All the snowflakes

The University of Utah has released news that might be really cool, or really terrible, depending on how badly you want every possible speck of magic in winter to stay exactly the way you imagined it when you were young.  They put out a press release today about the findings that they recieved when they left a high-speed camera system running outside for two years.[1. This description oversimplifies to the point of obscuring the truth.  Please read the actual article if you're interested in a more accurate description of the mechanism by which they took the photos.]

Snowflakes in traditional photographs "tend to be of a particular type that conveniently lies flat on a microscope slide, where a camera can get them perfectly in focus, and the photographer can take the time to get the light exactly right," he says.

"These perfectly symmetric, six-sided snowflakes, while beautiful, are exceedingly rare – perhaps one-in-a-thousand at the most," says Garrett. "Snow is almost never a single, simple crystal. Rather, a snowflake might experience 'riming,' where perhaps millions of water droplets collide with a snowflake and freeze on its surface. This makes a little ice pellet known as 'graupel.' Or snowflakes collide with other snowflakes to make something fluffier, called an aggregate. And everything is possible in between."

Here's one of the (still really beautiful) pictures of some more common snowflakes.

ThinkProgress on gender in the media according to SCIENCE

Tara Culp-Ressler at ThinkProgress published a post today, How The Mainstream Media Exploits 'Science' To Reinforce Gender Stereotypes, which lists five media events, connected with studies -- sometimes flawed, sometimes misrepresented, and sometimes not even published -- to make huge, sweeping claims about gender.

On Tuesday, mainstream news outlets covered the results from a small survey in Australia that polled just over 100 women about their sexual preferences. One headline atop an NBC story proclaimed, “Science proves women like men with bigger penises.” The reporter includes a few other examples of studies that have reached the same conclusions about women’s predisposition to larger male genitalia, but only after acknowledging that the results from past research on the topic “have been disputed as sexist, or scientifically flawed, or both.”

The article is heavy in evolutionary psychology, small sample sizes, and headlines that bear little or no relationship to the research they're reporting on.

This is a good example of the ways that science is held a little bit back by cissexist cultural narratives, and how the media is held  hugely back, and is holding everyone else back, by forcing every story they can into those narratives.

Mealworms and stomachs: a story with a scary headline

My partner has a hedgehog, and we feed her mealworms.  So I was terrified when, scrolling through Boing Boing, I saw the headline "Dinner's Revenge: mealworms that survive in the stomach, then eat their way out of predators." The author, Mary Roach, takes a long time getting to whether or not it happens, as explored by some scientists doing some casual experimenting.  But I'm not worried about Violet -- she chews her food.

As so often is the case with apocryphal tales like this, finding someone who knows someone who’s seen it is easy. Less easy is tracking down an actual eyewitness. One who claims to have seen is John Gray, the animal care technician at the Tracy Laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno. His boss, Richard Tracy, is a physiological ecologist. [...] Eighteen lizards, forty toads, and fifty frogs are under John Gray’s care, but he has not seen it happen to any of them. It happened to a fence lizard he caught in his backyard as a twelve-year-old. He recalls feeding a superworm to his new pet in the evening, and finding the lizard dead the next morning with the superworm “hanging out of its side.”

Tracy is skeptical. He has a theory that the story took root in the public’s consciousness with the 1979 release of Alien, a film in which the title character hatches inside one of the crew and breaks through the skin of the man’s abdomen during a meeting.

Read the article here.

The Antikythera Wreck

(via Boing Boing) The Guardian published a report a few days ago about new exploration of the Antikythera shipwreck, the first time the wreckage has veen visited since Jaques Cousteau filmed there in the 1970's.  The wreck is the source of the Antikythera Mechanism, the oldest known mechanical computer, discovered in 1900-1901, according to Wikipedia.  Jo Merchant at the Guardian writes: 

[W]hile previous visits to the wreck have been little more than salvage expeditions, Foley says he'd love to carry out a systematic, scientific excavation of the wreck site, if he can find anyone to sponsor him: "As soon as we have the money we'll be back."

They also published a photo set, showing the divers at the wreck, as well as pictures of some of the artifacts recovered from the wreck at the start of the 20th century, including the Antikythera Mechanism, and a working replica (which is very pretty.)  Here it is.

Natural selection in real time: cliff swallows in Nebraska

(via Reddit) Nebraskan cliff swallows have over the last thirty years evolved to have shorter wings, which apparently helps them not get hit by quite so many cars.  Apparently, nesting in an overpass is better than nesting in a cliff in pretty much every way apart from the giant metal things constantly assaulting the ground beneath them and just on top, according to Charles Brown, author of the study that revealed this fact.

They'd been studying the birds since the '80's, and thought to check wing length when they noticed that the amount of roadkill had gone down, from hundreds of birds a year when they started, to four in 2012.

A few millimeters — about the width of a Tic Tac — might seem like a small change, but for birds’ wings, “a little bit can make a big difference,” says evolutionary biologist Ronald Mumme of Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.

Petite wings let birds take off quickly and maneuver deftly through the air. Like quail, which have short, rounded wings and can explode off the ground almost vertically, Brown says, swallows might be better served by short wings that help them whiz up and out of harm’s way.

Applied Aquaponics

Roman Gaus, an entrepreneur in aquaponics, has written an article about his journey from curiosity to trailblazing, ending up where he is now, running (among other farms) a farm on a rooftop in Switzerland.  The article is called The Farming Technique That Could Revolutionize the Way We Eat.

Aquaponics is a method of combined fish and vegetable farming that requires no soil. The farmer cultivates freshwater fish (aquaculture) and plants (hydroponics) in a recirculating water system that exchanges nutrients between the two. Wastewater from the fish serves as organic fertilizer for the plants, while the plants clean the water of fish feces and urine. The net result: a 90 percent reduction in freshwater use compared with conventional fish farming, and a significant reduction in added nutrients such as fossil fertilizers. The system can be run without pesticides and, because the fish environment is spacious and clean, without antibiotics.

The above is a good summary of what aquaponics entails, and highlights one of the huge advantages of the method that's not really dealt with in this article:  It's a way to mass-produce food that might be able to replace the environmentally damaging fertilizers that are necessary to produce enough food to keep all the people currently on earth still-alive.  (Hank Green talks about this near the end of his SciShow video, Fritz Haber: Great Minds.)

To test and prove my idea, I investigated urban-farm options and came across a French design for a 20-foot cargo ship container with a greenhouse module built on top. It looked like it could house an aquaponics system. The container was relatively small and portable — the size of two parking spaces — and could be easily toured in public places: in front of schools, supermarkets, or parking lots. All it required were electrical and water hookups. I liked the ruggedness of the cargo container combined with the leafy beauty of cultivation. The UrbanFarmers Box was born.


We are building a 2,700-square-foot greenhouse farm on a rooftop in Basel, Switzerland. We started selling fresh produce to five local restaurants in January 2013, just six months after construction started. This roof-garden-on-steroids should yield more than five tons of fresh vegetables and nearly a ton of fish per year, feeding a local community of 100 people year-round.

Gaus also brings up one of the other cool qualities of aquaponics:  the inherent bias towards moderation and balance.  It might be a little bit aggressively optimistic to say, but I imagine if the majority of our food was produced in a process that required excruciating attention to a complex balance, we might generally be forced to be a little less all-or-nothing as a civilization.

Amid the excitement, however, we must remember that commercial-scale aquaponics is a delicate technology requiring a sensitive balance between the cultivation of fish and vegetables. You cannot maximize yields for either part without creating problems. Maintaining food safety and quality in these systems is critical. Going forward, it will take time, ingenuity, and significant investment to perfect our methods, become profitable, and make an impact.

Check out the whole article -- it's really good, and it's great to hear about examples of aquaponics farms having direct success in real life.  My fingers are crossed that this is the future of food in America.  (And, hey.  My town just passed a ballot measure to allow the construction of casinos.  Maybe I can try and persuade someone running a casino that organic, aquaponic fresh fish and vegetables would be a good novelty draw for people who feel a bit morally queasy about gambling.)

Subgenres of weird real science

io9 has published a list, titled: 11 Emerging Scientific Fields That Everyone Should Know About, which is, like, crazy interesting.  My favorite one was number 7:

7. Recombinant Memetics

This one's quite speculative, and it's technically speaking still in the proto-science phase. But it'll only be a matter of time before scientists get a better handle on the human noosphere (the collective body of all human information) and how the proliferation of information within it impacts upon virtually all aspects of human life.

Similar to recombinant DNA (in which different genetic sequences are brought together to create something new), recombinant memetics is the study of how memes (ideas that spread from person to person) can be adjusted and merged with other memes and memeplexes (a cohesive collection of memes, like a religion) for beneficial or ‘socially therapeutic' purposes (such as combating the spread of radical and violent ideologies). This is similar to the idea of 'memetic engineering' — which philosopher Daniel Dennett suggested could be used to maintain cultural health. Or what DARPA is currently doing via their ‘narrative control' program.

Public Knowledge on Free Access petition

I wrote earlier today that I wasn't sure about the nature of the recent White House directive requiring open access to research and development in government organizations.  I was iffy because my source was the White House (who will obviously be biased in their own favor) and Huffington Post (who are not notorious for thorough, accurate journalism). I'm a little less reserved in my optimism now, though, because has published a write-up about it.  It's a re-post of a Google Plus post by Peter Suber, Director of the Harvard Open Access Project.  In it, he talks about why the directive is good, and how it compares and contrasts to the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), which I didn't know was a thing.

Here's an excerpt:

The two approaches complement one another. FASTR does not make the White House directive unnecessary. FASTR may never be adopted. And if it is adopted, it will be after some time for study, education, lobbying, amendment, negotiation, and debate. By contrast, the White House directive takes effect today. The wheels are already turning. Compared to this executive action, FASTR is slower. (Thanks to Becky Cremona for this good line.)

Similarly, the White House directive does not make FASTR unnecessary. On the contrary, we need legislation to codify federal OA policies. The next president could rescind today's White House directive, but could not rescind legislation. (One lesson: Don't let up on efforts to persuade Congress to pass FASTR.)

So, great news.  Progress for science, freedom of information for America's citizens, and transparency always makes corruption harder, so steps like this almost inevitably improve government.

(Also: I learned about a new thing in Open Access terminology in this article.  Apparently there's two popular standards for access:  Green OA, which means organizations publish directly to their own open access archive; and Gold OA, which means organizations publish their research in Open Access journals.)

Petition granted to make taxpayer-funded research publicly available

According to the Huffington Post, the White House has just granted a petition to "require free access over the internet to scientific journal articles resulting from taxpayer-funded research."  Dr. John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, writes:

I have issued a memorandum today (.pdf) to Federal agencies that directs those with more than $100 million in research and development expenditures to develop plans to make the results of federally-funded research publically available free of charge within 12 months after original publication. As you pointed out, the public access policy adopted by the National Institutes of Health has been a great success. And while this new policy call does not insist that every agency copy the NIH approach exactly, it does ensure that similar policies will appear across government.

This sounds super-exciting, but I have some questions:

  • Which agencies conduct research for less than $100 million?
  • What constitutes an R&D department?
  • To what extent does this apply to research already done, and currently boxed-up?

I'll be looking over the next few days for criticisms of this response, and I'll report back on whether this is the step forward it looks like, or if it's a shiny but ultimately empty gesture.

Incomprehensible science

Samuel Arbesman at Slate writes about the likelihood of computers doing science so effectively that the answers they come up with about the universe will be demonstrably true, but beyond the comprehension of any human. Apparently, this has already happened with math.

A computer program known asEureqa that was designed to find patterns and meaning in large datasets not only has recapitulated fundamental laws of physics but has also found explanatory equations that no one really understands. And certain mathematical theorems have been proven by computers, and no one person actually understands the complete proofs, though we know that they are correct.

The article is very clear, really cool, and contains an awesome Issac Asimov quote about relative truth:

“[W]hen people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

Weird alien porcupine thing

Caitlin may not be happy with me for saying this, but the porcupine in the latest SciShow is really cool.  [video link; embedded below]

The porcupine, whose name is Kemosabe, comes in at about 3:45, and it's a prehensile-tailed porcupine native to South America.  Also, apparently this thing is small for a porcupine.  So, I'm not super into the idea of meeting a regular, North-American porcupine.

They are unique for a porcupine because of their smaller size and long, quill-less prehensile tail. A "prehensile tail" means that they can use their tail to hold onto branches like a 5th hand. It is so strong that they can hang upside down from just their tail! This comes in very handy because they are arboreal, which means they live up in the trees for their whole lives.

There are a few parts in the episode where I was honestly pretty sure it was animatronic, or a puppet or something.  The noise it makes sounds like the noise you can get out of a plastic kid's toy.  (That's a toy that is made of plastic, and belongs to a kid, not a toy belonging to a kid who is made of plastic.)  If it weren't Hank Green and SciShow, I'd be skeptical that those things actually exist.

AnimalWonders, the organization that brought the porcupine to SciShow, does also have a hedgehog, whose name is Groucho.  Groucho is more adorable than Kemosabe, but I agree with Hank that Kemosabe makes a more convincing extraterrestrial.

Slate publishes a Science Wish List for 2013

Several scientists contributed to Slate's Future Tense column, asking for things they'd most like to see in 2013.  Some fantastic requests are extaordinarlily well-put, for example: Chris Gunter:

Former Nature editor Chris Gunter thinks scientists are the ones who have to adapt. She proposes including  “a new section at the end of traditional scientific papers, titled ‘outreach resources.” She adds, “If we can't explain our work to non-specialists and non-scientists, then we will never be able to effectively compete for funds, especially in times of turmoil, like now.”

William Conrad:

William Conrad, a pharmacology Ph.D. candidate at Seattle’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is also focused on publishing. “First,” he says, “make articles freely available within one year of publication; second, make peer review more transparent.”

And my favorite, Brian Switek:

We also need to recalibrate the balance between science and entertainment. “I want science to be re-injected into science television,” said paleontology journalist and author Brian Switek; “We're in a sorry state when [the network formerly known as] The Learning Channel's main claim to fame is a tiny prima donna hopped up on Mountain Dew, and Animal Planet is able to trick viewers into believing that there's a government conspiracy to hide Mermaids.”

A creationist textbook's description of "atheistic evolutionism"

(via Boing Boing) Can we just talk for a minute about the ridiculous notion that "You can't get something from nothing"?  Few things annoy me more about the 'origin of the universe' argument.

How many people, religious or not, have direct experience of what it's like when there isn't anything?  None, right?  Because there has never been a time when there hasn't been stuff, but there were people around to observe it.  We've got no idea what nothing is like.

I hate the argument that stuff just can't pop into being.  For all we know, the only reason stuff doesn't just pop into being now is because there's already other stuff in the way.  As far as I can tell, in fact, that's what's going on with Hawking radiation, where the absolute nothingness created around the black hole makes space for particle-antiparticle pairs to form, one end being sucked into the black hole and the other shooting out into space as new stuff.

We do this a lot in human thinking:  we assume that, because we have intimate experience of one state, we can draw conclusions about a state that we describe as being opposite to it.  Absence is not the mirror-reflection of presence.  We don't know how nothingness behaves just because we know how stuff behaves.

That is all.

New kinds of matter and magnetism

(via Reddit) reports on the discovery of a new state of matter, Quantum Spin Liquid (QSL), and a new kind of magnetism.

The existence of QSLs has been theorized since 1987, but until now no one has succeeded in actually finding one. In MIT’s case, the researchers spent 10 months growing a tiny sliver of herbertsmithite (pictured above) — a material that was suspected to be a QSL, but which had never been properly investigated. (Bonus points if you can guess who herbertsmithite is named after.) Using neutron scattering [...] the researchers found that the herbertsmithite was indeed a QSL.

Moving forward, Lee says that the discovery of QSLs could lead to advances in data storage [...,] and communications (long-range entanglement). [Young] Lee also seems to think that QSLs could lead us towards higher-temperature superconductors — i.e. materials that superconduct under relatively normal conditions, rather than -200C.

Really, though, the most exciting thing about quantum spin liquids is that they’re completely new, and thus we ultimately have no idea how they might eventually affect our world.

Lately it seems like there's cool new quantum science coming out roughly every week.  More likely, I just notice it more now that the Higgs is found and the spell of ambiguity surrounding quantum physics is broken -- as I wrote on Particle Day earlier this year, "I never really believed they were going to find it.  I had this weird sense of pessimistic determinism about the whole thing, because up to that point, everything about chemistry and physics that was known, as far as I knew, was known long before I was born."

Now, rather than feeling like science is basically cooked, and we're just pushing up against a wall of inscrutability, I feel like our understanding of the universe is exploding forward every day.  It's pretty cool.  And I'm grateful.

More evidence that climate change is human-caused

(via Reddit)

 This is a picture of the atmospheric temperature in the lower troposphere and in the lower stratosphere.  The stratosphere is higher up than the troposphere.  The red and orange means "More hot."  What this image shows is that greenhouse gasses are trapping heat in the atmosphere.

The image comes from this article, which discusses new modeling systems that allow researchers to create an even clearer picture of the fact that the gasses that humans have pumped into the atmosphere over the last hundred years are the thing that's causing climate change, not -- as they explicitly point out -- from stuff like volcanoes or natural cycles of sun-heat:

“After removing all global mean signals,” the authors write, referring to natural changes like volcanic eruptions and changes in the brightness of the sun, “model fingerprints remain identifiable in 70 percent of the tests involving tropospheric temperature changes.”

In plain English, that simply means that the warming of the troposphere and cooling of the stratosphere can’t be explained in any other way than by the heat-trapping effects of human-generated greenhouse gases. “It was surprising to me how large the signal was,” Santer said.

This is also, they point out, consistent with the whole constellation of evidence that climate change is human-caused:

This is only one of the fingerprints scientists expect to see in a human–influenced climate, moreover. “In the past we’ve looked at ocean surface temperatures changes in hurricane-forming regions, patterns in atmospheric pressure; rainfall patterns, and changes in Arctic sea ice,” Santer said.

All of these and more can be identified more easily and clearly with the new models.

Your phone could know how you're feeling

Engineers at the University of Rochester have developed an experimental program that gauges the emotional state of a speaker based on "the volume, pitch, and even the harmonics of their speech." This program achieves 81 percent accuracy in gauging the emotions of the person who's speaking to it, "a significant improvement on earlier studies that only achieved about 55 percent accuracy."

When I got to that part, I began to get worried that this technology could be used to monitor the emotions of your friends on the phone, which strikes me intuitively as invasive.  But when the program is used on a voice other than the one it's trained on, its accuracy drops from 81 percent to about 30.  They're trying to fix that, but it seems to me like it's a good thing -- it'd be great to have a cell phone app that can keep track of how I'm feeling, but which wasn't capable of letting my friends monitor my emotions in the same way.

I also wonder about how this technology might affect society if it becomes ubiquitous.  Would people use it to begin training themselves out of expressing emotion?  Use the phone to give them instant feedback on how to minimize the signs of sadness or anger, or how to fake either?  I'm sure some people would.

But maybe it would lead people to get more in touch with their emotions -- it's easier to keep track of a part of your life like that if you can gather objective statistics about it.  If your phone can tell you "You were more than usually sad this past week," you can get a clearer view about what kind of things make you sad.

Kids' soceoeconomic status and brain function

Children of low socioeconomic status work harder to filter out irrelevant environmental information than those from a high-income background because of learned differences in what they pay attention to, according to new research published in the open access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Hey, look!  More evidence that severe income inequality objectively handicaps poorer children.  This is from the recent EurekAlert article, Family's economic situation influences brain function in children.  It turns out, while wealthier kids' brains more actively respond to information they need to respond to positively, seeking opportunities, poorer kids' brains constantly scan for things to go wrong, and respond when they know they have to, when there doesn't seem to be any threat.

There were no significant differences between the two groups in the accuracy or reaction time during the task. The researchers did, however, observe differences in brain wave patterns between the two groups. Higher SES children exhibited far larger theta waves in response to sounds they attended to than to than those they should have ignored. In the lower SES children, however, this pattern was reversed – the theta waves evoked by the unattended sounds were much larger than those for the attended sounds.


The findings suggest that lower SES children have to exert more cognitive control to avoid attending to irrelevant stimuli than higher SES children, and that doing so therefore requires more mental effort. This may be because they live in more threatening environments, in which it might be advantageous to pay attention to a broad range of environmental stimuli which are not unambiguous distractions, and may turn out to be important for survival.

This is good science, but more importantly, isn't it kind of horrifying that some classes of American children are in such a more threatening environment that their brains end up wired completely differently?

Wikipedia editors' cool new toy has instructed me to be jealous, and I am.  The top 100 editors at Wikipedia are being granted access to JSTOR, for free.  Normally, only universities are allowed this privilege. This cooperation is going to do even more to bolster Wikipedia's credibility -- as Fruzsina Eördögh at Slate puts it,

The online encyclopedia gets a bad rap for being at times inaccurate and easily prank-able; the joke goes that the sources listed are usually the top Google searches, not actual scholarly material. If Wikipedia articles become more well-known for citing scholarly journals, however, these criticisms have a real chance of becoming moot.

I have to admit, it's really fun to watch the academic community slowly torpedo the popular prejudice against crowd sourcing.  After all, the highest possible degree of public cooperation has always been the method that allowed academia to advance.  It's just been a very long time since the amount of cooperation that entailed changed much.

The loneliest whale

Maggie Koetrth-Baker at Boing Boing writes about a particular whale whose voice is outside the natural range used by whales of its species to comunicate.  Scientists have been following this whale for years, and don't know why the whale's voice is outside the normal range of 10-31 hertz.

Scientists usually pick up the call of the 52-hertz whale sometime between August and December, as it makes its way through a Cold War-era network of underwater microphones in the North Pacific. Although this whale has apparently survived for many years and seems to have grown and matured during that time (based on its voice deepening slightly), it also appears to exist outside of whale social systems. It travels alone. Nobody answers its high-pitched pleas for love. Every so often, non-scientist humans remember that it exists and write sad stories about it. But nobody is sure why it sings out of range of its fellow whales.

Thanks, Maggie, for starting my day off with this incredibly sad news.

The Bloop: another mystery solved, another dream killed

(via Boing Boing) Damn, I was really hoping this one was Cthulhu. 

The Bloop has been a mystery for over a decade.  It was a strange sound recorded in the deep ocean, heard throughout the ocean.  That sound, when played at sixteen times its original speed, sounds distinctly like a "bloop."  Obviously.

Apparently, the Bloop is the sound that icequakes make.  As of right now, the Wikipedia page has been updated to reflect this new information, but still has a link to the List of unexplained sounds.  There, it appears under "Specific," then under the subhead "Later identified as Ice."

I'm totally thankful for science and stuff, and in an intellectual sense I'm glad that scientists are still figuring stuff like this out.  I mean, that's sort of the point.  I liked the Bloop because it was unexplained.  But it's not a special unexplained thing.  There are plenty of other unexplained things.  And if anything unexplained is cool enough, eventually someone figures it out.

Getting too attached to the existence of particular mysteries seems to generally end up sucking.

We've still got dark matter for at least another few months, though, right?