Saturday, December 17, 2005

Science News Roundup: the cause of Beethoven's deafness, genetics of skin color, and the new arguments of the anti-evolutionists

Here are some recent science stories I found interesting:

• Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory have analyzed pieces of Beethoven's skull, finding very high levels of lead.
Beethoven experienced a change of personality and abdominal illness in his late teens and early 20s that persisted throughout his adult life. His abdominal symptoms and autopsy findings are both consistent with lead poisoning, Walsh said.

There are documented cases of deafness resulting from lead poisoning, they added, but this has been uncommon. So it remains unclear if the poisoning also caused Beethoven’s deafness.
The composer apparently hoped that someone would determine what ailed him, so others would not have to suffer.

Scientific American reports on the recent discovery of a mutation in a gene encoding a protein critical to the production of the pigment melanin.
Nearly all humans of European descent have a version of the gene with one type of amino acid, threonine; nearly everyone else has another, alanine. This suggests that a so-called "selective sweep" for the gene, wherein a gene variant confers a benefit and is thus selected for, took place among European ancestors.
Of course there is still a lot more to discover:
Uncovering this gene, however, does nothing to solve the question of why Europeans developed lighter skin in the first place--though it is believed to represent an effort to boost production of vitamin D in sun-deprived latitudes. Neither does the work reveal the genetic basis for the lighter skin tone of some Asians. The finding does promise, however, to yield new insights into potential skin cancer treatments and other skin-related diseases.
Bubbly Red Stuff reports (with links to gory detail) why it's a stupid idea to sit on a block of dry ice for 90 minutes, even to win concert tickets. (via Improbable Research)

The Eagle Forum (Phyllis Schlafly's organization) has published an essay with a novel anti-evolution argument; if evolution is true, then man is an animal. True enough so far (and I would say that man is an animal even if the creation account in Genesis is literally true, but I digress). This apparently leads to two intolerable conclusions:
If man is an animal, but man is also made in the image of God, what does that make God?
and
But our treasured U. S. Constitution is written by persons and for persons. If man is an animal, the Constitution was written by animals and for animals. This preposterous conclusion destroys the Constitution.
I'll have to admit that I don't follow this argument at all. If the Constitution was written "by (human) animals for (human) animals" and we are indeed (human) animals, what exactly is the problem? Yes, the emphasis was in the original. Perhaps my problem is that I was taught with 20th century textbooks, rather than the 19th century school books based on Intelligent Design. (Eagle Forum link via evolution blog, Washington Post article via Red State Rabble).

• Finally, the journal Nature has compared 50 science entries in Encyclopaedia Britannica to those in the community written Wikipedia. They found that they are of comparable accuracy (3 errors per article in the Britannica, 4 errors per article in Wikipedia). The advantage of Wikipedia, however, is that errors can be easily corrected when they are spotted. Are you an expert in any topic? Do your part to edit.

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