Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Place of Science in Society

Anyone who has ever watched an episode of Friends, has seen an example of the way that today’s media portrays science. Whenever Ross, (the Geeky palaeontologist) launches into talking about dinosaurs, everyone falls asleep, behaves as if he is boring them senseless etc… More to the point, all of the trendy, beautiful people fall asleep (i.e. Rachel).

My childhood was spent in the 80s, and at this point, I am fairly sure that dinosaurs were still one of the most exciting things to read about, play with, learn about etc… When along the continuum, did something as absolutely fascinating and exciting as the topic of dinosaurs become so boring it manifests as a modern day taboo, relegated to discussions by only ‘perceptually undesirable’ people?

As a joke in a sitcom, you might be forgiven for chuckling (as I did the first time), but then after giving it some thought, it hits you that this is pretty much today’s society in a nutshell. For some reason, it is deemed sexy to be in a fashion career, working for one of the biggest brands in existence (we’ll get to brand names shortly!) – a job where the extent of higher level thought consists of what colours go with what, and what bizarre unwearable pieces of clothing are in this season. And seriously, what the f*** is the phrase “That is soooo last season!”. (A phrase you hear more and more on television) What a bizarre and shallow world we have created where an item of clothing (that might be a personal favourite) is deemed unsuitable to wear because it was fashionable about 150 days ago….but no longer???

More and more, on media, this image that it is untrendy to be ‘clever’ or more worryingly, to be interested in anything of any substance. Many people may think I am being melodramatic, but I think there is a general underestimation of the power of the media on young children. Apart from CSI, is there anything on television at the moment, aimed at the teenage/young adult audience that portrays scientific curiosity as sexy and desirable?

The modern day population in the Western world is increasingly being made up of very shallow people who think it is cool not to use your brain, and consequently who follow ideas blindly like sheep. The age of the idol – for instance. We live in an age of hero-worship, but who are our heroes? They are people like David Beckham and Posh Spice, Madonna, Tom Cruise, Britney….etc.. etc… It could be argued that these are not “heroes”, however but we are obsessed with them, we all know who they are, and the media panders to what the public wants. If we weren’t interested in them, we wouldn’t be in this situation. The BIG names in the Western world tend to be people that are famous for ….well…for being in a job that doesn’t require a whole lot of scientific curiosity or though (actors, models etc..). I would bet a substantial sum that many young people (actually not just young people) have no idea who Watson and Crick were. Scientists who arguably made one of the, if not the biggest scientific discovery of the century, fade into obscurity while Angelina rises to eternal fame because she has had a few injections of Botox and a boob job.

NEXT – Brand names/mobiles/fashions

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Important Fossil Find Sheds Light on Human Evolution (For Who?)

Darwinius masillae - Ida

Very recently, the world was let in on the secret of Ida. Ida is the name given to the 47.5 million year old fossil remains of a primate, found in the Messel Pit, In Germany.

She is an enormously important find for the world of science, and has been described as the zoological ‘Rosetta Stone’ for understanding early primate evolution. This, is in part due to the fact that she is so well preserved that even individual hairs on her skin are visible. Ida lived at a time when researchers believe that the primate ancestral line split into 2 groups – one evolving into monkeys, apes and humans, and another that developed into lemurs and other lesser known primates.

This particular part of our evolutionary story has been hidden thus far. Like an old book which has been rescued from the fireplace – most of the tale unreadable, with only a few tiny remnants; the odd letter or word which has survived here and there. But now, suddenly, our metaphorical book gains a whole chapter!

But, hypothetically, what if Ida had been discovered in 1854? No doubt, some scientists would have been ecstatic (Darwin and Huxley spring to mind), but would she have changed the view of evolution’s sceptics? I doubt it. Will she change the view of today’s sceptics? I doubt it.

When Darwin was in the midst of defending his theories, he predicted that if he were correct, at some point someone would find a type of proto-bird with unfused wing fingers… low and behold 2 years after the publication of ‘Origin’, Archaeopteryx was discovered.

Owens’ response was to state that it was a “peculiar bird”, and then to proceed to dismiss it, ignoring its saurian features and even going so far as to argue how it couldn’t have evolved from reptiles by distinguishing its anatomy from pterosaurs rather than from dinosaurs. Huxley, of course, was not going to sit by idly, and upon publishing his counter examination, exposed Owen’s deceptive and biased analysis.

In 1863, Huxley published his “Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature”, bringing to the forefront the key issues long before Darwin published his ‘Descent of Man’ in 1871. He clashed heavily with Owens in this arena.

Owens promised his religious colleagues that, where Linnaeus had failed to find any physical trait to separate out humans from the apes, he would succeed. Firstly he presented similarities as differences and when he couldn’t find any legitimate differences, he apparently made them up. He proclaimed that the Hippocampus minor was a uniquely human trait, not found in the brains of any other primate. Keep in mind, that Owens was a top anatomist of the day – this sort of obvious mistake would have been very difficult to make in earnest. But still he was unable to concede any error of any sort, employing rather than any logical reasoning in his defence, evasive maneuvering instead. This culminated in Huxley eventually indicting him for perjury. An Oxford University Professor once termed him a “Damned liar – he lied for God and for malice”.

In 1861, before the BA meeting, Huxley wrote:

"My dear Rolleston... The obstinate reiteration of erroneous assertions can only be nullified by as persistent an appeal to facts; and I greatly regret that my engagements do not permit me to be present at the British Association in order to assist personally at what, I believe, will be the seventh public demonstration during the past twelve months of the untruth of the three assertions, that the posterior lobe of the cerebrum, the posterior cornu of the lateral ventricle, and the hippocampus minor, are peculiar to man and do not exist in the apes. I shall be obliged if you will read this letter to the Section. Yours faithfully, Thos. H. Huxley."

At a later point, when Huxley began to weary of debating the same thing over and over again – and winning, he proclaimed "Life is too short to occupy oneself with the slaying of the slain more than once." - Thomas Huxley

Today, anti-evolutionists are continuing in this favoured role of blinkering themselves to the actual science happening around them. The goal posts are always moving – demands for the “missing link” (that will magically convert them and stop them from ignoring 2 decades of evidence??) keep coming, as if from a Creationists’ “Magic Porridge Pot” of demands. Will there be any anti-evolutionists/ creationists that hear about Ida, one of the most fascinating and enthralling discoveries of the century – and abandon their closemindedness? If we have learnt anything from the past 200 years, it is that unfortunately the answer will be no.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Inspirations from the Armada - Part 2

Continuing with this line of thought about this amazing group of men - it is not only their scientific knowledge and curiosity that enthralls me, but their talents in writing.

Erasmus Darwin's work "The Loves of the Plants", was simultaneously a beautiful piece of original scientific thought, written in the guise of a romantic and witty poem. And this obviously wasn't his only piece. I find it mindboggling, to say the least. I have been fortunate enough to have had a tertiary education, I like to think that I am (relatively) widely read, and yet when it comes to putting my innermost thoughts in entertaining, witty and romantic prose, I am pushing the boundaries to write a simple
Roses are red
Violets are blue
These men were amazing
These words be true
I suspect I have made my point.

Possibly, the greatest testimony to this idea comes down to us through the years from Alfred Russell Wallace. On 6th August, 1852, the 'Helen', carrying Wallace home from his 4 years of travels (and hardships) in the Amazon (his first scientific voyage), full of hundreds of his precious specimens that he had collected with much blood and toil, caught fire. Whilst watching his life go up in flames, he could not help but pen the following account of the moment... He couldn't help but admire "the magnificent spectacle, for as the decks had completely burnt away, and as it heaved and rolled with the swell of the sea, it presented its interior to us, filled with liquid flame - a fiery furnace tossed restlessly upon the ocean."

Scientific writing in this day and age is sorely lacking. When preparing manuscripts for submission to a journal, write something nearing 'poetic' and your manuscript gets rejected. The trend is towards plain language, as boring and painful as possible for the reader. I am not saying that journals such as Nature should become full of poetry, but I do think there is a happy medium (which we have not reached).

Monday, May 18, 2009

Inspirations from the Armada

Darwin’s Armada” (by Iain McCalman) is one of the most inspirational books I have ever had the privilege to read. It is a compilation of 4 “partial” biographies ; 4 snapshots into the lives of brilliant scientists: Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley and Alfred Russell Wallace. Hot on the heels of this book, I read “The Lunar Men” (by Jenny Uglow) which was also in the same stream, exhilarating, inspirational and fascinating. This tale depicting the lives of the great thinkers in the early 1800s – Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgewood, James Watt, Joseph Priestley. Beautifully written, conveying a sense of allowing the reader to ‘peer over the shoulder’ of these great men, whilst they experienced their ‘Eureka’ moments.

What struck me as poignant in this day and age, where humans stand at the proverbial cliff edge, only a few footsteps from the perilous drop to annihilation, it could be said that a universal ignorance is the precipitating factor in this situation. If more people were aware of the issues at stake, maybe we would not be standing at this edge.

200-300 years ago, in Darwin’s day, much of science was still at an embryonic point in development. Today, in stark contrast, we have pushed frontiers in all areas of science. With the world wide web, knowledge is literally at our fingertips. Yet, look at your everyday human being in “civilized” society. The vast majority, know nothing about the wonders of the world we live in, and are interested in even less (if that is possible). I have often heard the excuse that ‘not everyone has the privilege of a high education” – true, but everyone in the Western world has access to an education, even if it is confined to primary school (elementary). The sad thing, is that this is often not enough to instill a curiosity about science (which in my book is synonymous with ‘knowledge’).

Yet, look at these human beings that lived hundreds of years ago – before there was knowledge (much). They were interested in things around them, the group led by Erasmus Darwin were polymaths - into everything from chemistry to pottery to botany and zoology, astronomy and physics. Today the drive to specialize seems to largely have abolished this sort of questioning mind. How often do you stumble across someone who knows (or is even interested) in anything outside of their field?

You could be forgiven for thinking that 200 years after the pioneers of evolution first pushed the boundaries of free thought, allowing the first set of shackles to come off the Christian psychological prisons of “anti-thought”, science and logic would have triumphed. Yet, still today we are finding ourselves facing the same arguments that Darwin did (both Darwins). How old is the earth? I hail from Australia – one of the countries endowed with so much evidence for an ancient earth.

In January, 1879, Thomas Huxley proclaimed to his friends "If I have a wish to live 30 years, it is that I see the foot of science on the necks of her enemies?". 200 years later, and Huxley would still be waiting.