Posts Tagged ‘Science’

Congratulations to The Tesla Science Centre – it’s going to happen!

// May 10th, 2013 // Comments Off on Congratulations to The Tesla Science Centre – it’s going to happen! // Science Communication

What a handsome chap! Tesla aged 36, photo by Napoleon Sarony.

What a handsome chap! Tesla aged 36, photo by Napoleon Sarony.

I was so pleased to see on The Oatmeal this morning that the Tesla Science Centre will be going ahead – they’ve purchased the land where Nikola Tesla’s old laboratory stood and still have $800,000 in the bank to start cleaning it up and building the interactive museum.

This is the best crowd-funded campaign I’ve ever seen, mostly thanks to The Oatmeal. If you haven’t seen The Oatmeal’s web comics, well hurry over and find out why Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived.

To put it briefly: Tesla was genius who wanted to give all his inventions away for free, his story ended really sadly Edison took advantage of him, stole his ideas and refused to pay him, destroyed generators and blocked Tesla’s project to provide free wireless energy. That’s right. Free. Power. Wirelessly. We could have that right now if Edison wasn’t such a jerk.

And to top it all off – history has mostly forgotten him. Just like it has forgotten Alfred Wallace, who worked out the Origin of Species at the same time as Darwin – from the jungles of the Malay Archipelago. On that subject, I highly recommend watching “Bill Bailey’s Jungle Adventure,” which follows his magnificent adventures catching flying frogs and malaria.

Tesla demonstrates wireless power.

Tesla demonstrates wireless power.

Well, he’s forgotten no more. A museum will boldly stand where Tesla was planning his wireless communication and energy transmission tower in Shoreham, New York.

Now that the land has been purchased, there’s a massive clean-up underway. Apparently there are believed to be tunnels underground that might contain some of Tesla’s original experiments, so they’ll need to be secured and explored. There are also rumours of a giant underground resonance chamber…

To celebrate, there’s hopefully going to be an event in New York over the Summer – with more details to be posted on The Oatmeal as they’re confirmed. I would go, if getting to New York was a remote possibility for me, because The Oatmeal owns a Tesla coil and is going to fry up bacon sandwiches with 20,000 volts of pure, unadulterated science awesome.

It will take time and more funds before the Science Centre is open for business, and be sure I’ll blog about it when it is.

Congratulations to the not-for-profit Tesla Science Centre who are now the proud owners of the site. In the words of The Oatmeal:

“Mr Tesla. We’re sorry humanity forgot about you for a little while. We still love you. Here’s a goddamn museum.”

Check out the happy news on The Oatmeal for more information and to donate or volunteer.

Shape-shifting devices, gadgets for the future

// April 29th, 2013 // 1 Comment » // Recent Research

I’ve always wanted a computer that would fold up like a newspaper. I could sit on a bench and open it to read, then close it up and cram into a bag. It wouldn’t be backlit like a computer screen, just a soothing paper-like display. There’s something lacking in e-readers today that look terribly phoney. As in, they look like giant phones or tablets. I want one like a book, an extremely lightweight paperback.

That’s been the dream since before iPhone’s were released, and it looks like it’s a step closer now. New prototypes for shape-shifting mobile devices were unveiled today at the Computer-Human Interaction Conference CHI2013 in Paris. They transform on demand, bending up to hide personal information or curving around to make a console for playing games. The press release says they can even curl into a stress ball, which doesn’t sound very healthy for a smart phone, though I can imagine it might come in handy.

Here’s a nifty video of the “Morphees” in action.

There are a few different ways the researcher’s achieved this kind of movement. Some prototypes used wires attached to motors that pulled and pushed them. Others used memory wire, which reverts to its original shape when heated by running a current through the wire.

The research was led by Dr Anne Roudaut and Professor Sriram Subramanian from the University of Bristol. They have also introduced a new metric to help guide the developing industry – “shape resolution.” Like screen resolution, shape resolution allows different devices to be compared easily, measuring the ability to stretch, bend, curve and so on.

On a related note, researcher Roel Vertegaal from Queen’s University is working on thinfilm phones, called the world’s first paper computer. The work was presented at the same conference, CHI, in 2011. Here’s a quick video. Looks incredible.

Pretty keen to head over to the next CHI conference, which is in Toronto on April 26, 2014. Though it might be easier to get to the 2015 one in Asia, as it’s a bit closer to Australia. For more info on the conferences, check out the Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction.

Brains compensate for a stuffy nose

// August 13th, 2012 // Comments Off on Brains compensate for a stuffy nose // Recent Research

Image by Miguel Angel Pasalodos, licensed on Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.5

Nothing like a stuffy nose to ruin your day. You sound like a ponce, food tastes like cardboard and you have to sleep with your mouth open for spiders to crawl in. No joke. It happened to a friend of a friend of mine.

But have you ever noticed how quickly your sense of smell returns? Almost as soon as the sniffles are gone, you’re back to sniffing roses, and new research is finding out how our brain can adjust so fast to changes in sensory input.

What I love about this study is how they did it.

For a whole week, 14 people had their noses completely blocked during the day. At night, they slept sans-nose-blockers in a special low-odour hospital room.

A low odour hospital room? All the ones I’ve been to smell weirdly like custard. I wonder if all 14 shared the same room, or if they were spread out… I mean, even if you do have a spesh no-custard hospital dorm, if 14 people spending the night there it won’t be low odour for long.

Brain activity in response to odours changed after a week of smell deprivation in two regions. Activity increased in the orbital frontal cortex, but decreased in the piriform cortex, both are related to our sense of smell.

“These changes in the brain are instrumental in maintaining the way we smell things even after seven days of no smell,” said lead author Keng Nei Wu, Northwestern University Feinburg School of Medicine, in the press release.

“When your nostrils are blocked up, your brain tries to adjust to the lack of information so the system doesn’t break down. The brain compensates for the lack of information so when you get your sense of smell back, it will be in good working order.”

Once the 14 participants were released to sniff wildly, their brains soon returned to normal, showing pre-experimental levels of excitement when offered something smelly.

This rapid reversal in the realm of smell is quite different to sight, where deprivation usually has longer-lasting effects. Wu suggests this could be because smell deprivation is pretty common, given our penchant for catching colds and having allergies. Perhaps it has evolved to be more agile, or perhaps the endless sniffles we get in primary school gave our brains ample chance to practice.

Either way, it seems the quick adjustments by our brains protect our sense of smell, so it can rebound quicker than you can say “the one who smelt it dealt it.”

Wu ends by saying “more knowledge about how the system reacts to short-term deprivation may provide new insights into how to deal with this problem in a chronic context.”

Chronic loss of smell is nothing to be sniffed at (lol.) It really takes the fun out of life. This column, 20 years of living without a sense of smell, was clearly written from the pits of despair for want of a whiff of fabric softener.

ResearchBlogging.orgKeng Nei Wu, Bruce K Tan, James D Howard, David B Conley & Jay A Gottfried (2012). Olfactory input is critical for sustaining odor quality codes in human orbitofrontal cortex
Nature Neuroscience : 10.1038/nn.3186

The brewer’s yoke, the domestication of microbes

// July 15th, 2012 // Comments Off on The brewer’s yoke, the domestication of microbes // Recent Research

Something happened when I was spliced, something wrong. Some random event in my chromosomes, I suppose it was. In any event, I wound up lacking. My sister took all the toxin genes, and I was left with nothing.

It’s a scary world out there for a fungus without a toxin. How would I strike fear into the hearts of all animals who dared to eat the plants I was eating? How, without my precious aflatoxin to attack the liver, causing acute sickness or eventual cancer?

Quite simply, I’m surprised I lasted as long as I did before they found me.

Indeed, I’m not sure how they did find me. I had a pretty good disguise, growing colonies of blue along the endless islands of white rice grains, just like my toxic cousins always had. Safe from munching animals by my don’t-eat-me mimicry, the promise of sickness is the discoloured rice.

For some reason, these sake brewers saw past it all. I thought I was a goner when they lifted me up from the wild and plonked me into a house of wood.

Then I saw the food.

A. oryzae in heaven. Image by Forrest O.

It’s hard for mould like me to see, lacking in the eye department, but I knew it was there. An endless carpet of steamed rice. With my filamentous fronds I could touch it. Drill down into it and grow cottony soft, sprout fruiting bodies on the surface and spread on and on.

Call me legion, for we are many. Better yet, call me qū meí jūn in Pinwin, kōji-kin in Japanese, nulook-gyun in Korean or the grandiose Aspergillus oryzae in scientific circles. Back then, some 2000 years ago, I didn’t know who I was, or that I would one day be the National Fungus of Japan.

That’s when the changes happened.

I didn’t notice at first, I don’t know that there was ever a master plan. It felt… natural. Human hands, bristling with microbes and pitted with pores, dropped me into heaven. And when I had eaten the heaven for a time, they picked me up and dropped me once more into fresh heaven.

Incomprehensible! These hands must have spent hours polishing the rice to remove all the husks, then steamed it to perfection, cooled it so I didn’t burn my filaments, then spread it out – just for me! It was like being a king! King Kōji-kin!

I'm a national icon, and pretty cute too. Image by Ryoku Kasinn

As they fed me and I ate, we gradually adapted to please one another. Heaven grew ever more heavenly, until the temperature and humidity was just so.

For my part, I started growing much faster, hell, I had brilliant conditions for it and not a doubt in the world that I could grow as fast as I pleased. Fearlessly fast.

Over generations, they selected only the best for their purposes, which at that stage I knew nothing about. They selected the sons and daughters (hell, we’re all of one gender here) that could best turn rice starch to sugar. They also preferred fungi of least colour, but most smell and flavour. Each generation, the best of me would be plucked and propagated.

Turning starch to sugar is a tricky thing. I suppose the point of starch is to tie up the sugar molecules into a big, complex network so the plant can use them later. For me, kōji-kin I secrete the amylase enzymes, biological machine that chops starch into pieces of sweet. From a couple of recently-licked hands, I’ve learned humans make the same enzyme in their saliva. My amylases, however, not only make glucose, but a few other sugars that produce a wonderful flavour.

But why, pray tell? Have you worked it out yet?

Winemakers use yeast to turn the natural sugars in grapes into alcohol. Beer brewers must malt their barley, partially growing the seed to convert starch to sugar, to ferment it with yeast into alcohol.

And I, the humble fungus, plucked from the wild a millennia ago for a deficit in character. My non-toxic self excels, above all other moulds, in turning rice starch into sugars.

From the beds of heaven, me and my alchemical rice is transferred to the fermenting tank. Mixed with yeast, water and more rice, then left to stew in our own juices for a month.

This mash is pressed and filtered, and the sweet, alcoholic liquid that pours forth is bottled as sake.

Not to ring my own bell filaments, but I make soy sauce and miso too. That’s a whole meal – appetizer, main, and a drink.

Domesticated A oryzae (left) and wild A flavus (right). Image by John Gibbons, Vanderbilt University

These days I hardly recognise myself! So much of me has changed by growing with the sake brewers. Though I still share some 95% of my genome with my wild and toxic cousin A. flavus (and you, human reader, share 99% of yours with a chimpanzee), I am given all I could ever want to eat and praised world-over for my skill in sake making. While A. flavus, the wild thing, is targeted daily for a war against fungi with resistant crops and competitive yeasts.

What must the wolf think of the dog? Or the auroch of the cow? Well, to their accusations I say this: We may change our genes and appearance for protection and care, but, in doing so, we also mould the humans who cooperate with us. Through their attentions and skills, they, too, are domesticated.

This story was inspired by this recent research by Vanderbilt University into the domestication of microbes. “Although people don’t often think about it, we haven’t only domesticated animals and plants, but we have also domesticated dozens of different microbes.” – Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Antonis Rokas in the press release. You can find more information on brewing sake here, and a beautiful description of koji pampering by interns at a sake house in Japan who blogged their experiences.

ResearchBlogging.orgGibbons, J. et. al. (2012). The Evolutionary Imprint of Domestication on Genome Variation and Function of the Filamentous Fungus Aspergillus oryzae Current Biology

Feminist and Aboriginal science with Lillian Dyck #AAASmtg

// February 28th, 2012 // Comments Off on Feminist and Aboriginal science with Lillian Dyck #AAASmtg // Science Communication

Hon. Lillian Dyck, first female and Aboriginal senator in Canada, took the stage at the AAAS conference to discuss western science, feminist science and Aboriginal science.

Subjectivity is inherent in the western scientific method, she said. We use inductive reasoning, interpret data, and models that are not ideal (eg. animals). A hypothesis may be generated by hunches, mistakes, or serendipity, as well as logical questioning. This, she said, is something we don’t usually acknowledge.

In fact, people try to hide it. In writing up a paper, the sequence of experiments and even the thinking process can be adapted to fit the prescribed, logical process of SCIENCE. We leave out illogical sources of ideas, even if they were important. We remove ourselves by using the third person, and our experience by using the passive voice.

Thus we perpetuate the notion of purely rational, logical science.

However, facts do not exist in a vacuum. Scientists are subject to cultural bias. Though numbers don’t lie, we do interpret what they mean.

Her example of bias in scientific thinking was the Thrifty gene hypothesis describing genetic causes of diabetes in First Nations people. For a long time it was believed a faulty genetic ability that stored extra calories in case of famine was responsible for the disease. Actually, there wasn’t any proof of it at all. You can read the story at “How the diabetes-linked ‘thrifty gene’ triumphed with prejudice over proof” from Globe & Mail, Feb 2011.

How can we correct the bias in science? She says, by knowing and acknowledging it, even taking advantage of human bias.

Feminist science does this, she says.

Feminist science
– is openly biased (doesn’t pretend to be unbiased)
– exposes male bias and the patriarchal nature of western science
– is non-hierarchical
– is by, with and for a community, collaborative
– this pdf article Can there be a feminist science? may be a useful reference.

She says feminist science has changed science as a whole, moving it to a point where collaborative, team research is now the norm.

What about different ways of thinking in different cultures? Not only do different cultures have particular traditional knowledge of areas like astronomy and medicine, they also have particular processes to gain knowledge.

Her heritage is Chinese and Cree, and she mentioned ways of knowing that emphasised listening skills, elders, and a holistic world view (rather than analysing pieces at a time.)

People have claimed only people with Indigenous minds can solve the problems of quantum physics, she said, then pointed out that person was Aboriginal. I recommend reading Dialogues between Western and Indigenous science if you’d like to know more.






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