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:

The Virginia earthquake
shook up the whole coast
I’ve actually posted about earthquakes twice so far.  The first time, I discussed that scientists were noting how odd it was to have three enormous earthquakes over the span of just several years.  Well, the strange earthquake streak has not ended.  Quite the opposite.  Since the Tohoku quake in Japan, we’ve seen a frightening assortment of big quakes, many of them in places that don’t usually get large earthquakes.  In October, Texas was hit by a 4.6; shortly afterward, Turkey had a 7.2, and about two weeks later, a follow-up 5.6, while just a few days before that, Oklahoma was hit by a 5.6, the largest Oklahoma quake in decades; in August, Colorado experienced a 5.3, its largest natural quake in over a century, and a day later the east coast of the U.S. was rattled by the 5.8 that hit Virginia (I didn’t feel that quake, despite being relatively close by, but many of my friends and family all up and down the coast did, and plenty of people were pretty alarmed – this is not a region that is used to earthquakes).  In my first earthquake post, I mentioned that some scientists were hypothesizing that big earthquakes might be able to set off other big earthquakes around the world, resulting in a domino-effect spawning several big events.  This was just speculation for the most part, but given the list of the latest quakes, it’s sure looking like a possibility.  As it turns out, some scientists have been exploring this possibility and they’ve concluded, interestingly enough, that these earthquakes most likely cannot set each other off.  If they’re correct, that’s good news – at least we don’t have to worry about an earthquake domino effect.  Despite that, I find it hard to believe this rash of quakes is a complete coincidence; I’m sure there’s some connection between them, though I can only guess at what it might be.  Best leave it to the seismologists to figure out.

In any case, this slew of dangerous, seemingly random earthquakes should serve as a good lesson for us.  Not because it’s a sign of the apocalypse, as some people have touted, but because it is a reminder that earthquakes are highly unpredictable, and we need to be prepared for them.  If you’ll remember from my second earthquake post, I explained that until we have better methods of predicting seismic activity, the best we can do is be ready for earthquakes, since they can strike without warning, and as we've seen recently, even in places that are usually earthquake-free.  Scientists have been pointing to these recent surprising earthquakes to urge tighter regulations and better preparation for earthquakes in the future.

Speaking of that second earthquake post, the trial of the Italian scientists has begun, and the scientific community is none too happy about it.

Back in July, I made a post about the new methods that have been allowing paleontologists to infer the color of ancient animals.  If you’ll recall, the original method was to study the structure of microscopic pigment molecules in exceptionally preserved feathers, and the more recent method involved detecting traces of certain elements left over from those pigment molecules.  As of the writing of that post, a small handful of fossil feathered creatures had been “colorized” scientifically. 

Archaeopteryx, the "first bird"
Well, last week I attended the 71st annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, held this year in Las Vegas, NV.  There, I saw a presentation by Ryan Carney from Brown University, in which he presented an analysis of preserved pigments in Archaeopteryx, one of the most famous fossil animals in history.  Discovered 150 years ago, Archaeopteryx has been long heralded as the missing link between dinosaurs and modern birds, showing a fantastic combination of dinosaurian and avian skeletal features – a perfect example of a transition fossil.   Carney compared the structure of the pigments in one feather of Archaeopteryx to those of over one hundred feathers from modern day birds to find who the fossil feather was most similar to.  Statistically, the Archaeopteryx feather was very similar to modern-day birds with black feathers.  Thus, with a high degree of probability (95%), we can infer that this particular feather of Archaeopteryx was black in color.  Comparing fossil feather structure to modern-day feathers of known color is a great alternative method to determining color in fossil organisms.

Adding color to Archaeopteryx is a big deal, but what’s really interesting is that Carney and colleagues are fairly certain that when this animal was alive, this particular black feather would have been hidden under the other feathers of the wing, which raises the question: why have colored feathers if no one sees them anyway?  To answer this, Carney also discussed how the melanosome pigments in feathers, in addition to giving the feather color, are known to give the feather a stronger, more rigid structure, a characteristic that is essential if a bird is to use its feathers for flight.  This is a recurring them in biology: many structures serve additional purposes, beyond the obvious.  According to Carney's study, it looks like the melanosomes in feathers have been giving them their color, as well as strengthening them for flight, for at least 150 million years, back to the earliest of birds.  Way cool.

One of my earliest posts was about MIT’s artificial leaf, a small device that uses the power of sunlight to produce hydrogen gas that can then be used as fuel.  At the time, the big story was that Daniel Nocera and colleagues had solved the problem of handling the tricky chemical reactions that the “leaf” needed to perform.  The story now is that the details of the leaf have finally been published.  The selling points of the leaf are clear: its small size means it is portable and can have a wide range of uses; it is also able to operate in a variety of kinds of water, it seems, giving it an even wider range of use; and the materials needed to make it are all easy to come by and, most importantly, inexpensive.  The team at MIT is currently working on fine-tuning the system, improving the efficiency of the reactions and lowering the cost of production.  They envision a not-too-distant future where these tiny, man-made photosynthesizers can offer cheap and easy energy wherever it’s needed.

And for those of you who are interested in keeping up, PlanetSolar, that group of intrepid, solar-powered adventurers I mentioned just a couple of months ago are currently stationed in Sri Lanka.  24,000 miles and counting!

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