Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Newly Discovered Sea Life Off Phillipines

If you are not impressed with land slugs you might change your mind when you see the biological diversity and beauty of marine sea slugs. One type of sea slug or nudibranch is the Chelidonura alexisi, a speckled specimen that looks a bit like an elegant topological map. According to research team leader, Terry Gosliner, PhD, senior curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the California Academy of Sciences and a principal investigator of the expedition, Chelidonura alexisi joins the ranks of 40 more previously unknown nudibranchs discovered in the waters off the Phillipines. 

“The Philippines is jam-packed with diverse and threatened species—it’s one of the most astounding regions of biodiversity on Earth,” reports Gosliner to the California Academy of Sciences. 

Nudibranchs can be tiny to nearly a foot in length. They can blend into their surroundings or vivid as flamenco dancers in a variety of colors. Check out their great variety on this Pinterest link

Nudibranchs get their bright colors from their prey (e.g., algae, sponges and anemones to barnacles, corals and other nudibranchs). 
Although sea slugs aren’t speedy predators, they are far from helpless. Highly sensitive tentacles, called rhinophores, allow them to smell, taste and feel their way around. These sensory appendages also pick up chemical signals that help them "spot" prey. 

Just when some people thought we had discovered most of the undersea species, discoveries like the Phillipines' new nudibranchs and fish are found. Stay tuned for more. Go science!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mistletoe - For More than Romance in Nature

This time of year many of us are caught up in the traditions of our families and culture. A well-ingrained and fun tradition is that of mandatory kissing under a suspended branch of mistletoe, Phoradendron serotinum.

Scientists have discovered that this pretty (but poisonous to humans) plant has been around for tens of thousands of years and numbers around 1,300 different species worldwide. In North America, the white berry variety grows in bunches on Oak trees while it pirates the tree's nutrients.

Birds eat mistletoe berries and use it as nesting material as do owls, hawks, jays, bluebirds, grouse, and many others. Additionally, there are three kinds of butterfly (e.g., purple hairstreak, thicket hairstreak, and the Johnson’s hairstreak) that depend completely on mistletoe for food and as a place to lay their eggs. Large, animals like elk, cattle and deer eat mistletoe during winter when fresh foliage is rare.

According to the US Geological Survey, "Mistletoe has been widely used in Europe and is regarded as the most widely used natural therapy for cancer. In addition, it has many uses in traditional Chinese medicine as well as in traditional indigenous groups in Australia and Latin America."

So, the next time you see mistletoe, you'll know that humans aren't the only ones who appreciate all it has to offer. Happy holidays! Go science!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Hobbits Are Special & Their Teeth May Prove It

The 18,000-year-old fossil remains of an ancient, 3-foot-tall (0.9 meters) humanoid found on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003 and nicknamed the "hobbit" has puzzled evolutionary scientists. 

Scientists believe the hobbit with a grapefruit-sized brain, was part of a separate branch of the human lineage (i.e. Homo floresiensis) while others think he was a more modern humanoid with microcephaly, a developmental condition.

To find out, scientists analyzed hobbit teeth and compared them to 490 modern humans from Asia, Oceania, Africa and Europe, as well as extinct hominins, such as Homo habilis, which is suspected to be among the first makers of stone tools. 

While some teeth were as small as those from modern humans, others showed a unique mosaic of primitive traits seen in early hominins mixed with more-advanced traits seen in later hominins.

The mystery continues, but it's fun to think about while flossing. Go science! 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Alzheimer’s Disease & Brain GPS Cells

The way you navigate a virtual maze may predict your chances of getting Alzheimer’s. A new study reported in Science finds that people at risk for Alzheimer’s have lower activity in a newly-discovered network of navigational brain cells known as “grid cells.” 

The 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine has been awarded to John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard Moser for their discovery of the brain’s “inner GPS” system.  The neurons that make up the “grid” are arranged in a triangular lattice in the entorhinal cortex—a region of the brain used in memory and navigation. The “grid” activates in different patterns based on how individuals move, keeping track of our location in the coordinate plane.

Researchers think the cells help make mental maps and allow us to navigate without visual cues. “If you close your eyes and walk ten feet forward and turn right and walk three feet forward, the grid cells are believed to [track your position],” says neuroscientist Joshua Jacobs at Columbia University.

The results are a starting point in figuring out navigation issues in Alzheimer’s patients, but definitely offer a great new avenue of study. 

I wonder if you close your eyes and practice walking around the house if you can sharpen your navigational brain cells? Go science!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Bionic Hands and the Cool Factor

As many of you know, I'm super interested in 3D printing and its innovative potential for everything from high heels to jet engine parts. The industry is taking off and the prices of home printers are coming down. All great. 

However, today I spotted a feel good 3D printing story that I just had to highlight.

Open Bionics has partnered with Disney via the 2015 Disney Accelerator Program to offer three 3D printed bionic hand/arm designs for young amputees. Each design will be customized to an individual child's arm (and Disney is offering the licensing royalty free). The themed bionic hands will cost around $500 each.

What child wouldn't want an awesome bionic hand compared to a standard general purpose "super power-less" one?  Also, the bionics of the arms can be easily replaced, repaired or upgraded if they are broken or the child needs a new size. Go science!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Germs as Friends

Ever cringe when you see toddlers and little ones putting every dirty thing in their mouths? We've heard for years that germs are to be avoided at all costs. Now, however, researchers are starting to realize that our gut bacteria or the microbiome has a big role in keeping us healthy. The "good" bacteria army keeps the "bad" players at bay. Fascinating! (to quote Vulcan Science officer Spock).

Recently, in the science journal Cell Host & Microbe, the results of a study on the microenvironment of the mouth was reported. Researchers in China followed and sampled the bacteria in the mouths of fifty 4 year-old children. They divided them into three groups; healthy children with no caries (cavities), those with few caries, and those with lots of caries. Then, they compared the groups with regard to the types and amount of bacteria that made up their dental microbiome over a two year time period. 

Jian Xu, one of the study's coauthors explained that the healthy children had a diverse microbiome. And although variables like saliva and plaque amounts affect caries too, this study provides a window into when children get cavities, how their mouth microbiome develops, and what that means to their future dental health. Food for thought.  Go science!  

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Citizen Science - Disk Detective

We discuss cool science research regularly here, but today I want to focus on doing science as a lay person or "citizen science."

Interested in space and finding new planetary systems? Then, check out DiskDective.org where you can be part of a NASA and Zooinverse crowdsourcing project whose main goal is to publish scientific results from data collected from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), the Digitized Sky Survey (DSS) and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).


Well, planets are created from immense clouds of dust, gas, and rock that swirl about a common center of gravity to form "debris disks" around a star. The rotating debris, from an angstrom up to a centimeter in size, come together in the disk to form planets.

Identifying these disks and possible planets takes computer and people power. You can help search for likely debris disks at the Disk Dectective website. The tutorial is simple and explains everything from how to know what you are looking at to how to compare images from different space scans. It's more fun than a video game and you are doing real science. Give it a try and let me know how you do. 

Find more citizen science projects on a variety of topics listed here, here, and here. Definitely something for everyone. Go science!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Blue Moon

Did you know that tonight, July 31st is a blue moon? It is! And for those astronomically challenged, a "blue moon" is the third full moon in a astronomical period (season). 

A normal year has four astronomical periods (seasons) of spring, summer, fall, and winter. Each are ~3 months long and have three full moons. When one of the seasons has four full moons (about every 2-3 years) the extra full moon is called a Blue Moon. Hence, the old expression. "That only happens in a blue moon." That is, not often.

A visually blue-colored moon is actually pretty rare. Rather, the atmosphere through which a moon rises affects the way it looks. When the atmosphere is filled with dust or smoke particles wider than 0.7 microns, they scatter red light making the Moon look blue. This can happen after a dust storm, forest fire or a volcanic eruption.

Eruptions like on Mt. Krakatoa, Indonesia (1883), El Chichon, Mexico (1983), Mt. St. Helens (1980) and Mount Pinatubo (1991) resulted in blue moons.

So all being said, go outside tonight and enjoy the blue moon. You can even howl if you like. Go science!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Bats and Sonic Plants Cozy Up

I've heard of birds nesting in trees and insects building homes in foliage, but bats in pitcher plants? So interesting!

In Borneo, carnivorous pitcher plants (Nepenthes hemsleyana) figured out a way to get bat guano (fertilizer) delivered for free. They offer bats (Kerivoula hardwickii) their vase-shaped leaves as natural sleeping bags to spend the daylight hours in protected comfort. 

Apparently, the plants advertise the comfy roost as well. They have evolved a way to reflect back the bats' high frequency sonar in a 5 star luxury hotel way (compared to the 1 star surrounding plants). The thin pitcher shape is crucial to the habitat marketing and allows the bats to find them easily and settle in. 

In the past, scientists reported tropical plants that evolved sonic skills to attract bats as pollinators. This is the first time a plant has used sound to call the hogs (er... bats in for the night). Go science! 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Catching Up with Iconic American Wildlife

If you are like me, most vacations include chance sightings of many of America's best loved animals. My last trip to Yellowstone included, buffalo, numerous raptors, and even a cheeky coyote who trotted along the side of the rode at roughly the same speed as our car in the summer tourist traffic. 

Many of these favorites and others are compiled in a list by science and wildlife writer, Matt Miller (of The Nature Conservancy blog), here. The listing also provides updates of numbers, endangered status and overall health of the different species.

Go science!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Auroras on Mars

As many of you know, I am super interested (some might say obsessed) in space exploration. So I'm excited to relate the latest Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) findings about auroras on Mars. 

Auroras happen on Earth when energy particles from space rain down on the upper atmosphere and are pulled to the Arctic and Antarctic poles by the planet's global magnetic field. On Mars, no organized planetary magnetic field exists so solar winds can blow them anywhere. Only pockets of magnetic fields draw them.

Since scientists know that Mars had a thick atmosphere billions of years ago, they are studying localized auroras to see if solar winds are still eroding the carbon dioxide and oxygen molecules present in the red planet's very thin atmosphere.

What does an aurora on Mars look like? 

"A diffuse green glow seems quite possible in the Mars sky, at least when the Sun is throwing off energetic particles," notes Nick Schneider who leads MAVEN's Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument team at the University of Colorado.

MAVEN's mission is to explore the planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere, and interactions with the Sun and solar wind. Scientists will be watching for loss of volatile compounds—such as CO2, N2, and H2O—from the Martian atmosphere into space. Understanding this loss will offen insight into Mars' atmosphere and climate, liquid water and potential for habitability.

To see the aurora borealis or aurora australis on Earth is definitely a bucket list item for me, but perhaps auroras on Mars will be a common site for our children's children. I can only hope! Go science!

Monday, June 1, 2015

How to Exercise an Octopus

You thought your dog could do cool tricks? Cat? Horse? How about octopus? It's not super scientific, but watching an octopus unscrew a jar from the inside has got it all over a horse that counts or a dog jumping through a hoop. Watch the flexibility and maneuverability of this animal. If you look carefully, you can even see the beak at times.

The part that particularly awed and scared me was the animal's seemingly haughty attitude when the feat was accomplished. Mother Nature's pets are an amazing bunch. Go science!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Whispering Galleries and Detecting Viruses

Do you remember when you were a young child and loved to stand under a dome and talk or even yell? The sound reverberated and made you feel very important! (Or as important as a 5 year old can feel.) The mystery of your amplified self was fun and thrilling.

Now researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, MO have gone many steps further than your simple childhood experimentation. 

Professor Nan Yang, PhD of the Nano/Micro Photonics Laboratory, Electrical and Systems Engineering Department at Washingtong Univ. has created an optical whispering gallery. It makes use of light "to interact with a single particle over thousands to millions of times to greatly enhance interactions between light and the sub-wavelength particle." The awesome sensitivity of this tiny, on-chip device is a huge breakthrough in the optical sensing of airborne particles and viruses.

Soon disease vectors like viruses will have no place to hide. Go science!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Science Images Online

Since I write about science, I often use or link to associated science and technology images. I've also taken some of my own photos to include in science updates. You can find this image of an equation written on glass and others at the stock photography site, Dreamstime.com

I think of science and technical photography as creative cross-training. It give me new ways of looking at things for my writing and research.

Interested in World War II diesel submarine technology? I took a series of photographs recently aboard the USS Razorback-394. Everything from views through a hatch, water cutoff valves, and navigation panels to an old school diving officer's checklist panel and torpedo launch controls.

Do you have ways to stir your creative or scientific creativity? Go science!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Human Touch

Think science isn't very "touchy feely?" Think again. 

Researchers, engineers and students in the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Biomechatronics Lab are building artificial limbs to be more tactile or sensitive to touch.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the team led by mechanical engineer, Veronica J. Santos, Ph.D. is creating a touch language translatable by computers and humans. The researchers test robotic touch with mechanical pressure sensors that interact with objects of various shapes, sizes and textures. With cutting edge instrumentation, Santos' team is able to translate touch interaction into computer data.

Santos' results will be used to for a formula or algorithm that allows the computer to identify patterns among the items in its library of tested experiences and things it has never felt before. This work will help researchers further develop artificial haptic (sense of touch) skills and provide robots and human prostheses with the "human touch."
Go Science!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Slime Mold Maps Roman Roads

Okay. I have officially heard it all. Microbiology and archaeology combine to retrace lost Roman roads. 


I know. I was skeptical too. Well, here's basically how it works/tracks back to Roman times. Molds want to find food via the shortest path between points A and B. So, they meander (slime along) until they get to the food (a flake of oatmeal). The odd thing is that when food was placed in roughly the places (on agar in a petri dish) as 17 towns and major cities of the ancient Roman empire, the slime mold traveled the same route as the Roman roads. Researchers found this to be true of known (and still used) roads as well as military roads only described in ancient travel texts. Interesting! So next time I need directions, I might try a trusty slime mold. It would take days, but all for the advancement of science, I say! 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Brain Awareness Week

When I did something particularly dumb as a child, my father used to tell me to use my head for "something other than a hat rack"  I loved hats, so it always made me grin. Now that he is gone, I remind myself of his advice on occasion. :)

But lots of people have been using their heads for important educational activities about the brain for many years. In fact, March 2015 marks the 20th year of Brain Awareness Week. And in Little Rock, the Arkansas chapter of the Society for Neuroscience will celebrate this milestone with kid- and teen-friendly activities at the Reynolds Museum of Discovery.

“On Saturday, March 21, the Arkansas Chapter of the Societyfor Neuroscience will celebrate Brain Awareness Week at the Museum of Discovery. From 10 am-3 pm, neuroscience research groups from around the state will host educational activities for children of all ages. Activities including sculpting brains out of Play-Doh, learning neuroanatomy from brain specimens, demonstrations of perceptual illusions, and teaching about operant conditioning.”

So take advantage of this chance to use your head and find out what goes on inside it too! Go science!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Flying Dinosaurs

Have you ever wondered when dinosaurs started flying? And weren't a lot of species happy that T. rex was too massive to take to the skies? 

Just published by Yale University researchers Teresa Feo, Daniel Field, and Richard Prum is a study on a key component of a winged dinosaur's anatomy – asymmetrical feathers. Why? Because, shape is important in creating lift.

Actually, the Yale team has been analyzing the question of the first dino flyers using feather and barb angle. 

Apparently, barbs on the leading edge of feathers are positioned at small angles from the shaft they branch from. This may have served to keep the feather's leading edge fairly rigid which in turn, facilitates pitch control in flight.

So, if you're a devotee of all things aviation. Or just curious about bird history and development, check out the Yale results. Go science!

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Vizzies

I know last night was the 2015 Oscars and there was a whole lot of beauty and bling going on, but have you ever thought about the beauty of science? No, it isn't just a geek thing. Everyone I know thinks about it. Oh, right. I have a geek merit badge, too.

Anyway, the National Science Foundation and Popular Science joined together this year to sponsor the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge. With 303 entries from twelve different countries and categories such as illustration, posters and graphics, and video, 50 finalists were judged on artistic merit and communication of science ideas. Readers voted for the People's Choice.

Check out the video for the creativity and beauty of neurons firing in the brain, x-ray of turtle structure, and beautiful chemical reactions videos happening real time. Very cool! Go science!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Could We Actually Live on Mars?

Many of you know how much I love the videos from asapScience. They answer everything from health questions to life on Mars. For folks who have never heard of them. Check them out on YouTube. If you are like me, you'll be a subscriber too. (asapScience has no idea I endorse them. They are just cool.) I pin a lot of their videos here as well. Go science!

Friday, January 30, 2015

Galactic Herding - How do galaxies join up?

Most galaxies travel through space along with lots of other types, shapes, and sizes. Some group galaxies have mostly ancient stars, while others hang with the new cosmic kids.

So do they all share a common origin? Or just chance alignments? Do galaxy groups pick up “strays” along the way?

A new image from the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS), at the Gemini North telescope located on Mauna Kea, Hawaii shows different galaxy types at the great distance of 300 million light years away. Of interest is a perfect alignment of three galaxies in a precise equilateral triangle: blue-armed spiral NGC 70 at top, elliptical galaxy NGC 68 to its lower right, and lenticular galaxy NGC 71 to its lower left. 

The massive blue spiral (NGC 70) spans 180,000 light-years or nearly twice the extent of the Milky Way’s reach. Its spiral arms look blue because of active regions of star formation (i.e., young hot stars burn with an intense blue light).

In contrast, NGC 68 (lower right) is a much older system known as an elliptical galaxy. It is about half the size of the blue spiral and hosts little dust and gas, so star formation and spiral are absent; the galaxy’s overall yellowish hue shows most of its stars are old and red. 

Although NGC 71 looks like NGC 68 (smooth glow, below and to the left of NGC 68) it's a lens-shaped galaxy seen face on, so it appears more like a sphere. Lenticular galaxies appear trapped between types: like a spiral galaxy it has a bulge and a disk but no spiral arms; but, like an elliptical galaxy, it is missing dust and gas. Maybe galaxies like NGC 71 were originally spiral systems and somehow lost their interstellar material.

Past the triangle to the lower left is the Group’s fourth brightest member, a barred spiral galaxy known as NGC 72. Its main bar crosses its nucleus with dusty arms that wind from each end of the bar and form a nuclear ring – showing recent star formation. Our Milky Way Galaxy has a similar bar feature nearly 30,000 light-years across, as well as a circumnuclear ring.

This new information gives astronomers and astrophysicists a lot to think about. Apparently in the distant universe all types of galaxies can be friends.
Go science!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

New Antibiotic from Soil Bacteria

Just when parents are busy keeping toddlers out of the dirt, scientists find a previously unknown soil bacteria that makes a powerful Gram-positive bacteria-targeting antibiotic. It turns out that it kills bad players like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Wahoo! Staph was definitely getting out of hand so this is good news!
The new bacterium, called teixobactin, lives in the soil and can't be grown in the lab using common methods. However researchers, Lewis and Slava Epstein, came up with an innovative technique where a soil sample is diluted with agar and suspended in a chamber surrounded by a semi-permeable membrane. Their results were published on January 7th in Nature.

This unique growth method allows the bacterium to grown more like it does in nature and allows a level of biodiversity that is missing in current culture methods. The antibiotic has not yet been proven to kill bacterial infection in humans, but assuming it works after more testing, “a drug like this must be reserved for serious diseases and not given to general practitioners to spread around like aspirin." 

“The rate of evolution of large-scale resistance will depend on the dosage and frequency of [the antibiotic’s use],” added Princeton microbiologist Julia Bos.

So with quiet optimism things are looking up in the fight against infection...if we are careful. Go science!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Gamma-ray Flashes & Storms

Thunderstorms create about a 1000 quick bursts of gamma rays (i.e., high energy light on Earth). Recent data from NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope compared to ground-based radar and lightning detectors, gave scientists detailed information on the different types of thunderstorms and their produced energy.

Terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs), were discovered in the 1990s by NASA's Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory. TGFs, lasting less than a thousandth of a second, are poorly understood.

"Remarkably, we have found that any thunderstorm can produce gamma rays, even those that appear to be so weak a meteorologist wouldn't look twice at them," said Themis Chronis, who led the research at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

The Fermi data, combined with info from ground-based radar and lightning, shows that terrestrial gamma-ray flashes come from a diversity of storms and may be more common than earlier expectations. In fact, the upper part of an intracloud lightning bolt disrupts the storm's electric field creating an avalanche of electrons that surge upward at high speed. These fast-moving electrons are deflected by air molecules and emit gamma rays, creating a TGF.  

The new study confirms previous findings that TGFs tend to occur near the highest parts of a thunderstorm, between about 7 and 9 miles (11 to 14 kilometers) high.

As climate change unfolds, it will be interesting to see if TGFs increase or decrease with storms. I'm sure the Fermi folks will keep an eye to the skies. Go science!

Friday, January 2, 2015

May the force of New Year resolutions be with you!

Happy New Year! May the Resolutions force be with You! 

I have been luxuriating on the Oregon coast in the rain as well as hiking through old growth forests and celebrating the holidays with family between raindrops. I even had time to engage my newly resurrected love of photography. You can check out some of my mostly science and nature images here

If you are a science educator, I'd love to connect on Pinterest (where I contribute frequently) or FB (I check in ~ weekly) or Twitter (occasionally). 

As a science geek and scifi nerd, I am always interested in the latest sites, movies, and news. Send those along as you find them. Here is what I came across lately. 

This new NASA-led study estimates that tropical forests absorb 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide out of a total global absorption of 2.5 billion -- more than boreal forests in Canada, Siberia and other northern regions.

More science news updates as they happen. Until then Go Science!