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 NASA.gov
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.