Stories tagged History and Nature of Science

Nov
08
2007

Al & the Earth: I wonder if Al Gore runs a distributed computing program on his Mac when he gives his global warming talks.  Probably not.  Image courtesy alexdecarvalho via Creative Commons/Flickr.
Al & the Earth: I wonder if Al Gore runs a distributed computing program on his Mac when he gives his global warming talks. Probably not. Image courtesy alexdecarvalho via Creative Commons/Flickr.
If you like science and you listen to podcasts I recommend Scientific American’s 60 Second Science. I don’t listen to them every day, but I store them up then listen to a bunch in a row while I am doing something menial. Today I listened to a bunch walking from my cube to the loading dock. It is a looooog walk.

Besides mentioning the giant Mars hoax emails, which I guess are circulating again with new dates, there were two stories caught my interest.

The first was about distributed computing. While I am an advocate for turning off computers at night to save energy, if you’re going to leave them on, you should put them to good use. They can either run scans on themselves, or, through distributed computing, they can use their processing power to solve large problems. One new distributed computing application that they mentioned that I found interesting is Cosmology@Home. Cosmology@Home uses your computer’s spare processing power to “search for the model that best describes our Universe and to find the range of models that agree with the available astronomical and particle physics data” (from their website). Since I can barely wrap my mind around the implications of that question I am glad that my computer can help find some answers.

Another interesting podcast was about global warming. Researchers from the University of Washington have been working on equations that will help get the most out of climate models. The result of their work is that while the Earth is going to get warmer, how much warmer is not known. Scientists have theorized that if the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2)in the atmosphere doubles the temperature would rise by about 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit. But, that rise in temperature does not account for the sort of “compound interest” that would take place – if the Earth warmed up because of more CO2, would the warmer atmosphere hold more water vapor? Would that increased amount of water vapor, serving as a “greenhouse gas” create even warmer temperatures? And what effect would these even warmer temperatures have on the climate models? This new equation helps scientists see the most probable scenarios more quickly than before, but also shows possible warmer results than previous models. The problem is that all this “compounding interest” makes it impossible to determine with any accuracy the high end possibilities. More on this can be found here, here and here.

Nov
04
2007

A Basking Shark: Just... basking?  (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
A Basking Shark: Just... basking? (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
I gots monsters on the brain!

The Loch Ness Monster (or possibly elephant) has been a pretty hot topic around Science Buzz lately, so this article caught my eye.

A Scottish geneticist is reported to have been researching the "Orkney Beast” (also known as the Stronsay Beast), and will be comparing it to the Loch Ness Monster in a talk she will be giving at the Highlands Science Festival this week.

The Orkney Beast was this huge, bizarre carcass that washed up on the shore of Stronsay, in the Orkney Islands, in 1808. It was pretty rotten at the time, but everybody seemed to agree that it was some sort of sea serpent (it was 55 feet long, with a 15 foot “neck,” and measured 10 feet around). However, a couple of anatomists later decided that it was probably a shark, specifically a large basking shark. The locals were pretty disappointed with this, but who can argue with an anatomist?The Orkney/Stronsay Beast: A drawing of the carcass, made in 1808.  (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The Orkney/Stronsay Beast: A drawing of the carcass, made in 1808. (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Even if it was a shark, the Orkney Beast remains an interesting find. The largest basking shark (which is a filter feeder, and the second largest shark after the whale shark) ever recorded was 40 feet, significantly smaller than the beast’s 55 feet.

The skull and “paw” of the creature were sent to London in the 19th century, but were destroyed in World War II. Some remains still exist at Edinburgh’s Royal Museum, however, and the geneticist was given the chance to study them. The article didn’t say what the researcher made of them.

I don’t know that the geneticist is claiming that Nessie or the Orkney Beast are genuine monsters (what a strange phrase), but she points out that the drawings and descriptions made of the carcass at Orkney are strikingly similar to descriptions in “eyewitness accounts” of Nessie. It’s an interesting coincidence, although I suppose people often see what they want to see, even when looking at giant, rotting fish.

Also, this is kind of interesting. Apparently there’s no shortage of Scottish loch monsters.

Update, 7/7/14: JGordon here, 7 years later. 7 years! And to think that my own mother suggested that I'd be comatose, in jail, or comatose and in jail by now. I sure showed her, because I am none of those things! Anyhow, I've updated/edited this post to remove the name of the researcher supposedly associated with the genetic study. Apparently media reporting on this story (me?A) were a little overenthusiastic when it came to describing the scientist's involvement with the tests (which, it turns out, were to be done by a lab in the USA, and didn't happen in any case.) So if you came here looking for info on this scientist, you're barking up the wrong tree; his or her research and education is probably not summed up very well by a cryptozoological story from seven years ago.
JGordon out. See you in 2021.

Nov
02
2007

Nanotechnology sometimes borrows from nature.

Morpho butterfly: Pigments don’t cause these butterflies’ intense colors. Instead, super-small lattice-like structures on the wings reflect only certain wavelengths of light (or color). And the colors shift with your perspective. (Photo courtesy Lionoche, through Flickr)
Morpho butterfly: Pigments don’t cause these butterflies’ intense colors. Instead, super-small lattice-like structures on the wings reflect only certain wavelengths of light (or color). And the colors shift with your perspective. (Photo courtesy Lionoche, through Flickr)

Super-small, light-reflecting structures—instead of pigments—create a morpho butterfly's intense, iridescent wing color. Scientists are developing nanomaterials with similar properties.

Zoom in on a butterfly's wing
Zoom in on a butterfly's wing

If you used a special microscope to look at these butterfly wings, you’d see tiny scales made up of thin layers of transparent wing material with nanoscale gaps between them. Light waves bouncing off the bottom surfaces interfere with waves reflecting from the tops. Most light waves are cancelled and only certain wavelengths—or colors—bounce back to your eyes. The more light in the environment, the brighter the color.

Wing structures: These complicated structures on butterfly wings manipulate light to control the color that we see.
Wing structures: These complicated structures on butterfly wings manipulate light to control the color that we see.

How do transparent thin films create color?: Scientists haven't yet created materials that work exactly like the butterfly wings. But layers and layers of transparent, super-thin films--each with a different index of refraction--can be tuned so that they only reflect specific wavelengths of light (o
How do transparent thin films create color?: Scientists haven't yet created materials that work exactly like the butterfly wings. But layers and layers of transparent, super-thin films--each with a different index of refraction--can be tuned so that they only reflect specific wavelengths of light (o

Scientists are developing all sorts of products that, like the butterfly wings, use layers of transparent materials with nanoscale spacing between them to manipulate light and create color. With them, we can create computer and cell phone displays, fabrics and paints that change color, optical devices that improve telecommunications systems, and films that reflect much more light than glass mirrors. Can you imagine other uses?

Oct
25
2007

Calling all Science Museum of Minnesota staff and volunteers: do you have a photo of the museum you really love? In honor of the Museum’s 100th anniversary, Science Buzz is holding a behind-the-scenes photo contest. We’re looking for all the really juicy stuff that our visitors don’t get a chance to see, like the towboat being hoisted into place, or fossil crocodiles under plastic before being put on exhibit, or the light filtering into the atrium just so…you get the idea.

Submit your photo before January 1, 2008. All images will appear here, under this post, where people all over the world will be able to see them. Buzz staffers (and maybe Ethan Lebovics, who had the idea for this contest—are you reading, Ethan?) will pick the winning photo on the basis of relevance, artistry, and all-around coolness, and the winning photographer will win an as-yet-undetermined prize. And bragging rights.

Here’s how to enter (it’s probably good to open another window, and follow the steps there so you can still read the instructions without flipping back and forth):

  1. First of all, if you don’t have a Buzz account, you’ll need to register.
  2. Once you’re logged in, come back to this post. Scroll down to the bottom, or click on "add a new comment." See that little icon at the bottom that looks like a Polaroid photo with a green plus sign on top? Click on that.
  3. A new window opens on your screen. At the very top, you'll see a purple link that says "upload." Click that. Now give your image a title, hit “browse” to locate the image on your computer, and give yourself credit for the photo. (Ignore the pull-down menu that says "Buzz Blog Images.") In the field labeled “Body,” give your photo a caption. Then hit “submit.”
  4. Cool. Now you’ve uploaded your image.

You're done! Good luck to everyone that enters. Can't wait to see the photos.

Oct
18
2007

Join us tonight for the Pompeii Adult Lecture: The Final Hours.

The Final Hours
Dr. Connie Rodriguez
Associate Professor and Department Chair of Classical Studies at Loyola of New Orleans
Thursday, October 18, 2007
7:00-9:00 PM

Dr. Rodriguez, visiting curator of the A Day in Pompeii exhibit, presents the final hours of Pompeii as related in letters by Pliny the Younger, who watched events unfold from a safe distance at Misenum. He tells of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was in charge of the Roman fleet stationed on the Bay of Naples and who met his death during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

Tickets for each Pompeii lecture are $12 per person ($8 per Science Museum member). Lectures will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Science Museum's auditorium on level 3. For more information or to reserve tickets, call (651) 221-9444.

Oct
13
2007

Science Town, USA: Also the place where the zipper was invented.
Science Town, USA: Also the place where the zipper was invented.

A panel of scientists has produced a list of the ten most significant scientific achievements developed in the Chicago area:

  1. The first controlled nuclear reaction
  2. Invention of the cell phone
  3. Hormone treatment for prostate and breast cancer
  4. Invention of magnetic recording
  5. Developing treatment for malaria
  6. The first skyscraper
  7. Discovery of the top quark
  8. Discovering chromosome abnormalities in cancer
  9. Inventing carbon-14 dating
  10. Discovering how the human body makes insulin

(Not sure if I consider #2 a noteworthy achievement, but there it is...)

Chicago also has an annual program called Science in the City. Wouldn't it be cool to do this for the Twin Cities, too?

Oct
04
2007

In the past several weeks, protestors have crowded the streets of Rangoon, Burma to demand an end to the military dictatorship there. Like dictators everywhere, the military responded violently, and tried to cover up the news.

But modern technology is making that more difficult. Bloggers have used the Internet to broadcast news and pictures of the demonstrations. And high-definition satellite images confirm the violence, forced relocations, and other human-rights abuses.

In the past, a dictatorship was able to control the flow of information. That’s no longer possible. Whether or not the international community responds to this evidence in any meaningful way remains to be seen.

Oct
02
2007

Geese flying in a "V": Image courtesy Greg7 via Flickr.
Geese flying in a "V": Image courtesy Greg7 via Flickr.
The University of Minnesota is conducting a new campaign called “Driven to Discover”. While new ad campaigns are not typical fodder for a current science web site, this particular campaign is interesting in that it is featuring some of the current research taking place at the University of Minnesota and answers questions like, “When will it be possible for human beings to fly?” and “My dog exhibits strange behavior shortly before a thunderstorm begin. Can dogs sense a change in weather?

One current question that I often wondered: Why do ducks and geese fly in a “V” formation is a recently answered question.

These birds are just doing the avian equivalent of a NASCAR driver’s slipstreaming (or drafting). Geese and ducks are relatively large birds, and they affect the air they fly through just as a race car does. Each bird creates a slight uplift at the tips of their wings during flight. By flying behind and slightly above another bird’s wing tip, birds experience an updraft. These trailing birds gain an advantage and expend less energy than they would if they were flying by themselves. Studies have shown that a bird in a flock flying the same speed as a bird flying alone flaps its wings half as often.

Scott Lanyon, Director, Bell Museum of Natural History and Professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior.

Check out the current and older campaign to see some of the really interesting questions people asked. You can even sign up for a monthly newsletter featuring this information. It’s fun reading.

Sep
27
2007


A computer in a cube land: Image courtesy tigerplish via Flickr.
Working in an office cube-land as I do, I often go home for the night and walk by coworkers cubes and see computers or monitors that are left on overnight. Now, I know why this is in a lot of cases – convenience – but I have also heard the explanation that it takes more power to turn on the computer in the morning than it does to power it overnight, so leaving it on is the “greener” thing to do. I’ve wondered if that is true, and so today I did some digging around on the subject.

According to Evan Mills in the Energy Analysis Department of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Environmental Energy Technologies Division,

The small surge of power created when some devices are turned on is vastly smaller than the energy used by running the device when it is not needed. While it used to be the case that cycling appliances and lighting on and off drastically reduced their useful lifetimes, these problems have been largely overcome through better design.

And, turning your computer and monitor on and off is not bad for it. That may have been the case in the past, but today computers are designed to handle 40,000 power cycles before a failure. That’s 100+ years of turning your computer on and off once a year every day. It’ll be an object in a museum long before turning it on and off has any effect on it.

So, it is better to turn your monitor and computer off at night, but that does not address the primary reason why most folks don’t – convenience. Many find it bothersome to wait for the computer to start up after being turned off. (Oh the crosses computer-users must bear!) Well, there’s an energy efficient way around that as well.

If you are a Mac user you can put your computer to “sleep”, while PC users can tell their computers to “hibernate”. The hibernate feature significantly lowers your computer’s energy consumption overnight while at the same time allows for quick restarts in the morning. Monitors should still be turned completely off - and running a screen-saver does not save any energy – in fact it consumes significantly more power than if the computer is turned off or placed in hibernation.

And remember, like many other appliances such as your Playstation, DVR or TV, even when off your computer still uses some power running to either an AC adaptor, to maintain local-area network connectivity or other things. The only time many of our modern electronic devices consume no power is when they are turned off.

Do you turn your computer off at night? Why or why not?

Relevant articles here and here.

Aug
28
2007

Lucy: Image courtesy of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Lucy: Image courtesy of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
This Friday the Houston Museum of Natural Science is opening an exhibit called Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia. The exhibit features the 3.18 million-year-old hominid skeleton Lucy, which remains the oldest and most complete adult human ancestor. The exhibit will also feature over 100 artifacts that highlight Ethiopia's rich cultural heritage. The exhibit has generated a lot of media attention, and not just because this will be only the fourth time the fossil hominid has been on display.

Some scientists and researchers fear that involving Lucy in a 6 year North American tour puts the delicate fossil at an unnecessary risk as it travels from Ethiopia, around North America and then back to Ethiopia. Some museums have refused to host the exhibit for this very reason, and several members of the scientific community have spoken out quite openly about their objection to the exhibit and the tour. Some Ethiopian immigrants in Houston are urging a boycott of the exhibit. And the exhibit goes against a 1998 UNESCO resolution, signed by scientists from 20 countries, that says fossils such as Lucy should not be moved outside of the country of origin except for compelling scientific reasons.

The president of the Houston Museum of Natural Science disagrees. “The display of original artifacts is crucial to the educational impact of museum exhibitions. Anyone can make a copy. But the experience of standing before an authentic historical artifact, whether ancient parchments or multi-million-year-old fossils, is a call to the intellect, to discover more about the world and perhaps even more about yourself. The Lucy fossil in particular evokes a strong response from everyone who sees her, and as such, she is the ultimate goodwill ambassador for Ethiopia. Lucy not only validates Ethiopia’s claim as the Cradle of Mankind, she also introduces viewers to the rich cultural heritage that has flourished in Ethiopia over the course of the last 3,000 years, and to the vibrant country that Ethiopia is today.”

Part of the reason Ethiopia agreed to send Lucy on this tour is financial – Ethiopia, one of Africa’s poorest countries, received an undisclosed amount of money to release the fossil for the tour, and also gets a portion of the ticket sales. In addition, government officials hope that people who see the exhibit and who learn not only about Lucy, but also about Ethiopia, will be inspired to visit the country.

What do you think? Does the tour of Lucy put the fossil at unnecessary risk? Or, does the value of exhibiting Lucy and allowing people to learn and be inspired by the fossil outweigh the risk?

An interesting side note: Lucy was named after the Beatle’s song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds which was playing when the researchers were discussing what to name the fossil. In the Ethiopian language, she is called Dinknesh, which means the wonderful, the fabulous, the precious. And, Ethiopia does have some really interesting stuff – check out the amazing monolithic Church of St. George, for just one example.