Wednesday, December 1, 2010

New Clues into Asthma Occurrences

Throughout the US, asthma rates have been steadily increasing over the last few decades. According to the CDC, the rates of self-reported asthma conditions rose 75% between 1980 and 1994 (doctor's visits more than doubled between 1975 and 1990). Today, an estimated 15 million Americans deal with this condition.

While scientists still have nothing conclusive to explain why asthma is becoming more prevalent, new research is being conducted exploring potential connections between asthma and bacteria. In the last ten years, studies in both the US and Copenhagen have shown that infants born to asthmatic mothers have a different variety of bacteria in their lungs and guts than those born to non-asthmatics. Likewise, different bacteria exists for those born naturally versus those delivered through C-section. And, again, for those living in highly sterile environments.

If this research is considered in connection with asthma experiments conducted on rats, the bacteria-asthma connection becomes stronger. Rats exposed to yeast and mold spores had a greater incidence of developing asthma when they were also given an antibiotic drug.

There is still much work to be done, but it does raise the question of whether the significant increase of antibiotic hand-washes, toys, and cleaners that has occurred in the last two decades has had an unintended effect on our health. Likewise, it raises questions about whether we'll find physical evidence to support the long-argued claim that eating certain foods affects asthma symptoms.

What are your thoughts?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Feeling Creative?

A misconception about science and scientists that still hangs around is that science is made up of mostly boring, systematic methodology conducted by old, stodgy men in white lab coats. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.  That's why we've created a new module on Creativity in Science!

This module, written by Barry Bickmore, highlights how creativity and ingenuity play crucial roles in scientific practice. From genetics to DNA recombination, creativity has been an important factor in discovering what we know about the world and all that is in it. It helps us break down complex questions and concepts into digestible chunks, as well as look at a problem from many different angles.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on this module, and suggestions on how to incorporate creativity into everyday scientific practice. Share with us here, or on our Facebook page!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Talking Turkey -- Using Science to Cook the Perfect Bird

We all want it -- a fat, juicy, golden bird on Thanksgiving Day. One that melts in your mouth. One who's flavor explodes and sends you into turkey bliss. One that you can't stop eating because it tastes sooo good and ends up sending you into a slumber on the couch during the afternoon football game (not due to tryptophan, but from a carb-heavy meal).

But how many of us actually get it? How many of us have worked out that seemingly magical combination of basting and cooking times so that we reach this Holy Grail of Turkeydom? Surprisingly, not so many!

Let us help you get a little closer to that dream this year by breaking down some of the science behind roasting the perfect bird.

The first thing to understand is the physiology of our illustrious Meleagris gallopavo. Turkeys are birds, which means that they fly. Right? But, they also spend a lot of time walking about on the ground. As a result, the muscle mass in a turkey's body is pretty much split up into two groups: the breast and the legs.

The breast muscles are located close to the bird's center of gravity, which helps it both flap its wings and control its position in flight. But turkeys don't migrate -- they hang around their home turf all year round. In reality, the heavier percentage of a turkey's lifetime activities are spent on their two little legs, not flying about. Flight is typically reserved for roosting in trees and quick escape from predators. This means that the more heavily used leg muscles are both greater in concentration of fat (because fat is an energy store) and full of blood-enriched tissue (because oxygen is required for energy conversion).

It's this discrepancy in muscle use that accounts for the difference in meat color and texture. The lesser used breast muscles are white and leaner, while the more active leg muscles are a nice dark color with more fat. Wild turkeys and those that are free range will tend to have a higher percentage of dark meat than those birds raised in mass production farms -- mainly because they get more exercise. (This in true for chickens, too, incidentally.)

So what does it matter that the turkey uses its legs more than its wings? It means everything. Muscles are a combination of water, fat, and protein.The fibers within the muscle are primarily protein, and these need to be broken down in order for our bodies to process their goodness. Adding heat to our bird is what breaks down these muscle fibers.

The meat fibers as a whole tend to break down around 180 degrees Fahrenheit, unraveling and making our bird more tender. But if we apply heat for too long, those proteins begin to coagulate and make the bird dry and tough. The trick, here, is that the breast meat and the leg meat have different proportions of water, fat, and protein AND the amount of mass of the sections are different. (The legs are sticking off the body and smaller in size than the breast, right? They aren't going to cook at the same rate.)

What happens if we put our bird in the oven and cook it until the breast meat is a gorgeous 180 degrees Fahrenheit near the bone? The legs are overdone and falling off the bird. And if we cook it until the legs are a perfect 180 degrees? The breast meat is undercooked and tough.

So, how do we get moist, tender breast meat AND moist, tender dark meat?

Tricks for evening cooking time
We want our bird to come out of the oven with everything in a perfect state. In order to accomplish this, we need to accommodate for the cooking differentials explained above. Some will tell you that this means slowing down the cooking of the breast, and speeding up the cooking of the legs because dark meat takes longer -- but that ignores the fact that the legs are smaller in overall size than the breast. Though pound for pound leg meat will take longer to cook than breast, overall there is less leg meat on your Thanksgiving bird.

So what do we do?

Chef Iain Falconer of Olive's in NYC does NOT recommend putting ice packs on your turkey's breast for the hours leading up to the roasting, as you might read elsewhere. By cooling the meat down considerably, and letting the legs stay at room temperature, the time it takes for the breast meat to warm to cooking temperature will give the legs too much of a head start. Cooling the legs is a better idea, though not very practical. Instead, cover the turkey's legs with aluminum foil. The foil reflects the oven's heat significantly enough to create a temperature difference between the two parts of the bird. Take the foil off somewhere at the start of the last hour to get a beautiful color on the skin.

How long in the oven?
Once you've established that temperature difference in the muscle tissue, it's time to put your bird in the oven. Add some water or broth to the pan to stimulate steaming (and thus juiciness), then pop it in at 475 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes. Starting high will cause the heat to hit your bird's skin first, which will force the fat to melt and the protein to unravel, then coagulate to form a nice crispy outer cover.

After 15 minutes, reduce the cooking temperature to 375 degrees and cook according to the weight of your bird. A turkey's perfect cooking time is 15 to 20 minutes per pound of weight, plus an extra 15 to 20 minutes at the end. If your bird is small, aim toward 20 minutes per pound; larger birds, aim toward 15 minutes. (This may seem illogical at first, but a smaller bird will be in the oven less time overall than the larger, so you'll need the little bit of extra time to make sure it's all cooked and the proteins are unraveled.)

When the breast meat has reached 180 degrees, all bacteria will have been killed. Your juices should run clear, and you can leave the bird to rest outside of the oven for 20 minutes to cool and reabsorb that moisture back into the meat. Cutting while fresh out of the oven will send the good juice into the gravy and not into the muscle fibers, leaving Tom the Turkey dry.

To stuff or not to stuff, that is the question
When a turkey is prepared for roasting, what is in its center? Nothing -- it's empty. Empty except for the various bacteria, like Salmonella, that tend to thrive on raw poultry products. If you then put stuffing into that cavity, you not only increase the overall mass of the bird, you create a wonderful haven for those bacteria to have their own little Thanksgiving party.

In order to raise the inner cavity (the stuffing) to the bacteria-killing temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit, you're going to need to roast that bird for a lot longer than the times described above. Which will result in what? You got it -- tough, dry, chewy turkey. Exactly what we're trying to avoid.

So, if you want that wonderful flavor of the bird infused into your 'stuffing', don't put it into the bird. Instead, use some of the juices from the cooking process to add flavor. If you're a bread stuffing fan, skip the water and use the juices to moisten that bread.

Have some tricks of your own you would like to share for a perfect Thanksgiving Feast? Share them with us on our Facebook page, or in the comments section below!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Surprise Discovery in the Milky Way

It seems that whenever we think we know something well, we're proven wrong. As was announced through a press release from NASA today, NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has unveiled a previously unseen structure centered in the Milky Way. The feature spans 50,000 light-years and may be the remnant of an eruption from a super-sized black hole at the center of our galaxy.

"What we see are two gamma-ray-emitting bubbles that extend 25,000 light-years north and south of the galactic center," said Doug Finkbeiner, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., who first recognized the feature. "We don't fully understand their nature or origin."

The structure spans more than half of the visible sky, from the constellation Virgo to the constellation Grus, and it may be millions of years old. A paper about the findings has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

Finkbeiner and Harvard graduate students Meng Su and Tracy Slatyer discovered the bubbles by processing publicly available data from Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT). The LAT is the most sensitive and highest-resolution gamma-ray detector ever launched. Gamma rays are the highest-energy form of light.

Other astronomers studying gamma rays hadn't detected the bubbles partly because of a fog of gamma rays that appears throughout the sky. The fog happens when particles moving near the speed of light interact with light and interstellar gas in the Milky Way. The LAT team constantly refines models to uncover new gamma-ray sources obscured by this so-called diffuse emission. By using various estimates of the fog, Finkbeiner and his colleagues were able to isolate it from the LAT data and unveil the giant bubbles.

Scientists now are conducting more analyses to better understand how the never-before-seen structure was formed. The bubble emissions are much more energetic than the gamma-ray fog seen elsewhere in the Milky Way. The bubbles also appear to have well-defined edges. The structure's shape and emissions suggest it was formed as a result of a large and relatively rapid energy release -- the source of which remains a mystery.

One possibility includes a particle jet from the supermassive black hole at the galactic center. In many other galaxies, astronomers see fast particle jets powered by matter falling toward a central black hole. While there is no evidence the Milky Way's black hole has such a jet today, it may have in the past. The bubbles also may have formed as a result of gas outflows from a burst of star formation, perhaps the one that produced many massive star clusters in the Milky Way's center several million years ago.

"In other galaxies, we see that starbursts can drive enormous gas outflows," said David Spergel, a scientist at Princeton University in New Jersey. "Whatever the energy source behind these huge bubbles may be, it is connected to many deep questions in astrophysics."

Hints of the bubbles appear in earlier spacecraft data. X-ray observations from the German-led Roentgen Satellite suggested subtle evidence for bubble edges close to the galactic center, or in the same orientation as the Milky Way. NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe detected an excess of radio signals at the position of the gamma-ray bubbles.

The Fermi LAT team also revealed Tuesday the instrument's best picture of the gamma-ray sky, the result of two years of data collection.

"Fermi scans the entire sky every three hours, and as the mission continues and our exposure deepens, we see the extreme universe in progressively greater detail," said Julie McEnery, Fermi project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
NASA's Fermi is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership, developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the United States.

"Since its launch in June 2008, Fermi repeatedly has proven itself to be a frontier facility, giving us new insights ranging from the nature of space-time to the first observations of a gamma-ray nova," said Jon Morse, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "These latest discoveries continue to demonstrate Fermi's outstanding performance."

Monday, November 1, 2010

Engaging Students in Research

One of the main tasks of any graduate student in the STEM fields, Masters or Doctorate, is engaging in research. It goes without saying that a significant amount of time during matriculation will be spent in the lab or field working on hypotheses and hoping to contribute something new to their respective discipline. But where do these students learn their skills to begin with? And with such low completion rates in STEM disciplines, how to do we get undergraduate students to stick around long enough to learn what they need to go onto and succeed in graduate school?

Across the country, undergraduate research programs have been growing and proving to be an effective way of retaining students. It's had such an effect that President Obama called it out directly in his speech to the National Academies of Sciences. These mentoring programs have proven to teach students the basic physical and rationalization skills they need to pursue advanced degrees, better preparing them for the work ahead.

But a question that has yet to be answered, which we throw out to you, is how to engage undergraduate students in research to begin with? As Eagan et al. highlight in their report, Engaging Undergraduates in Science Research:

"Students who initially enter college with the intention of majoring in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields have substantially lower completion rates in these disciplines than do their peers who enter with aspirations for a non-STEM major (Huang, Taddese, & Walter, 2000). Compounding this problem, under-represented racial minority (URM) students in STEM have extremely low bachelor’s degree completion rates, especially when compared with their White and Asian American counterparts. A Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) report indicated that just 24.5% of White students and 32.4% of Asian American students who entered college with the intention of majoring in a STEM field completed a bachelor’s degree in STEM within four years while 15.9% of Latino, 13.2% of Black, and 14.0% of Native American students did the same (HERI, 2010)."

So, how do we catch these students who tend to fall through the cracks, who may not understand what research can do for their future? What can we do to make sure they enroll in available programs and increase the retention rates of under-represented groups?

Share your ideas with us here, or on our Facebook page. we'd love to know what you're doing (or think could be done) to get and keep more students in STEM courses.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Finding Your Critical Pace for the Marathon

Endurance athletes have long known that they perform best when they find their "zone." If you're a long distance runner or swimmer, for example, you may recognize the zone as when you no longer have to tell your legs and arms to keep a certain pace -- they do it automatically. Your body works as a perfect machine, taking in the right amount of oxygen and burning carbohydrate at a steady pace so that it becomes easier to keep going. (Within reason, of course.)

The zone is a wonderfully quiet mental place where you can just think about nothing, relax into the rhythm of movement, and enjoy what's going on around you. Think of it as physical meditation. Now a new mathematical formula by Benjamin Rapoport, published in PLoS Computational Biology, shows the speediest pace any endurance athlete can sustain for an entire race (though his particular focus is marathon running). Part of this is finding the top end of your zone so that you don't hit that infamous "wall."

Typically, endurance athletes do their best to avoid the wall, or period when the body has completely used its glycogen stores, by carbo-loading. In the 7 to 10 days leading up to a race, many athletes will focus on including high concentrations of complex carbohydrates into each meal. As a result, glycogen is built up in the muscles and made available to the body during the race. Many experienced marathoners, for example, also plan their race following a 10-10-10 strategy. The first 10 miles is run at a slower than average pace, which allows the body to conserve energy. The second 10 miles is run at race pace -- which is possible because there's still plenty of energy in the body. And the last 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) is run at or above race pace, using what's left of the glycogen stores and adrenaline from crowds to get to the finish line.

But Rapoport's research suggests that there is more to avoiding that wall than this: his "study demonstrates that the energetic constraints on endurance runners are more subtle, and depend on several physiologic variables including the muscle mass distribution, liver and muscle glycogen densities, and running speed (exercise intensity as a fraction of aerobic capacity) of individual runners."

Speed is the most controllable factor in this formula for athletes. According to Rapoport, "a 10-second difference in pace per mile could make the difference between success and a dramatic failure." Finding your critical pace is in part due to your VO2 max -- a measure of aerobic efficiency. By finding your VO2 max and keeping to it, you can maximize efficiency in burning energy stores and get your body across whatever finish line you're shooting for.

Rapoport plans on making an easy to understand version of this formula online in the near future so that athletes of all levels and abilities can work toward setting new Personal Bests. “My primary goal is to give any marathon runner a qualitative plan for their training,” he says.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

New Module Live at

We are proud to announce that the next module in the Process of Science series is now live on Ideas in Science: Scientific Controversies explores the ways in which such controversies develop, as well as how they influence the way we think. From offshore oil drilling to global warming and climate change, Drs. Egger and Carpi discuss what a scientific controversy actually is, and how it can be resolved (you'll have to read the module to find out).

A must read module for anyone interested in the hot-topics on debate, or teaching about science in the classroom. Think you know what makes a controversy? Try the quiz before you read the module and see where you stack up!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Questioning the data

A few weeks ago, we shared news of the discovery of a habitable exoplanet, Gliese 581g. Now, less than two months after that research was made public, its existence is being brought into question. Francesco Pepe of the Geneva Observatory in Sauverny, Switzerland, has announced that a review of known data, both old and new, show no indication that this exoplanet exists. You can read more about the data discrepancies here.

What this new development highlights is that controversy in science is not as infrequent as many might think. In fact, controversies are easily found in every branch and specialty. In a module soon to be released from Visionlearning, we discuss the nature of scientific controversy. Distinct from political, ethical, and personal controversies, scientific controversies are sustained, public debates among the broader scientific community in which arguments are based on evidence (as in the exoplanet). Though they sometimes overlap or have complex interactions, our module shows that controversies cause progress in science by encouraging research on the topic in question, and are resolved when the evidence favors one perspective overwhelmingly.

As we prepare to launch this new module, we would love to hear how you discuss controversy in your science classroom. Is it something you think about? If not, why? Are there other barriers that keep controversial science subjects out of the classroom? What do you think is the best way to approach these kinds of topics?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Congratulations 2010 Nobel Winners

Palladium-catalyzed cross coupling, in vitro fertilization, graphene -- it's been a pretty exciting list of achievements for 2010's Nobel Prize awardees, announced this week from Stockholm, Sweden. Interestingly, one of these awards has been given to a relatively young scientist, as well as new discovery (comparatively). 
  • Konstantin Novoselov, who shares the award in Physics with Andre Geim for their graphene discovery, is only 36 years old. The average age for this category is 51.
  • Novoselov and Geim's discovery was made in the early years of this century (around 2003-2004). Most awards are made for contributions decades old.
All three contributions to science are significant. The palladium-catalyzed cross coupling discovery makes it easier to bind carbon atoms, which in turn makes it less challenging to create organic compounds that might be used in medicine. Roberts Edwards' work on in vitro fertilization has made it possible for millions of couples around the world to conceive a child. And graphene, the thinnest and strongest material now known, could lead to new and exciting developments in technology.

It's not easy to get a Nobel Prize in any category -- the selection process is rigorous and subject to high standards. Alfred Nobel indicated in his will that should there be no contribution worthy of the award in any given year, then the Committee should skip that year. Since its first awards in 1901, the Nobel Committee has skipped granting 50 awards in the various categories.

Some other interesting facts about the Nobel Prize:
  • Though 806 Prizes have awarded from 1901 to 2009, only 40 of these have been to women.
  • Two Laureates have declined the Prize (Jean-Paul Sartre and Le Duc Tho), and four have been forbidden by their government to accept the award of money associated with it.
  • Linus Pauling is the only recipient to have been awarded an unshared Prize more than once.
We applaud the various recipients of this year's awards and wish them success in their continued projects. If you would like to learn more about this year's various discoveries or the Nobel Prize, see below.

Palladium-catalyzed cross coupling
in vitro fertilization
2010 Nobel Prize

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

New X-Ray Technique Could Lead to Countless Discoveries

In the 1950s, it was Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling's X-ray Diffraction (XRD) technique that allowed Watson, Crick and Wilkins to see the true shape of DNA. In fact, without the photographs produced by the two, it might have taken many more years before the true structure of DNA was revealed. Now, a new X-ray technique has been revealed that takes things even further.

Useful only for non-living samples because of the high concentrations of radiation, the X-rays scatter slightly and present a 3D image of the material. The accuracy is such that it allows researchers to see nano-sized details, "such as hidey-holes for bone cells and connecting channels between those pockets." As the researchers note, it's expected that "this high-resolution tomography technique [will] provide invaluable information for both the life and materials sciences."

from the article published in Nature, the images show the quality and level of detail possible.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

New Research on Earthquakes and Fault Weakening

In today's issue of Nature, Ze've Reches and David A. Lockner present new insights into the mechanics of earthquakes. According to the authors, it isn't all about tectonics. As Reches explains to Nature, "The gradual buildup of stress in a fault as plates collide or slide past each other is necessary. But if nothing else were going on, all the pent-up energy could be released via fault creep, a motion so sluggish it's virtually unnoticeable by human standards, and the temblors that create so much havoc across the globe wouldn't exist."

The paper, Fault weakening and earthquake instability by powder lubrication, explores the role of fault gouge in the weakening -- and strengthening -- of faults during the course of an earthquake. According to the research, depending on the stage of the earthquake, fault gouge may either increase or decrease friction between the plates.

This project is an interesting example of modeling as a research technique. Because it would be virtually impossible to test their hypothesis in an actual earthquake, they created an apparatus in the lab to simulate the friction, speed and movement along fault lines. This allowed them to systematically record how fault gouge contributes to the earthquake process, and identify how gouge essentially acts in the same manner as industrial lubricants.
a, b, Blocks of Sierra White granite after experiment 652. LB, lower block; UB, upper block; SR, sliding ring; EG, gouge ejected. Note adhered gouge coating on the sliding ring (a) and heaps of ejected gouge on the lower block (b). c, Close-up view of a sliding surface showing adhered gouge and gouge layer. d, SEM image with melted-like area in which glass ‘glues’ fine angular grains (test 556). e, Atomic force microscope image of gouge grains of test 670 on glass plate; note the submicrometre grains and agglomerated grains in the lower left corner.

Their research can be found in full for free online here.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Proof is in the Pudding -- Together, we really can make a difference.

The Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion 2010, being released in full next month from the United Nations Environment Programme, not only shares good news for the state of the ozone layer, but provides hope for further changes related to climate change. Compiled by approximately 300 scientists from around the world, the report shows that the Montreal Protocol is working -- "by phasing out production and consumption of ozone depleting substances," we've managed to halt further destruction of the ozone layer.

The report highlights that efforts in the last 30 years to reduce CFC emissions have proven to be a success -- though other greenhouse gases still remains a concern.There is still much work to be done, as we haven't quite reached the point where the layer is rebuilding. But scientists are hopeful that, with efforts already underway, the layer may be largely restored by the middle of this century.

More than anything, this latest report shows that collaboration among scientists, governments, and individuals in the community is key to protecting the environment and reducing the human influence on climate change. By making changes on both the large and small scale, we've managed to make significant changes.

Let's keep up the great work!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Next on the Menu: Cocktail de Cucaracha

It's often joked, half-seriously, that if a meteor were to strike Earth the only thing left living would be cockroaches. If you've ever tried, you know that these creatures are some of the hardest to kill. The arthropods have a reputation for being invincible -- and with good reason. Cockroaches have an outer carapace that is both strong and flexible, allowing the creatures to squeeze through small crevices (or withstand a foot stomp) without being squished. They're also highly organized insects that exhibit group-based decision making that aids in their survival. (Oh, yes, they're clever little things.) And now, scientists have discovered that there is even more to this insect's ability to survive and thrive.

Researchers from the University of Nottingham in England noticed that many soldiers returned from service in the Middle East with unusual infections. They wondered how these microbials could effect humans so badly, but leave locusts from the region completely unaffected. The result of this wonder was a research project that used the ground up body parts of both locusts and American cockroaches in controlled experiments to identify and isolate the agents responsible for fighting off disease and infection.

As a result of the study, the researchers discovered that compounds found in cockroach brains and locust thoraxes kill 100 percent of the bacteria they were subjected to, without having any adverse effect on human tissues. Included in these tests was the E. coli strain responsible for meningitis.

While the compounds are all still in the process of being identified, there is hope that a cocktail of both cockroach brains and locust thorax could eventually be used for treating a whole host of bacterial infections in humans.

S. Lee et al. The brain lysates of locusts and cockroaches exhibit potent broad spectrum antibacterial activity. Society for General Microbiology meeting. Nottingham, England, September 7, 2010.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Science of Cooking

Sometimes, it's hard to engage our students or children in the sciences. Let's face it, it's just not everybody's favorite subject. But understanding science and the role it plays in our lives is as important as understanding our times tables and proper grammar. Without these basic skills, we're at a disadvantage.

One way to engage people of any age with science is through something everybody needs and most enjoy: food. Whether it is the chemistry involved in cold cooking (think ceviche) or the wonder of yeast and baking, these two websites are useful resources.

The first is geared toward middle and high school aged students; the second delves deeper into the mechanics and chemistry of the cooking process, so is useful for older age groups. We'd love to hear how you use cooking in your science teaching, or any experiments you've tried!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Get Your Free Climate Data, Here

This week, scientists from all over the world will descend on Exeter, England, to take action on something they've only been talking about for years: making climate data free for everyone.

After the firestorm surrounding email leaks from the University of East Anglia , the pressure is on to make available all of the data currently recorded on climate from around the world. This large bank will allow scientists working in all manners of research to have one go-to point for getting up-to-date information. It will also, by default, highlight the topic areas and regions of the world that are lacking in such data -- giving emerging and veteran researchers a jumping off point for new projects.

While the move does have its detractors -- some people feel that the general public doesn't possess the skill-set for interpreting raw data, and therefor may take things out of context or misinterpret -- overall, it offers educators and students in the sciences a wonderful resource for learning how to conduct research while contributing to the discourse. We'll be keeping an ear open to hear what plans these workshops yield over the course of the week.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Riding the "A-Train" to Hurricane Preparation

The 'A-Train', courtesy of
As the East Coast of the US battens down hatches in preparation of Hurricane Earl's landfall, we thought we'd take a moment to give kudos to the system that helps us know not only that a hurricane is coming, but the strength and projected rainfall, as well.

The A-Train consists of a series of satellites that orbit the earth in a direct line, following one another by a matter of a few minutes. Why bother having one satellite follow another? Each satellite collects different information, and by compiling the data from each one, scientists can learn very specific information about the behavior of a storm. For example, the satellite Aqua has instruments that collect atmospheric and oceanic measurements, including rainfall rates, temperatures at the top of clouds, and air pressure. Another satellite in the train, Cloudsat, actually gives a horizontal view of clouds and storms to show their structure and composition, which lets scientists make educated guesses on their possible effect.

By analyzing the data collected in each of these satellites, NASA can tell whether a storm is getting stronger or weakening, as well as the route it will most likely take. Other satellites in the NASA system record similar information, helping to put together a comprehensive database of measurement.Very important information for those of us living down here on earth.

As we listen to weather reports over the next 48 to 72 hours, we can rest assured that the most up-to-date information is being made available. For more on the A-Train, visit the NASA website.

Friday, August 27, 2010

New Module Live at

It's taken some time, but we are thrilled to announce that the third module in our DNA sequence, DNA III: The Replication of DNA, is now live on the Visionlearning website.

This new module expands on the replication process introduced in the previous modules, emphasizing the developments that took place to allow its discovery. Not only does it explore the physical mechanisms that initiate replication, but also the individuals and circumstances that contributed to the scientific process. We are very proud to offer this new module at the start of the school year. It can be incorporated into classes covering everything from biology to genetics to the history and process of discovery.

Please let us know your thoughts on this new material, and suggest topical areas you think would help us round out this sequence.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Maybe Sun Ra Really DID Come From Another Planet...

Hunting exoplanets is a relatively new activity: scientists have really only been doing so successfully for the last 15 years. In that short time their success has been impressive, though – 450 have already been catalogued. Now, a new discovery could help astronomers understand more about the formation of solar systems and potentially lead to discoveries of life on other planets.

Exoplanets (or extra solar planets) are simply planets that exist outside of our solar system. Most of the time these exoplanets are “giants,” about the size of Jupiter, and occur by themselves or with one other planet. The discovery being considered for publication by the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, though, shows seven exoplanets orbiting the star HD 10180, one of which is very close in size to Earth.

Hunting exoplanets is not an easy activity, to say the least. Unable to see the planets against the glare of the star they orbit, scientists use telescopes and highly sensitive devices to measure the star’s “wobble.” By observing the movement of a star over time, it is possible to determine the gravitational forces working on it and, as a result, the potential planets orbiting it. (The larger the exoplanet, the more gravitational pull, which explains why most of the systems discovered contain planets much larger than our own.) Other detection techniques are also used in conjunction to further identify size and composition. This is not an easy task when you consider how far away they are! HD 10180 is approximately 100 light years away from Earth.

As more and more exoplanets are discovered, scientists are becoming confident that planets and systems like our own exist. Now, if only someone could figure out a way of getting us there in less than 100 years…

Friday, August 20, 2010

Need Help With Your Genetics Homework?

The Nature Publishing Group has created a new, free learning resource for the public called Scitable.

While still in its infant stage, it looks to be a promising general resource discussing topics such as animal behavior and physiological ecology. At present, most of the work centers on Genetics and Ecology, but as time goes on the site should expand to include a wide variety of other STEM-related topics. The content is primarily for the undergraduate level,  in both content and readability.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

New Publication of The Process of Science

We've had a lot of requests to make content available in book form, and are happy to announce that, as of today, our collection of 'process' modules are available in a beautiful new paperback through

As many of us already realize, learning about the content of science without learning about the process of science is like trying to learn a foreign language with a dictionary. You can memorize a lot of vocabulary words and you might even be able to get by by asking directions or buying milk in the store. But without a sense of the nature and structure of the language, you will never be able to read a novel or have a conversation. Similarly, in science you may learn all of the facts about circulation in the atmosphere and the chemistry of greenhouse gases, but you will likely not understand why scientists have different ideas about the future effects of climate change. Without an awareness of how scientists gather and analyze their data, how they form hypotheses, and how they communicate those ideas to other scientists, you are missing the most important component of science -- how we know what we know.

This book offers a series of modules that explore the dynamic process of science, helping readers to better understand our surroundings and place in the universe. It is not meant to represent a specific discipline in science, but rather an umbrella for all scientific disciplines. We are very excited to be able to offer this material in printed form and look forward to your feedback!

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Fascinating Learning Opportunity for Us All

In 1968, construction began on the Maine Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Wiscasset, Maine. Part of this construction involved building a dam on the Lower Montsweag Brook, creating a mile-long reservoir to serve as a backup freshwater supply. There was much controversy surrounding the project, as the dam created an insurmountable barrier to many fishes that migrate from salt to fresh water for spawning, and flooded out important edge areas along the brook. There were also concerns about contamination from the plant's outflow. Safety issues forced the power plant shut down in 1996, leaving the dam behind.

An interesting new endeavor by the Chewonki Foundation, however, has folks in the region very excited. Chewonki purchased the property in 2008 in a settlement between the state and Maine Yankee's owners, and has been soliciting bids from contractors to remove the structure. But they're not simply coming in, taking the dam away, and leaving it at that. Instead, it's becoming an important community research project.

Volunteers in Wiscasset, including the local school children, have been collecting data from the area. This is part of a long-term monitoring project to see, as Don Hudson (former foundation president) says, "what nature does when the obstacles are removed from the environment." The data on water and soil quality, fish populations, and vegetation will be reported on a website dedicated to the project for all to see.

The project is being lauded by many throughout the region, with the hope that it will serve as a model for other endeavors. At the very least, the project will provide an information base for how nature restores equilibrium to an aquatic area after disturbance. Deconstruction is expected to begin in September of this year and be completed before winter.

For more on the effects of dam construction on the environment and community, click here. For comprehensive research studies on dams in China and the Czech Republic, see study 1 and study 2.

Image copyright Liz Noffsinger

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

It's Nice to Be Appreciated!

As a free resource for educators, students, and the general public, we spend a lot of time thinking of the best ways to get you the information you need. In the last year or so, we've turned our attention to better using new media, like this blog and the creation of apps. It's been exciting to see how many of you have downloaded our Visionlearning glossary app, which keeps the resource always at your fingertips. Now, we're even getting some accolades!

This last week, our glossary app was listed as one of the top 25 apps for engineers. Scientia Blogger has found that our app is a fabulous reference tool, up there with NASA, Popular Science, and Unit Converter Pro. We thank them for their recognition. You can download our app for free from iTunes.

On a side note, Visionlearning is considering creating another app. This one would take all of the old and new quiz items associated with our modules and make them available for i-devices. we'd love to hear from you as to whether you'd find something like this useful. Drop us a line at to share your ideas.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Imagine Science Film Festival -- Time is Running Out!

Have you been working on a film that is grounded in science? Does it have a compelling narrative and characters? Then now may be your chance to win big!

The Image Science Film Festival taking place in NYC is accepting submissions until August 15th. In addition to having your film shown to a wide viewing audience, additional prizes include the $2,500 Nature Scientific Merit Award and the $1,000 Nature Audience Award.

The festival takes place October 15th to the 22nd. For more information on submission procedures, or to get tickets, go to the ISFF website.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Scientific Ethics in the Spotlight Once More

A full review of three clinical trials being run at Duke University has recently begun after the integrity of individuals involved in the project was called into question. The trials involve assigning treatment methods to cancer patients based on the sensitivity of their cancer to certain drugs, and are an outflow from the discoveries of cancer researcher Anil Potti and cancer geneticist Joseph Nevins (both from Duke).

What began as a question of accurate data recording and reporting methods has since turned into allegations of resume padding on the part of Potti. While the investigation of both Potti and the science behind his various projects continues, it reminds us how even the rigorous peer review process we've come to know and love so well is not foolproof.

Potti and Nevins have had numerous articles and studies published in prominent journals. Only in the last few years, however, did anyone come to question the work being presented. This came as a direct result of biostatisticians Keith Baggerly and Kevin Coombes' inability to replicate the results.  The work of Potti and Nevins identifies particular signatures associated with cancer cell lines, and identifies the treatments that those cancers are most responsive to. However, according to Baggerly and Coombes, these signatures have been incredibly difficult to replicate and discussions with Potti and Nevins yielded little help. As Baggerly's frustrations grew, so did his need to find out what was really going on...which has cracked a large can of worms.

We await the results of the investigation into both the clinical trial and the researcher in question, and will keep an open mind. But in the meantime, it's a good idea to remember that even with the best of intentions, playing with numbers and facts will always come back to haunt. For more on the peer review process and working with data, visit the Visionlearning website. For more on this investigation, click here.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Rare Opportunity to See Auroras

This week there is a rare opportunity for people living in the northern regions of the US to see the spectacular light show, aurora borealis. (Those living toward the South Pole, particularly in New Zealand and southern Australia, may likewise have the chance to see the aurora australis.)

Typically, we see these curtains and arcs of light near the winter and spring equinoxes, when the air is less dense and the weather is clear. The closer you are to the poles, the more likely your chance of getting a viewing. But this week, people living in the northern regions of the US, from Maine to Michigan, and in Canada should have the opportunity to see a pretty exciting summer light show out of season, courtesy of Mother Nature.

This opportunity is the result of a series of sun storms that flared on Sunday. The storms have sent waves of plasma toward earth, which should arrive late Tuesday night and into Wednesday. This plasma is not anything to be concerned about -- it is what we call "solar wind" and is simply a gas of free electrons and positive ions. These electrons and ions enter earth's atmosphere and begin the process of colliding with oxygen and nitrogen atoms, creating a geomagnetic storm.

The color visible in the sky is dependent on the interaction. The ionization and excitation of oxygen atoms tends to produce brownish-red and green waves of light; nitrogen tends to create blue or red. (For more on the ionization process, see our module Atomic Theory II.) The best chance you'll have of seeing the lights is to get as far away from human light sources, like cities, and into the countryside. The map on the right, courtesy of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, gives an idea of who is most likely to be able to see the aurora as it occurs.

If you have an opportunity to see the show, please let us know what it was like! Even better, share your photos!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Data Interpretation in the Gulf

Reports out of the Gulf of Mexico come at us every day: the status of the well head closure, wildlife death counts, weather effects. Many of these reports conflict. As we start day 100 of the BP leak, we're still not sure how much oil has actually passed from the underground reservoir into the aquatic ecosystem, or how much wildlife has been killed. The government reports one estimate; independent researchers another. And the reports now being issued on dissolved oxygen concentrations in the water in the Gulf show another series of discrepancies.

To the average person, much like the conflicting arguments on climate change, this can be very confusing and frustrating. Why aren't the scientists on both sides of the fence coming up with the same conclusions? After all, they're sampling the same waters! How is it, for example, that researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara or University of Georgia at Athens can state with confidence that oxygen levels in parts of the Gulf have dropped 30% to 50% since the leak began, but government researchers claim the changes are minimal?

The answer lies in a combination of Research Methods and Data Interpretation. Dissolved oxygen (the oxygen aquatic animals rely on to breathe) is measured through the use of specialized equipment that can detect the concentrations in the water at parts per million. This equipment typically has a sensitive membrane that allows oxygen to pass through. Unfortunately, much like the gills on a fish, this membrane is sensitive to the clogging nature of oil. So, while independent researchers are confident that their equipment is functioning properly, doubt is still cast on the reliability of their data. To confound this, other researchers have used different methods of calculation (such as Winkler titrations) and are coming up with different results.

Complicating matters further, not all of the researchers are sampling in the same areas. Many independent researchers argue that the data suggesting low oxygen changes is coming from areas close to the well head where the population of oil-consuming organisms have not increased. (The reduction of oxygen is the result of a bloom in these populations, much like a seasonal algal bloom in a lake.)

Even if all of the data did come out similar, though, there would still be much to argue about. An event of this magnitude is, fortunately, something that we don't encounter often, which means that the long-term effects are hard to determine for certain. Scientists in the Gulf have been using modeling techniques based on knowledge from smaller spills to make educated guesses, but every ecosystem is different. The currents, weather patterns, and wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico, for example, is very different from that of Prince William Sound, Alaska.

As the clean-up efforts and monitoring continue (and they likely will for years), it's important to remind ourselves that science is not a series of facts that are determined simply, but a process of discovery that includes a significant element of human influence and input from multiple sources. Only time will tell what the realities of the situation are. In the meantime, it's important for as much reliable information to be gathered as possible to add to the repository of data.

Do you deal with research methods or data interpretation in your classroom or work? What do you think of the discrepancies scientists in the Gulf are showing? How would you explain this to a non-scientist?

Monday, July 26, 2010

What Did We Do Before Google?

We've all had the thought on occasion. How, exactly, did we function before Google? (Some of us even marvel at how much we were able to accomplish before the internet.) And it seems that this ubiquitous entity has once again shown how useful it can be -- this time in the realm of astronomy and earth science research.

Researchers have been using the image database of Google Earth as a new information source for finding incidences of meteorite impact...and in August of 2008 found a fairly recent one in southwestern Egypt. The 45-meter-wide crater was likely caused in the last few thousand years by a fast moving iron meteorite and in all likelihood was witnessed by ancient Egyptian civilization. The spoke-like rays of soil from the impact have seemingly remained intact -- or, at least, enough so that were visible through Google's satellite images. Further research has shown that the crater appears in satellite images in the early 1970s.

You can see the team's Materials and Methods online, or read the full paper in the July 22, 2010 issue of Science. To view the crater on Google Earth, the coordinates are 26º05′15″E    22º01′05″N.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Preparing for Summer Learning Loss

We've heard a lot of talk in the news lately about summer learning loss in K-12 students. First Lady Michelle Obama recently added the importance of summer reading to her campaign to get children leading more active, healthy lifestyles; numerous articles in educational journals have explored the achievement gaps that are directly attributable to the summer break. But what, as educators, can we do to address this inevitable loss of knowledge when our students come back into the classroom? And, do we address it differently with undergraduate students than we do with K-12?

There is plenty of literature to support parents in preventing summer learning loss in their own children, but little in the way of how to handle the loss as an educator. That's why we would love to hear how you start off the school year.
  • Do you spend time reviewing material from the previous year?
  • Do you ask students to take assessments so that you know what they've retained?
  • Do you assign summer coursework so that their minds stay fresh?
Share your ideas with us here -- help other educators begin to prepare for September with some new techniques and approaches to get students back up to speed in record time.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

You Have Until August 2nd!

Yes, that's correct. If you would like to have some input into the standards that will be used to assess science knowledge across the US, you have until August 2nd to review and comment on the National Research Council's draft of the Conceptual Framework for New Science Standards.

The standards are geared toward K-12, but we know that what happens at the lower levels significantly effects what happens later on. If you are involved with teaching or learning science in any way, give some thought to the core knowledge that students should have upon either entering the workforce, or beginning an undergraduate science degree. Those of us on the front-lines are the ones who know best what is lacking in our current approach to teaching science.

A survey will be posted on the National Academies website July 14th for those who would like to offer their feedback.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Breakthrough in HIV/AIDS Prevention

In the US each year, an estimated 56,300 people are newly infected with HIV and, according to the CDC, approximately 21% of HIV-positive individuals don't even know they carry the virus. It is a disease that continues to spread, despite widespread education efforts, and to many people without the resources for medical care sounds the death knell. But now there's more hope.

Who would have thought that just 30 years after the first known cases of HIV and AIDS were recorded in the United States we'd have a potential cure? In tomorrow's edition of Science, NIH-sponsored scientists explain how they have identified two antibodies, known as VRCO1 and VRCO2, that are able to prevent most known HIV strains from infecting human cells. This could lead not only to the development of an HIV vaccine, but to vaccines for other diseases as well.

As described in the research, the scientists devised a new molecular device that isolates antibodies produced in the blood of HIV-positive individuals. The device itself is a protein that is designed to bind with a vulnerable spot on the virus, thus blocking its ability to infect other cells. According to the researchers, the site where the protein binds happens to be one that is relatively unchanging, which explains why it is able to neutralize a wide variety of HIV forms.

Not only does this discovery mean that we could see an end to HIV/AIDS in the no-too-distant future, but the research methods employed could lead scientists to trying similar things with other diseases. Tomorrow's release of the research could mark the start of an entirely new approach to vaccine-creation, and have significant effects on the world's health moving forward.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Novel Research Methods May Help Protect Species

Creativity plays a highly important role in scientific research. Often, the more complex the question, the more creative the approach. This is especially true for those studying elusive or endangered species, as researchers must design projects that will bring them close to their often hard to find subject.

In a study just released in the journal Nature, researchers working in Columbia, South America, created a novel method for identifying the population of cotton-top tamarin, an animal popular in the exotic pet trade. As the paper explains, two teams of four researchers walked parallel in strip transects through the historic distribution area of the cotton-top tamarin. That in itself isn't particularly unique. What was unique, though, was that the third member in each party carried a Bose Acoustic Wave Music System II that played the long calls of adult cotton-top tamarins living captive at Disney's Animal Kingdom. (The fourth person in each group walked behind and documented the number, demographics and location of the animals responding.)

Read the full research article here.

The project demonstrates how important it is to know your research subject when designing methods. The approach relies heavily on the understanding that tamarins are social creatures and will come toward the call of new individuals, rather than run away. Despite documented research confirming this behavior, the research team tried their technique first on known populations of tamarin living in their long-term study site. Through this trial they confirmed that the animals would not only respond vocally to the playback, but would come close enough that they could be seen and documented.

The results of this project showed that the population of cotton-top tamarins in the Columbian forests have declined significantly since the 1960s -- from the tens of thousands to the thousands. As a result, they have been reclassified as "Critically Endangered" and placed on the "World's 25 Most Endangered Primates" list.  With the help of the team's research, Columbian officials are making the conservation of forest a priority in protecting this species -- though deforestation and urban development continue to be a massive threat.

Image copyright Hogle Zoo, 2010.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Has Amelia Earhart Finally Been Found?

Okay, it may not be too science-y, but it's really cool to think that the folks at The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), may have actually found the remains of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan's crash.

Amidst the remains of campfires filled with fish skeletons and other animal parts, researcher Ric Gillespie and his team found a woman's compact, clothing, and even a pocket knife that was smashed to separate the parts. It helps that the discovery took place on Nikumamoro, the island in the South Pacific where the two are thought to have landed when they ran out of fuel in the June of 1937. In 1940, the skeletal remains of a female castaway were found on the island (though lost). The team is testing for contact DNA on many of the 100 items recovered from the site, hoping to find enough information to determine if this was, in fact, Earhart and Noonan's last resting place.

You can view an audio slide show here, where Gillespie discusses the expedition and the findings.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Praise for Skloot's New Profile of HeLa

There are few things here at Visionlearning that get us more excited than seeing the incorporation of the process and history of science with the practical aspects. That's why it was so thrilling to read Rebecca Skloot's new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

If it's been a long time since you heard the word "HeLa," here's a brief reminder. HeLa cells, named after the woman they were taken from (Henrietta Lacks), are used in essentially every form of cell research that has been done since the 1950s. Jonas Salk's discovery of the polio vaccine, our understanding of the effects of radiation on the human body, current treatments for cancer -- none of these would exist if it wasn't for the existence of Henrietta Lacks. But for as long as we've celebrated new discoveries in cell biology and the treatment of disease, rarely does this include the celebration of the woman from whom this immortal cell line came.

That is, until now.

In Skloot's thorough book, over a decade of research and interviews with the Lacks family, scientists involved in the treatments of Henrietta, and an assortment of professionals at Johns Hopkins culminates in a wonderfully engaging story of Henrietta and her unintentional contribution to science. The text honestly explores the question of ethics in research, how racial segregation impacted treatment, and brings to light a pressing question yet to be solved -- What rights do we retain when our body tissues are removed from our body?

It's difficult reading at times, not because of composition, but because of the reality with which we are confronted. While it wasn't customary in the 1950s, nor in many instances today, to ask a patient whether their excised tissues can be used in research, Henrietta's case was a bit more extreme. It's not just that the woman whose aggressive cancer cells continue to aid science 60 years after her death was never asked to donate tissue for research. Her family was never asked if researchers could take samples of her cervix once they realized what they'd stumbled upon, nor told after they had done so. And the affronts and exploitation continued well into the new millennium, with the family being asked to donate blood samples and given little information as to why. As Skloot shows, it wasn't until she was well into the research of this book and speaking with the family that they even understood what was so important about Henrietta's cells.

Alongside the history of the Lacks family, we get a well-written explanation of the evolution of HeLa's use. From Gey's first culture in the lab, to the sharing of HeLa cells with other researchers, to the multi-million dollar cell culturing businesses that grew out of that initial culture, we see how important ethics, creativity, communication, and proper laboratory techniques are to the world of scientific research.

Skloot's profile of the Lacks family and use of HeLa cells in research is a must read for everyone. It's not just for those interested in understanding the process and history of cell biology and disease research, but for anyone who has every wondered about the discoveries in medicine that have helped to prolong life and cure once-deadly diseases. Without Henrietta Lacks, we would certainly be living in a very different world.

Interested in seeing more about this book? Click here: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Friday, June 18, 2010

Oooooh, Pollination!

June 21st kicks off National Pollinators Week, and good thing, too. These often-forgotten heroes deserve a little attention now and again. After all, they support our delicate ecosystems by sharing the love, helping in the reproductive process of the plants that provide nourishment and protection. If you're interested in participating in the US Department of Agriculture's activities from the 21st to the 27th, click here.

If you're interested in learning more about pollinators and their important role in our worldwide ecosystems, pick up The Forgotten Pollinators by Stephen Buchmann and Gary Nabhan. This book has been around for over a decade, but is as poignant and relevant as ever. Combining Buchmann's entymology with Nabhan's ethnobotany and skill at nature writing, they give us a wonderfully entertaining text that is full of useful information. It's a must for any novice naturalist, or for the student of ecology.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

One Fish, Two Fish...Sharks and Other Open-water Predators Using Their Math Skills

Look up the word "fractal" in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and you get the definition shown at right. Accurate, but not terribly enlightening. In more layman's terms, think of fractals in this way: a fern frond is a long stem with lots of smaller "leaves" on it. The large frond is somewhat elliptical in shape, with the mid-section of the frond being much wider than the base or tip. Now, if we look even closer at the frond, we see that those small "leaves" that run along either side of the frond are, in essence, much smaller fronds. They look the same as the larger whole. This is one example of fractal geometry at play in nature. The small parts that make up the whole are the same shape and proportion as the whole itself.

How does this relate to sharks and other open-water predators? For many years, scientists have been trying to see whether such fractal geometry occurs in the actions of living organisms -- the so-called Lévy-flight foraging hypothesis. This hypothesis suggests that a foraging pattern is composed of long trajectories, followed by short, random movements that when looked at on a large scale over time resemble the smaller patterns. Studies have been conducted on birds such as albatross, on deer and other foraging animals and have shown that such fractal patterns exist. Unfortunately, discrepancies in the data collection have cast much of this research into question. That is, until now.

In June 9th's issue of Nature, Humphries et al. show that the Lévy-flights are adopted by fourteen separate fish species when food resources are scarce and irregularly dispersed. Rather than following a random Brownian movement pattern, when food resources were significantly reduced, the sharks and other fishes in the study resorted to following more deliberate search patterns. They would swim long distances in one direction, then stop and make a series of shorter, random movements looking for food. In areas where food resources were abundant, the fishes resorted back to the random Brownian movements.

The research, which you can read in full here, shows that environmental circumstances more than any other factor determine foraging behavior of these specific fish species. Further research will need to be conducted to see if these "animals evolved such that they exploit Lévy flights as an optimal search strategy for life in complex, highly changeable landscapes."

For more on mathematics in nature, read Visionlearning's Wave Mathematics module.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Frustration of Flow Rate

Since the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20th, there has been a lot of speculation about the amount of oil that is actually flowing into the Gulf. The estimates have varied considerably. Yesterday, the US government announced that the amount of oil is likely to be double what was originally estimated, approximately 25,000 to 30,000 barrels per day. But we still do not know for certain, and this is frustrating to many who feel that with the technology we have and the amount of time this has been going on, we should be able to come up with definitive numbers.

Leaving aside speculation about whether or not BP is being upfront about their data, let's take a moment to look at how flow rate is generally calculated and why some of these estimates have been drastically different.

Whether you're a plumber or an oil driller, there is a general formula used to understand the flow rate of a liquid leaving a pipe:

Velocity  X  Pipe Area = Flow Rate

Velocity is a vector quantity and is measured by the speed of an object over time. When we talk about the speed/time, it refers to constant velocity -- both the size of the object and the direction remain the same. Because a pipe is a fixed object, the direction of the oil within it is obviously not going to change. But when it leaves the pipe, it encounters the pressure of water one mile beneath the surface (approximately 500 times greater than at sea level) and other particulates, which can deflect the direction of the flow. How scientists are calculating velocity thus far has been a bit murky. Measuring it within the pipe will generate one number; outside the pipe, another.

Now, the pipe area. This is one number that should actually be pretty straight-forward. The area of a cylinder is the perimeter of the opening multiplied by the height. In this case, it's the perimeter of the pipe opening multiplied times the length of the pipe. One of the reasons we include pipe area in calculating flow rate is because the friction of the inside of the pipe applies force on the liquid.The longer the pipe or shorter the diameter, the greater the force applied. Cutting the pipe increased the perimeter because it removed the valve that was slowing the flow down -- so the flow rate has actually increased since this was done.

In the case of the Gulf, we want to know more than the flow rate -- we want to know the mass flow rate. We want to know how much oil is coming into the area, not just how quickly.

In order to calculate mass flow rate, we need to incorporate density into the equation:

Mass Flow Rate = Density X  Velocity X Pipe Area

Density is measured by dividing the mass of an object by its volume (for more on density, click here). When you have a fixed object, calculating density is rather straight-forward: find its mass, measure its volume, do the math, et viola. Unfortunately, the crude oil coming out of the sea bed in the Gulf is not uniform. It is composed of solid particulate, gas and liquid. And the concentrations of these will vary over time. Add to the mix that BP is injecting dispersants into the pipe, and density becomes even more difficult to calculate. 

Clearly, the fact that this leak is occurring in three places 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean means that there are more factors at play than simply multiplying a few numbers together. It becomes a matter of getting numbers that accurately reflect the averages for density and velocity, which has been quite difficult considering the locations of the three leaks.

With luck, the leaks will be stopped soon enough so that we no longer have to worry about whose numbers are correct.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Taking "Obsession" to a Whole New Level

The Wall Street Journal published an article today on some interesting scientific research. Apparently, Calvin Klein's cologne, Obsession, is more than just for men.

As the article notes, zoos all over the world have long been using the practice of spraying perfumes and colognes throughout animal grounds in order to keep them stimulated and curious. At the Bronx Zoo in New York, Curator Pat Thomas decided to see if the types of scent had much affect on the response of cheetahs to the new odors. While a cat's sense of smell may not be as developed as its other senses, the average cat's ability is still 14 times greater than a human's -- which makes those perfumes and colognes particularly pungent, and Thomas' study showed that the big cats have very particular tastes.

Using 24 different types of perfume and cologne, Thomas measured the amount of time it took for the cats to first notice the new scent, and then how long they spent investigating it. The results were varied. Estee Lauder's Beautiful apparently interested the cheetahs for a whopping two seconds. But Klein's Obsession? 11.1 minutes. More than simply investigating the scent, the animals tended to cuddle up next to whatever was sprayed with the cologne.

This research was impressive enough to convince Thomas to share his finding with other scientists studying big cats, and has since had a significant impact on field research. Now, scientists all over the world are able to get better information about the big cats they are studying. As the article noted, one researcher studying jaguars has had a significant increase in usable data. Relying on motion-detecting cameras to record the presence and distinct markings of jaguars, he has managed to lure more of the elusive animals to his camera areas by leaving objects spritzed with the cologne nearby. The Wildlife Conservation Society has even decided to make the use of Obsession-spritzing a regular part of all of their jaguar studies!

Many of these organizations and zoos rely on donations from the public in order to operate -- and this includes donations of scents. If you happen to have some Obsession lying around that you don't think you'll use, contact your local zoo to see if they might like it. And if that's your favorite cologne, you might want to think twice about wearing it the next time you are in the area of big cats...

For more on research methods, visit's Process of Science page.

Image courtesy of Bernie Condon at

Monday, June 7, 2010

To Caffeinate or Not to Caffeinate

Researchers at Bristol University in the UK have something to tell us regular coffee, tea and soda drinkers. That morning pick-me-up isn't really picking us up, it's pushing us down.

In the study about to be published in Nature's journal Neuropsychopharmacology, Rogers et al. share with us that our regular caffeine habits are actually causing a dependency that leaves us in withdrawl. After 16 hours without caffeine, regular caffeine consumers and non-consumers were divided up. Some were given caffeine tablets and others a placebo. The results show that the "post-caffeine levels of alertness [in regular caffeine consumers] were actually no higher than the non/low consumers who received a placebo, suggesting caffeine only brings coffee drinkers back up to 'normal'."*

So what does that tell us regular visitors to the coffee pot? If we want to increase our alertness, we might think about skipping the "regular," grabbing the decaf, and doing something that is proven to increase blood flow to the brain -- like taking a walk.

Image courtesy of Michelle Meiklejohn from

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Modeling the Swallowtail

Modeling has long been used by scientists to replicate and manipulate what they are researching. Physical, conceptual, and computer models have turned out to be important components of scientific research because they allows us to see things. These different modeling forms become incredible useful when studying incredibly large (think solar system) and very small (think atomic) systems. Or, in the case of two researchers at Harvard University, something delicate and fleeting. (To learn more about modeling as a research method, click here.)

Researchers Hiroto Tanaka and Isao Shimoyama have managed to create a model of the swallowtail butterfly's wing. Their research has not only shown how the undulating flight pattern of the swallowtail allows it to conserve energy, but the physiological importance of veins within the wing. By creating a physical model of the butterfly from a thin polymer film and balsa wood (it weighs 0.4 grams, only slightly heavier than the actual creature), they have been able to compare the flight patterns of the model butterflies (with and without veins) to live ones. After recording the live and artificial creatures on high speed film, Tanaka and Shimoyama were able to compare the data and begin to understand how simple up and down movement can create forward-thrust.  It turns out, as well, that the presence of veins in the wings give them more rigidity, and therefore more lift for the effort expended. Lift was also enhanced by the undulating flight pattern of the butterfly.

The full research report is publicly available in the June issue of the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Journal Nature Continues Open Access Efforts

Last week, the journal Nature announced that seven more of their Publishing Group journals will give authors an open access option -- taking the total number of NPG journals with open access up to 25. By paying an author processing charge, authors can choose to make the article freely available to the public.

There has been a lot of discussion and debate in recent years about open access to scientific and scholarly material. On the 'pro' side, we have the argument that the results of any research funded with public tax dollars should be made freely accessible to anyone -- scientist or otherwise. Why should anyone who pays tax dollars need to then pay the thousands of dollars it might cost to purchase a subscription to leading journals? On the 'anti' side, we have the claim that making this material free and open to the public will take away necessary operating funds of many of these journals. Plus, there has been little discussion on the repercussions of what making this knowledge available to everyone might mean.

As educators and researchers, though, we know how important it is to have access to the most up-to-date information on what it happening in our fields. We can't "stand on the shoulders of giants" if we only have access to their knees. So, today, in addition to highlighting Nature's contribution, we'd like to show folks where they can find information on what journals currently offer open access options.

The Directory of Open Access Journals provides free, full text, quality controlled scholarly and scientific journals and should be your first stop. Then, check out some of these:
Have other open access resources that you think are great? Let us know by commenting here, or on our Facebook page. For more on the open access discussion, read this article in Science.

Image from, courtesy of graur razvan ionut

Friday, May 21, 2010

Science Fiction Meets Real World -- The First "Synthetic" Cell

Image courtesy of Science/AAAS
It isn't quite the same as Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley's splicing of human and animal DNA to create a human-chimera, but scientists in in Rockville, Maryland have announced that they have created the very first "synthetic" cell. In today's issue of Science, Gibson et al. working at the J. Craig Venter Institute provide information on the research that has led to the creation of a chromosome from scratch, and ultimately to a self-replicating, live cell. The nucleotides of a common bacterium's DNA were digitalized using a computer, then assembled into sequence segments. Many of the sequences even carry a watermark with the names of the scientists involved in the project!

The research seems to have come straight out of Hollywood (ironically, Brody's film Splice is about to be released in theaters). While they have not created a new life form, the discovery is being heralded by some scientists as the greatest scientific discovery in the history of humankind, putting the team on a pedestal with Galileo and Descartes because this work could potentially act as a stepping stone to the creation of novel life forms, bio-fuels and medicines, among other things.

But, with great power comes great responsibility, and individuals concerned about the ethics and consequences inherent in such a discovery have voiced their opinions and concerns in Science's rival, the journal Nature. The eight opinions shared serve as an excellent resource for anyone interested in exploring controversy in science or ethics (for more on these, see our Visionlearning's Scientific Ethics module).

Tell us what you think? In light of this research, should the federal government set more detailed guidelines on what can and cannot be done in the laboratory? Is this potentially the eugenics of the 21st century? Where do we draw the line in manipulating DNA?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Vine that Ate the South

Take a drive through parts of the southern US and you'll notice a bright green, ivy-like plant forming tents over many trees and telephone poles. It drapes itself from any possible hold, leaves vying for every ray of sunlight. In small bits it can be beautiful, but at the rate it's taking over the South it's downright scary.

The Kudzu vine (Pueraria montana) is an invasive species, originally from Asia, that was introduced to the southern US in the 1870s. In the mid 1900s, farmers and the Civilian Conservation Corps were encouraged to plant the vine wherever there was bare soil in an effort to reduce erosion. Unfortunately, like many introduced species (think starlings and zebra mussels) the kudzu vine was able to adapt to its new environment very quickly, sending out runners to establish new plants. (Click here to learn more about adaptation.) The result was that the vine began to quickly smother native species -- they can grow as much as 60 feet in one season, one foot per day!

New research published in PNAS shows that the kudzu not only chokes out other plants, but it's starting to choke out humans, as well. Like other legumes, kudzu and nitrogen-fixing bacteria in soil form symbiotic relationships. The bacteria help the plant to grow by producing ammonium; the plant gives the bacteria a nice, safe place to live. As the new research shows, however, the rate at which nitrogen is being fixed is problematic.

The journal Science explains: "The fast-growing legume fixes atmospheric nitrogen at a really high rate and the resulting increases in nitrogen cycling has triggered a dramatic increase in nitric oxide emissions from soils, according to a new paper in PNAS. Nitric oxide is a key precursor to ozone, and while this usefully blocks the sun’s harmful rays when it’s high in the atmosphere, it is an air pollutant that damages lungs and prevents plants from absorbing carbon dioxide when it occurs at the surface."

Are you or your students conducting research on invasive species? We would love to hear about it! Share your thoughts here, or on our Facebook page.

Click here for more information on nitrogen cycling.

Image by lowresolution via Flickr