Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Science marches on

As I believe I have mentioned before, I'm a lifelong (well, since age 13) subscriber to Scientific American. They've been trying to dumb it down a bit of late, but it's still a great way to keep up with what's going on in disciplines from my own. You can't read the actual magazine without a subscription, but the free stuff they do offer is here.

So, comes now Brian Switek in the latest issue with the most important and vexing mystery facing science. How did dinosaurs do it? And by "it," I mean what you think "it" means.

The most substantial clue is that the living birds which are closest to the base of the lineage possess a male member. (I assume I don't have to tell you that birds are in fact dinosaurs.) You may not have known that most birds do not -- they just kind of rub up together. I didn't know that in fact. Anyway, crocodilians, the lineage most closely related to the dinosaurs/slash birds, are similarly endowed. Ergo, dinosaurs had wieners.

But, as you already know, some of them were really, really big, and they had big fat tails that would be hard to get out of the way. It turns out, based on computer simulations (yes, some cheetoh-dusted Dr. Pepper swillers actually did this) that the females could have supported the weight of the males in the standard posture of four-legged mammals. (There is a business in the nearby town called Doggie Style Pet Grooming. Really.) However, there are two problems. One is the tail. This could have been a manageable problem assuming the male threw only one leg over the female and approached somewhat from the side.

However, as you probably recall from your youthful obsessions, many dinosaurs had elaborate plates and spikes along their spines which would have turned any amorous male into a eunuch. One possibility is that the female lay down on her side. It occurs to me that they might even have addressed more hominum, as Melville said of the whales.

The main reason I raise this issue is that it asks us to reflect on why we do science. I mean, who cares? What difference does it make? The answer is, we're curious. We just want to know stuff. We want to figure it out. More than that, human knowledge is a single structure. Physics, cosmology, biology, chemistry, archaeology, geology, astronomy -- all are woven together in a single tapestry of light. Everything we learn, everything we figure out, makes everything else more clear.

This is one reason why religion is so destructive. Every false belief founded on faith degrades all of understanding and assails the foundation of every other truth.


DavidKNZ said...

"This is one reason why religion is so destructive. Every false belief founded on faith degrades all of understanding and assails the foundation of every other truth. "
That too is a statement of faith. Faith that science can and will explain everything, Goedels theorem not withstanding. :-)

Cervantes said...

Not so. It does not assert that "science will explain everything," it asserts that it is the best way we have to explain things. That isn't based on faith, it's based on logic and experience.

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