Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Video: Big History

David Christian, a professor of history at San Diego State University, recently delivered an excellent talk at TED about "big history". The video is embedded below and the direct link is here.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Interviewing Carl Zimmer....

Carl Zimmer is one of my favorite science journalists, so I was very pleased when he agreed to be interviewed for Consilience. While we already have about a million questions to ask him, we thought it would be a good idea to crowd-source some questions as well. If you have anything you'd like us to ask Carl, please fill out this form.

Oh, there's a "bonus" question in the above form: who else would you like us to interview? We have a star-studded wish-list, but we'll have to see who ends up agreeing to be interviewed. (We've only had one "no" so far: from Terry Pratchett's agent - Terry is sick, so he agrees to very few interviews. Alas).

Consilience: Episode 4

The fourth episode of our podcast, Consilience, is out! Highlights this week (mp3 / 23.2mb) include how some Zimbabwean churches are killing their parishioners, pharmacy chain Dischem promoting quack Patrick Holford's visit to South Africa, and distinguishing between different types of Red Giant star. We also pilot our new segment "101" (about evolution this episode).

The file's page on Archive.org is here, and it's also embedded below:

By the way: we're still waiting to be added to the iTunes directory. In the mean time, it is possible to subscribe with iTunes (or any other podcasting software); in iTunes, go to Advanced Options > Subscribe to a Podcast and put in this feed address. 

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Consilience: Episode 3

Episode 3 of Consilience: An African Science Podcast is out... In this episode (mp3 / 22.7mb) we wish some cool people happy birthday, we discuss an idiotic (and expensive) planned ceremony to "bless" a South African road, and we interview Ed Yong, of Not Exactly Rocket Science fame. (Sorry about the dodgy sound quality. Owen and I spent a very long time cleaning it up. We will do better).

Anyway, check it out! The show is also embedded below...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Consilience: Episode 2

The second episode of Consilience: An African Science Podcast is out. In this episode (mp3 / 33.1mb / 1:01:47) we discuss (among many other things) BF Skinner and behaviorism, Angola's 1st dinosaur fossil, and out-group bias in monkeys. The show also includes Part II of our interview with Dr. Steven Novella of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.

It's embedded below:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Consilience: Episode 1

So Angela Meadon, Owen Swart and I have started a weekly science and skepticism podcast called Consilience. In our first episode we discuss gadgets causing sleeplessness, the Square Kilometer Array, whether the "Supermoon" caused Japan's earthquake, claims of fossilized alien microbes, tiger feces, and we interview Dr. Steven Novella.

Episode 1 is embedded below and you can download the mp3 directly here (31.4mb). The show notes are here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Video Aluminum cast of ant nest

One of the most enduringly popular post on this blog is "A cement cast of an entire ant colony", a video of an ant nest cast. Embedded below (direct link) is another video of a beautiful cast, this time made using metal.

(H/T: Mike Breytenbach).

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Calling black South African skeptics

A severely under-discussed topic among South African skeptics is race. The problem is stark and obvious: nobody seems to know any black South Africans who are also skeptics. Now, obviously, there are (must be) black South African skeptics... but we don't know who they are. And this situation is clearly unacceptable.

So... if you are black, South African and a skeptic (or know of someone who is) please contact me! I will make it my mission to help make your voice heard.

The African science, rationalism and skepticism blogroll for February

This is the updated African science and skepticism blogroll for February 2011... If you know of blogs not listed here, please let me know. Also: add it to your blog! Tweet it! Do a post like this one! (Email me, and I'll send you the HTML).

Note: I generally remove blogs that have been inactive for more than 6 months, so if you're no longer on the list and have resumed blogging, please email me.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dr. Uba... FAKE

The South African interwebs is up in arms about one  Dr. Uba, who apparently offers cash for body parts. In flyers distributed in Johannesburg and a website, Dr. Uba offers "keen cash" for eyes, penises and kidneys and more.

This, understandably, quickly drew a lot of attention. Twitter exploded with outrage, Reddit got in on the act, the police was apparently sniffing around, and I was notified about the site via email and Facebook by several independent sources. Since human body parts are sometimes used for "muti" (traditional African medicine) and since this kind of quackery flourishes in South Africa, alas, Dr. Uba existing didn't strike me as impossible. But, as I've pointed out before, doubt will set you free. With some ninja internet skills and the help of several friends, I manage to uncover that Dr. Uba is nothing more than a guerrilla marketing campaign for the upcoming South African horror-film "Night Drive" (a trailer is here).

To make a long, convoluted story very short... The first indication that Dr. Uba wasn't real was that the Whois for the site revealed it was registered to one Jonathan Merry (this is he, I think) who works for a design / marketing company. Additionally, if you phoned Dr. Uba's clinic, all you got was voicemail. Much more significantly, the Whois description of the site is "spoof site of fake doctor". That confirmed the site is a fake, but not why it was being faked. Contacting Mr. Merry revealed few additional details (he was constrained by his client, apparently), so the motives for site remained hidden. Then, rather anticlimactically, the site was edited so that clicking on any of the links showed:

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Fun with Fauna

My family and I went hiking in the Tonquani Gorge (in the Magaliesberg, just north of Pretoria) last weekend. Much fun was had by all. And, to my delight, I caught a freshwater crab. It was hiding in a crevasse about 2m up the rock face,  next to a gorgeous waterfall. 

Pics or it didn't happen, you say? Well.....

Nothing to see here, move along...

Angela's son, amazed.
Note: no crabs were harmed in the making of this blog post. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Video: Optogenitics is Nature's Method of the Year

Long-time readers will remember a guest post by my friend Hugh Pastoll about optogenetics. I didn't catch it at the time, but Nature declared optogentics its 'Method of the Year' for 2010. An explanatory video below (direct link):

(Video found via Ed Yong).

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Fun with H.L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken, the American satirist, critic and all round cynic, was quite the quotable fellow. I recently dug out some of my favorite quotes (which I shared on Twitter earlier this month - you should follow me) and I figured they deserved a blag post of their own. So...

"The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind."

"To die for an idea; it is unquestionably noble. But how much nobler it would be if men died for ideas that were true!"

"Platitude: an idea (a) that is admitted to be true by everyone, and (b) that is not true."

"Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable."

"The great artists of the world are never Puritans, and seldom even ordinarily respectable. No virtuous man — that is, virtuous in the Y.M.C.A. sense — has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a book worth reading."

"I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind — that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.
I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty and the democratic form is as bad as any of the other forms.
I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.
I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech — alike for the humblest man and the mightiest, and in the utmost freedom of conduct that is consistent with living in organized society.
I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.
I believe in the reality of progress.
I —But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant."

Check out Mencken's Wikiquote page for more fun....

The African science, rationalism and skepticism blogroll for January

The updated African science and skepticism blogroll for January... If you know of blogs not listed here, please let me know. Also: add it to your blog! Tweet it! Do a post like this one! (Email me, and I'll send you the HTML).

Note: I generally remove blogs that have been inactive for more than 6 months, so if you're no longer on the list and have resumed blogging, please email me.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Brilliant (and NSFW) video: Evolution!

Just... wonderful. (Again, it's NSFW. Direct link here).

An evolutionary psychology blog (worth reading)

Two years ago I was excited by the launch of the first blog by a major evolutionary psychologist - Satoshi Kanazawa's The Scientific Fundamentalist. Unfortunately, it turned out Kanazawa is batshit insane and often face-palmingly wrong, so my search for a blog by a reasonable evolutionary psychologist continued. Luckily, a while back the interwebs provided: Rob Kurzban's ingeniously entitled Evolutionary Psychology Blog hosted by the equally ingeniously entitled journal Evolutionary Psychology. Being twice shy and all that, I didn't want to recommend Kurzban's blog before I gave it a good long look. Now that I have, I can say Kurzban's blog is well worth reading.

So... check it out.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Quote: The scientific method

The following is a rather neat expiation of the scientific method. While it leaves a great deal out (institutions, the social nature of science, etc.), it's damn good nonetheless. The writer is John D. Barrow and the quote is taken from his essay "Simple Reality: From Simplicity to Complexity - And Back Again", published in Seeing Further: The Story of Science & The Royal Society:
Laws reflect the existence of patterns in Nature.We might even define science as the search for those patterns. We observe and document the world in all possible ways; but while this data-gathering is necessary for science, it is not sufficient. We are not content simply to acquire a record of everything that is, or has ever happened, like cosmic stamp collectors. Instead, we look for patterns in the facts, and some of those patterns we have come to call the laws of Nature, while others have achieved only the status of by-laws. Having found, or guessed (for there are no rules at all about how you might find them) possible patters, we use them to predict what should happen if the pattern is also followed at all times and in places where we have yet to look. Then we check if we are right (there are strict rules about how you do this!). In this way, we can update our candidate patterns and improve the likelihood that it explains what we see. Sometimes a likelihood gets so low that we say the proposal is 'falsified', or so high that it is 'confirmed' or 'verified', although strictly speaking this is always provisional, none is ever possible with complete certainty. This is called the 'scientific method'. 

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Missing my Blogaversary

Wow... I totally forgot that my blog turned three this past November. I remembered my 1st and 2nd blogaversaries, but my mind was elsewhere this time around. Anyway, so back on November 3rd 2007, I said "Hello World" with my post "Welcome...". It's been quite a ride since then, and I've learned a hell of a lot. While I haven't been posting all that much in the last year or so - only 88 posts in the whole of 2010! - Ionian Enchantment remains an important part of my life. And you'll be rather happy to hear that I intend to write quite a bit more in 2011.

So... thanks to my readers (ye few) for sticking with me. More is to come.

The African science, rationalism and skepticism blogroll for December

The updated African science and skepticism blogroll for December... If you know of blogs not listed here, please let me know. Also: add it to your blog! Tweet it! Do a post like this one! (Email me, and I'll send you the HTML).

Note: I generally remove blogs that have been inactive for more than 6 months, so if you're no longer on the list and have resumed blogging, please email me.

A Modest Proposal: Take "News" out of "Science News"

While there are fantastic science journalists out there, unfortunately, science journalism as a whole is in a rather shocking state. Why this is so is endlessly debated, but my Modest Proposal is that there is far too much "news" in "science news".

Before we continue, I should say that I take it 'our' goal is to educate the public about both the findings and the methods of science. Of course, the mainstream media (MSM) is in the profit-making business, not in the education business. The science boosters among us (yours truly included), however, would like to square the MSM's profit motive with our educational goals, hence this post and many others like it.

In any case, here is the crux of my view that there is too much news in science news, expressed neatly as a slogan: Context Is King. It is an unfortunate fact, but the public is abysmally ignorant of science. (The data are best for the US, but there is no reason to think it's dramatically better elsewhere). Moreover, science is hard and often counterintuitive. So, to make any real sense of what's new - i.e. what's news - one needs to have at least some grip on what's already known, one needs background. If I don't know the first thing about human evolution, for example, it's going to do me no good to hear about the discovery of the Denisovans. If I don't know anything about the methods of science, a scientific controversy - the recent arsenic bacteria thing, for example - is going to baffle me. (Or I'm going to walk away with serious misconceptions at the very least). None of this should be particularly surprising, of course, nor is it unique to science. If I don't know the rules of American football (and I don't really), NFL news is going to make little sense to me.

The problem, though, is that often the MSM in effect assumes the public already has the necessary background knowledge to make sense of science news because their articles contain little or no context. The result is not merely a public that fails to learn about and appreciate new discoveries, it's a public that's positively misled about the findings and methods of science. My remedy is that science journalists change their focus: their aim shouldn't be to convey the newsy bit of science news, it's to convey the sciency bit of science news. And that means recognizing Context Is King: explain what we already know in the necessary detail in order to convey what we might just have found out. Obviously, this is hard. It takes work. And, whaddaya know?, it requires actually knowing something about science. (I'm looking at you, Richard Alleyne).

I should hasten to add, by the way, that there are already a bunch of science journalists who do exactly what I suggest. Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, Malcolm Gladwell et. al. do not need advice from me about the importance of context. Indeed, any MSM journalist who would like to learn to do science journalism right can't do much better than reading the Yongs and Zimmers.