Feb 262012

Have you ever wondered how sweetness equivalence is measured? When we read that aspartame is “200 times as sweet as sucrose” what does that actually mean? Does that mean that 100mg of aspartame on the tongue will produce a sensation that is 200 times as intense as 100mg of sucrose?

I’ve wondered about this for YEARS. Consider other bodily sensations, like sound. If you sit quietly in a perfectly quiet place, you will begin to hear internal “noise” like your own breathing and probably some level of tinnitus. Consider that a baseline. Now compare that with the LOUDEST sound you have ever heard. In my case it would probably be my first rock concert, Van Halen. The range of internal sensation for sound is enormous.

Unfortunately for humans, the range of sensation for physical pain is also vast. Our other senses have ranges much greater than that of the sensation of sweetness. But even with taste, the range of sensation is great. Consider hot sauces, and what an enormous physical sensation that capsaicin and other capsaicinoids can produce. But perception of sweetness is different. The range from barely detectable to pure-sucrose-on-the-tongue is not very great. Why is that? Why does the human body have such a disparity in the ranges of sensation that we can perceive? Why do hearing and pain have ranges of sensation so vastly greater than the perception of sweetness? How did evolution “work” to create this situation?

When aspartame was first released as Equal brand by Searle, an advertizing campaign was run which claimed that Equal “tastes great straight.” I seem to recall Cher pouring the contents of a blue paper packet of Equal onto her tongue. Indeed, a similar test with a pink packet of saccharine produced a miserable and bitter result. From there I began to wonder what putting PURE aspartame on the tongue would be like. If you notice, you can’t buy PURE artificial sweeteners.

I long suspected that what it actually MEANS when the statement is made that an artificial sweetener is X times as sweet as sucrose is that a solution of the sweetener diluted X times is EQUIVALENT IN TASTE to a solution of sucrose. Indeed, a bit of Google-fu gives the result. In fact this is similar to the “Scoville scale” of heat in chili peppers. The Scoville scale is not a measurement of PPM of capsaicin but a dilution equivalence.

I do wonder though, if our tongues and brains were wired so that our sweetness range was like that of hearing or chili heat. Would chemicals like aspartame or sucralose become controlled substances? Consider how “abused” sweetened food is right now; what if your chocolate bar or pancake syrup was two hundred times as intense as it is now? Would we have pre-employment screening for sucralose?

 Posted by on 02/26/2012 Opinion, Science Comments Off on How Sweet is Too Sweet?
Feb 082012

Updated Response to Meldrum’s Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science

One of the main pieces of evidence for the claim that Bigfoot tracks exhibit dermal ridges is the “Onion Mountain” footprint, a thirteen-inch cast made by researcher John Green in August 1967. An additional set of tracks, the “Wrinkle Foot” casts, allegedly also display dermal ridges. The Wrinkle Foot set of prints were discovered by Paul Freeman. Photographs of the Onion Mountain and Wrinkle Foot casts appear on opposite pages (256 and 257) of Meldrum’s book, and so allow for an easy comparison. The gross morphological difference between the two casts is striking. Were these both made by individuals from the same species?

On May 29, 2005, I spoke at a Sasquatch conference in Bellingham, Washington, claiming that the unique surface textures of the Onion Mountain cast had a prosaic explanation. I argued they were “casting artifacts”, or as I now refer to them “desiccation ridges”, a term coined by a geologist and ichnologist, Dr. Anton Wroblewski. Basically, textures that closely resemble dermal ridges can sometimes spontaneously form on cement casts when the casts are made in very fine, dry soils, like those in which John Green found his tracks. The ridges that spontaneously form somewhat resemble the sand patterns that form on shallow beaches after the tide has gone out.

In a surprising turn of events, Meldrum himself publicly proclaimed this hypothesis a “slam dunk” during the question and answer session that followed my presentation. Unknown to me at the time, Meldrum had previously made test casts in fine Idaho loess soil that also exhibited desiccation ridges.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Meldrum’s treatment of the Onion Mountain cast in his book Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science is something of a retrenchment from his “slam dunk” proclamation. If the desiccation ridge hypothesis is correct, then dermal ridges expert Jimmy Chilcutt’s claim that the textures must represent Bigfoot’s dermal ridges is wrong, and rather spectacularly so. Indeed, Chilcutt previously set the stakes for himself very high, when he claimed (on the 2003 “Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science” TV and DVD documentary) that he would “stake his reputation” on his dermal ridge interpretation.

The provenance and chain of custody issue of the Onion Mountain cast is even more fundamentally damning for Meldrum’s current position. What Meldrum claims is the original cast has clearly written “Onion Mountain” in ink on the cast itself.

Yet until presented with evidence in the form of an e-mail from John Green, Chilcutt maintained that the cast had come instead from Northern California’s Blue Creek Mountain. Chilcutt had also previously characterized this critical piece of evidence in an interview as originating on “Blue Creek Mountain.”

It is not clear that Chilcutt even examined the cast that Meldrum claims is the original. If he did, why didn’t he use the unique, unambiguous nomenclature of “CA-19” especially when multiple casts were made of that trackway? This would seemly be an obvious procedure for a veteran crime scene investigator such as Chilcutt.

Unfortunately for Bigfoot advocates, the situation is even more chaotic. John Green claims the original cast is lost. Thus the very provenance and chain of custody of a cast which Chilcutt has previously referred to as “the best one with the clearest dermal ridges” is in dispute.

If this sort of “scientific evidence” was used in a legal trial, police detectives would be laughed out of court with such sloppy science and careless protocols. Yet this is typical of the evidence Meldrum and others proffer for Bigfoot.

Incredibly, a recent claim by Bigfoot advocate Rick Noll casts further doubt on the situation. Noll claims that John Green and Bob Titmus regularly scrubbed “surface imperfections” off of their casts with wire brushes. If so, thus calls into question the wisdom of Meldrum’s advocacy of yet another dermal ridge cast, one made by Bob Titmus in 1963.

As forensic or scientific evidence for Bigfoot’s dermal ridges, the Onion Mountain cast is tainted at the very root and so falls short of even minimum standards of what is considered scientific evidence. Because Meldrum selectively presents his experts and evidence, there is no hint in Sasquatch of the many problems associated with the dermal “evidence.” In view of Meldrum’s familiarity with – and acceptance of – my experiments demonstrating serious problems with a cornerstone of dermal ridge evidence, his chapter on this topic is inexplicable.

Though Meldrum was well aware of my findings on desiccation ridges when his book was written, only two sentences are devoted to it:

(Page 257) “Questions still remain concerning the possible occurrence of pouring artifact under hot, exceptionally dry conditions, and further experimentation is needed. This challenge has been taken on by an amature (sic) investigator, Matt Crowley, whose preliminary results raise questions specifically about the interpretation of the Onion Mountain cast features as dermatoglyphics.”

I actually spent several years investigating this process, and have created a series of webpages that argue in minute detail why CA-19 does not exhibit “Bigfoot’s dermal ridges.”

Not surprisingly, Meldrum makes no mention in his dermatoglyphics chapter of the fact that the very trackway that the Onion Mountain cast came from is now strongly associated with known hoaxer Ray Wallace’s wooden prosthetic feet. This illustrates a common theme with Meldrum, and Bigfootery in general, which is to completely ignore the wider context, or “back story” of the evidence offered.
As an addendum to advocating CA-19 as exhibiting Bigfoot’s dermal ridges, Meldrum introduces the reader to another cast from the same trackway:

I later identified an additional 13-inch cast in Krantz’s collection from the same site. Upon examining it, Chilcutt confirmed that it likewise displayed similar coarse ridge detail, although fainter, probably due to inundation by settling dust prior to casting. This observation affirmed his conclusion that these represented natural dermatoglyphics rather than pouring artifacts, or else one might expect the clarity of the ridge detail to be comparble (sic) in so far as the pouring technique was similar” (Page 256-257)

Though Grover Krantz carefully assigned clear serial numbers to the casts in this series, and wrote them in ink on the dorsal surfaces of these casts, Meldrum fails to tell us which cast he’s actually talking about! We can only guess which cast this is, though I’m privileged to have examined and photographed them in person myself. My best guess is that Meldrum is referring to CA-6, another 13” cast which indeed exhibits ridge detail. I’ve created an entire webpage of analysis on this particular cast.

Not only are the ridges on CA-6 entirely consistent with the morphology and distribution of known desiccation ridges, they also appear to be occurring on a patch of plaster overflow, and thus cannot represent the texture of whatever made the track in the first place.

But Until Meldrum decides to specify which cast this is, critical analysis is at a standstill. It’s kind of like that point in an argument when someone backs up their claim by saying “well, this one guy told me so”…
On page 251, Meldrum argues that detail as fine as sweat pores can be seen in certain purported Sasquatch casts:

“Dr Grover Krantz was the first to draw widespread attention to the presence of ridge detail in several sasquatch footprint casts from the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington in 1982. In some instances the preserved resolution of detail was such that individual sweat pores were apparent and could be distinguished from artifacts caused by trapped air bubbles in the plaster”

There are several issues in this claim that Meldrum fails to identify. First off, the casts mentioned were brought forth by Paul Freeman, considered by many within the Bigfoot community as a hoaxer, and who in fact admitted on television that he had previously hoaxed tracks.

Another fundamental issue not addressed by Meldrum is whether details as fine as sweat pores are even physically capable of being transferred to natural soils, and then to plaster casts.
In 1989 Freeland and Rowe published a study entitled “Examination of Alleged Pore Structure Found in Sasquatch (Big Foot) Footprints:

“Upon first encountering news reports of the finding of sweat pores and dermal ridges on casts of Sasquatch footprints, we were skeptical that a medium as coarse as the typical soil could faithfully duplicate primate dermatoglyphics. We were also skeptical that the details of primate dermatoglyphics could be replicated in plaster casts, because of the tendency of plaster when mixed to the proper consistency for casting impressions to entrain masses of bubbles.”

Freeland and Rowe set about to duplicate Krantz’ methodology.

Several pounds of loess were obtained from the geology department of Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington. A representative sub sample was obtained by repeated coning and quartering of the loess. The subsample was placed in a container and dampened with water. An impression of the right foot of one of the authors was made in the dampened loess; a cast of this impression was made in dental stone (sold by Ransom and Randolph Company, Maumee, Ohio). This dental stone is a highly refined plaster of paris; it is the material supplied by the U.S. Army to its investigators for the casting of tiretracks and shoeprints at the scenes of crimes.
The original footprint was examined under a stereomicroscope at magnifications from 10x to 70x. Although in many areas impressions of the dermal ridges were visible, no impressions of sweat pores could be identified. (Bolding Mine)

This is a critical point, as it suggests that features as fine as human sweat pores are simply too small to be captured in a natural substrate like that in which Freeman’s cast was made.
Indeed, if the sweat pore impressions were not captured by the substrate in the first place, the only reasonable conclusion is that the “sweat pores” are entrained air bubbles after all.

Freeland and Rowe’s conclusion:

In light of the foregoing, we feel that the “pores” observed on the dermal ridges of the casts of Sasquatch footprints are probably artifacts of the casting process and are not replications of primate sweat pores.

source: Freeland, D., and W. Rowe. 1989. Alleged pore structure in Sasquatch (Bigfoot) footprints. Skeptical Inquirer 13(3), Spring: 273-276.

In 2005, I had also become interested in whether or not detail as fine as sweat pores could be captured in plaster casts. At the time, I was not aware of Freeland and Rowe’s study. Unlike Freeland and Rowe, I was trying to find out if the casting medium itself rather than the soil substrate could capture detail that fine. I had learned (ironically from Jimmy Chilcutt himself) that Silly Putty was a medium that could capture detail as fine as human sweat pores. I went to Walmart and purchased a bunch of Silly Putty. I washed my hands thoroughly with Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap. I pressed my thumb into a virgin blob of Silly Putty. Using a 14x loupe, I was indeed able to see the sweat pores on the ridge peaks of my dermal ridges. These appeared as little bumps in little valleys, due to the reversal of the impressing process. So indeed, given an ideal substrate, it is possible to capture detail as fine as human sweat pores.
I proceeded to cast the impression with Ultracal 30. In an attempt to reduce the possibility of methodological error, I repeated this experiment twice, using the same protocol. I stirred the cement slurry very carefully, in an attempt to minimize entrained air bubbles. Though my own dermal ridges are quite obvious on these casts, examination with the 14x loupe revealed a complete lack of sweat pore detail. This suggests that conventional cementitious casting media like plaster of Paris, dental stone, Hydrocal, or Ultracal are simply too coarse to capture this level of detail.

Unfortunately Meldrum’s treatment of both the dermal issue and the “sweat pore” issue is lacking in the critical scientific parameter of metrology. How big are these features in the first place? None of the photographs included in the dermatoglyphics chapter include a metric (ruler) and Meldrum fails to mention the size of these features in the text.

If these alleged Sasquatch dermal ridges are larger than human dermal ridges by an amount that would enable a plaster cast made in natural soil to capture sweat pores, why aren’t we told this? If they are that big, are they commensurate with known primate dermal ridges?

As an ironic side note, I was actually chided by Meldrum at the Bellingham conference in 2005 for failing to make use of forensic rulers in my own study of desiccation ridges. I quickly purchased a set of rulers, and often utilize them when photographing fine features.

While the tests performed by Freeland, Rowe, and myself cannot be claimed as proof that detail as fine as human sweat pores are incapable of being captured in cementitious casts made in natural soils, it does demonstrate that Krantz and Meldrum’s claims are indeed extraordinary. Meldrum lists no prior science in defense that such techniques are reasonable, nor lists any tests he’s done himself that support his claim.

As touched on by Mike Dennett in his review, Meldrum’s entire “sweat pore” argument is probably moot, as the casts originally mentioned by Krantz are probably exhibiting human dermal ridges after all!
Besides unreasonably small features like “sweat pores”, some of the textures on casts claimed to contain “Bigfoot’s dermal ridges” are much larger than human dermal ridges.

This is a photo of the lateral margin of CA-19, the side opposite that which exhibits textures claimed to be dermal ridges. As you can see, some of these ridges are highly irregular in morphology, and approach 1-2mm in width. But as we have seen, there is a great deal of cherry picking going on with these casts, and textures which look nothing like known dermal are simply ignored.

In another cast which Meldrum argues exhibits dermal ridges, we see textures MUCH larger than those of know human or primate dermal ridges. Not only are the textures of Paul Freeman’s “Wrinkle Foot” casts quite large, they are highly irregular, as seen in the following photograph. I’ve intentionally included my own fingers in the photograph to act as a size reference. Yet Meldrum coolly introduces them as dermal ridges with no caveat whatsoever:

Dr. Krantz had previously referred to these casts as “Wrinkle Foot” due to the extensive indications of coarse dermatoglyphics. (Page 255)

Honestly, I’m hard pressed to understand how this is any kind of reasonable interpretation of these textures. It brings up a fundamental point about the entire class of evidence proposed to be “Bigfoot’s dermal ridges”; if you have no living or dead specimen to act as a reference, Bigfoot’s dermal ridges can be whatever you want them to be. Perhaps Bigfoot’s dermal ridges actually look like something Jackson Pollock created…

Compare this texture with another cast associated with Paul Freeman, also claimed to exhibit dermal ridges. This is a close-up of the 1982 so-called “Elk Wallow“ cast:

Both textures are said to be “Bigfoot’s dermal ridges”, yet they are grossly and obviously dissimilar.
But one particular patch of texture on “Wrinkle Foot” is claimed by Jimmy Chilcutt to be a “healed scar”

Again, I have purposely included my own finger in this photo as a simple reference to judge how large this texture really is.

But more importantly, is the skin texture of Bigfoot the only way that such a “scar” feature can develop on a cement cast? Some time ago a researcher named Brenden Bannon made a test cast using a rubber “monster” foot stamped into mud. The resulting cast exhibited a patch of texture that exhibits a similar morphology, i.e. small lines that radiate away from a main fissure.

According to Bannon, who made the cast, the “scar” texture is simply due to a suction effect between the mud and the rubber prosthetic.

While this cannot be seen as a “debunking” of “Wrinkle Foot’s scar”, it does illustrate how Meldrum continuously fails to investigate how other mechanisms may have produced the textures seen on some of the purported Sasquatch casts. Further information about Bannon’s cast can be found here.

Meldrum’s chapter concludes with an analysis of the so-called “Elkins” cast, made in 1997. Again, Meldrum defers to the analysis of Jimmy Chilcutt. In possibly the only written analysis of any of his interpretations of purported Sasquatch casts that Chilcutt has so far put forth, Chilcutt argues that the textures seen on the Elkins cast are dermal ridges:

Once again, Meldrum declines to provide any provenance about this track find. In an article written by Samuel Rich, details are included about the officer who actually made the cast, James Akin, who had a less than favorable opinion about the man on whose property the track was found:

The story of this cast begins earlier in the 90′s, at the home of a gentleman whom like Dr. Krantz is now deceased. For the sake of this article and for the privacy of his family he shall be referred to as Mr. “W”. I first learned of Mr. “W” and his experiences from James Akin, the man who would go on to cast what has come to be known as the Elkins Creek Cast.

“Mr. W was considered a nuisance caller at the Sheriff’s office”, writes Akin. “He often called and reported someone hitting the side of his mobile home. He related that person(s) unknown were ‘F—ing with him’ and would come on various nights after midnight and annoy him and his menagerie of canines. His complaints and this activity were legend and these events had occurred for several years. The general problem with this scenario was the responding officers’ inability to stop the activity or catch the perpetrators. It seemed almost magical the way the activity would cease on police arrival and restart within an hour of departure.”

Indeed, some within the sheriff’s department considered the anonymous individual associated with this remarkable piece of Bigfoot evidence might be mentally ill. Per officer Akin:

“My initial contact with this gentleman concerned these disturbances. I was informed that this guy might be a problem. Others claimed that he was probably mental ill and that I should be prepared for his antics.”

It’s telling that the individual associated with this remarkable cast remained anonymous, was thought by some to be mentally ill, and whose chronic pattern of behavior seemed to be a need for attention.
This of course does not invalidate Chilcutt’s interpretations, but raises a large “red flag” about the entire situation.
Additional analysis of the Elkins cast raises further questions as to how and when humans were involved. First off, Chilcutt himself claims that the cast contains human dermal ridges:

Area “D” is located in the center of the foot and shows lateral ridges of the animal and ridges that I believe were applied accidentally by the person making the cast.”

Unfortunately Chilcutt does explain how he came to conclude they were made by “the person making the cast.”

Examination of the cast itself leaves no doubt of one thing: Going by the massive size alone (19” long by 8.5” wide) there is no ambiguity that what we see is either the real thing (a Sasquatch track) or a human hoax. This is no bear overstep, or a smeared boot print.

Curiously Chilcutt’s report fails to mention two unusual textures on the cast. The first is found on the ball of the foot, just below the big toe and toward the center of the cast:

As you can see, something rod-like about a centimeter wide is protruding from the surface of the cast. Another, more subtle, feature is found about 20 degrees clockwise from the one parallel with the one centimeter boundary lines of the ruler. Obviously these textures are distinctly non-biological in nature, and suggest the hand of man. But in fact these textures most likely have a prosaic explanation; Officer James Akin, who made the cast, incorporated wooden dowels as reinforcement when making the cast (Personal communication).

A second and more anomalous texture is found approximately 15cm anterior of the heel on the medial side of the cast. It appears as a regular cross-hatching of some sort:

Again, it has a distinctly non-biological regularity about it, suggesting some sort of human agency was responsible. What might produce such a texture?
Brenden Bannon was the first to suggest that this texture may represent burlap reinforcement within the cast. But it wouldn’t be the cast that Akin made, as Akin used ONLY wooden dowels. (Personal communication).
If indeed the Elkins track is fake, and was made by human agency , whatever impressioning tool that was used would not have required a great deal of force to simply displace mud. Thus a Ray Wallace style wooden fake foot would not have been necessary. It’s possible that a plaster cast itself could have been used as an impressioning tool. While such a scenario must be admitted as speculative, a rather surprisingly strong match is seen between this patch of texture on the Elkins cast and ordinary burlap:

Again with both Chilcutt and Meldrum, we see a chronic lack of willingness to examine the “back story” of these tracks and casts, and to consider possible alternative explanations for the multiple textures found on the casts.

While not included in the Dermatoglyphics chapter, an analysis is offered of the textures found on the Skookum cast. Meldrum writes on page 117:

Of particular interest to me was what could only be interpreted as a distinct heel impression. As I meticulously removed the encrusting soil, it appeared that the heel bore skin ridge detail. Once the heel was thoroughly cleaned, a thin latex peel was made of the skin detail. Consultations over the apparent dermatoglyphics, or skin ridges, were had with latent fingerprint examiner Officer Jimmy Chilcutt. He found them to be consistent in texture and appearance with other specimens of purported sasquatch tracks exhibiting such skin ridge detail (more will be said on this matter in chapter 14)

To be as generous as possible, Meldrum’s book went to press before Dr. Anton Wroblewski’s damning and cogent analysis of the Skookum cast as that of an elk.

In the case of CA-19, the so-called “Onion Mountain” cast, by his own admission Chilcutt was unfamiliar with the desiccation ridge phenomenon prior to my investigations. So to misinterpret a completely novel phenomenon allows for some sympathy toward the person making that mistake. But placing dermal ridges on an elk cast is, to say the least, a rather profound mistake.

How could misinterpretations of this magnitude occur, especially with a respected latent fingerprint examiner? Clearly one reason is that in the case of humans, we have literally millions of known examples of fingerprints with which to study. There is even a small database of known primate dermal ridges with which to study. But there is NO Bigfoot body to act as a known example. We know as much about Bigfoot’s dermal ridges as we know about Leprechaun dermal ridges.

Something has long puzzled me about the entire class of dermal ridge claims. If we see fine textures like dermal ridges, or very fine textures like “sweat pores” on these casts, why don’t we see the kind of coarser textures that know ape (and some human) feet exhibit? Ape feet have characteristically deep flexion creases, which corresponds to their more “hinged” foot and thick foot pad. This is the foot of an orangutan which is covered with deep flexion creases that are much coarser than the dermal ridges.

(Photo credit: Kathy Weaver)

Most humans wear shoes. Those who spend a great deal of time walking barefoot sometimes develop deep cracks in the sole or other parts of the foot.

This amazing photograph of a Nepalese porter’s foot was taken by Bigfooter Peter Byrne in 1958. An entire Flickr pool is devoted to documenting the kind of extreme wear that habitually unshod humans can exhibit.

It’s safe to assume that if Bigfoot is real, he doesn’t wear shoes. Why don’t we see these kinds of coarse fissures, cracks, or flexion creases in the casts that are claimed to exhibit fine features like dermal ridges or “sweat pores”?

After studying the claims of the dermal ridge advocates for some time, I’m of the opinion that all of the casts that are claimed to exhibit dermal ridges could simply be misinterpretations of prosaic phenomena and/or human hoaxing. The wide variety of sizes and textures that are claimed to be “dermal ridges” leaves open a huge vista for those who set about to intentionally hoax Bigfoot evidence. By a series of rather chance encounters, I discovered that addition of a small amount of surfactant into a cementitious slurry and poured over a desiccant substrate spontaneously produced this remarkable texture:

It could be argued that this feature mimics or even represents an arch, or possibly a tented arch. Imagine if this texture had appeared on a cast put forth by Paul Freeman, or the anonymous “Mr.W”. As you might have gathered by now, I am not of the opinion that creating fake “dermal” textures is beyond the reach of a motivated hoaxer, or that fingerprint experts can’t be fooled.

The time to take the claims of “Bigfoot’s dermal ridges” seriously is when we have an actual body to examine.

The complete set of web pages that addresses the issue of desiccation ridges is found within the Bigfoot Compendium.

 Posted by on 02/08/2012 Bigfoot, Science 1 Response »
Jan 012012

This morning I read an essay on Pharyngula by the popular blogger and prominent atheist PZ Myers. Someone sent him photos of a funny shaped rock and asked him for his interpretation. This reminded me of an episode that occurred to me some years ago.

First off, some background. Some years ago I interacted online with a man named Anton Wroblewski. At the time we were both interested in elements of the Bigfoot issue. Dr. Wroblewski is perhaps best known as the individual who analyzed the Skookum body impression as that of an elk. As you can see by his CV, he has a PhD in geology as well as masters in stratigraphy and vertebrate paleontology.

I finally met Dr. Wroblewski in March of 2010 when he visited Seattle.

It’s great to know people with genuine expertise, as you can ask them questions! Some years back I had been walking along Alki Beach here in Seattle. I started noticing funny shaped rocks, or perhaps teeth, in the sand. I picked a few up. Since my educational background is a BS in pharmacy, I really didn’t know what I was looking at. Were they rocks? Were they fossils? Were they eroded teeth? Why did they have little pits? I’ve always been a curious person so I decided to follow up on what I found. I sent Anton a photograph of the specimens. He thought they were intriguing, but wouldn’t speculate further without examining them. I packaged up the strange samples and sent them off. He examined them and suggested they were not fossilized shark teeth as I had fantasized, but simply funny looking eroded rocks. Well, no harm no foul.

I was appalled to see how differently PZ Myers chose to react to someone who sent him photos of a strange rock sample:

“He also sent me these photos in much higher resolution. Why? Because he’s an ignorant nudnik. These things look nothing like the brain of any creature that has ever existed, unless maybe it’s the lopsided lumpy non-functional excrescence found inside the crania of creationists.”

I’m sure that a celebrity such as Myers is often the target of cranks that send all sorts of things. Yet how do we know that this individual was an “ignorant nudnik” or a legitimately curious person?

It’s doubly disturbing to consider that Myers is an instructor at the university level. Does he behave like this to his students? There is already an enormous social pressure in classrooms against asking questions. No one wants to look foolish by asking a “dumb” question. You can see this social pressure in action when people add meta-data to their questions with the preface “this may be a dumb question but…”

There are excellent resources on the Internet for those without personal access to PhDs. One that comes to mind is AskMeFi or Ask Metafilter. One of the things that keeps a resource like that functioning is close moderation. Personal attacks like asserting the questioner is an “ignorant nudkik” are not tolerated. I’ve used AskMeFi to help me gather information about such strange things as “Mountain Marbles.” For those who are particularly wary of publicity, it’s possible to ask questions anonymously.

While it’s perfectly reasonable to dismiss those questions that are not asked in good faith, it’s unfortunate to see mockery and dismissal used by someone like Myers who should know better. Of all people, Myers should be well aware of how much pain and misery in the world is caused by ignorance. Inherent in asking a question, ANY question, is the admission of ignorance. When the very act of admission of ignorance is mocked, as Myers is doing, it creates a chilling effect for those who might wish to learn.


While out exercising today, it occurred to me the individual who sent the photos may have not specifically ASKED Myers what the rocks were. Upon carefully re-reading the post, it appears that the individual concluded that the inorganic sample was “mineralized brain.” Heck, I can relate, I thought I might have found “fossilized shark teeth.” Without specific clarification, we can’t know what exactly the individual claimed.

 Posted by on 01/01/2012 Opinion, Personal History, Science 4 Responses »
Nov 062011

Easy, just beam up from the Halkan planet during an ion storm and come aboard the “mirror” Enterprise!

Actually there is another way that really works, but the real message here is about examining things that we take for granted during our day-to-day lives. First off, what makes a pair of scissors “handed” in the first place? It’s more than just a molded handle that fits comfortably into a right hand or a left hand. It has to do with the topology of the shears so that they are held together during closing.

Consider how your right hand closes when you cut with a pair of scissors. The handles apply force across a revolute joint which acts as the fulcrum for two levers. But there is more going on than just a simple up and down movement, and this is the key to “handedness.” Your hand is applying a torque or slight twisting force across the fulcrum which helps keep the shears held together. Where does this torque come from? It’s part of the movement your hand makes as you close the scissors.

A pair of scissors is held between the thumb and the fingers when cutting. When the scissors are fully closed the thumb is on the outside of the fingers. Thus the hand is essentially forming a fist, the most fundamental motion of a hand with an opposed thumb.

Imagine a small rod held between the inside of the thumb and the outside of the fingers as you make a fist with your right hand. Which way would it rotate? With a little bit of visualization you can see it would rotate clockwise, as seen from above.

Conversely, the same rod held in the same position of a left hand would rotate anticlockwise, as seen from above.

Now we get to the secret. Notice I qualified the assertion about the rotations with “as seen from above?” That’s because if we see a rotation from the other end, or from below, it is seen to rotate in the opposite direction. Besides the shape of the handles, a right handed scissors is designed for a clockwise torque and a left handed scissors is designed for a counterclockwise torque, as seen from above.

Instead of beaming into the mirror universe of Star Trek, we can “see from below” by turning the shears around! When right handed scissors are held normally in a right hand, the applied torque is clockwise as seen from the revolute joint. When held with the blades facing backwards in the right hand the torque is applied counterclockwise as seen from the revolute joint. The best way to understand these issues is to simply hold a pair of scissors in your hand and feel for yourself the forces involved. Holding a pair of shears backwards is totally goofy for practical purposes, but the goal here is to illustrate what’s really going on.

 Posted by on 11/06/2011 Science Comments Off on How to Turn a Right Handed Pair of Scissors into a Left Handed Pair
Jul 192011

I purchased several books while I was at TAM 9 in Las Vegas, one of which was Daniel Loxton’s recent book Evolution. Ostensibly written for kids, it’s a winner both for its accessible scientific content and its artistic merit. I finished reading the book thinking how much anguish I could have avoided if I were exposed to a book like this when I was about 15!

The scientific concepts are explained simply and fundamentally. On page 17 the process of natural selection is broken down into just three simple steps. Because the fundamental principals are so powerful and encompassing the explanatory power is enormous. Loxton uses straight exposition as well as question and answer to explain the phenomena that result from the simple principles of natural selection. Much to the book’s credit, a number of these questions directly address classic creationist arguments against evolution. Loxton devotes two pages to the question “how could evolution produce something as complicated as my eyes?” I found this particularly moving, as I had been exposed to creationist literature as a child that raised this same point. Oh, to have had this book as a youth! Not content to simply give an abstract rebuttal, Loxton provides two examples of creatures that have functional “eyes” with lower structural complexity than human eyes. One is the chambered nautilus, which I was not familiar with even as scientifically literate adult.

I had the benefit of speaking to Daniel at the meeting after I had read his book. Indeed, he told me that he often writes for kids in such a way as to provide resources that he wished he had as a youth. I suspect that many young people who read this book will have been exposed to creationist concepts, so it’s entirely appropriate that the perennial arguments are addressed.

This book is also an artistic triumph. There are multiple forms of illustration, including landscape photography, conventional illustration, digital illustration, and photographed sculptures. Clearly an illustrated book on evolution should include depictions of extinct species, often extinct for millions of years. In most cases Loxton created a digital illustration and composited it into a photographed background. This techniques has multiple risks, all of which Loxton has overcome. First off, the animals must be believable, both in gross morphology and surface texture. On both counts the illustrations work. The fine skin detail on the stubby-legged creatures on page 31 is stunning. Even the convoluted textures on the foreground plants are outstanding. I spoke to Daniel about this specific issue and indeed he devoted a great deal of effort into producing believable textures.

Most of the digitally created animals are composited into landscape photographs. Artistically this runs the risk of looking like a typical Hollywood CGI action movie. To look realistic, a composited scene must have a single focal plane, as that matches how the human eye works. All too often in shoddy CGI images both the foreground image and the background plane are in perfect focus. Thankfully Loxton chose to have his foreground animals in focus and his backgrounds correctly out of focus. His composited images also exhibit correct aerial perspective with regards to luminosity and detail.

The conventional illustrations are obviously quicker studies. Loxton has a unique drawing style in which his lines are particularly bold. Despite this his illustrations are able to convey a surprising depth of subtlety, as in his illustration of a woman on page 44. Though it’s a small drawing, there is a hint of epicanthic folds in eyes of the figure. At points, though, the luck runs out, as on page 15 where the outlines of a boy’s hands are so thick it’s slightly distracting.

Not content with a two dimensional triumph, Loxton exhibits his skill as a sculptor on page 32. A hominid’s head is shown with strong lateral lighting. Loxton used a Crayola sculpting compound for a resounding success. There is some digital post processing occurring in this image, and if I recall correctly the eyes were digitally composited in. Once again, Loxton’s attention to surface detail is seen in the bust, as well as his own self confidence in his creation to allow it to be seen in a strongly lit close up.

All in all, this book is a winner. It explains a powerful scientific theory in elegantly simple ways. It touches on creationist arguments without being contentious. The illustrations are superbly integrated with the text, and are an artistic triumph. This book needs to be in every school library.

Update: Some time after this review was written, Loxton’s book generated some controversy but went on to win a literary award.

 Posted by on 07/19/2011 Science 2 Responses »