Sunday, September 11, 2011

Lab Report: Saturday Night Science Party

Last night we had a Saturday Night Science Party (SNSP) with my Aunt Susanne, Uncle Matt, my two cousins (Skyler, 10, and Clayton, 13), and their 12-year-old friend. This was inspired by the SNSP that Arikia hosted in May. She and a few other writers shared drinks, wore silly props (think mustache on a stick), and interacted with science fans via twitter. The most brilliant part was that they broadcasted it online! Using this as a starting point, I added a few twists: family members and hands on experiments. I also omitted live tweeting and a live broadcast. The following is a wrap-up of experiments completed, lessons taught and notable moments.

Experiment: Dancing Raisins
Mix water, baking soda and a handful of raisins in a large, clear pitcher. Add vinegar. Be careful or else the mixture will bubble over (like what we had all over our counter top). In short the raisins fall to the bottom and the gas created by the reaction of vinegar (acetic acid, CH3COOH) and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate, NaHCO3) collects in between the grooves of the raisins. When enough gas has collected, the raisins rise to the surface and the bubbles are knocked off, causing them to fall. The process repeats. It's the electric slide for raisins! Boogie, woogie, woogie, little dried fruit. Boogie woogie.

Extra Credit: Osmosis
Once the dancing raisins experiment was completed and the liquid sopped up from the counter top, my cousin, Skyler, was inspired to show us an experiment that she learned from watching Man, Woman, Wild. She filled a small container with water, raisins, and salt. "The raisins will only soak up the water, not the salt water, and you can eat them tomorrow!”

Experiment: Dry Ice Bubbles
Next it was time for everyone to have clean hands—WITH SCIENCE. Filling a large bowl with hot water and a few squirts of hand soap, I used tongs to add a piece of dry ice. Immediately the water rumbled and layers of layers of carbon dioxide-filled bubbles grew on the surface. The kids scooped them up (being mindful not to dip their hands below the surface of the water) and pretended they were magicians and wizards, squashing souls in the palm of their hand. This simple project was “better than Xbox!” according to my cousin’s friend. Now I’d consider that a success!

Experiment: Dry Ice Ice Cream
Heavy cream, milk, sugar, vanilla and DRY ICE. Mix until desired texture. When it was Aunt Sue’s turn to stir, she started quoting MacBeth, and we chatted about why it’s called dry ice (sublimation). Plus, it’s delicious!

Experiment: Squishy Circuits
I was way excited about this one and I won’t ruin it by trying to explain it. Just watch this.

Extra Credit: Metal Safari
When the counter top was full of clay, LEDs, cream and spoons and the raisins had stopped dancing, my uncle accidentally touched a metal spoon to a sliver of dry ice. He jumped at the response as it shrieked back at him. I asked him for a penny and I pressed Abe’s face to the dry ice. Then everybody began grabbing metal spoons and we found ourselves in a dry ice/metal safari.

I hope to soon host another SNSP but there are a few things I’d do differently. Going unplugged enabled me to focus on the tasks at hand but, with a little preparation, I'd like to live tweet next time. Although I’m enjoying putting this lab report together, I think I would have had more interaction or readers if this was happening live with photos or as a live broadcast (or both!). I also think that with such a young crowd, only two or three of these experiments would have been plenty. I was delighted every time I saw a flash of understanding on a child’s face but I may have overloaded them. Finally, it would help for me to have more Scientists in the room. More people to ask challenging questions, another person to offer an explanation. All in all, I’d consider this a scientific success! Keep your ocular orbs open for another SNSP happening on your computer!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

JJJPod: The Naked Scientists

It was clear to me that I was a podcast enthusiast when a musician friend of mine asked me what was listening to. I popped the white buds out of my ears and slouched in my chair. Pure bliss and concentration had just been painted on my face. "Um, I'm listening to a story about bats." My eyes darted to the corner of the room and the words NERD ALERT shouted inside my head. 

"Oh, that's cool," he replied. NERD ALERT! He should have just said it, pushed me in my face, and ran away repeating the torment all the way down the hall. My shoulders slumped, but he continued, "Bats are so interesting! I didn't realize until this year that they are mammals."

A smile spread across my face as it became apparent that he was a kindred spirit. I began explaining the current plight of bats: White-Nose Syndrome.

This interaction happened years ago, and if I am remembering correctly, I was listening to an episode of The Naked Scientists. This program is out of the University of Cambridge and employs impressive interviews, lovely accents, a user-friendly website, and straight up knowledge.

I won't waste your time using a gross amount of superlatives to highlight the interviews on The Naked Scientists. Instead, I'll direct you to their Interviews page. Seriously, take a look. LOTS GOING ON THERE. There are tons of conversations with experts. I will suggest listening to or reading the interview with Steve Simpson, a Fish Ecologist from Bristol University. I still recall the sound of a coral reef!

I also won't waste your time talking about their lovely accents. Yes, they're lovely. They're from the UK. Sometimes when I've been on a binge of this show, their accent slips out, making me sound 
incorrigibly pretentious. (Just add a British accent to "incorrigibly pretentious." Fun, isn't it?) Additionally, their program Ask the Naked Scientists is recorded from a live South African radio station. I am still learning to interpret each caller. Although I understand a person's accent has nothing to do with their ability to convey science, it makes me feel semi-exotic and I enjoy piecing apart those whose accents are particularly rich. 

Now, addressing their website. It has taken me way too long to write this post because I keep getting distracted on their site. I am inspired by their Kitchen Science tab and am delighted to see book reviews. Their website also has links to their numerous programs. I am most familiar with The Naked Scientists and Ask the Naked Scientists but they have Archeology, Engineering, Astronomy, AND MORE. 

Finally, I love the empire that has become The Naked Scientists because of their straight up knowledge. Aside from their puns about naked science (keeping you abreast, stripping down science, and such), the hosts continually bring fantastic science to the table in a wide array of topics. This podcast is rife with knowledge bombs waiting for you to disarm them, and I consider it a crime to hold you here any longer. 

JJJPod: Discovery's Friday News Feedbag

every episode of discovery's friday news feedbag (let's just use DFNF) is like happy hour with witty people who like science and have a healthy curiosity for life. this show makes science fun and accessible because of it's informality, it's completely unnecessary tangents, and its social media efforts.

i listen to 19 science podcasts (seriously? wtf is wrong with me?) and i can say that of all the hosts of these programs, i want the hosts of DFNF to be my bros (which is doubly weird cos i'm a girl).there are three hosts of this program. will johnson, the host of the hosts, and jorge robot and james williams. both jorge and james report 1 science story every week (which is a big controversy as they used to do 3 but i enjoy it either way)

JSYK i am intentioanlly disregarding traditional grammar spelling and punctuation. it's in celebration of this podcast's informality. unlike most programs the hosts tease each other about slacking on their podcast duties and they frequently forget promises to follow up. without shame, Will brazenly questions one of the reporters if that is all they has to offer. once they began the show without james (i think it was james) and he awkwardly waltzed in after a few minutes of recording. then james proceeded to razz will for his lack of punctuality. oh, and as this was happening, jorge was imperceptibly mumbling in the background probablly sitting 8 feet from the microphone. it's like listening to brothers. or buffoons. i like them both.

i can't help but hang my head in shame and laughter when will can't get through the opening without james or jorge interrupting with some completely unnecessary idea or quesiton. the tangents are ridiculously perfect and frequently make me smile and laugh while i'm on the treadmill. listening to the july 15 episode i LOLed in the car when they rambled about soup and jorge almost screamed about how he was going to get some after the show. me too, jorge. me too.

in regards to its social media efforts, this program does it right. they have a twitter feed, they are active on fb and they have a blog. furthermore, they highlight funny or interesting happenings on these sites AND often make up personas for the listeners. for example one listener said that he always enjoyed the show on his birthday and suddenly they were imagining him sharing a steak dinner with a girlfriend while listening on his bday. they love to hear that their voices have been listened to exotic places. i wish i could say that i have done this but sorry, guys, i live and work in pennsylvania. maybe it counts that i make a vaccine for rotavirus? i ahve yet to listen on the job, though, i have to be completely gowned up from head to toe and would probably get fired if that included my ipod. 

so, i say to the hosts of DFNF Thank you for reporting excellent science stories in such a silly way. you make science informal and accessible. plus, you make me laugh.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

How I Turned Mad

It is obvious to those around me when I am completely enthralled in a book. Aside from the utter disregard for my surroundings, I will end a chapter with haste, slam down the book, and obnoxiously shout about how I know that the killer is that old man or how I'm pissed off about the current state of women's health care globally. If it's really good, I'll smash the book two or three times with my fist while giving it a menacing look. If I'm not satisfied with these reactions of slamming, shouting, and smashing, if I feel like these actions haven't completely expressed my rage, I'll pace. This is how I've turned mad.

Despite my efforts to remain friendly and impartial at my new job, I began reading How the Cows Turned Mad by Maxime Schwartz and my coworkers quickly learned of my quirkiness. This book chronicles the discovery of mad cow disease mainly in Britain and France but also a few ancillary locations. My mad was in full effect after reading the chapter "A Tragedy in the Making" which celebrates science and the possible fix of pituitary dwarfism by injecting afflicted patients with pituitary glands harvested from cadavers. Genius! I was riveted by the triumph and grossness of science. In the final paragraph of the chapter (SPOILER ALERT), they bring to light the simple fact that mad cow disease is transmitted in humans by consuming the brain of a person with the disease. THIS WOULD INCLUDE INJECTIONS OF DEAD PEOPLE. How did I not see this coming? I suddenly felt like I was watching the last three minutes of a thriller movie in which you learn that the killer was not dead. He's lurking out there and reaching for a weapon for one last murder. Distracted by the science, I forgot that these people could get mad cow disease. The killer lives! And, if I'm not mistaken (I haven't completed the book yet) mad cow disease is still on the scene today.

The only negative I have to offer about How the Cows Turned Mad is that it is written like a mystery novel. New theories presented on the disease in each chapter are left dangling. I appreciate that this genre is science thriller and this trait is perfectly acceptable. In a Whodunit?, this is desirable but, for me, not in science writing. I hear, however, that these ideas are fleshed out at the end of the book. I must keep reading!

This book is beautifully written on so many levels. It tackles the complex science of physiology, microbiology, and chemistry to successfully explain them while connecting the theories with the history of the disease. It pieces this information together in such a way that it evokes many emotions (see aforementioned madness) that one might experience while watching a horror flick. If you are in anyway looking to increase your crazy (or to learn some wicked science while enjoying a beautifully written piece of literature), I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

JJJPod: 60-Second Science

Although it’s a nice round number, let me petition Scientific American, producers of the 60-Second Science podcast, to change the title to a more accurate number: 79-Second Science. Using a sample of new episodes, n=41, I calculated the mean, x=79.

Despite the deceptive title, this podcast RULES. Released weekdays, it’s hosted by a handful of characters who use quirky sounds and songs to enhance the random selection of science snippets.

As one host might say, thanks for the minute!

JJJPod: Science Magazine Podcast

I've donned my jogging clothes and laced up my shoes. As I step outside, I stretch my arms up to the sky, and turn on my iPod. I rev my legs into a jog and enjoy the intro music of the Science Magazine Podcast, an upbeat riff. I imagine some hipster dude with crazy hair and gigantic headphones jamming on a keyboard and then pointing to the host with a wink, shooting the attention to him. A friendly voice cuts in and the music fades. "Hello and welcome to the science magazine podcast for June 3rd, 2011. I'm Robert Frederick." He launches into the line up science news stories for the week and I can't help reciprocate his excitement. My legs find a tempo as a young woman explains that the podcast is supported by AAAS, the science society!

The intro music finally fades and the first story begins. I've found my stride. There are about 3 or 4 stories, each lasting roughly 10 minutes and cover an array of topics. They delve into each interview, diving below the surface but not far enough as to get lost (or confuse their listeners). I nod in agreement, chuckle at the jokes, and form questions of my own as I listen--keep in mind I'm running and listening.

Finally, Frederick says, "Now, David Grim, Science's online news editor, is here with a wrap-up of some of the latest science news from our online daily news science site, ScienceNOW." When I hear this, I know the program (and my jog) is almost over. I kick it into high gear for the last 15 minutes, wiping sweat off my brow.

This program is my favorite jogging podcast because it just the right length (35 to 50 minutes), the reporting is professional (supported by AAAS), and the topics are diverse yet not too complex. I enjoy solid science stories while experiencing oxygen deprivation from a reputable organization. Outstanding!

Special note: I am sad to say that this episode featured in this post, June 3rd, is Frederick's last with this program. When I complied a list of reasons why I like this show, he was on top. He has such a kind voice and it makes me feel like I'm going for a jog with an old friend who knows a lot about science. I hope he can be replaced with someone just as nice!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

JJJPod: Emerging Infectious Diseases

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention's social media involvement is impressive. They're on twitter, flickr, facebook, and they have podcasts. In fact, they have a lot of podcasts that cover an array of topics. My favorite of which is esoteric and comes as a supplement to the CDC's Emerging Infectious Disease (EID) journal. As an aspiring epidemiologist, I have a special interest in diseases. And infectious ones. And also emerging ones! This program rules for three reasons: it's technical, it's short, and it has bonuses.

When I first listened to the EID podcast, I was deterred by the formality of it. The host and guest often read right from the script. However, I came to appreciate this element, knowing that I'm going to get a highly research-based and technical explanation of each topic. It often feels as if I'm reading out of a textbook or reading a research paper, a level of science that I sometimes crave.

This program delves deep into science in less than 10 minutes. Simple as that! A listener can spend hours reading the online journal or they can just enjoy the audio snippet available during their morning commute.

The online journal is a bonus to me as initially just a podcast listener (although it is the other way around--the podcast is a supplement to the journal). Published monthly, the journal offers the high quality of research generated through the CDC. The podcast interviews one of the scientists whose work is featured that month. I often pull up the journal on my iPhone and read it when I'm waiting for the train or during a break at work. This can be trouble, however, when a coworker asks, "What are you up to this weekend?" after I've completely immersed myself in tick-borne relapsing fever borreliosis in rural Senegal and that the presence of this bacterial infection was detected by using specific semiquantitative real-time PCR with primers. Additionally, they used water as their negatives! Science is so incredible yet simple and you're asking me about my weekend?

Another wonderful element of the journal is the cover artwork, highlighting the connection between art and science. Each month features a piece of artwork, entitled by a poem. In June the CDC is remembering the 30 years that HIV/AIDS has been prevalent and this month's cover, "captures both the complexity of the scientific challenge of this unknown and lethal disease and the massive human loss." The piece depicts those tangled in the human web, either from illness or the complexity of life. We are all humans, suffering from the same diseases and living in the same way. The poem connecting this all together is from Wallace Stevens, called The Emperor of Ice Cream. As the cover description says,

The only element of value is to "be" alive. Prolong and embrace it. All other considerations only "seem" important. Or as Stevens put it, "Let be be the finale of seem / The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream."
In short, this podcast and it's "bonus material" successfully cover rare diseases and contemplate the meaning of life. Yay science!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

JJJPod: Science Friday

Pretty blue lichen on a tree. I like lichen because of Science Friday! See my Flickr photo sets for more (here and here).
NPR's Science Friday with Ira Flatow set the standard for my love of science podcasts. Back in the day my iPod was a silver nano with the round dial controls, and I slipped it in my fifth pocket as I hoofed it to class. Flatow interviews scientists and takes callers (if you hadn't guessed this program typically airs on your local public radio station on Fridays), covering a wide array of topics. I love this program for three main reasons: it has history, it has unpredictability, and it has passion.

Science Friday has history. It has been on air for 20 years, bringing experience to every aspect of showcasing science and technology. This ranges from consistent sound quality to interviews with big name scientists. Flatow's experience in interviewing brings out the silliness and intellect of each guest. In addition, they air some throw backs to highlight the change in technology.

There is an element of unpredictability because the show is recorded live. My favorite moment was the discussion on forensic science. At the time I was working in a forensic toxicology lab and had a very clear view of how difficult this one small aspect of forensic work could be. Of course, it is nothing like TV--not everyone is that sexy. Specifically, Flatow and the guest were discussing bite mark analysis and how judges and juries opinion of this science have been swayed because of shows like NCIS, thinking this science is ironclad. This is way subjective. A caller was invited on the air and the interchange went something like this:

Caller: I just wanted to talk to you guys about bones. Specifically teeth bones. They can chew stuff really well.

(Long pause)

Flatow: Ok. Do you have a point you want to make?


Caller: Yeah, when they bite into human skin they leave marks.


Flatow: Are, are you a scienist?

Caller: Yes.

Flatow: And, so, what is the point you're trying to make?


Caller: They can leave marks that can be studied.

The caller was attempting to welcome another argument and probably got nervous. However, I laughed about this for weeks (I'm still laughing) AND I remembered the discussion very clearly. Way to go aloof caller! The magic that goes along with live recordings can be very charming and lasting.

In addition to Flatow's experience, he brings passion for science. Each week, I find myself interested in the random topic discussed due to the contagious excitement of the host. I can imagine he has an intense stare or tips his head at pensive angle as he opens a new segment or banters with an expert. Maybe he nods fervently when he agrees with a guest. Of course, I'm not sure if he's doing those things but I know I am when I listen.

BONUS: This program has a video program! Their lichen video is the reason I became and avid lichen hunter.

Science Friday on Twitter

Friday, May 27, 2011

The J & J Jamboree of Podcasts

I identify myself as an avid podcast listener, and I'd like to share this love with you. I have no cute anecdotes to entice you because I believe the content of each podcast, given the proper attention, will do that involuntarily. During the months of June and July (J & J, get it?) I will highlight one amazingly scientific podcast a week. You may have heard me mention a program in passing but now I will take the time to elaborate on how I fell in love with each podcast, what is so excellent about their content, and why I look forward to listening in every episode.

STAY TUNED, dweebs.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Age of Wonder

When I heard Richard Holmes on WNYC's RadioLab, I knew we'd be good friends. I mean, at least he'd let me sit next to him--on the bus. That is, we'd be good friends before I forced him into small talk and subsequently sprayed him with spit as an effuse of science vomited out of my mouth.

Holmes was featured on an episode of RadioLab talking about his admiration of scientists and an interaction he had with a German mathematician, who successfully explained group theory (created by French mathematician Evariste Galois), despite the obvious language barrier. The mathematician gestured and swung his arms around all the dishware on the table, hugging them to his placemat. "Scientists love to discuss their science. They're very often very good at describing it," Holmes professed. "I love you science people. Nothing will stop you. You're jolly well gonna explain it." Inside my thoracic cavity, myocardial cells burst and contracted with pride. Yeah, I am jolly well gonna explain it! AND, I'm gonna make myself look goofy, trip over things, and completely cover my arms and fingers in chalk as I do it. I might even teach you something.

With an introduction that provoked so much buzz, I knew I had to read Holmes's book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. The book features the lives of three scientists who essentially created modern science. It's intimidating with nearly 500 pages and includes an index, bibliography, references, a cast list, and (thankfully) pictures.

Breezing through the first 90 pages, the writing is divine and the stories compelling. Holmes drew a picture of Joseph Banks in Tahiti and the juxtaposition of beauty and horror involved when two cultures interact. Although a society of open sexuality and beauty, Tahiti would soon be a paradise lost (I learned that at the National Gallery of Art exhibit of the artist Gauguin). On the other side, Banks collected thousands of specimens and paved the way for mutually beneficial contact. I believe my coworkers and fellow train commuters have seen me scoff and smile into the pages of The Age of Wonder. I am thoroughly looking forward to the next 400.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ok, I'll say it: I'm a knitter.

Day 1: This yarn was love at first sight.

It's true. I am a knitter.

My transition from 20-something to old lady is in the works. I'm skipping all the steps in between. I'm retiring from my job (that I've only been at for 6 weeks) and finding a porch to sit on--WITH A LEMON DRINK. I'm having no marriage, no children, and going straight to grandma. Anyone have kids who would enjoy homemade baked goods? I would even provide them with crayons and Highlights magazines.

Last weekend I discovered Forever Yarn, a knitting shop within walking distance of my house. It was filled with chit-chat and affection. Each woman was surrounded by skeins of yarn (aka a yarn ball) and partly finished projects. I scheduled three lessons, the first of which was last Saturday. Arriving early I admired the yarn and picked out a style suitable for my first lesson. A handful of women showed up to knit with each other, share ideas, and split goods from the farmers' market across the street. By the end of my lesson, I had learned to relax in my seat and had successfully knitted half of the skein.

The driving force behind my grandmafication is the Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History, which recently featured an exhibit of crochet coral reef. Although the exhibit is no longer on display, the organizing group is The Institute for Figuring. This hobby ties together many passions in my life: female companionship, mathematics, environmental activism, and art. The shape of coral reefs is represented in a specific type of geometry (like the curly structure of kale). It is called hyperbolic geometry and although it's been recognized for hundreds of years, it was discovered only in 1997 that it could be modeled through crochet. Co-Founder Margaret Wertheim explains this at a TED Talk.

It is going to take some time for me to be able to create a sea of coral reefs in my living room but I am looking forward to the journey (and getting to eat prunes without judgement).

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Einstein's War

Sitting in the lap of a giant. Sorta like standing on their shoulders.
This morning was a bright spring morning. I went down to The National Mall and meandered along Constitution Ave. The birds chirped and sang. Of course, because I'm a scientist, I had parked my car right next to the Einstein Memorial. I'm a scientist, you see, and naturally gravitate towards science. This is commonplace for my ilk, as our gravitation pull is altered due to a change in molecular arrangement in our brains. Thus, giving us the ability to know when and where science is happening.

Einstein sits in what looks like a hot tub from certain angles. The ground is speckled with metal, showing the location of prominent celestial objects on April 22, 1979, the day the exhibit was opened. Crossing the street, I made my way to the war memorials. From where I was standing, Einstein now looked like a large tree stump (if you squint your eyes).

I began walking down the Vietnam War Memorial and I felt overwhelmed by the amount of names. As you walk, the wall starts at your feet and grows until it is over your head. At this point I stopped and gazed at the grass peaking over the top of the wall. Losing someone you love is devastating. I know first hand. I thought about the families who felt that loss and wondered if these soldiers died for a just cause. I am not interested in wars. I was in high school when 9/11 happened and I felt completely confused about why that happened and how we responded. I have very distinct memories driving in the country, after having just obtained my license, and listening to the radio explain blasts in Iraq. I started watching MSNBC but was hopelessly confused. The international section of our county's paper was tiny and didn't offer much insight. In subsequent years have remained perplexed.

Standing in front of this wall, I recognize that this is only a small fraction of people who have died and I have yet to understand why. I had to get out of there. My emotions waned from confusion and sadness to full-blown anger.

I went to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, which is a National Park and like most, is completely underfunded. I don't know who funds the memorials but I can say that they are pristine. The gardens, on the other hand, are a mess and clean up is dependent upon volunteers. What would Einstein think of this? More funding into parks and science while less into our military? It is torturous that he overlooks the memorials of wars he didn't support. If we're only putting money into our military, then we are only left to defend, well, our military.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Two people fall in love over their work. They get married; they win a major award; they have a few children. Then tragedy strikes and he suddenly dies. She takes another lover but he's already married. The whole story is scrutinized under the public eye.

You might be thinking this is another Pitt-Aniston-Jolie triangle or some other troupe. What would you think if I told you the major award they won was a Nobel Prize in Physics?

In her day and age (roughly 1867-1935), Marie Curie was a celebrity. She was the first woman to be a Nobel laureate and the press was captivated by the romance between her and her husband, Pierre. After he died in an accident with a horse-drawn carriage, Marie took a lover, Paul Langevin, and again their story was followed closely but the public. Marie won an additional Nobel Prize. This time in Chemistry.

I learned all this when my cousin, JP, and I went to the New York Public Library exhibit called Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fall Out. It beautifully told the story of their discovery of radium and polonium as well as their love lives.

JP and I decided that the Curies were like the superheroes of their day--trying to help the public with science while their personal lives were under a microscope. Their superpower, however, crumbling bones.

Here's your science lesson: Radioactive elements can be deadly for a few reasons, one of which is because of their isotopic properties. You probably know the word isotope to mean something that is similar. A chemical isotope can be consumed and utilized by the body and used in processes like the formation of cell membranes or calcium for bones. So, these radioactive compounds find their way into your bodies and replace healthy elemental building blocks. More specifically, this is bad because the isotopes give off excess energy.

I'd like to be a scientist celebrity one day like Marie Curie with a scientist husband (and subsequent lover when he dies). In addition, I'd like to have superpower, but hopefully one that won't kill me. Wish me luck!

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Tomorrow I start a new job. A science job!

This means my ability to post may decrease, although I'll try my hardest to appease my droves of readers!

My Aunt Mary game me a Laurie Anderson CD on a whim because the title is Big Science. Here are the lyrics to Let X=X, my favorite track.

I met this guy, and he looked like might have been a hat check clerk at an ice rink, which, in fact, he turned out to be. And I said, "Oh boy. Right again." 
Let x=x. You know, it could be you. It's a sky blue sky. Satellites are out tonight. 
Let x=x. You know, I could write a book. And this book would be think enough to stun an ox. 
'Cause I can see the future and it's a place about 70 miles of here. Where it's lighter. 
Linger on over here. Got the time? 
Let x=x. 
I got this postcard and it read, it said: 

Dear Amigo, dear partner,
Listen, uh, I just want to say thanks. So...thanks.

Thanks for all the presents. Thanks for introducing me to the chief. Thanks for putting on the feedbag. Thanks for going all out. Thanks for showing me your swiss army knife. Oh and uh, thanks for letting me autograph your cast. 
Hug and kisses, XXXX0000
 Oh yeah, p.s. I - feel - feel like - I am - in a burning building - and I gotta go. 'Cause I - I feel - feel like - I am - in a burning building.

Hope to be posting again soon.
Hug and kisses, XXXX0000

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Nova ScienceNOW, my latest discovery

I have sunburn! I know it’s not healthy as I come from a family with a history of skin cancer, but I cannot conceal my excitement at the changing of seasons. Yesterday was wildly sunny and I spent the entire day walking the dogs, riding my bicycle, blowing bubbles, and flying a kite. I even had dinner outside! I am so fortunate to bask.

Today, however, the weather is doing a typical spring thing. It rained all morning and now it’s sunny but too cold to be enjoyable. In addition, my body is exhausted from all the sun. This created a perfect opportunity to explore Netflix instant streaming and I found Nova ScienceNOW. I was pleasantly surprised to have made this discovery, as I had been listening to their podcast for years. Hosted by popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, @neiltyson, the show has the campy feel of Bill Nye the Science Guy. It conveys solid science and an array of topics that all fall under the same umbrella. There are six episodes, all of which tackle a big question in under an hour.

Now, a word about Neil deGrasse Tyson (NDT). The first time I heard him he was explaining what would happen if I were being squeezed through a black hole. It was not pleasant but very interesting. NDT is an excellent ambassador for scientists. He speaks normal people AND scientist talk—not many can do this. He’s a man’s man with a deep commanding voice and a great stache. NDT makes regular appearances on the Colbert Report, and he puts science on a level that anyone can understand and appreciate it. I am elated to see that he is host of Nova ScienceNOW and if he asked me to grow a great mustache in the name of science, I would try.

Lichen: the NYC haiku

Lichen in the city

Been busy with friends
(family too). Made time for 
lichen though. Please enjoy!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Go to the Zoo

Octavius, a two to three year old Giant Pacific Octopus at the National Zoo
Let me make an argument for going to the zoo. ANIMALS RULE. Not convinced you should start planning your trip? Oh, I see. You're deterred by the exhausted, whining children who have parents determined to see every animal. I know the type. Those were my parents, and I love them dearly for exposing me to everything they could.

However, as a woman in my twenties with no children, I have to find ways to enjoy certain things that are clearly intended for children. Cartoons, carrot sticks and zoos--for example. I can easily satiate my cartoon cravings with Netflix. Carrot sticks are available at any grocery store, although they are best eaten in private because they are obnoxiously loud. Enjoying zoos, nevertheless, involves more planning.

Let me make an argument for going to the zoo when it rains.
1. There are less people. Rain weeds out those who are not truly committed to zoo time. Wear waterproof shoes and a raincoat. Pack an umbrella. A few weeks ago I went to the National Zoo on Friday afternoon. There was a steady fall of spring rain all day and traffic was very light. It was lovely!

2. Most feedings and encounters will still occur rain or shine. At 3:30 I enjoyed a Crustacean Feeding, which I heard about using their website. The staff of the Invertebrate House were pleased to see a small crowd of about 9 people on this rainy afternoon and zealously shared the dining experience.

3. The animals get frisky. In the dead of summer, a downpour cools everybody off and the animals come out to play.

In closing, I'd like to offer this: ANIMALS RULE. Have fun at the zoo!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Planet Factoid Quiz

1. Mercury
2. Venus
3. Earth
4. Mars
5. Jupiter
6. Saturn
7. Uranus
8. Neptune
9. Pluto

A. Scientist who study this planet work on a 24 hour and 39 minutes clock.
B. Always the oddball, the axis of this planet is tilled at 82˚. (Earth is at 23.5˚)
C. The rings of this planet are composed of countless icy particles whose size varies from dust to houses.
D. You may or may not be from this planet.
E. If you weighed 100 pounds on Earth, you would weight 7 pounds on this dwarf planet.
F. The surface temperature of this planet varies from 660˚F to -275˚F. Yikes!
G. The information provided for this planet was blocked off in the museum. It must not be very important.
H. Land changes on this globe are not due to wind and water (there isn't much of an atmosphere). Volcanoes are the creators of lava-carved rivers (aka canali) and gigantic mountains.
I. This planet emits more radio noise than any other object in our solar system (excluding the Sun). They had samples of these and WTF.

While you're waiting for me to reveal the answers (J/K, they're at the bottom), check out the excellent ONLINE EXHIBITS! Plus, you may find some answers.

1F  2H  3D  4A  5I  6C  7B  8G  9E


Sand dunes on Mars, more Flickr Photos
Yesterday I traveled to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. This museum deserves hours of your time. I loved and hated the people: the crowds were overwhelming yet I relished in hearing adults and children shout about what they were learning. In addition, I walked away with a more informed viewpoint in Pluto.

As I meandered through the main entrance, I gaped at the large shiny objects hanging from the ceiling, most of which were replicas of things that have been in space. Did you catch that? MOST of those were replicas. A FEW of them had actually been in space! Ok, maybe it was just one but still! The most surprising shiny metal thing was Sputnik. It was tiny and looked incredibly low-tech.

From the atrium I traveled to the farthest corner to attempt only a quarter of the exhibits. I feasted my eyes on the stunning photos in their exhibit Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System, and I got a piece of gum stuck to my shoe looking at Amelia Earhart's flying jacket.

I finally came to an exhibit where I could spend sometime: Exploring the Planets. Here I heard people of all ages speaking many languages and raving about the facts provided. Of course, the reason I walked into the exhibit was because I spotted a list of the planets and the area hiding Pluto was mildly conspicuous. I HAD to see how they managed this.

I was in college when Pluto was demoted, and I was a member of the Facebook group When I was your age, Pluto was a planet. Like most of my peers, I was saddened and confused to have SCIENCE change like that. As a child there were certain absolutes: Roy G. Biv, Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, and My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. WHAT IS MY EXCELLENT MOM GOING TO SERVE US NOW?!

As I now understand it, there are three criteria a mass my meet to be defined as a planet.

1. It is a celestial body that orbits the Sun.
2. It is a massive enough that its own gravity causes it to form in a spherical shape.
3. It has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

Pluto does not contain enough mass to clear the region of other objects, making it a dwarf planet. Let me challenge my readers to free their mind to change. Free your mind, and the rest will follow. (Ok um, thanks En Vogue) This reorganization opens the opportunities for more dwarf planets to be added and potentially another mnemonic to help children identify them! On the other hand, you could recognize that kids these days will have less planets to remember. Now they can say: My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nectarines. Nuts. Noodles. Nougat. NACHOS.

Seriously, though. I believe it is time to accept that science changes our perspective. It always has. It always should. Otherwise, we'd be navigating a flat planet.

As a credit to my peers, I also believe this move on the part of the scientists was a PR disaster (See: How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming) and asking people to just accept change is almost inconceivable (I'm the type of person who has meticulous rules for PB&J making, so it wasn't easy to agree to this planet adjustment).

I come to this final plea: Inform yourselves before creating an opinion regarding a science issue. Sure, it's easy to assume you'll despise the new season of (insert name of awful reality TV show) when you've hated every other season. Science conclusions involve more work on the front end from scientists and thus deserves more from those who have an opinion.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lichen fever haiku

Our sky is just blue / Spring brings vibrant blossoms and / lichen still shades on

Lichen Hunting

Crustose lichen (and a few leaves of a foliose lichen)

Inspired by NPR's Science Friday video, I have become a fierce lichen hunter. I cannot walk passed a tree or fence without scanning it for my prey. I take my equipment EVERYWHERE (ok, just my camera).

As you can learn in the Science Friday video, lichen is a symbiotic lifestyle made up of three components: fungi, algae, and bacteria. The fungus harvests algae, which can create energy from sunlight. The role of the bacteria is unknown at present.

Fruticose lichen
Foliose lichen

There are three types of lichen: foliose, fruticose, and crustose. The foliose has a leafy texture (pictured to the right). Fruticose looks like a little bush (on left) and I have only seen this once. Crustose (pictured above), the one I spot most often, looks like a crust.

Lichen can grow on trees, moss, soil, rocks, or human-made substrates if they sit still long enough in right conditions. I have had the most luck at the historic Congressional Cemetery but have photographed some beautiful specimens at the National Zoo and Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. It is also important to note that I have found some beautiful lichen in my neighborhood (like the picture at the top). You can see more photos on my flickr page.

It is impossible for me to conceal my excitement for lichen when I feel I am part of a secret society. Membership has given me the tools to notice the contour of gravestones and buildings and appreciate how messy and unexpected the world really is. As a lichen hunter, I exercise more, craving another afternoon walk with the possibility of seeing a new specimen. Most importantly, I am more of a biologist, appreciating and cataloging life.

Lichen represents something that you can see in your back yard that isn't very well known. Moon glow (chrysothrix chamaecyparicola) was described just last year, for example. There's a whole world out there for you to discover and you don’t have to be across the globe to do so. Lichen hunting encourages people to see the world around them. It promotes scientific discovery every day and brings science to a level where everyday people can do be involved.

Every time I see some growing, I smile to myself and enjoy this weird little thing. I hope you will too.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Women Before Me

Do you ever wonder what women were doing all of history while men were starting wars, riding horses and becoming Shakespeare? I’ve always thought about that. I mean, I’m a smart person. What would I be doing with this brain if in 1565 my society made childbearing and family rendering my sole purpose?

I’d be doing the same things I do now—conducting experiments at parties, making googly eyes at well-written science articles, and fulfilling my desire to help people. I would find kinship with the women featured at the Folger Shakespeare Library Beyond Home Remedy Exhibit. These women created and recorded elaborate recipes and remedies for common ailments as well as aggressive diseases still afflicting people today (like TB). Yikes! Not much has changed.

The exhibit is small and mighty as it displayed cookbooks in which remedies were shared. It sits in a dark hall at the entrance to the library, plagued by kids in khakis. I quickly found solace as I stood in front of the first case, featuring items that I use when I cook: turmeric, ginger and lavender. They also featured several touch screens that were user-friendly and served up good facts.

As I made my way through the exhibit, I asked several questions in this order:

1. Wow! They’re using spices, roots, and weird things like skulls and snakeskin while following incredibly complex instructions. Were these women accused of witchcraft?
2. Neat! They are distilling and using elements like sulfur! Could these women be known as chemists?
3. Has this stuff ever been scientifically tested? Is there any molecular process behind the success of their work?

Excellently designed, the exhibit’s flow was in line with my thought process. Yes, some women were accused of witchcraft. Yes, their work was very similar to chemistry. Margaret Cavendish (1624-74) was a writer and scientist featured throughout the exhibit, and she proposed the question: What woman was such a chymist as Paracelsus? Finally, yes, there was a lot of evidence scribbled in margins that suggested these women understood the scientific principals behind their work—processes like the diuretic properties and the medical uses of wormwood.

I took a second lap to enjoy their phone tour. For those who have not used this, you simply call a provided phone number and enter in numbers associated with displays. This service allowed me to hear from experts in the field (professors, curators—all women) and learn that Cavendish poked fun at remedies suggested by doctors.

The negatives of the exhibit focus on patron comprehension. The instructions for making snail water were difficult to follow. Although I can appreciate that the exhibit would have lost some of its integrity if the language were changed from 1600’s vernacular to present day, BUT I CAN HAS SNAIL WATER AT HOME? In addition, people may benefit from a take home message that connects the material with present day medicine. Finally, (and I may be a little biased as a woman, a cook, and a scientist) I believe this piece of history to be fascinating enough to fill more than one great hall. Tell me more!

The Beyond Home Remedies exhibit at the Folder-Shakespeare Library is a great place to learn about those who preceded me as a woman in the laboratory and in the kitchen. The space was quiet and offered just enough facts to keep me entertained but not overwhelmed. Finally, I would have liked to see more material presented and have it compared to present day.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Neverending Story

I only wish this post was about a movie made in the 80's.

The Lancet has recently retracted the study that started it all, but the book will never be closed on vaccinations in the United States. Dr. Howard Markel, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan, offers another vantage point in the New York Times Science Times this week with his essay Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Vaccines.

The vaccine for smallpox was controversial during the days of our Founding Fathers. However, the practice of inoculation involved opening a wound and infecting it with scabs from persons afflicted by smallpox. Yuck! How can it be that an injection with a controlled amount of an inactive form of a disease agent is on the same playing field? Benjamin Franklin, who lost a son to smallpox after failing to have him inoculated, was an advocate of vaccination. Things have changed and science has advanced, but have we?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

You Suddenly Realize the World is Not Static

What exactly are earth tones again?
I am only slightly embarrassed to admit that have I visited the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, four times. During the first visit I wandered around with my new friend, Esteban, overwhelmed and exhausted but on a mission to learn. We started at The Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals and meandered through The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. We found our way to The Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals and drifted through a room full of shiny and polished rocks. I heard an older man say, "Look at these jewels! Do you think mommy would wear these?" They were striking but it was the minerals of the exhibit that enticed me to back for more visits.

This section meticulously describes crystal shape, color and diversity; amazing gems; the building blocks of rocks; and pegmatites. While I discovered each specimen and read every plaque, my mind soared. The time I have spent here has made me think about our earth in a serious way. Somehow these beautiful and weird things have been created on our planet using a combination of elements, pressure, heat, time, and moisture. They've been collected, excavated, or discovered in a cave, and luckily, this has occurred during my lifetime and within proximity to me, a wisp of time and space in the continuum of the universe. These specimens have traveled across the globe to be put on display for me to see! How did I get so lucky to be in the presence of these wondrous things? On a more trivial level, I wonder who defined earth tones. Every color on the spectrum was on display--from vibrant fuchsia to glittering pewter to glowing yellow to deep and mysterious black.

During my final visit, I spent some time talking with Anne, a knowledgable and approachable docent. She pointed out malachite, Cu2CO3(OH)2, the color of which varies from spearmint green to navy blue with the presence or absence of iron during growth. She showed me the case containing corundum,  Al2O3, which experiences red hues when presented with chromium (Cr) and blue hues with iron (Fe) or titanium (Ti).  I browsed the vast collection of quartz, SiO2: smoky, amethysts, rose, aventurine, citrine hematite, and milky. Quartz is one of the earth's most common minerals and the array of specimens created with these elements were striking and incredibly diverse.
Okenite: Fuzzy and shiny!

Then things got weird. Unbelievably weird. As one teenager so aptly put it, "It's fuzzy and shiny!" She bounded back to the display case, following her outstretched hand. "It's fuzzy and shiny!" she squealed, jumping and tugging on the sleeve of another teenager. Dragging out each vowel, she breathed, "Look! Fuzzy! Shiny!" In another case, crystals looked were swirled and layered and others looked like wood (quartz, again). One looked like a twisted, white celery stick. See the photos at my flickr account.

Chatting with Anne, I realized I had previously breezed over the most thought-provoking portion of the exhibit: Plate Tectonics and Volcanoes as well as Rocks and Mining. When I asked Anne what she liked so much about it, she said slowly, embroidering these words on the spot, "You suddenly realize the world is not static." There was a huge rock that had been cored by a stream and a weathered rock shaped like a handful of uncooked spaghetti. "People make a business of replacing weathered buildings in DC," she pointed out. Things change. These buildings are not static. Nothing is forever. Not even diamonds. Especially not diamonds. Diamonds can revert back to coal over time because they are not presented with pressure, according to this docent.

As we sauntered through the final portion of the exhibit, I had a vision of the Earth's core, melting and swirling in on itself. Surrounding that were the layers of elements that create the plates--the solid land masses we live on and the ones that make up the sea floor. The plates are mobile and overlap each other, while edges are nicked and sucked into the liquid center. In some areas volcanoes allow magma to reach the outer layer and cool. In between those plates water fills all the cracks. On top of the plates, creatures throw rocks and wind diminishes them to sand.

Then, I got to touch a piece of Mars.

When I was visiting with Esteban, finding this exhibit was like stumbling upon a mirage. We had elbowed our way through crying toddlers and swerved around packs of teenagers. After squeezing through the first room of jewels, the crystals were like an oasis of knowledge and quietness. During my visits alone, I enjoyed the sanctity and soaked up as much science as my brain would allow. Meeting Anne, I was able to visualize the geographic reality our world. I'm sure I will be back to ogle before I leave DC.