Science Update

Science Update – Meteor-Preserved Life?

This might be approximately the coolest thing I’ve heard in a while…

First a little background. When a meteor strikes the Earth and actually reaches the surface, creating a crater, there is an immense amount of heat and pressure during the impact–so much, in fact, that clumps of glass can form. Scientists have recently dissected the remnants of the 800,000 year old Darwin Crater and discovered clumps of glass that contain completely preserved organic compounds. These compounds suggest that when the meteor came, it hit a swampy area and when that happened, glass was created and somehow captured tiny particles from that ancient swamp, preserving them indefinitely within the glass.

Trust me, this is cool. When a meteor impacts occurs, it blasts pieces of itself and pieces of Earth off into space. These pieces can then travel vast distances to the moon or even other planets… Yes. You heard that right. Meteor impacts on planets that have life could potentially transport organic compounds to other planets–essentially seeding planets with some of the components necessary for life! (This is referred to as panspermia by sciencey people). With that knowledge, it is reasonable to hypothesize that life on Earth may have originated in a similar fashion.

Okay, I’m going to stop before I hurt myself… Thinking about how life created itself from just a bunch of organic molecules and compounds messes with my brain.

Check it out here:  http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn24560-meteor-impact-trapped-ancient-swamp-plants-in-glass.html#.UoFoiPl4yuM

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The Science of Waking Up

If you’re anything like me, then you probably struggle to get out of bed in the morning. This morning was pretty bad (though still fairly typical for me, sadly enough…). Somewhere amid the obnoxious beeping of my 10 alarms set at random 5-15 minute intervals, my cruel consciousness lurked, knowing that it was supposed to be pulling me out of slumber. Instead, it just softly lifted my finger and pressed the snooze every time.

For an hour.

There is something about getting out of bed that is bizarrely difficult, especially when it starts getting cold out. I don’t know if my bed is just infinitely more comfy than everyone else’s… but I just can’t resist the urge to stay where it’s warm and cozy. I’ve even tried putting my alarm across the other side of the room under my desk. When it goes off, my body just slumps over to it, presses snooze, and crawls back under the covers. It probably is as much a result of craving extra sleep as it is about not wanting to leave that happy place…

These days there are all sorts of things that can help you get out of bed in the morning. There are “Sleep Cycle” phone apps that sense when you are moving and try to wake you up then instead of when you are in a deeper sleep. That way you will feel more awake when your eyes open! Some people use stimulating alarms that try to get their brains active to get out of bed—usually using math problems that always seem to be way too easy to actually do much stimulating… And finally, a friend of mine had an app that required him to scan a bar code in order to turn the alarm off. He put the bar code on his bathroom mirror, which proved to be extremely annoying once when he spent the night on our couch after going out and was miles from his bathroom mirror the next morning…

These solutions probably work for some people, but it turns out there is an actual biological reason that we don’t want to wake up in the morning and often remain tired throughout the day. I think by now everyone is aware that 7-8 hours of sleep is ideal and actually crucial to human health because that is the time our cells use to regenerate and fix all the stupid things we did to them throughout the day. But actually, the original sleep cycle for humans was based on sun cycles. In general, once the sun went down, it was a cue to our bodies and we would become tired and rest until sunrise. Historically, humans even had a period where we woke up in the middle of the night for an hour and then went back to sleep. This was observed as late as the medieval period, but no one really knows what the purpose of that was—although apparently it is the most productive state of mind to accomplish things.

I don’t think I will be changing my sleep hours or waking up in the middle of the night to gain more energy in the morning, but maybe I’ll try out one of those apps… Unfortunately, I think the only one that would actually work for me is the bar code. Yay…….

Check out this link for more information on all the sleep cycles and why we always seem to be so tired: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10000872396390443866404577565781327694346

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Science Update – Mind Control

Apparently it’s finally happened… Mind control is a real thing. A laboratory at the University of Washington has developed a way to have one person’s mind control another person’s movements using brain wave sensors and electric signals and internet. Don’t get too excited though. As a scientist, I am immediately skeptical because I don’t believe anything until I see the raw data, how the experiment was conducted, etc etc. There are many ways to interpret data and plan experiments, and often times people will arrange for things to lean in favor of their desired result. In this case it’s especially subjective because the only result was that the test subject’s finger twitched and “involuntarily pointed” towards a button. Here’s the article:http://www.livescience.com/39265-first-human-mind-meld-created.html

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Science Update – Hyperloop & the Future

If you haven’t heard of the Hyperloop, that’s because it doesn’t exist yet. The same man who started Tesla Motors (attempting to create affordable, efficient electric cars) and SpaceX (attempting to decrease the cost of space travel) has come up with yet another innovation for transportation. The Hyperloop is essentially a vacuum tube (like the one at the bank) that will zip cylinders full of people at ridiculously high speeds between set locations. It would be like a high-powered subway system with fewer stops and could hypothetically cut a 3,000 mile journey down to just 45 minutes. The Hyperloop is still just a theoretical idea, but current technology isn’t far away from making it a reality for a cost actually cheaper than current highways or railroads (supposedly). Even if it turns out to be a bad idea for people to travel by, it could still expedite the transport of non-living goods significantly. http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/12/opinion/staley-hyperloop-transportation/index.html?hpt=hp_bn7

While we are on the subject of futuristic innovations… I find it pretty interesting (and humorous) how humanity seems to advance technologically by somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophesy. We all watch movies and read books about futures with flying cars and touch screens and holograms and rapid transportation and living in bubble colonies on Mars. Then we step into reality and look at some of the things we are actually building. There’s a pretty close comparison! Innovation is all about finding new ways to use old things or changing how something works slightly to make it more efficient or useful in unforeseen applications. And a lot of times these inspirations come from stories! Who knows what we’ll think of next!

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Science Update – Mars, the next frontier!

Well… I almost applied to go to Mars today. Okay, not really, but the idea really is amazing! (You can apply here: http://applicants.mars-one.com/) Imagine being the first person to explore an entire new world. There was Columbus and Magellan and Darwin—people who made historic discoveries… and now there can be Bob from the check-out line at the supermarket! In all seriousness though, who doesn’t dream of being an explorer as a little kid? Now, a few lucky people potentially get to be the ultimate explorers.

Of course, who knows if they can even actually reach Mars alive… Apparently, radiation in space is a very big problem for long-term travel. There are a lot of these little things that the average person doesn’t think about because we all know about Star Wars and Star Trek and they make it look so easy to travel in space. Luckily though, we already know of a shield (outside of science fiction) that deflects and dissipates radiation! The Earth’s magnetic sphere does exactly that and it looks like scientists are close to replicating it on a small scale. Nature is a pretty intelligent thing—who knew? http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/27/world/europe/star-trek-shield

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Science Update – Turning off the cold?

Scientists have recently discovered how to “turn off” the sensation of feeling cold! In mice they blocked a specific protein, TRPM8 (which I have fondly renamed ‘trip-him-eight’), and observed that the mice no longer sensed coldness. Of course, this begs the question “how did they know the mice didn’t feel cold?” Did they ask the mice if they felt cold? Doubtful… Unless they also discovered the protein that makes mice talk. Did they have mice walk into circle A if they felt cold and circle B if they didn’t? Of course not, mice aren’t that smart (see story The Lab Rat below for the counter-argument). In reality, they probably inferred that the mice did not feel cold based on behavior. They would have observed mice that still had TRPM8 and how they reacted to cold environments. Maybe they huddled together or shivered. Then they would have also observed mice that did not have TRPM8, who just went about their normal daily mouse routines.

So why do we care? We wouldn’t want to permanently turn off feeling cold—it’s kind of important in preventing us from FREEZING TO DEATH (or just getting frostbite/pneumonia if you’re not into the whole pessimism thing). You wouldn’t want to be prancing around in the snow in shorts and a t-shirt having a blast, feeling nice a cozy warm and then all of a sudden drop dead from coldness that you couldn’t even feel. I would categorize that under “bad day.” However, on a more serious note, this discovery could truly pave the way for some interesting developments. We could potentially create a pill that blocks Mr. Trip-him-eight temporarily. Then skiers could go out and do their thing without feeling cold, people who have to work in cold environments (freezer storage, deep sea fishing in the Arctic, etc, etc) could be more comfortable, kids who have to walk to school or wait for the bus in the winter would be happier…

If you ask me, it’s pretty cool stuff (pun intended). For more information check it out here:  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130212172116.htm

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Science Update – QWERTY

As I was sitting here this morning, wondering what to write, I stared blankly at my keyboard. My mind wandered (as usual) completely off-topic and I began to think about the keyboard… Then the engineer in me took over. In terms of an efficient tool for writing words in the English language, the modern keyboard really isn’t a great design. ‘E’ and ‘T’ are the most common letters in the alphabet, yet you need to move your fingers to type them. That sounds a lot like the EXACT OPPOSITE of efficiency! And on top of that, popular letter #3 (also known as ‘A’) can only be typed using the weakest and most difficult to control finger in the human body!! That’d be the left pinkie finger for those of you who haven’t had an anatomy class in a while. (Yes, I did completely make that up…) As you can see, this is already a mess and we haven’t even gotten to why the heck the easiest key to type is occupied by the letter ‘J’?!? For real, who needs to type ‘J’ that easily? It’s in approximately 5.21 words and used about as frequently as ‘Q’ (which may be the only letter actually in the location it deserves–along with ‘Z’ and ‘X’ I suppose). Continue reading

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