Stories tagged Scientific World View


Karina has some competition: This baby is WAY smarter than other babies.
Karina has some competition: This baby is WAY smarter than other babies.Courtesy quinn.anya
Silver bells are ringing across Britain as the nation celebrates the discovery of its lil’est genius. Two year old Karina Oakley has scored a 160 on the Stanford-Binet IQ test, administered to her by the professor her mother hired.

An IQ scored of 160 places little Karina on the lower edge of the “exceptionally gifted” intelligence classification. The high IQ society Mensa only requires an IQ score of 132 to enter, so Karina’s evaluation places her solidly in the ranks of such official geniuses as Cutthroat Island star and V8 juice fan, Geena Davis, as well as Playboy Playmate Julie Peterson and General “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf.

Despite all of the “Raising Your Gifted Child”-type books that are no doubt currently filling the padded horizontal surfaces of the Oakley household, raising this little genius will be difficult work. This is surely why Karina’s mother allowed the story to be printed in the respected British periodical The Daily Telegraph; she’s looking for support. So let’s help out.

What does an IQ of 160 really mean? Beyond “exceptionally gifted” or “Geena Davis-smart,” I mean. Let’s explore. For Karina’s sake.

The Stanford-Binet test administered to Karina had its beginnings more than a hundred years ago, when the French psychologist Alfred Binet and his colleague Theodore Simon were studying mental disabilities in school children. They devised a test of increasingly difficult questions and activities (ranging from touching one’s own nose to explaining abstract concepts) and determined the age at which a typical child could answer or perform them correctly. How well a kid tested would determine his or her “mental age,” or their level of development relative to others. But even a hundred years ago, Binet cautioned that the results of these tests should not be interpreted literally, because there’s a margin of error inherent in such testing, and because intelligence is plastic, or changeable, anyway.

Ten years later, researchers at Stanford University expanded on the Binet-Simon test, removing some items, and adding some new ones. The resulting Stanford-Binet test has been revised several times, and it’s now one of the standard IQ or “intelligence quotient” tests. The “mental age” concept from the original test, however, is still the key idea. It’s basically the same concept as an “intelligence quotient”—both are measurements of an individual’s intelligence (or mental age) compared to a standard or average intelligence.

So an IQ score near 100 is about average. That doesn’t mean that if you have an IQ of 100 you’re just okay, while most people might be smarter than you. Necessarily, most people should fall right around 100. With IQ tests, what you end up knowing is whether you test below, about the same, or above most people.

Now, little 2-year-old Karina has an IQ of 160. Does that mean she’s tossing around quantum mechanical problems, fixing the refrigerator, and deconstructing Proust in her spare time? Probably not. The test is going to be relative to her group; two-year-olds. So most of Karina’s colleagues will have an IQ of about 100, but Karina herself, well, she’s notably more intelligent than most two-year-olds. But, then again, so is my golden retriever.

It seems like administering an IQ test to a tiny kid like that is kind of silly. Their weird child-brains are all growing and developing, and all at different rates (which is normal). So does this just mean that Karina is as smart as a 3-year-old? The dog certainly aspires to that.

Karina will probably continue to be a clever little dude for the rest of her life, but what’s important is that she now has an official test, taken when she had been alive for just two years, to prove it. That test will be like the North Star, guiding her through life, and, like the star, perhaps just out of reach. It will be the trump card in shrill arguments with school councilors. And it will, above all else, make Karina friends, especially if she’s placed in a gifted and talented program early in her education. It’s the first stepping-stone on a glorious path to a nervous breakdown as a 16-year-old college freshman. Cheers, Mr. and Mrs. Oakley.

PS— Really, what it boils down to is that I’m insanely jealous of this little girl.

PPS—A fun little bonus story regarding child geniuses:
My young cousin: The doctor tested me to see how smart I am. He said I’m a genie!
My brother: You mean “genius.”


Learning about Ant Architecture at Cafe Scientifique
Learning about Ant Architecture at Cafe ScientifiqueCourtesy Shanai

Here in the Twin Cities we are lucky to have so many great museums and cultural organizations that celebrate science, but if visiting a zoo or museum to see the latest exhibit is not enough to satisfy you, where can you go?

You might not know it, but there are plenty of science events and programs going on across the Twin Cities RIGHT NOW (depending on when you are reading this). While none of these are actually a secret, they are all ways to learn new things, to meet interesting people and to take part in discussions on relevant science topics, something Science Buzz readers already do online!

Here is a quick list of some upcoming and ongoing science events that are unique to the Twin Cities. The things I've listed here are specifically for adults and young adults, so if you are a kid please plug your ears and close your eyes and patiently wait until it's your turn to rule the world.

Shanai's Favorite Science Events (Twin Cities Edition)

1. Electricity Party

The Bakken Library and Museum throws a monthly party called Bakken Evening Out. At this event adults can play with exhibits about electricity without worrying that the kid with the runny nose who just ran past in a sugar-induced frenzy is going to give everyone the flu. Plus there is live music, wine and appetizers.

2. Water World

The Science Museum is hosting a series of Thursday night lectures in conjunction with the water exhibit. While "lectures" might sound a little dull, knowing loads of information about the chemicals in our lakes or the impact of human development on the Mississippi is a great way to be an informed citizen and a well-known smarty pants.

3. Science on Tap

The Bell Museum's ongoing Cafe Scientifique series invites University of Minnesota researchers to the Bryant-Lake Bowl for informal science talks over dinner and drinks. This month's topic is the Political Virology of Bird Flu, which should go great with a grilled chicken sandwich.

4. Books with a Bang

The Big Bang Book Club is a new science book club being held at Grumpy's Bar & Grill in Downtown Minneapolis. Participants can come to discuss the featured book even if they haven't had a chance to read it. The folks from Magers & Quinn Booksellers do an excellent job of summing things up and asking the question we are all afraid to. Plus there are tater tots for sale, which is pretty amazing.

5. Science (Art) Studio

Leonardo's Basement, a strange and very awesome science/art/technology/design studio in South Minneapolis is always up to something cool. Their dedicated adult program Studio Bricolage lets adults mess around with things and build inventions. Or art. Or anything they can imagine.

6. Science Underground

Mill City Museum is all about the industrial history of Minneapolis, the flour milling capital of the world! In April they are offering what has to be the coolest tour ever. The title, Subterranean Twin Cities, pretty much says it all.

7. Down by the River

And while you are down by the river, you can always contemplate the engineering feat of St. Anthony Falls, which is also home to the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, which occasionally hosts public tours.


Local park & recreation boards, as well as nature centers, are a great place to go for urban wildlife programs and nature tours. You can also check out Local Biology to see other upcoming events, or to make your own event out of the simple act of going outside.

Other events that I missed? Post them here on Science Buzz!


Certifiable: Photographic proof that JGordon is indeed nuts.
Certifiable: Photographic proof that JGordon is indeed nuts.Courtesy jimrenaud (with adaption by Mark Ryan)
Amateur scientist and part-time Science Museum of Minnesota employee, Mark Ryan, announced today that Buzz contributor JGordon is totally insane. Ryan said his conclusion is based mainly on JGordon's recent post regarding a Russian vodka pipeline, but also admitted that some of JG's previous blog postings were involved in the study.

"All the evidence seems to point to the fact that the guy's not playing with a full bag of jacks," Ryan said.

JGordon (Gordonoseus fruitloopius) is a species of humanoid that exists mostly in the Blogosphere and is rarely seen in nature, although there have been some unsubstantiated sightings of the creature loitering in front of museum vending machines. But even then it's not easy to know for sure if it's the real JGordon or a cleverly disguised extraterrestrial wingnut.

The results of Ryan's study appear in today's issue of Science Buzz.

See how you rank against JGordon
More insanity


I'm Radioactive Man!: The boots hide my ankle bracelet!
I'm Radioactive Man!: The boots hide my ankle bracelet!Courtesy whalt
Hey Buzzketeers! Welcome to the new week! Is it everything you imagined it would be?

So, if I said “Radioactive Man,” would y’all get the Simpsons reference? Bart’s favorite comic book hero is Radioactive Man, a guy who survived an atomic blast, and a lightning bolt shaped piece of metal stuck in his head.

Hey, guess what! There’s a real life Radioactive Man running around now!

Oh… but the radioactivity is potentially dangerous. And he’s some kind of sex offender, who has run away from the authorities.

So that’s a bummer, but the situation provides some opportunity for science education (which is, like, my favorite thing).

How does a sex offender get to be radioactive? Good question.

Not all sex offenders are radioactive. For the most part, you still don’t want to come in close contact with them, but not because of radioactivity.

This particular sex offender, Thomas Marius Leopold, is radioactive because he has an overactive thyroid gland.

The thyroid gland hides out in your neck, and it produces hormones that help regulate your metabolism. Too much thyroid hormone, and your metabolism goes nuts—you get weak and hungry, you can lose weight, and your heart rate becomes jittery. That sort of thing. Some thyroid conditions also cause your eyes to become protuberant, and your thyroid gland to swell, forming a goiter.

One of the treatments for hyperthyroidism involves the use of radioiodine. Radioiodine is an isotope of the element iodine. Iodine is number 53 on the periodic table, so it has 53 protons in each atom. Naturally occurring iodine has 74 neutrons in each atom, but iodine can have different numbers of neutrons (different isotopes). The radioiodine isotope has 78 neutrons, but the atom isn’t stable with that many neutrons, so they decay until there are just 74 left. These decaying neutrons give off beta emissions (electrons and positrons), and gamma rays (highly energetic electromagnetic radiation).

Normally we want to avoid this sort of radioactive stuff, but materials like radioiodine can be very useful when they’re targeted at certain cells or organs (sort of like how we blast tumors with radiation to treat cancer). It just so happens that the thyroid naturally traps iodine in our bodies (it needs iodine to make hormones), so when a patient is given radioactive iodine, the thyroid sucks it right up. When the emissions from decaying neutrons blast into thyroid tissue, the thyroid kind of gets worn out, and slows down—that’s why radioiodine can be good for a thyroid that was overactive in the first place.

Radioiodine is radioactive enough, however, that hospitals often recommend keeping extra space between someone who is on the treatment, like this sex offender on the lam, and folks who might be particularly susceptible to radiation, like small children, or arresting police officers.

The radioactivity isn’t super bad, at least, and it doesn’t last forever—radioiodine has a half-life of about 8 days. That means that after 8 days, half of the radioactive material is gone (turned into something more stable). And after 8 more days, half of what was left is gone (so there’s just ¼ of the original amount left). Eventually the amount of radioiodine left in the body is so negligible that you’re safe hugging pregnant women and handcuffing fugitives.

Wasn’t that interesting? We know about radioiodine now! So if you’re in Great Britain (where this story came from), and there’s a creepy-looking dude who seems to be ruining your film just by being around you, call the police!


The fossil record strongly supports evolution
The fossil record strongly supports evolutionCourtesy Mark Ryan
Educators and students to our south (Iowa –not Mexico) are up in arms about a bill in committee in the Iowa legislature that they say is just another wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing attempt from anti-evolutionists to inject creationism into school curricula.

House File 183, aka the “Evolution Academic Freedom Act” would allow educators in public elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools to teach “the full range of scientific views regarding chemical and biological evolution” without fear of dismissal, discrimination or being disciplined. But what exactly the full range of scientific views is, they don't say. That's because evolution is by far the best scientific explanation of biological life on Earth that we have at this time.

This attempt to open the way for getting non-scientific views about evolution into the schools is nothing new. The same tactic has been tried recently in other states, and all but one failed. The unfortunate exception was a bill in Louisiana which governor Bobby Jindal, a creationism supporter, recently signed into law.

Opposition to the Iowa legislation is being organized across the state.

“The bill sounds good in its language, but the reality is 99 percent of scientists believe in evolution,” said Hector Avalos, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Iowa State University. “It is all about Teach the Controversy strategy — the idea it’s fair to teach both sides.”

Fifty-six professors from across Iowa and more than 220 other people have signed an Iowa faculty petition which calls for the legislature to reject HF 183.

“The premise of the petition is that this [legislation] is ridiculous. Let’s stop it here,” said John Logsdon, a University of Iowa associate professor of evolutionary molecular genetics. “It is teaching something that is not science cloaked in an academic freedom issue.”

Opponents say the wording in the bill smacks of the propaganda disseminated by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based purveyor of so-called Intelligent Design (creationism all dressed up as science and looking for love). In 2005, a court ruling ( Kitzmiller v. Dover) in Pennsylvania concluded that Intelligent Design is not science, and could not “uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”

Another favorite creationist tactic is to create controversy where there is none. For example, HF 183 states “instructors have experienced or feared discipline, discrimination, or other adverse consequences as a result of presenting the full range of scientific views regarding chemical and biological evolution.” But in reality state education departments have found no such cases of discrimination nor have sponsors of the bill provided any.

HF 183 is supported mainly by conservative religious groups and not from any legitimate scientific or educational organizations. The bill’s sponsor is Rod Roberts, a five-term representative, and ordained minister who also works as Development Director for Christian Churches-Church of Christ in Iowa.

Both the Iowa State Education Association and the Iowa Department of Education oppose the bill.

National Science Teachers Association evolution resources
Uwire story
National Center for Science Education story


Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan PoeCourtesy Original by W.S. Hartshorn
Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe. Best known for his poems, The Raven, and Annabel Lee, and certainly for his many Gothic tales of terror and the macabre, Poe was born January 19, 1809 in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, and is probably the last guy you’d expect to see mentioned on Science Buzz. Well, that’s exactly what I thought, until about two weeks ago, when I came across an interesting book entitled, The Conchologist’s First Book written by none other than E. A. Poe!

How could this be? How could the author of such wonderfully crafted prose as The Telltale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado be the same guy who responsible for a textbook about sea mollusks?

Probably because he was broke most of the time. Poe lived a somewhat short, miserable life. After his father abandoned the family and his mother died of tuberculosis, all the siblings were split up and the young Edgar was taken in by the family of John Allan in Richmond. The Allans never officially adopted Edgar, but christened him with their surname as his middle name. The family moved for a while to the United Kingdom, where Edgar attended school in Scotland and England before returning to America. He enlisted in the army for the steady paycheck and some stability, but after his enlistment was terminated, he became determined to support himself solely from his writing. Not a great decision, considering the financial Panic of 1837, and dismal state of international copyright law at the time (American publishers found it much cheaper to rip-off European writers than pay American ones).

Despite the difficult times and his own demons, Poe was a prolific writer. He published books of poetry, short fiction, essays, and literary criticism for several literary magazines and periodicals, but the poor guy was always strapped for cash and struggling to stay afloat. A good example is his masterful narrative poem The Raven, published in 1845. Although it was hugely popular and made him a household name, Edgar made a grand total of only $9 from the poem. That alone was probably enough to push anyone into depression, madness, alcoholism, or attempted suicide – all conditions Poe himself experienced.

Facimile of frontpiece from Conchologist's First Book
Facimile of frontpiece from Conchologist's First BookCourtesy Public Domain
So it’s hardly a surprise, when a few years earlier Poe had been offered $50 to write the preface to Thomas Wyatt’s new schoolbook on conchology, he jumped at the chance. Wyatt was looking to expand into the schoolbook market with a shorter and cheaper rewrite of his earlier book titled Manual of Conchology. But there was concern Wyatt’s name on the new book could lead to copyright trouble with his previous publisher, Harper & Brothers, so both Wyatt and his new publisher were looking for a writer of Poe’s (at the time) lesser status under which to publish the book - meaning someone whom the old publisher “would be idle to sue for damages.”

Poe saw it a little differently.

“I wrote it in conjunction with Professor Thomas Wyatt, and Professor McMultrie... my name being put to the work, as best known and most likely to aid its circulation,” he said.

Unfortunately, Wyatt had lifted much of the material in his first book from British naturalist Thomas Brown’sThe Conchologist’s Textbook published in 1837. In the end, Poe was hounded by charges of copyright infringement and plagiarism, but oddly the book was a big success and the only volume printed under Poe’s name to go into a second edition during his lifetime.

Poe certainly wasn’t a scientist, but his writings did influenced science fiction writers such as Jules Verne in France, and later the American H. P. Lovecraft. And Poe is considered the patron saint of detective fiction. His stories such as Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter led Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, to say this:

"Each is a root from which a whole literature has developed.... Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?"

Poe’s own life ended tragically and mysteriously in 1849. After missing for three days, he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, delirious, and wearing someone else’s clothes. He died shortly after in the hospital on October 7th.

One plagiarized book on mollusks doesn't a scientist make, but it wasn’t Poe's only dabbling with the subject. He wrote a sonnet entitled To Science (1829), and a prose poem titled Eureka (1848) that among other things contains the following interesting passage:

"The assumption of absolute Unity in the primordial Particle includes that of infinite divisibility. Let us conceive the Particle, then, to be only not totally exhausted by diffusion into Space. From the one Particle, as a centre, let us suppose to be irradiated spherically -- in all directions -- to immeasurable but still to definite distances in the previously vacant space -- a certain inexpressibly great yet limited number of unimaginably yet not infinitely minute atoms."

Sounds strikingly like the Big Bang Theory doesn’t it?

Poe biography
The Cask of Amontillado
The Telltale Heart
The Purloined Letter
Murders in the Rue Morgue
Annabel Lee


Save the Sea Kittens: Much as PETA may try, they still look like fish to me...
Save the Sea Kittens: Much as PETA may try, they still look like fish to me...Courtesy PieAre Square
Yup, you heard me correctly: sea kittens...kittens of the sea. At least, that's the mental image PETA would like us to picture every time we sit down to a fish dinner. Sea kittens are the latest marketing campaign cooked up by those crazy (like a fox?) folks at PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

According to PETA's website, the youth-oriented campaign hopes to give fish a make-over that will make them sound more cute and cuddly than they are. "PETA thought that by renaming fish sea kittens, compassionate people who would never dream of hurting a dog or a cat might extend that sympathy to fish, or sea kittens," says PETA campaign coordinator Ashley Byrne.

Byrne added, "Most parents would never dream of spending a weekend torturing kittens for fun with their families, but hooking a sea kitten through the mouth and dragging her through the water is the same as hooking a kitten through the mouth and dragging her behind your car."

When you visit PETA's Save the Sea Kittens website, you’ll notice that it’s definitely geared towards families with young children. You can make your own sea kitten, a.k.a. dress up cartoon fish in ridiculous outfits, or read sea kitten bedtime stories, which are even more factually-bereft than normal children's stories - you don't believe me, but it's true!

Beyond the website, PETA has focused its efforts on schools. PETA members have sent letters to several high schools, including Spearfish High School in South Dakota and Whitefish High School in Montana, asking them to change their names to Sea Kitten High School. Just imagine the fear the Sea Kittens would strike into the heart of their opponents on the basketball court or the football field!

Speaking of fear, campaign coordinators are counting on it to discourage kids from eating "sea kitten" products. "Knowing that the fish sticks in the school cafeteria are really made out of tortured sea kittens makes most kids want to lose their lunch." Personally though, if my memory of the fish sticks in the school cafeteria is anything to go on, they were gag-inducing enough on their own without knowing how they’re made – tortured or not.

While the results of this campaign remain to be seen, it's generating a lot of press, from newspapers and press releases to confused and frustrated bloggers. Even the Colbert Report jumped on the bandwagon and you can watch what Stephen Colbert had to say about the campaign during Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger below. (The PETA segment is about 1 minute, 30 seconds into the clip.)

Tip/Wag - Monkey on the Lam

A fish by any other name would love to call either of these tanks home!: Who wouldn't want to live in one of these wonderlands!  Bonnie, Clyde, and Oran have never complained to me about their accommodations...
A fish by any other name would love to call either of these tanks home!: Who wouldn't want to live in one of these wonderlands! Bonnie, Clyde, and Oran have never complained to me about their accommodations...Courtesy bistromathgirl
As for me, I'm all for ending harmful fishing practices - the lesser known purpose of this campaign - but that's not going to stop me from having some tasty fish for dinner tomorrow! And somehow, I don't really think that my pet fish will have anything to say on the matter...

Check out these sites for more information on the campaign and its impact around the world:


You may have read a couple weeks ago a NASA report stating that October 2008 was the warmest October ever on record. An enormous hot spot was observed over Siberia, an incredible 10 degrees warmer than normal, raising the global average.

However, the appearance of the words “hot” and “Siberia” in the same sentence made some people suspicious. A couple of bloggers took a closer look at the data, and they found that, for dozens of reporting stations in Siberia, the average October temperature was exactly the same as the average October temperature. That’s pretty much impossible. Clearly what happened is someone copied the numbers from the wrong column, leading to greatly inflated figures, which were then eagerly reported.

So, what can we learn from this little episode?

1) Even experts make mistakes. Though this particular expert, Dr. James Hansen, seems especially prone to making mistakes that support his views. That’s only human, I suppose, but it means we should pay attention to who is publishing a study, and whether they are pushing a particular point of view.

2) Weather is not climate. One sparrow does not make a spring, and one October does not make a global warming crisis. Especially when the October in question was not actually, you know, warm.

3) Read the fine print. Just like the item below, the headline told one story, but the pesky little facts told a very different one. (One of the most important things it tells us is that the folks in charge of monitoring the world’s climate don’t even bother to double-check their own data!)


It's a new day in America: Where should our energy come from now?
It's a new day in America: Where should our energy come from now?Courtesy timsamoff
On January 21, 2009, there’s going to be a brand new administration in the White house. Defining the energy policy of the United States is going to be a big issue, and one that’s likely to get tackled early on.

The members of the Obama Administration are going to have their own ideas about how our country should get its energy, but what do you think?

Is green energy your one and only? Are you a coal man? A nuclear gal? Or do you fall asleep murmuring “drill, baby, drill”?

Some options are going to be more expensive than others, each will affect the environment differently, and some are going to take more time before they’re ready. So what’s it going to be?

Voice your opinion in Science Buzz’s new poll: Energy and the Obama Administration.

You might not have been able to vote on November 4, but you can vote now, and you can let everyone know why you think what you think.


Dick and Laura are a young married couple. They've been having trouble conceiving a child. They go to a fertility clinic and begin the process of in vitro fertilization—have a "test-tube baby." The doctor tells them he can test the embryos and tell which ones will be boys and which ones will be girls. Testing an embryo entails a small chance of damaging it.