BELIEVER: Oh, happy day! Yay! Yay!
SKEPTIC: You’re uncommonly cheerful for a Monday. You must’ve had a heckuva vacation.
BELIEVER: Cue the theme from “Rocky.” You’re looking at a winner!
SKEPTIC: What did you win?
BELIEVER: This man has finally developed a system and Vegas is finally paying off.
SKEPTIC: Well, hello high roller. Hit it lucky on the craps table?
BELIEVER: Nope. Slot machines.
SKEPTIC: Ah, three in a row on the one-armed bandit. Lucky you.
BELIEVER: Yeah, I guess they used to have arms. Now you just stick in a card and hit a button. Much more modern. Very scientific—you should appreciate that.
SKEPTIC: So, the casinos have figured out the same thing as the credit card companies—you don’t think you’re spending as much when it isn’t real money. It’s just plastic, after all. That way you play a lot faster, too. So why exactly do you think they call these rip-off machines “bandits?”
BELIEVER: Hah! Now I’m the bandit. I’ve got a “system.”
SKEPTIC: Oh? A system, huh? You know what surprises me about Las Vegas?
SKEPTIC: That they’re still in business.
BELIEVER: Why do you say that?
SKEPTIC: Because every gambler I know always talks about all the money they’ve won. Charlie told me last week he won six hundred bucks. Cindy said she won a fifteen hundred. How much did you win?
BELIEVER: As crabby as you are, I’m surprised anyone talks to you at all. Cindy won fifteen hundred? Wow! I’m going to have to find out her system. I’m happy I took in twelve hundred.
SKEPTIC: Okay, I’ll bite—what’s your system?
BELIEVER: Promise you won’t tell?
SKEPTIC: I promise.
BELIEVER: If the casinos figure it out, I might get banned.
SKEPTIC: As you might put it, cross my heart and hope to die.
BELIEVER: Okay. It’s my hot and cold system.
SKEPTIC: Sounds like a treatment for a twisted ankle.
BELIEVER: Nope. I did research, you gotta appreciate that.
SKEPTIC: Data is good.
BELIEVER You see they got a whole bunch of quarter machines lined up and instead of diving in, I just watched for a while.
BELIEVER: And after a while you start to see patterns. Most of the machines pay out about as much as you put in. I skip those. How can you make money on those machines? But once in a while one of them starts payin’ out big-time. I even saw a guy draw a crowd. I never saw nuthin’ like it! It was rainin’ money on this dude.
SKEPTIC: Lemme guess. He leaves and you grab his machine, right?
BELIEVER: No! Hah! Got you! You think you’re so smart! No, I go to the other kind of machine. I go to the “ice-cold” machine. Here’s my logic.
SKEPTIC: There’s logic in here?
BELIEVER: Shut up. I figure the hot machine is all tapped out. I figure it’s the cold machine that’s just groanin’ with cash, ready to vomit it up to whatever lucky guy is standin’ there, and—ka-ching!—I make sure that someone is me.
SKEPTIC: Obviously, you never heard of the Monte Carlo Fallacy?
BELIEVER: What’s that? Some new James Bond flick?
SKEPTIC: No, also known as the Gambler’s Fallacy, related to the “Law of Averages.”
BELIEVER: You know more laws than a lawyer. Quit the secret code. What are you talking about?
SKEPTIC: Lemme give you an example.
BELIEVER: Oh great, here comes the lesson.
SKEPTIC: You told me to shut up, now you shut it. If you flip a coin and you get 5 heads in a row, what are the chances that you get another head?
BELIEVER: Sounds like a lucky coin. Probably another head.
SKEPTIC: Nope. Guess again.
BELIEVER: Oh, I get it, sort of like the slot machine, you’re due for a tail, right?
SKEPTIC: Nope again.
BELIEVER: Well, you gotta get one of them.
SKEPTIC: Precisely, and it don’t matter if you get twenty heads in a row, the likelihood of getting one more head is exactly fifty percent.
BELIEVER: What if you get fifty heads?
SKEPTIC: Very unlikely, but it’s still the same. They call it the Monte Carlo Fallacy, because a hundred years ago black came up a barely believable twenty six times in a row. Drew a huge crowd of gamblers all betting like you that it had to hit red. In the end the casino made millions of Francs.
BELIEVER: Well, I wasn’t in Monte Carlo, I was in Vegas.
SKEPTIC: Uh, hunh. So, when you talk about “hot” and “cold” machines it’s the same thing.
BELIEVER: You’re just jealous because you don’t have a “system.”
SKEPTIC: You know who has a system—the casinos.
BELIEVER: Yeah, what about the free drinks?
SKEPTIC: All part of their calculation. And, let's face it, those drinks don't exactly sharpen your judgement, do they? Who do think pays for the casinos?
SKEPTIC: You do. You, and people like you.
BELIEVER: I told you I won.
SKEPTIC: And how many times have you been to Vegas?
BELIEVER: I dunno. Maybe six or eight.
SKEPTIC: So, how much did it cost you to win that twelve hundred bucks?
BELIEVER: What? But, I had to develop my system, damn-it! Hey, I know while I’m hot maybe I’ll buy a couple of lottery tickets. You in?
SKEPTIC: There’s just no getting through to you is there? The lottery is the same thing. It’s just a tax on people too stupid to understand math.
BELIEVER: I’m trying to share my hot hand with you. What do I get? You call me stupid. Well, kiss my ass
SKEPTIC: (sigh) It gets lonely in an evidence-based universe.
Thanks to Robert for this little gem.
How about some real pros!
Gastric brood frogs stand out for their peculiar reproduction habits. After the usual external fertilization process, most frogs abandon their progeny. But, in a fascinating departure from the norm, the female gastric brood frog ingests about forty fertilized eggs and the young tadpoles hatch and develop in the mother's stomach. During the incubation, the mother doesn't eat, although apparently she does digest some of the embryos. When the incubation is sufficiently advanced, her lungs collapse and the mother and relies on gas exchange through the skin. After about six weeks there is a "re-birth," well, regurgitation really, of about 20 to 25 fully-developed froglets. This behavior reminds me a little bit of Darwin's frog, in which the young incubate in the vocal sacs of the male, or Egyptian mouthbreeders, in which the eggs and young are protected and reared in the mouth of the mother.
Sadly, both species of gastric brooding frogs, which resided in Eastern Australia, became extinct in the mid-1980s. What a shame. A loss of an interesting critter.
But is there hope for the species yet? Recently, a research group led by Mike Archer of the University of New South Wales in Sydney in Australia has reported the transfer of frozen gastric brooding frog DNA genomes into donor eggs derived from the Great Barred Frog in which the donor DNA had been inactivated. The result of the so-called "Lazarus Project," was the creation of a small mass of embryonic cells containing gastric brooding frog DNA. None of the embryos survived beyond a few divisions.
One matter of clarification, even if the embryos had developed into adults, it would be a bit of a stretch to call this even an abortive "rescue" of the species. There are profound epigenetic events that are mediated by the maternal RNA, i.e. the RNA in the donor oocyte, which have been documented in several organisms, including frogs. It would be more accurate to say that experiment resulted in a "rescue" or resuscitation of the nuclear genome of the gastric brooding frog. Nevertheless, the research team is optimistic that using refinements of the technology they will soon be available to clone and raise adult frogs. Similar experiments were performed in the creation of Dolly, the sheep, the first vertebrate cloned from an adult cell, although the donor oocytes were derived from the same species.
This is of broad academic interest, since there are similar experiments underway or contemplated to clone a number of extinct species, such as the passenger pigeon, the great auk, and even wooly mammoths (using modern elephants as egg donors).
What does this all mean? Recently, a TED-X conference sponsored by National Geographic, was convened to discuss the ethical and practical issues related to "De-Extinction." Although, videos of the conference have yet to be released, it will be interesting viewing.
Where do I come down on this issue? I really don't know, but I offer the following: 1)I don't believe that any of these creatures should be released into the wild. Repopulating North America with semi-pseudo wooly mammoths or frankenfrogs? Bad idea. 2)I really wonder what conclusions can be drawn from the possible results of these experiments? Can we ever draw definitive conclusions about the behavior and biology of these "resurrected genomes?" Even the Dolly experiments, using donor eggs from the same species, resulted in adult animals with serious health problems and I expect that using donor eggs from differing species will result in even greater deviations from normal adults.
Although the expansion of humanity has had cataclysmic consequences on both the ecology of the planet and the destruction of species diversity, it is believed that 99% of the known organisms that ever lived have become extinct. Most of these extinctions preceded human beings. Extinction is not exceptional; it is the norm in planetary history.
Personally, I wonder if we would be better served by rescuing charismatic animals (like tigers and blue whales), and studying ways to try and prevent the extinction of surviving species, primarily by protecting and preserving habitats and ecosystems, rather than trying to resurrect lost organisms. This would seem to me to be a more efficient and valuable use of scarce scientific resources. Agree or disagree, that's my take. Rebuttal is always welcome.
BELIEVER: The problem with you skeptics is that you’re so negative.
SKEPTIC: How so?
BELIEVER: You think that after you croak you just rot. No heaven. No afterlife. No nuthin’.
SKEPTIC: No Hell either, you might add.
BELIEVER: I’m not planning on going there.
SKEPTIC: Oh yeah, Hell is where everybody else always goes.
BELIEVER: There ya go again. Skeptic, cynic, same thing.
SKEPTIC: Not! Let me ask you this: If you had cancer would you want the doc to lie to you about your chances?
BELIEVER: Of course not. I’d want the truth.
SKEPTIC: Right. Me too. And if I don’t see any evidence for an afterlife, whether happy or sad, I’m not going to make stuff up. And that doesn’t make me cynical—just realistic.
BELIEVER: All cynics say they’re just being realistic.
SKEPTIC: I don’t believe in unicorns either.
BELIEVER: Fine! You wanna be worm food, you go ahead. I’m going to Heaven.
SKEPTIC: At least the worms will be happy…
BELIEVER: …and then you’re going to Hell.
SKEPTIC: (sigh) It gets lonely in an evidence-based universe.
This week's Rational Hero, PZ Myers, is kinda special since he will be lecturing in Seattle next week. The event is sponsored by the Seattle Atheists. Visit the SA website for more details. Here is a direct link to the SA mission statement. If, like me, you're member of the "unchurched," you might find some kindred "spirits" there.
Dr. Myers is a Professor with a special interest in developmental biology and evolution at the University of Minnesota. He received his undergraduate degree in Zoology at the University of Washington in 1979 and his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon in 1985. He is the author of the extremely popular blog Pharyngula, which is a soapbox for his often inflammatory--some would say refreshingly direct and honest--views on religion, evolutionary biology and politics. He is a potent critic of religion in all its forms. He is, as he describes it, a "blunt scientist." He very much reminds me of an American version of Richard Dawkins. As Myers states in the video below, "Science and religion are incompatible, simply, completely irreconcilable with reality [...]in the same sense that a serious pursuit of knowledge about reality is incompatible with bullshit." PZ Myers has also been embroiled in the debate about to what extent that the views of the skeptical movement should be (or logically, can be) extended into the political arena. The Atheism Plus movement figures prominently in this debate, which although interesting, is way too complicated to tackle in this short blog post. I recommend this link from the A+ site and this link from the Neurologica Blog for more information.
I agree with PZ on most points, but I have major differences in his apparent belief, that since religion is "bullshit," it is totally devoid of merit. My principal arguments against this view are two-fold. First, I believe that otherwise commendable people are are emotionally and psychologically unable to deal with a reality without religion. For them, religion is a crutch, but, possibly a necessary support. Perhaps some day we will live in a world where there is adequate psychological support for the needy without religion, but I'm not so sure. My second argument is that Dr. Myers tends, in my opinion, to underestimate the valuable contributions that have been inspired by religion. Yes, religion has been the source of inspired hatred--take the Inquisition and the Crusades as prominent examples--but I think we would live in a much-poorer world without religion-inspired painting, sculpture, literature and music. I also admire the many religion-based charities that have built schools, hospitals and orphanages. Religion, like politics, is a two-edged sword. But, I think of the skeptical movement as a "big-tent." There is room for uncompromising stridency and kinder, gentler, persuasion, and PZ Myers tends to fall in the first category.
I recommend, if you live in the Seattle area, that you go and see PZ when he comes to town next week. I'll be there for sure. But for those not lucky enough to live in the Pacific Northwest, below is one of PZ's better speeches. The actual speech is a little over a half an hour with twenty additional minutes of Q+A.
There is a revolution going on in the world of astronomy. It was less than ten years ago, in 1995, that the very first extrasolar planet, named Bellerophon, was discovered to orbit the "nearby" star 51-Pegasi. It's only 50.9 light years, that is, 299,000,000,000,000 miles, or 299 million million miles, away. Just a hop, skip, and a jump, for the Starship Enterprise traveling a warp-speed. The Bellerophon was discovered from a ground-based telescope. The Kepler Space Telescope was launched in March 2009, which could try to identify planets with out interference from light pollution or an atmosphere. This has led to an explosion in exoplanet data. The basic method (there are others) for detecting exoplanets involves calculating "light curves." A sensitive light detector is focused on a star and the amount of light detected is measured over time, generating a graph similar to that shown in the picture above. Planets that are too small or too large cannot be detected. Also planets that do not revolve edgewise to us are undetectable. Now there are, according to the most recent NASA ExoPlanet Archive, 2712 candidate planets including 837 planets around 653 stars. Special attention has been directed on the search for "Goldilocks" (i.e. Earth-sized) planets, that fall into the "Habitable Zone," defined as a planet that is in a pressure and temperature range that might support liquid water. Extrapolating from these numbers, there is an estimated 17 BILLION Earth-sized planets--and that's only in the Milky Way Galaxy. Catch your breath for a moment, and contemplate this number.
So, it is clear that there is plenty of potential life-harboring planets, but how likely is it that life is actually there? I direct to your attention the water bears, or tardigrades. Tardigrades can survive a remarkable variety of conditions on Earth, including extremes of starvation, temperature, dessication, and radiation. Previously, only lichen and bacteria were known to be able to survive exposure to the vacuum and radiation of space, but apparently water bears can survive for at least ten days and still produce viable offspring.
So, in the opinion of this humble blogger (All right, I'm not so humble.) given the incredible adaptability of life, coupled with apparently numerous Earth-like exoplanets, it is not only possible, but downright LIKELY that there is life on other planets. I just hope, and I'm considerably less sanguine about this probability, that some day our descendents, or whatever species inherits this planet from us, figures out a way to get to these planets and take a look.
Feast your eyes on the magnificent picture of a tardigrade that was recently featured by NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day and is available for sale from here.
Tim Minchin is this week's Rational Hero from "Do Ya Think? Blog" headquarters. More information is available from his Wiki entry and many of his songs are can be enjoyed on his youtube channel. I'm still kicking myself for not seeing Tim Minchin when he visited Seattle a few months ago. After all, if this Australian can come and visit me from halfway around the world, it seems that the least I can do is drive across town and pony up twenty bucks to see him. If he comes to your town, please promise me blog-fans that you won't make the same mistake. And Tim, if you return, I promise you I won't make the same error twice. Tim has a theater and music background, and the man with the wild hair, wilder eyes, and even wilder performance, is a well-know skeptic and atheist. Highly critical of the Catholic Church and quack-science of any sort, his performances are getting the word out in a very entertaining way. Below, I have selected a short piano piece and a fabulous beat poem that are powerful commentaries about so-called "alternative" medicine. Thank you Tim!
This is from the department of "Slap to My Head, Why Didn't I Think of That?" A company called DNA 11 is merging the exquisite beauty of biology to custom made art. Essentially what they do is collect swabs of DNA samples, fingerprints, or lip-prints (i.e. "kisses") from clients and turn it into artistic creations. A recent article in Smithsonian.com describes the process in a little more depth and there is also ample information on the DNA 11 website. Below, are three pictures that I copied from DNA 11. I think it is great when folks get a little closer to understanding how science works, especially in a highly personalized and beautiful way. I guess I don't have anything more to add except applause. Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! Way to go DNA 11.
Scot Bastian Ph.D. is a scientist and artist who lives in Seattle WA.