Category Archives: Science

A stunning discovery: Dinosaur feathers in amber


From the paper, feathers on the tail of a small dinosaur, found trapped in amber. Also, there’s no DNA, so no Jurassic Park.

From the paper, feathers on the tail of a small dinosaur, found trapped in amber. Also, there’s no DNA, so no Jurassic Park.

It’s Jurassic Park, but without the DNA.

A chunk of amber from Myanmar has given conclusive proof that dinosaurs — at least some of them — really did sport colorful feathers.

Trapped within the fossilized sap was the end of a tail of a tiny dinosaur, with it’s feather delightfully preserved.

The full report, with more images, is offered omn an open access basis by the scientific journal Current Biology.

From CNN:

Ryan McKellar, a paleontologist at the Royal Saskatchwan Museum in Canada and co-author of the paper, says he was blown away when Xing first showed him the piece of amber.

“It’s a once in a lifetime find. The finest details are visible and in three dimensions.” The amber adds to fossil evidence that many dinosaurs sported feathers rather than scales.

Fragments of dinosaur-era bird wings have been found preserved in amber before but this is the first time part of a mummified dinosaur skeleton has been discovered, McKellar said.

The tail section belongs to a young coelurosaurian — from the same group of dinosaurs as the predatory velociraptors and the tyrannosaurus. The sparrow-sized creature could have danced in the palm of your hand.

The amber, which weighs 6.5 grams, contains bone fragments and feathers, adding to mounting fossil evidence that many dinosaurs sported primitive plumage rather than scales.

Forensic criminal science based on very few facts


If you watch American television, you know one thing for certain: The wonks and wizards in the nation’s crime labs employ that latest infallible scientific tools to find and incarcerate serial killers, arsonists, and other doers of dastardly deeds.

Reassuring, no?

Especially if you’re sitting on a jury a deciding on the fate of the man or woman in the dock, a decision that could, perhaps, lead to a lethal injection.

But you would be wrong to place unquestioning faith in those crime lab wizards, for unlike the televised version of forensic science, the realty is a shabby simulacrum of the glib screenwriter’s version.

And while wealthy criminals can afford their own forensic guns for hire, poor defendants relying on cash-strapped public defenders stand little chance of rebutting the men and women in the white coats, adding yet another element of injustice to American criminal jurisprudence.

We witnessed the process first-hand in our years of reporting on the courts.

We offer two dissections of forensic science from two leading legal scholars.

First up, a Young Turks interview with the the dean of the UCLA Law school:

Is Some Forensic Science “Junk” Science? Jennifer Mnookin Interview With Malcolm Fleschner

Program notes:

Malcolm Fleschner of The Young Turks interviews Jennifer Mnookin, Dean of the UCLA School of Law. Malcolm and Dean Mnookin discuss why hopelessly faulty forensic science is going unchallenged in courtrooms across the country and being used to put countless innocent defendants in prison.

Bite marks are bunk, even fingerprints questionable

Another detailed debunking comes from Jessica Gabel Cino, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Law, Georgia State University, writing in the open source academic journal, The Conversation:

Forensic science has become a mainstay of many a TV drama, and it’s just as important in real-life criminal trials. Drawing on biology, chemistry, genetics, medicine and psychology, forensic evidence helps answer questions in the legal system. Often, forensics provides the “smoking gun” that links a perpetrator to the crime and ultimately puts the bad guy in jail.

Shows like “CSI,” “Forensic Files” and “NCIS” cause viewers to be more accepting of forensic evidence. As it’s risen to ubiquitous celebrity status, forensic science has become shrouded in a cloak of infallibility and certainty in the public’s imagination. It seems to provide definitive answers. Forensics feels scientific and impartial as a courtroom weighs a defendant’s possible guilt – looking for proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

But the faith the public and the criminal justice system place in forensic science far outpaces the amount of trust it deserves.

For decades, there have been concerns about how the legal system uses forensic science. A groundbreaking 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences finally drew the curtain back to reveal that the wizardry of forensics was more art than science. The report assessed forensic science’s methods and developed recommendations to increase validity and reliability among many of its disciplines.

These became the catalyst that finally forced the federal government to devote serious resources and dollars to an effort to more firmly ground forensic disciplines in science. After that, governmental agencies, forensic science committees and even the Department of Defense responded to the call. Research to this end now receives approximately US$13.4 million per year, but the money may not be enough to prevent bad science from finding its way into courtrooms.

This fall, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its own report on forensic science. It’s a more pronounced acknowledgment that the discipline has serious problems that require urgent attention. Some scientific and legal groups are outraged by or doubtful of its conclusions; others have praised them.

As someone who has taught forensic evidence for a decade and dedicated my legal career to working on cases involving forensic science (both good and bad), I read the report as a call to address foundational issues within forensic disciplines and add oversight to the way forensic science is ultimately employed by the end user: the criminal justice system.

Is any forensic science valid?

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recognized ongoing efforts to improve forensic science in the wake of the 2009 NAS report. Those efforts focused on policy, best practices and research around forensic science, but, as with any huge undertaking, there were gaps. As PCAST noted, forensic science has a validity problem that is in desperate need of attention.

PCAST focused on what’s colloquially termed “pattern identification evidence” – it requires an examiner to visually compare a crime scene sample to a known sample. PCAST’s big question: Are DNA analysis, bite marks, latent fingerprints, firearms identification and footwear analysis supported by reproducible research, and thus, reliable evidence?

They were looking for two types of validity. According to PCAST, foundational validity means the forensic discipline is based on research and studies that are “repeatable, reproducible, and accurate,” and therefore reliable. The next step is applied validity, meaning the method is “reliably applied in practice.” In other words, for a forensic discipline to produce valid evidence for use in court, there must be (1) reproducible studies on its accuracy and (2) a method used by examiners that is reproducible and accurate.

Among the forensic science they assessed, PCAST found single-sourced DNA analysis to be the only discipline that was valid, both foundationally and as applied. They found DNA mixture evidence – when DNA from more than one person is in a sample, for instance from the victim and the perpetrator, multiple perpetrators or due to contamination – to be only foundationally valid. Same with fingerprint analysis.

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Ever more marine creatures imperiled by plastics


Marine life threatened by becoming tangled with or ingesting plastic waste in the oceans. From the report.

Marine life threatened by becoming tangled with or ingesting plastic waste in the oceans. From the report.

The 20th Century is notable for four major technological innovations, each problematic: Nuclear power/weapons, antibiotics, the digital computer, and plastics.

Nuclear gave us the threat of planetary genocide and environmental degradation, antibiotics gave rise to resistant strains of bacteria, the computer gave rise to the panopticon surveillance state, and plastics have proven to cause a host of afflictions and threaten the oceans from which we all draw life.

It’s this last threat that is the subject of a sobering new report.

From the United Nations News Center:

Marine debris is negatively affecting more than 800 animal species and causing serious losses to many countries’ economies, according to a United Nations report launched Monday.

The report, Marine Debris: Understanding, Preventing and Mitigating the Significant Adverse Impacts on Marine and Coastal Biodiversity found that the number of species affected by marine debris has increased from 663 to 817 since 2012. It also warned that this type of waste, which is mostly made of plastic, is an increasing threat to human health and well-being, and is costing countries billions of dollars each year.

“I hope that this report will provide governments and other stakeholders with the information needed to take urgent actions to address marine debris, one of the most prominent threats to marine ecosystems, and support healthy and resilient oceans as a critical aspect of achieving sustainable development,” said Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias, the Executive Director of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The report was launched in Cancun, Mexico, on the sidelines of the 13th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to Convention, known as ‘COP13,’ where governments and private sector delegations have been gathered since 2 December to discuss, among others, how to integrate biodiversity into policies relevant to agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism sectors. The meeting wraps up on 17 December.

Marine debris is usually defined as any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material discarded, disposed of, or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment. Three-quarters of all marine debris is plastic, a persistent and potentially hazardous pollutant, which fragments into microplastics that can be taken up by a wide range of marine organisms.

The most common types of marine debris are: food wrappers, bottle caps, straws, grocery bags, beverage bottles and cigarette butts. Five of these items are made of plastic.

Marine and coastal species – fish, seabirds, marine mammals and reptiles – are affected by marine debris mostly through ingestion or entanglement. According to the report, 40 per cent of cetaceans, and 44 per cent of seabird species are affected by marine debris ingestion. The effect of ingestion is not always understood, as many ingest microplastics – little pieces or fragments that are less than five millimetres in diameter.

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Veteran spook probers call for a Snowden deal


For those of us old enough to remember it, the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, known as the Church Committee for its chair, Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church, marked a watershed moment in American politics.

Charged with investigating abuses by U.S. intelligence agencies, the committee rocked the nation and the globe with its reports of epic wrongdoing by the CIA, NSA, and the FBI.

The committee investigated on a massive and illegal mail-opening operation and secret drug experiments on American citizens by the CIA, the FBI’s illegal efforts to thwart the civil rights movement [including efforts to smear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and incite murderous violence among black radicals], and the illegal use of the NSA to monitor prominent activists opposed to the Vietnam war.

The committee’s efforts lead to the first major reforms to the nation’s massive spy apparatus in the form of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, banning mass surveillance of American citizens.

Directing the investigative efforts was a notable staff, headed by Frederick A.O. Scwharz Jr., a Harvard-educated lawyer and the great-grandson of the founder of New York City’s most famous toy store.

And now Schwarz, who now serves as chief counsel for New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, and other members of the Church Committee staff have issued a call for the Obama Administration to negotiate a plea bargain with America’s most famous whistleblower, who, they say, has done us all a great service.

From the Brennan Center for Justice:

As former professional staff members of the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities [the “Church Committee”], we are writing to urge that the White House and the Justice Department negotiate a settlement of the charges against Edward Snowden that both sides can accept.

There is no question that Edward Snowden’s disclosures led to public awareness which stimulated reform. Whether or not these clear benefits to the country merit a pardon, they surely do counsel for leniency.

In the American political system, bipartisan government reforms are generally regarded as the most legitimate and durable. Recently, however, our government has all but stopped making bipartisan reforms. There is one big exception: the surveillance reforms inspired by Edward Snowden’s revelations.

It was Snowden who supplied journalists with evidence that our government had, for many years, been collecting information about the domestic phone calls of millions of Americans. As a result, a bipartisan coalition in Congress formed to amend the Patriot Act to prohibit the practice. In the Senate, Mike Lee, a conservative Republican from Utah, joined with Patrick Leahy, a liberal Democrat from Vermont, to sponsor the reform. In the House, the move toward reform started with two Michigan Congressmen, Justin Amash, a junior Tea Party Republican from Grand Rapids, and John Conyers, a veteran liberal Democrat from Detroit. Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner, a primary author of the Patriot Act and its extensions, also backed the reforms saying he and his colleagues had not intended to permit the NSA’s widespread scooping up of data about Americans’ communications.

It was also Snowden’s material that showed the extent to which the National Security Agency intercepts and filters international electronic communications from undersea fiber optic cables, and taps internal links connecting data centers for Internet companies like Yahoo! and Google. All this was in pursuit of former NSA Director Keith Alexander’s directive to “collect it all.” Untold millions of Americans’ communications are swept up in these programs, where they are available for perusal by the FBI and CIA through what has become known as the “backdoor” search loophole. Republican Reps. Ted Poe and Tom Massie have joined with Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren in sponsoring legislation to ban this practice.

Snowden’s documents also revealed the broad scope of NSA spying on foreigners including eavesdropping on close allies in addition to potential adversaries like Russia and China. While some have argued that leaking such “legal” surveillance activities disqualifies Snowden from any mercy, President Barack Obama has acknowledged that stronger controls were necessary. He implemented the first-ever reforms to afford privacy protection for foreigners from surveillance unless it is necessary to protect our national security.

The NSA, CIA, and Defense Department maintain that harm resulted from the disclosures, particularly with respect to our efforts overseas, where they say relationships with intelligence partners have been damaged and our adversaries may know more about our capabilities. No one is asking that these claims be ignored, only that they be checked, and then weighed against the benefits.

America clearly did benefit from Snowden’s disclosures. Former Attorney-General Eric Holder said that Snowden “performed a public service by raising the debate that we engaged in and by the changes that we made.” President Obama has said that the public debate regarding surveillance and accountability that Snowden generated “will make us stronger.” The President also issued an executive order recognizing that foreigners have privacy interests –– an acknowledgement no previous President had ever made –– and also asked the intelligence community to find ways to provide foreigners with some protections previously provided only to Americans.

Without Snowden, it would have been decades, if ever, until Americans learned what intelligence agencies acting in our name had been up to. We know first hand that lack of disclosure can cause just as many, if not more, harms to the nation than disclosure. When intelligence agencies operate in the dark, they often have gone too far in trampling on the legitimate rights of law-abiding Americans and damaging our reputation internationally. We saw this repeated time and time again when serving as staff members for the U.S. Senate Select Committee, known as the Church Committee, that in 1975-76 conducted the most extensive bipartisan investigation of a government’s secret activities ever, in this country or elsewhere.

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Pipeline protesting vets head to Flint, Michigan


Thousands of American military veterans joined with Native Americans and environmentalists to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline project, and with the Obama administration placing a halt on the project, at least until the Trumpster takes office, the vets are heading to another region plagued by pipeline projects.

Their new target is Flint, Michigan, where aging lead pipes have added dangerous levels of the highly toxic metal to the water supply of a largely poor African American population.

From U.S. Uncut:

The veterans who just joined the indigenous protest to the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota are heading to Flint, Michigan next.

While a date hasn’t yet been set for the trip to Flint, Wes Clark Jr., who organized a force of over 4,000 U.S. military veterans to mobilize for Standing Rock, said he’s planning a similar mobilization to help the people of Flint.

“This problem is all over the county. It’s got to be more than veterans,” Clark told the Flint Journal. “People have been treated wrong in this county for a long time.”

Flint resident Arthur Woodson, who is a veteran and a supporter of the Standing Rock protesters, said the veterans coming to Flint may help revive media attention on the community’s plight of tainted drinking water, and that the renewed public pressure could bring about an effective solution.

“All the media attention that was there brought more attention to Standing Rock. The government had a change of heart,” Woodson told the Journal.

Another Oklahoma fracking seismic quake storm


From the U.S. Geological Survey [the Kansas Oklahoma border is shown as the line toward the top of the map]:

blog-frackstorm

Chart of the day: Partisan divides of key sciences


Science hasn’t been so politicized since the days of the Scopes Monkey Trial, and two key areas of division involved climate change and genetically modified foods..

From the Pew Research Center:

blog-science