Adventures in Science

Archive for the ‘Medium’ Category


The Dark Side of Wonder

Here’s an *awesome* clip from “Wonders of the Solar System” presented by Professor Brian Cox:

“Imagine this was a piece of Saturn’s rings. What a view!” That’s an inspiring thought isn’t it? That clip does a great job of making us feel a sense of wonder for the things scientists have discovered about the universe. For me, it approaches a mystical blissout but your mileage will vary.*

Wonder in the natural world, universe, and the excitement of scientific discovery is often what leads many people into a career in science. Daily exposure to the latest wonders is a great job benefit and can make for a rewarding career.

Unfortunately, scientific discovery doesn’t just offer us mystical blissouts. Scientific wonder has a flipside as seen in this video:

…a moment to shake the bricks out of our underwear…

Thank you, science, for showing us in minute gory detail exactly how boned we are if the Earth is hit by a meteor, asteroid, or comet. Yes, we have science to thank for the knowledge that we could be wiped out in a few hours if a giant rock from space slammed into the Earth. We have science to thank for the fact that we know that little germs arise from time to time that kill us off in great numbers. We have science to thank for the fact that we know that humans’ use of fossil fuels are changing the world in such a way that is going endanger our lives unless we change our habits. This is just a small sample of possible threats to our survival and life on Earth that science has uncovered for us.

Those are just the natural threats. We didn’t need science to tell us that we are a threat to ourselves; however, science gave us the ability to war against each other in ways that would likely kill us all. The  mass military buildup of the Cold War is the shining example of how we are one of our biggest problems.***

Sometimes people find that thinking about these megaproblems is very unsettling. They seem so much bigger than us and over our heads. In the past, we have tended to either ignore the out-of-our league problems altogether or attempt to hand them off to something bigger than ourselves in the form of supernatural beings or forces.

(c)2008 Big Idea Entertainment

Many of us experience a great sense of peace and comfort against the terrors of life in our religious beliefs. However, when it comes to the greatest problems facing humanity we cannot allow ourselves the luxury to merely fret, wish, pray, or perform rituals as a way of warding off our biggest problems. We need to work on them.

The only way to overcome the big problems is through advancing our knowledge. At this time, the best way we know of to increase our knowledge is through the practice of science.

The more people and groups of people contributing toward solving the big, overwhelming problems the better. It could take many lifetimes before we can defend ourselves against the greatest dangers. In the meantime, though, a bounty of spin-off innovations and discoveries that improve our understanding of the universe, our quality of life, and security are sure to result from pursuing such goals. There is no doubt that this increase in knowledge will uncover as yet unknown threats and problems. Over time, though, we’ll get better at figuring things out and new problems will not threaten but inspire us with the possibilities of new and wonderous frontiers.

Chibithulu says, “To the scientist there is the joy in pursuing truth which nearly counteracts the depressing revelations of truth.”

*Personally, I could watch “Wonders of the Solar System” and “Wonders of the Universe” all day.**

**Sometimes I do.

***Dr. David Eagleman and many others are studying what makes us a threat to each other and possible ways to change our behavior


Dinofuzz in Amber-Golden Capsules of Deep Time

Polished sphere of amber with a beetle inclusion. (source)

Amber is fossilized tree resin from prehistoric conifer trees. The slow and sticky resin oozed out of a tree when it suffered damage and protected it like a gooey bandage. Eventually this resin would harden and shed off the tree where it would collect as part of the debris and sediment of the ancient forest floor. Over eons of time the resin matured chemically and fossilized into the hard plastic-like material that we know today as amber.

Fossilized tree resin from hundreds of millions of years ago is exciting, yes, but it’s what has been found in amber that is so much more riveting. Trapped within these organic stones you can often glimpse perfectly preserved organisms from the prehistoric past. Some of these unlucky deep time travelers include insects, spiders and their webs, seeds, pine needles, flowers, frogs, and even a lizard. These ensnared creatures and plant matter–known as inclusions–have been dated up to about 150 million years ago. Most of these organisms are now extinct but can be studied and classified by comparing them with current known species or known fossils.

Rock fossil of a feathered dinosaur (source)

Many of the most intriguing amber fossils are found in Canada and include a few types of feathers and protofeathers. Scientists collected and studied 11 samples of amber containing feathers and found that they were seeing a range of plumage that showed a development from primitive protofeathers to more complex feathers like those found on modern birds. They found that  some of these feathers are similar to the ones seen in rock fossil impressions of feathered dinosaurs. The more advanced feathers may have come from early birds. If you like reading about dinosaurs, amber, or prehistoric life, you will enjoy reading the original scientific paper by the scientists who are studying these fossil feathers in amber.

Possible dinosaur protofeathers.  (source)

Above are just two stages of the known stages of feather evolution. On the left are protofeathers which are very primitive and look like very fine hairs or filaments. Researchers have nicknamed these simple protofeathers “dinofuzz”. They are even studying the pigments–color-producing particles–on these feathers. Those pigments from feathers have been found in rock fossils as well, as seen in this video from researchers at Yale University.

If you have ever seen or heard about the movie or book “Jurassic Park” you may have heard that it might be possible to take DNA from an organism that has been preserved in amber. Unfortunately, at this time, that seems unlikely. DNA breaks apart quickly once an organism dies. However, amber is a fantastic preservative and if we are going to find ancient DNA somewhere it is most likely to come from just such an ideal source. Some scientists have had promising results in extracting bits of DNA from amber; however, it is a difficult and tricky process and other scientists have had trouble getting the same results. It could be possible to get a snippet or two of DNA but the DNA of a whole organism from many millions of years ago might be impossible at least for the foreseeable future.

Don’t harsh my placebo, man!


Hooray! Science hasn’t figured everything out yet. There is more to discover and explore about the world. The funny thing is, though, that when we don’t have an explanation for something it can seem pretty spooky. For example, our minds and bodies can do something very mysterious. Sometimes our bodies can be fooled into getting better when we are sick or in pain without proven treatment or even real surgery. A fake remedy for a physical or mental complaint is known as a placebo and placebo effect is what happens when the fake remedy actually works to make someone feel better.

For example, imagine that someone who suffers from headaches is given a prescription for sugar pills (sugar isn’t a medicine (you knew that)). She takes the sugar pill like an aspirin for a headache and the headache goes away.

Placebo researchers aren’t sure why placebos work. It could be because the medical problem was almost over anyway or that people are used to having medical problems relieved by pills, so the very act of taking a pill or getting a shot causes it to go away. Other researchers say that it is the belief or expectation that the treatment is going to help that causes our bodies to trigger a cascade of processes related to being treated and cured. Others suggest that going through the motions of seeking a remedy to a complaint is responsible for some relief. The coolest thing about the placebo effect is that even though it is unexplained and mysterious at this time, it is real and well-documented.

This video shows a dramatic example of the placebo effect:

This is like getting scientific proof of the benefits of witch doctoring. The act of going through the motion of invasive knee surgery was enough to relieve this man’s agonizing knee pain.

Don’t worry, surgeons in most countries are not allowed to pretend to operate on you unless you give them permission.

The placebo effect works enough under certain conditions to make it a very intriguing field of study. Perhaps someday soon the placebo effect can be used to relieve a percentage of minor health complaints. Maybe it could save people money, minimize side effects and drug interactions.

I already use a placebo a few times a week. My personal pet placebo has NEVER, EVER* been trashed by science for it is the one-true-most-effective-placebo-of-all-time. There is lots of evidence to support that my one-true-most-effective-placebo-of-all-time contributes to optimal health. I exercise. Over and above the scientifically verified benefits of exercise, I might be AM DEFINITELY enjoying an extra placebo kick of well being. Yes. Plus, it gives me a youthful glow, don’t you think?


Here is Ben Goldacre discussing the current findings of research into the placebo effect, as well as the ethics surrounding the use of placebos:

He also did a two-part radio program on placebos that you can find here.

I also recommend Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre. It has a whole chapter on the placebo effect. This book is also a very good easy-to-read primer on using the scientific method to weed out bad solutions to health problems.

*If it has, be nice and don’t tell me.

Bad Astronomer is BADA55 or…

…How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Near Earth Objects

On November 8, 2011, you probably heard or read the news that an asteroid, 2005 YU55, flew between the Earth and the Moon. If you haven’t seen it yet, here is a little animation of images of the asteroid from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. These pictures were taken when the object was getting close to the Earth on November 7, 2011. 2005 YU55 is about the size of an aircraft carrier.

Asteroids and other near Earth objects or NEOs are a concern because when they hit the Earth they do a lot of damage. Sometimes they cause catastrophic damage. For example, a giant asteroid is theorized to have hit the Earth causing so much devastation that it caused many of the life forms on Earth at the time, including the dinosaurs, to become extinct as a result. 2005 YU55 is just one of thousands of known near earth objects or NEOs that NASA’s Near Earth Object Program and other groups are watching closely.

Did I just scare you? Sorry.

But never fear, young Earthlings, for Phil Plait the Bad Astronomer is here!

Drawing by Josh Armstrong. Color & design by Tom McKay Price

Dr. Phil Plait is an astronomer and author of Death from the Skies!: These Are The Ways The World Will End. In this book he pretty much lists many of the ways that the universe in which we live can kill us and the odds of these events happening. Fortunately, the odds of these things happening in our lifetime are fairly low. (phew) Unfortunately, there is still a chance. So it’s a good idea for us to find things like near Earth objects that might some day hit the Earth and figure out a way to prevent them from turning our planet into a lifeless, molten ball of fiery lava. (whimper)

Phil Plait comes to the rescue by outlining a plan for preventing asteroid impacts in his awesome Ted Talk here.

Thanks, Bad Astronomer! You’ve saved the day!

Phil Plait writes the Bad Astronomy blog here. Almost every day, he points out new wonders of astronomy including gorgeous images of the universe and planetary aspects of the Earth.

By the way, is a site that is full of great, cutting-edge ideas in science and many other topics from the most brilliant people in a variety of fields. I encourage everyone to browse TED and enjoy the videos for their progressive and inspiring messages.

The Baloney-Detection Kit

"Any way you slice it, it's still baloney."

Sometimes, people pass around untrue information. It’s often hard to disagree with a nice person or a person in authority when they seem so sure that what they are telling you is true.

Say, for example, one day you are listening to the radio or television and someone tells you that the astronauts never went to the moon and the whole moon landing was faked. For you, that would be a very surprising thing for someone to tell you since you’ve seen videos of the moon landings and heard interviews with the astronauts. Perhaps you have read books about the NASA missions to the moon in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Perhaps you’ve even been to a museum and have seen the battered part of the spacecraft that splashed into the ocean upon returning the astronauts to Earth. You would probably think, “This guy is full of it,” or “This guy is full of baloney.” You would be right!


Baloney, phony baloney, and full of baloney are all words and phrases used to describe something as nonsense, silly, misleading, or untrue.

In his book, The Demon Haunted World, Dr. Carl Sagan wrote a list of steps he called the Baloney Detection Kit to think through when you hear or learn of some information that you suspect is untrue. Here is a link to Carl Sagan’s original Baloney Detection Kit on his official web site.

Not a Ronco® product. Maybe Wham-O®?

The original BDK has a lot of big words and phrases that may be unfamiliar to you. Dr. Michael Shermer kindly made a Baloney Detection Kit video that is a little easier to understand and he simplifies the basic ideas of BDK into 10 questions you can use to decide whether something is true or baloney.

Did you catch that? That college professor is asking you to think for yourself because even authorities with impressive credentials like him are sometimes wrong. That’s good advice.

The Ten Questions

  1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
  2. Does the source make similar claims?
  3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else?
  4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
  5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
  6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
  7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
  8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
  9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
  10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?


Important words from the video and The Ten Questions are:

A claim is an unproven statement that something is true.

A claimant is someone who makes a claim.

Something that has been proven true or possible is verified.

Preponderance, at its simplest, means largest amount.

Evidence is proof used to judge whether something is true.

Direct evidence is actual straightforward proof of a claim.

A Theory is something that is accepted as true that is meant to explain something.

Phenomena are facts, events, or states of being that can be seen, watched, noticed, or observed.


Robot party tonight…all right!

Dean Kamen

Photo of Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST, robot, and, FIRST enthusiast, via ABC

If you are an American middle or high school student YOU can build a real robot by joining your high school’s FIRST robotics team. If your school doesn’t have one, you need to pester the science and technology teachers to start one. Send them to

FIRST, also, is a national annual robot build and design competition for high school students. Students start with a robot kit with no instruction manual and a task their robot needs to perform. With the help of a team mentor, the teams use their combined skills to rise to the challenge of assembling and programming their robot. Through innovation, cooperation, and problem solving the kids work to make the best performing robot they can. The teams compete on a local level and then winners move up to nationals for the super robot smackdown and killer party as seen in the following video about and the 2011 finalists.

Robot partay!

You and your team will gain experience in engineering, design, electronics, programming, problem solving, communication, team building and fashion.

Robot Team Spirit Wear

Above photo courtesy of BurningQuestion

Well, maybe not fashion.

In the video, I heard one of the team mentors say that the kids needed to use their language skills to apply for grants (donations of money) as well. I can’t think of a better way to acquire and use such a wide variety of valuable life skills while having a blast with friends.

Kids in the FIRST program have an awesome cheerleader, the super talented, of the pop group Black Eyed Peas. is a passionate promoter of science and technology education. He paid for and produced the program televised on ABC in the United States. He understands that the valuable the hands-on science and technical experience gained from building a robot can give kids a leg up on a better future. He rocks and rules.

Great Book: Flatland

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott

Published in 1884, Edwin Abott Abbott’s Flatland is a hilarious romp through a rigidly structured two-dimensional society populated by lines and other geometrical shapes. The storyline is built with a sublime, intuitive exploration of the mathematical concepts of the first through third dimensions.  In the end, along with the characters, we are invited to conceptually grasp beyond those first three dimensions.

Carl Sagan gives the best explanation of Flatland in this clip from his classic series, Cosmos.