What is a gene?

I remember one of the first biology-based debates I found myself in was in some random message board devoted to music. I can’t for the life of me remember what the board was, and I doubt it still exists today anyway, but I recall music being central to what brought me there. Of course, there were plenty of other subjects up for discussion at this place and in its various forums, and that led me into some useless debate with a racist metal head. (I’m sure his racism and affinity for metal were quite independent of each other.) He was making some claim about black people and intelligence, and he kept referencing some gene he seemed convinced proved his point. This was probably well over 15 years ago, so I don’t recall many of the specifics, but I do recall not really knowing what a gene was, so it was difficult to counter him effectively. I tried looking it up, but there really weren’t any easy-to-digest answers for someone who didn’t know what to look for in the first place. And, of course, this was a bit before the days of YouTube (and Wikipedia was in its infancy). Fortunately, for better or worse, the Internet is a far different place today. As such, I wanted to post a YouTube video I found in the hope that any person who finds himself in a similar situation to mine from years past would be able to gain a quick understanding of what a gene is. There’s a certain type of person who loves to use science to justify a belief he would hold no matter what, and relatively-educated racists are among them. Here’s the short video:


The physics of how cats drink

An unfunded, seemingly just-for-fun study of how cats drink was recently carried out. Results show that they only touch their the surface of their tongues to the water. They use inertia to bring the water into their mouths, closing their jaws before the counter-acting force of gravity takes hold. The rate at which cats lap matters, which is a testament to evolution, of course. Interestingly, one model the researchers used predicted that larger cats would lap at slower rates. It turns out that that is true. But what I find interesting is utilization of social tools by the researchers to find their results.

“It occurred to me that there were some interesting biophysics behind that process,” Stocker said.

So he borrowed a high-speed video camera from his lab and taped Cutta Cutta drinking. With several other curious researchers along for the ride, Stocker analyzed those videos, along with video collected from Zoo New England and YouTube.com videos of lions, tigers and other big cats drinking.

“It seems to be that this is the first study in Science that uses YouTube as part of the research,” Stocker said.

The model also allowed the researchers to predict that larger cats would need to lap slower to strike a balance between the inertia and gravity of the water picked up by their tongues. Sure enough, the videos showed that lions and tigers lap less than 2 times per second, about half the rate of domestic cats.

YouTube, Facebook, Twitter…like it or not, they and their analogues are the future. (And personally, I like it.)

Thought of the day


Einsteinian Religion

There are these perverse notions floating around about what Einstein believed or didn’t believe regarding religion and god(s). The page at Conservapedia – which deserves no link – will give the impression that Einstein believed in some sort of conscious, higher power. Any research will show this is highly unlikely. Einstein believed in ordering physical principles to the Universe which are ultimately far beyond the understanding of humans. This is not a god at all, which is why it’s somewhat unfortunate that he used the term “god” to describe these ordering principles. On the one hand, it’s misleading and it tends to invite people to attempt to associate a brilliant thinker with their own positions, as if appeals to authority confer truth to a statement or thought or idea. On the other hand, there’s a certain poetry to his language; we should all appreciate personification in our literature.

Ultimately, Einstein was an agnostic. Precisely where he stood on, say, Richard Dawkins’ Scale of Religiosity is unclear. I suspect he may be slightly to the left of someone like Carl Sagan (physically assuming “1” is left and “7” is right – see scale video). That may place him as a 4, as I would place Sagan as a 5. Unfortunately, neither man can clarify at this point. However, it is quite clear that neither one believed in any personal god – the seeming indifference of Nature to our plights, our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, it all indicates a lack of personality, of personalization, no matter how much poetic personification we like to use.

I am Darwin

There is a campaign being put on by i-am-darwin.org where users are encouraged to submit videos to YouTube where they describe how Darwin has influenced their lives. It shouldn’t be terribly difficult since the man made one of the most significant scientific discoveries yet known to man.