Archive for the '30-second science blogging' Category

30-second science blogging – Back from extinction: a dead language lives

Saturday, January 21st, 2006

Driven by the desire for authenticity, writer/director Terence Malick of the upcoming film The New World wanted the lines of Pocahontas and Powhatan to be spoken in Virginian Algonquin. No problem, right? Too bad no one has spoken that dialect in over 200 years.

The linked MSNBC article tells the fascinating tale of the apparently successful attempt to revive a dead language. Quite an accomplishment, given that of the 15 or so known Algonquin dialects of the East Coast, only two survive to this day.

Working from 16th and 17th century documents, existing Algonquin grammar, and an academic gold standard ‘proto-Algonquin’, UNC (Charlotte) linguist Blair Rudes was able to create a fairly likely reconstruction of Virginian Algonquin. His approach was flexible enough that Malick was able to expand the number of Algonquin-with-English subtitles scenes from two to fifty; they were even able to improvise dialog with minimal turn-around time.

Not bad for a ‘dead’ language. How cool is that?

30-second science blogging – Polaris, the North Star, isn’t.

Monday, January 9th, 2006

Isn’t a star, that is; it’s actually three stars. The images from the Hubble may be found here – the fullscreen one is here.

Too bad they’ve written the Hubble off… It seems to me that it still has a lot of life left in it. And it fills an important role: it keeps people excited about space. We’re never getting off this rock in any significant way without some excitement…

[found thru /.]

30-second science blogging – Resurrection on Ice: A Pleistocene Story

Tuesday, December 20th, 2005

To be published in the upcoming issue of Science: woolly mammoth DNA… partially sequenced:

Scientists have mapped part of the genome of the woolly mammoth, a huge mammal that’s been extinct for about 10,000 years.

The breakthrough could lead to re-creating the creatures.

A team led by Hendrik Poinar at McMaster University unlocked secrets of the creature’s nuclear DNA by working with a well-preserved 27,000-year-old specimen from Siberia. Colleagues at Penn State sequenced 1 percent of the genome in a few hours and say they expect to finish the whole genome in about a year if funding is provided.

How cool is that?

30-second science blogging – Face/Off come to life

Wednesday, November 30th, 2005

Surgeons in France have performed the first ever face transplant:

In the controversial operation, tissues, muscles, arteries and veins were taken from a brain-dead donor and attached to the patient’s lower face.

Doctors stress the woman will not look like her donor, but nor will she look like she did before the [dog] attack – instead she will have a “hybrid” face.

It is unclear if either Nicolas Cage or John Travolta was the donor – though given the necessity of the donor being braindead, I’ll go with Travolta…

(initially seen in my RSS feed from /. this morning…)

30-second science blogging – Wired’s coverage of NASA’s space elevator contest

Monday, October 24th, 2005

The article is available here.

With the flick of a switch, a searchlight beam illuminated a photovoltaic array, and a prototype space elevator called Snow Star One lifted off the ground. As the humble assemblage of solar cells, metal braces and off-the-shelf rollers rose slowly from the launch pad and up a long blue tether, a small crowd of spectators let out a boisterous cheer.

The contraption, designed by University of British Columbia undergrads Steve Jones and Damir Hot, didn’t get very far — it managed to wriggle its way just 15 feet up the 200-foot-long tether before stalling out. But as the first competitor in the inaugural Space Elevator Games, even that modest performance was enough to cause a quite stir in the still-embryonic space elevator community.


Spaceward [(the non-profit foundation overseeing the competition)] board member Michael Laine, president of a Bremerton, Washington-based company called LiftPort that is seeking to commercialize space-elevator technology, noted that next year’s games will up the ante considerably. While the already daunting thresholds will be set even higher, there will also be more money to entice competitors — $100,000 for first prize, $40,000 for second and $10,000 for third.

“I think that next year is going to be big,” Laine said. “It’s going to be harder, but I think there’s going to be lots of people that rise to the challenge. We’re at the beginning of something really great.”

When I mentally compare these steps with what I can only imagine would be involved in actually building an elevator, I can’t help but think of Langley’s Aerodromes compared to an F-22 Raptor or the JSF.

Langley Large Aerodrome 'A'
Joint Strike Fighter

I wonder what Langley would say about the JSF? Despite being an ‘early adopter’ of powered, heavier-than-air flight, would he have laughed at the idea of carbon composites, ceramic laminates, titanium components, and a top speed of Mach 1.8?

30-second science blogging – an “X-Prize”-lite for the space elevator concept

Friday, October 21st, 2005

While I don’t think this represents any kind of radical change in NASA’s approach to space, I do find it heartening that they’re at least willing to entertain (and reward) something other than the strap-a-mofo-huge-rocket-to-your-ass-and-cross-your-fingers philosophy they’ve embraced since, oh, forever.

Please note that no disrespect is intended towards those who actually strap those mofo-rockets to their collective asses – but since we’ve come to learn that rocket-powered space flight is so inefficient (certainly, rocket-powered flight from the bottom of a gravity well), you’d think we’d have given something else a whirl by now. It isn’t like there’s been a shortage of ideas or anything.

30-second science blogging – general geeky roundup

Tuesday, October 18th, 2005

Lots of things struck my geeky fancy today – too many to simply pick one. As a result of such fecund geekiosity, we’re just gonna have a quick list:

  • A tool-using gorilla catching scientists off guard
  • A swimming dinosaur
  • RNA/DNA precursor molecules found galaxies away
  • Plesiosaur poop!
  • The ‘why’ behind China’s space race
  • Scotty’s transparent aluminum – now a reality?
  • There was a bunch of other stuff that I can’t find right now – regrowing limbs, the UK re-evaluating manned spaceflight… Slashdot, Pharyngula, the BBC, MSNBC – it was generally a geek-positive kind of day all around.

    30-second science blogging – 10th planet has moon

    Saturday, October 1st, 2005

    This ought to heat up the what-is-and-what-isn’t-a-planet debate. Oh, and in case you had any doubt that astronomers were a big bunch of geeks, this should put it to rest. Since that 10th planet is nicknamed ‘Xena’, they’ve nicknamed the moon ‘Gabrielle’.

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    30-second science blogging – the beanstalk comes closer

    Monday, September 26th, 2005

    This has been sitting as a ‘draft’ item for a couple of days now, but seeing it listed in MSNBC’s ‘Clicked’ column goosed me to finish it…

    Space elevator passes critical 1000ft test

    Space elevator? Yup, space elevator, also popularly (as the value of ‘popularly’ approaches the value of ‘among hard science fiction geeks’) called a ‘beanstalk’. The first time I read about the concept was over two decades ago in a novel by Arthur C. Clarke, something he discusses here:

    WHEN NEIL ARMSTRONG stepped out onto the Sea of Tranquillity in that historic summer of 1969, the science fiction writers had already been there for two thousand years. But history is always more imaginative than any prophet: no one ever dreamt that the first chapter of lunar exploration would end after only a dozen men had walked upon the Moon. Neither did anyone imagine, in those heady days of Apollo, that the solar system would be lost — at least for a long while — in the paddy fields of Vietnam.

    Yet it was not the first time that ambition had outrun technology.


    The space elevator was the central theme in my 1978 science-fiction novel The Fountains of Paradise (soon to be a Hollywood movie). When I wrote it, I considered it little more than a fascinating thought experiment. At that time, the only material from which it could be built — diamond — was not readily available in sufficient megaton quantities. This situation has now changed, with the discovery of the third form of carbon, C60, and its relatives, the Buckminsterfullerenes. If these can be mass-produced, building a space elevator would be a completely viable engineering proposition.

    As for ‘why’, there’s one very compelling answer: cost. Once it’s built, the per-ounce price of getting stuff into space should plummet. And the folks who are trying to make that happen are here in Seattle.

    Actually, there’s a lot of space-related activity taking place here in Seattle, and I don’t mean Boeing. There’s LiftPort, the elevator folks; there’s Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, striving towards making inexpensive space flight a reality; sharing that goal is Space Transport Corporation (okay, they’re out on the Olympic Peninsula, but still…). That’s 3 major, well-financed space companies that I’m aware of.

    Over a century ago, Seattle grew tremendously as the result of its location: it was an ideal jumping-off point for Alaska and the Klondike gold rushes. At some point in the not-too-distant future, Seattle could reprise that role – as a jumping-off point for space. And there are a lot of very bright (and very well-funded) people here working with all their hearts to make that vision reality.

    Okay, longer than 30 seconds. But still – how cool is that?

    30-second science blogging – Human brains still evolving?

    Friday, September 9th, 2005

    I seem to remember reading this hypothesis a few months ago: that there are measureable evolutionary changes in human brains that occurred as recently as 6000 years ago:

    The human brain may still be evolving.

    So suggests new research that tracked changes in two genes thought to help regulate brain growth, changes that appeared well after the rise of modern humans 200,000 years ago.

    That the defining feature of humans — our large brains — continued to evolve as recently as 5,800 years ago, and may be doing so today, promises to surprise the average person, if not biologists.

    The whole article is well worth the click, presenting the arguements in favor and against this theory pretty well. The article also does a good job of noting that such a finding, if true, could pretty quickly play into eugenicist and rascist rhetoric.

    Still… we may not be at any kind of static pinnacle; how cool is that?

    30-second science blogging – “Strange fossil defies grouping”

    Thursday, August 18th, 2005

    A strange 525 million-year-old fossil creature is baffling scientists because it does not fit neatly into any existing animal groups.

    How cool is that? Unfortunately, I fear that this very legitimate process of scientific debate will be siezed upon by those people seeking to create a very different debate where none exists. It is also unfortunate that those people will be able to exploit the American public’s general ignorance about the scientific process, and will be able to engender confusion and doubt where none should exist.

    30-second science blogging – staving off extinction… through consumerism?

    Thursday, August 18th, 2005

    Okay, this is going to be a little more in-depth than 30 seconds, but a good tag line is hard to pass up… So – two sci-tech/nature articles on MSNBC caught my eye yesterday evening:

    This auction block aims to save ancient trees


    Elephants, lions to roam North America again?

    In a nutshell, both articles describe consumer-driven means of preserving genetic diversity – in the first instance, by auctioning off saplings of a pine tree once thought to be extinct (an ancestor of the ‘monkey puzzle’ tree, it was dinosaur food) but recently discovered in a small grove in Australia; in the second, a number of scientists propose creating a Great Plains Pliocestene National Park by reintroducing descendants of the great North American mammals to an unpopulated segment of the Great Plains: elephants, lions, cheetas, camels and primitive horses would be allowed to roam free, theoretically helping return the plains to their native state by reproducing something closer to the ecosystem that made the Great Plains what they ‘should be’ (talk about a moving target – ‘should be’ to whom?).

    In both cases, the proposals intend to promote biodiversity and offer new environments for threatened species by a.) generating funding, b.) increasing interest in stewardship, and c.) broadening the available habitat for the species, providing ‘arks’, if you will, where the pressures that they face in their native habitat won’t be a factor. Now, market-driven conservation is nothing new: the Nature Conservancy has been doing it for years. It isn’t without its criticisms, either – the Nature Conservancy, for instance, will sell land that it acquires to developers in order to fund additional preservation efforts. When they do this, the land the sell must meet fairly strict criteria as far as not being worth protecting, but still, some people find this discouraging.

    I don’t know, myself – what I do know is that something must be done to preserve biodiversity, and while I’m not a fan of purely market-based solutions (Enron and California’s energy crisis, anyone?), this doesn’t seem harmful, and certainly seems worth a try. Of the two, the auction is certainly more realistic in scope.

    I’d love to hear what others think about this…

    30-second science blogging – epigenomics

    Tuesday, August 16th, 2005

    Epi-what? Epigenomics:

    As scientists discover more about the “epigenome,” a layer of biochemical reactions that turns genes on and off, they’re finding that it plays a big part in health and heredity.

    By mapping the epigenome and linking it with genomic and health information, scientists believe they can develop better ways to predict, diagnose and treat disease.


    The epigenome can change according to an individual’s environment, and is passed from generation to generation. It’s part of the reason why “identical” twins can be so different, and it’s also why not only the children but the grandchildren of women who suffered malnutrition during pregnancy are likely to weigh less at birth.

    In keeping with other trends in research, it’s looking more and more like your DNA is a mix of hard ‘n fast rules, touchy-feely heuristics and quick ‘n dirty suggestions. A lot like life itself… Gee, I wonder why that is? (Anyone who suggests ‘Cosmic Designer’ will be flogged with a rubber chicken.)

    30-second science blogging – it isn’t telepathy, but…

    Sunday, August 7th, 2005

    …the above-linked BBC article is about 2 recently-published scientific articles that each demonstrate the feasability of reading someone’s thoughts:

    The US study, published in Science, […] used electrodes placed inside the skull to monitor the responses of brain cells in the auditory cortex of two surgical patients as they watched a clip of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”.

    They used this data to accurately predict the fMRI [*] signals from the brains of another 11 healthy patients who watched the clip while lying in a scanner.

    Professor Itzhak Fried, the neurosurgeon who led the research, said: “We were able to tell one part of a scene from another, and we could tell one type of sound from another.”

    Yoiks! File this under ‘How cool is that?’ and cross-file under ‘Proof of the continued need for tinfoil hats‘.

    * fMRI: functional MRI, an MRI capable of combining structural scans while tracking electrical activity in the brain

    30-second science blogging – Alien invaders create new species

    Thursday, August 4th, 2005

    Before you think I’ve gotten all ‘Area 51’/Weekly World News on you, listen to this – a non-native plant in North America has created a new ecological niche, becoming a de facto native species; a new species has stepped in to fill that niche:

    The tephritid fruit fly loves this kind of plant. In fact, there’s a fly species specifically adapted to exploit each species of berry-producing plants. For instance, the blueberry fly goes through its entire life cycle on blueberry bushes. It can’t live on any other type of plant. That’s how the fly-plant relationship has evolved naturally.

    The Japanese honeysuckle also has its fly. But that fly didn’t originate with the plant. A Pennsylvania State University research team traced its ancestry to a hybrid produced by flies that live on blueberry and snowberry plants, respectively. Normally, such a hybrid fly strain would die out. It can’t compete with either of its parent species on their host plants. Honeysuckle offered a niche with no such competition where the hybrid became a new species. The family outcast found an empty house on the block and moved in.

    How cool is that? Too bad our President doesn’t read the newspaper… Tidbits like this might force him to acknowldge that there is no debate over evolution.