Monday, October 29, 2012

Government Attempts to Chase Away Hurricanes With Dry Ice, Reschedules Halloween

Presumably in honor of Hurricane Sandy, folks at the Popular Science website dug up an old article published in PopSci magazine back in 1956 (you can read it here). The article details a plan to seed growing hurricanes with dry ice, an idea which was the brainchild of scientists at the government-sponsored National Hurricane Research Project in ‘an all-out search for the causes and cures of hurricanes’. (For the record, dry ice is in no way related to frozen water- it is really just cold, solid carbon dioxide. The ‘dry’ refers to the fact that as it ‘thaws’ it simply sublimates, transitioning straight from a solid phase to a gas phase.) Seeding hurricane clouds, they believed, may help them to divert hurricanes away from land and populated areas to minimize their destructiveness. Their hypothesis became the foundation of what would later become Project STORMFURY.

The idea of using dry ice to divert hurricanes was based on the principles of cloud seeding. ‘Cloud seeding’ is carried out by sprinkling cherry-sized pellets of dry ice on a cloud which is at a temperature below freezing. As dry ice meets cloud vapor tiny ice crystals are formed, and nearby water droplets nucleate on the tiny ice crystal. As the ice crystals grow they form snowflakes which become so heavy that they fall straight to the earth, eventually melting into rain as they travel through the atmosphere into warmer temperatures. The technique, however, is not specific to dry ice, as silver iodide eventually proved to be a more attractive nucleating agent. Dry ice was eventually thrown out altogether in favor of silver iodide, which has a molecular structure resembling ice. (Here’s a fun piece of trivia: The scientist who discovered that silver iodide could be used as a nucleating agent was none other than Bernard Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut’s brother. In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut [the author] mentions ice crystallography, presumably inspired by his brother’s work.)

Cartoon of the 'STORMFURY hypothesis'. Image credit: National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
Ultimately, researchers hoped that if enough of the clouds ‘fell away’ as rain, the storm center may be shifted enough that it would change the direction of the storm. By seeding the clouds of a growing tropical storm or hurricane, researchers speculated, they could potentially guide the storm away from land and onto the open ocean or at the very least attenuate the strength of the hurricane’s winds.

The government experimented with the method detailed above using silver iodide instead of dry ice, but the efficacy of cloud seeding as a storm ‘deterrent’ was never established. Project STORMFURY was finally discarded in the 1980s because it was unclear whether scientists’ interventions were actually making an impact on the course of the storms, and because it appeared that there was not nearly enough supercooled water in the hurricane clouds for the seeding agent to act on and too much natural ice.

Even today, cloud seeding as a method of producing precipitation in drought-ridden areas remains controversial. Even though Project STORMFURY ultimately went the way of the dinosaurs, it remains a testament to the ingenuity of scientists- and a testament to the indomitable strength of Mother Nature. (Fifteen minutes ago, I was reminded anew- a thirty foot tree is now strewn across my lawn, a sacrifice to Miss Sandy). 

For a more detailed overview of Project STORMFURY and the results yielded by researchers working on the project, you can read this 1985 publication.

And FYI, New Jerseyans, according to Gov. Christie an executive order to reschedule Halloween this year will be filed in wake of Hurricane Sandy. Go figure. 

Gratuitous satellite image of Hurricane Sandy. Image credit: NOAA

Here comes Frankenstorm

I haven't had a chance to update this weekend, but right now I'm just hoping we don't lose power in my neck of the woods here in NJ. The rain hasn't let up since last night and the wind is blowing something fierce--it already took down a pretty hefty part of a tree in my yard half an hour ago. Looks like Hurricane Sandy is already well on her way...

The picture below has been circulating on Facebook the past couple of hours. I'm not sure who the credit goes to, but it's been cited as a picture of Sandy bearing down on New York this morning. Apparently this photo tends to circulate whenever there is a major storm, but no, that's not Sandy (note the people in the motorboat and relatively docile waves)- but it IS a beautiful photograph.

Image credit: unknown
These pictures, on the other hand, are the real thing. 

Image credit:
The previous photo was taken in Atlantic City, NJ (whose layout inspired the property names in the board game Monopoly), which is almost completely under water-- and the storm still hasn't hit full-force. As of now, Sandy still has yet to make landfall in New Jersey.
Image credit: NASA

NASA put together a time-lapse animation of Hurricane Sandy as seen from a satellite 22,300 miles above the earth. Images of Sandy were taken every minute from 7:15 AM until 6:30 PM yesterday (Sunday, October 28th). All of the images were then compiled into this animation, where you can see Sandy on the move (they were even kind enough to put in the outlines of the coastal states!). Watch the video below:

Friday, October 26, 2012

Cancer Cell Caught On The Move

Image credit: Anne Weston

Cancer cells from solid tumors can travel to remote locations in the body by a process known as metastasis. This photo captured a cancer cell as it moves down the pore of a filter.

Dinosaur Cells Survive Millions Of Years Trapped In Bone

In keeping with the dinosaur theme, a recent paper published by Mary Schweitzer and her team provides new evidence that the cells they found embedded in dinosaur bones are in fact dinosaur osteocytes, or specialized bone cells. Read more about it here!

Microscope image of dinosaur osteocytes. Image credit: Mary Schweitzer

There was also a great article published in Discover magazine in 2006 about her initial discovery. The same article subsequently appeared in the 2007 Best American Science Writing publication, so it's worth a read.

You Don't Want To Mess With This Guy

A very, very angry sarcastic fringehead. Image source:

Looks like someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning...
 Pictured above is a Sarcastic Fringehead (Neoclinus Blanchardi), a fish that lives off of the Pacific Coast of North America. In terms of size, fringeheads aren't too intimidating; most fish only grow to be a foot long at the most. You don't want to make them angry, however, or you might provoke the same reaction as the fringehead in the picture. These fish are fiercely territorial and can be very aggressive when disturbed. Otherwise, you'll usually find them hiding out under a rock or in a shell, peacefully minding their own business and munching on small crustaceans.

The sarcastic fringehead in the video below had a busy day, first fighting off an invading octopus before chowing down on the unfortunate crabs who happened to be passing by (although one of them did put up quite a fight). After all of this another sarcastic fringehead who happened to be living in a nearby shell pops his head out to see what all the commotion is, and a brief episode of mouth-wrestling ensues. 

Hey Good Lookin': Dinos May Have Used Feathers For Show

Male peacock displaying his mating feathers. Image credit: Jim Corwin photography
In the avian world, feathers make the man (er, males). 
Feathers 'shape' a bird's wings to make them more aerodynamic; they insulate the bird from the cold and can help keep them dry; they can be an indicator of health and provide camouflage but most importantly, flashy feathers often make a bird seem more attractive as a mate. Among many species, males display their plumage to attract females in courtship rituals that aim to convince the female of interest that they would make a good mate. In some cases the roles are reversed, with females seeking to attract males by showing off their plumage. 

Now, believe it or not, this now-extinct terror:

Image credit: National Geographic

is most closely related to this modern day animal:

Image credit: Wikipedia

Yup. Our feathered friends originally descended from dinosaurs, making birds the closest living relative of the Dinosauria. Interestingly, new research suggests that the utility of plumage as a mating device was not lost on some dinosaur species.

Paleontologist Darla Zelenitsky was at first puzzled by the strange markings on the forearms of ornithomimus remains. Ornithimimus literally translates to 'bird mimic', as a living ornithomimid most likely resembled a 400 pound ostrich. Zelenitsky eventually realized that what she was seeing were the remains of feathers. Researchers concluded that flying was out of the question, as the birds were prohibitively large, but it was possible that the feathers were used to keep themselves or their eggs warm.

Zelenitsky then noticed that the feather markings on juveniles suggested a thin, downy coat of feathers, while adults had larger and showier feathers and quills. This suggested that once the dinosaurs had reached reproductive age, their feathers were transformed into something more elaborate to attract potential mates. Researchers later found evidence that the feathers may have been brightly colored and richly pigmented, supporting the hypothesis that the dinosaurs' plumage may have been used to attract the attention of mates in courtship displays similar to those observed among modern day birds.

Artistic rendering of adult and juvenile ornithomimid dinosaurs. Image credit: NPR

These findings put a new twist on the evolutionary origins of feathers, indicating that their added utility as a courtship device may have spurred the evolutionary diversification of plumage. Just like every girl is crazy about a sharp-dressed man, seems like female ornithomimus just couldn't resist well-feathered males. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Specimen Formerly Known As Predator X

Meet P. Funkei, the newest member of the genus Pliosaurus (and now its very own species). 

Artistic rendering of P. Funkei (that's the badboy with its jaws around its long-necked cousin, the plesiosaurus. And no, it's not a dinosaur- even if it does look mean enough to be one).
Image credit: Atlantic productions

When the first P. Funkei skeleton was discovered in 2006 the media dubbed it "Predator X". Over the next several years researchers analyzed Predator X and another skeleton unearthed in an Arctic archipelago off of Norway and concluded that both specimens were of the same novel species. After an article which appeared in last week's Norwegian Journal of Geology, Predator X has been reborn as Pliosaurus FunkeiP. Funkei were so named for Bjorn Funke and his wife, May-Liss, the volunteer discoverers of one of the two specimens analyzed in the publication. 

Pliosaurs are marine reptiles that roamed the seas from the Jurassic to the Cretaceous periods, approximately 160-145 million years ago. They are known for their short necks and powerful jaws, and P. Funkei is no exception. These fierce aquatic predators had jaws that would intimidate the now-dethroned king of the dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus Rex, with a bite estimated to have been four times as powerful as the latter. The authors of the paper in which P. Funkei is described estimate that they reached lengths of up to 42 feet (10-13 meters), making the average P. Funkei bigger than a killer whale, which is one of today's largest ocean predators.

The paper describing P. Funkei was published in the Norwegian Journal of Geology along with several other findings from the same region which had been unearthed over the past several years, including the discovery of two new plesiosauran species (the plesiosaur is the unfortunate victim in the picture above) and two new species of ichtyosaur. After this most recent onslaught of publications, it seems like the Arctic seas of the Jurassic and Cretaceous are rapidly filling up. Is it me, or is it getting a little crowded in here?

Knutsen, E.M., Druckenmiller, P.S. & Hurum, J.H. A new species of Pliosaurus (Sauropterygia: Plesiosauria) from the Middle Volgian of central
Spitsbergen, Norway. Norwegian Journal of Geology, Vol 92, pp. 235-258. Trondheim 2012, ISSN 029-196X.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Don’t forget to hug your favorite cold-blooded, scaly tetrapods tomorrow- October 21st is Reptile Awareness Day. In this NatGeo video the running frilled lizard, with its frills up and little legs pumping, is easily one of the most bizarre-looking members of the class Reptilia. Added bonus: it even looks like a miniature remnant of the dinosaur era, Jurassic park style.

Immune system vs. invader: who will win in this battle of microscopic proportions?
Image credit: photo by Dr. Ryan Williamson from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia (entered in Nikon’s 2012 Small World Contest).
This image of a fruit fly retina is one of the top photos submitted to the Nikon 2012 Small World Contest (the winner’s won’t be announced until next week). For more images from the contest, check out the Nikon Small World website.  
Image credit: photo by Dr. Ryan Williamson from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia (entered in Nikon’s 2012 Small World Contest).
This image of a fruit fly retina is one of the top photos submitted to the Nikon 2012 Small World Contest (the winner’s won’t be announced until next week). For more images from the contest, check out the Nikon Small World website. 

You Won't Want To Miss This!

Halley’s comet in 1986. Image credit: NASA
Halley’s comet, which last appeared in 1986, is only visible from the earth every 75-76 years. But every year we get the chance to see bits and pieces of Halley’s comet streaking through the sky, beginning with the Eta Aquarids in May, and finally the Orionid meteor shower in October.
The Orionid meteor shower began approximately October 2nd and it is estimated that it will last until Nov. 7th, however, this weekend marks the peak of the meteor shower. You can catch the Orionids from Saturday night through early Sunday morning streaking across the sky at a rate of up to 25 meteors per hour! (2006 and 2009 were landmark years for the Orionid shower, as meteors reached rates of 40-70 meteors per hour…unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case this year. But it will still be worth watching out for!)
If you are going to see the Orionids in action this weekend, it is recommended that you watch the shower (with a telescope) from a relatively rural area, as highly populated areas tend to have a considerable amount of light pollution which may obscure the otherwise faint meteors.
A composite photo of the 2011 Orionid meteor shower taken near Mount Shasta in California. Image credit: Brad Goldpaint/Goldpaint Photography
The Orionids are so named because they appear to originate from the Orion constellation, although they are really fragments of Halley’s Comet colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere. The friction of the meteors entering the atmosphere produces white heat, and so we see them as ‘shooting stars’ as they travel across the sky. If you get the opportunity, check it out tomorrow night- and don’t forget to make a wish!

Presidential Candidates Answer SciAm's Burning Questions

Last night’s debate, while entertaining, still left much to be desired (of course, this was unsurprising, as politicians in general have a knack for talking a lot but saying very little). 
For those of you who want to know more about the candidates’ stances on major issues in science & technology, last month Scientific American, in conjunction with, asked presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to address scientists’ top 14 questions. Their answers have been posted on SciAm’s website, which you can see by following the link above.
Update: Or better yet, see how SciAm graded their responses by checking out this page!

Organ Transplants: Have It Your Way

An article from today’s NYT science section shows how the stuff that sci-fi dreams are made of is finally becoming a reality: researchers have been able to successfully build made-to-order organs with the cells of the patient that they are being transplanted into.
Living cells are washed from rat hearts and lungs, leaving only the extracellular organ scaffolding. Image credit: New York Times
When the idea of homegrown organs was first conceived, the transplant organs were made using donor organs which had been stripped of all of the donor’s own living cells, leaving only a scaffold made of support proteins and other fibers. The scaffolds retain the same basic shape as the living organ, and so they can be re-seeded with cells and stem cells from the transplant recipient which will re-grow the organ using the scaffold structure as a rough template. This procedure is still limiting, however; although the risk of the transplant recipient’s immune system attacking the transplant is reduced because it is made of native cells, the scaffolds still need to be obtained from donated organs which are often in short supply. 
Researchers holding the synthetic organ scaffold. Image credit: University College London.
Dr. Paolo Macchiarini and his team at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden envisioned a way to avoid the need for a donor organ by creating a syntheticorgan scaffold, reducing the time spent waiting for a donor and allowing them to tailor the organ’s size and shape to their patient. Researchers at the University College London designed and built a synthetic windpipe scaffold which were seeded with cells from Andemariam Beyene, a patient of Dr. Macchiarini’s with a large and aggressive tumor growing on his windpipe. Two days after combining the synthetic scaffold with Beyene’s bone marrow stem cells, a complete synthetic windpipe was formed. Mr. Beyene’s windpipe was removed by Dr. Macchiarini along with the tumor, and replaced with the synthetic windpipe. 
The fully developed synthetic trachea two days after the patient’s stem cells were added. Image credit: University College London
Miraculously, as of today Mr. Beyene is doing well and is cancer-free. Since his success with the first transplant Dr. Macchiarini has performed a similar procedure on three other patients; two of the three patients are doing well, although the third died for reasons which have not been disclosed. 
A decade ago it was surmised that it may one day be possible to accomplish what Dr. Macchiarini and his team have achieved- and now that day has come. After last week’s announcement of the winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, it is heartening that the promise of stem cells is starting to be fully realized. 

Mystery Eyeball Most Likely Came From Swordfish, Not Squid

You may or may not have seen this picture
making the rounds in the news the past few days. A Florida beachcomber happened upon the eye pictured above after it had washed up on the shore, and proceeded to report the finding to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee (like any upstanding, environmentally responsible citizen- had they been in New Jersey, it probably would have been a different story). It was widely speculated that the eye may have belonged to a squid; it is, after all, easy to see the resemblance:
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee announced today, however, that contrary to popular belief their analysis indicated that the eyeball came from a swordfish, and had most likely been cut away by a fisherman. They are still awaiting final confirmation pending the results of genetic testing of tissue from the eye.
Mystery solved? We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, couldn’t you just get lost in those baby blues?…

Hello world,
I am starting this blog with a noble purpose- first, to inform you, the interested public (I know you’re out there), of current events in the science-o-sphere - and to spare my loved ones the details of every article that shows up in my ‘science news’ rss feed.
What can I do? Science is really exciting, really cool, and, in my opinion, should be shared with the world! And so this blog is for you, dear reader…a distilled (and hopefully not-too-infrequently updated, time permitting) version of everything cool & everything science. May you be inspired, ever curious, and stay tuned for the next update!
Here’s a little something to pique your interest for now, and its something that’s very, very important to me…
Give up?
This image was one of the winners of the 2012 Wellcome Image Awards. It was taken by Annie Cavanagh and David McCarthy using a scanning electron miscroscope, which works by moving a beam of electrons over an object. As the electrons bounce back off of the surface of the object, electrons are knocked from atoms on the surface of the object, and x-rays are emitted, they are all read and recorded by a detector. From this information a 3-D image of the topography of the sample is assembled.
But enough about that- the image you see here is a cluster of caffeine crystals. The color, of course, has been added by a computer, but if you’ve ever wondered whats in your coffee, there you go. Caffeine is found in many plants (tea leaves, cocoa beans, coffee beans, kola nuts, etc.), and it is actually produced by plants as a pesticide, killing and paralyzing the insects that attempt to eat them.
Fortunately for us, caffeine is not harmful (although it can be addictive and lethal if   taken in excessive doses- but we’re talking the equivalent of 4 gallons of coffee), and so it is commonly used as a stimulant, as it keeps us awake, alert, and provides a brief boost of energy. Caffeine looks and behaves similar to another molecule, adenosine. In the body, adenosine binds to adenosine receptors on nerves and slows down nerve activity.
The chemical structure of adenosine vs. caffeine
When we ingest caffeine, however, it can also bind to adenosine receptors. Adenosine can no longer bind to its receptors when they are actively blocked by caffeine, causing an increase in nerve activity which activate’s the body’s ‘fight or flight response’. The body mistakenly interprets the extra nerve activity as an emergency, and responds by producing adrenaline, which is the hormone that makes our heart start beating faster, blood pressure rise, and gets us feeling all fired up. 
So there you have it: the physiology of caffeination. There’s plenty more where that came from, so stay tuned!