Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Video of the Week: Science of the Olympics

In addition to being an outstanding athlete, Olympic
weightlifter Sarah Robles is a model for scientists
working in biomimitics. Image courtesy: NBC Universal 
Only two days, 1 hour, and 1 minute to go until the 2012 Summer Olympic Games kick off in London. We tend to think of the Olympics as a contest of strength, endurance, and human will--and indeed it is. But there's another, less-talked-about aspect of the games that has major implications for athletes in training and competition: science.  From designing "anti-gravity" training treadmills and high-impact safety helmets to making fluid dynamics work for an athlete in the pool, science and engineering are at work behind the scenes in all of our favorite Olympic sports.

Our video of the week looks at how scientists studying biomimitics (the practice of using nature as a model to solve engineering problems) can apply techniques used by champion weightlifter Sarah Robles to the development of robotic arms.  It's one of ten videos in the new series "Science of the Olympic Games: Engineering in Sports" produced by the National Science Foundation and NBC Learn. The other nine videos cover topics ranging from the biomechanics of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt's impressive speed to the importance of accuracy and precision in timekeeping.


Congratulations and best of luck to all the athletes competing in London this summer!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Video of the Week: E.O. Wilson's Advice to Young Scientists about Facing Math and Excelling in Your Field

For many students, even those majoring in science, math is a four-letter word. But renowned evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson has a message for aspiring scientists:  "If you are a bit short in mathematical skills, don't worry."

Wilson--who didn't take algebra until his freshman year of college or calculus until he was 32 and a tenured professor at Harvard--wants students and young scientists to know that they can catch up. 
In our video of the week, Wilson offers advice on how to tackle fear of math, how to find the field of study that fits you, and how to excel even if math isn't your strong suit. He implores young people to go into the sciences, saying: "The world needs you, badly."

At Visionlearning, we know that many students struggle with the mathematical components of their science courses.  That's why we're excited to begin work on a series of new modules covering mathematical concepts and skills commonly used in the sciences, from biology to geology. We'll let you know when the first module is ready, and we hope you'll give us your feedback. 

In the meantime, is there a mathematical concept that you (or your students) struggle with?  Has there ever been a time when math held you back in your career or studies?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Video of the Week: EU's 'Science, It's a Girl Thing' Stirs Controversy

This week the European Union launched a new initiative called "Science: It's a Girl Thing" aimed at encouraging more young women to pursue STEM careers.  Their promotional video clip drew a lot of attention--although not the kind they had hoped. In fact, they were so besieged with complaints that the video was superficial and filled with stereotypes that they withdrew it and issued an explanation and apology.  The clip, still available through YouTube, is our Video of the Week.

We hope you'll watch it and share your opinion in the comments below or on our Facebook page:

What Others are Saying
Mary Ann Rankin, President and CEO of the U.S. National Math and Science Initiative, calls the video "a viral disaster" but notes that many of the other materials for the initiative are "quite good."  In particular, she points to a series of video profiles featuring female scientists produced by the campaign and a section called "Six Reasons Science Needs You," which makes the case for women to get excited about STEM opportunities.

In a statement, the European Union explained the rationale behind the video clip and said it will continue the "Science: It's a Girl Thing" campaign sans music video:
The 45-second clip was intended to put this in a lighter context, to grab the attention of teenage girls aged 13 to 18 who have up until now been very hard to reach with messages about science. The goal was to attract their attention so that they might look at the campaign in detail, visit the website where there is lots of information on science and careers in research, including video-profiles of role models.

The concept of the trailer was to combine images of science (such as electronics, mathematics, chemistry, physics) with images closer to cosmetics and fashion to show teenage girls that science is already part of their life.

What do you think?  Is the video effective?  Offensive?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Controversy over Arsenic-Loving Bacteria comes down to Data Interpretation

Mono Lake, California, home to the controversial, arsenic-tolerant
bacteria known as GFAJ-1.  Image Courtesy Flickr User anaurath (CC)

A little over a year ago, we ran a blog post about a provocative paper in the journal Science called "A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus." Or more accurately, we ran a blog post about the heated discussion and, yes, controversy surrounding the paper.

The researchers' findings were startling because they pointed to a life form--a bacterium called GFAJ-1--that, according to the authors' interpretation of the data, did not need phosphorus to survive. In fact, the authors, led by NASA astrobiology fellow Felisa Wolfe-Simon, posited that the bacteria were replacing the phosphorus in their DNA with the normally-toxic metal arsenic.

The implications were huge. If the results were reproduced by other researchers, our understanding of what makes life possible, on Earth and potentially on other planets, would need serious revision. As soon as the paper appeared online, debate raged in the scientific community. When the paper went to press a couple of months later, it was published alongside eight "technical comments" voicing concerns about the paper's conclusions as well as a rebuttal from the researchers.

Fast forward to this Monday--July 8, 2012.

Two new papers on GFAJ-1 have been published in the online version of Science, both of which suggest that the conclusions drawn in the original study were wrong. The second round of researchers--led by Tobias Erb at the Institute of Microbiology, ETH in Zurich and Marshall Louis Reaves at Princeton--took a closer look at the situation.  They grew the same bacteria (provided by the original authors) in arsenic-rich and phosphorus-depleted conditions. For the most part, their results were similar to the original study--the bacteria did indeed continue to grow in these adverse conditions, and they did find arsenic in its cells.

But when they examined the bacteria's DNA and cellular byproducts more closely, they came to different conclusions than Wolfe-Simon's team had. The new results and their revised interpretation of the data indicate that GFAJ-1 bacteria is very resistant to arsenic (a feat in and of itself), but that it does not incorporate the metal into its genetic material and that it still needs a small amount of phosphorus to survive.

So what happened?  Was the first study "bad science?"  Did the system of peer review fail?  Does this mean that we've wasted our time studying and reading about GFAJ-1?

On the contrary.  This is the process of science. This is how our understanding of the natural world grows and evolves.

In a press statement released with the new papers, the editors of Science summed it up this way:
The scientific process is a naturally self-correcting one, as scientists attempt to replicate published results. Science is pleased to publish additional information on GFAJ-1, an extraordinarily resistant organism that should be of interest for further study, particularly related to arsenic-tolerance mechanisms.


Compare the Headlines:
New York Times Story "Microbe Finds Arsenic Tasty; Redefines Life," Dec. 2, 2010

New York Times Story "Studies Rebut Finding That Arsenic May Support Life" July 8, 2012

Compare the Papers:
The Original Science Paper, "A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus" Dec. 2, 2010

The Technical Comments and Rebuttal from the authors, May 27th 2011

The New Science Papers, July 8, 2012
"GFAJ-1 Is an Arsenate-Resistant, Phosphate-Dependent Organism"

"Absence of Detectable Arsenate in DNA from Arsenate-Grown GFAJ-1 Cells"

Note: All related papers are free to access, but you may need to register with AAAS.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Image of the Week: Has the Elusive Higgs Boson been Found?

Unless you were hiding under a rock this week, you likely heard the buzz about the Higgs boson (or perhaps more accurately the "Higgs-like particle"). The sub-atomic particle, proposed in 1964 by Peter Higgs and other theorists, has eluded scientist for decades. But on Wednesday July 4th, scientists announced that they had amassed enough evidence to officially describe a new sub-atomic particle--one with characteristics closely matched to the long-sought-after Higgs boson.

Image © 2012 CERN
For two years, physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland have been smashing protons together at high speeds and observing the crash sites with sensitive detectors. They were looking for signs that the collisions had (at least occasionally) emitted a Higgs boson, which according to its theoretical properties would immediately decay into other particles. Our image of the week is a computer rendering of one of the experimental collisions. The yellow dotted lines and green towers radiating out from the crash show characteristics matching what scientists would expect to observe as a Higgs boson decayed into a pair of photons.

By examining the subatomic shrapnel from trillions of collisions, the scientists were able to conclude that they had indeed shaken loose this new Higgs-like particle.  This is big news because the Higgs boson is the last piece "missing" (undetected by science) from the "Standard Model" of particle physics that describes the structure of matter and our universe.

While the researchers are cautious about saying that the particle they have observed is definitely the Higgs boson, they are certain that it's a huge discovery for physics. And the possibility that it's a different, as-yet-unpredicted particle is equally as exciting. To gain a clearer picture of the discovery, the research teams will gather as much data as possible before the LHC shuts down for a two-year period of maintenance and upgrades.

Bonus footage! We selected an image of the week, but we couldn't resist sharing this video as well. NOVA produced it last year when scientists were still searching for evidence of the Higgs boson. It's a little dated in that respect, but it gives a nice, quick explanation of the Higgs boson and an interview with Peter Higgs.

Watch The Higgs Particle Matters on PBS. See more from NOVA.

Dig Deeper
Learn more about the LCH, the massive (27-kilometer-long) particle accelerator, where scientists labored to find evidence of the Higgs boson

Read the Science News story "Higgs Found" by Alexandra Witze