Monday, September 3, 2007

Russian Peasant Multiplication

Check it out:

The website is full of fun experiments in cartoon form:

surprise people at work

push a needle through a balloon without popping it.

We used to do the last one at summer science camp, with a slightly different method. All you need is a big balloon (don't inflate it super-tight!) and a wooden skewer dipped in vegetable oil. Then just push it, very slowly, through the balloon. It's easier to go from tip to knot (the long way), at least until you get some practice!Link

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Get out in the dark! and experiment!

This weekend I had the luck to get out of the city and into the woods -- and one of my favorite things about it, apart from the chance for my brain to escape the internet, was the dark. Real dark. Dark enough to see stars. Dark enough to be afraid of the woods. Not something you can get in the city!

So for your enjoyment, the next time you're out in the dark (or in a closet with nothing else to do) try these mini- experiments. Remember, it can take up to 15 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the dark ... so take a walk without a flashlight and get used to it!

1. After your eyes have adjusted outside: pick a star - a pretty faint one. Stare directly at it. Then look a little to the side. Which way is easier to see it?

2. After your eyes have adjusted, get a bright candle or flashlight. Close one eye, gently cover it with your hand, turn on the light, and stare at it with your open eye. Stare for a good 30-60 seconds, then turn off the light and open both eyes. Switch back and forth - what's the difference?

3. Get a bunch of markers or crayons. Write the name of the color with the marker on a paper and save it until the lights come back on. Did you get any right?

The last three experiments have to do with rods and cones in your eyes ... rods are more sensitive, are found more in the periphery of the eye, and only see black and white. Cones see color and they are more concentrated in the center of your eye. So, which ones work in the dark?

Other things to try:

1. Different smells in the dark - use little containers of spices, coffee grounds, lemon juice, vinegar, etc. Or tastes - try different kinds of juice.

2. Sounds in the dark - sit on the ground and close your eyes. Have someone else snap their fingers or tap two spoons together, about 2 feet from your head. Point to where you think the sound is coming from. Try it in different places, then switch. Which is easier to tell apart - left and right, back and forwards, or up and down?

Enjoy! And since I've already done all these, I'd love some new suggestions!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Poll: School or Un-School?

I've been thinking about formal education ... I've been a student from pre-school through college, and I've taught kids in elementary schools, camps, college and all kinds of places ... and I have seriously mixed feelings about the system we have now!

So I apologize for the social science tangent, but what did you get out of school?

1. What did you learn in elementary school? high school? college?
2. How much did you enjoy elementary school? high school? college?
3. Is there anything you would have changed to make it more enjoyable or to learn more?
4. What would you have done with your time if you hadn't been in school?

I have a follow-up question, but it's loaded .... I'll save it for later!

Science Underground!

Four proposals, $70 million from a private donor, the former world's largest gold deposit ... and you get an 8 miles deep lab for neutrino science, gravity wave detection, biochemistry, geology, and carbon sequestration! Field trip anyone? Well, we have a few years to plan for it.

NSF Selects Former South Dakota Gold Mine as Deep Underground Science Site

Would you donate money to science? Would you donate your body? Your brain? your time, genes, or house? Let me know! (and no, I'm not taking donations)

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Male and female brains

According to the BBC's test, I must have been exposed to some testosterone as a fetus -- I have spatial skills after all!

Want to see if your brain falls more into the male or female model? Take the test here. It's part of a BBC series on "secrets of the sexes." If you're interested, I scored almost exactly halfway between a male and a female brain (good at words and spatial skills, bad at emotions and sytems thinking. Hmm.)

Other interesting results from the study: straight women have the worst spatial skills, straight men the most. And the most dispiriting - your brain begins to decline in skills after 30 - younger than expected. Time to break out the crossword puzzles and orienteering weekends to build up some brain muscle!

Which brings me to an interesting question: can you improve yourself with training? Brains are turning out to be more plastic all the time - even adult brains! If I keep playing Go and join scrabble tournaments, will I get better at strategy? Can you improve your all-around spatial thinking or verbal abilities? Or does training and practice just give you specific tricks and techniques to work around your inabilities?

I would also be interested to see the scores of scientists vs artists, and writers vs. builders, etc.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Fiction or fact?

One of my favorite science fiction writers, Kim Stanley Robinson, just got called the "anti-Crichton" for his views on global warming (a believer).

I've read Robinson's Mars and Antarctiva books, and i like the way they balance awesome nature, interesting scientists, some sci-fi optimism and spirit, with pragmatism that I can respect. Even the Mars books have their fair share of committee meetings and compromises to get things done!

I've nly read one of his new trilogy about climate change - Fifty Degrees Below - but I thought it had a good story, even if it was a little didactic. But bureacracy isn't what I normally think of when I think about science fiction! I wonder if the very current setting of the books is bringing in new audiences, while the looming tediousness of grant proposals is driving out the old ones?

Well, any way to get more people thinking!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Quantum computing controversy!

Now I wish that all those classes in quantum mechanics weren't so long ago ... maybe I would be able to follow these arguments a little better!

Yesterday I mentioned D-Wave and the 16-qubit quantum computer they demonstrated in California and B.C. yesterday -- well, the big news hasn't picked this up yet, as far as I know, but it's sparking some debate in the scientific community! (and elswhere)

Here's the CTO of the company fending off critics, and here's a little more on the adiabatiac quantum computing they claim to be doing.

The main arguments seem to be 1) whether this is truly "quantum," ie does it use quantum properties like the superposition of states, and 2) will it be any faster than a normal computer.

More to come!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

In the news...

A cure for cancer? simple, cheap, effective and unpatented? Maybe you've heard of DCA ... here's one cancer expert's take on why it doesn't match the recent hype.

I am grateful that so much work is being done on curing cancer, and I know treatments are improving every year ... does my immediate, gut-reaction skepticism against miracle cures make me a pessimist? I hope not!

More fun news: a company from Vancouver, Canada has just announced the first commercial quantum computer -- it only has 16 qubits, and it's not like any of the quantum computers being developed in academia -- but they claim it can solve hard problems involving optimizing solutions with a huge number of parameters. Is it really faster than conventional computers? Well, maybe we'll find out when they start letting people use it (over the internet!). I'm looking forward to the updates!


ps - check out science scouts in the links ... award yourself a badge!

Monday, January 15, 2007

What's a gene gun?

One of my friends recently got a job at a lab where they are attempting to cure congenitally deaf mice using gene therapy/stem cells. Our conversation was abbreviated, but I think I understand the general theory - the scientists inject stem cells into the cochlea of baby mice. There the stem cells, guided by the cells around them, begin to differentiate, and grow into tiny hairs. These hairs sense sound vibrations and turn them into electrical signals to be delivered to your brain by nerves (in biospeak, they are the sensory transduction apparatus of hearing). The scientists also inject genes (with a gene gun!) to help tell the stem cells what to do.

The best part? The mice glow green! Actually, just the hairs glow green, but it makes their entire heads glow. It's an easy genetic modification, and lets you see if the therapy took - but wow! Everything is more neon in the modern age ... even mice.

The next steps are
1. testing to see if the mice can hear now ("It looks like the hair cells wire up to the primary auditory cortex, but they haven't done satisfactory behavioral testing yet" says my friend).
2. Applying it to people! Since adults are much less flexible than babies, this would probably be used on embryos first, if they can get it to work at all.

This didn't answer all my questions, of course. How does a gene gun work? What do they use to inject the stem cells (it's a new invention, as far as I know)? How would one inject them into a human embryo? in utero?

I also wonder what the societal implications of this idea might be. The Deaf community is very strong, and although it's had some challenges to deal with recently, I also know that its members really value belonging to a community and don't see deafness as a problem. Some deaf parents specifically choose to have children that are deaf.

Here's an interesting study that attempted to measure some attitudes towards genetic testing for deafness among hearing people and deaf people. It found that among the Deaf, genetic testing was not of interest. I imagine a genetic "solution" would be similarly unpopular.

There is already an ongoing debate over cochlear implants - implants which allow deaf children to become part of the hearing world. Will modern medical science mean the end of Deaf culture?


ps - more topics for consideration:

ITER -and fusion! And other paths to fusion ...
What is vitamin A anyway? and is it toxic?
and more mathemagic

Friday, January 5, 2007

Construct a perfect square

Geometry and Mathemagic

I recently took up drawing and painting, so I'm learning to see the world around me as shapes and forms, colors and lines. This reminds me of a book I once read: A Beginners Guide to Constructing the Universe: The Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art, and Science, by Michael Schneider. In it, the author shows you how to construct perfect geometrical shapes, from a triangle to a decagon, using only a compass and a straightedge. He also discusses (and illustrates!) the roles these shapes, and the numbers 1-10 play in art, architecture, and nature.

I don't have the book in front of me, but I recall that you can make each shape, from 3 sides to 12 sides, except 7 and 11. I'm going to give it a try (using Illustrator instead of paper) and show you here if I can figure it out.

Triangle is the easiest of course. Three circles of the same size, with the edge of each one aligned with the centers of the others, gives you an equilateral triangle. If you want to try this, or other shapes, with a pencil and paper, here are the rules:

1. You can make circles and straight lines.
2. You can mark the centers of circles, the points where lines cross, and the point where a line is tangent to a circle.
3. You can use the compass to mark off distances.
4. You may not measure distances with a ruler, or angles with anything.

Go to it! I'll post my attempts as soon I complete them.

Also, if there are any mathematical minds out there, I've been wondering if there is a way to test which shapes can and cannot be drawn by this method. For example, why not seven sides? Is there a formula to tell you which would work?

- lily

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Welcome to Science Night!

Once upon a time, there was a large yellow house full of curious people, who liked to play and to discuss how the world worked. Often there was music, or politics, or art, or food, but on very special nights ... there was SCIENCE!

I don't live in that house anymore, but I still have questions about how things work, and I plan to share them here, with any curious people who stop by. My own background is in physics, but I know biologists, mathematicians, computer experts, psychologists, and more, in case a guest expert is needed.

Some topics I'd like to cover soon:

color vision, color blindness, and extra colors
geometrical mathemagic (once I learn how to get pictures on this blog)
can you freeze water when air temperature is above the freezing point?
what's a mustard plaster? does it work?