Monday, December 28, 2009

What's In a Name?

Names are important - they tell us what things are, and what they are not.

Recently, two high-schoolers from Trinity High School in New York undertook a most amazing science project. With the help of Rockefeller University and the American Museum Of Natural History, they collected objects around them to determine their DNA identities. They compared the DNA sequences from their objects to a DNA library known in the scientific community as GenBank.

Their first finding was, unfortunately, not unusual among such studies. They found that 17% of the food products that they tested were actually misrepresented by the names on their labels (see press release). Such food products included a brand of sheep's milk cheese that was actually made from cow's milk, venison dog treats made of beef; gourmet sturgeon caviar that was actually Mississippi paddlefish, a delicacy called “dried shark” which was freshwater Nile perch, dried smelt that was instead Japanese anchovy, and “Caribbean Red snapper” that turned out to be Malabar blood snapper from Southeast Asia.

Their study is the latest of many papers that have cast doubt on the foods we eat, particularly some of the more extravagant ones. Last year, two other students from Trinity High School tested the sushi in local restaurants and found that other fish species were often substituted from some of the higher end ones. Of course, despite being rather underhanded, this may work out in the fishes’ favor, as the cheaper fish tend to be more abundant (which is why they are cheaper), and are perhaps less threatened by fishing pressure. But, this is not universally so. Fish that cannot be traded legally often get processed and sold under pseudonyms. A full 25% of fish tested in that study proved to be entirely other fish. Of these, at least one was a species that is farmed and on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s ‘safe’ list (but it is not nearly worth the price of the species it was masquerading as), and another was a federally listed endangered species.

Their second finding was truly inspired. The pair discovered what is potentially a new species of cockroach. If it proves to be new to science, the two will get to choose its name. This means both a common name, and its scientific name - the name that will be recognized by scientists the world over, no matter what language they speak, as belonging to this species and this species only.

The scientific name is a latin name consisting of two parts; a binomial consisting of the genus and species names. For example, we are Homo sapiens, of the genus ‘Homo’, and the species ‘sapiens’. Note that species are never referred to as just their species name. So, we would never call ourselves just ‘sapiens.’ We are Homo sapiens, or H. sapiens. Also note that the species portion of the binomial is not capitalized; only the generic, or genus, name. And, that the genus and species names are italicized.

The name of the common cockroach in New York City, the American cockroach, is known the world over as Periplaneta americana. The cockroach was, in fact, named by Carl Lineaus, the Swedish botanist, zoologist, and physician who developed the binomial naming system. He named and classified over 1200 species of plants and animals. Many of those names, like Periplaneta americana, are still in use today. Hopefully, the name for this new species of cockroach will persist for as long.

Friday, December 18, 2009

When Science Has it all Wrong

It is human nature to look around us and try to make sense of what we see. So, of course, when observers of the natural world long ago realized that there were female crab spiders that came in different colors, they wondered why. It appeared that yellow spiders lived in yellow wildflowers and white spiders lived in white wildflowers. Therefore, the obvious conclusion, color differences must be for camouflage. Yellow spiders resting on yellow flowers are practically invisible – to us.

Crab spiders eat wasps (this is one spider I would not mind having in my backyard). They sit in the center of the wildflower, and wait. Wasps come to the flower to collect nectar, and the perfectly camouflaged spider is waiting there, and happily collects dinner.

It is completely logical and downright sensible. In an homage to Rudyard Kipling, I argue that this is the perfect ‘just-so’ story. So much so, why would any scientist bother to test this?

But, it turns out that this idea has never been tested. That the spiders eat wasps as described above is known. But, is the camouflage important? Do yellow spiders on yellow plants actually do better at capturing wasps than yellow spiders on white plants, or white spiders on yellow plants? Shockingly, they do not, as featured in the journal Science's ScienceShots. The camouflaged spiders are no better than non-camoflauged spiders. Yellow spiders on white, yellow, or purple flowers all have the same success, as do white spiders.

So, why do the spiders come in different colors? They both eat the same food (wasps), so it is not food causing the color change. They cannot actually change colors when they move to different flowers, so it is something they are born with, and they must then choose the right flower in order to be hidden effectively. Perhaps the spiders are camouflaged in order to be protected from their predators, whatever organism is seeking them out for dinner. I am guessing birds. Or, perhaps it is as the authors of this research speculate; not about camouflage at all. The different colors have differing UV protective qualities. The point is – we’ve got no idea.

I recently gave a presentation of my own research to my group of graduate students at our weekly meeting. I was interrupted a few minutes into my presentation by a student who asked “wait a minute, this relationship seems so obvious, don’t we already know this?” Turns out, young grasshopper, that we do not. And, the conclusion was not as it would have seemed to be, on the surface of it all.

That we do not yet know all there is to know about the natural world is reassuring to me. One – job security. Two – the natural world still contains the greatest mysteries of all time. It is enough to keep me entertained for probably the rest of my days.

So, why does the giraffe have a long neck? Giraffes, it turns out, have not evolved long necks in order to gather leaves from tall trees, though those necks are still darn handy in that regard. Long necks are a sexually-selected trait. Meaning, females prefer males with long necks, and have, with their choosiness, driven the course of evolution. Much like the infamous Tule Elk, whose antlers are so large that the largest males cannot lift their heads off the ground. Biology isn’t always logical, but those female Tule Elk sure like large antlers.

Are blue whales the largest animals ever to roam the earth? And, does the fact that they are in the water, and do not have to bear their weight on land, allow them to get so large. There is pretty convincing evidence now that there were dinosaurs much heavier than blue whales, and that they lived on land.

As for how the leopard got its spots, well Rudyard Kipling had this one pretty close to right in his Just So Stories. The hunter in the story observed that the animals, without their stripes and spots, “ought to show up in this dark place like ripe bananas in a smokehouse.” I’m pretty sure he is spot on.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Science of…Facebook?

After writing about YouTube and Twitter last week you knew I’d have to get to Facebook eventually. A recent study about to be published in the journal Psychological Science has revealed something I find intrinsically fascinating – that Facebook profiles actually capture people’s true personalities.

Now, I am not suggesting that Facebook provides you with some deep understanding of a person and can in anyway replace meaningful, in-person interaction. Even as a regular Facebook user, I will put this caveat right up front. But, what this study revealed is that people essentially tell the truth about who they are when they create their profiles, take those little quizzes, and so on. I find that downright amazing. Isn’t this the standing fear with on-line dating, that you will show up to meet the person (since you cannot have an on-line marriage…but maybe you can now with Facebook), and they’ll be totally different from how they advertised themselves in their profile?

Case in point: Facebook allows you to post whatever picture you want. And, I view the posting of that picture as something akin to attending my high-school reunion. I have not seen these people in a long time, some of them were mean and snooty, and I want to impress them when they see me. And, I do not mind admitting that I would like to impress them with my clearly adorable and smart children, my own obviously stunning intellect, and of course my age-defying good looks. And, this is why there is currently a cartoon version of me on my Facebook page. One that is 20 pounds lighter than the actual me (though not nearly as witty and smart because she’s really very two-dimensional).

I do love that Facebook has allowed me to find old school classmates from across the globe and reconnect with them. And, I am somewhat amazed that when I do find the time to take those little quizzes that I do answer them honestly. Based upon their findings, the authors of the study suggest that this is because “online social networks are not so much about providing positive spin for the profile owners, but are instead just another medium for engaging in genuine social interactions, much like the telephone."

The researchers claim that the psychology behind the success of sites such as Facebook comes from the basic human need to be known by others. If the information people got from Facebook could not be trusted, then it would quickly fall out of favor because we wouldn’t actually know each other at all.

What I am equally surprised by is my own observation of just how much people will put “out there” on Facebook. I’ve seen posts by people blasting their spouses, posts by students blasting their professors, and by employees blasting their bosses. In many of those cases I know/work with/like both the post-er (plaintiff) and the post-ee (defendant) and think to myself “Oh dear, should I know this? Should I do something?” Of course, there is really no need for me to say anything because there is one thing that Facebook obviously isn’t. It isn’t private. Do our usual filters that prevent us from making career- or relationship-ending statements shut down because it is just us and the computer, mano-a-machino, when we are typing? Are we under the impression that the 200 or so people we have “friended” are our circle of dearest and best friends that should all be trusted with our most intimate thoughts the very moment that we have them?

Additional research published in Psychological Science suggests, oddly, that people tend not to adopt “stable disclosure strategies,” and reveal too much information in situations such as on-line social websites. People tend also not to reveal enough information when they most need to, such as admitting unhealthy habits to a physician during an exam. They attribute this to a level of fluency – which they describe as the ability to process information. We are comfortable and process information easily in our little Facebook worlds. We are often uncomfortable, and don’t necessarily understand the medical jargon being used, in our doctor’s offices. In the latter setting, we don’t process information easily, and we are less likely to reveal information about ourselves.

In closing, I add this lovely tidbit. Each year new words are added to the dictionary as new colloquialisms are added to our language. The Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2009 is “unfriend”, as in "To remove someone as a friend on a social networking site such as Facebook."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Viral Video

Science, Twitter, and YouTube? Seems like one of these things is not like the others (remember the old Sesame Street song?). But, sure enough, internet tools like Twitter and YouTube are being used to convey science to the world, and not just scientists.

Two recent, and most fabulous, examples hit my e-mail inbox today, and could not demonstrate the phenomenon more aptly.

The first came in the form of a message from a friend and colleague, with a link to his colleague’s blog post. These two colleagues co-teach a course. My friend showed a neat video as part of his lecture, to demonstrate a fascinating bit of evolution, about the sling-jaw wrasse. Like the name implies, the sling-jaw wrasse has developed a series of hinges and joints in the head that allows it to literally throw its jaws at its prey. This is what I do for a living – study how animals work. I was sent the message because I had worked a little bit on this particular species (but I was not the one to discover the most amazing biological feat I just told you about). Check it out. Or, just do a search for “Epibulus” in Youtube.

The sling-jaw wrasse is amazing. What I find more amazing is that the colleague posted a twitter feed that went something like this “My co-instructor showed this crazy sling-jaw wrasse video in our class today” with the link above. A few folks tweeted back. It hit a couple of blogs, including Discover Magazine….then web news sites, then the London Telegraph (a newspaper), and a week later there had been 165,000 views of the YouTube video.

The second example hit my inbox just one hour and twenty-six minutes earlier, courtesy of ScienceNow. This is about bone worms. You know with a name like bone worms, these have got to be cool animals. Researchers right here in Monterey Bay, from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, have been studying these worms that show up at food falls in the deep sea. Whales die, sink, and become an important source of nutrition for the next several years for species like bone worms. These worms arrive at the carcass as larvae, and metamorphose into adult females. Additional larvae that arrive after that point settle on the females and become males, living in a sort of harem serving the female (there is just something quite fabulous about that). Researchers have been sinking carcasses that wash up on the beach for the last few years and tracking who shows up. Turns about there are at least 15 species of these worms in Monterey Bay, most of them new to science. Check out the bone worms in action. Or, just search for “MBARI bone worms” in YouTube.

Sustainable Sushi?

I’m flying the friendly skies as I prepare this latest entry for you all, and I am motivated by a feature I have just read in the magazine in the seat pocket in front of me. It is a piece about sustainable sushi by Jane Black (Hemispheres Magazine, October 2009).

These types of articles usually draw my attention for several reasons. However, it is not because I am a marine scientist and want to read about the ocean all the time (that could not be farther from the truth). Mostly, I am curious to see what sort of angle they will take. Usually they are fatalistic. The world is going to hell in a hand-basket, oh my. And, thusly I am drawn to them as a scientist much like spectators to a train wreck. I just cannot look away. At this point I must note that I, for one, do not think the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. While I do think we humans have created some real serious problems, I don’t agree with the twisted, sensationalist, non-scientifically based claims that say, for example, the entire ocean will have run out of fish in a decade. This article has the familiar undertones, but is remarkably optimistic, so I read on.

So, the points made by this particular article include that bluefin tuna populations are in bad trouble. Yep, that one is irrefutable and completely true. And, farmed salmon is bad for the environment. Yep, also true. They make the point that only certain types of fish should be avoided. I could not agree more. There is a trend now among hip sushi restaurants in places like New York and San Francisco to offer alternatives. Chefs are creating tasty new versions of sushi from fish that are sustainably harvested and these are as delicious as the traditional toro and unagi.

That these particular fish should be avoided, however, has been known by scientists and management agencies for a rather long time. Why has it taken so long for this to get the public’s attention? Especially when people are already becoming quite used to reading labels and looking for clues that the food you are buying is healthy and safe. It was suggested that people see the beautiful pieces of sushi on the plate and don’t connect them to the real world out there. They don’t realize that they are fish, part of the natural world and part of an interconnected web that sustains the planet. I suppose that could be part of it. But, I doubt it. Sushi is unmistakably fish. At least it is to me. Occupational hazard? Very likely.

I suggest that the reason people are not vigilant about their sushi in a way that they might be vigilant about the other things they buy and ingest is because of the culture of sushi itself. Sushi is an art as mush as it is a meal. Sushi celebrates the ocean. And, it is, generally speaking, among the healthiest meals you can find. Patrons step into this world and worrying about labels is a worry left behind. It is replaced, instead, by a sense of trust. How can something that celebrates so much goodness possibly be bad?

I’ve written about this type of security before. Many grocery store chains bearing healthy names and healthy slogans also pack their isles, and frozen fish cases, with environmentally unfriendly products. Some of these are also downright unhealthy. Some farmed fishes, for example, are fed artificial diets and pack the wrong kind of omega fatty acids, and therefore can do more harm than good to your cholesterol levels.

In terms of what you should or should not eat, it is really a case-by-case basis. If you are not carrying a Seafood Watch card, download one, or stop by the Monterey Bay Aquarium to get yours for free. It is among the handiest little tools out there. There is also a free app if you have an iPhone or similar device (just a little plug to keep my Apple stock on the rise).

Wild-caught Alaskan salmon, for example, is considered a pretty good choice. If you can find out what your favorite sushi chef is serving, you stand a pretty good chance of enjoying a meal of sushi that is good for you, and for the environment.

Moving Time and Space

This past week I had the pleasure of experiencing Washington DC with my extended family and my children. I lived in the greater DC area for several years as a child, and have fond memories of the National Museum of Natural History and the gigantic whale suspended from the ceiling. Though I have had many opportunities to return to DC for work, I have been waiting until I thought my own children would be old enough to remember the trip to take them. This week, with MPUSD in recess, was it.

We did the requisite trips to see the memorials and monuments. The Washington Monument reflecting on the water is still incredible, and the Lincoln Memorial still takes my breath away. The sight of the White House, lit at night, is a truly patriotic thing no matter what political party you belong to. I’ve stood there with Democrats and Republicans in power, and the effect is still the same, pure awe and respect. The National Museum of Natural History is still amazing. Fully assembled dinosaur bones, full-sized African elephants, whales suspended from the ceiling, and all. That particular museum, and my childhood memories, combined with my more recent trips as a researcher relegated to the collections stored in the catacombs in the basement of this fine institution, was my main motivation for the trip.

But, this time, with my kids, the site I found most moving was standing beneath the space shuttle Endeavor in the Air and Space Museum. The Endeavor never actually went into space, it was set up as a training shuttle. But, the sheer intensity of this actual ship literally inches from my face was almost heart-stopping. The strides we have made in this particular area of science are truly awesome. The mistakes…devastating. I remember sitting in my classroom in elementary school as the first civilian went into space, a teacher no less. This was to be a momentous day! There was a television brought into every classroom. We were glued to the broadcast. And, then, the worst possible thing happened. The spacecraft exploded, as we all watched. I knew it was awful, but I was too young to comprehend that the unimaginable had just happened. My teachers openly wept. I thought of this as I looked at the Endeavor.

And, what brought tears to my eyes, holding my son’s hand in the same museum, was standing under the Enola Gay and explaining to him the significance of that particular airplane, which, I am proud to say, I remembered without reading the elegantly framed placard in front of me. The payload of the Enola Gay represented the single most significant scientific accomplishment of the day. An accomplishment that was simultaneously the most devastating known to man, and subsequently brought an end to a World War.

The Air and Space Museum was always my father’s favorite museum. He is an engineer. I thought it made sense given his career. Now, however, I understand it from the perspective of a parent. The Air and Space Museum, like no other, represents the amazing strides we have made as a human race, and all that we hope will come to be in our children’s lifetimes, and their children’s lifetimes. We hope the science will be used for good; to find a cure for cancer, to end world hunger, to create world peace. Science can be also devastating. I lived in fear of a nuclear holocaust as a child. Global warming now haunts my children. And global warming is, in fact, the product of science run amok.

For better or for worse, science holds the key to the future. When I was a child I think we trusted that science would always make life better. Or at least I saw the world that way, through the eyes of a child. Now, I can only hope that science holds the promise of a great life for our children and grandchildren. We have seen the devastation that can be wrought. Yet, we hope that humanity will prevail and rational minds will guide science so that life for our children is better than we have now. That is all we ever want as parents.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Viral Fear

With the school year upon us, it is probably time for another installment of Swine Flu 101. My kids have already had the flu, or some sort of viral bug, this year, and I cough and sputter as I write this. Feels like I have had this bug for a month or more already.

This year’s flu season is looking to be pretty rough. On a day when I called my son in sick from school, 7 other kids were absent from his class, and 5 from from my daughter’s including the teacher. Does this mean I should panic? No. But, should I use some common sense? Yes. Sick kids need to stay home. Because sick kids get other kids sick, and then they all miss school, and that is no good for anyone’s education.

Is this a challenge in that I have to miss work when I am home with a sick kid? You bet. Two working parents on furlough and with no local family who can help makes sick kid days tough. Are my kids ever sick on furlough days? Of course not. Are they sick on a day when I have meetings scheduled back to back and incredibly important, career-limiting deadlines, of course. But, a sick kid is a sick kid and they have to stay home.

If you don’t already have a plan for how you are going to handle your child’s illness this year, it is a good idea to make one. Chances are you are going to have a sick kid. Chances are that when your kid is sick, you are carrying the germs and just not showing the symptoms, making you a prime vector for whatever the disease of the moment is. Viruses are typically most transmissible (ie contagious), before you show symptoms. That is the evolution at work. A successful virus is really good at spreading itself before you know it is there, and can fight it. That is how it ensures its survival. Having you home too, with your kid, is just not a bad idea.

In the meantime, should we panic? Definitely not. H1N1 is out there, in our population, right now. It has pretty much made it into the mainstream at this point. Doctors appear to be just assuming their patients have it now, and not sending every patient out to be tested. You should view this as a good thing. If doctors are not so panicked that they feel they need to test every suspect case, then the cases are mild, and the flu is doing what it is supposed to do in an evolutionary biology sense. It is becoming less virulent. Another hallmark of a successful virus is that it does not kill its host, as a live host means it can be spread to more and more people.

Dr. Marc Lipsitch of Harvard University estimates that we are now down to a Stage 1 pandemic. Stage 1 is the lowest level. Yes, people are going to contract this. Category 1 is equivalent to a moderate (not mild, but not severe) seasonal flu. Like seasonal flu, he predicts this is going to tend to affect the elderly and the immune compromised the worst. Because this effect is being added to the usual seasonal flu effect, it is going to be noticed. But, it is predictable.

What to do in the meantime? Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, stay home when you are ill, and do the same for your kids. What to do about all the others around you coughing and sneezing and not following this advice? A little hand-washing goes a long way. Do help yourself to the Purell and other sources provided to you to clean those items you touch that are out there being touched by everyone. But also remember, viruses are not biotic. Antibiotic wipes and gels won’t work against viruses, and there is lots of evidence that these contribute to the breeding of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains. Antibiotic soaps and the like are not allowed in my home. Alcohol-based products like the hand-sanitizers are antiseptic, meaning they kill just about everything and kill it good. These, so far, are not linked to generating antibiotic resistance, are recommended by my personal doctor, and are allowed in my home.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Science of Volunteering

Many of us volunteer, and we do it for many different reasons. Lots of us got started because we say a need, perhaps for our own children or family members, and decided to fill that need – and it grew from there. Nearly all of us would be resistant to admit that we also gain something from this seemingly selfless donation of our time and efforts. However, we most certainly do gain.

It is the very volunteering of the act that makes it so rewarding - by volunteering we learn how to help others, and in doing so help ourselves as well. Volunteering may also allow you to explore (new) career and personal interests, enrich your education, build your resume, gain marketable skills, and earn valuable recommendations. You will develop leadership skills and gain leadership opportunities. You will almost surely make a difference for an individual or in your larger community, which in an incredible ‘feel good’ opportunity. You just might even have fun and make new friends!

But, believe it or not, the act of giving your time or effort to others is actually shown, scientifically, to improve your overall health. Volunteering is often recommended by mental health professionals as an activity to increase your own personal self-esteem and to overcome shyness or loneliness. A recent report compiled by the Corporation for National and Community Service (sponsors of the AmeriCorps program) and the USA Freedom Corps shows that there are solid studies by social and medical scientists to support this, and more, claims ( The 30 scientifically-controlled studies included in the report collectively found that volunteering leads to improved mental and physical health. The volunteers that were tracked in these studies experienced higher functional ability, greater longevity, and lower rates of depression.

Volunteering is also thought to increase people’s perceptions of their quality of life, increase people’s satisfaction with their own life, increase people’s activity levels and physical and mental fitness, and helps people to feel that they ‘belong’. According to PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), that’s the secret of volunteering. People who become volunteers usually lead richer, happier, and more satisfying lives than those who don’t volunteer.

PBS has a wonderful website aimed at kids, called It’s My Life ( We could learn a lot from those kids. My favorite quote is this one:

Michele, 12, says: “It teaches humbleness, something I could use. Also, it teaches you how many people need help around the world. You want to help more and more people. It gets kind of addicting.”

Smart kid! These children are tomorrow’s leaders, and we can help them out today with our skills, talent, and time. Every act, no matter how small, can help. So, help yourself, and help your community at the same time. Go Volunteer!

The life and death of a planet

Scientists have discovered a new planet, and it is spiraling to its doom, or so the predictions go. WASP-18b, so named because it was discovered by the United Kingdom’s ‘Wide Angle Search for Planets’ program, is destined to crash into its parent star, aptly named WASP-18. Fortunately for us, this planet is not in our solar system and its parent star is not our sun. But still…wow.

WASP-18b, described in the August 27 issue of the international journal Nature, is not an insignificant planet. It is ten times the mass of our Jupiter.

The trouble for poor WASP-18b is that it orbits way too close to WASP-18, a mere 1.4 million miles away. Ok, 1.4 million miles seems pretty far. But, WASP-18b is so close to WASP-18 that it can complete its orbit in just over 22 hours. It takes the Earth 8760 hours, or 365 of our so-called days (a.k.a. 1 year), to orbit our sun. The concept of a ‘day’ depends on how fast we are spinning on our Earth axis; our day is 24 hours. It takes 24 hours for us to see the sun, spin all the way around, and see the sun in the same position again. A day on WASP-18b is going to be remarkably different, because it spins on its axis slower than it traverses its orbit. So, a ‘day’ lasts longer than a ‘year’. Too bad, since ‘daytime’ temperatures on WASP-18b reach a broiling 3,800°F.

WASP-18b will be pulled to its doom, and relatively soon by planetary terms, by the gravitational forces that exist between the two bodies. These are the same sorts of gravitational forces that exist between the Earth and our Moon, and subsequently cause the tides. However, our moon orbits the Earth much more slowly than the Earth itself is rotating, thusly our moon is actually moving ever so slowly away from us. At the blinding speed of 0.2 seconds a century (so don’t lose sleep over this).

However, WASP-18b is spiraling inward, and its spin is speeding up. Because of the distance between WASP-18b and WASP-18, WASP-18b experiences gravitational forces so strong that there is huge a bulge at its equator literally dragging behind the planet. Thus, the real mystery is why it has not been sucked into the center of WASP-18 already.

Scientists admit that there is another alternative for the outcome of WASP-18b – it could be shredded to bits by gravitational pull, creating rings of gas and debris not unlike the rings of Saturn.

The really cool thing about the discovery of WASP-18b is that scientists will know if their predictions will be borne out in the next 5 to 10 years. No, the crash is not that eminent. But, the change in trajectory of WASP-18b will be.

So, how often are new planets discovered? Well, 30 more were discovered just in 2009. WASP-18b is number 374 on the list maintained by the Paris Observatory. WASP-17b was discovered on August 11 of this year. It is twice the size of Jupiter, but has only half the mass, earning it the truly adorable designation of ‘puffy planet’.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

2009 - The Year of Science

Explore, Empower, Engage… That is the by-line for the international Year of Science. It is already July, meaning the year is half over. But, there is still half a year left. So, the optimist in me says there is a lot left to be gained.

What does the International Year of Science mean for you? Well, it means that a whole lot of scientific groups and societies are working right now to make their science more accessible. If science has always seemed like some mysterious endeavor that takes place in dark museum basements and smoke-filled laboratories, this is your year. As their press release states, the goal of the Year of Science 2009 (a.k.a. YOS 2009 – of course, we need an acronym for it to be any sort of official endeavor!) is to engage the public in science by showcasing how science works, who scientists are, and why science matters in our communities and everyday lives. Entire states, including California, are embracing YOS 2009 through proclamations and special collaborative activities. And, universities, scientific societies, K-12 schools, science centers and museums, federal agencies, corporations and other non-profits have created a grassroots network dedicated to celebrating YOS 2009.

A special web site ( has been created help the general public learn more about this year –long national event. Every month throughout the year, the site will feature a new scientific theme, in which organizational leaders in that discipline share the excitement of their science. The web site also provides engaging resources and highlights FREE events connected to the monthly theme such as science cafes, festivals, open houses, blogs, podcasts, and school visits by scientists to share their work.

Two of my personal favorites within this new and pretty awesome collection of resources are the Why Science Is Important site (, which features statements, videos, movies and personal reflections from scientists and non-scientists alike, and the Understanding Science site (, which explains how science really works, what it is, and what it hopes to achieve. The latter is a really great resource for teachers and families.

I want to share something else I learned from this website that really touched me. A lot of people out there say; “I am just not good at science.” What this can mean, especially when it comes from our kids, is “I just have not found the part of science that interests me.” Classroom science may be challenging. But, as in all walks of life, what one learns in the classroom is only part of being a scientist. Scientific research involves a lot of creative thinking, problem-solving, logic, and communication skills – and those aren’t always tapped in the classroom. I am going to freely admit that the class I disliked the very most my freshman year of college was my Biology class. And the class I did the worst in (and took a couple of times over) was Physics. Lucky for me, science is also an incredibly diverse suite of fields ranging from astronomy to zoology, and every letter of the alphabet in between. I found a career that blended my interests, played to my personal strengths, and ironically includes biology and physics. But, you don’t have to choose a career in science to enjoy it. Science really is for everyone, at some level.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The tiny world around us

In the wake of the Influena A-H1N1 chaos, you must have known I’d get around to writing about germs eventually. Hopefully most of us have calmed down now, and been able to put the H1N1 threat into the proper context and realized that, like seasonal flu, it tends not to affect healthy individuals all that severely, and it is best prevented with the same old remedies Mom taught you of good hand-washing and covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze. And, if you are sick, with any ailment, stay home and don’t spread it. But, it gets me around to the concept of germs, or more specifically, viruses, bacteria, and other tiny micro-organisms (oh my!).

Viruses, like H1N1, are just tiny packages of genetic material wrapped in a cozy protein coat. They reproduce inside host cells (i.e., you) using the hosts’ genetic machinery (i.e., yours). They make thousands of copies of themselves and then spread, implementing their little genetic programmes. Viruses do not always cause disease, but they usually cause an immune response, and once your body has produced that response you often have lifetime immunity to the virus (notable exceptions would be the herpes virus, hepatitis B, etc which elicit an incomplete immune response and remain with the host for life). Vaccines typically contain killed virus in order to cause the body to produce the desired immune response, when then protects the host from future invasions by this particular viral agent. Viruses are not killed by antibiotics, specifically because they are not “biotic.” Viruses lack the components of living cells that make them susceptible to antibiotics. Viruses, however, are the most abundant “life” form on the planet.

Bacteria are living cells. They live everywhere on earth, and we are able to culture only a tiny fraction of them. The vast majority are completely harmless, many are quite helpful, and a special few can be devastating. Most are easily dispatched by our immune system, and those that aren’t can sometimes be killed by antibiotics (but, not every harmful bacteria has a known antibiotic, and many are evolving resistance to known antibiotics). There are perhaps ten times more bacterial cells in your body than human cells. You are your own walking bacterial ecosystem.

A recent study [Science, 23 May 2008, p. 1001] looked to quantify the numbers of different types of bacteria living on the human body, and where. They swabbed all the places you might normally think of as well as some you probably don’t want to think of (mostly external), and the big winner? Not what you might think…it was our forearms; 500 to 1000 species of bacteria live on our skin.

Other tiny biological structures include prions, which are proteins that re-fold themselves to adopt a shape that causes them to interfere with normal protein function. And, fungi, which come in many forms, ranging from microscopic to the size just right for veggie pizza and portobello burgers. Mold is in this group, which is good for cheese, bad for heating and ventilation ducts, and pretty useful as a class of antibiotics.

When it comes to these tiny organisms, we humans are greatly outnumbered. Just a little humbling, isn’t it?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

This is a test

This is a test of my ability to post from my iPhone. This is only a test. Had this been a real post, you would have been directed to think critically about something in your life. This is only a test.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Spitballs, Splitballs, Dry Spitters, and Physics

In 1920 the spitball was outlawed in baseball. Arguably this was in response to the death of Ray Chapman of the then Cleveland Indians, who was hit with a ball and killed while at the plate. Witnesses state that he never attempted to avoid the ball, which led to speculation that he never saw it coming. This was the end of the era known as the dead-ball era in baseball, which I wrote about previously in “Into the Swing of Things”.

The dead-ball era was characterized by the use of balls that literally wore out and died during the game, because they were practically never replaced. Knowing this, every pitcher considered it his responsibility to hurry along the death of the ball with the application of any and every substance possible: spit, tobacco juice, grease, licorice, sand paper, nail files, nails, blades, spikes, you name it. Dead balls were hard to see clearly. It is unknown if the ball that hit Chapman was simply dead from over use, or if the pitch was a spitball, as many speculate. According to the Society of American Baseball Research, pitcher Carl Mays was famous for his spit ball (then legal), and the sound of the ball hitting Chapman’s skull was so loud that Mays thought the ball had been hit by the bat, fielded it, and threw it to first. Chapman died twelve hours later. His team went on to win the World Series.

Spitballs were banned that year. Batting helmets were not made mandatory until 1971.

Since 1920 we have been in the ‘live-ball’ era. Balls are replaced routinely. Spitballs, shine balls, mud balls, emery balls, and cut balls are illegal. The reason for this is that dead or manipulated balls are no longer smooth or truly round; therefore, they fly through the air with an unpredictable trajectory.

When a ball is thrown, it rotates while in the air. So long as the ball is essentially the same everywhere on its surface, with the center of mass being at the center of the ball, the rotation is symmetrical and the ball flies straight and true. As soon as you change the surface, you change two aspects of the ball. First, you change the airflow over the ball, or friction. Second, if you change the outside enough, the ball is no longer round, and the center of mass is shifted away from the center.

Lets deal first with friction. Friction induces drag, or resistance to flow. If there is more drag on one part of the ball, caused by say, roughing up the surface, then it is not going to slide through the air as easily at that point. Air slides easily past all the other points, and the rough bit actually starts to be slowed down relative to the rest of the ball. The result is that a rotation is going to be caused at that point. Hence, the trajectory of the ball will eventually begin to curve.

Shifting the center of mass causes a similar problem. If you have ever tried to spin a top, you know that if you keep the handle or center bit straight and true, and in the center of the top, the top spins cleanly. As soon as you move the handle to one side, you’ve got wobble. Out-of-round baseballs with a shifted center of mass will wobble during the pitch in much the same way.

Of course, really good pitchers can pitch the dry spitter; legal because nothing is being added to the surface of the ball, so- named because they behave like spitballs. Knuckleballs and split-balls fall into this category. By controlling the release of the ball, the pitcher can control the spin of the ball and therefore the flow of air over the ball. Knuckleballs don’t spin as much, or at all, compared with fastballs. This makes them slow. Without spin and, importantly, without speed, the differences in airflow over the smooth parts of the ball compared with over the stitches are more pronounced. The points on the ball with stitches experience increased drag, and the ball’s trajectory eventually will tend to curve around those points. Faster pitches like the split-ball rely on basically this same principle –controlling the release of the ball so that you can impart a predictable rotation or drop onto the ball’s trajectory.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Into the Swing of Things

A baseball is a 3-inch diameter sphere traveling at upwards of 100 miles an hour, at least in the pro leagues. It is 9 inches in circumference, and 5 ounces in weight. And, it is darn hard to make contact with it. It is in fact so hard to hit this ball that hitting it 3 out of 10 times is considered really quite good. If you were in one of my courses and got 30% correct on an exam I gave, I would ask you to seriously reconsider your career choices.

It is so hard to hit that little white ball that batting in baseball is a metaphor for life. If you push yourself to take on something really challenging you ‘step up to the plate’, if you are working really hard and aren’t giving up you ‘keep on swinging’, if you failed entirely you ‘struck out’, and if you pulled it off beautifully you ‘hit a home run’.

According to the Baseball Almanac, the best batting average in a single season, ever, is by Tip O’Neil. A 0.485. He earned this in 1887 playing for the St. Louis Browns. Of course, in 1887, they counted walks towards your batting average. But, that is not the case for several other 400 hitters on the list. In the first part of the 1900’s Ty Cobb made the list 10 times, and he is Number One on the list of all time leaders, with a lifetime average of 0.366. It is getting harder and harder to make the list, and those 400 hitters are a thing of the past. On the list of the top 100 batting averages in a single season, there are only three who played the game during years when I was alive. Ranked number 53 is George Brett of the KC Royals with a 0.390 earned in 1980. Rod Carew of the Twins batted a 0.388 in 1977, giving him the 61st spot. And Larry Walker of the Rockies batted a 0.379 in 1999, earning him the 94th spot. If you look at any of these sorts of lists, you’ll see the batting averages steadily trending downwards over time.

What is interesting, from a physics standpoint, is that those 400 scores were achieved during what was known as the dead-ball era. This is an era in baseball where the balls themselves were rarely replaced during the game, and thus they literally wore out and died over the course of the game. The dead-ball behaved unpredictably – it was not firm or smooth anymore, and therefore its trajectory was atypical. And, of course, this was hastened along during the game by the pitcher’s liberal application of spit, grease, sand-paper, and emery boards, all of which are now illegal. It seems odd that the batting averages should be higher during a time when hitting the ball was arguably harder.

It has been suggested that the live-ball baseball (where the balls are replaced at the first sign of wear) favors the hitter. Therefore, many a baseball analyst has tried to explain why batting averages have not increased over time. Enter the science of statistics and the laws of probability, another love of the science-y types. Explanations range from new pitching styles that don’t favor putting runners on the bases, to hitters that favor hitting home runs and new parks that don’t favor homeruns by design. More night games make it harder to see and hit the ball, and more relief players give batters less familiarity with individual pitching styles and reduce the chance of a hit. There has also, arguably, been an overall increase in the skill of all baseball players over time. This means that a great batter is far more likely to encounter a great pitcher, and therefore success at bat is likely to be lower than for great batter in the past. In the past great batters were rare, but great pitchers were even rarer. These all seem to contribute to a trend of increasing strike-outs or walks, and less hits relative to at-bats.

And so, they keep on swinging.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Science of Baseball

Ah, it is nearly Spring, and springtime means baseball! The pros are at their spring training camps in the warmer parts of the United States like Florida and Arizona. And, 300+ youths in our fair city are at Los Arboles and Preston parks swinging away with at least as much enthusiasm if not more.

Scientists love baseball. I cannot explain exactly why this is. But, this is a sport that unites geeks and jocks from coast to coast. And, in fact, the President of our city's Pony Baseball and Softball league is a geek-jock himself, scientist by day, baseball empresario by night, weekend, and most school holidays from December to July (that’d be Mr. Dr. SwimsWithFishes again).

Perhaps this is because baseball, unlike life, conforms so well to the laws of physics, where things are predictable, orderly, and behave utterly sensibly. Now, this does not mean baseball players and umpires behave so sensibly. But, ball, interacting with bat, behaves quite predictably. You can calculate, quite reliably, exactly how to hit a ball so that you will get a home run every time at bat. You can draw it on paper; determine forces, angles, and trajectories; form and solve the equations.

The sport comes in figuring out how to get a pitcher to pitch that ball to you, and how to get your body to hit that ball, just like on paper. It is the interaction between the players, and trying to figure out how to achieve a known outcome, that drives our passion for the sport. This interaction is like a dance. Even as spectators, we watch the dance with the same anxiety and emotion, fear and adrenaline as we felt back in the age of innocence at our first school dance and the boy/girl of our dreams was watching us from across the room (and all we hoped for then was that we might get to ‘first base’ with Dream Boy/Girl).

The science of a baseball home run is all in the angles. Line drives, that travel with no arc, no change in height off the ground as they leave the bat, are darn fast, but they don’t travel far. This is because of our old constant friend, gravity. The ball leaves the bat with some inertia, or some force, imparted by the swing of the bat. The magnitude of that inertial force depends on how hard the bat hits the ball. Harder hits impart greater velocities and therefore greater inertia. But, the ball is experiencing friction as it travels through the air. As it slows, eventually the force of gravity, pulling the ball down, will be larger than the inertial force and the ball will begin to fall.

Now imagine the ball is hit with the same speed but with a slight upward arc. At the time when inertial forces begin to weaken, and gravitational forces start to take over, the ball will be higher in the sky. The increased distance to the ground, and the trajectory of the arc, ensure that the ball travels farther before actually contacting the ground. Intuitively, we know this. Line drives rarely hit the home run fence. Home runs are big arcing hits that soar into the grandstands.

It is actually more difficult to hit a ball fast with an upward trajectory than with a straight one. Line drives are fast and pitchers hit with these balls get hurt, badly. However, even if the force imparted onto the ball is lower, a sufficient arc will take the ball farther. A little arc goes a long way, and you can get too much of a good thing. Obviously, a ball hit straight up goes nowhere at all except up. The science is in finding the just right arc. In baseball, as in life.

Which Way the Wind Blows

With the Wind Festival right around the corner, I thought it was a fine time to talk about the science behind how and why the fair city in which I live is so darn windy. Most of the cities in our region have a token produce item that they celebrate annually. But, what makes our city unique? It is the wind, no doubt. I love that we have a festival dedicated to that oceanographic feature that so defines our fair city.

That’s right, I called the wind an oceanographic feature, and it is not just that I am a marine scientist that makes me view the wind in this way.

Wind is formed by a pretty basic principle - hot air rises. When hot air rises, the cooler air rushes in to take its place, and viola, you’ve got wind. That basic principle explains global wind patterns, as the air is warmer at the equator than at the poles, and local wind patterns, such as the off-shore winds that surfers use to predict how good the surf will be. The ocean is a strong factor in determining which way the wind blows, as ocean temperatures drive the giant conveyor belt of air that winds its way around the globe, interrupted by the land masses that form a mere 30% of the earth’s surface.

Spring, Wind Festival time, is probably the consistently windiest time of year here. This is because the ocean off our coast is at its coolest temperature, thanks to spring upwelling. Upwelling is the movement of cool deep waters up to the ocean surface. They are brought to the surface because of global winds, winds blowing towards the equator. Air at the equator is hot and rising, cooler polar air masses are moving in to replace it. As these winds blow down past our coast, the rotation of the earth causes the surface water to be pulled by the winds the to west, or out to sea. As the surface water is pulled away from our coast, the cool deeper water rises up to take its place. Thusly, as any surfer knows, the water off our coast is the coldest in the spring.

Cooler ocean temperatures mean cooler air temperatures sitting on top of that water. As the inland air gets warmer and rises, the cool coastal air is sucked inland to replace it. This temperature differential is probably the greatest in the spring, and particularly in the afternoon in the spring. That means lots of wind.

Land heats and cools faster than the ocean. The ocean actually changes temperature by only a few degrees. This means we typically get offshore winds when the inland areas are cool, like in winter (off shore winds are good for surf, along with big swells brought by winter storms generated far away). We get on-shore winds when the inland areas are warm, such as during the upwelling periods described above. We might get on-shore and offshore winds in the same day depending on the temperature change inland. In our city, we know this well, as we spend our summers watching the fog “burn off” in the late morning and get pushed out to sea (as the heat reduces the moisture content in the air), only to get sucked back on land in the late afternoon.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

New Year’s Resolutions, A Little Belated: Five Ways to Get A Little Greener

Dr. Think Science (aka me) is a biologist. As such, you might think I am the model for living an earth-friendly life. I am not, nor are most of my colleagues. I mean, we all try to do our best, but I am no environmentalist. For 2009, I took the opportunity to look around me and came up with five really simple ways to green my, and maybe your, lifestyle.

1. Recycle more. Most of us recycle pretty well at home, but do we go to the effort of taking the water bottle home to recycle it since there is not a recycling bin handy wherever we are at right at that moment?

2. Use a re-fillable water bottle/coffee-mug. I highly recommend aluminum (they’re a bit of an investment, but consider your investment into bottled water over the past year to put it into perspective). Plastic bottles release a number of nasty compounds as they age.

3. Bring re-usable bags to the store, at least some of the time. I admit I am only halfway successful at this. I have the bags in the back of my car, and constantly forget to lug them into the actual store. Plastic grocery bags are an environmental success story in that they are one of the most reused items in the house, according to National Geographic. If you use your plastic grocery bags, like me, for trash bags instead of purchasing more plastic bags at the store, at least they’re used twice. But, even I still end up with far too many bags to re-use. Consider taking them with you to the store to be recycled (most stores have bins), and consider using reusable bags when at those stores who don’t provide bags suitable for your re-use needs. You can also check out

4. Use less, or less of, toxic cleaners. I try to use earth-friendly cleaning products as much as possible, like vinegar or baking soda for mold and mildew. But, there are those times when you need the extra power of one of the not-so-earth-friendly ones. Mildew is my personal nemesis. In those cases, I started trying to use a really small amount. For example, you can apply the products to target areas with small brushes or Q-tips instead of spraying everywhere. You can also place the products in glass jars (placed in kid-safe storage) so that you can soak items, like your detached shower head that has really bad lime scale, instead of spraying and spraying and spraying. And, you can then reuse, reuse, reuse.

5. Unplug it. The credit for this idea goes to a friend, but she is saving loads on her energy bill just by unplugging the appliances when they are not in use. The energy it takes to keep those little clocks on our toasters and coffee-makers going really adds up.

Now, I expect I’ll have about a thousand pairs of eyes out there helping me to keep these new resolutions! I don’t mind if you give me a little poke to remember. Do you have ideas too that you can share?