A new hypothesis on how sexual reproduction evolved

Man, to think I took a class that spent the whole semester talking about the evolution of sexual reproduction. It looked a lot like panel one, but I was never exposed to this brilliant hypothesis:Pfffft, take that, Muller’s ratchet!

Now, the real question is if I’m brave enough to email this to my professor. Maybe after graduation…

My article on the science of Boobquake at The Guardian

Just wanted to let everyone know that I have an article up at The Guardian on the skeptical goal of Boobquake. I present my “scientific” results from the “experiment” there, but I also touch on my motivation and response to critics. And I’m super excited to be a part of such a huge, respectable newspaper – so go check it out!

And the Boobquake results are in!

Boobquake is finally over across the world. It’s time to crunch some numbers – did women dressing immodestly really increase earthquakes? Can we find any data that supports Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi’s hypothesis?

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Photo by David Collins. Yes, that’s the biological hazard symbol. Yes, I found that funny. In case you didn’t notice, I’m a geek.

Many people seemed to misinterpret the planned analysis of this event. We’re not just trying to see if any earthquakes occurred, since dozens happen every day. What we want to see if we actually increased earthquakes in either number or severity. Let’s first look at the number of earthquakes that occurred on Monday, the 26th, and compare it to earthquakes in the past couple months. All data was taken from the USGS Earthquake website.

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Each data point represents the total number of earthquakes per day going back to February 5th (the extent of the online database). Days are measured in Coordinated Universal Time. That red square is boobquake. As you can see qualitatively, our provocative dress didn’t really seem to affect the frequency of earthquakes. There were 47 earthquakes on the 26th, which falls well within the 95% confidence interval for number of earthquakes (about 0 to 148).

So did our cleavage/thighs/ankles/hair increase the number of earthquakes? No.

“But Jen!” the internet cried, “what about the 6.5 magnitude earthquake in Taiwan? Surely that shows our bosoms have supernatural powers!”

Sorry to be a buzzkill – hey, I’d like magical control over plate tectonics too – but that single earthquake wasn’t significant. Earthquakes between 6.0 and 6.9 magnitude happen, on average, 134 times a year. That means we had about a 37% probability of an earthquake of that magnitude happening on boobquake just due to chance alone – hardly an improbable event that needs to be attributed to an angry deity.

But just to be safe, let’s look at the overall distribution of the magnitudes of earthquakes on boobquake. Did they differ from the types of earthquakes we’ve seen since February? These samples span from the entirety of the event – midnight at the earliest time zone to midnight at the last time zone – so the data encompasses more than 24 hours.

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The box indicates the first and third quartiles (within which 50% of the data points fall). Not only did all of the earthquakes on boobquake fall within the normal range of magnitudes, but the mean magnitude actually decreased slightly!

Now, this change isn’t statistically significant, but it certainly doesn’t support the cleric’s claim. In fact, I think it develops an even more interesting alternative hypothesis: Maybe immodest women actually decrease the amount of earthquakes! Man, that would certainly be a fun way to provide disaster relief. Of course, before we can make any claims about that, we’d have to greatly increase our sample size. You know, I have this gut feeling that a lot of people would like to do our boobquake experiment again…

Obviously this study had its flaws. We didn’t have a large sample size, and we didn’t have a control planet where women were only wearing burkas. We didn’t have a good way to quantify how much we increased immodesty (what’s the unit of immodesty anyway? Intensity of red on blushing nuns?). Maybe women did dress immodestly, but we didn’t lead men astray enough. Maybe God really was pissed, but he couldn’t increase earthquakes for us because that would provide proof for his existence (or maybe it’s his existence that’s the problem).

Or of course, maybe God is just biding his time. If you hear a news report in the next couple weeks saying a bizarre Indiana earthquake killed a science blogger, well, then maybe we’ll have to rethink our conclusions a bit.

But you know what? Boobquake was originally intended to be a humorous exercise in scientific and skeptical thinking – that we should test claims people make, especially when they’re ridiculous. And what could be a better way to do that than to question the methods of boobquake itself? That’s why science is such a wonderful tool for investigation – research must not only go through rigorous peer review, but it also must be able to be overturned in light of new data. I think it’s awesome reading all the scientific flaws people keep noticing – feel free to keep pointing them out!

I’m pretty sure our results aren’t going to change Sedighi’s mind. People tend to find any way possible to justify their superstitious beliefs, no matter how illogical. I’m sure the next time a big quake hits we’ll get a “See? Told you so!” even if the event wasn’t statistically significant – he didn’t care about science before, and he probably won’t now. Even if he says that, I think boobquake succeeded. We exposed these beliefs for their ridiculous nature, encouraged people to think skeptically, and of course, had some fun. What else could someone ask for? (Less creepy misogynistic guys who miss the point? Yeeeaah, agreed.)

So, sorry Sedighi. To quote something that was floating around twitter – women can move mountains, but they don’t cause earthquakes.

Don’t forget that boobquake shirts are on sale here. All profits will be donated to the Red Cross and James Randi Educational Foundation.

EDIT: If you want a more scientific explanation of earthquakes and boobquake, there’s an excellent article here by Dr. Lawrence Braile, professor and earthquake expert at my own Purdue University.

Why people won’t watch CSI with me

From here:
Because finding a contaminated sample of cells, extracting the DNA, successfully amplifying a clean PCR, genotyping or sequencing it, and editing your perfectly clear and uncontaminated results always takes about ten minutes. And nothing ever fails. Ever. They must pray to the PCR Gods more than I do. Oh, and not to mention they have a genetic database of every human on earth to compare their DNA to. Even if BLAST ever did grow that large, it would take hours, if not days of computational time to find the correct match.

Yeah, now whenever I watch CSI with my dad, he’ll just turn to me and ask, “That’s nothing like how it actually works, is it?” Nope.

And as a side note, you know you’ve been working on your honors thesis too long when a graph jam graph annoys you. The Y axis is horrible, and there are no error bars! I can definitely go from tissue sample to sequence data in 3 days if everything works perfectly, and I’ve also had it take up to two months (stupid low sodium clean up procedure!). …I’m a nerd.

Seattle, here I come!

While I alluded to it in a previous post, I still wasn’t 100% sure. But now it’s official – I’ll be going to the University of Washington to get my PhD in the Department of Genome Sciences in the fall!

That still sounds crazy when I say it. I’m going to go get a freaking PhD. Who knew that would happen ten years ago, when I was still amazed by the simple puzzle of a Punnett square, or when I still didn’t quite grasp the whole evolution thing. I’ve come a long way.

So come September, I will have officially escaped the Midwest. Wooooo! Though I admit, I’m nervous. I’ve lived in Indiana for the past 21 years (lived 5 minutes across the border in Illinois when I was an infant), and I’ve never lived in a big city. Purdue is only an hour and a half from my home town, so I was still close to family and retained some of my old high school friends. It’s kind of terrifying knowing I’ll finally be completely on my own. It’s like I’m an adult or something!

If you have any tips about grad school in general, the University of Washington, or Seattle, now’s a good time to let me in on all of the secrets. Or you can just use this post to celebrate along with me. Hurray!

Fun times in Seattle

Not sleepless, though. Seriously, my hotel bed was the most comfortable thing ever. Slept like a baby. I think I’ve figure out my sleep problems: stop sleeping in beds that are older than I am.

Anyway, Seattle and the University of Washington was a lot of fun. The whole time I was there it was sunny and in the 50s, which felt balmy after coming from below freezing weather. On the downside, apparently people in Seattle are so used to their gloom and rain that they have no idea how to drive when it’s sunny out. Seriously, the traffic was absolutely horrible. The Olympics, Bon Jovi concert, and Yo-yo National Tournament may have also had an affect (you know people love their yo-yos).

But that didn’t stop me from going on an adventure. One of my readers, Jaki, picked me up so I didn’t have to battle the traffic on public transportation. She sounded sweet enough on the phone that I felt my odds were good that she wasn’t going to turn out to be an axe murderer. We made our way over to the Pacific Science Center and met up with two more of my readers, Jason and Jerry (it was a J-name party!).

I had a lot of fun. Probably way too much fun than anyone over the age of 10 is intended to have in this place. We went to the dinosaur exhibit first, which had a bunch of animatronic dinosaurs. I hate to say it, but they looked crummy compared to the quality of the brand new Creation Museum, which made me said. But then I was happy when I read all of the information and played the games that were actually teaching good science and not a bunch of make believe.

Where are the human animatronics? I’m so confused. This isn’t what I learned at the Creation Museum…

My favorite part of the museum was the big section on genetics. I love science museums like this because it’s full of hilarious silly games, like this one where you’re a European corn borer and you’re trying to destroy as much corn as possible. Hellz yes. It may be corny (ha), but it cracks me up. How many games do you get to play as a European corn borer?!
It’s also full of bad puns. What’s not to love?

They also had a new exhibit on what it would be like being an astronaut going to Mars.
Some nice subtle product placement there, Microsoft. Apparently now we don’t just have to worry about them taking over the world – now we have to worry about Mars too!

It was pretty neat. They had stuff ranging from gloves that simulated the pressure of space, a low-gravity harness simulator, genetically modified plants. They also asked “Who should go to Mars?” with the makings of a reality TV show:
I swear to god I did not do this. Some bored dad was laughing at his creation when I stumbled upon it.

After we had enough of the center, we went and had a nice dinner nearby. It was a ton of fun hanging out with everyone! Unfortunately we didn’t get to hang out at the pub too long, since a bunch of people were waiting for tables, but I pretty much fell straight asleep when I got back to my hotel anyway. Body was definitely still on Eastern time.
The next couple of days were devoted to my UW interviews. I was with a group of 16 students, and apparently another 16 had come two weeks before. We were showed around the city, got to see some apartments, met a lot of graduate students, and interviewed with professors. I thought their program was wonderful, and I’m still amazed by the high throughput sequencing resources they had. And today I got an email from one professor that I interviewed with that I was officially accepted, yay!

It’s definitely going to be a hard decision. I like UW just as much as Harvard, but for different things. I think I’m going to have to visit Stanford next week, let everything soak in for a bit, and then try to make a decision. Because right now I have no idea what I’d do!

Non-theist labels vs age

One of my readers asked if I would look and see if there was any correlation with age and the types of non-theist labels my readers used. Here you go (click it for a larger image):Sample size:
<20 = 68
21-25 = 139
26-30 = 103
31-35 = 54
36 – 45 = 61
46< = 42

I’m not sure the best way to test for statistical significance, and I’m too tired from my trip to figure it out, so let’s just look at some general trends.

First, it seems like young non-theists use more labels than older non-theists. They had the highest percent of responders for every single term. One hypothesis as to why could be that young non-theists are still trying to figure out which labels best describe them, so a lot apply right now. It could also be that a lot of these terms have just recently become popular labels, and older non-theists don’t identify with them.

The most glaring difference that I see is that young people love to be silly and call themselves Pastafarians. Oh, and that pretty much everyone hates the term Bright equally. No big surprise with either of those.

I’m not sure if I feel safe to make any more interpretations without some stats. Any older readers want to throw in their two cents?

Endangered species condoms

No, not condoms for endangered species – that wouldn’t exactly help their problem. These are condoms with endangered species on them.

Who would be behind such a crazy project? Biologists, of course! The Center for Biological Diversity are passing out these condoms to raise awareness about overpopulation and its effect on the environment.

…Ok, I seriously want these things. There are six to collect: a burying beetle, polar bear, snail darter, spotted owl, jaguar and rock frog. Must…collect…nerdy condoms…

(Via Skepchick)

I literally screamed with nerdy glee



Seriously, this is freaking amazing. I just had biggest nerdgasm since I found out Dumbledore was gay or that Alan Rickman was doing the Voice for Marvin, the Paranoid Android. This is a thousand times better than my Darwin/Pokemon mash up. I’m just sad I didn’t think of it first.

There goes eighteen more dollars from my wallet.

Take the Blag Hag 2010 Census!

I like data. No, really. Whenever there’s something I can measure or perform statistics on, I do. I like to graph my weight over time, find correlations between silly variables like doucheyness vs. time spent dating a guy, and create networks that diagram which of my friends have kissed each other (it’s a frightening web).

Don’t worry, you don’t have to make out with anyone against your will. But I would like you to complete a short survey!

I’m mainly curious about some of the general demographics of my readers, what you guys like about the blog, and what I can do to improve it in the future. I figure now is a great time to start collecting this sort of data. My blog is creeping up on it’s first birthday, and I think it would be pretty neat to have a regular data set throughout my years of blogging. Wouldn’t it be cool to see how it changes over time? I didn’t ask as many questions as I could have because 1) I’m limited to 10 and 2) I didn’t want to annoy you guys. But I still like getting a general idea!

Feel free to post comments and complaints in this post as well, though I have allotted you a free response question on the survey if you’d like to make a completely anonymous comment. I promise this isn’t a nefarious scheme to sell your demographic information to some mega corporation – at most the data may be posted anonymously as a couple graphs in a later post.

So, please take the survey!

Chemical Party

Chemists don’t get enough love around here, probably because organic chemistry broke my soul two years ago. But here’s a fun nerdy chemistry video for all of you:


It’s a tad old, but I hadn’t seen it, so maybe it’s new to some of you too. Enjoy!

If you could have the answer to any question in science, what would you ask?

This morning I received an email from a professor at Harvard (who’s currently one of my top grad school choices) that she would like to talk to me over the phone sometime this week. After much flailing of happiness, I also had to answer one preliminary question that I enjoyed so much that I had to share it with all of you:

If you could have the answer to any question in biology, what would you ask?

I would have to ask “How did life originate?” It’s probably not particularly original, but it’s simply too fascinating to ignore. We have plenty of hypotheses about the origin of life, but I would love to know exactly which one is correct. What was the biochemical process that slowly took inorganic molecules to the first cell? Are our hypotheses about an RNA world correct? Were there other “life-like” systems totally different than the cells we know today that didn’t withstand the test of time? Could this same process conceivably take place on other planets?

I guess I’m cheating a bit by asking a question that ultimately leads to many more questions, but such is the nature of science, right?

This question isn’t exactly something I would want to personally research – I’m good at chemistry, but not passionate enough about it to devote my whole life to organic and biochem. I still find it very interesting, probably because it’s human nature to wonder “why are we here?” And as an atheist, I’m always looking for the scientific explanation for things. Is there a naturalistic way that life came about on its own? Or are more “creative” ideas involving aliens or gods really true? I doubt the latter, but heck, if that really did happen, I’d want to know!

I suppose in a way it’s tangentially related to my interests in evolution. I often hear people (falsely) claiming that since scientists can’t explain the origin of life, evolution must be false. It would be nice to be able to go, “Um, actually, here’s the natural way life did come to be” and whip out a flowchart from hammerspace. Though I doubt that would convince everyone – we all know how much scientific facts affect most creationists – but at least I’d feel a bit more intellectually fulfilled.

I know everyone here isn’t a biologist, so I’ll propose the question to you a little more vaguely: If you could have the answer to any question in science, what would you ask?