Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Youngest peer-reviewed scientists

A group of British elementary school pupils, some aged just eight, have become the youngest science writers to have a paper accepted by a peer reviewed journal. They discovered that bumblebees are able to use a combination of color and spatial patterns to recognize flowers that will provide nourishment.
The project was organized by University College London neuroscientist Beau Lotto and Dave Strudwick, head teacher of Blackawton Primary School, but carried out by 25 students aged between eight and ten. The idea was to allow the students to choose their own question for study, with the aim being that they learned about the process of science rather than simply learning facts.
The students first picked bumblebees as a subject, then hunted for a question that hadn’t been explored in a previously published paper, settling on whether the bees could use patterns rather than merely colors in looking for flowers that still had a healthy supply of nectar.
To test this, the students set up four grids, each of 16 circles, with the central four lit in either blue or yellow each time, and the surrounding 12 lit in the other color. The central four of a grid always contained sugar water, with surrounding 12 containing salt water, regardless of the color combination. The idea was that the five bees used in the test would always want to locate the sugar water and would learn to hunt by position rather than color.
After a training period for the bees, the students began measuring the bees’ performance and discovered they were able to select a central circle 90.6% of the time. They also discovered that all but one of the bees would overwhelmingly go for circles of a particular color each time. That suggested that the bees were capable of detecting color, and had a personal preference, but were still able to deduce that positioning was key.
However, in a second experiment, the students lit the central (sugar water) circles of each grid in green. This time round, only two bees preferred the green, and as a whole the group only selected green 30.9% of the time, not much above the 25% they’d have achieved by selecting at random. (Results illustrated above.)
In a final experiment, the students reconfigured the grids so that in each case the four correct colored circles were placed in the corners rather than the center. This time the bees got the correct circle 40.1% of the time, suggesting that they weren’t able to decipher the one consistent rule across all three experiments: that the sugar water was always behind the color that appeared the least often in the grid. The two bees that did get the right answer in the second experiment also failed here, suggesting their previous correct answers were down to positioning rather than color.
The overall conclusions? That the bees were able to solve puzzles by learning pattern-based rules, but not perfectly; that different bees adopted different strategies; and that some bees may allow a personal preference of color to override the “logical” solution each time.
The adults were so impressed with the study and the resulting work from the children that they submitted the paper to Biology Letters, a journal of the Royal Society. The journal sent the paper for review by a neural science psychologist at New York University and an animal behavior expert from the University of Exeter. They concluded that, although simplistic, the paper was sound and contained genuinely fresh scientific results:
The experiments are modest in scope but cleverly and correctly designed and carried out with proper controls to avoid possible artefacts. They lack statistical analyses and any discussion of previous experimental work, but they hold their own among experiments carried out by highly trained specialists. The experimenters have asked a scientific question and answered it well.
Read the original post here: Meet the eight-year old peer reviewed scientists

Neanderthals ate not only meat but also cooked vegetables

Neanderthal Woman
New findings by researchers from George Washington University revise the picture of Neanderthals as being only meat eaters. Neanderthals also cooked and ate vegetables, in addition to eating meat. Read article here: BBC News - Neanderthals cooked and ate vegetables

Homo neanderthalensis lived successfully for over 200,000 years (between 230,000 and 30,000 years ago), the last part in competition with our ancestors (homo sapiens sapiens). Read more on the history of Neanderthals and theories about their disappearance here.

Anti-Evolution argument of irreducible complexity debunked

 Anti-evolution proponents often use the argument of irreducible complexity, for example complex structures such as the human eye consist of intricately inter-dependent elements that could not have evolved independently. This informative video debunks those anti-evolutionist arguments and explains how complexity can arise through gradual evolution.

Intoxicated Animals

Humans are not alone in seeking the effects of intoxication. In fact, some animals may have introduced humans to a number of drugs, including psychedelic mushrooms, alcohol, caffeine, and cocaine.

Read this interesting blog entry on intoxicated animals: Celebrate the New Year with Intoxicated Animals : Discovery News

Top 10 most popular physics stories in 2010

From the New Scientist journal: 10 most popular physics stories in 2010

10. The entropy force: a new direction for gravity

Newton and Einstein described gravity, but not where it comes from. Has a physicist now found its root cause at last?

9. Magic numbers: A meeting of mathemagical tricksters

New Scientist visits a mind-stretching tribute to Martin Gardner, featuring everything from origami writing to tiles that go on forever.

8. How to create temperatures below absolute zero

Absolute zero sounds like an unbreachable limit, but there is a weird realm of negative temperatures that could reveal new states of matter.

7. 'Most beautiful' math structure appears in lab for first time

A complex form of mathematical symmetry linked to string theory has been glimpsed in the real world for the first time.

6. 'Impossible motion' trick wins illusion contest

See the gravity-defying illusion that won the 2010 Best Illusion of the Year Contest.

5. The strangest liquid: Why water is so weird

No other liquid behaves quite as oddly, but a controversial new theory may finally have wrung out water's secrets.

4. Enter the matrix: the deep law that shapes our reality

Quarks to card games, traffic to economics - does the success of random matrix theory hint at a deep pattern in nature underlying all these, and more?

3. A measure for the multiverse

Is our universe just one of many? The idea divides physicists, but now one researcher has found the first hint that the multiverse really exists.

2. First replicating creature spawned in life simulator

The organism, which inhabits the mathematical universe known as the Game of Life, might just tell us something about our own beginnings.

1: Knowing the mind of God: Seven theories of everything

We still don't have a theory that describes the fundamental nature of the universe, but there are plenty of candidates.
Short Sharp Science: 2010 review: 10 most popular physics stories

Mapping America: Where do different ethnic and racial groups live?

Ethnic and racial groups in NY city
The NY times created an interactive map that shows where different ethnic and racial groups live in the USA. The map is based on the Census Bureau's American Community Survey and includes samples from 2005 to 2009.

See the interactive map here: Mapping America — Census Bureau 2005-9 American Community Survey -

Bad Science in Science Fiction Movies

io9 targets bad science in science fiction movies, from the instance of sound in space and fire is space to faster than light travel.

Two comments about the chart: It's debatable if Apollo 13 counts as a science fiction movie (See blogpost on the difference between hard and soft science fiction here). Second, 'dodging faster-than-light weapons e.g. lasers' is incorrect: Lasers beams do not move faster than light, as they are light.

Dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror

Research indicates that dolphins are able to recognize themselves in a mirror. The dolphin in the video enjoys his own reflections.

Monday, December 27, 2010

New species of African elephants discovered

Scientists have discovered a new species of elephant, and it's been right under their noses the whole time.

Before the discovery, only two species of elephants were known: Asian (Elephas maximus) and African. The new species is a smaller version of the African elephant, called Forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). The other larger African elephant is now called Savanna elephant (Loxodonta Africana)

The two species diverged between 2.5 and 5 million years ago. Previously, researchers believed the two elephants to be the same species, but mitochondrial DNA analysis showed that they are distinct species. However, they can (theoretically) still interbreed.

Researchers: African elephants are two species - CNN

IBM Predicts Holographic Phones by 2015

IBM just released their "Five in Five" predictionsfor 2015, a list they've been compiling since 2006. The company surveys its 3,000 researchers to narrow down the five ideas that seem most likely to gather traction.

The list includes holographic video phone calls, longer-lasting batteries that can breathe air, more energy efficient computers, smarter GPS guiding systems, and people as 'walking sensors'. See video below:

IBM Predicts Holographic Phones, Air-Breathing Batteries In Next 5 Years (VIDEO)

From Yoda Bat to Scorpion-Spider

Over the last decade, many new species have been discovered, from bizarre to adorable and shocking. See the picture slide show in this post: Animal Discoveries Of The Decade: 'Yoda' Bat, Flying Frog, Scorpion-Spider And More (PHOTOS)

Also, see this blog post on animal diversity

Periodic table Revised

The world's top chemists and physicists have determined that the atomic weights of 10 elements need to be expressed as an interval (or range) rather than a static number, Science Daily reports.
The new atomic weights of hydrogen, lithium, boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, sulfur, chlorine and thallium will more accurately reflect how those elements occur in nature.
"For example, sulfur is commonly known to have a standard atomic weight of 32.065. However, its actual atomic weight can be anywhere between 32.059 and 32.076, depending on where the element is found," the article explains.
The change will take effect in 2011, designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Chemistry, according to Science Daily.

Read original post here: Periodic table gets a makeover – This Just In - Blogs

Solar-Powered Hornet

Researchers at Tel-Aviv University observed that unlike other wasps, the Oriental hornet is most active in the middle of the day. Further investigation revealed that UVB radiation affects the hornet's activity level.

It turns out that an Oriental hornet's shell can trap sunlight, while the pigment xanthopterin converts it to energy. This explains why the hornet is most active mid-day. According to National Geographic, the hornet's cells are about .3% efficient at generating electricity. The majority of his energy comes from food

Read more in this blog entry on animals that eat sunshine

Read original Huffington Post entry here: Solar-Powered Animal, Oriental Hornet, Discovered By Tel-Aviv Scientists

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Graduate Student Christmas Tree :)

First Total Lunar Eclipse at Winter Solstice since 372 years

Winter Solstice Lunar Eclipse from William Castleman on Vimeo.

Last night (Dec 21 2010) presented a rare treat for astronomy fans: A total lunar eclipse that coincided with the arrival of the winter solstice for the first time in 372 years.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

US video gamers use as much energy per year as San Diego

U.S. homes have about 63 million video game consoles, and together they use about as much energy as San Diego does in a year, according to a 2008 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Some video game consoles use much more energy than others. For example, Nintendo's Wii system uses a sixth of the power of Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's Playstation 3, according to research from the Electric Power Research Institute.

Many video gamers show great motivation and perseverance (See discussion on games and motivation here). The open question is what the effects of extensive video gaming are, and if/how video games could be used for educational purposes.

Read full article in Scientific American.

Google maps the human body

After Google earth and Google maps, Google now provides a 3D map of the human body, called the Body Browser.

The new tool allows users to zoom and pan controls, much like those in Google Earth and Google Maps, to explore the internals of the human body. The feature is designed to let users identify various parts of the human body, while also search for bones, organs and muscles. It also lets users rotate a 3D image of the body, peel away skin and investigate the different layers inside.

Body Browser, developed in Google Labs, does currently run only on the latest Google Chrome Beta or Firefox beta version that supports the new WebGL graphics standard.

Google Body Browser

Friday, December 17, 2010

Alien amino acids found in meteorite on Earth

meteorite171210 (NASA/Peter Jenniskens)
NASA scientists led by Dr Daniel Glavin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre discovered small amounts of 19 different amino acids in a type of meteorite called a Ureilite. Ureilite meteorites form through the collision of two asteroids which lead to temperatures over 1100°C - which is usually hot enough to turn all complex organic molecules like amino acids into carbon. 

Glavin said "Finding them in Ureilite meteorites suggests there's more than one way to make amino acids in space. And as the proteins and enzymes of life are based on amino acids, it increases the chance for finding life elsewhere in the universe."

As this meteorite was found on earth, how do we know the found amino acids are not a contamination? "Amino acid molecules appear in two forms that are mirror images of each other," Glavin says. "Life on Earth uses only left-handed amino acids. But these were both left- and right-handed, meaning they had to come from space rather than Earthly contamination."

Life's building blocks found in meteorite › News in Science (ABC Science)

Extinct Japanese Salmon found alive

A Japanese salmon species thought to be extinct for 70 years was found to be alive and well in a lake near Mount Fuji. The species was thought to have died out in 1940, when a hydroelectric project made its native lake in northern Akita Prefecture more acidic.

See article here: Yahoo! News

Controversial school reforms in California and Florida

California Governor Jerry Brown
California: Edited from LA Times article: See orignal here: Education fills big space on Brown's chalkboard -

California's Governor-elect Jerry Brown plans some controversial changes in the Californian education system. Education is the biggest component in California's upcoming budget. Schools are being confronted by a lack of funding that threatens to further harm students' education. Schools' financial health is intricately tied to the state budget because roughly 40% of it is earmarked for K-12 education. California's per-pupil spending is now lower than that in nearly every other state, resulting in widespread teacher layoffs, the cancellation of summer school, the shortening of the school year and the overcrowding of classrooms.

The outgoing state superintendent of public instruction, Jack O'Connell, attributes the three point increase in the dropout rate (now 22%) to some extent on the 2008-9 budget cuts — leading to fewer counselors, fewer classes in music and the arts, less career-technical education," said Jack O'Connell.

Florida Governor Rick Scott
Florida: [Edited from Yahoo News article]
Newly elected Florida Governor Rick Scott is making waves with his proposal that all children should receive education vouchers they can use to attend private, public or charter schools.

The Republican Governor-elect said "The parent should figure out where the dollars for that student are spent. So if the parents want to spend it on virtual school, then spend it on virtual school. If they want to spend it on, you know, whatever education system they believe in, whether it's this public school or that public school or this private school or that private school, that's what ought to happen."  

There is one major hitch: The Florida Supreme Court has ruled private-school vouchers unconstitutional, concluding that they endanger the free public school system. Many educators agree that vouchers endager the quality of public schools as a hallmark of a democratic society. While some argue that free school choice might lead to a healthy competition and increase school quality, others point out that there is no clear evidence that private schools can lead to better performance than public schools.

Besides introducing education vouchers, Scott is also expected to tackle teacher tenure and institute a new teacher evaluation system partly based on student test scores.

Travel Update: Voyager 1 close to leaving our solar system

Voyager 1, launched by NASA on September 5, 1977, is now 10.8 billion miles from home. Voyager 1 is now getting close to the edge of our solar system, and will enter interstellar space in about four years. Bon voyage, Voyager 1.

The Presurfer: Voyager Near Solar System's Edge

Are people spending more time online than watching TV?

[Reposted article. See original here: Has internet use really reached TV viewing levels?]

A research company claims that Americans now spend as much time using the Internet as they do watching TV. But rival figures vary so wildly that it’s not possible to be certain of much more than a general trend.
The headline claim comes from Forrester Research, which says the average US citizen spends 13 hours a week apiece on the two activities. That’s the first time the annual survey from the firm has found parity among the population as a whole, though younger viewers have been spending more time online than watching TV for some time now.
The New York Times notes that although streaming video is becoming far more popular, this isn’t proof that people are canceling cable services and moving to online viewing: the amount of time people spend watching TV hasn’t changed significantly. However, there has been a drop in the time spend on radio, newspapers and magazines.
I suspect there’s a simple answer for this (other than people finding more hours in the day): people are likely spending more time online, particularly on portable computers and other devices, while “watching” TV (or at least, while the TV is switched on.)
The Times also makes the intriguing philosophical point: if somebody streams video content but watches it through their TV set, are they using the Internet or watching TV?
Meanwhile has pointed out that while Forrester lists 13 hours a week for average Internet use, comScore has the figure at 7 hours 24 minutes. Why the difference? Well, it appears to be because comScore measures actual use, while Forrester is a survey, with consumers reporting their online activity. And it wasn’t even a case of users being asked to track their activity: they were simply asked how many hours a week they spent on each form of media.
That makes it worth noting a study by Ball State University (PDF) that concludes “Serious caution needs to be applied in interpreting self-report data for media use. TV was substantially under-reported while online video and mobile video usage were over-reported.”
To make things even more confusing, Nielsen reports weekly Internet use as 38 hours 44 minutes for the average person.
Of course, that too could have several explanations: the figure may or may not include work usage; the sample group could leave out people who don’t use the Internet at all (thus upping the average); and there may be different interpretations of what counts as Internet usage (is somebody who downloads a large video file while they sleep still using the Internet?).

How does a quartz watch work?

This informative video explains how a quartz watch works.

Epic Google Docs Animation Video

Three animators created a great animation using nothing but google docs.

What is the dorkiest animal on the planet?

Dorks can be described as socially inept people who follow certain obsessions (See blog entry on geeks, nerds, and dorks). Unfortunately, dorks often get bullied in schools.

Scientists described an animal that shows some dorky characteristics. Rotifiers can shapeshift their offspring to hide from bullies (i.e., predators).

Zoologger has reported on the shapeshifting characteristics of Keratella tropica, a rotifer found in Argentina that feeds mostly on algae and is regularly hunted by larger, stronger creatures. Their only defense mechanism is their spines, which may not defend them from some predators. Here’s the dorky part:
Most of the time they reproduce asexually, only having sex every once in a while – although one group, the bdelloid rotifers, have done without sex for 70 million years.
If predators arrive, Keratella quickly finds out that its standard complement of spines is not much of a defence … Instead, the mere presence of a certain predator can make it change the shape of its offspring.
Comare the rotifier's strategy to the tardigrades ("the toughest animals on the planet"): See blog post here.

Read the original post on Geekosystem here: Rotifers Shapeshift to Defend from Predators | Geekosystem

Discussion on Evolution and Religion (Video)

Eugenie C. Scott, Francisco Ayala, and Denis Lamoureux in an interesting discussion on the intersection of faith and evolution (Hosted by NPR's Neal Conan) [Watch other informative videos on evolution, religion, and education on the youtube channel of the National Center for Science Education]

Music Visualization "Isle of Tune"

Isle Of Tune is a music sequencer combined with a building game. You can create musical journeys from street layouts. Roadside elements are your instruments and cars are the players. You build roads and populate them with houses, gardens, trees, and other features, which make musical sounds as cars go by.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Swingy Jazz improvisation of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker

Swingy Jazz improvisation of Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, played by Eyran Katsenelenbogen.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Animals that eat sunshine

This sea-slug steals the chloroplasts from algae it feeds on and lives of the sugar they produce.
[Edited from New Scientist article (see reference below)]

Did you think only plants and a few bacteria can photosynthesize? A surprising number of animals can get energy from sunlight too - by living in symbiosis with photosynthetic organisms: The list includes salamanders, sea slugs (see picture above), giant clams, sea squirts, jellyfish, corals, anemones, hydras and sponges.

For example, females of the spotted salamander Ambystoma maculatum store algal cells in their oviducts and somehow pass them on to their eggs, where the algae continue to live within the cells of the developing salamander embryos. Once the salamander are adults, their skin does not let enough light through and they live mostly underneath stones.
Another example are oriental hornet's whose shell can trap sunlight, while the pigment xanthopterin converts it to energy (Read more about oriental hornets here)

Actually, even plants are not capable of performing their own photosynthesis: Plants can only harvest light energy because they engulfed photosynthetic cyanobacteria around 2.5 billion years ago - which we now know as "chloroplasts". Plants live in endosymbiosis with the engulfed cyanobacteria.

The question is not whether animals can photosynthesise, but why not more do. To make photosynthesis effective, the animal needs to be exposed to a lot of light and have a large body surface. To sustain chloroplasts within their cells, animals would have to add several hundred genes to their genome. This method has been found in the sea slug Elysia chlorotica that are native to the salt marshes of New England and Canada (read more here: Bizarre sea slug is half animal and half plant) [See image above]. Most other organisms go the easier way by engulfing entire photosynthetic cells. Researchers from Harvard Medical School did just that - by artificially injecting photosynthetic cyanobacteria into the egg cells of a zebrafish.

So will we have solar-powered pet fish soon? That might take a while. Being a photosynthetic animal would need a change in behavior, as too much ultraviolet sun light can damage the chlorophyll (that's why all known photosynthetic animals live under water, which reduces the UV radiation). In addition, photosynthesis would provide animals with sugar, but animals would still require proteins, vitamins, and minerals from other sources. In theory, adding nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria, as found in some sponges and corals, could provide animals with the protein they need. So far nobody managed to this in even plants, despite decades of effort.

Genetic engineering might be able achieve what evolution hasn't, but would the benefits outweigh the costs for any vertebrates, especially energy-hungry animals with active lifestyles? Maybe one day, humans will be able feed directly off the sun, and might look like this: 

Orion Woman from Star Trek
Read the original article her: Light diet: Animals that eat sunshine - environment - 13 December 2010 - New Scientist

Beautiful Libraries

Enjoy this great collection of pictures of some of the most beautiful libraries in the world: Librophiliac Love Letter: A Compendium of Beautiful Libraries | Curious Expeditions.

In addition, the Huffington Post has a list with seven great libraries.