Archive for the '[Etc]' category

Conservation mode/growing pains

Sep 01 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, [Etc]

What Christina said:

We’re putting scientopia basically in to conservation mode to conserve resources until we get hosting issues squared away. So we’ll have no commenting on new posts for a bit.

This isn't a sinister plot to stifle dissenting opinions -- as you may have noticed, we've been having some issues lately!  If you want to comment on any new posts I write in the near future, you can always email me at:

skullsinthestars *the*at*thingy* skullsinthestars.com.

You can also "tweet" me at @drskyskull.

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Kitty fostering: Brewster and Breyer!

Aug 31 2010 Published by under [Etc], Animals, Personal

I'll be doing more physics blogging in the near future -- I promise!  Work is keeping me quite busy at the moment and I haven't had much spare time or energy to investigate topics in depth.  Hopefully that will change in the future, but for now I thought I'd share some other news -- we're fostering two sweet kitties!

Last week, the wife and I were at the local PetSmart, where we met Terry who runs F.U.R.R. -- Feline Urgent Rescue and Rehabilitation--  a rescue shelter that specializes in so-called feral cats and socializing them for homes.  We went and visited Terry's "kitty lodge" and learned about the daily operations of the shelter, and are still contemplating volunteering!

In the meantime, we couldn't help but agree to foster a couple of cats! Every cat that can be fostered makes more room for the shelter to rescue another animal, which made it hard for us to resist. Our new houseguests are handsome brothers named Brewster and Breyer!

Breyer is a big boy, though not all of that size is due to long fur (he's a little round right now):

His brother is Brewster is a smaller, short-haired cat, and clearly takes his cues from big bro:

Both boys were a little scared when we first got them home, but within half a day they turned into the most lovable kitties you could imagine:

(I actually had a hard time getting pics of them, because they spent most of their time rolling around on their backs right in front of me or rubbing up against me.)

For those who are already doubting that we're actually "fostering" and not "adopting", as in some previous attempts, let me state that the wife and I are allergic to short-haired cats, and therefore can't keep these two.  They are adorable, however, so if you know anybody in the vicinity of Charlotte that would be interested in adopting these two lovely boys, please point them towards Terry at F.U.R.R.!  You can also donate to F.U.R.R. here.

Incidentally, if you're wondering how the other cats are handling things, let's just say they're curious and a little nervous right now.  Here's a picture from outside the guest room we're keeping the boys in:

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: measuring gravity, measuring magnetism, antiseptic spices and Goya's bullfighting

Aug 30 2010 Published by under [Etc], General science, Science news

skyskull "Dr. SkySkull" selects several notable posts each week from a miscellany of ResearchBlogging.org categories. He blogs at Skulls in the Stars.

  • Measuring Gravity: Ain't Nothin' but a G Thing. Gravity is one of the fundamental forces of nature, but also one of the most difficult to measure precisely; a recent experimental measurement of the gravitational constant has shown significant deviation from the accepted value. Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles looks at a variety of recent gravitational measurements, and explains the implications of the recent discrepancy.
  • Snapshots of magnetic fields. While we're talking about things that are hard to measure, let's talk about magnetic fields! Magnetic fields are extremely difficult to measure with nanoscale precision and in the time domain, in marked contrast to measurements of other quantities. Joerg Haber of All That Matters discusses recent techniques for measuring such fields.
  • Spices as antiseptics... maybe. Spices can add lots of "zing" to your food, and make some people suffer while eating it, but do they serve an even more important biological function? Thomas Kluyver at Thomas' Plant-Related Blog looks at the evidence that the use of spices has served an antiseptic purpose in food preparation, and the limitations of that evidence.
  • Tauromaquia Today. And now for something completely different! Bécquer Medak-Seguín of Hispanic Studies Forum discusses a dispute in the interpretation of artist Goya's collection of etchings on bullfighting, La Tauromaquia.

Check back next Monday for more "miscellaneous" selections!

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My favorite weird fiction of the past 3 years

Aug 29 2010 Published by under [Etc], Horror, Weird fiction

Happy (belated) blogiversary to me!  August 14th was the 3rd year anniversary of this blog, a milestone that I missed yet again in the hubbub of daily life.  Nevertheless, an anniversary is a good time for reflection, and one thing I wanted to look back upon is all of the fiction that I've read over the past 3 years.

I started "Skulls in the Stars" with a dual goal of increasing my reading and enthusiasm for both science and weird fiction.  These goals have been met and then some, but I've been particularly delighted by the amount of truly classic yet obscure weird fiction that I've come across that I wouldn't have otherwise.

With that in mind, I thought it would be nice to go back and share my favorite reads over the past 3 years, with a brief explanation of why I think they're great!  Most of these books are currently in print, thanks to the valiant efforts of a number of dedicated publishers.  These are not only some of the best books that I've read over the past 3 years, but now some of my favorite novels of all time.

Continue Reading »

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: the first Englishman, the last Seismosaurus, the semantic web, hidden ruptures and E.T. life

Aug 23 2010 Published by under [Etc], General science, Science news

skyskull "Dr. SkySkull" selects several notable posts each week from a miscellany of ResearchBlogging.org categories. He blogs at Skulls in the Stars.

  • Unmasking Eoanthropus dawsoni, The First Englishman. This post was too late for the special "fools, failures and frauds" edition of The Giant's Shoulders history of science blog carnival, but it is a perfect researchblogging post! Krystal D'Costa of Anthropology in Practice discusses the infamous discovery of "Piltdown man", and how national pride, among other things, muddled the field of anthropology for decades.
  • Cylons and Smelloscopes: False Positives and False Negatives in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life. In recent years, the search for extraterrestrial life has heated up with the ability to search for Earth-like planets outside our solar system. At his eponymous blog, The Astronomist describes the techniques for searching for life on other planets, and the pitfalls of such techniques.
  • What’s the point of the semantic web? Anyone who has been around long enough to remember web searching pre-Google knows how far the quality has improved. But can it be done even better, and how? David Bradley at Sciencebase explains the limits of current search engines, and describes how the "semantic web" could fix those limitations.
  • Friday(ish) Focal Mechanisms: Samoa’s hidden rupture. Though our understanding of earthquakes has increased tremendously in modern times, there is still much to learn and many subtleties in every recorded event. Chris Rowan at Highly Allochthonous discusses research that indicates that last year's Samoan earthquake was much more complicated than previously appreciated.
  • Whatever Happened to Seismosaurus? Finally, Brian Switek of Dinosaur Tracking takes a look at a dinosaur that drew a lot of attention in the 1990s -- Seismosaurus -- and explains why we don't hear anything about it any more!

Check back next week for more miscellaneous suggestions!

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: snails do it anti-chirally, the Tasmanian fish mystery, and an amateur impact hypothesis

Aug 16 2010 Published by under [Etc], General science, Science news

skyskull "Dr. SkySkull" selects several notable posts each week from a miscellany of ResearchBlogging.org categories. He blogs at Skulls in the Stars.

Late posting of editor's selections this week -- life's events, including an emergency vet trip with a sick kitty (she's fine) -- delayed things!

  • Some snails prefer doing it anti-chiral. In our bawdiest post of the week, Kevin Zelnio of The Online Laboratory of Kevin Zelnio talk a bit about how snails procreate -- it turns out that one species of snail prefers to find mates that have shells that twist opposite to their own! *gasp!*
  • Why did the Tasmanians stop eating fish? Who doesn't love a mystery?  In an intriguing post, Greg Laden of his eponymous blog investigates what happened when early human inhabitants of islands were slowly cut off from the mainland by changing sea conditions.  The connection to fish eating is explained!
  • Amateur impact hypothesis makes it into major archaeology journal. Does an ancient Greek legend refer to a massive meteor strike in antiquity?  Martin Rundkvist of Aardvarchaeology looks at a recent paper making the case, and argues that the evidence isn't really what it's cracked up to be.

That's it for this week!  Next Monday, I'll hopefully be back on schedule!

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The Giant's Shoulders #26, "Fools, failures and frauds" edition, is out!

Aug 16 2010 Published by under [Etc], General science, Science news

Hear ye, hear ye -- the 26th edition of The Giant's Shoulders, labeled the "Fools, failures and frauds" special edition, is available for perusal at Neurotic Physiology!  In this edition of the carnival we take a special look at those who committed scientific fraud, who performed experiments that failed, and folks who were just plain wrong and/or crazy!  Thanks to Scicurious for putting together a most excellent edition of the carnival!

The next edition of the carnival will be held at Entertaining Research, and the deadline for entries is September 15th.  Entries can be submitted through blogcarnival.com or directly to the host blog, as usual!

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The Scientist and the Anarchist - Part II

The following guest post by Eric Michael Johnson is part of the Primate Diaries in Exile blog tour. You can follow other stops on this tour through his RSS feed or at the #PDEx hashtag on Twitter. If this is your first time visiting Skulls in the Stars make sure to browse some of the other posts on the blog. The Scientist and the Anarchist - Part I can be found at Cocktail Party Physics. Thanks. - EMJ

How Europe's Most Notorious Anarchist Came to Challenge England's Most Distinguished Man of Science.


Artist depiction of the bombing during an anarchist rally at Haymarket Square,
May 4, 1886 / Harper's Weekly

If you read the English-language press at the time, you would know that Peter Kropotkin was a dangerous man. As a self-proclaimed anarchist he was condemned as "a malignant fungoid growth...on the body politic" and his philosophy was nothing but "another name for organized crime." Kropotkin and his ilk were "a pack of bloodthirsty and ferocious criminals who prey upon their fellows for their own gain," and his published writings were not "a document of contemporary politics," but rather a disturbing "matter for the pathologist of disease." He had already spent years in Russian and French prisons after being convicted for crimes against the State, he had known associations with dangerous radicals and revolutionaries, and he wouldn't be satisfied until anarchy reigned throughout Europe. He was also a Prince, an internationally respected naturalist who wrote regularly for the journal Nature, and was as likely to be found in attendance at a London scientific conference as a clandestine political meeting. [1]

Kropotkin's notoriety as a political radical was equaled only by the high esteem held for his scientific and scholarly achievements. The discoveries he had made of glacial formations during the Quaternary Period in Russia were received with international acclaim and earned him invitations to join the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as a Cambridge University endowed chair in geology (which he turned down because it came with the stipulation that he give up his political work). Kropotkin gave lectures on biology and geology throughout Europe, England, and North America and was an outspoken proponent of an ecosystems worldview in which nature was never static but remained constantly in flux. He was a devoted Darwinian from the first publication of On the Origin of Species, and it was this scientific background that he held as the basis for a politics of individual liberty and the necessity of social change.

As he wrote in his essay "Revolutionary Studies":

Everything changes in nature, everything is incessantly modified: systems, wages, planets, climates, varieties of plants and animals, the human species -- Why should human institutions perpetuate themselves! ... What we see around us is only a passing phenomenon which ought to modify itself, because immobility would be death. These are the conceptions to which modern science accustoms us.

Kropotkin lived in a time when the human environment was indeed undergoing radical change. A previously stable ecosystem had been upended and the scramble for a new niche had already begun in force. Modern economic realities were changing the structure of feudal society and those who had previously been on the edge were now being pushed over it. As was often the case (and largely still is today) the comfortable sought justification for these changes by looking to laws of nature or by excusing them as a manifestation of God's will. But others saw them as a warning. Unless the marginalized and oppressed became organized, they argued, there would never be any justice.

G.D.H. Cole wrote about the growing popular movement during this period in his British Working Class Politics:

Wherever the workers are voteless, or the right of political agitation is not granted to them, working-class political movements are bound, if they exist at all, to take a revolutionary form.

After years of attempting to get their concerns heard in Parliament through The People's Charter, the poor were tired of being told to work within a system that didn't work with them. A laborer in the north of England expressed the sentiment that many felt when he said, "There is not a labouring man here, from 16 to 60, who has not signed the petition, and there is a pike for every signature." But the aristocracy rejected The People's Charter outright. Secretary at War Thomas Babington Macaulay announced before the House of Commons that he believed giving poor people the right to vote would be "fatal to all purposes for which government exists." For members of the landed gentry such as himself and most ministers in Parliament, the very concept was a threat to their high station and was thought to be "incompatible with the very existence of civilization." Voted down by a tally of 235 to 46, the movement that had developed as a political reform now took on a revolutionary direction. The following decades would see an explosion of political activity among the poor as those now familiar concepts -- socialism, communism, and anarchy -- sought to challenge a stagnant and corrupt system. [2]


Coronation of Tsar Alexander of Russia. Three generations would be targeted for assassination by Russian radicals with Alexander II dying in a bomb attack.

However, as a young man in the court of Tsar Alexander II, Peter Kropotkin's idea of rebellion was to follow in the footsteps of Darwin and embark on a five-year expedition of Siberia rather than follow in his family's military legacy. Born into the Russian nobility, Kropotkin grew up in household of just eight family members but attended by no fewer than fifty servants at their Moscow estate. As Kropotkin described in his memoir, these included four coachmen to attend the horses, three cooks, a dozen men to wait upon them at dinner ("one man, plate in hand, standing behind each person seated at the table") and innumerable maidservants to attend them in their chambers. Then, of course, there were the serfs who made the Kropotkin family's wealth possible.

Wealth was measured in those times by the number of "souls" that a landed proprietor owned. So many "souls" meant so many male serfs: women did not count. My father, who owned nearly twelve hundred souls, in three different provinces, and who had, in addition to his peasants' holdings, large tracts of land which were cultivated by these peasants, was accounted a rich man.

However, among the serfs, "human feelings were not recognized, not even suspected," by members of his class. Kropotkin recalled stories of husbands and wives torn from their families because they'd been lost in a hand of cards or to be exchanged for a pair of hunting dogs. Peasant children could be sold on a whim or flogged in the stables "with unheard-of cruelty." As to the poverty, "no words would be adequate to describe the misery to readers who have not seen it."

Graduating first in his class in the Corps of Pages, and personal attendant of Tsar Alexander II himself, Kropotkin had his choice of military stations. But it was his desire to escape from courtly life and pursue the calling of a scholar and naturalist that set a course which would later define his life. Kropotkin's writings during his Siberian expeditions evoke a harsh landscape where life was under constant struggle for survival. Terrible snow-storms that would descend without warning, torrential rains from the summer monsoons "resulting in inundations...and swamping, on the plateaus, areas as wide as European States." Kropotkin witnessed entire communities of animals wiped out under these brutal conditions and he came to understand natural selection as fundamentally a struggle against the elements.

Enthusiastic to observe Siberia's animal life through an evolutionary lens, Kropotkin and the respected zoologist I.S. Poliakov looked in vain for the intraspecific competition that Darwin described from his explorations in the tropics. "We saw plenty of adaptations for struggling," Kropotkin recalled, but it was "very often in common, against the adverse circumstances of climate, or against various enemies." What Kropotkin found most often was mutual aid and cooperation between members of a group.

No naturalist will doubt that the idea of struggle for life carried on through organic nature is the greatest generalization of the century. Life is struggle; and in that struggle the fittest survive. But the answers to the questions "by which arms is the struggle chiefly carried on!" and "who are the fittest in the struggle!" will widely differ according to the importance given to the two different aspects of the struggle: the direct one, for food and safety among separate individuals, and the struggle which Darwin described as "metaphorical" - the struggle, very often collective, against adverse circumstances.

This mutual aid that Kropotkin found amongst Siberia's fauna from beetles and land crabs to birds, deer, and antelope he also witnessed amongst the indigenous peoples he lived with in remote reaches of the empire. These experiences revealed to him "the complex forms of social organization which they have elaborated far away from the influence of any civilization." Having been raised in a society steeped in discipline, hierarchy, and the glories of conflict, Kropotkin's experience in Siberia planted the seed of inspiration. [3]

As Johns Hopkins University historian Daniel P. Todes observed:

Kropotkin's Siberian experience played a similar role in the development of his ideas about evolution and ecology as had Darwin's Beagle voyage in his. Just as Darwin came to doubt the fixity of species, so did Kropotkin, already an evolutionist, become skeptical of the importance of intraspecific competition.

It was also during his expeditions that he discovered the brutality inflicted on Russia's peasants by agents of the Tsarist government. Workers in the Lena gold mines were slaves in all but name, he witnessed district police who "robbed the peasants and flogged them right and left," and a culture of impunity that allowed officials to "plunder the natives free of any control." Moved to take action against such injustice, Kropotkin also saw the futility of working within a system that was built on exploitation.

I soon realized the absolute impossibility of doing anything really useful for the mass of the people by means of the administrative machinery. With this illusion I parted forever.

It was this commitment to political change that sealed his fate and set him on the path of a radical. Upon his return Kropotkin received great acclaim for the scientific papers he wrote during his travels in Siberia and he was subsequently awarded a gold medal from the Imperial Russian Geographical Society. In March 1872, after delivering a paper on the origins of the Ice Age, Kropotkin was nominated to chair the Society's section on physical geography. Hours later he was arrested and imprisoned along with other members of the Chaikovtsky Circle, an organization of Russian scholars to which he belonged who translated radical literature from Europe and disseminated it amongst the peasantry. Imprisoned for four years, Kropotkin was eventually able to escape from a prison hospital and found refuge among the underground network of subversives scattered throughout Europe. It was only then, after having experienced first hand the abuses of dictatorship, that he committed himself to the life of a revolutionary.

Chased from one country to the next Kropotkin challenged authority wherever he could put pen to paper. He also drew a practical lesson from his experience as a naturalist in Siberia: when living in a hostile environment the most successful strategy is to cooperate with other members of your group against a common threat. But, for Kropotkin, this mutual aid had to be voluntary and any force or coercion -- even if it was believed that the end justified the means -- had to be resisted as an affront to individual liberty. As a political thinker, Kropotkin was as likely to be criticized by Socialists and Marxists for his individualism and rejection of orthodoxy as he was by members of the aristocracy for pointing out the abuses of their class. However, it was in 1888, soon after fleeing Continental Europe to escape political persecution, that he challenged the famed naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley when the latter was engaged in a political project of his own.

The Scientist and the Anarchist - Part III will conclude next week at Deborah Blum's Speakeasy Science following a stop at Carin Bondar.com.

References:

[1] Quotes come from (in order) The Gentleman's Magazine, The Daily Mail, Evening News, and The Spectator. See: Haia Shpayer-Makov (1987). "The Reception of Peter Kropotkin in Britain, 1886-1917," Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 19(3): 373-90.

[2] Patricia Hollis (1973). Class and Conflict in Nineteenth-Century England, 1815-1850, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; Preston Williams Slosson (1916). The Decline of the Chartist Movement, New York: Longmans, Green & Co.

[3] Daniel P. Todes (1989). Darwin Without Malthus: The Struggle for Existence in Russian Evolutionary Thought, London: Oxford University Press.

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Update by Dr. SkySkull: Thanks to Eric for this awesome post! Be sure to follow future stops on his exile tour at Primate Diaries in Exile, through his RSS feed or at the #PDEx hashtag on Twitter.

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: Chemistry extravaganza!

Aug 09 2010 Published by under [Etc], General science, Science news

skyskull "Dr. SkySkull" selects several notable posts each week from a miscellany of ResearchBlogging.org categories. He blogs at Skulls in the Stars.

This week's set of editor's selections is a "chemistry extravaganza"! The posts that jumped out at me were heavily focused on the science and techniques of chemistry. Enjoy!

  • Determining the structure by looking at the molecule. Anyone who has taken at least high school chemistry knows that determining the structural properties of a molecule is a very difficult process. Now, as Lars Fischer of EuCheMS 2010 Blog reports, researchers have been able to use atomic force microscopy to directly image individual molecules!
  • How bacteria help create dinosaur fossils. Fossilization has traditionally been treated as a purely chemical process: bone is replaced gradually by mineral. However, recent research suggests that bacteria may actually play a crucial role in the formation of such fossils; Brian Switek of Dinosaur Tracking reports.
  • A simplified yet quantitative model for macromolecular crowding. Research into biological processes such as protein folding are often done with the proteins in solution; however, the interior of cells are crowded with stuff and that crowding effects what can and will happen. Michael Long of Phased reports on new simulations designed to understand such crowding.
  • Foldit: Innovative biology for gamers and Humans beat computers in predicting protein structures. Speaking of protein folding, here we have two different reports on a novel technique for studying the phenomenon! It has become somewhat commonplace to use crowdsourcing to help researchers tackle complex problems. However, Grrlscientist of This Scientific Life and the eponymous The Curious Wavefunction report on a new strategy: making protein-folding research into a video game!

Check back next week for more "miscellaneous" suggestions!

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Primate Diaries in exile!

Aug 05 2010 Published by under [Etc]

This seems like a good time to remind folks about Eric Michael Johnson's "Primate Diaries in Exile" tour! Since leaving Scienceblogs in the wake of PepsiGate, Eric has been "touring" various blogs and providing guest posts. He's set up a blogger site to keep track of the various stops along the way; so far, these include:

  1. July 19: Scientific Ethics and the Myth of Stalin's Ape-Man Superwarriors, over at John McKay's site.
  2. July 26: For Great Apes, Addressing Inequality is Child’s Play, over at Neuron Culture.
  3. August 4: The Scientist and the Anarchist - Part I, over at Cocktail Party Physics.

Eric's next stop will be right here at Skulls in the Stars, probably early next week!  In the meantime, you can keep track of Eric's tour through the twitter hashtag #PDEx, or directly through his Twitter account at @ericmjohnson!

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