Nature Other

Galileo satnav

The first satellite of Galileo, the EU’s competitor to GPS, was launched yesterday – initially to test out the kit, with the service planned to go online in 2010. One of the explicitly stated aims is provide independence from reliance on the US government, since GPS is a military system that is made available for civil users at the discretion of the government and, presumably, the Pentagon. I’m always intrigued when interaction between Europe and America slips into rival-Great-Powers mode, rather than the usual closest-allies shtick.

In practical terms the project sounds pretty sane to me anyway (not that that I know much about these things). In future, I’m sure all the devices that currently use GPS will be designed to use both – Galileo is designed for compatibility with GPS anyway – and the number of GPS-equipped things will increase for some time yet. The combination of GPS and Galileo will provide better accuracy than either of them alone and will provide backup if either goes offline for whatever reason. So it’s not a redundant system just reproducing the functionality of GPS.

Whether all that justifies the cost is another question. €3.4bn sounds a lot, but it pales in comparison to the €50bn for the Common Agricultural Policy this year. I think it’s probably a good idea, but then I am a bit of a geek.

Nature Other

Vatican Starman Slams ID!

“The Vatican’s chief astronomer said on Friday that Intelligent Design Theory isn’t science and doesn’t belong in science classrooms.”

The ‘Vatican’s chief astronomer’? I wonder if CERN has a head priest who can be consulted for a theological perspective on particle physics.

I don’t suppose the Vatican astronomer is empowered to define the Catholic Church’s theological stance on all scientific issues, even though he *is* an astronomer. So why is this news? Because the media prefer a story with an obvious hook, however fundamentally pointless, to a subtle but informative one.

The link came from Claudia.


Singing Mice

This is a fabulous story, in the Guardian. Make sure you listen to the samples. The sound of singing mice doesn’t seem to freak out the cat, unlike slowed-down blackbird song. Via Metafilter.

[I couldn’t get that blackbird link to work today – I don’t know whether it’s just a problem with my connection or a problem with the website]


APOD does it again

NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day is often pretty cool, but even by their standards this one‘s a doozy.

Culture Nature

‘The Mating Mind’ by Geoffrey Miller

I’ve just read The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped Human Nature by Geoffrey Miller. The book’s argument is that many of the typical characteristics of human behaviour are best understood as products of sexual selection. Sexual selection is the process where you start with some ancestral bird species where the females have a bit of a thing for longer tails, and a few thousand generations later, they’ve evolved into peacocks. I suppose there are two key insights I’d take from the book, neither of them completely new to me but worth being reminded of.

The first is this – it’s easy to think of natural selection as being driven by adaptations for survival, with sexual selection being almost cosmetic in its effects. It doesn’t matter how good-looking you are if you starve, die of disease or get eaten by a lion before you get a chance to breed. But from an evolutionary perspective, there’s no point in living to a ripe old age if you can’t attract any sexual partners. Both scenarios are evolutionary dead-ends. Also, selection is not necessarily an either-or process (either you survive or you don’t; either you breed or you don’t). Rather, it’s driven by differential rates of reproductive success. And within a well-established species, it’s easy to see how the biggest single factor in determining reproductive succcess will often be the ability to attract a mate. The results of sexual selection will often appear cosmetic – coloured feathers, or an attractive song – but that’s just because those are the things a potential mate is able to perceive. It doesn’t mean that sexual selection is a less powerful force than ‘normal’ natural selection. In a sense, this is an obvious insight; anyone who has ever heard a nightingale or a blackbird singing must be aware of how much effort it is costing them, and there are few more spectacular adaptations than the plumage of a bird of paradise. And just because sexual selection mainly operates on external features, it doesn’t mean that it is limited to those features. Applied to humans, it doesn’t have to be limited to skin colour, breast size and hip-waist ratios. There’s no reason why it can’t also operate on people’s ability to hold a conversation, or dance, or sing. The only requirement is that there must be some genetic component.

The other insight is that anywhere in nature where we see an oganism with a physical feature or behaviour that doesn’t seem to have any survival benefit, it’s worth considering sexual selection as the explanation. Natural selection is inherently thrifty – we should never expect to see energy being expended without there being some reason for it. If that reason isn’t survival, pretty much the only other possibility is an attempt to attract mates, either directly or via increased status. And sexual selection can take almost any form. There are reasons why some adaptations are more likely than others, but the process is essentially arbitrary; once some trait becomes associated with sexual attractiveness, it’s a self-sustaining trend. The explanation is almost too powerful – you can see how it would become a lazy assumption faced with anything slightly unexpected, but as far as I can see, it’s very difficult to disprove. Geoffrey Miller certainly sees sexual selection everywhere – he uses it to explain sport, art, poetry, music, language, dancing and indeed just about everything that makes us human.

I find this argument moderately persuasive, I must admit. As ever, there are questions about which human behaviours can really be seen as written into our genes; can music making really be seen as an evolved trait? Or sport? They seem to be human universals, so it’s not a ridiculous idea, but I’m still slightly wary about making the assumption. But for more obviously evolved traits, like language, it seems very plausible that sexual selection would be the principle driving force.

On the whole, though, I found the parts of the book about human behaviour less interesting than those about sexual selection generally. I’ve read about sexual selection before but to have it treated in depth as a subject in its own right was helpful. For example, the classic examples used to illustrate sexual selection involve dramatic sexual dimorphism, as with the drably-plumaged peahen, or the difference in size between male and female elephant seals. But Miller points out that those are a special case where a few successful males account for the vast majority of offspring. Even in species which form largely faithful pairs, there is an advantage in being able to attract the best (healthiest, most fertile) mates. In that situation, the effects of sexual selection will be less dramatic, but will still be present. For example, in bird species where colourful plumage is found in both sexes, they have traditionally been referred to as ‘species markers’; Miller suggests that these could still be the results of sexual selection.

So I would have liked more of the book spent on sexual selection in general, with more illustrative examples from other species, and slightly less of the human stuff at the end. But it’s a good book, and I recommend it.

Nature Other

Bad science reporting

Ben Goldacre says (full article here):

There is one university PR department in London that I know fairly well – it’s a small middle-class world after all – and I know that until recently, they had never employed a single science graduate. This is not uncommon. Science is done by scientists, who write it up. Then a press release is written by a non-scientist, who runs it by their non-scientist boss, who then sends it to journalists without a science education who try to convey difficult new ideas to an audience of either lay people, or more likely – since they’ll be the ones interested in reading the stuff – people who know their way around a t-test a lot better than any of these intermediaries. Finally, it’s edited by a whole team of people who don’t understand it. You can be sure that at least one person in any given “science communication” chain is just juggling words about on a page, without having the first clue what they mean, pretending they’ve got a proper job, their pens all lined up neatly on the desk.

Amen, brother.

Of course, it’s not just science reporting. Any time you read an article in the paper on a subject where you have some specialist knowledge – Anglo-Saxon poetry, or birdwatching, or husky racing – it’s always riddled with inaccuracies and misleading phrasing. But inaccurate reporting on Anglo-Saxon poetry is pretty harmless, whereas inaccurate reporting of, say, research into the MMR jab can scare a lot of people, undermine confidence in medicine and potentially cost people their lives.

I vaguely assume that in the core news subjects (politics, business and sport, especially) the reporters have enough real expertise to know what the important stories are and how to present them accurately, even if they don’t choose to do so. But perhaps they’re floundering around in the same fog of ignorance that seems to afflict science journalists.