Monthly Archives: February 2008

Please Talk to Kids About AIDS? Really?

Not sure if my second-grader is quite ready for this kind of talk yet, although being raised by a couple of biologists, she may know more than her average classmate. But this film is intriguing, and worthwhile if it gets more people learning about AIDS, I suppose. So go watch: Please Talk to Kids About AIDS – Free Streaming Movie.

*cough*… it might just be the flu talking!


If you are wondering about the rather diffuse and widely spread nature of recent posts on this blog, folks, then please bear with me for a little while longer. I’ve been under the cosh (since soon after our last Café Scientifique meeting) from this nasty flu that’s laying low much of the great Central Valley this February. I hope to be back to regular speed soon – although I’ll have a great deal of catching up to do workwise, so the blog may continue to ramble along a tad slowly…

And btw, this video from the local ABC affiliate (also linked above) actually shows some of the local incubators where my particular virus probably came from – my younger child’s preschool or the older one’s elementary!

Of all the great infectious diseases my immune system was primed to handle growing up around Bombay, the flu was the least of anyone’s concern as far as I remember, yet here it is decades later knocking me out for weeks in this temperate zone! Go figure!!

Losing religion can be easy and painless…

…and even a child can do it (presuming, of course, that the child has already been indoctrinated into some faith in the first place). Ricky Gervais, that British star of The Office (the original) and Extras shares the story of how he became enlightened at the wise old age of 8:

I started thinking about it and asking more questions, and within an hour, I was an atheist.

It can be that simple, folks, although even the great squid loving flaming atheist PZ Myers of Pharyngula apparently took “years to ease my way out of the nonsense”. I’d have to say my own enlightenment didn’t take too long and was no pain at all once I’d discovered Darwin and Gould, Steinbeck and Zola in high school (yeah, ok, I was older than Gervais by then!).

Is it easier, I wonder, to go from growing up believing in a few hundred million gods to none at all, than to give up all that faith focused on just a single imaginary being?

Half a Century of Symbolic Peace!

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The Peace symbol turns 50 today! Here’s an interesting tidbit about how it originated. I didn’t know that Bertrand Russell, that old atheist, was involved in its creation:

it was invented on the request of lord bertrand russel, head of the british ‘campaign for nuclear disarmament’ or CDN and sponsor of mass marches and sit-downs in london. the graphic symbol was designed by gerald holtom, a member of the CND movement, as the badge of the ’direct action committee against nuclear war’, for the first demonstration against aldermaston (a british research center for the development of nuclear weapons) in 1958.

And how’s this for irony: the designer first turned to a religious symbol, only to be rebuffed

holtom, a professional designer and a graduate of the london royal college of arts, had originally considered using the christian cross symbol within a circle as the motif for the march, but various priests he had approached with the suggestion were not happy at the idea of using the cross on a protest march.

Protesting nuclear disarmament made these priests uncomfortable! And later, when the simple sign had become the international logo of peace, other pious religious types sought to ban it because was “satanic” or “communist”

the power of this symbol is emphasized by the fact that various far-right and fundamentalist american groups, during the 1970s, seriously considered forbidding it (they have spread the idea of satanic associations and condemned it as a communist sign). in south africa, under the apartheid regime, there was an official attempt to ban it.

For more, you might turn to National Geographic’s Peace: The Biography of a Symbol being released on April 1, 2008.

May the next half century be more than symbolically peaceful…

The Age of American Unreason

Having grown up as a nerd in a culture where nerds didn’t generally get beaten up or bullied, but were often actually treated with respect (imagine that!), I’ve never fully understood the strong anti-intellectual streak in American culture, which seems so at odds with this country’s leadership in many areas of intellectual endeavor, notably in science. And these past few years of repthuglican rule have, of course, done little to dispel the fear that this country, this culture, is sinking deeper into a morass of anti-intellectualism and irrationality. And these fears many of us have been feeling, have apparently been part and parcel of US history, with the same curious brain-vs-brawn dichotomy of a culture dependent on the brain for all the hi-tech in daily life, including, especially, military tech, nevertheless willing to be subjugated by brawn, right from when kids start going to elementary school! Of course, I doubt the culture back home in India has remained the same, but I’d hate for it to get as ugly as it often seems here for those interested in leisurely pursuits of the intellect over more muscular pastimes.

Nevertheless, the depths of unreason being plumbed now, by those in positions of power in American politics and popular culture, are causing some serious alarm bells to be rung. Last year we had Al Gore lamenting The Assault on Reason, following Chris Mooney’s frontline reporting of the Republican War on Science. Now a heavier intellect has weighed in who should be worth watching on the telly tonight, when Bill Moyers interviews Susan Jacoby. Here’s an excerpt from the PBS website promoting tonight’s interview:

The notion that Americans aren’t often at the top of the ladder of erudition isn’t new. Every year the media points out how poorly U.S. kids perform in math and geography feats compared to many other nations’ school children. Susan Jacoby follows a notable scholarly tradition with her new book, THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON. In 1964 historian Richard Hofstadter won the Pulizter Prize with his lament — ANTI-INTELLECUTALISM IN AMERICAN LIFE: ‘The national distaste for the intellectual appeared to be not just a disgrace but a hazard to survival.’ Jacoby says of Hofstatder’s work now: ‘It is difficult to suppress the fear that the scales of American history have shifted heavily against the vibrant and varied intellectual life so essential to functional democracy.’

And while you wait for your local PBS affiliate to air Bill Moyers Journal tonight, or for the video to be posted on their website, go watch Moyers’ last interview of Susan Jacoby, from back in 2004 when he had not yet been pushed out of PBS’ Now, and she had just published Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, another scholarly tome that should have received more attention than some of the other more notorious atheist books on the bestseller lists.

Jacoby’s new book is also featured in a New York Times essay entitled “Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?” that is well worth the read. And it happens to be the top most emailed story from the NYT right now, although no one seems to have blogged about it yet.

Meanwhile, I better go make some room on my nightstand for a couple of more volumes…

Frogs and Ants in the Colbert Nation

While recovering from the flu this past week I’ve been catching up on various media bits I tend to stockpile (don’t ask me why…), and caught the recent appearance of Mark Moffett on the Colbert Report, talking about frogs, and promoting his new book Face to Face with Frogs:

And in digging up the above video to share here, I also found Moffett’s earlier equally entertaining appearance, last fall, to talk about ants:

I know late-night talk-shows often feature segments with animals, but I think the Colbert Report and Daily Show usually end up with a much higher science::entertainment ratio than other typical late-night comedy shows – even though their segments tend to be shorter, and often funnier, they still mange to extract a lot of good science out of their interview subjects. Not surprising, I suppose, given that in general they cover pretty much all news better than many regular news shows in this country! And in 22-minutes, not 24-hours.

Happy Birthday, dear Charlie Darwin!

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Aren’t you glad that our campus is finally joining in the global celebrations of Darwin Day?

I recommend starting your morning off with some excellent reading material, and audio-visuals as well, courtesy the Guardian’s special pullout section celebrating Darwin. Of course, those of us on the wrong side of the pond can’t really pull-out that special section, but we can partake in much multi-media goodness on their excellent website. Any chance our local rag might at least mention Darwin today, you think? (unlikely – I couldn’t find anything on their website) And who better to get you going than Darwin’s rottweiler, Richard Dawkins, who writes:

Charles Darwin had a big idea, arguably the most powerful idea ever. And like all the best ideas it is beguilingly simple. In fact, it is so staggeringly elementary, so blindingly obvious that although others before him tinkered nearby, nobody thought to look for it in the right place.

Darwin had plenty of other good ideas – for example his ingenious and largely correct theory of how coral reefs form – but it is his big idea of natural selection, published in On the Origin of Species, that gave biology its guiding principle, a governing law that helps the rest make sense. Understanding its cold, beautiful logic is a must.

Go read the rest of it at the Guardian or on Dawkins’ own site.

I trust you will later be taking a stroll on campus to check out our interactive christo-esque project to spark a conversation about Darwin and Evolution:

There will be a Christo-esque display of major ideas about evolution, both pro and con, hanging from a line that will run from the Satellite College Union to Joyal Administration. Paper will be provided so you can add your comments to the display. Come see the display and participate by adding your ideas.

And to round off the day, come learn about how parts of our own bodies are evolving:

Professor Fred Schreiber of the Department of Biology will present a public lecture and discussion titled

“NATURAL SELECTION: EVOLUTION IN ACTION IN HUMAN STRUCTURE AND FUNCTION”

5:00-7:00 P.M., TUE 12TH FEB, 2008, ROOM 109, SCIENCE 2.

Dr. Schreiber will cover topics as diverse as skin color, the epiglottis, varicose veins, malaria and lactose intolerance. All are welcome.

“Darwin’s theory provides the theoretical and conceptual foundation for all of the biological sciences, and remains one of the most momentous intellectual developments in human history. The Department of Biology is committed to accurately representing Darwin’s ideas, and takes great pleasure in this opportunity to emphasize his seminal contribution to science and society.”

So let’s remember Charlie, in his own words:

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

– Charles R. Darwin

Happy Darwin Day everyone!