Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Evolving Terms

No stranger to controversy, the word "evolution" was the star of a recently published paper by researchers from the Biology Department of the University of VA, Charlottesville.

Their paper, Evolution by Any Other Name: Antibiotic Resistance and Avoidance of the E-Word, takes the reader through a study of the terminology used by evolutionary biologists and medical researchers to describe the "evolutionary" process that leads to antimicrobial resistance. The researchers found that in evolutionary journals the word "evolution" was used to describe the process 65.8% of the time compared to 2.7% of the time in medical journals, which preferred terms such as emerging, increasing, and spreading.

The paper goes on to show that the use or non-use of the word evolution in a scientific paper is a good predictor of whether the word evolution is used in the paper's media coverage. The researchers conclude,

"Like gravity, evolution is an everyday process that directly impacts our health and well-being, and promoting rather than obscuring this fact should be an essential activity of all researchers."

I have to admit than I'm a little uncomfortable with this final leap. They make two assumptions in this last sentence that I don't believe they've supported in the paper:

1. Researchers have a responsibility to promote the relevance of evolution
2. Researchers are obscuring the relevance of evolution

Let me tackle number 1 first. In my opinion researchers have a responsibility to report their work accurately, beyond that I don't much care what words they use or don't use - as long as they are not giving up an accurate word for one that is less accurate.

And number 2, the paper provides no evidence that researchers are obscuring the relevance of evolution beyond the speculative statement, "It has been repeatedly rumored that both the NIH and the NSF have in the past actively discouraged the use of the word 'evolution' in titles or abstracts of proposals so as to avoid controversy."

As one responder to the article wrote, "It may be that those who want to describe the results of their research are reluctant to use the 'evolution' label simply because, to do so, does not say very much."

Something to think about...

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Major Breakup

When I caught the title "Major Breakup Event Over Australia," I wasn't sure whether it was referring to a celebrity relationship or a political disagreement... exploding rocket booster was not the first thing that came to mind. But what a spectacular breakup it was!

The "flaming plume" was apparently quite a site for those in the southern hemisphere that happened to be looking up that night (Feb. 19th). Ray Palmer took this amazing 30 minute exposure.


The Russian booster (shown below) had been purposelessly orbiting the earth for the last year after the rocket carrying a communications satellite into space malfunctioned. This sent the booster into orbit partially filled with fuel. The "major breakup over Australia" turned out to be the explosion of its fuel tanks, according to spaceweather.com.


The booster exploded into over hundreds of pieces that will eventually fall toward earth as a meteor shower. Check out this cool video of some of the fragments by Rob McNaught.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Science Fares on the Net

Science fair projects must be much more advanced now that students have the internet

So commented one of my co-workers recently.

If you've been to a local science fair in the last few years you're probably shaking your head right now. Although the internet provides information on a vast source of science topics and mysteries, the projects at your typical fair are still similar to my "how long does it take to melt a jolly rancher in different temperatures of water" science fair days.

Not only that, but you're likely to see some suspiciously similar projects if you go to enough fairs. Here are some examples of how students are taking full advantage of all the internet has to offer in regard to science fairs:

Not feeling creative? Just order a pre-made science kit from Discover This or Scientific Explorer.

Running out of time? Not to worry, just visit Dr. Shawn's Super Science Fair Support Center. Science projects that can be done in one day are marked with an obnoxious, blinking emergency symbol.

Not sure how to display your information? Visit Science Buddies or Science Stuff for a complete diagram.


And finally, not sure how many trials to run? You don't really need the internet for this. As someone who has been to a number of science fairs I'll tell you - the answer is three. No more, no less. I guarantee that every one of your classmates will have data for exactly 3 trials on the bottom left of the center panel of their display board.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Prom tickets for a high score?

I like to think there is some unseen longing inside all of us to understand our world and that this motivates us to engage in science. But I guess prom tickets, iPods, limo rides, and preferred parking spots might work just as well. That's how some schools in Florida are motivating students to do well on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) science exam. 2008 is the first year that science scores will factor into the schools state performance grades, along with the previously counted reading, writing, and math scores.

Schools that perform poorly on the tests are less likely to receive extra funding and other incentives. And - surprise, surprise - many expect the addition of science scores to the equation to have a negative effect on already struggling schools.

According to an article in the Miami Herald, "If last year's scores were an indicator, adding science scores to the grading formula may push struggling schools further under the failure margins. In 2006, only one-third of students across the state scored at Level 3 or above on the test."

And from a story in News4Jax.com, "Across Duval County, if the new standard were applied to last year's scores, the district would go from having four failing schools to having 17. By the same standard, the number of A and B schools would drop significantly -- from 83 to 65."

Two things I don't like about this story -

1. Kids being bribed to study science
2. Schools failing miserably in science education

What's going on? It seems to me that this is teaching the students that the school is the one with the stake in the results...In a sense they're telling the students that by doing well on the science exam they're doing a favor to the school, not a favor to themselves and their future...except that they might win an iPod.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

The Truth about Curling Ribbons

I've been proud of my ribbon curling skills ever since I was a child, when my mom first showed me how to wrap presents. Since then I've curled so many ribbons that I would have claimed that I'm a curling virtuoso. Today I found out how wrong I was to think so.

Believe it or not, when you curl a ribbon by pulling it between your thumb and the blade of a pair of scissors, it will curl more tightly the slower you go. I always thought it curled more tightly as you pull faster.

I was proven wrong by physicist Buddhapriya Chakrabarti of Harvard. It turns out that I must have been pinching the ribbon more when I pulled it quickly, otherwise, according to Chakrabarti's experiments, it should have curled less. (Read more about the experiments on the American Institute of Physics web site Inside Science News Service.)

Just to confirm things I spent a few minutes curling ribbons today and found that Chakrabarti is absolutely right. In my own defense, however, I found that pinching tightly and pulling slowly is a bit tricky, sort of like patting your head while rubbing your tummy.

I probably won't change my ribbon curling technique for most packages because I've gotten so used to the quick zip of the ribbon before it snaps into a curl. But for those special people on special occasions (perhaps even for a certain someone this coming Valentine's Day), I'm going to pinch the ribbon extra hard and pull it extra slow for that perfect, tight little curl.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Somewhere over the rainbow meets GATTACA

I'm a sucker for a pretty picture. Especially a pretty science picture. This picture "is a mix between science, art and curiosity and represents our interests," say the scientists that created it and the other pictures on DNA Rainbow. How'd they do it?

Remember the 4 DNA bases: A C T G? (Sorry, but every time I hear them all I can think of is Gattaca). Anyway, they assigned each of the four bases a different color and then ran DNA sequences using the colors.

Not only are these pictures pretty, but they're also a unique way of displaying information which, as I'm sure you know if you're a regular reader, I wholeheartedly approve of.

From their website: "Although scientists know already most of the sequence of the human DNA, the information the genetic code holds is not fully understood. Therefore we want to introduce a new idea to display and maybe better understand the code." The pictures seem to show patterns and structures...it will be interesting to see where this idea goes.


One thing I find kind of odd about the site is that the "scientists" don't identify themselves on their webpage other than "a person just graduated in biotechnology from university or a talented PHP web application developer with five years experience." I wonder what that means.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Sea Smell (say that 5 times fast...)

As a follow-up to the Smelling Space post, I thought I'd alert you all to an article about the smell of the seaside coming out in Science magazine today. You can read the press release here, but for those that are too lazy I'll give a brief summary.

Turns out the smell, which comes from dimethyl sulphide gas (DMS), is produced by microbes living near plankton and marine plants. Although researchers have known about DMS for a while, they didn't know much about how it was produced. DMS plays an important role in cloud formation over oceans and acts as a homing scent for birds that feed on plankton. Researchers at the University of East Anglia collected bacteria from the North Norfolk coast and were able to identify and extract the gene responsible for the comforting smell.

This is great for science and all, but I'm thinking more practical. The next time I can't get away from work for a well-deserved vacation, I'd love to just close my eyes and open up a little bottle filled with the scent of the sea.
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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Rolling with Change

Emma Faust Tillman spent four days as the world's oldest women last week. She was 114 years and 67 days old when she died January 28th. Born in 1982 1882, Tillman outlived her husband by 68 years and had 16 great-great-great grandchildren.

Things have changed a lot over the twenty-five years I've graced this earth. I remember coming home from summer camp one year to find that my parents had purchased a VCR - how exciting! I remember buying my first tape, cd, and iPod. I remember when gas and milk were cheaper and my town put a cross up on the water tower each Christmas.

I cannot imagine what it would be like to see 114 years of changes. When Emma was born, Thomas Edison had just gotten a patent for a two-way telegraph and Ellis Island had just begun accepting immigrants to the United States.

Emma was born to former slaves and was the first black student to graduate from her high school. She voted in the first election women were allowed to vote in - and just barely lived to see a women and a black man announce their intentions to run for president. She was a woman who saw change.

I'm not sure why I connect this story with science. I think because in a way science is the study of change. Why it happens, why it doesn't happen, when and how...Lots of science and technology is the result of changes in politics, priorities, climate...My guess is that some of the most successful scientists are ones who can roll with the changes, like Emma.

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