The day I met a creationist at the science conference


The last place you expect to meet a creationist is at the annual American Geophysical Union conference. I don't know how I got so lucky.

Yesterday morning, I wandered through the posters presented at the event, with a thought to translating their scientific jargon into something interesting to read. Since my background is biological, I thought that discipline would be the obvious place to start—in particular, something about microbes doing interesting things under the surface of the Earth.

A title caught my eye. It was one of the first posters in the aisle, so prominent to the casual passerby:


Dinosaur bones and diamonds! My brain, attracted to both old and shiny objects, sent me in closer to investigate. As I was trying to interpret the densely-packed board of letters, numbers, and figures printed in incredibly tiny print, I was approached by a slight, elderly man in glasses. A name badge declaring him to be Hugh Miller, the first author on the poster.

He asked if I had any questions. I asked if he could just give me a quick summary of the work. He talked about performing mass spectrometry on samples of various dinosaur bones that produced age estimates ranging from 15,000 to 50,000 years. My spidey-sense tingled. I peered over his shoulder, searching for bullet points to figure out what was going on here.

That's when I read it: "humans, neanderthals, and dinosaurs existed together."

The poster was challenging radiocarbon dating using Carbon-14 (C-14) isotopes. It suggested that their data, comparing coal, diamond, wood, and dinosaur bones, were sufficient to throw all of geology into question. Namely, that based on their data, the age estimate of the dinosaurs was off by some 2000x.

Moreover, humanity must be increasingly concerned about asteroid strikes to the Earth, because that age estimate error would influence our estimate of the size of the whole universe (since we look at the size of the universe through the lens of time), which would mean that everything in our solar system is more densely packed. Hence, we are more likely to be hit by asteroids because they are so much closer to us than thought.

This makes about as much sense as the Indiana Jones movie with ancient alien archaeologists.

credit: Paramount Pictures

credit: Paramount Pictures

I don't know if Hugh saw the quizzical look in my eyes, but when he was interrupted by someone asking for something, I quickly backed away.

Now, here's the thing about Carbon-14 dating. This isotope has a very short half-life (the time necessary for the element to reduce in mass by half) of only 5730 years. Since it decays so quickly, it is useless for dating objects more than about 40-50,000 years old. The background levels of C-14 radiation in the laboratory have to be compensated for.

According to the NCSE website:

"This radiation cannot be totally eliminated from the laboratory, so one could probably get a "radiocarbon" date of fifty thousand years from a pure carbon-free piece of tin."

And, this is pretty much what the poster presented.

When looking at fossils preserved in sedimentary rock, the fossil itself can be dated, but often a technique called "bracketing" is used where the igneous rock on either side of the fossil is dated with radioactive isotopes that have half-lives on the order of millions of years. This give scientists a range of time in which the animal could have lived. The poster authors, Hugh included, were basing their attack on one technique in the geological toolkit, and disregarding all other evidence that would have undermined their conclusions.

How did this abstract get past the selection process? I have no idea, but I hope that people at the conference were able to see that it was not science. It was an example of belief masquerading as scientific inquiry.

Adventurers can help science by sharing their data

"K2 8611" by Kogo - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

By adding a little sampling to their adventures out in the wild, explorers in hard-to-reach locations could lend a big hand to scientific research.

An organization called Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation hopes to bring the two professions together in the name of science.

This week, I sat in on a session at the American Geophysical Union meeting in which the speakers discussed the merits of citizen science and the potential impact that explorers could make on scientific data collection.

Many scientists are explorer and trek across the globe, but often they have responsibilities that keep them tied to the institutions where they work with limited opportunities to get into the field for data collection. If sampling techniques can be simplified and standardized so that anyone can learn how collect the necessary bits of rock, water, flora, etc. at particular sites, why not ask the people who are already out there to help out?

Additionally, those out exploring are often on the front lines of witnessing changes to our planet, and are passionate about wanting to help in some way.

Not all science can utilize the citizenry, but for those projects that can, this seems like an amazing resource on both sides of the equation.

Find more queer women of color on Netflix

Sistah Sinema aims to offer a wide selection of films by and about queer women of color. It's via a partnership with Indieflix which hopes to add about five titles per month to the platform while showcasing global diversity.

Memberships are only $5 per month, and Colorlines recommended films including Cheryl Dunye’s important 1997 film “The Watermelon Woman” and Kourtney Ryan Ziegler’s look at black transmen, “Still Black".

[h/t Elixher]

Scientists track water locked hundreds of miles underground


The Earth is full of water. Not just lakes, river, streams, and oceans on the crustal surface, or even aquifers close to the surface—the planet literally holds water inside itself.

Deep inside the mantle, where the temperature and pressure are so high you would think it impossible, viscous crystalline rocks potentially trap the equivalent of the Pacific Ocean.

Last year, scientists found a diamond with the tiniest speck of an olivine mineral called ringwoodite in it that was 1.5 percent water by weight. Ringwoodite only exists at great depths, some 550-660 km beneath the surface of the Earth, where phase transitions alter the structure of olivine into something that is more capable of holding water.

Convection within the mantle could conceivably bring water held in olivine back to the surface. In the case of the ringwoodite-containing diamond, the process was rapid and explosive, but it is more likely to be slow and gradual. The inner-Earth's water cycle is thought to take on the order of 250-500 million years.

There are chemical processes at work around undersea vents and volcanoes by which water gets incorporated into rock in the Earth's crust. The crust is constantly moving, with separate plates jockeying for position, rubbing up against one another, and sometimes getting subsumed underneath each other.

When one crustal plate dives beneath another, that's called subduction. This process is thought to take rocks, and the water held in them, down into the mantle.

At about 100-150 km down, the rocks start to break down under the pressure and increasing temperature. Water gets released during the breakdown process, but it's not entirely efficient. A lot of water remains tied up in the minerals as they break apart, and recombine through chemical reactions. They head ever deeper.

We know that ringwoodite can hold water, but it has been determined that below 660 km, ringwoodite transitions into yet another form of olivine called bridgmanite, which can't hold much water. However, seismic mapping experiments have detected areas of melt, melted material held within the crystalline solids that differ in their chemical composition, and which are possibly indicative of water, at depths of 760 km. This is 100 km deeper than water should be able to venture.

So, how does the water get there? And, how is there still water deep down there if the cycle keeps taking the stuff back to the surface? What is the missing step?

Wendy Panero, PhD

Wendy Panero, PhD, an Assistant Professor at Ohio State University, has been addressing these questions with her graduate student, Jeff Pigott. Together, they created computer models of the lower mantle, and came up with an answer.

Garnet. The burgundy-colored mineral is stable at depths beyond what ringwoodite can handle, and well into the lower mantle. It is possible that garnet could be a water-carrying missionary into the land of bridgmanite.

If the mechanism is correct, it puts another link in the chain of Earth's inner water cycle, and when connected to the oceans and atmosphere, it puts the duration of a complete cycle on the order of billions of years. Additionally, it constrains the amount of water that could be contained within the Earth by specifying the minerals that are in the chain, and determining their respective contributions to the cycle. Whereas previous estimates have put the amount of water in the mantle at 1-3 times the amount of water on the surface, this study brings that quantity down to a single ocean. Regardless of the reduction, this is still substantial considering that all of the water could have originated from geochemical processes alone.

The interior of our planet is something we can't touch, unless it spits itself out at us. Our technological abilities allow us to mimic it ever more precisely with each passing advancement. The lab Dr. Panero has created contains a piece of equipment called a diamond anvil cell, which squeezes minerals between two diamonds in order to apply immense amounts of pressure, and then fires a laser to bring up the heat to subterranean levels. Her lab just might have the burn marks to prove it. She also gets to take that diamond anvil cell to a synchrotron where she and a team of physicists fire high-energy x-rays at it.

Dr. Panero is also a planetary scientist in addition to investigating our Earth's geochemical pathways, and she suggested that plate tectonics might be the key to Earth's abundance of water. The mantle probably plays an influential role in the amount of water that is in our oceans, and consequentially the amount of carbon that it can store. However, Panero mentioned that this finding raises more questions than it answers, as we know very little about the content of these melts at great depth, the other things they could carry within them, and exactly how they move through the mantle's circulation.

If we want to get a better idea of our planet's formation and modern state, rather than simply considering the Goldilock's zone as the place where water can be liquid, we need to look at our and other planets with a broader eye toward what Panero called the "geochemical Goldilock's zone"... that place where all the chemical and physical processes on and in a planet can allow for the culmination of something like oceans and an atmosphere.

Maybe we are even more lucky than we thought.

Dark mornings: tool to help you calculate gloomy commutes

gmoomyThe toughest part of the Winter season isn't the cold, the blues, or December's annual cramming of a full month's work plus last-minute whatevers into three actual work weeks (are you on Boing Boing pre-holiday procrastinating? Hey, me too!) The hard part is commuting in the dark.

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Painted portraits of juggalos

UK born, South African educated painted visited America and produced a series of beautiful portraits of Juggalos.

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WATCH: Funny videos about weird apartment neighbors

Jackie Jennings makes and stars in these videos about nutty apartment neighbors who come by to bug her.

LISTEN: The Thunder Stone

Thunder Stone

In 1768, Catherine the Great ordered her subjects to move a 3-million-pound granite boulder intact into Saint Petersburg, a task that seemed flatly impossible with the technology of the time. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll learn how some inspired engineering moved the Thunder Stone 13 miles from its forest home to Senate Square, making it the largest stone ever moved by man.

We'll also learn whether mutant squid are attacking Indiana and puzzle over why a stamp collector would be angry at finding a good bargain.

Show notes

Please support us on Patreon!

Tldrbot: great works of literature in seconds

Tldrbot is the latest bot from Shardcore (previously, previously, previously) that slurps up great novels, algorithmically summarizes them to 1% of their length, then spits out audio files of a synthetic Scottish woman's voice reading those summaries aloud.

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Integrity For Sale: Sword and Laser Podcast

This week we almost wrap up The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, discuss the intricacies of eBook DRM and try to decide just how high a price our integrity would fetch. We also wonder the same about Neal Stephenson and Steven Hawking. Join us, won't you?

Full show notes here!
Support us on Patreon!

Report: U.S. planning “proportional response” to Sony hack, blamed on North Korea

“We can't allow a hacker gap!”

“Gentlemen! No fighting in the war room!” A scene from Kubrick's classic war farce, Dr. Strangelove.

One day ahead of an expected announcement by U.S. officials that North Korea is responsible for the devastating hack on Sony Pictures, CNN reports that federal investigators have evidence that “hackers stole the computer credentials of a system administrator to get access to Sony's computer system.”

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Things you do that really piss me off


Available at


Pulp Nintendo

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A series of Nintendo-themed pulp fiction covers by Ástor Alexander, an artist based in San Diego, CA.

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Report: Google building new Android OS for use in cars, with no smartphone required

A Google self-driving vehicle is parked at the Computer History Museum after a presentation in Mountain View, California May 13, 2014. Photo: Reuters

A Google self-driving vehicle is parked at the Computer History Museum after a presentation in Mountain View, California May 13, 2014.
Photo: Reuters

Reuters reports that Google is developing a version of Android “that would be built directly into cars” to allow drivers to use the Internet without having to use a smartphone as an intermediary device.

The move is a major step up from Google's current Android Auto software, which comes with the latest version of its smartphone operating system and requires a phone to be plugged into a compatible car with a built-in screen to access streaming music, maps and other apps. The first such vehicles will debut in 2015.

Google, however, has never provided details or a timeframe for its long-term plan to put Android Auto directly into cars. The company now plans to do so when it rolls out the next version of its operating system, dubbed Android M, expected in a year or so, two people with knowledge of the matter said.

"Google aiming to go straight into car with next Android - sources"

Maker-themed "Few of my favorite things" remix

Legendary maker Becky Sterns is in top form as she waltzes around the Adafruit offices singing about her favorite things in this holiday video.

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