Monday, April 28, 2008

Intelligence and complexity

Every so often scientific claims are made about the likelihood or otherwise of intelligent life evolving elsewhere in the universe, a recent example is this article:
Leaving aside the difficulty of making predictions based on a sample of 1, I have another issue with the assumptions made in some of these discussions, inlcuding the one above. Those who have concluded intelligent life is extremely unlikely to arise in the universe point out the number of improbable steps required. For instance the linked article states:
"Prof Watson suggests the number of evolutionary steps needed to create intelligent life, in the case of humans, is four. These probably include the emergence of single-celled bacteria, complex cells, specialized cells allowing complex life forms, and intelligent life with an established language.
“Complex life is separated from the simplest life forms by several very unlikely steps and therefore will be much less common. Intelligence is one step further, so it is much less common still,” said Prof Watson"

I'm not happy with this, especially the 4th step- I think once you have evolution acting on multicellular life forms then forms of marvellous complexity seem bound to occur and human culture is not less likely than termite mounds, chameleon camoflage or even lichen. It seems as though it is because the products of human culture are so undeniably unique. But the transition from australopithecus to homo, or heidelbergensis to sapiens is not a critical and necessary step in the way that prokaryote to eukaryote is. I rather think of the human brain like the peacock's tail, a flamboyantly elaborate structure produced by the engine of evolution.
Anyhow the case still stands that it took a long time to get from bugs to people. The critical step seems to be the "bugs/protists to jellyfish" one. That life could throw up something as wonderful in its way as a cyanobacteria at the very dawn of the earth and then just sit there, soaking up the sun for a couple of billion years is terrifying and humbling. Of course that couldn't really the case, clearly the global genome would have been dynamic throughout this period, perhaps many abortive pre-precambrians and proto-ediacarian events occurred without leaving traces.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Diversity in human mtDNA

Some news sites carrying stories on the following study:
What I find interesting is that, if their dates are correct, by the time humans had spread thorughout the world and established populations in Australia, the southern african lineages now known as the Khoi and San people (AKA Bushmen) had been isolated from other human populations for possibly tens of thousands of years.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

hobbit debate

A recent item on the hobbit debate sent me over to John Hawks most excellent blog and I have added the link on the left. I think the current unresolved controversy over the hobbits provenance nicely contradicts the claim sometimes encountered in the global warming and creationist debates that dissenting views in the scientific community are stifled.
Incidentally I spotted the following follow-up link on scientists' beer drinking habits vs productivity: which settles that one IMO.
Lithoguru's site is great, he has a good essay on realism vs antirealism. I hadn't come across this distinction before and it intrigues me. To summarize: both realists and antirealists believe there is is an objective reality and that science can be used to model and make predictions regarding this. However antirealists make no claim as to whether or not the scientific model is true, but are concerned only if the model is useful. I liked the antirealist position initially, however further thought on the subject inclines me to think this may be a weak position. Surely if we agree for example that general relativity combined with classical physics gives us a more accurate representation of objective reality than classical physics alone then it is more "realistic"?
Still there is no doubt that, given the limitations of the human intellect, our scientific models will always be imperfect.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Musical brains

Kids who practice show thickening of corpus callosum
The article implies the two handed nature of the instrumenet may be important although no control is mentioned, in fact its hard to think of an instrument that isn't two handed (harmonica?). It would be interesting to see if the effect is seen in young singers.

Plankton shift

Scientists estimate that one of the stars of the ocean food chain shows an unexpected predeliction for a more acidic ocean
They suggest total biomass of the phytoplankton has increased by 40%. I'd like to know how much this represents in actual mass - 10's or 100's of kilotonnes?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Science and skepticism

Although peripheral to the main themes of this blog, I think this slate article worth lining as it pre-empts many common criticisms of the science that I use to build my ideas upon: (all 3 articles well worth reading).
It also reminded me of a discussion I had with a friend recently about how to make balanced judgments on political issues. For instance he asked why I thought it more likely that president Putin may have had some involvement with the death of Alexander Litvinenko than prime minister Blair having similar involvement with the death of David Kelly and suggested that my western background, rather than the evidence, made me more inclined to suspect Putin. My friend suggested that all media reports had to be interpreted sceptically to which I agreed but pointed out that if all evidence and argument is treated as suspicious then how could a person have an opinion on anything?

I have a few simple rules myself for critical assessment of received information:
For scientific claims, does the claim have widespread support in the scientific community? Although It certainly happens that new scientific ideas may be met with resistance, time eventually weeds out those that do not rest on sound evidence and good scientific practice (eg cold fusion).
For stories where opposing viewpoints are reported, who has the most to gain by lying?
Occam’s razor works pretty well too.

Modern scientific theory is an interconnected set of models that can be used to predict and explain natural phenomena that are constantly refined and improved. The models do not need to be “true” to be useful and in fact are always a simplified reflection of reality (eg the wavefunction equations that modern molecular orbital theory in chemistry is based on can only be solved for hydrogen – the simplest of atoms). Our view of the social and political world likewise will always be a grossly simplified version of reality, however some peoples views will be more consistent with that reality than others. However its not so hard to weigh other peoples opinions and stories against their motivations and feelings, what’s really hard is to not let your own motivations and feelings interfere with your judgement. One strategy that can be helpful is to deliberately inform yourself with arguments that go against your own viewpoint. I’ve since read widely (not just on Wiki) disparate internet sources on the Litvinenko and Kelly deaths and think it unlikely that Putin or Blair were involved in these cases. There is still a shadow of suspicion in my mind with regard to Putin however, I think its because of those shifty eyes.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The flow

I've added a subtitle to the blog that is a first attempt at summarizing the theme. I intend to draw together news stories and my own comments to illuminate what i see as one of the big unanswered questions of our time:
How did life begin, is the apparent trend towards increasing information creation and flow here on earth an inevitable property of this type of system and, if so, what might this mean for the future?
Please note it is not my intention to introduce any religious ideas into this discussion.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bugs in amber

Update on bugs in opaque amber, it appears I spoke too soon: "...they suggest their work could form the basis of an alternative means of cataloguing new species trapped in amber."

Free will in question

Man you can do some fun experiments with those MRI gaadgets:
My interest here is that this backs up my view that intelligence and consiousness are seperate properties that give the user the illusion of being merged.

Species merge

Monday, April 14, 2008

Internet black holes

Just a reminder that we still only have the vaguest understanding of how information flow works:
This is the kind of news byte Icreated this blog for!
when I read this I think: :"Here is a clue to the dynamics of information flow".
Now I'm sure this can be rationalized - they mention increasing efficiency to the level of the telephone system and I'd love to hear some informaticians weigh in - but nevertheless the plain fact is sometimes we lose great chunks of data "in flow" and barely have the language to describe whats going on.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

hidden bug treasure
I like the comments: "We are not really studying the insects to know the insects themselves," Tafforeau said. "If you have a lot of different animals you can get a signal about the temperature and the environment 100 million years ago."
So even the most ardent entomologists quail at having to classify another whopping great bunch of beetles.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Science 2.0

Just saw this on SciAm and love it:
It seems to me the only risk is a certain self important types who never had an original thought in their lives may be exposed as such. This is a great example of how the internet will completely transform certain aspects of human endeavour. Although the 20th century has seen a blossoming of science, it has also created a world where most people don't feel part of this exciting and vital human activity. In victorian times for instance many gifted amateurs made significant contributions to sceintific knowledge. In the 20th century the convention arose that only those with a Phd who are actively publishing can be considered scientists and therefore qualified to opine on scientific matters. However studies have shown that this situation leads to vast amounts of virtually worthless research filling the pages of the myriad journals.
I understand the need for rigour in the peer reviewing process, but the ultimate test of science is "does it work?"
Original thinkers with a strong sense of curiosity about the natural world and a willingness to practice sound scientific technique have nothing to fear here.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Chirality of amino acids due to meteorite star exposure?

I've just started checking out Science Daily again. The interface is still pretty cluttered but interesting article here:
It suggests our amino acids are left rather than right-handed due to exposure to polarised light from neutron stars. Given that it has recently been shown that meteorites can contain up to 250ppm amino acids, this mechanism of chrality lends further support to the idea that metorites from early bombardment events are the primary source of early AAs. As Breslow points out:
"This work is related to the probability that there is life somewhere else. Everything that is going on on Earth occurred because the meteorites happened to land here. But they are obviously landing in other places. If there is another planet that has the water and all of the things that are needed for life, you should be able to get the same process rolling."
Life forms composed of proteins made in turn of chains of amino acids that is. I look forward to his work on nucleic acids.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

35,000yr old Pilbara tools

A new archaelogical find in WA will shed new light on Australian colonisation by aborigines:

Saturday, April 5, 2008


Gibson at odds with Guitar hero:
I assumed that this would be about Gibson litigating WRT their IP, ironnically the IP is all bought and paid for, however it appears Viacom assumed the hardware came as part of the package. As an aside, I wonder why Fender hasnt got into this obviously lucrative virtual market?

Occasional postings and links on evolution, rock and whatever else turns up

Just started this today to collect links that interest me all in one place.
One subject of interest to myself (and apparently a lot of other people, particularly the religiously inclined) is the origin of life. Heres a link about the kind of research i just love. These guys are demonstrating that bubbles with RNA in them "outcompete" those without :