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Notebook Science



Where the evidence leads

Fossils show dinosaurs had more spine

In recent decades, a dominant portion of paleontologists have taught that birds evolved from dinosaurs. The popular theory of bird origins has been bolstered by fossils showing filamentous patterns interpreted to be "protofeathers," or evolutionary precursors to modern feathers. But a controversial new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B challenges this view.

The hubbub centers on a theropod called Sinosauropteryx, a turkey-sized dinosaur related to Tyrannosaurus rex. First discovered in 1994, Sinosauropteryx was hailed as an ancestor to birds after it was observed to sport a mane of fibrous structures along its spine-rudimentary feathers intended to keep the animal warm, as the theory went. But Alan Feduccia, a University of North Carolina professor and co-author of the Proceedings B paper, argues that a microscopic examination of the alleged "protofeather" fibers shows otherwise.

"We found what I would consider to be definitive evidence-based on the structure of these fibers and their position and so forth-to show that they are in fact degraded skin collagen fibers," Feduccia told WORLD. "[They] have nothing to do with feathers or protofeathers."

Feduccia and his colleagues believe the collagen, a connective protein found in bone, once supported a frill along the dinosaur's back and tail. They say their discovery challenges the idea that dinosaurs evolved into modern birds.

Other scientists disagree, claiming the link between dinosaurs and birds has already been firmly established. And some dispute the Sinosauropteryx study itself: "It is appalling that Proceedings B chose to publish this nonsense," Kevin Padian, curator at the University of California's Museum of Paleontology, told National Geographic News.

But Feduccia is sticking by his guns. "There are too many problems with the current dogma of the dinosaurian origin of birds," he said. "I'm willing to go wherever the evidence leads us."

Missing the rain for the trees: Global-warming models fail to account for moisture

Computer models that predict climate changes due to global warming are flawed, according to a study published in the journal Science. The study examined two decades' worth of satellite climate data and found that actual rain and snow precipitation was much higher than current models predict. In fact, precipitation increased with temperature at a rate three times higher than expected. Most global warming models forecast a much slower rise in precipitation that would mean drought for many already dry areas of the globe.

The study determined that while many models accurately predict temperature rise, they fail to show long-term changes in moisture levels, or the effects of weather patterns like El Niño.

This summer an internationally supported experiment will study the persisting mysteries of rain cloud formation around Germany's Black Forest-an area where rainfall is often forecast incorrectly.

-Daniel James Devine is a writer in Indiana and editor of

Not magic, it's 'WiTricity'

A research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has successfully illuminated an unplugged light bulb from 7 feet away. It's not magic, it's "WiTricity"-a short name for the wireless electricity technology the team hopes will eventually be used to power devices like laptops and MP3 players. Incorporating two antenna-like coils of wire, one hooked to a power source and another attached to an appliance (in this case a 60-watt bulb), the technology uses low-frequency electromagnetic waves to create "magnetic resonance" between the coils. The resulting transmission is strong and efficient, even when obstructed, and should be harmless to people.

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Dover disruption

The democratic blow to the ID movement is likely to reverberate in school boards nationwide

Judge John E. Jones III has yet to rule in a lawsuit against Dover, Pa., school board officials who added a statement mentioning Intelligent Design (ID) to their ninth-grade science curriculum. But citizens within the district made their decision on Nov. 8, narrowly voting to replace members of the board with a pro-evolution panel committed to keeping ID out of science classrooms.

The new board members have said they will wait for Judge Jones' decision before removing the ID statement from the curriculum. They have also expressed openness to teaching students about ID in philosophy or social studies classes.

But the democratic blow to the ID movement is likely to reverberate in school boards nationwide. In Dover, outgoing board member David Napierskie proposed revoking the curriculum change and filing a motion to dismiss the lawsuit-perhaps realizing board members had acted outside the will of their constituents. National polls show a small majority of Americans support teaching ID alongside evolution in public schools, but such numbers vary widely from state to state and district to district.

Even as Dover voters delivered a potential chill on future ID advancements from school boards across the country, Pat Robertson sought to deliver a counterbalance. The "700 Club" TV minister warned the citizens of Dover that in case of a "disaster in your area, don't turn to God. You just rejected Him from your city." The remarks drew massive scorn from secular and Christian sources alike, further diminishing the near absent credibility of a man who recently called for the assassination of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

Neither Mr. Robertson nor Dover voters had any impact on the Kansas State Board of Education, however. On Nov. 8, Kansas adopted a science curriculum that includes well-established challenges to the theory of evolution. The new standards will not propose alternate theories, such as ID, but will refrain from teaching Darwinism as unchallenged fact. School districts will evaluate whether to add alternate theories in 2008.

The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, the intellectual engine behind ID, has praised the Kansas board for its measured approach. Discovery Institute officials did not support the Dover school board's bolder strategy, believing it could ultimately harm perceptions of ID.

The Kansas development is unlikely to draw similar legal action to that in Dover, where litigating parents characterized ID as thinly veiled creationism. Proving that religious motivation is behind a more thorough teaching of evolution would be a far more slippery noodle.

Kansans who support the teaching of Darwinism without challenges are more likely to chase after the lead of Dover voters, pegging the school board as creationists in the court of public opinion. That campaign is underway: "What the board has done is impose its religious beliefs on schoolchildren," University of Kansas Chancellor Robert Hemenway told the Associated Press. But such rhetoric may struggle to gain political traction in a state where polls suggest a majority of people not only support the board's decision, but advocate the next step-teaching ID.

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