Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Preponderance of Evidence

Geology shows that fossils are of different ages. Paleontology shows a fossil sequence, the list of species represented changes through time. Taxonomy shows biological relationships among species. Evolution is the explanation that threads it all together. Creationism is the practice of squeezing one's eyes shut and wailing "Does not!" ~Dr.Pepper@f241.n103.z1.fidonet.org

Pope Benedict XVI appears to have found his way into the 19th century. His Holiness has provided a lot of fodder for this blog, beginning with the Galileo Caper last September. That piece was inspired by the announcement that a papal summit was being convened to "firm up" the Church's stance on that ol' debbil, Darwinian Evolution.

Evidently, they've made up their collective mind, for the moment at least. Quoth the Pope:
“This clash [between creationism and evolution] is an absurdity because on one hand there is much scientific proof in favour of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.”
In other words, there might be something to this evolution business after all. Of course, he left a loophole for the cosmic watchmaker, at least according to the article, by saying that evolution didn't answer all questions, "[a]bove all ... 'where does everything come from?' " I don't know that the statement implies "intelligent design" as much as it simply doubts the Big Bang. The Pope's Creator could have set the wheels in motion and then sat back to watch the results without doing any design work.

Given the willingness of creationists to simply ignore scientific evidence or distort to meet scriptural requirements, I suppose any common sense should be appreciated.

What's a little more surprising are words that follow later in the Pope's statement:
“We must respect the interior laws of creation, of this Earth, to learn these laws and obey them if we want to survive. This obedience to the voice of the Earth is more important for our future happiness ... than the desires of the moment. Our Earth is talking to us and we must listen to it and decipher its message if we want to survive."
Contrast that to the attitude I chronicled here. The link in the piece doesn't work anymore, but I quoted from it, noting that the Pope had said,
“[B{y believing in 'artificial intelligence' and technology, they risked the fate of the mythical Icarus, whose home-made wings melted when he flew too close to the sun.”

Or, as they said to Dr. Frankenstein, there are some things man was not meant to know. Now Benedict is telling scientists to find out all they can, to listen to the voices of Nature, to listen to the Earth. He all but invokes Gaia.

This is quite a change in attitude, and one has to wonder what has prompted it. Most likely, it represents a policy shift within the Vatican, among the Pope's advisers, with the science-supporting faction starting to outpoint the conservative one. After all, the Vatican is a very political environment; if you doubt it, just study up on the papal election process.

Accepting the study of the Earth (and by extension the universe at large) does not exactly mean that the Pope is okay with technological progress, but that's understandable. There are days I'm not so crazy about it myself. But, to increase our knowledge of ourselves we have to keep moving forward into areas that haven't been explored. We also have to be willing to revisit theories of our past in light of new evidence. We have to be willing to take risks.

Astoundingly, it seems that the Pope has come to agree with this, at least in principle. I doubt most scientists were losing a lot of sleep over what the Vatican thought about research, but many of the politicians who control much of the research purse strings do. If the Pope's statements can get some of them to realize that it's time to take their heads out of the sand, then so much the better.

Any voice of reason, even if from an unlikely source, is welcome.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Discovering Akhenaten?

As scientists, we keep an open mind, but we have to base our ideas about the past on archaeological evidence. ~ Zahi Hawass

Restraint is a rare commodity these days in the media, even in the scientific media. When it comes to science, often the more cockamamie an idea or discovery is touted to be, the more hype it gets. Part of the problem, of course, is that the people making the announcement are contributing to the problem by making large claims on small evidence (including samples of size one - which generated this rant from me).

It was pleasant therefore to see how well the discovery of the mummy of Hatshepsut was handled. For a change, there was a preponderance of evidence that what had been thought to be 18th Dynasty's female Pharoah's nanny was in fact the woman herself. It was even more amazing to see how another discovery recently made in Egypt almost went under everyone's radar.

Remember all the fuss about how KV-63 might be holding the mummy of Tut's mother? Well, it didn't, but KV-55, not far from Tut's tomb may well have contained his father Amenhotep IV, or, as he is more commonly known, Akhenaten.

Akhenaten
is one of the rulers of ancient Egypt that many people recognize, usually as the "heretic." How many ways did he go against the Egyptian norm? For starters, he had himself and his family portrayed realistically despite his somewhat grotesque appearance. He may have allowed one of his wives, the legendary Nefertiti, to wield an extraordinary amount of power in the running of the kingdom. He moved the capital to Amarna. And he most surely turned the religious and political life of the country upside down by his overthrow of polytheism in favor of the worship of a single god, the Aten.

The priesthood of Egypt was a powerful institution, and Akhenaten swept them aside with a new idea. One has to wonder how the ordinary citizen must have felt, having the order of things tossed away and replaced with a completely different spiritual framework. It comes as no surprise that, soon after Akhenaten's passing, the priests moved to regain their power, probably to the relief of the people.

Zahi Hawass has been on a mission of late, it seems, to reexamine mummy caches and identify once and for all which ones are the ancient rulers of Egypt. KV-55, where the presumptive Akhenaten was found, was such a cache. But KV-55 had some other aspects of interest. The cartouche on the coffin of one particular mummy had been hacked out, which was typically done to erase the memory of the buried (as well as potentially costing the mummy the chance for an afterlife). An early examination of the mummy also revealed another fascinating fact: The skull was elongated and egg-shaped. We've seen this before, in the images of Akhenaten and the mummy of Tut.

Hawass, with the cooperation of the National Geographic Society, was able to perform a CT scan of this and other mummies, a technique which has proved useful in investigating both Tut and Hatshepsut. When they did, they found a cleft palate, along with several other characteristics all shared with Tutankhamun. So, Hawass now had a wealth of information including the time period of the burial, the hacked out cartouche, the physical characteristics similar to Tut, all of which pointed to the person in KV-55 being a close relative to Tut.

To his great credit, Hawass stopped short of a blanket announcement that he had Akhenaten and that Akhenaten was the father of Tut. What he said was,
"[This] means we can say now the mummy in KV 55, based on this evidence, and based on the age, and based on the inscriptions written in the coffin, that this could be the mummy of Akhenaten." But, he left the door wide open to the possibility that this was some other relative common to both Tut and Akhenaten, like Smenkhkare, for instance.

This shadowy individual could have been Tut's brother or Akhenaten's brother. He could even have been Tut's father. But, it is almost beyond a shadow of a doubt that the occupant of KV-55 was closely related to the royal family of Amarna.

There's still a lot for Hawass to do. For example, Nefertiti's mummy may still be out there to be found, along with Tut's mother. And there's still the re-analysis he has stated that needs to be done of the already identified mummies, using CT and DNA evidence, to determine if they can reasonably verified to be who they have been thought to be. There is also the tomb (and possibly mummy) of Imhotep, architect of the first true pyramids still out there.

Fortunately, Zahi Hawass loves his job.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Discovering Hatshepsut

For the last 100 years, curators sat down to drink tea, but they did not do their jobs, ... How many artifacts are in the basement? It was awful. ~ Zahi Hawass

Before I start, I've got to get something off my chest. The History-Discovery axis of channels has had some dreadful moments such as the KV-63 programs and the Jesus family tomb debacle. Recently though, they had a couple of small clunkers that are the sort of thing that drives me to distraction. On an otherwise good Science Channel program on geology, the announcer at once point says something about "caves like these ones." These ones? These ones? An eight-year old knows better than that. Then, almost the next day, on a program on one of the History channels about Captain Bligh keeps referring to the British "Admirality"? Perhaps a dozen times we hear admiralty pronounced "admirality." Interestingly, the same announcer did both programs.

I don't know if the guy can't read or the writers can't write, but someone needs to be flogged.

Having said that, I can say that, for once, the Discovery axis has done it right. The Discovery-funded "Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen" makes up for the miserable Nefertiti fiasco they foisted on us last year. The new program involves the investigation that determined the real mummy of Hatshepsut, the queen who ruled as Pharoah.

Hatshepsut became regent during the 18th Dynasty period. She liked being regent so much, she decided that she ought to stay in charge even when her son Thutmosis III came to power. Once Thutmosis came to power, he had all images of her erased from monuments in what appeared to be a monumental act of posthumous revenge. Her mummy disappeared.

It was thought to have been found in 1990 in KV-60, a tomb containing two female mummies. One was identified as Hatshepsut's nanny or nurse, so it was assumed that the other might well be the Queen-Pharoah herself, but no one could be sure. So, Discovery put up some money to find out just who was who.

Zahi Hawass, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, immediately looked to CAT scanning, a technique he used to great effect in putting to rest the Tut murder caper. He has also begun putting DNA testing to work, although getting good DNA from 5000-year-old corpses is not always easy. The CAT scans were interesting but inconclusive. DNA was obtained from the female mummies, but they were forced to use mitochondrial DNA because the DNA of the best male representative was of insufficient quality for use. The mitochnodrial samples would take some time to evaluate.

Now this is the point where Discovery would normally leave us hanging, but Hawass wasn't out of options yet. A canopic container, a box holding a mummy's organs, was found that was definitely identified as containing Hatshepsut's liver. It was possible there might be something else in there that could prove helpful. There was: A tooth.

Now, the news articles had already noted that the mummy had been identified using a tooth, but the program showed us that it wasn't as easy as that. The box had been filled with preservative resin, which had hardened into a block. The only way, it appeared, to find out what was in the box would be to damage the precious artifact. But the Egyptians are really into CAT scanning now, so they CAT scanned the box. When they did, they found an anomalous little hard object which turned out to be a molar missing one root. And one of the mummies, the one in the nurse's coffine, had a broken root where the molar would fit perfectly.

This, then, was no nurse. It was Hatshepsut, Pharoah of Egypt.

What made the program most enjoyable is that, unlike the aforementioned Nefertiti mess, the backstory about Hatshepsut's reign was well researched and seemed to stick to the archaeological evidence. They couldn't resist a little shot about a possible murder plot, but even that melted away. Hatshepsut, it seems, was a very sick woman when she died, with bone cancer and a severe abcess that would have spread infection throughout her body.

The program even brought out a different possibility for why Thutmosis was rubbing out all references to his stepmother. Thutmosis was a stepson, not fully of royal blood. He wanted his son to continue his blood line in the royal line, not one of Hatshepsut's children. One way to do this was to simply remove Hatshepsut from the record. One archaeologist likened it to the Soviet habit of rewriting history to minimize roles played by those now out of favor. As he put it, Thutmosis made Hatshepsut an "unperson."

One interesting side effect of all this mummy identification is that it has raised suspicions, at least in the mind of Zahi Hawass, about the identity of other pharonic mummies. If Hatshepsut could be placed in a misidentified coffin, possibly to protect her mummy from robbers or from desecraters, then it could be the case with others. According to Hawass, they can only be sure of two of those mummies: Hatshepsut, because of the tooth, and Tut because he was found in situ.

The rest, I suspect, are going to be spending time in the old CAT scanner, as well as having DNA pulled if at all possible. There may well be some more interesting re-identifications in the future.

So give the Discovery gang a pat on the back and watch the show. It's on at 8 PM CDT tonight (on the Science Channel; it was on Discovery last night), but I'm sure it will be replayed many times.

An for a change, it'll be worth seeing again.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Feeling the Heat

I am compelled to fear that science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups rather than to make men happy. ~Bertrand Russell

It would appear that the "CO2 is all we have to worry about" global warming crowd is starting to feel the heat from other scientists who have their doubts. Remember, the issue is not whether we have global warming; that is pretty much a given. The real issue is what are we going to do about it. When last I wrote, I tried to make this point with some force, but my voice is tiny, while the voice of the scientific establishment, which seems to have invested a lot in the carbon dioxide theory, is very large.

No one, of course, is taking the time to poo-poo anything I'm writing, but they are attacking anything that goes against the emissions dogma. One of the latest is described in an article from the BBC, screamingly entitled, " 'No Sun Link' to climate change." Fundamentally, what goes on here is that the BBC had a science program that pushed the cosmic ray cloud theory and showed a decrease in cosmic ray activity followed an increase in the suns brightness over most of the last century. Apparently, the data in the TV show stopped around 1980. Ah-HA! scream some researchers. They stopped in 1980 because cosmic ray activity dropped after that, therefore the entire theory is junk, and let's get back to stopping CO2.

Well, not so fast, chuckles. Yes, beginning in about 1987, it does appear that solar activity is declining with an increase in cosmic rays. But, by 1997, the trend goes toward increased activity again. In fact, as one learns from the article the overall trend for the twentieth century is increasing solar brightness. The assumption that average temperatures will react instantly to such increases is absurd. Because the Earth has an immense heat sink covering 7/8 of its surface, overall planetary heating due to long term solar brightness increases is likely to be slow. But, once the heat is in the ocean, the temperatures are going to take time to decrease. And, in fact, one sees slight variations in the rate of temperature increase. So, it takes a while for warming to start; once it gets going, it takes it some time to slow and reverse.

Keep in mind that the folks who have been telling you about the dead certainty about emissions causing warming and other factors having nothing to do with it are the same people who told you about all those hurricanes we were supposed to have last year. These are the same people who haven't said much about how, over the long term, hurricane activity has had many more active periods. Excepting our crazy burst of a couple of years ago, we have been living in a comparatively quiet era for tropical storms.

The bottom line is that the Royal Society is playing games. The global warming crowd has talked about long-term cause and effect, yet they are willing to ignore 80 years of increasing solar brightness to focus on the last 20 years when it suits them. This report hardly can be consider to "settle the debate", as Dr. Mike Lockwood claims. In fact, the same Dr. Lockwood hits us with this gem: "Y
ou can't just ignore bits of data that you don't like."

The irony is that this is just what he is doing, just as he ignores the hurricane data, the global warmings of the past, the current warming of Mars and Neptune.

Meanwhile, in my earlier article, I made reference again to the fallacy of using food stocks for fuel. My profound concern is that giving oil companies control of corn or wheat or beets is a recipe for disaster, especially when we are looking at the grim possibility that climate change will reduce arable land. Well, we've been given a preview.

So durum wheat stocks are becoming tight; next it will be corn, then something else. And while we're starving, the CO2 crowd will be helping to kill us while driving their biofuel cars to their seminars.

At the beach in Nebraska.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Climatic Denial

I don't mean to imply that we are in imminent danger of being wiped off the face of the earth - at least, not on account of global warming. But climate change does confront us with profound new realities. We face these new realities as a nation, as members of the world community, as consumers, as producers, and as investors. And unless we do a better job of adjusting to these new realities, we will pay a heavy price. We may not suffer the fate of the dinosaurs. But there will be a toll on our environment and on our economy, and the toll will rise higher with each new generation. ~ Eileen Claussen

A few small voices are starting to argue vocally that we had better stop kidding ourselves: Man-made CO2 are probably not a significant factor global warming. It's about time.

Reid Bryson, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor emeritus, known as the "father of scientific climatology", and a curmudgeon after my own heart makes no bones about it. Sure the planet is getting warmer, but industrial contribution to that warming is small. What about all those scientists who disagree? "Consensus doesn't prove anything, in science or anywhere else, except in democracy, maybe," says Prof. Bryson.

Of course, Prof. Bryson's colleagues at UW-Madison are quick to throw him under the nearest global warming bus. In fact, say his former friends, emissions have increased by 35% over the last 300 years. Why, it's amazing we aren't suffocating!

To put that figure into perspective, let's turn to Dr. Michael Fox, writing in the Hawaii Reporter. According to Dr. Fox, CO2 accounts for 3% of greenhouse gases, with water vapor accounting for 95%. So, that 35% increase means that we've added less than 1% to the total through carbon dioxide emissions. Cutting them back, then, is going to do precious little.

Then there's the little issue of Mars. It seems Mars is getting warmer, too. Evidently, all those satellites and rovers are having a deleterious impact on the Martian climate. They must be, because if they aren't, you're going to be hard-pressed to find a man-made excuse for Martian heating. A Russian, Habibullo Abdussamatov, has theorized that the sun is getting hotter. Of course, this doesn't sit well with the climatological establishment: " 'His views are completely at odds with the mainstream scientific opinion,' said Colin Wilson, a planetary physicist at England's Oxford University."

That being said, there's the little issue of Neptune and Trition, which are also showing signs of warming also indicating the possibility of increased solar brightness. Either that, or someone has opened a steel mill on Triton.

Now I have gone on at length about theoreticians who seem to come up with out-there theories meant mostly to disprove existing theories. There seems to be nearly constant attempts to discredit Einstein, despite the fact that observational evidence keeps supporting his theories. But, that's the difference in this case. Observational evidence is equivocal, despite what the bulk of the just-stop-emissions crowd likes to say, and some observational evidence, like Mars and Neptune, points in quite a different direction. Even the cosmic ray supporters seem to have as much solid evidence as the Al Gore front.

No matter how much evidence is found that the Earth has been considerably warmer over the eons than it is now, a significant group of scientists and politicians want to take the easy way out: Just stop the emissions and everything will be all right.

Well, troopers, it won't be, and the sooner we get over that fallacy, the better off we'll be. We need to accept the probability that the planet is getting warmer without our help and that we can't do a bloody thing to stop it. Then we can get about the business of mitigating the coming effects.

To give a concrete example, we need to stop this ethanol foolishness. As part of the push by the oil companies to control our food supply as well as our energy resources, there is a false idea being pushed that ethanol will somehow be more eco-friendly. Well, ethanol is a hydrocarbon, and burning it will result in carbon dioxide emissions. So there's no significant global warming impact. But, if we're using food stocks to propel cars, and the arable land is shifting or disappearing because of planetary climate change, we're going to starve before we have to worry about getting to the mall.

It's time to get our priorities right. Scientists need to quit worrying about getting grant money by following the party line and do some serious research. And the politicians have to stop thinking there's going to be an easy way out and start dealing with the serious problems the inevitable climate change will bring.

It's time to get real or join the dinosaurs.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Seven Wonders of the Internet

The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn't understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had. ~Eric Schmidt

I have the pleasure of being a member of the Buzzblog Brigade, otherwise known as Paul McNamara's mailing list. Mr. McNamara has been writing a column for Network World for quite some time and also produces a blog. Some time ago, he asked the readership if we would be interested in joining a band of opinionated people who might be willing to offer comments from time to time on some subject of his choosing. His most recent topic was inspired by the about-to-be-newly-minted Seven Wonders of the World. He asked us to suggest what might be the Seven Wonders of the Internet.

Of course, I had a brain freeze the day he sent out that request, so I was only able to come up with six. Somewhat surprisingly, five of my choices were included in the Big Seven. If you want to see my original comments, check out the to the Buzzblog. I've made some further observations below.

  1. The Google Search engine – Barely a day goes by that I don't say to someone, "Google is your friend." I'm not talking about Google's philosophies or dominance. Google searches, for all the complaining some folks are doing, are still the best way to find something. Those of us who started out using Gopher to find technical articles on Microsoft's or Novell's web sites simply adore Google.
  2. Blogging software – Mr. McNamara kind of fudged this one. He included a wide variety of sites, including Imdb.com and Catsinsinks.com. His point is that there is a web site for every conceivable interest. There is also an incredible mass of information out there, as well as an equal (probably larger) mass of misinformation. But, it's all out there because it's gotten so easy to do.
  3. On-line shopping – This was never going to work. Except that it did, big time. Everyone has an explanation, but I can offer the simplest. If you need a transverse belt for your 10-year-old riding mower, you'll never find one at the local repair shop. But you'll find 10 places online that can supply it--and they'll do it for a lower price.
  4. Spam – I was serious when I proposed this one, but I was still surprised when it made the list. But why not? Over 90% of all e-mail is spam; an entire industry has sprung up to try to stop it. It affects virtually every user by filling his/her inbox and the tech types by slowing their networks. That's serious impact.
  5. The Domain Naming System – I thought this would be number one. Can you imagine have to learn an IP address for every web site you visit? Not only is it indispensable, it has proved to be incredibly durable--except for when it's own handlers mess up an update.
  6. Usenet – This made the "Honorable Mention" list. I've written at length before about the Usenet and how much I miss it. But the Usenet was there before there was anything else. In a way, it's what got the whole Internet show rolling.
I never thought of GPS (which is ranked number 7 on the list), which is funny considering how much science has become dependent on it. Archaeologists, paleontologists, geologists, volcanologists, you name the discipline, they're using GPS to determine where something is, where it's going, and how long it's taking to get there.

The extent of my brain freeze shows when you realize I failed to mention e-mail. In my organization, I think every file and data server could crash, but, so long as e-mail continued to function, I wouldn't hear a word. But, let me do two minutes of maintenance on the mail system, and the phone lights up.
My fellow admin was quick to remind of that oversight when I showed him this list.

Interestingly, the Brigade was once asked if we had to give up the Web or e-mail, which one would we dump? The answer may surprise you.

Oddly, though, except for one tangential reference, one major contributor to the success of the Internet didn't make the list. My fellow admin was also quick to point this one out: Pornography. While some of us were gophering Microsoft, a lot more were finding sites just chock full of naughty pictures. Those site owners were the people who pioneered online commerce in a big way, as well as pushing the envelope on streaming video, among other technologies.
Like spam, it's generated an industry to block it, yet people find ways to get it. Before people were "Googling" (TM) and floating down Amazon.com, they were oogling www.whoopeenekkid.com.

You gotta give the people what they want.