Monday, August 31, 2009

Casual Swearing Appreciation Society

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If only I had come up with the Casual Swearing Appreciation Society. What's next? "People who like eating chocolate with shoestrings" activism?

The CSAS (the preferred abbreviation is, of course, a foul word) doesn't have a website but does have a rapidly growing facebook group. Their president - Rohan Byrt - does sound like a real name, I mean, it's not "Homer Sexual" or anything like that. But why have they suddenly appeared in the news? A recent study published in the journal NeuroReport suggests that people who swear in response to pain can tolerate more than their sweet-lipped counterparts. So - next time you slam your fingers in your car door - have no shame and let that swear rip.

But, it makes me wonder - is there some rebellious endorphin coursing through your body when you swear that masks the pain? Or is it just that swears are harsh-sounding words? "Oh fooey" or "poopers" doesn't have the same sense of relief as "Holy F*&$". I propose a new study, one that substitutes those taboo swear words for others that are equally harsh:

For example:
Instead of "S@%!:" - say "Saugen" - German for vacuum
Instead of "F*&$" - say "Ryuken" - Street Fighter for attack

My hypothesis - shouting anything that has that gutteral cry will be an equal substitute for the words that may offend our sensitive-eared neighbours.

-- Torah Kachur

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dino Chiropractor

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On seeing the Archaeopteryx fossil, your first thought might have been: "Wow! What an amazing missing link between dinosaurs and birds!"

But second thought was probably: "What's up with it's neck?"

Dinosaur fossils are often positioned in ways that seem at least highly uncomfortable, if not impossibly flexible. Could these dinosaurs really bend their heads back like that? And was there some reason in the last moments of life that they decided to utilize this strange skill?

Several possible theories exist.

The first, and most intuitive for me, is that after dying in a more natural pose the dinosaur was exposed to sunlight for an extended period of time. This caused the flexible ligaments lining the back of the dinosaur's neck to dry out and contract, slowly pulling the head backwards.

But a more recent explanation, thanks to the work of a veterinarian-turned-geologist, has been gaining popularity. Dr. Cynthia Faux (PhD, PhD. Suck on that, single doctorates) is suggesting that the death pose is the result of brain injury during death, not post-mortem sunbathing. Because after years of observing the deaths of parrots (insert Monty Python joke here), Dr. Faux can recognize a cerebellum disorder called opisthotonos, which causes birds and other animals to adopt the same strange conformation at death.

Either way, seeing the contorted spines and flailing necks of these long dead lizards really puts my measly neck problems in perspective. Thanks, Archaeopteryx!

- Brit Trogen

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Science Imitates Art

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If you would have told me ten years ago that a video game character was going to be discovered in nature, I never would've suspected bomb-throwing worms. I suppose they are more likely than, say, a yellow circle chomping on little yellow squares, but maybe less likely than a giant ape throwing barrels of hot oil (that's Pac-Man and Donkey Kong for you neophytes).

Yes, bomb-throwing worms were discovered in the deep waters of the northeast and western Pacific Ocean. The authors, Karen Osborn and colleagues, place this worm in a new category within a group known as Annelids.

Your typical earthworm is an annelid, with its very clear segmentation and wave-like movements. The bomber worms, having to move through the water rather than through dirt, have large bristled swimming paddles running the length of its body instead of the tiny, almost invisible bristles of earthworms. They also have some rather pretty colours in their outer layer, or cuticle.

Of course the bombs are the coolest bit - these detachable cylinders glow bright green when they are released. A very advantageous adaptation...I know if I was a worm only 2 to 10cm long, I would appreciate a little fireworks to distract an ugly deep sea predator. Or maybe, just maybe to impress that cute worm eyeing me from across the benthos.

The authors mention that detaching of glowing structures has been seen before in a squid and a brittle star. However, as far as I know, there are no video games with squids killing each other with shotguns and uzis, or of starfish defeating each other with bombs like in the Worms video game. This discovery is therefore much, much cooler.

~Rheanna Sand

Monday, August 17, 2009

Zombies - need I say more?

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A flash mob of zombies poured over the streets of Vancouver last weekend, roving bands of teenagers in all states of undress covered in red paint, pale faces and mumbling incoherently. Zombies.
Zombies are the undead, they eat human brains and flesh and can only be killed by decapitation. Sure, but they don't actually exist. The folklore likely originated in Afro-Caribbean voodoo stories but zombies didn't hit it bigtime until movies like Night of the Living Dead and, of course, Micheal Jackson's epic music video - Thriller. So, what were zombies doing on the streets of Vancouver?

The annual Zombie Walk is an underground movement started in 2001 in Sacramento, California and is spreading - like the plague.

So I asked myself - if zombies were real, AND if they could eat brains and turn other people into zombies.... How fast could they take over the universe?

I ponder strange things; but I'm not the only one. Two Canadian researchers have done mathematical modeling into how to eradicate a zombie infestation, as a model for other hard-to-kill pandemics like chicken pox or some fungal infections.

One of the lead researchers, Dr. Neil Ferguson explains: "The paper considers something that many of us have worried about - particularly in our younger days - of what would be a feasible way of tackling an outbreak of a rapidly spreading zombie infection."

Yes, as an eight-year old, threats of zombie infestations and flying pig wars kept me up at night as well.

The researchers conclusions? If zombies existed and were of the slow-moving, dim-witted kind - it would take a fast and coordinated effort but we will be safe. Whew.

-- Torah Kachur

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Why so blue?

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"The eyes are the windows….of your face," says Christopher Walken in a hilarious SNL sketch about a man who puts googly-eyes on plants. Pretty windows, at that, in all those different colours…and it makes me think, just how is eye colour determined? It is a common misconception that eye colour is linked to just one gene, but as is the case with most biological phenomena, the matter is much more

For example, it was widely thought that blue eye colour is a simple recessive trait, meaning two blue-eyed parents would always produce a blue-eyed child. This caused a few paranoid moments during high school biology class, I'm sure. It has now believed that almost any parent-child colour combination can occur.

This is because eye colour is a polygenic trait, meaning it is the result of more than one gene interacting. There have been at least three genes found related to eye colour, and they all help control the type, amount and distribution of pigment in the iris. The iris also has different layers that vary in the type and level of pigment, creating even more possibilities. Did you know that in addition to brown, blue and green, eyes can be amber, violet, or even red? Or that eyes can contain spots, or even star patterns?

Heterochromia can produce two different coloured eyes, or large regions within one eye that are a different colour. This can be inherited or acquired from injury - a blood spot in the iris can permanently change the colour in that region.

People can even be born without an iris, in a creepy condition known as aniridia.

Of course, almost any eye colour is now possible with the invention of coloured contacts…window dressing at its most vain. It makes one wonder, when will googly-eyed contacts hit the market?

~Rheanna Sand

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Other Darwin

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One of the coolest untold stories in science is that Darwin was one of the first people to seriously consider the idea of evolution.

No, not Charles Darwin. I'm talking about his grandfather, Erasmus (the studly guy pictured above).

Erasmus Darwin was a natural philosopher in eighteenth century England, and was also a physician, inventor, and a famous poet. And amazingly, he was one of the first contemporary thinkers to really support the idea that species change over time.

Erasmus was kind of like the mad scientists you see in movies. He'd set up laboratories in his home and have late night meetings with other great thinkers *cough*nerds*cough* in his basement during full moons. They called these meetings the Lunar Society, and all the attendees "lunaticks". And before you get caught up in the image of a bunch of old guys hanging out in a basement, keep in mind that it was at these meetings that the seeds of modern evolutionary science were planted.

Erasmus even wrote poems about it, the most notable being The Temple of Nature (first called The Origin of Society. Hmm, sounds familiar...) And the footnote of his poem The Loves of the Plants reads:

"Perhaps all the productions of nature are in their progress to greater perfection?"

Okay, so Erasmus didn't figure out everything on his own. But his writings anticipated virtually all evolutionary thought, which is pretty damn cool.

I guess genius does run in the family.

- Brit Trogen

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Eastern Garbage Patch

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Scientists were dispatched this week into the middle of the Pacific ocean to study the Eastern Garbage Patch - a floating mass of refuse about twice the size of Texas.

The patch, predicted in 1988 by Alaskan scientists, is a disgusting reminder that the true price of our disposable lifestyles is paid by Mother Earth.

Some may wonder though, why is a mass of floating plastic such a big threat?

The damage caused by plastic is more than just your typical bird caught in six-pack rings. The most harm comes from chemicals released during breakdown. In fact, the same chemicals that give plastic its usefulness - its ability to be molded and its lightweight strength - are the same chemicals that cause serious harm.

Plastics are polymers: long, repeating chains of a complex molecule. The complex molecules are organic , which technically means they contain carbon. Organic molecules are more likely to interact with living cells, and indeed, pollutants from plastic do bind to receptor proteins on the outside of cells. In this way, they mimic natural signals and cause the wrong message to be transmitted within the organism.

PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) and PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are a common product of plastic degradation. Besides other toxic effects, these chemicals can mimic the action of a molecule called estradiol, related to estrogen, which can cause pesky problems in the reproductive system - like turning male fish into female fish.

There are efforts on the way to clean up the patch, and indeed, that is the purpose of the ships' travel to this region this month, to study the feasibility of such a cleanup.

In my opinion, no cost would be too high to rid our oceans of this junk.

~Rheanna Sand

Thursday, August 6, 2009

I'm flying, Jack... Flying

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I always found Newtonian physics to be boring as hell.

  • An object at rest (or motion) stays at rest (or motion) unless there's external force.
  • Force is mass times acceleration.
  • Every reaction causes an equal and opposite reaction.

Well done, Newton. But while your laws may “govern the world” and all, they’ve failed to excite me in the slightest for pretty much my entire life.

Until now.

Because now, we have jet packs. That’s right, thanks to law number three, pumping continual streams of water from the bottom of a thirty pound jet pack causes the wearer to be pushed in the opposite direction for hours at a time. That is, up.

The problem with jet packs before now has primarily been an issue of function. When developing a jet pack for military use, for example, it was extremely important that the device be functional on dry land. If a soldier wanted to float over a potential minefield, he or she probably wouldn't have access to a large body of water. So past designs have generally been focused on using the expulsion of compressed gases for lift.

But this has always caused problems. Compressed gases can be highly explosive, and it takes a lot more gas to counteract the forces of gravity than liquid. But now that jet packs have crossed over into the realm of recreation, most of these issues have been overcome.

I'd elaborate, but I think the video pretty much speaks for itself in proclaiming one overarching message: Go physics.

-Brit Trogen

Monday, August 3, 2009

Even goats swoon for me...

Let's face it - some genetic diseases are kinda funny. Narcolepsy is funny. Dwarfism can give rise to a few chuckles. But, of course, it would be cruel to laugh at people who can't control their genetic fate.

Fainting goats, however, are hilarious.

Imagine taking your child down to the petting zoo, your toddler screams after the goat and pulls its tail. Then, all of a sudden, the goat stiffens up, falls flat on its face and sticks its legs straight in the air. Admit it - it's funny. And, if you lack a sense of humor - check out this video and tell me that you didn't just smirk, or smile or fall off your chair laughing.

These goats suffer from a genetic disease called myotonia congenita. Although no actual cellular basis for the muscle stiffening has been found, it is likely due to overfiring of the neural impulses that lead to muscle contraction.

Now, now - don't get too excited... after these goats have 'fainted' they get back up and go on their merry way. It appears that they don't suffer any pain, and even learn how to fall better - to avoid those steaming bits of grass.

There are actually people who breed these goats, so - if you want to learn more... take a road trip down to Marshall County, Tennessee, where every year in October they celebrate the "Fainting Goats" at the "Goats Music and More Festival. You can count me in.

- Torah Kachur

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Space News

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In case you missed it, beyond all the celebrity news last month, there were some pretty fantastic stories about space.

July 20th marked the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. This still blows my mind, the fact that humans walked on another celestial body before the VCR was invented. Before the first word processor. Before post-it notes!

And just yesterday, the Space Shuttle Endeavor touched down at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The crew, including Canadian Julie Payette, was tasked with installing the last section of a Japanese research laboratory on the International Space Station.

Hitching a ride back was Koichi Wakata, a Japanese astronaut there since March. Interestingly, or perhaps unfortunately, Wakata had a specially-designed pair of underwear that he had worn for 30 consecutive days. The silver-coated, cotton-polyester blend has antibacterial, odour-resistant properties designed for long lunar missions. Now that Wakata is back on earth, this pair of prototype underwear will be evaluated by the most unlucky scientists in Japan.

A huge bright spot developed on the planet Venus this week. The spot is visible in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, and may be a result of a volcanic eruption. Venus is thought to have been resurfaced by past volcanic events, but no present-day activity has been seen, until now. There are a few other possible causes to explore: charged particles from the sun could create an intense aurora, like our northern lights but on steroids, or strong winds could be sweeping bright material into a small area.

Either way, it’s a reminder that the night sky is always active! Don't forget to look up once in a while.

~Rheanna Sand