Monday, March 2, 2015

Dawn Comes to Ceres

This Friday is going to be an exciting day in space exploration!

I just got finished watching NASA’s JPL briefing on the status of the Dawn spacecraft mission, and I loved it! And as Bill Nye says: “When you’re in love, you want to tell the world!”

The Dawn spacecraft was launched in September 2007, and in 2011 it became the first spacecraft to orbit a body in the main asteroid belt: it spent over a year examining the giant asteroid Vesta, making wonderful observations about its surface features and geologic activity. Vesta is the second-largest object in the asteroid belt, but Dawn wasn’t quite satisfied with that.

On Friday, it will reach Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, and earn two other unprecedented titles: the first spacecraft to orbit two different worlds, and the first spacecraft to reach and investigate a dwarf planet.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Happy Accidents: Beneficial Mutations in Humans

A while back, I was talking with a group of young students about evolution and natural selection, and I was teaching them about the role of mutations when I was asked an interesting question that I failed to answer.

The concept of mutations can be tough to grasp, because mutation sounds like a really bad thing, and indeed it often is. A mutation is essentially an accident in your DNA, and while most of them are harmless, most of the rest have unfortunate side effects. And yet mutation is one of the driving forces of evolution: natural selection weeds out the bad accidents and encourages the good ones, and life changes through the generations.

Which brings me to this question I was asked: Are there examples of good mutations in humans?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Lot of Fuss Over Feathers

It’s not unusual for a new science fiction movie to stir up a lot of discussion and debate on the internet, but in my experience, the science tends to take a back seat to the fiction. But Jurassic World has the internet all a-buzz over the science, arguing whether or not the dinosaurs should have feathers.

It shouldn’t be a big surprise that I fall on the “yes they should” side of this debate. My main reason is simple: that’s how dinosaurs were. Leopards come with spots, moose come with antlers, and velociraptors came with feathers. One of the best things about the first Jurassic Park movie was that it focused on depicting the dinosaurs as amazing animals, and those animals became firmly established in the minds of the public. Even the things the movie got wrong have endured so well that they are now common misconceptions about dinosaurs. If you want a movie to do justice to dinosaurs as incredible, real creatures, and not just movie monsters, you take everything that comes with them, even the parts that are unfamiliar to you.

Of course, people on the other side of the debate have made several points in favor of leaving the dinosaurs featherless. Here, I’ll respond to some of the most common anti-feather arguments:

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

2048 - Evolution Edition!

Many of you may have noticed a game sweeping the internet recently; a game called 2048.

2048 - Classic
The premise is simple: combine similar numbers to advance. Two 2s make a 4; two 4s make an 8; and so on until you get the coveted 2048 tile.

The game has been so popular that it has spawned a whole list of parodies, including variants based on the Fibonacci sequence, Tetris, Pokémon, and even a website where you can make your own 2048.

So create my own 2048, I did!  I present: 2048 - Evolution Edition.

Watch the World Change

A slightly belated Happy Earth Day to everyone!

One of my jobs at the museum this month was to set up a bunch of interactive tables for our Earth Day celebration.  My favorite of the tables was labeled “The Changing Environment” and it featured a series of maps, on paper and on slide shows, showing how our planet has changed in recent years, largely due to human activities.  Maps are a great visual representation of the state of the planet, and some of the maps I found were quite powerful.  I thought I'd share them.