When you hear the phrase “love spot”, I’m sure the last thing you think of is the common housefly. However, did you know that 15 different families of fly, including the mayfly, have a male-specific region of the eye called “love spots”? This region of the eye is highly specialized for motion detection and small-area targeting, and is most heavily utilized by males as they aerially pursue females during mating rituals. Talk about romantic. In some species the love spots are visible to the naked eye. The males have large eyes that are connected, whereas females have eyes that remain separated by other tissues.
Also, there are some stark differences in pigment between the male and females in some species, such as the horsefly. How do we know that the male love spots make them more adept at motion sensing? Measurements of the photoreceptors of the eye using small electrodes measures a difference in speed of 60% between male love spots and the corresponding female region of the eye! It’s thought that the structure of these love spots was then used in other fly families to become what are known as “Killer Spots”, which are found in both male and female and are used in predation.
While this research has led many scientists and ethicists to condemn this act as an "ethical nightmare", the scientists who performed the study have expressed their solemn interest in better understanding human evolution. This experimental approach is not the first of it's kind - recently scientists have also created animal chimeras by injecting human brain organoids into the brains of rodents. But why are we more sensitive to human-monkey chimeras?
The conversation about the consequences of this research on the monkey's intelligence has received the most attention. It is easy to believe that inserting a few human genes (particularly those involved in brain development) will make the animal smarter and more human-like, but we have to acknowledge that despite being highly genetically similar, there are millions of differences that makes monkeys, monkeys and us, humans. The real question is, how many human genes does it take to make a monkey no longer a monkey but a human? Food for thought.
Berkshire Community College Bioscience Image Library
In multiple sclerosis (MS), the fatty sheath that wraps around axons, called myelin, is damaged. However, there are currently no approved treatments for Multiple sclerosis patients that focus specifically on myelin repair, and current treatments only slow disease progression rather than halt it entirely. Drugs that focus on increasing the level of thyroid hormone promote myelin repair, but are unusable due to their extreme side effects. However, a few days ago a paper came out in JCI Insight that utilised a drug called Sob-AM2 to enter into the nervous system and selectively increase the level of thyroid hormone. This resulted in myelin repair and improvements in movement in three mouse models of MS, without side effects. This has huge implications on the future of MS treatment and it has the potential to change how we treat patients living with MS.
Two Photon and Massive partnered up to fund science writing training for a small group of new writers. We were thrilled to have over 100 applicants, though we wish we could fund everyone! We ended up with 12 Photon Fellows, each with their own perspectives and areas of expertise. Look out for their articles coming soon.
On the 128th sol (Martian day) of its mission, NASA's InSight rover, using its seismometer pictured above, has captured evidence of an earthquake on Mars. Er, uh, a marsquake.
Hell yeah. "Marsquake" is the name of my garage band so this will only be a windfall for me.
In terms of rumble, this is a rather small seismic event (NASA notes that if this had happened in Southern California it would barely register on any given day against any of the many small shakes that happen every day). Read more about the event here at the Jet Propulsion Lab/NASA website.
Still waiting for a marsnado.
I work in microbiology and biochemistry research. A student in my lab (her name is Anna) is investigating how Bacillus bacteria can be used to fight off the fungi that cause serious diseases in plants. This concept of biocontrol (using biological control agents instead of chemical pesticides) is a bit of a hot topic in research right now, and an industry selling biocontrol products is beginning to bloom. This can make it feel like a new idea, an innovative form of subtle environmental engineering, to use bacteria to control insect and fungal pests.
A recent re-reading of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, reminds me that the idea of biocontrol is far from new.
Carson's book is credited as having kick-started the environmentalist movement, as it laid out in painstaking detail the damage we were doing to our environment by our over-use of pesticides (especially insecticides). Carson could see the incredible scale of loss inflicted on our ecosystems, the reduction in what we now call biodiversity, and she lamented the “campaign for mass chemical control…another symptom of our exaggeratedly technological and quantitative approach”.
At the very end of Silent Spring, Carson wonders if there is another way to treat the insect pests that plague our farms. She describes how Bacillus bacteria were used to kill off insect pests as early as the 1910s and 1930s! Support for these “natural” approaches to pest control waned after chemicals like DDT were discovered, as new technological solutions were thought to be inherently better than any nature-based interventions.
Now I hope that we are returning to a more ecological view of pest control; maintaining a robust and diverse ecosystem to keep pests and pathogens in check, this time armed with deep scientific knowledge about how biocontrol works. After all, as Carson said:
“For the microbes include not only disease organisms but those that destroy waste matter, make soils fertile, and enter into countless biological processes like fermentation and nitrification. Why should they not also aid us in the control of insects?”
Silent Spring and the rest of Rachel's writings on the environment are available from all good bookshops, online or otherwise.
Numerous institutions have their postdoctoral fellows and administrators returning this week from the National Postdoctoral Association Annual Meeting (April 12-14) in Orlando, Florida.
The meeting was a perfect balance of career development sessions, interactive workshops, and opportunities for meaningful networking, with presentations including "Did They Really Just Say That?! Responding to Bias at Work", "NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowships: Strategies for Success", and mealtime meetups for general or specific groups. The poster viewing session had us furiously scribbling down ideas to bring back to our respective campuses such as PENNView, a postdoctoral diversity initiative to expose Mid-Atlantic doctoral candidates to research at the University of Pennsylvania. Another poster by Ralph J. Hazlewood shared their successful methods for increasing postdoc engagement and attendance at Vanderbilt University. I know I speak for many attendees when I say I'm excited to share what I have learned and improve the postdoc experience! Hope to see y'all at the 2020 meeting in San Diego.
This has prompted some irresponsible headlines suggesting that these brains were "kept alive", a conclusion the authors themselves did not make. Rather, the authors showed that they could restore the electrical and metabolic activity of some brain cells and promote dilation of blood vessels. But should we consider this "alive?"
The conversation about what counts as "alive" in a brain has been interesting. If we are to take this paper and consider electrical and metabolic activity in brain cells "live brains", we are forced to be consistent and conclude the same about cell culture and brain organoids, both of which can produce brain cells with electrical and metabolic activity.
I was delighted to learn about Werner's Nomenclature of Colours, a fascinating intersection of art and science. It's a book, first published in 1814, that orders, classifies, and names 110 colors and provides examples of where they can be found in the natural world.
The Public Domain Review shares a short history of origins of the book:
The book is based on the work of the German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner who, in his 1774 book Treatise on the External Characters of Fossils (), developed a nomenclature of colors so as to offer a standard with which to describe the visual characteristics of minerals. Clearly taken by the idea, some three decades later the Scottish painter of flowers Patrick Syme amended and extended Werner’s system. In addition to the mineral referent, for each of Werner’s colors Syme added an example from the animal and vegetable kingdom, as well as providing an actual patch of color on the page to accompany the words. While Werner found a suite of 79 tints enough for his geological purpose, now opened up to other realms of nature, Syme added 31 extra colors to bring the total to 110.
I love how this book dances back and forth between science and art. At the same time that it's trying to order and classify colors in a rigorous way, it's also making subjective associations between those colors and the natural world. I think it also tells a larger story about the close relationship between science and art, and how our ordered scientific knowledge emerges out of our subjective observations.
Sydney Brenner died yesterday. That's him on the right, standing next to James Watson at the Asilomar Conference, 1975. I don't want to write a proper eulogy, because they've been done (here's a good one). It'll do to say that he was a scientist of a stratospheric status. I sometimes thought about him when I was in grad school and kept being surprised that we were both working in science at the same time. It was like reminding myself that a myth wasn't myth at all but real flesh and blood, like someone casually remarking that there were dragons in the parking lot. He won a Nobel Prize in 2002, rightfully so, but it should've been his second. He was a fulcrum of 20th century biology, a peer of essentially every famous biologist of the '50s, like Rosalind Franklin and Watson and Crick.
A lot of the focus from Brenner's career has been on his introducing Caenorhabditis elegans, a cute little flatworm into the biologist's repertoire. (It's okay, usually people just say "see el-uh-gans".) It should! He won a Nobel Prize for it. C. elegans was a great idea -- they're easy to work with, you can store them in the freezer (something you can't do with fruit flies or mice, other neuroscientist favorites), and they have a very low, very specific number of neurons -- 302. No more, no less. That makes them easy to study, easy to grow and maintain, and easy to learn on. If you walk into a C. elegans lab you might be lucky enough to see a scientist sitting at a microscope, plucking their own hairs off their arm or their eyebrows to use as hooks to pick up tiny worms. This is absolutely true.
It's astonishing to think about but Brenner should have already won a Nobel Prize by the time he actually got one for C. elegans. He was one of the last living members of the Phage Group, a collection of molecular biologists who used bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria, as models to discover the most basic fundamentals of genetics -- how DNA works, how proteins are made, and what the genetic code is. Earlier this week we published an article about Elisa Izaurralde, who worked out how messenger RNA (mRNA) gets distributed around the cell. Sydney Brenner invented the idea of mRNA more or less out of thin air. The idea is that mRNA acts as a temporary copy of the information encoded in DNA. A cell uses that copy to make a protein, instead of reading directly off of DNA. In the early 1960s there...wasn't much in the way of concrete evidence to support this idea. Brenner (and a few others, including Francis Crick) knew at the time that there was DNA, and there was protein, but there was something in the middle that was missing. They stuck RNA in the middle. Just like that.
*The Eighth Day of Creation: The Makers of the Revolution in Biology - Horace Freeland Judson
I've been thinking about a question for my fellow scientists lately: What's one paper that you always use to contextualize your work, that you wish you could share with everyone because you just think it's SO DARN COOL?
Mine is "Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities." I love this paper because the authors came up with the 25 places on earth with the highest concentrations of plant and animal species. They argue that in an era of very limited funding for protecting nature, focusing mainly on these regions will return the most bang for our conservation buck. And this paper is super relevant to my work because I study forests in the Tropical Andes, home to 45,000 plant species. Nearly half of these (~20,000) can only be found in this hotspot.
There are hotspots for animal enthusiasts, too! The island of Madagascar - home to multiple lemur species, the fossa, and the so-ugly-it's-almost-cute aye-aye - is a prime example. There are now 36 hotspots, with eleven new ones added in the past two decades. Scientists, nature lovers, world travelers: is your favorite place on the list? Shout out at me about your favorite papers and hotspots on Twitter and I'll share your replies!
Philosophers and researchers have long searched for estimates of pi, from approximations using the golden ratio to the famous fraction 22/7. One such estimate was accidentally discovered by French mathematician Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon – Buffon for short. He asked a simple question: Suppose a needle of a particular length is dropped onto a wooden floor with evenly spaced boards of the same width. What is the chance that the needle crosses a crack between the boards?
The angle of the needle determines how likely it is to have crossed the crack: with a smaller angle between the needle and the cracks, it is easier for the needle to land without crossing one. So, the solution to the “Needle Problem” relates the sine function to the needle’s angle, drawing a curve where the needle will always cross the crack. The area under this curve is compared to the rest of the area the needle could have landed, estimating the chance the needle crossed a crack. The resulting ratio relates the length of the needle, the distance between the needle and the crack, and pi – a simple shuffling of variables yields an estimate of pi.
Now, if you were to drop a needle on a wooden floor yourself, it would take you thousands of attempts before you could reasonably calculate pi. That's because the ratio mentioned above is in the case of infinite attempts – in the real world, we are limited to the number of times we can drop a needle. Researchers at the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign developed a simulation to virtually drop needles and estimate pi. On this Pi Day, try it out to see how close you can get to pi using Buffon’s Needle.
When I started studying to become a particle physicist, I noticed that π appeared not only in math courses, but also in almost every subject covered in each physics class. From the coil of a spring to the properties of light, pi shows up again and again, no matter what. To celebrate Pi Day, I want to take you on a brief quantum journey.
In the early 1900’s, quantum mechanics was arising as a way to explain the mysterious behavior of elementary particles, such as photons and electrons. That's when researchers came up with the concept of wave–particle duality, the idea that particles could behave as both indivisible pieces of matter and astonishingly, as waves. A fundamental fact of nature.
A wave can be thought of as a repeating oscillation. Picture a clock. Every 60 seconds, the hands complete a revolution and covers a 360 degree angle, or, in units of radians, 2π.
The period of the rotation would then be 60 seconds, and the angular frequency, corresponding to the angular displacement per unit time, would be 2π divided by 60 seconds. So, even if the clock’s hands are following a circular path, their movement can be described by a wave.
Elementary particles like electrons, photons, and quarks have all the properties of waves, like wavelengths and angular frequencies. It is natural to find the number pi in many equations within the quantum mechanics framework that describe the behavior of these particles.
The Heinsenberg uncertainty principle is a beautiful example of the consequences of the particles' wave-like nature. It essentially states the curious fact that we can't simultaneously measure both the position and velocity of a particle . The more accurate the measurement of either of the two variables is, the more uncertain the other one gets. In fact, exact position and velocity have no meaning at all in the quantum realm. Although the implications of this principle are extremely complex, the equation that describes it is a very simple one that depends, you guessed it, on π.
From the circumference of a circle to quantum mechanics, pi plays a crucial role in our understanding of nature.
Like many quantities in science, we can never determine the value of π exactly, but we can approximate it. You can even estimate π yourself with candy and a piece of paper.
Start by drawing a square. Let’s make it 8.5 inches long on each side so it fills up the width of a standard sheet of office paper. Now, draw a circle with a diameter of 8.5 inches within that square.
Now we need something to drop onto the drawing, like grains of rice or M&Ms. Begin by covering the square and circle with the objects and then count the number that are within the circle and the total number of objects. From this information, we can estimate the value of π. We can calculate the area of a circle with π r2, where r is the radius (the distance from the center of the circle to the outside). Based on how we drew the circle and square, the square will have a side length of 2r, so the area will be (2r)2 or 4r2.
Back to the M&Ms: to guess how many of the dropped candies will land inside the circle, we can calculate the ratio of the circle’s area to the square’s area: (π r2)/4r2 = π/4. When I tried this with 100 M&Ms, I found that 78 of them were inside the circle and 22 of them were outside the circle but inside the square. This means 78% of the total M&Ms landed in the circle. From our ratio calculations, we estimated that π/4 candies would land within the circle. Now, we can compare the fraction of the M&Ms that landed in the circle to the theoretical number to estimate π. Doing so, we find π/4 = 0.78 so π is about 3.12. The actual value of π is 3.14159265…. so our result isn’t a bad approximation. If we wanted to get a better estimate, we could use a lot more M&Ms and a much bigger drawing.
Of course, counting all the M&Ms takes a long time, so using more than a few hundred M&Ms isn’t practical. Instead of actually dropping M&Ms onto a square and circle, we could write a computer program to simulate dropping thousands or even millions of candies onto a circle and square and counting them up. The computer can “drop” and count a million M&Ms in a matter of seconds. When I tried this, I found that 785,389 of the 1 million simulated M&Ms landed within the circle, leading to an estimated value of 3.141556, which is even closer to the true value of pi than our estimate using only 100 M&Ms.
This is only one of many ways to approximate π. Nevertheless, this is a simple way to estimate π with just regular household materials.
We are excited to announce a new partnership with Two Photon, a small company that makes science art. In addition to creating enamel pins, jewelry, and other cool products, they also provide small grants for people starting new science communication projects.
As you probably know, members of the Massive consortium write two articles for publication during their training. These first two articles are unpaid, which is where Two Photon comes in! They'll be providing grants for a small group of prospective writers with little or no previous experience to participate in Massive's science writing training. Two Photon grantees, known as Photon Fellows, will be paid for their first two training articles, which will make it possible for them to participate without doing any unpaid work. If you're interested in being one of the writers supported by Two Photon, join our consortium! You can use the code TwoPhoton to waive the fee. Once you're in the consortium, you'll find links to the Photon Fellows interest form. We're really looking forward to the articles that come out of this partnership.
We're also stocking a few Two Photon items in the Massive Science Shop! Check out the purple brain pins, Scientist necklaces, flask pins, and Science is for Everyone pins (click the giant brain picture below). And don't forget to pre-order a science tarot deck soon! All the proceeds from our shop go back into supporting our mission.
Massive and Two Photon have a lot in common: we both have small teams that appreciate science and art equally and believe science is for everyone. Thanks for supporting both of us!
We've spent the last few months getting our Kickstarter rewards shipping out to backers and prepping our tarot cards for production. Now that we've figured out the basics of order fulfillment—and let me tell you, international shipping is like opening twenty cans of worms—we're excited to take the next step forward and open the Massive Science Shop.
The first things we're putting up for sale are the Kickstarter rewards that weren't claimed by our backers. If you missed backing our campaign back in October, this is your second (and last!) chance to get one of our limited edition Women of Science Tarot Decks. We're only making 500, and over half have already been claimed by our backers. Make sure to pre-order yours before they're all gone.
In addition, we've got a regular edition of our tarot card deck, our sticker packs, and our postcard set up for sale right now. We'll put up our Women of Science posters for sale once they're ready.
But, most importantly, we want to know what you want to see in our shop. We've got a bunch of different ideas so far—books we've reviewed, oh-so-trendy enameled pins, all manners of swag sporting the Massive Science logo—and we want to know what we should focus on. Fill out the poll on our shop page to let us know what you want to see!
Finally, all of this wouldn't be possible without the incredible support of our Kickstarter backers. They proved that people really want to see more imaginative representations of science exist in the world. Their support has not only helped us not just bring this one project into existence, but also helped us lay the groundwork to continue realizing new projects like it in the future. To all of our backers: thank you!
Frame: Matteo Farinella
Helia Bravo Hollis was a plant researcher in Mexico, one of few women working in biology in the 1930s. Two species of plants, Ariocarpus bravoanus and Opuntia bravoana, were named to honor her.
She died in 2001, just before her 100th birthday. I'm a huge fan of hers because Latina women are underrepresented in the history of science and because I love desert plants. Also, mid-century field clothes were pretty cool. She did all her fieldwork in a skirt!
Frame: Matteo Farinella
Hamilton was a software engineer before the position was even existed—in fact, she's the one who coined the term. She was one of the first people who distinguished software engineering as a legitimate field worthy of respect.
In the 1960s, she led the team that developed the in-flight software for the Apollo missions. Her team's hand-written software played a critical role in landing the astronauts of Apollo 11 on the moon, one of the first times a computer was trusted with the real-time execution of a mission-critical task.
Jim Peaco, National Park Services
Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs) repel both oil and water. So, as Anna Robuck wrote last fall:
"...PFASs are everywhere: fire-fighting foams, nonstick cookware like Teflon, stain-resistant carpet, water-resistant clothing, food packaging, compostable plates, some cosmetics, and other consumer products that repel oil, grease, or water."
They're ubiquitous, and because of that, they end up in our bodies. Now, the European Food Safety Authority says that humans can tolerate approximately...*pulls out adding machine*....99.9% of what they've been exposed to in the past.
In respone to this news, Robuck shared her thoughts:
"Ugh. Add this to the very-recent news that the US will refuse to set drinking water limits for these compounds.
My family lives near DuPont HQ, and some back of the envelope calculations suggest they (we) are drinking the weekly limit suggested in your link over the course of about three hours."
My favorite part of the science I do is field work. I fell in love with the study of geology because of all the field trips my classes took to mountains, road-side outcrops, and sand dunes on Lake Michigan, and the time spent wading in rivers and lakes. I never imagined, though, that I would spend my graduate studies crawling around underground in caves! I had been in so-called "show caves", like Mammoth Caves in Kentucky. But, they didn't prepare me for the thrill (and scariness) of crawling and climbing through the remote and unmodified caves central to my fieldwork.
My fieldwork in caves consists of cave monitoring, where we frequently visit the caves and measure their CO2 levels and temperature, and collect water from inside the cave to analyze back in our lab. We monitor the caves in the modern climate system, so we can better understand what they might be able tell us about past climate. The cave pictured here is Waipuna Cave in New Zealand's North Island, where we have cave deposits that serve as climate archives for the past 30,000 years. I've learned to love caves for both the awesome science they allow me to do, and their beauty. How can I not be inspired?
We asked our community whether or not the partial shutdown of the federal government, which has stretched into its second month, was having an impact on their research. One of our members is a former USDA researcher and helped illustrate the consequences of the shutdown on the government's scientific research. They asked to remain anonymous, citing limits on unauthorized statements imposed on scientists by the administration.
When it comes to agriculture research conducted by the USDA, they told us how a shutdown means the living things are not getting regular care. Plant research is often seasonal and so certain experiments need to be done at set seasonal times. If the few personnel allowed on station aren't capable of watering everything. Plants and insect colonies which aren't cared for could die. As a result, year-long projects could be irreparably lost.
Volcanoes of New Zealand are important figures in Māori (New Zealand's indigenous people) culture. When European exploration of New Zealand began in the early 1700's many places and landmarks were renamed, replacing their original Māori names. One such name change was Mount Taranaki, a volcano central in Māori legends with other mountains in the Tongariro National Park. Taranaki was renamed Mount Egmont by a Dutch explorer in 1770, and was taken by the British Crown in 1865. In 1986, Mount Taranaki (then Mount Egmont) was officially renamed "Mount Egmont or Mount Taranki" by the Lands Minister at the time, although the New Zealand Geographic Board had unanimously voted to return its name to Mount Taranaki months prior. In December 2017, eight iwi (people or nations of New Zealand) Taranaki officially signed an agreement with the Crown to begin the process of giving Mount Taranaki legal personality, meaning Mount Taranaki would have legal ownership over itself. Upon legalization, Taranaki will join Te Urewera and the Whanganui River, both of which have had legal identity since 2014.
Researchers from MIT have flown a plane powered by an ‘ion drive’ for the first time. The drive uses high powered electrodes to ionise and accelerate air particles, creating an ‘ionic wind’. This wind drove a 5m wide craft across a sports hall. Unlike the ion drives which have powered space craft for decades, this new drive uses air as its accelerant. The researchers say it could power silent drones.
Check out this video featuring Steven Barrett, the researcher who led the team:
This first flight made it about as far as the Wright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk. While it seems infeasible for passenger flights, it does have the potential to create a new class of small, silent, and clean drone aircraft.