Monday, September 28, 2009

Gonad is not a dirty word

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Gonad, vulva, rectum, penis - these are anatomical terms, not dirty words. I study worm gonads, and, at a recent lunch, I was wearing my "I (heart) worm gonads" T-shirt that I made. The server came over to introduce her bubbly little self and then....she read my shirt. Then quickly made a face and tartly said "What can I get you".

Is it so hard to assume that anatomical terminology has a place in our society? You can talk about your tummy or your shoulder without too much trouble but as soon as you say "testicular cancer" or "colon", people cringe.

PC is so 90's, we are on the verge of the 10's. It is time to take back our bodies and the terms cleverly devised by Dark Age anatomists to understand how our body works. In order to understand what is going on in our own bodies we need to use the right terminology - without blushing.

So, gonads are fascinating.

-- Torah Kachur

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Science Oasis

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Science is so woven into the fabric of western cultures, we rarely get to see the transformative effect it can have. Case in point: the grand opening of KAUST, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia on September 23rd.

KAUST is the first educational campus in Saudi Arabia to allow women and men to mix freely, a tangible sign of the recent bloom of progressive ideas in this country. Women can drive their cars on site, and do not have to wear veils in the classroom. The institution does not permit religious police to operate there.

The school is funded by a multi-billion dollar endowment fund from - where else - big Saudi oil, and boasts the middle East's fastest supercomputer, a fully immersive virtual reality system called CORNEA, and a gorgeous beachfront campus on the Red Sea.

Most current students and faculty are international, but the idea is to incorporate more locals over time and hopefully counter the stifling grip conservative clerics and princes have on scientific progress. The namesake of the University, King Abdullah, and his supporters have been pushing for such reforms since he took office in 2005. Only now are they seeing the result of combined efforts across Saudi society: a real science oasis. Or at least, what looks like one - only time will tell whether science can thrive in the face of hard line orthodoxy.

~Rheanna Sand

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Damp Side of the Moon

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Three spacecraft have obtained some astonishing data that completely contradicts a widely held belief in planetary science: there is water on the Moon. And not just a couple of rogue molecules, either. The Moon is actually "painted" with water and hydroxyl (see the blue and orange/green above, respectively).

It's everywhere. And now two enormous mysteries remain: How did it get there? And forgive the phrase, but why on Earth didn't we see it before?

Already scientists are speculating.

The water was discovered by measuring sunlight reflected off the Moon's surface. Researchers observed a dip at the wavelength where water absorbs infrared light, and found that the amount of absorption varied with temperature. According to the researchers:
That suggests the water is being created when protons from the solar wind slam into the lunar surface. The collisions may free oxygen atoms in the minerals and allow them to recombine with protons and electrons to form water.
So why didn't we find it before? Well, we did. Lunar soil brought back from the Apollo mission did show signs of water. But the Apollo scientists, erring on the side of caution, dismissed it as being more likely a result of contamination on re-entry. Which just goes to show you, even skeptics can overdo it.

At an estimated concentration of one quart of water per cubic yard (about a liter per cubic meter), all that remains now is to determine the effect this discovery will have on future attempts to actually colonize and form settlements on the Moon.

For my part, I'm just dying to try a sip.

- Brit Trogen

Monday, September 21, 2009

Aye-aye Cap'n

Ever since I got my National Geographic Mammal books in Grade 1, I have loved the aye-aye. These cool creatures are so evolutionarily specialized that they have their own Genus - they are the largest nocturnal primate, they have a long middle finger to act like a woodpecker to fish out grubs and other delectables from trees and, the best part, they look absolutely hilarious.

Aye-aye's live only in Madagascar, a place full of incredible species like the flying fox and hissing cockroaches, and also a country of recent civil unrest. Now, the aye-aye is falling victim to the increased population and troubles with deforestation, poaching and human encroachment. The aye-aye may have a a fond place in my heart, even though it may be the first time you have ever heard of it. But, make sure it isn't the last.

The aye-aye and other evolutionary oddities exist in the remote corners of the globe - like Madagascar, the Galapagos and Borneo. They provide a window into the evolutionary pressures that shape our world and those that live in it. If we lose these species, our understanding of where life comes from will by missing some of those crucial steps in Life's long evolutionary tree.

-- Torah Kachur

Saturday, September 19, 2009


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Back on May 11th of this year, the shuttle Atlantis blasted off, sending its crew on a very important two-week visit to the International Space Station. Their mission? To fix our ultimate eye-in-the-sky, the Hubble Space Telescope. This week, the first pictures from the
pimped-out piece of space gear were released to the public.

Here are a few for your viewing pleasure! Clicking on the image will take you to a larger version at

This one depicts the quite beautiful death of a star within a planetary nebula, charmingly named NGC 6302.

This deep space image was taken inside the globular star cluster Omega Centauri. Hey - wasn't that where the Last Starfighter defeated Xur? No wait, that was Rylos, my mistake.

This is galactic violence at its worst in Stephan's Quinte
t. I blame it on all the galactic violence in TV shows and video games these days.
This last one is of the famous star nursery, the Carina Nebula - and if you think toddlers are trouble, try looking after millions of baby stars. They are SO fussy when they start to undergo fusion.

The top image is in visible light while the bottom in infrared shows more detail of a star burst occurring withing the nebula.

Find more fantastic images, including wallpapers for your desktop, at the Hubble Site gallery.

~Rheanna Sand

Monday, September 14, 2009

Life - what's that all about?

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I ponder big things - what is life? Why are we here? Is there life out there?

So far, I have no answers. Not a clue.

Although, I doubt ET will be knocking on my door anytime soon. And, our visit from aliens probably won't involve Will Smith. But, I do think that there is life out there. Where? - I have no idea. What will it look like? - I have no idea.

But I do know some properties that biologists use to define life.

First - a living thing has to be capable of regulating its internal environment as distinct from its external environment. It has to be able to get rid of waste, take up nutrients and have some form of metabolism all within its own 'body'.

Second - it has to have a way to pass on hereditary information. In all life on Earth, DNA is passed on to offspring but any molecule that can transmit information will do. A Martian, Lilliputian or gremlin probably won't use DNA, but another breed of informational molecule. There are more 'criteria' of life but those are the ones I think are the most important.

Imagine if we find life forms somewhere else in our universe. Imagine the implications of finding sentient or even non-sentient beings. We will no longer be alone, we will no longer be the only ones, we will no longer be special.

I root for SETI and I love the idea that the forces that shaped life on this planet have shaped evolution of life on other planets as well. I'll probably never know the answers to some of these questions but I refuse to stop thinking and I refuse to stop searching for answers. So should you.

-- Torah Kachur

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Middle Ground

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If you haven't heard of the South African world class runner Caster Semenya, get your head out of the sand already. What I love about this controversy is the fact that an entire country seems to be on the right side for a change.

Semenya won the gold in the 800m event at the 2009 World Championships in Athletics. Then, under suspicion of not being "truly" female, she underwent gender testing.

Genetic testing proved that Semenya has two X chromosomes rather than the male XY pair, or some variation such as XXY or triple X that can sometimes cause abnormalities. But a recent report suggests that Semenya may be intersex - she has three times the amount of testosterone in her blood as most females, and may have a combination of male and female reproductive organs.

Despite the typical bigotry associated with intersex people on a global scale, her native country is backing her with great enthusiasm, which says a lot about the changing views of gender and sex in our generation.

So let's take this opportunity to lay some facts bare: human sex cannot be divided into only "pure" males and females. There is an entire spectrum in between the two common extremes, known as intersex.

Traditionally called hermaphrodites, the common belief is that intersex people have a complete set of male and female parts, all crowded together down there. While this may be true in worms, it is not so in humans. There is usually a combination of parts, with, for example, an individual appearing female on the outside but with internal testes instead of ovaries. Or they may have reduced male parts that are fully functional, but don't "look normal," resulting in "corrective" surgeries forcing people to live their lives in the wrong body.

Intersex people are often classified into some disorder, and while this may be reasonable in a medical setting, what does this do in a psychosocial setting? In my opinion it is society's way of trying to fix what they perceive as wrong, when in reality, they are only marginalizing a natural segment of the human population. Perhaps this controversy can shed some light on these historical wrongs.

~Rheanna Sand

Thursday, September 10, 2009

You Smell Like Death

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If you've ever spent a significant amount of time around decaying corpses (and I know I have), you've probably noticed that they give off a rather unpleasant odor.

Well, if you ever wondered exactly what caused that smell, your day has come. Researchers at McMaster University have pinpointed the exact chemical that causes the "stench of death," and furthermore have discovered that the extract is highly conserved across a huge number of animal species.

This makes sense, in a morbid way. If your friend or relative died of a viral infection, or was disemboweled by a lurking predator, it's probably to your advantage to stay away from the place where it happened. So we evolved a method of recognizing death, and a natural repulsion towards it. This "death recognition system" is now believed to have evolved over 400 million years ago, in the form of a scented extract released by dead bodies or "death juice".

The culprit is a blend of fatty acids composed primarily of oleic and linoleic acid. And if you were worried the researchers didn't do enough messing around with corpse juice, just relax. They also had some fun by putting droplets of it on living ants and cockroaches, and then watching them be forcibly removed from their nests by their coworkers.

Of course, this research will be used for more important applications like... Um... Well actually I'm not sure what it could be used for. But at least now necrophiliacs know what to use to build up their tolerance.

-- Brit

**Update: Okay, so it turns out they may actually use this research to detect bodies from earthquakes and avalanches, which is actually kind of useful. So... scratch that last bit.**

Monday, September 7, 2009

Beer Gardens, Frat Parties....School is back in Session!

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I'm a big fan of the show Mad Men - where 1960's ad execs drink all day, pregnant women drink all day, everyone drinks all day. Fun. That isn't why I'm a fan of the show but alcohol is pretty much a daily and hourly routine in their lives.

Now, we get constant lectures on the dangers of alcohol - alcohol poisoning, coma, liver damage, brain damage, fetal alcohol syndrome...and the list goes on. Yet, a glass of red wine is a good antioxidant, moderate alcoho
l consumption is good for your heart, lowers the risk of diabetes, lowers cholesterol, protects against dementia.

Aaahhh... where does that leave us? Is alcohol bad for your body? Most importantly, does it make you dumber? (we all know it makes us hotter).
The immediate effects of alcohol on the brain are obvious....

To find out more, visit:

-- Torah Kachur

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Good Vibrations

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In one of the coolest talks I've seen on TED recently, MIT researcher Eric Giler brings a metal structure resembling an empty picture frame on the stage along with an unplugged LCD TV. The crowd quiets in anticipation as he flips a switch to power the metal device. He nervously admits that it takes time to charge up. Finally, in a roar of applause, the television blinks to life.

This is the first demonstration of wireless electricity that I've ever seen. Actually no, that's a lie - my electric toothbrush works on the very same principle, although I didn't know it until I watched this video. This device however, is large enough that it can power common household electronics.

This idea of electricity without wires harks back to the first designs by Nikola Tesla - he believed, in fact, that the world would not use electricity if there were cumbersome cables involved. The problem was he couldn’t induce an electric current across large distances. His famous Tesla coils could create a massive amount of volts but only in close proximity.

This new design uses a phenomenon called resonance energy transfer. Resonance occurs when two objects vibrate at the exact same frequency, and become linked in their mutual vibration. This linkage can occur over very large distances. A common example is the opera singer who shatters a glass across an auditorium.

Wireless electricity (WiTricity) works in a similar way. It converts an electric current in the device to a magnetic field of a very particular frequency. A conversion box attached to your household electronics is tuned to that exact frequency, and when it picks up signals from the WiTricity device, it converts them back into an electric current. This technology is perfectly safe - we are already exposed to magnetic fields every moment of every day.

As the presenter points out, imagine driving your electric car into your garage where there is a WiTricity device embedded into the floor - no plugs or effort required. Or - what excites me the most, sadly - finally getting rid of the mess of cables under your computer desk! Its on the way, folks, believe it or not.

~Rheanna Sand