Friday, February 26, 2016

Adventures in the Process of Science, Part Two. Why are so many meteorites carbonaceous chondrites?

One of the best places in the world to find meteorites is Antarctica. When meteorites fall in Antarctica, on top of a thick sheet of ice, they often do so far away from any mountains that might happen to jut up through the ice. So if you find a rock on the ice in Antarctica, it has to be a meteorite, right?

It’s not so simple. There aren’t many rocks out on the open ice. If you find one there, you are in luck, but it is not cost-effective (or safe; every Antarctic expedition is risky) to criss-cross numerous square kilometers of ice in the hopes of finding one. And you need a sample size, not just one rock. Many of the rocks have accumulated in places where the glaciers have rammed up against mountains, and where the dry winds of Antarctica have sublimated the ice away from them. These are the places to go to find the most meteorites. The problem is, there are also some Earth rocks there. So, how do you tell a meteor-right from a meteor-wrong, to use Ira Flatow’s phrase?

It turns out, we are told, that most meteorites are carbonaceous chondrites, which have a characteristic internal structure. So you look for this kind of rock, which an expert can do at a glance, and you have found a meteorite.

You are probably ahead of me on this one. This is circular reasoning. Most meteorites are carbonaceous chondrites because that is the only kind of meteorite you can recognize at a glance in Antarctica. And since you cannot analyze the meteorites in the limited scientific laboratory space in Antarctica, you have to send them back to the States. But this is expensive, so you can’t send every rock; you can only send the ones that are likely to be meteorites—carbonaceous chondrites.

Scientists have done an amazing job analyzing the solar system by studying meteorites. The rest of us just have to be as cautious as they are at interpreting the results.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Adventures in the Process of Science, Part One. The Magdalen Papyrus

According to the book Eyewitness to Jesus, by the late Carsten Peter Thiede, the Magdalen Papyrus isn’t much to look at. A couple of square inches of papyrus with a dozen or so Greek letters on it. But to Thiede, a German archaeologist and Bible scholar, it proved that the New Testament of the Bible was written immediately after the events that it describes, and therefore contains no errors that might have been introduced by imperfect memory or legendary accretion.

To me, Thiede’s approach is a perfect example of how not to use the scientific method.

The first problem is construct validity. Thiede avers that the fragment dates back to the first century CE—that is, from a period of time in which many of the apostles were still alive, rather than from the third or fourth century, after church catechisms had begun to replace actual history. How could one prove this? Radiocarbon dating? But this would destroy the fragment. So Thiede uses the style of the lettering—a style, he claims, that was used in the first century but not in the third or fourth. But not all people in the first century wrote in the same way, nor did all people in the third or fourth. People, then as now, write in more than one way. This cannot be used to prove that the fragment is from before 100 CE.

The second problem is whether this fragment is a representative sample. The letters appeared to be a few words from the Gospel of Matthew. And this tiny section is worded the same way as this section is worded in later versions. But this is hardly surprising. The different versions of ancient scriptures (note: there are different versions) have some passages that are identical to one another. This cannot therefore be used to prove that the whole book of Matthew, and the whole New Testament, was written by actual eyewitnesses to Jesus.

Thiede was successful in one way. He sold a fair number of books, including to me, in my more religiously and scientifically naïve days.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Good Old Days of Rationing

In an old box of family memorabilia, we found my grandparents’ 1943 World War Two ration books.

At the beginning of the Second World War, the Empire of Japan took over the rubber plantations of Southeast Asia. Suddenly, the United States found that all of the rubber we would ever have during the war—the duration of which we could not know—was the rubber that we had in 1941.  In particular, the Armed Forces needed rubber for tires. It became almost impossible for civilians to buy new tires. They did everything they could—including stuffing old newspapers into the tires—to make the old ones last. The government asked for donations of old tires, raincoats, gloves, and garden hoses as sources of rubber.

But the main act the government took to conserve rubber was to lower the speed limit. Starting on October 28, 1942, the Patriotic Speed Limit was 35 miles per hour. Imagine this: driving across the Mojave Desert without air conditioning, at 35 miles per hour. This is what my Mom and Dad had to do when Dad went from basic training at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, to Camp Roberts, California. Can you imagine America accepting a 35 mph speed limit today?

Actually, we have recently had a conservation-inspired speed limit in the recent past. From 1973 to 1987, the national speed limit was 55 miles per hour. The purpose was to save gasoline, in response to Arab oil embargoes.

Although gasoline conservation was not the main reason for the lower speed limit in 1942, gasoline was in fact rationed: each vehicle could receive only 3-5 gallons per week, and the number on your ration stamp had to match that of the sticker on your windshield.

And don’t even think about buying a car. To get an automobile or appliance, you had to provide written evidence that you really really needed it. Even for typewriters—of which the war effort required a large number.

Meat was also rationed. Each person was limited to two and a half pounds of meat a week. My grandparents lived on a farm and raised their own crops and livestock, so they seldom bought meat, but in cities the meat shortage became very noticeable. In San Diego, Americans flooded into Mexico to buy meat. Then the Mexican government decided to build a big wall to keep out the Americans…wait, that didn’t happen.

The government was very serious about rationing. Each ration stamp book had not only the person’s name but also the age, sex, weight, height, and occupation, so that the person who had the book could be identified as the rightful owner. (Edd Hicks, 64, male, 145 pounds, 5 feet 7, farmer; Stella Hicks, 53, female, 170 pounds, 5 feet 6, housewife.)  And this was the warning label:

WARNING: This book is the property of the United States Government. It is unlawful to sell it to any other person, or to use it or permit anyone else to use it, except to obtain rationed goods in accordance with regulations of the Office of Price Administration. Any person who finds a lost War Ration Book must return it to the War Price Rationing Board which issued it. Persons who violate rationing regulations are subject to $10,000 fine or imprisonment, or both.

Can you imagine anything like this today? An Office of Price Administration? Many Americans would whine and howl, “The government can’t tell me what price to charge for my product! That’s socialism and communism.” The government only barely regulates bank interest rates, which are at a level that no one could have imagined in 1943. And the $10,000 fine (which was probably only used against major profiteers, rather than individuals loaning out a stamp or two to family or friends) was big money in 1943, unlike the fines that the government levies against financial corporations that break the law today—fines that are barely a blip in the profits they make from illegal activities.

Sugar was rationed. Almost the only reason anyone could buy a five-pound bag of sugar was to use for home canning—so that manufactured canned goods could be used for the war effort. This is the message that was on the back of the instructions:


1. Military needs are high. Each soldier actually consumes twice as much sugar a year as the average civilian now receives.
2. Ships which otherwise might be bringing sugar into the United States are hauling supplies to the battle fronts.
3. Manpower is scarce at sugar refineries and shipping ports.
4. Beet sugar production last year was 500,000 tons short, making the stock of sugar smaller for this year.
5. Last year many people over-applied for canning sugar. We used so much sugar that stocks at the beginning of this year were abnormally low.


Here is another warning:

VIOLATORS of the Gasoline Rationing Regulations are subject to revocation of rations and criminal prosecution under the laws of the United States (emphasis theirs).

Today, we are not fighting a war against Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. But we do face severe challenges. We are fighting smaller wars. We face severe environmental challenges, especially global warming. And we have severe financial challenges as well. It is time for us to all come together and practice creative and joyful frugality. We need to do it for our fellow Americans, our fellow humans in the world, and for the survival of the planet. Many of us are already doing this; each year, more people recycle more things, and energy efficiency becomes more popular. And what should the role of the government be? The government should be the mediator of altruism. The government should level the playing field so that conserving resources is fair for everybody.

But there is a significant and visible minority of people, more in Oklahoma than many other places, who are so pissed off at the thought of conserving resources, and especially that the government might require them to do so for the sake of their fellow citizens, that they drive huge pickup trucks that spew smoke into the air. It is as if they are saying, “This is what I think about the Earth! This is what I think about my fellow human beings! This is what I think about God’s creation!” To them, freedom means the ability to waste the resources of the Earth and to show utter disregard for their fellow humans. If the government were to issue them ration stamps, they would probably get out their guns and start shooting. I believe that if I conserved, these people would come and take whatever I have at gunpoint. I seriously believe this. Not very many people would do this, but enough to submerge us into civil chaos. Had my grandparents, and my father and uncles who were all involved in the war effort, reacted in such a selfish way, the Nazis and the Japanese could have just walked right in and taken us over while we were fighting one another.

We won World War Two largely because of our internal altruism toward one another. I don’t think we have enough of it any more.

Monday, February 8, 2016

How We Can Know Them

One of the greatest threats to the future of the planet is the industrial agriculture. Practically every aspect of it is dangerous to the planet. But it feeds the planet? Actually, its main effect is to make corporations like Monsanto rich; feeding the planet is an incidental side-effect. Most agricultural produce, at least in America, goes to feeding livestock rather than feeding people.

Many farmers claim that they actually care about the future of the planet but they are trapped into industrial agriculture—they cannot afford to do it any other way. They would like to convert to responsible agriculture: to interplant their crops (polyculture), to use natural pest control, control soil erosion, etc. But, they claim, they are trapped by the economics of industrial ag.

But let me tell you why I do not believe them. It may indeed be economic suicide for farmers to convert suddenly and completely over to ecologically responsible agriculture. But surely they could do it at least a little bit? They could at least do a scaled-down form of polyculture, by planting wide strips—still wide enough for their equipment to handle—of different kinds of crops rather than huge fields of each. They could reduce their pesticide and fertilizer use a little by precision application. They could choose crops that are better suited for their regions; for example, to grow maize in eastern Colorado or the panhandle of Oklahoma takes a prodigious amount of water, which they pump out of the already-depleted Ogalalla Aquifer. Couldn’t they at least do one or two of these things?

And many farmers do. As I drove in the summer of 2014 many miles through the Midwest, I mostly saw huge monoculture fields with wasteful irrigation, on which crop dusters poured pesticides. Once in a while I would see strips of crops. I saw this just often enough to show me it could be done.

The land is unhealthy. If a person is unhealthy, it might be too much to expect for him or her to suddenly convert to a completely healthy lifestyle: to exercise a lot and eat less fat and sugar and prepare more foods themselves. But at least the unhealthy person could do a little bit of one of them. And many do, to their benefit and (as many of my students have found) their pleasant surprise.

A farmer may not be able to heal an unhealthy land in all possible ways, but at least they can do a little bit of something. And a small percentage of them do. The fact that most of them do not indicates to me that most of them really do not care about the future of the planet—the world that their children (whom they claim to love so much) will inherit.

As Jesus said, by their fruits you shall know them. Not by what they say, but by what they do. Conservative farmers can talk all they want to about how precious are the lives of their children (and all children) but I do not believe them until they start farming in such a way that does not destroy the world those children are supposed to live in.

And for farmers that do what they can, thanks! And try to do more—you can probably figure out how. But the Monsanto sales rep won’t help you to do this.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

New video!

See the video in which Darwin visits Ashfall Beds State Park in Nebraska, a huge pile of mammal skeletons--all the bones still in place--from 12 million years ago!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Keep Me Away from the Facts: The Oklahoma Fundamentalist Mindset

Recently, the Oklahoma legislature voted overwhelmingly to reject advanced placement history courses in Oklahoma high schools. The reason? They apparently felt that AP History was not being sufficiently deferential to white people in American history. AP history dwelt too long on (that is, it mentioned) slavery and the genocide against Native Americans. Instead, Oklahoma legislators apparently feel, history courses should teach students about how America is God’s Chosen Nation (maybe second only to Israel), and teach them that Manifest Destiny (the notion that America was destined to subjugate all other people from sea to shining sea), an idea most people gave up over a century ago, was really true.

That is, the legislature wants Oklahoma teachers to teach racist fairy tales to students. This has long been the case with creationist fairy tales in science classes, and is now true in history classes as well. Somehow they have not yet figured out that the AP Biology Course has evolution as the first of its four “big ideas”.

I believe that the following would be a reasonable catechism for the Oklahoma version of American history:

Q: Why did Columbus cross the ocean blue?
A: To bring the light of God to the Natives, for which they would pay him in gold, and by being raped and butchered, praise God.
Q: Why did God put Native Americans on the continent?
A: To prepare the land for use by Christian whites pouring in from Europe, praise God.
Q: Why did the American government force the individuals of the Cherokee and other tribes, many of them Christians, to march to Oklahoma?
A: So that white people could take the gold that the Cherokees were not mining and the land that they were merely farming, praise God.
Q: Why was this action justified?
A: Because the Cherokees were savages. They merely lived in white-style houses, raised cattle, and had a written language and newspaper, which shows that they were inferior, praise God.
Q: Why did the American government force the Cherokees to divide up their tribal land into individual allotments?
A: So that the godless practice of communal land ownership (communism) could be stamped out, praise God.
Q: Why were Cherokees forced into special schools?
A: Because these ignorant savages merely had their own written language and the highest literacy rate in the world, higher than white Americans, and the whites were embarrassed, praise God.
Q: Why should black slaves have been grateful to their masters?
A: Because black rulers in Africa also kept slaves, and treated them worse than American slave owners did. (This last one I heard from a Confederate flag salesman in Tushka, Oklahoma, last year.)
Q: Aren’t you forgetting something?
A: Praise God.

Oklahoma already is one of the poorest states in terms of education, by numerous measures. For example, Oklahoma teachers get paid well below the national average for any jobs, not just for teaching jobs. What to do about this problem? Obviously, the legislators think, the thing to do is to prohibit these underpaid teachers from teaching the truth. Already, high-tech industries seldom set up shop in Oklahoma because of the shortage of qualified graduates. These graduates not only need to know a lot but need to know how to think. What to do about this? Teach them to believe, and to not think.

To make matters worse, AP courses count as college credit, which means that Oklahoma graduates will have to pay tuition to take history courses when they get to college, which increases the cost burden on students from Oklahoma—students who can barely afford college as it is.

To summarize what the Oklahoma legislature has done by eliminating AP history courses:

  • Students will have to learn false information about American history.
  • Students will be trained to believe rather than to think.
  • Students will have a greater course load and financial burden if and when they get to college.

Stay tuned for what might come next. The legislature has two creationist bills that are ready to enter into committees. This has happened every year for over a decade. But this year, the legislature seems to believe that using critical thinking skills to evaluate facts is, itself, a threat to their power. For the first time in many years I have very little optimism that the spirit of education, as opposed to the spirit of catechism, will survive in Oklahoma.