Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mars Science Lab: Liftoff!

Yesterday morning, at 10:02 EST, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida.  In my opinion, this is possibly the most exciting scientific event of the year, as this mission to Mars is carrying the new Mars rover, Curiosity.

Curiosity isn’t the first Mars rover, of course.  The first was the small rover Pathfinder, which spent nearly three months on Mars in 1997 and set the precedent for all following rovers.   Most people are probably more familiar with the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER), Spirit and Opportunity.  The MER twins landed on opposite sides of Mars in 2004, their mission to answer the big question: has there ever been permanent water on Mars?  In the time since their deployment, these rovers, along with the handful of other landers and orbiters we’ve sent to Mars, have uncovered astounding evidence of past Martian environments: geologic features that hint at ancient river beds, floods, and perhaps even oceans.  The resounding answer is yes, Mars used to have plenty of water.

And why do we care if Mars had water?  Because on Earth, water is the basis of all life.  If Mars had water at one point, could it also have had life like we have on Earth?  This is the underlying question in all Mars research, and it is the main objective of the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


With each new blog post, I try to find some big important new research to talk about, and I try to vary the topics as much as I can.  But just because I posted about something already doesn’t mean that research has stopped, and every now and then I find some new developments in news I've already blogged about.  Here are some recent updates to previous topics I've mentioned:

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Kraken Sleepeth

Today, dear readers, we’re going to do something a little different.  Today, instead of talking about awesome, great science, we’re going to talk about bad science

I am speaking, for those of you who haven’t heard, of the Kraken story.

The story starts off in the state of Nevada, over in Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park.  In addition to numerous attractions, the park is home to fossils of Shonisaurus, a type of ichthyosaur.  Ichthyosaurs were dolphin-like reptiles that roamed the oceans back in the time of the dinosaurs, and Shonisaurus is one of the biggest to ever have lived, growing to nearly 50 feet long.  Many of these spectacular fossils are still in the ground, where visitors to the park can go see them.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Unleash the Power of the Sun

As I write this blog entry, a team of men who call themselves PlanetSolar are readying their solar-powered yacht to journey across the Gulf of Thailand.  Three hundred and fifty one days ago, these men set out from Monaco on a mission to make a complete around-the-world trip using only solar power.  So far they have made it across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, across the Pacific, around Australia, past the Philippines, through the South China Sea and are currently in the vicinity of Vietnam.  This project’s goal is to show how “high-performance solar mobility can be realised today by making innovative use of existing materials and technology,” and they’re doing it by sailing the world’s largest solar-powered vessel around the globe using nothing but energy from the sun.  How cool!  Go Team PlanetSolar!

Of course, solar-powered vehicles have been a goal of modern technology for a while, and PlanetSolar isn’t the only specially-designated team aiming at it.  For the last twenty years or so, the Stanford Solar Car Project has been working to put solar-powered vehicles on the road.  And it’s not just vehicles getting the solar treatment; solar power is up-and-coming as a use for powering homes.  Over on Long Island in New York, BP Solar and the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA, as the locals call it) have been building a massive solar farm in Brookhaven.  Once completed, this farm should be able to power thousands of homes, as well as offering researchers a great opportunity to test out a big solar farm.  And remember that artificial leaf I told you about several months ago?  Solar power is hitting new strides all over.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Life of Ease in our Invisible Submarine

Wouldn’t it be neat if you could roam around wherever you wanted without anyone knowing you were there?  People have thought so for a long time, and have spent a lot of time and effort researching and developing stealth technology, particularly for military forces.  But as you can imagine, it’s hard to make yourself completely undetectable, especially when you’re riding around in something as big as, say, a submarine.

When an object – a boat or an animal, for instance – moves through the water, the water around it gets pushed around in all directions and flows all around the object disturbing it.  This turbulence creates a wake, a chaotic pattern of ripples and waves and churning water which trails being the moving object.  If you look out into the bay and see a line of swirling, churning water on the surface, you know that a boat recently passed by.  In the same way, a submarine leaves behind a wake underwater that reveals the sub’s presence.  Military forces would love it if there were a way to negate this wake effect, to create a submarine that doesn’t leave a trail.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Designer Genes

Genetic engineering involves directly altering the genetic code of an organism, generally in some way that is beneficial to us.  For example, if you want to treat a patient with diabetes, you need insulin.  Instead of going out and tapping into the pancreas of a cow, you could culture bacteria to produce insulin for you.  The procedure is relatively straight-forward: take a blood sample from a person, search the DNA for the gene that codes for insulin production, snip out the gene, make some copies of it, and put it in a bacterium.  If the bacterial cell takes up the insulin gene, you’re set!  Now you’ve got a culture of bacteria producing human insulin for all your pharmaceutical needs.

Genetically engineered organisms are actually pretty common in modern science.  Bacteria can be made to produce medically important substances like insulin, growth hormones, or blood-clotting factors; a lot of the food you buy at the supermarket has been genetically engineered in some way; some companies use algae as a source of organic fuel; a few years ago, a group of researchers in Taiwan made glow-in-the-dark pigs; and last month, a couple of Harvard scientists engineered a human cell that fires a laser.

I’ll repeat that.  A human cell that fires a laser.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


Back in May, we saw the launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavor, the penultimate mission of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.  Yesterday, the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched on its final mission, marking the end of the space shuttle program for good.

The shuttle program was started in 1972, and counting this last one, has launched a total of 135 missions, contributing quite a bit to the study and exploration of space.  Now that the program has come to an end, NASA no longer has the capability to send astronauts into space, and there’s no replacement program planned as of yet.  For now, the only way to get astronauts to the Space Station will be with the use of the Russian Soyuz program.

A Fossil Of A Different Color

Here at The Meniscus, it’s all about news in science.  Scientists are always conducting new research and new experiments, and every new experiment, if done right, leads to a new discovery, a new tidbit of knowledge to be added to the vast scientific knowledgebase, and it’s all pretty exciting.  But every now and then, science goes a step further and develops a new method of research.  A stroke of genius or an advance in technology can allow scientists to look at their subject in a way no one ever has before, and this opens the doors to a whole new realm of discoveries waiting to be made.

Every scientific discipline has its limitations.  In the field of paleontology, research is limited by the condition of fossil material.  When a prehistoric animal becomes fossilized, what typically happens is that the soft parts (hair, skin, etc.) are degraded away and the hard parts (bones, teeth, etc.) are preserved as fossils.  Now, bones and teeth are great; they allow paleontologists to interpret the diet, structure, and lifestyle of ancient animals.  But as you can imagine, not having access to the skin, blood, or internal organs of an animal really limits what you can figure out about its life.
There are, of course, exceptions.
The history of paleontology is littered with examples of new methodologies being developed and allowing researchers to look at fossils in completely new ways.  Back in the 80s, scientists began tackling the challenge of extracting genetic material from fossils, an idea that was almost unthinkable for a long time.  My undergraduate advisor once said (I’m paraphrasing here) “If you told me 30 years ago that you were gonna try to find DNA in fossil bones, I’d have said you’d had a few too many beers.”  And yet, today, scientists study ancient DNA all the time, learning more about prehistoric life than bones and teeth alone could ever have told us.  In fact, last year, an analysis of fossil DNA allowed researchers to identify an entirely new species of early man from just a tooth and a pinky bone.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

In The Unlikeliest of Places

After hundreds of years of exploration, discovery and research, we’ve learned quite a lot about our planet.  You would think that after all of this time, there would be hardly any living thing left on Earth that we hadn’t yet found.  Well, you would be wrong.  Way wrong, actually.  Our planet is loaded with life.  New species are constantly being discovered – hundreds a year.  If I did a blog post every time a new species was discovered, I’d be posting multiple times a day.  Today’s blog post, however, is about one new species in particular which stands out among the rest.

The Amazon is
bursting with life
New species are often found in areas of the world that are harder for us to explore.  Oceans are a good example.  Rainforests are a great example.  The rainforests of the Amazon and Madagascar are constantly revealing new creatures to us.  Researchers in a rainforest in Borneo recently discovered a new species of mushroom that looks like a colorful sea sponge.  So much so, in fact, that they named the species Spongiforma squarepantsii, which is officially the most ridiculous species name I’ve heard since Dracorex hogwartsia.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Who's To Blame For Disaster?

Put on your serious hats, folks.  Today’s story has a moral.

In April 2009, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit the city of L’Aquila in central Italy.  With over 300 dead, hundreds more injured, and thousands of buildings damaged or destroyed, it was the worst earthquake to strike Italy in decades.  And now a group of scientists are being blamed for it.

The L'Aquila earthquake devastated
several towns in 2009
For several months before the quake, the region had been experiencing small tremors, and a meeting was held to discuss whether or not there was cause for alarm.  A panel of seven earthquake experts decided that these tremors were not unusual for the region, and stated that it was unlikely that a major quake was coming.  The disaster occurred a week later, and now, Judge Giuseppe Romano Gargarella is ordering that the seven scientists be tried for manslaughter.  The judge claims that the experts’ information was faulty and misleading, and that, had the scientists done a better job predicting the earthquake, an evacuation could have been planned, and lives could have been saved.

But there’s a problem with that argument:  You cannot predict an earthquake.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Squids And Bricks In Space

This Monday, the space shuttle Endeavor will fly for the last time, carrying six crew members on a 16-day trip to the International Space Station.  This will be the second-to-last flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.  After this, Atlantis will fly later this year, and then the Program will be done for good.  But scientists are putting this penultimate voyage to good use – not only will the shuttle be delivering the much-celebrated Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, designed to detect dark matter and other cool outer space-y stuff, but Endeavor will be home to a couple of rather unique and exciting experiments.

Space is a weird place.  It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s silent, and importantly, there’s no gravity, and that’s kind of a big deal.  Building machines to operate in space is a bit of a challenge, especially if you don’t know how your contraptions will act in little or no gravity.  Well, to get at solving this problem, the crew members of the Endeavor flight will help in conducting a special experiment.  Their mission, if they choose to accept it, will be to play with LEGOs in space.

Man, remember when you were little and being an astronaut seemed like the coolest job?  These guys get to go into space, and build stuff with LEGOs … in space!  I think I made the wrong career choice.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Future is Filled With Robots!

In this week’s news – Cyborgs on the rise!

Well, not quite yet, but we’re getting closer.  Years of study have demonstrated over and again that there is huge potential in the concept of a mind-machine interface, allowing people to communicate with, and control, computers using only their thoughts.  Past experiments have shown how it’s possible to control robotic arms and legs using the same parts of your brain that control your real arms or legs.  Not only does this technology hold a lot of promise for handicapped people – imagine a paraplegic being given robotic legs to replace his originals – but it has also led to a series of really cool videos of monkeys.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Advancing Against AIDS

Your body is naturally equipped with a highly skilled defense force, complete with advanced targeting systems, devastating weaponry, and specially-trained assassins.  It is this force that protects you from invaders and attackers trying to force their way in and wreak havoc with your body.  But this system isn’t flawless, and those pesky pathogens can be crafty, and every now and then, one of them sneaks by.  This is where medical science comes in.  Medicine is the cavalry, designed to give your body’s natural defenses a helping hand in warding off nature’s more resilient marauders.

Sometimes an enemy comes along that your body really needs some help with.  Not every disease is as docile as a rhinovirus.  Way toward the top of Medicine’s Most Wanted list is HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, responsible for the deaths of well over a million people a year.  A vaccine for combating HIV has evaded medical science for years, but recent research brings new hope to the battle.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Turning Over a Fake Leaf in Energy Research

They’re calling it an “artificial leaf,” although that’s not technically accurate.  It’s small and thin, and like a leaf, it uses water along with energy from the sun to produce fuel, but aside from that, it’s really not much like a leaf at all.  What it is is a new, advanced form of solar panel capable of cheaply producing lots of energy, and it might just be the future of solar energy. 

How does it work?  A real leaf (pictured left) performs photosynthesis – pulling together water and carbon dioxide and using the energy from the sun to turn those ingredients into fuel for the plant.  This “artificial leaf,” brainchild of a collection of researchers at MIT, harnesses the power of sunlight and uses it to cut water in half!  Actually, into three pieces – with the help of special catalysts, this leaf splits H2O into two H’s and an O.  The free H (hydrogen) can then be used as a fuel source.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Earthquakes - Past, Present, and Future

In the aftermath of the March 11th disaster in Japan, the topic of the earthquake is still making headlines.  I’m not going to talk about the Japanese earthquake much here, because it’s been done a thousand times by now, and by better-informed people than myself.  One of those people is Donald Prothero, who wrote up a very thorough description of the event.

But let’s talk about earthquakes.  Anyone who knows earthquakes will tell you that they are dangerous and terrifying for two main reasons.  First, they can be incredibly powerful and extremely destructive, and we’ve seen examples of this countless times.  And second, they are largely unpredictable.  Our instruments often determine that a big quake is coming only seconds before it hits.  Despite decades of study, an accurate predictive model for earthquakes still remains the unachieved holy grail of seismology.

But a new study from researchers in Tel Aviv is a step in the right direction.  Actually, at first glance it sounds more like a step in the opposite direction.  Instead of working on a model to predict earthquakes in the future, they’re developing a model to study earthquakes of the distant past.