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Science Whys by James Morris - 1w ago

by James Morris

Last week, the United Nations reported that one million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction. The high rate of extinction we are currently experiencing is a result of all kinds of human activities, notably climate change, pollution, hunting, over-harvesting, deforestation, land use changes, and the like.

This is not the first time that the Earth has experienced massive die-offs. Five times in the last half billion years, the Earth has seen what scientists call mass extinctions. The most recent occurred when a meteor slammed into the Earth, wreaking global havoc and leading to the extinction of the dinosaurs (except birds). But this was not the only mass extinction, nor the biggest.

This episode – what many are calling the sixth extinction – is different from previous episodes. What previously took hundreds, thousands, even millions of years is instead happening in the span of decades. In addition, this is the only mass extinction where we can point to a single species – us – as the cause. Finally, we can do something about it.

Our collective actions are causing irreparable harm. What’s even more disturbing is that none of this is necessary. Take climate change. As Nathaniel Rich compellingly described in The New York Times Magazine and in his book Losing Earth, we have known about climate change for at least a generation and even missed an opportunity to do something about it in the 1980s. And, as David Wallace-Wells wrote in The Uninhabitable Earth, we have the technological solultions and economic resources to address climate change – we just lack a sense of collective urgency and political will.

Typically, discussions about climate change focus on the facts, or the effects of increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and oceans, or climate models. These are clearly important. And sometimes we end up debating whether it is real, or whether it is caused by humans, but these are all sideshows that only serve to distract us from the pressing problem at hand. A different way to view the problem is through the lens of compassion.

Climate change is not just about science or the environment or the loss of species – it’s about how our actions, decisions, and votes affect others. It is widely recognized that climate change will disproportionately affect the poor. And the real crisis won’t be felt by us, but instead by those who have not yet been born. Therefore, finding and implementing solutions is about looking beyond ourselves. It’s essentially an exercise in compassion, care, and community.

To deny climate change then is not just denying science or ignoring facts; it’s denying the way our actions affect others both near and far, present and future, particularly those without resources to manage, mitigate, or migrate. It’s ignoring the very tangible ways we are affecting the very fabric of the world around us.

The same is true of vaccines. Consider the recent measles outbreak. Just last week, 60 new cases of the measles, many in New York City, continue to drive the numbers to the highest in 25 years, and a record since the disease was declared “eliminated” in 2000.

Vaccines don’t just protect the person getting the vaccine. For vaccines to work and be effective, a certain percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated, typically in the range of 90%. This is known as herd immunity.

There are some people who cannot get vaccinated – the very young, very old, and people with compromised immune systems, for example. These people are vulnerable, not unlike people in coastal communities threatened by rising sea levels. When you get a vaccine, you not only care for yourself; you care for others. You participate in a collective endeavor to protect everyone.

Climate change and vaccinations both make visible the invisible – the web of connections that unite us in one large global community. This is essentially the message of evolution, another area that sometimes divides us. But what evolution teaches us is quite simple – we are all intimately connected through inheritance stretching back four billion years.

Darwin proposed that all life on Earth has a single, common origin. What this means is that we are all related to one another. To be sure, we are related within our immediate family. Taking a step back, all humans are closely related – much more similar to one another than different. And, taking just one more step back, we are related not just to one another, but to every species on Earth.

Darwin knew that his idea would be disruptive, moving humans from a special, separate place. But he saw “grandeur in this view of life,” as he put it. The idea that we share a bond with all species is indeed a beautiful way of seeing the world, encouraging us to look at organisms that share the planet with us with care and compassion.

Special thanks to Jen Cawsey for the title. I was going to call it “A Case for Compassion” but I like her title better.

© James Morris and Science Whys, 2019

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Science Whys by James Morris - 3w ago

by James Morris

Sometimes, it’s hard to see what’s right in front of you.

I recently overheard a conversation between two friends. One just took up painting, and the other has painted for many years. They were talking about how to paint trees, when the one with more experience said, “Look closely at trees – they aren’t brown.”

Take a look – they aren’t.

Tree trunks are mostly gray, in fact. Some are light gray; some are dark gray. Some trees, like paper birch, have white trunks with streaks of black. The Palo Verde, the Arizona state tree, has green bark. The bark of other trees, like cedars and redwoods, do look brown, with shades of gray. So, when you paint a tree, you shouldn’t immediately reach for the tube of brown paint.

The same is true of the sky. What color is the sky? It’s blue, of course. But take a look again. It can be white, or gray, or orange, or red, or purple, or black. It depends on the time of day, the presence of clouds and mist, and where you look. Sometimes it’s blue, but often it’s not.

One of my favorite Radiolab podcasts is called “Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?” Here, they mention that young children, when asked what color the sky is, may look at you quizzically, not exactly sure what you mean. Or, they might answer with a rainbow of colors. Only as they get older and learn that the sky is blue, do they answer, simply, “blue.”

We all “learn” that the sky is blue, and then stop looking at the sky itself.

The sky is reflected in lakes and the ocean, which aren’t really blue either, though we might think of them (or want to paint them) that way. Water is green or gray or black. Sometimes it’s blue, in shallow waters in the tropics, but often not.

The sun in the sky is seldom yellow. And the lighting in turn affects many of the colors we see. So a tree that looks light gray in the middle of a bright, sunny day might look darker gray at dusk. Impressionist painters famously played with light and color, questioning what it means to paint something realistically. Is it more realistic to paint something as we think we see it, as it might appear in a photograph, or as we experience it at different times of days, in different seasons?

Claude Monet, Sunset on the Seine at Lavacourt, Winter Effect, 1880

Leaves tend to be simplified and caricatured as well. Think of a leaf. What do you see? Likely a typical leaf, such as a birch or oak or maple leaf, like this –
But leaves don’t all look like this. What we think of as a leaf is called a simple leaf. But there is an incredible diversity of leaf forms, many of which don’t look at all like a leaf. Compound leaves, for instance, look like this –
What look like leaves here are actually leaflets. You may have noticed compound leaves on ash, honey locust, and horse chestnut trees.

The familiar blades of grass are also leaves. And it turns out that cactus spines that serve as protection and the tendrils of pea plants used for climbing are also leaves – highly modified leaves to be sure, but still leaves nonetheless. Petals, it turns out, are also modified leaves.

Children often draw trees as brown, the sky as blue, and the sun as yellow. And we often don’t “grow out” of these representations. These types of symbols certainly help us to understand, categorize, and navigate the world. But they can also simplify things to the point of being inaccurate.

Take bathroom signs. Typical symbols of male and female don’t hold for many (any?) men and women.
They are convenient and easy to recognize, but they can also be problematic as they tend to paint everyone with the same brush (or two brushes, which has its own set of issues, as discussed, for example, here).

The traditional wheelchair sign looks like this –
But many people have suggested that it overemphasizes the wheelchair and sends a message of helplessness. As a result, some people are advocating a change, with a new icon that emphasizes movement and speed
A simple change like this can in turn alter our thinking about how we view people who use wheelchairs.

The same applies to human skin. We think and can sometimes identify in terms of black and white, for example. There are of course social, historical, and political aspects that influence how we identify ourselves. However, neither color applies literally to anyone.

If you call yourself white, take a sheet of white paper and place your hand over it. If you call yourself black, do the same with a sheet of black paper. Does the color of your hand match the color of the paper? Is it even close? And is your skin the same color all over your body?

A charming book that explores this topic is The Colors of Us by Karen Katz. This children’s book explores the true colors of our skin, thereby celebrating both our similarities and our differences.

Symbols certainly have their place. The power button sign – a 0 and 1 for off and on –
is easy to find and recognize on computers, cars, and other devices. It would be terribly confusing if we used subtly different symbols on various devices to reflect their range of functions. But when we apply symbols to the natural world, including us, we stop seeing what is literally right in front of us. And we risk missing out on a more rich and colorful world than we think we see.

Harold Weston, Winter Woods, 1938

© James Morris and Science Whys, 2016.

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Science Whys by James Morris - 3w ago

by James Morris

Earlier this month, Elon Musk launched a Tesla into space, revitalizing our collective interest in space travel. The stunning photos of Earth from space also invite us all to think about where we are.

Take a look at a map and you will often see an icon stating, “You are here.”

Or pull out your phone and open one of the map apps, and there you are, that pulsating dot indicating your location.

At least that’s where your phone is. Other apps can help you find lost phones or follow your children around, so you always know where “here” or “there” is.

And knowing “you are here” can be a comfort, indicating that you are around to listen, help out, and be supportive.

So, where are you? A mathematician might specify your location as a point in space. On a plane, it takes two coordinates to specify a point. One determines where the point is along a horizontal axis, and the other along a vertical axis. That point is a place, not a thing. It denotes where, not what.

The Earth is not a plane, but you can specify where you are using two coordinates – latitude, which tells you how far above or below the equator you are, and longitude, which tells you how far east or west you are from the Prime Meridian. The Prime Meridian is a reference line running from north to south through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England.

Your phone provides latitude and longitude information thanks to the Global Positioning System (GPS), a group of satellites that circle the Earth. Your phone and other devices communicate with these satellites to specify where you are.

To be even more precise, a third coordinate is needed – elevation. Elevation tells you where you are relative to sea level. Sea level changes daily due to the tides, so when you say “sea level,” you are referring to the average sea level between low and high tides.

You, along with all living organisms, occupy a layer – called the biosphere – at, above, and below sea level. The Rüppell’s vulture, a bird with a 10-foot wingspan, holds the record for the highest flight ever recorded. In 1975, one was sucked into the engine of a plane flying a mile-and-a-half above the summit of Mt. Everest. There are also deep-sea fish that live in the depths of the ocean. In 2014, a snailfish was found about 5 miles below the surface of the water.

These high flyers and deep swimmers define the extremes of height and depth for living organisms. However, compared to the size of the planet, the biosphere is actually an exceedingly thin layer blanketing the Earth.

That’s where you are on Earth. Where are you in space?

Space is literally all around you. On Earth, the space in which you live and move about is the air, or atmosphere. Air seems empty, but it’s not. It’s made up of gases, and gases have substance. Think of a tree, which is largely built by converting carbon dioxide gas in the air into the substance of the tree.

Moving out from the Earth’s atmosphere, you next encounter the vacuum of space. But again, it is not completely empty. There is no air, but there are electromagnetic waves in the form of light from our sun and other stars. There are comets, asteroids, and planets.

There is the background radiation left over from the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago, still reverberating like a drum. There is dark matter and dark energy, which can’t be seen but can be detected by their effects on other objects. Together, they make up a staggering 95% of the universe. This means that everything you are familiar with is just a small fraction of the universe.

There are also human-made objects, such as the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, and space probes like Voyagers 1 and 2. And there are satellites orbiting the Earth, some of which are part of the Global Positioning System that you use to pinpoint where you are.

These objects move about in space. It was Albert Einstein who taught us that space itself is the gravitational field generated by objects. This field has a shape and emanates from any object with mass, like the Sun and Earth. In other words, there would be no space if not for the objects within it.

Where are you in space? The Earth is the third planet from the Sun, further than Mercury and Venus, but closer than Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Between Mars and Jupiter is the asteroid belt, a ring of rocky objects that circle the sun. The region contains billions of asteroids, but they are spread out in a vast region of space, so it is not hard to navigate through it and, if you could stand on an asteroid, you probably wouldn’t see another one.

Pluto, discovered in 1930 as the ninth planet, was recently downgraded to a dwarf planet. It is now considered part of the Kuiper belt, which includes thousands of small, icy objects that form a ring just beyond the orbit of Neptune.

The Sun, planets, asteroid belt, and Kuiper belt make up the solar system. The solar system is just one of many solar systems that make up the Milky Way Galaxy. When you look up into space at night, you might see a passing plane, satellite, or even the International Space Station. You might notice a planet, like Venus or Jupiter. And you see stars dotting the sky. All of the stars you see at night are in, and make up, the Milky Way Galaxy.

If you look up on a really dark night, away from urban light pollution, you may be able to see a white band across the sky, the “milky way” itself. The Milky Way Galaxy is a flat, spiral galaxy, with arms radiating outward. You are located in one of these arms (the Orion arm). When you look up, you are seeing the galaxy edge on, from within, so most of the stars form a band across the night sky.

At the center of the Milky Way is a supermassive black hole. You can find the center of the galaxy by looking at the constellation Sagittarius, which is visible just above the horizon on summer nights in the Northern hemisphere.

Looking away from the center, you come to other galaxies. Your closest neighboring galaxy is the Andromeda Galaxy. The Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxies are part of the Local Group, which in turn is part of the Virgo Supercluster.

Recently, scientists found that this supercluster is part of an even larger supercluster called Laniakea (“immeasurable heavens” in Hawaiian), with more than 100,000 galaxies. Laniaikea is just one supercluster of galaxies among many that make up the universe.

So, where are you? You can tell someone where you are with a place (“I’m in the coffee shop”) or by an address (with building number, street name, city, state, and country). You can specify your location precisely by GPS coordinates (with latitude, longitude, and elevation coordinates, triangulated by satellites orbiting the planet), or by cosmological address (Earth, Solar System, Orion Arm, Milky Way Galaxy, Local Group, Virgo Supercluster, Laniakea, Universe).

Regardless of how you describe your location, you are always here.

© James Morris and Science Whys, 2018

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Science Whys by James Morris - 1M ago

by James Morris
Photographs by Christine Kim

Recently, my students and I dissected a snake. I never dissected a snake before, even though I teach a class called Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy.

What’s fascinating about this exercise is that snakes are vertebrates, so for the most part have all of the same organs and structures as we do (with the notable exception of arms and legs). At the same time, the shape of their body is so different from ours, so extreme from our point of view, that familiar organs and structures have been modified in unfamiliar and sometimes surprising ways. As a result, a snake dissection provides all kinds of lessons not just about anatomy and evolution, but also about how we learn something new.

From the outside, a snake is essentially, well, snake-like, with a long and slender body, as can be seen from this snake skin –

What does it look like on the inside? The heart, lungs, GI tract, liver, and kidneys – the very same organs that are in us – have to somehow package themselves inside this long, cylindrical body. How do they all fit?

When we opened the snake and looked inside, my students and I noticed that familiar organs are modified in several ways. Perhaps most obviously, they are much more elongated than they are in you and me. The liver is long and stretched out, like a football. And so is the heart, lung, and stomach. In fact, all of the internal organs in a way mirror what’s on the outside.

But that’s not the whole story. Some organs are much reduced in size or completely missing. Consider the lungs. Humans and most vertebrates have a right and left lung. By contrast, snakes have a right lung, but are missing the left lung. The left lung is virtually gone, with only a small remnant of it … left. This vestigial lung is reminiscent of other structures that were once useful but no longer are, such as our appendix, the pelvis of whales, or the wings of flightless birds – all giving us clear windows into the evolutionary past.

And snakes have one more trick up their sleeve. Humans – like most vertebrates – have two kidneys. Snakes, evidently, can’t get away with just one kidney. So, how do they fit them side-by-side? The answer is they don’t. Unlike us, where the right and left kidneys are more or less symmetrical, the kidneys of snakes are decidedly asymmetrical. They aren’t side-by-side, but instead staggered, with one closer to the back end than the other.

Even the unpaired organs, like the heart, stomach, liver, pancreas, and spleen, are arranged one after the next, in a long row, inside the snake body.

We next asked some questions – how do snakes breathe with their single lung? Missing is the diaphragm – the dome-shaped muscle we use to breathe. The diaphragm is unique to mammals, so isn’t present in snakes and other reptiles. The lung of snakes is honey-combed, or, as one of my students put it, looks “exactly like uncooked Ramen noodles.”

And then we wondered where their legs would be if snakes had legs. The ancestors of snakes had legs, but they lost them over evolutionary time, perhaps as an adaptation to burrowing underground. But it’s possible to figure out where the legs would be if they were still present. Consider the hind legs – where would they be? About halfway down, so a snake would have a long tail? Or toward the back end, so that a snake has a short tail? It turns out that, in spite of their tail-like appearance, a snake has a very short tail.

The backbone is one of the most obvious features of snakes. Our vertebrae (backbones) are specialized – we have neck (cervical) vertebrae that help us move our head; thoracic vertebrae that attach to ribs; lumbar vertebrae that support our trunk; sacral vertebrae that form part of our hip; and coccygeal vertebrae that are remnants of a tail, now lost in humans. Snakes have many more vertebrae than we do – 200-400 (depending on the species) compared to 33 in humans. And most of the vertebrae in snakes are attached to ribs.

We also made some mistakes. When we first cut into the body, we found blocks of tissue that were easily separated from one another. We thought, at first, that they might be blocks of muscle. A little more prodding revealed – to everyone’s surprise – tiny snakes! This species of snake gives birth to live young, like we do. The young are nourished by the yolk of eggs that are retained inside the body of the mother. However, instead of laying eggs, she gives birth to live young.

My students and I learned all kinds of things about the anatomy of snakes, as well as vertebrates in general. We poked, prodded, explored, made observations, asked questions, took some guesses, made mistakes, talked as a group, and, by the end, learned something we didn’t know before. There was a lot of trial and error, false starts, and even misconceptions. At times we circled back – revisiting what we knew or thought we knew about vertebrates to guide us in learning something new.

We applied what we learned in fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals to figure out how the typical body plan is modified in snakes. As a colleague of mine put it, “We knew enough to learn more.”

Taking a step back, what I noticed about dissecting the snake is that learning is not a linear process, and seldom takes a straight path.

© James Morris and Science Whys, 2019

Special thanks to these motivated and dedicated students, who suggested that we dissect a snake: Alina Shirley, Christine Kim, Rachel Gerber, Annie Tsai, Grace Barredo, Kayla Shepherd, Abigail O’Brien, Maya Fields, Devin Feigelson, and Moshe Levenson.

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Science Whys by James Morris - 6M ago

by James Morris

Earlier this month, Elon Musk launched a Tesla into space, revitalizing our collective interest in space travel. The stunning photos of Earth from space also invite us all to think about where we are.

Take a look at a map and you will often see an icon stating, “You are here.”

Or pull out your phone and open one of the map apps, and there you are, that pulsating dot indicating your location.

At least that’s where your phone is. Other apps can help you find lost phones or follow your children around, so you always know where “here” or “there” is.

And knowing “you are here” can be a comfort, indicating that you are around to listen, help out, and be supportive.

So, where are you? A mathematician might specify your location as a point in space. On a plane, it takes two coordinates to specify a point. One determines where the point is along a horizontal axis, and the other along a vertical axis. That point is a place, not a thing. It denotes where, not what.

The Earth is not a plane, but you can specify where you are using two coordinates – latitude, which tells you how far above or below the equator you are, and longitude, which tells you how far east or west you are from the Prime Meridian. The Prime Meridian is a reference line running from north to south through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England.

Your phone provides latitude and longitude information thanks to the Global Positioning System (GPS), a group of satellites that circle the Earth. Your phone and other devices communicate with these satellites to specify where you are.

To be even more precise, a third coordinate is needed – elevation. Elevation tells you where you are relative to sea level. Sea level changes daily due to the tides, so when you say “sea level,” you are referring to the average sea level between low and high tides.

You, along with all living organisms, occupy a layer – called the biosphere – at, above, and below sea level. The Rüppell’s vulture, a bird with a 10-foot wingspan, holds the record for the highest flight ever recorded. In 1975, one was sucked into the engine of a plane flying a mile-and-a-half above the summit of Mt. Everest. There are also deep-sea fish that live in the depths of the ocean. In 2014, a snailfish was found about 5 miles below the surface of the water.

These high flyers and deep swimmers define the extremes of height and depth for living organisms. However, compared to the size of the planet, the biosphere is actually an exceedingly thin layer blanketing the Earth.

That’s where you are on Earth. Where are you in space?

Space is literally all around you. On Earth, the space in which you live and move about is the air, or atmosphere. Air seems empty, but it’s not. It’s made up of gases, and gases have substance. Think of a tree, which is largely built by converting carbon dioxide gas in the air into the substance of the tree.

Moving out from the Earth’s atmosphere, you next encounter the vacuum of space. But again, it is not completely empty. There is no air, but there are electromagnetic waves in the form of light from our sun and other stars. There are comets, asteroids, and planets.

There is the background radiation left over from the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago, still reverberating like a drum. There is dark matter and dark energy, which can’t be seen but can be detected by their effects on other objects. Together, they make up a staggering 95% of the universe. This means that everything you are familiar with is just a small fraction of the universe.

There are also human-made objects, such as the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, and space probes like Voyagers 1 and 2. And there are satellites orbiting the Earth, some of which are part of the Global Positioning System that you use to pinpoint where you are.

These objects move about in space. It was Albert Einstein who taught us that space itself is the gravitational field generated by objects. This field has a shape and emanates from any object with mass, like the Sun and Earth. In other words, there would be no space if not for the objects within it.

Where are you in space? The Earth is the third planet from the Sun, further than Mercury and Venus, but closer than Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Between Mars and Jupiter is the asteroid belt, a ring of rocky objects that circle the sun. The region contains billions of asteroids, but they are spread out in a vast region of space, so it is not hard to navigate through it and, if you could stand on an asteroid, you probably wouldn’t see another one.

Pluto, discovered in 1930 as the ninth planet, was recently downgraded to a dwarf planet. It is now considered part of the Kuiper belt, which includes thousands of small, icy objects that form a ring just beyond the orbit of Neptune.

The Sun, planets, asteroid belt, and Kuiper belt make up the solar system. The solar system is just one of many solar systems that make up the Milky Way Galaxy. When you look up into space at night, you might see a passing plane, satellite, or even the International Space Station. You might notice a planet, like Venus or Jupiter. And you see stars dotting the sky. All of the stars you see at night are in, and make up, the Milky Way Galaxy.

If you look up on a really dark night, away from urban light pollution, you may be able to see a white band across the sky, the “milky way” itself. The Milky Way Galaxy is a flat, spiral galaxy, with arms radiating outward. You are located in one of these arms (the Orion arm). When you look up, you are seeing the galaxy edge on, from within, so most of the stars form a band across the night sky.

At the center of the Milky Way is a supermassive black hole. You can find the center of the galaxy by looking at the constellation Sagittarius, which is visible just above the horizon on summer nights in the Northern hemisphere.

Looking away from the center, you come to other galaxies. Your closest neighboring galaxy is the Andromeda Galaxy. The Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxies are part of the Local Group, which in turn is part of the Virgo Supercluster.

Recently, scientists found that this supercluster is part of an even larger supercluster called Laniakea (“immeasurable heavens” in Hawaiian), with more than 100,000 galaxies. Laniaikea is just one supercluster of galaxies among many that make up the universe.

So, where are you? You can tell someone where you are with a place (“I’m in the coffee shop”) or by an address (with building number, street name, city, state, and country). You can specify your location precisely by GPS coordinates (with latitude, longitude, and elevation coordinates, triangulated by satellites orbiting the planet), or by cosmological address (Earth, Solar System, Orion Arm, Milky Way Galaxy, Local Group, Virgo Supercluster, Laniakea, Universe).

Regardless of how you describe your location, you are always here.

© James Morris and Science Whys, 2018

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Science Whys by James Morris - 7M ago

by James Morris

It’s Halloween, so pumpkins are everywhere. Did you know that pumpkins are berries, but strawberries are not?A strawberry is not a berry. Nor is a blackberry or a raspberry. But pumpkins, cucumbers, bananas, persimmons, and eggplants are all berries.

Huh?

A berry has a very precise meaning in botany. All true berries develop from a single flower with one ovary. For example, tomatoes and kiwis develop this way, so are considered berries. By contrast, raspberries and strawberries develop from flowers with more than one ovary, meaning that they aren’t really berries, despite their names.

Furthermore, a botanical berry has three layers – an outer skin, fleshy middle, and inner part that holds the seeds, like a grape. These same three layers can be found in bananas and watermelons, which are also berries.

Cherries also have a three-layered structure, but they are not berries because, strictly speaking, berries have two or more seeds. Cherries have just one. Cherries, plums, olives, and other fruits with a central stone containing a seed are called drupes.

Raspberries and blackberries are also drupes. Each of the little parts of a raspberry or blackberry develop from a single ovary and have a central stone with a single seed. This is why wild raspberries and blackberries have a gritty taste. They are essentially multiple fruits (drupes) all stuck together, or aggregate fruits.

Strawberries are also aggregate fruits. However, instead of being made up of many drupes, they are made up of many achenes, the yellow seed-like structures on the outside of the strawberry. In spite of their appearance, they aren’t seeds; they are small, dry fruits each containing a single seed.

Among the only berries that are correctly named are blueberries, cranberries, lingonberries, gooseberries, and elderberries.

This can get a bit confusing, which is precisely what happens when scientific usage differs from everyday usage. This kind of confusion is not limited to berries. Take the word “theory.” In scientific usage, a theory is a broad explanation of a wide variety of phenomena supported by multiple lines of evidence and many experiments over a long period of time. It’s the gold standard in science. Examples include the theory of gravity, the germ theory, the chromosome theory, and the theory of evolution.

However, in common usage, a theory isn’t well substantiated at all. Instead, it’s more like a hunch or guess, as in “I have a theory about why the car won’t start” or “I have a theory about who Snoke is in the most recent Star Wars episode.”

These two different meanings are not just a source of confusion, but are also used to fuel the “controversy” about evolution. In 2005 in Alabama, textbooks included an insert stating that evolution “should be considered as theory.” This statement is factually correct, but intentionally plays with the everyday definition to sow doubt and uncertainty about a set of explanations that are well accepted among scientists.

“Mutant” is another word with multiple meanings. In its everyday sense, we often think of mutants as abnormal, even monstrous, as many Halloween costumes often remind us. However, in genetics, a mutant simply represents a change in the genetic material. Mutations can certainly be harmful, but they can also be neutral and sometimes even beneficial.

With the exception of identical twins, no two humans (or two members of any species) are genetically identical. We all harbor a number of mutations that make us in part different from everyone else. And identical twins accumulate mutations during their lifetimes, so even they are not precisely the same genetically. So, in a very real sense, and in spite of its common definition, we are all mutants.

Although we are all different from one another, we are not that different. In fact, we are 99.9% identical to one another genetically. This means that the differences (mutations) make up just 0.1% of our genetic material. This observation brings us to one more word that is potentially confusing – race.

When we use the word “race” to describe different groups of humans, it draws our attention to our differences. It suggests that there are separate, non-overlapping categories of humans, and the differences between us are great. Belonging to a group can be a point of pride and identity, but it can also be used as a way for one group to exert control over and discriminate against another group.

However, when looked at scientifically, the term “race” is misapplied. We are much more similar than we are different. Human traits don’t map into separate, discrete categories. In fact, there is no trait that everyone in one “race” has and that no one in another “race” has. Finally, there is more genetic differences within any so-called race than there is between races. The genetic evidence suggests that race has no biological meaning, in spite of the power and significance of the concept in everyday life.

While it may not matter whether we know that a pumpkin is a berry, it is important to have a sense of what we know well (theories) and what we don’t (wild guesses). It’s equally important to use terms that reflect our current understanding of science, such as those that describe human genetic variation, not outdated ones that reflect our misunderstandings and even biases.

Getting our words straight should be an easy nut to crack, and is, in a way, low hanging fruit in our conversations about science and the world around us.

© James Morris and Science Whys, 2018

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by James Morris

Science is a powerful tool for understanding the world and solving problems, but today it is often met with skepticism, even denial.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is the unifying idea of biology. It explains both the unity and the diversity of life. And it has many practical applications, helping us to account for the emergence of antibiotic resistance and predict patterns of seasonal flu outbreaks, for example. Yet a recent Gallup Poll reports that fewer than half of Americans “believe” in evolution. And research suggests that 60% of teachers shy away from teaching the subject.

Vaccinations were one of the great public-health triumphs of the 20th century. Now fewer parents are having their children vaccinated, and illnesses vaccinations protect against are spreading. In the spring of 2017, a single measles outbreak in Minnesota resulted in more measles cases than occurred in the entire United States in 2016. In Europe, measles cases are at a record high this year, including 37 deaths.

Equally concerning are the potential consequences of climate change. In spite of decades of research and a preponderance of evidence, many people don’t think climate change is real. Some who concede it’s real believe it to be a natural phenomenon not caused by human activities. Still others call the climate change issue a “controversy” (fueled by different yet equally valid opinions), similar to the evolution “controversy” we hear so much about.

These days, instead of science helping to dictate sound, reasoned policy, politics is shaping science. The federal budget proposed last May by the Trump administration made significant cuts to the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among other agencies. If such a budget were approved, basic science, medical research, and disease prevention would all be negatively affected.

As the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted, “I dream of a world where the truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true.”

What’s going on? And what can we do about it?

Science is often debated and being skeptical of new findings is a healthy part of the process. Therefore, having a debate about science seems, on the surface, quite reasonable, even productive.

But debates about evolution, vaccines, and climate change are not scientific debates. In all three cases, the science is clear and there is strong consensus among scientists. As George H. W. Bush said, “We cannot allow a question like climate change to be characterized as a debate. To say this issue has sides is about as productive as saying the world is flat.”

What look like debates are really smoke screens: We are witnessing what happens when scientific findings challenge economic interests, political views, or personal beliefs. The theory of evolution runs up against some religious beliefs. Vaccinations tap into a mistrust of medicine and parental fears about neurological and developmental conditions not fully understood, such as autism. Potential solutions to climate change threaten fossil-fuel industries.

For years, the tobacco industry leveraged uncertainty in science as a way to deny that smoking is linked to lung cancer, respiratory illness, and heart disease. Similar tactics were used when science revealed other “inconvenient truths,” such as the effects of DDT, acid rain, and ozone depletion.

Smoke-screen debates are intended to sow doubt and confusion, as argued by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in Merchants of Doubt. They also tap into other anxieties, such as fears of big government, regulations, and outside influence.

Scientific debates are waged with information, facts, and evidence. In smoke-screen debates, evidence seems to do very little, if anything, to move the needle of public understanding. In fact, presenting evidence that challenges strongly held views often has the counterintuitive effect of making people hold on to their ideas even more tightly.

Finding common ground is often not possible. Where, for example, is the common ground between concerned citizens and fossil-fuel companies that put profits above the health of the planet and the organisms – including humans – who inhabit it? Where is the common ground between those who make decisions based on facts and evidence, and those who don’t?

In other cases, we may be able to find common ground and therefore move toward solutions. In his book “The Creation,” biologist E.O. Wilson wrote a series of imagined letters between him and his pastor, arguing for common ground between science and religion. Whether you believe life on Earth evolved over billions of years or was created by God in its present form, we can all agree it’s worth saving.

Climate opinion maps from Yale University indicate that if you ask people if humans cause climate change, there is widespread skepticism. But, if you ask these same people if they are in support of clean energy, there is broad support.

Another common sense solution is to invoke the precautionary principle, which simply says that, in cases of uncertainty but great risks, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

Or, for a political solution, consider the recent advice of Harrison Ford, who exclaimed, “stop giving power to people who don’t believe in science” or those who “pretend they don’t believe in science for their own self-interest.” After all, it’s not that (most) politicians and oil executives don’t understand science or what it’s telling us; it’s that they intentionally sow confusion where there isn’t in the name of power or profits.

Comedian Tina Fey has offered her own advice on what we should do when confronted with something that affronts us: “I don’t like Chinese food,” she says, “but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.”

We must support science and its findings, as the #letsciencespeak movement powerfully argues. And we must continue to find solutions if we want to address some of our most pressing problems.

© James Morris and Science Whys, 2018

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Science Whys by James Morris - 11M ago

by James Morris

At Saint Sulpice, a magnificent church in Paris, there is a famous gnomon made up of three different parts. Against one of the walls of the church is a tall obelisk. Running down the obelisk and across the floor of the church is a brass line set in white marble. And, in a window opposite the obelisk, there is a small hole that lets in a shaft of light on sunny days.

The gnomon of St. Sulpice

These three pieces – the obelisk, line, and pin hole – work together as a kind of astronomical calendar. The shaft of light crosses the line at noon every day, but it doesn’t hit quite the same spot. When the sun is at the highest point in the sky on the summer solstice, the light hits the line farthest from the obelisk; when it’s the spring or fall equinox, it hits the mid-point of the line; and when it’s at its lowest point on the winter solstice, it falls on the obelisk itself.

I recently visited Saint Sulpice right around the summer solstice and saw the beam of light shining down on the floor of the church, crossing the rose-colored line (popularized in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code). I was intrigued by the ingenuity and engineering it took to build such a calendar in the 1700s.

But something else struck me as well. When I watched the circle of light on the floor, it didn’t seem to move. However, if I turned my back for a moment and looked at it again, I could see that it had moved slightly. Or, if I noted where it was relative to some reference point, like a tile on the floor, I could see that it moved ever so slightly compared to the fixed line.

I began to think about all types of things that move at this pace – too slowly to notice, but easy to see after a few moments. That is, you can’t see it move, but you can see that it has moved.

Of course, there are all kinds of things that move too slowly for us to see at all – think of the evolution of amphibians from fish, the gradual movement of the continents across the surface of the Earth, or the uplift of the ground to build the majestic Himalayan mountains. Evolutionary and geologic processes often move breathtakingly slow, well beyond our perception. And there are things that move much too quickly for us to perceive, such as light and chemical reactions.

But what about things that move just beyond our ability to detect them, just a bit too slowly, in that small window beyond our immediate perception? I’m thinking of the minute-hand of a clock, for example, not the second hand (too fast) or the hour hand (too slow).

Or the setting the sun. It’s in one place in one moment, and a different place the very next. The only time you might be able notice that it moves is when it starts to settle below the horizon. The moon and stars move at this same rate, as the apparent motions of the sun, moon, and stars all relate for the most part to the rotation of the Earth on its axis.

These kinds of slow changes were brought to life for me as a child. Every summer, we camped for a week in Small Point, Maine, along the coast. Each day, we noticed the tides moving in and out, in and out. It was impossible to see the water move, but if we went away and came back, it was dramatically different from where it was, the whole view changing dramatically. My father thought it would be fun to make a time-lapse film of the tide coming in, speeding up what is too slow for us to easily see. I had visions of a film showing the water rushing in. The reality wasn’t what I imagined (lots of panning back and forth, with large gaps between shots), but it nevertheless was a fun idea.

The garden is another place where things change slowly, just outside of our ability to notice them. Day to day, it basically looks the same, but go away for a week or two, and it’s a different place entirely – daisies replacing peonies, and weeds seemingly everywhere.

Age is like that too – growing older is imperceptibly slow on a minute-by-minute, day-by-day, week-by-week, even month-by-month basis, but over the years, the changes are dramatic. Kids grow up “just like that.” We give our children all kinds of advice, until one day they are giving it to us. And it’s often said that we all become our parents and “suddenly” we are saying things that sound just like them.

And what about movement that is just a bit too fast? The snap of a finger. The rapid back-and forth of a punching bag. The movement of drumsticks on a snare drum. The swing of a golf club or baseball bat. The beating wings of a bee or hummingbird.

Without some sort of technology to slow these movements down, we are not able to see them. But for things that move just a bit too slowly, there is something we can do: we can pay attention, watch closely, and attend to them moment by moment. We can take our time, slow down, and, in the words of William H. Davies, stand and stare, so that we notice what is going on. Or we will miss what’s happening right in front of our eyes.

© James Morris and Science Whys, 2018

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