Field of Science

An Exciting Weekend!!!!

Looking for things to do this weekend (and you do)?

Why do you need something to do, you ask? It's Valentine's Day weekend you point out. You plan on lots of dancing and romancing with your significant other, you say. So why do you need something to do?

Two reasons: 1. To prevent chafing, it's not a bad thing to take a break. 2. To embrace some science.

On Saturday:
we have the annual homeschool (creation) science fair taking place at Northwestern University in Roseville. The fair is in the Maranatha Hall lobby.
From 36 head north on Snelling Ave.
Judging is from 10:00 - 12:30, so the kids will be there then. I love talking science with kids, so I plan to be there around 11:00. Afterwards I plan on having lunch at Grumpy's (marked with a star). Even if you don't go to the fair, feel free to join me afterwards. I'll be at Grumpy's, in the bar area, sometime between 12 and 12:30. If you go to the fair because I brought it your attention, you must play nice with the kids.

On Sunday:
we have Dr. Sehoya Cotner speaking at the Southdale Library at 2:00. Her talk is "Are we still evolving?" Of course the answer is yes, but there is much interesting information and fun associated with these talks. Afterwards there may be a lunch, although I'm not sure I'll be going. I may have to brew up some beer instead.
The pin denotes Southdale Library - Duh
If you go to the talk because I brought it to your attention, feel free to be an ass. (Not responsible if Dr. Cotner kicks your ass though.)

Highly Conserved Is Relative

When discussing some aspect of biology, we often want to know how common is the gene, pathway, structure, interaction, or other phenomenon we are interested in. This can be important in two distinct manners: 1. if we find our gene, pathway, etc. is maintained in many different types of organisms, this suggests that our gene, pathway, etc. likely plays an important or fundamental role in some level of biology; 2. if we find our gene, pathway, etc. is not found in different types of organisms, this suggests our gene, pathway, etc. likely can tell us something about the unique biology of what we are studying.

To discuss this phenomenon of commonality, we say that something is conserved (or not). Of course saying a gene, pathway, etc is conserved doesn't tell us much by itself, because we need to know the level of conservation. Is the gene, pathway, etc. conserved among sister species? within a class? a phyla? a kingdom? The answer to this question tells us a lot about whether we are looking at a fundamental process or at the level of specificity of the process. In the seminars and papers I read, I generally see a short-hand approach to discuss conservation where the speaker or author uses a superlative or adverb to suggest the level of conservation.

For example, I recently heard a talk where the presenter stated that a protein was 'highly conserved, being found in both mammalian systems and yeast.' That sounds pretty impressive. But I immediately thought of eukaryotic phylogeny (mammals and yeast are both eukaryotes), and this figure I borrowed from Lab Rat a former FoS blogger who blogs at Scientific American. This is a figure my Eukaryotic Microbiology students see every week in class (the bacteria and archaea are not included in this figure).
I want to draw your attention to the Opisthokonts over at ~4:00. This is the supergroup of eukaryotes containing the metazoa (animals) and fungi. If we blow up this area of the figure, the last common ancestor of animals and fungi is indicated by the red arrow. (FYI humans, including you, are indicated by the green arrow.)
Now look at the first picture and think about all the eukaryotic diversity absent from the Opisthokont group! Is something found in both mammals and yeast highly conserved? I suppose so, since that last common ancestor lived ~1 billion years ago. But mostly I suppose not, because the vast amount of eukaryotic diversity lacks it.

A tangential point, but it's probably worth pointing out that the eukaryotic kingdoms we mostly hear about: animals, fungi, and plants represent little of eukaryotic diversity. Animals and fungi are contained within the Opisthokonts and plants are contained within the embryophytes at ~1:00. Everything else on this wheel represent non-animal, non-fungal, non-plant eukaryotes.

Bill Nye Won the Debate and Why I Think It Matters.

Not actually Ken Ham
There are 2 rules most people know:
1. Never get involved in a land war in Asia.
2. Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.
I would like to promote a third that is less commonly known:
3. Never debate a creationist*
*unless you're Bill Nye, the science guy.
First, I will up front state that I was not a proponent of Bill Nye agreeing to debate Ken Ham at the Creation Museum on a topic related to evolution and creationism. In fact, if another debate were planned, I am still against Bill Nye participating. I saw and foresee nothing good coming from said debates.

Second, I was wrong.

I am not in favor of a debate between evolution and creationism for a variety of reasons:
  • There is no basis for comparing these two topics other than a lot of people have issue with one topic or the other. Evolution is so strongly supported and affirmed by the evidence, a debate equating evolution with creationism is akin to a debate on gravity and consciousness-dependent falling. 
  • Many of the points creationists use were debunked years ago. It has been explained over and over, and yet they keep using the same points. It's almost as if they are being willfully ignorant or outright lying. I saw a talk last semester that used the same discredited talking points Ham did. 
  • Debates are not about truth or getting at the truth, but are exercises in oration. Who has the best oratory skills does not equate with who is correct or not correct.
This particular debate was worse because it took place at Ken Ham's Creation Museum. Furthermore, the tickets were siphoned towards a creationist-friendly audience. So not only was the environment completely lopsided in pro-creationist favor, but the Creation Museum made money on the endeavor through ticket sales and the soon-to-be-available DVD. Even if Nye were to win (doubtful given the audience), the mission of Ken Ham would be supported.

One thing I did not consider was the internet. The debate was streamed live for free and is currently still available for viewing. Importantly and surprisingly, the debate was watched live by at least a half million viewers! So while Nye clearly lost the debate in the forum it was held, he won in a landslide via the intertubes. As to my first premise that Nye lost in the forum it was held, the evidence comes via Matt Stopera of Buzzfeed who took these  pictures among others of event attendees:
It is, they aren't, because it is. (How can both a sprinter and a faucet run?)
It does not. (Look up on a sunny day if you don't understand why.)
Garbleblarglegable, non-sequitor
However, in the intertubes Nye kicked ass or maybe a better way to put it is Ham presented his own ass to Nye on a silver platter. Why do I say Nye won? Well actually Christian Today says Nye won or at least the readers of Christian Today think so. The fact that >500,000 people saw the debate streaming live tells me Nye won. First, these were not carefully screened creationist-friendly viewers such as those found at the Creation Museum. Second, Nye had all the evidence and Ham had….. Third, Nye was fortunate enough to have Ham keep opening his mouth.

Nye in his opening remarks noted that billions of believers accept evolutionary theory (in general terms). This is a powerful point to make because Ham likes to link evolution to atheism as much as possible (disregarding the facts that most Christians accept much of evolution and the physics and that much of evolutionary theory and physics was developed by believers).

The question the debate centered on was "Is creation a viable model of origins in today's modern, scientific era?" Nye essentially addressed this question throughout the presentation; Ham noted the question and then proceeded onto the standard talking points. This was obvious to any viewer.

But perhaps the kiss-of-death occurred during the question and answers. When asked 'what would change your mind?' Ham responded with essentially 'nothing would change my mind' and Nye responded with 'evidence' and then listed some things that evidence could look like.

Why I think this is important is that in a more accessible format, Ham showed the Christian community in this country how 'stone cold fuck nuts (thanks Mr. Black)' he and his followers are. When the state legislature in South Dakota is trying to bankrupt a community by preventing K-12 administrators from preventing science teachers from teaching creationism, we need Christians to realize how dangerous these peoples are.

So I was wrong, at least in the larger context. I think the debate was a win for science and Bill Nye and for that I thank Mr. Nye.