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Why government-funded duck penis research is a good thing

Apparently, some segments of the media are just catching up to The Great Duck Penis Meme of 2007 and the video-enhanced version from 2009. If you've somehow managed to erase this from your memory (and lucky you), it turns out that duck penises are pretty freaky looking and can teach us a lot about how evolution works. Like a lot of basic research — the stuff that isn't directly about creating new products — duck penis studies have been funded by federal science grants. And this has put science writer Carl Zimmer in the awkward position of sticking up for duck erections. In a great piece at The Loom, he explains why silly-sounding research matters and why duck penises are not a waste of your tax dollars. Maggie

Famous "star cradle" might have been destroyed long before we ever discovered it

This is one of the most-famous astronomy photos in the world. Called "The Pillars of Creation" it was taken by the Hubble telescope in 1995 and shows massive columns of hydrogen gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula—7,000 light years from Earth. Part of why these are a big deal is that columns of dust and gas like this are places where stars form.

But here's a cool and/or disappointing detail I hadn't known about until today. Back in 2007, researchers took more images of this region of space using the Spitzer Space Telescope. These shots suggest that the Pillars of Creation might actually be long gone—destroyed thousands of years ago by a nearby supernova.

A striking image from Spitzer shows the intact dust towers next to a giant cloud of hot dust thought to have been scorched by the blast of a star that exploded, or went supernova. Astronomers speculate that the supernova's shock wave could have already reached the dusty towers, causing them to topple about 6,000 years ago.

However, because light from this region takes 7,000 years to reach Earth, we won't be able to capture photos of the destruction for another millenium or so.

Space is crazy, y'all.

Read the rest at The Daily Galaxy

The fine art of the scathing insult

One of the things I enjoy about writing for BoingBoing is the opportunity it's giving me to learn how to write reviews of books. That's not something I'd ever done before I started writing here. And I'm only now getting around to experimenting with not only describing books I like, but figuring out how to talk about books I find to be flawed. Fair criticism is a difficult skill to learn.

That's why I'm sort of simultaneously terrified and in awe of this 1991 book review, published in the International Journal of Primatology. In it, anthropologist Matt Cartmill expresses his opinions about sociologist Donna Haraway's book Primate Visions. I don't know enough about either scholar, or the book, to have an opinion about whether Cartmill is right or wrong. But, wowow, is that a blistering review.

This is a book that contradicts itself a hundred times; but that is not a criticism of it, because its author thinks contradictions are a sign of intellectual ferment and vitality. This is a book that systematically distorts and selects historical evidence; but that is not a criticism, because its author thinks that all interpretations are biased, and she regards it as her duty to pick and choose her facts to favor her own brand of politics. This is a book full of vaporous, French-intellectual prose that makes Teilhard de Chardin sound like Ernest Hemingway by comparison; but that is not a criticism, because the author likes that sort of prose and has taken lessons in how to write it, and she thinks that plain, homely speech is part of a conspiracy to oppress the poor.

This is a book that clatters around in a dark closet of irrelevancies for 450 pages before it bumps accidentally into its index and stops; but that is not a criticism, either, because its author finds it gratifying and refreshing to bang unrelated facts together as a rebuke to stuffy minds. This book infuriated me; but that is not a defect in it, because it is supposed to infuriate people like me, and the author would have been happier still if I had blown out an artery. In short, this book is flawless, because all its deficiencies are deliberate products of art. Given its assumptions, there is nothing here to criticize. The only course open to a reviewer who dislikes this book as much as I do is to question its author’s fundamental assumptions—which are big-ticket items involving the nature and relationships of language, knowledge, and science.

Via Evgeny Morozov

Image: Fear and Suspicion, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from alyssafilmmaker's photostream