Friday, 11 January 2019

Hot, cold or in between: thermoregulation and public misunderstanding of science

I recently spotted an intriguing paleontology article concerning the 180 million year old fossil remains of an ichthyosaur, a marine reptile from the Early Jurassic. The beastie, belonging to the genus Stenopterygius,  is so well preserved that it shows coloration patterns (if not the colours themselves) on patches of scaleless skin, as well as a thick layer of insulating fat or blubber. What makes the latter so intriguing is that reptiles just aren't meant to have blubber. Then again, like some snakes and skinks today, ichthyosaurs must have given birth to live young. Thus the gap between reptiles and mammals surely grows ever smaller?

This conundrum touches on some interesting issues about the public's knowledge of science. Several times I've commented on what Richard Dawkins calls the "tyranny of the discontinuous mind", which is the way in which we use categorisation to make it easier to understand the world. It might seem that this is the very essence of some aspects of science, as in New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford's famously ungenerous quote that "Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting." Indeed, examination of the life and work of many early botanists for example might appear to verify this statement. However, there needs to be an understanding that science requires a flexibility of mind set, a fundamental scientific process being the discarding of a pet theory in favour of a more accurate one.

I'm sure I've remarked countless times - again, echoing Professor Dawkins - that science is in this respect the antithesis of most religions, which set key ideas into stone and refuse to accept any challenges towards them. In the case of the blubber-filled Stenopterygius, it is still a reptile, albeit one that had many of the attributes of mammals. As for the latter, from our pre-school picture books onwards we tend to think of the main mammalian subclass, the placentals, but there are two smaller subclasses: the marsupials, such as the kangaroo; and the monotremes, for example the duck-billed platypus. It has been known since the 1880s that the platypus lays eggs rather than giving birth to live young, a characteristic it shares with the other four monotreme species alive today. In addition, their body temperature is five degrees Celsius lower than that of placental mammals, part of a suite of features presumably retained from their mammal-like reptile ancestors.

Even so, these traits do not justify the comment made by host Stephen Fry in a 2005 episode of the BBC TV quiz show QI, when he claimed that marsupials are not mammals! Richard Dawkins has frequently pointed out that it would be unacceptable to have a similar level of ignorance about the arts as there is on scientific matters, with this being a clear case in point as regards the cultured and erudite Mr Fry. Yet somehow, much of the general public has either a lack or a confusion concerning basic science. Indeed, only  last week I listened to a BBC Radio topical comedy show in which none of the panel members could work out why one face of the moon is always hidden from our view. Imagine the response if it had been a basic lack of knowledge in the arts and literature, for example if an Oxbridge science graduate had claimed that Jane Austen had written Hamlet!

Coming back to the ichthyosaur, one thing we may have learnt as a child is that some animals are warm-blooded and others cold-blooded. This may be useful as a starting point but it is an overly-simplistic and largely outmoded evaluation of the relevant biology; the use of such binary categorisation is of little use after primary school age. In fact, there is series of steps from endothermic homeotherms (encompassing most mammals and birds) to ectothermic poikilotherms (most species of fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates), with the former metabolic feature having evidently developed from the latter.

Ichthyosaurs are likely to have had one of the intermediate metabolisms, as may have been the case for some species of dinosaurs, possibly the smaller, feathered, carnivorous theropods. Likewise, some tuna and shark species are known to be able to produce heat internally, but in 2015 researchers at the US National Marine Fisheries Service announced that five species of the opah fish were found to be whole-body endotherms. Clearly, the boundaries between us supposedly higher mammals and everything else is far less secure than we had previously believed.

At times, science terminology might appear as too abstruse, too removed from the everyday and of little practical use outside of a pub quiz, but then does being able to critique Shakespeare or Charles Dickens help to reduce climate change or create a cure for cancer? Of course we should strive to be fully-rounded individuals, but for too long STEM has been side-lined or stereotyped as too difficult or irrelevant when compared with the humanities.

Lack of understanding of the subtleties and gradations (as opposed to clearly defined boundaries) in science make it easy for anti-science critics to generate public support. Ironically, this criticism tends to take one of two clearly opposing forms: firstly, that science is mostly useless - as epitomised by the Ig Nobel Prize; and alternatively, that it leads to dangerous inventions, as per the tabloid scare-mongering around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or 'Frankenfoods' as they are caricatured.

Being able to discern nuanced arguments such as the current understanding of animal thermoregulation is a useful tool for all of us. Whether it is giving the public a chance to vote in scientifically-related referendums or just arming them so as to avoid quack medicine, STEM journalism needs to improve beyond the lazy complacency that has allowed such phrases as 'warm-blooded', 'living fossil', 'ice age' and 'zero gravity' to be repeatedly misused. Only then will science be seen as the useful, relevant and above all a much more approachable discipline than it is currently deemed to be.

Friday, 21 December 2018

The Twelve (Scientific) Days Of Christmas

As Christmas approaches and we get over-saturated in seasonal pop songs and the occasional carol, I thought it would be appropriate to look at a science-themed variation to this venerable lyric. So without further ado, here are the twelve days of Christmas, STEM-style.

12 Phanerozoic periods

Although there is evidence that life on Earth evolved pretty much as soon as the conditions were in any way suitable, microbes had the planet to themselves for well over three billion years. Larger, complex organisms may have gained a kick-start thanks to a period of global glaciation - the controversial Snowball Earth hypothesis. Although we often hear of exoplanets being found in the Goldilocks zone, it may also take an awful lot of luck to produce a life-bearing environment. The twelve geological periods of the Phanerozoic (literally, well-displayed life) cover the past 542 million years or so and include practically every species most of us have ever heard of. Hard to believe that anyone who knows this could ever consider our species to be the purpose of creation!

11 essential elements in humans

We often hear the phrase 'carbon-based life forms', but we humans actually contain over three times the amount of oxygen than we do of carbon. In order of abundance by mass, the eleven vital elements are oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine and magnesium. Iron, which you might think to be present in larger quantities, is just a trace mineral; adults have a mere 3 or 4 grams. By comparison, we have about 25 grams of magnesium. In fact, iron and the other trace elements amount to less than one percent of our total body mass. Somehow, 'oxygen-based bipeds' just doesn't have the same ring to it.

10 fingers and toes

The evolution of life via natural selection and genetic mutation consists of innumerable, one-off events. This is science as history, although comparative studies of fossils, DNA and anatomy are required instead of written texts and archaeology. It used to be thought that ten digits was canonical, tracing back to the earliest terrestrial vertebrates that evolved from lobe-finned fish. Then careful analysis of the earliest stegocephalians of the late Devonian period such as Acanthostega showed that their limbs terminated in six, seven or even eight digits. The evolution of five-digit limbs seems to have occurred only once, in the subsequent Carboniferous period, yet of course we take it - and the use of base ten counting - as the most obvious of things. Just imagine what you could play on a piano if you had sixteen fingers!

9 climate regions

From the poles to the equator, Earth can be broadly divided into the following climate areas: polar and tundra; boreal forest; temperate forest; Mediterranean; desert; dry grassland; tropical grassland; tropical rainforest. Mountains are the odd region out, appearing in areas at any latitude that contains the geophysical conditions suitable for their formation. Natural selection leads to the evolution of species suited to the local variations in daylight hours, weather and temperature but the labels can be deceptive; the Antarctic for example contains a vast polar desert. We are only just beginning to understand the complex feedback systems between each region and its biota at a time when species are becoming extinct almost faster than they can be catalogued. We upset the relative equilibrium at our peril.

8 major planets in our solar system

When I was a child, all astronomy books described nine known planets, along with dozens of moons and numerous asteroids. Today we know of almost four thousand planets in other solar systems, some of a similar size to Earth (and even some of these in the Goldilocks zone). However, since 1996 our solar system has been reduced to eight planets, with Pluto amended to the status of a dwarf planet. Technically, this is because it fails one of the three criteria of major planets, in that it sometimes crosses Neptune’s orbit rather than sweeping it clear of other bodies. However, as there is at least one Kuiper belt object, Eris, almost as large as Pluto, it makes sense to stick to a definition that won’t see the number of planets continually rise with each generation of space telescope. This downgrading appears to have upset a lot of people, so it’s probably a good to mention that science is as much a series of methodologies as it is a body of knowledge, with the latter being open to change when required - it’s certainly not set-in-stone dogma! So as astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson and author of the best-selling The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet put it: "Just get over it!"

7 colours of the rainbow

This is one of those everyday things that most of us never think about. Frankly, I don't know anyone who has been able to distinguish indigo from violet in a rainbow and yet we owe this colour breakdown not to an artist but to one of the greatest physicists ever, Sir Isaac Newton. As well as fulfilling most of the criteria of the modern day scientist, Newton was also an alchemist, numerologist, eschatologist (one of his predictions is that the world will end in 2060) and all-round occultist. Following the mystical beliefs of the Pythagoreans, Newton linked the colours of the spectrum to the notes in Western music scale, hence indistinguishable indigo making number seven. This is a good example of how even the best of scientists are only human.

6 mass extinction events

Episode two of the remake of Carl Sagan's Cosmos television series featuring Neil DeGrasse Tyson was called 'Some of the Things That Molecules Do'. It explored the five mass extinction events that have taken place over the past 450 million years. Tyson also discusses what has come to be known as the Holocene extinction, the current, sixth period of mass dying. Although the loss of megafauna species around the world has been blamed on the arrival of Homo sapiens over the past 50,000 years, the rapid acceleration of species loss over the last ten millennia is shocking in the extreme. It is estimated that the current extinction rate is anywhere from a thousand to ten thousand times to the background rate, resulting in the loss of up to two hundred plant or animals species every day. Considering that two-thirds of our pharmaceuticals are derived or based on biological sources, we really are shooting ourselves in the foot. And that's without considering the advanced materials that we could develop from nature.

5 fundamental forces

Also known as interactions, in order from strongest to weakest these are: the strong nuclear force; electro-magnetism; the weak nuclear force; and gravity. One of the most surprising finds in late Twentieth Century cosmology was that as the universe expands, it is being pushed apart at an ever-greater speed. The culprit has been named dark energy, but that's where our knowledge ends of this possible fifth force. Although it appears to account for about 68% of the total energy of the known universe, the label 'dark' refers to the complete lack of understanding as to how it is generated. Perhaps the most radical suggestion is that Einstein's General Theory of Relativity is incorrect and that an overhaul of the mechanism behind gravity would remove the need for dark energy at all. One thing is for certain: we still have a lot to learn about the wide-scale fabric of the universe.

4 DNA bases

Despite being one of the best-selling popular science books ever, Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything manages to include a few howlers, including listing thiamine (AKA vitamin B1) as one of the four bases, instead of thymine. In addition to an understanding how the bases (adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine) are connected via the double helix backbone, the 1953 discovery of DNA's structure also uncovered the replication mechanism, in turn leading to the development of the powerful genetic editing tools in use today. Also, the discovery itself shows how creativity can be used in science: Watson and Crick's model-building technique proved to be a faster way of generating results than the more methodical x-ray crystallography of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins - although it should be noted that one of Franklin's images gave her rivals a clue as to the correct structure. The discovery also shows that collaboration is often a vital component of scientific research, as opposed to the legend of the lonely genius.

3 branches of science

When most people think of science, they tend to focus on the stereotypical white-coated boffin, beavering away in a laboratory filled with complex equipment. However, there are numerous branches or disciplines, covering the purely theoretical, the application of scientific theory, and everything in between. Broadly speaking, science can be divided into the formal sciences, natural sciences and social sciences, each covering a variety of categories themselves. Formal sciences include mathematics and logic and has aspects of absolutism about it (2+2=4). The natural or 'hard' sciences are what we learn in school science classes and broadly divide into physics, chemistry and biology. These use observation and experiment to develop working theories, but maths is often a fundamental component of the disciplines. Social or 'soft' sciences speak for themselves, with sub-disciplines such as anthropology sometimes crossing over into humanities such as archaeology. So when someone tells you that all science is impossibly difficult, you know they obviously haven't considered just what constitutes science!

2 types of fundamental particles

Named after Enrico Fermi and Satyendra Nath Bose respectively, fermions and bosons are the fundamental building blocks of the universe. The former, for example quarks and electrons, are the particles of mass and obey the Pauli Exclusion Principle, meaning no two fermions can exist in the same place in the same state. The latter are the carriers of force, with photons being the best known example. One problem with these particles and their properties such as angular momentum or spin is that most analogies are only vaguely appropriate. After all, we aren't used to an object that has to rotate 720 degrees in order to get back to its original state! In addition, there are many aspects of underlying reality that are far from being understood. String theory was once mooted as the great hope for unifying all the fermions and bosons, but has yet to achieve absolute success, while the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson is only one potential advance in the search for a Grand Unifying Theory of creation.

1 planet Earth

There is a decorative plate on my dining room wall that says "Other planets cannot be as beautiful as this one." Despite the various Earth-sized exoplanets that have been found in the Goldilocks zone of their solar system, we have little chance in the near future of finding out if they are inhabited as opposed to just inhabitable. Although the seasonal methane on Mars hints at microbial life there, any human colonisation will be a physically and psychologically demanding ordeal. The idea that we can use Mars as a lifeboat to safeguard our species - never mind our biosphere - is little more than a pipedream. Yet we continue to exploit our home world with little consideration for the detrimental effects we are having on it. As the environmental movement says: there is no Planet B. Apart from the banning of plastic bags in some supermarkets, little else appears to have been done since my 2010 post on reduce, reuse and recycle. So why not make a New Year’s resolution to help future generations? Wouldn’t that be the best present for your children and your planetary home?