Adventures in Science

Posts tagged ‘science for kids’

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.


Clean your room the NASA JPL way


Did you see the launch of the Mars Curiosity Rover last week from NASA at Cape Kennedy, Florida? It was awesome!

Curiosity is an exciting and important robot because its job when it gets to Mars in 8 months is to look for life there. Scientists suspect that there is some very primitive form of life on Mars, but we need to send a probe with instruments and detectors built into it to test the martian environment for evidence of life.

Curiosity probably won’t find a baby plant like Wall-E does in the movie. If life is detected it’s more likely to be a type of tiny, microscopic life. That would be great because it would be the first time that people have discovered life anywhere other than Earth.

Here’s a video animation from NASA/JPL that shows us how Curiosity will travel from Earth to Mars and what Curiosity will be doing once it lands.

Yes! It will shoot laser beams at stuff on Mars.

One of the most important things you need to keep in mind if you are building a robot that will probe another planet for life, is that you don’t want to send any Earth life with your robot probe. If your rover arrives on Mars covered in Earth germs your life detectors are going to detect life, but possibly not martian life. Or perhaps the scientists would be scratching their heads when Curiosity discovered that along with unknown alien life, Mars also has athletes’ foot. Awkward…

To send a clean spacecraft to another planet you need to build it in a clean room like this:



The above picture was the Mars Curiosity Rover’s room on Earth at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. Your bedroom is a pig sty compared to Mars Curiosity Rover’s room. The interesting thing about this room is that it is cleaner than cleanest place you’ve probably ever been outside of a hospital operating room. Operating rooms and JPL’s clean room are designed to have fewer than 10,000 particles of 0.5 micrometers (microns) or more in diameter in the air. Microscopic life bigger than 0.5 microns are yeast, mold, most bacteria, spores and pollen.

Hey, wait! People are bigger than 0.5 microns! They are covered cooties! How can we prevent the people working in the clean room from contaminating the spacecraft? Here’s how. Before it traveled to Florida in preparation for launch to Mars, you used to be able to watch the clean room engineers and technicians build Curiosity on the internet via a webcam. However, Curiosity is traveling to Mars at the moment so Curiosity Cam is off air. Fortunately, we have a video of JPL clean room technicians in action:

You can’t miss that the technicians are completely covered in white clean room suits. These are also known as bunny suits.

We wish they came with the


The clean room suits including masks, gloves, smocks, pants, and booties are designed to keep human cooties, hair, skin cells, or whatever off the spacecraft. There are many more videos showing the assembly of Curiosity at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory clean room at YouTube. Check them out.

This NASA video from a different project shows how even pieces of paper must be wiped down front and back before they can enter a clean room, or in this case, a clean tent:

Now, think about how you would get your room clean enough to make a robot for space in there.

Don’t forget the bunny suit.


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.

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.

Double dare gross out

We promised you adventures in science. This is a good one if you can make it through the first few minutes, because it is the most disgusting but fascinating science show we have ever seen. If you don’t wimp out, you’ll get to see something amazing and rare—the inside of a dead sperm whale.

Before watching “Sperm Whale” _Inside Nature’s Giants_ make sure you have an empty stomach and are sitting down.


Mwah-ha-ha-ha. Let the torture begin.







That is Professor Joy Reidenberg slipping around in that whale’s guts and cutting its eyeball apart for us to see. She is a comparative anatomist which is someone who studies and compares the structure or parts of different animals. In the video, she uses her knowledge of comparative anatomy to safely dissect and study this poor whale adding to our knowledge of whales. She is amazing.

“Sperm Whale” _Inside Nature’s Giants_ is another great BBC science program. It has also been broadcast on the Discovery Channel in the U.S. Look for it and the rest of the programs from the _Inside Nature’s Giants_ series featuring elephant, python, and giant squid.

A breach and wave of the flipper to Ed Yong who recommended the show @edyong209 on Twitter.

Pwned….by science!

Image: My L'il Pwny by KeyzerSoze on DeviantArt

A couple of weeks ago 18-y.o. Stephen Thomas uploaded a video of his high school physics presentation to YouTube and it went viral. He’s taken his favorite show, My Little Pony, and with his knowledge of physics determined whether some of the ponies’ adventures and misadventures were possible. He did a pretty good job.

Even though Stephen Thomas debunked the Sonic Rainboom *whimper*, One Giant Leap of Awesome names him an

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.