Monthly Archives: August 2009

Are you more science-savvy than the average American?

There is a  brief survey at the Pew Center for Research that will allow you to judge your level of basic science awareness. It’s fun and interesting. Let me know how you did.

(Not to brag, but I got 100%.)



Take the quiz and find out

To test your knowledge of scientific concepts and recent scientific findings and events, we invite you to take this 12-question science knowledge quiz. Then see how you did in comparison with the 1,005 randomly sampled adults asked the same questions. You’ll also be able to compare your Science IQ with the average scores of men and women; 1276-frontwith college graduates as well as those who didn’t attend college; with people who are your age as well as with younger and older Americans.

This quiz was part of the Pew Research Center’s new study of science and its impact on society, conducted in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The analysis of the findings from the poll can be found in the full report. (No peeking! If you are going to take the quiz, do it first before reading the analysis.) The discussion of the knowledge quiz can be found in Section 7 of the report.



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Crop Circle Mystery in My Backyard Solved!

I want to thank everyone for their creative (if somewhat far-fetched) ideas about what caused the odd circles on my front and back lawns.

I mean, really, gnomes????

Come on, that is just plain silly.

Especially compared to the much more plausible idea that extraterrestrials could have visited from an immensely huge distance away that would take hundreds of years to traverse, reproducing several generations on board their ship packed with food supplies that would suffice for the journey, and then picked my backyard in which to descend in their completely silent vehicle only to check out my garden and then vanish without even stopping in for a cup of tea.

Here I am trying to have serious discussions on this blog about issues that really matter and someone (David, you will go nameless here) suggests gnomes. Meh.

Well, as it turns out, there is a much more mundane answer to the origin of these circles.


Unknowingly, I myself was creating these other-worldly-looking patterns.

The first clue came from theIMG_2101 observation by a friend that the diameter of the circles exactly matched that of my lawn mower blade.

Interesting coincidence, I thought.

But the clincher came while I was cutting the grass yesterday.

We’ve had a lot of rain the last week or so in Toronto, so the grass has been growing at a fierce pace. It had been a week since I had mown the lawn and the grass was probably about 4 inches high. IMG_2100Now, as you can probably tell from the picture, mine is not a heavy duty lawnmower, and it frequently clogs up with grass underneath, especially if the grass is a bit wet, which it was from the dew, since I was cutting it in the relatively early morning — about  9:15 to be exact. That would be Eastern Standard Time. Which is a bit odd since Toronto is more in the middle of Canada than in the east.

But I digress.

I was making my way through a particularly thick patch of grass when I noted that the grass was not exiting from the side chute from whence it should. So, I did what I always do. I gave the lawnmowerIMG_2104 a quick jerk backwards causing it to ascend into the air a couple of inches and when it landed, it loosened the wet grass that had accumulated inside and blew it out the chute.

As I walked on, I was stunned to see that I was now walking over a newly minted crop circle.

While my heart sank with disappointment at the realization that I had not been singled out from the nearly 7 billion other humans on this planet for a visitation from the skies, I nonetheless noted a small satisfaction that the mystery had been solved.

The normal had replaced the paranormal. As it always seems to do.

So, I am back to being a skeptic about extraterrestrial visitations.

Go figure.


P.S. There’s still time to vote on my poll about whether or not YOU believe extraterrestrials have visited the planet. I’ll be closing the poll shortly.

Take the poll.


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The Curious Case of Phineas Gage

Having been distracted by extraterrestrials and the opposite sex in the last couple of entries, I want to return to my discussion of free will. In that regard, I’d like to start this entry by introducing you to the Curious Case of Phineas Gage (unlike the Curious Case of Benjamin Button, this is a true story).

TrainIn the year 1848, Phineas Gage was employed as the foreman of a railway construction crew that was building the railway bed for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad in central Vermont. The terrain required cutting through several large rocky outcrops. This was accomplished by drilling holes deep into the rock, and then filling them with explosive powder. A fuse would then be placed in the powder and the rest of the whole filled up with sand. The sand was “tamped” down to pack it tightly so the force of the blast would be directed against the stone. Gage was responsible for determining where the holes would be located and how much powder to use.

At 4:30 p.m on Wednesday, September 13th, Gage was preparing for a blasting near Cavendish, Vermont.
Apparently distracted, Gage began tamping the powder before the sand had

Left: Reconstruction of the trajectory of the tamping iron. Right: Gage's skull.

Left: Reconstruction of the trajectory of the tamping iron. Right: Gage's skull.

been poured. A spark, generated by the tamping iron striking the rock, ignited the powder and the tamping iron was propelled like a rocket out of the blasting hole, entering Gage’s head under his left cheekbone and exiting through the top of his head, ultimately landing some 25 yards (23 metres) away!

Remarkably, Gage survived the blast. His workers carried him to an ox-cart and he was driven to the Cavendish Inn where he was staying. Astonishingly, Gage alighted from the cart unaided, and, from a chair on the verandah, recounted his story to bystanders. Gage was attended to by Drs. Higginson Williams and John Marlow. Within three months, he had recovered sufficiently to be able to move back to his parent’s farm. By the end of 1849, he was ready to seek employment. Gage, however, was unable to return to his job as a foreman, and over the next several years worked a variety of jobs, including stints as an attraction at the Barnum’s American Museum in New York and on the lecture circuit at major cities in New England. He died in 1860.

For my purposes, what I want to focus on is the personality changes that occurred in Gage subsequent to his injury.

The damage to Gage’s brain seems to have been largely contained to his left prefrontal cortex, an area that is linked closely with personality. While he retained full possession of his reasoning abilities, his wife and others soon began to notice dramatic changes in his personality.

One of the doctors who had initially attended to him, John Harlow, wrote a summary report of the changes in Gage’s personality and behaviour subsequent to his injury, published in an 1868 issues of the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Medical Society:

His contractors, who regarded him as the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ previous to his injury, considered the change in his mind so marked that they could not give him his place again. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not his previous custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinent, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage.’

Phineas Gage holding the tamping iron that shot through his brain.

Phineas Gage holding the tamping iron that shot through his brain.

Gage’s story is now famous for being one of the first documented cases using brain damage as a means of exploring neurology. It is also a remarkable example of the link between personality, behaviour, and the brain. Since Gage’s time, examples have multiplied of how brain damage or disease can lead to radically altered behaviour. Here is a very short list of some of these:

  • impaired decision-making capacity
  • impulsivity
  • inability to obey normal social conventions
  • hyper-spirituality in previously non-religious individuals
  • aggression, anger or hostility
  • inability to tolerate frustrations
  • lack of sexual restraint
  • excessive emotionalism

So, what has this got to do with my previous blog entry concerning free will?

Simply put, the dysfunctional behaviour that often results from brain injury or disease is strong evidence that the state of one’s “will” is directly controlled by the state of one’s brain. In other words, one’s will is causally determined not free. There is no “mind” that exists separate from the brain that is able to somehow override external and internal causation. Minds are what brains do. And what the brain is doing is entirely determined by both internal (genetic and neurological) and external (environmental) factors.

In the next entry, I’ll finish this tri-partite series on free will by exploring some common objections/concerns to the idea that we do not possess ultimate free will and some of the positive implications of this view.

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Do YOU believe extraterrestrials have visited earth? Take this poll and let me know!

Since so many of you seemed to enjoy my last post about my extraterrestrial visitors, I thought I’d let you have your say on whether or not you believe we have been visited by aliens.

Let the voting begin!

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I’ve been visited by extraterrestrials!!!

I have long been a doubter about claims that earth has been visited by aliens.

I have been skeptical that “crop circles” are evidence of these extraterrestrial visitations, believing instead that they were human-created hoaxes.

Skeptical I am no longer.


Because while mowing my lawn this morning, I uncovered crop circles on my own property!

You doubt?

Here’s the proof in pictures. I assure you that these startling photos are completely untouched. No photoshopping. Nothing.

Just the pure unadulterated proof that my home was chosen as a worthy site for an alien spaceship landing zone.


"Crop Circles" in my backyard.

"Crop Circles" in my back yard.


More crop circles in my back yard

More crop circles in my back yard


Close up of crop circle in my back yard

Close up of crop circle in my back yard


Crop circles on my front yard

Crop circles on my front yard


Another close up of crop circle in my back yard

Another close up of crop circle in my back yard

So, there you have it. Proof positive that I have been visited. Admittedly, it looks like it was a pretty small space ship, but that simply suggests that I was visited by a race of hobbit-like creatures that made the immensely improbably journey from another planet an imaginably long distance away.

Perhaps I was also taken and experimented on. I don’t have any memories of that right now, but they might come back under hypnosis. I’ll let you know when…uh, I mean, if that happens.

I bet some of you are still skeptical like I used to be.

So this is my challenge. How would YOU explain these circles, uncovered by my lawn mowing efforts this morning?

I await your unconvincing answers.


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How much time do YOU spend checking out the opposite sex?

The Telegraph reports the results of a British study that determined how long men and women spend time looking at each other. So, are you above or below average? Inquiring minds want to know…


 The average man will spend almost 43 minutes a day staring at 10 different women  Photo: GETTY

The average man will spend almost 43 minutes a day staring at 10 different women Photo: GETTY

The average man will spend almost 43 minutes a day staring at 10 different women.

That adds up to 259 hours – almost 11 days – each year, making a total 11 months and 11 days between the ages of 18 and 50.

But researchers found that the males of the species are not the only ones admiring the opposite sex as women sneak a peek at six men for just over 20 minutes a day, on average.

That adds up to almost six months spent admiring men from afar between the ages of 18 and 50.

The poll of 3,000 people revealed the supermarket as the location for the most ogling, followed by a pub and nightclub.

Women rely on the traditional “ogling hotspots” with pubs or bars their most popular locations.

Read the rest of the story at:

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I’m on John Oakley’s radio show again tomorrow – Tues. Aug. 4

Hi everyone. If you can listen on the radio or on the web, I will be on the John Oakley show again for another debate tomorrow. It’s at 9:00 a.m. on AM640. If you want to listen to it on the web go to:


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