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An experiment in scientific discourse: Fluorescence of the rattlesnake rattle

I get the sense that many people feel as if science and scientists are in an ivory tower; that science is out of reach of most people because they don’t have the educational background or the quantitative skills typified by professional scientists.  I think also that sometimes scientists disregard the ideas of non-scientists because they don’t have the educational background or quantitative skills most scientists have.  I think that both of these notions are mistaken.

Science is a community endeavor.  It benefits form discourse; the tossing around of ideas and interpretations by multiple people from many different backgrounds.  Whether we admit it or not, all humans are bias.  Our thought processes and interpretations of the natural world are the result of our prior experiences.   Hence, science benefits from many different people eyeing up the same problems because what one person may see as an intractable problem or routine observation is seen as an easily solved problem or extraordinary phenomenon.

In an attempt to engage a wide community of people, both professional and non-professional in the human endeavor called science, below I describe a research project I am currently working on related to the ultraviolet fluorescence of the rattlesnake rattle.  I will be presenting a poster of this very project a the 2nd Biology of the Pitvipers meeting in a few days.  After the description, I provide a short URL to a form where you can leave your comments and suggestions about the scientific process in general and the fluorescence project, specifically.  I ask that you use the URL instead of the comments section of this blog so that I have everyone’s comments in one place in a user-friendly format.

Ultraviolet Fluorescence of the Rattlesnake Rattle: Preliminary findings

All animals communicate within their own species and between species. For example honey bees do the waggle dance to tell other bees in which direction and how far to a plentiful food source.  Rattlesnakes advertise their potentially harmful bite by rattling the rattle on their tail.  Essentially, communication is the transfer of information from a sender to a receiver in which both parties benefit from the information exchange.  In many cases it is helpful to send information in more than one sensory channel.  For example some rattlesnakes use an auditory signal and a visual signal (some rattlesnakes have a conspicuously colored tail).

Fluorescence is a physical phenomenon in which light is emitted when the electrons of a substance are excited and change energy levels, whereby in the process photons are released.  The late, great rattlesnake biologist Laurence Klauber noted over 50 years ago that the rattlesnake rattle fluorescences under ultraviolet light.  No one has investigated the phenomenon since even though it is known that other animals utilize UV fluorescence, including parrots, many fish, and scorpions.Diversity_of_fluorescent_patterns_and_colors_in_marine_fishes_-_journal.pone.0083259.g001.png (1620×2741)

Our study had three objectives:  1) Develop methods to quantitatively  assess rattle fluorescence, 2) Document interspecific variation in rattle fluorescence, if it exists, and 3) Test hypotheses regarding the function and biological role of rattle fluorescence.

To meet these objective we built a 3×3 UV-LED (395-400 nm) light array in a black box and photographed rattlesnake rattles.  We utilized western diamondback and prairie rattlesnakes from the Northwestern Oklahoma State University Museum of Natural History.  We then quantified the intensity of the fluorescence using computer software similar to Photoshop.

We found that Western diamondback rattlesnakes exhibit more intense fluorescence than prairie rattlesnakes.

Rattlesnake rattles fluorescing under Ultraviolet light.

Rattlesnake rattles fluorescing under Ultraviolet light.

We have come up with a few ideas about why this might be.  First, it is possible that the fluorescence is a signal enhancer (that is how humans use fluorescence; that’s what Woolite and Tide do do to your clothes).  We thought this might be related to differences in habitat use or activity in these species, but they use very similar habitats (at least in Oklahoma) and both are active at night (there is available UV at night, however).  It is interesting to note that the Western diamondback has a banded tail which is also conspicuous.

Another possibility is that the fluorescence enhances the mimetic similarity between the rattle and segmented insects.  Several species of rattlesnakes exhibit a behavior called caudal luring in which they wiggle their tails to lure food within striking distance.  The video at this link is of copperheads luring, which are close relatives to rattlesnakes.

So, now is your chance to think like a scientist.  Follow the link below to a Google form that will provide you an opportunity to record your thoughts on this research.

 

The form can be found here:  http://goo.gl/vmGiXU

 


Politics and money equal bad science

This is worth a read. I have always said politics and money corrupt everything (not just science)

SelfAwarePatterns

Jerry Coyne blogged yesterday about the trend in articles pointing out the flaws in science, noting that most of the observed problems are in medical studies, most notably in drug studies, and that generalizing these problems to all of science isn’t really accurate or fair.

I agree, but I have an observation about why some fields have problems, and other don’t.  The natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry, biology, and geology don’t seem to be having particular problems.  Physicists are having a debate about whether certain theoretical concepts are really science, but that is a minor and relatively healthy debate, compared to the issues that these articles are discussing.

Issues such as unrepeatable results, shoddy methodologies, selective publication of data, and ideologically driven interpretations seem to predominate in certain fields, but not others.  Initially, I thought maybe it was just that fields with politically sensitive topics were the problem ones…

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Hell is kinda like Santa Claus

Before I get started on this topic let me apologize in advance. I am posting for the first time using the WordPress app on my smartphone.  I am attempting to shed my Luddite persona.  This may be a mistake, but I’m not really known for good judgment so here goes nothing.

I’m sure if you have spent any time on any of the atheism websites or read the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins you have come across this notion of religious indoctrination as a form of child abuse.  I, like many agnostics and atheists, grew up in a church.  I was baptized, confirmed, and married in a church. Granted it was a moderate mainstream church (ELCA Lutheran), but I don’t feel like the teachings of that church somehow scarred me for life.  Things are probably different in a more fundamentalist tradition to be sure, but I think its unfair to paint all religions with the same broad brush strokes. 

How many people are actually scarred by the teaching that if you sin (whatever that is) you go to hell?  What is hell anyway? Is it really like it was portrayed on the South park movie? Doesn’t even matter?  I tend to think of hell as a metaphor or little white lie adults use to get kids to behave and do the right thing.  Hell is kinda like Santa only without presents and a little hotter. But hell is eternal…. Sure, but can a child wrap his head around eternal?  Most adults can’t even grasp the 4.6 billion year history of the Earth, yet we expect a child to grasp forever?  Think about it.

For most, when they shed the idea of God, the notion of Hell goes with it.  I suppose you could argue that the very idea of hell would prevent someone from considering the absence of God. But I would argue the two are so tightly linked that questions about one lead to questions about the other.  And again, I’ve never experienced the intense indoctrination of a fundamentalist faith so I could be full of ¢®@¶.

I personally don’t think the ideas of hell and eternal damnation are as damaging to a kids psyche as many people want to think.  But I may be wrong. And if I am, I guess I’ll see you in Hell (metaphorically, of course)


Unlucky in Kentucky

I just discovered a few days ago that Bill Nye “The Science Guy” is going to debate Uber-creationist Ken Hamm at the Kentucky Creation Museum on February 4th at 7:00 PM.

I have mixed feelings about this. I think this is a bad idea because there isn’t really anything to debate. Evolution is Science, Creationism is not. What’s the point. Second, according to Greg Laden’s Science Blog, the event is a fund raiser for the Creation Museum. What evolutionist would knowingly pay money to support this farce of a “museum”? Not I!

I think it is good that someone as recognizable as Bill Nye is bringing attention to the issue. I mean, who doesn’t know of Bill Nye. I for one want him to thoroughly trounce Hamm if that is possible. I really don’t know what they will talk about since Hamm doesn’t recognize scientific evidence and Nye is a Humanist who considers most of the Bible malarkey.

I will keep you updated over the next couple of weeks and give your more information as I get it. In the meantime I would bet dollars to donuts that a quick Google search will sate your curiosity.

Cheers.


New Years Resolution

It has been some time since I last made a blog post.  I got busy, a little put off by some comments on my last post, and just sort of let life get in the way .  While I am no less busy than i was the better part of a year ago, I have resolved this year to make a concerted effort to post more regularly.  I am going to give it my best shot to post twice each week.  I have not completely ironed out my schedule for the spring semester, but I should be able to carve out a couple of hours each week to  post some insightful observations, update you on the status of my dog training (I am hoping to train my pointer to find rattlesnakes), and keep you abreast of a few projects my students are working on (of course they are snake related! That’s what I do)

So with this as my first post of the New Year and my first post of the week, I will have more for you later this week.  Now back to preparing syllabi for the spring semester.

Ciao.


Who is responsible for a child’s science education?

I woke up this morning at 5 am hoping to grade a few papers that I have lingering from last week.  Instead, my mind is replaying and sorting, and trying figure out why some folks think the way they do.There are some in this world who firmly believe that if a phenomenon is not observable, that it is untouchable by science.  I guess because we have no way of verifying, with absolute certainty if our hypotheses about the past are true (whatever truth is!).

I enjoy doing science.  Or as Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory said, “Peeling back the mask of nature.”  I think many children are the same way; curious, imaginative, observant.  We have a public school system that is supposed to nurture this natural curiosity and aid in its development.  All kid sin american public school take “science.”  By the time they graduate they have had, earth science, biology, chemistry, physical science, and maybe even physics.  Then I get them…

When I get freshmen in General Zoology they are primed to begin their study to become doctors, veterinarians, physical therapists, dentists, and the like.  Then the bomb drops.  They have to learn about evolution.  Being most are from Oklahoma, this is the first time they have been exposed to the idea.  They should have been exposed to evolution in high school, yet most have not.  Needless to say there is lots of chair squirming for the several days we talk about natural selection, the endosymbiont hypothesis, and the origin of life.

This should be a pretty cut and dry series of lectures, but this year a student attempted to trap me in the reducio ad absurdum. Where did the first elements come from.  Where did the stars com from, why did the big bang happen….  She wanted me to say God made it happen.  I didn’t.  and I
 never will….in Science class.

There is a fundamental disconnect in american society.  We don’t know what science is and how to distinguish from non-science.  Our public schools need to do a better job teaching kids what science is and is not.  Religion is not science.  Just because science does not have an answer does not mean we should make recourse to a divine power.  Parents and teachers who do not know science shouldn’t teach it.  Pastors, priests, and preachers should mind their own business.  Help people with their moral compass, feed teh hungry and cloth the poor.  Holy books are not science books.  Don’t get me wrong.  Holy books are important, but they don’t tell us how the world works.  They tell us how we should work in the world and how we should treat this world in which we live.

 

My cereal is gone and I have to get those papers graded, so I will leave this post as a very rough sketch of what I wanted to say.  I welcome any comments anyone may have.

 

Shalom

 


Bacon really does make everything better!

This is going to be one of those odd-ball posts that have nothing to do with science nor with religion.  Nonetheless, it is, I think, a post that needs to be made.  It’s all about the magic of bacon.  That’s right, bacon.  That salty-sweet, greasy and sensuous pork product we all hate to love.

It has been said that bacon makes everything better.  If you think about it, it really does.

Bacon Cheeseburger, Macaroni and Cheese + Bacon, Little smokies wrapped in bacon.  Shoot, even Lettuce and tomato are better with bacon.

So one has to ask, how can bacon make Christmas better?  I suppose a Christmas goose with bacon wrapped drumsticks would be pretty good.  But how could bacon REALLY make a lasting impression on Christmas?

How about a Nativity centered around Bacon? I wish I would have thought of it, but someone beat me to it.

So there it is, in all of it’s glory.  But what does it really mean?

Consider the birth of a Jewish baby born in an all pork stable.  He is surrounded by pork animals and his parents are clothed in porken robes. In the Jewish tradition, pork, is considered “Unkosher,” or treif.    In a more general sense though, pork is defiled or profane. So Jesus wasn’t just born in a stable (no doubt, a humble beginning for the  King of Kings), but in this interpretation of the Nativity, he was born in a pork stable.  For someone of Jewish heritage,then, it doesn’t get any worse than this.

His parents aren’t just a blue collar family (his dad was a carpenter and his mom got pregnant before they were married.  They didn’t have trailers back then, but if they did…), in this interpretation, they’re whitetrash wrapped in pork.  This baby is definitely starting out behind the 8-ball, yet rises up to become the savior of Mankind.

Even the animals made of little smokeys and sausage foreshadow the profanity this little guy is going to have to overcome on his path to becoming the shepard of God’s flock.

So, that’s my take on this rendition of the Nativity of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Then again, maybe someone, somewhere, just happened to have some extra meat and pretzels, and some extra time on their hands.

I’ll leave it for you to decide.  Leave a comment on your interpretation of this masterpiece.   If you are interested in the Kashrut that lists the Jewish food laws, check out this site.

Until my next post, Peace, Love, and Bacon…


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