Thursday, December 29, 2011

Protein Discovered That Helps Bacteria Communicate

This article discusses a study that has found a protein that's involved in communication between bacteria that infect rice. Not only does this protein signal the bacteria to form into a biofilm and activate hundreds of genes which changes them from "benign" to "fierce invaders," but the immune systems of some rice are able to detect the protein as an antigen. Not only will this information help to protect rice, but it can be used to help protect us as well.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Peach Fuzz Protects Your Body From Parasites

Although humans are often known as the "naked apes," we're not really naked. Our bodies are covered with a layer of very fine, colorless hair, called vellus hair. A recent study shows that this "peach fuzz" may help protect us against parasites. Not only does the hair increase the time it takes a parasite like a bed bug to find a good spot to bite you, but the hairs also help you feel the parasite on your skin.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Newton Day!

I could write an extensive post explaining why I would very much like to live somewhere that had never heard of Christmas. Suffice it to say that, as someone who's a "recovering Christian," and as someone who's sickened by the blatant materialism of Christmas that so many seem to be blind to, simply ignoring it doesn't seem to be quite enough. So, for those of you who have similar feelings, I offer an alternative: Newton Day.

I got this idea from the writer of a blog I follow, Off the Hook Astronomy. She made a post about this last year at this time, and I thought it was brilliant. I found her term of "Newtonmas" a bit cumbersome, and it reminds one of "Christmas". So I decided to go with "Newton Day." I think she explained the concept very well, so I'll quote her here:
I ... subscribe to a much more scientific belief system .... Therefore, this year I've decided to celebrate Newtonmas. Isaac Newton, considered by many to be the father of modern Physics, was born on Christmas day in 1642. There was some confusing stuff going on with dates back then, and so according to our modern calendar, his birthday is on January 4th, but since the calendar back then said it was December 25th, I think I'll stick with that one for the sake of the holiday.

Newton is most famous for discovering the Law of Gravitation by showing that the same force which causes objects to fall towards the ground also governs the motion of the planets around the sun. However, he is also credited with inventing calculus (though Leibniz also gets credit for that), building the first reflecting telescope, discovering that light is made up of many different colors, and much more. He was also very religious and a practitioner of alchemy. He might also have been a bit of a jerk.

Anyway, to properly celebrate Newtonmas, I will be doing the following:
  • Eating an apple
  • Singing some Newtonmas carols
  • Shining light through a prism to watch it split into a rainbow
  • Doing some calculus problems
  • Dropping stuff on the ground
In addition to these fun activities, I also recommend learning something new (and scientific) today. We're very fortunate to live in a time where we can find real answers to our questions. We don't have to rely on superstition. I'm very thankful for that!

Happy Newton Day!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Scientists Track the Evolution of an Epidemic to Show How Bacteria Adapt

This article explains a study where scientists sequenced the genomes samples of bacteria from the epidemic. The samples came from various patients throughout the course of the epidemic, including "Patient zero". This study shows just one way that modern genetic technology and evolutionary theory are being used to understand disease-causing agents and design better treatments.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Biofuel Research Boosted by Revelations on How Blue-Green Algae Make Energy

This story is close to my heart as biofuel research is the area of microbiology I'm going to be working in. This area of study has been growing by leaps and bounds. Bacteria have been found that can produce ethanol (which can be used as auto fuel), jet fuel, gasoline, electricity, and even a biodegradable non-petroleum-based plastic. These microscopic organisms may very well be the "green" alternative to fossil-fuel-based energy we've been looking for.

This article describes how the "missing" link in the Krebs cycle (or TCA cycle--tricarboxylic acid) of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) has been discovered.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Scientific Mindset

Not only is the scientific mindset absolutely essential for performing good science, but it's also advantageous to cultivate this way of approaching the world in day-to-day life.


Curiosity is the heart and soul of science. Scientists never lose that childhood infatuation with the question "Why?". This single question has guided many of our discoveries and has led to much of our understanding of the world around us.

A scientist approaches the universe with an insatiable curiosity. We look for patterns in the world around us. We ask questions of "why" and "how" and "what if" about everything we see. It's not enough to know something is; we want to know why it is, how it became that way, and whether it will ever change. 

An Open Mind

A good scientist always keeps an open mind. When beginning to attempt to answer the many questions her curiosity brings to light, she considers ALL possibilities. She relies upon the scientific method to separate the true from the ridiculous. In the beginning, all possibilities are valid. 

Despite what many among the ignorant think, science is NOT about having a "pet theory" and designing experiments to "prove" that theory. That's called "pseudo-science". A good example of pseudo-science is the load of horseshit called "Intelligent Design". (Don't take my word for it, the teaching of intelligent design was ruled unconstitutional in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. Learn more in this excellent NOVA program.)

Rather, a scientist seeks to DISprove a hypothesis through experiment. Experiments can only disprove a theory, nothing is truly ever proven in science, because there's always the possibility of new data and understanding modifying a hypothesis. This happens all the time in science as our understanding grows. For instance, it was once believed that nothing could escape a black hole, but now it's believed that black holes actually emit what's called "Hawking radiation".

Many scientific theories that are now accepted and widely used in technology were originally discounted by many as "crazy". For instance, Einstein's idea in special relativity that time doesn't flow at the same rate at all places in the universe--that the flow of time is affected by gravity and velocity. We now know this to be true, even though people once thought it was crazy (because it defied "common sense", or as I like to call it, "common nonsense"). In fact, GPS works based on this principle. It's because of the variable rate of time that the GPS in your car or phone can tell you exactly where you are.


A scientist's open-mind must be tempered by a very healthy dose of skepticism. While in the beginning of the experiment all possibilities must be considered, eventually we must start weeding out the erroneous ideas in our quest for truth. A maxim in science is "correlation is not causation". Scientists must always scrutinize their results and conclusions. They always search for hidden variables--things that may be producing the observed effect that are outside what they've considered. 

Most of us know people who believe everything they've heard or read, no matter the source. A good scientist always checks for the sources of information. Every piece of data must be scrutinized. Unfortunately, as humans we love "proving ourselves right". Skepticism combats this tendency, which can often blind us to evidence that we're not right. 

All scientific findings are open to peer-review. This is another hallmark of science that many among the ignorant don't understand. Every published paper is open to debate and debunking. A proper scientific paper gives the reader all the information they need to carry out the experiments themselves, and many do. Many of the lovers of conspiracy claim that science is "bought". While it's true that any given scientist's ethics may be compromised by large sums of money (we're only human, after all), the peer review process will weed these out pretty quickly. Scientists are harsh critics, and someone exposed in such a way can kiss his career in science goodbye. 


Finally, a good scientist is humble. In the search for truth, one must be able to admit when one is wrong. One must be willing to throw out a hypothesis that doesn't hold up to testing. It may seem counter-intuitive, but most scientists are actually happy when an experiment proves a hypothesis wrong. The reason is that this is the way the secrets of the universe are teased out. A hypothesis can never be proven with 100% certainty. Theories in science are those hypotheses that have been supported by countless experiments over years and years of study, but even these theories could be disproven with more sophisticated knowledge in the future (or at least amended, which happens all the time). However, a hypothesis CAN be proven with certainty.

Before science, people answered their questions with superstition. People lived in fear of the unknown, the unknowable. To combat that fear of what hid in the dark, man invented myth, superstition and religion. Today, we have a better way of figuring out the universe. It's true that some people still choose to live in ignorance. But they have the CHOICE, and choice is a beautiful thing.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Why People Love Shitty MMO's

Ever wonder why horrible, dated games like WoW have so many sycophantic fans? It's called "cognitive dissonance" my friends. It's something you owe to yourself to learn about, because MMO producers along with many other businesses are using it to keep you paying.

Here's a great article on it. Read the article, and maybe you can avoid being manipulated a bit. Unfortunately, cognitive dissonance is part of human nature, so even being aware of it won't protect you 100% of the time. But I'll take knowledge over ignorance any day of the week.