Science Friday: DNA Testing

We’re very excited to bring you this weekly feature – Science Friday, a science talk show produced by NPR. Each week, a new video takes on a different on science topic, in an effort to bring an educated, balanced discussion to bear on the scientific issues at hand.

You may remember that we started this feature more than a year ago – but technical difficulties kept us from making it a regular appearance. Thanks to the fine folks at SciFri, however- I think we’ve got it figured out. Hopefully, we’ll be bringing you the science-y goodness every Friday from now on.

This week we follow two high school students from New York as they perform a DNA test on foods to see just what ingredients are in our everyday meals. They review if goat milk really comes from goats, the origin of caviar, and what exactly goes into New York City hot dogs.

Can’t see the video? Click here to view it.

In fide constans… Always loyal [Lucy's Legacy]

The model of Lucy created for
the Lucy’s Legacy exhibition.
Photo by reality photography

The Lucy’s Legacy exhibit was reviewed in early February by a representative of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which promotes Creationism and Intelligent Design. In the following paragraphs, I would like to add my observations to the statements found in this review.

Let me start with a few general remarks. First, a favorite approach by Creationists is to cast doubt on the subject of evolution, particularly human evolution and to drive a wedge between faith and science. This policy, known as the Wedge Document, is publicly acknowledged by the Discovery Institute as being theirs. Second, a favorite approach of Creationist writers is to represent issues in stark black and white terms.

The 2000-word document is sprinkled with terms that drive the message home: the study of human evolution fails as a belief system; the evidence is scarce and the interpretations fast and loose and not widely accepted. Moreover, some of the evidence is misrepresented.

The writer of the document stated that there is a “paucity of actual hard evidence for human evolution.” An interesting statement, but one which considering the presence of an actual fossilized hominin fossil, fails itself to carry any water. What harder evidence can one want, but for an authentic fossil, I wonder. The same author also quotes a statement that “unless more fossils are recovered (…) there is likely to be a continuing debate on Lucy’s posture…”  Two thoughts come to mind here. It is always good to have more fossil evidence. In fact, for years paleoanthropologists have continued to find fossils every year. Our database of fossilized early humans continues to grow, courtesy of an ongoing scientific effort. This growing database has led to the formulation of answers to old questions while at the same time giving rise to new questions which we need to answer. That is the essence of scientific research; it is a never ending quest for better insights in what we can observe.

These statements, using the terms “paucity” and “until more fossils are recovered,” are misleading. One wonders if the author knows that the remains of 300 Australopithecus afarensis individuals are known to the scientific community, making Lucy and her kind the best known of all of early human ancestors.

Turkana Boy
Creative Commons License photo credit: ideonexus
Turkana Boy

Another lament found in the document is the “incompleteness” of her (i.e. Lucy’s) skeleton.” The author continues “only 40% was found” and “very little useful material from Lucy’s skull was recovered.” I suppose one could say that everything is in the eye of the beholder. Of course, 50% or more would have been even better. However, another way of referring to Lucy and the preservation of her skeleton is that it is amazing that so much was preserved, considering she died more than 3 million years ago. 

Factually incorrect is a statement that “Lucy still represents the most complete known hominid skeleton to date.” There are currently older and better preserved fossils, including some of the same species as Lucy. Baby Selam for example, is much better preserved. More recent than Lucy, but better preserved is an early hominid known as Turkana Boy. Lucy is still the earliest known and most complete adult Australopithecus afarensis. Things were different in 1974, when scientists could say that she was the oldest known and best preserved skeleton of a distant human ancestor. The fact that this statement now has to be qualified to reflect more recent discoveries is a testimony to the dogged work carried out by teams of paleoanthropologists in Africa. It is also an insight that ought to have been included in the Discovery Institute document, as I am sure that this is something they are aware of.

Photo by reality photography

We also get to read that Lucy’s bones were found scattered across a hillside, a vague reference to an old creationist claim that Lucy’s bones do not all belong to the same individual. The fact that this claim has been debunked does not stop creationists from repeating it. The author – it seems – seems to prefer that Lucy’s bones would have been found together as a contiguous skeleton. Aside from the fact that intentional burial did not exist in Lucy’s time and that she did die more than 3 million years ago, it would have been a miracle (pardon the pun) if she had been preserved completely intact and as a contiguous skeleton. One should not, however, raise the reader’s hopes by presenting this a something that should have happened.

I would like to end by referring the author of the Discovery Institute piece as well as all the readers to this latest development: Lucy was scanned at the University of Texas, Austin campus, after the exhibit in Houston had ended. I have no doubt that scientists will be pouring over this new dataset and that this effort will result in improving our understanding of who we are and where we came from.

Loyalty to a cause is admirable; having the ability to see countless shades of grey instead of only black and white is even more desirable.

Not to Be Long-Winded, But…

__dori__0409
Creative Commons License photo credit: __Dori__

Just can’t get enough wind energy this month. NPR featured  (recently mentioned here) T. Boone Pickens, the venerable Texas oilman, and his plans to put 2500  wind turbines in the Texas panhandle–enough to power 1.3 million homes. He is a big advocate of using more wind energy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by making more natural gas–currently used to generate electricity–available for powering transportation. Pickens points out a study citing that the land available in North Dakota for wind turbines–if used for that purpose–might be enough to power the entire USA.

And for those of you who are still stuck on the idea that wind turbines are ugly, you can soon try on a hot little number designed by French designer Philippe Starck. He’s designed a plastic wind turbine that can generate 20 to 60 percent (!) of your home electricity needs. NPR reports that it will be available later this year for only $630.  Maybe you should run down to your local wind boutique to make sure you’re on the list for this one. Fashion forward AND eco-friendly. How hip are you gonna be this fall?

Bertha
Creative Commons License photo credit: CoreBurn

Speaking of wind, hurricane season is now in session, which means we’re also thinking a lot about the Gulf of Mexico – which is also closely related to our current energy crisis.

Offshore drilling on the Offshore Continental Shelf - (OCS) is an important factor in the equation which determines the cost of gasoline. Now you can actually keep an eye on the Minerals Management Service web site to see how the weather is effecting oil production in the GUlf of Mexico. For safety reasons, offshore oil rigs are shut down during dangerous conditions. But don’t worry too much, there are numerous procedures in place to make sure hurricanes don’t cause oil leaks.

Science Friday! Cheese: Not The Same Mold Story

We’re very excited to bring you this weekly feature – Science Friday, a science talk show produced by NPR. Each week, a new video takes on a different on science topic, in an effort to bring an educated, balanced discussion to bear on the scientific issues at hand.This week, SciFri investigates the secret life of cheese. They visited Hendricks Farms and Dairy in Telford, PA–home to award-winning cheese-maker Trent Hendricks. He walks us through how he makes a hybrid cheese he calls cheddar blue.


Credits: Photography by Annette Heist and Flora Lichtman. Produced by Flora Lichtman