Posts from the ‘News’ Category


Todd Akin and the Anti-Science House Science Committee

Aside from the sheer biological ludicrousness of Todd Akin’s ideas on female physiology, one unsettling subplot to the debacle is his presence on the House of Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

That’s right: A moron who, to put it gently, ignores what science tells us about how babies are made, helps shape the future of science in America. It would be shocking, but for the fact that many of the committee’s GOP members have spent the last several years displaying comparable contempt for climate science.

Now, there’s no question that climate change is less well understood than human reproduction. The rate at which warming permafrost will release methane is open for debate, whereas it’s a long-settled fact that women can become pregnant from rape. But in both cases, there exists a factual proposition that can be studied through observation and hypothesis-testing — and it’s the scientific method itself that’s ultimately under attack in the House science committee.

The committee’s chair, Ralph Hall (R-Texas), lumps “global freezing” together with global warming, which he doesn’t believe humans can significantly impact because “I don’t think we can control what God controls.”Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) thinks cutting down trees reduces levels of greenhouse gases they absorb. Mo Brooks (R-Alabama) still trots out the debunked notion that a scientific consensus existed in the 1970s on “global cooling,” which he portrays as a scare concocted by scientists “in order to generate funds for their pet projects.”

Dan Benishek (R-Michigan) strikes that climate-scientists-as-charlatans note, dismissing contemporary research as “all baloney. I think it’s just some scheme.” Paul Broun (R-Georgia) says that “Scientists all over this world say that the idea of human-induced global climate change is one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated out of the scientific community.”

Broun, who likens the CDC’s encouragement of fruit and vegetable consumption to “socialism of the highest order,” is also seen by some people as anti-scientific for asserting that an embryo is a human being, though that criticism is unfair: When life begins, and whether and how to value the existence of an embryo, are moral questions, and science can’t answer them except to contrast the properties of embryos with people.

Also tarred as anti-scientific are votes against funding certain types of research, from studies on embryonic stem cells to sociology, government support of which has been recently attacked. Funding, however, is ultimately a political decision. It’s possible to reject support for certain scientific endeavors without denying the fundamental validity of science itself, just as it’s possible to think climate change isn’t a terrible problem while respecting the science describing it.

But when it comes to climate and the House science committee, the rhetoric shows that it’s about the validity. And whatever Ralph Hall purports to support when he says, “I’m not anti-science, I’m pro-science. But we ought to have some believable science,” it’s not science.

In-depth look at what’s wrong with our House science committee. Stay informed, and you can be more effective in spreading science literacy!


Arctic Sea-Ice: Feeling Low. Really Low.

It’s official. Nearly a month before we see the usual “seasonal low” of Arctic sea ice as it melts throughout the summer, we have hit the record low for sea ice extent.

This means that there is now less Arctic sea ice than at any time since records began in 1978. And we still have nearly a month of additional melting to go before the autumn ice sets in.

This is due to climate change. More dark ocean water means more heat absorbed by the ocean and a chance for reinforcing these lower ice levels in seasons to come. What will this mean for ecosystems? What will this mean for those who want to exploit the uncovered mineral and shipping resources of the Arctic? What will this mean for our oceans?

This image from RealClimate shows the new low level:

(via RealClimate)

What a great graph .gif.


How to Build a Planet: Heavy Metals Are Key Ingredients

Image: An artist conception of a newly formed star surrounded by a swirling protoplanetary disk of dust and gas, where debris coalesces to create rocky ‘planetesimals’ that collide and grow to eventually form planets. A new study suggests small rocky planet may actually be widespread in our Milky Way galaxy. Credit: University of Copenhagen, Lars A. Buchhave

Planets may not be able to form without a heaping helping of heavy elements such as silicon, titanium and magnesium, a new study suggests.

Stars that host planets have higher concentrations of such “metals” — astronomer-speak for elements heavier than hydrogen and helium — compared to iron than do planetless stars, the study found.

“To form planets, one needs heavy elements,” said lead author Vardan Adibekyan, of the Centre for Astrophysics of the University of Porto in Portugal.

Connected at birth

Planets coalesce from the disk of dust and gas left over after the birth of their parent star. According to the leading theory of planet formation, the core accretion model, small particles clump together, growing larger and larger until they produce protoplanets.

Scientists have long suspected that stars with higher metallicities are more likely to have planets orbiting them. Iron has long been a primary indicator.

“Usually, in stellar physics, people use the iron content as a proxy of overall metallicity,”

Full Article


Robot surfboard tracks great white sharks off the coast of California

What does this mean, apart from awesome? It means, you can get a free iPhone app to follow these (up to 6m+) babies around. 

Sharks in your pocket.

Way better than Polly Pocket.  

Read more. 

Too cool. Who doesn’t want to track great whites on their phone?


First Evidence Found for Photosynthesis in Insects


Livin’ on ur plants, harvestin ur sunshine

The ability to gather sunlight and convert it to useable energy has been the plant kingdom’s longstanding trump card (along with some bacteria and fungi) when it comes to “greatest evolutionary adaptation known”. Unlike the rest of the tree of life ,photosynthetic organisms have billions of years worth of free energy to count on. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of solar food. The evolution of the animal world actually wouldn’t have happened if photosynthetic organisms hadn’t started pumping oxygen into our atmosphere in the early years of Earth.

For the first time, scientists have found evidence that an insect shares this ability. Some pea aphids, like the one pictured above, can produce plant-like orange pigments called carotenoids. In addition to chlorophyll, these are the same compounds that leaves use to harvest light, and also why we get those beautiful browns and oranges in autumn.

The aphid seems to have “stolen” the genes from a fungus, and then through some non-photosynthetic mechanism, is using the pigments to create ATP, life’s energy currency.

This isn’t the first time a larger organism has developed the ability to harvest sunlight! A sea slug was discovered a few years ago that borrowed photosynthetic genes from microscopic algae. Looks like the branches on that tree of life cross over more than we thought. 

More at Scientific American.


First Practical Maser (Microwave Laser) Built

Using spare chemicals, a laser bought on eBay and angst from a late-night argument, physicists have got the world’s first room-temperature microwave laser working. The achievement comes nearly 60 years after the first clunky versions of such devices were built, and could revolutionize communication and space exploration. The work is published this week in Nature.

Before there were lasers, there were microwave lasers, or masers. First conceived in the Soviet Union and the United States during the 1950s, early maser machines were the size of a chest of drawers. They produced only a few nanowatts of power, severely limiting their usefulness.

Because of this impediment, most in the field gave up on masers and moved on to lasers, which use the same principles of physics, but work with optical light instead of microwaves. Lasers are now used in applications ranging from eye surgery to CD players. The poor maser lived on in obscurity. It found only a few niche uses, such as boosting radio signals from distant spacecraft — including NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. Those masers work only when cooled to less than ten degrees above absolute zero, and even then they are not nearly as powerful as lasers.

Pink power
But Mark Oxborrow, a physicist at the UK National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, wondered whether a crystal containing the organic molecule pentacene might offer a breakthrough. He came across a decade-old publication by Japaneseresearchers suggesting that when the electrons in pentacene are excited by a laser, they configure such that the molecule could work as a maser, possibly even at room temperature.

He borrowed some spare pentacene from a lab at Imperial, and cooked it with another organic molecule known as p-terphenyl. The result was a pink crystal a few centimeters long.

Next, the team needed a powerful laser. Oxborrow located an old medical laser on eBay and drove to a warehouse in north London to pick it up. But the researchers were filled with doubts — the whole thing seemed too easy. Oxborrow admits that he was skittish about the experiment. “For about three days, I could have done it, but I didn’t have the nerve to switch on that button,” he says.

The final impetus came from an argument with his wife. Whereas less well-behaved people might have wallowed in the pub, “I went to the lab as a bit of therapy”, says Oxborrow. “I said, ‘Oh well, what the hell, let’s just try it.” And it worked on the first go.

Excited state
The laser light excited the pentacene molecules to an energy level known as a metastable state. Then a microwave passing through the crystal triggered the molecules to relax, releasing a cascade of microwaves of the same wavelength.

It was the same principle as an optical laser. “The signal that came out of it was huge,” says Oxborrow, about a hundred million times as powerful as an existing maser. Alone in his lab, “I swore a lot and walked around the corridor about five times talking to myself”.

Left: New maser

Right: A Hydrogen Radio Frequency Discharge (early Maser)


Big Week for “Synthetic” Biology

A jellyfish made of silicone, and a bacterium made in silico

Synthetic biology is traditionally thought of as repurposing existing or designing new biological parts to do novel things. But in a larger sense, it can be thought of as the ability to create biological systems outside the limitations of pesky things like global and evolutionary time scales. This week marks two really stunning bio accomplishments, each fitting into their own definition of “synthetic”.

Whoa, Jellyman: Cal Tech and Harvard biophysicists announced that they had created a sort of “synthetic jellyfish” this week (pictured above left). By taking thin, carefully designed sheets of silicone and layering rat heart muscle cells over them, they were able to make a bell-shaped living device that pulsed and swam just like the bell of a jellyfish.

Heart muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes, naturally grow together in sheets and will automatically “beat” in a petri dish (with the help of a little calcium). If you provide an outside voltage (like a pacemaker) they will beat in unison! The rat-heart-silicone “medusoid” shape contracted, with the beating cells pulling on the silicone substrate just as a jellyfish’s own muscle cells act on its bell to swim. 

Of course, this isn’t a real jellyfish, but for extra credit you can read Ferris Jabr’s take on what it would actually take to build one.

Byte-size Bio: The other big news this week comes from Stanford and the J. Craig Venter Institute (gracing the cover of Cell this week, above right). Not content with making the world’s first synthetic organism and synthetic genome (Venter’s ambition knows no bounds), they decided to build a computer model of an entire bacterium. Well, mostly.

They modeled, on a very general scale, the tiny bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium, which only has 525 genes compared to our ~20,000, and all of its internal processes on 128 computers operating for 10 hours. To complete a single cell division, it required half a gigabyte of data. But you have to be careful before you call this a completely “simulated organism”. Normal cells have many, perhaps hundreds, of just different types of genes, and they interact in myriad ways … we have just begun to scratch the surface of those networks. Just look at how complicated even the tiny changes in a cancer cell can be!

By simplifying their model down to 28 minimal systems, their computer program matched the bacterium’s biology as we know it. But a more “realistic” model is going to be exponentially more complicated. Here’s some collected reactions at Tree of Life. But, still … wow!

Modern biology has done a very good job at describing the function of individual genes and proteins, but our next chapter lies in how these interactions build into systems. The “-omics” era will be one where we map how the thousands of parts that we are made of combine to make us whole.Simulations like this will be at the leading edge of that era. But we have a long way to go … how many computers would it take to model the trillions of cells in the human body?