Stories tagged Scientific Inquiry

Apr
16
2009

Homo sapiens: Yours truly, just a little while ago. (Had I shaved I'd look even more modern).
Homo sapiens: Yours truly, just a little while ago. (Had I shaved I'd look even more modern).Courtesy Mark Ryan
Ever notice how some of your relatives have similar features just like those of some of your long dead ancestors? Perhaps you yourself are stuck with the same ears great-uncle Larry proudly displays in that sepia photo you have of him grinning in front of his brand new Model T. Great-grandpa Homo heidelbergensis: 500,000 years ago.
Great-grandpa Homo heidelbergensis: 500,000 years ago.Courtesy Open University (and Mark Ryan)
You know, those Dumbo ears that look like a donation from the US Air Force.

Great-great-granddaddy Homo erectus: 1.8 million years ago.
Great-great-granddaddy Homo erectus: 1.8 million years ago.Courtesy Open University (and Mark Ryan)
But what about those family members who were evolving long before the advent of photography or even cave painting? Have you ever wondered what some of those ancient knuckle-draggers on the old family tree might have looked like?

Great-great-great-grandfather Homo habilis: 2.2 million years ago.
Great-great-great-grandfather Homo habilis: 2.2 million years ago.Courtesy Open University (and Mark Ryan)
Well, of course none of us (except the Terminator, Mr. Peabody, Marty McFly and JGordon) can actually travel back in time but we can do the next best thing, which is devolving via the miracle of modern technology. Great-great-great-etc.etc-grandpa Australopithecus afarensis: 3.7 million years ago.
Great-great-great-etc.etc-grandpa Australopithecus afarensis: 3.7 million years ago.Courtesy Open University (and Mark Ryan)
How can we do that, you ask? It’s easy. Simply go here to Open University's Devolve Me site, upload a photo of yourself (or great-uncle Larry if you wish) and watch the image change into great-great-great-great-great-great-great-uncle Troglodyte,

For the sake of scientific inquiry I tried it myself and you can see the results on the right. Also, I tried to minimize the use of title prefixes in the photos (e.g. Great-great-great grandpa) since the actual titles would have gone on forever, and would have become really, really tiresome. I'm sure you get the picture.

Anyway, give it a try yourself. You just don't know what you'll find out about your ancestry. It may even answer those questions you have about your grandma's excessive back hair.

Hey, I think I have great-grandpa Australopithecus afarensis's eyes.

LINKS
Devolve Me site
More about human evolution
Open University site

Apr
13
2009

An early Hawaii-area triviashipman: Hopefully this triviashipman will come to a better end. I've tried to be courteous to the locals, at least.
An early Hawaii-area triviashipman: Hopefully this triviashipman will come to a better end. I've tried to be courteous to the locals, at least.Courtesy Artmechanic
The Puddleduck has crossed the Pacific! They said it couldn’t be done. But they also said that double-stuff Oreos would fail, and they said that Wham! would never play in China, and they said that Dances With Wolves could never win an Academy Award.

So here we are, on the northern tip of Polynesia, getting ready to answer some random questions.

How did I get random questions? Pff. Duh. I took them with me, of course. I never go anywhere without a few extra randoms, even if it means leaving my anti-psychotics out of my backpack for the extra space.

Man the guns, Buzzketeers! Random questions to port! Let us rake them to Swiss cheese, and send them to Davey Jones. (As answers.)

Elise asks: Are polar bears really bears?

Ka-boom!
Heck yeahs, Elise, polar bears is bears alright. The polar bear belongs to the family ursidae, just like all other bears. It is a pretty unique bear, though, so I can see how the confusion might arise. Polar bears, along with Kodiak bears (they’re big brown bears), are the largest meat-eating land animals. They’re also sometimes considered to be “marine mammals.” When you think about other marine mammals, like whales, seals, and dolphins, that might sound pretty weird, because bears seem pretty different from all of them. Polar bears, however, are excellent swimmers, and they spend months every year living on sea-ice, far away from land.

But, yeah. Polar bears are indeed bears.

Anonymous asks: Do they still say, “Ontology recapitulates phylogeny”?

Swab! Load! Ram! Spark the touchhole!
Um, no, they don’t. Sometimes they say, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” but for the most part nobody says stuff like that. I mean… are you serious? You could have asked about naked mole rats, and this is what you came up with? Shhh… I think I hear your old professor calling. She says that class has been really quiet since you left. Better go fix that.

Anonymous 2 asks: Why does poop smell?

Blam! Direct hit! I think we decapitated someone with that!
See? This is what I’m talking about! Sure, this is a joke question… but so was the last one, and at least this is an answer we can take to the bank. Why, when we eat delicious smelling foods, does poop smell so… bad?

It’s because after we eat food, as we digest it, bacteria inside our bodies help break that food down into other materials we can use for energy, or to build our bodies. But when bacteria do this, they also produce chemicals that don’t smell great. Some of them smell really bad! A lot of the worst smelling chemicals—the ones that make farts so gross too—contain the element sulfur, like the gas hydrogen sulfide, or the chemicals indole and skatole. Skatole smells so bad that its name comes from the Greek word for poop: “skato.” The food we eat can also change the smell of out poop. Undigested spices can show up in the odor, and sometimes eating lots of meat can make it smell worse too.

Lots of animals don’t really mind the smell of poop, but people probably think its bad because having too much contact with poop can make us sick (it can have some pretty bad germs). When we smell that smell, we know it’s something we should probably avoid for our own health.

Annika (with the help of a parent) asks: Why do blue leaves not grow?

Boom!
Good question, Annika. We have blue flowers sometimes, but leaves are usually green. Why? We have to go a couple steps back to get a good answer, I think.

Plants grow with the help of sunlight. They absorb air (or carbon dioxide from the air) and use the energy in sunlight to turn that air into more plant material. “Photosynthesis” is the fancy word for this. Plants use a green chemical called Chlorophyll, and that gives plants their green color. When white sunlight (remember, white light is made up of all colors of light) hits those leaves, the leaves reflect green light back to our eyes, but they absorb all the other colors of light, especially red and blue light. The energy in that light can then be used to help the plant grow.

Oh, man, those questions have been mutilated! I’ve got a thirst for blood now. Let’s sail on, and see which questions are foolish enough to fall into the range of our science cannons. So, until next time…

PS—It’s still Easter in Hawaii right now, by the way, so Happy Easter. (If that’s your thing.) I’m afraid JGordon is alone this Easter, but don’t get too concerned. I’ve got plans. I’m going to spin around until I almost throw up, and then I’m going to take a basket of eggs and scatter them wherever I happen to stagger. When I get my equilibrium back, I’ll go try to find the eggs. It shouldn’t be so hard—the eggs will certainly be uncooked, and the whole thing will take place in an empty parking lot.

Mar
31
2009

Banded snail
Banded snailCourtesy mer de glace
Regular folks across Europe are being asked to take part in what’s being touted as one of the largest studies of evolution ever done.

Evolution MegaLab is requesting people living in the United Kingdom and the European continent to check the snail population in their areas and report their findings to the MegaLab website. The research study which was just launched by The Open University, will end six months from now and hopefully show how changes in climate and predation have affected the snail population over a relatively short span of time. Project researchers are specifically interested in two banded snail species, Cepaea hortensis and Cepaea nemoralis.

“Banded snails wear their genes on their backs,” said Professor Jonathan Silvertown of The Open University. “Their colors and banding patterns are marvelously varied – but the darker shell types are more common in woodland, where the background color is brown, while in grass banded snails tend to be lighter-colored, yellow and stripier. These differences are thought to have evolved over time because they provide camouflage from thrushes, which like to eat the snails.”

“However, there has been a big decrease in the numbers of song thrushes in some places over the last 30 years and we’d like the public to help us to find out whether, with fewer predators about, the different snail types are less faithful to their particular habitats.”

As this video explains, it’s fairly easy to distinguish one snail species from the other. The edge of the shell opening (known as the lip) is white on C. horntensis, and brown (or black) on C. nemoralis. The species come in three different colors, yellow, pink, and brown, and can display three different styles of banding: no bands, single band (mid-band), or many bands. These variations in coloring and banding help the snails survive in the environments they happen to be living and the MegaLab researchers are interested in how recent changes in climate and predator populations have changed the snails’ appearances.

Everything the public needs to participate in the study can be found at the MegaLab website, including instructions and downloadable documents to help gather data. Observers are asked to look for snails in their areas, record specifics characteristics about what they find, and then report the findings to the Evolution MegaLab site. The collected data will then be compared with historical records to see if any noticeable evolutionary changes have taken place. The site cautions that only adult snails should be studied and recorded as many of the snails’ specific characteristics are missing in the juvenile or infant stages of the animals.

Kids in the UK are already showing interest. Here’s a cute video documenting one group’s efforts to help gather data.

For now the banded snail observation project, which is supported by the Royal Society and British Council, is limited to the United Kingdom and Europe but who knows, maybe a similar project will be started up in the United States.

LINKS
Story at The Open University site
Video of Cepaea nemoralis taking a long walk

Mar
15
2009

Learning about Ant Architecture at Cafe Scientifique
Learning about Ant Architecture at Cafe ScientifiqueCourtesy Shanai

Here in the Twin Cities we are lucky to have so many great museums and cultural organizations that celebrate science, but if visiting a zoo or museum to see the latest exhibit is not enough to satisfy you, where can you go?

You might not know it, but there are plenty of science events and programs going on across the Twin Cities RIGHT NOW (depending on when you are reading this). While none of these are actually a secret, they are all ways to learn new things, to meet interesting people and to take part in discussions on relevant science topics, something Science Buzz readers already do online!

Here is a quick list of some upcoming and ongoing science events that are unique to the Twin Cities. The things I've listed here are specifically for adults and young adults, so if you are a kid please plug your ears and close your eyes and patiently wait until it's your turn to rule the world.

Shanai's Favorite Science Events (Twin Cities Edition)

1. Electricity Party

The Bakken Library and Museum throws a monthly party called Bakken Evening Out. At this event adults can play with exhibits about electricity without worrying that the kid with the runny nose who just ran past in a sugar-induced frenzy is going to give everyone the flu. Plus there is live music, wine and appetizers.

2. Water World

The Science Museum is hosting a series of Thursday night lectures in conjunction with the water exhibit. While "lectures" might sound a little dull, knowing loads of information about the chemicals in our lakes or the impact of human development on the Mississippi is a great way to be an informed citizen and a well-known smarty pants.

3. Science on Tap

The Bell Museum's ongoing Cafe Scientifique series invites University of Minnesota researchers to the Bryant-Lake Bowl for informal science talks over dinner and drinks. This month's topic is the Political Virology of Bird Flu, which should go great with a grilled chicken sandwich.

4. Books with a Bang

The Big Bang Book Club is a new science book club being held at Grumpy's Bar & Grill in Downtown Minneapolis. Participants can come to discuss the featured book even if they haven't had a chance to read it. The folks from Magers & Quinn Booksellers do an excellent job of summing things up and asking the question we are all afraid to. Plus there are tater tots for sale, which is pretty amazing.

5. Science (Art) Studio

Leonardo's Basement, a strange and very awesome science/art/technology/design studio in South Minneapolis is always up to something cool. Their dedicated adult program Studio Bricolage lets adults mess around with things and build inventions. Or art. Or anything they can imagine.

6. Science Underground

Mill City Museum is all about the industrial history of Minneapolis, the flour milling capital of the world! In April they are offering what has to be the coolest tour ever. The title, Subterranean Twin Cities, pretty much says it all.

7. Down by the River

And while you are down by the river, you can always contemplate the engineering feat of St. Anthony Falls, which is also home to the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, which occasionally hosts public tours.

8. GO OUTSIDE!

Local park & recreation boards, as well as nature centers, are a great place to go for urban wildlife programs and nature tours. You can also check out Local Biology to see other upcoming events, or to make your own event out of the simple act of going outside.

Other events that I missed? Post them here on Science Buzz!

Mar
04
2009

Good, good: Kiss some of the other babies... and then threaten them. It'll be a landslide.
Good, good: Kiss some of the other babies... and then threaten them. It'll be a landslide.Courtesy Ti.mo
Here at Science Buzz we try to provide solid scientific information that Internet enthusiasts young and old might use to enhance their lives and their understanding of the world. Ding.

I’m sorry to admit, however, that we rarely offer advice directly to politicians. Sure, bloggers here might make their political leanings obvious from time to time, but we generally don’t give politicians pointers on how to enhance their careers.

Well there’s finally a Buzzer (me) with the courage (plenty) to stand up for the little guy (politicians) and hand out some advice (very valuable).

And here it is: If you want to manipulate people, make them afraid.

What? You sort of already knew that? Well no one sort of likes a smarty-pants, so zip it.

Besides, what you knew before was anecdotal. This is scientific. (Political science, but still, it was published, and that’s pretty good. Right?)

What’s more, it’s not quite so simple as the above statement. The real trick is to get your fear-mongering manipulation in when you’re dealing with a subject that people don’t understand very well. If the plebeians have solid mental footing, they’re much more likely to see through your crumby policies and deceptive statements. But if they’re uncertain about something, start up your scare engine and manipulate away.

Let’s do some practice runs:

“Your cats are unwholesome, and will eat your children. Kill them, and donate all money saved on cat food to my campaign.”

No, I know that isn’t true. If anything, the cats are in danger of being eaten by me. Plus I don’t own children. So I’m keeping that money, junior.

“Cloning research is unwholesome. It will de-value human life. I am against cloning, so vote for me.”

Say… I saw The Matrix. That was scary. I don’t know how cloning works, but it is scary. I am against cloning too. And I’m for you, junior.

“My opponent’s economic policies are going to ruin you. Check it.”

Hey… I’ll probably only live about 2 and a half billion seconds in my life. Economics involves trillions of dollars… that’s incomprehensible to me. I’m yours, junior.

See how easy and fun that was?

Science and scientific stuff is a good place to start, of course, because a lot of people don’t know a lot of stuff about science.

(On the offhand chance that you’re a non-politician reading this, I suppose you could get yerself educated about some science, etc, and have a better idea of when someone is trying to make you afraid and control you. But that’s not very nice to the politicians, is it?)

Mar
01
2009

World's first temple?

Gobekli temple
Gobekli templeCourtesy Phraotes
Around 8000 BC, what is believed to be the world's first temple, was intentionally buried under thousands of tons of earth. Only about 1.5% of the site's total area has been excavated, so theories about what it was should be considered preliminary. Carbon-dating shows that the complex is at least 12,000 years old, maybe even 13,000 years old. This is pre-pottery, pre-writing, pre-almost-everything. It is 7000 years older than the pyramids. Çatalhöyük, thought to be one of the ealiest villages, is 2,000 years later.

Religious organization enabled larger projects

Klaus Schmidt believes that Gobekli Tepe was a place of worship, a sanctuary that attracted peoples from great distances to offer sacrifices. An elite class of religious leaders probably supervised the erection of the huge stone monoliths thought to represent ancestors.
Gobekli monolith
Gobekli monolithCourtesy Zunkir

Archaeologists estimate that up to 500 persons were required to extract the 10-20 ton pillars (in fact, some weigh up to 50 tons) from local quarries and move them 100 to 500m to the site.

Birthplace for farming

Imagine an area with lush green meadows, ringed by woods and wild orchards, herds of game, rivers of fish, and flocks of wildfowl. Such a plentiful source of food could support hundreds of people. If natural fields of wild grain were being eaten by wild game, the people might learn to cooperate to drive them away from this easy food source. The next step would be to help nature "plant" its seeds over a larger area.

Garden of Eden?

Many scholars view the Garden of Eden story as folk-memory, or allegory. As indicated in the Book of Genesis, Eden, like Gobekli was west of Assyria. Gobekli may have been a place where hunter-gatherers could pluck fruit from the trees, scoop fish from the rivers and spend the rest of their days in worshiping. When their increased numbers outgrew what nature offered they tried to grow their own.

As we began farming, we changed the landscape and the climate. When the trees were chopped down, the soil leached away; all that ploughing and reaping left the land eroded and bare. What was once an agreeable oasis became a land of stress, toil and diminishing returns.

Learn more about Gobekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe: Wikipedia
The World's First Temple: Archaeology.org
Do these mysterious stones mark the site of the Garden of Eden?: DailyMail

Feb
27
2009

This bear is full of love, questions: Although I'd like to trade a capitalization for an apostrophe.
This bear is full of love, questions: Although I'd like to trade a capitalization for an apostrophe.Courtesy aussiegall
To quote the wise and indomitable Tyra Banks: “Hey y’all!”

It’s Friday (I think) and relationships still exist (that’s what I hear) so it’s time again for everybody’s favorite Friday Science Buzz feature: The Friday Relationship Extravaganza!

This week’s relationship feature promises to be especially… extravagasmic, because today we’re pairing it up with some good old fashioned random questions.

See, on Thursday night, all the Buzz blog features went out for drinks after work. Random Questions promised itself that it would just have two drinks, but you know how that sort of thing goes… Pretty soon the ginger ale was flowing, and next thing you know Random Questions is waking up in Extravaganza’s bed.

OMG, right?

But don’t even worry about it. Nothing happened. Extravaganza slept on the couch. Still, these are work friends, not friend friends, and they had to talk about something when they got to the office. And so…

Friday Relationship Extravaganza: Random Questions Edition

So paddle around with me in the HMS Puddleduck, won’t you?

Question: Why do praying mantis females eat their mates?

Answer: Hmm… This is a hard one. If relationships weren’t tricky enough, relationships that involve cannibalism are particularly troublesome. I mean, look at Jeffrey Dahmer.

It’s also difficult to answer because it seems like scientists are sure exactly why mantises behave this way. Originally it was thought that female mantises bit off their mates’ heads because removing the head caused the male to start, er, mating like crazy (and why not, I guess.) Plus, the lady mantis gets a snack.

Then, some scientists pointed out that this behavior could be influenced by the fact that the mantises were being watched—whether in the field or in a laboratory, the bright lights and steamy glasses of sweaty-palmed scientists might be a little distracting and stressful for mantis lovers, and could cause them to behave a little irrationally.

Other scientists then observed that if a female were fed before mating, she would be less likely to snap at her mate (as it were). With the threat of having his head bitten off lessened, a male mantis will sometimes even engage in elaborate courtship behavior (and why not, I guess.)

Recently, researchers have determined that male mantises, in fact, don’t like getting eaten, and will approach a female with tremendous caution and attempt to couple from a greater distance to avoid it.

So, what are we left with? Removing a mating male’s head can increase that male’s chance of successfully reproducing (because of the mating like crazy thing). But not getting killed on a lucky date can also increase a male’s chance of reproducing (because he can maybe go on to have more dates with other females). And being watched my scientists while having sex can be stressful. And being hungry while having sex can lead lady mantises to do things they might later regret.

Is that close enough to a real answer?

Question: (This question card is actually two questions. “Why can’t boys have babies?” was written first, and then scratched out. A more logical rephrasing of the question follows: “How long would it take to grow a boyfriend?” Because I’m the acting commander of the HMS Puddleduck, choosing which question to answer is my prerogative. So I will answer both. This is an extravaganza, after all.)

Why can’t boys have babies?

Answer: Well… I can see why you decided to re-write this question. Because, of course, boys can have babies. If I were to see a baby sitting on the street, and if I were to take that baby, guess what? I’d technically have a baby. (And don’t get all sassy about how I shouldn’t go around just taking babies willy-nilly. Would you rather I left that baby sitting in the street?)

Also, according to the research presented in Junior, men can make their own babies, no problem. But until that technology is released to fertility clinics, boys can’t have babies because… well, just because. That’s how things worked out.

We have evolved to use internal fertilization—that is, we don’t just release eggs and sperm into the ocean in the hopes that they’ll mix around on their own. And thank God, because where would the Relationship Extravaganza be if we all acted like fish and amphibians? No place good.

And so, I don’t know… one of the two sexes got stuck with carrying fertilized eggs/babies around, and it’s usually the female (Seahorses are an interesting counterexample, however). And, at this point, human males couldn’t really do it, because we haven’t got the equipment. I mean, the underwhelming birth canal is really the least of the issues here (and that’s saying something.)

Sorry if I’m being vague on this answer, but I think it might be a good question for our current Scientist on the Spot, PZ Myers. I think this question comes down to evolution, and why it makes sense for just one sex to carry developing offspring. PZ is the expert on evolution, so click on these pink words and see if he has any thoughts on the subject.

How long would it take to grow a boyfriend?

Answer: I guess it depends on how you like your boyfriends. If you like your men young, I’d say you could have a boyfriend ready in about nine months. If you want some kind of loving, responsible and mature boyfriend, you might have to wait… what, about 35 years? Yeah, that sounds about right.

Then again, “accelerated aging” seems to be a staple of all cloning-related sci-fi, so maybe we should look into that…

When a mad scientist makes my perfect double to replace me after I get kidnapped, accelerated aging techniques will be essential to ensuring that the clone and I are indistinguishable. After all, a regular (non-mad) scientist might be able to clone me now, but the clone would be a baby, and it wouldn’t be a very convincing replacement. (I pee my pants so rarely these days, it’s hardly worth brining up.)

However, it seems like accelerated aging might be an unintended consequence of some cloning techniques already, and doesn’t even require special tanks and serums. When Dolly the sheep was cloned, scientists found that she suffered from arthritis and lung disease at a relatively young age, leading them to believe that she was prematurely aging. One thought is that Dolly’s telomeres were too short. Telomeres are pieces of DNA at the ends of chromosomes, and their deterioration is responsible for aging. Telomeres prevent chromosomes from accidentally combining with each other. If the chromosomes were to combine with each other, it could result in the cell becoming cancerous, so when a telomere runs out or wears down, the cell is usually destroyed. The shortening of telomeres puts a limit on the number of times a cell can divide, and when cells don’t divide anymore, you start to age. They aren’t sure exactly what caused Dolly’s telomeres to be short (if that was indeed the cause of her rapid aging).

But that’s sort of the downhill part of aging—if you were to clone or genetically engineer your perfect boyfriend, and somehow shorten his telomeres (if it didn’t happen automatically from the cloning) you’d probably end up with some sort of odd Benjamin Button situation, and that might not be what you want.

To even things out, you might have to affect the pituitary gland in some way. The pituitary controls hormones that cause growth, and disorders with the pituitary gland can sometimes cause kids to grow very large very quickly. Many of the world’s tallest people have had pituitary disorders.

I’m thinking that you’d still need eight or nine years to balance out the pituitary and telomere stuff in your grown boyfriend. And he might not thank you for it.

And there we are! Another heartwarming Relationship Extravaganza, spiced with random questions. But the Puddleduck must be off—I still have a stack of questions here that require answers from the far off reaches of knowledge. And several of them have swearwords in them that I have to rephrase, which isn’t easy, if you want to keep the spirit of the original question. (And I do.)

Feb
25
2009

Last night, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal criticized government spending authorized by the stimulus bill, calling particular attention to "something called volcano monitoring." Hey, $140 million is a lot of money, and what does it get us? Turns out volcano monitoring is actually kind of a big deal.

Fluffy cloud of water vapor, or engine-clogging agent of doom?: Taken from Alaska Airlines jet on July 20, 2008. This photo of Alaska's Okmok volcano was taken from 37,000 feet up, looking south from about 15 miles to the north. Scientists estimate the top of the ash cloud was at 20,000 ft.
Fluffy cloud of water vapor, or engine-clogging agent of doom?: Taken from Alaska Airlines jet on July 20, 2008. This photo of Alaska's Okmok volcano was taken from 37,000 feet up, looking south from about 15 miles to the north. Scientists estimate the top of the ash cloud was at 20,000 ft.Courtesy Phil Walgren, Alaska Volcano Observatory (USGS) and Alaska Airlines

It teaches us a lot about earth processes, of course, but some folks aren't swayed by talk of scientific advancement.

An argument for everyone is that monitoring enables authorities to plan and implement evacuations when necessary.

"The USGS has issued several warnings over the past 10 years, though predicting the timing and size of eruptions remains a difficult task.

Volcano monitoring likely saved many lives — and significant money — in the case of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines (where the United States had military bases at the time), according to the USGS.

The cataclysmic eruption lasted more than 10 hours and sent a cloud of ash as high as 22 miles into the air that grew to more than 300 miles across.

The USGS spent less than $1.5 million monitoring the volcano and was able to warn of the impending eruption, which allowed authorities to evacuate residents, as well as aircraft and other equipment from U.S. bases there.

The USGS estimates that the efforts saved thousands of lives and prevented property losses of at least $250 million (considered a conservative figure)."

Still not convinced? Here's another benefit: volcano monitoring keeps our air routes safer, too. See, a pilot can't easily tell the difference between an ash cloud and a regular cloud. But ash clouds can damage flight control systems and kill jet engines. Don't think that's really a big problem? Some 10,000 passengers and millions of dollars' worth of cargo are ferried by US aircraft over the North Pacific every day, and there are 100 potentially dangerous volcanoes under those air routes.

Suddenly "volcano monitoring" doesn't seem like a goofy piece of esoteric research...

Feb
22
2009

Fingerprint errors: Fingerprint "science" is sometimes mistaken
Fingerprint errors: Fingerprint "science" is sometimes mistakenCourtesy blvesboy

Forensic science not always scientific

"The CSI Effect," is a reference to the popular television show CSI -- Crime Scene Investigation and its spin-offs.

In reality, our forensic science system, upon which criminal and civil litigation depends, has been found to be far from meeting scientific standards.

A National Research Council report, "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward," stated:

"The forensic science system in the United States has serious problems that can only be addressed by a national commitment to overhaul the current structure that supports the forensic science community,"

The report urges Congress to authorize and fund a new federal entity, the National Institute of Forensic Science, or NIFS, to oversee how forensic science is practiced in the United States.

232 wrongfully convicted prisoners found to be innocent

The report was welcomed by lawyers for the Innocence Project, which has employed DNA evidence to help free 232 wrongly convicted defendants.

For example, it mentions the case of attorney Brandon Mayfield who in 2004 was erroneously linked by digital fingerprint images to train bombing in Madrid that year. Mayfield was arrested and subsequently released when the FBI acknowledged that it had made a mistake.

Scientific standards needed

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said "many forensic disciplines lack the standards necessary to ensure their scientific reliability in court (and) that forensic laboratories and their experts do not have uniform, mandatory accreditation policies."

Sources:
Forensic Science System In U.S. Needs Overhaul, Information Week
Crime labs are seriously deficient, report says MSNBC

Feb
12
2009

These guys have been eating bacteria all day: That's all it takes!
These guys have been eating bacteria all day: That's all it takes!Courtesy Dave Austria
Hey y’all! Get a earful of this: Russian scientists claim to have found bacteria living in the superfrost that may be able to significantly extend our lifespans!

Whoa!

Oh, also, “superfrost” isn’t the word the original article used. In fact, “superfrost” isn’t a real word in the first place. The perpetually frozen sandy soil the bacteria were found in is actually called “permafrost.” I just invented the word “superfrost” because it was kind of cool in this post’s title. I also used the fake word to honor the original article, which contains an amount of information somewhere between zero and almost zero.

Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up over a quasi-science article coming from a the Daily Mail, considering that the other stories on the page feature shots of the octuplet mother’s explosive looking belly, and Chris Brown leering over Rhianna’s shoulder… but it seems so cool! Seriously, this is sci-fi stuff!

What I can tell is this: Russian scientists were digging in an area of Siberia known for its abundance of wooly mammoth remains. Among the biological materials they recovered was a species of bacteria that appears to live in the permafrost. Finding it was an accident.

After doing a partial DNA analysis, the scientists determined that they were working with a unique type of bacteria. I don’t know if this means it’s a new species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, or kingdom… whatever. Probably not important, right, Daily Mail?

What’s interesting about the bacterium is that it appears to be very, very old. Three to five million years old, according to the article.

Say what, Daily Mail? Say what?!

I mean… What? Check out the wikipedia page on long-living organisms. With the exception of this weird jelly fish that could potentially live forever (we won’t get into it), 3-5 million years puts everything else on the list to shame. By far.

I’m guessing that the age was estimated based on the age of the associated mammoth remains in the area (they’re about 4.8 million years old), but how they know that the bacteria were alive at the same time as the mammoths isn’t explained.

Some scientists have made claims that certain bacteria might be able to remain in stasis for millions of years before being revived. But those claims are disputed, and, anyway, we’re talking about bacteria trapped in amber or salt deposits, not permafrost (which, despite the “perma,” has probably been considerably more dynamic over the last 5 million years than most amber).

If the bacteria were in stasis, which wasn’t suggested in the helpful article, that wouldn’t explain what the Russian scientists did with the bacteria next: they put it in some mice.

We aren’t talking gene therapy here, either. All the article says is that the mice were “vaccinated with the bacterium extract.”

That makes sense, right? I mean, I know turtles and parrots live a really long time, so if I’m always eating turtle soup and parrot cake, so I’m pretty much guaranteed to live a long time, right? And if I supplement that diet by shooting up some alligator (into my veins with a needle, say), I’ll be alive forever!

I don’t know. Somebody help me out here. Why would vaccinating yourself with a bacterium imbue you with properties of that bacterium? Wouldn’t it just help your immune system figure out how to kill that organism? I was vaccinated with weakened mumps virus, but, as far as I know, I don’t have the ability to make anyone’s face inflate on cue, nor did the process transform me into a protein shell full of bits of DNA.

Nonetheless, after their inoculation with the bacteria, the mice demonstrated “growth of physical, mental, and sexual activity” into their old age. Female mice were even able to give birth at an age equivalent to a human 70-year-old.

That’s freaking amazing, isn’t it? So, hmm… here at the Daily Mail, we seem to have an exclusive story on this awesome biological breakthrough. What should we title this story? What… should… we… call… it? I know! “'Pre-historic Viagra' found in Siberian mammoth DNA could boost your sex life and let you live longer”

Duh. I mean, it says in the article that the bacteria and the mammoths, though they were found in the same area, are not believed to be linked to each other, but nothing else makes sense, so why should the headline? Mammoth DNA! Pre-historic Viagra! Print it!

How frustrating. This seems awesome, but until I can get some better, and possibly less fake, information, I have to file it under “Thhhbbtttbbbtbb.” Fudge.