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!

zooniverse_logo_wide

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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.

https _upload.wikimedia.org_wikipedia_commons_d_d0_CEREC-kronprep

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Grass

Isn’t nature awesome? It never ceases to amaze me. The natural world is capable of so much more than we mere humans are.

Case in point: Grass. I recently watched my back yard get covered in 9 inches of snow, and it remained in place for a week. While it was beautiful, I couldn’t help wondering what was going on beneath it.

Imagine being covered in a thick, cold, wet, smotheringly heavy blanket. Imagine being plunged into temperatures below freezing for days on end. Imagine not being able to see the sun during that entire period.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’d be dead. Stick a fork in me. I’d be done.

And yet, once the grass was exposed again in a thaw that is still making slow but steady progress even as I write this, it was as green and perky as ever. Incredible. Dare I say it? Miraculous.

Okay, yeah, I get it. There is a scientific explanation for it. I have every confidence that this phenomenon can be accounted for. But I’d much rather just gaze at my intrepidly green back yard and consider myself lucky that it is content in its beauty and comfortable in its role in the overall scheme of things. Because if it had a union, it would probably rule the world.

Grass and Snow

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A Capella Science

I love that delicious point where art and science intersect. I don’t encounter it nearly enough for my liking, so when I do, I savor it. It seems as though most minds go in one direction or the other. It’s a rare one that appreciates both. That why such minds, and their creations, are priceless. Leonardo da Vinci, with his art and inventions, springs to mind.

So imagine my delight when a friend (waving at Mor) turned me on to the A Capella Science guy on Youtube. Tim Blais just got his master’s degree in physics, and he also happens to have the voice of an angel, and from what I can tell, is a consummate videographer as well. Such creativity, such profound intelligence. All in one delightful package.

Among his many creations is a song about string theory to the tune of Bohemian Rhapsody, a song about the saurian origin of birds to the tune of More Than Words, and a song about CRISPR to the tune of Mr. Sandman.

What I love most about Tim Blais is that I’m sure he’s getting people interested in science topics that they wouldn’t have previously explored. He’s making science cool. No. I take that back. Science was already cool. He’s just making a lot more of us realize it.

I think I can speak for all the creative nerds out there when I say, “Thanks, Tim!”

Tim Blais

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Biosphere 2

Recently, I visited Tucson, Arizona for the first time. I met a lot of really great people, ate a lot of delicious food, and the desert is so amazing that these topics will call for additional blog posts, but I thought I’d start with the first thing we did on our first day, because it was so geek-fabulous that even as I write this I have a silly grin on my face.

Please forgive me. I’m bouncing up and down in my chair, and I can barely contain an excited scream. I got to see Biosphere 2!!!!!!!!!!

This facility, in Oracle, Arizona, first captured my imagination in 1991, when 4 women and 4 men entered its closed ecological system to conduct scientific experiments for two years. They produced their own food, and maintained a mini ocean, rainforest, fog desert, and mangrove swamp as well as a fruit orchard. They even grew their own coffee, but only produced enough for a cup once every few weeks, which must have been torture for coffee lovers.

The purpose of this entire elaborate experiment was to see if it would be possible to maintain human life in outer space. That was what I found so exciting. It was like a space mission right here on earth. I wanted to pull up stakes and move right in myself.

It’s probably best that I didn’t, though. It was hard work. They were constantly hungry. They burned 400 more calories than they ate on most days. I’d have been grumpy. I’d have wanted ice cream.

And, in fact, the psychological aspect of the experiment was what intrigued me the most. The group of 8 wound up splitting into two groups of 4, and the two groups really didn’t like one another. They barely spoke. And yet they still managed to put the biosphere first and maintain the mission. The divisions make me sad for humanity and its attraction to drama, but the fact that they still worked toward a common goal, the health of the biosphere, gives me hope.

Because where’s Biosphere 1? You’re living in it. We all are. It’s planet earth. This complex, life-sustaining ecosystem of ours is critical for our survival, and if we don’t start taking climate change seriously, we’re not going to leave much for future generations. And as the saying goes, there is no Planet B. To heck with surviving in outer space. We need to be able to survive right here, and we’re certainly doing our level best to make that a challenge.

The tour of Biosphere 2 also takes you beneath it, to where all the mechanical systems are, and into the gigantic lung, which kept the facility from imploding or exploding during differing pressure systems. A picture of the lung room is below. (A fun fact is that it was also used as a film set for a very bad movie starring William Shatner in 2002, entitled Groom Lake, which sounds like an entirely miss-able movie.)

Both closed missions in this facility were fraught with controversy, but they taught us much. Currently, Biosphere 2 is owned by the University of Arizona, and they’re doing untold numbers of research experiments, including a Landscape Evolution Observatory (LEO), a Lunar Greenhouse, and a vertical farming project. I’m so glad that this amazing place is still contributing to our knowledge. We need all that we can get, in this age of ignorance.

If you ever get a chance to take a tour, I highly recommend it. I’m also adding a book that was written by two of the original biospherians to the very top of my reading list. Life Under Glass: The Inside story of Biosphere 2 by Abigail Alling and Mark Nelson sounds like a fascinating read. There are actually several books on the subject, but this seems like a great place to start.

Without further ado, here are some of the pictures from my visit.

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2 Rainforest
The rainforest
Biosphere 2 Cloud Desert
The Cloud Desert
Biosphere 2 Ocean
The Ocean
Biosphere 2 Lung
The lung. That heavy aluminum plate sinks to the ground when it’s cold, and rises when it is hot. It was 100 degrees that day.

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Exploring Seattle: The Pacific Science Center

True confessions: I’m a science nerd. So when my guy suggested we check out the Pacific Science Center, I was all for it! Let’s go get our geek on!

Naturally, this center is aimed at a much younger demographic, as it should be, but I didn’t care. I had fun. I learned stuff. And I’m glad there’s a venue whose main goal is to pique the interest of kids when it comes to science. We need much, much more of that, in my opinion.

Of course this center has a big display of animatronic dinosaurs. Every kid loves a dinosaur. I was fascinated with them as I grew up. Who am I kidding? I still am.

There are also laser light shows, and 3D IMAX movies. (I highly recommend the one about the ocean. I thought the waves were going to curl right over the top of me!) And oddly, there’s a very detailed and quite fascinating village of naked mole-rats, which, I learned, are neither moles nor rats. And of course there were a ton of interactive science displays.

But my favorite part, without a doubt, was the Tropical Butterfly House. It was a delight to walk around amongst these beautiful creatures as they went about their poignantly brief lives. Such color. Such delicacy. Such magic. The venue has to be kept hot and humid for its residents, though, so if you visit, I’d recommend going in the depth of winter if you can.

The center was part of the 1962 world’s fair, so there is a wonderful watery courtyard as well, with waterworks that allow you to get wet while learning about physics. We were able to roll a 4,000 pound ball on a pool of water. How many people can say that?

And I was thrilled to see that the Pacific Science Center hosts several science camps. If I had a kid, I’d be sure and sign him or her up for that experience. Science rocks!

PSC Allosaurus

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