The Failure of Frothingham

– this post also appears as a guest post on Dispatches from the Cuture Wars

Standing is a concept that has been much-maligned on Dispatches.  All too often it seems to be used as an excuse for a court to dodge a prickly situation.  But does it serve a valid purpose?  Is it merely being abused, or should it be scrapped entirely?
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Gradualism, Contingency, and Punctuated Equilibria

Since Ed is in Vegas again, I offered to put up some guest posts to help alleviate the terrible burden being placed on him.  And today being Darwin Day, I thought I’d put up a post on evolution.

As a consequence of lacking data supporting their own explanations, creationists, like other denialists, have to rely on attacking perceived weaknesses in the mainstream theories.  A popular target arises whenever disagreements between scientists over aspects of the theory crop up.  These disagreements are then exaggerated so as to makeit seem as if the whole edifice is crumbling, when in reality it is just a minor difference in opinions, both of which can be explained by the theory.

In evolution, one such disagreement is between gradualism and punctuated equilibria.  Broadly speaking, gradualism is the idea that changes accumulate over time, while punctuated equilibria is the idea that there are short periods of lots of change interspersed among long periods of little change.  Since these two ideas appear to be contradictory, creationists love to use the debate over the two concepts as evidence that evolution is wrong.  However, the two concepts are not only not contradictory, under the right circumstances gradualism results in punctuated equilibria.

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And Now for Something Completely Different

Let’s take a break from litigation and turn our eyes on ligation. The type of ligation I am talking about is connecting two strands of nucleic acids (RNA in this case; a similar process with the same name takes place with amino acids) to make a longer strand. This is an important concept in origins-of-life research (and in biology), because it allows long strands with high information content to be assembled in shorter segments, kind of like a chemical assembly line. (Note that I am using “information content” in the sense of compressibility). In essence this allows Nature to reduce the odds against producing the right sequence of bases in a long strand. It’s generally much easier to reliably produce short strands than it is to reliably produce long strands.

Of course, it doesn’t do you any good if the shorter strands are simply connecting at random – this doesn’t reduce the probability. So what you want is a process that reliably connects the correct strands in the correct order. The process doesn’t have to be perfect, just better than random. One way to do this is by speeding up the ligation process for the right strands in the right order – in other words, use a catalyst. RNA has an interesting property – it has a “backbone” that strongly connects linearly, as well as matching base pairs that connect weakly. This means that RNA can act as a catalyst for itself – an autocatalyst. Are there combinations of short RNA strands that reliably catalyze into longer strands?

What would be even cooler is if the longer strand could act as a catalyst that takes the short strands and makes another long strand just like itself. That’s self-replication, the first step towards life.

Chemists at the Scripps Research Institute did just that.
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No Can Has Cert, Berg

Jan 12 2009  Petition DENIED.

The Supreme Court announced today, in a totally expected move, that they were denying certiorari to Philip Berg’s quixotic attempt to prevent Obama’s ascendancy to the office of President of the United States of America.  This also makes moot this Friday’s hearing on the injunction pending disposition of cert – the cert has been disposed.  Properly.  In the circular file.  Rumors of hysterical laughter emanating from chambers are as yet unsubstantiated.

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Vegas Vicarious

I have great news!  I will be guest blogging for Ed Brayton over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.  Ed is going to Vegas this week – anyone who follows his blog know that he enjoys gambling.  Since he usually posts 5 times a day, he invited several bloggers to  fill in for him.  He pulled together a crack team of bloggers: Radley Balko, Chris Rodda, Jon Rowe, James Hanley, and the infamous DarkSyd, a veritable Who’s Who of legal blogging.  So why me?

He’s a gambler.  It’s no fun going with just the safe bets, eh?

So join me over at Dispatches all week long, and maybe I can kick start my own creative juices.