Archive: Feb 2013

Book Review: Deceived Wisdom

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Deceived Wisdom Author: David Bradley Published: 8 November 2012 Publisher: Elliot and Thompson Summary: Warm and incredibly insightful – a literary gift. Several weeks ago I provided a brief round up of what I considered to be some of the most common scientific misconceptions. But, like all good ideas, it seems that I was beaten to the literary punch by Professor David Bradley, who has recently written an entire book on the subject, entitled ‘Deceived Wisdom: Why What You Thought Was Right Was Wrong’. What is immediately evident from a casual perusal of the contents page is the sheer breadth of topics that Bradley has chosen to cover. Everything from dietary deceptions to computer hacking is placed beneath the cold light of his empirical lens, meaning that every reader is likely to find his or her own topics of personal interest. I was wearing a particularly wry smile whilst reading the chapter on the fallacy of ‘cooling down with a …

Astrology – part 1

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Just the other day a friend asked me about astrology, and whether it had any scientific merit. She said that she’d read all sorts of astounding claims about the validity of astrology, as well as “scientific proofs” of its efficacy. Well, as far as I can tell, it’s all bunkum, although, as we shall see, it does possibly have a certain psychological palliative value, I think. The first thing to note is that astrology was invented a very long time ago, when most people believed that the earth was at the centre of the universe, and was orbited by all the other planets, as well as the sun and the other stars. Needless-to-say, this outdated scheme fit very nicely with humankind’s sense of self-importance, a sense that comes out very clearly in the scriptures of many of the world’s religions -in which the creator of the universe puts human beings in the centre of all things. Anyway, this ancient belief is based on what is known as the terra-centric model of …

How Darwin predicted the genetic link

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Just over a century and a half ago, Charles Darwin finally published On the Origin of Species, explaining how all life had been shaped by natural selection. Before he explained this blind mechanism though, he softened up his readers by showing how we humans had shaped some species through artificial selection. His audience of educated Victorian gentlemen would have been more or less familiar with breeding cabbages, cows and dogs for various characteristics, but Darwin also explained the breeding of fancy pigeons. It seems fanciful to us, but scholars used to believe that different breeds of sheep or cattle had each been domesticated from a separate wild variety, instead of from just one. Darwin decided to study one species in detail to explore this notion, and hit upon fancy pigeons. According to John Ross [pictured] –  an historian of Darwin’s pigeons ( and a pigeon fancier himself – it was all down to a chance sighting on a trip to London: …

Faking it – the science of pretend orgasms

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One of the greatest insecurities many men have is that their lady might not be as pleased in the bedroom as she actually seems. In essence – she might be faking it. It is the women, however, who are the insecure ones , as new research shows faked orgasms are much more likely to occur when the women is afraid her partner might leave her.   Over 50% of women report having faked an orgasm at least once in their life, usually to satisfy their partner. Why should a pretend orgasm be pleasing for the man? The current belief about the female orgasm is that it evolved as a way for women to separate the men from the boys. Men with good genes – who were more attractive in other words – give more orgasms. Muscle contractions that take place during the orgasm help move sperm around to where it can more easily fertilise the waiting egg. This idea has become delightfully known as  the …

Dinosaurs in bed – the cigarette after

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In my last post, I wrote about the biomechanical issue surrounding sexual activity amongst the saurpod dinosaurs (the really big, long necked ones) and those with spiny backs. In today’s post, I’s like to consider some of the solutions which have been offered. Of those who have considered the problem, as we have seen, many initially suggested that they did it doggie-style, but copulating in this position, as we saw last time presents all manner of biomechanical and hydraulic problems. Some animals, particularly birds, do not engage in penetrative sex, but rather perform what is anthropomorphically known as a cloacal kiss: that is to say, no penis is, strictly speaking, necessary, and the sperm is exchanged during a brief period at the climax – as it were – of the mating ritual. The big problem here is trying to work out how Mr. Dino manage to get his cloaca anywhere near that of Mrs. Dino, since they both had great big fat and rather stiff tails? It has even been suggested …

The Biology Of Bigotry

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The House of Commons may have passed draft legislation, but the UK debate surrounding gay marriage continues to rumble on. So why do some people persist in defending opinions that promote the segregation of certain social sectors? Of course, the environment an individual is exposed to, particularly during the early years, is bound to leave a cultural and memetic imprint that will determine how they view certain subjects in later life. But is there a deeper reason, a more intrinsic evolutionary or biological factor to determine why those who are different are often treated with such mistrust? Quite simply, are people pre-programmed to be bigots? Well it seems that the answer is, at least in part, yes. When examined logically there are actually plenty of evolutionarily acceptable reasons for the prevalence of bigotry, or, as it is termed in scientific circles, ‘in-group favoritism’. Psychologist Catherine Cotrell suggests that group living offered ancestral man numerous selective advantages, including an increased ease …

Australia’s Moo-st Wanted

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A guilty TV pleasure of mine, much to my housemates’ dismay, are those documentaries focussing on the exciting* world of border security and customs control. Border Security: Australia’s Front Line, Passport Patrol – you name it, give me a Sunday afternoon and I’ll watch hour after hour of disgruntled international travellers being separated from their dried meat delicacies and Kiwis climbing into the hulls of luxury yachts to seek out illegal immigrants hiding below deck. However, wild plants and animals tend to roam much more freely between destinations rather than spending their time queuing at airports. That’s why the DAISIE database exists. Set up to prevent the invasion of alien species, it aims to limit the damage caused to native fauna by invading species. These unwanted immigrants have the ability to displace species from their natural environment, steal their food and disrupt entire ecosystems. DAISIE – Delivering Alien Invasive Species In Europe – was funded by the sixth framework programme …

A defence of the RI

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In such times of economic instability and government cutbacks, the sad news of institutions having to close due to funding problems is becoming a more harsh reality.  Along with many other science enthusiasts and professionals alike, I was dismayed recently to hear of the possibility that the Royal Institution (RI), the place where “science lives”, may be forced to close its doors for good. Subsequently, I was a little taken aback by an editorial response to the news – from Nature, no less. It’s certainly a thought-provoking read. The author of this editorial does make a good point: science, and how we communicate about it, is evolving. With new technologies and widespread internet access providing more exciting opportunities to educate and inform than ever before, arguing that fact is futile. Additionally, with many global issues that we face, including over-population, climate change and pollution, effective science communication has arguably never been more important. However, I firmly believe that increasingly widespread …

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