Ad

Here's why we're making a science tarot deck

It's not a typical tool for science engagement, but we think it has potential

Matteo Farinella

Neuroscience

Columbia University

You might have seen that Massive is working on a Women of Science Tarot Deck. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, I've spent most of my weekends drawing science-themed symbolic illustrations -- and I couldn’t be happier about it!

Now, some of you may ask (and have asked) “why are you mixing science and tarot? Isn’t Tarot all about magic and occult stuff?” Initially, when my friend Nadja suggested the idea, I asked myself the same question. Like most people, I associated tarot with divination. But  the tarot actually started as a playing cards deck, used since the mid-15th century in various parts of Europe. In fact, in Italy we still use the 4 tarot suits (spades, wands, coins and cups) as regular playing cards, without any magical associations. Only later, in the 18th century, people started using tarot cards for divination and magic.


tarot spread using massive's women of science tarot deck

Part of me is just really excited about updating this ancient tradition for our modern scientific culture. After all, the cards' meaning evolved throughout history and I don’t see why we shouldn’t be allowed to do it once more. But, as a science communicator, I also think this is a great opportunity to reach a whole new audience. In particular, I have been thinking a lot lately about how scientists should engage with spirituality (especially after reading this fascinating comic by Jordan Collver and watching this conversation on Stated Casually). I grew up atheist (or religious-free, as I prefer to say) and I always had a pretty aggressive attitude toward any spiritual beliefs. But I now understand the value of a more neutral/grey zone (or ‘decompression chambers’ to use Jon Perry’s beautiful metaphor). If we require people to reject their whole spiritual identity in order to even start reading about science then we are excluding a whole LOT of readers! A more inclusive science communication should provide some in-between spaces where people feel comfortable exploring science, without feeling immediately challenged or attacked.


women from science history on playing cards

I really hope that a science tarot deck can play this kind of role: a space for people who do not traditionally identify as science geeks to engage with scientific concepts in a playful and nonjudgemental way. And also, a good opportunity to challenge some stereotypes of what science "should" be and what scientists look like by celebrating the inspirational women included in the deck.

Apollo 11 changed the world forever

Working together, there's no reason we can't change it again

Nick Young

Physics

Michigan State University

50 years ago today, millions watched grainy images of Neil Armstrong descend down the ladder of the lunar module. With a final push, Armstrong fell to the surface of the moon, becoming the first human to walk on the Moon, and uttered those famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

This outstanding view of the whole full moon was photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft during its trans-Earth journey homeward. When this picture was taken, the spacecraft was already 10,000 nautical miles away. Onboard Apollo 11 were astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. While astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin descended in the Lunar Module (LM) "Eagle" to explore the moon, astronaut Collins remained with the Command and Service Modules (CSM) "Columbia" in lunar orbit.

NASA/Michael Collins (id as11-44-6667)

While the moon walks are the first things to come to mind when recalling the Apollo missions, their impact extended beyond the moon. The Apollo missions created a need for technologies that revolutionized our world, which eventually led to the device you are using to read this article. The missions also produced stunning images of our planet, leading to environmental movements and conservation efforts to protect our only home. Perhaps most importantly, the Apollo missions were a springboard for our other explorations, including landing multiple rovers on Mars, landing a probe on a comet, sending a probe to Pluto, and even sending the Voyagers into interstellar space.

Most of Africa and portions of Europe and Asia can be seen in this spectacular photograph taken from the Apollo 11 spacecraft during its trans-lunar coast toward the moon. Apollo 11, with astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, onboard was already 98,000 nautical miles from Earth when this picture was made. While astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin descended in the Lunar Module (LM) "Eagle" to explore the Sea of Tranquility region of the moon, astronaut Collins remained with the Command and Service Modules (CSM) "Columbia" in lunar orbit.

 NASA/Michael Collins (id as11-36-5355) 

As we reflect on the historic achievements of the Apollo program, we must remember that it all started with a vision and broad support from public and private entities. In order to tackle the problems of our age, we must adopt a similar strategy. Just as reversing climate change may seem impossible today, landing a man on the moon was once seen as impossible. And yet, 50 years ago today, we did just that. 

Would you trust an artificially intelligent doctor?

AI is reading CT scans to more efficiently detect bone fractures in osteoporosis patients

Emily Smith

Nuclear Medicine and Medical Physics

United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust

CT scans enable doctors to see 3-D X-ray images of inside the body. Now, artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms are successfully reading CT scans to spot bones at risk of breaking – even if the scan was originally taken to look for something completely different. 

Spine fractures are a symptom of osteoporosis, a condition that makes bones more fragile and likely to break. Often, patients with this disease can suffer fractures without even noticing. However, it’s important to spot them and begin treatment as early as possible, before they lead to bigger issues and more broken bones. 

Nurses in Oxford, United Kingdom recently used the Zebra Imaging Analytics Engine to re-analyze the CT scans of nearly 5000 patients. They were all classified as either positive (signs of  fracture) or negative (no fracture). The nurses verified each result and found that the AI didn’t miss a single fracture. It did err on the side of caution though – about 30% of the scans that were reported as positive by AI were actually nothing to worry about. A similar study has also recently been done by researchers at Dartmouth College.

Overall, the software saves a lot of time for the nurses, as they can now just review the  positive scans instead of studying every scan in detail. It has helped identify over 100 patients with previously undetected fractures. Thanks to AI, these people have been able to receive early treatment for osteoporosis, protecting them against broken bones caused by the disease.  

The #BetterPoster debate rages – should you redesign your presentations?

Biologist Lauren McKee chooses to reserve judgement – for now

Lauren Sara McKee

Microbiology, Biochemistry, and Agricultural Science

KTH Royal Institute of Technology

There are two ways that we share our scientific findings at conferences: We give oral presentations and we make posters where we illustrate our questions, methods, and results. The poster is a great opportunity to be creative and show off your work in  visually interesting ways. But not all of us researchers are good with – or have time to dedicate to – “the creative stuff," rendering many posters just ugly walls of text. That's not very enticing for conference attendees, especially in a hall of 200 posters.

But psychology PhD student Mike Morrison at Michigan State University recently caused a stir on science Twitter when he unveiled his #BetterPoster. He proposed a radically different design for scientific posters, and made a Youtube video to explain his idea. The new layout has big friendly letters in the middle that broadcast the main message. Along one side are small supportive figures. The design is bright and uses negative space to draw the eye.

It turns out that #ScienceTwitter has opinions about this new design. Some researchers think it will revolutionize the poster session, letting us visit more posters in a session by helping us find the ones we should really see. This is certainly the stance that NPR took in their coverage of the debate. Others were up in arms about the lack of actual information on Poster 2.0, with some even calling it anti-scientific to make a poster Tweetable but not very informative. And some had a lot of fun taking the design to extremes.

I totally agree that Mike's #BetterPoster has visual appeal, and that showing one big central message could make it easier to find the posters I really need to see – although perhaps not, if everyone starts using this new format. On the other hand, most of the time when we make posters it’s because we want to show our work to other experts, who will expect to see the data that we have to back up our big flashy claims. I’ll reserve judgement until I see a Poster 2.0 in the real world.

Apollo 11 was just one space achievement of many in 1969

There was the Crab Nebula, Apollo 12, and more

Apollo 11 was the biggest news story of July 20th, 1969. But, the whole year was a bumper crop of mind-blowing space discoveries. One of the better summaries of the year, oddly, is Richard Nixon's January 1970 report to Congress summarizing them. Nixon's image in my mind as a cold, paranoid man is hilarious to square with the sunny tone of the report. 

Nevertheless it's a great document filled with outstanding bits of trivia. Nixon happily reports that Apollo 11 successfully landed four and a half minutes ahead of schedule, and splashed into the ocean upon return from the moon 41 seconds earlier than planned. 

Nixon also described the Crab Pulsar (pictured above), a neuron star in the Crab Nebula. The pulsar was first detected in November 1968 but confirmed in January 1969. Nixon writes (emphasis mine):

"Space astronomy has made major advances in 1969. Observations of the Sun and other stars are being made in wavelength regions that are inaccessible to astronomers using Earth-based instruments. For example, ballon- and rocket-borne instruments have discovered that the pulsar in the Crab Nebula emits powerful X-ray pulses. Each pulse contains as much energy as could be produced by collecting the entire electrical output of our present terrestrial civilization for 10 million years, but this pulsar produces such an X-ray pulse 30 times each second. The study of such extraordinary extraterrestrial phenomena will lead to a new understanding of physical processes that may help us to improve life on Earth."

To illustrate how cool the Crab Pulsar is, here's a time lapse photograph of it:

A time-lapse series of photos of the pulsar inside the Crab Nebula, showing waves of charged particles emanating from the pulsar.

Pulses from the pulsar (the bright dot just below the center of the picture) ripple through the Crab Nebula. 

NASA and ESA; Acknowledgment: J. Hester (Arizona State University) 

The president reported on the three other crewed spaceflights that year, Apollo 9, 10, and 12:

"Apollo 11 was one of four successful manned Apollo flights during the year. Others were Apollo 9, during which a manned LM [lunar module] was first tested in space; Apollo 10, in which an LM carried two astronauts to within 47,000 feet of the lunar surface; and Apollo 12, the second Moon landing mission, which was piloted by the astronauts to a precise landing on the lunar surface on November 19, 1969. In subsequent Apollo launches, the astronauts will stay longer on the lunar surface and carry on more extensive investigations."

Don't sleep on Apollo 12. It launched on November 14th, 1969. The second manned mission to the moon worked on the surface for about eight hours (versus just two and a half hours for Apollo 11). They also lost power during the launch after being struck by lightning but were able to get back online within one minute. 

The fight for Mauna Kea and the future of science

Native Hawaiian consortium scientist Sara Kahanamoku redefines science in the shadow of Mauna Kea

Sara Segura Kahanamoku

Marine Paleoecology

UC Berkeley

Vigils are once again being held to protest the construction of the world’s largest ground-based telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea, a place of great cultural and cosmological significance to many kanaka ‘ōiwi (native Hawaiians). At face value, these protests may seem like a clash between science and religion. Proponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) claim it will help astronomers explore the universe’s past in order to uncover its origins, while kiaʻi (guardians) advocating for the protection of sacred places are painted as impediments to scientific progress. This false dichotomy glosses over the fundamental issues at stake: who gets to make the decisions for people, for land, for the future?

To me, this debate is not about science vs. culture: in my practice of science, the two are inextricably linked. I am kanaka ‘ōiwi, and I do science because I am Hawaiian. I research out of aloha ‘āina, a deep familial love for the land. My cultural upbringing allows me to walk in the space between Western science and traditional ways of knowing, a duality that enriches the questions I ask and the techniques I use to answer them. I urge supporters of the telescope's construction to employ a similar duality in order to critically examine the colonial history of astronomy in the Hawaiian Islands in the same way that we are beginning to acknowledge other aspects of science’s dark past.

I envision a future where the practice of science is truly ethical: where human rights, including the rights of indigenous people to self-determination, are upheld through the practice of science. I envision a future where scientists value human relationships in the same way that we value critical thinking and curiosity, because I believe that we are all driven to research by aloha—love for people, the natural world, or human knowledge. At this moment, we have an opportunity to change the way that we do science. To me, Mauna Kea is a battle for our future. We scientists can change the course of this debate. We can shape the future to make it equitable, to instill it with aloha. 

Apollo 11 brought messages from Earth to the Moon and then almost forgot about them

A gold olive branch, an Apollo 1 commemoration, and messages from world leaders were tossed off the lander's ladder

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had a pretty simple task on their to do list when they landed on the Moon: they had to be leave behind a few mementos on the lunar surface. One was a patch commemorating Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White, the Apollo 1 astronauts who died in an accident. Another was a silicon disk with words of peace from world leaders inscribed on it. Another was a gold olive branch, which according to NASA, "[represented] a fresh wish for peace for all mankind." 

They almost left the Moon without leaving the mementos behind. Here's a transcript which doesn't quite do justice to what I imagine the situation looking like in my head:

111:36:38 Armstrong: How about that package out of your sleeve? Get that?

111:36:53 Aldrin: No.

111:36:55 Armstrong: Okay, I'll get it. When I get up there (to the porch). (Pause)

[In his 1973 book Return to Earth - repeated in Men from Earth - Buzz states that, when he was halfway up the ladder - that is, at about 111:26 - Neil reminded him to take care of this task. Clearly, the reminder came a little later than Buzz remembered but, as Journal Contributor Jim Failes notes, "it was a busy EVA".]
[Aldrin - "We had forgotten about this up to this point. And I don't think we really wanted to totally openly talk about what it was. So it was sort of guarded. And I knew what he was talking about..."]
[Armstrong - "About it being on your sleeve."]

111:37:02 Aldrin: Want it now?

111:37:06 Armstrong: Guess so. (Pause)

[From Neil's actions in the TV record, it appears that Buzz has tossed the package down to the surface. It falls to Neil's right. He turns and, apparently, moves it slightly with his foot.]

A replica of the gold olive branch.

NASA, ID: S69-40941 

Emphasis is mine. Buzz Aldrin casually tosses a package of absolutely singular, cosmic importance casually out of the lunar lander, Neil Armstrong kinda nudges it with his foot, and they leave.

Cats are like tiny, judgmental camels

Hailing from the desert, cats sneer in the face of heatwaves

Brittney Borowiec

Comparative Physiology

McMaster University

Humans, as many of us in the eastern U.S. and Canada learned this week, start feeling uncomfortable when our skin temperature hits 100°F (38 °C), just slightly above our normal core body temperature. 

At 38°C, fur and all, your house cat is cool and relaxed, and probably doesn’t even notice it’s much warmer than usual. She won’t even get irritable until her skin hits about 126°F (52°C). 

As usual, cats are far superior to people. 

It’s a testament to the ancient origins of the house cat. Over 9000 years ago, farmers in a region of the Middle East called the Fertile Crescent entered into a business arrangement with local wildcats that expertly kept pesky mice at bay. 

As agriculture grew, and permanent human settlements started to spread, so did their Chief Mousers. Now as many as 600 million cats live as pets worldwide. They haven’t lost their hunting instincts, and certainly haven’t done away with millions of years of adaptation to the desert. 

Cats are like tiny, judgmental camels. Owing to their super-efficient kidneys, the “treasure” they bury in the litter box has much less water in it than what we flush down the toilet. Their kidneys are so good that a cat can get all the water they need from a hearty meat-based diet. They can even drink seawater and re-hydrate themselves with no ill effects.

Cats can sweat through tiny glands on the bottom of their paws. They’ll also lick their fur and let the saliva evaporate off to cool down. When all else fails, they’ll even lower themselves to panting like those goofy dogs. 

But most pet cats, especially those in the places where air-conditioning is common, rarely resort of these drastic measures. 

In a warming world, cats will probably keep their cool. 

Meet Menara, the world's new tallest tropical tree

This 100m behemoth was found in Malaysian Borneo's Danum Valley

Jacqueline Mattos

Plant Ecology and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Federal University of São Carlos

How do you imagine the tallest tree in the world? Well, you don’t need to imagine anymore. In a recent study published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, researchers described the new tallest tropical tree in the world. Using a drone and laser measurements, they also constructed a three-dimensional model of the tree to determine what factors could be its tree height.  

The tree, a member of the species Shorea faguetiana (from the Dipterocarpaceae family), has been named “Menara”, after the word “tower” in Malay. It is located in Danum Valley Conservation Area in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Menara's height was measured at 100.8 m (330.7 feet), making it officially the world’s tallest tropical tree and angiosperm (flowering plant). In comparison, the tallest gymnosperm is a redwood sequoia in California called Hyperion, with a height of 115.7 m (379.6 feet).

One thing that gave Menara an advantage as it was growing is that it is partially sheltered by a ridge, which is fundamental for wind protection – one of the main factors that constrains maximum tree heights. Other factors that could be important in determining tree heights, the researchers note, are related to water and nutrient transport. Water is pulled up from the top of the tree during transpiration, and carbohydrates are pumped up from the bottom. One hundred meters is quite a far way for these substances to travel!

The Menara discovery was likely only the beginning. Researchers already think that other taller trees might be waiting to be found, especially in Borneo. The discovery of this iconic angiosperm represents what the scientific and conservation fields need the most today: more exploration and conservation efforts, in order to protect those beautifully huge trees in tropical forests. In a promising development, the government of Sabah has committed to increase the extent of protected forests to 30% of the state’s land area by 2025. 

Molly Sargen

Bacteriology

Harvard University

For decades, dermatologists have instructed people enjoying the bright summer sun to use sunscreen. They also advise reapplying sunscreen, wearing sunscreen on cloudy days, and even using sunscreen daily year-round. It's true - and important to reiterate - that protection from the sun’s damaging UV rays can prevent sunburns, skin cancers, and signs of aging. However, according to a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), sunscreens may also have some unwanted effects. 

Upturning long held beliefs, the preliminary study found the active ingredients in common sunscreens are absorbed into the blood. Since sunscreens are intended for external use, researchers haven’t yet evaluated the safety  of many components after internalization. This is alarming because scientists have already raised concerns about the toxicity of common sunscreen ingredients, like oxybenzone and octinoxate. Importantly, the JAMA paper only stated the need for more study and did not make conclusions about the safety of sunscreen.

Oxybenzone and octinoxate mimic the hormone estrogen. In the body, these look-alike molecules disrupt normal hormone function which affects the reproductive system and can be carcinogenic. Furthermore, these chemicals are linked to declining coral reefs and other marine life.  Evidence that sunscreens are harmful to marine ecosystems was strong enough that Hawaii banned sunscreens containing these ingredients last year. Since the FDA still approves them, it might be worth looking more closely at the ingredients of your sunscreen and how you use it. The benefits of using sunscreen may still outweigh the risks, but it is good to be an informed consumer. 

Bonobos' penchant for aquatic herbs might be why we have such big brains

Iodine promotes brain development, but until now we did not know where our hominin ancestors may have gotten this mineral

Darcy Shapiro

Evolutionary Anthropology

Rutgers University

Put down the Morton's salt! Researchers think they've figured out where bonobos are getting their iodine from, and it might help us understand how we evolved our big brains.

Bonobos (sometimes called pygmy chimpanzees) are some of our closest living relatives. They're the taxonomic sister-group to chimps and are famous for their "make love, not war" lifestyle. They're also endemic to the central Congo Basin, a region the WHO classifies as having few natural sources of iodine.

Iodine is really important for thyroid function in adults and for fetal and infant brain development. And while we don't know what bonobos' iodine requirements are, we know that humans are very sensitive to iodine deficiency - so our closest living relatives and our ancestors might also have been.

But the bonobos in the LuiKotale forest in Salonga National Park, DRC, don't seem affected by iodine deficiency in the way that some of the people in the area were (prior to iodine supplementation). And it might be because they eat aquatic herbs that are rich in iodine about once every two weeks. 

So what does that mean for the evolution of our big brains? The researchers who observed this behavior suggest that adequate iodine consumption was a prerequisite for human cognitive development and that iodine sources were likely to have been plentiful in the coastal areas and wetlands these hominins frequented. Finding these iodine sources further inland, in the Congo Basin, means that hominins weren't necessarily restricted  to coastal environments, and that aquatic herbs (along with animal  protein) might've been really important in the evolution of our brains.  

(Ed: Yes, those are chimps in the picture, not bonobos. There aren't many free stock images of bonobos that weren't taken in zoos available. If you'd like to email us to talk about it, hello@massivesci.com, thanks.)

Scientists have identified the part of the brain responsible for singing love songs

The finding has applications beyond just mouse matchmaking

Alejandra Canales

Neuroscience and Biochemistry

University of Wisconsin - Madison

A team of researchers from Duke University has just identified a group of specialized brain cells that are needed for mice to serenade a potential suitor. While neuroscientists had previously shown that a brain region called the midbrain periaqueductal gray (PAG) was important for vocal production, narrowing in on the specific neurons involved had previously proven difficult, given that this a region of the brain is also responsible for many other behaviors. 

In the recent study led by postdoctoral fellow Katherine Tschida, the researchers took advantage of a recently-developed genetic approach to label or “tag” the neurons activated when male mice were belting out their love songs. This tag then helped them see how those neurons were connected to other regions in the brain thought to be involved in coordinating breathing and movements of the voice.

Then, to establish that this group of neurons was linked to mouse love songs, the researchers inactivated them and found that this rendered the male mice unable to sing. Conversely, by purposely activating these neurons, Tschida and her colleagues could get the male mice to sing even when female mice were not around. The scientists were also able to show that these love songs seemed to be a good strategy for holding a female mouse’s interest: on average, female mice spent more time with male mice who sang more.

The accompanying videos (credit: Duke University) of these singing mice are adorable. But, cuteness aside, advances in genetic techniques to target groups of neurons for specific labeling, inactivation, and activation are allowing neuroscientists to pinpoint the networks of cells involved in complex behaviors, mapping out the circuits of electric activity in the brain.  

Dr. Vera Rubin deserves her name on new telescope designed to study dark matter

This is a great and fitting opportunity to honor her scientific contributions

JoEllen McBride

Astrophysics

Last month, Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Congresswoman Jenniffer González-Colón (R-PR) introduced H.R. 3196, the “Vera Rubin Survey Telescope Designation Act” in the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. H.R. 3196 would rename the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) on Cerro Pachon in Chile to the Vera Rubin Survey Telescope.

Vera Rubin

Matteo Farinella

Rubin was one of Massive’s first Science Heroes. According to Kepler’s laws, bodies that orbit close to massive objects move faster than those that are further away. So, Mercury orbits the Sun  at a higher speed than Jupiter. But when Rubin measured the speed of stars orbiting at the edges of galaxies, she saw that they were moving just as fast as stars near the center. But if we add up all the mass that we can see in a galaxy, it’s not enough to explain the high speeds. She surmised that there must be mass we cannot see - dark matter - driving this motion.

In the 40 years since Rubin’s discovery, astronomers and physicists have come up with many clever ways to try to understand dark matter, but we’re still no closer to knowing what it is. The LSST will use a more traditional approach. It’s 8.4-meter (27.6-foot) mirror can take images of the entire night sky. Over a 10-year period, the telescope will map galaxies across both time and space, measure their masses, and uncover how the extra mass from dark matter bends space. 

Rubin’s perseverance and dedication to scientific pursuit revealed one of the cosmos’ greatest mysteries. She deserves to have this telescope named for her, especially since she passed before she could be awarded a Nobel Prize.  

(Banner image by Daniela Sherer)

Scientists grafted frozen testicular tissue and produced viable sperm for the first time

A newborn monkey named Grady gives hope for restoring fertility to men who underwent cancer treatment as kids

Zack Jarrell

Cell Biology and Agricultural Science

University of Georgia

An astounding 80% of childhood cancer patients survive into adulthood, but nearly one half of boys who survive childhood cancer grow into men with either infertility or reduced fertility. This is because chemotherapy and radiation treatments often damage the cells which will eventually be responsible for producing sperm.

For these young boys, hope for assuring their future fertility lies in preservation of their testicular tissues before treatment. This preservation is common, but no clinical techniques for actually restoring fertility with these tissues have been developed – but now, University of Pittsburgh fertility researchers are seeking to validate one such technique for clinical use. Their paper describing the experiment was published earlier this year in Science.

Previously, success had been seen in grafting pre-pubertal testicular tissue from one species of mammal into that of another, which ended up producing both functional sperm and live offspring. Additionally, earlier work in nonhuman primates saw successful sperm production after immature testicular tissues were grafted back onto the individual from which they originated, an approach referred to as autologous grafting. 

The Pittsburgh researchers bridged the gap between these two approaches by performing autologous grafting of immature testicular tissue in rhesus macaques, producing viable sperm as well as restoring testosterone production. Using assisted reproductive technology, the sperm was then used to produce the first primate offspring from a father with autologously grafted testes. She was named “Grady”, for graft-derived baby.

Grady’s birth story is one which will give hope to thousands of cancer survivors and likely many more to come. This accomplishment has made autologous grafting seem like a real possibility as a clinical therapy to return fertility to men who underwent cancer treatment as children in the near future. 

What your teacher thinks of you affects your performance

Instructors' fixed or growth mindsets make a big difference, new study says

Nick Young

Physics

Michigan State University

Imagine that on the first day of a class, the instructor says, ‘Only  smart people will do well in this course.’ Cue the imposter syndrome as you begin to wonder if you are smart enough to be in the course.

Unknowingly, the instructor has communicated their own fixed mindset belief about the students. The belief is that intelligence is a fixed quantity as opposed to growth mindset, where intelligence is thought to be changeable. Previous studies have found that instructor expectations for students can affect their performance, but what about the instructor’s beliefs about their students' intelligences?

To answer this question, researchers from Indiana University looked at grades from over 600 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, representing over 15,000 students. To understand whether the instructor had fixed or growth mindset beliefs, the researchers posed two questions to the instructors that tested how much they agreed with the idea that intelligence is not something can change be changed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found that students in the fixed mindset instructors’ courses earned lower grades than students in the growth mindset instructors’ courses. The effect was even more pronounced for students who identified as Black, Latino, and/or Native American. This likely is yet another contributor to the race gap in STEM (and college completion in general).

To ensure a more equitable classroom, instructors must be aware of their beliefs and how they may promote or hinder student achievement. 

RelativelyRisky points out the fine print in medical studies

This new Twitter account skewers our misunderstanding of absolute risk

Maddie Bender

Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Yale University

"A new cancer drug reduces incidence of the disease by 50%." Sounds great, right? But a closer look reveals that the drug reduced cancer from just 2 people in 1,000 to 1. Fifty percent, sure, but nothing to call home about.

This is the distinction between relative risk and absolute risk that a new Twitter account is drawing attention to. Much like its viral counterpart, @justsaysinmice, RelativelyRisky points out the fine print in scientific studies beyond the attention-grabbing headlines that the research sometimes inspires. Relative risk is a comparison — how much more risk of a bad outcome one group bears compared to another — while absolute risk is just this measure for one group.

RelativelyRisky is run by an epidemiologist and PhD student who goes by the name Gid M-K online. In a blog post on Medium, he explained that the reporting of relative risk instead of actual risk leads to different interpretations of the same results. Giant relative risks can make it difficult for a person to understand what the risk of something happening to them is; however, it is a useful tool for science, since the absolute risk of any given outcome can vary substantially based on factors like age while relative risk stays relatively steady. 

Communicators of science should be more conscious of how they present risk percentages. This doesn’t mean getting rid of relative risk entirely, but reporting should at the very least be include both measures of risk to give readers a fuller sense of what the data mean. There are even studies showing that this approach helps. So next time you see what you think might be a sensationalized headline, click over to RelativelyRisky to see what the actual risk to you might be!

Watch the July 2nd total solar eclipse here!

No matter where you are on Earth, you can stream the eclipse

A total solar eclipse is moving across South America today, July 2nd. If you're not in the path of totality, you can still use the internet to watch the eclipse. Click here to watch live from the  Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. Happy eclipse watching!

Don't recycle paper. "Unprint" it

This could decrease paper's environmental impact five-fold

Emily Smith

Nuclear Medicine and Medical Physics

United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust

Recycling paper is much better for the environment than throwing it away. However, the process required to make paper fit for a second or third use actually takes its own significant toll on the planet. Pulping, bleaching and drying recycled paper contributes substantially to energy use, water pollution and climate-damaging gas emissions. 

A truly environmentally-friendly solution is needed for recycling our  paper. What if we could erase ink – if the documents we no longer needed could simply be ‘unprinted’? 

Scientists from Rutgers and Oregon State University have recently shown that we can do just that, using flashes of light from a Xenon lamp. Unlike ultraviolet and infra-red light used in previous studies, the visible light from the lamp didn’t cause any damage to glossy printing paper. They adjusted the length of the light flashes until they found the optimum amount to render printed black ink completely removable with an ethanol wipe. They then studied both new and unprinted paper under the microscope, revealing that the unprinting process restored paper to within 6% of its original brightness. 

With upwards of five reprints needed before paper became damaged, this method could rival conventional paper recycling and reduce its environmental impact by about five times. The technology could one day be integrated with conventional printers, making unprinting the new, truly eco-friendly way to recycle paper at home. 

Five newly discovered proteins patrol cell nuclei

These proteins might shed light on how to treat diseases like progeria

Liza Brusman

Molecular Biology

The Scripps Research Institute

If you were in a friend's house for the first time and wanted to find a fork, the first place you'd look is probably the kitchen, right? Cells, too, keep different proteins in different compartments so that the proteins can perform the functions they're meant to efficiently. Our lab at the Scripps Research Institute studies the nuclear envelope - the membrane system that encloses the nucleus. The nuclear envelope controls what can enter and exit the nucleus, attaches the nucleus to the cell's structural elements, and regulates cell signaling.

In a paper that was recently published, we identified five new nuclear envelope proteins. These new proteins open the door for more research into new nuclear envelope functions. Mutations in some nuclear envelope proteins cause diseases like muscular dystrophies, lipid dystrophies, and the accelerated aging disease progeria. It will be exciting to learn what these new proteins are doing and what happens when their functioning goes awry! 

Quantum jumps aren't as weird as Einstein and Schrödinger thought

Physicists from Yale have figured out how to predict and control quantum jumps, which could be the breakthrough quantum computing needs

Arwen Nugteren

Chemistry and Quantum Physics

Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger may not have always gotten along, but they were both leading thinkers in the field of quantum mechanics. They did agree on one thing: Quantum jumps, where an electron within an atom instantaneously changes from one discrete energy level to another discrete energy level, were just too weird to deal with. And nearly a century later, most physicists would not challenge the fact that this is an accepted part of how we understand the field. 

But most is not all, and challenging widely-accepted principles is the foundation of science. In early June, a team of physicists from Yale published new results showing that quantum jumps are more predictable than previously thought, and that the electron's jump between energy states can even be reversed mid-jump. 

This group of researchers built an artificial atom that would perform jumps between a low energy, ‘ground’ state, a ‘bright’ (higher energy) state and a ‘dark’ state. They fired a beam of microwave photons into the artificial atom and observed that photon absorption caused it to switch from ground to bright states. And when a particularly high energy photon was absorbed, the atom would jump all the way up to the dark state and stay there for an extended period of time. 

The tricky part of the setup is that it is impossible for scientists to directly observe an atom transitioning between states. So instead, the Yale researchers measured the photon emission from the bright state (identified by the specific way light scattered from this energy level), which was recorded as a clicking sound. An interesting pattern rapidly emerged: The clicks that were given off by photon emission suddenly decreased in frequency each time right before the atom jumped to the low-energy state. From there, they found that it was possible to observe the jump simply by cutting off the photon beam into the atom chamber and that the jump process could actually be reversed by hitting the atom with an electrical pulse. 

This is a big breakthrough for quantum mechanics, because it means that we’ve now developed a technique to predict and control quantum systems that previously seemed highly random, uncontrollable, and just plain weird. This technique puts rapid increases in quantum computing technology within our reach. 

Talk about exciting new physics! I wonder what Einstein and Schrödinger would think.

Jenna Sternberg

Neuroscience

Some animals use swarms to make their presence known. For example, crickets chirp in a chorus and fireflies flash in unison, catching the eye of potential mates. Such synchrony is an effort of individuals working together to create an easily identifiable beacon. Now researchers at the MIT Media Lab are asking: can the coordinated strength of a swarm could be co-opted to make shared roads safer?

The project, called [bike] swarm, uses bikes equipped with radios tuned to a small range of frequencies to communicate with nearby bikes. When bike approach each other, their lights flash in unison, making cyclists easier to identify in the dark. As bike sharing programs continue to expand, cities may be able to make cyclists and drivers safer on the road by taking advantage of this simple and adaptable system inspired by nature.

Claudia Lopez

Neuroscience

University of Pennsylvania

On September 20th, 2017, Hurricane María devastated the island of Puerto Rico. A George Washington University study following the hurricane found that the death toll reached almost 3,000 in studies following the hurricane. The catastrophe and its aftermath also had profound effects on the psychology of Puerto Rico’s youth.

New research by scientists at the Medical University of South Carolina surveyed students in the public school system five to nine months after the hurricane. Students indicated being subjected to many  stressors during the hurricane including witnessing their homes being damaged, being forced to evacuate, and having a family member, friend, or neighbor experience injury or die. Additionally, children also reported stressors associated with the aftermath of the storm, including water and food shortages and friends or family leaving the island. The study found that there was a high prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depressive symptoms in Puerto Rican students, possibly fueled by the stressors brought on by the hurricane.

Clearly, natural disasters can have traumatic effects on mental health, particularly in children. More studies should delve into how Hurricane María has affected the prevalence of mood disorders and different psychological conditions to uncover how this natural disaster may have altered the psyche of an entire generation. 

Maddie Bender

Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Yale University

Two species of stickleback fish, both alike in dignity
In fair Japan, where we lay our scene
 

One was able to move to freshwater habitats, while the other couldn’t. New research out in Science implicates “jumping” genes as the cause.

These jumping genes, called transposable elements, discovered by Science Hero Barbara McClintock, make up half of our genome and up to 90% of corn’s, and they can copy and paste themselves willy-nilly into the genetic code. Randomly hopping through the genome is often harmful because it can disrupt otherwise functional genes, but this stickleback study gives us an example of the opposite occurring. 

When researchers compared the three-spined stickleback — which can survive in freshwater and marine environments — to another that can only live in marine waters, they found that one gene made all the difference. That gene, called Fads2, controls the metabolism of omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in marine environments but scarce in freshwater. 

Fads2, the researchers found, rode the coattails of a transposable element that jumped around the three-spined stickleback’s genome. This increased the number of copies of the useful gene and allowed the fish to make the most of the few omega-3 fatty acids in freshwater. 

Alejandra Canales

Neuroscience and Biochemistry

University of Wisconsin - Madison

Earlier this month the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property held hearings regarding a bipartisan draft proposal that would eliminate the current restrictions on the eligibility of patents including those on  “abstract ideas,” “laws of nature,” or “natural phenomena." 

As of the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, human genes are not patentable because they are a “product of nature,” but synthetically created DNA, also known as complementary DNA (cDNA), can be patented. At the time, the ACLU argued that that because Myriad had patented the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, the company had created a monopoly on genetic testing for breast cancer risk  screening.

But, six years is a long time in the world of genomic science. With the current explosion in direct-to-consumer DNA testing kits  offering all kinds of new risk prediction scores for different diseases, biotech companies and their patent attorneys seem to be more interested in patenting specific combinations of DNA variants associated with disease and the algorithms for arriving at such scores. How different is that really from what Myriad was doing six years ago?

Experts also say that given all the information already known about the human genome, single genes probably would not meet the novelty criteria required for patents. But as most researchers writing grants are aware of, novelty is a squishy concept, and as This American Life reported back in 2011 and 2013, the language in patents can be vague—so vague that some companies exist for the sole purpose of buying patents and suing, or threatening to sue, for millions of dollars for patent violation. How does broadening the eligibility for patents help define novelty?

This debate is ongoing, but major scientific organizations and the ACLU want to keep the ban on gene patenting in place for the good of medical patients as well as research. You can read the ACLU's letter (signed by over 100 other groups) here.

Emily Deibert

Astronomy and Astrophysics

University of Toronto

Scientists have long been interested in how the first stars were born, and in 2015 they even found a new galaxy that appeared to contain first-generation stars. But another major outstanding question in astronomy is how these first stars died. While we typically assume that these died in unimaginably powerful spherical explosions, called “supernovae,” these energetic events have been notoriously tricky to simulate — even with supercomputers at our disposal. 

Now, a team of researchers from across the USA has published results that point to an entirely different picture of these first stars’ fiery deaths. Rather than the spherical explosions astronomers have long imagined, this new observational evidence suggests that the first stars ended their lives aspherically, spewing jets of material at random directions out into space.

Their result comes from observations of a very old, bright, and metal-poor star called HE 1327−2326. This star was born out of the remnants of the first generation of stars, and so studying it can help shed light on what the lives and deaths of these first stars were like. Surprisingly, they found much more zinc — an element that is only created in the cores of massive stars — than they  expected. If the first generation of stars really did explode  spherically, most of the material shot outward during these explosions should have fallen back in to the black holes left behind. And after running 10,000 computer simulations to try to figure out where this zinc came from, the team found that this was the case: not a single simulation of a spherical explosion was able to reproduce their observations.

Apsherical explosions would allow zinc to be flung far away, while other material could have fallen in to the stellar remnant. Although the researchers aren’t sure how common these aspherical supernovae were, their results will help inform future research and shed light on other questions surrounding these mysterious first stars. 

More Lab Notes →