Archive for Science!

A Dose of Awesome: Neil deGrasse Tyson!

It’s been way, way too long since we took a look at the world’s many awesome things, so let’s remedy that very quickly and ponder the awesomeness of the coolest astrophysicist in the world, Neil deGrasse Tyson!

The very bare bones facts about Neil deGrasse Tyson? He was born in Manhattan, raised in the Bronx, an astronomy fanatic in his teens, actually gave astronomy lectures at the age of 15, and attended Harvard, UT-Austin, and Columbia. He was also, apparently, hotter’n a three-dollar pistol. I’m a straight man, and I don’t mind saying that at all.

Tyson is currently the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space and a research associate in the department of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History.

So he’s a distinguished scientist — big deal, there are lots of distinguished scientists. Well, not many distinguished scientists were personally recruited by Carl Sagan at Cornell, had college hobbies that included competing on the wrestling team, crew, and competitive ballroom dancing (or won a gold medal at an International Latin Ballroom dancing tournament), or is the host of “NOVA ScienceNOW “on PBS, much less a regular guest on all the better news shows, like “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” and “Real Time with Bill Maher.” Yes, those are the better news shows, and you know it.

Tyson was among the leaders of the movement to have Pluto demoted to a dwarf planet — which I originally wasn’t real happy about, but once I read his book “The Pluto Files,” the reasoning made a lot of sense. Pluto had no real similarities with the terrestrial planets, like Earth and Mars, or the gas giants, like Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune — and it had a lot more similarities with Kuiper belt objects, of which there are thousands. If astronomers had known how many objects there were that were similar to Pluto back when it was originally discovered, I don’t think they would’ve ever considered Pluto a planet at all.

He’s a huge “Star Trek” fan, he collects comics, he’s appeared on “Stargate: Atlantis” and “The Big Bang Theory,” he’s been spotlighted in “Symphony of Science” videos, and he’s written tons of science books that are non-scientist friendly.

A fourth grader once asked him what would happen if two black holes collided with each other. Tyson liked the question so much, he got the kid a full scholarship to any university he wants to attend someday.

Basically, the guy loves science, and he loves talking to people about how awesome science is. That’s pretty danged awesome!

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Octopus Garden

Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid by Wendy Williams

Okay, got another unusual review I want to do today. Not a comic, not a novel, not even a book of Hitchcock poetry — this is a nonfiction book about squids and other cephalopods.

I decided to review this for three reasons. First, I was dead out of any other comics I could review. Second, squids are near and dear to the hearts of geeks worldwide, with everything from Cthulhu to Davy Jones to Doctor Octopus and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and Dr. Zoidberg and Squidbillies and Squidward and many, many more.

And third… it’s my blog! I do what I want!

So here’s “Kraken” by Wendy Williams. Very much in the pop-science model — it’s about science, but it isn’t a textbook. There’s a lot less detail in some ways, but there’s a lot more reader-friendly writing so as not to run off people who don’t have advanced degrees in zoology.

There’s a lot of really interesting stuff here — we start out with a short history lesson, where we meet the first people to prove that large squids actually existed. We get lots of detail about squid anatomy. We take a cold, nighttime boat ride with a bunch of marine researchers as they do the messy, chaotic work of catching, tagging, and releasing Humboldt squid in Monterey Bay. We get details about cephalopod luminescence and about their amazing ability to change color in extremely detailed ways — especially interesting because they’re colorblind. We learn how the study of squids has led to breakthroughs in biology, medicine, and neuroscience. We get probably more info than we ever really wanted on the bizarre, endlessly varied mating habits of cephalopods.

What else we got? We get a lot of info about just how smart squids, octopuses, and cuttlefish are. I really think this is one of the most interesting scientific questions out there right now — there’s pretty widespread consensus that cephalopods are smarter than we suspected they might be, but no one really knows if they’re as smart as a mouse, as a cat, as a dog, as an ape, or even higher. They seem to be very good at figuring out puzzles — but is that true intelligence or animal instinct? Are their camouflaging and color-changing abilities better indicators of intelligence? Researchers who work closely with these animals say they’re intelligent and even have individual personalities — but is that just mankind anthropomorphizing animals? And how on earth do you measure the intelligence of any creature as deeply alien to the human bipedal norm?

And really, that’s me covering a lot of what this book talks about, very quickly, in a very small amount of space — because this book has a lot of interesting stuff in here about squids.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Deeply fascinating and extremely readable. Some things are covered amazingly well. We get a very real sense that scientists are sometimes frustrated by how much they know but how little they understand about animals like squids. And this book has the very best discussion I’ve ever seen about animal intelligence and the question of how to measure it. Researchers used to give dogs the same IQ test they’d give babies — paint a dot on their forehead, put ’em in front of a mirror, and see whether they realize that the image in the mirror is really them. The problem, however, is that dogs don’t have a strong visual sense, so mirrors aren’t particularly significant to them — sense of smell, on the other hand, is very powerful for dogs, so intelligence tests should focus on the ways dogs learn through their olfactory senses. So how do you design IQ tests for an octopus?

If this book has a weak point, it might be that it gives very short shrift to the cephalopod in popular culture. There’s some discussion of some old novels and a monster movie from the ’50s, but this really is a golden age for squid popularity in the mass media, and it was an element I was a bit surprised to see get so little attention in this very thorough and comprehensive book.

Nevertheless, that’s a very minor nitpick for a book I really had a blast reading. Go pick it up.

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Spaaaace Weeeaaaklings!

Yet another reason for you to avoid going into space — aside from the colossal expense, boredom, and high likelihood of being attacked and eaten by Radioactive Space Zombies from Beyond the Orbit of Neptune. Apparently, spending more than a few months in space makes you extremely weak.

Astronauts on a mission to Mars could lose nearly half their muscle strength during the long trip, giving them the physiques of senior citizens by the time they arrived, according to a new study.

Prolonged exposure to weightlessness could cause astronauts to lose more than 40 percent of their muscle strength even with regular exercise, researchers said. On a long voyage, a healthy 30- to 50-year-old astronaut could end up with the strength of an 80-year-old.

A 10-month trip to Mars would cause such extreme muscle deterioration that astronauts would find it difficult to perform even routine tasks, let alone move around the Martian surface in spacesuits, according to the study, which was led by Robert Fitts of Marquette University.

They say they’d need to put astronauts on a better diet and improve their ability to exercise to try to overcome the muscle loss, but it might still be a losing battle.

Yet another problem with science fiction — we’ve all spent years reading stories and watching movies about people who go into space for long periods of time, and we’d all love to think it’d be possible someday. But the fact that it would be awesome, and that it makes for great fiction just doesn’t necessarily transfer over into something that’s actually practical.

Seems like the great tragedies of our age — we learn more and more and more through science, and what we learn sometimes puts the smackdown on the dreams and fantasies we’ve held onto all our lives…

And to top it all off, the moon is shrinking. Stupid strength-sapping, increasingly-tiny universe…

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Invasion of the Saucer Men!

Have you ever wondered how cool it would be if we ever contacted an alien civilization? Dr. Stephen Hawking has wondered that, and as one of the smartest people on the planet, he’d just as soon we stopped wondering about that.

The aliens are out there and Earth had better watch out, at least according to Stephen Hawking. He has suggested that extraterrestrials are almost certain to exist — but that instead of seeking them out, humanity should be doing all it that can to avoid any contact.

The suggestions come in a new documentary series in which Hawking, one of the world’s leading scientists, will set out his latest thinking on some of the universe’s greatest mysteries.


Such scenes are speculative, but Hawking uses them to lead on to a serious point: that a few life forms could be intelligent and pose a threat. Hawking believes that contact with such a species could be devastating for humanity.

He suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky”. He said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

Hawking also says he thinks there must be intelligent life out there somewhere because, out of the entire vast universe, with hundreds of billions of possible planets out there, it’s mathematically unlikely that Earth would be the only planet on which advanced life would appear. I’m not so sure of that — I’m a skeptic about such things in general, and if we’ve never managed to find proof it exists, I’d reckon on it not actually existing out there.

But if we expect that sapient life would evolve the way it has on Earth — if we expect that an intelligent alien species would share some of our characteristics? Yeah, time to shut down SETI, hunker down, and hope the space monsters don’t notice us. We can just suck all those old TV and radio signals back, right?

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Monster Flowers and Killer Taters


Better be careful what you’re digging up in the garden or putting into your soup, ’cause scientists now think there are a lot more carnivorous plants than we previously thought…

At least six different kinds of killer plants have been recognized since the time of Darwin, such as Venus flytraps, which snares insects between its jaw-like leaves, and pitcher plants, which capture victims in slippery pits. These plants apparently target animals to supplement their growth in harsh, nutrient-poor habitats.

Many other plants, some quite common, have also been suggested as potential carnivores over the years that have failed to gain wide acceptance as such thus far. Petunias and potatoes, for instance, have sticky hairs that trap insects, and several species of campion flowers have the common name catchfly for the same reason.

“We may be surrounded by many more murderous plants than we think,” said botanist Mark Chase, Keeper of the Jodrell Laboratory at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in England.

Seems like time to break out some appropriate dinner music, doesn’t it?

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Getting Science from Science Fiction


Via Aaron Williams: Scientists have gone and created transparent aluminum. Or did they actually get it from a Scottish engineer who talked into his computer mouse?

Oxford scientists have created a transparent form of aluminium by bombarding the metal with the world’s most powerful soft X-ray laser. “Transparent aluminium” previously only existed in science fiction, featuring in the movie “Star Trek IV,” but the real material is an exotic new state of matter with implications for planetary science and nuclear fusion.

In the journal Nature Physics an international team, led by Oxford University scientists, report that a short pulse from the FLASH laser “knocked out” a core electron from every aluminium atom in a sample without disrupting the metal’s crystalline structure. This turned the aluminium nearly invisible to extreme ultraviolet radiation.

“What we have created is a completely new state of matter nobody has seen before,” said Professor Justin Wark of Oxford University’s Department of Physics, one of the authors of the paper. “Transparent aluminium is just the start. The physical properties of the matter we are creating are relevant to the conditions inside large planets, and we also hope that by studying it we can gain a greater understanding of what is going on during the creation of ‘miniature stars’ created by high-power laser implosions, which may one day allow the power of nuclear fusion to be harnessed here on Earth.”

The discovery was made possible with the development of a new source of radiation that is ten billion times brighter than any synchrotron in the world (such as the UK’s Diamond Light Source). The FLASH laser, based in Hamburg, Germany, produces extremely brief pulses of soft X-ray light, each of which is more powerful than the output of a power plant that provides electricity to a whole city.

What makes this story even neater is that, as cool as transparent aluminum may be, everything else about this experiment ended up being even cooler. New sources of radiation billions of times brighter than any synchotron on Earth? Pulses of X-rays more powerful than a power plant’s output? A step toward nuclear fusion? Gaining insight into the creation of stars? Holy guacamole, science is awesome!

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Robot Roll-Call


For decades, we’ve all known that we had to guard against the day when robots would rise up against us and destroy all humans. If Sam Waterston has taught us anything, it’s that robots are everywhere, and they eat old peoples’ medicine for fuel.

Well, it looks like things are getting worse, ’cause there are now robots that can conduct their own scientific experiments. No, not just as tools for human scientists — they can actually come up with new experiments based on previous experiments they’ve performed.

Two teams of human scientists Thursday unveiled their work with robots that not only perform experiments, but also come up with new ones. The prototypes tackled physics and biology problems that require simple, repetitive experiments, proceeding by trial and error to uncover knowledge, according to studies published in the journal Science.

These robots don’t look like R2-D2 and C-3PO from Star Wars. They look like van-size computers, but with robotic arms to do tasks that would otherwise be done by human assistants.

“The prospect of using automated systems as assistants holds vast promise,” David Waltz of Columbia University and Bruce Buchanan of the University of Pittsburgh say in a journal commentary. Robot scientists could “increase the rate of scientific progress dramatically, (and) in the process, revolutionize the practice of science,” they write.

“Scientists should be using their brains rather than their hands,” says computational biologist Ross King of the United Kingdom’s Aberystwyth University, who led one robot effort. Adam, the team’s $1 million prototype robot scientist, reports new findings about yeast genes in one of the studies. The robot can start more than 1,000 biology experiments a day over a five-day period.

King’s team manually confirmed the biochemistry results that explained the genetic workings of yeasts, which have eluded researchers for decades. “There is a lot of work to do, even in creatures we think are well-understood,” King says.

Sure, sure, it sounds great. They’re performing repetitive experiments so humans don’t have to do them. They’re helping to advance science. They’re discovering stuff about yeast, which could lead to better-tasting bread. But dangit, once you start teaching ’em science, it’s only a matter of time before they’re building new bodies made out of adamantium and trying to kill off the Avengers.

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Bats in Space!


Another sad sacrifice for our space program this week.

A bat that apparently had trouble flying instead tried to hitch a ride on the space shuttle Discovery, NASA officials said.

The animal was last seen clinging on the foam of the external tank of the space shuttle moments before the Discovery launched, officials said.

NASA officials had hoped the bat would fly away on its own, but admitted the bat probably died quickly during Discovery’s climb into orbit.

If that bat is anything like the Batdude in the DCU, he probably sneaked aboard and is busy launching new spy satellites and beating up Space-Joker right under the astronauts’ noses…

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A Mammoth Undertaking


Shades of “Jurassic Park”…

Scientists are talking for the first time about the old idea of resurrecting extinct species as if this staple of science fiction is a realistic possibility, saying that a living mammoth could perhaps be regenerated for as little as $10 million.

The same technology could be applied to any other extinct species from which one can obtain hair, horn, hooves, fur or feathers, and which went extinct within the last 60,000 years, the effective age limit for DNA.

Though the stuffed animals in natural history museums are not likely to burst into life again, these old collections are full of items that may contain ancient DNA that can be decoded by the new generation of DNA sequencing machines.

Well, we’ll probably never get revived dinosaurs, because they all went extinct 65 million years ago (except for birds), and DNA can’t live that long.

But still… mammoths are cool. Neanderthals are cool. Dodos are cool. Cave bears, dire wolves, Irish elk, giant sloths, sabre-toothed tigers — let’s bring the whole bunch back, partly for the sake of advancing the science of cloning, partly to advance paleontology, partly just so I can squee over prehistoric animals brought back to life…

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Wolverine Frog?


This is one of those bizarre stories that just pops up out of nowhere and immediately gets snapped up by who-knows how many folks, so what the heck, I’ll jump on the bandwagon. Frogs that can pop claws like Wolverine? Surely a sane universe could never contain such things, right?

X-Men fans rejoice: Wolverine has come to life, as a frog. When the comic book warrior faces a fight, metallic blades spring forth from his hand. A new study concludes that certain African frogs are similarly equipped, having sharp, claw-shaped bones that pierce through their own fingertips when the animal is threatened.

More than 100 years ago, scientists observed the mysterious bony appendages in museum specimens of the Arthroleptidae frog family, but they had no idea what to make of them. Some speculated that the protrusions were an artifact of the preservation process. Harvard University biologists David Blackburn decided to solve the mystery once and for all after having the frequent misfortune of being injured by the amphibians while doing field research in Cameroon. “The frogs will start kicking and drag these claws against your skin,” he says. “I’ve gotten bloody scratches from them many a time.”

I… have no idea what to think of this. Frogs with retractible bone claws is something I’m sure I’ve had nightmares about. Time to go hide myself in the closet, I think…

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