Exploring "The Secret Life of Scientists"

NOVA scienceNow has a cool new web feature– “The Secret Life of Scientists”— that I explored today (thanks to Facebook and Symmetry Mag).

It’s clear that this series is right up my alley– I probe my past experience and talk to scientists, in part, about what makes them tick. I’m constantly coming back to the fundamental question: what makes a good scientist?  The general themes throughout the three stories that are up: persistence and creativity.

What I think this series does particularly well is adapting a video format to the web and deliberately telling scientists’ stories in small chunks. There’s a 10 questions feature (similar to, but far more effective, than the feature on  Jay Leno’s new show), and, in another feature, the format also challenges the scientists to describe their research in 30 seconds. What’s the “secret” part? One feature explores each researcher’s outside passion– so far cooking, photography and long-distance running have made the cut. It walks the scientists-are-real-people-too line without turning it into a cliche.

Clearly NOVA has a proven track record in telling science stories with video, but I really like this site and will be coming back. In my own brief experience as an intern for TV news, I gained an appreciation for both the power of the medium, but also its difficulty and labor-intensiveness. Sometimes it tells stories in the way that no other medium can, but it’s also so easy for it to just fall flat. So, I’m thrilled with how well this format works for the web.

Here’s a link to one story from “the Leech Man.”

Note: I love the way the long, convoluted name of this hippo leech just rolls off his tongue as if he were saying his mother’s middle name. If you’re particularly squeamish about blood-sucking creatures and oddly disgusting body parts, start with a different video.


Introducing Material of the Week: Spider Silk

Madagascar golden orb spider (Nephila madagascariensis)
Madagascar golden orb spider (Nephila madagascariensis) Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Followers of this blog might have noticed that the Molecule of the Week (MotW) feature took a summerish hiatus. I’ve decided to expand the feature to include interesting materials, which are often more complex mixtures, either of synthetic or naturally-made compounds. So, I’m adding Material of the Week (MatotW in blogospheric shorthand) to help round out the idea.

This week, a material near and dear to my Webby heart: spider silk.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York is now displaying a length of cloth made entirely from Madagascar golden orb spider silk . At a half million dollar price tag and requiring 1 million spiders, this is the fabric of kings (maybe even Louis XIV) and involves some some serious production snags (See the NY Times or Wired Science for more on those issues).

The silks are made of structural proteins, chains of amino acid building blocks, that in different combinations do the work of living systems and make up other sorts of animal fibers such as hair. The animals use different combinations for different purposes: making webs, catching prey, building nests, or wooing a mate, notes Cheryl Hayashi’s UC Riverside website. (She studies these materials and garnered a MacArthur grant in 2007 for her work).


I’m already making plans to go see the spider silk fabric (and still trying to imagine lining up spiders in harnesses to produce it– quite the mental image). But spider silk reminds me of how much we humans can learn from our fellow inhabitants on this planet. Sure, the military and industry might find all sorts of uses for these threads from armor to moorings. But in this moment I’m simply awed by the natural engineering process and its outcome — a spider hanging from a single super-strong thread, spinning a lacy net to catch prey, and a few dew drops.

Reflecting E.B. White’s words back on Charlotte: “Some Web.”


They Might Be Giants and Schoolhouse Rock

How did I get so lucky? Seriously.

A little while ago, I came across this post in Nature News’s blog about the new kids’ album from They Might Be Giants. And. The. Videos. My neighbors probably heard me scream with glee, and then I made an impulse buy on iTunes–which I rarely do. Honest. Wow, I’m gushing, but this is sooo much fun.

“Like a box of paints that are mixed to make every shade. . . ” And, yes, “elephants are made of elements.”

As I was watching– and though I know I’m dating myself as a late Gen-Xer when I make this statement, I couldn’t help but think, “This is the best thing since Schoolhouse Rock!”

Which leads me back to somewhere between 10 am and noon, I was listening to a segment on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC (my local NPR station) about the healthcare reform bill. All the sudden I heard something along the lines of “clearly he learned his civics from Schoolhouse Rock!” complete with the matching audio clip. I’ve had “How a Bill Becomes a Law” in my head all day. Note: I’m not the only one of Brian’s listeners who had a “SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK!” moment (see comment #12 from M in Brooklyn).

They Might Be Giants singing about chemistry + Schoolhouse Rock = a fun day in my world.

Considering that I don’t have a school-age child, is this geeky or childish or both?


Loose ends or a visitor in her former country

“So do you consider yourself a scientist or a writer?”

An undergraduate student asked me that question last fall when I guest-lectured about communicating research for a social-scientist friend’s seminar course. I immediately said, “A writer, but I write about science.” But I do understand why he was confused.

Even having done it, I wouldn’t recommend a Ph.D. in Chemistry as the direct route for getting on this particular career highway.  But the student’s question made me really sit down at the virtual mirror and process the reflected frequencies of light shooting back at me. And to some extent, I do have a dual identity, but wordsmithing is at the forefront of what I do, no matter in what context.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any number of loose ends. Continue reading Loose ends or a visitor in her former country


Hubble: still amazing after all these years

NGC 6302 (Butterfly Nebula, Bug Nebula) Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team
NGC 6302 (Butterfly Nebula, Bug Nebula) Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

I love big, beautiful Hubble pictures, and these most recent ones are no exception. When I was working on the new astronomy exhibits at Griffith Observatory a few years ago, I marveled that I got paid to dig up spectacular images like this one. In a time where basic science rarely makes the local evening news, even these photos got a mention on the 11 pm news last night.

But though I’m awed by the pretty pictures, I’m also amazed that a nearly 20-year-old telescope continues to churn out amazing science and that NASA had the wisdom to continue to service such an incredible eyepiece into the universe. Somehow it generally seems easier to build something new without seeing potential in  a tune-up for an older instrument. (And– just to be clear– I’m not saying that we shouldn’t build the Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope— no relation to Webb of Science, BTW, though no quarrels with sharing a very good name).

I guess the Hubble is also reminding me how valuable refurbishing something old, but made with quality– like a well-made piece of furniture or the Birkenstock sandals I’ve worn to death over the past 4 summers– can be in the long run.


The specter of ocean garbage

On a spring afternoon walk earlier this year, I obsessively took pictures of New York harbor garbage. A buildup of plastic bottles, crates, driftwood and furniture fragments littered the rocks along our coastal walkway– a strange jumble of junk.

May 2009 photos of NY harbor garbage in Brooklyn
May 2009 photos of NY harbor garbage in Brooklyn

But my local trash doesn’t come close to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch– our global oceanic trash dump– where swirling currents collect garbage and have created an oceanic desert. I can’t even fathom a clump of refuse the size of Texas.

How did we get to this point? A few plastic bottles here? A few cheap plastic items there? In August, researchers took a closer look at the Patch to see our garbage’s impact on the ocean environment.

First off, they found even more garbage than they expected, according to the Associated Press.

“It’s pretty shocking — it’s unusual to find exactly what you’re looking for,” said Miriam Goldstein, who led fellow researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at U.C. San Diego on the three-week voyage.

Plastics in the ocean are (at least) a three-pronged problem from what I can tell:

  • Wildlife get tangled in the junk or choke on it.
  • The plastics break down into smaller pieces that interfere with the life cycles of smaller organisms.
  • Then there’s the unknown of how much these plastics break down into their essential chemicals. As organisms are living in this water, how much do these chemicals build up?

I’m haunted by that floating Texas in the Pacific, the largest “landfill” in the world. Want to be even more depressed? There might be another one at least as large and just as nasty in the Southern Hemisphere.

P.S. Thanks, Suzanne, for the story tip.


Revisiting DNA origami

Creating a genetic program to crinkle DNA into the perfect shape can appear to be a scientific stunt. But DNA origami is more than a molecular magic trick. In this excerpt from a 2007 TED lecture, Paul Rothemund describes the science behind the work– how a chain– based on its sequence– becomes a two-dimensional shape.

But this work isn’t all fun and smiley-faces– as an article in today’s New York Times about tiny transistors points out:

I.B.M. is also exploring higher-risk ideas like “DNA origami,” a process developed by Paul W. K. Rothemund, a computer scientist at the California Institute of Technology.

The technique involves creating arbitrary two- and three-dimensional shapes by controlling the folding of a long single strand of viral DNA with multiple smaller “staple” strands. It is possible to form everything from nanometer-scale triangles and squares to more elaborate shapes like smiley faces and a rough map of North America. That could one day lead to an application in which such DNA shapes could be used to create a scaffolding just as wooden molds are now used to create concrete structures. The DNA shapes, for example, could be used to more precisely locate the gold nanoparticles that would then be used to grow nanowires. The DNA would be used only to align the circuits and would be destroyed by the high temperatures used by the chip-making processes.

The DNA transistor mold– what a cool nanoscale idea: build the shape, pour your circuit and destroy the mold when you’re done.

P.S.: my earlier origami post from May– in case you missed it.