Archive for June, 2011

By Ruthanna Gordon

There’s not necessarily a lot of art, or a lot of science, in moving.  Possibly the science of calculating exactly how many boxes it will take to hold a book collection, or the art of packing everything neatly enough that it won’t collapse in transit.

Hi.  My house is full of bubble wrap, my e-mail is full of well-meant advice about DC area housing, and I’m trying to figure out how to say goodbye to the Chicago science scene.

I’m feeling a bit nostalgic, and unwilling to settle on just one of Chicago’s many bits of scientific coolness to write about, so I’m going to mention a few favorites.  Whether you live here and haven’t seen everything yet, or are just thinking you might visit some day, these are my recommended highlights from seven years of sporadic sampling:

The Field’s Evolving Planet is, bar none, the best museum exhibit I’ve ever visited.  The visitor walks through the history of life on earth, from the first organic compounds to modern Homo sapiens, all illustrated by selections from the Field’s massive fossil collection.  At intervals, floor-to-ceiling red slashes mark mass extinctions and tell you about their possible causes.  Fossils are supplemented with models and multimedia—I’ve linked in the past to their amazing Burgess Shale aquarium.  There’s also a mock-up Carboniferous forest with giant dragonflies.  The fossils themselves are impressive.  I’m particularly fond of the Tully Monster, which is Illinois’s state fossil for the simple reason that it’s never been found anywhere else.  (And there’s a Sesame Street pun that I missed entirely when I was a kid!)

Also in the Field: the unpresupposing Rocks & Minerals exhibit includes a sheet of fossilized rain.

On my last visit to the Shedd Aquarium, I discovered something that I’d somehow managed to miss previously: the Wild Reef exhibit.  The Caribean Reef, just behind the entry hall, gives the impression that reefs are mostly about fish.  The larger downstairs exhibit, by contrast, shows off their full diversity.  I found these guys the coolest, and creepiest:

They’re called garden eels.

The Notebaert Nature Museum is smaller than the Field or MSI, and aimed largely at kids.  But unlike the Field or MSI, it has a butterfly house.  And it has a window where you can watch the cocoons that will eventually produce new butterflies.  Usually, one or two are in the process of hatching.

Beyond museums, there are many places in Chicago that get at the joy of discovery that’s at the heart of science.  The North Park Village Nature Center is a great place to learn about, and observe, the local ecology.  They hold regular events and classes, and in the Spring they have a maple syrup festival.  Much like butterflies, maple syrup is something that I appreciated for years without ever getting to see it produced.  At the nature center I got to see all the steps of the process, and taste the very faintly flavored, almost rainy sap as it came out of the tree.

You wouldn’t think a giant ferris wheel had a lot to do with science—careful calculations are needed to keep it from falling over, of course, but they don’t really enter into your experience riding it.  The ten-story wheel at Navy Pier, though, is one of many leftovers from the 1893 World’s Fair, a hugely optimistic celebration of scientific potential that still permeates the city’s culture.  Like many of the fair leftovers, this wheel is not the original, having been rebuilt 100 years later along stronger, more modern, and more corporately sponsored lines—as well as smaller ones.  Similarly, several of the city’s museums are modeled on fair buildings, but made from more durable materials.  Although 21st century Chicagoans are more aware of technology’s pitfalls, we haven’t let go of the hope that science can still create a better world.

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Post by Minna Krejci

This is a new one: the newly crowned Miss USA calls herself “a huge science geek.”

The "geeky" Miss USA 2011 (http://scienceblogs.com/deanscorner)

And there is at least some evidence that may back her claim.  In preliminary questions as part of the Miss USA competition, she supported teaching evolution in public schools — one of only 2 of the 51 contestants that did — by saying,

“I was taught evolution in high school.  I do believe in it.  I’m a huge science geek…I like to believe in the big bang theory and, you know, the evolution of humans throughout time.”

Later, on-air, she apparently also gave a “complex” answer regarding the question of legalizing marijuana (medically yes, otherwise no.)

Are things looking up for the next generation of geeky girls?  Will girls be less afraid to show their smarts, no longer fearing that it might make them less “cool”?  Even Miss USA geeks out about the Big Bang!

Of course, we should also consider what the standards for “geekdom” are these days.  It sounds a bit like Miss USA (Alyssa Campanella, from California) puts the Big Bang theory in the same group as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny – things to believe in because it’s fun to believe in them, not necessarily because the science points to them.  (I hope that’s not really the case, but you never know.)

Hm… I just searched for “the Big Bang theory” on Wikipedia and was directed straight to an article about the sitcom.  Not even a disambiguation page first!  I’m honestly not sure what to make of that.  While it’s great that science is creeping its way further into the entertainment industry (which is obviously highly influential), I hope that the actual science doesn’t get watered down during the process of making it accessible to the public.  We want simple, not simplistic.

"The Big Bang Theory" (http://whosnews.usaweekend.com)

Back to the Miss USA pageant (not to be confused with the Miss America pageant, by the way).  Campanella wasn’t the only smarty pants competing this year.  Nicole Poteet, a radiation protection engineer with an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering, represented Virginia in the competition.  And what does she have to say for herself?

“Don’t tell anyone, but deep inside I’m kind of a dork.”

If Poteet’s a dork and Campanella’s a geek, dorks and geeks have sure come a long way from what I remember about high school!  Here’s to hoping that they’ll serve as good role models and help motivate and encourage tomorrow’s female engineers and scientists.

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Post by Minna Krejci

I first learned of Yucca Mountain when I was in college.  But it wasn’t a discussion about politics amongst friends or a presidential campaign that introduced me to the topic, and to the controversy.

It was a class, on materials science and engineering.  We were discussing corrosion, and my professor was a corrosion expert who happened to be involved with the Yucca Mountain project.  He was part of a team that was investigating the role of engineered barriers in waste isolation — in other words, they wanted to see how the passing of time and changes in the environment would affect the ability of a waste canister to completely contain radioactive waste.  It was an interesting problem in science and engineering, to consider what could possibly happen over time… and to design materials that would be resistant to forces that threaten to degrade the canister, potentially allowing hazardous radioactive waste to leach out into the surrounding environment.

And what did they find out?  I’m not sure how far they got, because the funding to develop the Nevada site as a repository for spent nuclear reactor fuel and high level radioactive waste was cut a few years later (in 2010 I believe).  Many Nevada residents and politicians opposed the project, partially because they felt it was unfair to have other states’ waste dumped in their state, and also due to safety and environmental concerns.

Although extensive scientific studies consistently showed Yucca Mountain to be a sound site for nuclear waste disposal, the Yucca Mountain repository program has been marred in political controversy since the site was selected in 1986.  The recent Fukushima incident in Japan has reignited much of the controversy surrounding the program’s termination, as a reminder that storing nuclear waste at nuclear reactor sites (as is often currently the case) may not be the safest option, and a viable alternative to the Yucca Mountain repository project has not really been identified.

What I find to be one of the most interesting (and disconcerting) aspects of the whole situation is that science and politics don’t seem to be getting along terribly well.  For example, a report released in April 2011 by the United States Government Accountability Office states that the project was terminated based on social and political issues, and not due to technical or safety issues.  At a hearing yesterday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko came under attack regarding his role in the death of the program: according to Representative Joe Pitts, “It appears that Chairman Jaczko has let politics trump science here, that he’s manipulated the process.”

There is no doubt that social and political issues are important in a case like this, and scientific results certainly can’t be considered in a vacuum and in the absence of other such considerations.  The tricky part is incorporating the scientific, societal, and political issues into the decision-making process in order to come up with a solution that appears to have the most merit overall.  Science tends to show up in political arguments fairly often these days — but are the politics supporting the science, or is the science supporting the politics?  It makes me nervous to hear statements like “politics trump science” — are politics and science competing?

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By Ruthanna Gordon

Watch the latest CSI, and you’ll see a world where evidence is clear-cut and scientific.  By the end of any episode, the viewer can feel secure that the guilty party has been caught, and will be tried and convicted.

In the real world, the situation is often far more complicated.  If investigators are very lucky, criminals leave behind sufficient DNA for testing, and either have that DNA already on file from previous convictions, or get caught so that a new comparison can be made.  (Although unless the case is very high-priority, test results come back in weeks rather than hours.)  Under these circumstances, determinations of guilt can be clear-cut and scientific.  Other types of evidence tend to be fuzzier.

Eyewitness testimony, for example, is far more unreliable than people like to admit.  Leading questions can change someone’s memory outright, or bias their descriptions.  One study showed people a video of a car accident:

How fast do you think the cars were going when they smashed into each other?

If you’re like most people watching the video, your answer to that question—presumably asked by the prosecution—will be 10-15 miles per hour faster than if the defense asked you about the speed of the cars when they “contacted” each other.  Other studies have used similar manipulations to change memory for weapon used, appearance of the perpetrator, and sometimes even the perpetrator’s recollection of their own actions.

The same biases can also affect those whose job it is to interpret evidence.  The whorls and lines of your fingertips really are unique—but fingerprints tend to be smudged.  Fingerprint experts learn towards finding matches between the prints collected at a crime scene, and those they already have access to.  And their confidence levels for these judgments tend to be unrealistically high.

An understanding of these issues has begun to trickle into the courtroom.  Defense lawyers sometimes bring in memory researchers to warn juries about eyewitness fallibility.  Juries are also more likely to receive information about accuracy rates for tests, or how well one can really see a face at 200 feet in the fog.  And yet, it’s still common for people convicted on other evidence to be exonerated by DNA testing.  It’s not yet clear how to create a working justice system that responds appropriately to these findings—but we’ve certainly got a long way to go.

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By Ruthanna Gordon

A wave of scalding plasma rises from the surface of the sun.  As it plunges back down, gaseous droplets the size of the Earth splash the surface.  Some of the material actually reaches escape velocity, plummeting outward at 1100 kilometers per second.  It will reach us late Thursday or early Friday.  And then…?

Probably most people won’t even notice.  Such is the odd relationship between the sun’s drama and everyday life on Earth.  Wednesday’s coronal mass injection, spectacular enough to draw gasps from solar watchers around the globe, may cause mild interference with satellite radio, or slightly boost the power of the northern lights.  But 150 million kilometers is a long way, and the blast wasn’t aimed directly at us—it will brush our magnetosphere only in passing before continuing on its way.

This blasé attitude may be a luxury.  The sun is becoming more active as it approaches the peak of its 11-year cycle.  Of course, we’ve been through this before—in the early 2000s, for example.  It’s not a catastrophe.  But some peak events can be more impressive than others.  In 1859, a massive solar storm actually set telegraph wires on fire!  Auroras were visible as far south as Hawaii and as far north as Chile.  The Carrington Event, named for the astronomer who documented it, caused surges in electrical activity of all types.

Today, such surges would be far more disruptive.  Our electrical grid is much larger, more closely networked, and more vital.  Our little local storms can take out small portions of the grid, causing blackouts that last for hours, or in the worst case days.  A Carrington repeat, disrupting the grid across the board, could leave people without power for weeks or months.

There are things we can do to minimize the risk.  Although solar weather forecasting is still primitive—about where planetary forecasting was a couple of decades ago—it does exist.  And 150 million kilometers is a long way, so we’d be likely to have some warning.  Deliberately shutting down transformers would cause temporary blackouts, but protect our electrical infrastructure while the storm rolled safely past.  Even so, anything depending on internet access or satellite communications—medical records, for example, or your ability to buy anything except with cash—would be disrupted.

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Open Question

What interesting art and science news have you seen recently?  Let us know.

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Post by Minna Krejci


Sitting here awake at my computer at 4:00am, waiting for my experiment to finish so I can finally go home and pass out, I can’t think about much else other than sleep.

Sleep!  Who needs it?

We all needs it.  Even the Vancouver Canucks, who are in the midst of the NHL Stanley Cup finals, battling the Boston Bruins for the championship.  To keep the men fresh even with crazy travel schedules, time zone changes, and exhausting games, the Canucks coach hired a sleep consulting firm called Fatigue Science.

During the regular season, the Canucks wore wristbands that collected data on how they were sleeping (light sleep or deep sleep, for example).  From these measurements, Fatigue Science then comes up with recommendations for how and when the players should sleep, eat, travel, etc.  It seems to have worked well for the Canucks, who have been dominating on the road this season and postseason, with strong third period showings — clearly fatigue hasn’t been too much of an issue.

Want your own sleep consultant?  Try Lark, an “un-alarm” clock, sleep sensor, and sleep coach that works with the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad (and soon will have an Android version).  Wear the wristband at night, and it talks to the iPhone app to track your sleep patterns.  The wristband vibrates gently when it’s time for you to get up (and there’s a musical backup if that fails to wake you up), and you’re greeted in the morning with data on how well you slept.  Shell out a bit more dough to get a 7-day assessment and a “sleep coach” app.

Here’s a collection of sleep tips courtesy of Fatigue Science… how many of these are you following?

via Fatigue Science (www.fatiguescience.com)

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