Archive for the 'Science' Category

Evolution and Miss USA

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Interpretation

Alright, I admit it – I watched the Miss USA pageant last Sunday. What can I say? I’m a sucker for sparkling evening gowns and a giant tiara. While I normally watch the program for the glitter and glitz, I was surprised and intrigued by one of the questions asked in the pre-competition interviews: Should evolution be taught in schools?

Neutrality is the name of the beauty pageant game on controversial issues, and that’s how most contestants answered. However, their neutral responses were so full of mis-information that the women came across sounding ill-informed with respect to evolution and the alternatives they were using as comparison.

For example, take Angelina Kayyalaynen, Miss Washington’s, answer:

[…]Facts should be stated and we should know the facts as to how the world evolves because it does. But as far as when it comes to little theories and what not, you should probably want to stay away from those. I believe in the truth and the truth only, not somebody’s, you know, imagination or hope of what not so I think facts not theories should be taught.

There’s also Kia Hampton, Miss Kentucky’s, response:

I do feel that evolution shouldn’t be taught in schools because there’s…so many different definitions, like how do you teach a child the true meaning of evolution when so many different cultures have their different beliefs and sciences have their different theories[…]

Finally, Keeley Patterson, Miss Mississippi:

I think evolution should be taught as what it is. It’s a theory, so I don’t think it should be taught as fact, but I do think our children should know the theories.

What concerns me is that in almost every response, the contestants completely misrepresented the concepts of scientific “fact” and “theory.” So here are some working definitions for next year’s contestants and the rest of us:

  • Scientific Fact: A scientific fact is any observation that has been repeatedly and independently confirmed and accepted as true and has not been refuted.
  • Scientific Theory: A scientific theory is not a guess or a hunch. It’s a substantiated, supported, and documented explanation for scientific facts and observations. Scientific theories connect all the facts about something, providing an explanation that fits all the observations and can be used to make predictions. In science, “theory” is the explanation.

Evolutionary biologist and author Stephen Jay Gould explained these concepts beautifully in his 1994 essay Evolution as Fact and Theory

In the American vernacular, “theory” often means “imperfect fact”–part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess…If evolution is worse than a fact, and scientists can’t even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it?

Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don’t go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s in this century, but apples didn’t suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.

Moreover, “fact” doesn’t mean “absolute certainty”; there ain’t no such animal in an exciting and complex world.

While the winner, Miss California, did state that,

I was taught evolution in high school. I do believe in it. I’m a huge science geek…I like to believe in the Big Bang Theory and, you know, the evolution of humans throughout time[…]

even her use of the word “believe” is inappropriate. Well-established scientific concepts aren’t open for belief the way personal opinion is. But, in the end, the fact that she accepts the tenents of evolution is beside the point.

The point is, there’s no excuse for any of us to be scientifically illiterate. Political, economical, medical and educational policies that are based on scientific information and that affect us all are made every day. This is a discourse we need to participate in, but we can’t participate if we don’t know what’s being said. We need to understand and accept a common language with which to question, debate and decide.

Do you think if I offer to give a crash-course in scientific language to next years’ contestants they might let me wear the big crown for an hour or two?

I’ve Been Frittering My Life Away…

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Interpretation

I just discovered the blog Life Before the Dinosaurs, all about the wild and wacky world that existed pre-Triassic. That’s more than enough for nerd in me to get excited, but then I learned that the blog is written by a seven year-old. Seven!

When I was seven, I spent most of my time playing with My Little Pony and taking naps. And, if we’re being honest, not much has changed.

From Life Before the Dinosaurs:

Wiwaxia

Wiwaxia was one of the weirdest of all the oddball animals of the Burgess Shale. It had a foot like a snail, a shell like a limpet, and scales like a fish on its shell. And the weirdest of all is that it had twelve glowing spines sticking out the top.

Kimberella

Kimberella was a strange creature that could have been a mollusc and lived in the Vendian Period. It had a strange lasagna-shaped foot and a flattened shell on top. It was 1/2″ to 4″.

Kimberella crawled along the sea floor looking for edible scraps because organisms didn’t start predation until the Cambrian Period.

Kimberella was a very weird creature because it had a shell and why would something have a shell if there was no predator? It did have a pretty hard shell.

This is definitely a blog to bookmark – author ABC knows his stuff and appreciates the absolute coolness of the giant bugs from the Carboniferous Period.

I’m off to invent a time machine so I can travel back to 1990 and tell my seven year-old self to get on it. But I’ll probably take a nap first.

Human Space Flight and the Civil War

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Interpretation

Happy anniversaries, everyone!

In case you didn’t know, today is the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight, and the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War.

While we don’t recommend that you celebrate by attempting to secede from the Union or launch yourself into space, today is definitely a date worth remembering and appreciating.

How to acknowledge the day? Start by following the National Park Service’s Civil War Reporter. Beglan O’Brien, a fictional Civil War era correspondent, is posting daily dispatches on the Civil War as it happens (happened) and you can follow him through the NPS website, Twitter and Facebook. And this evening, why not throw your very own Yuri’s Night party, in honor of Yuri Gagarin‘s first flight into space? Or, combine the two and create a piece of artwork featuring Abraham Lincoln as an astronaut.

Oh, wait, someone already did that.

 

Friday Quick Links

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Interpretation

The remains of an exploded White Dwarf star

King Philip IV of Spain makes a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s looking good for a 400 year old monarch!

Have you checked out the Smithsonian’s fantastic website and videos of Women in Science?

How NASA creates those amazing Hubble photographs.

Facebook helps scientists identify nearly 5,000 species of fish!

Dung beetles have favorite flavors of poop!

A fun (I know, whoda thunk it?) and complete chart on different levels of radiation in the world.

The New York Times strongly criticized The Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit, “Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains,” and The Brooklyn Museum responds.

A gorgeous photo and explanation of an exploding star.

NASA’s looking for smart high school students. One could be you!

Hans Rosling argues that the greatest invention of the industrial revolution is the washing machine, because it sparked a revolution of literacy. A fantastic video.

Friday Quick Links

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Interpretation

"Home of Mrs. American Horse" by John C.H. Grahill

The Sonic hedgehog gene is responsible for polydactylism in Hemingway cats. Obviously.

America’s oldest known wild bird is a new mama!

John C.H. Grabill’s beautiful and poignant photographs of the American West are now available to the public.

Think you can write a hexapod (6-legged animal) haiku? You have until March 20th to submit you entry to NC State University’s Insect Museum!

New archaeological sites being found using Google Earth.

I wish this Carl Sagan Astronom O’s cereal was real.

A new henge has been found next to Stonehenge.

A beautiful article on the origins of animals.

It turns out, a child couldn’t have painted that.

A 10,000 year-old human skull and mastodon remains were found in an underwater cave.

Excavating a giant anthill.

The harvester ant colonies we have in Colorado look pretty impressive, too.

The physics of prune-y fingers.

What if you could live in a museum?

Science Wednesday – Elk Spotting

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Interpretation

Last weekend, while taking a walk along one of Loveland’s bike trails, I came across eleven large, fuzzy butts. A rare surprise, indeed, but what was even a nicer surprise was who the butts belonged to.

Elk!

I kept my distance from the animals,* but was able to capture some beautiful shots.

I’ll admit to being initially surprised to see the elk (Cervus canadensis) where I did. Because of their presence and popularity in mountain communities like Estes Park, I associate elk with the Rocky Mountains, not the 7-11 across the street.

But, historically, these elk are right where they’re supposed to be. Like bison, deer and pronghorn, elk are traditional herbivores of the prairies. It wasn’t until the 1800s, as Europeans settled the American west and turned prairie into communities and farmland, that elk and other large grazers were pushed out of their historic range and up into the foothills and mountains.

Today, movement corridors like the Laramie Foothills-Mountains to Plains Project patchwork together public and private land to create pathways for elk and other animals to move between the mountains and the high plains. Communities like Loveland, nestled at the base of the foothills, are located within those corridors.

I was also surprised to see this many males together. Because I’m used to seeing elk during the fall mating season, when one male will guard a harem of females, all these males together seemed odd. But it’s not.

For most of the year, elk segregate themselves into single-sex groups. These young males (you can tell they’re male because they have antlers, and you can tell they’re young because the antlers are a little puny by elk-standards) will stick together until it’s mating time in the fall, and then they’ll compete with one another (and with males MUCH bigger than they are) for the available females.

A successful male will end up with a harem of often over 20 females, and unsuccessful males will hang around the edges of the harems, trying to sneak some elk-lovin’ when the dominant male isn’t looking. And they’ll urinate all over themselves, because apparently that’s a smell that keeps the ladies coming back.

But, seriously, with tushes like those, what lady wouldn’t want to join one of their harems?

*And why was I so careful to keep my distance?

The best rule to remember is this: leave wild animals alone. Especially the eau d’ urine scented ones.

Have any of you spotted elk out and about in town? What about other wildlife in your area that you didn’t expect to see?

 

Happy Pi Day!

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Interpretation

Happy Pi Day! Take a minute to appreciate the infinite decimal that shows up everywhere from geometry to trigonometry to calculus to physics to statistics to chaos theory, and maybe eat some pie while you’re at it.

In celebration of Pi Day (March 14th = 3.14), here’s a clever little film in which pi and e (the base of the natural logarithm) go on a blind date.

Is your birthday found in pi? Go here to find out!

Looking for more ways to celebrate? Check out some of our suggestions from last year.


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