Science: taxonomies, grasping it and the insufficiency of “common sense”

Is there a new addition to the tree of life?
Via Jennifer Welsh from MSNBC:

Talk about extended family: A single-celled organism in Norway has been called “mankind’s furthest relative.” It is so far removed from the organisms we know that researchers claim it belongs to a new base group, called a kingdom, on the tree of life.

“We have found an unknown branch of the tree of life that lives in this lake. It is unique! So far we know of no other group of organisms that descend from closer to the roots of the tree of life than this species,” study researcher Kamran Shalchian-Tabrizi, of the University of Oslo, in Norway, said in a statement.

The primordial animal from As lake, 30 km south of Oslo, does not fit on any of the main branches of the tree of life. Kamran Shalchian-Tabrizi had to create a new main branch, called Collodictyon.

The organism, a type of protozoan, was found by researchers in a lake near Oslo. Protozoans have been known to science since 1865, but because they are difficult to culture in the lab, researchers haven’t been able to get a grip on their genetic makeup. They were placed in the protist kingdom on the tree of life mostly based on observations of their size and shape.

In this study, published March 21 in the journal Molecular Biology Evolution, the researchers were able to grow enough of the protozoans, called Collodictyon, in the lab to analyze its genome. They found it doesn’t genetically fit into any of the previously discovered kingdoms of life. It’s an organism with membrane-bound internal structures, called a eukaryote, but genetically it isn’t an animal, plant, fungus, alga or protist (the five main groups of eukaryotes).

Particle Physics Taxonomy
From Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance:

(click to see the large picture, or go to the blog post)

Of course, figuring out the mysteries of science is, well, hard…and many…even educated people don’t understand how it all works.

Though this talk is long, there is a point in which Ricard Dawkins points out that “common sense” is insufficient to understand science:

This might sound arrogant. But let me try to explain it this way: “common sense” is what many use to get through their lives on a day to day basis. For example: if someone in your day-to-day life is trying to sell you on something that seems strange to you (e. g., “doesn’t pass the smell test”), then you are probably wise to reject it. However, in science, many of the strange sounding things happen to be true!

I still remember one of my college physics classes: we were studying how light is polarized and the effects of filters. There was some positing of filters such that when two of these filters were in series, no light got through. But if you put a third polarizing filter in front of those two, light appeared to get through….I said something and my physics professor said “it doesn’t make sense, does it Mr. Nanyes?” 🙂

But…it worked, just as the mathematics said it would.

I’ll give another example of how “what makes sense in our day-to-day lives” is nonsense; this one is very concrete. This comes from General Curtis LeMay’s book: Mission with LeMay.

Then Colonel LeMay was in charge of a B-17 unit in Germany; the B-17 was a bomber which carried several 50 caliber machine guns for defense against fighter attacks.

The guns were operated in turrets, blisters or windows, and the gunners were in charge of their guns. The gunners were told to NOT oil their guns because the oil would freeze at the altitudes at which the B-17 flew and fought. They were told to clean their guns with gasoline. But, as LeMay said “everyone knows that oil is good for gun” and though that they knew better (many hunted prior to the war or were skilled with other guns). And much to their sorrow and horror…the oiled guns….froze up when they had to shoot at attacking fighters.

“Common sense” (thought that worked well in day-to-day life) was nonsense in this foreign environment!

So what about Jon Stewart’s point about “faith”? Well, it is true that scientists are VERY reluctant to overturn a long established theory that has worked very well for a long time. It does happen (quantum mechanics and relativity theory superseded classical mechanics….in a way) but only after a great deal of checking and rechecking.

Here is an example of what typically happens: way back when, people used classical mechanics to predict the orbits of planets. But the predictions for Uranus were a bit off; one possibility was that classical mechanics was wrong (unlikely…and classical mechanics works very well for planetary orbit predictions). The other possibility: something out there had a large mass and was throwing things off. That lead to the discovery of Neptune. Click the link to Greg Mayer’s article at Why Evolution is True for the detailed story; it is fascinating.


May 1, 2012 - Posted by | aircraft, astronomy, biology, books, cosmology, education, evolution, physics, science, technology

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