Stories tagged History and Nature of Science

Apr
04
2008

Fair and balanced: Or leaning to the left, as it often does.  Journalism often presents science in less-than-accurate ways.
Fair and balanced: Or leaning to the left, as it often does. Journalism often presents science in less-than-accurate ways.Courtesy nick farnhill

You'll never find any of that here! ;-) But the American Association for the Advancement of Science recently discussed how the public receives and understands science news. The situation is discouraging – there’s a lot of bad information out there, much of it the result of sloppy reporting. One of the big culprits was a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of statistics.

Meanwhile, biochemist Michael White complains about how the human desire to tell a good story often misrepresents how science really works.

Feb
25
2008

Join us for a lecture in the Deadly Medicine series: "Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to Present.

American blacks have long suffered from health adversities not shared by whites, and the problem persists even today, decades after the end of state-sanctioned racism. As Harriet A. Washington writes in her new book, Medical Apartheid, the "racial health divide confronts us everywhere we look, from doubled black-infant death rates to African-American life expectancies that fall years behind whites." To the question of how this disparity came to be, she provides a provocative answer.

Though slavery and segregation form the backdrop of her analysis, Washington believes that a very specific aspect of past discrimination against blacks explains the unequal levels of treatment and health that are still with us. Her focus is on the long history of medical experiments of which American blacks were the unwilling or unwitting subjects. These past injuries, Washington argues, have "played a pivotal role in forging the fear of medicine that helps perpetuate our nation's racial health gulf." Long after the events themselves, she believes, the memory of abuse has remained.

(Harriet A. Washington has been a fellow in ethics at the Harvard Medical School, a fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a senior research scholar at the National Center for Bioethics at Tuskegee University. As a journalist and editor, she has worked for USA Today and several other publications, been a Knight Fellow at Stanford University and has written for such academic forums as the Harvard Public Health Review and The New England Journal of Medicine. She is the recipient of several prestigious awards for her work.)

Thursday, February 28
7-8:30 PM
SMM Auditorium, Level 3

Presentations at the Science Museum are $12 per person ($8 for Science Museum members). Admission to Deadly Medicine is included in this ticket price. Purchase tickets to four of the lectures and get the fifth one free. For tickets, call (651) 221-9444.

Feb
04
2008

I was flipping through my newest issue of Wizard Magazine this morning before work and as I was reading about the upcoming Iron Man film a small sidebar article caught my attention.

Sarcos, a Utah-based company (that was recently purchased by military-defense contractor Raytheon) is producing a powered exoskeleton for military applications that made me first think, “Cool! Just like the powered armor in all the military sci-fi books!”

Then I saw the video, and while I still think it is cool, I get a little bit of a Cyberdyne Systems/Skynet vibe. Besides battling aliens in space, I bet the non-military applications for this thing will be awesome as well.

Check out the video.

Dec
28
2007

But, in Smellovision,: it would be beautiful
But, in Smellovision,: it would be beautifulCourtesy Kaptain Kobold
It’s amazing how the scientific process works out. I, for instance, have spent many years attempting to test the statement regarding killing two birds with one stone. Progress made towards the main research question (How good, in fact, is killing two birds with one stone? Pretty good?), has been, well, convoluted: more than anything else, I have uncovered obstacles. It turns out that many birds can fly, and that I am very poor at throwing, both factors significantly complicating the stoning process. This sort of things is only to be expected in science, but it means that one problem (at least) must be dealt with before another can be dealt with fully. In my own research, I’m thinking that it might be best to fasten both birds, somehow, to a plank, where a single stone can more easily be applied to each. Then, perhaps, I can see how things are different after they are dead.

Anyhow, the point is, research can take you all kinds of interesting places, and it seems that the work of scientists at Rockefeller University has mirrored my own in this respect.

Like so many other scientists, the Rockefeller researchers are studying flies (approximately sixty-five percent of all science performed today is fly-related). They are interested in how flies navigate by use of smell. Flies, or at least the variety observed at Rockefeller, have two olfactory organs, two noses, essentially, and the scientists are able to genetically modify the bugs so that one, two, or neither of the noses work. When they then observed the way fly larvae move towards a certain controlled smell, they found that one-nosed flies could still sense the source of an odor, but not nearly so well as those flies with two noses. The flies were smelling in stereo.

Stereo smell would be great, I think. Our stereo vision gives us depth perception, and our two ears allow us to pinpoint sounds; with stereo smell there would never again be a question as to who dealt it. Nor would there be if the other product of Rockefeller’s research were marketed: a little something no one is calling Smellovision.

In order to fully understand how the flies were reacting to odors, the scientists needed a way to observe the exact dynamics of the smell, to see how and where it was concentrated at all times. So that’s just what they did – they created a way to see the smells. They developed “a novel spectroscopic technique that exploited infrared light to create environments where they could see, control and precisely quantify the distribution of these smells.” Smellovision. That would also be pretty rad – if you were really stinky, you could look like a cartoon character, with stink lines and green clouds and everything, qualities that I believe we all aspire to.

It’s an inspiring story all around, I think. I mean, there’s no reason for me to get frustrated with my research. Sure, some of the work feels like sidetracking, but maybe it will lead to my discovering a great, efficient new way of killing birds with stones. You just never know!

Dec
14
2007

On Monday, December 3, the Science Museum's Science House officially opened its doors as a resource center for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) educators around the state.

Check out Science House!: Science House is not only a cool new resource for teachers, but it's also a zero-emissions, environmental demonstration building.
Check out Science House!: Science House is not only a cool new resource for teachers, but it's also a zero-emissions, environmental demonstration building.Courtesy SMM

Science House is a place where educators can check out classroom sets of hands-on materials for their students, engage in formal and informal consultation and professional development, and discuss education issues with friends and colleagues in a comfortable and creative environment.

Membership is available to districts for an annual fee. Any teacher within that district may make unlimited use of Science House during the school year. Colleges and universities can also become members.

Members of Science House can:

  • Borrow a complete set of skulls for comparative anatomy inquiry lessons with students;
  • Talk with a geologist, biologist, chemist, engineer, or mathematician about concepts that are interesting or confusing;
  • Try out a telescope, then borrow it for a student camping trip;
  • Learn about Minnesota's Academic Standards in Science and Mathematics align with national documents by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and the National Research Council;
  • Meet a colleague from another school or district to review a lesson plan;
  • Enjoy a hot cup of coffee while grading papers;
  • Consult with a professional development specialist about how to integrate more mathematics into an upcoming science unit;
  • Take advantage of lab space, wireless access, and professional consultation to design lessons and meet potential partners, and much more.

Science House is open:

  • Monday - Thursday: 3:30 - 6:30 pm
  • Friday: 3:30 - 6 pm
  • Saturday - Sunday: Closed

(Please note: Science House will be closed December 24 - January 1 for holiday break.)

Hours are subject to change; please check the Science House webpage for updates.

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, Dr. Yvonne Simpson, has 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 Dr. Simpson was given the chance to study them. The article didn’t say what Simpson, who has a PhD in the field of DNA damage repair, 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.

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.