Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Curiosity Challenge: Why Do Flowers Smell Good?

Allie W, Age 12

Dear Allie,

Flowers smell good and also look colorful for the same reason, to attract insects and birds. Flowers want these flying creatures to come visit them, so they can help them reproduce. Insects and birds spread the pollen and seeds of flowers to other ones, so they can be fertilized. This is also how flowers become fruit.

Beware, some flowers only smell good to some insects and in fact they smell foul to people. For example “Stinking Corpse Lily” and “Western Skunk Cabbage” smell just like their household name implies. These flowers want to attract flies, like the ones that you commonly see circling in garbage pails. They are very large and beautiful, but luckily not chosen for common yard ornaments!

Doris Glykys is a Principal Chemical Engineer at Amgen.  She's passionate about bringing lifesaving science to the people.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Curiosity Challenge: Can Humans and Animals Understand Each Other?

Hey there, CSF fans, followers, and supporters!
Anna Bishop here with a cool Zoosemiotics (animal communication) question from Ella Nelson, age 11, who wants to know if humans and animals understand each other.

Excellent question! The answer is everyday and never: it depends on the animal, of course!

If you were to scold your dog for getting into the garbage, he might not understand all of your words, but he would know you were angry because of your face, voice, body language, and gestures. He might feel ashamed, because he knows it is something he should not do.

However, if you were to scold a chameleon, you might as well scold the wall. Chameleons, in the wild, do not communicate with one another, so their understanding of communication is essentially non-existent. They may be afraid of the loud noise, but they would not understand that you were trying to tell them something.

Communication is how we understand other members of our species, and work together. Most of the animals we can communicate with, communicate with each other in the wild. Take wild dogs, for example: they form packs, play, fight, and hunt with one another. It makes sense that they can understand people a bit. It is important for their survival to understand if other pack members are upset, excited, or in danger. Without a pack, wild dogs have a difficult time surviving, and if they did not pay attention to the feelings and needs of their pack, they might get kicked out of their pack, or left behind. They could die without a pack to protect him. So most dogs who were bad at communicating did not live to tell the tale.

There is also the complex idea of communication itself: we, as people, communicate mostly with spoken words and sometimes with hand symbols. We also observe body language: we can tell someone is upset just by looking at their expression and posture.

You’ve probably had a dog sniffing your face and legs. It may seem weird to you, but that’s how many animals communicate: smelling the bodies of other animals tells them important information like the age, sex, health, and even mood of other animals. Since we don’t use smell to communicate, we are different from many other mammals like dogs, cats, and rodents.

Interestingly, human communication with spoken words is most similar to that of dolphins, whales, and birds. These animals have languages and dialects. If a Costa Rican parakeet is surrounded by Amazon parakeets, the Costa Rican bird will change his own dialect to match those of the birds around him. The logic is, when in Rome, do as the Romans do!

Speaking of birds, have you heard of Alex the parrot? He was an African Grey parrot trained and observed in studies by animal cognition scientist, Irene Pepperburg. He was able to count, understand simple questions, and differentiate objects by shape and size. The fact that he was able to understand questions in a language invented by another species shows that parrots can do more than just mimic words. Here is a video of Alex with his trainer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZ2j1jOwAYU. Quite the brainy bird.

One African Lowland Gorilla, Koko, has become a celebrity for her amazing sign language abilities. She was able to tell us about her childhood in the wild, her father’s death, her desire to have a baby, and her love of kittens. Using a variant of American Sign Language (ASL), she can tell us what she knows and how she feels. She became best friends with Robin Williams, and told her keepers she was very sad when she heard about his death. This is a video of her with her teacher and friend of thirty years, Francine Patterson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNuZ4OE6vCk

Of course, Koko isn’t a pet, but she is still an animal that can have conversations with another species, while occasionally incorporating signs she knows by instinct. Here is a picture of her making common signs.

I shall end with another common animal companion: the horse. Horses communicate almost entirely through body language, and can tell if you are nervous, excited, or upset. They communicate with herd members by movements in their heads, necks, legs, and tails. When someone rides a horse, it is crucial that the rider and the horse have a decent level of trust, and at least one of them is experienced. Riders communicate to their horses how fast to go and in what direction, by gently pressing their legs into the horse’s side. Once the horse is well trained, he will respond to these cues appropriately. A horse learns to do tricks, like barrel turns and jumps, by paying attention to his rider's commands. In turn, the rider must recognize when the horse is tired, frustrated, and needs a break. A rider that ignores his steed’s body language is just as troublesome as a disobedient horse.

So hope that answers your question, Ella! Great to hear from you and stay curious about animals! Ciao for now!

About the Author: Anna Bishop is a sophomore at Sturgis Charter Public School and critter enthusiast. She is part of the Teen Advisory Board for the CSF, and her interests include zoology, zoo-psychology, ethology, raising insects, linguistics, and trying new recipes.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Editing the Genome: An Event Retrospective

Museum of Science.
Genome Editing: Now We Can, Should We?
It was a complex question that greeted attendees of the Museum of Science on Tuesday evening:

Now that we can edit the genome, should we?

The evening started with thought provoking presentations given by Kevin Esvelt (MIT Media Lab) and Sam Lipson (Cambridge Public Health Dept). They introduced the CRISPR/ Cas9 genome editing technology, which was developed in 2013 by several groups including scientists in Cambridge, MA. The technology enables genome editing of any organism by a cut and paste mechanism that replaces the original DNA sequence with an engineered sequence designed by scientists. Changes to the genome can be limited to specific target cells or can be propagated across an entire species via a process called ‘gene drive’. The presenters also discussed the current environment of legislation around genome editing and the secretive nature of science, performed effectively behind closed doors.

Lively discussions and debate were the format for the second half of the evening. Scenarios in which the CRISPR system could be used to potential benefit were provided to each table. Scenarios included the use of CRISPR as:
  • a therapeutic intervention either in muscular dystrophy or in HIV sufferers.
  • a tool to alter ecosystems for example, to help endangered species (e.g. bees) by increasing the fitness of the population, to combat crop diseases, or reduce mosquito numbers.
  • a tool to generate cost efficient technologies for example, the production of biofuels using modified yeast cells.

The general consensus from audience based discussions was that genome editing could be hugely advantageous in the generation of novel technologies and therapeutic approaches. However, there is a need to ensure that scientists use genome editing responsibly to avoid potential risks to complex ecosystems through 'gene drives'. There is also need for open dialogue between scientists and the general public to ensure greater understanding of applications in which genome editing is being used and consent from the wider populace. Ultimately a system of regulation is required, but currently a consensus from scientific, public, and governmental bodies as to what that should consist of is currently lacking.
Karen Featherstone Ph.D.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Chaos, Science, and the Thrill of Research: Tom Stoppard's ARCADIA at Central Square Theater

Reviewed by E. Rosser

Science and history.  Scholars butting heads.   A house whose story spans generations.  Meet the agents of Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s classic play currently in production through the Catalyst Collaborative at MIT, a resident program at Central Square Theater.  For the past decade, CC@MIT has brought science to the public limelight by producing at least one play about science per season, with special emphasis on marginalized scientists whose stories are frequently neglected.  Past shows in this vein include: A Disappearing Number, about the life of genius Indian mathematician, Ramanujan; Breaking the Code, featuring the tragic end of computer pioneer, Alan Turing; and Photograph 51, focusing on Rosalind Franklin and her DNA discoveries that were scooped by male colleagues.  Arcadia doesn’t slot quite so easily into one single theme: it’s quite layered, touching on sexism in academia, the thrill of research, intellectual rigor, plenty of sex and interpersonal conflict, and, just to keep things interesting, a time-jumping narrative.  Although the script features less science than most descriptions would have you expect (and, frankly, less science than I had hoped), this production was stunning, and the talented cast was well up to the task of capturing the nuances of Stoppard’s layered play.  

The 1809 characters of Arcadia.  Photo Credit: A.R. Sinclair Photography.
The action is split between two timelines unravelling in the same room in an English manor house, Sidley Park, nearly two hundred years apart.  Brilliant daughter of the estate Thomasina Coverly (played by Kira Patterson) is tutored by Septimus Hodge (Will Madden) out of an algebra textbook in 1809; in 1993, scholars Hannah Jarvis (Central Square regular, Celeste Oliva) and Valentine Coverly (Matthew Zahnzinger) try to piece together the history of the estate from the annotations Thomasina scrawled there.  The table, dressed to Regency perfection by the props and set team, becomes heaped with books, papers, teacups, a pet tortoise, and the general effluvia of both eras’ research.  As the links between the two eras develop, both sets of actors can grab the relevant paper or book, until time barriers melt away and we learn the entire story of Sidley Park.  It’s a well-choreographed dance of props--an impressive feat that the cast pulls off seamlessly.  The lush 17th-Century costumes by Leslie Held, the thrust stage set by Janie E. Howland, and the creative team's attention to detail make the time-hopping easy to follow and the eventual meshing of the two narratives quite satisfying.

The core paradoxes of the play--order turning to chaos, and logic interfacing with intuition--are displayed through several discussions of  “science.”  The play certainly references many scientific principles...but the descriptions are vague and non-technical enough to count as philosophy.  Thomasina disparages a steam engine installed on the grounds, saying “he’ll never get out what he put into it” after reading an essay by “a Frenchman,” but the term “Carnot Efficiency” is never uttered.  A gorgeous parallel (among many) between the two eras has Thomasina wondering why you can't un-stir rice pudding and jam, and Val and Hannah asking the same about the cream in their coffee. Yet, there’s no clear connection between that irreversible process and the “descent into chaos” and “unwinding” and “entropy” the characters later discuss openly (that time, the term is actually said).  Even the most “hard-science” character, Val, describes his research on the estate’s grouse population in a way that left my theater-going comrades and I (a nerdier lot than the average crowd, granted) confused as to whether he was talking about algorithms, or fractals, or an exponential growth problem that any differential equations course covers in its first lecture.  The topics were beautifully used as symbols, but they weren’t really treated with the level of meaty technical detail I was expecting (and craving, after the tidy framing of the concepts).
The modern counterparts of Sidley Park.  Photo credit: A.R. Sinclair Photography.
Coming straight from a Science + Diversity + Theater Conference with the CC@MIT, I suppose I was in a relatively pedantic mood when it came to the distinction between “theater about science” and “theater that imparts science.”  Still, if these concepts flit through the narrative on this scale--the scale of mere metaphor--is it still a “science play,” or is it better called a “science-related play?”  That’s a semantics discussion for another day, I suppose.

Even if the script doesn’t leave you with a perfect grasp of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, this production moves along at an invigorating clip, chock-full of Stoppard’s usual wit and intricate dialogue.  The energy the actors bring to their characters--a dogged effervescence as they dig for clues amongst the books and records--is infectious, and loaded with dry humor amongst the period platitudes.  In a Q&A session with director, Lee Mikeska Gardner, beforehand, she remarked, “If there’s no humor in it, it’s not a play about people.”  In that case, Arcadia keeps its humanity firmly rooted, especially in the repartee between the three modern scholars.  Logic faces off against intuition in the most memorable scene, at least for me, where tweedy literature prof, Bernie Nightingale, played with superb distracted charisma by Ross MacDonald, walks his colleagues through his findings on Lord Byron’s scandalous stay at Sidley.  Oliva, as Hannah, punctuates each point with a perfectly-timed and insistent raised hand, which Bernie blows by in his fervor.  Zahnzinger as Val shines in the debate, nonchalantly feeding his tortoise throughout (“But it’s his lunchtime!”).  He ends up calling Bernie’s historical findings “trivial” in a way that Val means and Zahnzingher delivers as gentle, but sends Bernie into an apoplectic attack on the relevancy of science.  Val can only mutter back, “I meant it as a technical term.”  It’s one of the most amusing and least civil battle of the nerds I’ve ever witnessed, and its humanity echoed through the rest of the show, along with consistently spot-on performances by the rest of the cast.
Director Lee Mikeska Gardner in rehearsal.  Photo Credit: Jonathan Wiggs / the Boston Globe Staff
Although it didn’t have me exactly fired up to hit the lab bench or the history archives in quite the way I was expecting, I left the theater with a warm regard for the humans behind our favorite branches of learning, appreciating their foibles along with their feats.  Arcadia’s linking of past and present reminds us that science and history are both about handing down stories--never as directly as the characters do as they pass a paper across the table and across time.  But the metaphor, while a little detached, was solid.  

Arcadia runs until May 15 at the Central Square Theater.  Whether you’re a fan of the science or simply looking for an evening with some engaging and passionate characters, this portal through history is worth a visit!  Reserve your tickets at https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/shows/arcadia/.


E. Rosser is a science writer and mechanical engineer currently wrapping up a degree at MIT.  As a part-time costume designer, she ends up at the theater surprisingly frequently--perhaps she should put this hobby to use with more reviews?

Monday, April 18, 2016

Reflection on Street Astronomy (Friday 4/15/2016)


I thought for a day about one word that summarized my thoughts about volunteering with the Street Astronomy team (http://www.bostonastronomy.net/), and decided that passion bested simplicity. The premise of the event was simple: get together in the middle of Harvard Square with some telescopes and look at cool things in the sky. And it was effective. Friday night is prime time in the Square for families, friends, and dates, so there were plenty of folks looking to make the night a little more special. In the two hours that the team of astronomers kindly donated to the festival, we had two to three hundred curious minds expand through the four telescopes and a pair of binoculars.

However, it was not just the big boxes, expensive equipment, and experience that the astronomers brought out that night. I felt what made the night successful was their passion for the cosmos and sharing it’s wonders with others. One astronomer blew my mind when she gave me instructions on how to find a nebula with her binoculars. I was so impressed with it that I encouraged people from the back of the long telescope lines to ask her about seeing nebulas with binoculars. I felt that it showed the average star gazer that they did not need a big, expensive, motorized telescope to see marvels in the sky. But the telescopes did prove that a big lens makes a big difference. I can attest to seeing Jupiter and its four largest moons while standing outside of a coffee shop. Even the moon looked more impressive through the telescope.  It appeared so sharp in the scope that I thought it would cut me if I touched it. 

One of the astronomers mentioned that he felt a special moment for a parent was pointing to something tiny in the sky and saying to their kid, “that’s what this is, but far, far away.” I saw a lot of those special moments, and I hope he and the others appreciate that they facilitated those and other unmentioned experiences that night. We went on to talking about how he got into astronomy, which basically boiled down to an addiction (he liked that description of it). It began with a small, cheap telescope, and then he wanted to see more. And more. To me though, I think his story along with what I saw that night revealed the self-perpetuating nature of the secret ingredient that makes the festival successful in the first place. That ingredient is passion, and sharing it is what lets it continue on into the future. 

So please reader, share your passions.

These folks don’t mess around when it comes to celestial objects.

We briefly had to share our space with a street performer.

Yeah, it was pretty busy.