An interactive periodic table

TED-Ed has created a nice interactive periodic table of the elements. If you click on the screenshot below, you’ll go to the site, and then just click on the element of your choice for a several-minute video that explains it. (Alternatively, if you click on “get full lesson” below the video, you’ll go to a page with even more information.)

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h/t: Elibeth


Purity balls: an American Christian phenomenon

You may know this if you’re an American, but probably not if you’re from elsewhere. Conservative Christians in the U.S. have come up with the creepy concept of “purity balls,” in which young women, dressed in white, go to venues where the daughters make pledges of “purity” (i.e., virginity until marriage) to their fathers. Everyone’s dressed to the nines for Jesus.

As Saturday’s Independent reported, the Swedish photographer David Magnusson (who probably felt like an anthropologist encountering some alien culture) visited the US four times over five months, photographing the “couples” and interviewing them, which resulted in his book Purity, published in Sept. of 2014. For some reason it didn’t do well, and has only 3 customer reviews on Amazon. (The project’s site is here.)

Here’s how the balls go:

[Magnusson] told The Independent how the balls had a structure similar to traditional white weddings, with formal dinners, speeches, vows and dancing.

“To them the ceremonies were a very serious thing but they still seemed to have a lot of fun,” he added.

“The youngest girls I saw were one and four but they weren’t expected to make any promises about their sexuality. It was more about the fathers.”

The average age of girls Magnusson saw was around 12 or 13, the start of puberty.

One would think that a Swede, from a country of unbridled and rapacious fornication, would find these balls bizarre (as I do), but Magnusson seems to have come away with some respect for the ceremony.

“I wanted to take a series of portraits that were so beautiful that the girls and their fathers could be proud of them but that may provoke a completely different reaction from people viewing them,” he told The Independent.

Magnusson said he was “fascinated” about the marital symbolism of the clothing, vows and balls.

He was initially shocked by the movement but after meeting the families, he said it appeared not to be just about sex, but about father-daughter relationships.

He added: “The balls were founded in conservative, Christian circles where fathers might be the breadwinners and they have very traditional family roles.

“Kids might not see their fathers that much….fathers felt there was some kind of need to be more present in the lives of their daughters and be an example of the kind of husband they are looking for.”

. . . He said: “To me, Purity is a project about trying to understand how we are shaped by the society we grow up in and how we interpret the world through the values we incorporate as our own.”

Yes, well, that last sentence is simply trite, and you could apply it to any belief system, religion, or ritual that inculcates children with their parents’ values. I’m not opposed to some father-daughter bonding, but why the fathers and not the mothers? And why is this all about virginity?

Magnusson’s work has won several prizes, but to me the prizeworthiness falls in the same category as the photographs of Diane Arbus. Here are some of Magnusson’s:


From the series "Purity" by David Magnusson



If Freud were alive, he’d have a field day with this. The sad part is that we know these vows of purity don’t work: the half-life of those hymens is no longer than that of more licentious teenagers. And the pregnancy rate of the “pure” girls is higher. As the Washington Post reported in 2008:

Teenagers who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence and are significantly less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control when they do, according to a study released today.

The new analysis of data from a large federal survey found that more than half of youths became sexually active before marriage regardless of whether they had taken a “virginity pledge,” but that the percentage who took precautions against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases was 10 points lower for pledgers than for non-pledgers.

“Taking a pledge doesn’t seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior,” said Janet E. Rosenbaum of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose report appears in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics. “But it does seem to make a difference in condom use and other forms of birth control that is quite striking.”

Here’s a video of testimony from “purity girls”:

h/t: Grania

The ageing cohort of nuns

I can’t vouch for this fact myself, but it seems credible since it appears in an ABC News article about how some aging nuns, rather than living out their days in their nunnery, have had to move to a Jewish old-people’s home in the Bronx. Why? Because there aren’t enough younger nuns to take care of them. The article gives this astounding fact for the U.S. (my emphasis):

There are now more sisters over age 90 than under age 60, said Mary Gautier, a researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. The center’s 2009 study found that 80 percent of the nuns in the country were over 60.


This is just additional evidence that Catholicism is one the wane in America.

By and large, the nuns at Jewish Home Lifecare in the Bronx have few beefs, but they also have a paucity of ham:

While Jewish Home Lifecare is now nondenominational — most residents are Christian — its Jewish heritage remains apparent, with a resident rabbi and kosher-style meals in the independent living residences.

“I miss the bacon,” Richards said. Added Sister Maria Goretti Mannix, 83: “I notice that we never get ham or pork chops. The food is good, though.”

h/t: Malgorzata

Putative amphibian fossil shows “broken” bone; said to be first indication of terrestriality

Now this paper is way above my pay grade, as it involves all kinds of complicated scanning, computer, and mathematical analysis of a “fishapod” fossil. The conclusion, from a new paper in PLoS ONE by Peter Bishop et al., is that the fossil, Ossinodus sp., shows a callus on its radius (one of the two lower forelimb bones), and that this callosity may represent partial but not complete healing following a fracture (there are suggestions of an infection, and the beast may have died before healing was complete). The analysis suggests in turn that the animal fell nearly a meter onto its leg, breaking the bone. Because such falls presumably cant occur in water, the authors conclude that this creature fell on land.

From this they say that Ossinodus, which dates to 333 million years ago, was a tetrapod—a proto-amphibian living at least partly on land—and that this is the earliest tetrapod known, since before this the oldest indisputable tetrapods come from 327-331 mya. If this report and its conclusions are correct, then, this pushes the earliest invasion of the land back between 2 and 5 million years earlier than previously known.

Here’s the beast, which looks a lot like the famous Tiktaalik, itself likely a transitional form (or something related to one) between fish and amphibians Also shown is the callus on the foreleg and the caption from the paper:

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Through CT (computer tomographic) scanning, they were able to visualize through the callus to the bone, and suggest that there was a crack (fracture) indicating that the animal had fallen on its foreleg. Here’s a reconstruction of the fracture; the arrows indicate five different models of weight loading that the authors used to see what might have caused the fracture:

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After making these models, calculating the putative weight of the animal (10-25 kg), and making a few other assumptions, they conclude that this fracture must have resulted from a fall of between 0.85 to 1.1 meters, or about three feet. They say this could not have happened in the water, and, ruling out other explanations, argue that this shows pretty clearly that the animal was terrestrial. In their view, the invasion of land had begun. From the paper:

As all of the estimations and assumptions underpinning the above calculations have been made on the conservative side (e.g., the purposeful overestimation of body mass), we are confident that the force required for the radius to fracture in the manner it did was very large, and that a fall on land is entirely possible from a mechanical perspective. Consistent with a fall hypothesis, the mode of displacement along the fracture (Fig 7a) is very similar to that of proximal radius fractures in humans which result from a fall onto an outstretched arm, where the humerus impacts upon the radial head [33,34]. Since the force required for fracture in the FEA was a distributed load, this excludes the possibility that it resulted from a bite (predatory or otherwise), where an impacting tooth would produce a spatially concentrated load. We therefore conclude that the most plausible explanation for the fracture in the radius of Ossinodus was that the animal was living on land and sustained a fall.

And they claim, with confidence, that the species antedates the next oldest terrestrial vertebrate by several million years:

Ossinodus is the oldest biomechanically demonstrable, terrestrially adapted tetrapod, being at least two million years older than Casineria kiddi, and at least five million years older than the East Kirkton tetrapod assemblage. These small (generally less than 40 cm long), Scottish tetrapods have previously been widely regarded as the oldest known terrestriality adapted vertebrates.

The confidence here is stronger than the indication in the previous paragraph that a land fall is “entirely possible.” For “entirely possible” is not the same as “very probable”!

This is an intriguing finding, and the authors did a huge amount of work.  It’s possible that they are indeed correct, but I have some questions about the assurance of the authors’ conclusion. Some of these caveats may reflect my ignorance of the analysis, for it’s indeed complicated, and readers with biomechanical interests should read the paper, which is available free at the link below.

1. Was the creature terrestrial? We don’t know. The fossil was of course found in sedimentary rock, i.e., it was buried underwater. Ossinodus could have been semi-aquatic, like early amphibians must have been, but it could have been fully aquatic. There is no independent evidence, beyond the broken radius, that it was partly or fully terrestrial.

2. Does the pathology unequivocally demonstrate a fall-induced fracture? I’m sure there are other explanations for this dysplasia, or even the crack (if it was indeed a fracture that occurred during life), including developmental anomalies. Can we rule out all other causes (including bites) with enough confidence to conclude this was a fall on land? Is there any evidence that fish break bones in the same way?

3. The sample size is small. We have a single individual with a single broken forelimb bone. Is that sufficient to lead to such sweeping conclusions? It would be nice to either have samples with other broken bones, or some other indication of terrestriality.

In sum, we have an intriguing finding here, and the authors may well be correct, but I’m not sufficiently convinced by the data—and the complicated analysis—to conclude that we have an animal that was unequivocally terrestrial or amphibious. Were I the authors, I would hedge my bets a bit more than they did when claiming they’d found a “biomechanically demonstrable” terrestrial tetrapod.

I also wonder why they published the article in PLoS ONE, a journal which has a less rigorous review process than journals which vet things not just for the soundness of the analysis, but for the novelty of the findings. If I had unequivocal evidence of the earliest land animal, as the authors say they do, I would have sent it to Nature or Science.

As I said, some of my questioning may reflect my naivité about the methods and analyses, but the earliest known tetrapod really deserves publication in a more visible journal.

h/t: Steve


Bishop, P. J.,   Walmsley C. W., Phillips M. J., Quayle M. R. , Boisvert C. A., and McHenry C. R.. 2015. Oldest pathology in a tetrapod gone illuminates the origin of terrestrial vertebrates. PLoS ONE 10(5): e0125723. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0125723

Readers’ wildlife photographs

I have a big backlog of photographs from Stephen Barnard in Idaho; these are what I have from the last two days alone. They include a wonderful pygmy rabbit, which Stephen is feeding with carrots and kale, and a newborn moose. The second photo shows Desi and Lucy’s chicks; look how fast they’ve grown! Only about two weeks ago they were ugly little fluffballs.

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) and adult Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) feeding two juveniles. It’s amazing how fast they grow.



Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) in the nest with a juvenile:


And these photos are lovely; look at that baby moose!

Newborn moose (Alces alces) following its mama. This calf was born last night or this morning [JAC: sent yesterday]:




Pygmy Rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis), and also a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) in flight.



Great horned owlets:


Google Doodle celebrates Sally Ride

Had Sally Ride not died of pancreatic cancer in 2012, she would have been 64 today. She was of course the first American woman in space, having had two trips on the space shuttle Challenger at the age of 32. As the video at the bottom notes, she was chosen from 8,000 candidates.

The Doodle changes randomly each time you reload it (there are five of them), so you may want to click on the screenshot below, which takes you to the Doodle page, more than once.

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 7.18.04 AMThe last time I posted about her I was taken to task by a reader for not mentioning that she was gay. Well, she was, and I knew that, but since she chose to not make a big deal about it, neither did I. The time will come when it won’t be necessary, when celebrating someone’s accomplishments, to mention their race, gender, or sexual orientation, and when those accomplishments won’t even involve such things. But for the meantime, she died way too young, in the middle of trying, through her foundation, to get more young people involved in science.

Here’s a video by the Doodle’s artist, Olivia Huynh, explaining how she made it:

And Sally riding the space shuttle:




The Staves

How about some music for the week? (The work week in America starts today.) A reader called my attention to this group of three sisters (last name Staveley-Taylor) from Watford, England: The Staves, who for some reason had escaped my attention. Their lovely three-part harmony reminds me of Crosby, Stills & Nash, and one of them, Camilla (avec ukelele), sometimes sounds a lot like the young Joni Mitchell. The other two are Jessica, who plays guitar, and Emily, who does vocals. Their official website is here, and their Facebook page here.

They have lots of songs on YouTube, and if you want an hour of live music, watch this video.  Meanwhile, here are two songs, including perhaps their most popular (“Blood I Bled”) and a great version of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.”

Tuesday: Hili dialogue

The three-day weekend is over, and Americans will hie themselves back to work today. It will be a busy week for PCC, as I must travel to Washington D.C. tomorrow for a book event and then visit family for a day. Posting will therefore be light unless our usual crew of supplementary posters sees fit to help me out. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili, up in the trees again, spots an interloper:

Hili: I have to read up on international law.
A: Why?
Hili: An alien cat is wandering in our orchard. I don’t know whether it is legal.


In Polish:
Hili: Muszę poczytać o prawie międzynarodowym.
Ja: Dlaczego?
Hili: Jakiś obcy kot chodzi po naszym sadzie, nie wiem, czy to legalne.


Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the cats of war

Finally, for Memorial Day, Janis Row has written an article for PetPlace called “Honoring the cats of war.” Here’s just one of many stories:

In more recent times, cats and dogs have been banned from Naval vessels, but they are still valuable on land. In 2004, a tiny Egyptian Mau kitten wandered into U.S. Army headquarters in Iraq. Dubbed PFC [Private First Class] Hammer, he became a ratter, morale booster, and important stress reliever to the soldiers. When the battalion was set to ship back to Colorado, Staff Sgt. Rick Bousfield contacted Alley Cat Allies and Military Mascots for help in getting PFC Hammer back to the States. PFC Hammer was vetted and quarantined before traveling to Colorado Springs, where he took up permanent residence with Staff Sgt. Bousfield. When Hammer was being carried to Bousfield, he heard Rick’s voice and began purring and kneading the arm of the transporter. As it turns out, he remembered his Army buddy after all.

USA Today adds this:

When Bousfield found out his unit was leaving Iraq in March, he decided he couldn’t leave a member of his team behind.

“He has been through mortar attacks,” said Bousfield, a 19-year Army veteran. “He’d jump and get scared liked the rest of us. He is kind of like one of our own.”

Pfc. Hammer got his name from the unit that adopted him, Team Hammer. Soldiers would tuck Hammer in their body armor during artillery attacks, and in return, Hammer chased mice in the mess hall.

“He was a stress therapist,” Bousfield said. “The guys would come back in tired and stressed. Hammer would come back and bug the heck out of you. He wiped away some worries.”

The kitten earned his rank after nabbing five mice.

The U.S. Defense Department has a whole page on PFC Hammer, and here he is:


h/t: Larry

The Irish came home to vote

As Grania reported on Saturday from Ireland, nearly 50,000 Irish came home to vote for the gay marriage referendum (no absentee ballots can be used in such a case, for the number of expatriate Irish is huge). And of course it passed by a huge margin—some good news at a time when everything else seems dire.

To prolong the joy, go to theslicedpan and have a look at the tw**ts (on #HomeToVote) from the many expatriate Irish who came home, often from huge distances, just to cast a vote.  It’ll put a spring in your step.

Here are a few of my favorites:

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