Stolen from A Blog Around the Clock.
Two science-based blog carnivals have gone online recently. At Pharyngula the Creation Museum Carnival has just gone live. I appreciate the freedom of speech issue. If someone wants to spend millions of dollars fighting against science that it their right, but there’s no need to agree with or even respect dishonesty.
[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]
Drilling for Ithaca. © Robert Bittlestone.
Some tremendously exciting news was announced yesterday. Ithaca, the home of Odysseus from Homer’s Odyssey, may have been located. The reason why I’m finding it so exciting isn’t so much that from what they’ve found, but from the way that different strands of evidence are coming together to confirm the idea.
Locating Ithaca has long been a puzzle, complicated by the fact that Homer may have been making some of the description up for dramatic effect. For instance he refers to wealthy Corinth, which was nowhere special at the time of Trojan Wars and didn’t become a major power till much later. So there was the possibility that something similar was true of Ithaca.
Ithaca was described in the Odyssey:
I am Odysseus, Laertes’ son, world-famed
For stratagems: my name has reached the heavens.
Bright Ithaca is my home: it has a mountain,
Leaf-quivering Neriton, far visible.
Around are many islands, close to each other,
Doulichion and Same and wooded Zacynthos.
Ithaca itself lies low, furthest to sea
Towards dusk; the rest, apart, face dawn and sun.Odyssey 9, 19-26 (trans. James Diggle)
The island known in modern times as Ithaki is currently thought to be Ithaca, but there are problems. Ithaki is hilly, among other islands and slopes to the east. Paliki would be a much better fit for the description, but there’s a problem there too. Paliki isn’t an island, it’s a peninsula on Kephalonia. Robert Bittlestone has looked at the isthmus connecting Paliki to the rest of the island and he’s come up with a solution. He thinks the isthmus is infill of a marine channel and that, in ancient times, Paliki was an island. However the isthmus is up to 180 metres above sea-level. Is this reasonable?
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NASA has announced the discovery of liquid water on Mars thanks to MGS images.
The clue is that the continual imaging by the MGS has enabled the team to track changes in the surface over time. The really exciting thing is that the team think that this shows evidence of material being moved by water today. The traces are light streaks in gulleys.
Photo by NASA
There are a few reasons why the scientists are arguing for the existence of water. One is the colour of these streaks. Usually when the dust gets disturbed on Mars, the surface gets darker. This is seen in the tracks the Mars rovers make, the trenches Viking made and the scars of impacts from space. These streaks are a lot lighter. Why the streaks are lighter is unknown, but there are couple of possibilities.
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I went to see An Inconvenient Truth this week. It’s on a short run outside of London making it briefly a slightly more convenient truth. I was rather impressed. There’s little new in the film, at not to those living in Europe, but what is there is put together and presented very well. The film tackles four basic issues, What is Global Warming? What’s causing it? Why does it matter? What can we do about it?
The explanation of Global Warming is simplfied, it solely about CO2 in Al Gore’s film, which skips over the problems that might be caused by things like Methane clathrates. For the sake of explaining the problem this is a very smart move, because it allows him to then concentrate on one issue for tackling the cause. The common rejoinder from industry is that warming and cooling follows a natural cycle. Gore’s able to show that this is true it does. He’s then able to follow this up by showing the range of natural variation, and how modern carbon dioxide levels are way waaaay in excess of natural variation. Some of the more powerful scenes in the film explore why this matters. In the preview above you can see that a feasible rise of sea level caused by the melting of Greenlandic or a portion of Antarctic ice will cause large scale flooding of densely populated coastal areas.
The weakest part of the film, from a European perspective is the call to action. He says nothing wrong, but it’s all very old news over here. This is very much a section for the North American audience where being green is a matter of envying your neighbour’s gas guzzler. One scene is about proposed improvements in fuel efficiency by the state of California which are being opposed by the motor industry and it’s hard not to laugh. They’re pitiful. California wants to be, in twelve year’s time, where China is today. If this really is a problem for Ford or General Motors then who in their right mind would buy an American car?
This aside, it is a very good introduction to the problem. Like all politicians Gore cannot tell jokes, but he comes close on a couple of occasions. What he does do is get across his message clearly, effectively and powerfully. Visual aids are used well, but so is his presence as a speaker. As an example of science communication its hard to beat.
Is Monet’s painting of the Houses of Parliament above an accurate painting of London? The story that it could well be broke in August but I’ve delayed commenting on it because I wanted to sit down with the original paper.
I tend to be sceptical of claims that art can be read scientifically. For instance does this really look much like a woman with a guitar? The Monet paper had the added problem of stating that the time of painting could be dated. Astronomy is usually a terrible way to date things. It really only works if you already know the period of the thing you’re dating, which is why the paper ‘Solar position within Monet’s Houses of Parliament‘ by Jacob Baker and John E. Thornes makes a lot of sense. It’s an example of good interdisciplinary thinking.
The reason it works so well is that Baker and Thornes are able to use historical material to eliminate a lot of speculation. Monet’s life is well studied and many of his letters survive, so they are able to place the period during which Monet was in London. To examine the painting more closely they also needed to calculate where Monet’s vantage point was. This was made easier as they knew the building he was in, Saint Thomas’s Hospital. Using architectural drawings and Monet’s description of the room they had a set of likely candidates. They then tried to match this to the view from the painting.
From YouTube and easy questions to answer if you have an interest in archaeology, squirrels and custard.
Red Squirrels are hanging on on the the mainland. Photo by Max Westby
I saw the cover of BBC Wildlife magazine today which asks if conserving the Red Squirrel is a waste of money. I didn’t buy it because I’d assume it would say “no!” and pad out the story with photos of red squirrels looking cute. Flipping to BBC News today I see the answer is in fact “yes!” according to Prof. Harris of Bristol. He argues that greys are simply too good at getting round conservation efforts and that previous experience shows that efforts to curb the grey colonisation of the UK are ineffective.
The answer, he says, is to set up offshore islands as reserves. The Isle of Wight currently has a red squirrel population and other islands could be used. As he says this isn’t new. Currently New Zealand’s attempts to save the kakapo from extinction have resulted in the birds being relocated to Codfish Island and Chalky Island.
But Prof. Harris also points out that the red squirrel isn’t endangered globally. So do we need the reserves? What are they going to give us? If we lose red squirrels from the mainland is it going to matter that they’re still around on a remote Hebredeian island? The existence of red squirrels hundreds of miles away isn’t going to have much of an effect on the ecologies of the places where they’ve disappeared from. Do you take that as a spur to spend more money on conservation efforts on the mainland, despite the possibility of failure, fund offshore reserves so that the UK doesn’t lose red squirrels entirely, or spend the money on other battles instead?
Black Rhinos. Photo by Bounder.
Inkycircus points to the news that the Western Black Rhino has probably become extinct. We were talking about preservation strategies in what would otherwise have been a management meeting last week. Alan Cann raised the topic about how you would preserve endangered animals when you have few of them. In vivo by cross-breeding them with a similar sub-species or else in vitro by storing their DNA?
We didn’t have a perfect answer. I’m against cross-breeding as a solution. What you would have is a hybrid, so you lose the old species, but it’s not so much that that bothers me. Where would you release the new hybrids to live? The reason the Western Black Rhino has gone extinct is that it lives in a rhino-hostile zone. The new rhinos would run into exactly the same problems unless we could cross-breed them with a kevlar-coated rhino. Otherwise how to you set up and monitor a reserve with sufficient space for rhino to thrive in an affordable way?
That leaves DNA sampling as the solution. That’s not perfect either. There is a common belief that DNA is the instruction book for putting a life-form together. That’s not 100% true. Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart explain it in… umm… What Does a Martian Look Like? (I think). In the case of Human DNA, there’s the material there to build a human, so long as it’s inside a human. The DNA doesn’t contain information like what sort of temperature it should be stored at, or what the uterine surface should be like because it can take those details for granted. Similarly if you have Western Black Rhino DNA in a fertilised egg then do you need to implant it into a Western Black Rhino?
You might get away with a Northern Black Rhino as the mother, but the problem there is that you’re assuming by the time we’re able to release the rhinos again that there’ll be other suitable sub-species that can act as host surviving. It seems more likely to me (the non-biologist) that if you have the DNA, you’ll only have the DNA. It’s a useful record, but it won’t bring the rhino back.
Italian scientists have identified a huge underwater volcano 40km (25 miles) off the southern coast of Sicily.The base of the volcano – named after the Greek philosopher Empedocles – covers an area larger than Rome.
It’s not the first time the volcano has been seen. In 1831 it was discovered after an eruption caused it to break the surface of the sea. It was disocvered by the British Navy, who called it Graham Island. It was also claimed by the King of Naples who felt that it should belong to him, as it was a Mediterranean island close to Sicily, despite it being in international waters. France and Spain also made claims. There could have been a major diplomatic incident had it note eroded away by 1832.
There is a possibility that it could return and this time the Italians are ready. Divers have placed an Italian flag on the submerged peak.
The most interesting fact, which I got from the Wikipedia entry, is that the Americans have already bombed it because they saw it as a terror threat.