Thursday, August 9, 2012

Why Are Olympic Medals Gold, Silver, and Bronze

Check out these divers, trying super-hard to dive the best dive that has ever been dived:

These faces don't lie. Image via.

Incredible feats of strength, dedication, and squished faces are on prominent display at the London 2012 Olympics. I won't pretend to understand what drives Olympic athletes to be so zany, but I do know that if they squish their faces hard enough they will be rewarded with one of these beautiful Olympic medals.

2012 Olympic Medals

There they are...silver, gold, and bronze...from left to right. But why are those medals made out of those metals????? AND, why is bronze good, silver better, and gold the best??

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Is the solar system tilted sideways??

Do you ever think about how cool it is that someone on the opposite side of the earth from you is standing "upside down"--your feet facing their feet?

Or even when you travel from one US coast to another, you are standing at a ~45 degree tilt relative to how you were standing before.

I had thoughts like this swirling in my head during one moonless night on the pacific coast, as the campfire died down and our very own milky way galaxy came into view.

Monday, May 14, 2012

What is Lichen? Why is it so cool??

On a recent bike trip to the shore of Lake Waubesa near Madison, WI I saw this awesome tree covered in this crazy greenish stuff.

Summer has returned to the northern hemisphere and I'm SO PSYCHED.

That greenish stuff on the trunk of the tree are lichens. Lichens are the coolest fungi! Lichens are also the coolest plants and the coolest bacteria! Wait...  how is that possible????

Monday, April 16, 2012

Yoe the Scientist's Nano-Sized Brain

Deep in the heart of south-central Wisconsin, there lives a scientist who would prefer to remain nameless and (nearly) faceless.  We will call him Yoe.

Yoe the Scientist

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Rosetta: Languages and Space Probes

Linguists estimate that around 50% of the worlds languages will go extinct by the end of this century (ref). Just as John Hammond used the the DNA preserved in ancient dino-hungry mosquitoes to revive extinct dinosaurs in Jurassic Park...

...future generations may use the information encoded on a three inch disk, known as a Rosetta disk, to bring long-dead languages back to life. At least that's the idea. The Rosetta disk project was hatched by people at the Long Now Foundation, who used technology developed at Los Alomos National labs to miniaturize 13,500 pages of text from over 1,500 human languages onto a three inch disk of nickel. I like to think about these disks as language time capsules.

The teaser-side of a Rosetta disk. via the Long Now Foundation.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lemurs! Aye-ayes! Mammal woodpeckers!????!

Prepare to be assaulted by cute pictures and amazing discoveries! By the end of this post you will never look at the mammal world in the same way.

As I walked into the lemur enclosure during my discovery-filled visit to the Duke Lemur Center as part of the Science Online 2012 conference, I was impressed not only with the lemurs' musky odor but also with their piercing eyes. So intense, so seemingly interested!

Coquerel's Sifaka (mother and child) living large at the Duke Lemur Center. via their Blog

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Clams' Insane Molecular Diversity

When I tell people I am a chemist the most common response is, “Oh man, I hated that in school, especially organic chemistry!” That's an unfortunate but reasonable response. Trying to understand these tiny things called molecules that are impossible to see can be kind of like learning about a never-to-be-seen dimension in which up is down and left is orange.

Thinking about chemicals can be very disorienting. Image via Andrew Lipson.

I love chemistry though because the shapes of these molecules scribbled on the chalk board actually have consequences that we can see in the world. The changing color of leaves on the approach of winter is caused by actual changes in the structure of the matter of which those leaves are made.  The effects of the diversity of molecular shapes in the world around us can actually be SEEN with our eyes!

Green and yellow leaves on the Katsura tree with the chemicals responsible for those colors (chlorophyll a and yellow-chlorophyll-catabolite, respectively). Image and knowledge via Krautler et. al.

When someone tells me they are a biologist my most common response is, “Oh man, biology is so complicated!” It seems so daunting to me to move beyond a simplistic description of aspects of life such as "chemical X results in color Y" and actually try to understand the nearly unfathomable diversity of chemicals that come together to make each living thing unique.

Not to scale. Clams are way bigger than DNA, which is way bigger than water.

I am certainly not capable of crafting a simple yet complete description of how the shapes of the molecules that make up living things contributes to those things' visible shapes, sizes, and colors.

Fortunately, where my scientific brain fails, an artistic brain succeeds. Video artist and experimental animator David C. Montgomery has created a beautiful video capturing the diversity of shapes, patterns, and colors that are present within several different species of life. When watching this video (full screen it!!), try and think about how all of the differences you see are caused by differences in the shape, arrangement, and composition of the unimaginably tiny and diverse molecules of which the living things are composed.


Monday, February 13, 2012

Experiments at Home #2 - "Skillet Control Oven"

In my last post I showed how my skillet was coated in liquid after a short stay in my pre-heating oven. I guessed that the liquid was water and that it came from the burning of natural gas. Though I was quite confident in my guess, I admitted I hadn't done any other experiments to show that the liquid actually was water.

Thankfully, The Second Criterion blogger Jenny pointed out that while my oven produces heat by burning natural gas...

This is my oven! Definitely try this at home!!!
If you want to know why the flame is blue, check out this post.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Experiments at Home #1 - "The Skillet Mystery"

In my ever-continuing quest to become an actual adult, I have recently begun to cook. I use a real oven and everything!

In my usual encounter with the oven it takes just a few minutes of pre-heating before I realize that I have yet again left the big skillet inside. Panicked, I pull it out of the oven, and notice something weird! Finally I decided to repeat the skillet-in-the-oven experiment and document my findings. Here we go!

Step #1--observe the condition of the skillet before its trip into the oven.

Monday, January 16, 2012

I Am a Scientist! - part 2

I am a scientist. Here is me pretending that life in lab is just as I had imagined it as a child...lab coat, frizzy hair, flasks of colored solutions, smoke, and all:

Erlenmeyer flasks are my favorite piece of laboratory glassware.