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).