Archive for the 'evolution' category

Julie Payette: Engineer, Astronaut, Governor General of Canada, Defender of Reality

Julie Payette is about as ridiculously accomplished as you could ever imagine any person could be.

I like this short passage as a quick summary of awesomeness:

In her career and public life, Julie Payette has proven her mettle, intelligence and integrity time after time. An engineer, computer scientist and astronaut, she has flown commercial and military jets, been certified as a deep sea diver, operated the Canadarm, participated in two missions to the International Space Station, served as the chief astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency, has had international academic posts and has sat on both corporate and non-profit boards. (For what it’s worth: Payette also speaks six languages and is a gifted singer and pianist.)

This article from back in the summer when Payette's appointment was announced gives a fantastic overview of why she was a great choice for governor general.

Which brings us to this most recent tempest in a teapot.

As governor general, Payette represents the Canadian head of state, Queen Elizabeth and effectively functions as the head of state in Canada. For example, it is the GG who formally dissolves parliament before an election and asks the leader of the party with the most seats to form a government after an election. Usually, these are deeds without controversy as the GG is unelected (appointed by the prime minister for five year terms) and follows a fairly well-defined tradition. But not always.

At the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa in the first week of November, Payette gave a talk where she addressed some scientific "controversies" around such topics as climate change denialism, the validity of horoscopes and, horror of horror, whether or not divine intervention played a role in the story of life on this planet.

Some selected quotes here:

"Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we're still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the Earth warming up or whether even the Earth is warming up, period," she asked, her voice incredulous.

"And we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process."

She generated giggles and even some guffaws from the audience when she said too many people still believe "taking a sugar pill will cure cancer if you will it good enough and that your future and every single one of the people here's personalities can be determined by looking at planets coming in front of invented constellations."

Overall, pretty mild stuff. Science is real; pseudoscience, denialism and religion aren't.

Not a particularly nuanced approach to be sure, and perhaps she could have phrased the bit about evolution a bit more circumspectly, but at the end of the day I can't find fault with what she said. Yes, we have freedom of religion. People can worship as they please and hold the tenets of their faith as literally or as metaphorically as they please. Payette never implied otherwise. But the government's (and the state's) only requirement is that they not interfere with that worship or require any particular set of beliefs to participate in public life. The government and the state don't support any one religion over any other religion. They also don't promote belief over non-belief (at least in practice; separation of church and state in Canada is a bit complicated). They certainly don't have the burden to reassure believers about the literal truth of their beliefs.

As The Beaverton put it, making fun of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer's criticisms,

“There are millions of Canadians who were offended by Julie Payette’s scientific proselytizing,” explained Scheer to reporters about the Vice-Regal’s support of Newton’s law of universal gravitation. “We should be more inclusive to those who believe that gravity does not exist, or who believe in many gravities. We can’t conclusively claim that what goes up must come down; I mean why are mountains still standing?”


“What’s next? Governments advocating for people to get flu shots?” Scheer asked rhetorically, shrugging his shoulders.

Scheer clarified that he wasn’t anti-science, rather trying to accommodate the sacred views that the scientific method is the work of the devil.

In matters of public policy, the government and the state do need to take seriously what the best evidence (demographic, sociological, scientific, historical) and the scientific consensus is on important issues.

Governor General Julie Payette should be congratulated on speaking her mind, on being honest and on putting the emphasis on facts and evidence.

I have to admit, the thing about this whole issue that has surprised me the most is the legs that it's had. If I'd initially thought that it would blow over after a few days, I was certainly wrong about that. Two weeks later and still commentary is trickling in, though at this point it's mostly the disgruntled. I'm always a bit surprised at how defensive people can be, even (or perhaps especially) in the face of how dominant their world view is in society and the media. I will also note that this whole controversy received very little press and commentary in Quebec where official secularism is the norm, perhaps to a fault.


As is my wont in these things, I've collected a fair bit of commentary around this issue both critical and supportive of Payette's remarks. Enjoy!

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Reading Diary: Summer reading with Bradbury x 2, Burke, Maberry, Lemire and more

My 2011 summer reading was pretty meagre this year. For various reasons too boring to go into here, there wasn't much actually much vacation for me this summer. I think I'll probably have a better December/Christmas reading list than summer. Such is life.

Anyways, what I did read was pretty good, so let's get to it.

Bradbury, Ray and Ron Wimberly. Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes: The Authorized Adaptation. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011. 144pp. ISBN-13: 978-0809087464

Bradbury, Ray and Dennis Calero. Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles: The Authorized Adaptation. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011. 160pp. ISBN-13: 978-0809080458

Both of these are review copies that were sent to me unsolicited by the publisher. Which is always a nice surprise. Especially when the books are ones that are really interesting to me but that I probably wouldn't have gotten around to getting for myself. Both books are, of course, graphic novel adaptations of classic Ray Bradbury novels from the 1950s and 60s, one science fantasy and one dark fantasy or horror.

The first one that I read, Something Wicked this Was Comes, is a dark fantasy from 1962 about a strange carnival that comes to a small town and how it affects the lives of three young boys. The novel itself is one that I'd never read but always meant to so I was very happy to get a chance to finally read it. And I wasn't disappointed. The story is moody and atmospheric, with some good tension and even a bit of action. The adaptation is quite well done, adding to the atmosphere without detracting from the story telling.

The Martian Chronicles adaptation is a bit of a different story. Not really a novel, it's more of a fix-up of a bunch of Bradbury short stories. I did read this novel way back when I was a teenager. The stories are quite atmospheric, with a strong poetic and imaginistic feel to them. The somewhat disjointed nature of the book along with the wordy nature of the narrative -- imagery rather than action -- lead to a rather wordy and stilted adaptation. Some of the vignettes work better than others, mostly around their individual narrative strengths, but over all this is a work that's probably better as purely text rather than calling out for a graphic adaptation. They publisher has also adapted Fahrenheit 451, which with its strong narrative probably works better.

Who would I recommend these books to? Certainly any public library would see these books widely enjoyed. Middle school and high school would probably find better use of SWTWC rather than The Martian Chronicles. Any academic library that collects graphic novels or Ray Bradbury should probably acquire these two books as well.

Lemire, Jeff. The Complete Essex County. Portland: Top Shelf Productions, 2009. 512pp. ISBN-13: 978-1603090384

Whoa. Five stars for this one for sure. The first graphic novel chosen for the CBC's Canada Reads program, Jeff Lemire's Essex County wins on many fronts. Although it didn't actually win Canada Reads, it is one of the best "mainstream" graphic novels you will ever read. It is also one of the most Canadian.

By mainstream I mean a graphic novel that tells the same kind of story that regular mainstream literature tells, but taking advantage of the kinds of things that comics can do to take the story to another level. By Canadian, I mean small town Ontario and an obsession with hockey.

The collected series of stories presented in this book is an interweaving tale of various people in and from Essex County over a fairly long period of time. The whole love, loss and memory thing is really there, but so is violence, hockey, sex and youthful indiscretion. And driving Toronto streetcars. And old folks homes. And not quite knowing who your parents really are, but not quite realizing you don't really know.

Anyways, if you like graphic novels, Canadiana or just plain good old storytelling, give this a try.

I unreservedly recommend this graphic novel to any public or academic library, particularly Canadian. Although, with the Canada Reads things, they probably already have it. As for school libraries, the story might be a bit too adult to pass muster for a middle school but this would be a bit hit among high school students.

Burke, James Lee. Last Car to Elysian Fields. New York: Pocket Star, 2004. 496pp. ISBN-13: 978-0743466639

James Lee Burke is one of the truly great hard boiled/noir writers of the last 30 or 40 years. In particular his Dave Robicheaux series is one of the genre's high points. Like most long series, it's had it's ups and downs but this one is definitely one ofhte stronger late period entries. And yes, I'm a few volumes behind.

Anyways, describing a Burke novel is fairly pointless as they tend to both have fairly intricate plots and at the same time be more about mood and impulse and damaged history. And Elysian Fields is no exception. A woman from Dave's past, a long dead blues singer, underage drinking and a bunch of other strands serve to create a pressure cooker for Dave that cause him to lose it a little, kick some ass, break a lot of rules, ruin some lives and somehow regret coming out on top in the end. Good stuff.

Maberry, Jonathan. The King of Plagues. New York: St. Martin's Griffen, 2011. 448pp. ISBN-13: 978-0312382506

Judas H. Priest but can Jonathan Maberry write an amazing over-the-top horror science fiction thriller. This man cannot write a boring word.

Perfect summer reading, I indulged during my summer vacation trip and it was great to have something so engrossing while travelling. This is the third in the Joe Ledger series of cop horror thrillers, one for each of the last couple of summers for me. In fact, my two sons also tend to read them as well, with great pleasure.

Plot? Well, it's kind of a sequel to last year's The Dragon Factory with the same Big Bad coming back with a new bunch of baddies to once again destroy the world. And once again, Joe Ledger and his crew of Military Science types band together to save the day.

Over the top, violent, with some great set-pieces, good pacing, nice mix of character and action, these are great reads and only getting better.

Golden, Christoper and Thomas E Sniegoski. Monster Island. New York: Simon Spotlight, 2004. 448pp. ISBN-13: 978-0689866999

Not much to say here. This is an above average media adaptation -- decent writing, good plot. What raises it to another level is the authors' very fine touch with the Whedon characters, if sometimes a little heavy-handed and repetitive.

The plot basically revolves around the Scoobies teaming up with Angel's crew to foil a demonic plot to rid the world of demon half-breeds.

Schultz, Mark, Zander Cannon and Kevin CannonThe Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009. 150pp. ISBN-13: 978-0809089475

This graphic novel is the prequel to Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth, which I reviewed earlier this year, which I really loved. They're both set on the imaginary world of Glargaria, where the plot revolves around the Glargarians using Earth's evolutionary history to help them solve some problems on their own planet.

Reading the first, I now know why they tweaked the creative team a bit after the first. The evolution volume really struck a great balance between the science content and telling an amusing story, the sugar to make the medicine go down. This one leans way more on the medicine and not so much on the sugar. It's much more a basic biology textbook, but with silly pictures and some jokes.

Still decent and still recommended for much the same audiences as for the first. But a little disappointing. And boy am I glad they fixed the problems of the first. I heartily look forward to many more volumes from the new creative team.

(Bradbury adaptations provided by the publisher.)

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Intelligent design & creationism vs. teaching & scholarship

A couple of odd ones from last week's Inside Higher Ed, both related to the way scholarship, higher education and the intelligent design/creationism movement intersect.

First up, Blasphemy of a Different Kind, involving people possibly being fired for teaching evolution at an Adventist school. Although the university involved claims that the firings weren't related to the teaching of evolution, it's hard to imagine that there wasn't some connection.

The president of La Sierra's board of trustees on Friday asked for the resignations of Jeff Kaatz, the vice president for university advancement; Jim Beach, the dean of arts and sciences; Lenny Darnell, a trustee; and Gary Bradley, an adjunct professor of biology, according to a campuswide note from the administration.

The university, which is affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, has been dealing in recent months with a controversy over the teaching of evolution that has its Adventist benefactors threatening to withdraw its religious accreditation -- and the $4 million per annum that comes with it. Now the university faces a scandal in which a trustee, a vice president, a dean, and an adjunct professor were asked to resign over a recording made, purportedly by accident, of the four men talking informally about the church and university leadership.

Next is Paying for Rejection about a case where a journal has rejected/retracted an article by and Intelligent Design advocate after it was initially published on their website but before it appeared in the print edition. The published reached a financial settlement with the author to compensate for the retroactive rejection.

A mathematics journal has reached a financial settlement with an advocate of intelligent design after withdrawing a paper by him shortly before publication.

Applied Mathematics Letters accepted the paper by Granville Sewell, professor of mathematics at the University of Texas El Paso, earlier this year. The paper, "A Second Look at the Second Law," questioned the second law of thermodynamics: a fundamental law of physics that states that disorder - entropy - always increases in a closed system.

The paper was posted on the journal's website but was retracted shortly before its scheduled publication in the print edition.

In response to a complaint about the article from science blogger David vun Kannon, the journal's editor-in-chief, Ervin Rodin, director of the Center for Optimization and Semantic Control at Washington University in St Louis, offered his apologies for even considering the paper for publication.

"Applied Mathematics Letters is attempting to live up to its aim of being an outlet of 'rapid publication.' Unfortunately, this may sometimes lead to hastiness," he wrote.

A couple of very interesting cases, certainly not completely clear cut to the outsider in terms of exactly what happened or why. It both cases I would guess that we have far from complete information.

Read the IHE stories and see for yourself. Both are certainly case studies in the fact that science and religion just don't mix.

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Reading Diary: Evolution: The story of life on Earth

Feb 21 2011 Published by under book review, education, evolution, science books

While I don't have a huge amount of experience reading science-themed graphic novels, I do sort of have a sense that they come in two different broad categories.

The first is basically transforming a boring, stilted, text-heavy textbook into a boring, stilted, illustration- and text-heavy graphic novel. In other words, the producers think that anything in graphic novel format will by definition be more interesting and engaging than something that's purely text-based.

The second involves taking advantage of the strengths of the graphic novel format to re-imagine how scientific knowledge can be presented to an interested audience. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, which I reviewed ecstatically a while back, is a great example of that category.

Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth is another. Written by Jay Hosler and illustrated by Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon, it's an absolutely stupendous example of how to explain some tricky scientific concepts to a broad range of audiences.

It's an informal sequel to The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA and shares a setting and a broad approach. Although I haven't read the prequel yet, I have purchased it and will get to it very soon.

And speaking of the setting of the book, I really like the way the creative team integrated scientific information into an amusing narrative. The setup is basically an Earth evolution museum on the planet Glargaria -- The Glargarian Holographic Museum of Earth Evolution. The King of Glargaria and his young offspring are touring the museum with a particularly sycophantic scientist tour guide who explains evolutionary concepts in the context of some unspecified problems that Glargaria is having.

The framing is very sprightly and amusing, with a very light touch. The black and white art is very cartoony but it sets the right tone. The art is clear and accessible, just right for a young audience. A lot of the information is actually conveyed via banter between the three characters making it very easy to digest and surprisingly entertaining.

Here's a example (p. 38):

Guide: Fossils are any preserved evidence of ancient life. They can include the impressions of a leaf in mud, an insect trapped in amber, petrified poop, or hard animal parts like shells, exoskeletons, and bones that have turned to rock.

King: Earth life can turn to stone? Their warriors must be terrifying.

Guide: Well, they turn to stone only after they're dead.

Offspring: They're zombie stone warriors? Awesome!

You get the idea.

Overall, the book is terrific and I recommend it without hesitation.

In terms of content level, it's probably most appropriate as a supplement for high school biology but certainly college and university students would find it a useful refresher on basic concepts. It might also be useful for breadth course for non-science students. It would be perfect for any school or public library of any size. My older son is in grade 12 and found it useful and amusing, if basic. I certainly learned quite a bit reading it.

Academic libraries might not find it pitched to the right level for their patrons so most will probably want to skip it. However, it might make a good addition to any "light reading" collection. Academic libraries that support education programs or that collect graphic novels as objects of study will definitely want to get this as it's a fantastic example of the educational uses of the form.

It would also make a terrific gift for any science-loving person of any age.

(Book provided by publisher.)

Hosler, Jay; Kevin Cannon; Zander Cannon. Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011. 150pp. ISBN-13: 978-0809094769

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From the Archives: Gawande, Shermer & Angier group review

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This group review is from October 12, 2008.


A few books that I've read in 2008 that haven't quite made it into their own reviews:

Gawande, Atul. Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science. New York: Picador, 2003. 288pp.

This is a very fine book that I recommend without hesitation. Gawande has to be one of the absolute best popular writers about medicine of all time. This book is a collection of essays that were published in other places, mostly The New Yorker. The theme of the first section of the book is the fallibility of doctors, how they need to learn about their craft by basically practicing on us, and the ethical and practical dilemmas that all of us face because of this simple facts. We all want to be operated on by the most experienced surgeons, of course. But how did those surgeons get experienced in the first place? The rest of the book more or less picks up on those themes as it covers some medical mysteries and some things that the medical profession doesn't really understand yet.

This is a must-have for any academic or public library and I can imagine medical libraries building whole exhibits and and other collection focus activities around the work of Atul Gawande.

Shermer, Michael. Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design. New York: Holt, 2007. 199pp.

Another very fine book. Noted sceptic Michael Shermer basically demolishes the Intelligent Design and creationist paradigms from start to finish, but he also does it in a rather ecumenical way, taking care not to burn bridges or overly offend. You can get an idea of what he covers from the chapter titles: The Facts of Evolution, Why People Do Not Accept Evolution, In Search of the Designer, Debating Intelligent Design, Science Under Attack, The Real Agenda, Why Science Cannot Contradict Religion, Why Christians and Conservatives Should Accept Evolution and The Real Unsolved Problems in Evolution.

Shermer also weaves in his own personal story about how he evolved from being a Christian creationist himself to his current position supporting evolution, as well as his experiences at the Dover trial.

A solid, informative book, even if it's occasionally marred by Shermer's own descents into theistic gobblydegook, such as on page 43, "If we think of God as a thing, a being that exists in space and time, it constrains God to our world, a world of other things and other beings that are also constrained by the laws of nature and the contingencies of chance. But if God is the maker of all things and all beings visible and invisible in heaven and earth, God must be above such constraints: that is, above the laws of nature and contingencies of chance." A good rationalization for believers, I guess, but it does undermine some of his other arguments.

Overall, I'd recommend this book to most public libraries and any academic library that collects popular science.

I would like to close with another quote, from page 161.

Darwin Matters because evolution matters. Evolution matters because science matters. Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from and where we are going.

Angier, Natalie. The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. New York: Mariner, 2008. 293pp.

Natalie Angier is a well-known science writer for the New York Times and in this book has produced a very fine explanation of what science is all about. She also covers an awful lot of territory giving an overview of the current state of the art in various of the scientific fields.

But the most important contribution of the book is the first few chapters where she basically gives an layperson's introduction to the philosophy of science. She talks about the scientific method, the role of probability in science and the role of measurement, all very important topics in understanding what science is. I think it's important to mention that her approach is in sharp contrast to Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, which tended to use a more historical narrative, concentrating on the eccentricities of the various scientists he profiled to give colour. Bryson really didn't discuss any philosophy or have any extensive discussion of the scientific method, to the book's great detriment I believe. Angier seems to have learned from Bryson's mistakes, both in giving that philosophical and mathematical underpinning as well as not portraying scientists as freaks and weirdos.

The rest of the book is given over to a quick overview of physics, chemistry, evolutionary and molecular biology, geology and astronomy. It's quite dense and perhaps potentially a bit dry, but she mostly avoids that with a lively sense of humour sprinkled with quite a bit of flashy wordplay. This aspect of the book came under a fair bit of criticism from other reviewers, but I think it works quite well. Granted, she does goes overboard on occasion -- sometimes it seems that every paragraph needs to end with a little zinger.

Did I learn anything? Yes, I did. Quite a bit really. On the frivolous front, it seems that Angier and I share the same passion for collecting bookmarks. Who knew?

I would recommend this book to any academic or public library. Even high school or middle school libraries would be able to find readers for this book.

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From the Archives: The science of evolution and the myth of creationism by Ardea Skybreak

Nov 20 2010 Published by under book review, education, evolution, science books

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism: Knowing What's Real and Why It Matters, is from June 8, 2007.


The whole raison d'etre of this book is to counter creationists' arguments against evolution. Nothing less than completely uncompromising and hard-hitting, this is a great book. It dissects all the worthless creationist arguments one by one, first presenting their point of view and demolishing it with solid scientific argument. Make no mistake, this book strongly advocates a point of view; it sets out a position and defends it. It identifies positions that it disagrees with and challenges them.

Based on a series of essays in the radical left wing magazine Revolutionary Worker, this is certainly a polemic but it thankfully avoids the highly polarizing post-modern rhetoric of many leftist critiques of science and instead clearly distinguishes the human practice of scientific research and development and the pursuit for how nature really works. She clearly spells out her position than on page 52 when she says, "All ideas are not equally true: some ideas much more closely correspond to the way things really are than other ideas." And how about, "The challenge we face is not so much to ascertain that material reality exists, but to figure out, and consistently apply, methods of scientific investigation which can best minimize our subjective distortions, and systematically uncover what's actually real." (p. 278)

Some of the things I liked about this book? It might be strident and determined, but it's definitely not dry and humourless. Take a look at page 210, where she talks about a "supposedly highly educated Supreme Court Justice, who presumably went to both college and law school, unquestioningly repeating something that is so patently false that it would cause a high school student to totally flunk a basic biology test" or on page 234, "Many creationists like to claim evolution can't be true because it would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Wow, are you impressed yet? This sure sounds scientific doesn't it? Only one problem: they don't know what the hell they're talking about!"

I also like that it engages creationist nonsense on virtually every page. There are a plethora of extensive, fantastic side bars on topics like "What does the science of evolution tell us about human 'races?'" and "Social Darwinism is not based on science and has nothing to do with Darwinism" and "Are humans still evolving?" In other words, the material is presented so you can quickly find a chapter or side bar to support most any point in a discussion with a creationist. The chapters are organized so that Chapter 1 provides an overview, Chapters 2 and 3 general principles, Chapters 4 and 5 on speciation, Chapter 6 on proven evidence for evolution, Chapter 7 on the evolution of humans and Chapter 8, the capstone chapter, 120 pages demolishing very specific creationist theories and positions, along with a handy taxonomy of creationists. The table of contents is extensive and detailed, making it very easy to find the information you need very quickly, as is the index.

This is a lively, entertaining and even important book. I would highly recommend it for all academic collections: college, university and even high school and middle school. Anyone that passionately cares about science and rationality could do worse than have such a book in their personal collections as well. It could come in handy during arguments at contentious dinner parties or family gatherings, for example.

(Book supplied by publisher.)

Skybreak, Ardea. The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism: Knowing What's Real and Why It Matters Chicago: Insight, 2006. 338pp. ISBN-13: 978-0976023654

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