Category Archives: Visualizing Science

Star Wars: Science Fiction meets Science Fact

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Image Credit: Stefan, Flickr

In celebration of the recently minted Star Wars holiday, May the 4th (be with you), the blogging team at the Scizzle Blog put together some themed science lessons. Being part of that team, I have penned two posts that will surely catapult your brain into space. The first, co-written with Chris Spencer, looks at possible evolutionary histories for some of the most notable characters of the franchise. Entitled The Evolution of the Cutest Creatures in Star Wars, you can check that out here.

My second postClones in Space, I Have Placed (can’t you just hear Yoda saying that?), features my debut infographic effort. Displaying the history of cloning technology using Star Wars characters, ships and worlds as a backdrop, it is the perfect visual springboard for titillating conversation on your next date. I’ve even included cloning basics 101 and given you a peak into the future when scientists plan to resurrect extinct species.

Click on through already – I’ve made science fun…

Interview: Dr. Joseph Parker talks beetles

I recently had the chance to sit down for a talk with a great friend of mine, Dr. Joseph Parker. He’s a classically trained Drosophila geneticist and self-taught field entomologist, which are really just fancy names for insect guru. In this interview, Dr. Parker and I discuss his most recent publication, Jubogaster towai, a new Neotropical genus and species of Trogastrini (Coleoptera: Staphylinidae: Pselaphinae) exhibiting myrmecophily and extreme body enlargementwhere he classifies a new species of beetle. This beetle is especially interesting because it can mimic ants and lives amongst them, which is no small feat. What’s even better is that the ants end up taking care of all of the beetles needs…well, just watch the video.

There are three flavors of the interview; a highly edited video (3:00) for those of you into brevity that just want the facts about this new species, a slightly longer video (6:30) with some tidbits on Joe’s crowd funding efforts and the full, 22 minute interview in audio form where Joe gives us the little details and I give him a little shit, plus we discuss the sexual dangers of walking into a large ant colony. If you have the time, it’s well worth it.

3 Minute Version:

6:30 Minute Version:

Dr. Joseph Parker Full Interview:

Right click here to download the audio

After watching the video while editing it I’ve realized my interview style is REALLY un-animated. Jesus! I apologize and promise to work on that. Also, I think Joe’s cat is a bit of a myrmecophile itself, or at least it managed to slink around fairly unnoticed while we were shooting this. I’ll try to enforce a ‘no pets on set’ rule from here on out.

Here’s a tough little bastard…

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‘Cockroaches got nothin’ on me’

This is a Tardigrade, also known as a Water Bear. Wired.com had a little piece on this fellow outlining it’s indestructible properties. That’s right, the Water Bear is probably the most resilient creature on earth and possibly beyond. Known as polyextremophiles, Water Bears can survive temperatures as low as -273C (-458F) and as high as 151C (304F) for very short periods of time. They can go for over a century without food or water and withstand the oxygen-less vacuum of space. In fact, they can handle pressures as much as six times that at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Water Bears are also extremely tolerant of ionizing radiation, managing to relax while receiving doses of 570,000 roentgens while a measly 500 would kill me or you. They can also stand high solar radiation, gamma radiation, ultraviolet radiation and salinity, not to mention your mother. It’s the perfect date – a partner that will fit your lifestyle.

How does the Water Bear bear (*couldn’t resist that one*) all of these annoyances? Well, you know the phrase, ‘I wish I could curl up and die’? Yep. They pull their legs in like a frightened turtle, desiccate their bodies of 99% of its liquid in a process known as cryptobiosis and wait for the worst.

The Wired article featured a number of other animals with ‘superpowers’, but none seemed quite as badass as the Water Bear. Check out the rest for yourself. Before you do though, I will throw in a couple of others that piqued my interest, since I’m sure you’re reluctant to navigate away from this thrilling narrative ride.

The Naked Mole Rat is ugly as sin, eusocial and resistant to cancer:

The Hairy Frog, when threatened, breaks it’s own toe bones, shoving them through its skin to create a sort of defensive claw, Wolverine style. Unfortunately, I cannot find any video of this. Where you at, Attenborough?!

Planck Satellite map of primordial universe better than Apple map of lower Manhattan

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Scientists have really been knocking out some projects with absurdly expensive equipment lately. And I say, why not? If the soulless yuppies that push around imaginary currency and wreck lives for a living are entitled to multi-million dollar bonuses, we should be able to test wildly theoretical ideas in diamond-encrusted test tubes.

And scientists are batting 1000 at this point (or at least that’s what’s been reported). A European coalition recently proved the existence of the Higgs Boson at CERN using the Large Hadron Collider and now the European Space Agency has flexed its cartography skills by mapping the ancient universe at the highest resolution ever using the $750 million Planck satellite. By the way, are you asking the same question I am at this point? Exactly. Where the hell is the U.S. in all this business? Last time I checked, we were never ones to back away from a little global fan-fare. Maybe this is why Obama is pushing the Brain Map initiative, which deserves a few comments of its own, but that will have to wait.

I’m pretty sure the resolution of the brain map sits about here:

brain resolution

Back to the ancient universe though:
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Come use your head: Brain Awareness Week NYC

big_brainy_pngThe people in charge are exercising their brains this year all around New York City. In an effort I feel is very much worth while, universities, museums and cultural groups (read: the arts) are taking a moment to involve the general public in a fun-filled educational program.  BraiNY will build upon a worldwide Brain Awarness Week initiative to bring the complexities of the human brain to the forefront in a series of programs that can be digested by children and adults with and without a scientific background.

Universities, museums, and cultural groups are joining efforts to showcase the wonders and mysteries of the brain to people of all ages. The events of braiNY build on Brain Awareness Week, an annual campaign of the Dana Foundation, which includes events in over 25 countries.

This year, for the first time, the coordinated efforts of the braiNY partners will connect New Yorkers to over a dozen events, lectures, exhibits, and demonstrations showcasing the wonder of the brain and the richness of New York’s scientific and cultural resources.

Check out braiNY for a calendar of events and come out to express your support and curiosity. You might just leave with a little more crammed inbetween your ears.

Judgement Time

clockTime. We use it everyday to instruct our movements, plan our whereabouts, coordinate business and judge almost everything else…literally. But have you ever really thought about what time is? It has the distinction of being the fourth dimension in the universe and at the same time, somewhat abstract. It’s not like we can feel time, after all. And a second is only a second because we decided to give it a certain length and name.

The idea of time is very complex and it has been an ancient subject of great interest for philosophers and more recently, physicists. It’s a concept you would be hard pressed to explain to anyone let alone an 11 year old, but that’s just what Alan Alda is asking for in his most recent ‘Flame Challenge’. Initiated by Alda and the Center for Communicating Science, the Flame Challenge asks scientists to take complicated questions and provide answers intended for a junior audience.

Last year’s question, ‘What is a Flame?’ was the first challenge in what is becoming an annual competition. Entries are judged for accuracy by a panel of scientists and then for understandability by thousands of 11 year olds. It’s not exactly clear what, if any, prize is awarded to the winner, but I’m pretty sure the satisfaction of piquing a child’s interest and bringing out a smile will help inspire and drive your creativity.

And at this point, you better be in hyper drive. The deadline for submission is March 1 and considering last year’s winner was a seven and a half minute animation complete with an original and catchy song, throwing some words down about the properties of time as temperatures approach absolute zero is only going to get you a cold reception; let’s face it, 11 year olds can be a brutal crowd.

I love this idea. As I’ve stated, making science available for the public and especially children is one of the reasons I wanted to start this blog. Given the time constraints (get it…), I will not be submitting a piece for consideration to this year’s committee – unless it’s a piece on the crushing burden of time in adulthood and how time, itself, is the guarantee that each of these curious scamps will someday learn that brutal lesson. But enough fun, and I don’t want to give too much away, because I’m initiating my own deadline (whenever I get around to it) for answering this titillating question in agreement with contest guidelines. I will post it right here in the coming weeks and you can let your little scientist be the judge of how well I managed to explain time. I encourage any readers that want to challenge my entry with their own to submit those here as well, and I’ll give you all the time you need.

If, on the other hand, you think you want to try and throw together an entry for the official Flame Challenge in the next six days, here’s a little on what they are looking for:

…we don’t expect you to provide a definitive answer. And you don’t have to focus on physics. You can explore the nature of time from any scientific perspective, such as biology, chemistry, geology, psychology, anthropology, etc. If you can intrigue kids, teach them something, and make them want to know more about it, that’s plenty.

And as a metric for these kid’s standards, watch last year’s winner below: