Thursday, 31 January 2008

Mercury's mighty magnet

Earth's magnetic field has long been understood to be the result of a solid iron core rotating at a different speed to a surrounding liquid material. This resulting dynamo effect produces a magnetic field we can be grateful for - without it, the sun's solar wind would have rubbed away our atmosphere, leaving us cold and dry like our neighbour Mars.

Mercury was determined to have something of a magnetic field, too, yet being much smaller than Earth, it was thought to have cooled to the core long ago. Therefore its weak magnetism must be the result of random patches of residual magnetism being held in its structure.

Yet with the recent Messenger mission, this is now in doubt. It appears at least strong enough to be able to shield much of its surface from the solar wind.

Earth and Mercury are the only two inner solar system bodies with magnetic fields produced from within.


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Dead eyes speak no lies

Perhaps rather uniquely at this point in history, we can take advantage of historical events and a certain fact of nature to estimate the age of a person through analysing crystals in the eyes.

Up until about two years of age, we construct a crystal element in the lenses of our eyes. Since this material consists of carbon we've harvested from the food chain, it will mostly be of a certain isotope called C-14. Normally C-14 degrades into C-12, yet it is replaced consistently while an organism still lives and eats; comparing these levels will tell us how long organic material has been unable to replace its carbon for (i.e., how long it's been dead). However, during the 1960s there was a surge of nuclear testing in light of the Cold War, dumping higher amounts of the C-14 isotope. Since then the level has decreased, giving a gradient over time against which we can compare the crystals in the eye (which stop replacing carbon a year or two after birth).

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Killer instincts

How violent are we? Are we less violent than we used to be? Where does genetics fit into this equation?

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Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Close to Armageddon?

Asteroid zooms past Earth

Yes folks, it came within half a million km of us! Did you feel the wind in your hair???

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Like sand through the hourglass

Fractals in the sand

Gas fingers in glass beads confirm fluid-theory prediction.

Researchers have confirmed a previously unobserved property of fluids by watching the fractal expansion of a pocket of gas into a thin layer of glass beads.

The experiment adds detail to the understanding of a phenomenon called ‘viscous fingering’, which has been studied for more than 50 years. When two fluids with different viscosities are mixed together, the more freely flowing fluid expands in finger-shaped intrusions into the other fluid. This has been observed in many different systems, including between fine grains such as sand.

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Exercise is good for you

You don't say... but hey, now there's genetic evidence too!

Live slow die young

Sedentary lifestyles could make you old before your time.

Active people could be up to 10 years 'younger' than couch potatoes, at least according to one measure of biological age.

Tim Spector, director of the Twin Research Unit at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, looked at the levels of physical activity of 2,401 twins and assessed the length of their telomeres - the 'caps' on the ends of their chromosomes that help to protect the DNA from wearing down during the replication process that replenishes cells. Telomeres shorten over an individual’s lifetime and are thought to function as a marker for ageing. Smokers and obese people were already known to have shorter telomeres than their healthier counterparts.

The team found that, on average, telomeres in the most active group (who took more than 3 hours 20 minutes of exercise a week) were 200 nucleotides longer than that of the least active group (who took less than 16 minutes exercise a week).

This difference suggests that inactive subjects may be biologically older by 10 years compared with more active subjects.

Exercise is good for you

The researchers also looked at matched pairs of twins and found an average difference of 88 nucleotides between the more and less active siblings.

The group cannot be certain from this that activity levels are having a direct impact on telomere length. “We can’t prove that," admits Spector. But they think it is the most likely explanation; the researchers corrected their statistics for the impact of smoking, obesity, social status and a whole host of other possible confounding factors. "It’s very hard to think of anything else that would be a confounder that we haven’t measured,” he says.

If inactivity is to blame, Spector can think of a couple of ways in which it might work. It is known that the faster cells are replenished, the faster telomeres shrink, and it's possible that physically inactive people are for some reason experiencing a high cell turnover. Another possible explanation lies in oxidative stress — in which more reactive oxygen atoms or oxygen molecules are created and stress the cells. “It’s possible we need exercise to damp down oxidative stress,” says Spector. Alternatively, it could be that a little bit of oxidative stress is caused by exercise, but that this little bit of harm does some good to our cells.

Invisible factors

In an editorial alongside Spector’s paper, Jack Guralnick, chief of the Epidemiology and Demography Section at the National Institute on Aging in the United States, says more work is needed to pin down whether there is a causal link2.

“It’s a provocative finding,” he says. “The statistical association is there; it’s quite clear in the work.” But other diseases that weren’t corrected for could be causing the association, he says. “Proving causality in this kind of study is nearly impossible,” says Guralnick.

Spector admits that his findings will excite debate in researchers who study ageing; the idea that telomere length is directly related to ageing isn't fully accepted. “There’s still controversy,” he says. “When I write that in papers you get one in three reviewers being angry about it.”

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Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Have humans changed the face of the Earth so dramatically as to justify a new chapter in the history of Earth??,25197,23124483-12332,00.html

Scientists argue for redraw of Earth's time line

A HEATED scientific row is brewing as British geoscientists lead a push to establish a new chapter in the history of Earth - one based on human activity.

Led by geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, of the University of Leicester, the rabble-rousers argue that changes wrought since the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago are so profound they are now visible in the physical and living fabric of the planet.

As a result, they have called for the creation of a new Epoch in the official geological time scale, one they have named the Anthropocene.

Along with Eons, Eras, Periods and Ages, Epochs are classifications of Earth history based on characteristic changes in the layers, or strata, of rocks.

Writing in the latest issue of GSA Today, a publication of the Geological Society of America, Dr Zalasiewicz and 20 like-minded experts claim there is "sufficient evidence" of human-induced changes to plants, animals, oceans and lands to warrant recognition of the Anthropocene by the official geological time lords, the International Commission on Stratigraphy. Their proposal came at the same time as the American Geophysical Union at the weekend released its updated position on climate change.

As the AGU represents the largest society of Earth and space scientists, the statement lent weight to the case for the Anthropocene. In its position, posted online, the AGU says: "The Earth's climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming. With climate change ... the human footprint on Earth is apparent."

Detailed scientific arguments for designation of the Anthropocene are expected to be thrashed out in August at the 33rd International Geological Congress meeting in Oslo, Norway.

"I'll be there," said Jim Gehling, a geologist with the South Australian Museum in Adelaide.

And he'll be barracking against the new Epoch.

"This is just the vanity of the human species ... it matters to us but is irrelevant to the planet," Dr Gehling said.

"We don't need a geological Epoch to describe a single historical event, however long- or short-lasting it might be."

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Friday, 25 January 2008

A link between earthquakes and epilepsy?

In a further example of how you can never predict where science will take you, researchers are now using earthquakes predictions to help predict epilepsy.

My personal favourite is still the example of Japanese researchers who were studying the origins of life - considered an esoteric, pure science field - and discovered an efficient way of producing fertiliser!

Another good story is told in the book Mauve where a chemist studying malaria discovered an artificial colour, and to the disgust of his peers (who had also produced colours as by-products) went commercial. Almost ironically, years later artificial colourants in cellular biology lead to better knwoledge of malaria :)

Can anyone else think of examples where science has led to unexpected turns?

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Planetarium closing - noooooo!

As soon as you discover something cool in Canberra, it disappears...

The Canberra Planetarium and Observatory in Downer, beloved for its quaint stargazing documentaries and fantastic suite of telescopes for checking out nebulae, is due to close at the end of this month. The Tradies Club in Dickson, which owns the site, is planning to put something exciting like apartments in.

The Club has very kindly offered to donate the equipment to any organisation in the ACT that has the resources and is prepared to house, maintain and operate this valuable educational and community facility. To facilitate the relocation process, some local astronomers and concerned citizens have formed an association called the Planetarium and Observatory Association of Canberra (POAC). They intend to explore any existing government, educational and community support and to research potential funding sources. POAC membership is open to anybody interested in supporting this cause. It costs $2 to join, more information is available through eye_see_ewe[at]

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We wanted to talk about this last week, but ran out of time. I found one article that at least mentions the continent where the fossilized remains of this mega mammal can be found!

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Thursday, 24 January 2008

Creationists launch "science" journal

Those tricksy creationists are at it again folks - this time with a peer-reviewed journal which non-scientists won't be able to distinguish from a real science journal...

Answers in Genesis, a Christian ministry run by evangelical Ken Ham, launched Answers Research Journal (ARJ ), a free, online publication devoted to research on “recent Creation and the global Flood within a biblical framework”. Papers will be peer reviewed by those who “support the positions taken by the journal”.

“There have been these kinds of publications in the past,” says Keith Miller, a geologist at Kansas State University in Manhattan, who follows creationism. For the most part, he says, the work is ignored by the scientific community. But those without a science background, including some policy-makers, may not be able to judge the difference in value of a paper in ARJ and a genuine science journal.

Yes folks, this is the bit that concerns me most. Policy which relies on scientific knowledge is guilty enough of watering things down at times - and now there's a new, insidious threat to the contribution genuine science can make.

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Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Trust New Scientist to have a 'snazzier' take on what taxonomy might or might not help explain.
The new scientist magasine has a story about how migrations to islands have been rethought after studies of rat genomes, how we must have lived with gorillas at one stage given that our crabs are too similiar, and how a chicken bone is becomine a 'bone of contention'.

As with all good science writing, some issues are highighted, namely the scientist's reservations about making claims based on just one sequence of a fossil bone. However I'm feeling the need to re-plunge into my taxonomy books to review what assumptions people are making about rate of change of DNA genomes... How similiar is enough to be sure?

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Sunday, 20 January 2008

Fuzzy Logic - 20 Jan 08

powered by ODEO

Presenters: Mike, Kat E, Jeevan, Kat F


  • Dinosaurs Aren't Dead, They Just Have Feathers
  • Editors - Lights:

  • Interpol - Untitled:

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Thursday, 17 January 2008

Another sex story for the week?

Syphilis - spoil of the New World?

Genetic study blames Columbus for bringing syphilis to Europe.

For more than 500 years, Christopher Columbus has been alternately blamed and exonerated for bringing syphilis to Europe. Now, a genetic analysis of the disease-causing bacteria shows that today's syphilis is a close cousin to the South American tropical disease yaws, suggesting that the malady has its roots in the Americas.

And what about this one - glaciers in a hothouse world!?

A large ice cap seems to have formed in Antarctica around 91 million years ago, during a period of extreme greenhouse warming. (This might tie in with our dino stories, since they were strolling around at this time).

Then there's...Why do chimps eat dirt?

Apes might eat soil to activate anti-malarial plants.

Chimpanzees in Uganda have been spotted eating dirt along with fistfuls of leaves. This might help to increase the plants' anti-malarial properties.

A friend of mine who worked in Tanzania mentioned the dirt stalls at the markets - I never realised that geophagy might have benefits!

Finally, some Fuzzy Sceptic...

Time is running out for paranormal prize

Challengers for the US$1-million prize offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation for proving paranormal powers have just over two years left to claim the cash. Randi has announced that the paranormal-activity challenge, in which contestants must demonstrate their powers 'under proper observing conditions', will end on 6 March 2010 — exactly 12 years after he first offered up the prize money.

Randi says that the challenge was intended to tempt high-profile paranormal-activity celebrities to come forward. In 2007, Randi changed the rules of the prize so that applicants were only eligible to enter if they had a media profile and some form of academic endorsement. But as the prize remains unclaimed, and the highest-profile celebrities have not entered, Randi would rather the million dollars were freed to be used elsewhere in his foundation, he says.

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Wednesday, 16 January 2008

I see a red door and I want to paint it black...

Stand back Emos and Goths. You've long asked for it, and now science has it - a black that is blacker than black.

Nanotube technology has produced a paint so efficient, it absorbs over 99.9% of visible light. Normal black paint has a reflective index of about 5%-10%, while the previous darkest colour was about 0.45%, made from a nickel phosphorus alloy. This one is thirty times darker still.

Check out The Lab for more info.


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Tuesday, 15 January 2008

The Sun is HOT

This is the they might be giants song I was talking about

it is an absolute must listen at this you tube link

:-) Jeevan

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Here is this weeks sex story

Title: Teen pregnancy affected dinosaurs too

Sorry but someone had to lower the tone I suppose

Birds are supposed to be living relatives of dinosaurs however birds do not reproduce until they are fully grown. Fossilised remains of pregnant dinosaurs have shown by inspection of the growth rings and medullary bone which is laid down just before egg laying that teen pregnancy affected the dinosaurs.

Arguably earlier reproduction can be an advantage..... So .. ?

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Gloves off about NZ's watery past

The battle: can the taxonomists oust the geologists on whether or not New Zealand went through a period under water?

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Einstein is right! Again!

He must be getting sick of always being right, surely! Einstein predicted that light would bend while passing large masses due to something called 'gravitational lensing'. Low and behold, we've observed it happen numerous times in history. Now we've found perhaps the most extraordinary example of such a thing.

If you have a large light source lined up in a line-of-sight perspective behind something massive, like a galaxy, the light should bend around it. This then forms a ring of light around the foreground object. Add another galaxy into the line-up, and you'll get more bending, hence another ring.

It's highly unlikely you'd ever get two galaxies lined up perfectly in front of a third bright galaxy...but that's pretty much what astronomers have found.



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Mercury Fly-By Today

Paul Floyd reports:
At 6.04am Australian Eastern Summer Time Tuesday morning (15/1/2008), NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft will become the first in 32 years to fly past the planet Mercury. It will photograph parts of Mercury at high resolution for the first time.

Check the MESSENGER spacecraft site and NASA's site in the hours after the flyby for never before seen images.
[via 666 ABC Canberra]

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Monday, 14 January 2008

Where do the penguins go when there is no ice any more?

Antarctic ice melt accelerating.

A fuzzy community message about climate change...

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The rise, fall and resurrection of group selection

There is an interesting review article out there, showing the full circle that evolutionary debate has taken recently. Of course it is not really a full circle since each stage of the debate has brought us more understanding, and the new version of group selection is much more tested and refined (and quite different from) Darwin's original idea.

For any people interested in a bit of History I recommend:

The rise, fall and resurrection of group selection
Mark E. Borrello Program in History of Science and Technology, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota, 100 Ecology Building, 1987 Upper Buford Circle, St Paul, MN 55108, USA

The changing fate of group selection theory illustrates nicely the importance of studying the history of science. It was Charles Darwin that first used something like group selection to explain how natural selection could give rise to altruistic behavior and moral instinct. These instincts could be accommodated by his theory of evolution, he argued, if they had evolved ‘for the good of the community’. By the 1960s, group selection had a new and vocal advocate in V.C. Wynne-Edwards. But this gave critics of the theory that selection might act on groups, rather than at the level of individuals or genes, a definable target, and from the mid-1960s to the 1980s group selection was considered the archetypal example of flawed evolutionary thinking. However, at the end of the 20th century ideas of group selection re-emerged as an important component of a multilevel theory of evolution.

In other words, not everything can be explained by purely genes (and I wonder how many people out there are actually surprised by this :) )

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Time for revolution in evolution

I've worked out the hyperlink thing, but am not sure if the links will work since I'm going through the ANU Library subscription service for New Scientist. So I've included the text here.

Did life begin on a radioactive beach?

Life's ingredients could have emerged among the radioactive sand grains of a primordial beach laced with heavy metals and pounded by powerful tides...

DID life on Earth begin on a radioactive beach� That's the claim of one astrobiologist, who says that life's ingredients could have emerged from the radioactive sand grains of a primordial beach laced with heavy metals and pounded by powerful tides.

Any origin of life theory needs to explain how the building blocks of cells – such as amino acids and sugars – assembled into complex molecules, and how certain elements came to be incorporated. Though radiation might seem an unlikely source to kick-start such processes because it breaks chemical bonds and shatters large molecules, including DNA, it can provide the chemical energy needed to produce life's building blocks.

Natural “nuclear reactors” were active in the past, such as the uranium ore seam in Oklo, Gabon, which regulated the fission of uranium in a similar way to nuclear-powered submarines (New Scientist, 6 November 2004, p 12). However, conditions at the time life emerged were thought to be unsuitable for concentrating uranium sufficiently to form a reactor that would provide enough energy to create the molecules necessary for life. For instance, a lack of atmospheric oxygen would have prevented uranium becoming water-soluble, so it could not be transported and deposited in rock to form seams like the Oklo reactor.

Now Zachary Adam at the University of Washington in Seattle claims that tidal processes could have concentrated radioactive grains of uranium on a primordial beach, where they may have helped to generate life's building blocks. (Astrobiology, vol 7, p 852). Powerful tides generated by the moon's closer orbit to the Earth compared with today could have sorted the radioactive minerals from other sediments and deposited them along the beach's high-tide mark, he says. According to his computer models, a deposit of radioactive grains could experience the same self-sustaining fission reactions as a seam of uranium.

Adam also designed laboratory experiments with radioactive sand to simulate a beach environment, and found that such a setting would provide the chemical energy to generate some biological molecules in water, such as acetonitrile, which can produce amino acids and sugars when irradiated. Adam says that the radioactive mineral monazite would also release another of life's key ingredients – soluble phosphate – into the regions between the sand grains, making it biologically “accessible” in the water. “Amino acids, sugars and [soluble] phosphate can all be produced simultaneously in a radioactive beach environment,” he says. Furthermore, he says that radioactive actinides such as thorium and uranium could have formed one part of “organometallic complexes” – made up of a metallic ion and an organic molecule. These could have catalysed crucial biological reactions long before the emergence of enzymes.

John Parnell, a geologist at University of Aberdeen in the UK, is intrigued by the theory. “Such a mechanism may provide the crucible for life on any wet rocky planet,” he says, so long as the planet is large enough for the volcanism associated with plate tectonics, which brings radioactive minerals to the surface.

Also in New scientist this week:

FIFTY years ago, evolutionary theory viewed nature through a lens of benevolence: individuals acted for the good of their group, ensuring its survival. This idea, called group selection, did not last out the 1960s. It was swept away by an intellectual revolution which argued that natural selection at the level of genes is what really counts.

This “gene's eye” approach sees attributes that benefit society accruing via bottom-up processes. Altruism, for example, which keeps the wheels of society turning but puts many individuals at a disadvantage, is explained through ideas such as kin selection. This proposes that animals help their relatives in order to pass on shared genes, so what looks like altruism is really the selfish gene in action.

Now, a counter-revolution is being fomented. Late last year, the Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson co-authored an article in support of group selection (New Scientist, 3 November 2007, p 42). This week, we report that Wilson now thinks kin selection plays an insignificant role in the evolution of colonies formed by social insects (see “Kinship doesn't matter – how insects are altruistic”).

Does this mean evolution itself is in doubt� Certainly not. The debate is akin to physicists questioning the nature of gravitational attraction: nobody disputes that gravity exists, but pinning down its true character should deliver deep new insights.

Wilson has already met serious opposition (see “The evolution of altruism – what matters is gene selection”) and is certain to attract more. Yet such is his standing that we are almost certainly in for a thorough re-examination of group and kin selection. If this elucidates evolutionary processes and gives us that extra insight, it can only be a good thing.

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Sunday, 13 January 2008

Fuzzy 13 Jan 08


Too Much Chewing Gum A Really Bad Idea
Orange Roughy discussion
Clown Fish (Nemo) Breeding and Tracking
Crazy monkey sex - Macaques
Twins separate, meet, fall in love, marry, find out that they're twins, separate
Genetic Sexual Attraction discussion


Fish in the Dish - Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
All the Way Down - Kid Confucius
Girls Like That (Don't Go For Guys Like Us) - Custard

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Too Much Chewing Gum A Really Bad Idea

Wired Science reports:
Two German doctors presented case studies today suggesting that chewing too much sugar-free gum could lead to extreme weight loss of up to 20% of a person's normal body weight.
The cause? The extreme laxative effects of sorbitol (additive code 420 on the list of ingredients) at high doses. How extreme? In one case study a 21 year old girl had diarrhea four to twelve times a day and lost 11 kilograms of bodyweight after chewing 15 pieces a day.

Fuzzy knows best; consider other ways to keep your breath minty fresh.

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Saturday, 12 January 2008

Look to the Stars

Lifehacker Australia recently published a cool little piece on getting into amateur astronomy. Locally, the Canberra Astronomical Society hosts introductory meetings once a month, as well as regular Deep Sky nights. There's also the Canberra Space Dome & Observatory, which has four telescopes and runs public viewing sessions five nights a week.

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Friday, 11 January 2008

Did insect bites hasten demise of dinosaurs?

Did insect bites hasten demise of dinosaurs?
James Randerson, London
January 8, 2008

THEY were the most imposing and terrifying creatures to walk the earth, but according to a new theory the dinosaurs might have been pushed towards extinction 65 million years ago by insects.

During the later part of the dinosaurs' dominion over the land, insects underwent an explosion in diversity, dealing a double whammy to the lumbering giants — they spread disease and contributed to a change of vegetation to which the plant-eating reptiles failed to adapt.

The hypothesis is made in a new book by entomologists George and Roberta Poinar. The former is a professor of zoology at Oregon State University.

"We can't say for certain that insects are the smoking gun, but we believe they were an extremely significant force in the dinosaurs' decline," Ms Poinar says. "Our research with amber shows that there were evolving, disease-carrying vectors in the cretaceous (period) and that at least some of the pathogens they carried infected reptiles. This clearly fills in some gaps regarding dinosaur extinctions."

In the gut of one biting insect preserved in amber — fossilised tree sap — from that era, the team has found the pathogen that causes the parasitic disease leishmaniasis and in another a type of malaria parasite that infects birds and lizards. By inspecting fossilised dinosaur faeces, the team also found parasitic microbes carried by insects.

Apart from spreading disease, the insects were busy pollinating flowering plants. These gradually supplanted seed ferns, cycads and gingkoes. If herbivorous dinosaurs could not adapt to this new diet they would have starved.

Ms Poinar believes the most popular theory for the dinosaurs' demise — that a meteorite impact changed the global climate — falls short because the extinction took too long.

"Other geologic and catastrophic events certainly played a role. But, by themselves, such events do not explain a process that in reality took a very, very long time, perhaps millions of years. Insects and diseases do provide that explanation."

This could be a fun story to discuss. I'm just wondering though:

1. "at least some of the pathogens affected reptiles" - yep, and maybe others affected the proto-mammals, who survived. As did smaller reptiles (yet the tiny dinosauria didn't?) and birds. I'm no extinction expert, but this seems a bit simplistic. Mind you, the insects changing the environment bit makes some more sense - might have been a bit too much for the bigger guys to bear (shades of megafaunal extinction in Australia? There's an argument in Quaternary circles suggesting that the big mammals which became extinct around the same time as humans first arriving on the continent might have been "encouraged" towards extinction by alteration of habitat through human use of fire - among other things such as hunting and climatic change...).

2. "Other geologic and catastrophic events certainly played a role. But, by themselves, such events do not explain a process that in reality took a very, very long time, perhaps millions of years..." - um, as far as I know (and I'm speaking as a geochronologist here - this is my job!), we don't have the chronological resolution to know whether the extinction took millions or thousands of years, or even days - we're talking about something that happened 65 MILLION years ago and the best we can do is date that to plus or minus 10%. So we can't pin it down. Palaeontologists may have more to say about dinosaur diversity towards the end of the Cretaceous - perhaps we should check up to see whether it was in decline, but that's not something I recall from my first year geology. I still reckon a monstrous meteorite wholloping the Earth is going to cause some severe climate and habitat change, regardless of what the bugs had been doing for tens of millions of years prior to that.

Happy presenting!
Kat F

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Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Fuzzy Logic in 2008 aka Fuzzy 1.5 (Not Quite 2.0)

In 2008 there's going to be a slight format shift on Fuzzy Logic. In the past, it was radio show first, web second. That's so old-man-from-yesterday-town.

We want to make Fuzzy Logic a whole lot more interactive this year, so we're posting our opinions on science stories here as we find them, and encouraging you to get in on the discussions too by leaving comments. Our regular shows on Sundays will shift to a panel show with discussion of the stories we've found during the week, rather than a straight read of news.

What do you think?

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