Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Quotation Stealing

PZ Myers at Pharyngula stole this quote from Mike the Mad Scientist, and I am stealing it from PZ here:

Mike the Mad Biologist wins a gold star for this quote that I'll be stealing:

The other thing we evolutionary biologists don't do enough of, and this stems from the previous point, is make an emotional and moral case for the study of evolution. Last night, I concluded my talk with a quote from Dover, PA creationist school board member William Cunningham, who declared, "Two thousand years ago someone died on a cross. Can't someone take a stand for him?"

My response was, "In the last two minutes, someone died from a bacterial infection. We take a stand for him."

Now that is good framing.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sir Arthur C. Clarke

Earlier this week, Sir Arthur C. Clarke passed away at the age of 90. Several months ago, in December, for his 90th birthday, he recorded a sort of message to the world.

His words will do him far greater justice that I could, so here is the transcript of the speech, followed by the Youtube clip of it.

Hello! This is Arthur Clarke, speaking to you from my home in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

As I approach my 90th birthday, my friends are asking how it feels like, to have completed 90 orbits around the Sun.

Well, I actually don't feel a day older than 89!

Of course, some things remind me that I have indeed qualified as a senior citizen. As Bob Hope once said: "You know you're getting old, when the candles cost more than the cake!"

I’m now perfectly happy to step aside and watch how things evolve. But there's also a sad side to living so long: most of my contemporaries and old friends have already departed. However, they have left behind many fond memories, for me to recall.

I now spend a good part of my day dreaming of times past, present and future. As I try to survive on 15 hours’ sleep a day, I have plenty of time to enjoy vivid dreams. Being completely wheel-chaired doesn't stop my mind from roaming the universe – on the contrary!

In my time I’ve been very fortunate to see many of my dreams come true! Growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, I never expected to see so much happen in the span of a few decades. We 'space cadets' of the British Interplanetary Society spent all our spare time discussing space travel – but we didn’t imagine that it lay in our own near future…

I still can't quite believe that we've just marked the 50th anniversary of the Space Age! We’ve accomplished a great deal in that time, but the 'Golden Age of Space' is only just beginning. After half a century of government-sponsored efforts, we are now witnessing the emergence of commercial space flight.

Over the next 50 years, thousands of people will travel to Earth orbit – and then, to the Moon and beyond. Space travel – and space tourism – will one day become almost as commonplace as flying to exotic destinations on our own planet.

Things are also changing rapidly in many other areas of science and technology. To give just one example, the world's mobile phone coverage recently passed 50 per cent -- or 3.3 billion subscriptions. This was achieved in just a little over a quarter century since the first cellular network was set up. The mobile phone has revolutionized human communications, and is turning humanity into an endlessly chattering global family!

What does this mean for us as a species?

Communication technologies are necessary, but not sufficient, for us humans to get along with each other. This is why we still have many disputes and conflicts in the world. Technology tools help us to gather and disseminate information, but we also need qualities like tolerance and compassion to achieve greater understanding between peoples and nations.

I have great faith in optimism as a guiding principle, if only because it offers us the opportunity of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I hope we've learnt something from the most barbaric century in history – the 20th. I would like to see us overcome our tribal divisions and begin to think and act as if we were one family. That would be real globalisation…

As I complete 90 orbits, I have no regrets and no more personal ambitions. But if I may be allowed just three wishes, they would be these.

Firstly, I would like to see some evidence of extra-terrestrial life. I have always believed that we are not alone in the universe. But we are still waiting for ETs to call us – or give us some kind of a sign. We have no way of guessing when this might happen – I hope sooner rather than later!

Secondly, I would like to see us kick our current addiction to oil, and adopt clean energy sources. For over a decade, I've been monitoring various new energy experiments, but they have yet to produce commercial scale results. Climate change has now added a new sense of urgency. Our civilisation depends on energy, but we can't allow oil and coal to slowly bake our planet…

The third wish is one closer to home. I’ve been living in Sri Lanka for 50 years – and half that time, I’ve been a sad witness to the bitter conflict that divides my adopted country.

I dearly wish to see lasting peace established in Sri Lanka as soon as possible. But I’m aware that peace cannot just be wished -- it requires a great deal of hard work, courage and persistence.

* * * * *

I’m sometimes asked how I would like to be remembered. I’ve had a diverse career as a writer, underwater explorer, space promoter and science populariser. Of all these, I want to be remembered most as a writer – one who entertained readers, and, hopefully, stretched their imagination as well.

I find that another English writer -- who, coincidentally, also spent most of his life in the East -- has expressed it very well. So let me end with these words of Rudyard Kipling:
If I have given you delight
by aught that I have done.
Let me lie quiet in that night
which shall be yours anon;

And for the little, little span
the dead are borne in mind,
seek not to question other than,
the books I leave behind.

This is Arthur Clarke, saying Thank You and Goodbye from Colombo!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Hungarian Nockerli

Lately I've been on a "family recipes" kick, and I've been cooking up a storm. Today, I decided to go ahead and attempt to make one of my childhood favorites, that it sort of like the Hungarian version of the Italian gnocchi (but not made with potatoes), and sort of like the Hungarian version of the German spaetzle (okay, exactly like it, except with Hungarian paprika).

It is often served alongside a goulash or a chicken paprikas, but when I was a kid and we went to the Hungarian restaurant (it's a decent amount of work to make, and not terribly nutritious so my grandmother didn't make it super often), I always ordered the Weinerschnitzel (traditionally veal, but often chicken) and had nockerli on the side instead of the oven-roasted potatoes that were meant to come with it. In any case, here we go with the recipe:

1 cup A.P. flour
1/4 cup milk
2 eggs
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
optional: 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg (if you like the taste of nutmeg; i don't, and its more appropriate for the German than the Hungarian version)
3 tbsp. unsalted butter or margarine

1. Mix all the dry ingredients in one bowl and the wet in another.
2. Make a "well" in the dry, and pour the wet into the well, and using a wooden spoon, combine the ingredients by taking a little of the dry and integrating it into the wet, a little bit at a time. Mix well, but do not overmix. The consistency should be smooth but thick. Allow the batter to sit for 10 minutes, while...
3. Put a large pot full of about 3 quarts of water to boil, then reduce to simmer. Assuming that takes about 10 minutes...
4. Spoon the battle into the hot water to form little dumplings. The shape is meant to be somewhat haphazard, but they're not meant to be gigantic dumplings. I'd say 1-1.5" long and 1/4" in diameter. But I'm just sort of making that up. Since its a very sticky batter, I like to use two tea spoons. They make special "collanders" through which you push the dough to form the dumplings, but I say death to unitaskers.
5. Allow the dumplings to cook 1-2 minutes in the water. They should float to the top when done, but they might slightly stick to the bottom of the pot. Shake the pot a bit, or use a spoon to un-attach them so they float.
6. Use a spider or slotted spoon to remove from the pot, and continue until all the batter is cooked (this will take a while, since you should not overcrowd the pot)

From here, any number of sauces can be made to go with the nockerli. Here is an easy one that I like to use:

1. Melt 3 tbsp. of unsalted butter or margarine in a pan, and once it is all melted and starting to foam, add the cooked nockerli.
2. Sprinkle liberally with the paprika, and stir to coat the nockerli in the paprika butter sauce.

Now, eat it.

Monday, March 17, 2008


A fun video about selective attention, and how people tend to focus on specific features or aspects of a scene. See if you pass the test...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

My Favorite Season

My favorite season of the year, other than winter, is Girl Scout Cookie season.Especially the Thin Mints and the Tagalongs.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Another March Holiday (of sorts)

CAESAR. The Ides of March are come.
SOOTHSAYER. Ay, Caesar, but not gone.
(Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene i. William Shakespeare)

Today, of course, is the Ides of March, which in Roman times, meant the 15th of March (Ides meant 15th for May, July, and October as well, but meant the 13th for the other months). It was on this day, in 44 BCE that Gaius Julius Caesar was assassinated. Interestingly, Czar Nicholas II of Russia abdicated his power as ruler on the Ides of March, 1917. More recently (sort of), In Back to the Future II, George McFly was killed on the Ides of March in 1973.

This painting is called Mort de César, and was done in 1798 by Italian painter Vincenzo Camuccini.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Happy Pi Day!

For those who didn't realize, today, 3-14 (March 14) is Pi Day.

Some people celebrated with various protests. Though I'm not sure why.
Others that I know had cuptakes at 1:59pm today. (Get it? 3.14159) That's Pi Minute. Pi Second, of course, would be at 1:59:26.

More fun Pi facts:
  • The Guinness-recognized record for remembered digits of π is 67,890 digits, held by Lu Chao, a 24-year-old graduate student from China. It took him 24 hours and 4 minutes to recite to the 67,890th decimal place of π without an error.
  • There are many ways to memorize π, including the use of "piems", which are poems that represent π in a way such that the length of each word (in letters) represents a digit. Here is an example of a piem: How I need a drink, alcoholic in nature, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics. (3 . 1 4 1 5 9 2 6 5 3 5 8 9 7 9)
  • The Feynman Point is the sequence of six 9s which begins at the 762nd decimal place of π. It is named after physicist Richard Feynman. For a randomly chosen irrational number, the probability of six 9s occurring this early in the decimal representation is only 0.08%. The next sequence of six consecutive digits is again composed of 9s, starting at position 193,034. Here are the first few hundred digits of Pi, with repeat digits highlighted in yellow (double), green (triple), and red (Feynman).
  • March 14 also happens to be Albert Einstein's birthday.
  • The first Pi Day celebration was held at the San Francisco Exploratorium in 1988, with staff and public marching around one of its circular spaces, and then consuming fruit pies; the museum has since added pizza pies to its Pi Day menu.
  • Today’s date expressed in DDMMYYYY format (14032008) occurs 9,209,525 digits after the decimal point in the value of pi. (hat tip to the good folks at The Xyre)
  • The coordinate (Pi, Pi) in latitude and longitude is in the sea just off the west coast of Africa. See a map on Google Maps.
Check out all the other things in history that happened on Pi Day.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Roundup of Science News

Sorry for the relative dearth of new posts in the last month. But I fully intend on being back on track, and we'll start with a roundup of recent science news.

College Men, Pay Attention:
In an article in a recent issue of Behavioral Ecology, researchers in Denmark reported that thanatosis (playing dead) is an adaptive mating behavior in pisaura mirabilis spiders. The spiders that played 'possum achieved copulation with females more than twice as often as those who did not. Also, they shared the romantic moment with the female spiders longer than the other spiders, and were able to fertilize more eggs during that time.

Gross Tales from Grad School:
The water you drink leaves a record in your hair because of differing oxygen and hydrogen isotopes it contains, and this can predict with 85% accuracy where you live. The technique is already in use by police in Salt Lake City, Utah to identify a murder victim. How did they conduct the research? They collected tap water samples and hair clippings from barbershop floors in 18 states. And I thought getting children who are dyslexic for our experiments was frustrating. Imagine traveling to 18 states to sweep up barbershop floors.

Other Blogs:
Finally, check out this post at Greg Laden's blog at - echoes my thoughts, more or less exactly. Spot on.