Friday, December 31, 2010

Tuberculosis Ratted Out by Giant Rats!

Submitted by James, class of 2012

You might first react to these large rodents by exclaiming “Get that away from me!” but you, and especially those in low-income countries, now have a reason to actually benefit from Gambian pouched rats. These huge rodents can sniff out Tuberculosis, which is estimated by the World Health Organization to affect one in three people worldwide. The rats are 90% accurate, and can detect low doses of TB that might be skipped over by primary microscopy tests. They might one day be used commercially in low-income countries, and would be much more affordable. Once trained, they can whip through a dozen samples in a minute.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Arsenic for Dinner?

Check ou this article from the New York Times. A scientist has grown bacteria that exist on a phosphorous-free diet and eat arsenic instead. Quite intriguing...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Monday, November 8, 2010

A new use for coffee...

Cornell scientists use coffee grounds and a balloon to create a versitile gripper for a robot arm.
Cornell robot
John Amend
The robotic gripper conforms to the shape of the item it is lifting.
See more things it can pick up in a University of Chicago video.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Science Ink

Some people wear goofy scientific t-shirts, and some people prefer to wear their scientific passions on their flesh. If you happen to be one such decorated scientist, let Carl Zimmer know so he can include you in his forthcoming book of science tattoos, Science Ink. For the curious, his blog has a large collection of pictures that range from artful to humorous to downright geeky.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

1000th Protein's Structure Worked Out

Today is a flag day in structural genomics: 1000 human proteins have had their structure determined. Many proteins have a complex 3D structure, and the functioning of a protein (such as enzymes, transport proteins, molecular signals and gene control mechanisms) is entirely dependent upon this structure. If we can figure out what a protein should look like we have a good starting place to try and work out what is happening when something goes wrong, such as in cancer and many other diseases.
The article heralding this milestone can be found here, and there is a slideshow that shows 10 of the most important discoveries along with details of why they are so important here.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Pen That Never Forgets

This story from the NYT (click for the link) was sent to me by Paul Monheimer, and it ticks many of the boxes required for a good Coverslip post - science, technology, neuroscience, education etc.

Pens that record audio or use "e-ink" to link parts of written documents to computer files or to upload written notes onto your computer have been around for a while, and always struck me as rather gimmicky. It seems, however, that this latest incarnation has real promise for enhancing teaching and learning if used carefully (as with all technology, we should use it to enhance learning rather than as a novelty which quickly loses its appeal). It does, however, raise a question that I have often thought about - if we have all these devices doing our remembering for us, what is happening to our ability to store memories in both the short and long term? Whilst highly apocryphal and unscientific, personal experience leads me to suspect that I rely on technology in place of simply remembering things: how many phone numbers can you recall without referring to your phone? How many addresses do you know off the top of your head? Do you ever forget appointments if your planner doesn't beep at you? Perhaps it is simply down to aging, but I'm convinced I used to remember a lot more things before I had all these devices around me........

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Zorse?

Interesting article relevant to genetics and evolution - hybrid species!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sensitive robots in the not too distant future?

A new technology revealed today demonstrates the ability of an artificial skin that can detect the pressure of a butterfly landing - this opens up incredible possibilities for robot-controlled processes or even artificial limbs. The skin uses a polymer that, when compressed, changes the capacitance of the skin which can then be detected by a transistor. If an array of transistors is used, it can track differences in pressure applied to the skin.
The original Nature News article can be found here, and a layman's description on the BBC News site is here.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Spontaneous Combustion!

Check out this link about a plant causing a house fire:

The Science of Killer Dance Moves

Art Leo, English teacher and science enthusiast (and regular Coverslip contributor) submitted the following story from a number of news sources:
Ever wondered why some people look good on the dancefloor whilst others resemble chimps with a cerebellar deficit? Science has now answered this question by analyzing the dance moves of a variety of men and created avatars to distinguish between the good, the bad and the downright ugly (click here and/or here to read the whole story).

Men who were judged to be good dancers had a varied repertoire and more moves that involved tilting and twisting the torso and neck.But the majority of men displayed highly repetitive moves that used their arms and legs, but not the rest of their bodies.

"It's rare that someone is described as a good dancer if they are flinging their arms about but not much else," said Nick Neave, a psychologist at the University of Northumbria, who led the study.

The scientists believe that being a good dancer is an honest indication of the health of a male, just like in the animal world. in nature, being a good dancer sends signals to observing females that you are a good potential mate, or at least better than the other males with a limited repertoire of moves. The good news for us humans is that we can learn to get better, and there are dance lessons available.....

For one of the most famous example of good dancing technique, check out Ricky Gervais as David Brent in The Office, showing off a stunning variety of whole-body movements. To diagnose your own dance style, there is a guide here

Stunning Astronomy Photos

The Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition is run by the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London and the winners have just been announced. The photos are available to view online here from categories such as Earth and Space, Deep Space and People and Space. If you are reading this from somewhere in the UK (or are visiting between now and the end of February) you can go to the exhibition at the Royal Observatory.

My personal favourite, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, will be judged and displayed online at the end of Oct, so check back in then for some more incredible photography.

We're Back!

After a summer hiatus involving lots of science for all of us (chemistry courses, trips to the Galapagos and other exciting sciency places, knee surgery amongst a few of our adventures this summer), the Catlin Coverslip is back in action.

Send us any interesting ideas/stories you find and we'll share them here with everyone who is interested.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Balloon flight into near space

Via OpenCulture
In June, a group of San Francisco-based designers and engineers launched a balloon into near space, capturing the flight with two cameras that went along for the ride. Two hours into the flight, and at 80,000 feet of altitude, the balloon gives up the ghost and comes crashing back down to Earth. It all happens around the 2:20 mark of the video, and the images are … um … out of this world. Amazingly, all of the equipment onboard survives the fall – cameras and all – thanks to the parachute.
I am impressed. It only takes two hours to reach 80,000 feet of altitude? That's about twice as high as where commercial aircraft fly. Why did the balloon burst? Heat? Cold? How did the rate of acceleration vary during the climb?

Near Space Balloon Flight, shot with HD HERO cameras from GoPro from Kevin Macko on Vimeo.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Inevitable, I guess.....

Researchers at the University of Arkansas have found evidence of what we all probably thought was inevitable - genes implanted into canola plants have "escaped" and found their way into the wild population. Canola plants growing at the side of a road were found to have pesticide resistant genes present in their DNA, and some even had a combination of resistance genes that is not available commercially. This, rather worryingly, proved that different GM crops were intermixing with each other and both contributing to wild plants.
Ironically it seems that we have now entered into a genetic arms race with ourselves, as weeds are becoming resistant to our control methods via genes that we introduced into the environment to help eliminate undesirable plants. In what could be considered something of an understatement, the graduate student who conducted the research said "Things can escape from cultivation, and we need to be careful about what we stick into plants".

Sunday, July 4, 2010

July 4th is a Chemistry Holiday

It's just not July 4th without fireworks, and fireworks are all about chemistry!

I'm attending a chemistry workshop in Connecticut and have science on the brain (anyone else out there spend their Independence Day deriving the Nernst equation??), so July 4th brings to mind the science behind fireworks.

  • Check out this NOVA website for a neat description of the anatomy of a firework.
  • Here's a C&E News article about environmentally friendly fireworks
  • While watching the show tonight, you can figure out which chemicals are in the fireworks, based on color. Here's a nifty chart correlating which compounds produce which colors:
Color Compound
Red strontium salts, lithium salts
lithium carbonate, Li2CO3 = red
strontium carbonate, SrCO3 = bright red
Orange calcium salts
calcium chloride, CaCl2
calcium sulfate, CaSO4·xH2O, where x = 0,2,3,5
Gold incandescence of iron (with carbon), charcoal, or lampblack
Yellow sodium compounds
sodium nitrate, NaNO3
cryolite, Na3AlF6
Electric White white-hot metal, such as magnesium or aluminum
barium oxide, BaO
Green barium compounds + chlorine producer
barium chloride, BaCl+ = bright green
Blue copper compounds + chlorine producer
copper acetoarsenite (Paris Green), Cu3As2O3Cu(C2H3O2)2 = blue
copper (I) chloride, CuCl = turquoise blue
Purple mixture of strontium (red) and copper (blue) compounds
Silver burning aluminum, titanium, or magnesium powder or flakes

Why does John Bonham sound so sweet on drums?

Apologies for the lack of recent updates - usual end of year business. Whilst catching up on email, I came across a link sent to me by an old school friend who went on to do a PhD in Pyschology. It is a fantastic podcast by Jarvis Cocker (English musician, frontman of the band Pulp) about how we perceive music and its evolutionary significance. He does this by transporting the listener to the recording session in which Led Zeppelin laid down the famous drum intro to the song "When the Levee Breaks" from their 4th album.
For me, it doesn't get any better than combining cognition, evolution and Led Zeppelin...... Click here to listen to Jarvis's dulcet Yorkshire tones describing how sound is created and subsequently processed in the ear and brain.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Conditioned Taste Aversion Protects an Endangered Species

I just read a tidbit about this project on the Smithsonian website and dug up the research article to learn more. Here's the gist:

The northern quoll, an endangered marsupial native to Australia, is doing itself no favors by eating the tasty but poisonous cane toad, an invasive species that is rapidly moving into the quoll's habitats. As the toads move into quoll territory, the quoll population crashes. The toads are so pervasive that removing them from the environment isn't a feasible way to protect the quolls.

A recent research project found that conditioned taste aversion might be a useful way of preventing the quolls from eating the toxic toads. Scientists painted dead toads with a nauseating, but safe, chemical and fed them to quolls, who learned to associate the ensuing tummyaches with eating the cane toads. Released back into the wild and tracked with radiocollars, these toad-smart quolls lived five times as long as toad-naive quolls, presumably because they were now smart enough to not eat the toxic toads.

Conditioned taste aversion is well-known learning paradigm in neurobiology research, but this is the first time I've seen it suggested as a mechanism for preserving native populations when an invading population cannot be eradicated from the environment. Neat!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Weird and Wonderful Mammals I and II: The Hispaniolan Solenodon and the Slow Loris

The Solenodon: A very weird mammal

Inspired by a recent senior project that involved working on documenting endangered species in the United States, I thought I would start a series of posts about the rare and unusual animals that few people have heard of, starting with the Hispaniolan solenodon. Its name sounds more like that of a dinosaur than a mammal, and that is pretty appropriate - it is thought that this furry little sniffing machine has changed very little in the last 75 million years and something similar to its current form co-existed with the dinosaurs. They are found, as the name suggests, on the island of Hispaniola and are threatened by deforestation in Haiti. There is a great video of the solenodon here.

What makes it particularly unusual (and therefore eligible to be featured under the title of this post) is the fact that it is the only mammal that can inject venom through its teeth (any type of venomous mammal is fairly rare - platypuses have poisonous thumbs and slow lorises produce an allergen in their armpits and I'm sure there are probably a few others). For those of you unfamiliar with slow lorises, you might enjoy their response to being tickled.....

Left: The slow loris has allergenic armpits - it licks up the allergen then bites potential attackers.

Below: How does a slow loris react to being tickled?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Belated Happy Mother's Day

This song was sent to us by Theresa Long, who said "I just received this link to a Mother's Day tribute written by a young biologist for his mother - I smiled during the whole 3 minutes and am thinking - that this may just earn an entry in the Catlin Coverslip".
It has indeed made it to the Coverslip - thanks for the link. Any song that contains the lines "trans-placental inheritance" and "transcription factors" and rhymes "rent" with "hypothalamic development" is more than qualified to be featured here. So, here it is, dedicated to all mothers......

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Synthetic Life Created

In what is considered a huge scientific breakthrough, scientists have created an artificial genome and implanted into a bacterial host cell. The host cell subsequently "behaves" as instructed by the artificial DNA, raising hopes that simple cells can be created to do our bidding in such areas as biomedical science and fighting global warming. A summary of the story published in Science can be found here.
Many researchers and philosophers, however, are extremely worried about the potential of this research and are imploring research labs to take a responsible and cautious approach. What do you think? Should scientists be allowed to pursue such research? What is the limit to what scientific research should be allowed to work on? Such ethical decisions are going to play an increasing role in our lifetime, so are definitely worth thinking about.....

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Wind Farms, Bad For Birds?

"Wind farms kill a lot more birds daily than are probably going to be killed in this oil spill."
--George Will, Washington Post columnist 5/9/10

Hmm, does he have a point? No. True, wind turbines do affect avian populations, but they're not the dire threat that oil mavericks might have you believe they are.

The Audubon Society supports wind power.

This peer-reviewed report examines number of birds killed by various energy sources.

The Exxon Valdez spill is estimated to have killed a quarter million birds outright, plus reduced food availability and destroyed habitat for survivors and several future generations (there's still 20,000 gallons of oil on Alaska's shores, 21 years later!).

Here's a chart estimating annual bird deaths:

Building strikes: 100 million to 1 billion
Car strikes: 200 to 300 million
Communication towers: 4 to 50 million
Power lines: around 75 million
Cats: 365 million (1 million per day)
Wind farms: 100,000 to 300,000

Note that cats are a far bigger threat to avian populations than wind farms (but we all knew that from watching Sylvester and Tweety Bird cartoons).

Monday, May 10, 2010

Don't put Beaver in a Corner

This is a sad story of an injured beaver trying to escape from the Audobon Society in Portland Oregon. Five doors, it chewed through five doors in no time at all. Beavers are not large in stature, they are about thirty five pound and thirty inches long. They have a massive skull and jaw. Pretty amazing that this rodent has close-able nostrils.

Busy Beavers

I cant believe the size of this structure and how long the beavers have been working. The article says you can see it from space, but it does not say where or how.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Is there a bit of Nearderthal in us all?

A recent paper in the journal Science and reported on the BBC website presents research that some of us may be more closely related to Neanderthals that we previously thought. Previous analysis of our evolutionary history suggested that modern humans (Homo sapiens) out-competed the Homo neanderthalis and drove this hominid species to extinction when Homo sapiens migrated north out of Africa.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute managed to extract DNA from Neanderthal bones found in Croatia, and found that there was up to 4% overlap between this DNA and modern human DNA from Europe, Asia and Oceania. This suggests that there was some gene flow between Neanderthals and humans during the 10,000 years during which they co-existed. "They are not totally extinct. In some of us they live on, a little bit," said Professor Svante Paabo, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sally Sells (Deformed) Seashells By the Seashore

10th grader Rachel gets credit for the title...ask her or any other Catlin 10th grader about ocean acidification and you'll get an earful. The ocean's ability to store carbon dioxide seemed like a great solution to the increase in carbon dioxide emissions...until we realized the consequences.

This editorial in today's Oregonian discusses ocean acidification, a topic well understood by Catlin's sophomores, who just last month performed a lab activity in which they observed increasing amounts of calcium carbonate seashells dissolving as they decreased the pH of the solution it was in. Scary!

The Oregonian editorial is in response to a new report from the Ocean Studies Board that makes a strong case for the harmful effects of too much carbon dioxide in the ocean. This report was commissioned by Congress, who now must decide whether to pay for the increased ocean monitoring that the report advises.

Thanks to Bob S. for spotting the Oregonian article this morning.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Dance Like Honey Bees

The Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch was the first scientist to decode the "waggle dance" of honey bees, which informed their hive mates of the location of food sources. A description of the bee dance can be seen here.

The Advanced Bio class had to come up with their own dances using the bees as inspiration to find their candy "caches" hidden around campus. The results can be seen in the video below....

Foreign Accent Syndrome

An amazing story on the Sky News website this morning - a woman from Plymouth in England who suffered from migraines suddenly started talking in a different accent. Her normal voice would have sounded a bit like Mike Davis's accent, but now she sounds like she has a mix between a Chinese and Eastern European accent. Check out the story and video here.

There have been only 60 recorded cases of Foreign Accent Syndrome, the first being a Norwegian woman who suffered head injuries during an air raid during WWII and subsequently started speaking with a German accent (people in her town then suspected her of being a spy).

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

HeLa cells, a line of immortal human cells, have a long and murky scientific past. They also have an important human in their past, Henrietta Lacks. This new book, by a woman who grew up in Portland, explores both stories.

The following is a thoughtful review by sophomore Ilana:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is not a science book, nor is it a book about the people who study science. It is about the rest of the people. Those who depend on science, and on whom science depends: the people who require and test the solutions science promises, and the ways in which they are often not given the chance to be involved in scientific studies on their own terms, in part because they have not had the education to be able to understand the information which would make up “informed consent”. The topic of the book is the mass of cells which Henrietta’s cancer biopsy has grown over the last 50 years and the medical advances those cells have enabled, but the point of the book is to not be a science article to add to the 60,000+ (Skloot, p.312) articles concerning the cells which have already been published. The point of the book is to tell the story of Henrietta in human terms in equal parts a way for her family to come to terms and to an understanding of what was done and why her cells are famous, and recognition of all of the unnamed people whose bodies have contributed to scientific achievement. Read this book to learn about the horrific clinical trials and inspiring scientific discoveries. Read this book glimpse the technicalities which have limited the abilities of lawyers to enact informed consent laws and to be awed by the life Henrietta’s daughter displays even after a childhood of abuse. This is a people book to be recommended for its scientific value and its capacity to spark interest in fields from reporter, to lawyer, to scientist to human rights activist, and, if for no other reason, to carry on the legacy of the person Henrietta who unknowingly gave her genes to scientific progress.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Volcanos = Good for the Environment?

A predictable side effect of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland on 14 April 2010 was significant air traffic disruptions all across Europe, the largest airline shutdown since WW II.

A less obvious result is that the carbon dioxide emissions regularly caused by these flights have been suspended, and even though the volcano is emitting 15,000 tons of carbon dioxide daily (small red triangle), that's still far less than the airline traffic regularly generates (giant red triangle).

image from:

data from:

Friday, April 16, 2010

What Does DNA replication sound like? Musical Homework

In response to a homework challenge to formulate a creative interpretation of DNA replication, a couple of students went the extra mile and wrote musical compositions - the first one featured here is by by Vignesh (CO 2011).
Here, in Vignesh's own words, is a quick rundown on what it represents...

The rigid drum rhythm represents the nigh-mechanical nature of the DNA
replication process.
The two piano melodies at the beginning together represent the spiraling
double helix of DNA.
The harsh, distorted part represents the helicase breaking up the double
Afterward, the organ chords represent the the RNA primer.
The legato layered piano represents the leading strand from 5' to 3'.
Then, the staccato piano and the slower, somewhat arrhythmic drum beat
represent the "fragmented" lagging strand from 3' to 5'. This part is
more repetitive as the process is more repetitive.
The two piano melodies come back, but in stereo and with different
timbres, to represent two DNA helices, the products of semiconservative
DNA replication.

The second piece, submitted by Paul (CO 2011) is described as follows:

At the beginning, nothing is happening to the DNA. Then helicase separates it with staccato dissonance. Binding proteins are a sustained, rising melody. (We modulate down 1 half step to E flat. E natural represents completed DNA. Primase gets everything started on the leading strand with 3 sharp chords, and then polymerase 3 makes some chords as the rapid notes are the new strand of DNA forming. An E natural chord indicates that the strand of DNA has formed. Primase then starts the lagging strand (same 3 chords) and Okazaki fragments are formed as polymerase 3 makes more chords (back to E flat here). Ligase smoothly joins the Okazaki fragments with arpeggios. At the end, it resolves on E because the DNA has finished replicating.

Thanks to Veronica for sending me this for submission.

Crime Lab Confessions: A Forensic Scientist Tells All

Every month, OMSI organizes a Science Pub, an informal science lecture in either the Bagdad Theater or the Mission Theater - it is for over 21's, and is described as follows:
Learn about cutting-edge topics in science and technology from leading researchers and scientists, all while enjoying food and drinks. Don't expect a remote speaker behind a distant podium. Instead, experience an informal atmosphere where you can interact with experts and where there are no silly questions. No scientific background is required; just bring your curiosity, sense of humor, and appetite for food, drinks, and knowledge!

The next topic is about forensics, and those who did 8th grade science with Pongi or enjoy CSI-style TV may be interested by this upcoming lecture:
Learn the “Top 10 CSI Myths” and hear responses to each from a real forensic scientist. This Science Pub will focus on the major areas of forensic analysis, including firearms, latent prints, drug chemistry, and DNA.

Kori Barnum is a scientist at the Oregon State Police Forensic Laboratory in Clackamas, with a background inanthropology, firearms identification, and forensic biology (examining physical evidence for biological stains.)

Several of the current science faculty intend to be there, so any Catlin Gabel alum that fancies an evening of forensics in the company of Mr Science, Pongi and others should come to the Bagdad Theater on Tues 27th April - doors open at 5pm for a 7pm start and you need to get there early to ensure a seat.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Beetles vs Trees

Here is an interesting little article about how global warming has shifted the balance in a Colorado ecosystem.

Volcano erupts in Iceland

Here is a video of the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

Also, here is the link to a NYTimes article with a bunch of cool maps and such.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

1000 Page Views!

Today we hit the landmark number of 1000 page views in our first couple of months. Thanks to those of you that have taken an interest, and I'll keep pestering our contributors to post the fascinating things they find. Remember - if you come across an interesting science story to share, let me know and I'll get it posted.

Some other interesting stats:

- We have been visited by readers from 17 countries from 4 continents (we are still waiting for S America and Africa to join the party.....)

- Most readers just visit the main page, but the next most popular page is the Chemistry Magic Show video
(statistics courtesy of Google Analytics)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Oxidate It Or Love It

This video was sent to me by Bhakthi Sahgal (CO 2009), who suffered through respiration with me in BPC III. It seems my more traditional teaching methods were no match for the rapping skills of a Stanford student and his Bio teacher. Apparently, the video pays homage to "Hate it or love it" by 50 Cent/The Game and "On to the next one" by Jay-Z (I am told that they are famous rappers). Those in Science I might like to check their knowledge by reviewing their Energy notes whilst listening to this catchy tune.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Read about innovative ideas and vote for your favorite.

Students from grades 9-12 were asked to come up with innovative ideas in the areas of renewable energy, aerospace exploration, green schools and space nutrition. Teams competed by constructing their ideas and preparing to market them. There is a $5000 prize awaiting the winner. You can read about the best ideas to reach the finals and vote for the one you think should win. You have from March 29 to April 9 to vote. Some of the ideas are quite remarkable. Take a look at

Monday, March 22, 2010

Engineering at Catlin Gabel.....

15 intripid Winterimers attempted to build go karts in 4 days from bits of plywood, 2x4 and 6.5 hp motors. Aided by go kart expert Dick Shoemaker (former Catlin 6th grade teacher) and parent Jeff Maier, the boys did amazingly well, with 3 getting finished and 2 just needing the engine to be attached. One group managed to build and wreck their go kart in those 4 days, crashing in to the Modern Languages building.
The slideshow below documents the process from start to (almost) finish - I'll add more photos and a movie of the project when we get back from Spring Break (as long as Matthew has got it done by then)

Why, Discovery Channel, Why?

The BBC Wildlife/Discovery Channel's latest wildlife documentary series "Life" started last night, and it is a truly amazing feat of film making. Expecting to hear David Attenborough's hushed tones describing the action, I was horrified to hear the voice of Oprah Winfrey telling us about nature's wonders (I will admit I am slightly biased, because Attenborough is one of my personal heroes and high up on the list of people I'd like to meet). Despite this shock the footage of flies with inflatable eyes, the macaque with a hammer and the usual (but still incredible) predator-prey chases were captivating. It is well worth watching, especially for those with HD.

I also found the Arkive website with lots of wildlife images and footage when searching for clips of a dancing sifaka - a nimble lemur that I spent a whole Adv Bio class trying to remember the name of. It is a great site on which you could spend hours browsing the videos and images. Perfect for when the spring break weather is not cooperating and you are stuck inside.....

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hummingbird Nest

This is a must see. If you think Lost is a good show, you have another thing coming. Here is a live web-cam on a nest with hummingbirds. I can't wait until they hatch, neither can 4,975 other bird enthusiasts right now. She just left, here are the eggs.

Cool Science News: insomniac reindeer and poop-eating plants

A couple of stories caught the eyes of our students over the weekend, and this is the perfect forum for bringing them to the attention of a wider audience.
The advanced biology class recently covered the role of the pineal gland and melatonin in the control of circadian rhythms (better known as your "body clock"). Melatonin secretion fluctuates during a 24h period to signal when to sleep and when to be awake. Anyone who has made the trek across the atlantic is all to familiar of the consequences of a confused pineal gland, with scientific fingers pointing at it as the culprit behind jet lag. Our circadian rhythms are affected by day length, so what happens when you don't have any nights (or any days), like the reindeer of the arctic? Researchers have discovered that they have switched off their biological clock, and you can read the full article here. (Thanks to Kent Hayes for bringing this to my attention).

In the environmental science class, we looked at how useful poop can be. Electricity can be generated by fermenting cow waste, and our near neighbors in Washington are investigating this option (the NPR story and broadcast can be found here). Avid gardeners are adding manure to their soil as spring arrives, and it turns out that we are not the only ones making use of others' waste. Carnivorous plants are famous for their elaborate mechanisms for catching and digesting animals to supplement their nutrient supply from the soil (think of venus flytraps and pitcher plants), but it now seems that some of them are more coprophagous than bloodthirsty: researchers in Malaysia have discovered that the giant pitcher plants found there are more interested in the rodent droppings than the rodents themselves - click here for the full story.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Chemistry Magic Show

Today the Advanced Chemistry class prepared a chemistry show for Chris's 8th grade scientists. About 30 middle schoolers were entertained with a variety of chemical reactions, most of which involved setting fire to something. A short highlights reel is featured below.
Thanks to the seniors involved, to Becky and Chris for organizing this and to Nathaniel for stepping in to supervise the rehearsals whilst Becky hikes through the Himalayas.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"The Human Camera"

Here is a remarkable video about the amazing capabilities of the human brain. In this case it is the damaged human brain of a savant from Great Britain named Stephen Wiltshire. In Savants, certain normal abilities of the brain are missing and the parts of the brain that still work develop superhuman capabilities. This You Tube film documents Stephen's incredible skill in response to a challenge, something almost all savants enjoy. Just like you and me, they are proud to show off what they do well.

Another popular major motion picture you can watch about a savant is titled "Rain Man," starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in one of his earliest roles before he was a star. Dustin Hoffman plays the role of a savant based on the life of a real savant. Dustin spent much time with the savant, studying his behavior and mannerisms before playing the role.

If you don't know about savants, (they used to be insensitively referred to as "idiot savants" because although they have some remarkable capabilities, they may not be able to tell you how much change you get for a dollar if you spend seventy five cents) you will be amazed by this story. If you already know about savants, you will still be amazed by this story. Enjoy.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Skinput: Appropriating the Body as an Input Surface (CHI 2010)

Every time someone says "welcome to the future" after hearing about or seeing a new piece of technology we fell in love with watching our Saturday cartoons growing up I think, the future is now.

This is a way cool application of our dermal landscape.

Water Pollution (Part II) : Heavy Metals

In the second Environmental Science project to be featured on The Coverslip, Erica and Christine (and their environmental crusader Danger Ranger) address the issues surrounding heavy metal pollution in water in the podcast below. The audio is a bit quiet for the first few seconds, but is great when Erica and Christine start talking. Click here for the first project published on The Coverslip, which is a video on domestic water pollution.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Credit Where Credit's Due.....

When we decided in a whole-school science dept meeting to set up this blog, I immediately thought of the efforts of my former colleagues at St. Columba's College in Dublin, Ireland. They set up "The Frog Blog" just over a year ago, and recently celebrated their 500th post. They have recently expanded into podcasting and have added a Twitter feed and Facebook page. Whilst we are still embryonic (maybe foetal now, and I make no apologies for my spelling) compared to their infant site, those 500 posts in such a short space of time are something we can aspire to. Hopefully, we could even appear on their list of "sites we like"....
So, if you have any interesting science stories or want to contribute in any way to this site, please contact us with your ideas and we will happily post them and give you full credit.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

1000000000000000000000000000 Hella-Rad

Finally, a prefix that is easy to remember, HELLA. Austin Sendek a graduate student at UC Davis has started a facebook petition to establish a new prefix to denote 10 to the 27th power. That's a 1 followed by 27 zeros.

A Suggestion for 10 ^-27 is hello-

Just in case you are rusty in your System Internationale Prefixes:
10^24 yotta
10^21 zetta
10^18 exa
10^15 peta
10^12 tera
10^9 giga
10^6 mega
10^3 kilo
10^2 hecto
10^1 deka

10^-1 deci
10^-2 centi
10^-3 milli
10^-6 micro
10^-9 nano
10^-12 pico
10^-15 femto
10^-18 atto
10^-21 zepto
10^-24 yocto

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Water Pollution (Part I): Domestic Water Waste in Portland

The senior elective Environmental Science and Policy class were given the task of producing a piece of work that highlighted a specific aspect of water pollution. I will publish each of these projects in the coming weeks, and we are starting with Jordan and Zanny's film on water pollution in Portland. Enjoy.

Science Says you Can be Happier

Go fly a kite, Barabra Ehreneich. Your new book, Bright Sided, on how to be miserable in America is incorrect. It's true, you have the power to make yourself happy, science says that the power of positive thinking can make you gleeful. Now they are some pretty simple guidelines, but I am sure if you follow them you will feel a little spring in your step and you might even enjoy doing homework, or find happiness in an audition for the 8th grade musical!

"The billion-dollar question is, is it possible to become happier?" said psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside. "Despite the finding that happiness is partially genetically determined, and despite the finding that life situations have a smaller influence on our happiness than we think they do, we argue that still a large portion of happiness is in our power to change." Sonja asserts that there a few simple things we can do to boost or happiness, the full results can be found in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Here is what Clara Moskowitz, LiveScience Senior Writer, has to say about happiness. Follow these five simple rules to a scientifically chipper existence.

1. Be grateful Some study participants were asked to write letters of gratitude to people who had helped them in some way. The study found that these people reported a lasting increase in happiness – over weeks and even months – after implementing the habit. What's even more surprising: Sending the letter is not necessary. Even when people wrote letters but never delivered them to the addressee, they still reported feeling better afterwards.

2. Be optimistic – Another practice that seems to help is optimistic thinking. Study participants were asked to visualize an ideal future – for example, living with a loving and supportive partner, or finding a job that was fulfilling – and describe the image in a journal entry. After doing this for a few weeks, these people too reported increased feelings of well-being.

3. Count your blessings – People who practice writing down three good things that have happened to them every week show significant boosts in happiness, studies have found. It seems the act of focusing on the positive helps people remember reasons to be glad.

4. Use your strengths – Another study asked people to identify their greatest strengths, and then to try to use these strengths in new ways. For example, someone who says they have a good sense of humor could try telling jokes to lighten up business meetings or cheer up sad friends. This habit, too, seems to heighten happiness.

5. Commit acts of kindness – It turns out helping others also helps ourselves. People who donate time or money to charity, or who altruistically assist people in need, report improvements in their own happiness.
Lyubomirsky has also created a free iPhone application, called Live Happy, to help people boost their well-being.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Science In the Movies: Hall of Shame

The BBC website reports today on a physicist from Emory University who has called on Hollywood studios to limit their scientific inaccuracies to one per film and generally obey the laws of science. They have nominated three films that are the worst offenders (Deep Blue Sea would definitely make my list in this category). Do you agree?
My personal favorites in this category are "Mission to Mars" (click for a list of all their goofs - "That DNA looks human (looks at a single double helix) - no, it's missing the last 2 chromosomes...." being particularly memorable (youtube video here - jump to 2 mins in) and "Spiderman" (left hand DNA helix, transformation from boy to spiderman with the insertion of a couple of base pairs, and individual bases labeled as the source of jumping and spideryness....). I can forgive Spiderman, because after all, it's Spiderman and Uncle Ben Parker delivers one of the great moral messages of the 21st century that we can all take note of (particularly as scientists): "Remember, with great power comes great responsibility....."

Friday, February 19, 2010

Science In the Sunshine

Not so much a news story or an insightful comment on teaching and learning, rather an uplifting picture of the coming of spring. As inevitable as night following day, the appearance of the sunshine after a long Oregon winter invariably brings out the question "Can we have class outside?". Yesterday, the answer was yes - we needed the extra space to build the longest protein model we could in a block period, then combined the efforts of two BPC III classes. Those of you with good eyesight can check that they are indeed all structurally correct with impeccable peptide bonds linking each amino acid. I'll be particularly impressed if anyone can tell me which amino acid is on the far right of the chain........

Friday, February 12, 2010

Are you a Skeptic or an Obstructionist?

Working with a team or in a group involves lots of decisions in order to complete a task, hit a goal or to keep moving froward in a positive manner. In the sciences we have been trained to ask questions, ferret the weasels and point out the misses instead of selecting hits. Carl Sagan, scientist, author and host of Cosmos, the television program that inspired a generation to think outside of this world, authored "The Demon Haunted World" a book to inspire lay people to be critical thinkers. Below is a great interview and an excert from the chapter, "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection"

In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions. Among these fallacies are:
  • ad hominem -- Latin for "to the man," attacking the arguer and not the argument (e.g., The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously);
  • argument from authority (e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia -- but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake, as it turned out);
  • argument from adverse consequences (e.g., A God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn't, society would be much more lawless and dangerous -- perhaps even ungovernable.* Or: The defendant in a widely publicized murder trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement for other men to murder their wives);

    Graphic Rule
    * NOTE: A more cynical formulation by the Roman historian Polybius:

    Since the masses of the people are inconstant, full of unruly desires, passionate, and reckless of consequences, they must be filled with fears to keep them in order. The ancients did well, therefore, to invent gods, and the belief in punishment after death.
    Graphic Rule

  • appeal to ignorance -- the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist -- and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we're still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
  • special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble (e.g., How can a merciful God condemn future generations to torment because, against orders, one woman induced one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you don't understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will. Or: How can there be an equally godlike Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same Person? Special plead: You don't understand the Divine Mystery of the Trinity. Or: How could God permit the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- each in their own way enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness and compassion -- to have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long? Special plead: You don't understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in mysterious ways.)
  • begging the question, also called assuming the answer (e.g., We must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime. But does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the death penalty is imposed? Or: The stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors -- but is there any independent evidence for the causal role of "adjustment" and profit-taking; have we learned anything at all from this purported explanation?);
  • observational selection, also called the enumeration of favorable circumstances, or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses* (e.g., A state boasts of the Presidents it has produced, but is silent on its serial killers);

    Graphic Rule
    * NOTE: My favorite example is this story, told about the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, newly arrived on American shores, enlisted in the Manhattan nuclear weapons Project, and brought face-to-face in the midst of World War II with U.S. flag officers:

    So-and-so is a great general, he was told.
    What is the definition of a great general? Fermi characteristically asked.
    I guess it's a general who's won many consecutive battles.
    How many?
    After some back and forth, they settled on five.
    What fraction of American generals are great?
    After some more back and forth, they settled on a few percent.

    But imagine, Fermi rejoined, that there is no such thing as a great general, that all armies are equally matched, and that winning a battle is purely a matter of chance. Then the chance of winning one battle is one out of two, or 1/2, two battles 1/4, three 1/8, four 1/16, and five consecutive battles 1/32 -- which is about 3 percent. You would expect a few percent of American generals to win five consecutive battles -- purely by chance. Now, has any of them won ten consecutive battles ...?
    Graphic Rule

  • statistics of small numbers -- a close relative of observational selection (e.g., "They say 1 out of every 5 people is Chinese. How is this possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. Yours truly." Or: "I've thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can't lose.");
  • misunderstanding of the nature of statistics (e.g., President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence);
  • inconsistency (e.g., Prudently plan for the worst of which a potential military adversary is capable, but thriftily ignore scientific projections on environmental dangers because they're not "proved." Or: Attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States (now highest of the major industrial nations) to the failures of capitalism. Or: Consider it reasonable for the Universe to continue to exist forever into the future, but judge absurd the possibility that it has infinite duration into the past);
  • non sequitur -- Latin for "It doesn't follow" (e.g., Our nation will prevail because God is great. But nearly every nation pretends this to be true; the German formulation was "Gott mit uns"). Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply failed to recognize alternative possibilities;
  • post hoc, ergo propter hoc -- Latin for "It happened after, so it was caused by" (e.g., Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila: "I know of ... a 26-year-old who looks 60 because she takes [contraceptive] pills." Or: Before women got the vote, there were no nuclear weapons);
  • meaningless question (e.g., What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa);
  • excluded middle, or false dichotomy -- considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities (e.g., "Sure, take his side; my husband's perfect; I'm always wrong." Or: "Either you love your country or you hate it." Or: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem");
  • short-term vs. long-term -- a subset of the excluded middle, but so important I've pulled it out for special attention (e.g., We can't afford programs to feed malnourished children and educate pre-school kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets. Or: Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?);
  • slippery slope, related to excluded middle (e.g., If we allow abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant. Or, conversely: If the state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of conception);
  • confusion of correlation and causation (e.g., A survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual than those with lesser education; therefore education makes people gay. Or: Andean earthquakes are correlated with closest approaches of the planet Uranus; therefore -- despite the absence of any such correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter -- the latter causes the former*);

    Graphic Rule
    * NOTE: Children who watch violent TV programs tend to be more violent when they grow up. But did the TV cause the violence, or do violent children preferentially enjoy watching violent programs? Very likely both are true. Commercial defenders of TV violence argue that anyone can distinguish between television and reality. But Saturday morning children's programs now average 25 acts of violence per hour. At the very least this desensitizes young children to aggression and random cruelty. And if impressionable adults can have false memories implanted in their brains, what are we implanting in our children when we expose them to some 100,000 acts of violence before they graduate from elementary school?
    Graphic Rule

  • straw man -- caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack (e.g., Scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by chance -- a formulation that willfully ignores the central Darwinian insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and discarding what doesn't. Or -- this is also a short-term/long-term fallacy -- environmentalists care more for snail darters and spotted owls than they do for people);
  • suppressed evidence, or half-truths (e.g., An amazingly accurate and widely quoted "prophecy" of the assassination attempt on President Reagan is shown on television; but -- an important detail -- was it recorded before or after the event? Or: These government abuses demand revolution, even if you can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Yes, but is this likely to be a revolution in which far more people are killed than under the previous regime? What does the experience of other revolutions suggest? Are all revolutions against oppressive regimes desirable and in the interests of the people?);
  • weasel words (e.g., The separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else -- "police actions," "armed incursions," "protective reaction strikes," "pacification," "safeguarding American interests," and a wide variety of "operations," such as "Operation Just Cause." Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political purposes. Talleyrand said, "An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public").

Knowing the existence of such logical and rhetorical fallacies rounds out our toolkit. Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the difference in the world -- not least in evaluating our own arguments before we present them to others.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Communicating with the unconscious

Expanding upon Mr D's post last week (click here for the story), the New York Times have posted a video that explores this idea further.

Physics of the Winter Olympics

The New York Times has a series of great videos analyzing the physics of Winter Olympics events such as ski jumping and ice skating. Ever wonder how a ski jumper launches into a "double full full full" rotation before landing? By manipulating his or her center of gravity and rotational momentum during each second of airtime, of course. Click for classical mechanics in action.

Image originally posted to Flickr as Lysgårdsbakkene Ski Jumping Arena. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Geothermal Energy - what's it all about?

Sitting as we do on a number of volcanoes and hot springs, the potential for geothermal energy in Oregon seems to be pretty high. The map on the left shows the potential for harvesting geothermal energy in the U.S.A. Klamath Falls, for example, uses geothermal energy for heating buildings, de-icing roads and heating swimming pools. As part of their Environmental Science and Policy class, groups had to prepare presentations on various forms of alternative renewable energy sources. Zanny and Ingrid drew geothermal energy, and thought they would see what a cross-section of the Catlin Gabel community knew about the topic. The results were mixed.....

Monday, February 8, 2010

Baking Soda Projects

Never underestimate the utility of letting students design and execute open ended baking soda labs. Not only are they fun and can result in a batch of cookies or bang, but students learn how to ask an empirical question, design an experiment and they learn how to evaluate their data in relation to their initial question. Today, students presented their weekend projects to the class. What I learned today, is that there is an inherent desire to compare. Students created a "control" without having been instructed. There were some great projects and some great experiments. Below is an example of an answer to the question, how high can I get this thing into the air.

I love 8th Grade Science!

Great start to 2010 for Catlin Gabel Science

2010 has already been a remarkable year for Catlin Gabel science students already. Two of our seniors have been named finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search - this is the first time in the history of the school for us to have one finalist, let alone two. They are the only students from Oregon and two of only 40 nationwide. This achievement was covered by several local news outlets, and links to all the stories can be found here A list of distinguished alumni of this competition (Nobel prize winners, Fields Medal winners) can be found here

Yesterday, a team of students took second place in the Regional Science Bowl. This is the best ever performance by a Catlin team, beating 59 other teams from Oregon and SW Washington for a place in the final. Details of their fantastic performance can be found here

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mendeleev!

The periodic table is pretty incredible, no? Such an elegant design principle, so orderly and logical, a true marvel. Its creator, Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev, was born on February 8, 1834. One wonders if Dmitri ever realized the legacy he was leaving for generations of science students, ever grateful for the veritable cheat sheet hanging on the wall of every chemistry classroom far and wide.

Mendeleev arranged the known elements into columns based on their chemical properties and rows based on their atomic weights and based on his system, even predicted the properties of as-yet undiscovered elements. Quite impressive!

On Monday, Feb 8th, celebrate Dmitri 's 176th birthday by stopping by US Science 3, named for Mendeleev, to join in the trivia, treats, and for a rousing chorus of The Elements song!

Dmitri Mendeleev in 1897
photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Friday, February 5, 2010

Iffy Science: Another Reason Parenting is Hard

Submitted by Art Leo, Upper School English teacher (and closet scientist) this morning. Click on the hyperlinks within the post for more details of the various aspects of this story.....

Parents face many difficult decisions, among the most difficult of which is what to name those hungry little blobs. Decisions about whether or not to vaccinate your children against disease have become complicated in recent years by scientific studies about the potential dangers of inoculation. In 1998, physician Andrew Wakefield published a study in Britain’s leading medical journal, The Lancet, claiming a connection between the Measles Mumps Rubella vaccine (MMR) and the onset of autism in children. Some parents in Great Britain panicked, leading to a rise in Measles cases, especially in Wales, where cases rose by 36% in 2008.

Some critics quickly pointed out problems with the study. Bad Science columnist Ben Goldacre, led the charge, gleefully attacking those responsible for the panic.
This week, The Lancet formally retracted Wakefield’s MMR research. Scott Hensley of NPR summarizes the story.
(Because I’m an English teacher, I highly recommend that you check out Matthew Herper’s complaint (“The Lancet's Incomprehensible Autism Retraction”) about the obfuscatory and misleading language employed in the retraction.)

Think tennis for yes, home for no: how doctors helped man in vegetative state

The following story was in today's Guardian newspaper:

For seven years the man lay in a hospital bed, showing no signs of consciousness since sustaining a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. His doctors were ­convinced he was in a vegetative state. Until now.

To the astonishment of his ­medical team, the patient has been able to ­communicate with the outside world after scientists worked out, in effect, a way to read his thoughts.

They devised a technique to enable the man, now 29, to answer yes and no to ­simple questions through the use of a hi-tech scanner, monitoring his brain ­activity.

To answer yes, he was told to think of playing tennis, a motor activity. To answer no, he was told to think of wandering from room to room in his home, visualising everything he would expect to see there, creating activity in the part of the brain governing spatial awareness.

His doctors were amazed when the patient gave the correct answers to a series of questions about his family. The ­experiment will fuel the controversy of when a patient should have life support removed.

It also raises the prospect of some form of communication with those who have been shut off from life, perhaps for years. To read the rest of the story, click here