Friday, April 29, 2011

Wonderful Webs

Charlotte made hers terrific, radiant and humble. With grace, she expended enormous amounts of energy to spin stunning webs. E.B. White introduced the wonders of spider webs to a general audience in his 1952 children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web. Charlotte was know for spinning elaborate patterns, presenting her piglet friend Wilbur’s admirable qualities in silky web words to convince farmers to spare this sensational pig from being slaughtered.

Big Ideas for Busy People: Sara Seager

(Photo by Fangfei Shen)

Sara Seager studies planets. Faraway planets. Very faraway planets. The planets Seager studies are exoplanets, planets that encircle stars other than our sun.

Seager, a Professor of Planetary Science and Professor of Physics at MIT, is one of the top experts in exoplanet science, a field that is currently brimming with excitement.

“The reason why we’re excited,” says Seager, “is because we think that this is a really huge thing. Hundreds and thousands of years from now, people will look back and ask, what are the significant accomplishments of our society in the early twenty-first century? One of them will be that we were the first to discover other worlds and other worlds that might be like Earth. When you think back four hundred years, what do you remember? You think about Christopher Columbus and Lewis and Clark. It’s the exploration—finding things that were new to our culture. And that’s why we’re excited.”

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Climate Change and Martian Bones

In a virtual world called Arcadia, sifting through yards of Martian bones is all in a day’s work.

Chasing through leaves, over rivers and between red mountains, the goal is to find bone specimens, analyze them and figure out what tragedy happened in fictional Arcadia to leave so many scattered remains and no signs of life.

Launched in 2010, this game called Martian Boneyards is the brainchild of Cambridge-based Educational Gaming Environments group (EdGE). The gaming group is just one division at TERC, a larger non-profit organization that focuses on math and science education.

So how do Martian bones relate to science and math education? The game designers believe that some of the skills you need to succeed in Martian Boneyards—collecting evidence, analyzing data and drawing conclusions—are the same tools someone uses to succeed in science. The game is part of a larger massively-multiplayer online environment (MMO) called Blue Mars, and is built upon the types of investigations central to sciences like forensics and genetic engineering.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lunch with a Luminary: Linda Griffith

You should meet Linda Griffith. No, really, you should: it could be quite beneficial both to you and to her.

Dr. Griffith works at MIT as a Professor of Biological Engineering, which is a department she helped create. She’s also Director of the Center for Gynepathology Research and a School of Engineering Professor of Teaching Innovation.

Dr. Griffith’s research in tissue engineering has often captured public attention. When she first came to MIT, she worked on a project that involved growing cartilage in the shape of a human ear on the back of a mouse. Stories about the mouse first hit the news in 1995, and still pop up occasionally, such as in this Nova Documentary that aired last January.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Big Ideas for Busy People: Sanjoy Mahajan

Sanjoy Mahajan is a ninja. He is not a ninja in the conventional sense of the word. He does not wear black garb and a face mask, nor does he make stealthy forays into castles. Instead, he dons intuition and reasoning to tackle problems. Mahajan’s specialty? Street-fighting mathematics and science.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Friday, April 22, 2011

Making Sense of Science in the News

Check out these recent headlines from the New York Times:

March 28, 2011-By ABIGAIL ZUGER, M.D.

March 30, 2011 - By JAMES KANTER

April 4, 2011 - By PAUL KRUGMAN - Opinion


Sometimes, reading the newspaper is an angst-inducing experience.  I start worrying about epidemics, radiation, climate change and genetically modified crops.  I wonder, in the wake of a natural disaster, would our food supply be safe?  Is my friend acting in her family’s best interest or putting the whole community at risk when she refuses to vaccinate her children?  Am I going to get sick from sleeping with my cell phone too close to my head?  Confusion ensues.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Colorful Conundrum

For some people, solving a Rubik’s Cube takes no time at all. But for many, cracking the puzzle presents a real test. Getting all the colored squares to line up in the right order, let alone doing it quickly, is a head-scratching, mind-bending challenge.

The cube was invented in 1974 by Erno Rubik, a Hungarian sculptor and architect. Some of the characteristics of 3-D objects troubled Rubik: he wanted to visualize how their parts could move independently, while keeping the larger object intact.

As a way to play with this property, Rubik invented the cube as a learning tool rather than a puzzle. Realizing the model’s potential after scrambling it and finding himself stumped, Rubik first patented the game in 1975 as the Buvuos Kocka, or “Magic Cube.” In 1980, the toy hit the international scene when it appeared at fairs in London, Paris and New York. By 2009, the Rubik’s Cube had become the world’s top-selling puzzle game with 350 million sold worldwide.

The original version of the Rubik’s Cube has six faces with nine tiny squares on each. Each square is either white, red, blue, orange, green or yellow. The goal is to take a cube with mixed-up colors and solve it, turning each of the six sides into a solid wall of only one shade.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sparking Curiosity

Where would you hide if you were stuck in a lightning storm? Ideally in a car or a building with a lightning rod, right? However, would you feel safe from lightning inside a giant metal birdcage? Moreover, should you feel safe? To find an answer, a place to look would be at the ever popular Theater of Electricity, located at the crossroad between the electromagnetism exhibits and the weather exhibits at the Boston Museum of Science.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Perception and Deception

Chances are good that David Ropeik knows what you’re afraid of. A risk perception consultant, previous instructor of risk communication at the Harvard School of Public Health, and author of two books on the topic, Ropeik is well attuned to human fears and certainly knows risk.

The rest of us, however, tend to get risk all wrong. We fear things that come with little actual risk, and at the same time, we are less afraid of more probable harm. For instance, people tend to worry about nuclear power more than fossil fuels, cancer more than heart disease, and vaccines more than coming down with the diseases they prevent. But in each of these cases, the thing we fear less

This phenomenon is what Ropeik dubs the “Perception Gap.” He will be presenting a talk on it at the Festival on May 2, emphasizing how understanding this gap can help us make better judgments.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Science of the Eye

Your retina, which is the film in the back of your eyeball’s camera, takes light and converts it into an electric signal. Technically, it’s a little chunk of your brain that’s been lodged into your eyeball. The human retina can transmit data at a rate of 10 million bits per second, a speed that’s competitive with your Ethernet connection.

The eye is a fantastic, complicated tool. Nearly every animal has one. For people, it’s the dominant sense, the source of most of the information we receive from the world. We learn to trust our eyes.

Still, vision isn’t perfect. Optical illusions show just how easy it is to trick those retinas (or technically, that brain). Let’s look at a couple examples:

All of the horizontal lines in this picture are parallel.

...Even though they appear otherwise

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Human Organs, Microchip Style

Microchips—tiny integrated circuits made of electrical paths that store information—are small by definition. Some of the ideas surrounding their use, however, are big. Very big.

Dr. Donald Ingber, Director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, is on the forefront of investigating what microchips can do for human drug development.

Ingber is one of the speakers at this year’s “Big Ideas for Busy People” event, which is the running start to the Festival on April 29th, Festival-eve. The evening will involve revolutionary ideas in current science, presented at a rapid pace: picture a condensed version of TED talks. Ingber will deliver a five-minute talk called “Human Organs-on-Chips: No More Animal Studies for Drug Development?”

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Are You Tasteblind?

Imagine being handed a small cup of liquid to taste, and as the liquid sweeps over your tongue, you taste nothing special—it’s just sugar water, you think. Meanwhile, the person next to you has downed an identical cup of liquid, only to spit it out in disgust. Now imagine the same scenario, but you and the person beside you are chimpanzees instead.