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Category Archives: Biology

An orchestra of car horns blew as my brother slid across the bonnet of a Mercedes. He landed, cat like, on the other side and sprinted onto the side walk towards the Asia centre. I stumbled behind him followed closely by his good friend Kat, cars screeching to a halt as we failed to get out of the way of them. I saw my bro in the distance standing at the door of the Asia centre casually leaning against the wall. I felt obligated to get to the auditorium on time so I sucked in a large breath of air and bolted up to the building.

Took your time didn’t ya? We are going to miss the start of the talk.

Chuckled Josh.

We barrelled down the stairs and found a seat in the auditorium, luckily there were some fantastic seats right in front of the stage. We sunk into our seats gasping for breath.
Normally I don’t think we would have been this eager to get somewhere, but this was something special. It is National Science Week and we were off to see Michael Shermer and Lynne Kelly.

We were not disappointed. First was the Shermernator with his talk, Why Darwin Matters. Needless to say Shermer was fantastic. He lashed the key note with humourous asides and the core focus of the talk was highly persuasive. Well, persuasive to someone with an open mind. There was one old chap who stood up and disagreed with everything Shermer said. This on its own is fine, but when every argument he put forth was the same old creationist/religious apologist pre-debunked crap it kind of felt like he was trying to have a pissing contest. He brought out Shannon’s law (obviously completely misunderstanding how we measure information) and also reused the old Letters in a box analogy. It was a veritable shotgun blast of challenges that he most likely knew Shermer wouldn’t be able to address in full.

All in all it was a great talk and was very funny.

Next up was Lynne Kelly of the Victorian Skeptics. Her talk on Taromancy didn’t disappoint. She focused on cold reading and her personally made “Ancient Chinese” Tarot cardesque form of cold reading which used “masks”. She showed us how she works with a client and how even the most skeptical mind can be fooled if the cold reader is clever enough. The talk took a sombre note when she explained how psychics and pseudo-science can harm people with a truly sad story about a Melbourne couple who chose to forgo science based medicine at the advice of a psychic, ending in the death of a child.

This was definitely one of those talks that you wish you could take a non-skeptical friend or family member to. I hope in the future that we can have many more events like this and keep spreading scepticism and the scientific method. To continue the Science Week trend, later this week I’m going to the Melbourne museum to try and get into the fossil archives to take some photos for YAS.

Oh, I almost forgot, make sure you get your Young Australian Skeptic submissions in soon! The first articles are coming in now from people such as:- The Skepbitch, Podblack and Naotiotami! Your article can be about anything you want (as long as its science based or attempts critical thought) it can even be a video if you wish, or a sound bite. So hurry up!

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When a Christian says that creation proves that there is a Creator,..[atheists].. dismiss such common sense by saying “That’s just the old watchmaker argument.”

– Ray Comfort

I thought I would start this post off with a sparkling gem of wisdom straight from Ray Comforts blog, the jarringly humourously named, Atheist Central. Oh we are soooo jived, we should slink away now while we have the chance! I like this quote. Yeah that’s right, I like it. The reason I like it so much is because it is just so god damn dishonest and as a result, funny.

Let’s take a look at this “common sense” and try and see it for what it obviously is, dishonesty. Firstly, let’s look at the glaringly obvious false dichotomy, usually when we see a creation there is a creator. I would think most rational people understand this. I see a building, there was obviously a builder. When I was a kid playing with my Lego and Meccano (I saved duplow for the kids who played in the corner, like Ray Comfort, with the soft skulls), I was the creator. What Ray said however, I will assume, was an attempt to rationalise that god is the creator of all life – you, me, your dog etc. I guess it’s fine to believe this if you believe Santa is real and still put teeth under your pillow at night, but we live in the real world here and we need evidence to support our claims. A building and a living breathing organism are two very different things. I guess in a round about way Ray is correct, we were created, just not by an almighty overlord who floats in the sky wearing a cape and sporting a beard (because this explains nothing!). Our creator was evolution by natural selection.

So yet again here is the unsinkable rubber duck, back with avengeance – shitting in our bath water. Why is it that these people see what they say as common sense? Common sense to whom? Any honest person can see the fallacious logic of what Ray (and others) says instantly! I wish I could, through divine intervention perhaps (?), kill this argument forever right here and now but we all know that it will be around for a long time to come.

Rays latest blog post has a great image (drawn in crayon and smeared with clag) which shows his unending logical dishonesty. Check out the link and have a giggle for yourself. Poison the well much? Oh and isn’t it blasphemy to suggest a mere construction worker is in some way equal to god in his power!?

So hopefully I helped sink the rubber duck, I won’t hold my breath but lets all “pray” to the great Spaghetti Monster in the sky that the little yellow bastard stays down this time. That being said, I will leave you with this quote from Rays latest post.

Actually, it’s not me that says that every building has a builder and that logically leads to the truth that creation therefore proves that there is a Creator. God’s Word makes the intellectual condescension to make the obvious comparison. It says, “For every house is built by some man; but he that built all things is God” (Hebrews 3:4).

Oh…Right…God said it, great argument!

Cloning is cool

Most people in Australia would know of the Thylacinus cynocephalus, more commonly known as the Thylacine or the Tasmanian Tiger. For those of you that don’t know what the creature is let me give you a quick run down.tazzy tiger

The Tasmanian Tiger is not a tiger at all, and despite its looks it isn’t a canine either. It was a marsupial predator that roamed Australia, and more recently, the small state in Australia, Tasmania. It bears a striking resemblance to a common dog and is defined by its tiger like stripes on its back towards its hind legs that continue down its long tail.

The last Tazzy Tiger died in 1936 in captivity.

Well, the ol’ taz tiger may be set to walk the forests of Australia once again with new advancements in cloning technology. Dr Andrew Pask and Professor Marilyn Renfree from the University of Melbourne have managed to insert a Thylacine gene into a mouse embryo. The gene used was the proα1(II) collagen (Col2a1) gene which controls the growth of bone and cartilage. The embryo continued to grow with the gene in place so that is definately good news for extinct species.Embryo

However, this doesn’t mean that the whole creature can be resurrected and there is still a lot more work to be done before that can be achieved. Even though it may never happen, damn its fun to think about. Dinosaur cloning is probably out of the question but if the technology is developed then you can be sure it will be possible to see Mammoths and other extinct mammals in reserves and parks (à la Jurassic Park). That would kick ass!

Check out these links.

The Research Article http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0002240

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thylacine

http://www.dailytech.com/Jurassic+Park+in+The+Real+World+Scientists+Partially+Clone+Extinct+Mammal/article11839.htm

http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2008/05/20/2249769.htm?site=science&topic=latest

Welcome to the world of tomorrow! Blogs are old news, the age of the podcast has begun and in honor of the dawning of this new age I thought I would do a skeptical podcast run down of the casts that I currently (or have in the past) listen too!

Geologic Podcast
http://www.geologicpodcast.com/

Do you want to laugh? Well, if you do, then listen to George Hrab on his podcast. The show consists of sketches, his mother rapping, religious morons and many of his absolutely side splitting characters (all played by him). He even has cameos by famous pod caster Soccer Girl! (A podcast I have not yet listened to by the way.) I am not kidding when I say Mr Hrab is funny, all I can say is go check it out for yourself and then send me (or George, preferably me) money for finding it for you. It is recommended that you listen to episode 31.1 if you want to catch up and get in on the “in” jokes.

Skeptics Guide to the Universe
http://www.theskepticsguide.org/

No self respecting skeptic skips this weekly podcast. Hosted by Steven Novella, an academic neurologist and full time skeptic, and the skeptical rogues, Robert Novella, Jay Novella, Rebecca Watson (the Skepchick) and Evan Bernstein. The SGU is a must listen for any skeptic, or non-skeptic for that mater, in their weekly rounds of the podcast scene. In the show they discuss current topics in the news and skeptical community as well as devastating break downs of pseudo-science and woo. Their regular interviews are truly entertaining. The Amazing Guru of skepticism James Randi also has a regular section called Randi Speaks where he attacks certain issues head on. If you love knowledge, and who doesn’t, tune into the SGU and join its already huge (35,000 last time I heard?) listener base!

Skepticality
http://www.skepticality.com/index.php

Again, a must listen for any self respecting skeptic. Join Derek and Swoopy as they delve into a specific issue each week. Generally their show consists of an interview with a prominent personality in skepticism or science but their older shows were more like SGU in structure. My favourite recent episode was the No Intelligence Allowed! interview with Professor Richard Dawkins and Dr. Michael Shermer about the new ID movie Expelled.

Are we alone? – SETI Podcast
http://radio.seti.org/

Are we alone? Who knows! But damn it’s fun to speculate. That’s what the SETI podcast is all about… well, not really, they explore deep into different scientific issues as well as the astrobiology topics it is based on. Each podcast focus’ on one or two topics and consists of interviews and fantastic banter between the two hosts. Seth Shostak is the senior astronomer at the SETI institute.

Scientific American
http://www.sciam.com/podcast/

This is a podcast that I don’t listen to regularly, but when I do listen I enjoy it thoroughly. The podcasts are usually fairly short and consist of mainly scientific topics (duh). My recent favourite episode was their interview with Mark Mathis who they proceeded to basically rip apart. It was hilarious to listen to him back peddle when met with a difficult question.

Cj’s Skeptical World
http://tcradiolive.com/cjskeptical.php

Unfortunately CJ’s no longer makes his podcast, but what he has made so far are highly entertaining. Listen to CJ as he spews mind bending rants about Woo and science in the American and world media. He even gives this blog a fleeting mention.

I hope this quick run down has helped you to decide on what you want to listen to. With each packet of knowledge I receive I come closer to world domination, please help me in that goal by commenting and posting your favourite Podcasts.

Human culture holds many old traditions that we have entertained for thousands of years. While some of these cause no harm at all, others have become out dated and some are just dangerous to begin with.

Lets just say that everyday for thousands of years my ancestors went hunting in the forest to catch a deer, boar or some other tasty looking critter or to forage for some vegetation. Back then this practice would have been considered necessary to survive and prosper. Many of these traditions still stand today as something that we continue, and with good reason. For example, agriculture is a tradition that advanced the human race a huge amount. Hunting is another skill and tradition that benefited our ancestors. While it is important that we remember tradition and record it we shouldn’t always keep practicing a tradition.

Some traditions are so outdated they actually do harm. I could point out religion for this quite easily but instead I wanted to bring up the topic of “Scientific research”.

I’m not talking about legitimate research. I’m talking about the slaughter of innocent creatures under the guise of tradition and an outright lie distorting the scientific method. I am talking about the Japanese whalers.

Today the whalers returned back to port in Japan after continued harassment by the activists that lurk around their hunting grounds in the Antarctic. While they slaughtered many innocent animals (551 Minke Whales) their efforts were severely hampered by the men and women who braved the freezing oceans to stop the massacre.

These magnificent creatures are like humans, victims of tradition. Only they aren’t the ones who practice it. They are just on the receiving end. Just because Japanese culture has been killing whales for a few hundred years they think they can just continue it due to tradition even with no real necessity?

Tradition can be a dangerous thing when left unchecked. Maybe it’s time we started re-evaluating our ancient ways.

RIP to all the whales killed in the name of tradition.

Skelliot.

Venter

Craig Venter is the scientific bad arse of our time. My cool’o’meter goes of the chart when I think about this topic.

Fairly recently (I’m slightly out of date with this one so I apologise), Venter and his team created the first synthetic gene in the lab. This is the next step on his quest to create the first synthetic life form or meat machine, as I like to say.

myogenti

Up until now the longest synthetic DNA chain consisted of 32,000 base pairs, this has changed with Venter’s DNA chain reaching 583,000 base pairs. This is still a long way short of a fully operating organism, which in the case of bacteria is about 10 million base pairs in their DNA, but it is definitely a step in the right direction and the numbers of base pairs will only increase as time goes on.

Venter has been asked what these organisms, if made, could be used for. He mentioned that they could be used for a multitude of things because they could be specifically coded for particular jobs just like a computer program! One notable function is the creation of a new bio-fuel but the applications are basically endless. I won’t go into the more nefarious uses for this technology, such as biological warfare.

As you can probably understand, these studies and achievements are fairly controversial. Taking fire from mainly religious voices accusing Venter of playing “god”. On the other hand it may (but probably won’t) silence a few of the more outspoken creation and ID proponents out there, such as Kent Hovind who went on record on an internet radio station saying that he would believe evolution if a synthetic life form was created in the lab. That being said, its more probable that creation/ID proponents will use this to support their claims, stating that it only proves that life can be created.

Even with these unavoidable obstacles this is going to be a good thing for our species. We will just have to wait and see what happens with this and hope that these fringe studies don’t get slammed anytime soon.

For further reading check out these links.

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23128478-27702,00.html
http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2007/10/craig_venter_claims_artificial.html
http://www.engadget.com/2007/10/07/artificial-life-created-as-scientist-makes-sythetic-chromosome/

Skelliot.