Archive | January 2014

Flies in space

We all know gravity is important. It keeps the Earth orbiting around the sun, the Moon orbiting around the Earth, and it keeps all of us from flying off into oblivion. And it turns out that when you’ve been raised on gravity, taking it away can be damaging. And I’m not talking about damaging in the way falling into oblivion would be damaging (which it would be, just ask George Clooney), because even without the threat of oblivion life without gravity is not good for you.

At least, it’s definitely not good for fruit flies. We all know that when astronauts get back to Earth after spending a while in space

Can you believe that in the whole internet there were no pictures of flies dressed like astronauts? So I made one. Yup, come for the science, stay for the art. Original photo by Mr.checker

Can you believe that in the whole internet there were no pictures of flies dressed like astronauts? So I made one. Yup, come for the science, stay for the art.
Original photo by Mr.checker

they experience a bit of muscle and bone loss. Turns out these aren’t your only problems. Your immune system is likely to suffer too, and now we know why. NASA researchers found that fruit flies raised in space did not develop a normal signalling pathway in the immune system, called the Toll signaling pathway (I couldn’t find any nonsciencey descriptions of this pathway to link to, so just know it activates immune response and is similar in fruit flies and humans). Specifically, they had a hard time developing resistance to fungal infections. In case that wasn’t enough proof gravity is important, they found that mutant flies with no response to gravitational fields (what does a fly that can’t sense gravity look like when it flies?) showed no difference in Toll pathway development.

So take away here: if you can sense gravity, your immune system will not develop properly when you take gravity away. And for those of you who are all like “Well that’s flies. They are simple creatures, weak and easily manipulated. We humans are a much stronger and superior species, we will not succumb as easily as these silly little flies” Wrong. Astronauts and cosmonauts (which, according to wiki answers are just different countries’ way of saying folks who go into space) who spent 6 months in space experienced vision problems, issues with blood circulation, plus sleep loss and other stress related issues.

But it would seem all this unpleasantness is not enough to stop people from thinking space would just be the most super awesome fun place to live. Over 200,000 people volunteered to be the first ones to try to colonize Mars in 2023. It would take two years just to get to Mars. Two years of zero gravity. I can promise you, my name is definitely not on that list.


Megalodon: The Monster Shark that Lived a Really Long Time Ago

And people actually wish these guys were still swimming in our oceans?

And people actually wish these guys were still swimming in our oceans?

I was recently asked about the possibility that the megalodon might still be swimming in our oceans today, despite the fact it is believed to be extinct. For those of you who aren’t familiar, the megalodon was a huge prehistoric shark thought to have been an average 60 feet long. Its name means “big tooth” and for good reason. But fortunately for beach goers everywhere, it went extinct millions of years ago.

Or did it?

The idea is not as crazy as some might think. The oceans are a huge place. They make up 99% of our planets livable space, and we humans have explored only about 5% of it. In fact, it was only recently that anyone saw a giant squid in the wild, and it has been estimated that  131 million giant squid are eaten by sperm whales every year. An animal that was once thought to be a legend is real and in much higher numbers than probably anyone imagined.

But could this also be true for the megalodon? Unfortunately, probably not. You see, even before we saw a live giant squid, there was evidence of their existence. Dead giant squid have washed up on beaches or been found floating in the water. And we would expect to see even more evidence for a creature like megalodon, because it had hard parts that would stick around way longer than anything from a squid.

A giant squid washed up on a beach in 1954. Proof of the giant squid's existence and that scientists in the 50s were totally OK with getting squid guts on their suits. Photo by NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet

A giant squid washed up on a beach in 1954. Proof of the giant squid’s existence and that scientists in the 50s were totally OK with getting squid guts on their suits. Photo by NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet

The very reason we know megalodon existed is because we have found fossils of their bones and teeth. Unfortunately, all of this evidence disappears in any formations less than two million years old. Some may argue that since the conditions in which a bone can be fossilized are so unusual then maybe they really exist but just haven’t met the right conditions. But two million years is a long time, and something that was found all over the world would be expected to have at least one of them fossilized during that time. And if that won’t convince you, scientists say there just isn’t enough food for the megalodon to survive where it wouldn’t have been seen by man. They would have to live near the surface to survive and yeah, I think they’d be kind of hard to miss.

So then why do these rumors still persist? Well, I think it has largely to do with The Discovery Channel’s desperate attempt at hooking in a wider audience. “Shark Week” is Discovery’s most popular program; in 2012 it was the #1 non-scripted cable program. But as its popularity increases, the programs seem to be less about shark education and more about “Woah this guy totally got bit by a shark and it was SO EXTREME!! SHARKS = BLOOD AND DRAMA!!!” Which really kind of hurts my soul. But I get it, you need to draw in the audience some how and at least they do sneak in a few quick shark facts so overall yay for getting people interested in nature.

But last year they took it too far by airing a “mocumentary” about megalodon and why it probably still exists. The entire show was fake, with actors playing scientists (from real institutions like NOAA) and false eyewitness accounts. Oh, and there was a short little disclaimer at the end saying non of it was real. Totally clear.

Sure enough, the stunt worked; Discovery pulled in its largest audience in twelve years. But at what cost? I grew up loving the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and even the History Channel because I wanted to learn. Now I can’t even bear to put them on because all I see are log men, cute kittens (which admittedly I will watch from time to time because, I mean come one, kittens), pawn shoppers, and guys in heavy Brooklyn accents supposedly making aquariums but really just goofing off and yelling at each other. I understand this stuff is popular with a lot people, but what about my people? The ones who want to watch a tiger living in the jungle without any gimmicks? But I digress.

The point is that shows like “Megalodon: The Monster Shark that Lives,” when aired on supposed educational television can misinform the public. And they are convincing too. A few months ago I was watching TV with a friend who happens to also be a marine biologist, when we saw a documentary on Discovery about mermaids and how they really exist. We flipped out. We watched this thing for an hour trying to figure out if they were for real or not. And the thing is, even though we KNEW mermaids do not exist (sorry for destroying yet another childhood dream) we still couldn’t figure out if they were trying to be legit. We actually had to go online to find out that this was another phony mocumentary.

It makes me mad because if they would only be more upfront about these things, I think it could be a really fun exercise. When I was a kid Discovery ran a program where they did a fake autopsy on a dead dragon they “found.” It was awesome. The difference is they advertised it for weeks as a staged program. They made tons of disclaimers even in the commercials, but even knowing it was never going to be real my sister and I were so excited to watch it. We knew dragons weren’t real, we knew Discovery knew dragons weren’t real, but for a moment we could all pretend that they were real together. There was no “gotcha” moment, and it didn’t need one.

The point is, the world is awesome enough without needing to come up with all sorts of gimmicks to get us excited. Just look at everything we’ve found in the deep-sea. Seriously, click here and look at it. If that isn’t enough to make you feel like the world is an awesome place then a megalodon or even a mermaid isn’t going to help you either.

Whither thou goest, I will go

It seems like more and more often in the news you hear stories of whales getting stranded on beaches. But here’s something you don’t see every day: conjoined whale twins (what do you call that, a pair of conjoined twins? I feel like that sounds like four twins) washed up on a beach in on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. The whales were joined at the hip which, while cut for some twins, did not work out so well for them. The whales (which from behind look kind of like they tried to get Ursula to make them human, but I guess that spell only works on species that are half human to begin with) each had separate tails and separate heads.

When you look at the twins, it’s kind of hard to imagine that these guys ever had a fighting chance. But then again, there are some pretty amazing success stories out there. A couple of years ago I went to the Mutter Museum with a couple of college friends. We later found out that we were perhaps a little too squeamish for the experience. For those of you who aren’t familiar, the Mutter Museum is this quaint little building in Philadelphia that houses the most grotesque things you could possibly imagine. There was an entire wall with pictures of eye diseases. EYE DISEASES!!! As a person who has spent most of her life with a bit of a phobia for eye damage, this was kind of a living hell.

But next to all the deformed fetuses in jars and pictures of disgusting skin infections was one of the most interesting

The Bunker families in 1865. The smile wasn't invented until 1920.

The Bunker families in 1865. The smile wasn’t invented until 1920. US-PD

stories I’ve ever heard. This was, of course, the story of Chang and Eng Bunker, twins who spent their entire lives conjoined at the abdomen. And when I say life, I don’t just mean they ate, slept, and performed as side-show freaks. These guys had lives. They married sisters (because they had to at least do something cliché) and had 21 kids between the two of them. They each had their own farms, switching back and forth every few days.

But here’s the real kicker. The twins had very different personalities. According to the museum’s display, one of the twins (I can’t remember which) was pretty quiet and laid back. The other one has quite the temper and also happened to be an alcoholic. Let me let that sink in a bit. One of the conjoined twins was an alcoholic, and they SHARED A FREAKING LIVER! Apologies for the superfluous use of caps lock but seriously, how is this even possible? I am flummoxed.

It’s just too bad the baby whales did not get to live such full and enriching lives.

Recipe for Snow: Just boil water

Every fall and winter since I moved to California I complain to one friend or family member (probably more) about how much I miss the seasons of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Every visit home reminds me of how beautiful the tress are, especially when they shed their brilliant leaves in the fall. I, having always been a cold weather person, absolutely love the snow. But this week while all my friends and family back home were hiding from the subzero temperature cause by the polar vortex (which is quite possibly the most bad ass sci-fi sounding name an extreme weather event has ever had), I was walking my dog in just a t-shirt. Hmmm, guess things aren’t so bad after all.

Since I have so many friends currently suffering the terribleness of multi-day school closures (the horror!) I have been kept very much up to date on the situation thanks to social media. One of the coolest and I think most interesting things I’ve seen from all this are the videos of people spraying boiling hot water into the air and having it instantly turn into snow. Even as a scientist this intuitively made no sense to me. OK yes, I get it’s really cold out, but why would boiling water be turning to snow? Why not cold water? Or even lukewarm water?

Well it turns out that this is a physics thing (no wonder it makes no intuitive sense to me). It is called the Mpemba effect which describes the phenomenon where hot water freezes faster than cold water. The theory goes like this: hydrogen bonds (the H in H2O) are what hold water molecules together. They’re why if you out a drop of water on a table it stays round instead of spreading out, we call this surface tension. Well, it turns out that when you heat water up, these bonds stretch which causes the molecules to give up energy. The funny thing is, giving up energy is what happens during cooling also. So boiling water is actually primed and ready for freezing.

If this still seems a little weird to you, you’re not alone. But even if you can’t believe the science, you can’t argue with the proof.

Don’t Supersize Me

As anyone who has ever had a meal with me knows, I am a self-proclaimed flexitarian. For those of you who aren’t as hip as my mother (who first alerted me about the term) a flexitarian is someone who is a vegetarian most of the time but will eat meat under certain conditions. For some people this just means only eating meat twice a week, for me it means only eating free-range and organic meat. I have a hard time telling people this without feeling somewhat pretentious, and I really do have a lot of what I think are well-reasoned and well researched reasons for eating the way I do (the biggest reason being since organic meat is so expensive I really just eat far less meat than I used to).

My devotion to eating the most natural meat possible quickly turned me into a vocal opponent of the fast-food industry. I send heinous images of frozen Mcribs to my brother-in-law and joke about the ammonia levels in their burgers ( though many changed their practices after the pink slime scandal). So I was shocked by an amateur documentary in which science teacher John Cisna decided to eat nothing but McDonald’s for 3 months, and actually lost weight.

Mmmm, nothing like the meat of a hundred different cows all under one bun.

Mmmm, nothing like the meat of a hundred different cows all under one bun.

The key was that Cisna kept track of his calories and nutritional intake and started exercising daily, something he had not been doing before the start of the experiment. And I know what you’re thinking because it was my first thought too. No, he did not just spend three months eating salads, he ate eggs, burgers, even ice cream. But he ate everything in moderation. By the end, Cisna told KCCI that not only had he lost 37 pounds, but he cholesterol had even dropped from 173 to 113! I have to say, I would not have thought it possible and I would love to see some follow ups to see how much these results can be repeated.

Does this mean I’m going to run out to the nearest McDonald’s as soon as I’m done typing and order a Big Mac? No. Just because fast food doesn’t necessarily equal instant death still doesn’t make it the ideal choice. But it certainly raises some good questions and I know I for one will be meditating on Cisna’s take away message. “It’s our choices that make us fat not McDonald’s.”

The Science Guy vs. Creation

Bill Nye "The Science Guy" Photo by Ed Schipul

Bill Nye “The Science Guy” Photo by Ed Schipul

Bill Nye the Science Guy was a huge part of my childhood. He and his show were a major early influence that shaped my future as a scientist. As I have developed my career, I have come to respect Bill Nye not just as a children’s entertainer but as an advocate for renewable energy research and teaching evolution in schools. I’ve been impressed by is blunt and honest assessment of what needs to be done to better our planet.

I was happy to see that Bill Nye will engage in a debate with the creator of the Creationist Museum ( a creations creator if you will), Ken Ham on February 4th. They will be debating evolution vs. creationism, as Bill Nye has been very outspoken in his opinion that creationism should not be taught in schools. I grew up in a house where debate was just another word for dinner conversation. My parents pushed my sister and I to defend our view points and be open to other ideas. As a result I love debates. I love being in them, I love watching them, but only if both sides are respectful and factual. It drives me crazy when debates become nothing more than name calling and nitpicking bickering matches. It makes election season a very difficult time for me.

And I’ve been burned on science vs. religion debates before. In 2007 Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort debated with two representatives from the Rational Response Squad. I use the word debate for want of a better one. I do not want to come off as a bigoted atheist. I have had many debates with devote Christians and found them stimulating and thought provoking. I consider myself an agnostic specifically because all religions (and I’m including Eastern religions in this too) raise points I can’t always argue with.

That being said, I find it very difficult to see or interact with people who are so certain their way is the only way that to think any other way isn’t just stupid but is laughable. I saw this behavior on both sides during the 2007 debate which is what made it so disappointing for me. Now, I know absolutely nothing about Ken Ham, but from what I’ve seen from Bill Nye I am hopeful that the debate on February 4th at the Creation Museum will be both logical and respectful.

If I may throw my own two cents into the creation vs. evolution discussion, I will be the first to say this is a tricky topic. Of course as a scientist, my personal belief is that evolution is scientific fact and should be taught in school. And if you are open to the evidence, it is really impossible to argue against the ideas of natural selection and evolution (and I am more than happy to engage with anyone who wants to try). The problem is, no matter how you look at it, creationism is a religious idea. And when most Americans support the idea of teaching creationism in schools, I know they are talking about Christian creationism. Now, I’m not surprised more Americans aren’t advocating for shinto creationism being taught in our schools. Christianity is this country’s most popular religion. But it seems to me that one of the ideas that make this country great, the idea of freedom of religion, is often interpreted as freedom of Christianity.

Now, there are some people who would argue science is a form of religion, but there is one difference between science and other religions. Science is willing to change its doctrines if the evidence proves them false. It’s not always easy for scientific ideas to change, it is usually met with a great deal of resistance, but change does happen and is accepted. But religion is much harder to change. Last year the pope said he personally does not condemn homosexuals and it was big news. Notice, he did not say that it was OK to be gay, just that it was not up to him as a person to judge. He didn’t contradict the Bible, he couldn’t, because that is the word of God and cannot change no matter what happens. That is the danger of putting all your faith in a doctrine that cannot change with the times. Homosexuality used to be considered a mental illness by the medical community, but in 1986 it was removed completely from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (also known as the DSM).

The fact is a lot of religious ideas (like creationism) no longer hold up with what we know now. We have seen species evolve with our own eyes, and there are species that were extinct long before humans hit the scene. Though creationists try to twist the science into “proof” humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, an accurate representation of the facts show this is not the case and these arguments simply represent a misunderstanding of science.

Science isn’t always right, but in agreement with one of its most controversial theories, it does evolve.