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Archive for the ‘Specialized Reporting: Science’ Category

A Metallic World

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Scratched copper plate. (Photo by Tymcode via Flickr)

I have always disliked chemistry. My high school chemistry class was horrible. The teacher, mean and incompetent, did nothing to inspire his students, and I ended up with a strong contempt for elements and compounds.  Much to my chagrin, I had to take a year of general chemistry and a year of organic chemistry (I was a biology major at the time) in college, and though my experiences were a little better, I failed to end up with an appreciation of the periodic table and complex organic molecules.

Several weeks ago, I decided to give chemistry another chance with the book Oliver Sacks’ book Uncle Tungsten. Within its pages I found a wondrous world of chemicals and metals I had never known before. Whether it was the childish enthusiasm conveyed in his words or the poetry of his writing, something drew me in.

I found myself particularly fascinated by his stories of growing up during World War I and World War II. It’s hard for me to imagine living in a place where air raid sirens were all too familiar much less being forced to attend a boarding school (where you were supposed to be safe from the war) where a regular practice was beatings. How could he survive that hardship and remain psychologically intact?


Unity of Knowledge

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Edward O. Wilson on Oct. 16, 2007. (Photo by ragesoss via Flickr)

I recently finished reading Consilience by biologist Edward O. Wilson. This book took me to places I had never been to or thought of much before – from tropical rainforests to the taiga to 18th Century France. It explored the arts, economics, psychology and biology, among many other topics. Wilson used this array of places and subjects to argue in favor of the idea of consilience.

Consilience, as defined by Wilson, is the unification “of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.” In other words, the only way we can truly understand the world is to apply theories from multiple disciplines to it. For example, the creative arts can be explained through spirituality. Early humans recreated animals in their art and depicted the animals being killed in the hopes of being able to defeat the animals in real life.

Wilson suggests two ways to achieve consilience: one can go backward (reduction) or one can go forward (synthesis). Though, going backward from an endpoint, such as a species of frog, and following that endpoint to the laws of physics, for example, is much easier than going in the opposite direction. Reduction, Wilson argues, can even be applied to all branches of learning and organization. That is, you can take a frog and look at it in the broader picture from a number of different disciplinary theories.


Stem Cells and Transplants

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Desperate times lead people to desperate measures. For patients suffering from terminal illnesses, they often turn to unconventional treatments or ways to skirt the system. Sometimes those treatments work. Sometimes they don’t.

My reading this week introduced me to patients who just wanted hope, companies that wanted to take advantage of that, and a broken system that has failed many. These stories were all written by Alan Zarembo for the Los Angeles Times. Up until now, I must confess, I had never heard of Zarembo. But I’m definitely glad I have now. Find out why.

Stem Cells

Right off the bat, Zarembo hooked me. The opening sentence of “A desperate injection of stem cells and hope” made me want to read on. “Alone at his computer, drool sliding down his chin, Tom Hill searched the Internet for anything that could save him,” Zarembo wrote. I wanted to keep reading because the vivid imagery intrigued me. I wanted to know why Tom Hill was searching and drooling. In the next several paragraphs, Zarembo reveals that Tom has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a disease marked by the deterioration of the nervous system. It is incurable. At the point, we are introduced to Tom, he will do anything to find a cure, even shell out thousands of dollars for therapies that have no guarantees. He did just that.


Numbers and Censorship

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

(Photo by L. Marie via Flickr)

This week I read two articles on subjects I don’t like: math and censorship. One left me feeling somewhat cold the other made me red hot.


Laura Sanders’ article “Safety in Numbers” started off with an interesting though somewhat hokey start. I was willing to forgive the fact that she compared mathematicians to men in capes. After all, why couldn’t they save the world? It certainly seemed the article would show us that they were super and make me forget about the cheesy beginning.

But the article did not. Instead, I found myself somewhat confused and only moderately interested in the article. Don’t get me wrong, the topic itself is fascinating. I love the idea of using math to find terrorists and predict their locations.


Linda Feferman, Fluoridation, Placebos and Electromagnetic Frequencies

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

This week I watched some good videos and read some very bad science. The short videos were from Linda Feferman, a Sundance award-winning director who has produced science related programming for Wired and PBS. The bad science came from none other than the Los Angeles Times.

Let me start in a little more detail with the good.

Linda Feferman

I watched six segments from what I think are some of Feferman’s most recent work, ranging in topic from autism to devices that retrain your brain to the Quiet Zone. Of them, the video that left me the most intrigued was “Mixed Feelings.”

“Mixed Feelings” explores the concept of training the brain to compensate for the loss of a particular sense. The late neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita first developed this idea years ago, but he was met with incredulity by his peers and the public. How could the brain see through any other means than the eye? Today, his protoges carry on his legacy, developing astonishing tools that really do allow blind people to see.


The Elegant But Complicated Universe

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

The ribbon is a remnant from a supernova that occurred more than 1,000 years ago. (Photo courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

For the last three weeks, I have waded through Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, a book that explains string theory and its role in physics. Now that I have finished the book, I wanted explore its contents with you in the hopes that you and I will have a better understanding of the universe.

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, physics and anything close to it have never been a forte of mine. I have never formally studied the field, finding it intimidating. I finally decided to be brave and learn more. While I am glad I did, the book definitely left me with questions. But first let me explain to you a little bit more about what it’s about.

It starts with Albert Einstein and his theories of special and general relativity. Einstein’s theory of special relativity says that our perceptions are relative, or, in other words, no one will see force-free motion the same way. These motions are also only meaningful in comparison with other individuals or objects. For every day events, we don’t really see these differences in perception, because daily motion is incredibly slow compared to the speed of light. But the distortions of space and time are clouded, though, by these perceptions. There are two constants to special relativity: the speed of light never changes and the laws of physics must be absolutely identical.

The theory of general relativity is compatibly with special relativity that explains gravity as a force that warps both space and time. Objects with any mass, including you and I, curve the spatial dimensions around us. This is space’s response to our presence. Larger masses warp space more.

Green quotes the physicist John Wheeler on gravity as saying, “mass grips space by telling it how to curve, space grips mass by telling it how to move.”

Time is also warped by gravity. The stronger the gravitational field, the slower time passes. This concept makes me think of Star Wars. I imagine the tractor beam on a giant star ship pulling in Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon. But I am not exactly sure time actually slows down for those on the Falcon.


Discovering Jennifer Ouellette

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

(Photo by masochismtango via Flickr)

Poker is such a fun game. You intently stare across the table at your opponents. Does anyone have a better hand than you? Does anyone know you have those pocket Kings? You take a quick glance at you two cards just to make sure you do have Kings. The intensity in the room is palpable. You place a conservative bet and hope no one can read you. It comes to the last round of betting and it’s down to you and your good friend. You reveal your cards and barely win. (Your friend has a pair of Queens.) A smile stretches across your face as you rake in your winnings.

By now you are wondering why I am rambling about gambling.

This week I read “Big Game Theory” by Jennifer Ouellette, a short Discover magazine piece about poker-playing physicists. I had never read anything by science writer Jennifer Ouellette until this week. Ouellette’s writings run the gammut from physics, to calculus, to game theory and probability, and even to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


An Invisible Man, Two Visible Heads and The Future

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Physicist Stephen Hawking experiences zero gravity. (Photo Courtesy NASA)

As usual, my readings for this week bounced around from topic to topic. I learned about an icon, entered the mind of a fascinating couple, and explored the future. I have been inspired on so many levels.

Here’s why.

An Invisible Man

Before I read the “Return of the Invisible Man” by Tim Folger, I didn’t know much about Stephen Hawking. I did know that he sat in a motorized wheelchair and spoke through a computer-like device, making him sound like a robot. He had done some sort of scientific  work that made people talk about him sort of like an icon. But beyond that I knew nothing.

I had no idea he studied black holes and the universe. I had no idea he couldn’t walk or speak on his own because he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a muscular disease that usually caused death within five years of diagnosis.

After reading Folger’s piece, I am nowhere near an expert on Hawking or his work. But I can at least say that I know quite a bit more about him.