Phoenix on Mars

By now you will have seen or heard about the Mars lander, Phoenix.

Phoenix has been sent to Mars’ arctic region to conduct a 3 month long investigation and, while there is plenty of commentary and news in the usual places, one of the very best sources is the mission’s main site.

Recent highlights include a remarkable photograph of Phoenix’s descent through the Martian atmosphere, with parachute deployed, taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

I’m sure there’ll be plenty more news adn developments in the coming months.

Tasmanian genetics – part 2

Tasmanian Devils are now officially endangered as a result of a highly contagious facial cancer that has been sweeping across the island state amongst the population of these marsupials.

This is the first transmissable cancer known to medical science. While some viruses have been implicated as causal factors in the development of some cancers, this is the first time a cancer itself has been found to be transmitted by metastatic cells from one animal’s tumour to another individual.

The tumours are transmitted when one animal bites another – which apparently they do quite frequently – and then begin to grow aggressively. Eventually, they cause sufficient damage to the tissues of the facial skin and muscle that the animal cannot feed and starves to death.

It’s a pretty grim situation and zoologists are keen to isolate the remaining uninfected Devils to prevent the irretrievable decimation of the species.

Tasmanian genetics – part 1

DNA from the extinct Tasmanian Tiger has been resurrected. The tassie tiger – actually the largest known carnivorous marsupial, and more properly called Thylacine – was declared extinct in 1936 when the last captive specimen (Benjamin, shown below) died at Hobart Zoo.

But this week, researchers at Melbourne University revealed that DNA from preserved specimens of thylacines had been inserted into mouse embryos and expressed the original function (in this case, the thylacine gene took over from teh the original mouse gene developing cartilage.)

This is a long way from Jurassic Park, but the parallels are intriguing…

History of mobile phones

You might recall the history of computer memory a couple of weeks ago. Here is more in the same vein. The movie clip at this link is a great overview of the evolution of mobile phone design. Beware: obnoxious background music – be ready with the mute button.

You might recognise one or two models of your own experience. Personally, I’m hanging out for the official release of an iPhone here in Australia. And so, judging by the school yard chatter, are a large number of secondary students. The implications of that trend are worthy of a thesis…

(pic via Wikipedia, showing Dr Martin Cooper of Motorola, who made one of the first mobile phone calls before I was born! I feel young, now 🙂

Getting ID confused with Science. Still happening…

Woah. Where to begin with this one?

Turns out that, according to a study of science teachers in the USA, 1 in 6 believe that humans have been on Earth fewer than 10,000 years. 1 in 8 present Creationism to their students as “a scientifically valid alternative to evolution”. During a school year, biology teachers might be lucky to spend 5 hours on the topic of human evolution. Nearly a half of these teachers believe that a supernatural being has a hand in evolution.

This boggles the mind.

Firstly, if this is correct then there is a significant number of American science teachers who are completely unaware of the meaning of the term ‘theory’ as it applies to their area of (alleged) expertise. Here is what Wikipedia has to say on it:

In science a theory is a testable model of the manner of interaction of a set of natural phenomena, capable of predicting future occurrences or observations of the same kind, and capable of being tested through experiment or otherwise verified through empirical observation.

I could have picked any one of a variety of similarly phrased definitions from ’round the web (go look for some yourself), but the point that it can be tested is critical; no faith-derived explanation can be, and future predictions from a faith perspective are notoriously imprecise or just plain wrong.

Secondly, it is probably against the law. Several recent court judgements in the US have underlined the need to keep ID out of the science classroom. Unfortunately, without any kind of standardised curriculum, the materials taught in Science classes are still vulnerable to being hijacked by the superstitious.

For a concise analysis of the highlights, I can recommend this blog entry, at

I imagine this happens in Australia too, although I’m proud to say that I know of no-one in my school or in my extended professional circle who would do this. Still, it could happen…

(cartoon from – a precis of the argument against ID)

Lost and found in the universe

Space may not be so empty after all. Astronomers are reporting that they have discovered material forming a ‘backbone’ for the universe, along which the galaxies we can see are arrayed, and that this is a store house of regular baryonic matter (protons, neutrons & electrons making up familiar atoms).

Again, the way this study has been done is really clever. The scientists were looking at the light coming from stars and studying the way it was changed as it travelled towards Earth. Along the way, baryonic matter absorbed light at predicatble wavelengths in fairly consistent ways allowing the observers to draw very solid conclusions about the nature and quantity of the ‘stuff’ filling up space.

BTW, don’t confuse this stuff with dark matter. Baryons are attracted to the gravitational influence of dark matter to form the ‘cosmic web’ but that’s a whole ‘nother story…

(illustrations from Space Telescope Science Institute, STSI, at NASA)

Be a cat person, early

There may be a protective effect against asthma in being raised as a child in a household with a cat.

It was reported today that the Columbia Centre for Childrens’ Environmental Health (CCCEH) has described the development of an immune response, as early as 2 or 3 years of age, to cat allergens. They go on to show that by the age of 5 this translates into a lower risk of those children showing symptoms of asthma, such as wheezing.

In the centre’s own statement: “The presence of cats in the home at a very early age seems to help reduce the risk of developing asthma.”

I wonder if this might be the case in households with dogs or other common domestic pets?