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?