Saturday, December 19, 2009

Known Cosmos

See things as Heimdall, as the Argus!

Friday, December 18, 2009

PLoS adds research blogging to metrics

Everyone's Favorite open access Journal - Public Library of Science (PLoS) has now added a new feature. This feature allows readers to view blog coverage of articles as meta information attached to the article itself. What does this mean? - Blogs are indeed taking over the world. comes to PLoS Article-level Metrics from PLoS on Vimeo.

Owls Descending

A parliament has descended on Tom Paine's Ghost.  With three nominations to Post with the Most from the Owls bringing with them beauty and question.

Two are part of the series "A Natural History of My _______" and the other is the series itself!

See them here here and here.

In her post "A NATURAL HISTORY OF MY INSTRUMENT"  Alicia Jo Rabins gracefully melds text images and original musical recordings of her compositions for sting ensembles.  Her work shines brightly and I am grateful to have been exposed to such energy.

Thanks be to Josh Tyree for the lovely nominations.

To nominate your favorite blog posts see here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Jim Bridges drops some natural philosophy

From the Daily Advance

Belief in the Force takes faith 
by Jim Bridges

Think about the stem of a rose. Now, imagine that stem as a green fuse. Then assume that there is a force which drives the rose through the green fuse and causes the rose to explode. That same force drives me from my green youth to hoary-headed age.

The same force “drives the water throughout the rocks” (rocks in the mountains, those underground, and those in the beds of streams) and drives the blood through my arteries, veins, and capillaries — all of my blood through all of those pipes.

That same Force eventually destroys the trees and turns my blood to wax. It makes all things and destroys all things. It causes dirt to spurt up into the air and assume the size, shape and color which causes us to say, “rose,” “azalea,” “dogwood.” Each year, the Force causes the right leaves and fruits and berries and theories to appear in the proper places.

The Force causes humans to think they think their own thoughts and forget that it is the Force which causes humans to bear ideas as surely as it is the Force which causes bushes to conceive berries. The Force rains and snows, it grows the orchid and the rose, it sculpts the universe and your toes. It even creates those people who say that they don’t believe in the Force.

A bumper sticker says, “God made me an atheist. Who are you to question his judgment?” I say it is easier to believe in God than to believe out of God. The more you believe, the more in God you are, andthe most abundantly you can have life and love your neighbor as yourself and “live and move and have your being.”

Thomas Paine said that the only sensible meaning humans can attach to “God” is “the First Cause,” the cause of all effects which have followed through all the eons. It is 10 times easier to believe in the Force, the First Cause, than it is to explain all the berries and people and ideas in any other way.

Elizabeth City
The Editor
The Daily Advance
P.O. Box 588
Elizabeth City, N.C., 27907-0588

Post with the Most Begins

The competition has begun. With the crashing fists of Cassius Clay and the melodic mind of Muhammad Ali the first entry has come in.  From Abbas Raza - chief editor at 3 Quarks Daily.

His Post is a tribute to a great man.   Talk about power and revolution - Muhammad Ali lived both.

"Muhammad Ali is one of my biggest heroes. This post was done as part of a series of posts to honor Black History Month at 3 Quarks Daily."
~Abbas Raza 

See here to submit your entry.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Wonderful Life Indeed

As the nights grow to the longest of the year in the northern hemisphere I come back to this film year after year and take away some new "positive magic." The right to speak freely also entails an obligation to listen freely. Progress is not achieved through ideological "wars" where one idea is diametrically opposed to another, where foes are demonized and enemy lines are not to be crossed. It comes through the raising of a common consciousness, a common sense.

A book of the same name has also affected me and perhaps made me more receptive to the message in this Jimmy Stewart classic. In the fall of 2007 a "young earth" physicist named Dr. D. Russell Humphreys spoke at Colorado State University. He spent two hours in front of a podium explaining that the observed rate at which helium atoms leaked from zirconium crystal collected from a salt mine in New Mexico indicated the earth was only about 10,000 years old. When I asked the man how humans could observe stars that were more than 10,000 light years away and sometimes even millions of light-years away his response was not scientific at all. He explained that during Genesis and the "great flood" God sped up the space-time continuum to bring the light beams to our eyeballs... After the seminar I left the auditorium in shock and disbelief that this man was paid to speak at a university, then I realized why it was worth it. In the lobby I was surrounded by the student group who invited him and engaged in a two hours long discussion about the age of earth and evolution. I described to them the progression of life as evidenced in the soft bodied fossils in the Burgess shale in British Columbia. I told them how this showcase of evolution and evolutionary timescales was eloquently described by Stephen Jay Gould in his award winning book "Wonderful Life." They had never heard of the Burgess shale and I think I piqued their interest and maybe a few students followed up on investigating this evidence on their own. Even though I was initially shocked that the university would allow such a seminar to be commissioned on campus I eventually realized the beauty of it all. The ensuing conversation between 20+ creationists and myself would never have taken place had this seminar not happened. Free speech is like white light, shining in all directions. Ideas like "life is a wonderful thing" have the power to reign in the poles of the culture wars, forcing us to acknowledge one another and move forward together.

Merry Christmas,
from TPG

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

TPG gets shout out from Collegian

TPG had a date with the mainstream media yesterday.  The Rocky Mountain Collegian ran a story on what is going here among the pages of Tom Paine's Ghost.  Thanks Collegian staff for continuing to put out one of the best student run newspapers in the country!

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Science and art realigning?   For a long time I have thought of the disconnect between the majority of Americans and the scientific community.  There is a general and apparent sense of fear about science and technology misapplied.  I am not arguing that this paranoia is completely unwarranted but that it causes some to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater when it comes to applying  technologies to this thing we call human life.  In this article Peter Forbes writing for the Times Online describes a current trend in science writing - artistic individuals compelled to write about scientific themes.  This may be the  end of what I call the "Burning Windmill".

To me the image of a burning windmill represents the moment the masses pass judgmental on emerging scientific technologies.  The image came to me while watching the original Boris Karloff black and white version of Frankenstein.   In the end the monster is chased by the mob to a tower, which is in fact a windmill.  Here the people decide the most appropriate course of action is to kill him, burn him in the windmill.  The movie ends before we see proof of his charred body and in this indefinite passing of time I see an uncertainty.  A persistent uneasy feeling held by civilization since the publication of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein in 1818. Will the firemen show up and put out the flames or will  the angry mob successfully extinguish the experiment.  How can the citizenry keep the application of science in check?  How can we prevent the misapplication of technology without behaving like the mob at the windmill or the mob that carved the flesh from Hypatia with abalone shells?

Further in the article Forbes talks about the healing process between the infamous "two cultures" of science and humanities.  The first step for any individual taking on a healing or reckoning path  is acknowledging fear. The fear that "although science may be powerfully predictive, it threatens to undermine the beliefs and intuitions we uphold to make life tolerable; We fear we may learn something we would rather not know”.

While ruminating  on these concepts my mind kept floating back to the desert, peering into the world of Edward Abbey where he has an epiphany - how he feels about science and technology.  His words are an excellent foothold to begin reconciliation between the two cultures.  In Desert Solitaire Abbey is philosophizing with a visitor to Arches in the chapter Episodes and Visions  and realizes he is...

"not opposed to mankind but only to man-centeredness, anthropocentricity, the opinion that the world exists solely for the sake of man; not to science, which means simply knowledge, but to science misapplied, to the worship of technique and technology, and to that perversion of science properly called scientism; and not to civilization but to culture."

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cnidarian Life - stranger than fiction

Thanks to Deep Sea News for the heads up. Psychedelic art by Mother Nature.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Quark - Political Iteration

When it rains it pours. 'Tis the season for blog competitions. An old favorite - 3 Quarks Daily - is holding the third of four annual competitions called "Quarks." The winners for each category (science, philosophy, politics, and art) have and will continue to be announced on each equinox and solstice. The current theme is Politics and although the entry from TPG is tenuously political it remains a fun exercise in blogosphereological exploration. To peruse the 47 entries click here. If you already know what you would like to vote for click here.

There is some excellent writing among some very timely entries. As much as I disdain I did particularly enjoy Glen Greenwald's dissection of Obama's Afghanistan escalation speech from a few nights ago. In this commentary he got me with the phrase "national narcissism" when describing our collective willingness to buy into war if we think we are morally justified. How does citing human rights violations or oppression of women make make it justifiable to wage war in certain countries? The truth is there are brutal human rights violations all over the planet and yet we are supposed to focus our military might at only those that happen to be sitting atop the world largest oil supplies or other "interests?" It makes no sense.

This all made me think - why isn't Greg Mortenson crusading in Saudi Arabia or Yemen or Egypt? I am not questioning Mortenson's great and worthy intentions but I am wondering why we are so easily swayed to focus our empathy on countries that have been deemed to have U.S. "national interests" at stake? If you want to have a clear definition of what the code words "national interest" mean look no further than this letter drafted and signed in 1998 by the motley crew at the Project for the New American Century and sent  to President Clinton.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Open Lab is now closed

The Open Laboratory 2009 submission deadline has passed. For a complete listing of all entries including  six from Tom Paine's Ghost head on over to Bora Zivkovic's brainchild A Blog Around the Clock.  There you will find a full Smörgåsbord of science blogging. Creativity from around the globe on display. One year ago this competition catalyzed my passion for writing and I hope by passing it along it might further fan the flame of open science discussion for the world to sample. Happy surfing!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Art and Science

Michael Garfield paints a window into the ongoing research in our lab at Colorado State University. Garfield paints live on stage while a performance is underway. He recorded the time lapse video below at Cervantes in Denver. Brilliant! Find Micheal's other work on display here.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Contemplating the Harvest

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Beehive Design Collective

Todd Simmons over at tells us about a traveling group of artists known as the Beehive Design Collective presenting their unique brand of large scale murals in Fort Collins, Colorado on December 9th. This year's exhibit is dedicated to raising public awareness about mountain top removal mining practices and the accompanying destruction of natural resources. Have you ever been in a car and seen the above bumper sticker? The fine print on it says "West Virginia  Highlands Conservancy" representing those at the forefront battling the mining companies who practice mountain top removal.  For dates, times, and locations of the exhibits see Todd's article.  TPG feels strongly for the cause the collective has chosen and as we have said before, we should all LISTEN TO LARRY!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Why do so many people love to read about vampires? Is it the juxtaposition? Dead yet not dead, evil yet sexy, powerful yet fragile? Why is this fictional creature so captivating to so many and in a myriad incarnations? Today vampires have taken over CNN. With all the real world stuff unfolding and being explained each day why do people still gravitate to fantasy land? I am guilty of filching some fame by hitching my blog to the vampire bandwagon but when you are screaming at the top of your lungs next to the old tree falling in the forest what else are you left to do? The scientists -  P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins -  make their names by talking about God, yet do not believe in this idea. They are  hitching a ride on the oldest conversation  known to civilization to further their goal of expanding scientific literacy - and more power to them. Perhaps the vampire conversation is less prestigious but maybe it takes the edge off an otherwise awkward conversation between a scientist a fundamentalist opening a door to conversation.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Annie Leonard: An American Greenthinker

Today I was introduced to Annie Leonord and her wide angled view of the world. The following is an account of the string of connections leading me to her and her message. I'm explaining as an exercise in recall and illustration of how information moves in this day and age. I was trying to find the list of Top 50 books sold at the Matter Bookstore (where I volunteer) so I Googled "Wolverine Farm Publishing." On the first search results page I found this you tube review of Matter 11: The Woods put together by a guy named Christian Peet living his philosophy somewhere in the woods of Vermont. While perusing his other book reviews I stopped at a certain point where he describes the reason he will wear his purple flannel until it rots off his body, fighting the notion of perceived obsolescence for all to know. Here in his review of Alabama Steve he interjected a link to At this site there is a 20 minute flash movie that plays staring Annie Leonard. Annie Leonard is the author of the as yet to be published book "the Story of Stuff." The book will be based on the animated documentary that has been viewed over 7 million times on the web. Her scope is global and her message is clear. The following video comes from the Bioneers annual speakers event held in Marin County California this past October. If you can not see the video when you hit play try hitting the refresh button at the bottom left of the video window.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Speaking of vulgarity

A good friend of mine lamented today about the decline of journalism as he took offense to the use of the phrase "getting shafted" in this Star-Telegram headline. Though I think it unprofessional I also see a kind of merit in using it for dramatic effect. Though I can see it could be argued that this particular phrase pangs of misogyny, in general I think it safe to say people get too uptight about vulgarity in print or any other media for that matter. This brings us to a controversial film - Blazing Saddles. Perhaps knowing that my parents' first date was to see this film can explain my fascination with it. Can you imagine?!?! But when I saw this in the NYT movie critics corner I thought of my friend and how oversensitivity can sometimes have a chilling affect on the issues that need to be talked about the most!  The concept of a lampoon is too frequently lost in translation.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Whatever Works

Woody Allen still works!

Susan Jacoby: an American Freethinker

PZ Myers recently blogging about the under-representation of women and minorities in the freethinking realm has asked pharyngulites everywhere to brainstorm about who we want to hear and hold up as freethinking representatives historically given short shrift. PZ himself suggested Susan Jacoby to whom I have dedicated this post. I had not seen or heard about her until this and I find her both fascinating and infectiously energetic. Though I do not like the idea of categorizing people in the first place, as I think we should all be seen on an equal plane of cooperation, my recommendations for freethinkers in this brainstorm include, Octavia Butler, Margaret Attwood (happy belated birthday to her), Doris Kearns Goodwin, and my own grandmother. Again and again I have come back to their writings and speeches to be invigorated by their energy. Who do you consider an inspirational freethinker?

The Colbert Report
Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Susan Jacoby

Colbert Report Full Episodes
Political Humor
U.S. Speedskating

Kirk Cameron wants to teach you biology

Wow, how inspiring to see a man who studied biology all his life show such fiery passion for sharing his knowledge with the world. Oh wait...

Yes. These are the banana people...

Thunderf00t has a well put together rebuttal on you tube while Steve Mirsky takes off the gloves and calls a spade a spade in his 60 second science podcast for Scientific American. The title of his talk? Darwin in Battle of Wits against Unarmed Man

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Broken Rainbow

This evening I watched the following documentary at the Bean Cycle in Fort Collins, CO.  Having traveled to Mexican Hat, Monument Valley, Kayenta, and the four corners one week ago I can report that the condition of the Navajo living on the reservation remains deplorable.  Forgotten by CNN these issues persistently plague the remaining descendants of peoples tormented by history. The Black Mesa Indigenous Support Group is an excellent starting place to find out more about the current state of affairs and ways to alleviate the burdens of living on and near disputed land in the Navajo/ Hopi reservations. 

Here we Grow

Thanks to the elephant of the heads up. If you are around Boulder, CO this new documentary is being shown at the Boulder Theater tonight.

Cornell Lab of "O"

The Cornell Lab of O was a social network before social networks were cool. Carl Zimmer over at the Loom recently posted this unique bird song inspiring me to take a virtual trip back to that magic little spot in Ithaca.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Department of Mad Scientists

The preceding conversation on NPR reminded me of this wonderfully put together video that I saw last March.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Nader has a New Book

My father called and told me to watch this speech by Ralph Nader at the Miami Book Fair. He Saw it on C-SPAN2.   As much as Nader has polarized people with his "spoiler" role in the 2000 and 2004 elections I find myself agreeing with him on so much despite the controversy.  Especially his opposition to nuclear power!

If you liked this bit you can find the whole 50 minute clip here.

Mad in Moab

I took this photograph of the Colorado River one week ago and anger has been drumming up inside me ever since.  This image shows browned water leaching into the river from the old altas uranium mine site less than a mile north of Moab, Utah.  The Department of Energy working with hundreds of millions of US tax dollars now toils to excavate and relocate radioactive waste perturbed from this site  by a private company over forty years ago.  Is this the fate of Northern Colorado south Texas and southwestern South Dakota?   How can we stop it?   If you want to argue for uranium mining please look closely at this image first!

Friday, November 13, 2009

More Fun with Water Drops

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Post with the Most on Tom Paine's Ghost!

The competition is brewing up some interesting conversation. In contemplating her entry Kristianne of The Woolly Mamas writes in response to the Astronomist...

"I think exploring the analogous potential of cosmic re-ionization and the cultural renaissance is a brilliant idea. However, I would deduce that they are analogous because the periods of time they both succeeded have been mistakenly understood to be "dark" and empty and void of "knowing." I think it would be more interesting to argue that the smeary, rewritten, consciously contrived version of mediaeval history that has sunk deep in our collective cultural understanding is much like the time on Earth that preceded the first appearance of stars and galaxies, that both were periods of profound holism, unsensationally brimming with the foundations of all matter and knowledge--a richly saturated but star-less sky supplanted by glistening heavenly bodies in perfect geometry, and likewise fame-less monks who healed the cancerous and lame, premier decipherers of universal truths credited to later "light"-dwellers Copernicus and other great men of fame who's discoveries survived the careful revision and distortion attempts of the (re)written-record-makers."

~ I see what you are saying Kristianne. Useful knowledge has certainly emerged from unlikely places and often gone with no assigned credit. In the end you say (re)written-record-makers have made attempts to distort truths. I heartily agree with your assessment and see that as the beauty of living at this moment in history, where all literate people are the authors of history. Literacy has never been more essential for survival and your argument provides the reason. If only those in power write the record books they will be inevitably biased on the side of the superpower.  Our sustained ability to freely and openly communicate is the cytoskeleton of democracy.

Thank you for your wisdom and insight!

Words of Wisdom from the Tallest Man in the World

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


A scientific understanding of the cosmos begins by gaining a sense of perspective.  Thanks to Mary and Claudia for digging this out of their memory banks.

Beauty in the everyday: water drop

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pride of the Navajo

Post with the Most on Tom Paine's Ghost!

Get your keyboards dusted off and ready to take part in a good ol' fashion competition of creativity. The first annual Post with the Most on Tom Paine's Ghost is underway. Read the details here. A cash prize and glory as long as the internet lives await the winner.

The Astronomist shows the first inkling of interest bringing our collective attention to a dark period in the history of the universe.

"My own research centers around the end of the cosmic dark ages, reionization. The cosmic dark ages are a period of time between about 300,000 and 1 billion years after the big bang where there were no stars or galaxies. During reionization the first stars and galaxies formed and the modern era of galaxy evolution began. Quite and amazing analogy to the cultural renaissance. Perhaps I should write about this..."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Happy Birthday Carl!

Today is Carl Sagan's 75th birthday. May his spirit live on. A real world Spock, Carl Sagan represents so much to anyone lucky enough to catch even a little of his infectious enthusiasm. My fascination with Carl did not begin, as it should have, when I watched Cosmos in middle-school earth science class, but rather when I spent a year of weekends in Ithaca, NY talking to people that had lived around him and knew the man. His existence like the existence of so many bright stars shined through the smiles of people's faces when you asked about him. He is legend for his passion. Inspiring countless scientists to pursue their own passion for critical thinking and skepticism while balancing these things with a sense of wonder and fantastic speculation. Dragons of Eden was a transformative book for me having the same kind of effect as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Siddhartha. Recommended to me by one of my first scientific mentors this walk through the human mind was unparalleled for me in clarity and intrigue. Attempting to explain and rationalize the seemingly impenetrable world of emotions by suggesting biochemical origins and charting out evolutionary pathways the brain's systems may have arisen through brought a sense of possibility. Thinking it possible that someday humans might understand their own physico-chemical make up well enough to predict and prevent suffering made it seem worth pursuing science as a life's goal.

For me his reach went further than Ithaca, eventually following me to Fort Collins, Colorado. Here in my second year of graduate school I was lucky enough to meet and discuss some big ideas in biology with Lynn Marguilis, once married to Carl. She was visiting as a Monfort Scholar and gave two lectures, one on the Gaia Theory and one on the current state of endosymbiont thought. The most striking of the information presented there still echos in my memories. She talked about green worms that had actually incorporated photosynthsizing algae under their skin to provide food for themselves in-house! The first inklings of a plant-animal hybrid. After her second lecture she gave an extra discussion session which only a handful opted to attend. Here we were able to discuss the rise of the eukaryotes for hours almost one on one. While we talked I was tempted to ask her about Carl but kept the conversation centered on science. As the first person to really communicate broadly the endosymbiont theory she and I speculated on the origins of histones and their role in keeping distinctions between the eukaryotes and their helpful passengers - the mitochondria and the chloroplasts. The smile she had on her face as she let her biological wisdom flow into open ears came from herself, yes, but I could not help but think Carl's spirit and the synergistic conversations they must have had. Their son Dorian Sagan continues in his father's path telling the world about amazing science as it happens. If you have not experienced Carl please let him speak for himself.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Monday, November 2, 2009

Response to Robert Carter

By Kristopher Hite

This rant was composed after reading about a "geneticist" named Robert Carter who recently gave a three part lecture series in Fort Collins, Colorado on how Darwin was wrong and "modern science" disproves evolution.

Intelligent design proponents sure know how to put on a show. Sad to see that they really never talk about actual science. I'd like to know how our collective modern understanding of genetics, species, biochemical processes, proteins, plate tectonics, and sedimentation disprove evolution. To me the scientific method has uncovered an enormous amount of data to back up some of Darwin's fundamental postulations.

Evolution by means of natural selection through descent with modification. That was Darwin's novel concept and that has indeed withstood the test of time. Emerging information is constantly incorporated into the overarching theories that make up the cornerstones of modern science. And evolution is one of these cornerstones.

Since I opened by complaining that Robert Carter did not anywhere in this article talk about any actual science let me follow my own advice. While studying biochemistry it is impossible to avoid making some observations that can be very well explained by evolution. This happened for me recently while contemplating the molecules known as the porphyrins. These are the conjugated macro-cyclic rings that hold iron in its place in hemoglobin (the proteins in blood that shuttle oxygen around the body). These SAME molecules - the porphyrins - are also used by plants to hold magnesium atoms in place to do some of the key enzymatic reactions converting light energy to chemical energy in the chlorophyll. In both humans and plants the same set of enzymes build the porphyrin molecules though in the end the molecules have different functions. However, when the genetic disease porphyria arises in an animal a strange thing happens. The mal-formed porphyrins revert to their plant function as light harvesters. Indeed these molecules exist as non-functioning metabolites in any animal with a gall bladder. Called bilins these molecules serve no function other than to make the bile the green color. But in plants the "phycobilins" actually decorate the thylakoid membrane within the chloroplast and help harvest and subsequently direct light energy into the photo-centers (where the reactions that turn light energy into chemical bonds happen). In a human patient with porphyria these bilins build up to high concentrations in the skin, blood, urine and tooth enamel.

The tooth enamel is where an observer can see these molecules revert to their evolutionary heritage. When UV light is shone on the teeth of a patient of porphyria, the teeth glow! The mal-formed porphyrin molecules are reverting to their plant function - harvesting light energy! In this one instance we see that the biochemistry of humans and plants are one and the same.

We do have a common ancestor with all life in fact, and the keys to understand this fact lie in the base paired code of our genome. We can see what we call homologs. Basically these are genes that are the same in more than one species. But not only that, we can trace back, through molecular phylogeny, certain genes that have duplicated and then diverged in their ultimate function. The porphyrin-containing family of proteins is one example but there are thousands of others. This simple observation blows the "irreducible complexity argument" favored by so many intelligent design proponents, out of the water because it explains how the seemingly infinite complexity of the cell can actually be explained by the emergence of new genetic "concepts" by the process of gene duplication and divergence.

Until a vast majority of the global population can move past this silly debate of whether all living things on earth were created "as is" by an invisible sky-father 6,000 years ago, or the product of millions and millions of years of evolution by natural selection driven by descent with modification, we really can not move forward toward any kind of sustainable future. In fact, if we keep bickering about this nonsensical non-science we will most likely have a real-world rapture of our own making in the form of global resource wars caused by climate refugees, resource depletion, and overpopulation. Only by understanding why the dodo and the dinosaur went extinct can we hope to postpone our own extinction.

Are there Demons in your M&Ms?

This is why Nick and I still need to give our Biochemistry of Halloween lecture. Read about our attempt to elaborate on some rational explanations of the origins of vampires, witches, and zombies here here and here.

Our talk, originally slated for last Wednesday October 28th, was canceled due to the freak snow storm in Colorado. It was rescheduled for this Wednsday November 4th at 3PM in 101 Pathology at the CSU campus in Fort Collins, CO. If you can't make it we will try to have it up on you tube by Thursday.

Magnetic Fields in the Everyday

Magnetic Movie from Semiconductor on Vimeo.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Post with the Most

Tom Paine's Ghost is excited to announce 
a composition competition.

A $100 cash prize will be awarded for the most aesthetically powerful multi-media blog post.

Post content is limited only by the bounds of imagination.
Keep in mind Tom Paine's Ghost was founded amidst a battle to defend freedom of the press and we hope to echo that theme throughout our pages.

Submissions will be selected and judged on the basis of four criteria:

1. Clarity
2. Originality
3. Integration (at least three forms of media must be utilized, images, text, movies (you tube or vimeo), audio, etc.)
4. Power (the post's ability to motivate readers to action).

Submissions will be accepted until the summer solstice - June 21st, 2010. Please submit a link to your post in the comments section below along with a short note explaining why you feel your post  meets the criteria.  Selected submissions will be linked in a submission post here at TPG and voted on by our panel of citizen judges. The winner will be announced on July 4th, 2010 and will be notified by email. Whether this is your first post or your one thousandth all submissions will be reviewed.

You may also submit your post in an email to

The above scene is one of ten panels that adorn the double doors to the octagonal building known as the baptistry in the center of Florence, Italy. In 1401 a competition was held among the sculptors of the day for the privilege of creating these doors. Doors Michelangelo would later dub the "gates of paradise." The use of point perspective and heightened human realism marked the end of the dark ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. As we emerge from eight years of darkness perhaps a competition in the context of New Media can facilitate the evolution of our communication.

~Cheers to revolution via evolution!

For your Perusing Pleasure

The editor of Boneshaker - Evan P. Schneider - has a nice piece in here about his experience as "Landfill" in this year's Tour de Fat.

The Biochemistry of Halloween: Installment II

Mothers and fathers watched the shriveled toes of a poor beggar swing from the gallows. They placed their faith in God that the death of this unfortunate person might take away the torment, fits, and visions  that plagued their children. That somehow through supernatural forces the sensations of ants crawling underneath skin, delusions of bursting into flames, and frenzied shrieks of terror in the night would cease. As the the seasons brought new harvests the number of swinging bodies dwindled. But bouts of bewitchment would visit the same locales for centuries.

This was a typical scene in the medieval villages that lined the dank Rhône and Rhine River valleys following the seam of modern-day Germany and France south through Switzerland to the Italian boarder. Here and in other curiously coincidental micro-climates all over Europe something dark and treacherous lurked in the fields.

During the cold, wet growing seasons a deep maroon colored fungus Claviceps purpurea reared its ugly sclerotium amongst the ears of rye. Looking much like the rooster's spur the killer was given the french name - erogot. When rye was milled the flour could contain up to 30% ergot by dry weight. And so it goes that the biochemistry of bewitchment had its origins under the millstones of fifteenth century Europe.
During this age the peasantry ate an enormous proportion of the darker cheaper rye bread; upwards of three pounds a day. As the alkaloids synthesized by the ergot made their way into the blood and brains of those apparently seized by demons, the unaffected were left to assume they had been bewitched. The linguistic fossil preserved in the very word - seizure - describes the uncontrolled fits the affected displayed. A condition known at the time as "St Anthony's fire"  (aka Ignis Sacer) did not become known as ergotism until 1853 when the clinical connection to the mycotoxins was finally made.

Mycotoxins contained in ergot infested rye caused two distinct varieties of ergotism. These toxins are known as the ergot alkaloids and the two classes each have separate physiological effects - gangrenous or convulsive ergotism. Ergotamine, a powerful vaso-constrictor preventing blood flow to the extremities, is the main culprit in gangrenous ergotism.  Whereas ergine and lysergic acid hydroxyethylamide cause convulsive ergotism. These lysergic acid compounds have 10% the activity of the infamous psychoactive drug -LSD.  Both LSD and the ergot alkaloids induce hallucinations by a similar and yet poorly understood mechanism.  Structurally similar to serotonin these compounds bind serotonin receptors in the brain. It is not known how this induces hallucinations but it is thought that agonist activity to serotonin releases higher concentrations of the neurotransmitter glutamate in the brain's cortex exciting neurons in random ways.  This would explain the varied psychological effects reported by individuals under the influence of this class of drugs.

By their activity these compounds were known long before their chemical makeup was uncovered. Ergotamine had been used for nearly two centuries in midwifery to stop hemorrhaging after birth and also to induce abortion. In the first half of the 20th century the other ergot alkaloids were probed for other uses such as blood pressure and migraine treatments.  A young chemist named Albert Hofmann working for Sandoz pharmacueitcal company in Basel, Switzerland literally stumbled across LSD while performing organic synthesis of ergot alkaloids.  His wild bicycle ride is a story of scientific lore worthy of its own post.

But here we are focused on the science behind medieval bewitching. The connection between ergotism and witch trials was first proposed by Linda Caporael in 1976 where she hypothesized in the Journal Science that Ergot could have been the real world cause of the supposedly supernatural events that transpired in the village of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.  
In her paper  Caporael outlines the evidence for convulsive ergotism being the scourge that set off the string of hangings accompanying the infamous witch trials.  Mainly she points out that the symptoms of ergotism, -spasms, the sensation of ants crawling under skin, and the feeling of being disemboweled - were all recorded by the court clerk when taking the testimony of the affected teenage accusers.  Indeed the very fact that the accusers were female and in their teens also implicates ergotism as these are the most susceptible individuals in any community where there is an outbreak.  Lastly, she turns to the geographic distribution of the bewitchment. Here she reconstructs a map of Salem village where she hypothesizes that a contamination of grain grown on the eastern bank of the Wolleston river could have been the only source of ergot and still affected all the families involved.
Less than a year after her paper was published skeptical scientists came in to refute her claims.  Spanos and Gottlieb assert that Caporael is incorrect in her hypothesis and they give several reasons. They  report that more towns people should have shown signs of convulsive  ergotism, that the afflicted girls did not testify to to having exactly the same kind of symptoms expected form classic ergotism, and that the town most likely did not have a vitamin A deficiency that normally accompanies convulsive over gangrenous ergotism.  Reading these rebuttals there is no hard evidence in either direction.

Despite this  disagreement Caporael's work inspired Mary Matossian to conduct further investigations into the possible connection between witch trials and ergotism outbreaks throughout the middle ages up until the 19th century.  In her book Poisons of the Past Matossian lays out an incredibly convincing argument that outbreaks of ergotism indeed correlate to increased incidence of witch trials.  She explains how tree ring data taken by x-ray measurements of tree ring density compiled for every year from 1269 - 1977 C.E. can be compared to an annual index of number of witch trials with statistical correlation in southwestern Germany and the Swiss alps. 
Years where the growing season was cool and wet correspond to thicker tree rings and therefore seasons in which the amount of fungus growing amongst the rye was high.  These long wet seasons directly preceded autumns with more witch trials. Like the medieval trials the Salem affair was also preceded by two years of unusually cold spring weather. Though there is evidence for a connection between ergot and witch trials in both Salem and the multitude of trials that took place in Europe throughout the middle ages, evidence is stronger for the later. In 2000 Alan Wolf writing from the Harvard Medical School further put the cabash on the Salem ergotism hypothesis.  But if Carporeal had never posed the question the work of Matossian may never have been conducted.

Further evidence for medieval outbreaks of both gangrenous and convulsive ergotism in Europe during the 16th century can be taken from a contemporary reporter.  Transcending language and centuries the oil paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder give us an unusually clear window into recent human history.  In the ergot alkaloid figure above a painting titled "the beggars" depicts peasants in what is now Belgium in the mid 1500's begging for food with stubs for limbs.  Considering the geography and timing of these depictions it is not difficult to imagine that these poor souls are suffering from gangrenous ergotism.  Following his brush further we see in the 1562 painting below the story of Dull Gret or "Mad Meg" as she is known in English.  Leading a band of paranoid peasant women she storms the gates of hell, armed with cooking utensils, fearful that Spanish soldiers will pillage her village.   "Mad Meg" of Flemish folklore may be under the influence of lysergic acid compounds found in Ergot!

When the imagery of Bruegel is conjured into mind one can't help but wonder if generations of creative medieval  minds weren't  unwittingly dosed with background levels of the psycoactive components of Ergot.

As samhain approaches it would do us good to contemplate the possibility that some of the most infamous characters of all hallows eve my indeed have had very real biochemical origins.

I would like to thank Nick Clark for our many discussions and collaboration on this topic and George Hudler for his kind advice and additional references.

Caporael, L. (1976). Ergotism: the satan loosed in Salem? Science, 192 (4234), 21-26 DOI: 10.1126/science.769159  

Schweingruber, Fritz H., BrÄker, Otto U. & SchÄr, Ernst (1979). Dendroclimatic studies on conifers from central Europe and Great Britain Boreas, 8, 427-452  

Friday, October 30, 2009

Holy Wolfram Alpha!

Here Stephen Wolfram introduces a new kind of search engine.

The idea is to take all the math that has ever been conjured by humanity and build it into a search engine such that any person out there on the world wide web can type in any question and have this search engine send back a "search results" page with that question analyzed by all relevant mathematical tools.

In the introduction you can see and be mesmerized by some of the complex functions wolfram alpha is capable of.  Brilliant! To say the least.

It seems this is an attempt by Stephen Wolfram to answer Hans Rosling's call to action made at TED in 2006.

Why didn't this exist when I took P-Chem?
Thanks Nate for the heads up!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Defining Demon

St. Anthony tormented by demons
by Martin Schongauer ~1480s

n his book Demon Haunted World Carl Sagan claims that the word "demon" comes from the Greek word for  "knowledge" yet in looking around the internet to verify this I am unable.  Some explanations make more sense than others. I would think it logical that it somehow has a root in common with the word "Deity" say in the Greek word "deiwos" that originally meant a shining or bright light.  But how does this then translate to knowledge?  Does anyone out there know the source Carl Sagan used to claim that the word demon comes from the Greek word for knowledge?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

You Can't Burn Blogs!

According to this telegraph article a pastor in North Carolina will celebrate All Hallows Eve with a good ol' bonfire fueled by books!

“We are burning books that we believe to be Satanic,” said Pastor Marc Grizzard.

Friday, October 23, 2009

6.02 x 10^23 HAPPY MOLE DAY

At 6:02 tonight join in celebration of National Mole Day. I'm all about making this an international holiday but the relevence to this particular date only make sense in the context of the American way of writing out the time and date (6:02 10/23).

Little Guys Under Attack!

Activate team internet! Boycott Hansen Beverage!!! They are using their Goliath-style corporate might to bully a tiny Vermont brewery. The brewery named one of their beers the "Vermonster" so Hansen Beverage Inc. claims this is a copyright infringement on their "Monster" energy drinks. Now I know most TPG readers cringe at the thought of buying a Monster energy drink in the first place but, take it to the next level. Hansen Beverage A California company and the parent company of Monster sure does a good job putting up the facade of green-friendliness, but underneath those green scales lies a real corporate monster! Join in the Hansen Beverage Boycott!!! 

Check out Jim Hightower's piece on this topic.

Or outwit them.  Ben and Jerry's could sue Hansen Beverage as they used the name Vermonster years ago for their giant tub of ice cream!


Still think we should continue the boycott to send a message to any corporation thinking about pulling a move like that!