Stories tagged History and Nature of Science


We're back in business here at the Science Museum (although the building is still closed to the public until next Friday), just in time to report some good news.

Ouch: Taking one for the team?
Ouch: Taking one for the team?Courtesy Spamily

The CDC reported yesterday that 77.4% of US children between the ages of 19 months and three years received all their recommended vaccinations in 2007. That's a slight improvement over the 2006 statistic. There are big regional variations in coverage, and children living below the poverty line are slightly less likely to be fully vaccinated, but overall less than 1% of US kids received no immunizations at all.

What are the recommended shots?

  • Four or more doses of diphtheria, tetanus toxoid, and any acellular pertussis vaccine, or DTaP
  • Three or more doses of polio vaccine
  • At least one dose of measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine
  • At least three doses of Haemophilus influenzae type b vaccine
  • At least three doses of hepatitis B vaccine
  • At least one dose of varicella vaccine

Some folks don't vaccinate their kids--particularly against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR)--because they worry that the vaccine is linked to autism. That theory has been debunked many times, in many countries, but it persists. On Wednesday, researchers from Columbia University and the CDC offered up another study showing zero causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism (or gastrointestinal problems.) So kids, roll up your sleeves at those back-to-school physicals and get your shots. It sucks, but it beats getting measles.

On the other hand, evidence is mounting to show that flu shots don't work well to protect people over 70. Older people have a lesser immune response to the vaccine and don't develop as much immunity. But the very old and the very young also account for the highest number of flu deaths. So what to do? According to the NT Times article:

"Dr. Simonsen, the epidemiologist at George Washington, said the new research made common-sense infection-control measures — like avoiding other sick people and frequent hand washing — more important than ever. Still, she added, “The vaccine is still important. Thirty percent protection is better than zero percent.”

Another way to protect the elderly is to vaccinate preschoolers. Not only are they likely to pick up the flu before other members of the family, but there's some evidence that preschoolers are actually the drivers of annual influenza outbreaks. Stop the flu in young kids, and you might just stop it for everyone else, too.


Like this: But way better. And stuff.
Like this: But way better. And stuff.Courtesy Library of Congress
Protect your grills, everybody, because the future is looking to get all up in them again!

Over the next two years, the oldest known copies of biblical documents, the Dead Sea Scrolls, will be digitally scanned and placed online for all the world to examine at their leisure.

Well, not all the world. Just the parts with computers and access to the Internet, and just those people who know and care that the Dead Sea Scrolls are available for public study. So not all the world at all.

The first of the scrolls were discovered accidentally in a cave in the West Bank by a goatherd in 1947. Over the next thirty years, more scrolls—about 1000 documents in total—were found in 11 caves in the area. The documents include texts from the Hebrew Bible, dating to before 100 AD. The scrolls are also reported to contain an astonishing number of recipes and very dirty jokes.

The thousands of fragments of the scrolls were photographed in their entirety (up to that point) only once, in the 1950s. Many of those photographs are now crumbling, and so, despite the arguments of some Luddites who are no doubt on the way out themselves, scholars are taking advantage of this amazing time we live in (the future), and are subjecting the whole of the scroll collection to some fancy pants scanning.

The images of the texts will be taken in very high resolution and with varying wavelengths of light, highlighting details not readily visible to the naked eye.

The physical scrolls will be beginning a tour of the United States next month at the Jewish Museum of New York.


Buried neighbor: The Step Pyramid of Saqqara is a close neighbor to the buried pyramid that was discovered recently in Egypt. Archaeologists had to dig throug 25 feet of sand to find the pyramid's remains.
Buried neighbor: The Step Pyramid of Saqqara is a close neighbor to the buried pyramid that was discovered recently in Egypt. Archaeologists had to dig throug 25 feet of sand to find the pyramid's remains.Courtesy Charlesjsharp
Are you missing a pyramid? Well, one was found this week in Saqqara, Egypt, under about 25 feet of sand.

Actually, it’s the base of a collapsed pyramid that is believed to have been built for King Menkauhor, who ruled Egypt in the mid 2400s B.C.

And the discovery should really come as no surprise. During the 1800s, German archaeologist Karl Richard Lepsius had recorded that there were remains of a collapsed pyramid at the site. No one really did anything with that information until recently.

It took crews a year and a half to dig through the 25 feet of sand that had accumulated over the pyramid site just to get to its remains. Saqqara, located near Cairo, is the site of several other famous pyramids. It is also the site of the ancient city Memphis, which was the royal seat of power during much of early Egyptian history.

And this could all just be the start of a lot more to come. Egyptian government officials want to relocate people who now live close to the Saqqara site so more extensive digging can be done in the area. Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, estimates that only 30 percent of the temples and tombs of Saqqara have been found.

"Saqqara is a virgin site," he told National Geographic. "It's very important for us to do this excavation to understand more about the pyramids of the Old Kingdom."

National Geographic report
National Geographic video of the find


Walk to an Egyptian Pharaoh: This tunnel through another pharaoh's tomb in the Valley of the Kings gives an idea of the elaborate wall art that adorns such structures.
Walk to an Egyptian Pharaoh: This tunnel through another pharaoh's tomb in the Valley of the Kings gives an idea of the elaborate wall art that adorns such structures.Courtesy Sebi
Dig around in Egypt and you’ll never know what you’ll find. Archaeologists there have been poking around the huge tomb of Seti I, the largest known tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, only to discover that it’s 100 feet longer than originally thought.

The full details of the discovery can be found at this National Geographic link.

Seni I’s tomb was first discovered in 1817 and the burial chamber measured a whopping 328 feet long, about the length of a football field. Through the newly unearthed secret passages, an additional 100 feet of the tomb has now been discovered. And there could be more.

But in this new 100 feet of tomb space and tunnels, archaeologists have found more tomb wall art and other funerary artifacts. And there could be additional tunnels to discover branching off from these new passages.

An all-Egyptian team of archaeologists made this latest discovery. And they’ll keep on working in the Valley of the Kings. Graffiti found on walls of other tombs in the area state that there are nearby tombs for pharaohs Ramses VIII and Merenptah.


Noted hurricane forecaster Dr. William Gray has offered up his 2008 Atlantic hurricane season predictions. (The season begins on June 1 and runs through November 30.)

Hurricane Katrina, 8/29/05: This image was taken by NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES).
Hurricane Katrina, 8/29/05: This image was taken by NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES).Courtesy NOAA

Gray's team, working out of Colorado State University, is predicting an above-normal season, with 15 named storms, 8 hurricanes, and 4 major hurricanes (category 3 storms or higher). Why? A La Nina pattern creates cool water conditions in the Pacific and warm sea surface temperatures in the eastern Atlantic. Warm sea surface temperatures are critical to the formation of hurricanes.

What's "above average"? An average hurricane season produces about 10 tropical storms and 6 hurricanes. In 2007, 14 tropical storms formed, and 6 of those strengthened into hurricanes. But 2005, of course, was a record-shattering year, with 28 storms, including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Here's the Science Buzz feature on hurricanes.

Buzz thread on Hurricane Katrina, started on 8/29/2005.

Buzz thread on Hurricane Rita, started on 9/22/2005.

Buzz thread on the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season

Buzz thread on the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season

Do you know about the 1938 hurricane that crashed into New England?

Interesting weather websites

Share your natural disaster stories.

And, lastly, here are the hurricane names for 2008:

  • Arthur
  • Bertha
  • Cristobal
  • Dolly
  • Edouard
  • Fay
  • Gustav
  • Hanna
  • Ike
  • Josephine
  • Kyle
  • Laura
  • Marco
  • Nana
  • Omar
  • Paloma
  • Rene
  • Sally
  • Teddy
  • Vicky
  • and Wilfred

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.


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.


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.


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!


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.