Monday, October 31, 2011

How Scientists Are Scamming The American People

From the inimitable The Daily Show, Aasif Mandvi reports on how scientists are scamming Americans for selfish financial gain and confusing them by teaching them facts and rational inquiry. The indoctrination begins -  as Mandvi finds out - at labor camps for the young known as school science fairs.

Check it out.

via WEIT.

U.S. Shale Basins Map On GeoCommons

GeoCommons, the public mapping site run by FortiusOne Inc. has added a map of shale basins of the United States to its database. Go here for the metadata and to create your own map. You can also download this data either as a kml file or a shape file or as a text file.

Since I last visited the site, Geocommons has brought more analytical capabilities into the public domain. Users can now select from a list of spatial analytical tasks like data merging, data aggregation, buffer, intersection, clip. A lot of the familiar GIS spatial functions are now available from the cloud.

You can search for geology and other data sets and can also subscribe to the feed to keep track of new additions. This is really a great open access mapping tool with a very attractive interface and plenty of options to thematically display your map attributes. You can also contribute data. Uploads can be in kml, shape or text format. You can also import data available through a web URL i.e. you can import say a kml file from another server or data that can be shared through a WMS (Web Map Service) which is a protocol for streaming map images over the internet. This way you are linking to data that is stored somewhere else. Your display will automatically update when the primary data changes.

Its really worth your time browsing through this site exploring their data collection and experimenting with making maps.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Darwin And Hitler And Other Interesting Evolution Talks And Readings

A compilation of evolution related news I came across the last week or so:

1)  How do new species evolve? Peter and Rosemary Grant have undertaken a monumental multi-decadal study of the finches of the Galapagos islands. They explain the conditions that lead to speciation, part of the Brilliantly Illuminating And Lively Lecture Series.  If you don't have time to sit through the talk, the Panda's Thumb has a summary of their findings.

2) Donald Prothero, author of the book Evolution: What The Fossils Say And Why It Matters writes about recent occasions of creationists organizing geology field trips with the aim of reinterpreting the geological record to fit a young-earth creationist view point and of creationists presenting papers at the Geological Society of America meetings.

3) Darwin and Hitler- that old bogey keeps getting raised again and again. At the Planets of the Apes blog Faye Flam puts down that bogey... again! The follow up posts  ( 1 2 3 4 ) on this topic are worth reading too.  P Z Myers at Pharyngula also pitches in and points to an upcoming scholarly work by Michael Lackey which shows that the Nazis were very much a Christian Reich.

4) At the Cosmos and Culture blog anthropologist Barbara J. King explains Paleolithic diets in the context of the recent fad adopted by some to revert to the diet of our hunter gatherer ancestors as a way to healthy living.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Encouraging The Return of Foreign Trained Indian Scientists

India is promising a rapid expansion of its higher education infrastructure. To cope with the demand for well trained faculty it is encouraging the return of Indian scientists who have been studying and researching abroad.

Current Science has carried an interesting series of articles  (all open access) on the problems of meeting the increasing demand for faculty and researchers.

P. Balaram in a lead editorial - citing other indicators such as the willingness of researchers to return - suggests, giving some examples from China that an obsession with foreign trained scientists and a neglect in improving the local talent pool may end up causing some harm to the research environment.

A. Lohia disagrees with the word "Luring" used by P. Balaram in his editorial and expresses faith in the initiatives taken by the government to encourage the return of Indian scientists.

Mukesh Pasupuleti  agrees that the word "Luring" is quite  appropriate. He writes about the experiences of a prospective returnee.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Thoughts On The "Irrefutable" Evidence Of The Yeti

Is there a connection between last year's discovery of Denisovans and the recent surge in interest in the Yeti. Last year a team of scientist found fragments of a human finger bone in a cave in the Altai region of Siberia. Materials dated in the cave indicate that these humans lived about 41,000 years ago.  The surprise was when DNA recovered from the bone was sequenced and compared with living humans and Neanderthals. The differences in the DNA sequence suggested that these fossils represented a distinct human population, as different from living humans as we are from the Neanderthals. They were called the Denisovans after the area where these remains were found.

What is the story of the origins of these Denisovans? After the origin of our genus Homo in Africa around 2 million years ago, humans from time to time migrated out of Africa.  Descendants of one such migration around half a million years or so evolved into the Neanderthals in Europe and the Denisovans in East Asia. These were long lived populations. Within Africa too there were probably different varieties of humans. We Homo sapiens evolved from one such population and when members of Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa around 75 thousand to 50 thousand years ago they would have encountered and interacted with the Neanderthals and Denisovans. Did we interbreed? The answer is most likely ..yes. Genetic analysis now strongly suggests that both Neanderthals and Denisovans have left a small but distinct genetic legacy in us.

The status of Neanderthals and Denisovans as separate species of humans now stands challenged. They had certainly evolved into a distinct variety of humans, much more different than the differences seen between the broad groups of living humans. But not enough so as to prevent them from successfully interbreeding with a population (us) they confronted after a few hundred thousand years of separation.

The Yeti off course would be the ideal candidate to imagine a still living Denisovan population in the isolation of Siberia. The ecology described historically for the Yeti includes remote mountainous regions, caves, cold weather, temperate forests.. landscapes that also describe one of habitats of the Denisovans, although the Denisovans probably had a range that include the tropics too.

Stories of a mysterious human-like creature wandering the wilds are part of the mythology of many cultures.  Such a creature thought to be living anywhere from Tibet to Siberia has been called the Yeti.  Now, Russian scientists a year after the sensational discovery of the Denisovans have found "irrefutable" evidence of the Yeti in the form of  impressions on the ground and some hair and a supposed bed from a setting uncannily similar to the Denisovan fossils.... In the cold of Siberia in a cave surrounded by temperate forests.

I can't help thinking that the Denisovans more than prompted this latest "evidence" of the Yeti.

The Yeti has always been thought of and pictured as a brutish sort of a creature.  It is usually described as a bipedal ape,  hinting at its proto-human like character. One famous picture of the Sasquatch (the Yeti's equivalent in north America) shows a hairy gorilla like creature  turning its head to face the camera.  The Yeti in East Asia has also been described as big and hairy. It has traditionally been a creature which has been emphasized to be more "primitive" than humans but occasionally with some redeeming qualities. In Tintin In Tibet ( Picture Source),  the Yeti saves and looks after Chang, a Chinese boy who is a survivor of a high altitude Himalayan plane crash.

These depictions of the Yeti may be a reflection of how we thought and maybe still do about archaic populations of humans. They were thought to be separate species. Different from us reproductively. We didn't breed with them. There was no intimacy between us. They were sub-human.  The Neanderthals for long were considered primitive dumb brutish cave dwellers whom we superior modern humans drove to extinction. We were wrong about that. As we learn more about Neanderthal society that perception has changed over the last couple of decades. And now we know that all of us are part Neanderthal and part Denisovans.

Will our description and iconography of the Yeti change to accommodate this new understanding of human evolution? Now that we understand that there is a continuity and not a chasm between us and other varieties of humans who lived on earth, will we depict the Yeti as a less grotesque, less intimidating, more empathetic social creature, and not the one solitary ape roaming the expanses of Tibet and Siberia. Will the Yeti become more human and less beast? Will science guide this particular theater of science fiction?

Will the Yeti become no more abominable, but just an ancient snowman?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bhuvan Continues To Be A Mixed Bag As A Citizen Mapping Tool

After my last post on the use of Google Earth to identify illegal mining in Goa, I was curious to find out if I could replicate the same in Bhuvan, India's public mapping portal.

I was disappointed:

1)  There is no historical imagery available, or at least none that I could find.  So I could not pull out older imagery to verify claims made about the presence /absence of mining before a certain date.  This is not due to a lack of older imagery. The Indian Space Research Organization has had a remote sensing satellite program since the late 1980's and imagery  of at least 23 m resolution is available for  the last couple of decades and imagery of 5.8 meter resolution is available for the last 12 years or so (IRS - 1D). The 5.8 m resolution images are fine grained enough to identify large features like open pit mines.

2) I could not find the open pit mines using "search by name". In Google Earth I could zoom onto the area of the open pit mines by searching for the nearest settlement "Maina" which was mentioned in the article on the Goa mining scam by the newspaper Herald.   In Bhuvan, the search by name database works best for towns and cities. The village level data is still incomplete. Even when a small village is present in the database the imagery does not always zoom to that area, nor is the village annotated to allow easy navigation to it. These are the basics of interactive map navigation design and Bhuvan is falling short.

On a general note, its been close to three months since the government announced that 1 meter resolution data will now be available without need for security clearances. Yet Bhuvan still is not streaming imagery finer than 5.8 meter resolution.

On the data download front, elevation data of CartoDEM 1 arc second (Digital Elevation Model derived from Cartosat 1 imagery- 1 arc second corresponds to roughly 30 meters) and Resourcesat-1: AWiFS imagery (56m) of the Indian region can be downloaded from the NRSC Open EO Data Archive. You can choose the product and the area of interest from the Bhuvan interface. The DEM download is a welcome addition. You could previously download 1 km resolution DEM of India from the USGS and also 30 m relative DEM generated from the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) from NASA.

However, regarding imagery the government's all too cautious approach is perplexing. If 5.8 meter resolution and 1 meter resolution data are available and now cleared for access to all users without further security checks, why not let users download that data too?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Catching Illegal Mining In Goa Using Google Earth

Ogle Earth points to the use of open access tools like Google Earth to alert us to the possibility of illegal mining. From their blog:

There is a juicy scandal unfolding in India’s smallest and richest state, Goa, where the State Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has prepared a report indicting ruling Congress Party politicians for benefiting from illegal mining in the state. Illegal mining is estimated (by the Hindustan Times) to have cost Goa over USD 600 million over the past five years in lost tax revenues, turning this into a whopper of a story.....

...India’s national Directorate of Mines and Geology has now also taken an interest in the mine, ordering it to immediately cease production until it is investigated. An article by Goa’s Herald spells it out for us:

Tarcar has cheated the government by avoiding huge amounts of export duty by under-invoicing of his exports.

When presented with evidence of massive ore dumps that could not have been produced within quota, his mining company contended that these were from earlier activities. Google Earth’s imagery from 2003 effectively catches the company in a lie.

Check out the imagery here. No open pit mines in 2003. The 2011 imagery shows large open pit mines.

These ores are part of the rich iron ore belt of Goa. They are Precambrian Banded Iron Formations generally thought to be of sedimentary origin and are associated with medium and high grade meta-sedimentary rocks of the Archean schist terrain that makes up large portions of south India.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Online Interactive Geological Map Of India

I keep tabs on the India Biodiversity Portal, one of the best India based open access web mapping applications focusing on natural resources.

They have online now an interactive geological layer created by digitizing likely 1 : 1 million scale Geological Survey Of India geology maps. The contributor is R. Ravindranath of the Foundation of Ecological Security. You can click on geological units and get a description of the unit. You can also thematically style the geology based on Geological Age and Lithology. And you can control transparency so as to get an idea of the relationship between say physiography and geology. The physiography layer is one of the Google base layers available for display.

Other geology related overlay layers are India Aquifers, India Soils, India Geomorphology and India River Basins. I wish they had different display styles like transparent cross hatch, dots, symbols and lines and so on to choose from to enable easy visualization of multiple themes but perhaps that is something for the future. Unfortunately none of these geology layers are available as downloads. Government owned vector data is still not being distributed freely in digital format. I hope there is a change in policy on that soon.

But this is an important and growing resource for geology and biodiversity data. You can register and contribute layers to the natural resources database. Most Layers not under government control are downloadable (as shape files, GML and text) but contributors are free to choose the level of restrictions they want under a Creative Commons license.

Scarcity Of Earth Science Specialists Hurting India

Shobhan Saxena's article in the Times of India on the scarcity of earth science specialists throws Indian geologists in poor light. She quotes a geologist:

"From the data available and signs in recent years, it's clear that a big earthquake of magnitude 7/8 is long overdue in north India, but we are not prepared. The government geologists are happy monitoring the Richter scale and announcing the intensity of the quake when it happens. That's it," says the expert who doesn't want to be named.

Ouch... that is harsh. But there is some truth in it. A case in point is the website of the Geological Survey of India. Apart from a four line statement, there has been no effort to explain the Sikkim /Nepal earthquake. And no easily accessible details that I could find of what the Geological Survey scientists are doing or attempting to do in terms of a sustained program to educate the citizenry about earthquakes and other geo-hazards.  The media coverage didn't help either. There were no lead articles by geologists in major newspapers and no geologists appeared on major news channels to talk about the earthquake and earthquake preparedness.

You can't pin the blame entirely on the scientists. The article points out that we have few scholars pursuing advanced degrees in geology and earthquake studies. That may be right. But the problem is not just the small number of geologists but that their recommendations regarding building standards and construction practices are flouted with impunity. If its accountability you are looking for then you need to cast the net wider to encompass the polity and civil governance. Politicians, civic officials of municipalities and builders must share the blame for allowing the growth of the unplanned chaotic tottering towns of the Himalayas.