MySci Round-Up, July 20: The Mistaken Scientist Who Coined the Word "Dinosaur"


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Today is the 206th birthday of Sir Richard Owen, the 19th century physician, antiquarian biologist and taxonomist, who developed some game-changing insights about natural history, but got other things completely wrong. As a young man, Owen attended the Barclay School, an institution which also produced Sir Charles Darwin, who would later become Owen’s intellectual nemesis when the two split on the evolution of the human species. He went on to receive a medical degree from the Royal College, but discovered that he liked categorizing and naming life forms better than tending to patients, and later became superintendent of the natural history collection at the British Museum. Owen devised the term “dinosaur” to describe the giant extinct lizards, and also invented the revolutionary concept of homology, i.e., that the same basic structure could differentiate to fill varying functions in different species. (A cat’s paw, a seal’s flipper and the human hand all stem from a common structure, for example.) Owen even drew up a basic prototype from which all vertebrates theoretically might have evolved — that is, if Owen had believed in evolution, which he didn’t. He decided instead that this common proto-ancestor existed only as an idea in the mind of a divine creator. Owen famously proclaimed that apes and men could not have descended from a common ancestor, as Darwin believed, because apes lacked a brain structure, the hippocampus minor, that humans have. Oddly, he stubbornly clung to this belief even after Thomas Henry Huxley proved that apes, in fact, did have the brain feature in question, which goes to prove, as the great Sir Charles Barkley once noted, that even a smart person can be really dumb in certain instances. And with that, here are the science stories of the day.

Evidence emerges that humans are still evolving. People in south China have a gene that protects them from getting sloppy drunk, which apparently developed some time after the invention of liquor 10,000 years ago. Tibetans have a gene that helps them to cope with low oxygen levels at high altitudes, and it is probably only 3,000 years old.

Tipping point reached for e-books? For the first time ever, Amazon reports a month in which it sold more downloadable e-books than books printed on paper.

Adult stem cells may not be so hot, after all. Research indicates that adult stem cells that are reprogrammed to differentiate into other types of cells retain a genetic memory of the type of tissue from which they originated. That may limit their use in stem-cell therapy as an alternative to embryonic stem cells.

Not just for 24-hour party people? The illicit drug MDMA, commonly known as Ecstasy, may actually be good for something besides causing teenagers to have delusions that they’re tuned in to a love vibe with the entire planet’s population at once. MDMA shows promise as a possible treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Want to see what the black hole at the center of our galaxy looks like? Well, you can’t, because nobody can see something from which no light escapes. But you can see its effects, as this startling image shows.

Mice can detect bad breath. As it turns out, the furry little creatures get grossed out by carbon disulfide, a volatile chemical present in other rodents’ characteristic halitosis. And then they offer the other mice really, really tiny Altoids.