the Sun is over the Southern Hemisphere, in summer, over the Northern).  The Vernal Equinox generally occurs around March 20 (although not always because our civil Gergorian calendar does not perfectly align with astronomical events).

For the 1,000 year span of time from 1500 to 2499 CE, the date of the Vernal Equinox in Universal Time (UTC) has the following distribution on the Gregorian Calendar (yes, I know the Gregorian calendar wasn't invented until 1582, but we need to make this assumption to compare dates):

     March 19 =   7.1%
     March 20 = 66.4%
     March 21 = 26.5%

An astronomer calculating the date of Easter would use the actual date and time of the Vernal Equinox which, between 1500 and 2499 CE, ranges from 12:28 UTC on March 19, 2496 to 20:42 UTC on March 21, 1503 (I think it's just a coincidence that the earliest date of the Vernal Equinox is near the end of my 1,000 year range and the latest date is near the beginning!).

Since Easter commemorates an event which occurred in Jerusalem, I suppose one could use the precise time of Easter in that time zone which is 3 hours ahead of the UTC time (doing so would shift 122 of the dates to the next day giving 4.0% on March 19, 60.4% on March 20, and 35.6% on March 21).

Full Moon over Jerusalem

What about the date of the first full Moon after the Vernal Equinox?  Astronomers can calculate this very accurately as well.  This year, for example, the Vernal Equinox fell on Sunday, March 20 at 23:21 UTC.  Full Moons this year fell on Saturday, March 19 at 18:10 UTC and Monday, April 18 at 02:44 UTC.  As you can see, the March full Moon was just a hair early so Easter had to fall on the Sunday after the April full Moon which is April 24 (the latest possible date of Easter, by the way, is April 25).

Let's look at another example, however.  In 1962, the Vernal Equinox occurred on Wednesday, March 21 at 02:30 UTC.  The full Moon occurred on the same date at exactly 07:56 UTC.  That was the first full Moon after the Vernal Equinox.  Easter should have been the following Sunday, March 25.  Instead Easter fell on April 22 that year, two days after the next full Moon on April 20.  Why?

It has to do with how Protestant and Roman Catholic churches calculate the date of Easter (Eastern Orthodox churches do things differently to further complicate the issue).  The ecclesiastical rules for calculating Easter are as follows:

1.  Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first ecclesiastical full Moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox;

2.  this ecclesiastical full Moon is the 14th day of a tabular lunation (days since the new Moon); and

3.  the Vernal Equinox is fixed as March 21.

This results in Easter never occurring before March 22 or later than April 25.

So, even though the Vernal Equinox can occur on March 19, 20, or 21, the church fixes it on March 21 (the date it occurs only 36% of the time in Jerusalem as we've seen).   Also, what's up with the phrase "ecclesiastical full Moon" seen in the definition?  How's that different from an ordinary full Moon?

The ecclesiastical full Moon is also called the Paschal Full Moon after the Hebrew pesach or Passover.  The date of Easter was first officially set for the Church by rules developed in 325 CE at the First Council of Nicaea convened by the Emperor Constantine. This was based on the Julian calendar.  When Pope Gregory XIII developed the modern-day Gregorian calendar in 1582, however, the rules for determining the date of Easter were also updated with the new calendar system.

Basically, tables were drawn up dividing 19 calendar years into 235 lunar months of 29 and 30 days each (the cycle of lunar phases is 29.531 days).  This is based on an ancient cycle known as the Metonic Cycle after Meton of Athens (although the ancient Babylonians knew of it as well).  The dates of the full Moon on these tables is as much as 2 days off from the date of the full Moon in the sky since it's an approximation.

Here are the dates for the Paschal Full Moon as computed for the present 19-year Metonic cycle compared to the astronomical dates of the full Moon.  Note that they don't always correspond.

So the date of Easter is set by two approximations - the Vernal Equinox is artificially set to March 21 and the full Moon date is determined by tables calculated by a procedure dating back to ancient times!  There are some algorithms (see here and scroll down) to calculate this if you're interested (it's a relatively easy programming task with a computer).

Eastern Orthodox churches calculate Easter much in the same way but they use the Julian calendar which the rest of the world abandoned hundreds of years ago since it doesn't do leap year calculations accurately and is thus quite a bit off from our modern calendar.

The funny thing about all of this is that there's no compelling theological reason for the complexity of Easter other than Church tradition.  There have been a number of reforms suggested over the years (e.g. celebrate Easter on the second Sunday in April) but given the number of different denominations involved, it's doubtful any of them could agree on the color of the sky, let alone the date of their most sacred holiday.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Women, men's fingers, and sex

OK, I did write the title of this post to purposefully draw people in who were hoping for something a bit more racy than what I'm actually going to write about.  Isn't that what they teach you in science journalism school?

There have been a number of news articles lately about a supposed relationship between finger ratios and the sexual attractiveness of men.  The basic idea that a man's ring finger will be longer than his index finger if he was exposed to more testosterone in the womb.  More testosterone leads, supposedly, to the development of more "masculine" features resulting in physical attractiveness to women (I guess it's true that women like Neanderthal-like men - that really does explain a lot for nerds like me).

Problem is that some scientists, like P.Z. Myers over at Phyrangula, have an interesting take on this study basically calling it junk science.  Go there and read his post.  I tend to agree with him - it seems to be yet another example of bad science and bad science journalism.

For the record, I have thick, long, manly ring fingers.  Since I've never had any luck with the ladies, I'm assuming my other qualities (e.g. substandard looks and personality) were far more important than my finger ratios when women were repulsed by my advances during my pre-married dating days.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Finished up another book - Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press, 2011).  Fagan is a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the author of a number of popular anthropology/archaeology books (dozens actually).

I saw the book in the local library and read it to get up-to-date information on the rapidly-changing and controversial field of human prehistory.  When I say controversial, by the way, I don't mean that human evolution is controversial - human evolution is a scientific fact.  What's controversial are the interpretations of the bones and stone tools left for us to reconstruct the lives of our ancestors.

When exactly did different groups of hominids move out of Africa?  How did Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals interact in Europe?  Why did our ancestors make those hauntingly beautiful cave paintings in southwestern France?  All questions that are argued about by modern-day archaeologists.

Two quick quibbles before I continue...  I think this book would have benefited from a bit better editing.  I found some sections to be repetitive - as if Fagan was padding for a higher word count - and the writing could certainly have been tightened up a bit.  There were also sidebar boxes inserted throughout the book that weren't, in fact, sidebars but which were placed in such a way as to interrupt the narrative flow of the book since they sometimes extended across multiple pages.

What are Cro-Magnons?  They're basically the earliest Homo sapiens in Europe (the word comes from a French rockshelter where bones were discovered).  If you're from European ancestry, they are your direct ancestors.

The book discusses where they came from - East Africa - and how they migrated around the Mediterranean into Europe in waves.  This story is complicated by the advances and retreats of the Pleistocene Ice Age.  Europe was a very different place back then, more akin to Siberia at times when the climate was cooling.  Also complicating the story are the interactions of Cro-Magnons with Neanderthals - an entirely different species of hominid we shared Europe with until around 30,000 years ago.

Fagan inserts a lot of opinion and conjecture in this book.  Descriptions of what life was like and how Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals interacted with themselves and each other.  Interesting but it does make one wonder how accurate these are even though Fagan is certainly knowledgable in his field.  One thing I did find interesting was the claim that Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals didn't ever interact (or interbreed) with each other.  There are some genetic studies indicating traces of Neanderthal DNA in modern Europeans although other researchers dispute the interpretations (maybe I'll post more about this later).

Anyway, it's a worthwhile read - just skim some of the more repetitive sections!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

I wish stupidity were illegal - Part II

A couple of days ago, I wrote about  Tennessee State Representative Frank Nicely (R-Strawberry Plains), the genius who believed that the Jewish Albert Einstein evangelized for Christianity.

Next up is Tennessee State Representative Sheila Butt (R-Columbia) who gave a speech about how scientists don't know what they're talking about because they took away her Aqua Net hairspray.

Let us count Butt's errors in this short clip:

1. Governments around the world banned chlorofluorocarbons (CFSs) as propellants in hairsprays like Aqua Net because of undeniable evidence that they were damaging the Earth's ozone layer which shields us from ultraviolet radiation from the Sun.  Nothing to directly do with global warming.

2. This is not the same as aerosol particles, even though we called them aerosol spray cans.  Aerosols are microscopic particulates in the atmosphere that can come into the atmosphere from your car exhaust, smokestacks, etc.  Aerosols can reflect sunlight and act to cool the planet (large volcanic eruption injecting ash into the stratosphere can do this).  They also can result in air pollution, smog, acid rain, etc.

3.  Aerosols don't block "Earth's rays", they block radiation from the Sun.

Butt doesn't understand that words like "aerosol" can mean two different things.  That's fine, no crime in being ignorant about something.  Yet these morons are crafting laws telling science teachers what to teach in science classes in public schools.  Why?  Let's be honest - it's because they're evangelical Christians who hate the idea of evolution and believe scientists are evil atheists out to destroy the American way of life.

And people wonder why college professors are given tenure.  If we didn't have tenure, these anti-science barbarians would be gunning for us as well.  Legislators would seek to require college professors in science classes to "teach the controversy".  Problem is, there's NO FUCKING CONTROVERSY!  Not among people who know what they hell they're talking about.

Monday, April 18, 2011

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

One advantage of being sick is that I can catch up on my reading.  I just finished a good book by Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors.  At Home: A Short History of Private Life (2010, Doubleday) uses Bryson's home, a 19th century rectory in Norfolk, England, as the jumping off point to discuss a whole host of interesting topics.

Chapters are titled "The Hall", "The Kitchen", "The Stairs", "The Cellar", etc. which make you think he's simply going to describe his home and the history of why we have the various rooms and features we do in our homes.  It's much more.

Here's just one example.  In the chapter on the bathroom, Bryson discusses ancient toilets, Roman baths, filthy Christians in the Middle Ages, smallpox, how people rarely if ever bathed in the 18th century, chamberpots, the development of London's sewer system, cholera, and the appearance of bathrooms in hotels (the Midland Hotel in London was built in 1873 as a luxury hotel and only had 4 bathrooms for 600 guest rooms!).

Another example is the chapter on the fuse box.  Here Bryson covers the World War II blackouts in Britain, living by candlelight, the surprising information (to me, at least) that people in pre-electric days did not generally go to bed with the Sun but kept the same kind of hours we do today with some routinely staying up to all hours of the night, various fuels people have used to light their homes (tallow, whale oil, kerosene, gas), a short history on the discovery of oil in Pennsyvlania, stoves, the hazards of fire, and the development of electric lights.

Each of the 19 chapters are similar.  While he wanders all over the place, it all ties together and it's all interesting.  This is history I love to learn about - not a recitation of events, but seeing how everything is related and ties together.  Bryson's wit and easy-to-read style made it a joy to read.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Happy birthday to me - NOT!

WARNING - Copious and profligate use of bad language.  It's probably best if you just go away.

More warning that you don't want to read this.  Especially if you don't know me.  There's no reason to since it's just a self-indulgent diatribe that I'm posting because I can.  I have a blog, I can damn well post whatever the fuck I want.  I can even use words like fuck and will use them liberally in this post.  Today's post is not educational.  If you don't like it, go away.  Don't read this post and certainly don't complain to me that you read it and didn't like it for some reason.

Today's my birthday.  My fiftieth fucking birthday.  50!  Half a fucking century.  I am not a 50-year-old man.  Yes, I have some gray in my hair.  Yes, I'm stiff in the morning when I first get up.  Yes, I seem to have more health problems than I did a few decades ago.  I'm not an old man though.  I can't be 50.  I refuse to be 50.  Fuck 50.  I stomp on 50 and piss on the twitching corpse.

I don't act 50.  I take field trips and hike better than some of my 18-year-old students.  I write blogs and liberally use the f-word.  I'm immature as all hell.  I like younger people, I don't hang out with people who act like old folks.  I'm not wise.  I don't have good judgement.  As a mature man, I'm a complete failure.  And I want it that way.  I'm not going to sit around with friends and discuss my health problems.  I'm not worring about retirement (I fully plan on dying in my office or on a field trip of a massive coronary).  I'm not sitting in an easy chair watching Wheel of Fortune and Dancing with the Stars in the evening.  Shoot me in the fucking head first.

Yes, AARP sent me birthday mail.  The fucking vultures.  My wife, bless her cold, wicked, 8-year-younger heart waved it at me and laughed.  I showed her, though.  I ripped it in shreds and tossed it in the trash.  I'll die before I'll accept an AARP card and ask for senior discounts.

So, you'll think, you must have had a lovely day with your family celebrating this special occassion?  No.  My two kids and myself have been sick as dogs all week.  I started feeling sick last Monday, six days ago, and had a fever Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights (feeling a little better today, but coughing my lungs out).  And don't think I was so sick because I'm old and frail!  My kids were just as sick.

My son was so sick we ended taking him to the doctor today and the doctor sent him to the emergency room for a chest x-ray and blood work.  Most of my birthday was spent home with my sick daughter worrying and waiting to hear from my wife while she was in the hospital ER with my sick son.  Fortunately, they found nothing bad (other than a nasty virus) and have sent him home.  Lovely fucking day other than worrying about the life of my children.

If I wasn't so sick, I would buy a bottle of something suitably alcoholic, hike deep into the woods, and drink myself into a stupor (this was actually a half-formed plan at one point).  Of course, I would have gotten rained on since we just had a downpour and it's currently 46 F outside.  I would have caught fucking pneumonia and died.  Did you know that they used to call pneumonia the "old man's friend"?  That would have been pretty fucking ironic, don't you think?

Whatever.  Back to work tomorrow to lecture on various and sundry topics in Earth science with a still raspy voice and a hacking, tubercular cough.  Then, no shit, I have a late afternoon appointment with a urologist.  Don't even ask about that. TMI?  Fuck you, I told you not to read this post!

I'm acutely aware of my own (and others) mortality tonight.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

I wish stupidity were illegal

Listen to what Tennessee State Representative Frank Nicely (R-Strawberry Plains) claims about Albert Einstein - a humanist, secular Jew.  Einstein, of course, never said any such thing - it's a complete fabrication (why should we expect anything less from supporters of young-Earth creationism).

The rest of Nicely's statement, is complete ignorant bullshit as well.  Why am I struggling for a living as a college professor?  I should run for elected office.  Oh wait, I forgot, I have morals and ethics and would feel uncomfortable shamelessly making things up to score political points.

Here's a detailed rebuttal of Nicely's statement by a biographer of Einstein.  Not that the truth matters to ignorant people like Nicely.  I'm sure he's a self-professed Christian too - good witness there Representative - isn't there a commandment somewhere about bearing false witness?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Do scientists and creationists simply look through different glasses?

I recently posted about a supposed "dinosaur" petroglyph at Kachina Bridge Natural Bridges National Monument in southeastern Utah.  The post inspired a couple of comments from people I assume to be young-Earth creationists (YEC) eager to find evidence for their crazy belief that the Earth is only a couple thousand years old and dinosaurs and humans cavorted together in the "pre-flood" world (many even claim dinosaurs were on Noah's Ark).

Anyway, someone named Geoff C. posted the following comment to my post which I think is deserving of more discussion than I can give in the comments area of the original post.  He wrote:

The picture labeled "Dr. Senter's interpretation" says it all. He believes it's impossible that humans could have seen dinosaurs, so has to "interpret" the petroglyph according to this preconceived idea. Both creationists and evolutionists look at the same evidence, but interpret it according to the "glasses" they wear.

This is actually a very common YEC position.  It's featured, for example, at Answers in Genesis (AIG), Ken Ham's reality-denying organization that runs the infamous Creation Museum in Kentucky (where they're also planning to build a full size Noah's Ark).

Here's a typical AIG claim from their online literature:

Creationists and evolutionists, Christians and non-Christians, all have the same facts. Think about it: we all have the same earth, the same fossil layers, the same animals and plants, the same stars—the facts are all the same.

The difference is in the way we all interpret the facts. And why do we interpret facts differently? Because we start with different presuppositions; these are things that are assumed to be true without being able to prove them. These then become the basis for other conclusions

Sounds reasonable, doesn't it?  To a certain degree, it's true.  Mainstream scientists and young-Earth creationists look at the same evidence but come up with different interepretations.  Philosophers will agree that we all operate under certain presuppositions.

So is it entirely reasonable to consider YEC interpretations of fossils (or petroglyphs) alongside those of mainstream scientists?  Don't we need to give "equal-time" to their views?  Isn't it horribly unfair that in, for example, my geology classes I never consider YEC interpretations of evidence?

No, no, no, and no!  People who make this claim are either ignorant of what science is and how it works or intentionally dishonest. The two glasses we look through are more like these:

The glasses of mainstream science metaphorically compared
to the glasses of YEC (with apologies to Elton John).

Interpretations of evidence, like glasses, aren't all equivalent.  Some are just nuts.

First of all, is the YEC interpretation as simple as the cartoon above indicates?  Do they look at evidence, filter it through the Bible, and then come to a conclusion?  Not really.  They filter it through their rather specific interpretation of the Bible.  Is it the Roman Catholic interpretation of the Bible - the world's largest Christian denomination with over a billion claimed members?  Maybe it's the Protestant interpretation?  Oh wait, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Protestant denominations (hard to get an accurate count since it depends on your definitions).  Why all the denominations?  They each interpret the Bible differently on important matters of faith and practice!  What about groups like the Mormons?  What about Jewish interpretation of Hebrew Scripture?  What about Muslim interpretation?  What about what the Buddhists or Hindus or Sihks or Jains, or whatever?  What about Native American or Aboriginal or Maori or Bantu or Inuit origin stories.

Not all presuppositions have equal validity!

In other words, there are an untold number of creation stories from every culture around the world.  Why are we to believe a 20th century interpretation (YEC is a 20th century phenomenon, not an orthodox belief through much of church history) of some lines of poetry in a book that arose among some Hebrew bedouins (who were clearly influenced by earlier Mesopotamian origin myths)?  What makes this one "literally" true and the others false?  Just because it's your cultural myth and you really believe strongly in it?  Join the club of several billion other humans who have their own deeply held beliefs that differ from yours.

The bottom line is that YECs take observations and then try to shoehorn them into a preexisting belief system.  They freely admit this!  Just read AIG's Statement of Faith - especially Section 4, number 6:

By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record.

Can't express your bias any more clearly than that!  Go to the Geological Society of America (GSA), the American Physical Society (APS), the American Chemical Society (ACS), the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), or the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE).  Do these professional scientific organizations have statements of faith?

I teach a bit about the historical development of geology.  When geology began as a science (a gradual process beginning in the 1600s), the early researchers generally believed in the historicity of the Bible.  Nicolas Steno, the "father of stratigraphy" became a Roman Catholic Bishop and was beatified by Pope John II in 1987 (pray to Steno, receive a miracle, and maybe he'll end up the patron saint of geologists).

Through the work of people like Steno and others, the idea that the Earth was only a few thousand years old became completely untenable by the mid-1700s (a century before Darwin published!).  Why?  Not because of any preconceived ideas about how the world should be (e.g. a literal reading of the few few chapters of Genesis), but by actually getting out and crawling on rocks AND THINKING ABOUT WHAT IT IS THEY SAW!  Geologists were forced to come to one of two conclusions - either God created a world that produced all kinds of independent lines of evidence that the Earth was ancient (which raises all types of theological issues) or the Earth really was ancient and maybe those ancient bronze-age poems weren't meant to be taken literally.

Let's not also forget that YECs have a long and dishonorable history of selective picking of evidence (ignoring whatever doesn't fit their preconceptions), outright lying, selective misquoting of real scientists and scientific papers, and a complete lack of expertise or formal academic training in the areas they write about (some YECs even have fraudulent credential from mail-order Bible colleges).  Peruse the Talk Origins archives for numerous examples.

Here's a real example (large PDF file) of a typical scientific research paper on a fossil organism by a University of Chicago paleontologist.  Take a look and compare it to any of the tripe put out by creation "scientists" that they call research.

So, back to Geoff C.'s comment:

The picture labeled "Dr. Senter's interpretation" says it all. He believes it's impossible that humans could have seen dinosaurs, so has to "interpret" the petroglyph according to this preconceived idea. Both creationists and evolutionists look at the same evidence, but interpret it according to the "glasses" they wear.

Dr. Senter is basing his interpretation on the fact that he has a PhD in the field, studied the petroglyph and published his results in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and is basing his interpretation on the fact that hundreds of years of tens of thousands of published geologic studies have shown conclusively and without a doubt (to anyone but Biblical literalists) that dinosaurs died out tens of millions of years before humans evolved from hominid apes in East Africa.  Geoff C. and other creationists are basing their interpretation on the fact that they believes a specific interpretation of the Bible is "true" and they believe this will support their worldview.

These aren't equivalent.  Not even close.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Massimo Pigliucci lecture

Dr. Massimo Pigliucci will be coming to SUNY Ulster County Community College in Stone Ridge, NY on Thursday, May 5 at 7:00 pm for a lecture titled Nonsense on Stilts:  How to Tell Science from Bunk.

Dr. Pigliucci is Chair of the Philosophy Department at CUNY’s Lehman College and has, not 1, not 2, but 3 PhDs (just to make the rest of us feel like lazy slackers). He has a PhD in Genetics from the University of Ferrara, Italy (1989), a PhD in Botany from the University of Connecticut (1994), and a PhD in the Philosophy of Science from the University of Kentucky (2003).

Dr. Pigliucci has published over a hundred technical papers and several books. His most recent technical book is Making Sense of Evolution: Toward a Coherent Picture of Evolutionary Theory (co-authored by Jonathan Kaplan; University of Chicago Press). He has a forthcoming book titled Evolution: The Extended Synthesis (co-edited with Gerd Muller, M.I.T. Press). 

Professor Pigliucci has been awarded the Dobzhansky Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution and has been elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science "for fundamental studies of genotype by environmental interactions and for public defense of evolutionary biology from pseudoscientific attack."  He maintains a blog at

The talk is aimed to general audiences and completely free.  It will be great.  Here's the link to a promotional poster (PDF).  Feel free to post it!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Everyone's sick

There's a nasty virus going around the local area.  My two kids are sick. I'm sick. A number of friends, family, and acquaintances are sick.  Ugh.

It's funny how the same virus affects people differently.  My kids have both run a fever and I haven't (or, if I have, it's been mild).  My daughter is up all night coughing and my son isn't coughing much but his nose is running constantly.  I don't have much nasal congestion (at least yet) but every time I cough it hurts since my throat is so raw.  My wife hasn't even gotten it (yet).

So you always hear that the difference between a cold and the flu is that a cold doesn't have a fever.  It seems to me to be an artificial distinction since I don't think this is severe enough to be influenza yet my kids are running fevers on and off over 100 F (we did all get flu shots this year too).

My kids get to lay on the couch and read or watch movies when they're sick.  My Puritan work ethic causes me to go to work and rasp through my lectures spewing viruses willy-nilly around the workplace.  I'm a terrible person.


Addendum:  Posted the above at 9:30 am this morning.  Now it's 11:00 pm and I've been laying on the couch running a fever and feeling completely sick.  I may be forced to cancel my early class tomorrow (and I really looked forward to lecturing on the geology of the Triassic Period!).

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Fossil collecting fieldtrip

Saturday (April 9), I took a small group of students from my Earth History class on an all-day fieldtrip to collect some fossils (Earth History is our 4 credit historical geology course).  While we have looked at sedimentary rocks and Paleozoic marine invertebrate fossils in lab, it's always valuable to see them out in the field as well.

The day started chilly (I scraped frost off my car at 7:30 am) but soon warmed to above 60 F.  A 90 minute scenic drive up through the heart of the Catskills brought us to Gilboa - a locality famous to geologists around the world since it's the site of the first forest we have abundant fossils from in the Middle Devonian Period (~380 million years ago).  There is an informative outdoor kiosk off County Route 990V next to the Gilboa Post Office which has some large fossils on display.

Here's a close-up of the Devonian forest reconstruction on the kiosk.

Yes, New York really once looked like that.  A lowland swamp south of the equator in a subtropical climate zone.  Notice the bulbous bases of the Eospermatopteris trees?  Here's the fossil:

There were some neat fossils discovered in Gilboa, including insects, and it's an interesting story but I'll save it for another post.  We also took a walk and poked around a bit down by the Scoharie Creek where we were able to find some plant fossils in weathered red (terrestrial) sandstones (I'm not a fossil plant expert but the first one is a piece of branch or large root and the other is a bit difficult to see in the photo but is clearly root material).

I also saw a nice slab of sandstone with asymmetrical ripple marks (river bed environment?). I would have loved to bring back to the lab as a teaching specimen except for the fact that I would have had to carry it up a steep hill!

There were also some out-of-place early Devonian carbonate rocks (Manlius, Coeymans, and Kalkberg Formations of the Helderberg Group) dumped there for flood control which also contained some neat fossils.  See the trilobite fragment next to the brachiopod shell?  The one below looks like a cephalopod (squid-like animal) - it's definitely not a crinoid stem (we found others as well).

For lunch, we drove north to Middleburg and hiked up to Vroman's Nose.  It's a short, steep hike but well worth it when you get to the top - highly recommended.  Here's the view looking south of the beautiful Schoharie Valley.

At the top is a large flat rock (Hamilton Group sandstone) called the Dance Floor.  It's loaded with glacial striations.  After chilling (catching our breath from the climb up) and eating lunch, I discussed the glacial features visible here and talked about post-glacial Lake Schoharie which once filled the valley below.   I also said a few things about meandering rivers and floodplains.

From Middleburg, we drove up to Schoharie where I had read about a good fossil collecting outcrop just outside of town on Rickard Hill Road.  It's a nice roadside outcrop of Coeymans and Kalkberg Formation (lower Helderberg Group) with a large area to collect well off the road (the cliffs were unstable but there was plenty of stuff on the ground).  The rocks were extremely fossiliferous with numerous brachipods, lots of bryozoa fragments, a few pieces of trilobites (most students were unsuccessfully looking for good trilobite specimens), and some Favosites corals.

Here are some students looking for fossils...

Here's a Favosites (honeycomb) coral I picked up in the Kalkberg Formation and below that, some Gypidula brachipods from the Coeymans Formation.

Not a bad way to spend a Saturday.

By the way, for all those who think professors have easy jobs, are lazy, whatever (which many people evidently do given the recent union-busting events in Wisconsin and the fact that State legislators in a number of places are out to get higher education faculty), I will add that I do this for free.  I don't get paid extra for taking students out on field trips on Saturdays.  I work Saturdays like this several times a year.  It takes time to plan, I have the responsibility of keeping students safe, I have to drive hundreds of miles (200 miles on the college van odometer Saturday), and it even costs me some money (it's such a hassle to submit the couple of dollars in Thruway tolls I don't even bother).  Why do I do it?  I CARE ABOUT THE STUDENTS!  You can't learn geology well only in a classroom - you have to get outside, get dirty, hot, and tired, and look at the damn rocks (and fossils).  How many of you would volunteer to work at your job on a Saturday when you didn't have to for no extra money?  If so, count your blessings because it means you love your job!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

I don't act my age

I'm a middle-aged (assuming I live to an be a very old man), tenured, geology professor and department chair and what do I sometimes do for relaxation?  I read children's books.  I admit it.  Don't judge me.  By the way, I know several other adults, some with PhDs, who also read children's books (and a few of them don't even have kids).  Granted, most of the ones who admit to it are women, but I'm secure enough not to worry about it.

Now I'm not saying that's all I read, I read mostly non-fiction (I'm not a big reader of best-selling adult novels) but sometimes I just need something to relax with (I read every night in bed before going to sleep).  I have two kids who are both voracious readers so that's why I'm familiar with many of the books written for tweens and teens (at any one time, we'll have between 30-40 books checked out of various local libraries sitting on our "library shelf").

Of course I've read the Harry Potter series (twice as a matter of fact, I reread the earlier ones when Deathly Hallows came out and then reread Deathly Hallows before seeing the movie).  I've also read books by Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson series and others), Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowl series and others), Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events), Spiderwick Chronicles (forget who the author is), and many others I simply can't recall at the moment.  Most recently, I just finished The City of Ember (and have started the sequel The People of Sparks) since it was discussed at our local library's book club for tweens.

If I had any skill in writing fiction, I wouldn't write about adult themes - they bore me.  I'd write about an alternative world where men carry swords, go on quests, fight evil creatures, and perhaps win the heart of a fair maiden or two.  Much more interesting than my life of bills I can't afford, misbehaving kids, doctor's visits, grading labs, and chores around the house.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

315 million-year-old mayfly

From the April 4 New York Times, an awesome image of a 315 million-year-old mayfly trace fossil.

This sandstone is from the time period known as the late Carboniferous (Pennsylvanian Period).  One fine day, a mayfly-like insect landed here in the mud, sat for a few seconds, and then took off again,  Improbably, the impression was preserved through hundreds of millions of years of geologic time only seeing the light of day when Richard Knecht, a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, picked up and split open the rock while looking for fossils in a swamp near North Attleboro, Massachusetts.

The fossil is from the Wamsutta Formation which outcrops in the northwestern corner of the Narragansett Basin which itself extends from Rhode Island into southweastern Massachusetts. The rocks consist of 300 meters of red sandstones and shales interbedded with conglomerates that were deposited mainly in stream channels and floodplains.

The authors of the paper on this find describe the paleogeographic setting of the Wamsutta here as "representing deposition on tropical-latitude, low-relief, wet, and possibly forested alluvial fans."

It's a neat snapshot into life tens of millions of years before the first appearance of dinosaurs on Earth.

Here's the abstract for the soon to appear in print discussion of this fossil in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Too many PhDs

Good article (from a few months ago) in The Economist on The Disposable Academic: Why Doing a PhD is Often a Waste of Time.  Totally true - there are no academic jobs available for the tens of thousands of PhDs turned out each year.  They're simply a source of cheap teaching and research labor for large universities.

Interesting academic priorities

Rutgers university recently paid Nicole Polizzi - "Snooki" of Jersey Shore fame - $32,000 to give an hour-long talk about hairdos and partying.

Rutgers will pay Toni Morrison - a world renown author - $30,000 to give their commencement address (a bit less money).

Snooki is a former Vet Tech student at SUNY Ulster County Community College (I never knew that before - I found out in this story).  Morrison has an M.A. in English from Cornell and won a Nobel Prize for literature (in addition to many other prestigious awards).

I'll refrain from commenting but it certainly does not surprise me given what society values today.

Friday, April 1, 2011

April Fools Weather Forecast

Forecasts yesterday from Accuweather, Weather Channel, and National Weather Service (NWS) were for 6-12 inches or so of snow here in the Hudson Valley.  Much of the snow was to accumulate overnight with possible snowfall rates of an inch an hour from a classical Nor'easter racing up the coast.

All of us where I teach were frantically making plans to get stuff online or thinking about how to deal with yet another snow day (we're out of makeup days to use).  Everyone was complaining to me (since I'm department chair) even though I have no way of changing the weather or creating new makeup days!

April fools!  I wake up and there's not even a dusting of snow.  It's sort of raining and snowing out but nothing's sticking.  Yeah!  I do NOT want any more #&$*%! snow - I want warm spring breezes and a blue sky.

The NWS forecast discussion today says:


Accuweather is a bit more coy, they just redrew their map of snowfall accumulations shifting it to the east (New England may well get significant accumulations).

Just goes to show that even with scores of PhD meteorologists and supercomputers running sophisticated forecast models, nature will do as it damn well pleases.