Category: Headline Makers

A Geek Roundup: The Best Science Posts From My Internship (Part III)

My internship with Geekosystem is coming to its end, but its time for another link roundup of my favorite science posts. I’ve been writing a lot of folk art posts lately (somehow that is the beat I’ve gotten myself on) but there have been some really interesting science developments in the past few weeks, especially with regard to goings on in space. Also, for your viewing pleasure here is a video from one of my posts that a commenter called “pure win.” I think so, because on a scale of one to adorable, this is off the charts, and it doesn’t even have any puppies in it.

MIT Researchers Announce Broad Spectrum Treatment For Viral Infections – This research has the potential to make a profound impact on the treatment of viral infections (from colds to hemorrhagic fever) if it is able to be transfered from human cells in the lab, to real humans. It uses the way that viruses replicate by taking over a cell against it, to destroy cells infected with the virus.

Microbots Use Magnetic Forces To Swim And Do Some Heavy Lifting – The post was based on two videos of what really look like just a collection of particles swimming around and moving small objects. The particle bunches are actually microbots, that have some pretty impressive capabilities.

NASA Proves Building Blocks Of DNA Come From Space – I got myself in some trouble with a commenter on this one for the word “prove” in the title. It was a choice to use the word prove in a science post. I used it in the headline in a way that I think is fair, but I got told it sounded like a tabloid, what do you think?

More Dwarf Planets Found In Kuiper Belt, Pluto In Good Company But Still Not A Planet – When Pluto was demoted from planet to dwarf planet a lot of people started to question what makes something a planet in the first place. These newly discovered dwarf planets meet a few of the criteria, but like Pluto, fall short of planethood.

Study: Stem Cells Used To Make Sperm, Then Used To Make Mouse Babies For The First Time – Adding to the amazing list of what scientists have done with stem cells, for the first time they have created sperm cells that resulted in successful offspring that had the ability to reproduce. This could have big impacts for infertility treatments.

Small Shark Can Glow And Become Invisible, Is Not A Mutant – I love doing strange animal posts, this one highlighted a shark that can “cloak” itself and appear invisible based on the way it looks when you view it from below.

Researchers Discover Gene That Causes People To Have No Fingerprints -There are only a few people in the world who don’t have fingerprints. It is a rare condition, and now researchers understand the genetic mutation that causes this disorder.

Scientists Suggest Earth May Once Have Had Two Moons – An interesting theory about how the moon formed suggests that Earth once had two moons, and that one crashed into the other to make our current moon. Its just a theory but there is some compelling evidence in its favor.

NASA To Launch LEGO Figurines Into Space – I totally loved this idea, basically NASA teamed up with LEGO to make three figurines: Juno, Jupiter, and Galileo to celebrate the launch of the Juno Space Probe on its trip to study the planet Jupiter. The figurines are really detailed (and really expensive) but its like every nerd’s dream to have LEGOS in space, right?

Ancient Skulls Sheds Light On How Dogs Became Man’s Best Friend – I didn’t understand the commenter on this post. I only got one and it was about how scientists make sweeping assumptions. Making a hypothesis or suggesting a theory about something based on evidence isn’t the same thing as making assumptions. The research may not be definitive but its not like the researchers were just making stuff up either.

Researchers Find Elusive Oxygen Molecules In Space – We’ve always been taught that there is no oxygen in space, which is why astronauts need those fancy helmets. But, researchers have found oxygen molecules in space. Now its not the same as having an atmosphere like ours with oxygen you can breathe, but its still pretty cool that the molecules were there at all.

Survey Method Shows That A Throw Of The Dice Makes People More Honest – I got a great email from the researcher on this study saying that I’d done a good job capturing it, it totally made my day. This was a really interesting study that showed if people have some kind of an out or a fail safe they are more likely to tell the truth, and it can be useful for gathering data about things people would rather not talk about, like illegal poaching.

Gene For Proteus Syndrome, Cause Of The “Elephant Man,” Found – Proteus Syndrome is a poorly understood disorder that causes tissues to swell so that people appear completely disfigured. For the first time researchers have identified the rare genetic mutation that leads to this disorder.

New Treatment For Hereditary Blindness Is First Drug To Restore Vision – I loved the commenters on this post, it was probably the one post all summer that made me really happy when I read the comments. Both comments I got were from people who either have or know someone with the disease, thanking me for the post. That was really awesome.

Researchers Create Glowing Dog That Can Be Turned On And Off – Researchers genetically altered a dog so that it would glow in the dark. I didn’t really understand the point, since it was an incredibly expensive process it isn’t going to catch on for any kind of commercial purpose and its unlikely to have much of a role in research.

Federal Funding For Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Ruled Legal – In what is seemingly the final nail in the coffin for this legal challenge to federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, lawyers have exploited a hole in the law to allow funding to continue. A good thing for researchers, not so good for people with a religious opposition to this type of research.

First Earth Trojan Asteroid Discovered – A trojan is a certain type of asteroid, and for the first time it was found that there is one around Earth, and yes, it is named after the trojans from the Trojan War. A little bit of history in space.

Mountain Lion Makes Longest Journey Ever Recorded By A Land Mammal – Got myself in trouble with commenters for this title too. Someone had to point out that humans are land mammals as well. Well, indeed they are, but I think it is quite obvious that humans are exempted from setting a longest journey record against any other animals. I thought that went without saying. I guess not, because someone felt the need to say it.

Study: Interrupted Sleep Harms Memory Development  – This one is pretty self explanatory from the title. But basically researchers determined that people who have their sleep interrupted have a harder time forming memories, it shows a connection between these two brain functions that could be interesting for further study.

Next Mars Rover Will Climb Sediment Mountain – The space shuttle program might be over, but NASA still has plenty of other active projects that could help us learn more about space. One of these projects is the Mars Rover, which is still out there searching for life on the red planet. The next Mars Rover will explore a sediment mountain that has promising environments for evidence of life.

Atlantis Returns To Earth, Space Shuttle Program Now Over – This post marked the landing of the Space Shuttle Atlantis at the completion of its restocking mission to the International Space Station. This final mission was the last trip of the Space Shuttle program, because NASA wants to focus on other things in the future.

New Wave Shape Observed For The First Time – This was a weird (but interesting) little study about the conditions under which waves form, and the different shapes that they take. I was surprised that there was a wave shape that researchers hadn’t yet observed, but it just goes to show you how many secrets the Earth still has to yield.

Potential Water Discovered On Mars, Still Not A Sign Of Alien Life – NASA researchers have announced that there is liquid water on the surface, or right below the surface of Mars. The water is most likely a brine (salty) and it is unknown how/if this water could impact the search for evidence of life on Mars.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Will Host Sequel To Carl Sagan’s Cosmos Produced By Seth MacFarlane – The reboot of Sagan’s famous TV series will be run on Fox in primetime. The opinion about this seems to be mostly positive, with everyone just hoping that the project does justice to the original series. The choice of MacFarlane makes some people nervous but here’s to hoping it works out well.

Bonus Non-Science Post: 

Woman Buys Non-Visible Art For $10,000 – So this isn’t a science post, but it needs a little commentary. The source that I used for my post had the woman in question’s name spelled wrong, it was off by one letter. Now, I’m all for accuracy, if I make a spelling mistake please do tell me so I can fix it. But, I still found it pretty amusing that Ms. Davison felt the need not only to comment on the post about wanting her name fixed, but also followed me (then proceeded to unfollow) on twitter so that she and a friend could tweet at me about the error. I have no idea why someone would try so hard to make sure their name was spelled right in a post that openly mocks them and the absolutely ridiculous way they wasted ten grand, but it was pretty important to her. So, I made the change and now I and the commenters on the post can mock her openly with the correct spelling.
When I first started this internship I said that I was afraid of the commenters and they made me feel really bad about myself. They still do, if I’m in a bad mood/frame of mind when I start reading comments that rip on every aspect or even just the smallest aspects of a post it makes me sad. I’m still learning which comments to take to heart and which to just write off. I wish I had time to go into all of the detail some of these topics deserve but most of these write ups are under 500 words and some of the context is going to get lost.

It is not an excuse for mistakes, but some of the nitpickers need to keep in mind that Geekosystem is a blog, not a peer reviewed journal. I am not a peer reviewer, I don’t have a science degree and I can’t always call bullshit on a study I don’t know a lot about or don’t have access to the paper through the pay wall system. Sometimes I can call bullshit right off the bat, and when I can, I do. It is just frustrating sometimes to feel like I don’t really get high traffic posts that are well received. We’ll see what this last week at Geekosystem has in store.

Polar Bears Have The Luck Of The Irish

I recently learned that I share a trait with my absolute favorite animal, the polar bear, in that we can both trace our ancestry back to Ireland. For people who follow this blog, or have at least looked back through the archives a bit, you’ll see that I find it impossible to pass up a good polar bear story. I’ve written about animal healthcaremysterious death, and the polar bear’s status (or lack thereof) as an endangered species. So it should come as no surprise that I can’t pass up the opportunity to talk about this new research that shows an ancient Irish connection to modern day polar bears.

via Wikimedia Commons

A team of researchers led by Beth Shapiro of Penn State University and Daniel Bradley of Trinity College (Dublin) has identified a common ancestor of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) and brown bears  (Ursus arctos) that lived in Ireland before the peak of the last ice age some 20,000 to 50,000 years ago. The researchers concluded that all modern day polar bears can trace their lineage back to this ancient female brown bear. The specific lineage of the brown bear that shared their mitochondrial DNA with polar bears went extinct around 9,000 years ago, but the research still shows that the modern species are related.

Despite significant differences between polar bears and brown bears (size, coloring, fur type, tooth shape, swimming ability vs. climbing ability, etc.) scientists have suspected for some time that the species have closely connected histories. The polar bear is known to have mitochondrial DNA (the part of the genome contributed by the mother) that traces back to the brown bear. But how modern polar bears acquired this brown bear DNA was a bit of a mystery.

via Wikimedia Commons

The two species are known to interbreed, and have been studied in captivity in addition to being spotted in the wild. An example of a polar bear/brown bear hybrid, jokingly nicknamed grolar bear or pizzly, was found in the wild Canada in 2006. But, even with the knowledge that the two species can co-mingle scientists were still perplexed about the history of these different species. The long standing theory about how polar bears evolved from brown bears had their history traced to the ABC Islands (the Alaskan Islands of Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof) around 14,000 years ago. But the bears’ genomes tell us a different story.

The research team led by Shapiro and Bradley found that the hybridization of polar bears occurred much earlier than would have been possible on the ABC Islands through a genetic analysis of the bears. The study analyzed 242 samples from polar bear and brown bear mitochondrial DNA spanning 120,000 years and several different geographical regions. The researchers found that the fixation of the mitochondrial genome in polar bears likely occurred closer to 50,000 years ago in the area of present-day Ireland.

According to Shapiro, in addition to genetic evidence, the interconnected history of the polar bear and brown bear is also supported by climate events. One example of this is the British-Irish ice sheet, which reached its maximum range around 20,000 years ago. At this time parts of Ireland would have been difficult to inhabit, pushing bears from the warmer areas toward ice shelves and land exposed by lower sea levels. This would have brought the bears into close contact with their northern neighbors, showing how the animals that became two different bear species could have started out in the similar location, sharing their genes.

The polar bear is currently considered a threatened species, and future conservation efforts may be aided by this new understanding of its genetic history and its ability to hybridize with the brown bear. The research is described in the paper, “Ancient Hybridization and an Irish Origin for the Modern Polar Bear Matriline” in the journal Current Biology.

Godspeed, Atlantis

via Geekosystem

I wanted to make sure to post some pictures and the video of the final launch of the space shuttle Atlantis. This past Friday July 8th at 11:29 am the last American space shuttle to travel to space left on its final journey. The 135 shuttle flight, and the 33rd for Atlantis, the flight marks the end of the entire space shuttle program. The YouTube video can’t be embedded, but you can watch it here on the NASA YouTube channel and here are also a few pictures to highlight some of the great moments:

Getting ready! via Geekosystem
Firing up the engines! via Geekosystem
Liftoff! via Geekosystem
There she goes! via Geekosystem
Atlantis, flight STS-135, is commanded by Chris Ferguson, and will take fellow crewmates Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim to the International Space Station. The launch took place at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The 12-day mission will bring the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module with more than 8,000 pounds of supplies and space parts to the space station to sustain it after the last space shuttle is retired.
On a personal level I find it amazing that the space shuttle program is over. I have never known a time in my life where Americans were not traveling to space. When I was little the first thing I ever wanted to be was an astronaut. It shocks me that astronaut isn’t really a job anymore, at least not at NASA. Sure, there are other countries that will still be traveling to and from the International Space Station (Russia and China) but its just not the same as having an American space program. 
I appreciate the need to focus on new frontiers in space and wanting to move in a new direction, but I am pretty disappointed that there isn’t a successor to the space shuttle program already lined up. I think its dangerous to give up our hold on space travel and research to focus on programs and initiatives that don’t really exist yet. I’m worried that space exploration will become another casualty of a lack of vision, appreciation, and long term planning that seems to plague this country. Especially if the proposed budget for NASA which I wrote about over on Geekosystem ($2 billion in cuts!) is any indication of what the future holds. 
I wish that I had appreciated the space shuttle program more while it was running. How many shuttle launches have you watched? How much do you know about what the shuttle program accomplished? Honestly, I can hang my head in shame and say not many and not much. Its too late to lament what we’ve already lost, but I think we can see the end of the space shuttle program as a warning to take more interest in some of the amazing research programs the government funds. If we don’t show the government that these things matter to us, we’re going to lose them all. 
So Godspeed Atlantis, the launch was amazing and as an American I am so proud of the shuttle program  and our astronauts. I’ve felt for a long time that there are simply no heroes anymore, but for the six-year-old in me that wanted nothing more than to go to outer space I think our astronauts are the real deal.

South Sudan Gets Its Independence

I know it isn’t really a science topic, but I have to have a follow-up post about what happened this week in Sudan. I’ve written before about the conflict in Sudan and the efforts to split the region into two distinct countries, but it has finally happened. The South Sudan has been recognized globally as its own independent country. This is a huge deal.

via Carleton University

I became interested (or at least more informed) about the Sudan after reading and blogging about Dave Eggers’ What Is The What, and I started following the movement for independence, which became another post. Last I wrote about the Sudan, the people in the south were being polled to see if they would favor a split into two countries. They needed a 60% turn out for the vote to count. They got 99%.

The new country is roughly the size of Texas, and will become the U.N.’s 193 country. The capital is the city of Juba, which is where ceremonies formally recognizing the country were held last week. The new nation has significant oil resources, which in a previous post I said were something to watch. Revenues from oil could greatly help the country get off the ground, however the south is still reliant on the north to transport oil, and conflicts over this resource could still occur.

Independence for South Sudan comes on the heels of a civil war that took over two million lives and raged for more than two decades between the north (including the region of Darfur) and the south. The regions have distinct religious ties with the north mainly Muslim, and the south Christian. I think a moment like this, where so many people have a renewed hope of having peaceful prosperous lives is so important to stop and think about.

If you want to know more about the South Sudan, this is a useful website. Here are also some links to media coverage of the split in Sudan:
U.S. Welcomes Birth of New Nation, South Sudan (CBS News)
Let’s Celebrate The South Sudan and Nurture A New Country (The Guardian)
In Southern Sudan, New National Begins From Scratch (NPR)
South Sudanese Celebrate The Birth Of Their Nation (CNN)

A Geek Roundup: The Best Science Posts From My Internship

I know I haven’t been posting on here as often as I used to, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve been slacking. My summer internship is working as a blogger for Geekosystem, one of the Abrams Media Network websites. I’ve been writing posts about a lot of interesting science over at Geekosystem, and I wanted to highlight some of my favorites from the past month.

Exposure to puppy pictures are just one perk of being a Geekosystem Intern
Mind Control Hat Uses Light To Guide Mouse Behavior: This post is about research out of MIT that developed a wireless control mechanism for optogenetics applications. The researchers used optogenetics (the use of light to stimulate neurons to fire at specific times) to control the motions and behavior of the mice.
Hand Hacking Device May Give Users Musical Ability: I have no musical ability to speak of, and though I do own a guitar that collects more dust than it makes music. Perhaps if I had a PossessedHand device I would get more use out of my guitar. This is a device that sends electrical impulses to your muscles instructing them to move your fingers in a specific pattern, like plucking guitar strings. 
Neil deGrasse Tyson Thinks The Onion Deserves A Pulitzer: A video post that pretty much speaks for itself, I love how fun and clever Tyson (who is a famous astrophysicist, in case you aren’t familiar) is in this video. 
The Secret To Youth, In Yeast At Least: This post is about the discovery of a gene in yeast that is responsible for taking old cells and keeping them young. This gene can be turned on or off to control the aging process. 
Japanese Researchers Create Swimming Endoscope: File this one under things that make me shudder. Called the “Mermaid” researchers in Japan have developed a remotely controlled endoscope that swims through the digestive system relaying images of the various structures. 
Flies Sense Magnetic Fields Using Human Protein: We know that birds and other animals have the ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic fields which enables them to visually guide their movements. New research shows that humans have the protein responsible for this ability, but not the actual power. But in flies, the protein works its magic. 
New Virotherapy Cures Prostate Cancer In Mice: Writing this post took a lot of science writing skillz, if I do say so myself. I saw many overblown headlines about a “vaccine for cancer” that were just totally inaccurate for what this story really is. This is a technique that uses viruses as a means of introducing a treatment for cancer into the body. While successful in mice, it hasn’t been tried in humans, and certainly has nothing to do with vaccines. 
Eavesdropping Rodents Listen To Each Other: New research shows that chipmunks and woodchucks will heed the alarm calls of the other species, even though they do not communicate directly with each other. 
Neural Prosthesis Restores Long Term Memory: This was a very cool post (if I say so myself) about the development of a device that can manipulate the formation of memory by electrically controlling different areas of the brain. This could have important implications for memory-loss disorders. However, this too has only been proven in mice. 
Insect Makes World’s Loudest Mating Call In A Surprising Way: Well, this one you’ll just have to read to find out about. But let me put in the caveat that its not the most appropriate piece I’ve ever written.
Less Sunspot Activity Is Not A Climate Change Fix: Doing a bit of debunking and clarifying on this one, addressing some overblown claims about the effect that a reduction in sunspot activity on the sun would have on Earth. 
Russia To Build Floating Nuclear Power Plants: The title pretty much says it all. But, the main idea is that Russia intends to build nuclear power plants in the arctic to provide power for their oil exploration activities. The number of things that could go wrong which spring to mind is astounding. 
A Cool Brain Offers Relief To Insomniacs: This was a very cool study that showed that one of the most effective and easily applicable methods to treat insomnia, may be a cap that cools the brain. This could have a big impact on the way insomnia is treated, moving the industry away from sleeping pills which can be highly addictive. 
Disappointment At Tevatron: No New Particle: When particle physics becomes a let down. 
Aquatic Spider Uses Web As A Gill To Breathe Underwater: Things that completely creep me out while still being very cool. This spider uses its web as an air sack that it breathes out of while it is underwater to keep it from having to come up to the surface (and thus exposing itself) more than it really has to.

Just a small sampling of the very cool science that has been going on in the last month. There are so many interesting things that I’ve gotten to cover for Geekosystem (though I tend to pitch all science stories and must settle on about half, they still let me cover a lot of great stuff). I’ve been learning a lot about how to tell if something you see on the internet is legitimate, what sources to go to for post ideas, and how to write for a varied audience that doesn’t always know they’re going to be interested in a science topic.

One thing I’ve been struggling with while writing for Geekosystem are the comments I get on my posts. Some of them are nice and either point out a typo or minor error or just provide an opinion about the post, but the majority I either don’t understand what the criticism is or I’m being accused of making mistakes that I don’t think I have. I’m being encouraged to interact more with people in the comments, but I’m not sure how to handle it really. Although knowing the internet, I know that comments could be much much worse, and are for many people. I just need to get a thicker skin I suppose.

I’ll try to do more roundups of the science posts I write for Geekosystem, but never fear I have no plans to abandon my own little corner of the internet here, where I can say what I want and the commenters are people I know!