Is God a Monkey?

About 6000 years ago in a place undefined by space, God was sitting in his lab pondering his next course of action. He had just created existence, but it needed time to cool off before he could do any experiments. God had grown weary of being alone and creating a universe for friends to live in seemed like the easiest solution. Turns out that making worlds was quite a chore, as very few of the heavenly bodies God created were capable of sustaining life.

God was not deterred. All he needed was one good planet for his friends. He made hundreds of interesting creatures to populate it but decided that someone made in his image would be best suited to rule over that world whenever he was busy.

He set out immediately to make these future kings. He broke out his trusty organism-making set and began picking the right chromosomes for the task. Being omnipotent is tough in the morning, so God had some coffee and a jelly donut to get his motor running. He was in a hurry, and some of the jelly filling got on his equipment. God quickly cleaned up the mess and carried on with his work without giving another thought to his sticky blunder.

After toiling for hours, God had assembled the perfect embryo, something that would grow into a mortal version of him. It would be his greatest triumph, and all it needed was a couple of days in his Easy-Life Oven. God inserted the embryo, set the timer, and went off to sculpt fake fossils.

When the timer sounded, God returned to see his new friend and was appalled at what he found. This creature had very little fur, stood completely upright, and made noises that seemed to be gibberish. Since God could use the company, he decided to keep this abomination around and took to calling it Adam.

Some time passed before God began noticing that Adam longed for a companion of his own. Being mortal, he had a natural desire to reproduce, and God saw no reason to deny him that urge. Unfortunately, he didn't know how exactly Adam was formed and would need to review the original process to find the error. As a bonus, God realized, finding his mistake would allow him to finally create his master species.

Later on while pouring over his notes, God had his "eureka" moment. Nothing in his work jumped out as an obvious flaw, but he remembered the jelly mishap from that day. Some chromosomes must have inadvertently been stuck together during the assembly process! God was amazed at how different two creatures could be because of such a small change.

With the problem identified, it wasn't long before God found the bothersome chromosomes and adjusted his notes accordingly. To create a female, he knew that some fundamental changes would be required, but the process would be similar. God went to work immediately, assembling the embryo for the creature he decided to call Eve. He then thoroughly cleaned his workstation and put together a male and female of the species he had initially sought. Luckily, his oven had room for four. He placed the three embryos on the rack and put in a pot pie for dinner.

While eating, God decided that when the creatures emerged from their incubation, the time would be right to send them to the planet he was calling Earth. He would miss having the company, but his time would be better spent observing what had become his grand experiment. God's only obstacle now was time.

The two days went by slowly. God's path was permanently carved into his floor from the pacing. The bell rang, and his creatures were ready. First from the oven came Eve, and she was a beautiful specimen. Adam was visibly pleased with the result. Next came the unknown quantities, those creatures God had set out to make as his mortal duplicates.

The destined rulers of Earth emerged, perfect in the eyes of their creator. God was awestruck at these beings that stood before him. He had faith in his methodology but was skeptical after his recent failure. God didn't feel right in giving them names, as he felt that such a high species should choose for themselves. 

Before he sent his four latest creations to Earth, God assigned terms to both pairs for reference in his notes. Adam and Eve were dubbed "humans", but he felt that his master species deserved a more distinguished title. From that point on, God would call these creatures "chimpanzees".

Who doesn't love Angel Food Cake or Alton Brown from Good Eats?

The Part of This in Which I'm Being Serious

I initially intended this story as a brief lead-in to my blog post. It kind of took off on me, so I apologize. Anyway, I've been thinking a lot on the influence that religious belief can have on scientific research. Generally, a scientist that considers religious dogma as part of his process will steer his results toward that outcome, and that is just backwards science.

I'll use my story as an example of similar bias. An impartial reader may notice some microscopic particles of science inside. However, an individual of the pious persuasion might not even read the whole story because of the frightening amount of heresy involved, unless they wanted fodder for the comments section.

I know I'm picking on religion right now, but it has been a major thorn in the paw of science for centuries. Unfortunately, God is just everyone's favorite whipping boy these days, and bad science is spawning from less apparent places. Hollywood is a major source, and I'm not even going to talk about movies.

It's pretty apparent that celebrities have been interjecting themselves into political issues since "celebrities" became a term, and science began grappling with politics when agendas were invented. As the breeding ground for these "celebrities", Hollywood has acted as an impediment to progress for some time now. It seems that several brilliant scientific and political minds chose to pursue their love of acting so they could use the resulting fame as a vessel to better deliver their ideas to humanity.

Two major issues come to mind when I think of meddling actors: fracking and GMO's. (For those that aren't in the know, that's genetically modified organisms. Apparently it's cool to modify people, but not food. I won't even get into preservatives and artificial flavors.)

I'm not overly concerned that fracking gets a bad rap, but I'm amused by Matt Damon's disdain for it, which he clearly demonstrated in Promised Land. (I know I said no movies, but this one is politically charged bad science. An op-ed piece in the New York Times paints a different picture regarding the science behind the fracking process and the threats it poses to nearby communities. (I'll leave readers to to form their own opinions. It's a right bestowed upon us by the big chimpanzee in the sky.

It turns out that GMO's are a much simpler issue. Science is doing battle with a populace that has an overpowering fear of the unknown. The idea of "playing God" in any context makes most people uneasy, especially when it involves something we consume. (Even atheists seem to ride this train. I guess they're cool with God as a euphemism.) This fear has resulted in a couple of notable events.

This past year, the state of California tried to pass a proposition requiring all foods containing GMO's to be labelled accordingly, but it was voted down( The latest cause comes from Whole Foods, a prominent North American grocery chain. They announced last week that by 2018, they won't sell any products containing GMO's unless their packaging meets the company's labelling standards( 

This move strikes me as a knee-jerk reaction intended to convince potential consumers that Whole Foods will be the best place to shop for the foreseeable future. (The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations posted a pair of articles on their site in 2003 detailing pros,, and cons,, of GMO's. As usual, nothing is black and white, unless you're playing chess.)

From my recent observations, I've come to believe that religion isn't the only reason for the persecution of science. It's also a fear of change and the necessary paradigm shift resulting from scientific discoveries. As far as Catholics were concerned, Galileo tried to make the earth travel in circles and Darwin made monkeys into our uncles. 

Religions have even taken aim at each other. When polytheism was prominent, Egyptians persecuted the Jews and Romans took up arms against Christianity. We all know how these both worked out.

To be painfully honest, I think that most of these problems stem from a fear of being wrong. If a single part of someone's belief structure is proven false, the remaining pieces tend to topple like dominoes. Fighting for what you believe as an individual or society isn't about the cause. It's about what defines you. Losing that fight takes away your identity and leaves you without purpose.

This is why I enjoy science. Research is based on the idea that you have to be wrong repeatedly until you find the solution. Even then, you've usually just found an answer that you couldn't disprove. What really makes science great is that the only way you can truly be wrong is if you ever believe you're right, and in order to succeed, the only thing you have to believe in is yourself.

Notes: For the sake of clarity, I'm agnostic. Being atheist seems like being religious without the deity. I've got better things to do than picking a side. Besides, religion can't be proven absolutely wrong or right, so neither argument merits my dedication.

I'll be off for the weekend, so no new posts for a little while. I should finish Written in Stone while I'm away, so there's that.

Yes, I intended the "Highway to Hell" video from my last post to foreshadow this one. That's all I've got. As always, feedback in the comments section or on Twitter is welcome!

The Voices in My Head Discuss Science Communication

Science communication seems like a pretty hot topic these days, but I've been hesitant to write about it. I just wasn't sure if my thoughts on the subject would merit their own post. Despite my reservations, I decided that it couldn't hurt to throw in my two cents. I'll lean toward objective assessment based on personal experience, but that's usually where opinions come from. I try to avoid having those since I know I'll be some degree of wrong no matter what.

For the sake of discussion, I've boiled SciComm down to three relevant types of involvement: scientist, science writer, and science reader. These are clearly not definitive roles, but most people fit pretty neatly into one of them. (I've omitted those that fit into a fourth category I like to call unscientists.) Where things get murky and people seem to take sides is when these roles get called into question. What better way to address this questioning than by answering hypothetical questions about it?

Why do we even need science writers? Don't scientists know how to write?

This may be a simplification of a common discussion, but cutting off the fat leaves only the meat to chew on. From what I've seen, scientists have to be capable technical writers. This format, however, is very specific and painfully redundant. As someone who has written and read his fair share of technical reports, I feel confident in saying a casual reader would rather watch Dancing with the Stars

While some scientists are able to write for a broad audience, it is unfair to expect it from all of them. If a researcher doesn't have a knack or desire for writing this way, I don't think they should have to try. I'd rather they concentrate on the science thing and leave the wordsmithing to people that enjoy it.

This isn't really applicable, but I needed something to break up the text. Everybody loves cats, right?

Wouldn't it be more efficient to have the scientists do all of the writing?

In terms of cost, having any researcher do the promoting of their work seems to be the obvious option. They tend to work on a salary, so added hours won't cost their employer. This argument lacks any real merit though. A lot of science writing is funded and published by third parties, so the employing agency has already maximized their cost. Besides, any scientist that wants two jobs for the price of one may be insane.

As far as time goes, this is probably a push. The scientist's advantage lies in writing the initial report and having a full grasp of its contents. On the other hand, the science writers sometimes receive the reports in advance of publication and are adept at learning on the fly. Once a science writer knows what they're reading, they know what they want to write.

Aren't scientists the most capable people for communicating their ideas to the general public?

While they certainly have the strongest understanding of the subject matter, I've found that scientists have difficulty relating with the target audience. This can be tough when their knowledge of a topic is notably beyond that of the reader. People like to feel smart, and reading an article written by a post-doctoral researcher seems to have an opposite effect.

Since a science writer is learning as they review the subject material, they are in a wonderful position to teach the concepts to their readers. The writers can identify key points, stumbling blocks, and complex jargon and use them as learning objectives. This may sound like a lot of work for a review of a report, but this is the type of writing most science enthusiasts read. We may see a shift as open access gains prevalence, but magazines and blogs will probably still serve the audience best.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Though I have projected a general idea that scientists should take a secondary role in science communication, I do know first hand that some of them are pretty good at it. I certainly don't read their blogs for my health. I just think that maintaining a loose hierarchy between scientist, science writer, and science reader helps control the flow of information. This ensures that the casual learner doesn't get inundated with knowledge and lose interest. 

In my mind, a scientist's best work in the SciComm area is doing blog updates while their research is in progress. It gives the interested populace a better idea of the process and allows for a bit of a distraction when the science isn't being cooperative. Blogging the research also serves as a way to look back on a day's work, look forward to the next step, and chronicle discoveries as they happen.

I also believe a scientist appreciates the new perspective they gain when a science writer publishes a review of their work. I know that when I write something, I won't let myself think that I did a good job until I'm told so repeatedly. Even then, I'm skeptical. I also know that feedback is a writer's best friend, whether their work is technical, creative, or journalistic. Getting formally reviewed by another published writer is the most in-depth form of feedback I can imagine.

This concludes my interview with myself. I hope it was enjoyable even if it wasn't really informative. I'm thinking I may do a round-table discussion some time in the future. You can never have too many perspectives on a topic, even if they're all coming from the same person.

Notes: After nearly a week without posting, I'm thinking that something on back-to-back days is in order. Next up will be my thoughts on science, religion, paradigms, and cake. Soon after will be my eagerly anticipated review of Written in Stone. (I know I've been looking forward to it. I'm always surprised at what I end up writing.) Feedback!

Vote WTF!!! on Montana House Bill 392

Yesterday was an interesting day. I was between classes and catching up on Twitter news when I was introduced to Montana House Bill 392. As a Montana resident for nearly three decades and a lifelong dino-fanatic, it was basically the worst thing I could have read. In no phase of existence is there a way I could stand back and wait for an outcome. What follows is the letter I drafted opposing the bill.

Attachment 1 is Sarah Werning's "Why Paleontology is Relevant(", Attachment 2 is the SVP Member Bylaw on Ethics Statement(, and Attachment 3( is an article from The Gainesville Sun reporting Eric Prokopi's guilty plea with a summary of events in the Tarbosaurus incident. (I referenced the specimen as a Tyrannosaurus bataar in my letter to maintain continuity with this piece.)

I have addressed this letter to the bill's sponsor in the Montana House, Representative Alan Doane, and I also composed a slightly modified version for my state representative, Alan Redfield. I'll have them in the mail today, giving both men something fun to read when they get to work on Monday. 

I have intentionally left the Montana House of Representatives contact address visible so anyone who wishes to contact Rep. Doane may do so without digging for information. If you like the way my letter reads, you are welcome to use it as a template. I only ask that you make it your own. (If you ask nicely, I'll even e-mail you a copy.)

For detailed information on MT House Bill 392, you can go to the state website( It is scheduled for a hearing in committee today, but regardless of the outcome, we need to push them on this. If the bill fails, I believe they'll keep trying in their effort to sell off our state's greatest scientific contribution to fund a tourist trap. (I realize the term is harsh, but the state of Montana sees parks as revenue streams instead of natural exhibits.)

I strongly encourage anyone who has not contacted the Montana legislature regarding this matter to do so immediately. A contact information portal for all sitting members is available for those who want to really drive the point home( I thank you all for your attention and concern in this matter, and as always, I welcome feedback both here and through Twitter!

Note: I have now read 73% of Written in Stone and should have my Kindle edition review up next week, courtesy my spring break. I'll have at least one other post before that, but I'm not telling what it is!

Cannibalism in the Age of Dinosaurs: A Love Story

Many times with science, I've had a question answered before I knew I wanted to ask. This wasn't quite the case with Dr. David Hone's latest venture, but his new research project still made me wonder about something that might not have otherwise crossed my mind. The study itself isn't even the most interesting part. Dr. Hone is attempting to crowd-fund the research for publication in an open-access journal.

I won't venture too deeply into the finer points of the project, but I will say that it involves dinosaurs eating each other. (If I tell you too much, you'll be less inclined to visit the website. Let your curiosity be your guide. Before we tumble into a mess regarding the food chain, circle of life, and maybe a secret agent platypus, I should expand on the notion.

Everybody knows that dinosaurs ate each other. The historical relationship between predator and prey has been well documented through extensive biological study. Dr. Hone is setting out to prove that dinosaurs of the same species ate each other. (If we're lucky, he'll also discover whether or not they were delicious.)

Each contributor to the project will be entered into a raffle for this beautiful artwork courtesy of Luis Rey.

The name of this effort is Project Daspletosaurus. For those not in the know, Daspletosaurus(frightful lizard) is a genus of tyrannosaurine tyrannosaurid, which is a fancy way of saying it's a cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex.

They were an apex predator during the Upper Cretaceous Epoch between 77 and 74 million years ago, and current fossil evidence indicates that Daspletosaurus lived in what is now western North America. (If you want to know more, roll like me and check out the Wikipedia entry. Knowing that they ate everything else, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to imagine Daspletosauruses eating each other if push came to shove.

Throughout Earth's history, several cases of cannibalism have been observed. Most notably, two events in recent human history involve people from non-cannibalistic cultures engaging in the act for the sake of survival. These incidents have evolved to the point of inappropriate joking, but the reality that members of an advanced species would ever eat each other speaks against more primitive creatures having reservations about such behavior. (For more info about recent human cannibalism, The Donner Party:, The Miracle of the Andes: Read at your own discretion.)

Here's Kup telling Grimlock an old war story from Cybertron. (Needed something to lighten the mood.)

While I don't know what the results of Dr. Hone's research will be, I feel confident that his work will be thorough and any conclusions will be drawn cautiously. I'll admit that anyone willing to put their reputation on the line by soliciting donated funding has to be a strange combination of dedicated and crazy, but that's the type of person I look to when I want a job done right.

If you would like to contribute, visit the Project Daspletosaurus website( for the sake of your scroll wheel), or you can buy some cool merchandise at David Orr's online store with proceeds going to the cause( I not only endorse this project, but I've already purchased a tee shirt and donated some money. With a little more help we can get this done. As a final message for Dr. Hone:

Notes: As of this writing, 22 days remain on the fundraiser with 70% funded. I see no reason to cap it at 100. 

Twitter handle: David Orr - @anatotitan

Inside the Name of The Joe

In my last post, I brought up the possibility that in the near future I would explain the alias appearing in my blog title. Since I'm not feeling overly serious today, I just as well follow through on this threat. Before I get to that, I have another blog-naming issue to address, brought forward by  Dr. John Hutchinson:

I won't get into details about the URL name, but I will address it for the sake of those interested. Using Effigia for the blog URL is a dedication to the person who inspires me to put my best foot forward and is the real driving force behind this blog and my pursuit of dinosaur knowledge. I appreciate the irony that Effigia is a rauisuchian, but the origin of my interest in the creature isn't a story that will ever be published.

Adding my own picture of Effigia sounds like a fun idea. I've always liked drawing, and this would afford me the opportunity to delve into paleo art. Thanks to the writing of Dr. Thomas Holtz in a book I previously discussed, I have a nice overview of the process and feel comfortable giving it a try. (Props to Luis V. Rey for his contributions to that book as well.) When I complete the project, I'll write a post about Effigia to accompany the picture. Based on my history, this could be anywhere from next week to 2023. (I'm leaning toward sooner over later, but I get distracted easily.)

Before I move on to the main subject, I think this is a good time to mention that I really enjoy answering questions and addressing ideas when I write. If any of my readers have a suggestion or query they feel would be relevant and/or interesting, I would love to hear it. I am generally an open book and reader feedback gives my writing a more conversational feel. (It's also a great source of blog ideas that I don't have to come up with.)

Now that we're past the prologue, I can imagine my nickname has inspired some level of curiosity in most of my audience. It's quite a story, and the hardest part for me is trying to find a good beginning. As strange as this may sound, the narrative will revolve pretty heavily around the TV show Firefly. (This will make a world of sense later.)

I suppose things really start with an interview Nathan Fillion did for Entertainment Weekly in February of 2011 upon the announcement that Science Channel had acquired broadcast rights for Firefly(Article: Ironically, I had not seen any episodes of the show prior to the interview, but I became an instant fan after viewing all 14 of them. (I was fairly certain of this outcome, as I had seen the movie Serenity a number of times. Heck, I already owned it on blu-ray.) Comments Fillion made about purchasing the show spurred a fan movement to help him bring it back. This grew into another, more worthy cause.

Back in 2008, Fillion co-founded Kids Need to Read along with PJ Haarsma and Denise Gary(KNTR: Their mission was pretty straightforward: provide schools and public libraries with quality books to promote literacy and creative thinking in children. (I strongly suggest visiting their website. It's a great foundation, and Denise is super cool.)

When the fan movement, cleverly named "Help Nathan Buy Firefly", began to succumb to the reality of their futility, they diverted their energy to helping KNTR. If they couldn't bring back Nathan's show, they could still contribute to something he loves. This led to a remarkably successful charity drive that I had some involvement in promoting.

I made this poster for the KNTR book/fund drive. I take pride in knowing I've helped such a wonderful organization.

While my involvement in the Firefly cause was primarily observational, I am grateful that I had come along for the ride. I hoped they could succeed, but I knew in my heart that it was a fool's errand. As the immortal Jayne Cobb said, "If wishes were horses, we'd all be eating steak." (We'll ride on past the discussion of horse as a viable meat source. I won't eat it, but you can if you like.) If not for this lost cause, I would still be in the dark about a great foundation in Kids Need to Read and the wonderful people that work there. (I also have a lot of cool autographed memorabilia from their holiday auction in 2011.)

The Wil Wheaton-signed Wesley Crusher plate I bought from KNTR. My favorite item is the Star Trek graphic novel signed by Leonard Nimoy, but it's unavailable for photographing.

When all of this was first starting, KNTR had a regular Facebook profile rather than an organizational page. I added them as a friend to follow along with their endeavors. Some time after the fundraiser, they were notified that their profile was a violation of the terms of use and they needed to start a page. (Turns out profiles are only for people. Facebook is surprisingly strict.) The administrators gave notice to all of their Facebook friends and started the first Kids Need to Read fan page.

You might not believe this, but I'm not always a very serious person. I became one of the first "Likes" on the new page and immediately became the first to write on their wall with something that sadly no longer exists: "Bam! My name is Joe, and I approve this page." (They discovered soon after that they could export their profile friends as "Likes" to a page and deleted this original incarnation. I also wrote my message on the new wall.)

The comments on my post were priceless. Since they are no longer accessible, I can only do my best to paraphrase from memory. The first questioned the validity of my saying "Bam!", pointing out that it was "the lady" who originally said it. Little did that person know, they were creating a bit of a monster. Someone from KNTR, Denise I believe, replied, "Maybe it should be Bam says the Joe!" I took an instant liking to this moniker, because it's catchy and is the first I've been pegged with that has any sense of originality. I updated my Facebook profile to reflect the change, and I've used the nickname on some level ever since.

My going-away mug from my first duty station in England depicting a nickname I had acquired there. The underlying quote is a story for another day.

Over my life thus far, nearly 30 years and counting, my name has seen an irregular and fascinating  progression. My birth name is Joseph Ryan Hancock, and it seemed to work fine until I was 12. (My dad calls me JR on occasion, but that's a father/son thing.) For some reason, my teachers that year took to shortening my first name. This made sense so I went with it. The moment I knew I would never be known as Joseph again was when I got my first report card the next year. Every other card had my given name written on it, but this one called me Joe.

From there, I've been called several things that worked with the name but nothing that stuck. (This is how I was briefly tagged with Joe Dirt.) I picked up the nickname G.I. Joe on two separate occasions, but one of my favorites came during Air Force basic training. My primary training instructor took to calling me Cock, and I was drawn to the unique nature and surprising accuracy. (I can be one on occasion, but I do my best to play nicely.)

Even though a lot of people have given me a lot of names over the years, I've always come back to being known as Joe. Since getting a Ph.D. is more of a long-term goal, being known as Dr. Joe will have to wait. Until then, I'll settle for The Joe whenever I'm in formal company.

Notes: A couple of potential future topics: science communication, the clash between science and religion. Also, I'm 28% through Written in Stone by Brian Switek with a review of the Kindle version forthcoming.  Any thoughts on these would be greatly appreciated. 

Twitter handles: Nathan Fillion - @NathanFillion, Kids Need to Read - @kidsneedtoread, Wil Wheaton - @wilw, Leonard Nimoy - @TheRealNimoy, PJ Haarsma - @PJhaarsma