March 14, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Surprises in Science Never End

In a perfect world of scientific knowledge, scientists would understand everything and be able to predict everything according to their best theories.  The number of surprises that continue to turn up, however, show that we remain far from that perfect world. 

  1. Paleoecology: Chilly dinosaurs:  “It has long been thought that the climate of the Mesozoic, the age of the dinosaurs, was generally warm across the planet,” began an article on PhysOrg.  “However, a recent study challenges this theory.”  An international team measured oxygen isotopes in bones and teeth of fossils from the Jehol biota (02/21/2003) to infer that the animals lived in a temperate climate with harsh winters.
  2. Paleoanthropology: Neanderthal firemen:  A complete reversal of thinking about Neanderthals has been going on for some time now (09/22/2010, 05/08/2010, 09/23/2008).  PhysOrg added more fuel to the idea that Neanderthals were not “dimwitted brutes as often portrayed,” but smart, organized and successful, able to control use of fire for 400,000 years in the evolutionary timescale.  That was one surprise in a paper in PNAS mentioned in the article.
        That discovery comes at a price, though.  “The second major finding in the PNAS study – perhaps even more surprising than the first – was that Neanderthal predecessors pushed into Europe’s colder northern latitudes more than 800,000 years ago without the habitual control of fire,” the article continued.  “…Archaeologists have long believed the control of fire was necessary for migrating early humans as a way to reduce their energy loss during winters when temperatures plunged below freezing and resources became more scarce.”  In fact, “the oldest traces of human presence in Europe date to more than 1 million years ago,” it said.  That’s 600,000 cold winters without fire.  No one seemed to be questioning the dates (cp. 12/20/2009).  New Scientist suggested a high-protein diet and active lifestyle helped them survive, but would jumping jacks in a blizzard after an uncooked mammoth steak prevent hypothermia?
  3. Paleobiology: Surprising lost world:  Crinoids are rare in today’s oceans.  A New Zealand team stumbled upon “over 1000 crinoids belonging to an as yet undescribed species on Admiralty seamount” recently.  “We were surprised to find such extensive populations,” a team member said.  The article compared it to finding Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World of living dinosaurs.
        What makes it surprising is that crinoids have largely died out.  In the evolutionary timeline, they were abundant from 250 million to 65 million years ago.  “Today, however, they were only thought to exist in small numbers in the deep sea, possibly because of pressure from recently evolved predators.”  The article said this population “may have been thriving for around 25,000 years,” leaving unresolved the question of what happened in the intervening 64,975,000 years.
  4. Geology: Fast volcanoes:  National Geographic News accompanied a dramatic picture of a Montserrat volcano with the headline, “‘Sleeping’ Volcanoes Can Wake Up Faster than Thought.”  For a sleeping volcano to come to life, the soft magma down deep needs to mix with sticky magma in the chamber.  “According to current theory, it would take several hundred or perhaps a thousand years for the heat to distribute through the chamber and make the magma fluid enough to erupt.”
        That sounds like simple physics that should have been understood long ago.  Something must be wrong; “But a new model based on fluid dynamics shows that hot, deep magma can mix with the older, sticky stuff much easier than believed, scientists say.”  The new idea is that mixing in the throat of the volcano is “much more efficient than we previously had understood,” a geologist at the University of Washington remark, casting doubt on what was understood previously.
  5. Evolution: Tree of Fly:  The latest celebration from ATOL (Assembling the Tree of Life) is a tree of life of Diptera, flies.  Science Daily reported on how the work “Adds Big Branch of Evolutionary Knowledge,” but did include some surprises: “The study showed that the nearest relatives of Drosophila, the fruit fly that many key scientific discoveries have been based on, are two unusual parasites: bee lice, wingless flies that live on honey bees; and Cryptochetidae, flies used as biological controls of crop pests.”
        Not mentioned as surprising, but arguably so, is the fact that “members of the oldest, still-living fly families are rare, anatomically strange flies with long legs and long wings that grow up in fast-flowing mountain waters.”  Any insect with long wings seems pretty advanced.  Another candidate surprise is that flies underwent “bursts of diversification” separated by 40 million and 115 million years.  That should surprise believers in Darwinian gradualism.  The article did not mention any flightless ancestors.  “Flies’ origins and evolutionary history began in wet environments,” an expert said, begging the question of how winged flight originated.

The number of surprises that continue to turn up also raises questions about how much more remains to be discovered.  What is the ratio of known to unknown?

The naïve reads these stories and assumes that science is converging on the truth, correcting errors as we go, marching triumphantly onward.  The informed realizes that a surprise is an admission of prior ignorance or error.
    There is hardly a scientific truth left intact from a century ago, and recognizes that much of what we think we know today is vulnerable to tomorrow’s findings.  How much of what we think we know today will survive another century?  Surprise is a function of human fallibility; our science is not omni-science.
    When stories about unobserved prehistories and ancestries are thrown in, the potential for misunderstanding is multiplied.  How many of you really believe that anatomically similar human ancestors went through 600,000 freezing winters without fire?  How many believe that crinoids sat on the ocean floor for 600 million years without evolving, to show up now on the Admiralty seamount?  If it weren’t for a pre-commitment to billions of years of evolution (07/15/2010), such notions would be laughed out of court.  It takes a long time of indoctrination to learn how to believe impossible things.
Assignment: Explain to Science Daily how “evolutionary knowledge” is an oxymoron.

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