The Latest, Coolest Trend in Science Fair Projects

Earth from 93000 feet. Long Island in the background.Taking "near space" images (left) seems to be the latest fad in hard core science projects. This guy managed to capture the trip of a camera into the stratosphere for $148. This director was inspired by his 7 year old to make a movie of their experiment that has been viewed over 40,000 on YouTube.  And this class sent a potato up in their "Spudnik 2" craft.

This project isn't for the faint of heart - it requires FAA approval to be sure your balloon won't cross any flight paths. But the equipment (helium, balloon, a camera, a GRP and insulation) is all pretty easy to find and you get amazing images out of it. Although all of these projects seem to be just asking just "will this work?" there are a lot of interesting questions to ask about the atmosphere, like "How do to the temperature and pressure change as you go up?" or "How fast does the camera fall after the balloon pops?"

Thinking on their feet?

One of my favorite animals has 3 hearts, blue (copper-based) blood, the ability to change color to camouflage itself , a strong beak, and most of its brains not in its head.
Wise Tomet
No, it's not a  Wise Tomet or any other fantastic fictional creation.
This is an animal most pre-schoolers are familiar with, although I think most people never learn how amazing it is.
Pliny the Elder wrote about it in 77 AD,  the first known instance of the legend about this animal climbing trees. These animals have been known to be impressive sports oracles, and expert escape artists, and have their own magazine.

They are octopuses (not octopi, apparently) and there are all sorts of cool tricks they can do. But the reason that I'm thinking about them today is that I just saw this article about a philosophy professor at Harvard who seems to think that each tentacle might have independent thoughts. About two-thirds of an octopus's neurons are in its arms, so it sort of makes sense. Defining and testing intelligence is always really tricky, even in humans. No one seems to have come up with a reliable way to evaluate it yet in animals that think so differently from the way we do. Designing meaningful experiments can be really hard, especially when your test subject could easily be mistaken for either a space alien, rock, or modern art.

The cost of college

Almost 2 years ago, the NY Times published this scary looking graphic (left) about college fees are skyrocketing out of control (taken from this report), along with an article about how most people won't be able to afford college soon.

So I was kind of impressed playing around the the Chronicle's interactive graphic  (right) published a couple of weeks ago. It's fun to see how the cost of one school have changed over 12 years and how they compare to other schools. But what really stood out for me is that the interactive data really doesn't look scary at all. Sure, you can find one school here and there that had a cost spike in one particular year, but there's no pattern of precipitous climbs or exponential rises.

Why is that? Both sources are supposedly comparing the same data, the total cost of college (tuition and fees, not counting any financial aid) and both are looking at a fairly comprehensive sample of schools. So why does one generate attention-grabbing national headlines while  the other is read only by specialists? We often tend to gloss over the idea that data aren't really impartial facts. They are evidence we scientists (economics is the "dismal science") use to tell a story. This is a good example of how you can use the same evidence to support various conclusions. Even when you're not overtly biased, you have to bring a personal interpretation in going from raw data collection to results. In this case, the first study took the increase from  1982 to 1984 and calculated the % change relative to this. The second study shows the % change between only adjacent years (or the actual costs or a range of years). The change from 2009 to 2010 is smaller than from 1982 to 2002, which isn't at all surprising.

Glow in the dark trees

Nanoparticles could turn soon trees into streetlights, according to recent internet stories. Chlorophyll naturally absorbs light of one wavelength of light (400 nm) and gives off some of it  as red light. The reason we don't normally see plants glowing is that the amount of 400 nm light they get is too small.

Yen Hsun Su and coworkers have now apparently shown that if you soak aquatic plants in gold nanoparticles, some of the nanoparticles get into the cells. Then when you expose the plants to UV light, the nanoparticles aborb it and emit light at 400 nm, which the chlorophyll in turn absorbs and emits as red light. So leaves could be lit for Christmas all year long, no electricity required.

Despite huge amounts of recent hoopla (stories in RSC's Chemistry World, New Scientist, ElectroIQ, The Cool Gadgets, Earth Times and hundreds of others), the trees in your neighborhood aren't going to be fluorescing any time soon. The system isn't efficient enough to use large scale, they haven't tested any plants except water weeds (Bacopa caroliniana), and gold nanoparticles aren't exactly cheap (although neither are current LED phosphors). I think like GFP-pets, this is far more likely to become a niche toy than an important commercial enterprise, but it's still fun to think about.

Non-Rotting Hamburgers

Learning to design an experiment is one of the most important skills for a scientist. Beginning with middle school science projects, we constantly try to teach people to think about science in terms of framing meaningful questions and figuring out ways to answer them.

 The first time I saw this experiment, I thought it was an interesting research question: How long does it take for a Mickey D's burger to go bad? Answer: indefinitely. A hamburger left on a shelf will not go bad, it will last for more than a year with no major changes. As documented in numerous reports, it's a reproducible, falsifiable question that wasn't completely obvious. This idea fits in with our notions about the evils of processed  and industrialized food in America. Great experiment right? 

 Wrong. The implicit assumption here is that mass produced industrialized food goes bad AND that "real" food doesn't. At Serious Eats, someone finally did the control experiment, complete with photographic documentation and graphs. Turns out fresh, all natural ground beef burgers don't go bad sitting on a shelf, either. There's not enough moisture for decomposing microbes to flourish. Put either a McDonald's burger or a homemade burger in a bag and it will soon be a disgusting, rotted mess. As Kenji Lopez-Alt points out, there may be plenty of reasons to dislike McDonald's. Resorting to bad science shouldn't be one of them.

A variety of non-rotting burgers.

Love/ Hate Relationship

All scientists have days when things experiments fail, instruments misbehave, nothing makes sense and frustration gets overwhelming. But most of our unwanted results don't look this cool:
This image, titled "Love/Hate Relationship" is one of the amazing pictures from the Art of Science contest that Princeton sponsors every year. Nick Bax was trying to get a perfectly round laser beam to act as an optical trap to hold on to molecules. Molecules are actually so tiny that you can use beams of light to hold on to them in three dimensions. He failed to get the beam to work, but it still looks cool.
Some other images from the contest:
Left - This is just liquid flowing around a moving plate, but it looks very happy (see the smiles?). Right - This picture is a magnetic field image - not at all biological, but it sure looks cellular. It's amazing how the same motifs recur in nature. Or maybe its just amazing how the human brain works, that we always think we see the familiar.

Just So Story?

Picture: Johan Opperman/

This is nature (not at all science) but I loved Rudyard Kipling's stories growing up and this was just to good to pass up. In case you don't remember The Elephant's Child, it's the story of how the trunk is invented when a baby elephant's nose gets tugged on by a crocodile. A tourist at Kruger National Park in South Africa (where the "great grey-green greasy Limpopo River" flows) snapped this photo last week before the elephant herd stomped up and scared off the hungry crocodile. Kruger Park is about the size of Israel (under 8,000 square miles) and has literally tons of wildlife. There are definitely mongooses and cobras, rhinos, panthers, giant snakes, and troops of monkeys (though there's no photographic evidence they act out scenes from the Jungle Book).

Green Lantern

Green Lantern is a advice column that provides "illuminating answers to environmental questions"  (not related to the comic book of the same name.) Want to know what jewelry companies/gemstones are the most environmentally responsible? Is it better to roll down your windows or turn on the ac when driving? Why are environmentalists always saying don't waste water if water gets recycled? The column answers these and hundreds of other queries.

They do an amazing job of providing sources - each one page article contains about 20 links to original studies, background sources, relevant companies, etc. They also have practical, real world advice for people who like the environment but also like their cars and aren't about to start bicycling everywhere. They're not preachy and they're not too technical, but they do a good job of reflecting what's scientifically accepted and what's contentious. If you're looking for a topic for an ecologically related paper or project, this is a great place to start.

Sweet / Sour Flavor switcher

I recently saw this article on Salon about Miracle Fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum), which can change how you perceive taste. This seemed amazing to me. Blocking molecular receptors does seem like a big deal, but tricking them so that you actually taste "sweet" when you eat "sour" is much more interesting.
The phenomenon has apparently been around a long time. These berries are used as a traditional food in Africa and the active ingredient "miraculin" was isolated in 1968 and published in Nature and Science. There is some, but not much research going on with it. It hasn't been FDA approved, but is widely used globally and is legal to grow in the US. It's available for less than $2 a berry on also did a taste test with another natural product, Sugar Destroyer (Gymnema sylvestre).  Except for the fact it would involve all sorts of IRB safety paperwork, I think this would make a really fascinating science fair project or a good activity for a science club.

Science Halloween Costumes

Here are some of the best ideas of heard of / thought up for geeky Halloween costumes.

1. Meso Woman - a meso compound is when you have a molecule two or more chiral centers, but the overall compound is not chiral - it's superimposable on its mirror image. Organic chemistry is often enough to frighten even the bravest souls!
One way to do it: Get two "bopper headbands with different balls (green (Cl) and white (H) make sense). Switch the balls so each headband has one ball of each color. Secure them to each shoulder with green pointing forward on one side and pointing backwards on the other side.
Bonus accessories: Wear non-polarizing sunglasses (meso compounds don't polarize light), label your shoulders R and S.
Credit: Bridget Trogden

2. Dark Matter - Physicists tell us that 80% of all the stuff in the universe doesn't interact with light (or any electromagnetic radiation) and we can't actually tell if its really there.
One way to do it: Wear all black and be really mysterious.
Bonus accessories: pin an image of gravitational lensing to your chest, or an image from one of the Dark Matter games. Play the song Dark Matter by Porcupine Tree or Andrew Bird

3. Schrödinger's Cat -  Schrödinger proposed an analogy to point out the weirdness of quantum mechanics. Part of the theory predicts that if you put a cat in a box under specific conditions and don't open the box, the cat will be simultaneously both alive and dead. It's a zombie cat! The ψ function tells us so.
One way to do it: get cat ears, paint on whiskers, and use a cardboard box with a head hole cut out to cover your torso.
Bonus accessories: Carry around a vial of poison (HCN) and a Geiger counter. Write Schrödinger's equation on the box. Bonus point if you dress as a zombie cat and explain quantum entanglement to people who ask what you're supposed to be.

4. Prion - Prions are "proteinaceous infectious proteins" that cause brain problems like mad cow disease. Their discovery changed  how we think about infectious agents. way to do it: The normal prion protein is shown at left. You can spiral tape up your legs to represent the helices, or drape 2 Slinkies from your shoulders. Use a rope to make the belt, and attach a couple of sheets of paper to represent the beta sheets.
Bonus accessories: Carry around a crazy looking cow, make a plaque that says "amyloid" and put it on your head.

What's the best science costume you've seen? Post thoughts in the comments.

Retraction Watch

Retraction Watch is a great new blog that describes all the papers that have been retracted from major publications. I had no idea so many prominent papers get retracted until I saw them all in one place. Marcus and Oransky, who run the blog, do a little investigative reporting to try and tell a more complete story instead of just the journal's uninformative "This paper has retracted by the authors" statement. Its fascinating to see how the errors come to light, how different authors respond, and what mistakes led to the need for retraction. It really sheds a light on the process of science - how ambition and pressure and reputation influence scientific publications as much as empirical data, how Principal Investigators don't usually do any of the actual benchwork, how the peer review process often fails and in these cases triumphs... Anyone looking for examples of ethics cases in science couldn't ask for a better resource than this.


 Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry, died last week. He fundamentally changed mathematics, and allowed us to start grasping the complexity that underlies the natural world in a new way. He developed math  that can be used to better understand things as disparate as coastlines, broccoli and clouds.
At left is a Mandelbox, named in his honor and found at Jos Leys' excellent mathematical imagery web page. It looks kind of like a Borg-ish cube, right? But if you look closer (below), you can see amazing intricacy. The whole cube arises from a single straightforward fractal.


Flavia de Luce books

Alan Bradley's new heroine is an eleven year old living in a small British hamlet in 1950. She's a clever detective, precociously self-aware, and a really good chemist. Unlike most fiction, where science is merely a plot device (CSI, H. G. Wells, Star Trek, etc.) these books actually include real reactions.  Should you need to concoct hydrogen sulfide to poison an annoying sister, resuscitate a poisoned victim with pigeon droppings, or perform a pregnancy test on a stranger you meet weeping in a graveyard - Flavia's methods are reasonably possible and accurate for the time period. But mostly, they're a lot of fun to read. These are definitely grown-up books, despite being narrated by a child.

Bradley won the Debut Dagger Award with the first 15 pages of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and became a commercially published author at the age of 70. He's Canadian, not British, and has no chemistry training (though he does have a degree in electrical engineering). So it's pretty amazing that he writes so convincingly as a young British chemist. If you're looking for fun, interesting reading, these are great.

Knight Science Journalism Tracker

KSJ Tracker is a blog for science journalists, to help writers keep track of who is reporting what. But it's also a really convenient  resource for people who aren't journalists. Right now, you can get short synopses on breaking stories about sunspots, Native American remains and museums, bee disease advances, Japanese comet dust collectors, baseball stats and physics and a whole lot more. The writing is usually clever and often raises interesting critiques of the culture and the way science is covered in the media.

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What do you think this is?

A Kandinsky painting? The Eye of Sauron on LSD?  An ameoba trying to disguise itself as Rainbow Brite?

It would probably take about 3.196×10282303 guesses for me to get this (that's the same odds as a monkey typing Hamlet). It's Rolling Rock beer, one of the thousands of amazing photomicrographs collected by FSU's National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. They have images of everything from the latest drugs to religious symbols, brain tissue to a burger and fries. I was particularly amazed at how different all the different frozen beer crystals look under a polarizing microscope. Read about some of the details, or just look at the amazing pictures.

First post: Zotero

I'm starting this blog to record and share things I enjoy. There are LOTS of things I like thinking about and learning about. Most of them are science-y. This one is for anyone who does research (any research, not just scientific).

How it works: You download the Mozilla extension Zotero. Then you can either import a collection of pdfs/Endnote library, or you can build a new one. When you are reading a paper online, you click a button on the browser, and it downloads the bibliographic information and any other files you want (personal notes, keywords, pdfs, etc). You can collaborate with groups to share your references, and there are hundreds of options for citation styles to use with your favorite word processor.

It took me about 10 minutes to upload several hundred pdfs to a library. Now I can access them from any computer, do full text searches, and export bibliographies in whatever style I need (like Endnote does). Its free, with an active support community. There are issues (it duplicates some things, has weird period placement, etc) but for this would have makes it so much easier to keep track of references for term papers, grants, etc. First 100 MB of file storage is free.

Get Zotero