Science Sunday 05-21-17

Ovarian Bioprosthetics

Many young girls, some prepubescent, undergo cancer treatments that lead to sterility. The tragedy is that while their lives are saved, they cannot themselves have children later in life.

Some of these cancer victims have their eggs harvested before the onset of the inevitable chemo, but that doesn’t help them to carry offspring to term, as their reproductive organs are destroyed, a devastating consequence of their necessary medical interventions.

Now it seems that scientists at Northwestern University, in conjunction with Lurie Children’s Hospital, are working to reverse this outcome.

Dr. Monica Laronda — working with Drs. Teresa Woodruff and Ramille Shah, and using “3-D printing of an extracellular matrix” — has successfully implanted an “ovarian bioprosthesis” in infertile female mice, allowing those mice to have (and to nurse) their own offspring.

You can read more about this exciting medical development here.


It’s always “fun” to tackle the subject of light, also known as electromagnetic radiation.  For an aspect of nature so close to our totality of experience, it is surprisingly mysterious in nature.

Is light a wave phenomenon or a stream of particles, or both?  Various light phenomena support one model over the other, and vice-versa, but clearly the two models seem incompatible.  Nevertheless, this split nature of light is our current best understanding of it.

I was surprised to find from the above Kurgesagt video that the wavelengths of light we see (400 to 700 nanometers) probably were “naturally selected” for us, because those wavelengths are the only ones that travel more or less unimpeded in water (or sea water).


Flammable Ice

Remember back in the 1970s when every few years there was talk that the world was running out of oil reserves and soon there would be a massive economic dislocation resulting from severe shortages of gasoline?

The fallback was that there would always be coal for home heating and the like, with coal by comparison having seemingly unlimited reserves.  There was also natural gas, which was then (and continues to be) comparatively abundant.

The question in those days was how were we going to keep driving our eight cylinder low mileage “car boats” without cheap gas?

[There was no serious talk at that time about global warming and renewable energy sources.]

It turns out that in the 1960s, a new source of natural gas (methane hydrates) was discovered in Russia.  Colloquially known as “flammable ice”, crystals of methane trapped in water ice form under high pressure and low temperature over a long period of time.  Under the right conditions, these crystals release their highly flammable gas contents.

Found under the permafrost over land, and under the sea floor in the oceans, scientists are now struggling to see if that trapped methane can be released in a safe, profitable and environmentally acceptable way.  It seems China may recently have made significant progress in determining such an extraction process.

To put all this in perspective, one cubic meter of flammable ice contains about 160 cubic meters of methane.  For countries without oil reserves (like Japan and India), exploiting this source of natural gas is highly desirable.

You can read more about flammable ice here.

The Kama Sutra of Dragon Flies

If you ever been told by your significant other “not tonight, I have a headache”, be thankful.  At least you’re not being told “I’m dead to you” as some female dragonflies do when they don’t want to mate with an aggressive male.

Boredom Is Not Boring

Michael from VSauce investigates why we get bored and whether we should be concerned about it.


Science Sunday 05-14-17

Baby Big Bird

After 25 years of cloak and dagger intrigue regarding the whereabouts and nature of a fossilized “baby dinosaur in the egg” known colloquially as “Baby Louie”, the dino has been identified as a new species of oviraptorosaur called beibeilongsinensis.

While small in its sarcophagal shell, feather-covered Louie would have grown up to be a metric ton, 1000 kg in mass or 2000 lbs in weight, a prehistoric version of our beloved Big Bird.

You Smell!

A recent study by John McGann of Rutgers University asserts that the human sense of smell is on a par with other mammals, including rodents and dogs.

We have been conditioned to think poorly of our noses, says McGann, because of research done in the 19th century, which doesn’t hold up to extensive modern experimentation.

An earlier estimate that humans can only distinguish between about 10,000 scents should be replaced by 1 trillion scents, eight orders of magnitude larger, says McGann.

You can read more about McGann’s study here.

Maybe if we were closer to the ground, we would do some more sniffing around:

In related work, researchers at the University of Chicago have determined that losing your sense of smell is a precursor to a more imminent death.  After testing a large number of people to see if they could distinguish the scents of rose, leather, fish, orange and peppermint, and rating the participants as good, medium and poor sniffers, they found that of these folks who had died 5 years after testing, those with the weakest sniffing abilities were 400% more like to die than those with the best sniffing abilities:

You can read more about this fascinating study here.  I’m off to buy some oranges!

The Metric System

Back in the 1970s, there was much talk about the Unite States going metric.  In particular, there was an oil embargo going on, and for a very short time, gas was sold in liters.

The reason this occurred is that OPEC caused per gallon pricing to exceed one dollar, and the mechanical pumps at that time couldn’t charge prices over a dollar.  Some stations went with per half gallon pricing, and some went with per liter pricing.

Americans couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do the math, and were incensed that the gas stations might be cheating them, and so in pretty quick order, all the mechanical pumps were retrofitted to charge up to $9.99 per gallon.

At about the same time, pop (or perhaps you say soda) started selling by the liter and two liter, and today, we are quite used to this metric volume measure, at least for our sugary supplements.

Originally, the metric unit of mass, the kilogram, was defined as 1000 cubic centimeters (or 1000 milliliters) of pure water at 4 degrees Celsius, but consequent to the Metric Convention of 1875, the kilogram standard has been based on a solid platinum-iridium cylinder stored in Paris, two copies of which are stored here in the United States at NIST (our weights and measure lab).

Recently, the youtube channel Veritasium visited NIST to see these metric kilogram standard copies.  I was surprised to find out that the US is actually on the metric standard, and all the US-English units we use are defined in terms of their metric equivalents.

FYI, if you in the future choose to drive a car in Europe, you will have to buy gas by the liter, so remember that one liter is about one US quart.  Take the per liter price, multiply by four, and convert that four liter Euro price to US dollars to find out how much you are really paying per US gallon for gas.

Right now in France the price is surprisingly low, at $5.79 per US gallon.

BTW, Brexit enthusiasts, beer in England is still sold by the Imperial pint, which is about 1/6th larger by volume than the US pint.  Explains a lot about UK soccer hooligans!

Sponge Bob Clown Pants

I always liked topology, that area of mathematics which challenges you to see whether you can deform the shape of one shape into another, without using tearing or gluing operations along the way.

Mathematician Kelsey Houston-Edwards of PBS Infinite Series explores this fascinating subject.

Science Sunday 05-06-17

The Coming Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017

On August 21st, there will be a total solar eclipse across a vast swath of the continental United States.  The eclipse will cross the US diagonally, from Oregon to South Carolina.  It will pass over the Midwest around 1:30 pm, and it will last about 2 minutes.

This is the first total solar eclipse across the continental US in roughly 100 years, so try to make some arrangements to see it.

For a more detailed analysis of this upcoming solar eclipse, watch this well crafted video:

For even more detail, click on this fascinating science news article.

Regenerative Medicine

One of my students recently gave a fascinating talk on regenerative medicine, the field where organs are grown in laboratory conditions from pluripotent stem cells.  In the above video, we learn about how scientists grew part of a human brain, and how this research may lead to therapies for the microcephaly caused by the Zika virus.


A student passed on to me news that the HIV virus has been successfully eliminated from all cells in infected mice using the CRISPR system.  This is exciting news, and you can read about it here.

Synthetic Retina

Scientists at Oxford report that they have developed biologically acceptable synthetic retinal implants that may well restore vision in people suffering from macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.

Vi Hart Does Music and Noise

I love Vi Hart, who usually does delightfully frenetic math videos, but lately she has been branching out with music, both singing and musical instruments.  Here we see a pretty thorough explanation of sound production and sound perception.

Science Sunday 04-29-17

Last Call for Cassini

All good things must come to an end, the saying goes, and that applies in equal measure to one of the best space missions ever, the Cassini mission to Saturn.

After 20 years of service, Cassini is checking out because it is running out of fuel.  It has started dangerously diving (at an average speed of 21,500 mph) between Saturn and its rings, shielding itself from possibly deadly particulate matter using its large antenna.

In 2013, Cassini graced us with a postcard from space, of us no less:

But now time is short, and like the Wedding in Cana, Cassini’s mission crew has saved the best for last, with a hara-kiri dive (scheduled for September 15th) into Saturn’s atmosphere, broadcasting live all the way down, until it is crushed into oblivion.

How Deep Is The Ocean

Although Cassini is 790 million miles away, I dare say we know more from Cassini about Saturn than we do about own oceans, of which only 5 to 10% by volume have been explored.

In researching how much a liquid can actually be compressed, I was surprised to find that near freezing sea water volume was diminished by nearly 6% due to hydrostatic pressure at a depth of 36,000 feet, in the Challenger Deep portion of the Marianas Trench.

But life is teaming down there.  The submersible Kaiko found roughly 350 new marine species, including worms, shrimp, and 180 new types of high pressure loving (barophilic) bacteria.

It is estimated that there are thousands more marine species to be discovered in the depths of our mysterious oceans.

And if the title of this posting reminds you of a song, here it is, an Irving Berlin classic, as sung by a young Judy Garland, in 1938:

Enjoy the animation above, courtesy of wise wanderer.

Plastic Eating Worms

Speaking of worms, A researcher recently discovered that waxworms likes to eat polyethylene plastic bags, excreting the biodegradable ethylene glycol in the process.

Scientists are hoping that they will be able to find the digestive enzyme the caterpillar larvae use to perform this miracle transformation, and thereby help solve a seemingly intractable waste problem.  Each year, humans discard about 80 million tons of plastic bags.

You can read more about these hungry caterpillars here.

Dark Matter, Served Hot or Cold

It continues to astound me that we know so little about what makes up our Universe.  Although the last 50 years have produced mind boggling insights into the structure of ordinary matter, relatively recent microwave anisotropy probes (COBE, WMAP, PLANCK) have revealed that the nature of 96% of the Universe is a complete mystery to us.

That 96% is divided into two parts: dark energy (about 68%) and dark matter (about 27%).

Courtesy of Scientific American’s Space Lab you tube channel, Sophie (above) lists the pros and cons of the five current best hypotheses regarding the nature of dark matter.

Science Sunday

Earth Day Retrospective

Saturday we celebrated the 48th instance of Earth Day, a day dedicated to celebrating  the planet we live on and love.

Earth Day was the brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, who thought (correctly) that the energy of the antiwar movement could be channeled into an environmental movement to improve the planet.

To quote from the Earth Day website:

On April 22,1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values.

Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders. By the end of that year, the first Earth Day had led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. “It was a gamble,” Gaylord recalled, “but it worked.”

The above video gently reminds us of both the bad and good developments that have occurred on this planet in the last 48 years.  Take a few moments to expand your worldview, courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

Standing Up For Science

A relatively short but informative video about how scientists are coming together, not just for today’s march, but for the coming difficult months and years ahead.  We should be celebrating how the world has successfully tackled global warming and climate change, but the denier in chief is having none of that perspective.

Solid As A Rock

Steve Baragona of Voice of America News talks with a team of scientists core drilling a mountain range in Oman, who are investigating nature’s ways of removing carbon dioxide from the air and chemically binding it to rock in the form of limestone.


Curiosity may not have yet killed the neighborhood cat, but Minute Physics illustrator Henry Reich nevertheless posits the question of whether our innate curiosity is good or bad for our species.

I Had No Idea

I had no idea that a mere 70 million years ago, North America was split in two by a relatively shallow inland sea called the Western Interior Seaway that stretched from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

In this sea lived carnivorous monsters, whose fossilized remains can be found in modern day Montana.  An elk hunter named David Bradt discovered a new example of one group of these waterborne reptiles called elasmosaurs.

A normal elasmosaur has an enormous neck of length 18 feet, but Bradt’s discovery had a neck of only 7.5 feet.

You can learn more about Bradt’s discovery here.

Fly Me To The Moon

Or at least over New York or San Francisco.

Jeremy and Norman from explore the latest and greatest in VR technology, namely Birdly, a VR system that creates the experience of really flying like a bird over a city.

Newer episodes of Birdly will include other cities, and possibly a flyover of dinosaur land.

Birdly, originally designed by a team from Zurich University of the Arts, is now being marketed by a company called Somniacs.

Science Sunday

What Really Are Emotions?

Are emotions pre-wired into our brains at birth, or do we learn them, in the context of the norms of the society in which we grow up?  Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University explores this fascinating question in her new book “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain,” and concludes that emotions are definitely not built-in but learned.

The Guardian has a nice review of her work here.


GMOs Redux

Are genetically modified organisms, including common foods like corn, truly dangerous, or has worries about them been exaggerated?  Kurgesagt explores this question.


Short and Long Term Memories

Scientists from MIT’s Riken Institute for Neural Circuit Genetics have published a landmark study in the journal Science that shows that contrary to established theory, short term and long term memories of the same event are formed at the same time, but mature in a transitional sequence.

Mice mildly shocked in a particular environment formed a short term memory in the amygdala, and a long term memory in the prefrontal cortex, this known through brain scanning imaging.  Optogenetic technology designed to turn on one memory or the other was used to show that the short term memory fades (but is retained) even as the long term memory “matures” into existence.

While a beautiful experiment in its own right, there is hope that this research can be used on patients with dementia.


Always Get a Second Opinion

Veritasium explores Bayes Theorem, to see how probabilities can be used to determine how sure we should be about a particular conclusion, and how we humans need to experiment if we want to break out of our preconceived notions of what is really true.


The Loneliness of Perception

In science, it is very common to conflate human perceptions with objective reality.  We say that green laser light has a wavelength of 532 nm, but that light is not objectively green, only that we humans commonly perceive it as green.

Michael of V Sauce addresses this question in his usual insouciant style.


Antibiotics and the Microbiome

I’ve been writing about the microbiome for a while, and how we need bacteria in our gut in order to live a healthy life.

But taking antibiotics often clears out a substantial portion of our microbiome.  Now we learn that taking too many antibiotics can lead to a dramatic increase in polyps in the colon, a precursor to colorectal cancer.



Science Sunday

Climate Change

In the video above, Hari Sreenivasan of PBS News Hour interviews the editor in chief of National Geographic Susan Goldberg about the lead article in the magazine’s latest issue concerning the seven facts about global warming we need to focus on going forward.

To view a very nice animation of these seven facts, click here.


Emails From Heaven

Robert Kuhn interviews the ever ebullient and entertaining physicist and futurist Michio Kaku on the always pressing question of whether life – and the Universe itself – has any meaning.

Kaku ultimately suggests that meaning for homo sapiens comes from what we do with our lives, and how we value our activities.

Kaku quotes Freud’s answer to this question, namely that life gains meaning through work and through love.  He speaks of more conservative scientists who say that the purpose of life – to quote Saint Ignatius – is to give greater glory to God (ad majorem dei gloriam).

Putting the two together, it seems to me that work that makes a difference in society, as well as helping our fellow human beings in a Christ like way, is doing God’s work.

I once asked my brother – who was teaching Sunday School, and didn’t know how to pop the hood of his car – where heaven was.  He knew he was in for a sparring, but his answer was nevertheless brilliant:

Heaven is where your heart is.


Whither the Martian Atmosphere?

In late 2013, NASA launched a mission to Mars called MAVEN.  The MAVEN spacecraft was designed to orbit Mars and try to find out what happened to its atmosphere.

The principal scientific team – out of the University of Colorado at Boulder – has now just reported what it thinks happened to Mars’ atmosphere.

Because Mars does not have a significant magnetic field, it cannot “shield itself” from the solar wind and that wind’s own magnetic field.

When the solar wind’s charged particles hit the Martian atmosphere, at speeds up to 1.8 million miles per hour, molecules in the Martian atmosphere become ionized, and can be transported into space by the solar wind’s own magnetic field.  This process is called sputtering.

If you have time for a more extended discussion of why life flourished on Earth but failed on Mars, check out this video from SpaceRip: