December 26, 2003

Ostracod Redux

First of all I hope everyone had a happy holiday:

Christmas
Hanukkah
Saturnalia
or even
Festivus (for the rest of us)

Now to catch up on some science news:

Those crazy guys at the University of Leicester are at it again.

A little over a year ago, they made news by announcing their discovery of the world's oldest known penis, found attached to the fossil of an ostracod - a tiny sea creature - in Brazil. The penis, (really two but that's another story) was 100 million years old.

Well the world's oldest penis just got a whole lot older.

The same Professor Siveter who announced the discovery in 2002 has unearthed - literally - a 425 million year old ostracod fossil, complete with penis, practically in his own back yard!
(Somewhere in England, anyway.)

According to the recent news report:

the copulatory organ of the fossilized male is "large and stout".

Considering the entire fossil was only 5 mm long, this description would not stand up (!) to human standards.
Which might be just as well, if the female was also 5 mm long.

The news report translated the scientific name of the organism -Colymbosathon ecplecticos - as Greek for amazing swimmer with a large penis.
I don't know if that is a joke.

This is apparently a really big deal in scientific circles. I'm not exactly sure why, but I'll take their word for it.

In fact, I'm rather encouraged to see that pure science is still being pursued.
All too often, I hear reports of projects being scaled back or even abandoned because they are not cost effective. The most troubling instances of this are in medical science, when a drug which might be a promising treatment for a rare disease cannot be studied because the funding would benefit more people if spent elsewhere.
That type of thinking also appears in decisions about public health screening, when and how often to do it. I understand that funds are limited and these decisions have to be made - but I don't have to like it!

Space programs are constantly under such cost-effectiveness scrutiny. In fact, more and more, the limits of human endeavour are set by economic considerations, not scientific ones.
It's probably not a coincidence that the most technically advanced (in terms of performance) passenger jet made its appearance around the same time as the moon landing.
Yet the Concorde is now a museum piece.
Impractical? Yes... but there's also a place for higher, faster, stronger in our philosophy, I think.

I was a child during the space race but I remember the awe and enthusiasm it inspired.
Science became an educational priority, but one that was embraced by students. It didn't have to be rammed down their throats, like Canadian History.
Sometime between then and now, science lost its appeal.
Neither of my children even came close to choosing science as a field of study. Science news is relegated to the back of the Sunday paper except for the occasional oddity like the ostracod.
People don't seem to follow human space flight the way they used to.
Jaded? Maybe - but I think the problem is one of public perception.

Science just isn't sexy anymore.

(Ostracods aside, of course.)

Whether this is a cause or a result of funding difficulties (or perhaps both) I don't know. I can only hope that the pendulum swings back in the direction of scientific advancement, because that is one of the few final frontiers that remain for us.



Linque Du Jour:   Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists
Self-description:

The Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists (LFHCfS) is a club for scientists who have, or believe they have, luxuriant flowing hair.

Happily, both sexes are eligible and several men have their photos displayed on this page.
I applaud their efforts to put the allure back into science!



Looking Back
Approximately...

One year ago:
Boxing Day

Two years ago:
Travels with my Kids

Three years ago:
Nineteen Miles from Somewhere

Four years ago:
Nothing much.



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