Friday mystery object #12 answer

Still no internet, so this is drafted on my phone. Well done to those of you who worked out that Friday’s object was indeed a rattle-snake’s tail.

I will expand on this answer, once I can use a computer to type comfortably!

Right, internet is finally working again, so here’s a (slightly) fuller answer to what this is:


As was mentioned before, this is indeed a rattlesnake’s tail. Rattlesnakes have a bad reputation for being aggressive and dangerous, but it should be remembered that they have a rattle in their tail to warn off predators and large unwary animals that might trample them – so at least they give fair warning.

There are quite a few species of snakes that make use of a rattle on their tail and this one comes (apparently) from Crotalus durissus, a South American pitviper that is quite dangerous due to their powerful neurotoxic venom (unlike the cytotoxic venom of the North American diamondback rattlesnake).

The rattle is formed when the snake sheds its skin – a section of the old skin Continue reading

Friday mystery object #12

I am still without internet at home, so apologies for slow responses to comments and the lower quality of my recent posts.

This Friday’s mystery object is pretty straight-forward, a simple case of ‘what is it?’


If you think you know what this is just leave a comment below – I will attempt to respond to any questions when (and if) I am able, but I can’t make any guarantees I’m afraid.

Good luck!

Friday mystery object #11

My internet is still down at home, but here’s a Friday Mystery Object anyway!

This time I just want you to work out what group of animals this ribcage comes from:


Here’s a close-up that you might find useful:


Now you don’t need to be an expert to work this out – just work out how this ribcage is similar to the ribcage of other animals and certain features should start standing out to make the answer obvious – a real case of deductive power!

To assist, I will point you in the direction of some useful comparative material and I urge you to consider how function and inheritence both shape bones used in movement.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments section below – I will reply whenever possible. I hope you enjoy the detective work!

Friday mystery object #10 answer

On Friday I presented two mystery objects after a frantic search through the photos on my phone whilst at the SVP conference in Bristol:

Name the source of this leather seat cover

Name the source of this leather seat cover

2009-09-04 10.21.29

 As it is you performed remarkably well, SmallCasserole spotted that the leather was Continue reading

Friday mystery object #10

Currently in my apartment in Bristol frantically searching for a suitable mystery object whilst also trying to plan the talks I want to attend at SVP.

I get the feeling skulls are getting boring for some of you, so perhaps it’s time I introduced an object that isn’t directly related to what I’m doing at work. In the pub yesterday, a natural history curator friend  of mine (David Waterhouse from Norwich Castle Museum) queried the type of leather on the seat of his chair (it’s the kind of thing we do). We think we know, but can you work it out?

Name the source of this leather seat cover

Name the source of this leather seat cover

Not an easy one, particularly without any clues, but I will attempt to answer any questions go help you on your way – just post them below in the comments section.

Good luck! Continue reading

Friday mystery object #9

It’s Friday again, we all know what that means – Mystery Object time!

Last week I gave you a really tricky one, that you managed to work out with some clues. I liked the Q&A format, but unfortunately I am between ISP’s at the moment, so I don’t think I will have the chance to have as much input this week. Instead there is a poll (although comments are always welcome!) and I will return to my favourite objects – skulls.


So, what is this the skull of? Choose an answer from the poll below (don’t forget to hit “vote”): Continue reading

Friday mystery object #8

Well, after last week’s impressiveness on your collective parts, I think I’d better step up to the plate and deliver something truly taxing. This one I guarantee you won’t get without some extra clues.

Here it is:

Scale in cm
Scale in cm

(click on image to enlarge)

It’s a tall order I know, but what do you think it is?

Put your answers in the comments section below and if you need some clues (or ask some sensible questions) I will respond accordingly.

Good luck (I have a feeling you’ll need it!)

What is science?

N.B. If you’re after a quick answer then see here, if you want an in-depth outline see here or if you want to know how science works see here– this blog is more concerned with the broader conceptual framework within which science fits.

Knowledge is an interesting concept – how can we really “know” anything? How do we determine truth from untruth? Does knowledge even require what is “known” to be true? I don’t think so – I think it merely needs to appear true.

The human brain looks for explanations – being able to identify cause and effect is a powerful capability, after all, it underpins all human achievement. For example, if our ancestors were unable to identify that seeds grow into plants, we could never have established agriculture (and subsequently civilisation).

There are a variety of ways in which we make links between cause and effect, from straightforward reflexive Pavlovian classical conditioning, through more complex methods of identifying concept-based causation, to the rigourous statistical analysis of double-blind randomised controlled trials of modern biomedical research (which marks our current best attempt at linking cause to effect, whilst minimising the influence of coincidental factors). However, one of the most common ways in which we find explanations is by relating an observed occurance with an observed outcome – we look for a correlation.

Of course, the trouble with correlations is that you will often be spotting a relationship that doesn’t really exist. Factor A might occur at the same time or increase at the same rate as factor B, but it could be due to factors 1,2 and 3. For example, seasonal sales of ice-cream in the UK can be directly correlated with seasonal umbrella sales in Australia – obviously they are not directly related to each other, but they share the factor of seasonality in their respective hemispheres. So a summer in the Northern Hemisphere sees more ice-cream being bought, whilst in the Southern Hemisphere it is winter and people are buying umbrellas to keep off the rain. This is a simple illustration that is intended to be clear, but unfortunately most of the time we find it very difficult to identify what the factors involved in a correlation actually are – but that doesn’t stop us drawing conclusions from what we see, or think we see.

Identifying cause and effect?

Identifying cause and effect?

So what else do we use as a way of acquiring knowledge Continue reading

Friday mystery object #7 answer

Here’s what I said on Friday, just before 7am:

Just posted the Friday Mystery Object. Not a skull, no options and just one clue (for now): You’ll never get it! #FMO

[PaoloViscardi on Twitter, Friday 4th September]

Of course, I was hoping to be proved wrong, but Gimpy managed to prove me wrong in record time (about an hour). So well done to Gimpy, although I now can’t help but hate you just a little bit for ruining my fun… (is this how the woo merchants feel?). Clearly the clue I left was far too much of a give-away (I should have listened to Melissa).

The question was “what is it and what’s it made of?” and it referred to this:

Scale in cm

Scale in cm

If you read the comments you probably worked out that it is indeed a Continue reading

Friday mystery object #7

Since there have been calls for some variety (skulls not good enough for you eh?) and there have even been accusations of the FMO being “too easy” I have decided to unleash a tricky one for you this week.

Scale in cm

Scale in cm

Simple questions, what is it and what’s it made of?

No poll this week, just leave your thoughts in the comments section below. I will give you a clue however – it’s supposed to be magical (even Harry Potter’s used one).

More clues to follow if they’re needed!

Friday mystery object #3

More poorly labelled stuff I’ve found at work this week – do you know what this is and where it came from?

Dorsal view

Dorsal view (total width ~5cm)

Ventral view (width ~5cm)

Ventral view (total width ~5cm)

I’ve decided to trial multiple choice answers for this one, so please vote on what you think it is! [N.B. don’t forget to hit the “vote” button after making your selection!] Continue reading

Beware the spinal trap

For anyone who has not been in the sceptical blogosphere much, there has been a rising tide of support for science writer Simon Singh, who is currently being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA). Their grounds for this action was an article published in the Guardian newspaper that highlighted the lack of evidence supporting some of the claims made by chiropractors. Rather than take the opportunity of a 500 word rebuttal of the article as offered by the Guardian, the BCA chose instead to personally sue Simon Singh.

The British legal system has an unusual take on libel laws that strongly favours the claimant by flipping the onus of proof onto the defendant (no innocence until proven guilty here) and by being prohibitively expensive (usually for the defendant). In the case of Simon Singh the judge in the case has fastened on the word “bogus” as having a very specific legal meaning entailing deliberate deception rather than simply being “not genuine” or “spurious” (for the ruling see the excellent Jack of Kent). This means that Simon has a long and expensive time ahead, first appealing this initial ruling and then (assuming his appeal will fail as most do) he will need to compile evidence to support an assertion that he never intended to make.

Many in the scientific and sceptical community are rallying around Simon to offer support where possible. We see the BCA’s action as being inappropriate because science is founded on rebuttal of claims by the provision of evidence, not on who has the best legal support. Science cannot progress without disagreement and libel laws are unnecessary when evidence should be used to rebut. The BCA’s actions undermine the scientific process and they significantly weaken the claims of chiropractic – after all, if they had evidence for efficacy, why would they go through the hassle of suing? The poor support for some of the claims made by chiropractors has been subsequently dragged into the light of the British Medical Journal by a variety of scientists (see DC’s improbable science), and a “quacklash” by members of the sceptical community (in particular by the efforts of Zeno and Andy at the Quackometer [and of course Simon Perry!]) has innundated the BCA with complaints against chiropractors who advertise  poorly supported ‘treatments’ for non-spinal conditions.

Below is an edited version of the original article by Simon Singh, which I am reproducing in support of Simon and the Sense About Science campaign to keep libel laws out of scientific debate.

“Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh. Continue reading