Cold, Hard Facts

Coldness can manifest where you least expect it: on a planet rapidly warmed by the combustion of fossil fuel, or in the heart of a star 250 times as massive as our own. On Greg Laden’s Blog, Greg explains that an apparent “recovery” of Arctic sea ice from its historic low in 2012 does not invalidate the long-term trend. Greg also explains this year’s legacy of extreme weather, such as snow in Cairo, writing that when there is less difference in temperature between equatorial and polar regions, “the jet streams get all wiggly and cause northerly air to reach far to the south in some places and southerly air to reach farther north in other places.” Meanwhile, on Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel explores the different fates awaiting stars of different sizes. When a star like our own runs out of fuel and begins to collapse, it blows off its outer layers and leaves behind a neutron star or small black hole. Bigger stars, however, start producing antimatter, which lowers the pressure in the star and generates gamma rays that heat up the core even further. These stars end in a pair-instability supernova, which “not only destroys the outer layers of the star, but the core as well, leaving absolutely nothing behind!” But in the biggest stars in the universe, gamma rays cause photodisintegration, which cools down the interior of the star and allows all its mass to collapse into a black hole. The earliest of these massive black holes probably seeded the centers of galaxies, which now contain millions of solar masses.


Talk Shows vs. The Truth

Katie Couric riled up the internet last week with her uncritical promotion of anti-vaccine viewpoints on her talk show. It was certainly a twist in the professional narrative of a woman who has undergone televised colonoscopy and mammography to promote cancer awareness. That awareness should have been front-and-center in her discussion of HPV vaccines as well, since HPV infection can lead to cancers of anywhere people put their genitals. Instead, Couric featured two mothers convinced that HPV vaccines had caused death and injury, respectively, to their daughters. On Respectful Insolence, Orac writes “the entire segment was structured as a ‘he said, she said’ tour de force of false ‘balance,'” with anecdotal tragedies playing offense against hard science and common sense. On Aetiology, Tara Smith criticizes one of the show’s “experts” who claimed that Pap smears obviate the need for HPV vaccination. Tara writes, “This, frankly, is hogwash. Even with emphasis on screening, here in the U.S. we have 12,000 cases and 4,000 deaths from cervical cancer alone each year.” Now Couric has issued a guarded apology for the episode, but still refuses to acknowledge what is scientifically undisputed. Vaccines like Gardasil and Cervarix are safe; they prevent a sexually transmitted disease; and they prevent cancers that can result from that disease. Meanwhile talk shows like Katie must Ozzify their medical science in order to attract and entertain an audience.

Santa Claus is a Black Gay Vampire

You may be too young to know the truth about Santa Claus, but dear old Saint Nick is not the affable Anglo-Saxon philanthropist he appears to be.  In fact, evidence suggests that he is an unholy creature of the night, an ancient vampire who would suck your blood if you didn’t placate him with milk and cookies.

Saint Nicholas was born in Turkey in the third century AD, more than 1700 years ago.  Although rumored to have perished at the age of 73, he must have been trans-substantiated by some forgotten fiend.  Turned into a being that would burn in the light of day, old Saint Nick was gradually driven north from the Mediterranean.  Who knows how long it took him to reach the North Pole, but once there, he could flee the sun no further.  Pillaging the wild norths of Europe, Asia, and North America, he enslaved a race of twinkish elves to feed his ageless thirst.  For six months of the year, his world was darkness, and he could devote his time to his chosen art of toycraft.  When the springtime sun began to peek over the horizon, he slipped into his icy coffin and did not dream.  Also, Saint Nick was a black guy.  Only centuries of light deprivation have turned his skin to alabaster.

By 1800, Nick was ready to reintroduce himself to the world. Fueled by the terrible power of his vanity, he longed to showcase his craftsmanship.  In drawings of his earliest reappearance, the young devil looks older than he does now, more than two centuries later.  Santa Claus, as he came to be called, had developed supreme supernatural abilities.  Engorged by generations of elf-blood, clothed in a puffy suit dyed red by the same, he cast evil magicks on horned beasts to pull his sleigh through the air.  He visited all Christian homes in a single night, mocking their pious heresy with his toys of unparalleled ingenuity.  He was clairvoyant, nearly omniscient; he could see you when you were sleeping, and knew when you were awake.  To fit down chimneys he simply turned himself into a bat.  He landed a sweet old beard named Mrs. Claus to hide his flamboyant homosexuality—an orientation he shares with most vampires descended from Anne Rice novels.

That’s why Christmas is near the winter solstice: it’s not really the birthday of Jesus, but it is quite nearly the longest and darkest night of the year (Jesus was actually born on 9/11). Under the pretense of generosity, Santa fostered feelings of greed worldwide, turning the goodwill of children toward covetousness and material gain. To mollify Santa Claus, it is still customary to cleave a tree in twain and festoon it with burning lights and pincers. One should only give it enough water to prolong its suffering as long as possible.

Santa’s demonic nature is also the reason Wal-Mart and other highly observant retailers have started putting out Christmas decorations after Halloween, on the Day of the Dead.

And for the record, Santa is not evil because he’s black or gay; he’s the evil because he’s a vampire.  Same reason for Jesus re: the zombiism.

Learn more from this video starting at 3:00.

Hard Numbers, Hard Living

On EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse confronts the challenge of basic math education: “we need to find a balance between hammering the basic skills, while also making it clear that there is so much more to mathematics than arithmetic.”  Rosenhouse rejects the approach of New Math, “teaching grade-schoolers about set theory and the axiomatic method,” instituted briefly in the U.S. after the Soviets launched a giant ball bearing named Sputnik into orbit.  Rosenhouse goes on to question whether teachers should emphasize experimental mathematics, wherein the brute force of computation is used to identify overarching laws and properties.  And in a third post, Rosenhouse explores strategies for making introductory calculus less boring for undergrads.  He writes, “Some rigor must be sacrificed to do what I am suggesting. I have no problem with that. For beginning students, rigor is often the enemy of clarity.”  Finally, on The Pump Handle, Elizabeth Grossman breaks out the calculator to determine what kind of living is possible on a full-time Wal-Mart wage.  A single parent with a child, living in a relatively low-cost area, after paying for rent, utilities, food, public transportation, and income tax, would have about $5 a day left over to pay for child care, internet service, health insurance, clothing, toiletries, further education, a 401k contribution, and anything else.  Grossman concludes, “This is the the kind of challenge facing at least half of Walmart’s 1.3 million US employees.”

Discrediting Anti-GMO Propaganda

Not too long ago, when the media became excited about a study saying genetically modified corn causes tumor growth in rats, ScienceBloggers were quick to point out that the study featured some of the worst science ever.  Now the paper has been officially retracted by its publisher, but to what end?  On Pharyngula, PZ Myers speculates that the study authors avoided statistical analysis of their small, cancer-prone rat packs precisely because there was no statistically significant effect of being force-fed GMO corn.  PZ also says “journalists who got the paper in advance had to sign confidentiality agreements that prohibited them from consulting with experts,” leading to uncritical promulgation of a story well-suited to stoke fear and anti-GMO politics.  Even the rats in the study were treated unethically, forced to live out their tumor-ridden days for the sake of sensational photographs.  On Respectful Insolence, Orac wonders if the paper’s retraction will only fuel the convictions of activists pre-disposed to conspiratorial thinking.  And on ERV, Abbie Smith offers a book of actual science on GMOs compiled by actual scientists and farmers, for free.

Posted to the homepage on December 2, 2013.

Thankful for Industrial Poultry

Gratefulness is an important part of a happy life, but are we right to be thankful for an ill-gotten bounty?  In a country of 300 million people, a turkey on every table (or a chicken in every pot) means that many birds live hard and die fast.  They are also plucked, gutted, inspected, and packaged as quickly as possible, leaving human workers to pay the price.  On the Pump Handle, Celeste Monforton debunks the National Chicken Council’s claim that working in a poultry processing plant is as safe as making omelets at a country club.  According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, poultry processing ranks among 2% of industries singled out for the severity of workplace injuries.  Elizabeth Grossman writes that workers typically handle thirty 16-pound carcasses a minute, for eight hours, risking repetitive stress injuries along with cuts and amputations, and developing kidney stones for want of a bathroom break.  So even if there’s nothing wrong with cooking animals, do the practicalities of feeding a huge population change the moral equation? On Greg Laden’s Blog, Greg explains the “cooking hypothesis” as set forth in the [other] book Catching Fire.  The theory says that cooking is a kind of “pre-digestion” that allowed our ancestors to metabolize many more calories much more easily.  The result?  Bigger bodies, smaller teeth, more brainpower, followed by agriculture, empire, colonialism, the first Thanksgiving, and now millions of Butterball turkeys at your local Wal-Mart.

Posted to the homepage on November 25, 2013.