June 10, 2008

I Swear I Read It for the Articles...

So on a recent business trip I stopped in to a cramped airport newstand for a cold beverage, and I couldn't help seeing this on the magazine rack:

Honestly, I thought it was some sort of April Fool's issue of Sport's Illustrated leftover on the stands. But much to my chagrin—and the annoyance of the guy looking at Newsweek who I almost body slammed to reach for a copy—I found it to be a real and fun way to get my science news.

I picked up the May/June 2008 issue and could tell right away that some of the articles were a tad dated. But one busy lady can't read it all, so I did find several fascinating tidbits that were totally new to me.

For example, seems some European scientists have been trying to figure out how the brain manages to use electrical impulses to communicate signals without giving off heat. Their answer: It doesn't.

As any first-year physicist can tell you, the laws of thermodynamics state that you can't create or destroy energy. Mechanical processes such as, say, charged salts passing through ion channels—the long-held method by which electrical impulses travel along nerves—must generate heat.

Trouble is, experiments on brains in motion can't find any such heat.

Then there's the fact that experts have been hotly debating for centuries exactly how anesthesia works and why inflammation makes it less effective.

Instead, researchers at the university's Niels Bohr Institute and Germany's Max Planck Institute think that brain impulses are actually special sound waves called solitons. Unlike normal sound waves that lose their oomph over distances, solitons are like the Energizer Bunny: They keep going and going, provided the medium they're traveling in is at just the right temperature to hover between liquid and solid.

As it happens, that's just the right temperature of lipid membranes in nerves. And that would offer a handy explanation for why anesthesia craps out on you if your nerves are inflamed. According to the researchers, pain blockers change the melting point of lipid membranes, causing them to become mostly solid and thus blocking solitons. But inflammation masks the effect, making anesthetics less potent.

That's not to say there's no juice flowing when the brain is firing; plenty of experiments have shown proof of the electric sparks inside our heads. But the researchers put those signals down as ancillary to the sound waves—a byproduct, not the root cause.

Based on what I read in Science Illustrated, the soliton scientists make a pretty interesting case. I'll be looking forward to seeing if they set up some experiments to test what could be a very, uh, sound theory.

April 28, 2008

Poll: Best Science Movie?

The folks over at ScienceBlogs have an interesting movie poll running based on suggestions from the Seed editorial group. This is apparently their short list of the "most accurate, highest impact, most compelling" pro-science movies:

I can't complain too much about their choices, except to say that I'm not sure Jurassic Park counts as pro-science. Wasn't one of Ian Malcolm's greatest one-liners: "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."?

While the film did a nice job, imho, presenting the science at hand, it was an early version of what would grow to be Michael Crichton's legacy as a "novelist of doom" when it comes to extrapolating the possible impacts of new technologies.

Genetic engineering, rock on! Computer-operated safety systems, way cool! Until the grid shuts down and all hell literally breaks loose. The take-home message for me was definitely that there are some things humans are not meant to mess with, and Velociraptors are pretty close to the top of the list. (Don't believe Mikey? Well don't come crying to him when you are not prepared to prevent a raptor attack...)

So what's my pick for the best pro-science movie, you are forced to ask? I'd like to say Princess Mononoke: It's a compelling story; it appeals to a wide audience, including people under age 25; and it ends with the message that there has to be balance between environmentalism and progress.

But I guess it falls short in the "most accurate" category, since actual science content is thin to the point of invisibility. So I'm gonna be cheesy and go with Apollo 13. You can't really argue with a Hollywood blockbuster that manages to keep the human drama in check while giving viewers a fairly realistic slice of astronaut life—or at least a realistic view of a crisis situation.

Any other votes? Lay 'em on me, but only if you can tell me why.

April 25, 2008

Sakura In Space!!!

No, anime fans, this is not a mashup of Naruto and Cowboy Bebop.

By now I'm almost getting used to Japan's announcements that it's launching everything but the kitchen sink into space, from paper airplanes to boomerangs to highly advanced underwear.

Now, according to AFP, the next suborbital "tourists" will be cherry trees, one of the most beloved plants in Japan and a national symbol of beauty and renewal.

This week the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced plans to send the seeds from ten varieties of sakura to the International Space Station in October.

Among the spacebound is a type of tree called the Takizakura, or "cascade cherry blossom," an ancient breed designated by the government as a national treasure. The trees, some of which are more than 1,000 years old, draw hordes of tourists when they bloom in the small northern town of Miharu.

In addition to violets and lilies, JAXA's cherry tree seeds will stay in space for six months to see how they are affected by reduced gravity. Some of the seeds will even be planted once they return to Earth.

But as you might expect from such a venture, sending cherry trees into space is really half science, half marketing.

"Since the seeds will be returned with a certificate that they have gone to space, we hope to use them to promote tourism here while drawing children's interest in science," Miharu town official Sadafumi Hirata told AFP.

But hey, at the rate things are going, maybe in 500 years when we get that colony on Mars we'll be celebrating a cherry blossom festival around Hellas Basin in addition to the Tidal Basin …

April 20, 2008

Recipe: Migas in the Morning

I first had this Tex-Mex take on scrambled eggs at a family reunion in Corpus Christi, and I've been experimenting with it ever since.

The version I like best so far uses most of the traditional ingredients plus a dash of cumin for smokiness. I also prefer my migas with the tortilla pieces a little crunchy, but there's a way to cook them up soft if that's what you prefer. Here's my recipe for a quick two-person plate.


• 2 tablespoons minced red onion
• 1/2 a green chili, minced (this can be adjusted depending on your heat tolerance)
• 1 garlic clove, minced
• 1/2 a roma tomato, diced
• 1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
• 1 tablespoon oil
• 2 corn tortillas, cut or torn into bite-size pieces
• 3 eggs, beaten


• Heat the oil over medium heat in a nonstick skillet.
• Add the tortilla pieces to the pan and toss to coat. Cook the pieces until they get puffy and are just turning golden.*
• Add the onion, garlic, chili, and cumin. Cook until the onion starts to brown.
• Lower the heat to almost a simmer. Add the tomato and stir for 30 seconds.
• Add the beaten eggs. Scramble until the eggs look almost done then remove immediately to serving dishes. Do not overcook the eggs, or they will get rubbery.

Top with grated cheese and/or fresh chopped cilantro if desired. This goes great with a side of guacamole and some fresh fruit.

* For softer tortilla pieces, only cook them in the oil until they are heated through, then add the tomato along with the other veggies.

April 15, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Crystal Hoax

I have to admit the movie snob in me has been avoiding at all costs any talk of the latest Indy installment, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Harrison Ford at 66? And that annoying kid from Transformers??? Pass.

But that was until some friends got into a discussion in my vicinity about what the titular crystal skull is supposed to be and why the ever-present Nazis would want to get their hands on it. So I did a quick Google search and right at the top of the hit list popped a very familiar picture:

Not two feet away from my screen sat the very same picture, a postcard from the British Museum I've had somewhere on a wall near me since 1996. Turns out the crystal skull in question is the same museum artifact I had admired as a teenager. According to the fine print on the back of the card, copyright 1988, the object is a

Skull of rock crystal. Mexico. Probably Aztec.
c.AD1300-1500. The style of this piece suggests that it dates from the Aztec period. If, however, as one line of the carving suggests, a jeweller's wheel was used to make the cut, the piece would date from after the Spanish Conquest.

The museum acquired the shiny crystal noggin in 1897 from Tiffany & Co. via a French art dealer.

In the 1940s the first of such skulls took the world by storm when Brit banker F.A. Mitchell-Hedges announced that his adopted daughter Anna had found the crystal skull tucked under a Mayan temple in the jungles of Belize in 1920. He called it the "Skull of Doom" and claimed it had supernatural powers.

"According to [Mitchell-Hedges], it had been made 3,600 years ago. Mayan priests wielded it to invoke gods and devils. Its curse could bring misfortune and death," the Smithsonian Institution, which now owns the mystical relic, reports on its website.

Well, almost.

Actually the skulls are a huge hoax. Researchers at the Smithsonian estimate that the artifacts could not have been made any earlier than the 19th century based on craftsmanship—and the fact that no such skull has ever been credibly excavated from an authentic pre-Columbian site.

—A painted stucco relief in the museum at Palenque, a Maya ruin in Chiapas, Mexico, from one of the recently excavated buildings. A facsimile stands at the original location.
Photo © 2004 Jacob Rus

Smithsonian experts used scanning electron microscopes to reveal that their skull and two others over at the British Museum showed absolutely no signs of ancient Aztec or Mayan tool work.

“We discovered that all of the crystal skulls had been carved with modern coated lapidary wheels using industrial diamonds and polished with modern machinery,” Jane Walsh, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, said in an online article.

Of course that has not stopped many New Age believers from insisting that the skulls are not only genuine, but magical. A crystal skull has healing properties, it can show you the future, it can talk, it's an alien supercomputer.

And that's where Indy comes in, although this time the Nazis are out. It's 1957, and Soviet agents plan to use the powers of the crystal skulls to do, uh, Soviet things. So our older and wiser hero enters the fray, sullen love interest and whiny sidekick in tow.

I don't think I need a mystical crystal skull to tell me that this flick will be tragic. But then Spielberg and Lucas will surely be grinning evilly all the way to the bank.

April 9, 2008

Got Botox in Your Brain?

Okay, unlike past jokes about the sheer inanity of injecting a deadly toxin into your skin just to look younger, scientists in Italy have released some pretty serious research showing that yes, in fact, it could be a bad idea.

A new study in The Journal of Neuroscience finds that injected botulinum toxin, the key ingredient in Botox, can get transported across the membranes of muscle cells and into nearby terminals that send signals from nerves to the brain.

After injecting the toxin into the muscles around rats' whiskers, the study team saw its effects in the so-called facial nucleus, a cluster of neurons in the brain that is linked to the main nerve in the face. This would suggest that despite previous belief, botulinum may be a long-distance traveler, which would have very real implications for Botox users.

In case you had not heard, botulinum is a neurotoxin that is described by some experts as the most toxic protein known. The Wikipedia entry for botulinum morbidly notes that in theory, a few hundred grams could kill everyone on Earth.

The toxin is produced by bacteria and, when consumed, can lead to pretty severe food poisoning. According to the FDA, even tiny amounts of botulinum can induce weakness, paralysis, fatigue, dry mouth, and trouble swallowing.

To be fair, botulinum has its place in the pantheon of dangerous substances that can treat diseases: The drug has been used since the 1950s to combat ailments ranging from migraines to spastic disorders to excessive sweating. Botox wasn't approved by the FDA for cosmetic use until 2002, but it's quickly become one of the more common treatments among people seeking to fight the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

So far Botox has been used with an assumption of safety, because the toxin is supposed to be localized at the injection site—it targets only the wrinkley bits and doesn't go traveling to other parts of the body.

The latest findings mean that the toxin could get into your brain, where it messes with a protein known as SNAP 25 that controls the release of neurotransmitters, chemicals that relay information from the brain to the rest of the body. Breaking apart SNAP 25 in the brain leads to paralysis.

The timing of this study's release is apropos, because in February the FDA announced a full-on safety review for Botox and one of its medicinal cousins, Myobloc, after at least 16 people died following injections.

While real people suffering from debilitating diseases might still consider botulinum treatments, I can only hope those seeking it for pure vanity might now think twice. Want my advice? Go read the Picture of Dorian Gray instead, and then go out and enjoy life.

April 3, 2008

Guys Like Hot Babes on Cars, News at Eleven

Welcome to the inaugural issue of the Annals of Obvious Research, bringing you the latest and most cutting-egde studies that provide strong evidence for things that you probably think you knew all along.

From the pages of this month's NeuroReport comes a study by Knutson et al. titled "Nucleus accumbens activation mediates the influence of reward cues on financial risk taking."

In other words, brain scans show that heterosexual men are more likely to buy expensive things on impulse if you drape scantily clad women over your merchandise.

"This is the first study to demonstrate that emotional stimuli can influence financial risk-taking," lead author Brian Knutson of Stanford said in a university press release.

Knutson and colleagues came to this startling revelation by looking at fMRI scans of male undergrads who were shown positive, negative, and neutral images. Erotic images were used for the positive category, snakes and spiders for negative, and office supplies for neutral.

The press release notes: "In case any of the subjects found office supplies more repellent than snakes and spiders, the researchers had the men rate each image after the scans." Thank goodness for controls.

The participating guys, who had been given $10 American for their troubles, then had to decide whether to gamble part of their earnings in increments of a dollar or a dime.

"After people had seen those erotic pictures, they tended to pick the high-risk gamble more often, especially if they had been picking the low-risk gamble before," Knutson said.

The authors caution that their findings only apply some of the time, specifically when the men had to make a decision very soon after viewing the images. Future research will look at how long the effect lasts, as well as whether the same thing happens in women.

But I'm sure ad people everywhere are cheering in unison at this news. Now it's only a matter of time before skin-flashing models start appearing in ads for everything from chicken sandwiches to dishwashers. Oh, wait …

March 15, 2008

"C" Is For ...

I *love* the taste of chillies and chocolate, and lucky for me the neighborhood World Market carries several different types of gourmet bars of at least 60% cacao with some type of chili mixed in.

My favorite for baking is World Market's own brand of 64% dark with chipotle chili. I chop up about a bar and a half for these cookies, which—if done right—should come out chewy with just a bit of crispiness on the edges.


2 1/4 cups AP flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1.7 oz. instant vanilla pudding mix
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 tabl. vanilla
2 eggs
~1 cup chopped chocolate


• Preheat the oven to 325°F.
• In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, baking soda, salt, and pudding mix.
• In a larger bowl, cream the butter and sugars. Beat in the eggs and vanilla until creamy.
• Using a spoon, blend the flour mixture into the butter mixture, adding in about a third at a time.
• Stir in the chocolate.
• Drop dough about a tablespoon at a time onto the cookie sheet.
• Bake for 15 minutes or until the edges are golden and the centers are slightly puffed up.
• Let cool on the sheet for a few minutes and then transfer to racks to cool completely.

The keys to good chewy cookies, I have found, are to use room-temperature butter, do not use an electric mixer to blend in the flour, and bake only until just the edges look done—any longer and the carryover heat will make the cookies too crispy. The pudding mix is a great trick I picked up for keeping the cookies moist for days—if they last that long!

March 13, 2008

Who Doesn't [Heart] Chaos?

Yes, I'm a slacker. I skipped a few days of posting in favor of sleep, house cleaning, and baking cookies. Get over it.

Luckily I resurfaced in time to read about this ever so awesome complete-ish Futurama time line over at I Heart Chaos. Clearly someone has an expensive DVD box set and a lot of time on their hands, but it works out for the benefit of all of us lazier geeks who need a good reference source.

A few dates near and dear to my fangirl heart:

July 9, 1947: Emerging from a time-warp, the Planet Express ship crash-lands near Roswell, New Mexico.

2008: Stop ‘n’ Drop becomes America’s favorite suicide booth.

2200s: The Star Trek cast do some musical reunions, but the guy who plays Scotty has trouble yodeling so he is replaced by Welshy.

2620: To end that stupid joke once and for all, Uranus is renamed.

~1,000,000,000,002,000: Al Gore, Fry, Deep Blue, Stephen Hawking, Michelle Nichols, and Gary Gygax finish playing Dungeons & Dragons.

Now wasn't that worth the wait?

February 25, 2008

How Anime Leads to Crop Damage

In the latest twist on invasive species run amok, farmers in Japan are blaming cartoons for ¥164-million-worth ($1.5-million-worth) of crop damage.

Okay, well not cartoons exactly, but North American raccoons, which were imported into the Asian nation as pets in the 1970s "when they became popular on an animated TV show," the Japan Times reports.

Apparently this unnamed show featured cute wittle waccoons washing their food, as the critters are known to do in the wild. In fact, the Japanese word for raccoon, arai-guma, literally translates as "washing bear." People were fascinated by the adorable behavior and started clamoring for a masked washer of their very own.

The problem—as any good wildlife biologist will tell you—is that animated furballs are generally more comfortable living the human life than their natural counterparts. So noncompliant raccoon pets got dumped by the roadsides, and the feral population went to town on crops.

Now 16 prefectures are reporting losses due to raccoons helping themselves to grapes, corn, melons, and other produce. It's hard to say if this is worse than invasive Burmese pythons snacking on alligators in the Florida Everglades. Or feral cats helping themselves to Australia's native marsupials. It's just another case of pet fads taking their toll on the environment.

Incidentally, while trying to figure out which '70s-era anime featured the instigating arai-guma in question, I ran across a rather disturbing Studio Ghibli anime being distributed by Disney called Pom Poko.

The 1994 film actually features endemic Asian creatures, called tanuki in Japan, that resemble raccoons.

The English-language dub consistently calls them raccoons, and makes one other, uh, translational concession. The magical, shape-shifting animals fight for resources as their habitat shrinks by inflating their testicles and using them as weapons.

Disney calls the enlarged appendages "pouches." Insert your own "they ain't got no balls" joke here.

February 7, 2008

A.D. 897: Cadaver Synod

So I'll be the first to admit that the delightful design scheme of this blog is a stock template—I'm no html whiz, and I liked the colors. Plus I'm a sucker for the five-pointed star, as readers of my previous post can attest.

The one irksome feature is the unexplained use of the number 897 worked into the design. What on Earth it means to the coder, we may never know. But on a whim, I popped the figure into Google and hit upon a couple interesting results.

There's a Pennsylvania Route 897, which ends in the county seat of Lebanon, not too far from where I went to school.

View Larger Map

But even better than that, in the winter of A.D. 897 the medieval Catholic papacy held what has been described as "the strangest trial in history"—the Cadaver Synod.

A synod is a type of administrative council of bishops held by the church. This particular synod focused on Pope Formosus, who during his five-year reign in Rome had made some powerful political enemies.

One of these was Pope Stephen VI (or VII, depending on who you talk to), who took on the papal robes a few months after Formosus died. The enraged (deranged?) new pope ordered the rotting corpse of Formosus to be exhumed, propped up on a chair in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, and put on trial for treasonous crimes.

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921)
Concile cadavérique de 897 (The Cadaver Synod)
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes

Stephen VI, who apparently subscribed to the Gospel according to St. Bastard, had a teenage deacon answer in place of the dead man as he threw wild accusations at the body before finding it posthumously guilty. He then proceeded to strip the cadaver of its ceremonial vestments, cut off some of its fingers, bury it again, re-dig it up, and throw it in the Tiber River.

And I thought office politics could get gruesome.

Of course there's always repercussions when you decide to be the mayor of Crazy Town. Stephen VI's performance so outraged the Romans—the people who brought you gladiatorial combat and public crucifictions—that he was soon after stripped of his pope-ness and imprisoned.

The deposed Stephen VI was strangled in jail in the summer of A.D. 897.

February 5, 2008

Math = Magic

As promised, below I have posted a sweet pic of my newest identifying mark, courtesy of my superbad friend Ewisa.

Despite the nightmares that math gives me when I pursue it directly, I am awed at how many of my most beloved activities were born of math and need it to survive—baking, singing, gaming, astronomy, and yes, even blogging.

As a 12-year veteran of choirs and a HUGE karaoke fan, the singing part is the most beautiful example, imho, and the main inspiration for this tat. It derives from a 1959 Disney educational film, which portrayed Pythagoras and his crew as a secret society of "eggheads" who discovered the ratios that birthed modern music.

The magic ratio for Pythagoras was 2:1, which yields an octave, and from there a few basic fractions created the well-known musical scale. The famous Greek is also credited with Pythagorean tuning, in which the 3:2 ratio gives us the musical interval for the perfect fifth.

The pentagram—a symbol used by the Pythagoreans to identify kindred thinkers—contains another famous ratio: the golden section. This formula has been admired since the time of the ancient Greeks for being the basis of aesthetically pleasing proportions in art and nature.

For religious purposes, the Pythagoreans often inscribed the pentagram with the Greek letters for hugieia, which means "health" or "wellness" and was the name of a minor goddess.

As evidenced by the Disney vid, popular perception has Pythagoras revered as a great philosopher and mathematician. But in reality none of his writings have survived, so doubts exist as to what he really contributed to the fields.

Regardless, the man's magical legend lives on, and the fundamental truth that math and music are intertwined will always be an inspiration for me.

February 3, 2008

Saying Goodbye

It's been an emotional roller coaster this week, culminating in the memorial service for my college friend who died of acute myelogenous leukemia. It's an immensely tragic loss, as this man was the personification of gentleness and devotion.

All I can do now is admire his courageous wife, send my brightest wishes to his two children, and hope that someday there will be better treatments and care options for this disease.

One of the bright spots of the service was the attention paid to the blog my friend started when he was diagnosed. As several people noted in their tributes, putting his story online was a powerful force in the last ten months of my friend's life. It provided both an outlet for his doubts, fears, and frustrations and a way to connect with people when his exposure to the outside world had to be limited.

Leukemia—a blood cancer that starts in the marrow—made him weak, but the chemotherapy used to kill the cancerous cells made his immune system even weaker. Some days he couldn't even receive flowers or cards for fear of exposure to outside contaminants. Through his blog, he was able to communicate and touch the lives of people across the country.

I was amazed at how my friend became an inspiration, even to people he had never met in person. I can only hope the smiles and tenderness he gave readers through his stories were equally matched for him by the encouragement and support sent by his 45,678 (and counting) visitors.

In loving memory.

January 31, 2008

Fox News on Mass Effect: Idiocy +12

By now most gamers are almost done being literally angry with rage at Fox News over their, ahem, "fair and balanced" report on alleged digital nudity in Mass Effect.

(For anyone who hasn't seen it yet, check out video of the segment here. If you are a gamer and somehow have not seen it yet, try not to wake the neighbors with your indignant outbursts.)

The latest act in this drama is that one of Fox's expert commentators, Cooper Lawrence, is trying to stem a tide of negative reviews of her new book on Amazon.com by clarifying to the gaming community her role on the show.

"As a developmental-psychology expert, I was asked to appear on this particular show to discuss the broader issue of video games and their impact on developing adolescents, not as an expert on Mass Effect," Lawrence said in a statement released to MTV News.

In other words, she wasn't busting on Mass Effect, which she admits she has never played, but on all video games ever. Something tells me this is not a helpful strategy.

My main problem with the logic Lawrence tries to use is that it seems this same argument could exist in any decade. 1920s: alcohol. 1940s: women in the workforce. 1950s: comics and rock 'n' roll. 1980s: rap/hip-hop. There's always something that "is having a (vague and largely unproven) negative impact on the youth of America" and therefore should be regulated or banned. Video games are just the latest scapegoat.

But the most egregious statement in this clip, imho, comes from its host, Martha MacCallum. She seems to think that we've hit a sorry state of affairs when parents actually have to pay attention to their children.

In our modern world of working moms and Blackberry-equipped dads, who's got time to watch the kids? And without a hovering parent, those rascals will get into any darn dangerous thing left lying about the house.

So how about guns? R-rated DVDs? Prescription meds? Laptops? Heck, by that argument no one should have a sharp pair of scissors hanging about for fear the kiddies will poke an eye out when they're home alone.

Honestly, I've seen more damaging things done to a kid's psyche in gym class than he or she would ever experience while playing an RPG.

January 28, 2008

Princess of Persia

Living in D.C., I often have the good fortune to see a variety of international and independent films that are out on limited release in the U.S. So last Friday I had the extra good fortune to see Persepolis, a beautifully animated rendering of the graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi.

The novels tell Satrapi's semi-autobiographical story of growing up during and after the Iranian revolution of 1979. It's an eye-opening culture story for anyone who only knows of Iran as "that place near Iraq that the UN might start sanctioning."

The film got me interested in Iran and it's history, so I did a quick bit of digging.

Until 1935 Iran was known as Persia, and Persepolis was its ancient capital. Persepolis was captured and partially destroyed around 330 B.C. after Alexander the Great invaded. The ruins are now part of an archaeological site that sits northeast of the modern-day city of Shiraz in southern Iran.

Like the Greeks, the Persians contributed mightily to early science and mathematics. For example, we can thank Persian alchemists for the first isolation of pure ethanol, or grain alcohol—in fact, the world "alcohol" comes from the Arabic al-kuhl meaning "the essence of a fermented liquid."

And fans of the video game series Prince of Persia will no doubt recognize the design on this 18th-century astrolabe, a Persian device used for a variety of astronomical calculations.

(Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 November 2004)

I'll refrain from commenting on what Iran's current politics might mean for its modern scientific offerings, as I feel under-informed. For that I turn to Science magazine, which published this interesting news item in July 2005.

Science Tattoos

Yeah, you heard me. Science writer Carl Zimmer started a flickr set that has me alternating between delighted at proof that I am not alone and writhing with jealousy that he started it first.

Seems at least 131 other people also decided to have their geekiness branded into them for all the world to see. My personal favs are the philosopher's stone symbols on someone's shoulder and the neuron on a foot.

Of course, this might lead readers who don't know me to wonder what sciencey tat I am sporting. I would attach a picture, but my digi-cam is still busted after being dropped on the tarmac at the Nanjing airport.

In prose form, it's a Pythagorean pentacle, shaded to look like a stone carving. It's a shape that I have carried in my head and doodled on papers since first seeing Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land when I was ten. As a science writer and a choir singer, I finally went with it as a reminder of how math and music are fundamentally intertwined.

Send healing thoughts to my camera, and maybe I can add myself to Zimmer's list!

January 23, 2008

Color My World

So if you're an astronomy nerd, you will recall being absolutely blown away by the first-ever images of the "other" side of Mercury beamed back by the MESSENGER spacecraft last Wednesday.

If you're pretty much anybody else, you'll recall wondering why everyone in the science media was getting so gosh-darn excited about another picture of the moon.

But wait. The first image released was taken in monochrome. MESSENGER, as a product of the 21st century, does comes equipped with a camera boasting (count 'em) 11 narrow-band color filters.

As evidenced by the stunning images that have made instruments like Hubble and Cassini almost household names, combining a bunch of data from several filters will get you those jaw-dropping false-color shots of cosmic objects that can capture the public's imagination.

So now here it is folks, the Mercury glory shot we've all been waiting for, a high-tech mosaic combining data from filters that transmit light with wavelengths of infrared, far red, and violet:

Hmmm... Well, we can't all be doing science with snazzy art. Ever try to get a good picture from the folks working on an invisibility cloak?

January 21, 2008

So, a Virus Walks Into a Bar...

Cruisin' 'round YouTube today I found a quirky making-of vid about science comedian Brian Malow's visit to the Koshland Science Museum here in D.C. back in May. Seems he was doing a show about infectious diseases to commemorate the museum opening a new display on the topic.

Back when I had time for life outside the office I used to docent at the Koshland, which is a relatively recent addition to the Washington museum scene. It's run by the National Academy of Sciences and sits on the corner of 6th and E NW near the NAS headquarters building.

What I love about the place is that it is the first science museum I've been to in a loooong time that is aimed at adults. Interactive displays and hands-on demos still apply, but the content is definitely written for high school and above. They also do a nice job appealing to "geek chic" in the city by hosting after-hours events such as book signings, wine-soaked mixers, and—apparently—stand-up routines.

Malow admits his repertoire is low on disease-related material, a fact made painfully obvious by the sound bites in this clip. This leads me to wonder, can there be good science-themed stand-up? And can science jokes ever be educational/inspiring, or are they merely for the pleasure of the already informed?

In school one of the most boring subjects for me was history, but my favorite stand-up artiste of all time, Eddie Izzard, seems to get some of his best material from topics like WWII and comparative religions. (If you have not yet experienced the joy that is Dress to Kill, check out the clip below.)

See? Genius. And pretty educational at the same time. So, fingers firmly crossed that when Malow makes a return visit to the Koshland in April to riff on time travel, neurology, and string theory, he'll have some Izzard-level material on hand.

Paper Planes in Space... Uh, What?!?

Even as schoolkids fantasize about being astronauts, it seems some astronauts dream of being schoolkids again.

Pink Tentacle is reporting via the Asahi Shinbum that the University of Tokyo has teamed up with the Japan Origami Airplane Association to bring you a paper plane that can fly in outer space. The idea is that the intrepid crew on board the ISS can launch this sucker from the station and let it glide gently into orbit.

Well, "gently" is relative. The paper glider is being tested to go whizzing around the planet at up to 5,300 miles an hour—a snail's pace compared to the actual shuttle's top speeds of 15,200 mph.

Not only that, this intricately folded plane will be treated to withstand extreme heat so that it can survive re-entry and land back on Earth.

How does one say "wtf?" in Japanese?

January 19, 2008

Not So Great News

This is a little off topic, but my mind has been weighed down of late with the news that a person I sang with in college choir is dying of leukemia.

He and his family created a rich support network via an Internet journal, and I had been keeping tabs on things intermittently. Then today I get an email from a mutual friend: The last hope treatments are not working, and he has chosen to go home to spend his last days with his family.

This person and his wife are among the sweetest people ever to walk the Earth. If ever there was proof that life is not fair, this is it. I'm at a loss for what else to say, so...

January 18, 2008

My #23: Space Poem Chain

The velvet sky is embroidered with flowers;
galactic bouquets that whirl and collide.
But must they all have dark hearts forever inhaling the petals,
sopping up stardust, draining the light?
Once across the horizon, it makes no difference.

Anyone else want to share?

Almost as Romantic as a Holophoner

There are stars inside me
When I think about things from way way before
my whole body goes tingly
No doubt it's the stars, reminded of things
before they entered me, whooping it up.

— Yasunori Matugawa, Director, JAXA Space Education Center

What a freakin' sweet idea. The Japanese Space Exploration Agency (JAXA) is inviting submissions for a poem chain that will be compiled and flown to the International Space Station. JAXA writes on its website:

"The Space Poem Chain is the expression of our wish for chain poetry to become a cooperative space in which everyone can think together about the universe, about the earth, and about life, transcending boundaries of nation, culture, generations, specializations, and roles."

The first round of 24 poems has been recorded and will be sent up in February. The lines above make up the first submission for the second round, which has the theme "There are Stars."

It's a beautiful way of acknowledging that all people are actually made of stardust. At its start the universe was all hydrogen and helium—it took stars to provide the fusion engines that created heavier elements, including those necessary for life.

When the first stars went supernova, they seeded the cosmos with the ingredients for the galaxies, planets, comets, asteroids, etc. we see today.

Anyone from anywhere can submit a poem for the JAXA chain. The basic rules are:

#1) The Space Poem Chain is formed from the alternating repetition of 5 line and 3 line poems. If the immediately preceding poem is 5 lines, then the next is 3; if the immediately preceding poem is 3 lines, then the next is 5.

#2) The starting point of your own poem should be a word or a line from the immediately preceding poem.

The 22nd poem in the current chain is a three-line beauty from a man in Nepal. I'm gonna go ruminate over lunch and see what I would submit for Poem #23... will share when ready.

Happy (Almost) 50th, Explorer 1!

On January 31, 1958, the United States proved its unfailing love for one-upping the competition by launching its first satellite, Explorer 1, into Earth orbit.

The probe was a direct response to the Soviet Union's October 4, 1957, launch of Sputnik 1. Not to be outdone by "dirty Commies," the U.S. government went to the then military-focused Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California and charged it with getting our collective asses in gear.

"The successful launch of Explorer 1, followed by the formation of NASA in Oct. 1958, transformed JPL from a producer of ballistic missiles to a preeminent center for robotic exploration of our solar system and beyond," the agency writes in a press release.

Last fall media outlets the world over celebrated Sputnik as the 50th anniversary of the start of the space race—and how it impacted the current international race to the moon—with copious amounts of news articles, photo galleries, editorials, and videos.

Something tells me that last year's media blitz will keep a similar frenzy from getting whipped up over poor Explorer. But we're a space nut, so we say, "Who loves ya, baby?"

Tiger + Drunk Teens = Trouble

Okay, who's really surprised by this?

Police have announced that the teenage boys who were attacked by a tiger at the San Diego Zoo were in fact drunk, high, and gesticulating at the cat before it calmly leaped out of its pen and started clawing.

"As a result of this investigation, (police believe) that the tiger may have been taunted/agitated by its eventual victims," said Inspector Valerie Matthews, according to the Associated Press.

Kulbir Dhaliwal, one of the teens who survived, later told police that the three had smoked pot and each had "a couple shots of vodka" before heading over to the zoo, AP reports.

Of course it's tragic that a young man was killed in this incident, and the zoo needs to figure out exactly why its tiger enclosure wall was four feet shorter than it should have been.

But this is also a classic case of the way a human-interest piece can vilify wild animals. No one mourned the tiger, which was shot dead on the scene. Never mind the fact that it was a Siberian tiger, of which only 400 to 500 are believed to exist in the wild in the whole world.

It's also kind of damning of zoos in general. I have turbulently mixed feelings about facilities that host wild animals in tiny enclosures. Are they for education and conservation, or spectacle and tourism? Is money better spent on captive breeding (like many zoos do work on) or habitat conservation?

There're no easy answers here, other than anyone who taunts a tiger—no matter how high the walls are—is a candidate for the Darwin Awards.

January 17, 2008

OMG, I Am an Uber Nerd

The NerdTests' Space Test says I'm an Uber Space Nerd.  What kind of space nerd are you?  Click here!

Never would have seen that coming. But I guess that's cuz I dig astronomy, not astrology.

She Must Be Gunther's Girl...

Just when you thought Japanese robots couldn't get much weirder, along comes a humanoid mecha in Kyoto that's controlled by a monkey in North Carolina.

In an elaborate proof-of-concept experiment, a 12-pound lady rhesus monkey named Idoya walked on a treadmill while watching live video of a 200-pound robot's legs. Electrodes implanted in Idoya's brain sent "walking" signals to the robot over a high-speed Internet connection.

By focusing on the 'bot's limbs, the monkey got to the point where certain neurons in her brain became attuned to syching up her steps with the motion of the mecha. Even when the researchers stopped the treadmill, Idoya was so intent on manipulating the robot that she kept it walking for about three more minutes.


The NY Times has a nicely written explainer article with full multimedia components here (registration required).

Of course, this raises a host of issues, not the least of which is the immediate danger of monkeys taking over the world with their armies of mind-controlled killbots. For instance, why do articles like this *never* delve into the sticky wicket of whether the monkey likes having electrodes driven into her grey matter in the name of science?

But for now, here's my favorite quote from lead researcher Miguel A. L. Nicolelis at Duke University, as reported by the NYT:

"The body does not have a monopoly for enacting the desires of the brain.”

Inventions have a way of slipping past the necessities that birthed them. The drug warfarin, for example, is administered to people under several brand names as an anticoagulant—but it was first developed as rat poison. So what's to stop technology invented to help the paralyzed regain use of their limbs from morphing us into a real world version of Ghost in the Shell? Meh. I like this body better anyway.

Good News, Everyone!

Hello, and welcome to Measured Outcomes, a blog about the myriad interpretations of science writing.

The news is a harsh mistress, and things can get downright ugly once they've been put through the multiple filters that exist between bare facts and public perception.

Just like when a quantum physicist tries to pin down the exact location of a particle, uncertainty exists when people try to pin down the nuanced meanings of the flood of scientific findings reported every day. Each researcher, press officer, writer, editor, copyeditor, and reader changes the "outcome" every time they "measure" a piece of news.

But hell, that's the fun part! Science is meant to be interpreted, discussed, analyzed, and—more often then not—debunked. For all the routinely provable theories that might as well be rock-solid laws of nature (ahem, evolution) there must be a few million announced discoveries that are tenuous at best and deserve the utmost skepticism.

So let's see what's out there and—with open minds and a huge cup of java—discuss.