Sarpedon’s Weird Science

Things found in the Ocean:

Welcome to the first installment of the Nontheist Nexus’ Monthly Science Links Article Thingy. I’m your host, Sarpedon. Why do I call it that? Because I have it on good authority (that is, some Columbian guy I know) that ‘Thingy’ is the most useful word in the English language, to be used whenever you can’t think of a better word. So, since it is the most useful word, logically there can’t be a better word, so it must be used in all cases and at all times.

Anyway, you didn’t hit this link to hear me talk about thingies, but to get other links to other sites. So here we go. This month’s theme: Things found in the Ocean.

The ongoing ‘Census of Marine Life,’ conducted by an international team of scientists reports that over 13,000 new marine species, most of them microscopic, have been catalogued in the past year. The total number of fish species is now above 15,000 and plankton nearly 7,000. Both these totals are expected to increase by the time the census is concluded in 2010. All these details and more are found at this BBC website:

In honor of this remarkable achievement in understanding the least-known part of the earth, I have dredged up (ha ha ha!) the following links to interesting marine life, including this excellent short video of bioluminescent deep sea animals, taken by submarine. As near as I can tell, this was NOT a part of the Census of Marine Life, as they operated by trawling.

In this article, new species of sea anemones discovered near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands are described. Their most notable feature is that, unlike most anemones, they move across the ocean floor as they feed, whereas most anemones are sessile. They do this by detaching themselves to drift with the current. This article has also revealed that I have been misspelling and probably mispronouncing ‘anemone’ for the last 20 years. In addition, a new species of kelp was found, which will possibly lead to new flavors of sushi rolls.

I also found this revolting article, which contains a picture of the so called ‘lumpfish’ which is considered to be the vector of the equally repellant ‘sea lice’ which has plagued commercial fisheries of late:…1206224647.htm

Another alarming thing found in the oceans is large pockets of methane. Many scientists fear that this gas, suspended in crystalline form by the high pressures at the bottom of the ocean, could sublimate into gaseous form due to rising ocean temperatures, bubbling up through the sea to add to the greenhouse gas problem, and gag nearby ocean-goers. This article sheds some good news on the methane situation, suggesting that most of the resulting methane gas would dissolve in the ocean water, and only a small fraction of it would reach the atmosphere.…1220170341.htm

Finally, a bit of pseudoscience, which it will be one of the missions of this Thingy to expose, mock and dispel.

For years, certain people have claimed that there are many health benefits to swimming with dolphins. The rising demand for this ‘therapy’ has led to many wild dolphins being captured (with many related dolphin fatalities) for this and more mundane dolphin swimming experiences. One such outfit charged 101 dollars for such a swim, only 30 minutes of actual dolphin time. The full blown ‘dolphin therapy’ costs 1000 dollars for a total of 100 minutes with the dolphins. The mathematics of this arrangement puzzles me, but this service is probably not for those of scientific temperaments.

Here is a quote:

“Ongoing research at universities and dolphin centers around the world suggests that the sounds that dolphins make when they communicate underwater have a therapeutic effect. It is believed that swimming with dolphins, due to their sonar function, improves a person’s immune system and stimulates the production of hormones and neurotransmitters, which are responsible for sensations such as peacefulness, happiness, self-awareness, and high self-esteem.”…-assisted.html

No research is cited. Presumably since it is ‘ongoing,’ they have an excuse for not publishing it. There follows an impressive list of disorders that are cured by dolphins talking to one another.

Fortunately, actual scientists have had a look at this, and have begun warning people against this chicanery:…1218101131.htm

However, I predict that people will continue to give money to the dolphin people, presumably because they like dolphins, and are unaware of the harm dolphins suffer from being captured, transported long distances, and shoved in a big tank. This leads me to have hope for making money by offering a variety of services: Cattle Encounters, Bat Echolocation Therapy, and Swimming with the United States Navy Submarine Fleet.

That’s all for this month, see next month for another gripping adventure in science links, which may or may not have important therapeutic effects!

Infidel on the 7th Continent – by Hypatia

Also known as “What I did on my winter vacation”: an exciting account of how a working scientist spent her season in Antarctica!

Sometimes I still don’t quite believe it myself – I spent the past eight months wintering over in Antarctica! Eight months of extreme cold, howling winds, limited supplies, terrible food and undrinkably-bad coffee, long work weeks with no vacation, no way to leave, no sun, no trees/flower/animals, no pizza delivery, no bookstores, no fresh fruits and precious few fresh vegetables, no theaters; and yet those eight months were by far the best eight months of my life. I absolutely loved the work I did, I thoroughly enjoyed myself during my free time and I became good friends with many of the 119 quirky, smart, crazy people down there with me.


I arrived at McMurdo Station, Antarctica this February as a research associate, hired through Raytheon Polar Services and paid through the National Science Foundation, who oversee the three US Antarctic stations (McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (aka Pole), and Palmer (the tropical resort of Antarctica)).

My work involved collecting ozone data as part of an International Polar Year project coordinated by the Alfred-Wegener Institute in Germany and the University of Wyoming. The goal of the project was to track ozone in specific air parcels within the stratosphere throughout the winter and spring. I collected ozone data by launching ozonesondes – basically weather balloons with an ozone detector attached. I was responsible for all the balloon and sonde prep work, data collection and coordinating the launch team.

The balloons typically carried the ozonesondes to approximately 30 km (100,000 ft.) and are made of 0.3 mil thick polyethylene plastic (like dry cleaner bags) with a maximum volume of 19,000 cubic feet (~ 26 ft high by 37 ft in diameter). The payload consisted of the ozonesonde which uses electrochemistry to detect ozone, a radiosonde for measuring temperature, pressure and relative humidity and a gps unit. The radiosonde transmited the data back to the receiving stations for the duration of the balloon’s flight (usually about 3.5 hours). The payload package weighed about five pounds. That’s me on the far right of the picture, holding the payload just before launch (photo is by Chad Carpenter).

Weather balloon

Weather balloon

The ozone hole was actually a little less severe than expected this spring. This was likely due to the stratosphere being warmer than usual. When the stratosphere gets sufficiently cold ice crystals will form, producing polar stratospheric clouds. A chemical reaction takes place on these ice crystals, breaking down CFCs and releasing Cl molecules; it is the free Cl molecules in the stratosphere that destroy ozone. There were far fewer ice crystals formed this winter (an independent experiment at McMurdo studied the formation of polar stratospheric clouds) hence less ozone loss.


As much as I enjoyed the work I did at McMurdo, I still greatly appreciate time off and the crazy stuff that passes for entertainment in McMurdo in winter. Surprisingly, McMurdo has a decent amount of entertainment on site: a bar (smoking allowed – ick), a library, a gym, a bouldering cave, a craft room, a band room, a few hiking trails, a radio station, gear issue where you can borrow instruments and games, and a small store that rents movies. I took advantage of most of the on-site entertainment but it was the spontaneous, creative, free-form fun that kept me sane: big parties every other weekend, room bars, the “frostbite 4k” race, the polar plunge, radio darts, a wedding, martini matinees, pranks and practical jokes, the clothing-optional hot tub, live music, boondoggles.

Parties: I never really understood why, but all parties at McMurdo are costume parties by default. Some had themes (e.g. – the “P” party – dress up as something that starts with a p, the “sock” party, the “freakout”) but all of them had people in whacky attire.

Tony on a theremin

Tony on a theremin

Above is Tony playing a theremin at the Freakout party; Tony was one of my balloon team guys and head of the station’s small engine repair shop for the past four winters. To get some understanding of what people at McMurdo are like, consider that two years ago Tony spent weeks back in the states trying to find a wedding dress big enough to fit him so that he could bring it down for his next winter-over at McMurdo.

Here is a shot from the Sock party. Sandwich (the gal in the foreground) actually dresses pretty crazy all the time.

The Sandwich sock

The Sandwich sock

Below is a shot from the Luau. The guy in the middle with the blue veil is a NASA guy, kissing him is one of my best pals Rex, retired from the Navy where he spent many months on a nuc sub.

Luau night!

Luau night!

The Midwinter Run (aka the “Frostbite 4K”): This is a race done every winter at McMurdo. Its nickname is from last year when a new station manager who “didn’t believe in wind chill” allowed the race to proceed in a Condition 2 (wind chill < -70). Many of the runners ended up with frostnip or frostbite. This year there were no problems. The picture is of me crossing the finish line. As with parties, the race is usually done in costume; I found my costume (it’s a laboratory beaker) hanging in a closet in the research outbuilding where I would get telemetry during balloon flights. Antarctic slang for a scientist is “beaker.” This is down town McMurdo at midday on a winter Sunday – quiet and dark.

Midwinter Run

Midwinter Run

Polar Plunge: The Plunge is an old McMurdo tradition where the folks at Scott Base (the New Zealand station a couple of miles from McMurdo; the NSF won’t let McMurdo host a plunge themselves) cut a hole in the ice over McMurdo Sound and invite everyone over for a swim. The plunge is done wearing only shoes (so your feet don’t freeze to the ice when you get out) and a harness (so that the search-and-rescue team standing by can pull you out if you have a problem). This winter the water temperature was 28 degrees and the air temperature was about -25. The water didn’t actually seem cold when I jumped in – it just felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach, I couldn’t breathe and I was grabbing for the ladder before I had any conscious thought. Getting out was a challenge, with muscles already stiffening and hands numb, and then, when the -25 air hit wet bare skin, I did finally feel cold. With ice flaking from my arms and legs and a huge grin on my face I made the quick dash up to the warming hut and eventually thawed out. The vodka helped. I get chills and a grin just looking at that picture.

Polar plunge

Polar plunge

Radio Darts: Another old McMurdo/Scott Base tradition. Every Friday night Scott Base hosts an evening of dart games between McMurdo, Scott and Pole. The folks at Pole radio in their scores each round, and suspiciously do very well with no one to keep them honest. Some folks take the dart games seriously but most of us just go to drink Guinness and flirt with the Kiwis.

The Wedding: There was a wedding this year! Clive and Ruthie were two winterovers from New Zealand, although Ruthie worked at McMurdo. The ceremony was held in an ice cave near Scott Base, with the wedding march played on a freezing tenor saxophone. The bridesmaids wore traditional dark blue Kiwi thermals under artfully arranged and detailed dresses made from trash bags. Note the Guinness harp logo on the official’s hat (there was a Tui bird on the other side; Tui is a kiwi beer).

Winter wedding

Winter wedding

Your hosts at Antarctica

Your hosts at Antarctica

Party Hosting: The four of us winterovers who worked in the lab hosted a station-wide “Mad Science” party, with black lights, big Einstein posters, hundreds of dollars in free booze, liquor luges, a fog machine, strobe light and glacial ice martinis. It was a big hit although we got in trouble with station management about the liquor luges.

Bill-a-seltzer: For the Fourth of July carnival many of us ran game booths and gave away prizes. The centerpiece booth was the dunk tank. In the usual spirit of winterover craziness one of the guys on station decided to make use of the hundreds of expired Alka-Seltzer tablets the store was throwing away by gluing them to a shirt and having the last dunk tank victim be the NSF rep on station, Bill, wearing the shirt – Bill-a-seltzer!



And a final picture courtesy of my friend Antz.

Southern lights

Southern lights

Intersection – by Octavia

I am in Bavaria, with Constance.
She is Catholic, a native, and
Her name ends in stanza –
A way of speaking, not standing.
We visit the churches, to see inside her head.
Round, squat, a heavy dome with sloping roof
And everywhere a riot of colour.
It’s strange having so much of it in a church
Outside the muted rose of old windows,
Or so I think, and so I think here.
For it’s not muted – pink and gold is everywhere.
Little cherubs, the Baroque style,
Curls and squiggles on every surface –
The bad taste fairy gone mad.
I know what would fit, but don’t like to say
Although I can see it in my atheist’s eye:
A velvet Elvis behind the altar would fit right in.
He winks at me, multiplies my stifled giggles.
I am sent outside, because I cannot behave.

I am in London, with Constance.
We are at Westminster, and I, the ex-pat Kiwi,
Am showing what I think a cathedral should be
From my stance outside the Church.
Certain in my disbelief, but certain also
In the loveliness of the spires
Grey pillars soaring, decoration only
In the plain fluted columns well out of reach,
The solemn darkness of the old stone.
Space and science, a miracle of architecture.
If there was a God he would be here, I think.
But Constance is unimpressed –
She misses colour, the dreadful cherubs,
Doesn’t like Gothic, thinks it’s boring.
Here there are no distractions, I tell her.
Here you must listen to the priest, take in his words.
She looks at me and grins.
Exactly, says Constance, the good Catholic.
Who wants to do that?

They said: “Come to church with us?” – by Stephen TB

They said: “Come to church with us?”
Politely I declined
They said “Come and pray with us?”
Politely I declined
They said “Come sing hymns with us?”
Politely I declined
They said “Believe in God with us?”
Politely I declined
They said “You’re an atheist?”
and that made me start.

Am I, then an “atheist”
because of what I see?
And this is what I see:
a crack, a chasm,
a wide and deep cravass
between worlds we imagine
and the world in which we live
with more factualities
than its possible to count,
and varying in size from
the universe to a sub-
atomic particle.
We know very few of them,
but those we do, like trees and finger nails
and cancer and tea,
we have no doubt about.
Unlike demons and fairies,
angels, boggarts and gods,
they don’t call for faith,
Or hymns or prayers or temples,
or ceremonial sacrifices, dead or alive.

They’re as untouchable as smoke,
as ephermeral as dreams,
and while I know they exist,
I know they exist
only in the mind.

It was never my ambition
to be an atheist.
All I’ve ever wanted
is to be a realist.

The Luttrell Psalter – by Huginn

Huginn is currently making a film about mediaeval England as it is depicted in the 14th century manuscript called the Wikipedia reference-linkLuttrell_Psalter, which was made for the Luttrell family who lived in the Lincolnshire village of Irnham. Huginn is making this film for The Collection, which is a new museum in Lincoln, where it will be shown to visiting school parties to teach them about life in Irnham in the 14th century.

Below are some stills from his film. Don’t they look beautiful?








If you are interested in seeing more about Huginn’s film, please visit the websites below for trailers and general project information. I’m sure you’ll all agree that it’s very cool having a film-maker in the community! If there are more of you out there, or if anyone has any other artwork they would like to submit, please feel free to send it to Octavia.


Dance trailer

The project website