Monday, September 18, 2017

Homo naledi: there is another

Homo naledi composite cranium

In case you don't keep up with such things, the underground astronauts have resumed excavating fossils from the Rising Star cave.  They're recovering bones of Homo naledi at both the Dinaledi (101) and Lesedi (102) chambers.  This morning Lee Berger tweeted about a third site in the same cave system:

As I've noted before, a second fossil site (Lesedi) suggests that the entire cave system was being used for deliberate burial of Homo naledi.  Using Dembski's design filter, we can rule out chance as a cause by using specification, characteristics of an event that suggest deliberate or intentional action.  In Rising Star, we might argue for chance if we found one chamber of hominin bones, even though the characteristics of the original Dinaledi chamber are extremely difficult to reconcile with that interpretation.  Three similar sites of hominin bones in the same cave system effectively rules out chance.  These Homo naledi bones were deliberately placed in that cave.  Homo naledi buried its dead (because as I see it, they were human beings).

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Lab Meeting 5: Minor Miracles

The week of the big eclipse, our longsuffering intern came back to town for her final semester at Bryan College.  She had spent the summer interning elsewhere and learning the latest techniques in DNA sequencing.  Her project with us is our ongoing studies of mutant trillium flowers.  We hoped last year to sequence at least one floral gene from our mutant flowers, but our approach didn't work.  Thanks to your support for our building project, we are currently buying the equipment needed to continue this work at the new Core Academy facility.  We are very thankful that we'll be able to streamline our work on this project.

One thing was still lacking though: We don't have a DNA sequencer on site, but our intern shared with me about a new gadget that allows you to sequence DNA using a USB device that plugs into your laptop.  No, I'm not kidding.  For those in the know, it uses nanopore technology, and it's designed for portability.  It's called a MinION, and the starter kit costs only $1,000!  I told her that we were doing really well with our renovation budget, and we would probably have enough left over to buy one.  But we wouldn't know if we'd have enough until the building renovations were done, and by then, she'd be graduated.

The Sunday after we met to talk about the trillium project, a friend came over and slipped me a folded check as I sat in church.  I smiled and thanked him and tucked the check into my shirt pocket.  I had seen him at our eclipse party, and he had mentioned to me that he wanted to make a contribution to our project.  As soon as the service was over, my wife took the check out of my pocket.  "You need to look at this," she said.

I guess we'll be getting our DNA sequencer after all.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Friday, September 1, 2017

About those Trachilos tracks

I suppose I should say something about the Trachilos tracks. I've received a couple messages about this on Twitter and Facebook. Scientists from a mostly European collaboration announced today that they have discovered early hominin trackways from northwest Crete. They date the tracks to around 5.7 million years ago (late Miocene). Unsurprisingly, headlines claim that this is a "huge" "game-changer" and "challenges theories of human evolution." Let's see what the hype is about.

First of all, these are some smudgy footprints. Here are some clear ones that the authors included in their paper to support their anatomical inferences.

Select Trachilos prints from Gierliński
et al. Figure 9.

Note the 5 cm scale bars. Prints A and B are about 10 cm long, and C is about 12-15 cm. That's four to six inches for us Americans. By contrast, my foot is about a foot long. The smudginess of individual prints does nothing to detract from the bipedal appearance of the tracks though. Check out this shot:

Stance indicated by Trachilos tracks. From
Gierliński et al. Figure 8.

Note again that scale marker. Those prints are about 15 cm apart, which is about 6 inches. Whatever made these prints was quite small.

What can we make of these? Are they hominin prints? Could be. The prints give me the impression of a foot that is slipping around on mud as the creature walks, so I'm not sure I want to put a lot of stock in the purported anatomical details of the prints. Nevertheless, I also don't want to underestimate the validity of the trackways as a whole. They are very interesting and suggestive of hominin tracks.

Are they game changers? Not really. The conventional date for these prints is 5.7 million years. On the evolutionary scale, that's just about the time of the human/chimpanzee last common ancestor. There are putative fossil hominins from Africa that are older than these tracks (Sahelanthropus) and one (Orrorin) that may have been a contemporary. So if these tracks were made by a bipedal hominin, then they are in good company with other African fossils that are also purported to be early hominins. The only thing mildly interesting about the implications is that they extend the range of early hominins out of Africa. Not much of a shocking result. In any event, hominin fossils from that putative age are pretty scant, and this adds just a bit more evidence.

What might this mean for creationists? If the tracks do turn out to be hominins in Europe, it's not a threat to evolution. It just means that early hominins were more widely dispersed than evolutionists previously thought. Big deal.

A creationist might interpret these as either very small early humans (not outside the realm of possibility given the existence of other small-bodied humans like 9-year-olds or Homo floresiensis) or as early representatives of the created kind that includes other bipeds like Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis). I don't think it matters very much, but it would be nice to see a set of bipedal animal tracks from a non-human created kind in closer proximity to Ararat than African australopiths.

So long story short: These footprints are conventionally older than most African human and bipedal ape fossils. They might have been made by really small people or by small bipedal apes. Either way, they're neat. They do not represent a huge threat to theories of human evolution, since they are consistent with other hominin fossils known from Africa. They're merely found in a location we hadn't known about before. I suspect any controversy over the prints will be over the quality of the prints rather than the fanciful notion that they are a threat to human evolutionary theories.

Don't like my comments? Read the article for yourself:

Gierliński et al. 2017. Possible hominin footprints from the late Miocene (c. 5.7 Ma) of Crete? Proceedings of the Geologists' Association DOI: 10.1016/j.pgeola.2017.07.006.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

My eclipse experience

I'm sure you've seen more eclipse reactions than you can shake a stick at.  And here's my little video from our eclipse party with the students and families of Rhea County Academy.  I don't have any grand words of wisdom.  It's just an amazing experience.  Truly one of the greatest shows in all of God's creation.  See it if you can.  It's more than worth it.  The next total solar eclipses will be in South America, but the US will get another eclipse in 2024.  Totality will last about twice as long, and the path of totality will run from Texas to Maine.  See it if you can.  It's astonishing.

(And for the record, before I get corrected: I got so excited when totality hit that I conflated "chromosphere" and "corona."  What you see during totality is the corona.)

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Just enjoy the eclipse!


OK, I'm going to try to be nice, but I've been reading some unbelievably stupid things on social media lately, so I'll do my best.  Apologies ahead of time if you've fallen for some of these absurdities.  If you actually believe some of these whoppers, please don't.  Stop twisting reasonable cautions into irrational fearmongering.

1.  You do not need to stockpile groceries, gas, prescriptions, etc.  It's not the end of the world.  The total eclipse lasts two measly minutes.  This is no time to panic, riot, or loot your neighborhood store.  Get over it.  Stop scaring people.

2.  Unless you get a large portion of power from the sun (California), you are unlikely to experience a power outage.  I saw a hysterical facebook post that said the power stations are unprepared for the sudden demand for power during the eclipse.  The total eclipse lasts two measly minutes.  There's no way that's going to cause such a spike in demand that your power goes out.  The power doesn't go out at night, does it?  Same deal.  Get over it.  Stop scaring people.

3.  You do not have to protect your pets because they'll stare at the eclipse and go blind.  Just... no.  Animals know enough not to stare at the sun.  They don't stare at the sun on a normal day, do they?  They don't stare at the sun when it's cloudy, do they?  No.  Your dog isn't going to go blind if you let him out during the eclipse.  He might be disoriented by the darkness, but that's it.  Get over it.  Stop scaring people.

4.  There is absolutely nothing special about the solar radiation during an eclipse.  Nothing.  Do you stare at the sun on a normal day?  No?  Can't do it because the sun's too bright?  That's the same deal during an eclipse.  The warnings are for you to take sensible precautions and not try to "tough it out" and stare at the sun while the moon only partially obscures it.  The warnings are not supposed to inspire some irrational fear so that you skip the eclipse.  If you're in the path of totality (or even near the path) and you're able to get out, you need to experience this thing for yourself.  It's one of creation's grandest shows.  It's a gift from God.  Enjoy it!  Stop scaring people.

Sensible advice: If you want to look at the moon partially eclipsing the sun (for the 90 minutes before and after totality), use eclipse glasses or a pinhole viewer.  Traffic may indeed be a bit crazy Monday, but probably no worse than a well-attended football game.  Drive safely, leave extra time to get where you're going, and you should be fine.  You can look directly at the eclipsed sun only when totality begins if you are in the path of totality.  The corona of the sun should be faintly visible around the darkened disk of the eclipsed sun.  That should be a spectacular view, and it's not dangerous.  When you take off your glasses during totality, be careful to watch the clock, so you can put your glasses back on when the sun reappears.  Please don't waste all your time during this amazing experience trying to take pictures.  Snap a few shots, then enjoy the show.  Watch the world around you.  Feel the temperature drop.  The temperature will also cause a small breeze as the cool air under the moon's shadow falls and moves away from the shadow's center (No, it isn't dangerous.  It's just a breeze.  Stop scaring people.)

Here's some advice on glasses for kids and pinhole viewers from my old pal Dr. McGarvey and his colleague Dr. White:

Remember: If you skip this just because you're scared, you can't just change your mind when you see that there was nothing to be scared of.  Totality only lasts for two minutes.  The next two total solar eclipses go across South America in 2019 and 2020.  After that, you have to wait till 2023 across southeast Asia and 2024 before an eclipse comes back to North America.  In 2026, you could go to the arctic to see one.  So this isn't like any other event that rolls around regularly.  You may never have another opportunity in your lifetime to see this right outside your door.  Get ready, take sensible precautions, and enjoy!

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.