Stories tagged Scientific World View


Nanohazrd: What will come next?
Nanohazrd: What will come next?

You can design the next hazard symbol for nanotechnology. The entries will be judged by the ETC, a group interested in sustainable development of new technologies. You can see some of the initial entries in their hazard symbol gallery.

I don't want to get stuck on talking only about the potential negatives about nanotech. Whether we proceed safely or not there will be hazards that need to be addressed. I thought this was a fun way of thinking about involving the public.


Canary in the coal mine: Is that a nanotech worker in the cage?
Canary in the coal mine: Is that a nanotech worker in the cage?

Pui and Maynard don't want our future nanotech workers to be canaries in the coal mine.

University of Minnesota scientist David Y.H. Pui teamed up with Andrew Maynard, the Science Advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, to call for more research into the safety of those who work in the field of nanotechnology. Their comments were published in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research.

Nanotechnology allows us to manipulate materials at the atomic and molecular scale, a billions of times smaller than a meter. But what does this mean for the lab and factory workers who will build these new materials? "Workers are society's canaries-in-the-coal mines when it comes to the environmental, health and safety effects of new materials--and nanoscale materials are no different," said Maynard.

People are researching the safety of nanotech manufacturing, but it isn't enough. According to Maynard, "little is known about potential risks in many areas of nanotechnology--and funding for risk-focused research is a small fraction of the nearly $10 billion spent annually by governments and industry on nanotechnology commercial applications."

This article is a good step in prodding the industry and our government to put more money toward nanotech risk research. However, I wonder at what point these calls for more focus will result in more action. We have seen some advances in 2006 with the city of Berkeley, California creating municipal regulations on nanotech. And, the EPA decided to regulate the use of nano silver in the environment.

It remains to be seen if this will continue to be a trend. So when you hear about a new nanotech breakthrough, continue to ask: Will it be safe?


Don't worry, be happy
Don't worry, be happy

What are you optimistic about? Why?

Are you getting bummed out reading about doom and gloom predictions? Edge asked 160 'thought leaders' to share with us their answers to this years question, "What are you optimistic about? Why?"

The 160 responses to this year's Edge Question span topics such as string theory, intelligence, population growth, cancer, climate and much much more. Contributing their optimistic visions are a who's who of interesting and important world-class thinkers.
Edge asked its hand-picked list of 'thought leaders' to reassure each other and the rest of us that we have reason to be optimistic.

Ray Kurzweil

Kurzweil, who authored The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, explains how when things keep doubling at a regular rate they approach infinity or zero. Computer's increasing ability to "figure things out" will lead to answers for our many problems. The cost of solar energy, like the cost of calculators, will drop to levels cheaper than oil. Our new mastery of biology will allow us to "turn off" diseases and aging.

I'm Confident About Energy, the Environment, Longevity, and Wealth; I'm Optimistic (But Not Necessarily Confident) Of the Avoidance Of Existential Downsides; And I'm Hopeful (But Not Necessarily Optimistic) About a Repeat Of 9-11 (Or Worse) Ray Kurzweil

Therapeutic reading

Please consider reading some of the 160 contributions.


The British charity Sense About Science is encouraging celebrities to make sure they have their facts straight before they go talking about scientific issues. A lot of people enjoy reading and hearing what celebrities have to say. Unfortunately, a lot of what they say is nonsense.

Sense About Science has issued a list of especially silly celebrity statements. And while most of these stars are British, I don't think we'd have any trouble putting together a list of Bad Science spouted by American celebs -- or any country's, for that matter. Any nominations?


On Wednesday the Make It Team from the museum's Youth Science Center talked about research using animals.

MakeIt Team
MakeIt Team

The teens watched four short videos:

  • Diabetes Hormone, a video about Diabetes research using mice
  • Fluoride in the Brain, a video about the effects of fluoride on mice and humans
  • A video about animal research from PETA
  • Hibernation, showing how animal hibernation research impacts space exploration.

After watching the videos, teens used the Democs Game to talk about the pros and cons of animal testing. Democs is a role playing activity where teens are assigned different view points and then asked to debate issues from those view points.

See what else Make It has done recently.


MakeIt Team
MakeIt Team

On Wednesday, the Make It team at the museum's Youth Science Center talked about stem cell research and the election season.

Recently, Michael J. Fox appeared in ads for candidates who support stem cell research. After one of the ads aired, several people commented on Fox's appearance in the ads. Katie Couric interviewed Michael J. Fox where he commented on the original ads and the press they received.

The Make It team watched video clips of one of the ads with Michael J. Fox, the First Lady's reaction to the ads, and Katie Couric's interview with Michael J. Fox which includes a clip of Rush Limbaugh's comments.

Afterwards we talked about what stem cell research is, why some people want the government to fund stem cell research, and what reservations people have about how stem cells are used. You can check out the teens reactions to the discussions on the Make It Blog here, here, here and here.


According to recent Washington Post articles, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is close to approving the sale of milk and meat from cloned animals, perhaps by the end of this year. Stephen F. Sundlof, the FDA's chief of veterinary medicine, was quoted: "Our evaluation is that the food from cloned animals is as safe as the food we eat every day." However, this pending approval has drawn criticism from both consumer and certain religious groups. The potential approval was a topic at a Washington conference sponsored by Michigan State University and the nonpartisan Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. Speakers with expertise in biology, philosophy, ethics, and theology said that scientists must be part of an "implicit social compact" to use ethical means to solve societal problems. Paul Thompson, W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Food, Agricultural, and Community Ethics at MSU, provided an overview of animal ethics to conference participants. Besides the impending authorization of cloned milk and meat, the topic of whether these products will carry a label designating them as such is an issue of current debate. Barb Glenn of the Biotechnology Industry Organization was quoted in another Post article:

"We feel like the average consumer is going to accept this technology as we move forward. There will not be a label that will indicate this is anything other than healthy meat and milk."

To view the Post articles, see the links below. (You may have to register with the Post to view them.)
What do you think of cloned milk or meat? Would you buy these products? Should they be labeled as originating from cloned animals?
"Religion a prominent cloned-food issue"


Triangulum galaxy (M33)
Triangulum galaxy (M33)Courtesy NASA

Universe may be 15.8 billion years old

The Hubble constant, formulated by Edwin Hubble in 1929, has remained fairly constant since the 1950's. Kris Stanek, associate professor of astronomy at Ohio State, and his coauthors are publishing a paper that may change the accepted value of the Hubble constant and also the accepted size and age of the universe.

They studied two of the brightest stars in M33, which are part of a binary system, meaning that the stars orbit each other. As seen from Earth, one star eclipses the other every five days.

They measured the mass of the stars, which told them how bright those stars would appear if they were nearby. But the stars actually appear dimmer because they are far away. The difference between the intrinsic brightness and the apparent brightness told them how far away the stars were -- in a single calculation.

To their surprise, the distance was 15 percent farther than they expected: about 3 million light-years away, instead of 2.6 million light-years as determined by the Hubble constant.

Astronomers crunch numbers, universe gets bigger

This new method took 10 years to develop. To make such a drastic change to the accepted view of the universe will require additional experimentation.

"Our margin of error is now 6 percent, which is actually pretty good," Stanek said. Next, they may do the same calculation for another star system in M33, to reduce their error further, or they may look at the nearby Andromeda galaxy. The kind of binary systems they are looking for are relatively rare, he said, and getting all the necessary measurements to repeat the calculation would probably take at least another two years.

Soure article: Ohio State University Research Archive


Connections between politics and science were clear during the State of the Union address on January 31, when President George W. Bush outlined his priorities for the nation. "We see great changes in science and commerce that will influence all our lives," Bush said, expecting the United States to "lead in oppportunity and innovation for decades to come."

Here are some of the scientific objectives the President discussed:

  • Increased science and math education—to make the United States a leader in nanotechnology, supercomputing, and the development of alternative energy sources.
  • An end to the spread of the HIV-virus, and assistance internationally to people with HIV/AIDS or Malaria.
  • Ethical regulations in science and medicine (specifically in the area of human cloning).

A visitor to this website recently posted this question:

How is evolution proved right? How is there proof of this "chance?" There are many other ways people say the earth was created; which is right? Is there a God that created the world? Or did everyone simply evolve? Whatever you believe, how do you prove yourself right?

Here is the Science Museum of Minnesota's official position on evolution.

That said, "proof" is really the crux of the issue.

All explanations of the Earth's creation other than evolution basically say that life is too complicated to explain by natural processes; something outside of nature must have created it. The only way to prove or disprove an idea like that is to look outside of nature. And once you go outside of nature, you're no longer doing science.

Science is a way of looking at the world, asking questions about nature and looking for answers in the natural processes around us. It works on one simple rule: show us the evidence! Show us an experiment in the lab or an observation in nature, but you have to point to something real that can be seen or measured. And then you have to come up with an explanation for what you've seen. You have to test your explanation by doing another experiment or making another observation that supports you. And if the results don't match, you know your explanation was wrong.

In science, a theory is an explanation that accounts for all the evidence. Atomic theory explains how matter works. Gravitational theory explains how gravity works. And evolutionary theory explains how life has changed over time.

Evolution is both a fact and a theory. The word has two meanings. First, it means "the history of life on Earth." And there's no denying that life has changed over the last 500 million years-go to the Dinosaurs and Fossils Gallery and see for yourself. But evolution also means "the explanation of HOW those changes have occurred." Scientists use the word theory for explanations that account for all the evidence.

And there is a lot of evidence for the theory of evolution. Every fossil that's ever been found; every animal that ever lived; every cell in your body-all of these support evolution. Scientists have been poking and prodding and testing the theory for 150 years, and have written tens of thousands of papers on the subject. Evolution is the best explanation we've ever had for the history of life on earth. (In terms of experiments and observations, it has been said there is more solid evidence for evolutionary theory than for atomic theory-and no one doubts the existence of atoms!)

Evolution happens every day, all around us. The bird flu that's been in the news is an example of evolution in viruses. New breeds of farm plants and animals are examples of evolution. And every baby that is born today will inherit traits from its mother and father, and so also be an example of evolution in action.

Science is really good at explaining WHAT and HOW: what our bodies are made of, how they work, how we evolved. But one thing science cannot do is explain WHY. Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is life's meaning? For that, you need religion.

OK, so what is evolution?
Evolution, by the most basic definition, is the profound, ceaseless change in life forms through time.

Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace were the first scientists to call this change in life over time "natural selection," although many others have contributed to the idea. (Changes in the theory of evolution have been made since Darwin's original proposal, yet his main theory stands firm.)

The theory of natural selection is based on three principles:

  • Organisms produce more offspring than can survive and reproduce.
  • Those that do survive tend to be better adapted to local environments.
  • Most adaptations are genetic, so they can be passed from parent to offspring.

Generation by generation, organisms that are better adapted to their environment in some way survive to pass on their advantageous qualities.

Evolution is not purposeful: it does not work toward a specific end or create better or worse organisms. Species evolve by adapting to particular niches in their environments, but the genetic mutations that lead to these adaptations occur by chance. An organism cannot will itself to mutate in a beneficial way. If its niche disappears, the species may become extinct or it may adapt to new conditions, but the failure to do so does not imply some kind of defect.

Evolution does not occur "for the good of a species." It operates at the level of individual organisms over many generations. A whole population does not simultaneously evolve a new trait; instead, the new trait evolves in one or a few organisms, which pass it on until the population is dominated by organisms having that trait.

Even more evidence of evolution
As humans, we share features with all living life forms, past and present. The more specific these features are, the more recently scientists think they evolved. For example, fingernails-a feature we share with all primates-evolved 30 million years ago. We have the same basic anatomical plan as all other vertebrates, which evolved 500 million years ago. And our cells'ability to use oxygen goes all the way back to our relationship with plants, fungi, and bacteria, which evolved over 1,000 million years ago.

Here are other examples of evidence for evolution:

  • Some animals have organs that serve no purpose but have a function in other species. Such a structure is referred to as vestigial. Whales, for instance, possess useless pelvic bones left over from their land-dwelling ancestors. Fossil whales are found with tiny limbs that became increasingly unimportant.
  • Many closely related species live in proximity to one another but are separated by a geographical barrier. (It was observations like this on the Galapagos Islands that helped Darwin formulate his theory of natural selection.) For example, two similar species of fish live separated by Central America: one in the Gulf of Mexico, and the other in the Pacific Ocean. They evolved when the Isthmus of Panama formed and separated their common ancestor's population into two groups. If the fish had not evolved after they were separated, the same species would live on both sides of the isthmus. And if they hadn't descended from a common ancestor, they wouldn't be so similar.
  • As we develop more types of antibiotics, new resistant strains of bacteria evolve through natural selection. Many crop pests have also evolved strategies to cope with our use of pesticides. Some species of grass have even evolved ways of thriving on industrial waste.
  • Through artificial selection, humans have developed new plants and animals. By manipulating genes, we have obtained many different types of crop plants-some produce greater yields, some produce higher concentrations of their own natural pesticides, and some are more resistant to drought. From a very basic canine type, we developed many different breeds of dogs over the last few thousand years. Artificial selection is somewhat analogous to natural selection; the difference is in the selective force-humans, instead of nature.
  • All multi-celled creatures share distinct genes for developing body plans (like plans for limbs, eyes, etc.). These genes, called homeotic genes, are incredibly similar in all animals, even among animals as different as fruit flies and chimpanzees.