Author Archives: Paul Braterman

Is a good science talk really a bad science talk?

Engagement, suspense, and dramatic denouement; I wish someone had told me the importance of these at the beginning of my career, instead of leaving me to discover it half way through

The Grumpy Geophysicist

One of the mantras drilled into the heads of graduate students as they prepare their oral meeting presentations is “tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.”  The point being to make sure that the audience knows what you think is important.  And at a meeting, this can be pretty significant as folks wander in and out of a room or are distracted.  That first part tells them what they should really look for (and it helps to remind the student what they are emphasizing), the last is to reaffirm that the desired goal was in fact met.

But this is probably a lousy format for a colloquium talk and even lousier for a public talk.  Think of the storytellers out there and how their stories go.  Does Hans Christian Anderson tell you what happens to the Little Mermaid…

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What do Christians really believe about evolution?

Most people in the UK think that religious people believe in six-day creationism. Fortunately, they are wrong.

Less than one in six UK believers prefer separate creation to evolution

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The Garden of Eden (Lucas Cranach the Elder (1530)). Note scenes including the creation of Eve, the temptation by the serpent, and the expulsion

A new YouGov poll conducted in Canada and the UK shows two contrasting facts. Among those who call themselves “believers or spiritual”, only 16%, under one in six, rejected evolution in favour of separate creation. A much larger group (39%) thught that “Humans and other living things evolved over time, in a process guided by God”. As an advocate of evolution science, I regard such people as potential allies. “Guided by God” is so vague an expression that it could be taken to include God having set up the laws of nature, which was actually Darwin’s own position, according to his autobiography (here, pp 92-3), when he wrote Origin of Species. (Caveat: the options offered were

  1. Humans and other living things were created by God and have always existed in their current form
  2. Humans and other living things evolved over time, in a process guided by God
  3. Humans and other living things evolved over time as a result of natural selection, in which God played no part
  4. I have another view of the origin of species and development of life on Earth which isn’t included in this list
  5. I don’t know / I do not have a view on the origin of species and the development of life on Earth

Read the rest of this entry

On learning that the Iraqi government is dropping evolution from schoolbooks

This is how I appeared on Arabic-language Science News, أخبار العلوم – Science News, after a Facebook friend translated my remarks into Arabic

Teaching biology without mentioning evolution is like trying to teach chemistry without mentioning atoms. If you deny evolution, you have to deny the entire fossil record and also all the evidence of molecular biology. And evolution has nothing to do with religion. Within all the world’s great religions, there are thinkers who accept the evidence for evolution, and regard evolution itself as one of God’s creations. We do not allow scientists to tell religious leaders how to teach religion, so why should we allow religious leaders to tell scientists how to teach science?

The destroyed al-Nuri mosque and its gate in the old city of Mosul. Photograph: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images (via The Guardian)




Commenting on the recent decision by the Iraqi government to remove evolution from the school textbooks, I wrote these words to one of my many new-found Iraqi friends [1], a young man in Mosul now able to speak his mind after three years of Isis suppression; he then quoted me on Arabic-language Science News, أخبار العلوم – Science News, which has led in the first 12 hours to a brisk correspondence, more than a thousand likes, over fifty shares, and some not always friendly commentary in which chimpanzees feature prominently in my own assumed ancestry. I can only express my admiration for someone who, sheltering somehow in the ruins of that city, finds time to think of such things.

1] My piece on evolution in The Conversation was noticed by a Baghdad-based Arabic-language blog

Trump boasts of genetic superiority, German blood

Reposting because relevant:

I have great genes and all that stuff, which I’m a believer in

QUOTE: All men are created equal – that’s not true. When you connect two race horses, you usually end up with a fast horse. Secretariat doesn’t produce slow horses. I have a certain gene. I’m a gene believer. Do you believe in the gene thing? I mean I do. I have great genes and all that stuff, which I’m a believer in.

I have like a very very high aptitude

Trump shows us where his superiority is located (CNN)

Well I think I was born with a drive for success. I was born with a certain intellect. The fact is you have to be born and be blessed with something up there. God help me by giving me a certain brain. It’s this [tapping his head], it’s not my salesmanship. This – you know what that is? I have an Ivy League education [true, just about: he spent his last undergraduate year at Wharton, the business school of the University of Pennslyvania, which is Ivy League], smart guy. I have like a very very high aptitude.

 You know I’m proud to have that German blood, there’s no question about it. Great stuff

I mean, like, I’m a smart person. You’re born a fighter, and I’ve seen a lot of people who want to fight but they can’t. Some people cannot genetically handle pressure.

I always said that winning is somewhat, maybe, innate. Maybe it’s just something you have; you have the winning gene. Frankly it would be wonderful if you could develop it, but I’m not so sure you can. You know I’m proud to have that German blood, there’s no question about it. Great stuff.

(We can’t pretend we weren’t told what he is and what he thinks about race. He told us)

Source: Yes I watched him say all this. Video at

Assam Earthquake 15th August 1950

From my friend Michael Roberts. And next time anyone tells you that fracking causes earthquakes, ask them what magnitude and refer them to the diagram at the end of this post.

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

As we mark the 70th anniversary of India and Pakistan, we would also remember that the Assamese did not have a good day on the 15th August.

During the night a massive Mag 8.6 earthquake struck the area, with its epicentre just inside Tibet.That makes it far bigger than the Mag 7.8 in Nepal in 2015. However the damage or loss of life, though considerable, were far less as the area was less densely populated.

My own interest is that we were living in Jorhat on the tea plantations of Assam at the time and the quake became part of family history. We lived in a bungalow, which was built on stilts for protection against earthquakes and had about ten servants as was the norm.

So what happened?

The bungalow on stilts began to sway. Wardrobes fell over, but didn’t hit anyone.

The car, an american Studebaker, rolled out off…

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How to kill the dinosaurs in ten minutes

Ten minutes difference, and Earth would still be Planet of the Dinosaurs

Ammonites Haeckel

Not only vertebrates, but ammonites, marine molluscs, perished in the disaster. Image (Haeckel, 1904, via Wikipedia). Click on this and other images to enlarge

We have suspected for some decades that the dinosaurs1 became extinct as the result of a massive meteorite, an asteroid, hitting the Earth. We have known where the impact site was since 1990, if not before. But it is only last year that we successfully drilled into the impact site, and only now, for the first time, do we really understand why the impact was so fatal. And if the meteorite had arrived ten minutes earlier, or ten minutes later, it would still no doubt have inflicted devastation, but the dinosaurs would still be here and you wouldn’t.

66.1 million years ago, dinosaurs covered the Earth. 66 million years ago, there were none. And not only the dinosaurs, but the pterosaurs in the skies, the long necked plesiosaurs and even the ammonites in the oceans, and 75% of all complex animal life. No terrestrial vertebrate heavier than around 25 kg seems to have survived. What happened? Read the rest of this entry

Darwin’s Boulders

From my friend the Rev Michael Roberts. How Buckland and then Darwin, exploring in Wales, came to accept Agassiz’ Ice Age theory, with Michael’s own stunning images of locales. And no kittens, I’m afraid, but a field assistant [sic] dog

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

In June 1842 Charles Darwin undertook his last geological field trip. He was at his father’s house, The Mount  in Shrewsbury, that month and after a winter of sickness, he felt somewhat better. Thus, he went in his gig to Snowdonia to assess whether Buckland was correct in identifying proof of a former Ice Age. In October 1841 William Buckland travelled to Wales with Thomas Sopwith (his grandson designed the Sopwith Camel, a WW1 fighter plane) to see whether Agassiz could be right about a former Ice Age. In a few days of horrendous Welsh weather Buckland identified all the main glacial troughs


Buckland dressed for Welsh Glaciers by Thomas Sopwith


View from top of Y Garn 3104ft showing the Llugwy trough leading to Capel Curig, Llyn Idwal, a morainic lake.

To the left is Nant Francon, viewed below – with embellishments.

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In 1831 de la Beche painted this watercolour…

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Brag time: My “Slam Dunk to Creationists” attacked by Discovery Institute

The Discovery Institute, self appointed spokesman for Intelligent Design theory (i.e. cryptocreationist obscurantism) has singled out my piece in The Conversation, How to slam dunk creationists when it comes to the theory of evolution.

Slam Dunk image plagiarised from Discovery Institute. Provenance unknown

My piece argues that we should be talking about the evidence, not about the meaning of words. In particular, I take exception to the National Academy of Sciences definition of a theory as “supported by a vast body of evidence”, on the grounds that calling something a theory tells us nothing about how well supported it is. The Discovery Institute uses fancy layout to quotemine what I said, so that my criticism of the National Academy is made to look like approval, before taking exception to the National Academy of Sciences definition of a theory as “supported by a vast body of evidence”, on the grounds that calling something a theory tells us nothing about how well supported it is.

In passing, the DI also tells us that “Sahelanthropus … is thought by some to just be a female gorilla.” Eat your heart out, Smithsonian.

I’m honoured by such well-informed and well thought out attention. And while the DI’s article is unsigned, connoisseurs of Creationism will understand my additional delight at having Casey Luskin and Douglas Axe listed among my accusers. With enemies like this, who needs friends?

At the time of writing, my piece has attracted 78,000 hits [update: 95,000 hits] and been featured by Newsweek, Business Insider, The Raw Story, RealClearScience, and others. My thanks to Jane Wright, at The Conversation, whose skilful editing helped make all this possible.

How do we know where the carbon is coming from?

Keeling curve

Keeling curve vs prediction based on fossil fuel origin (from Scripps)

In 1957, Charles Keeling of Scripps Institution of Oceanography began regular measurements of carbon dioxide concentration at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. By 1960, he was already in a position to report a steady increase, together with seasonal variations. In the northern atmosphere, CO2 concentration falls during the spring and summer growing season, but recovers during autumn and winter as vegetable matter decays. This sawtooth pattern is superposed, however, on a steady overall increase.

The Keeling curve and beyond

Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography, from Birch Aquarium ((Invertzoo via Wikipedia)

Charles Keeling died in 2005, but the work is being continued by his son Ralph. When I visited Scripps in 1995, I saw Charles Keeling’s original curve, ink on graph paper, on the wall in the corridor outside his office. That curve has now been designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark, and there are commemorative plaques both at Scripps and at the Mauna Loa Observatory. Charles Keeling’s original paper, freely available here, goes into meticulous detail regarding sample collection, calibration, precautions taken to prevent local contamination, and comparisons between the Mauna Loa data and those that numerous other sites, including the Antarctic and samples collected from an aircraft.

By 1985, the record had been extended backwards in time by analysis of air bubbles trapped in ice cores, with dates ranging from the 1980s to the 1600s and earlier. These dates overlap Keeling’s data, and take us back to pre-industrial times. Before long, the ice core record had been extended to an 160,000 years, taking us into the Ice Ages, while further work has pushed it back to 800,000 years. We have estimates going back far beyond that, but employing indirect methods and with higher uncertainty.

Ice core record

Atmospheric CO2, 1700 – 2014; NASA via Forbes. Click to enlarge. Note that the zigzags for atmospheric data are not error bars, but annual fluctuations.

During the Ice Ages, carbon dioxide played a dual role, as product and as agent. The temperature oscillations at this time were driven primarily by subtle changes in the Earth’s motion (so-called Milankovitch cycles). But carbon dioxide is less soluble at higher temperatures (which is why your carbonated drink fizzes inside your mouth). And so in the first place the rise and fall of temperature led to a rise and fall of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as the oceans released and reabsorbed the gas. But then, the changes in carbon dioxide concentration amplified the original effect, since more carbon dioxide acting as a greenhouse gas makes the Earth lose heat less efficiently into space.

To summarise the results, current levels of CO2 are the highest they have been for over twenty million years. In the centuries leading up to 1800, Read the rest of this entry

Trump is unhinged

Read his own words. Source: White House transcript of remarks aboard Air Force One.

Border wall could be solar. Must be transparent because of danger from bags of drugs being thrown over. 700 to 900 miles would be enough because of natural barriers and some areas so remote that no one crosses there.

Only learnt of Trump jr meeting Russians days ago.

Has good relationship with all 19 others of G20.

But healthcare is tough.

If Hillary had got in, energy prices would be double.

Says Dakota Access Pipeline goes to Pacific [actually goes to Illinois en route to Texas].

His base is substantially stronger than it was in November, and this Russia stuff is making him stronger because his supporters feel it’s an unfair witchhunt.

Bloomberg and CNN report the same transcript, released by White House.

Excerpts follow. I give complete paragraphs to avoid risk of quote mining (disclosure; I am not a Trump supporter). For his account of his discussion with Putin, which I found completely impenetrable, see link to transcript.

Trump Air Force One

On the border wall:

Q             You were joking about solar, right?

THE PRESIDENT:  No, not joking, no. Read the rest of this entry

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