Daily blogging like daily exercise

So, it’s day 31, and I made it! I’ve decided that daily blogging is  like daily exercise– it’s much easier to keep going when you’re supported by a group of other people with the same goals and mission. So, I’m grateful for the support of my fellow bloggers and the new friends I’ve made along the way.

It took me a long time to start blogging, in part because I thought I needed a plan mapped out before I started. I was also worried about time– keeping up with my other work while I also maintained my blog. But I underestimated myself.

  1. Blogging has kept me focused. Having that daily deadline along with my other assignments was stressful, but it also forced me to be as productive as possible.
  2. I’m playing more with language. Over the last few days, I’ve been reflecting on a blog post that I wrote in the middle of the month about creativity, science and blogging. This structured sense of play, on a schedule, has forced me to put words on a page. Some of my favorite posts have come out of not having a plan, out of taking a topic and letting myself run with it. It’s a good reminder that I have to throw words around first before I’ll know where they fit and what they mean.
  3. Blogging has improved my other writing. That’s the corollary to having a creative outlet. I’m finding ways to infuse the ideas and creative flow that has been moving here into the words that I write in other places. I don’t know why I didn’t expect that synergy.

I still have a lot to learn about the interactive piece of blogging. I want to spend more time reading and commenting on other blogs and trading ideas. That process will take more time.

I still feel conflicted about trying to blog about scientific topics because it’s so easy to unintentionally smudge factual accuracy. I do my best to present careful, correct information, but it’s a huge challenge to be literate, accurate and engaging in a short time and space.

Thanks to all of you who’ve been reading me this month! I’d love to hear your feedback about the May experiment. Do you like the Molecule of the Week? Any favorite posts?

I’ve had fun, but I’m also glad to be able to step off the treadmill of daily posting. It’s been a fantastic jumpstart, and I’ll be figuring out a regular (though not daily) posting schedule. Like finding time for a walk, a jog or a yoga class, blogging provides a healthy writing workout.

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Molecule of the Week: Vitamin D

Structure of Vitamin D by Sbrools via Wikipedia
Structure of Vitamin D by Sbrools via Wikipedia

Over the last several months I’ve gotten press releases just about every week about Vitamin D, usually talking about studies that show health problems connected to Vitamin D deficiencies. A lot of this discussion about “the optimal dose” of Vitamin D is still under debate, though. The main problem is that it is possible to get too much. Stay tuned because hopefully scientists will hammer out more definitive answers to this question soon.

In the meantime, though, the biochemistry of Vitamin D is pretty unusual, particularly when you compare it with other molecules that we call vitamins. Vitamin D actually functions as a hormone, a chemical messenger within the body. It’s particularly important for helping the body use calcium to build bone. 

However, Vitamin D production in our bodies depends on sunlight. We need UV light from to transform a molecule that looks a lot like cholesterol (a steroid molecule like testosterone, which I guestblogged about this week) into the Vitamin D that we need. We can store extra in fat deposits and many animal fats are a dietary source of Vitamin D.

From the number of studies that indicate Vitamin D deficiencies, my guess is that most people probably are lacking in Vitamin D even though it’s fortified in milk and found in animal fats. And even  natural production can vary a lot. Lighter skinned people tend to make more than darker skinned people. Based on where you live, how much time you spend outdoors, your genes and your age, your production will vary, too. On top of that, you don’t want to expose yourself to so much sun that you’re putting yourself at risk for skin cancer.

But Vitamin D is also a fat-soluble vitamin, which means that the body has a hard time getting rid of it if you make too much. Taking too much of a water-soluble vitamin, such as Vitamin C, isn’t usually a problem. Any extra will just get flushed out with your urine. But too much Vitamin D buildup in the wrong place can lead to calcium deposits.

So, I’ll be interested in what the experts decide is the optimal daily intake and how many health issues might (or might not) be related to levels of Vitamin D.

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Whales in New York Harbor

They’re the largest animal to ever live on Earth, and for the first time researchers have confirmed that blue whales have been singing off the coast of Long Island. (These animals are almost unfathomably huge. If you’re in NYC sometime, check out the blue whale model suspended in the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Ocean Life. It’s mind-blowing.).

The Cornell University Bioacoustics Research Program working with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation had placed underwater listening devices deep off the coast of Long Island to understand more about which whales and how many might be swimming along the shore. This blue whale was singing nearby in January 2009.

Christopher Clark, the head of the Cornell Bioacoustics Research Program, and his colleagues have been listening to whales in many different waters. In Massachusetts Bay, they’ve set up a listening network of floating buoys specifically designed for detecting endangered right whales in the harbor (There are less than 400 remaining North Atlantic right whales which migrate along the East Coast each year). That listening network is connected with a system for alerting ships to slow down for right whales in the area. (My article about the network appeared in Wildlife Conservation magazine in April).

While there’s excitement in hearing the sounds of these creatures in NY Harbor, there’s true environmental concern. Endangered and threatened whale species face a jungle of obstacles in these traffic-filled shipping lanes. In addition, budget cuts forced the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to pull their funding for the listening project– which also meant pulling the buoys– back in March, after just one year.

I have an email out, asking about whether they’ve found other funding. But I’m guessing we’ve lost our tiny window on that whale world, for now.

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Connecting science and life: a guest post by Jennifer L.W. Fink

Before I was a writer, before I was a mom of four boys – before I was the mother of one boy – I was a nurse.

Guess I’ve always been interested in science.  In high school, I loved biology and advanced biology.  In college, I studied anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, microbiology, chemistry, biochemistry, nutrition and pharmacology (not to mention psychology and sociology).  To this day, I love watching the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, and I get as excited as my boys do when they make an interesting scientific discovery.  (The latest turned out to be an immature raccoon skull.)

But what truly intrigues me, endlessly, is the meeting of science and life.

As a nurse, all of that science mattered only because it helped me understand what was going on with the patient.  I needed that knowledge to visualize what as going on inside the body, to predict what might come next and to understand how and why certain interventions were helpful or harmful.  I needed that knowledge to help patients understand what was going on inside their bodies, what might come next and what might be helpful or harmful.

As a writer, I do the same thing.  The first national article I published was about labor induction.  I wrote that article because I wanted women to make informed choices.  There’s a science to labor and birth, and each intervention sets off a scientific cascade that affects the rest of labor.  How can women make informed choices about labor and birth if they’re unaware of the science?

As a mother, I quickly realized that there’s a huge difference between my sons and I, and that difference isn’t merely chronological or anatomical.  It’s a difference in how we think, how we act and how we perceive the world.  As I told my husband, “I’ve never felt the need to climb on the couch and jump off of if, just because.”

So I began digging into the science.  What I found intrigued me:

  • Boys’ hearing is less acute than girls’ from day one
  • Boys have more M cells than P cells in their retinas, meaning that their eyes are primed to detect motion
  • Boys have more dopamine in their bloodstreams
  • Boys (males in general, actually) have fewer connections between the hemispheres of the brain
  • The areas of the brain that handle language mature, on average, six years later in boys than in girls

Once again, I’m trying to connect science and life.  I’m learning about the very real, brain-based differences between males and females and trying to understand how boys learn.  I’m sharing my knowledge with others.  (Come visit me at Blogging ‘Bout Boys.)  And I’m experimenting, always experimenting.

Luckily, I have four “lab rats” of my own.

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More Guest Blogging

I had so much fun with the Official May Blogathon Guest Post Day last Thursday that Webb of Science is doing another Guest Post Day today. This week I’m hosting Jennifer L.W. Fink of Blogging ‘Bout Boys. One of the treats of this month long blogaganza has been making new friends and reading their work. I’ve enjoyed reading Jenny, and I hope you’ll enjoy her guest post.

By the way, if you’re looking for me today, I’m visiting Jenny’s blog with a Molecule-of-the-Weekesque post about testosterone.

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More Mars Rovers

The rovers are still my favorite NASA mission, for reasons I’ve already written about. Even if the rovers quit tomorrow, the rover science team of Steve Squyres of Cornell and company would still have decades of data to comb through and analyze. Last Friday, they published more of the Opportunity data in the journal Science (requires subscription) that documents the role that salty, acidic water and wind have played in sculpting the magnificent rock formations in the craters of Meridiani Planum.

Cape St Vincent explored by Opportunity in Victoria Crater, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
Cape St Vincent explored by Opportunity in Victoria Crater, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
Spirit stuck in the sand, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech
Spirit stuck in the sand, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

But I still have my soft spot for Spirit, even though that robot is stuck in the sand with another gimpy wheel. The pictures from rover missions are amazing, the science is spectacular, but I’m still floored by the engineering and troubleshooting involved in maneuvering a robot in a harsh environment on a planet 100 million miles away. The mission engineers have managed these problems remotely for more than 5 years– I know my car would need a hand-on tune-up long before that.

That’s not to say that there isn’t hands-on testing involved, and apparently, those steps are underway on the ground at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to find a way out of the sand.

Work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to find a way out for Spirit, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech
Work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to find a way out for Spirit, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

I’m not a gambling woman, but my (Monopoly) money is on the rover and the engineers.

Check out these news reports for more details:

The New York Times article from May 25

And an article by the San Francisco Chronicle‘s veteran science reporter, David Perlman

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When Manhattan streets and the sun align

Manhattanhenge from Queens, Photo by David Reeves via flickr
Manhattanhenge from Queens, Photo by David Reeves via flickr

It’s just about time for Manhattanhenge– that moment where the sun aligns with Manhattan’s street grid. The magic times this year are Saturday and Sunday– May 30 & 31 and again on July 11 & 12.

On a day with a clear sunset, the experience is breathtaking. In 2005, when I still lived at the NE corner of Central Park, I happened to be riding a bus to City College for a soccer game on a clear Manhattanhenge evening. I highly recommend the bus viewing method– though it’s not good for photographs– the memory of that pink orb hovering over the horizon between city structures as I rode uptown still gives me chills.

Stonehenge at the solstice sunrise by tarotastic via flickr
Stonehenge at the solstice sunrise by tarotastic via flickr

I’ve been to Stonehenge, but I’ve never seen the Solstice sunrise. But that transient mixture of the cosmic with a human-produced structure, particularly when you transfer that experience to such a densely-packed urban location provides a collective opportunity to reflect on our individual place in relationship to the rest of the cosmos. Who are we and where do we fit? In our personal lives, our work, society, the cosmos? Twice a year, the streets we travel realign.

This year, now that Mayor Bloomberg has closed parts of Broadway near Times Square and Herald Square, I wonder if Midtown might not be the spot to view it. That is, if the hustle and bustle of tourists and synthetic light shows can pause long enough for a quiet, natural spectacle.

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Summer is (almost) here

Memorial Day weekend in NY Harbor
Memorial Day weekend in NY Harbor

Fleeting moments between spring and summer are magic in my little corner of NY harbor. Bikes and rollerblades speed by– walkers, joggers, and marathoners-in-training drink in the cool breeze laced with sweetness (honeysuckle?). And the hardy fishermen (with an occasional woman) cluster in cultural pockets, speaking Chinese, Spanish, or Brooklyn-drenched English.

big fish
big fish

At another fisherman’s pocket, we found this catch-of-the-day, still gasping for breath. The anglers didn’t understand enough English to identify it to another passerby (probably 3 feet long– a striped bass– one of those fish that you actually can eat from NY harbor, my husband noted.).

By dusk we’d moved back inland stopping for dinner in our local diner, barely making a dent in the mounds of pot roast and the Greek combo.

Long walk + leftovers = holiday weekend

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The pull of the urban garden

Although I now consider myself a urban gal and not necessarily a green thumb, my agrarian roots continue to tug on me. Last summer, I gave in to the gardening urge and our front porch erupted in  a jungle of herbs and tomatoes– tasty grape ones and some marginal Early Girls– they worked for gazpacho, but not much else.

one of my 2008 tomatoes "the butt"
one of my 2008 tomatoes "the butt"

I don’t think there are gardening genes per se, but if they did exist, I’d have them, even if they didn’t come accompanied by any particular skill. My mother’s sister still lives on the land in Virginia that my grandfather farmed for decades and raises most of her own vegetables in a large garden plot. The other side of my family has a strong streak of cattle farming.

Summer 2009 garden, first plants
Summer 2009 garden, first plants

Eating locally and raising one’s own food has become popular again, in part for environmental reasons, for health reasons, and, in some cases, it’s even economically more practical. I can’t fairly trace my own urges to grand principles such as saving the planet or avoiding pesticides, though those are nice perks. Honestly, it’s just satisfying deep down to watch plants grow and feel that tangible goal– the sweetness of a tomato as it bursts in my mouth or the added zest that my herbs added to a dish I just cooked.

Now that it’s Memorial Day weekend, I’m starting round 2 of my urban gardening experiments– the grape tomatoes are back along with Ramapos– the Jersey tomato. Now, if I can just manage to wait until July to see how it all turns out. . . .

2009 Ramapo tomato plants
2009 Ramapo tomato plants
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Molecule of the Week: Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

structure of PCBs via Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation license
structure of PCBs via Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation license


The molecule of the week
is actually a collection of 209 different possible versions of this molecule that have multiple chlorine atoms connected in different combinations along the hexagonal segments of the structure– like charms on a bracelet.

Though these chemicals are highly heat resistant (used as flame retardants in electronics manufacturing until the late 1970s, more info at the EPA website), they are now considered possible cancer causing agents, may cause developmental problems, and persist in the environment for years. They also bioaccumulate, increasing in concentration in larger animals as they eat smaller ones.

PCBs are particularly problematic in the Hudson River, where more than 1 million pounds of the chemicals were dumped in the upper part of the river from 2 General Electric factories for 30 years before the chemicals were banned. For the last 25 years, 197 miles of the river– reaching all the way to New York Harbor have been considered an EPA Superfund site. On, May 15, the dredging clean-up began– in an area upstream of Albany, New York, near where the chemicals were originally dumped.

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