Thursday, January 7, 2010

beginner's guide to appreciating snowflakes

Interesting story in the Chicago Tribune about snowflakes:

Kenneth Libbrecht, [Professor of Physics at CalTech and creator of] has now defined more than 35 different shapes, from radiating plates to capped columns, to bullet rosettes. For snowflake-watchers who don't have a microscope handy, however, here's a beginner's guide to appreciating the snow.

TEMP. (F) 32(degrees) to 25(degrees)

TYPE OF SNOW CRYSTAL = The mash: As temperatures near 32 degrees Fahrenheit there is a greater mix of crystal formationss including plates, columns and dendrites. The structures are more compact, tend to stick together and are perfect for making snowballs and snowmen. "Now you?re getting into your heart attack snow," said CalTech physics professor Kenneth Libbrecht.

TEMP. (F) 25(degrees) to 15(degrees)

TYPE OF SNOW CRYSTAL = Columns and needles: These snowflakes tend to be relatively small and melt easily. "This is kind of forgettable snow," said Libbrecht. "These are kind of the sparrows of the snowflake world. They don't really jump out at you."

TEMP. (F) 15(degrees) to 0(degrees)

TYPE OF SNOW CRYSTAL = Dendrites: The most traditional-looking snowflake -- a stellar dendrite -- forms in higher humidity. It is perfect for skiing, light and fluffy. "These are your standard shopping mall snowflakes," Libbrecht said.

TEMP. (F) Sub-zero

TYPE OF SNOW CRYSTAL = Plates and prisms: Plates and prisms tend to occur at very low temperatures and at low humidity. They make for very dry snow that scintillates in the sun due to the flakes' flat mirrorlike surfaces. Usually the snowfall is so light that no shovels are needed. "This is what I call diamond dust," Libbrecht said. "This stuff just sparkles."


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

science + dancing = one cool video!

Well, it's been a while since my last post. However, a Steve Spangler newsletter I received in my inbox today inspired me with a link to what might be the most amazing video EVER! (OK, so maybe I am a little biased as a science teacher....)

In fact, with this Steve Spangler has certainly passed Bill Nye as my favorite science guy. Not only does Spangler do cool stuff, and have great products, but he also provides Teacher Training. (I will be attending his "Science Boot Camp" in Chicago September 25!)

And, you may not recognize Judson Laipply's name, but you will recognize his famous YouTube video, "The Evolution of Dance." I love it because it is entertaining, witty and the guy has talent.

Imagine my glee when I learned that Spangler & Laipply spent some time together at the Spangler Lab (read the story). This video is the result.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

nokia morph nanotechnology

A student alerted me to a video on YouTube demonstrating the Nokia Morph concept phone.

This phone might be capable of being flexible, having a self-cleaning surface, detecting environmental factors, and harvesting solar energy. It is a two piece design that would use nanotechnology to accomplish these feats.
(image from

One nanometer is a billionth of a meter or about the width of three atoms lined up next to each other. When scientists talk about the nanoscale, they are talking really, really small. Apparently, when everyday materials get down to the nanoscale, they start to do really unusual things.

Scientists hope to one day use nanotechnology to do things like build the Morph, clean up the environment, design drug-carrying nanoparticles for targeted medical treatment, design more effective cleaners, coat implants (like hip replacements) to help the body better accept the foreign material, design food that indicates when it is spoiling, improve car materials... the list goes on. The truth is, no one really knows yet just what nanotechnology may help us develop in the future.

It sounds like science fiction, but some of this technology is already in use. You can check out a list of consumer products that currently use nanotechnology. Antibacterial doorknobs, kodak photopaper, lots of clothing (including pants from L.L. Bean!), even a teddy bear that allegedly resists bacteria, mold, and mites!
Serious nanotechnology runs the gamut from things we can't do yet--so-called “spooky” nanotechnology like build-anything molecular assemblers and bacterium-size supercomputers--to things we are beginning to be able to do like diagnostic nanosensors and superstrong carbon nanotube materials. Then, there are things that are barely nanotechnology at all. Nano-Tex is a company that uses nanoparticles to make stain-resistant fabric found in pants and shirts from Eddie Bauer and others. (These clothes really work, as my potentially disastrous gravy incident last Thanksgiving proved, but they're not the sort of thing that most people mean when they talk about nanotechnology.) - Popular Mechanics

If you want to learn more, there are many kid-friendly sites about nanotechnology, including a free BRAINPOP video on nanotechnology, the Lawrence Hall of Science site, kids introduction to the nanoworld, and

Or you might want to watch this great 30 minute video on nanotechnology basics from UCTV: UC San Diego. These goofy scientists do a good job breaking down a very difficult subject.

The Nokia Morph was featured in the MoMA online exhibition "Design and the Elastic Mind". It has been a project of Nokia Research Center and Cambridge Nanoscience Center.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

the eyes of nye

Bill Nye, the science guy. Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!

Bill Nye is back. And this time he is making a science show for teens and adults! Go to the website and click "Menu" and "Episodes" to see clips and more. Each clip has some tabs - the best one, in my opinion, is called "the flip side." Here, he provides links to information about alternate viewpoints on that topic.

The entire 13 episode set can be purchased for $499. Apparently the first shows aired in 2005, but according to the website, if you are in Chicago, WTTW (Channel 11?) is still airing the show! (No shows in San Francisco.) There are also a few examples on YouTube (here's one on Cloning)... at least until Bill Nye pulls them off for copyright infringement.

Episode list:

1. Astrobiology
2. Psuedoscience
3. Addiction
4. Cloning
5. Nuclear Energy
6. Sports
7. Population
8. Race
9. Antibiotics
10. Genetically Modified Foods
11. Transportation
12. Global Climate Change
13. Evolution of Sex

Random Bill Nye Trivia: He has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell University. He won a Steve Martin look-alike contest in Seattle. "Bill Nye the Science Guy" was first played on a Seattle comedy show called "Almost Live." He was married for 7 weeks in 2006, before he found out the marriage license was invalid. Which might be a good thing, since he filed a restraining order against the woman a year later. He also loves sundials. (from his website and other sources)


Saturday, January 12, 2008

precycling and the 5 r's

We are all familiar with the 3 R's of recycling: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. However, I have been hearing more about the interesting idea called precycling: the idea of supporting responsible packaging and consciousness of waste before you even use the product. It just makes sense.

I was surprised to find an article using this term that was posted back in 1994. Reading more about the history of precycling, I found out one of the first communities to focus on precycling was Berkeley, CA all the way back in 1989!

Refuse what you don't need
Reduce what you do need
Reuse what you can't reduce
Recycle what you can't reuse
Rebuy (buy recycled) whenever possible.

Here are just some of the many 5R suggestions:
  • Avoid the paper vs. plastic dilemma.

  • Buy large single containers.

  • Pass on styrofoam.

  • Don't buy plastic razors, throwaway cleansing pads and cigarette lighters, non-refillable pens and foil baking pans. Reduce or eliminate your use of disposable plastic diapers, which make up 2% of the total U.S. landfill volume. Gr-oss!

  • Compare the size of the package to the size of the product.

This mom's blog post offers more ideas on being eco-responsible.

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Friday, January 4, 2008

dna music

Back in October, I had an opportunity to go to Wonderfest held at Stanford University. There I heard David Deamer, Professor of Chemistry at UC Santa Cruz, talk about and play his DNA music.

Remember that DNA stores the instructions for making you! DNA forms a "double helix" - a kind of twisted ladder in which the "rungs" are made up of nitrogenous bases (A, T, G, or C). A group of 3 of these base pairs is called a codon. Codons tell a cell what amino acid to build. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and proteins are what make the body grow and do a lot of things.

We have a huge amount of DNA in each of our cells. If the DNA from just one of your cells was typed in books, a list of the 3 billion base pairs would fill 200 telephone books. That is from just one cell - and we have trillions of cells in our bodies, and most cells have a complete set of DNA! (kids genetics)
(Want to review more about DNA? Check out this really great animation watch this VERY weird DNA music video.)

Anyway, in his presentation, Deamer says, "If melodies are a sequence of notes, and DNA is a sequence of bases, maybe we can turn DNA into music." He went on to compose pieces with the following translation.

  • C (cytosine) = C on the musical scale
  • A (adenine) = A on the musical scale
  • G (guanine) = G on the musical scale
  • T (thymine) = E on the musical scale

For example, the insulin gene is coded "TTT GTG AAC CAA..." and so on. The DNA code dictates the notes played, but he does have some freedom with the timing.

You can hear the music if you watch the Wonderfest presentations online. Not surprisingly, it is also posted on YouTube. Fast forward to 16:00 if you would like to hear the part about insulin.

David Deamer also partnered with
Susan Alexjander, to create a far-out sounding CD called Sequencia.
In SEQUENCIA, raw data derived from the light absorption spectra of the four bases (adenine, cytosine, thymine, guanine) that make up the DNA molecule is converted into sonic frequencies. These are programmed to a Macintosh computer and sent to a synthesizer, and then arranged into four pitch collections (or four 'scales' based on the individual base molecules). These synthesized notes mixed with vocals, cello, tabla, and violin become the palettes for Alexjander's compositions, which range from somber and zen-like to fanciful and improvisational.
Another link gives specifics on the physics involved in this process.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

itch mite in chicago

I have been hearing from a number of folks back home that there is an outbreak of itching in the Chicagoland area. Of course, I am always in the mood for a good arthropod story, so I looked into it. (Ends up the bites are caused by arachnids, though, and not insects!)
"We don't have positive identification on the type of mite that it is. We do know that it is a mite," said Kitty Loewy, spokeswoman for the Cook County Department of Public Health. (Tribune)

Monday night, authorities left glue traps in forest preserves and other wooded areas. On Tuesday, they still didn't catch any; they think because the mites are "too small." But anyone bit by these insects are showing the telltale rash that develops 10 - 12 hours after being bitten. (The rash is a reaction to toxins in the mite's saliva as they gnaw on you as they look for larvae that aren't there. The toxin is potent (for insects at least). One mite’s bite can kill an insect larva 170,000 times its own weight.)

In the suburbs, Dr. George Tsoutsias said "Patients were actually comparing their lesions out in the waiting room," said. He saw 32 cases this weekend in the Adventist La Grange Memorial Emergency Department.

Investigators think this outbreak may be caused by an itch mite from Europe—the oak leaf gall mite, Pyemotes herfsi, a relative of the straw itch mite (which farmers have dealt with for years). It feeds on midge larvae in oak trees, falling when it runs out of food, often right onto people passing below. Scientists say these European arthropods may have hitched a ride here due to increased worldwide shipping and transportation that moves new species around the world. Kansas knows all about this, since they dealt with an outbreak in 2004. (The Pittsburg State University has a site with plenty of pictures and Quicktime videos of both the bites and the bugs.)
Information provided by entomologists indicated that these mites were associated with a gall-forming insect (a small fly called a "midge") that causes swellings along veins of oak leaves.

The female midges lay eggs on the leaf surface, and the young midges crawl to the edge of the leaf or along a vein where they secrete chemicals that cause the leaf tissue to curl up into a cylinder-like gall protecting the midge larvae inside.

The itch mites prey on these midges, invading the galls, where they feed on the midge larvae and begin to reproduce. Each female mite can produce up to 250 adult offspring, most of which are females. Each generation requires only seven days, which helps explain the large population numbers that have been encountered where the problem has been serious. (like Chicago right now)

Kansas State University describes the mites' bizarre life cycle as they researched the 2004 Kansas outbreak:

The mite’s life cycle is unusual. A mated female searches for a host on which to feed. She is small enough to be carried by the wind. If she finds a rolled leaf (gall) on an oak tree, she enters the gall. If she finds midge larva, she inserts her mouthparts into the larva. Within minutes, a potent neurotoxin in her saliva paralyzes the midge larva, who will die of starvation.

Once the female starts to feed, she can develop as many as 250 offspring. In seven days, her “abdomen” is fully distended, and her young -- of which only 5 to 10% are males -- are ready to emerge as fully developed adults. Males emerge ahead of the females, and mate with the females as they emerge from the mother and die shortly after. The females complete the cycle by dispersing in search of new hosts.

Luckily, the bites are not medically dangerous, just annoying (see video), unless people scratch enough to damage their skin, allowing bacteria to get in and cause a secondary infection. Unfortunately, bites can continue to itch for 10 - 14 days. To prevent the bites, scientists suggest wearing long clothing and insect repellent with DEET while outside, and washing clothes immediately after coming indoors. To treat them, doctors recommend using hydrocortisone cream and antihistamine.

At first, some people were hypothesizing that the outbreak had something to do with the cicada emergence earlier this summer (maybe the cicada larvae are a food source since they hatch 6-10 weeks after being deposited in the branches, and fall to the ground? Gross.). But, according to NBC, seven other states are dealing with similar outbreaks. They are Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio and Kentucky, so this is probably not the case. (The cicadas were mostly in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.)

UPDATE (Chicago Tribune 12/15): I guess sometimes these mites COULD munch on cicada larvae. Field Museum entomologist Daniel Summers says the mite also finds immature members of the Homoptera family to be delectable, he said.

That family includes the periodic cicadas, the noisy bugs that flooded the Chicago area to mate earlier in the summer. The next generation of nymphs are emerging now, presenting an irresistible food source to any Pyemotes mite looking for something to eat.

"They're hatching out right now in the forest preserves by the countless zillions," Summers said. "It would be an endless feast for them. That would be my best guess right now."

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Monday, August 6, 2007

mccarrots taste better?

Now, you may have already heard this one on the news, but it's pretty incredible. The August issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine published an article demonstrating the power of advertising to small children. (You can read more about this study in Forbes or the Associated Press)
By the early age of 3 to 5 years, low-income preschool children preferred the tastes of foods and drinks if they thought they were from McDonald’s, demonstrating that brand identity can influence young children's taste perceptions. - Pediatr Adolesc Med.

I was a little surprised the
San Mateo County, CA experiment was limited to low-income kids, but the study author, Dr. Tom Robinson, allegedly believes the results would be similar for children from wealthier families.

Five foods were tested. The chicken nuggets, hamburger and french fries were all from McDonald's; the carrots and milk were from a grocery store. Kids sat behind a white screen, and were handed two identical samples of food, one coming out of a plain paper bag, wrapped in plain paper, while the other came out of a McDonald's bag, wrapped in similarily-labeled paper. If kids did not immediately recognize the symbol (around 25% of the time), a researcher would tell them which one was from McDonald's.

The independent variable in this case was the packaging for the food, while the dependent variable was the kid's preference of food. (Kids also had the option of saying the two samples tasted the same.) The researchers made great efforts to control their experiment,
I recommend reading the methods section of the study to read the details. In fact, the whole study is pretty intense. For such a simple-sounding experiment, there is still a lot of serious scientific method involved. The write-up includes statements such as, "The 63 children performed a total of 304 individual tasting comparisons. Three, 2, 3, 1, and 1 child were not allowed to eat hamburger, chicken nuggets, french fries, milk, and carrots, respectively, and 1 child was unable to bite the carrots. "

The results?
  • 77 percent said the labeled fries tasted best while only 13 percent preferred the others
  • 54 percent preferred McDonald’s-wrapped carrots versus 23 percent who liked the plain-wrapped sample
  • The only results that were not overwhelmingly clear involved the hamburgers, with 29 kids choosing McDonald’s-wrapped burgers and 22 choosing the unmarked ones.
  • Less than 25% of the children said both samples of all foods tasted the same.
As with any science experiment, the results inspire more questions and opportunities for further experimentation. Pradeep Chintagunta, a University of Chicago marketing professor, makes an excellent point when he said a more fair comparison might have compared kids’ preferences for the McDonald’s label versus another familiar brand, such as Mickey Mouse. It would be interesting to see if it is specifically the lure of McDonalds, or the power of any advertising that yields these results. And of course, I would be interested in the author's presumption that the results would be similar with middle- to upper-class children. Would early exposure to Whole Foods and fine dining make a kid less susceptible to McDonald's advertising?

Finally, the whole things makes me consider the power of advertising in older kids (and adults). All I have to do is consider fads like Ugg boots....

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Friday, July 20, 2007

my first earthquake

This morning, at 4:42 am (PT), the U.S. Geological Survey reported that a 4.2-magnitude earthquake shook the San Francisco area. (read article) The quake originated about two miles east-northeast of Oakland, at a depth of 3.6 miles. Oakland is just east of San Francisco, across San Francisco Bay. I remember feeling my bed shake, waking up, and wondering if it was an earthquake. However, when I saw the clock said 4:44 am, I decided leave the investigating until the morning.

According to the USGS, "Each year the southern California area has about 10,000 earthquakes. Most of them are so small that they are not felt. Only several hundred are greater than magnitude 3.0, and only about 15-20 are greater than magnitude 4.0. " Although San Francisco is not exactly southern California, the general idea is the same. There are many microquakes each day, but this morning's quake was an unusual one. (In fact, according to the USGS site right now, in the 12.5 hours since this morning's quake, there already have been 11 more earthquakes in California today!)

Earthquakes, as most of you know, are a consequence of moving tectonic plates and are measured using the Richter scale.
The Richter scale is a standard scale used to compare earthquakes. It is a logarithmic scale, meaning that the numbers on the scale measure factors of 10. So, for example, an earthquake that measures 4.0 on the Richter scale is 10 times larger than one that measures 3.0. On the Richter scale, anything below 2.0 is undetectable to a normal person and is called a microquake. Microquakes occur constantly. Moderate earthquakes measure less than 6.0 or so on the Richter scale. Earthquakes measuring more than 6.0 can cause significant damage. The maximum quake rating ever measured is about 8.9. - HowStuffWorks

(image borrowed from some guy's blog)

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

science across the usa

I haven't travelled much in my life, so it was a great "hands-on" opportunity to drive across the country this summer and experience earth science! I learned so much, and I would like to share one thing I learned from each of the amazing science sites I visited on my drive from Chicago to California. (All images are my own photos - feel free to click on any of them for a larger version.)

The Badlands (South Dakota) - This national park consists of nearly 244,000 acres of some of the most bizarre landforms I have ever seen. Here, rivers and rainstorms have been eroding away the soft sediments and volcanic ash, revealing colorful bands that correspond with specific time periods in the history of the rock formation.

Wind Cave (South Dakota) - First explored by a 16 year old boy with a candle and a string, Wind Cave now has over 100 miles of known passageways, although studies indicate only about 5% of the cave has been discovered.

The most fascinating part of the cave is its entrance. The Lakota Indians have been long aware of this opening, and regard it as a sacred place. In the picture to the left, you can see a guy attempting to enter the natural entrance of the cave. (I guess he didn't care about the gate park rangers have installed to stop people from doing just that....) It is this opening (and not the cave's interior) that gives Wind Cave its name.

The wind moves depending on atmospheric pressure on the surface and inside the cave. When the pressure is higher outside than inside the cave, wind rushes into the entrances; when pressure is higher inside the cave, the wind blows out of the entrances.

The wind is driven by changes in barometric pressure. The air pressure within the cave and outside attempt to reach equilibrium. The wind blows into the cave when the barometer rises, and out when the barometer falls. This airflow may forecast how the weather is going to change. -
This was confirmed on our visit by the presence of ominous clouds in the distance (storm approaching) and the strong winds blowing out of the natural entrance.

Mammoth Site (South Dakota) - More than 26,000 years ago, many large Colombian and woolly mammoths spent their time tediously scraping away the snow with their tusks to find food. However, scientists believe some mammoths were "lazy" and were instead lured by the more easily-accessible vegetation at the sinkhole's edge. Once these mammoths risked coming near the sinkhole's edge, it is believed they fell in, became trapped and died.

Scientists have found remains of 52 mammoths in the pit (which was discovered by chance in 1974 when they bulldozed to make a housing development). Of those 52 animals, ALL of them are male. And all, except one, are young ADOLESCENT males. Raleigh Philip, author of an educational neuroscience text, says, "It's interesting to speculate how the young Colombian Mammoths' adolescent brain may have led to their demise in the same way that teenagers take risks today."

Devil's Tower (Wyoming) - Geologists agree that Devils Tower is the core of a volcano exposed after millions of years of erosion. However, there is still debate about the exact details of its formation. This bizarre land form has been somewhat of a mystery. Perhaps that is why Stephen Spielberg used Devil's Tower as an alien communication point in his movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Also known as Bears Lodge, it is a sacred site for many American Indians. I personally like their legend the best.
In one story, two girls playing in the woods are chased by an enormous bear. The girls jump on top of a rock, but it is too small to give them safety. The Great Spirit sees the girls' predicament and causes the rock to grown to an immense size. The giant bear jumps at the girls, but cannot reach the top. His claws leave the gouges in the side of the rock that can still be seen today. - the Unmuseum

Beehive Geyser (Yellowstone Nat'l Park, Wyoming) - While Old Faithful is certainly the most famous geyser at Yellowstone, it is just one of the 10,000 geothermal features found in the park. The geyser in the picture is Beehive Geyser, an unpredictable cone geyser with water reaching 93 °C (199 °F) and eruptions up to 200 feet! A cool thing about this geyser is that there is a small vent located a few feet east of Beehive, called Beehive's Indicator, which erupts about 6 feet, 10-20 minutes before an eruption. When we walked by the sputtering indicator, we decided to stick around for the show!

Yellowstone Nat'l Park, (Wyoming) - Thermophiles, or microbes that live in extremely hot conditions, make up these colorful bacterial mats. Pigments (like chlorophyll and carotenoids) within the microbes are responsible for their colors. The run-off channel from a hot spring, for example, is white or clear near its source. This water is heated by the magma just under the earth's crust! Only a few single-cell bacteria live in this boiling water, which is 93 °C (199°F). (Pure water boils at 212°F at sea level.) As the water slightly cools to 167°F farther downstream, the first colorful forms of bacteria show up. Shades of green to pink to orange to yellow-brown to gray indicate bacteria growing in slightly different temperature regions on the mat.

(Yellowstone Nat'l Park, Wyoming) - At the Mammoth Hot Springs, I learned that these white tiered formations were travertine. This mineral is formed when hot water dissolves the limestone beneath Mammoth and brings it to the surface where it cools, and and forms this delicate mineral. These terraces (in the picture) are like "living sculptures," since they can change with changes in temperature, water flow, and bacterial concentrations. (Notice the colorful thermophile bacteria mat in the background.)

Mud Pots! (Yellowstone Nat'l Park, Wyoming) - I was somewhat familiar with hot springs before my Yellowstone trip, but I was was never introduced to their close cousins, the fumarole and the mudpot. The mudpots quickly became my favorite geothermal feature, mostly due to their "bloop bloop" sounds. A mudpot or paint pot is a sort of hot spring or fumarole consisting of a pool of usually bubbling mud. Watch my Quicktime video to see a mudpot hurling mud into the air.

Craters of the Moon (Idaho) - I saw fields of lava, both áa ("ay-ay") and pahoehoe ("pa-hoy-hoy") lava. (I liked the sound of those names!) The highlight of this visit had to be exploring the caves formed by the collapse of giant lava tubes. The tubes were originally formed as hot lava melted and rock in its path, while the surface of the lava in contact with the air hardened (forming the "roof" of the cave). When these tubes collapsed, they made great caves to explore!

Finally, I couldn't resist... this picture is one of my favorites from the trip. You don't see this in Chicago!

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Saturday, June 9, 2007

food hacking

What happens when the world's leading hacker chefs skill up on organic chemistry and buy centrifuges for their kitchens? Is your palate ready for "meat glue", "cooking" with liquid nitrogen, and "liquid noodles"? ... [this] looks at the growing role of science in fine dining kitchens with examples from the restaurants that are inventing the exciting field of molecular gastronomy. (Dorkbot)
I am a terrible cook, and usually consume food I can carry in one hand (apple, bagel, rice cake). However, my interest in food preparation was piqued when I read about food hacking! This trend, popularized by scientifically-minded chefs, is based on the principle of "creat[ing] dishes based on the molecular compatibilities of foods." For example, a food hacker might combine chocolate and oysters (!) due to the similarities in their molecular make-up.

Marc Powell, a San Francisco-based hacker chef, is well known in the field of "molecular gastronomy." His website ( established a food hacking wiki in June of 2006, where fellow food hackers can go to share ideas and "Experiments/recipes." Many of the recipes require unusual tools such as a nitrous oxide siphon or a centrifuge. Other recipes require exotic chemicals, like "meat-glue" which can combine chicken and beef into a single slab of meat referred to as "chick-a-beef."

Martin Lersch, from Oslo, Norway, holds a PhD within the field of organometallic chemistry and maintains a blog about molecular gastronomy and the connections between science and cooking.

Here in Chicago, interested parties can experience molecular gastronomy bliss at Moto (google map).
You don't just eat chef Homaro Cantu's food. You gape in disbelief as you are instructed in how to handle his offbeat creations with even more peculiar utensils: The whole thinking is like a three-star science lab. (from one of many reviews of the restaurant)
I experienced the 10 course meal there recently. The meal began with an tasty edible menu nestled on top of a micro-salad. I don't want to give away all the good parts, but let's just say the meal included lasers, liquid nitrogen, and dehydrated macaroni. It was an (albeit pricey) experience I would enthusiastic recommend.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

our ginkgo tree

The Ginkgo tree is one of the oldest trees on earth. Fossils of Ginkgo relatives have been found in rocks dating back 270 million years. For centuries, people thought the Ginkgo was extinct, until is was found growing in remote parts of China in the mid-1700s.

The word Ginkgo comes from a misspelling of the Japanese word "ginkyo" or "silver apricot." Other people attribute the word to the older Chinese word meaning "silver fruit."

Not that you'd want to hang around the fruit of the female ginkgo tree. While most plants are hermaphrodites, ginkgos have separate male and female trees. The female trees produce fruit that become a mushy, foul-smelling mess on city sidewalks in the fall. The fruit contains butanoic acid, which makes it smell like rancid butter. For this reason, landscape suppliers will only sell male cultivars, or trees that are male clones of existing trees, to ensure maleness. Don't know if your Ginkgo is male or female? Don't let a few years of non-smelliness convince you - female trees will not fruit for 20 years more. (Ours is a male cultivar.)

Ginkgos are very successful in urban settings and are well-known for being disease and pest-free. (Although, I am not sure they are immune to the ovipositors of the female cicadas. That's why we decided to cover our new Ginkgo for the duration of the 2007 periodical cicada emergence!)

Ginkgos are deciduous dioecious gymnosperms (deciduous = they lose leaves yearly, dioecious = male and female are separate, gymnosperm = "naked seed," meaning their seeds are not encased in ripened fruit, although the females do not produce actual cones.)

Kingdom Plantae -- Plants
Subkingdom Tracheobionta -- Vascular plants
Superdivision Spermatophyta -- Seed plants
Division/phylum Ginkgophyta -- Ginkgo
Class Ginkgoopsida
Order Ginkgoales
Family Ginkgoaceae -- Ginkgo family
Genus Ginkgo L.

The only living member of the Order Ginkgoales is the Ginkgo biloba! The word biloba means "two-lobed" and refers to its distinctive leaf shape.

Many people take Ginkgo biloba extracts (widely available at drugstores) for a variety of health issues, however, most often as a memory enhancer (to improve memory). "Some smaller studies for memory enhancement have had promising results, but a trial sponsored by the National Institute on Aging of more than 200 healthy adults over age 60 found that ginkgo taken for 6 weeks did not improve memory," as reported in a 2002 JAMA article.

SOURCES: Ohio State Horticulture Page, National Institute of Heath (NIH) Ginkgo Fact Sheet, The Ginkgo Pages.


Thursday, April 5, 2007

$25 million global warming prize

A British billionaire Richard Branson teamed up with Al Gore to offer a $25 million prize to anyone who can develop a way to remove carbon dioxide gas from our atmosphere.

Gore and Branson said that although scientists are working on technologies to capture carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases at power plants and other industrial sources, no one has developed a strategy to remove gases already released into the atmosphere.

The winner of the contest must devise a plan to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere without creating adverse effects. The first $5 million would be paid upfront, and the remainder of the money would be paid only after the program had worked successfully for 10 years.

Another article tells that "Scientists have been looking into removing the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and storing it in oil and gas fields, injecting it deep into the ocean, or chemically transforming it into solids or liquids that are thermodynamically stable."

So what exactly is up with all this talk about "greenhouse gases" like carbon dioxide?

The greenhouse effect is responsible for the Earth being warm and for us being able to live there. Gases in the atmosphere surround the earth and trap heat, just like the glass in a greenhouse traps heat for plants and flowers. The Earth is about 60° F warmer than it would be without these protective gases.

The sun sends light and radiation toward Earth. When the sun's rays reach the atmosphere, some of the radiation bounces off the layer of gases and back into space. Some of the sun’s rays pass through the atmosphere and are absorbed by the land and water. The Earth changes this radiation to heat.

“Greenhouse gases” take in any extra radiation and release more heat, which also raises the temperature of the Earth's surface. This is how greenhouse gases “trap” heat to warm our planet.

Or, if you prefer, watch this animated guide to the greenhouse effect.

Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, water vapor and ozone. Carbon dioxide makes up almost 84% of all the greenhouse gases we produce. And guess how we produce it?

➢ burning gasoline to drive cars and trucks
➢ burning oil, coal or wood to produce electricity for heating, cooling, and other purposes
➢ burning forests to clear land

Since I do not foresee us not driving cars, building buildings or heating and cooling our homes, maybe Branson has a good idea. If getting people to stop producing carbon dioxide is a daunting task, why not develop ways to get rid of it once we produce it? NASA/World Book has great information about alternative energy sources (not creating so much carbon dioxide) and carbon sequestration (getting rid of it once we produce it).

Anyone looking for $25 million can get more information here.

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Friday, March 9, 2007

the five-second rule

In the Ohio State - Wisconsin game on February 25, the most memorable moment of the game wasn't a three-pointer or the final score. Coach Tad Matta's actions were the big news when he picked up his recently-ejected gum from the floor and popped it back into his mouth.

According to a Chicago Tribune article, Matta said,
I have two daughters and they taught me a three-second rule. I have three seconds to pick it up off the floor and it’s still OK. I picked it up quick...

Not surprisingly, the incident found its way to YouTube.

With all this media attention, you might want to consider just how scientifically accurate is five- (or three-) second rule really is.

Jillian Clarke of Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences tested the theory in 2003. She performed tests by dropping Gummi Bears and fudge-striped cookies onto ceramic tiles. Some of those tiles had been treated with E. Coli (a bacteria present in our intestines, but when ingested in large quantities, can give us symptoms of food poisoning). She discovered the following: (as quoted in the Tribune)
  • Seventy percent of women and 56 percent of men are familiar with the five-second rule, and most use it to make decisions about tasty treats that slip through their fingers.
  • Women are more likely than men to eat food that has been on the floor.
  • Cookies and candy are much more likely to be picked up and eaten than cauliflower or broccoli.
  • And, if you drop your food on a floor that does contain micro-organisms, the food can be contaminated in 5 seconds or less.
A University of Arizona researcher Charles Gerba points out that surfaces can be misleading. The average office desk, for example, harbors 400 times more bacteria than the average toilet seat. And teachers’ work spaces have more bacteria than most other professions. (Great.)

A article explains simply, "Unlike baseball, when food hits the floor, it's out."

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

organic clothes not just for hippies anymore

I must admit, when I think of "organic clothes," I think of those scratchy, free-flowing pants and tops, in muted browns and greens, that are sold in stores next to the hacky sacks, incense holders and tarot cards. However, a recent AP article in the Chicago Tribune article (.pdf) made me think about "organic" in a whole new light. (I borrowed its title for my post, catchy, isn't it?)

The Tribune explains,
Whether shoppers are buying eco-friendly because it's trendy or because they hope to preserve Mother Earth, they no longer have to sacrifice fashion for philosophy. With major retailers like Target, Victoria's Secret, H&M and Nike joining the green trend, there's something for fashionistas of every price range in 2007.

Target, which carries a select number of organic baby clothes, is expanding its line this year. (Sam's Club and Wal-Mart are among the top five brands who use the most organic cotton globally, according to Organic Exchange.)

Victoria's Secret will also add organic cotton to its collection this year, Klein said.
People have been embracing organic food and health and beauty products for years, why the interest in organic clothes, seemingly all of sudden ?
With celebrities endorsing hybrid cars, vegetarian diets and launching their own eco-friendly clothing lines, experts say it was only a matter of time before the Hollywood trend caught on with fashion.

"It clearly has gotten more attention now because .... It's a global phenomenon," said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for the NPD Group, a market-research firm. "We're seeing it in cars, we're seeing it in homes products, apparel, food."
Organic clothes used to mean only help, which was, for the most part, brown and scratchy. Now, you will find cotton, hemp, bamboo, wool, soy, corn and other natural fibers being used to manufacture natural and healthy fabrics. But, like many responsible ecological choices, it is not only about the product. The process is also better for the environment.

It takes about a third a pound of pesticides to produce one cotton T-shirt. About 180 to 300 pounds of chemical fertilizer is used on one acre of cotton in the U.S. About 90 percent of the fertilizer doesn't stay on the plant, but washes off, ending up in water supplies and habitat, says Klein.

Retailers say it's not just about buying organic, it's about the entire process. Under The Canopy uses a dye factory fueled by rice husks instead of fossil fuels. Growing organic also requires crop rotation, meaning a field that this year is used for cotton could be used for food the next.

With all these benefits, who wouldn't buy organic? Well, it's back to those two staples of American life: convenience and price. While organic clothing is becoming more widespread, it is generally easier to find non-organic clothing. Any organic clothing will cost you more. According the the Tribune, "A men's vintage-style organic cotton T-shirt at Wal-Mart is $9.83, while a similar regular cotton T sells for $8.83. Levi Strauss & Co. started offering organic denim jeans in select stores in November -- $68 for their Red Tab jean compared to $40 for non-organic. "

A blogging couple explains why organic clothing costs so much. (Plus, you can learn a lot more about the topic, on their blog, Organic Clothing!) They basically explain that organic seeds are more expensive to plant and harvest. The cotton or other fiber is also harder to manufacture and advertise, due to the relatively small market and lack of the mass-buying power that large chains have. Also, many organic vendors recoil from using "sweat shops," instead choosing to keep the labor in the US, paying fair wages. All of these factors contribute to the higher price.

An inconvenient truth is that organic and all-natural clothing will always be more expensive than conventional, chemical clothing. The good news is that the price gap will continue to shrink as the market size of organic clothing grows and the economies of scale improve. Doing what is right is not always easy … or cheap...

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Thursday, February 8, 2007

stinky 'corpse flower'

What flower can grow to over nine feet tall, have a tuber that weighs almost 200 pounds, blooms only once every 3 - 10 years, and smells like "several days old road kill on a hot, sunny day"?

It's Amorphophallus titanium, and it intrigues scientists and "regular people" alike. (You can investigate articles from National Geographic and BBC news to learn more.)

References to the "corpse flower" or "giant corpse flower," most often refer to the plant species Amorphophallus titanum, also known as the Titan arum, which has the largest unbranched inflorescence (cluster of flowers) in the world. (The apparent "giant" flower is actually made up of many, smaller flowers.)

Looking at the picture, it may not be difficult to imagine why the Italian scientists who first discovered the flower in 1878 named it after Amorpho meaning shapeless, phallus meaning penis, and titanum meaning huge.

The plant, which is native to Sumatra (a providence of Indonesia), uses its scent to attract pollinating insects, just like most other flowers. But unlike most flowers, this one hopes to attract flies and carrion beetles - insects that like to feed on rotting meat. Even more strange - it can actually generate its own heat, with the UC-Davis plant heating up from 68 degrees to 90 degrees at its peak hours of smelliness.

Amorphophallus titanum, bloomed for the first time in the United States at the New York Botanical Gardens in 1937. As mentioned, it only blooms once every few years. In preparation of blooming, the plant can grow over 6 inches a day until it reaches its full height. Then, when the flower finally opens, it releases its powerful stench for a few middle-of-the-night hours each day for 2 - 3 days. Then the blooms fades until its next appearance.

Though it is highly irregular for these flowers to bloom in the winter, there is one 220 miles southwest of London that is blooming right now! An article in Scientific American suggests that:
The warmth of 2006 and mild winter to date have encouraged the Titan Arum or Corpse Flower into a phenomenal growth spurt and into flower -- an event that usually happens only once every six to nine years.

More effects of global warming?

Some recent blooms in the US include:

  • August 2006 - Brooklyn Botanic Garden, NY
  • August 2006 - Virginia Tech (claims to have 1 of the only 2 blooming corpse plants in VA)
  • August 2006 - Seattle's Volunteer Park Conservatory
  • June 2006 - Fullerton Arboretum, California State University
  • July 2005 - University of California, Berkeley's Botanical Garden
  • June 2005 - Greenhouse, UW-Madison, WI (They were so excited, they made video updates!)
  • May 2005 - San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers
  • June 2004 - University of Connecticut's Dept. of EE Biology Conservatory


Thursday, February 1, 2007

don't drink the hand sanitizer

After an entry in the The New England Journal of Medicine, U.S. doctors are warning against drinking hand sanitizer. While this may seem like common sense to many of you, apparently two men drank the substance in an effort to get drunk. One man, when questioned, said he drank the substance because the label read "Active ingredient 63% v/v isopropyl alcohol."

Now, it is important to note that there are many kinds of alcohol. The kind of alcohol that most people think of is ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, the type of alcohol found in beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages. When described in Encyclopedia Brittanica, ethanol doesn't sound like something you would want to drink!
Ethyl alcohol is toxic, affecting the central nervous system. Moderate amounts relax the muscles and produce an apparent stimulating effect by depressing the inhibitory activities of the brain, but larger amounts impair coordination and judgment, finally producing coma and death. It is an addictive drug for some persons, leading to the disease alcoholism.

However, many people choose to drink it. But, it is important to realize that not all ethanol is safe to drink. As many students know, ethanol is used in schools as burner fuel. It can also be found in many other products, such as hand sanitizers and mouthwashes. However, most of this ethanol has been denatured, which means a poison (usually methanol) has been added to make you very sick if you drink it. But some people, like the men in these articles, are so desperate, they will take their chances. As you can read, it was not a very good idea.

UPDATE: Hand sanitizers, while effective in reducing germ transmission, can also cause intoxication in small children.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

top myths in science

Does it really take 7 years to digest gum in your stomach? Is a dog's mouth cleaner that a human's? Is yawning really contagious? What's the deal with the 5 second rule? Read about the top 20 myths in science.

If you like checking myths, check out Read about all those stories everyone seems to read via e-mail.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

designer babies

Designer babies, once the stuff of science fiction, have been in the news over the last few years. In 2006, a British baby was "designed" not to have a particular cancer gene. For many years, some parents have "designed" babies in order to have tissue matches for sick siblings. Other couples have used the technique to select the gender of their child.

However, in recent news ( USA Today, CNN, New York Post) the question was once again raised - how far should parents be allowed to go to designing their own babies? In this case, a dwarf couple wants to have a baby who is also a dwarf. Some people argue that this is creating "deformer babies." (Not surprisingly, the use of this term does anger some people.)
Three percent, or four clinics surveyed, said they have provided the costly, complicated procedure to help families create children with a disability.
However, others argue that conditions such a dwarfism and deafness are not disabilities. (Many members of the deaf community also resent the use of cochlear implants to "fix" deafness.) I think one of the most interesting side effects of this debate forces us, as a society, to really reconsider what we consider "normal." Is there even such a thing? Is it wrong for a dwarf couple to want to have a baby who looks like them?

Some of you may be wondering - how can a parent design a baby anyway? Doctors use a process called Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis or PGD. What this means is that before an embryo is implanted (or put) in a mother's womb, doctors diagnosis (or check) the genes of that embryo for genetic defects. If there embryo does have the gene (such as that cancer gene), doctors will not implant that embryo into the woman, and that embryo will not be allowed to grow into a full-term baby.

I think you can see why this would have huge ethical concerns. Who should be able to decide whether or not a potential child's life would be worth living? If we screen embryos for things like cancer, what is next? Diabetes? Deafness? Obese people? Less intelligent kids?

Scientists have the technology to select embryos for a variety of genetic conditions, and there is no doubt that they will be able to screen for much more in the future. However, are we, as a society, ethically ready for that? Students, I welcome your comments on the issue!


Sunday, January 14, 2007

contest results in water overdose

Yes, it is true. You can die from drinking too much water. On Thursday, a Sacramento, CA radio station (KDND 107.9) hosted a contest entitled, "Hold your Wee for a Wii." Contestants were handed 8 oz. bottles that they had to drink every 15 minutes. The first person to pee, loses. The winner was to receive a Nintendo Wii video game system.

The winner, Jennifer Strange, allegedly left the contest crying, with a headache. She was found dead in her home the next morning. I will paraphrase the explanation offered by blogger Shelly Blatts:

Water intoxification can occur when the blood becomes too diluted and the body's electrolyte concentrations are unbalanced. If water enters the body faster than it can be removed (and in the case, they weren't allow to pee!) the body's fluids become diluted to dangerous levels. Because the amount of water in the fluid outside the cells is so great, water rushes into the cells through osmosis, causing the cells to swell and burst under the pressure. (Remember: osmosis keeps the cells balanced in normal body conditions.) If these cells burst in the brain, it can cause death.
What a sad situation. May this be a lesson to the rest of us not to push out bodies to do unnatural things for "contests." My sympathies go out to her three kids.

For more information, read about water intoxication at HowStuffWorks.


Wednesday, January 3, 2007

green glowing pigs

Scientists in Taiwan just announced that they have successfully bred pigs that glow in the dark.
Taiwan is not claiming a world first. Others have bred partially fluorescent pigs before; but the researchers insist the three pigs they have produced are better.
Scientists used a gene from a jellyfish and impanted it into 256 pig embryos. Of those, three developed into pigs which were born three months ago. Scientists stress that these pigs are no different from any other, except for the fact that they grow green when lit up in the dark. During the day, they look like any other pig, albeit slightly tinted green.

Pigs are certainly not the first animals scientists have injected with an organism's glowing gene. There are glow worms, GloFish, and even potatoes!

Scentists hope to use what they've learned to help study human disease in the future, by using these pig proteins or stem cells that can be easily tracked in another animal's system.

Ironically, China is celebrating the Year of the Pig starting in January.

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

face transplant

The first partial face transplant was performed in 2005. The patient was severely disfigured in a dog attack. The surgery allowed this woman to eat and speak again. Scientists are now planning for the world's first full face transplant.

While many people have expressed interest in the transplant, doctors must carefully select their patients. The patients must have damage that is untreatable with current techniques. Patients must also be willing to take immunosuppressants (to stop their immune system from attacking the donor face) in order to prevent rejection. And, in the case that the face is rejected, donors must have enough of their own (undamaged) skin that doctors could replace the donor face with the person's own skin, if necessary. Choosing an appropriate candidate for the operation is almost as difficult as the procedure itself.

Many people ask if the person receiving the transplant will look like the person who donated the face. The answer is no. They will look like a combination of the two faces. It is not only the skin itself, but the bone structure of the skull underneath that determines what your face will look like.

Any comments?

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

cricket under parasitic mind control

Thanks to Adam A. for showing me this crazy video of a "cricket's mind taken over by a parasite." Of course, being a responsible scientist, I had to check the source of the information. This parasite really does exist and does cause these behaviors!

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observation skills

Try this. Then try it on your friends. Load the video and count the number of times the team members wearing white shirts pass the basketball. Then click here to check your answer. (It's harder than it looks.)