Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Big Blue

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Why is it that when you hold up a glass of water it appears colourless, but when you look out onto a beautiful Caribbean vista, the water dances in unbelievable shades of blue? Is there something special about the sea that gives the big blue its name?

There is nothing that makes the ocean more blue than drinking water. Its just that there is so much of it that we see its true colour.

So what is the source of that true blue? One idea is that the ocean reflects the blue of the sky. Another is that there are dissolved ions, like copper, that give the water a blue tinge.

The water, in fact, is not reflecting the sky. I bet if you shone a floodlight on a crystal blue lagoon at night, you would still see that aquamarine colour.

And yes, there are many dissolved ions and other particles that may absorb, reflect, and scatter light, but this just causes variation in colour from sea to sea. But this is not the source of the blue.

In its typical unique style, water gets its colour in a way that is unlike most other molecules.

Colour corresponds to the length of light waves. Molecules will tend to absorb some light waves and reflect others. The wavelengths that are not absorbed are the ones we see, and give a substance its colour. Usually light waves interact with the electrons of the atoms, and not the inner nucleus.

Water, however, gets its hue from the vibrations coming from the nucleus of the atoms. The excited vibrations absorb red waves and not blue ones. This is the only known molecule to get its colour in this way.

As if I needed another reason to revere this gorgeous view...

~Rheanna "just about to put my toes in the" Sand

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Party Like it's 1999

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As we near the ten year anniversary of Y2K, it seems fitting that we should once again turn our attention to the disaster that very nearly felled the modern world.

Disaster? You may ask. I don't remember any disaster. In fact, if you're anything like me, you might remember being disappointed that the lights didn't explode come midnight on that fateful New Year's. But in fact, if it weren't for the concerted efforts of thousands of individuals worldwide, Y2K might have been a true apocalypse; planes falling from the sky and all. At least, according to some.

The issue, as you may recall, was thanks to the computer programmers of the 60's and their desire to save computer memory by not including a "19" before the year when inputting a date in a computer program. Of course, they never expected their programs to last more than a few years. But programs that eventually grew out of this system went on to include Microsoft Excel, Javascript, UNIX and C programming... Some of the most influential programs out there (or so I've been told).

To make a long story short, an estimated 300 billion dollars was spent in preparation for Y2K. Money that went towards creating the backup systems that kept the world afloat, both after the clock struck twelve in the year 2000, and some argue, in the aftermath of 9/11 following the prolonged blackout in lower Manhattan.

And while some still believe there was never a threat to begin with, I prefer to see it differently. I like to look at it as a challenge that humankind met head-on and defeated soundly, with rational thinking and preemptive action.

...It is possible for us to do that, right?

- Brit Trogen

Monday, December 14, 2009

Now you see me, now you don't

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Everyone has bad days, the days you want to be invisible. It may be the walk-of-shame from the night before or an unfortunate breakout. But it happens to the best of us.
Now, invisibility cloaks aren't just for Harry Potter. Don't believe me? Check out these videos.

The new invisibility cloaks that have been developed use one of two strategies to make you disappear:

The first is a bit of a DIY strategy - imagine placing a camera on your back and projecting that image on your front - it will appear to a viewer as if they can see right through you. Apply that to a much bigger scale and an entire garment - and voila...or rather...the opposite of voila.

The other strategy uses the principle that if light bends around an object and is directed to come back together on the other side, it travels so quickly that the viewer can't see what the light bent around. These light bending materials are things called metamaterials that are smaller than the smallest wavelength of light. Finally, a practical application for nanotechnology.

Why develop invisibility cloaks?

Silly, silly question. Why NOT develop invisibility cloaks? Not only does it give D&D players a new sense of personal worth and value, it also will help soldiers, thieves and hermits operate in the world without fear of being caught.

--Torah Kachur

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Science v. Politics

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The UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen has reached its midpoint. While the political delegates play their usual high stakes poker game, scientists are playing some games of their own.

The so-called "climategate" scandal has re-ignited a long buried debate over whether climate change data was faked. Over a thousand emails from English climate scientists were hacked, and some reports took certain phrases out of context, implicating that scientists manipulated data. The Associated Press, however, examined every email and concluded no falsification took place.

Not to say the scientists were saints: there were some "generous interpretations" and they did seem blinded by their cause. But this does not, in any way, devalue the immense, internationally recognized body of work supporting a major role for human pollution in global climate disruption. Unfortunately, the journalistic error of "false balance" gives both sides an equal voice.

There is some good news in climate change research, though: UCLA researchers successfully engineered a bacteria that consumes carbon dioxide and produces isobutanol - a viable replacement for fossil fuels. This approach to creating biofuels negates the need for biomass deconstruction - like the wasting of corn to get at the fuel inside. Discoveries like these could have huge ramifications on social issues like food wars and third world poverty.

As Jacob Bronowski said, "no science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power." But perhaps the principles of science, and the discoveries that result, can undercut the ills that corrupted power brings.

~Rheanna Sand

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Welcome to the Multiverse

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One of the things I enjoyed most about Star Trek: The Original Series was the frequency and ease with which Kirk's crew could pass in and out of parallel universes. And even though the alternate planes always looked suspiciously similar to the original ones (with the exception of Mr. Spock's sexy new goatee), the idea was fascinating.

Could there be an infinite array of parallel worlds flanking our own? There are many hypotheses centering around this idea, including the multi-dimensional extension of string theory known as M-theory (a perplexing description of which can be found here).

But my favorite has always been the Many Worlds interpretation most closely described in Star Trek itself (or if you prefer thought experiments, Schrodinger's cat.) Simply put, for every situation in which multiple possible outcomes could occur, different universes exist in which every possible outcome has occurred. For example, if you were to roll a die and it came up 1, according to MWI it showed up as 2 through 6 in five parallel universes.

This is, of course, a bit oversimplified. But the implications are really cool. If you were to walk out into the street and get hit by a bus tomorrow morning, who's to say that alternate universe version of you didn't miss it by a hair?

That said, I'd still recommend you stick to the crosswalks.

- Brit Trogen

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Sumo, Heal Thyself

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A sumo can take YOU down, no problem. But what takes down a sumo? A bigger sumo!

In the battle of the bulge, researchers have realized this logic. Fat is finally being used to fight fat.

Researchers in Bonn have discovered that so-called "brown fat" deposits are absent or inactive in obese individuals. Brown fat is not your typical fat - it is stocked full of mitochondria, the energy burning centers of the cell. As a result, brown fat cells release huge amounts of heat and chew up other fat reserves in the process.

Activating just 50 grams of brown fat in the body can increase metabolic rates by 20%, and melt fat at the rate of 5 kilograms a year. If these cells can be activated artificially, another therapeutic option would be available to treat severe metabolic disorders.

In related news, food chemists have created a batter for chicken and fish that reduces the amount of fat in the deep-fried meat by 50%. It is made from an appetizing "slurry" of proteins from spare chicken and fish parts that is sprayed on the meat prior to deep-frying.

And if you are a fan of deep frying, a group of Turkish researchers showed that microwaving your french fries before frying reduces the amount of the carcinogen acrylamide up to 60%, and does not affect the quality of the final product. In fact, pre-microwaving the fries reportedly improved their colour, which was described as "more acceptable" than fries cooked in oil alone.

Then again, maybe all you need is a sumo staring you down while you reach for that next bag of chips…

~Rheanna Sand

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Death to Cuties?

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One needs only to visit Australia to be reminded of the absurdity of evolution.

Where else will you find a creature that needs to sleep for eighteen hours every day because it evolved to eat leaves that are almost entirely indigestible, toxic, and virtually calorie free?

Yes, Phascolarctos cinereus, the gentle Koala (in fact a marsupial, not a bear), is living proof that for every ecological niche, no matter how bizarre, there’s an adorable creature waiting to fill it. But sadly, this particular niche –living in a salad bowl with an insanely slow metabolism – is about to go from silly and cute to dead serious.

A recent survey by the Australian Koala Foundation has shown that the koala population has dropped by almost 50% in the past six years, and if current trends continue could put koalas at risk of extinction within thirty years. And with population threats extending from global warming to deforestation to Chlamydia, it seems that a massive and wide reaching conservation program will be needed to save these furry tree huggers.

Now, I know I’m not the only one who’s starting to notice the trends here. First panda bears, now koalas – if all the cute animals die how will WSPA and the WWF suck us in to donating? But more seriously, what is this going to mean for the future of our planet? Here’s hoping the face of climate change just got a whole lot cuter.

- Brit Trogen

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Omnipotent Future

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Stem cells are amazing. They may be controversial, but there is no denying their potential in modern medicine. Even with the US ban on embryonic stem cell research, the breakthroughs have been steady. This is because the other, socially acceptable sources of stem cells - bone marrow and umbilical cord blood - have given researchers plenty of hope for future therapies.

One example is a new finding out of the University of Alberta, which showed that stem cells can help rescue the lungs of premature infant mice. They used adult bone marrow to derive the stem cells, then injected them into the lungs of the baby mice. The mice that had received injections were healthier, lived longer, and showed less damage in their lung tissue.

This technique could make it to clinical trials in humans in the next few years, and potentially eliminate chronic lung disease in prematurely born children. The researchers may also try cord blood-derived stem cells as they may be a better option for human infants.

In fact, cord blood stem cells are now being used to treat over 40 diseases in children, including sickle-cell anemia, cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, and metabolic disorders like Hunter syndrome. This, along with the potential for cord blood stem cells to treat heart disease, stroke, and arthritis in the individual and their family members, is making the harvesting of cord blood a common sense practice.

The future of stem cells truly is...omnipotent.

~Rheanna Sand

Monday, November 23, 2009

LHC - the quiet giant

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Finally, science can proceed without major fear-mongering and cataclysmic predictions. A year ago, when the Large Hadron Collider started up for the first time, there were dire predictions of the entire planet getting swallowed into a large black hole. There were even groups of individuals trying to sue CERN - the organization that built the LHC.

This past weekend, the LHC started up again. And we are still here.

The Large Hadron Collider (if you have been living under a rock for the past year) is a particle accelerator attempting to collide protons to recreate events that occurred immediately after the Big Bang.

If understanding the origins of the universe, mass and quantum mechanics and dark energy wasn't motivation enough to be interested in the LHC....

It is REALLY big... I'm talking the biggest machine on the planet. It is 12 feet in diameter, 17 kms in circumference and passes through parts of France and Switzerland up to 175m underground.

And the experiment has begun, the protons are circulating as we speak - gearing up for a head-on collision that will give researchers the first glimpse at their long-awaited precious data. You can even pretend to be smart by following the progress online.

Its low key start-up has lacked any kind of controversy, which is great; but it also meant that the biggest scientific experiment in the history of mankind barely got any media coverage. At some point, we will realize that reporting science for science's sake is of fundamental importance to our lives. Not just the controversy over bullshit predictions like 2012 and spontaneous black holes.

-- Torah Kachur

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What up, ozone?

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Back in the day, when I was first being indoctrinated with liberal, tree-hugging propaganda, one of the first things I remember worrying my little head about was the giant hole in the ozone layer. In my mind, it was like a hole in an astronauts' face mask, sucking the life right out of our atmosphere.

Now I tend to think of it as a bald spot (equally frightening as an adult) - the lack of ozone allows harmful UVB rays to make it to the Earth's surface, giving us all more sunburns, skin cancer, and cataracts.

So, why do we not hear about the health of the ozone layer these days? Is no news good news?

In this case, yes. According to a 2006 report by the World Meteorological Society, the amount of ozone-depleting gases in the atmosphere is - for the first time since we started paying attention to this problem - decreasing.

What led to this tiny ecological success was a concerted effort called the Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987, which instructed all participating countries to reduce or eliminate the use of ozone-depleting substances.

As if to reward us for good behaviour, the atmosphere seems to be healing itself, slowly but surely. The amount of ozone hasn't yet begun to climb, and in fact the polar regions are still experiencing large ozone deficits, but we have reached a critical point in the recovery process.

If the Montreal Protocol is implemented globally, we should see an increase in atmospheric ozone by mid-century, and a complete recovery to pre-1980 levels by the end of the century.

Just in time for me to shine up my bald spot.

~Rheanna Sand

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Phi: the Golden Ratio

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One of the most mysterious occurrences in the natural world can be summed up in a single number: 1.6180339887.

Granted, it's not the simplest number out there, and it doesn't spell anything funny when you turn it upside down on your calculator (I tried). Mathematically, it occurs when the ratio of two lengths adhere to the following rule:
And while it might seem like a simple mathematical relationship, this number, also called phi (φ), turns up inexplicably in nature.

It's the ratio of your forearm to your hand. Thorax length to abdomen in bees. Seed spirals in flowers, and length to width for a single groove of a DNA helix. The adjacent spirals in a nautilus shell, and the rings of Saturn, and the physics at work in a black hole.

So how or why does this enigmatic number show up in so many evolutionary and physical forms?

One biological theory is that it's the most perfect representation of beauty. And in fact, this is an idea that artists, architects and plastic surgeons have been using for years. Consider Leondardo's Vetruvian man, often viewed as the perfect representation of the human form. Or the fact that a mask constructed of golden ratio features is believed to make the ideal human face.

For me, the existence of Phi is both creepy, and sort of comforting. It's almost as if we're all connected by this bizarre ratio, from the smallest molecules to the farthest reaches of the cosmos. But in the end, try as we might, it's impossible to find a rational explanation for it.

It is an irrational number, after all.

- Brit Trogen

Monday, November 16, 2009

Manly men don't use plastic

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Before you strap on that PVC outfit on a Saturday night - you should know:

Some plastics reduce penis size.

Yes, plastics containing chemicals called phthalates have been shown to cause genital defects in animals and even undescended testicles in boys. The problem: phthalates that can mimic the female sex hormone, estrogen, meaning that if pregnant women are exposed to these chemicals it could lead to their sons being less endowed.

If small penis sizes isn't enough, exposure to certain plastics during pregnancy may cause boys to be more 'feminized' where they are less likely to engage in rougher play, or play with cars, trains and guns.

The culprit: Phthlates called DEHP and DBP are both relatively commonly used chemicals to plastinate products. In particular, DEHP is used in PVC, hydraulic fluid and dialysis tubing while DBP is used in some nail polish and some glues and dyes.

For the most part, regulating bodies are doing their part to eliminate the use of these chemicals. Both the European Union and United States have completely banned the use of DBP in nail polishes. DEHP is banned in the EU for use in toys and the US has banned it for use in many forms of packaging.

In general, most people aren't exposed to lots of these types of chemicals - so no need to stop using plastic. But, if you are pregnant are planning on becoming pregnant - it wouldn't hurt to look into some of your more commonly used plastic products. Because, although penis size 'doesn't matter'.... it does.

-- Torah Kachur

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Not a Flesh EATR

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Nothing will ever be as creepy as the writhing, Japanese-made robot child, but the rumors about the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot come pretty close.

EATR looks like your typical battlebot - it's small, has tracks to move around, and one long arm with pincers on the end. But these little guys have something extra - a hybrid external combustion engine that can convert biomass into electrical energy.

"Biomass," of course, meaning any matter than comes from an organism, living or dead. Which is why some media went a little crazy when news of this robot first emerged. They dubbed it the "flesh-eating robot" and claimed it could feed on human bodies.

The companies involved, Cyclone Power Technologies and Robotic Technology Inc., quickly issued a statement reassuring the public that EATR is a VEGETARIAN. In this case, biomass means strictly plant material. EATR would use its robotic arm to forage for leaves, twigs, or wood chips. It could also burn traditional fuels, like gasoline or kerosene, if it had to.

Or maybe douse you in them, set you afire, and feast on your roasted remains...if you watch certain entertainment news channels, that is.

Do not fear the EATR. Commercializing this technology leads us one more step away from our reliance on fossil fuels for generating electricity. And besides, vegetarians rarely have the strength to put up a fight.

~Rheanna Sand

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Apocalypse of 2012

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According to a conspiracy theory that's coinciding nicely with the release of the big-budget hollywood movie "2012", an ancient Mayan Calendar indicates that the world will come to an end on either Dec. 21 or 23, 2012.

Normally, this wouldn't quite fall into the realm of what rational people call "science." The theory can't even keep straight exactly how the apocalypse will arrive. Some claim a geomagnetic reversal is underway, in which the north and south magnetic poles will flip. Others believe we're going to collide with a planet called "Nibiru" or Planet X, which was allegedly detected by the Sumerians and has been hiding behind the sun for several years, but will soon swoop out and destroy us.

But this weird and intangible theory is somehow gaining popularity, even outside the usual fringe. So much so, in fact, that even NASA has stepped in to debunk it (To summarize, there's no scientific evidence to back up any of the 2012 claims).

So why is this theory so catching? Well for one thing, both the Discovery Channel and the History Channel have been airing programs for the past three years portraying these ideas as scientifically sound.

Now, I understand the need for good ratings; conventional media is undergoing an apocalypse all its own. But when even our "educational" television programs are selling out for the sake of sensationalism, can we really be surprised at the growing mistrust of science by the general public?

Seriously. If you're going to air programs on the approaching doomsday, at least mention that its biggest supporters heard about it from an alien implant in their brain.

- Brit Trogen

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Biology of Parenting

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Good parenting handbooks, Oprah, child psychologists...raising kids isn't easy. Bad parenting and neglect can lead to psychological and emotional consequences for the children of unhealthy households. Now, bad parenting can also affect the genetics of the child.

These genetic changes are not changes in the sequence of DNA; the A's, T's, C's and G's that determine much of who we are. The effects of early stresses in life are changes in the epigenome. The epig
enome is how genes are regulated by the proteins that associate and bind to DNA. Epi - means to sit upon - and this level of inheritance is in addition to the sequence of DNA you inherit from your parents. The epigenome is particularily sensitive to environmental changes - toxin exposure, stress and even diet can affect the epigenetics of an individual leading to long-term biological changes.

Research from the Max Planck Institute in Germany found that newborn mice that were stressed during infancy had changes in their gene expression pattern that lasted throughout life. The sequence of DNA didn't change - the epigenetics did.

Infant mice were separated from their mothers for a few hours of the day early on in their lives. This stress made the pups release a chemical that affected the epigenetics of the hormone vasopressin. Its the release of this hormone that led to learning and memory problems later in life for the little mice.

Our DNA can dictate many things about who and what we are, but we are finding that the epigenome is an integral player in our inheritance pattern. And the epigenome merges the environment we create for our kids with their biology. As if we needed another reason to take care of our children.

--Torah Kachur

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Hi-Tech Health Care

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With a speakers list ranging from Deepak Chopra to Steve Wozniak, to Goldie Hawn and David Blaine, the TEDMED 2009 Conference brought together some of the worlds greatest minds to discuss the future of health care technology.

The most interesting innovations didn't come from Hollywood, of course, but from exciting new companies converting research successes into technological marvels.

On the cancer front, the Pink Army Cooperative seeks to destroy breast cancer cells using synthetic, tumour-killing viruses. The viruses will be initially tested on cells taken from a patients' own tumour before being introduced into the body.

Another company, HopeLab, has designed a video game that helps kids respond better to cancer treatments, called Re-Mission. The user plays the role of a nanobot that destroys malignant cells with drugs and radiation.

Wi-Fi gadgets also had a big presence at the conference. The Corventis PiiX monitor sticks to your chest, looks no bigger than a cell phone, but can measure and transmit about a dozen different vital signs at a time. Another device, Zeo, is an alarm clock that records your brain waves as you sleep.

Finally, and most impressively, tissue engineering is moving ahead leaps and bounds. A company called Organogenesis is using sheets of lab-grown tissue to heal difficult wounds like diabetic ulcers. The grafts, shown above, consist of cells grown on a flexible collagen support matrix.

Whole organs are not far off, especially considering the announcement of a potential X-Prize competition dedicated to this end. Perhaps some custom-made hearts and brains are in order for US legislators?

~Rheanna Sand

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How to Beat the H1N1

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What do you get when you combine a newly evolved virus, a shortage of vaccines, and a frenzy of non-stop media coverage? The perfect storm of panic and misinformation that's converged over this year's pandemic-du-jour, the H1N1 flu virus.

And I've got to say, we've run the gamut of pretty much every possible angle on this one. First it was the deadliest virus on earth. Then it turned out it wasn't actually bad at all. Then there was the whole "some people die from it, but we don't know why" slant. And now it turns out there's a fantastic vaccine for it... but we don't have enough to actually give it to anyone but hockey players.

I'll admit, it's been confusing. But through it all, a cohesive picture is beginning to emerge. So here's what we actually know: H1N1 related symptoms are generally mild. As with any flu, some people will die from it, but the vast majority will not (as in 99.9955%). And aside from the vaccine, the best way to beat it is to wash your hands frequently.

But for the people who like to take a more active approach, here's some hot-off-the-press tips that are showing promise.

Number 1: Antioxidants! In additional to the innumerable other benefits of eating antioxidant rich foods (fruit, red wine), it looks like they might also prevent the flu from damaging your lungs.

Number 2: The old flu vaccines. People who've repeatedly gotten the seasonal flu shot over the years are showing some immunity to this one, probably due to the fact that H1N1 is a conglomeration of many different flu strains, some of which have been around for a while.

And finally: coughing in to the crook of your arm. Because failure to do this is proving hazardous to your health in more ways than one.

- Brit Trogen

Monday, November 2, 2009

Nature's Oscar the Grouch

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Humans are dirty, dirty creatures. We have decided that the Earth is our own personal garbage dump - oil spills, nuclear accidents, landfills, CFC, carbon dioxide....and the list goes on.

But Nature is rebounding - bacteria have evolved mechanisms to detoxify and even live on all of these man-made garbage heaps. Scientists are now realizing the power of the natural metabolisms of bacteria to perform something called bioremediation. This strategy uses naturally occuring bacteria to detoxify chemicals such as PCB's, oil spills and other pollutants.

The types of bacteria you may have heard of: Salmonella, E. coli and others usually eat simple compounds like humans do - sugar, protein etc. Other bacteria can eat and grow on chemicals that are toxic to humans and our environment - which means these little bugs can be used to clean up our messes like the Exxon Valdez spill and the thousands of other oil spills left unreported.

There is not one single bacterium that can provide all of the enzymes to degrade a single molecule of oil. So, for every chemical that needs to be degraded, a specific combination of bacterial species must be used. But, if multiple species contribute an individual step in the breakdown pathway, the pollutant can eventually be degraded into a non-toxic molecule. This process is a natural, safe and effective way to detoxifying our environment.

Bioremediation strategies aren't only limited to oil spills - there are bacteria that can survive on and neutralize radioactive material - providing a potential method to clean up sites like Chernobyl and other nuclear accidents. Another pollutant, toluene, can be digested by a genetically engineered organism called Deinococus radiodurans.

Humans manage to destroy nature pretty much constantly, but Nature has evolved remarkable strategies to recover from all of this harm that humans inflict. We are slowly learning of how to use the power of Nature to right our wrongs.

--Torah Kachur

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Haunting Experiment

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Just when you think you can scientifically explain paranormal activity, the ghost in the machine messes it all up.

A team of psychological researchers led by Christopher French constructed a scientifically haunted house - but there were no cheesy sound effects and no fake chainsaw-wielding murderers jumping out at you. This haunted house was a canvas tent set up in the front room of a London row house.

In one area, a speaker emitted sound waves below the level of human hearing, called infrasound waves. Such waves have been detected at classically haunted sites, such as Coventry Cathedral. Two other speakers set in different areas of the tent emitted electromagnetic waves of a very particular frequency, also associated with ghostly encounters.

The researchers were hoping that paranormal experiences would be induced in those spaces with speakers and not in the area without speakers, supporting a scientific explanation for the supernatural.

The results were positive on one hand - more than 75% of subjects reported having strange feelings in the room. There were descriptions of tingling sensations, disembodiment, dizziness, and even a few reports of sexual arousal. Freaks.

However, the results also showed that the location in the room had nothing to do with whether they felt weird. The only statistically significant correlation linked those with a history of such experiences to the paranormal phenomena.

These results can support either side of the argument - you could say that ghosts are real entities "summoned" by electromagnetic and infrasound waves, and these people are receptive individuals.

Or, you could say ghosts are not real, the waves cause the brain to do funny things, and while these people honestly believe they are being haunted, they are only victims of the power of suggestion.

Which sounds to me exactly what a ghost would WANT you to think.

~Rheanna Sand

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Secret to Cancer Immunity

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... Is the naked mole rat.

Not the most impressive-looking rodent in the animal kingdom, but it's certainly one of the most interesting.

Living underground in subterranean tunnels that can stretch up to three miles, the mole rat is one of the only mammals to live in a eusocial society with a fertile queen and sterile workers, very similar to in an ant colony.

It's long been known that these creatures have a variety of interesting adaptations, including the ability to live with hardly any oxygen or food, and to eat their own excrement. But they're also the longest living rodents on earth, with lifespans of up to 28 years, and – here's the big one – are essentially immune to cancer.

And researchers at the University of Rochester have discovered why. It turns out that while humans have only one contact-inhibition system for cancer based on a gene called p27, mole rats have two. The second system uses a gene called p16-ink4a to prevent cells from overgrowing at an earlier stage than p27, heading off potential cancers before they have a chance to start.

This finding is a big breakthrough for cancer research, particularly because humans also have the p16-ink4a gene, though it doesn't seem to play the same role in our cells as it does for the mole rats.

But more importantly from the naked mole rat's point of view, it ensures that these magnificent creatures will go down in history for more than just the whole "eating-their-own-faeces" thing.

So, you're welcome, mole rats.

- Brit Trogen

Monday, October 26, 2009

An experiment to remember...

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I remember the first time I rode my two-wheeler all by myself. I remember the feeling at the top of a dune in the Sahara. I remember the taste of a summer peach. I remember.

Memories shape who we are, the define us and create our identity. Who would we be without our recollections and reflections?

But a memory is only a biological phenomenon of the brain. That's it.

New memories are routed, interpreted and cross-referenced in a tiny region of the brain called the hippocampus. This structure is responsible for the associations of different thoughts, creating a memory - like between snakes and fear or chocolate and happiness.

But that is a massive oversimplification of the biology of a memory. It's almost impossible to conceptualize the complexity of the brain that remembers the vivid tastes, smells and sights of our life.

....unless you are a fly.

The memory and brain of the fruit fly has been studied for over 30 years and now, scientists were able to 'write' a memory directly into the brain of the fly. By simply shining a light into the brain of flies, at the centre known to be responsible for learning, the researchers were able to program a new association - or memory. This experiment reveals that our memories, no matter how integral to our self awareness, are only neurons making connections they hadn't done before.

An understanding of the biology of something so key to our humanity humbles me completely. We are still just a clump of cells. And our brain is just a massive network of neurons firing signals across the largest interchange in history.

--Torah Kachur

Monday, October 19, 2009

Humans ARE animals

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You animal! He's such a pig. Ugh, she's a dog. These are all are an animal.

Webster's dictionary defines an animal as: one of the lower animals as distinguished from human beings.

That is such bull.

It is not humans AND animals, humans ARE animals. Just because we have consciousness or intelligence doesn't make us better than all the other animals on the planet, just different. We, humans, are classified in the Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata and so on and so forth... our closest living relatives are the great apes and we are primates.

Free will, consciousness, morals, ethics - whatever we think separates us from them is only what we decided as important to make us special. But these traits don't make us any less of a vertebrate.

--Torah Kachur

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Higgs Boson: Time Traveler?

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As if theoretical physics wasn't weird enough. They've given us black holes, the Big Bang, the possibility of multiple dimensions, and invisible dark matter that is, as I write this, pushing the stars and planets apart. Now, a particle that is so dangerous that it might be traveling back in time to prevent itself from being discovered?

That is the outlandish but strangely fun premise of a paper by distinguished physicists Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya featured in a New York Times article this week.

The particle in question is the elusive Higgs boson, sometimes called the "God Particle" for its importance in all we know about matter in the universe. The Higgs boson is predicted in the Standard Model that describes the four major forces of particle interactions - electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear force, and gravitation. The Higgs boson is the only particle predicted by the Standard Model that has not been observed.

There have been so many failures, in fact, that Nielson and Ninomiya think the deck just might be stacked against us. They postulate that the discovery of the particle is so dangerous that its effects ripple back through time and prevent the discovery from happening.

As the NY Times article points out, it would be like you going back in time to save your grandfather from being hit by a bus. There is no time-traveling paradox, like there would be if you went back in time to kill your grandfather, so the theory seems to hold some water. Except for the fact that it sounds completely nuts.

Then again, has theoretical physics ever really made sense?

~Rheanna Sand

Monday, October 12, 2009

Gobble, gobble

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Many of us canucks will celebrate this long weekend by stuffing ourselves silly with copious amounts of food. Then, fall asleep at the table while grandma regales the crowd with a rendition of "Girls just wanna have fun" (oh, is that only in my family?)

The centerpiece of any good Thanksgiving is the turkey, the bird that is now bred so fat it can't fly, breed or barely stand. But, man, it tastes good. Then after you can't possibly fit in one more bite, the sleepiness sets in....

But does turkey really make us sleepy? Or are our families just boring?

The amino acid tryptophan has long thought to be the culprit behind that post-indulgence tiredness. Tryptophan is an essential part of any diet and can eventually be metabolized in the brain into melatonin - a sleep hormone. But, turkey has about the same levels of tryptophan as many other meats. And, more importantly, turkey is consumed with potatoes, yams, wine and squash - full of carbohydrates.

Turkey does make you sleepy and it is because of tryptophan.... but it has more to do with the combination of carbohydrates and tryptophan that contributes to our food-fatigue. Carbohydrates release insulin, insulin causes uptake of sugar in the blood as well as long neutral branched chain amino acids (LNAA for short). It is the ratio of tryptophan/LNAA in the blood that causes the brain to uptake more tryptophan, which is then converted to melatonin.

Whew, that was way more complicated than just knowing that little bit of trivia that makes you sound smart over the dinner table.

Now, let's eat!

Happy Thanksgiving!

-- Torah Kachur

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The sky isn't falling...

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NASA made history again this week…but not everyone sees it for the well-designed, perfectly executed, and totally awesome experiment that it was.

The spacecraft LCROSS completed its mission in the wee hours of Friday morning. It launched a rocket into the Cabeus crater near the south pole of the moon, analyzed the debris, and then crashed itself into the same crater. The instruments on board were designed to pick up infrared signatures of water and carbon-containing compounds. The impacts were minuscule, the scientific components were off the shelf, the budget was a fraction of most NASA missions, and yet…someone started a "save the moon" campaign?

Yes, that's right. One Huffington Post blogger questioned who gave NASA "permission" to so violently assault our moon. Please. Do not feel sorry for the moon. It has no feelings.

Besides…have you SEEN the moon? Those aren't acne scars. The lunar surface is peppered by cosmic debris on a daily basis. This pair of impacts do not compare to the beating its taken in its lifetime.

The explosions were so harmless, people on Earth really didn't get the spectacle they were hoping for. The NASA TV video is actually quite anticlimactic (may I suggest the animation below that is much more entertaining to watch).

The data, though, will help scientists figure out how much water and other useful substances are up there. We might have a colony up there someday, and this brings us one step closer.

Some may question the purpose behind such an endeavor. Others, including myself, see it as a worthwhile use for technology that is, sadly, most often used by the military. I say, if there are going to be rockets and bombs, and let's face it, there will always be rockets and bombs, why not use them for cool space experiments?

~Rheanna Sand

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Hot New Hominid

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Move over, Lucy…there's a new girl in town. Her name is Ardi, and she's taller, has opposable toes, and weighs 110 pounds. Bitch.

In case you aren’t up to speed on hominid evolution - "Lucy" is the nickname of a skeleton belonging to the species Australopithecus afarensis, discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia and thought to be a direct ancestor of humans and a possible descendant of chimpanzees.

Lucy lived over 3 million years ago and has many human-like characteristics, like feet designed for upright walking and more specialized teeth and joints. Not to mention a seductive grin…rowr!

"Ardi", the hot new hominid, is a skeleton belonging to the species Ardipithecus ramidus. Also found in Ethiopia, she was first described in 1994, but the comprehensive results were just published in the October 2009 issue of Science.

This stunning report, consisting of 11 separate research papers, shatters the old belief that humans evolved from some chimp-like, knuckle-dragging primate. It seems that apes and chimps have been evolving separately for a lot longer than we thought. That being said, the jury is still out on Glenn Beck.

Ardi has given us a glimpse 4 million years into our past, and has caused quite a stir among scientists and non-scientists alike. It's no surprise - how could you NOT love her larger postcranial dimensions and mediolaterally short pubic ramus? Fierce!

~Rheanna Sand

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