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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sharing Science

I recently got a new job; which I love. Not that I didn't love my old job, selling records and movies, working with a different kind of nerds than the kind of nerds I surround myself with at the University. But this new job brings me profound joy. I am now a science communicator for the University of Oslo.

The job is not very glamorous, but it constantly reminds me of the wonders of the natural world and why I got into science in the first place. I visit schools or have students visit me at the University, and talk about the possibilities when studying sciences. In Norwegian, we call them "Realfag", which almost and with a little goodwill means "The Real Subjects". Anyway. When we go to speak to classes in junior high, bringing som visual tricks is often a good idea to get the class engaged and keep their focus when most of what you're telling them is about study opportunities at their hopefully next level of education. So I've started collecting these tricks. Here's one I'm going to have to try immediately, and hopefully with my nieces over X-mas.

So simple, and so lovely!

Friday, December 03, 2010

Go ahead, get rich!

I remember very well one time I talked to our other brother about psychics, and he exclaimed "To me, the best proof that psychics aren't real are that they offer their services from little booths at public squares and by phone. Had they been real, they would have had fancy offices and assistants.".

Lately, this sentiment has been cropping up more and more, like in this xkcd comic:

And today, I came across this news report that grabs the reader with the best reader-grabbing technique there is: airport security.

The argument goes, as before, that if someone really has these powers, why don't they use them for something really useful? Like helping keep people safe and feeling less violated than when they are forced into naked-scanners?

Once again, I reiterate that I would love certain aspects of psychic abilites or paranormal skills, but the evidence for it just isn't there.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Falling in love with nature...

... is easy when you find blogs like this: The Featured Creature.

A rare, strange, or semi-rare creature featured every day! Some amazing photos, and definitely some amazing creatures.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Kritisk Masse - Norway's first conference on skepticism!

I might be a bit biased since I am one of the organizers, but I just have to say how awesome this is!

Kritisk Masse (that means Critical Mass, what an awesome name) has finally released our webpage, and with that announced the list of speakers. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this, Kritisk Masse was started by a group of people in Oslo after the last TAM London in an inspired moment. It's a conference with speakers, panels, entertainment, dinner, and a workshop.

The topic is skepticism. Lately, this has been on my mind so much that I've had to tell peripheral friends and acquaintances (now there's a word I don't spell every day!) about skepticism. Just in case you're new to it too, I'll give you some pointers.

Skepticism is about employing doubt and science in order to find out things about the world. Most skeptics frown upon the use of the word skeptic with some-word-and-a-hyphen in front, such as 911-skeptic, climate-skeptic or vaccine-skeptic. We are not hyphen-skeptics. We are skeptics all round, and we follow the scientific concensus. Let me say that again; we are not conspiracy-skeptics, we follow the scientific concensus.

We believe science, as in psychology, statistics, and a throrough understanding of scams and why people fall for them is a sufficient explanation for most of the paranormal claims we meet.

Sure, paranormal phenomena may exist, but they have not been proven to exist yet. We just want thorough evidence. It seems to us that most people are not aware of skepticism and how useful it can be for orienting in the world and all the offers we get. That's why we need more public efforts like this conference in addition to blogs and our little pub-based community.

So, to the point. The conference is in Oslo, 29. - 31. of October, and the program containts skeptical heroes such as:
Simon Singh
Rebecca Watson
Asbjørn Dyrendal
Erik Tunstad
Kristian Gundersen
and a few more science-based speakers:
Sissel Rogne
Øystein Elgarøy
Bjørn Vassnes

Also, there is an evening of entertainment featuring:
Evig Poesi
Physics-hunk Andreas Wahl
and comedian Iszi Lawrence

More about all these wonderful contributors can be found at our webpage.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Watch a live archeological dig!

Watch live streaming video from arcticdig2 at livestream.com

This is hot! Right now you can watch a live excavation of an ichtyosaur fossils straight from Svalbard! (At time of writing this post there isn't much action there, but by the time you read this there might be)
Several more cameras and english version and lots and lots of more information about the dig and the process is available at http://www.forskning.no/svalbard/ (English)
What a boring, tedious job archaeology is :)

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

WWII images photoshopped into modern day

The russian artist Sergey Larenkov has made a series of images where he has taken old WWII photographs and manipulated them into a modern day image of the same place.

It is a nice reminder of how things were 65 years ago, and the pictures are gripping. This series is from Vienna, Prague and Berlin.

Everyone should go check them out at the artist's page.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Astronomical Events in Norway in the near future

It is an astronomically exciting time around here (Oslo, Norway) in the coming months.

On the twelfth to thirteenth of August (that's just in a week and a half!) we'll be taking our yearly trip through the meteor shower called the Perseids. Take a trip out into the night sky and gaze upwards and count the shooting stars! Estimates are upwards of 1-2 per minute throughout the night! This will be visible from the entire world!

On the 21st of December it's not only winter solstice, but we will have a lunar eclipse! All of Northern Europe will be able to see this, although the moon will be close to the horizon so you need a good view. The moon will be dark red instead of its usual cheery bright, and due to its proximity to the horizon it will appear extra large. (It isn't actually larger than usual, it just looks that way, if you want to know why read Bad Astronomy :))

And then the big one, on January 4th, a partial (but very large) solar eclipse. It's in the morning, so the sun will not have risen high (in fact it starts way before sunrise up north here) but if you have a good view towards the horizon in southeast direction you can get a good peek in.

And then finally in mid-March 2015 there's another total eclipse, but this one is only viewable from Svalbard and the North Pole. Field trip, anyone?

I'm looking forward to dusting off the ol' telescope and standing out in the cold!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Homeopathy and Nazis

Yeah, that link.
No, really, you can sit down again now, it's quite not like that...

Short on the heels of Der Spiegel's article on homeopathy, I get sent this interesting followup, which describes some of the circumstances around the Nazis and homeopathy.

The Nazis actually conducted fairly sophisticated studies (some
on concentration camp inmates) which, predictably, showed that homeopathic remedies had no effect on illnesses except a placebo effect. Basically prayer in pill form. So the studies were suppressed for decades, until the "Donner Report" (written by one of the participating doctors) was released in the mid-1990s.
The gist of it is this: Nazi doctors discovered that homeopathy is bunk. (Just because we disagree with their ideology does not mean we must discredit their research, which was rigorously done) However, this research was suppressed because having medicine made by a German, Samuel Hahnemann, was much more fitting to their ideology and propaganda than conventional medicine, which was often practiced by Jews. Thus, a culture is made.

Full article here on German Joys by Andrew Hammel.

Monday, July 26, 2010

On loving nerds

PZ Myers over at Pharyngula has a nice series called Sunday Sacrilege, where he writes a longer post each Sunday, usually with some nods to irregiliosity or science or that sort of thing.

A few weeks ago, he wrote about women and Christianity, in this post called "Daughters of Eve". I liked it.

This weeks's post is on nerds at ComiCon, and is an inspiring read for those who are afraid of expressing their inner nerd. He also touches upon the crazy of the Westboro Baptist Church, and a successful counter-protest by the nerds at the nerdfest.

Check it out. The pictures from the protests at ComiCon are priceless.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

i heart nerds

... and this webcomic, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, usually makes me love nerds more.

Phil Plait's Bad Universe

We like Phil Plait, Bad Astronomer.
We like it even more that he now has gotten his own TV series, Phil Plait's Bad Universe!

(Discovery says there was a problem with the video and have temporarily removed it. Check back later to see it)

We're sooo looking forward to seeing this in the fall when it airs.
Here's to Phil's amazing new career as a TV science communicator!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Magical MRI

No, MRI's are not magical. But these pictures are magnificent and makes the use of MRI's seem almost magical.

Wow, I wish I had free access to an MRI. Well, I do have access to DNA analysis-tools, but it's just not the same. If I publish my results on a blog, it reads like a string of letters and needs a lot of analysis.

This is so immediate. So real. So beautiful.

Are miracle creams just humbug?

Are miracle creams just humbug? asks Norwegian paper Dagbladet.

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer can be read here in the Norwegian Skeptics' Forum, where a doctor helps us understand how skin works, how aging works and what cream does.

Her claim is that the products the beauty industry sells you basically make you need other products from the industry. Bah humbug!

Recently, I've been seeing ads for shampoo and conditioners that bring shine in Seven Dimensions! What? What? Oh, and then there's Nivea's DNAge beauty cream. Utilizing DNA technology to reduce your wrinkles. I don't think we're quite there yet scientifically. It seems the beauty industry has realized that most people are starting to pick up on the fact that your genes actually to a large degree control how you look. So now, they're squeezing DNA and genetics and biotechnology into every ad they can. Sadly, their claims are still unwarranted. I am aware of technologies that alter DNA expression, but I have never heard of them being used or being effective on skin.

I'll mention one example that is common in DNA expression experiments.
Your DNA is very important to the cell. It therefore needs to be sure that the DNA is not altered during processes. Your DNA is kept inside a nucleus, even though most of the processes that the DNA codes for takes place outside the nucleus. Therefore, shorter stretches are copied at a time, transported out of the nucleus, and used there. This copied DNA utilizes a different chemical structure, but is still very similar, and is called RNA.

Your DNA has two strands that match up. When copying is going on, the two strands separate and one strand is used as a template for the new RNA strand. The copy is then single-stranded. It stays single-stranded and is "read" in single-strand form outside the nucleus. If one produces another single-stranded RNA that is complementary to this strand, one can effectively silence the expression of this gene. You just inject a large (relatively) amount of the matching strand into the cell, and natural chemical processes pairs the strands, so they are not available for reading.

This technology is commonly used in genetic manipulation, but its applications are not limitless. In some cases, this simply doesn't work. It seems that some organisms or cells are able to discern "foreign" RNA, and simply pick it apart before it blocks the use of the target strands.

If the beauty-companies were to attempt to stop aging, I would assume that this method would be the most likely. Any other form of gene-therapy is still not well-developed enough. However, I doubt it would work.

I am tempted to get a batch of this cream, and try to isolate RNA from it. Any form of gene therapy needs to have genes in it. It would be fun to try to find out what genes they are targeting, and how the heck they would do it.

I wish we weren't so afraid of wrinkles. Sure, less wrinkles make you look younger in the face, but there are plenty of other ways to look young and fresh and alive than to cast on a plastic face.

I prefer wrinkly natural smiles over botox-faces any day.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I want your blood!

Well, not me, exactly. I want you to give blood!

There is an acute lack of blood donors in Oslo these days and several people are also quarantined over the summer because of trips to foreign lands with risk of different diseases.

In today's news, reports are in over a Norwegian man who was born in Argentina - and who for that reason is unwanted as a blood-donor. He feels discriminated against.

I cannot stress enough how silly this sounds to a person who has been there and asked plenty of questions every time. It's a shame that this is picked up as a case in the news. Well. I want more openness around blood-giving to encourage people, but this is not a good point. People get turned down for a number of reasons. Pregnant women and people with small children are taken off the lists for a few years because of time and exposure to children's diseases. It's just easier to call them back when things have "calmed down" health-wise.

If you are turned down, try to remember that it says nothing about your health or the quality of your person. They have these screens that filter out way too many people who should be eligible, because the risk factors are hard and expensive to screen for. It is easier to find a new person without these risk factors than to test every possibly-eligible person.

I give blood, and I would like to share the experience and recommend that unless you are currently deemed unfit (for any number of reasons I will get to), that you register too.

I was recruited at school. The so-called blood-bus travels around the city, parking outside large offices and basically brings the event to you. It's a wonderful thing that really eases people's giving. Less time away from work is less worries about being away from work. I filled in a card, and after a while, I was called up and recruited for a start-up interview.

When I arrived at the bloodbank, I was greeted and given a form to fill in. The questions were quite digging and some are things I expect some people to fell uncomfortable about answering. There were questions about travel, living abroad, medications, sexual preferences, sexual activities (for example if you change partners often) and so on. The first time I filled one out I felt quite bothered, and thought about if the nurses would judge me based on my answers.

After handing in my form, I was called into a small office to discuss my answers. A nurse went through all the questions, asking follow-up questions, and filling in details.

Since I am in a steady relationship and have not lived abroad for too long periods at a time, i was approved. They really stressed that being approved is not necessarily an indication that you are healthy, only that you meet their special criteria. There are many diseases which do not affect blood in the way they prepare and use it. It is still important to go to the doctor if you are unwell.

After that, they took some blood samples to test me for HIV, Malaria (since I had been in Kenya the year before, even though incubation time is six months) and several other diseases. They stressed that they did not think I had any of these diseases, but it was extremely important to be completely sure. I accepted this.

After a new while I was called in to give blood. I went there and filled out the form again, this time with a little more ease. At first I was surprised that I was asked the same questions as last time, but people do change their behavior. All the questions may seem strange, inquisitive and unnecessary to you, but to the person on the receiving end, these questions are vital. They single out any risk-factors and allow follow-up.

The first time I went, I had a bit of stomach-trouble and was a little stressed because exams were coming up, so the nurse recommended that I wait another while before giving for the first time. She said that being stressed was not a good idea, and my minor tummy-ache may be something that could be passed on, so they would rather be sure.

I felt embarassed. Not fit to give blood! After considering it for a while though, I came to my senses and realized it was all for the best. They want you to be comfortable (which you may not be if you're stressed out or tired) and they certainly do not want to pass anything on to people with reduced immune defenses. Which is common in blood-receivers.

The next time I went back, I felt fine, and had also felt fine for the previous two weeks and since the last time I was there (one of the questions!). After completing the form and the interview once again (getting comfortable now), I was given a bottle of apple juice (or choice of soda) and taken to a reclining chair. I sat there as a nurse stuck a needle in my arm. I was fascinated. She attached the needle-thing (Kanyle/Cannula) to a tube leading into a large bag, and the blood was flowing. I was encouraged to drink to keep my bloodsugar and fluids at good rates. The bag filled slowly. I am one of those people who don't get sick at the sight of blood, and my strong interest in science, medicine and the natural world meant that I liked to look at this strange red fluid coming out of my arm to be stored. I had to twist my neck to see the bag though, so if you are faint at heart, you have nothing to worry about.

After they stopped and put a cotton swab on my arm, they gave me a little timer and asked that I sat until the timer pinged. It was set to 20 minutes, since it was my first time. They actually take 10-12% of you blood volume, so many people feel light-headed after giving. The first time, they are extra careful. I've felt really hungry and thirsty for the rest of the day after giving, but that's it.

I walked over to a desk to sign out, and I was offered a present. They have a large selection of things you can choose every time you go, or you can choose do donate a small amount to a good cause. Since it was my first time, I decided to get a nice glass. They also have spices, wine-glasses, backpacks, and other knick-knacks.

All through the experience, the nurses have been extremely courteous, thankful and generally nice and gentle. They know all too well that this is something that you do out of the kindness of your heart, completely altruistically, and they show their gratitude. They are very careful to make sure you are comfortable all through it, and remind you during the interview that they go through this several times every day and have met all kinds of people and stories. They just want to screen you for danger for the recipient. They don't care about your particular story in other ways.

All in all, giving blood is a good experience. The nurses are my everyday heroes, and being reminded of the ways to help people in need is good.

A few notes on giving blood:
- You get called in once every three months or so, and can easily call in and change your appointment.
- The whole ordeal (filling in the form and being "tapped") usually takes around an hour. There is usually some free food and drinks if it's your lunch break and there are plenty of papers and magazines to read.
- You get a free gift every time you show up, even if they decline your blood that particular time for any reason
- If you travel a lot you may be quarantined for a few weeks per destination.

Things that might make you uncomfortable:
- They ask about you sexual encounters. Just keep in mind that it's from a medical perspective.
- You might get turned down for any number of reasons. Try not to take it personally, and remember that your immune system is awesome, while some other people's may not be. Not giving blood that time is a courtesy to them, not a critique of your health.
- You go through the inquisitive form every time you are there. You get used to it. And it's a good thing they have it. That form screens out many things that you may not be able to detect without expensive and extensive tests.

There are several people who are turned down. Here are some of the criteria. More questions can be answered if you take a trip there (I usually go to the one at Ullevål Sykehus) or call in.

I sometimes try to recruit people, but I find that people are often uncomfortable talking about risk-factors that may not allow them to give blood. Therefore, a simple, "I give blood, and it's a nice thing to do" is often preferred to the more confronting "You should give blood! Why don't you?". Several people are also afraid of seeing blood or needles in general and that's fine. I am just trying to encourage people with set sexual behaviour and overall good health to register.

Remember that they need all blood types. The receivers are distributed in the population in the same way that donors are.

You can read more about giving blood here or by googling "Gi blod" or "Blodbanken" in Norway.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Curiosity gets you hugs

I am a curious person. Sometimes things just pop into my mind and I think about them for a very, very, long time. I usually make lists of all the questions I have and that I sometimes hope to get an answer for. Today, Larry Moran at Sandwalk helped me get an answer for one of these questions.

During my first year of biology, we were learning about endosymbiosis, which means that a lot of the machinery inside our cells (like mitochondria or chloroplasts for plants) originated as separate organisms which where later engulfed by larger cells and started to reproduce within these larger cells. You may have heard that mitochondria carry separate DNA from yours which is only passed down through the maternal line in the cytoplasm of the eggcell.

When we learned about this, we learned that one of the indications of this was the double lipid layer of some of the organelles (machinery). I remember our teacher talked about how when the bacteria (mitochondria and chloroplasts are closely related to free-living bacteria) were engulfed in the cell, both the bacteria's own membrane and the membrane that enclosed the "engulfee" as it was passing into it were retained within the cell.

Let me explain that more clearly. A cell is covered by a membrane. When the cell eats or takes something up from the environment, it is similar to you sticking a marble into the surface of a balloon. The balloon covers the marble more and more, until this magic balloon breaks off a piece of itself to cover the whole marble which is then inside the balloon. Part of the balloon is now covering the marble.

What my teacher said was that as both these systems reproduced, the extra membrane of the balloon around the marble was retained through the generations and was still a sign of endosymbiosis.

I thought this was very strange. Usually when something enters the cell in this fashion, the membrane is broken down either after some time or "deliberately" at once to access whatever is inside. How could instructions to form an extra membrane around new organelles be incorporated into the genome of the larger cell or the organelle itself? Horizontal gene transfer?

I asked him after the lecture to clarify how this was possible, and he said it was an interesting question, but he didn't know.

Turns out the whole premise was wrong. (Thanks, Larry!)

Bacteria come in (very very roughly) two kinds. Gram positive and Gram negative. This property has to do with their membranes. Gram positive have a single membrane, and the Gram negatives have a double membrane. Guess which kind of bacteria are the origin of most of our double-membraned organelles?

This little story actually fit very well with another post by Mr. Moran, about the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect should be familiar to most. It's sort of reminiscent of Socrates when he realized he was intelligent because he was aware of all the things he was ignorant about. Many people who have wrong perceptions or beliefs are not aware of the fact that they may be wrong. This is reflected in studies when people are asked if they believe they have knowledge on some subject or can perform a task at below average, average, or above-average levels. Many people who are below average are not aware of the problems in their thinking, and rate themselves as above average, and even above the people who are proved to be in the top percentiles. The people who are well-versed on a subject however, realize the limits of their knowledge and thereby rate themselves lower than the people who have the wrong ideas!

This reminds me of my own experiences in test-taking. Usually, if I have a good feeling, I get a disappointing grade, and if I have a bad feeling, I am pleasantly surprised. I think this is the same phenomena. When I have studied well, I am aware of my mistakes, but when I have a good feeling, it's because I don't even know what I'm wrong about or what info I am missing.

The fact that I asked that question of my teacher does not imply that I am a genius of course. Just that having a curious mind and asking questions about things that sound funny is generally a good thing.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it's really good for the scientific method!

Pop.Vit.Ring - a popular science reading group

I have lots of hobbies. One of them is reading books, especially books that I learn stuff from. To help me do this, and to share my joy of learning stuff with others, I started this book club a few years ago. In case you're not a Norwegian speaker, Pop. is short for popular, Vit. is short for Vitenskap, that is Science, and Ring is ring. A ring of readers. How lovely.

It's run through facebook, and when I have the time, I put up a few hand-made posters at the University of Oslo. The group has been asleep for a year's time now, due to other projects, but I just love it and miss it so much that it's time to get going again.

Our last book was Steven Pinker - The Blank Slate, because of the recent hubbub in Norway over "Hjernevask" - or Brainwash, a show about how evolutionary biology is completely overlooked in the social sciences in Norway. I deemed it appropriate to restart the club since it was basically the only thing people were talking about over their espressos.

Our current book is Leonard Mlodinow - The Drunkard's Walk, which you may be able to see --> that both Bendik and I are currently reading.

It's all about how randomness rules our lives, and many of the causal pathways we seem to notice in our daily lives may actually be completely random. So far, it's really good and is already screwing a little bit with my head. Man, I love statistics when they're served like this.

If you want to join us in reading the book and talking about it afterwords, feel free too do so. We're going to meet at the University of Oslo's "Puben" Thursday August 26th at 17:00, unless otherwise noted.

AAI - Facepalm courtesy of Ken Ham

Reading up on my blogs this morning I came across this post by PZ Myers, which shows us the non-hug-worthy paranoia of Ken Ham.

At AAI in Copenhagen, a short declaration was written up over the course of the three days, to give som kind of physical manifestation and purpose to the whole meeting; as opposed to just celebrating ourselves and hugging all our heroes.

Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis and in charge of the Creation Museum, re-wrote the declaration, translating it for his followers, and the degree of paranoia in this text is just amazing. Basically, he states that whenever atheists say:

We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.

He thinks this means:

We recognize the unlimited right (even though we have no objective basis for “rights” in our system) to freedom of conscience, religion, and belief—except for Christians—and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others (this is the golden rule: “do unto others . . . ” for which we have no logical basis in our way of thinking)—except for Christians, as we reject Christianity totally and must try to eliminate it.

No hug for you, Ken Ham.

For more on this, check out PZ's post on Pharyngula.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Back from AAI Conference at Copenhagen

We are back from the AAI conference in Copenhagen. Unfortunately Marit has most of our pictures and notes, and she immediately went out on a field study, so the full reports will come in sometime the week. We were joined by Prokrastinuft and Yngve N and hung with them most of the time, with good times to be had by all.

But some highlights include:
  • PZ Myers going strong what seemed like five days in a row of staying up and hanging out with us proles. The Trophy Wife was a great sport too, competing hard for the party hard award
  • Rebecca Watson showing a video with Chris French dressed up as an old woman
  • Robin Ince reading Ann Coulter during his comedy act. Then counteracting it by reading Richard Feynmann to calm us down.
  • James Randi saying to Marit "I hate this woman." while performing magic for us. (Video coming of this, I promise!)
  • Me getting a non sequitur of a slide (about munchkins) added into Richard Wiseman's talk, probably (and hopefully) to the confusion of all the other viewers who were not me.
  • Richard Dawkins managing to teach me something about evolution and meme theory
  • Michael Nugent telling stories of the new religion they have formed ("Dermotology") to combat the new blasphemy laws in Ireland.
And of course meeting lots and lots of other fabulous people.

Shoutouts go to
  • Team Sweden (Come to Oslo in for Kritisk Masse!)
  • Team German Judge (See you at TAM!)
  • The Steins (Sorry we left you standing at the train station, a lost Wiseman wandering the streets made us take the metro instead otherwise he'd still be wandering there. Better see you at TAM so we can apologise properly in person!)
  • Ivan the Official Representative for All Danes, we got the hugs part down, next time you come to Oslo we'll do some science as well.
  • Gregory Paul for demolishing my personal hypothesis on why Scandinavia is not as religious as the rest of the world
  • R-wise for hanging out with us at the airport and showing us the magic trick that made other (professional) magicians dumbfounded and suicidal, while having lovely conversations about dog-riding monkeys that herd goats
and of course to all the speakers who all were interesting and intriguing! Loved each and every talk!

Next year this conference will be in Dublin. We're looking forward to it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

My dinner with PZ Myers

As you all know by now, PZ Myers is visiting Oslo to give a talk on Creationism in America. And since I happen to be working on my masters degree at the research center that invited him, and I am the president of the Students' Skeptics League and we are taking him and his Trophy Wife to the park after the lecture, just to hang out and spend some time with one of our favorite bloggers, I was invited to the formal dinner to welcome him to Oslo.

We went to Mares, a wonderful gourmet-style seafood-restaurant. We had five courses and fantastic wine . I got to talk to PZ and the missus quite a bit, but I note that I was a little bit nervous at the start. I managed to call the gazpacho ricularly good, and in briefly presenting my master's work, I basically left out half of the good stuff. I felt a glimpse of olden days Spelling Bee glory, when I had to spell Vigelandsparken, where we will be lounging tomorrow after the lecture.

I am starting to see how PZ manages to be so prolific. By the time I got home (after a beer with the other student attendee), he had already updated his blog. We asked PZ how much time he spends blogging every day, and he claims it's not too much due to his unedited posts. He simply writes them up and puts them out there. But he also said he would cut down to about 30 minutes a day during his trip to Europe.

Today brings me an interview with him, bound for the web-based newspaper from the Norwegian Humanist Association, called Free Thought.

I have previously written about skepticism for their print edition. I started with #1 this year, and hope to keep going for a while. It's a regular column, called "Skeptiker, Så Klart!", which means Skeptic, of course!

It will also be appearing in the student journal argument: at a later time.

And then, of course, we have his talk from 15.30 to 17.00, and then a nice little trip to the park!

Feel free to join us at any time!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Norway is exciting all of a sudden

Today saw the release of the webpage and date for the Norwegian conference on science and skepticism!

The conference is called Kritisk masse (Critical mass) and is going to be held October 29th to 31st!

There is also a facebook-page and a twitter-feed.

Oh boy, am I excited!

And I love this illusion-themed teaser:

Monday, June 14, 2010

Someone out there must like me

Tomorrow, the science-blogging ass.prof., PZ Myers, will come to Oslo, to spend a few days in the lovely Norwegian sun before attending this conference in Copenhagen (that my brother and I will also be attending).

Lately, I seem to be in the right place all the time. Can I thank the heavens? Myself? Or my fascination with a certain gorilla? This time, I'm gonna get to have dinner with PZ himself and the hosts for the occasion, the research center where I'm currently in the middle of my MSc in Biology.

I'm sure he'll be jetlagged, and I'm sure he'll be delightful.

Then, on Wednesday, he's giving a talk at Litteraturhuset about creationism, before I get to take him to the park! We're gonna show him what the Norwegian summer is all about, with sunshine, some food, and lounging in the park.

Feel free to join in at any time on Wednesday. I'll be taking responsibility for my own happiness now that the foundation of fun has been laid, and you should too! Join us!

Oh, and I'll try to work up the courage to tell him what our blog is called, and why.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse!

No, not the movie. The star.

Betelgeuse is a star not too far away from us, astronomically speaking. (600 light years) It's also frickin' huge, compared to our own Sun (In size, about 1000 times our Sun). Soon, it's going to explode in a massive, awesome supernova.

When a star is about to go supernova, it starts shrinking rapidly, as its core processes can no longer counteract the force of gravity. Betelgeuse has shrunk about 15% in the last 15 years. That's very fast. It could go boom any time now.

Got your attention yet?

Several different emails and forum posts around the internet have been to this extent. Unfortunately, the rumours of Betelgeuse's impending death is most likely greatly exaggerated.

Some background: Betelgeuse is a young star, only about 8.5 million years old. Large stars have much shorter lives than smaller stars, as they burn their fuel much faster, because they have much greater gravity to speed it up. Compare this to our own Sun which is about 5 billion years old, and estimated to be able to live for another 5 billion before it dies.

A star burns by fusing one fuel into another. Most of their lifetime is spent fusing hydrogen into helium. Our own Sun is at that stage still, and will be for another couple billion years. Once hydrogen runs out, it starts fusing the helium into carbon and then nitrogen and oxygen and neon and so basically continuing up the periodic table until it hits iron. Each of these reactions go faster and faster, and the time spent on say, neon, can be only a couple of thousand years compared to the millions or billions of years spent on hydrogen. Once it reaches iron it is no longer able to fuse that to a heavier element, gravity overwhelms the nuclear processes and contracts it really tight together... at which point the nuclear processes kick in one final time and explode in what is known as a supernova. The star ceases to be and becomes an ex-star.

(Table from Wikipedia)

Betelgeuse is approximately 20 solar masses, just as this table uses in its example. And it appears to have started fusing Helium into Carbon. It could go on for a while or it could complete really really quickly.

Betelgeuse is fairly far along in its cycle. It is going to explode "soon". BUT, this is "soon" on an astronomical scale. Those who say Betelgeuse is going to go supernova this summer, they're underestimating astronomical timescales a bit. Expert money says it's going to go within the next 5-10,000 years. Of course it could happen within our lifetimes, but it's very unlikely. Astronomically so. Unfortunately.

The distance keeps us safe. For a supernova to be actually dangerous to Earth or its inhabitants, it'd have to be within 25 light years approximately. Betelgeuse is 600ish. Way outside of what is dangerous.

Whatever Betelgeuse can fling at us will totally be dwarfed compared to what the Sun already does. The main force of the explosion will not be aimed at us (Angular momentum says that most of it will be ejected through the poles) but even if it were we'd not notice it because it's so far away and by that time it'll be too little to notice.

When it finally goes it will be spectacular, though. It will be visible in daylight. It'll be as bright as a full moon on the night sky. (It'll still only be pinhead-sized, so you won't see two suns or anything funky like that) It'll last for a couple of weeks before Orion suddenly loses his shoulder.

A lot of telescopes are being pointed at Betelgeuse these days, and you can be sure that if something really happens, you'll notice it. I wouldn't clear my schedule for it though.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Thanks, Jupiter!

I think we all owe Jupiter a big thanks for once again saving our planet from obliteration. Jupiter, as you know, is the largest planet in our solar system and during our history has collected a lot of meteorites and asteroides running all around the solar system, thereby preventing them from staying in orbit and possibly hitting us.

Today, newsreports have been coming in about a large impact on Jupiter from an unknown object. There are even videos of the impact, where you can see the glow from the explosion.

Go check out the updates at Bad Astronomy, and check out the video (which actually made the headlines in one of Norways biggest papers; Go Science-reporters!) here.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Darwin - the Movie

A while ago, a movie with Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connely called Creation was released.

I was curious about the title, because for most biologists, "creation" is not usually a friendly term. However, this movie is about the man Darwin, his struggle with his idea and it's conflict with his wifes devout religious views, and also, the loss of his dear daughter Annie at age 10.

I'm looking forward to seeing it, since I'm a huge Darwin fan. And by the way, it's allowed to be a Darwin-fan in biology. Some people seem to think he has a cultish following, but I think his popularity is due to the fact that he actually was a wonderful scientist. If you read about Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, you see the contrast to Darwin's painstaking work and tedious research making sure that he had valid grounds to make his claims. Sadly, Wallace drifted from science in his later years and was a proponent of several unscientific ideas. Darwin was also a prolific letter-writer and knew how to write with a certain pezazz, so his persona is clear and available to those who take an interest in biography.

On a much lighter note, today I came across this video (posted on pharyngula). I've been on funnyordie a couple of times before; their drunken renditions of American History are hilarious.

Dana Carvey as Darwin

Monday, March 08, 2010

Grief and Guilt Reliever! Homeopathy saves the day again.

Okay, sure, it would feel good to get relief when when one is experiencing grief or guilt. But really? A spray-on reliever?

Homeopathy has done it again! They've created something that is not only implausible, but also might tamper with things that should not be tampered with. (See Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind if you don't get my drift)

Grief and guilt are not evils of the world, even though they may feel like it during the experience. They may actually be useful for you and for your kin, for example by reminding you why you shouldn't do certain things, or helping you deal with a loss. In making you feel like crap, grief and guilt help you change the things that are making you feel that way.

But of course, this is the normal reaction to grief or guilt. Things can get out of hand, and if that is the case, one should seek professional help with a doctor, psychologist or even a psychiatrist. This is the instance when you do not want someone with a mail-order degree in herbs to help you out with your psychological treatment. Bad things happen.

Just for fun, I also looked up the different substances that are supposed to be in the bottle. (In extreme dilutions, of course!)

Aurum Metallicum - gold
Cocculus Inducus - poisonous plant
Colocynthis - plant
Hyoscamus Niger - plant
Ignatia Amara - plant that is actually called Strychnos ignatia (more on that below)
Lachesis Mutus: poisonous snake
Natrum Muriatricum - table salt !!
Phosphoricum Acidum - phosphorous acid
Pulsatilla - flower
Staphysagria - probably a flower..

So, mostly plants, but also, gold, phosphorous acid, and table salt!

You'll notice they severely latinized the name for table salt (Sodium Chloride).
Also, they sometimes use botanical synonyms, which is a bit of a strange practice. I found Ignatia amara on wikipedia as Strychnos ignatia, and noticed that Ignatia amara is given as a synonym. In botany, in the age before the internet, a lot of nomenclature (naming) and classification was done without realizing that others were doing exactly the same work. This has naturally led to a lot of overlap, and there are strict rules for naming in botany and zoology to cope with this. It is common practice to use the oldest published name(which may have been discovered at a later date!), but in some cases, for example in referring to old literature, the old synonyms are also given for clarity. I have no idea why homeopaths would refer to an old synonym for certain plants, except maybe that in this case the current plant name connotes strychnine, which I guess I myself would not want to put on a contents label.

I don't think I'll be using that mixture to cure my monday blues anytime soon..

Friday, March 05, 2010

Marit has been Published!

The Norwegian print magazine FriTanke.no has published a column by our very own Marit!

It is about being sceptical in the daily life.

If you subscribe to Fri tanke you can find her on page 29 of the current issue (01-2010). A PDF version is also available for free on fritanke.no. And read the rest of the magazine while you're at it :)

Those crazy danes are going to shoot a man into space

...and the ones who are doing it are hobbyists!

A group called the Copenhagen Suborbitals are building a flippin' rocket, with the goal of launching a man into space! Although many of the group have skills and experiences making other cool stuff, most would consider them amateurs and hobbyists. Which just makes it all so much cooler! (Their previous project was a fully functioning submarine!)

They are less than 20 people and are doing everything themselves. Engines, fuel delivery, welding, molding, ballistics, design, controls, even the astronaut!

They've done several small-scale tests and the first full-size test launch will be this summer. That one will be unmanned though.

All knowledge and information learnt by the project will also be freely available. So that other crazy people can go and replicate it :)

If this is successful - and I have no doubt that it will be - it will be Denmark's first man launched into space, surpassing most other European countries. And it's done by volunteers.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Life Without Oxygen

There's a place in Antarctica called Blood Falls.
It is named that because while most of Antarctica is white snow and the odd exposed rock, this place occasionally spits out a red liquid. The liquid turns out to be high contents of rust.
Underneath it is a lake. About two million years ago snow covered up the lake completely, sealing it off from the rest of the world. Before that happened it was teeming with microbial life, as most places on Earth are. Now, after having been cut off from oxygen for two million years, it is... still teeming with microbial life!

When investigated, it turns out that these microbes no longer use oxygen! They have instead evolved to metabolize using sulfur! This is basically an alien ecosystem!

This is a great resource for biologists who want to investigate what life might be like on other planets where there is no oxygen. For us laypeople though, it's just an example of how resilient, how tenacious Life can be.

(Via Bad Astronomy)

Buzz Aldrin: a generally cool guy

Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, (and one of only twelve to have set foot on it) is in the news again.

The last time I saw him in the media was when he punched conspiracy theorist Bart Sibrel for accusing Buzz of being a liar and a thief (!). Sibrel has used this surprise form of confrontation on most of the Apollo astronauts and in this particular incident, Buzz had had enough and punched the guy.

I am generally not a big fan of violence, but I'mma cut Buzz some slack in this particular case. Sibrel, who spreads misinformation and never seems to get enough of conspiracies kind of deserves getting slapped in the face by the evidence (Buzz himself!)

So, this time, poor old Buzz (he's 80 by now) has spent most of his life being some sort of celebrity, writing books, giving talks in museums and on TV, and now he claims his pension from the US government just doesn't cut it. Therefore, he's agreed to join the TV show "Dancing with the Stars!"

I think it's a shame that a hard-working guy like Buzz doesn't have it made for life. But he seems to be dealing with it pretty well! This should be fun to watch. He's feisty.

I recently saw the documentary on the moon landing "For all mankind". It combines news reports, real footage from the landings with conversations with remaining Apollo astronauts. I pretty much had my jaw on my chest during the whole thing.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Of pandas and people ... and porn!

Animals in the zoo don't necessarily have it so good. Sure, they get food, water, shelter, candy and attention, but they're usually crowded, don't feel quite at home, and people stare at them most of the time.

And one activity that gets especially closely monitored is mating. Not nice.

For a lot of animals though, it's actually very important that they are closely followed when it comes to mating. Many animals in zoos are endangered in the wild, and zoo populations can actually be used to restore wild populations, or introduce som much needed genetic variance to small populations that might otherwise die out. Naturally, this is no replacement for healthy, stable populations in the wild, but it is a form of conservation.

So, back to mating. In captivity, many animals are reluctant to mate. This especially goes for pandas. But now, some researchers have managed to solve this panda-problem in a manner I don't think I would have thought of.

They show the pandas panda-porn. NSFW.

Also, I can tell you that pandas are a species in the order Carnivora, which generally consists of meat-eaters. Pandas eat mostly bamboo. It's strange. And since bamboo is harder to digest, pandas have to eat pretty much all their waking time. About 16 hours a day. It's a panda's life.

And while we're talking about getting inspired by dirty thoughts;

New research suggests that thinking about sex may sharpen your analytical skills.

So. Good luck to the pandas, with their newfound amour. And good luck with your critical thinking skills to all our non-panda readers.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hugs and Science Hero: Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Some people are just cool. Like Neil DeGrasse Tyson! Not only is he the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Natural History Museum in NYC, but he is also the author of books like: Death By Black Hole and The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist.

He's been interested in astronomy since he was a kid, and was actually attempted solicited by Carl Sagan to attend Cornell instead of his later decided Harvard. Also, he was selected as the sexiest astrophysicist by People Magazine in 2000. Nice. He's got charisma.

He makes for a great evening of watching on YouTube. And, he said this:

"Of course I let my toddler play with spilled milk. It's obvious she is studying fluid dynamics."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

In print!

I had the good fortune of meeting the wonderful paleontologist and popularizer Richard Fortey when he was in Oslo this fall. I interviewed him together with a fellow student for a student-based magazine from Oslo, called "argument:" . The article can be found here as a pdf, and our article is on page 50-51. It's in Norwegian. And it's quite cozy.

Fortey is just the kind of guy I want to be when I grow up to become and old guy (gal), extremely engaging, extremely interested, and very sweet and friendly.

Also, he writes wonderful books, bubbling with enthusiasm and anecdotes from a life in science. He is also probably the only person in the world who could have titled his book on trilobites " TRILOBITE! " Oh, man I love that exclamation point. He sometimes gets accused of being a fossil himself, but I think he's quite fine with it given his regard for fossils.

His books are among others: Dry Store Room nr. 1 - the secret life of the natural history museum, Trilobite!, Life: an unauthorized biography.

I'm a fan for life.