Where would we be without axial tilt?

The world would be a more boring place: we’d have no seasons, no spring and summer, no dead of winter, no dog days of summer, and no Yule celebrations.


In memoriam: Frederick Sanger

250px-Frederick_Sanger2Frederick Sanger, the only Briton to have won two Nobel prizes, has died. He worked in biochemistry, studying DNA and proteins. His first Nobel prize was awarded for being the first to sequence a protein, insulin. At the time, it required years of work to do so.  He found that it was made up of two peptide chains: all proteins are one or more peptide chains. He spent nearly ten years removing one amino acid at a time from the end of the protein and identifying it, then going on to the next.

Winning the prize enabled him to afford better facilities and gather bright students around him. His second prize was for an ingenious and efficient way of discovering the sequence of nucleotide bases in a molecule of DNA or RNA. The linking of base pairs gives the molecule its ladder structure. The Sanger method cuts the molecules at different places, sorts them by weight (and therefore length) and identifies the base on the end using fluorescent dyes of different colours. According to Wikipedia, he used the method sequence human mitochondrial DNA (16,569 base pairs) and bacteriophage λ (48,502 base pairs). His method was used to sequence the human genome and many others.

His work allowed us to understand the genetic basis of mutations and diseases and was important for the development of better vaccines. Frederick Sanger was also honoured with the Order of Merit for distinguished service in science as well as several other awards.

The Telegraph has quite a nice obituary: Frederick Sanger.

The ‘war on Christmas’ is older than we think

I just found out that the War on Christmas has been going on much longer than most of us realize. Not only were Christmas trees a pagan German tradition introduced to England by Victoria’s husband; not only does the holiday itself have deep pagan roots in the turning of the year; but also the first Christmas card was non-religious!

First Christmas card, illustrated by John Horsley

It was printed in 1843 for Henry Cole, who didn’t have time to write long letters to all his friends. The card is illustrated by John Horsley with two scenes of charity and gift-giving to the poor, flanking a large holiday dinner in which almost everyone is holding a glass of wine. One of those too young to hold her own glass, a little girl of about three, is being given a drink from her mother’s glass. There’s a seasonal greeting and a lot of ivy twined around the scenes. No Christ, no manger, no wise men, no Star of Bethlehem, no religion. The remaining Puritans objected to the scene of jollity and booze and destroyed the original cards as harmful to society. Consequently, only ten of the First Christmas Card are known to exist (information from the BBC’s Victorian Farm Christmas).

However, the idea quickly caught on among other busy folk with lots of friends; by 1877 the Brits were sending 4.5 million each year. The custom was spread by the new rail travel for sending the post and lower postal rates for Christmas cards and postcards (more from the BBC’s Victorian Farm Christmas).

I think it’s clear that the essence of the midwinter holiday is a shared feast to cheer us up during the dark days of the winter solstice, including sharing with the less fortunate members of the community. Long may we celebrate it!

It’s my blogiversary!

Today marks seven years since a scientifically inaccurate description of evolution in Canada’s self-styled National Newspaper inspired me to create a blog and point out their mistake: “Caricature of evolution in discussion of Homo floresiensis.” Science triumphs and blunders and scientific progress have kept me going ever since–kept me looking out for science news and kept me learning. I even attended the 2009 Science Blogging Conference in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Science has become part of my education and more part of my life than I ever expected when I gave up my science career and went to work in IT.

P.S. Any blog posts dated earlier than 29 October 2004 were back-dated to document older events.

PZ Myers wins International Humanist award

The face of a bearded, cheerful, middle-aged man with the Thames river and London in the background

Prof. PZ Myers

PZ Myers, author of the blog Pharyngula, has been named the International Humanist of 2011, at the 18th World Humanist Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union in Oslo, Norway. He’s now the distinguished author!

Commenter Strange Gods before Me pointed out:

This puts you [PZ] in very distinguished company (besides us [his loyal readers], I mean).


International Humanist Award

1970: Barry Commoner (USA), environmentalist professor, for his activities in the field of preservation of the world environment. Commoner played a major role in achieving worldwide commitment to the cause of ecology.

1974: Harold Blackham (UK), who played a key role in founding IHEU, for his long-standing involvement with ethical Humanism in Britain and his achievements in the field of moral education.

1978: V M Tarkunde (India), a former judge of the Bombay court, who had shown great courage during the state of emergency in his country. He defended the values of democracy and dealt with many cases that were related to the repressive measures of the Indian government in that period.

1982: Kurt Partzsch (Germany), a former Minister for Social Affairs of Lower Saxony, for his contributions to the cause of human well-being and for his initiatives in social work in particular.

1986: Arnold Clausse (Belgium). A professor emeritus of education, who as president of the Ligue Internationale de l’Enseignement had promoted a public educational system based on the principles of equal chances for all, free inquiry and high quality.

1986: The Atheist Centre (India), for their efforts to being Humanism in practice, by means of education, social work and their fight tagainst superstition and religious intolerance.

1988: Andrei Sakharov (USSR), atom scientist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, for his indefatigable struggle for the cause of human rights in his country, and for his Humanist ideals. The award was presented in absentia, as at that time the Soviet authorities refused to give him permission to leave the country.

1990: Alexander Dubcek (Czechoslovakia), in recognition of his attempts in the 1960s to give communism in his country a more human face. Dubcek, who after 1968 had to pay a heavy toll for his dedication to his ideals of democracy and humanity, stressed in his speech that it is morality and humanity that give meaning to life.

1992: Pieter Admiraal (Netherlands), a Dutch anaesthetist, for advocating the right of self-determination in the field of voluntary euthanasia.

1996: Nettie Klein (Netherlands) for services to IHEU as volunteer secretary general, 1982-1996.

1999: Professor Paul Kurtz (USA), in recognition of the immensely important role he has played for both the American and the international Humanist movements.

2002: Amartya Sen (India), Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Economics, for contribution to the recognition of the purpose of development as the enhancement of individual freedom: to increase the choices available to ordinary people.

2005: Jean-Claude Pecker (France), a distinguished scientist, a member of the French Legion of Honour, a former President of the International Astronomical Union, and a stalwart Rationalist and Humanist.

2008: Philip Pullman (United Kingdom), author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, a triumphant work of freethought.

The Congress is held every three years.

Sophie in ‘t Veld wins International Humanist Award

Sophie in 't Veld, MEP

Sophie in ‘t Veld was named an International Humanist of 2011 at the 18th World Humanist Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union in Oslo, Norway. Ms. In ‘t Veld is a member of the European Parliament for the Dutch democratic party D66. She is the chair of European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics. According to Google Translate:

Chairman of the IHEU Sonja Eggerickx praises in ‘t Veld’s commitment to privacy, women’s and gay rights, and its initiative for the establishment of the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics (EPPSP).

Happy Canada Day!

“Quoth Pierre Berton:

“We are a nation of canoeists, and have been since the earliest days, paddling our way up the St. Lawrence, across the lakes, over the portages of the shield, west along the North Saskatchewan through the Yellowhead gap and thence southwest by the Columbia and Fraser rivers to the sea. When someone asks you how Canada could exist as a horizontal country with its plains and mountains running vertically, tell him about the paddlers. —Why We Act Like Canadians, 1982

Happy Darwin Day!

It’s Darwin’s  Day, when we celebrate Charles Darwin’s birthday. He developed the basic explanation for the variety of lifeforms in biology, with the theories of natural selection and sexual selection operating on excess reproductive capacity. The discovery came up in discussion the other day. Carovee said,

Darwin based his ideas on a) existing theories, and b) his own careful observations. If he hadn’t come up with the theory of evolution, someone else eventually would have figured it out.

This is correct. A number of scientists were groping towards the theory. Not only did Wallace come up with the identical theory twenty years later, based on his years of collecting zoological specimens in South America and the Pacific, while Darwin was still assembling the air-tight arguments for his book, but the whole idea was in the air based on scientifically proven observations such as “New forms of organisms arise where there was a similar population in the same geographic area just before them.” Indeed, Patrick “the Scots Invented it First” Matthew tossed off the theory of natural selection, clearly stated but not elaborated, in an appendix to his book about growing timber for naval ships in 1831.

In spite of the prevailing Creationist myth that scientists are driven by an evil desire to deny the existence of their god, anyone observing scientists or reading their accounts with an open mind receives the overwhelming impression of curiosity, joy, and wonder in discovering how the world works.

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