A Glimpse of our Space Future

Sputnik 1, the little Russian satellite that launched the space race in 1957

The American Museum of Natural History‘s new exhibit, Beyond Planet Earth, which opened last Saturday through August 12, 2012, provides a window through the past and an optimistic glimpse at the future of space exploration. As I moved through the historical portion at a press preview last Tuesday, Russian spacecraft pinged, and news reports captured the excitement and enthusiasm of historical moments, press conferences that opened up the world beyond our atmosphere.

I grew up in Florida in the Space Shuttle era, but I never saw a shuttle launch. My family tried to go once, and we thought we’d miss it because of traffic, only to arrive just in time to have the launch scrubbed seconds before scheduled liftoff. Years earlier I’d watched the TV enraptured in my elementary school library as the first Space Shuttle launched. I remember slipping on ice between two of my middle school classes  on a frigid morning in January 1986 — within a couple of hours word spread through the hallways of the Challenger explosion. So my personal piece of space nostalgia came when I walked by the case with the frangible nuts– the piece of the space shuttle that released the engine and rocket boosters and allowed the spacecraft to be reusable.

In many ways, the Space Shuttle was my window on exploration, on space, on science. The  future of understanding worlds beyond Earth seems far less focused, and though exciting and innovative, far less certain.

Sarah with rover
Sarah with the AMNH's Mars Exploration Rover

I paused at the Mars Exploration Rover long enough for a photo. Spirit and Opportunity launched the same year that I started my science writing career, and that mission marks a very personal milestone: a new career, a new adventure, a personal exploration.

But the real meat in this exhibit comes through the journey into the future, a world of Kevlar-sided Moon-homes the size of camping trailers, liquid mirror telescopes, the technology to provide enough water to drink on the Moon or beyond.

The Virgin Galactic Spaceplane: the future for astronauts and space tourists?

I had never thought about mining asteroids, but space mining for rare elements for cell phones and electronics seems plausible, maybe. After our recent near-Earth asteroid experience within the last two weeks, one interactive game that allowed me to use various strategies, bombs and mirrors to divert such disasters.

My asteroid diversions probably line up with Dennis Overbye’s inner 6-year-old boy delight at bombing Mars (see his New York Times review). The exhibit includes a touch table that allows you to terraform Mars, by building factories, setting off bombs. It took me a while to get to a point where such effects might make Mars warm enough to be comfortably habitable. And I couldn’t help but wonder, is this a good idea?

I spent the most time looking at the new Curiosity rover that’s heading to Mars next weekend and learning about the prototype for a Mars spacesuit. Dava Newman of MIT talked about the suit that uses mechanical pressure against the skin instead of a pressurized dough-boy look. The resulting suit works like high-tech athletic gear, sleek and far more streamlined for moving and climbing.

BioSuit by MIT Aeronautics

At the press conference before the  preview last Tuesday, astronaut Mike Massimino talked about his early interest in space exploration that came out of his childhood visits to the American Museum of Natural History: “There were no astronauts living on my block in Long Island.” This exhibit is a lovely tribute to explorations past and a look at the best possible future. I hope that future generations have the same chance to explore worlds beyond Earth.

Photo credits:

Sputnik: © AMNH\R. Mickens

Sarah and Rover: Carol Milano

Spaceplane and BioSuit: © AMNH\D. Finnin


Seeing the forest for the Birch reduction

This post is a part of the Chemistry Carnival hosted by Chemical & Engineering News in celebration of the International Year of Chemistry. Check there later in the week to see what others have blogged or look for the #chemcarnival hashtag on Twitter.


I spent nearly a decade of my life doing organic chemistry. Sometimes I defied the norm and carried out reactions in water. But I never quite got over my first. My first real reaction in a research laboratory was a Birch reduction.

This is a simplified scheme (and I lost my last working copy of ChemDraw when my computer before last crashed). I was doing the reaction on a steroid, converting the aromatic A ring of an estrogen to an androgen. But if you’re interested in the reaction details, other websites can tell you all you ever wanted to know about aromaticity, ammonia, lithium, and the quench with ethanol.

What sticks in my mind was the process of setting up and carrying out that reaction. I careful prepared dry glassware, I assembly of the glassware from the bottom up.  I made sure I had enough dry ice and liquid nitrogen, and made sure that the flow of nitrogen gas was both slow and steady. Most of the techniques I had to learn to run every other reaction in my chemistry career started with that Birch reduction.

I tried to be patient as ammonia gas slowly condensed in my reaction mixture. I added bits of soft lithium metal that had yielded to snips of the scissors. I watched the solution deepen to brilliant blue as unpaired electrons worked their magic. Little did I know that the rest of my chemistry career would be filled with white powders or vaguely yellow goo.

Fortunately, my adviser watched me like a hawk, making sure I didn’t quench the reaction with ethanol too soon or too quickly. I’d learn that lesson the hard way in my next laboratory, when I got impatient from waiting hours for a reaction mixture to warm to room temperature. I assume that most chemists learn the hard way at least once?

Occasionally my former chemistry colleagues and friends will ask me, “Do you miss the lab? Do you miss doing reactions?” Day-to-day, I don’t. I’m pretty happy in front of my computer. But occasionally I am nostalgic for the rhythm and physical ritual of setting up a Birch reduction. At the end of the day, I always felt satisfied that I’d both worked hard and produced a white, fluffy powder.

Image Credits: birch forest photo by tumpikuja via iStockphoto; synthetic scheme by V8rik via Wikimedia Commons


Around the Web: June 3 edition

Considering my eclectic web-based reading habits and my broad interests in the science world, I’ll be posting an occasional roundup of  interesting science-y tidbits I’ve been consuming recently. Welcome to a glimpse into my webby world.

  • Science career reality check: Chemjobber keeps regular tabs on the chemistry employment scene. On Tuesday, CJ offered a reality check to a recent article in Chemical & Engineering News. The good news: a departing NIH program director, John Schwab, sees the value in broader education for chemists instead of the deep specialization in, say, organic synthesis. The bad news: he seems to see hot prospects for chemists in journalism, law and policy careers. As a chemist-turned-journalist, I’ve said this more than once: this career track isn’t easier. I just happen to be having more fun than I did in the lab.
  • Doping, lies and personal reflection: Last week on The Last Word on Nothing, my colleague and friend, Christie Aschwanden contributed a rich guest post about Tyler Hamilton and the bicycle doping scandal. She offers a layered personal perspective: she rode with Hamilton in college and has reported extensively on doping.
  • Not quite LOLcats: Emily Anthes responds to a sly Slate slideshow about “cats of war” with her own tidbit about a short-lived cat that the CIA rigged up as a listening device in 1961. Check it out at Wonderland.
  • All about authorship: Steve Silberman assembled a tremendous post: tips on writing a book from 23 authors. Great stuff in there: a great idea and a crowdsourced gift. If you could provide a universal hyperlink from a classic book to a blog post, this one calls for a link from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

Image copyright sylvia duckworth and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.


From the Petri Dish to the Backyard Grill

photo by stevendepoloEven if you wanted to, you couldn’t buy test-tube hot dogs for your Memorial Day barbecue, but maybe in a decade or so we’ll all be noshing on barbecued goodies raised in the sterility of a laboratory near you. Doesn’t that sound tasty? Or yucky?  For me, it’s a little bit of both.

I’m fascinated by in-vitro meat. In part, I’m drawn in by this strange intellectual and visceral war it brings out in me. The resulting meat could eventually be tasty and environmentally sustainable. At the same time, I like good, real food. I just joined a CSA. I grow herbs and vegetables. My parents each grew up on farms. I can see where science might be able to feed people with high quality meat from a lab. But, intuitively,  my body isn’t quite sure whether I’d like it. Considering how wary I used to be of “mystery meat” in school cafeterias, it’s hard to figure out whether there’s a real future for it in supermarkets and restaurants.

I love the complex cast of characters that enter the discussion of lab-grown meat: a hodge podge of scientists from stem cell researchers to engineers, animal rights activists, chefs, food activists and sustainability experts. So Michael Specter‘s New Yorker story, “Test-Tube Burgers” was right up my geeky alley.

Lab-grown meat is a fascinating tissue-engineering problem, with all the same challenges of building organs in a laboratory for transplant. It has all the great drama of an automated architectural design challenge. What structures, conditions and chemicals do you need to allow a few seed cells to produce the marbled muscle that becomes good meat. The biggest scientific challenge is producing blood vessels to feed the tissue and create meat-like texture.

Specter’s story connects all of the threads of science, food, sustainability and even “the yuck factor” right back to the Petri dish. If you have a chance this weekend, it’s worth the read. I dare you to read it while the burgers are on the grill.

Photo Credit: stevendepolo on flickr

Where my interest in in-vitro meat began: I wrote this short item for Discover about 5 years ago.


Pondering medium and “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

replica of a Chauvet Cave painting from a museum in Brno, Czech Republic

I’ll admit a kind of mixed relationship with 3D movies. Done well, I love experiencing the depth, but it seems to me that 3D should be an artistic choice for its ability to convey an experience, rather than just a way to make sure that people see a movie in the movie theater.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog‘s new documentary, is the perfect match of its subject, Chauvet Cave in southern France, and the medium. A 2D film would not do this 30,000 year old cave and its intimate, yet expansive space, justice. The 3D glasses aren’t a gimmick, but a window to a moving diorama, a museum experience, a sacred journey.

This cave and its paintings were buried in rock slides thousands of years ago, only to be rediscovered about 15 years ago but closed to nearly everyone except the scientists who study it. So this space is mysterious, exclusive, and wondrous. Science meets art on every level: stalactites, stalagmites, natural artwork from above and below. But the undulating walls of these caves mesmerized me as they must have mesmerized the artists who drew on them. Cattle, bears, and even a mammoth, simple forms integrated into the movement of the walls, ancient, but fresh as if they were painted just a few years ago.

The film is an experience, well worth the money. But I found Herzog’s chosen coda to the film jarring. He talks about crocodiles that live in the warmed waters next to nearby nuclear plants. His comments were about the passage of time, how humans have changed the world and what life on earth might be like in another 30,000 years, and how those crocodiles might experience this world. Those could be worthy topics, but it’s unsatisfying information that leaves a giant question mark, with little context, at the end of a beautiful film.

With such a perfect match in the film, I’ve been thinking about subject and medium more in my work. I primarily work in printed words: the dizzying choice of nouns and verbs etches clear lines, subtly shades or brings out a new color. Words change color on radio or accompanied by video. When I spend hours in the pottery studio, I shape emerging forms from clay, add detail, think about designs on a surface.

Herzog matched his medium to an amazing subject, a cultural gift and a way to share the experience of this delicate space with a much wider audience. It’s a museum piece (in the best sense of the word) as much as a film. Ancient painters depicted their world, animating their world on a waving canvas of stone. I hope to channel an iota of that creative synergy.

Image Credit: The Adventurous Eye on flickr


Biology on a Dinosaur Scale

Titanosaur nest

Last week, along with a group of other journalists, I got a sneak peek at The World’s Largest Dinosaurs, an exhibit that opened on April 16 at the American Museum of Natural History and will be open until January 2. This exhibit departs from the traditional dino-formula of towering skeletons by asking questions about the biology that supported the growth and maintenance of those massive bodies.

That’s not to say that there aren’t big dinosaurs. The model of the Mamenchiosaurus strains the room proportions, but the best part is her double-role as a screen for videos that describe how she breathed, the hundreds of liters of blood coursing through her body and 30-ft-long neck, and how she digested hundreds of pounds of food each day.

But though Mamenchiosaurus is daunting in size, she’s positively awe-inspiring once you get to the exhibit where you push a pump that simulates the heart that would pump her blood. I managed to keep her going for a few heartbeats, but I soon got a warning message: “The dino is dizzy.” I didn’t last much longer.

Mamenchisaurus at the AMNH's The World's Largest Dinosaurs

In a quick conversation with respiratory biologist, Dr. Steve Perry, I learned about their über-efficient lungs. Like birds, these dinosaurs likely had lungs with two chambers. As a result, they could absorb oxygen both as they inhaled and as they exhaled, boosting their ability to extract oxygen from the air to 35 percent from the 20 percent that we mere humans manage.

By making all kinds of connections to large animals that currently walk the Earth—elephants, giraffes, and even large egg-laying birds—it became a little easier to wrap my head around these large creatures roaming the Earth. It was fun to get some biology to add some meat to those bones.

More on the research that formed the basis for this exhibit in Science and in the New York Times.

Want to follow a dinosaur on Twitter? @Giant_Dino

Image credits: © AMNH/D. Finnin



A ruler among science books

Though I’d read the excerpt adapted for the New York Times magazine, picking up The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, with its regal and imposing title, was just a little intimidating. But open the first page and the language propels and compels the reader to follow the disease, its history, and those who have faced it, both doctors and patients.

This is the story of cancer infused with historical depth, scientific rigor, caring, compassion, and luscious language. Mukherjee crafts the text with such skill, infusing human stories, history, and a physician’s perspective among the timeline of cancer as it’s affected human life and health. As I worked my way through this book, I found myself underlining sentences, many of them juxtaposing the hauntingly beautiful with the terrible.

Cancer, Auerbach argued, was a disease unfolded slowly in time. It did not run, but rather slouched to its birth.

Or when describing Susan Sontag’s leukemia:

“A moody, saturnine leukemia eventually volcanoed out of Sontag’s marrow.”

Although I’ve never done cancer research, I’ve learned a lot about it in my reporting. But what I’ve learned is episodic: a cellular pathway, a policy point, or a set of treatments. This volume pulls those episodes together like jewels on a necklace, creating a comprehensive picture and an understanding of a disease that’s as powerful and compelling as the stories of the patients. Not only was this book beautiful to read, but I’ll be better at reporting about cancer because I’ve read it.

Image: Human melanoma cell dividing. Credit: Paul J.Smith & Rachel Errington. Wellcome Images


A leaky pipeline postmortem

I was just a couple of years into my chemistry Ph.D., when a good friend forwarded me a copy of an article about this MIT report: A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT. I wasn’t  surprised when I read about the inequalities in resources and that many of the women faculty had felt marginalized. In many ways, I was relieved: an institution  was acknowledging the problem and working on making the path for women scientists better.

From the introduction of that report:

In the summer of 1994, three tenured women faculty in the School of Science
began to discuss the quality of their professional lives at MIT. In the course of
their careers these women had come to realize that gender had probably
caused their professional lives to differ significantly from those of their male
colleagues. Interestingly, they had never discussed the issue with one
another, and they were even uncertain as to whether their experiences were
unique, their perceptions accurate. This situation was about to change
dramatically. It was soon clear to the women that their experiences formed
a pattern. Curious to know whether other women in the School of Science
shared these experiences, they drew up a list of all the tenured women faculty
in the School of Science in order to conduct an informal poll.

Flash forward  more than 10 years, and my personal perspective on the issues of women in science has shifted. I see more acknowledgement of the subtle issues of bias, but at the same time I made the personal decision to leave the bench and pursue a science writing career. And every time I see another report on women in academic science, I ask myself: Is it becoming any easier for women to pursue a research career? Or are we just rehashing the same issues of subconscious bias and what women have to do to have their ideas heard and recognized?

But this week, a new paper takes fresh look at the leaky pipeline. In some ways, they report good news: less institutional bias against women in science because of their gender. For the most part women receive just as many job interviews, opportunities for fellowships, and don’t seem to face bias barriers in the review of their publications. Instead, they report that “choice” is at the root of the underrepresentation of women at the highest levels of academic science:

This situation is caused mainly by women’s choices, both freely made and constrained by biology and society, such as choices to defer careers to raise children, follow spouses’ career moves, care for elderly parents, limit job searches geographically, and enhance work-home balance. Some of these choices are freely made; others are constrained and could be changed (3).

The research gets uncomfortably close to the reasons that I left the bench. To make it clear, I’m incredibly happy with my decision to leave research. Any lingering mixed feelings come from my belief that women can and should be able to pursue research careers. As a woman who leaked out of the research pipeline, I sometimes worry that there won’t be enough role models and opportunities for the women who want to stay and who have strong contributions to make.

And the researchers voice my core fear:

To the extent that women’s choices are freely made and women are satisfied with the outcomes, then we have no problem. However, to the extent that these choices are constrained by biology and/or society, and women are dissatisfied with the outcomes, or women’s talent is not actualized, then we most emphatically have a problem.

At the same time that I was making my decision to leave the bench, I was working at a hands-on science museum. Some of my best days were working with young children who were excited about discovering science, particularly girls, and their mothers who gushed that they were so excited that their daughters were developing interests that they’d shied away from. I want those girls, if they choose, to have a future in science.

When I look back, I didn’t see where a research career would offer me enough flexibility to pursue my other interests in life. Five years into my Ph.D., my next step looked like several more years of long hours as a postdoc. An interdisciplinary person by nature, the demands of research had shut out my other interests, writing, language, culture, art– and, maybe, one day, a family of my own. I’d tried on the lifestyle, and it didn’t fit. All of life involves choices, and not every Ph.D. can or should stay in the academic laboratory. But restricting research science to a system that only rewards those who pursue it singlemindedly is also shortsighted. I hope the academic system can embrace part-time tenure track arrangements or other innovations that might make the research track more attractive. If every woman in science looks at the situation and comes to the same conclusion that I did, science, medicine and technology will be the worse for it.

Reference: Ceci, SJ and Williams, WM. Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science. Proc. Natl Acad. Soc. USA. doi:10.1073/pnas.1014871108

Image credit: Kris Griffon


Whales in NY Harbor, Part III

Blue Whale, copyright iStockphoto.com/roclwyrIn our corner of Brooklyn, we’ve been waiting for our local whale sighting. But it looks like it just might be a matter of time. According toNY Daily News article, local boat owners are already making money off a revenue stream that seemed confined to calmer waters: whale watching tours.

I’ve posted before about the acoustic evidence that whales are living right here in the busy New York shipping lanes. Christopher Clark and colleagues listened in on the giant mammals with underwater microphones and recorded a complex chorus of several species. But lack of funds has paused any follow-up research.

Once the weather gets warmer, I’ll try to time my harbor walks for whale sightings  and bring along my binoculars. But I hope we and the whales can adapt to each other. I’d like to keep cetaceans in my neighborhood.

Image credit:  iStockphoto.com/roclwyr