Embryonic Learning and Spotting Imposters

Everything you’ve ever learned, you learned from someone who knew something that you didn’t. Think about that for a minute. We’re constantly giving gifts to one another via packets of information, even if it’s just by demonstrating how not to behave. I love that concept.

Now imagine this. You are a zebra finch, not yet ready to hatch, and yet you can hear your mother singing to you from outside your fragile little shell. The song of the zebra finch is varied and beautiful. Listen to it here.

But on this day, it’s unseasonably hot. It’s above 78 degrees. Because of this, your mother is singing a song to you that she does not sing at any other time. This gets your attention. And because you have heard this song, you are born smaller, and more capable of coping with the heat.

Isn’t that amazing? Your mom sings the zebra finch equivalent to “We’re Having a Heat Wave” and somehow, in your embryonic state, your body decides not to put on that previously planned layer of fat. And even more interesting, having heard that song impacts your nest choice 200 days after you have hatched.

All this, according to a scientific study outlined in an article entitled Birds Sing to Their Eggs, and This Song Might Help Their Babies Survive Climate Change. I strongly urge you to check it out for further details. It’s fascinating. It’s science.

The article goes on to describe how fairy wrens teach their chicks to make certain sounds that cuckoos are incapable of making. Why? Because cukoos like to lay their eggs in fairy wren nests in the hopes that the fairy wrens won’t realize it and do all the work of hatching those eggs and feeding those chicks. So you either learn that song or you’re shown the figurative door.

Nature is cool. Science is cool. And now I’m wishing I was hatched from an egg and had some foreknowledge of what I was getting myself into!

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Science is a Journey

All scientific inquiry begins with a question. How is this possible? Why is that planet behaving that way? How old is that thing? What is that made of? How do we catch the flu? Once you have a question, you can set about determining an answer. That’s science, and in my opinion, it’s a thing of beauty.

What frustrates me most about people who disparage science is that they tend to say, “Well, science used to believe this. But now we know that’s wrong.”

Uh… YEAH. That’s the whole point. You add to science as you increase knowledge and extend your inquiries. Surprise! Blood letting isn’t the best idea for the feverish! The earth isn’t flat after all!

Science, by its very nature, is not rigid and set in stone. It’s a journey, not a destination. It grows. It (dare I say it?) evolves.

The reason science and religion seem at odds with each other, in my opinion, is that religion doesn’t want you to question. It wants you to believe without question. It doesn’t want you to change, other than to get with the program. It says, “These are the rules. Stick to them.” It believes that the way we thought 2,000 years ago is the way we should think now.

Science is messy. It says, “Hold on… what about this?” It’s ever-changing. It’s fluid. That’s a scary concept for some, but I firmly believe that learning and growth make us better people.

This may surprise you, but I genuinely believe that science and religion don’t have to be mutually exclusive. There are questions that will never be answered in our lifetime. If religion helps you with the great unanswered, then more power to you. And if you believe in God, surely you must believe that he or she gave us curious brains so that we could use them.

I am so grateful for both the gifts of intelligence and morality. I will never squander those gifts. (Not that morality is exclusive to religion, mind you. But sometimes it is nice to have a guidebook, even if we don’t always consult it.)

I am very excited by the prospect of knowing more tomorrow than I do today. I look forward to applying that knowledge in a way that benefits mankind. Life is good!

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An Unsung Medical Breakthrough

I just love surfing the website EurekAlert! to find scientific breakthroughs that really should be shouted from the rooftops, but are often getting lost in the stressful undertow of today’s drama-packed daily news cycle. This website gives me hope that science is still going strong and making positive differences in this world despite the anti-science climate in which we seem to be currently drowning.

The article that intrigued me the most today was one entitled, “Metal-ion breakthrough leads to new biomaterials”. I’ll do my best to break it down for you, because this is a discovery that could potentially save countless lives, and it could also have a positive impact on the environment. But if you’re truly interested after this post, I strongly encourage you to read the source article for more complex information. I’m just hitting the highest points here.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could repair skin, blood vessels, lungs, etc. with a rubber-like tissue that was soft and stretchy? Enter elastomers. They’re a polymer that, until this breakthrough, was very difficult to produce and wasn’t very versatile. But some Cornell engineers have come up with a way to make them more easily, and, by combining them with different metals, they’re also much more useful.

For example, by crosslinking a polymer with copper, they came up with an elastomer that encourages new vessel growth. On the other hand, combining copper and zinc has the potential to fight human aging. These scientists began experimenting by using 6 different metals, and also produced an elastomer mixed with calcium and magnesium. And the best part is that all these elastomers have different qualities and they’re all biodegradable, durable, and biocompatible.

There’s a lot of potential in this discovery. It could repair blood vessels and heart tissue, and improve soft tissue reconstruction and regeneration. Another exciting application could potentially be in the industrial field, making, for example, eco-friendly, biodegradable tires.

I love the feeling that we are on the brink of something really big. It’s exciting. It’s also comforting. We may be able to solve major problems after all.

True confession. This is a picture of elastomers, but not the ones we discussed above. You have no idea how hard it was for me to find a picture that was even remotely linked to this post. So… just enjoy the pretty colors and please be kind.

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Museum Sacrilege

I know this will sound contradictory, but I view museums as scientifically sacred. They are institutions that are created to teach us. The things that are housed therein are carefully presented after much research. They are fact-based and are meant to expand our knowledge, and therefore they are venerated by me.

So when I hear of a museum that twists facts to promote an agenda, I am infuriated. The displays in such a place are not based on evidence of any kind. They’re not backed up by multiple historic sources or any type of physical proof whatsoever. Rather than employing the scientific method, these places form a conclusion first and then try to cherry pick reality to suit the purpose of promoting their agenda. These places are often directed toward the indoctrination of children, and that makes me want to scream.

If you had been driving next to my car during my commute the other day, you’d have heard just such a scream. I was listening to a story on NPR about the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky. Apparently, when you enter this privately funded, 27 million dollar museum, one of the things that you’ll see is Adam and Eve standing beside a Tyrannosaurus Rex that is sporting a saddle. And the “docent” will tell you that this creature’s fearsome teeth were simply used crack open coconuts, and that, in fact, all dinosaurs were vegetarians and lived right alongside humans, apparently as domesticated pets.

Oh. My. God. Help.

The difference between science and creationism is that science wants to be disproven. By more science. It encourages further investigation, deeper study, critical thinking, and allows for future discoveries. Creationism, on the other hand, says, “This is how it is. Accept it. Don’t look any further. Don’t think.” I find this appalling. I cannot believe that any rational parent would want to put a choke hold on his or her child’s mind in this way.

According to this article about the debate held by this museum’s founder and Bill Nye, the Science Guy, “fear of death permeates every corner of the Creation Museum.” It seems to want to send the message that if you accept evolution, and think the world is more than 10,000 years old, then you’ve just shown that you are all alone in the universe and your existence is pointless.

Well, then, let’s all curl up and die and leave the planet to the brainless fools who believe in creationism, flat earth, QAnon, and the flying spaghetti monster.

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A Deep, Deep Dive into Nerddom

Holy Cow, am I ever in nerd heaven right now! I just stumbled upon a news release distribution platform online called EurekAlert! It’s operated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and therein you will find legitimate scientific press releases. These are stories that often don’t make the mainstream news, but they should.

This site is restoring my faith in mankind. It shows that there still are intelligent people out there. There are people who believe in the value of scientific inquiry, and don’t consider science some demonic conspiracy. They understand that knowledge is power and ignorance is weakness. They pursue facts and obtain answers. I’m finding this fascinating.

Best of all, they only post articles that adhere to their strict eligibility guidelines, from institutions involved in legitimate scientific research. No fake news here. No pseudoscience. No political agenda. How refreshing.

I just finished reading an article entitled “Chimpanzees help trace the evolution of human speech back to ancient ancestors.” In it, they’ve determined that Chimpanzee lip smacking behavior (and, indeed, that of gibbons and orangutans), averages 5 cycles per second.

The reason that’s interesting is that that’s the same average speed as every language the world over. Every single one. This means that human speech rhythm was built upon existing primate signal systems, and therefore has ancient roots within primate communication.

I mean, wow! Just… wow.

This website breaks its news releases down into the following categories: Agriculture, Archaeology, Atmospheric Science, Biology, Business & Economics, Chemistry & Physics, Earth Science, Education, Mathematics, Medicine & Health, Policy & Ethics, Social & Behavior, Space & Planetary, and Tech & Engineering. So there’s something in there for every nerd who ever walked the earth.

To heck with current events! It’s time we focus on current data. It’s time for us to rise up, rather than be bogged down in the foolishness. (And this site will also provide me with a great deal of blog fodder, so brace yourself.)

If you have a curious spirit and an inquiring mind, I urge you to check out EurekAlert! I’d write more, but I’m off to read an article entitled, “New study finds cannibalism in predatory dinosaurs.” Heaven only knows where I’ll wind up after that.

If you don’t hear from me, follow the bread crumbs through the delightful maze of pure science.

Nerd Glasses One

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A Temporary Home Schooling Idea

As more and more schools are shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents are desperately casting about for temporary home schooling ideas. In order to keep your children up to date on science, I strongly encourage you to check out Zooniverse.org. It’s also a great place to go if you’re stuck at home and bored silly. I can’t think of a better source to get people of all ages interested in science than this people-powered research site.

Check out my previous blog post about this site for more details, but rest assured that even more scientific projects have been added to the site since then. Here are a few:

  • Help the University of Wyoming track and study racoons.

  • Help identify regions of the universe where stars are being born.

  • Track the life histories and criminal careers of Australian prisoners.

  • Listen for earthquakes.

  • Transcribe handwritten letters between 19th century anti-slavery activists.

  • Count, identify, and track giraffes in Northern Kenya.

  • Help characterize the surface of Mars.

Sometimes it takes a village to complete a science project. I’m getting excited just writing this post! Let’s take this opportunity to teach our children that science can be fun!

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Hearing Double

Every once in a while, someone will create something so simple and brilliant that it just resonates with me. So it was with the song “Hearing Double” that I heard for the first time at a recent Jason Mraz concert.

Music is mathematical at its very core, but this song seems to raise the math to the very surface where it can’t be overlooked. I love that place where science and art intersect.

At the concert in Seattle, Jason introduced this song as the product of discovering that he and the voice inside his head were in love with the same person. What an interesting, creative concept. I love how different words are automatically emphasized, and how that very emphasis then emphasizes the feeling behind the words. I especially love how the song makes me laugh.

I urge you to listen to this song. Twice, even. And then tell me what you think, below.

Jason Mraz
Jason Mraz

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A Newfound Respect for Spiders

I just read a fascinating article entitled “Spider silk ‘library’ could hold secrets for new materials”. It was quite an education. I had no idea how complex spider silk was.

Did you know that some spiders can produce multiple kinds of silk? Think about that for a minute. Can you push something out of your body that’s specific to one task, and then switch over to another end product that does something entirely different? I can’t. What amazingly complex creatures! And we think we’re so superior.

According to this article, “Some silk types can be stretchy, others stiff. Some dissolve in water, others repel it.”

It goes on to say that Orb-weaving spiders produce seven types of silk including one that “has a sticky glue to catch prey. Another is tough but stretchy to absorb the impact of flying insects. The spider dangles from a third type that’s as tough as steel.”

And that’s just one spider out of 48,000 species. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what spiders are capable of producing. And properly imitating those products could help us produce bulletproof vests, pesticides, space gear, biodegradable fishing lines, and fashionable dresses. (See my post on Ghost Fishing to understand how valuable those biodegradable fishing lines would be!)

Scientist Cheryl Hayashi, of the Museum of Natural History in New York, is hard at work sequencing the DNA of the infinite variety of spider glands that produce these unique types of silk. It sounds like an exacting, time consuming job, but I can see why she finds it so absorbing. I mean, here are flexible building blocks, produced by bodies, that we’ve mostly been sweeping away with dusters, or shuddering at when we’ve accidentally walked through them.

It really makes me wish, once again, that I had majored in science.

Spider Silk

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Book Review: Lab Girl

I consider myself a strong, intelligent woman who is equally left- and right-brained. By this I mean that I’m analytical and fascinated by all things scientific, but I’m also creative and love to write. So it was gratifying to come across the book Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, because she can be described in the exact same way.

Hope is a professor of geobiology at the University of Oslo. Science is her passion as well as her bread and butter. Because of that, you’d think that any book she wrote about her life and career would be dry and pedantic. But no.

This book is a work of art. Read it. Seriously. You’ll be glad you did.

This is not just a book about plants, although if you read it you’ll learn all sorts of amazing things about them, and you’ll never look at a tree in the same way again. For me, though, what it is about, more than anything, is friendship.

Woven throughout this book is her relationship with her senior research laboratory manager, Bill. They have worked together in various labs around the world for 25 years. Theirs is not a romance. It’s something better. It’s unconditional, platonic love and respect. It’s dedication. It’s mutual support. It’s the kind of relationship that all of us aspire to, and most of us only dream about.

The book also talks about being a woman who chooses a career in a male-dominated field, which is something to which I can definitely relate. It’s also about mental health, and finding your place in this world, and never quite feeling like you fit in. It’s about being misunderstood by many, except for the most important people in your life. And in the end, that’s all that matters.

And it is amazingly well written. I keep a quote book where I save passages from books that really resonate with me. Here are some of the ones I plan to save from Lab Girl.

“He (her father) taught me that there is no shame in breaking something, only in not being able to fix it.”

“Each beginning is the end of a waiting.”

“In Georgia, when someone walks up to you wearing overalls with no shirt underneath them, it is unlikely that something good is about to happen.”

“A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet.”

“Being paid to wonder seems like a heavy responsibility at times.”

Because of this author, I went out and planted ten trees. How many people have gotten you to do that? And hey, she has inspired me to write a future posts about Stuckie the Mummified Dog and about Anomalocaris, “a segmented marine insect the size of a Labrador retriever” that, thanks be to God, no longer exists. Now if that doesn’t intrigue you, nothing will.

Lab Girl

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The Dental Arts

I may be a bridgetender, but like an onion, I have many layers. I also have a degree in Dental Laboratory Technology and Management. I am fascinated with dental appliances and their fabrication. I graduated with honors. I had big dreams.

Not that those dreams went anywhere. After applying to 200 different labs with no viable offers, and after seeing that dental appliance technology is outpacing the little mom and pop labs that I hoped to be a part of, and after having a wrist surgery that would have made it extremely painful to do the fine motor movements required on a day to day basis, I wised up and went back to bridgetending.

But the fascination remains. So when I needed a crown replaced, I was delighted to see it’s entire design and creation chairside. We’ve certainly come a long way from the days when you had to get a gloopy, bad-tasting mold taken of your teeth, then come back weeks later to have a crown fitted that had been fabricated in an offsite lab.

Instead, they popped off my old crown, and took photographs of my teeth from every possible angle, and then, voila! A three-dimensional image of my teeth appeared on the computer screen. It was fascinating.

From there, Mary, the technologist, created a crown for me on screen. Make no mistake, this was no flimsy endeavor. This takes skill in both science and art. She has to have knowledge of oral anatomy and how various teeth interact with one another. And she also must create a final product that will not only be functional but also aesthetically pleasing. That’s an admirable talent.

I watched her create this tooth and enjoyed imagining her thought process. It was like digital sculpting. Leonardo da Vinci would have been intrigued. And proud.

She consulted with my dentist (a big shout out to Dr. Steven Lockett in Renton, Washington, and his entire amazing staff!) and did a few tweaks based on his suggestions, and then sent the data off to the machine for fabrication. I wish I could have seen that. I know that the machine carves the crown out of little blocks of some mysterious substance that is probably trademarked by the company that created CEREC, the CAD/CAM (computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing) system that my dentist uses.

I could be wrong, but I think of it kind of like 3d printing in reverse. Instead of creating things from a bead-like substance, this machine carves it down from a cube. I mean, seriously, how cool is that?

In no time flat, my crown was hot off the presses, so to speak, and ready to go into my mouth. In it went, and off I went. Just another thing checked off my to-do list. And yet, when I think of the science and artistry that went into the whole endeavor, I still am filled with awe.

By the way, one of my favorite blog posts is the one I wrote entitled Cool Stuff You Never Knew about your Teeth.  Check it out! If you don’t learn at least one thing from it, I’ll eat my hat. With my brand new crown.

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