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Archive for October, 2010

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Genomes, Intraterrestrials and Tissue

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

DNA Sculpture (Photo by mira66 via Flickr)

For thousands of years, humans have been curious. That curiosity has led us to advances in technology and scientific discoveries. Fortunately, humans today are just as curious.

This week I read about people near and far who continue to put their urge to ask questions to good use.

So, let me start with a relatively recent discovery that led to many more questions than answers.

Genomes

Ten years ago, scientists fully sequenced the first human genome. Today, more than 20 human genomes have been sequenced. But despite this huge scientific leap, many questions remain unanswered. In Erika Check Hayden’s “Life Is Complicated,” she explores just how much we do and don’t know about ourselves.

She asks “can one ever truly know an organism – or even a cell, an organelle or a molecular pathway – down to the finest level of detail?” No.

Like all experiments, testing one scientific hypothesis opens the floodgate to countless other hypotheses. The Human Genome Project was no exception.

“The more we know,” said Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, in the piece, “the more we realize there is to know.”

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