Stories tagged History and Nature of Science


The world premiere RACE: Are We So Different? exhibit is showing Science Museum visitors that race has an impact on our lives each day, often in ways that are hidden or undetected by popular media.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the Science Museum is drawing upon local, regional, and national perspectives and inviting visitors to explore an in-depth understanding of race and its impact on our society during a speakers’ forum this spring.

Each forum includes live entertainment, a featured speaker, time for reaction from a panel of respondents, and questions from the audience.

Thursday, March 29
Race and Immigration

Hosted by Arlene Torres, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Respondents are

  • Kazoua Kong-Thao, Vice Chair of St. Paul Board of Education,
  • and Sandra Vargas, Hennepin County Administrator.

Admission to the RACE Forums is $12 per person ($8 for members, seniors, and students and $4 for individuals with limited incomes) and includes admission to the RACE exhibit.

Forums take place in the 3D Cinema. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Please help spread the word! To make reservations, call (651) 221-9444.


On Saturday, March 24, the Science Museum will host the annual American Indians in Science event. You can meet people from the Twin Cities American Indian community who've made significant contributions to science, engineering, and education. Some of this year's presenting organizations include:

  • University of Minnesota Academic Programs for Excellence in Engineering and Science
  • Ando-giikendaasowin Native American Math and Science (ANAMS) Programs
  • The Susan LaFlesche Amputation Reduction Network
  • White Earth Land Recovery Project
  • University of Minnesota Medical School
  • United States Army Corps of Engineers

American Indians in Science festivities are free with museum admission and run from 1 to 4 p.m. throughout the museum.


OK, so save the baby seals, but kill the baby bears--is that right?: Photo from Backgrounds Archive
OK, so save the baby seals, but kill the baby bears--is that right?: Photo from Backgrounds ArchiveCourtesy Backgrounds Archive

There's a line attributed to George Orwell: "Some ideas are so wrong, only an intellectual could believe them." This story is exhibit A.

Last December, a polar bear in the Berlin Zoo gave birth to two cubs. The mother abandoned her offspring, as wild animals sometimes do. The first cub died. The zookeepers intervened and have raised the second cub by hand.

Now, "animal rights" activists are demanding that the zoo kill the little cub. Seriously. They actually claim it is cruel to keep the cub alive, saying it will suffer humiliation if it is kept as a pet.

Listen to the words of these "animal lovers:"

"The zoo must kill the bear," said spokesman Frank Albrecht. "Feeding by hand is not species-appropriate but a gross violation of animal protection laws." … They argue that current treatment of the cub is inhumane and could cause him future difficulties interacting with fellow polar bears. "They cannot domesticate a wild animal," added Ruediger Schmiedel, head of the Foundation for Bears.

Y'know, when I was 10 years old, I would do the stupid things that 10-year-old boys do. And my mother in her frustration would sometimes ask, "Do you sit on your brains?" I would ask the same thing of these people, except that would imply they actually have brains to sit upon. Keeping an animal alive is inhumane? Wild animals experience human emotions? Wild animals cannot be domesticated? It boggles the mind that a person can actually be this stupid and still live.

(Though perhaps not for long. Recently, another "animal lover" broke into the cheetah cage at the Belgian Zoo to be with the cats that she loved. The cheetahs had her for lunch. A zoo spokesman, who really should know better, said "the cheetahs betrayed her trust." It's difficult to say who's the bigger fool: the lady who got into the cage with the wild animals, or the spokesperson who thinks wild animals recognize "trust." Yikes.)


Eco Model Haus open meeting and Green Institute tour
Thursday, March 29th
Tour: 5:30-6:30; meeting to follow
The Green Institute, 2801 21st Ave S, Minneapolis

There are many green buildings built from the ground up, but there are not any options for showing what residents can do with their existing homes to live more sustainably. The Eco Model Haus will be an existing home that will be remodeled into a green model home. It will display ways that residents can make changes to their homes from very easy and affordable actions such as a display of fluorescent or LED lights and information on how they are more efficient and what they cost (i.e. Science Museum signage) to more expensive or technical actions such as solar panels. We are working towards finding a location off of the Greenway (bike trails) and/or Lightrail to make the connection to alternative transportation as well and easy to access. This will be a space for homeowners, apartment dwellers and students to tour with hands-on and interactive displays.

Rain barrel (top detail): Rain barrels like this one collect rain so you can use it to water your garden later. The screens keep children, pets, and mosquitos out, while letting water in. (Photo by chrisdigo)
Rain barrel (top detail): Rain barrels like this one collect rain so you can use it to water your garden later. The screens keep children, pets, and mosquitos out, while letting water in. (Photo by chrisdigo)

Other examples of what could be displayed in the Eco Model Haus include:

  • Permeable surface options
  • Compost bin displays with plexi glass showing the decomposition
  • Green rooftop with stairs to view it
  • Rain barrels and options for children to water a nearby garden with the rain barrel water
  • Hybrid (HOURCAR) parking spot
  • Rain garden and native plants
  • Recycling and composting set up inside the home
  • Non-toxic cleaning samples and station to make your own to take home with a recipe
  • The Sustainable Living Resource Center will offer a library, product sample displays, experts on hand, a meeting/workshop space and the Twin Cities Green Guide™'s office. The Eco Model Haus will offer a green model home to Minnesotans to tour, attend workshops, lectures, and do research.

    * For the next six months they will be offering open meetings to the public and professionals to offer opinions on what this space will look like and to assist in the planning and execution of the Eco Model Haus. They hope to obtain a space in 2007, begin planning and creating the space in 2008 and open to the public for tours in 2009 or 2010. And they anticipate a large portion of the project will be planned and installed by volunteers (community members and professionals in the field).


Indonesia—with the world's highest death toll from H5N1 avian influenza—briefly stopped providing samples to the World Health Organization (WHO), saying only organizations that agreed not to use the samples for commercial purposes would have access. Now the Indonesian government has struck a new deal to share samples under a plan that would guarantee access to any resulting vaccines.

H5N1 avian influenza viruses: This is a colorized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza A H5N1 viruses (in gold). (Courtesy J. Katz Goldsmith and S. Zaki, CDC)
H5N1 avian influenza viruses: This is a colorized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza A H5N1 viruses (in gold). (Courtesy J. Katz Goldsmith and S. Zaki, CDC)

The Reuters article says,

"Indonesia has said it was unfair for foreign drug firms to use samples, design vaccines, patent them and sell the product back to the country. ...

Menno de Jong of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City said sharing viruses and clinical data was vital to improve diagnostics, clinical care and vaccine development, but sharing vaccines was vital too.

'I think the point is well taken from the Indonesia experience that there should be some guarantees for countries affected by H5N1 that they will also share in the vaccines produced,' he said."

Biotech and pharmaceutical companies spend BIG money to produce tests, treatments, and vaccines for a huge range of conditions, from the life-threatening to the merely inconvenient or uncomfortable. And they’re understandably concerned about protecting their investments.

But afflicted patients are usually not compensated for the samples that make these medical miracles possible. (For a good discussion of the problem, read this editorial from the New York Times).

Check out Bryan’s blog entry ((“Patenting human genes”), and then vote in our poll.

Tell us what you think: Does Indonesia’s insistence that compensation (in the form of access to resulting vaccines) for H5N1 avian influenza samples make you feel safer/better?


This artifact was the first of the about 50 found near Walker, Minnesota.: Photo courtesy Leech Lake Heritage Sites Program.
This artifact was the first of the about 50 found near Walker, Minnesota.: Photo courtesy Leech Lake Heritage Sites Program.
During a routine survey of a road construction site near Walker, Minnesota in 2005, archeologists discovered a flake of stone that appeared to have been intentionally chipped from a larger rock. Over the next couple of months digging continued at the site, and some 50 artifacts, thought to possibly be crude stone tools used for chopping, cutting, or scraping, were found.

Initial studies on the stones indicate they are between 13,000 and 15,000 years old. This is potentially significant, as humans are not thought to have populated the Americas until 9,000 years ago.

(Listen to an MPR story on the discovery from January.)

Could humans have lived in Minnesota 13,000 years ago?

If the artifacts are 13,000 year old stone tools, it would be the first indication that humans lived in North America during the Pleistocene – from 1.8 million years ago to 11,500 years ago. Some researchers have suggested that the part of Minnesota where these artifacts were found may have been an "oasis" at the time—an area free of ice cover, with an access route to the southeast making human habitation possible.

Features of this stone might suggest that it could have been a crude knife.: Photo courtesy Leech Lake Heritage Sites Program.
Features of this stone might suggest that it could have been a crude knife.: Photo courtesy Leech Lake Heritage Sites Program.
Not everyone agrees

Not everyone who has had a chance to study the artifacts agrees that they are ancient stone tools. Several Minnesota state archeologists argue the stones are the result of natural causes such as glacial movement and flowing water. They argue that Minnesota 13,000 years would have been extremely cold and covered by glaciers and therefore too inhospitable a location for humans to live, and that insufficient time has been spent accurately dating the artifacts.

This has not changed the minds of the archaeologists who originally made the finds. They argue that the analysis of the artifacts is still in too early of a stage to make a definitive decision on their authenticity. They plan further excavation at the site this summer and hope to uncover more artifacts to further solidify their claim.

(Listen to an MPR story from February on whether the artifacts are in fact stone tools.)


The South Korean government is drawing up ethical guidelines for the use of robots. They want to avoid robots abusing humans, and vice-versa.

As The Science Museum's resident word guy, I have problems with this. I can certainly understand the need for laws governing robots. We want to make sure no one creates a robot that goes out and hurts people. Robots are machines, just like cars are machines, and of course we have laws requiring drivers to operate their cars in a safe manner. We ought to have the same for robots.

But there seems to be something else here. The article talks about robot "intelligence" and robot "rights," and dresses it all up in "ethics." Well, ethics is about morality. It's about values, about right and wrong. And I don't think those terms can apply to a machine. To have ethics, you must have consciousness. You must have empathy. In short, you must have a soul.

A couple of years ago, The Science Museum had an exhibit called Robots + Us, which explored many of these issues. I came away with the understanding that we can't even define consciousness and intelligence for humans, let alone for machines.

The problem seems to be that these are not scientific questions, but philosophical ones. Science deals only with natural phenomena, things that can be observed. Consciousness can't be observed. This has led some computer scientists to argue that it doesn't really exist, that it's just an artificial byproduct of our really complicated brains. And that once computers get that complicated, they will produce that artificial byproduct of consciousness, too.

It seems to me that this is where scientists often get themselves into trouble -- they start to believe that if something doesn't exist within the realm of science, then it doesn't exist at all. Which unfortunately ignores several thousand years of human experience.

What do you think? Can robots ever understand ethics? Should robots have rights? Will a machine ever achieve consciousness? Leave a message and tell us what you think.


A Pigeon.: Up, down, left, right - I go where you wish!  Image courtesy grendelkhan.
A Pigeon.: Up, down, left, right - I go where you wish! Image courtesy grendelkhan.

This one is really bizarre.

Scientists in China have said they have developed a system to control pigeons by remote control through tiny micro electrodes in their brains. The pigeon’s flight can be controlled using simple commands from a computer, such as left, right, up, or down.

These same scientists had similar success controlling rats (though not while in flight, obviously). The scientists hope they can put the technology they are developing to practical use in the future.

Practical use?

What practical use do you think this technology could be used for?


With all the buzz in the news about new vaccines and other drugs and whether or not they're properly tested for safety and efficacy, I was totally intrigued with an article in the December 18, 2006, issue of The New Yorker: "The Right to a Trial: Should dying patients have access to experimental drugs?" (Jerome Groopman)

The whole topic was fascinating, but the article included a summary of the F.D.A. approval process:

"Guaranteeing drug safety has been part of the [Food and Drug Administration's] mandate since 1938, when Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act after more than a hundred people died from taking a medicine for strep throat which contained diethylene glycol, an active ingredient in antifreeze. Today, the vast majority of patients with life-threatening diseases are treated with drugs that have been approved by the F.D.A. after a stringent evaluation process designed to insure they are safe and effective. It typically takes a pharmaceutical company six and a half years from the time it discovers a promising molecule to gather enough data to apply to the F.D.A. for permission to test a drug on patients. Completing the clinical trials requires, on average, another seven years: an initial set (Phase I), usually involving fewer than a hundred patients, to determine the maximum tolerated dose and likely side effects; a second set (Phase II), involving several hundred patients, to identify the diseases—or stages of a disease—that are affected by the experimental therapy; and a final set (Phase III), in which the drug is given to several thousand patients and compared with another drug that has already been approved by the F.D.A., or with a placebo. After the trials, the F.D.A. reviews the results and, usually in consultation with an advisory panel of experts, decides whether to approve an experimental drug. Drug companies pay most of the costs of clinical trials, and by the time a drug reaches the market the manufacturer will have spent nearly a billion dollars on its development.

Nearly ninety per cent of drugs that enter Phase I trials are eventually abandoned because they are shown to be unsafe or ineffective. (Last week, Pfizer announced that it was canceling its Phase III trial of torcetrapib, an experimental drug for heart disease, after eighty-two patients in the study died. Pfizer had spent almost a billion dollars on torcetrapib, whihc had shown exceptional promise in earlier trials. 'This drug, if it worked, would probably have been the largest-selling pharmaceutical in history,' Steven E. Nissen, the chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, told the Times.) In the past decade, the number of new drugs approved by the F.D.A. has fallen sharply. According to a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, between 1994 and 1997 the agency approved an average of nearly thirty-six new drugs a year, but between 2001 and 2004 the approval rate averaged just twenty-three a year."

It's kind of mind-blowing. And it explains why drug companies do so much lobbying and marketing directly to patients.

I also found a cool article in the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston's Regional Review, Quarter I, 2003: "Too Much of a Good Thing Can Be Bad." (Carrie Conaway). It's about the development of cholesterol-lowering drugs, which are among the top-sellers in the US, but it touches on the same issues:

"The cost and uncertainty of the drug development process mean that pharmaceutical firms need to receive large returns on any successful drug in order to counterbalance the failures along the way. Yet the products they make, once discovered, are extremely easy for other firms to copy. Without some kind of legal right to the economic returns from their research findings, pharmaceutical companies would have no incentive to develop new drugs—and society would miss out on the new and improved treatments for disease and illness that the companies would discover. To solve this problem, the government grants drug manufacturers patents—short-term monopolies that limit competition and thus help ensure that companies receive a return on their research. But this benefit to inventors comes at a social cost. The shield from competition that patents provide gives manufacturers the economic power to set prices higher than competitive markets would allow, on the very goods that society regards as critically important to make available.

There is no doubt that patents foster innovation, especially for pharmaceuticals. But it is harder to know whether their current structure has struck the right balance between their costs and benefits for society."

What do you think IS the right balance between pharmaceutical costs and their benefits to society? Does FDA licensing make you feel okay about the safety and efficacy of a drug? Do you think that drug prices are fair? What could we do differently?


For the next four days--February 16 through 19--birdwatchers of all abilities and ages are identifying and counting birds throughout North America. The Great Backyard Bird Count is going on right now, and it's free, easy, takes as little as 15 minutes, and helps the birds.

According to the GBBC website:

"Scientists and bird enthusiasts can learn a lot by knowing where the birds are. Bird populations are dynamic; they are constantly in flux. No single scientist or team of scientists could hope to document the complex distribution and movements of so many species in such a short time.

We need your help. Make sure the birds from your community are well represented in the count. It doesn't matter whether you report the 5 species coming to your backyard feeder or the 75 species you see during a day's outing to a wildlife refuge.

Your counts can help us answer many questions:

  • How will this winter's snow and cold temperatures influence bird populations?
  • Where are winter finches and other “irruptive” species that appear in large numbers during some years but not others?
  • How will the timing of birds’ migrations compare with past years?
  • How are bird diseases, such as West Nile virus, affecting birds in different regions?
  • What kinds of differences in bird diversity are apparent in cities versus suburban, rural, and natural areas?
  • Are any birds undergoing worrisome declines that point to the need for conservation attention?
  • Scientists use the counts, along with observations from other citizen-science projects, such as the Christmas Bird Count, Project FeederWatch, and eBird, to give us an immense picture of our winter birds. Each year that these data are collected makes them more meaningful and allows scientists to investigate far-reaching questions."

    Don't know anything about birds? That's OK. The folks at Great Backyard Bird Count can teach you all you need to know. (They have lots of fun games and activities, too.)

    Results of the bird count are constantly being updated. See what's going on in your neck of the woods!