Monday, December 31, 2012

The 50 Greatest Science Achievements of 2012

In 2012 we saw some amazing science. To celebrate the new year I've compiled my favorite science news items from the year. These aren't in any particular order, so don't try to argue with me that #42 is more important than #17 or something like that. If this list doesn't quench your thirst for science there's an entire Wikipedia page that is much longer. These are just some of my favorite things that have happened in science this year.

#50January 3rd - Researchers at the University of Wyoming created genetically modified silkworms that spin silk with a strength similar to that of a spider's. That may not sound impressive, but spider webs are stronger than steel (by weight). This is just one step closer to a real life Spider-Man web.

#49 - July 15th - A nasty little worm, Dracunculiasis, is reported to be nearly eradicated. Including small pox, this will make only 2 human diseases to be successfully eradicated.

#48 - January 11th - Research suggests that there may be as many as 160 billion planets in the Milky Way.

#47 - December 17th - Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh develop a bionic arm. The patient is able to gain full mental control of a robotic arm.

#46 - July 28th - Possible life on one of Saturn's moons? This year we've seen a lot of sensationalized "Possible life on _____" headlines. Saturn's moon, Mars, and Mercury have all had their 15 minutes this year.

#45 - November 29th - Scientists discover a super-massive blackhole in a relatively small galaxy.

#44 - January 24th - A 190 million year old dinosaur nest is discovered.

#43 - November 3rd - Mouse stem cells yield viable eggs.

#42 October 14th - 43 year old Felix Baumgartner becomes the first skydiver to break the sound barrier.

#41 September 5th - Researchers unlock disease information hidden in DNA.

#40 - January 6th - The first of the GMO controversies. This year we saw plenty. We also had this guest post on the subject.

#39 - March 20th - Astronomers discover a rectangular galaxy.

#38 - November 29th - NASA's MESSENGER probe finds evidence of ice and possible organic compounds on Mercury.

#37 - April 19th - Scientists develop a synthetic DNA. Even cooler, it shows signs of evolution when presented with selective pressures.

#36 - February 23rd - Using a simple enzyme (SIRT6), scientists are able to increase the average lifespan of mice by 15% (A similar increase in humans would boost our life expectancy from 78 to 89).

#35 - November 19th - A "white" smell - a smell that can be created using many different combinations - is described.

#34 - September 1st - Scientists observe a species of bird that appear to have a "funeral" for their dead.

#33 - October 14th - Being surrounded by books and educational toys early on impacts the brain long after childhood. 

#32 - May 20th - The annular solar eclipse - annular refers to the outer ring shape seen in the picture. It has nothing to do with the word annual (meaning every year). Although the eclipse itself isn't a scientific achievement by itself, the interest it gained was an achievement.

#31 - September 23rd - Researchers show that many species of fruit flies won't survive even a small increase in temperature.

#30 - July 9th - Scientists discover a molecule that could one day make your teeth cavity-proof.

#29 - May 5th - Silicene - a sheet of silicon one atom thick (similar to graphene) is created.

Google glasses warn the subway service is suspended
#28 - April 5th - Google unveils a project to develop "Augmented reality glasses".

#27 - December 21st - The world did not end. Sorry to disappoint.

#26 - April 12th - German physicists develop the first quantum computing network. The prototype network works by linking two nodes that can send, receive  and store quantum information. Information is sent by a single photon.

#25 - October 15th - Discovery of a Neptune size planet that orbits within a 4 star system.

#24 - March 14th - After 57 years in the dark (1,400 generations) flies begin to show changes in their genome related to natural selection. 

Month in space: 2012 Venus Transit
#23 - June 5th - Venus transits the sun. This is more than just a cool thing to see. Information recorded during the transit will help us better understand Venus as well as planets outside our solar system.

#22 - January 5th - The world's first chimera monkeys are born.

#21 - January 22nd - Nanoparticles can mimic the body's immune system and boost our response to vaccines.

#20 - April 13th - German scientists develop an earthquake proof wallpaper. This wall paper is designed to hold  up the bricks in a building to give more people a chance to survive before it collapses. 

#19 - March 25th - James Cameron, director of AvatarRambo, The Terminator, and Titanic becomes the first human being to reach the Marina Trench.

#18 - November 29th - A paper I co-authored is published. It makes my list of greatest science that happened for 2012.

#17 - March 24th - Scientists determine that our stone age ancestors hunted large vertebrates in Australia to extinction about 42,000 years ago.

#16 - June 21st - Researchers in the Netherlands identify five mutations of the H5N1 virus that could spread easily through mammals. This controversial research was hotly debated, and there is currently a moratorium on related research. 

#15 - June 6th - The Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization warn that gonorrhea may become an incurable disease.

The first British clinical trial of an electronic eye implant has restored limited vision to two blind patients and brought hope to thousands with incurable sight loss.
#14 - May 3rd - The first successful ocular implant. Partial sight is restored to two blind patients. 

#13 - May 31st - The first privately owned space ship docks on the international space station.

#12 - October 11th - A "diamond planet" is found. The carbon planet, named 55 Cancri e, is 8 times more massive than the earth.

#11 - January 13th - A nano sized microphone that's able to detect sounds a million times more quiet than human ears can hear.

#10 - March 15th - The first ever neutrino message is sent. By sending packets of neutrinos (which pass very easily thorough even the densest of materials) scientists were able to send an encoded message through 780 feet of bedrock. This could one day be used to send messages through any material.

#9 - February 15th - Nevada passes a law allowing the testing of self-driving cars. This year Nevada, California, and Florida all passed laws allowing self-driving cars on the road.

# 8 - February 29th - A T-Rex's bite probably measured around 57,000 Newtons - 3 times more than a shark's. 

#7 August 6th - The Curiosity rover successfully lands on Mars.

#6 - March 2nd - A new study shows that the ocean is becoming more acidic at an increasing rate. The implications of this to marine life are pretty serious, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is most likely to blame.

#5 - February 6th - After drilling for nearly 20 years Russian scientists reach Lake Vostok, an underground lake in Antarctica that has been sealed for 15 million years.

#4 - September 14th - Scientists make monkeys smarter with a brain implant.

#3 - June 1st - IUPAC officially names elements 114 and 116. The elements are now named Felrovium and Livermorium. I mentioned this in a post earlier this year as well.

Higgs boson: What happened inside the Large Hadron Collider
#2 - November 19th - The planet Kappa Andromedae b is discovered. This massive planet is 13 times the size of Jupiter.

#1 - July 4th - Since I'm a physical chemist who likes to pretend he's a particle physicist there is no other science news item that can take the spot of number one on this list. The announcement of the Higgs Boson. Staying up late to watch the press conference just may be the highlight of my entire nerdy year. 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Researchers bring new focus to the science of blinking.

Today you will blink somewhere around 16,500 times. Blinking is how the body lubricates your eyes - your tears are spread across your eye so it doesn't dry out. However, the science behind blinking is more complicated than simply preventing dry eyes. We blink quite a bit more than we need to - every 3-4 seconds. If you force your eyes open for a bit longer they won't dry out and they won't stop working. So why do we blink so often, and what makes us blink? A recent study suggests that blinking may "reset" our focus, allowing us to quickly change the thing we are focusing on. A blink generally lasts only 300-400 milliseconds, but it turns out that your brain is very active during that short period of time.

From a previous study,1 the group had learned that an audience will blink at the same time while watching an episode of Mr. Bean.2 In this latest study, patients in an fMRI were shown the same video and their brain activity was monitored as they watched. During a blink the brain deactivates regions responsible for focus (called the dorsal attention network) and the activates the regions responsible for daydreaming (called the default network). In other words, every time we blink our brain enters a state of wakeful rest - a momentary daydream. This means that when your eyes open your dorsal attention network will reactivate and you will refocus on the "most important" thing.

Of course, maybe the researchers were only seeing this effect because there wasn't any visual stimulus. Maybe our brains enter a state of wakeful rest simply because it got dark when we closed our eyes. To control for this possibility the researchers also replaced short segments of the video with a black screen, simulating a blink. The deactivation/activation cycle seen while blinking didn't happen during the blackouts. This important control supports the idea that we blink to reset our focus.

A moment of speculation
I wanted to make a clean break between my reporting on what the study actually said and a few thoughts of my own. The first thing I thought of when I read this study was "How did evolution select for blinking this much? Wouldn't it be dangerous to keep our eyes closed so much?"

Imagine yourself as one of the early humans. You need to seek food and shelter to stay alive, but you also need to be wary of predators. Early humans needed to be much more vigilant of predators. If a blink lasts nearly half a second, that half a second could be the difference between life and death. What, then, would be the evolutionary pressure to select for keeping our eyes closed longer than we need to? If we blink for nearly half a second every 3-4 seconds we spend over an hour and a half of our waking day with our eyes closed. Wouldn't there be a stronger pressure for keeping our eyes open?

Don't blink. Blink and you're dead.

This study provides an explanation for the evolutionary pressure behind blinking. If our focus "resets" every time we blink, then we'll be aware of the newest threat. Every time you blink you refocus to the most important thing. If you're an early human being hunted, blinking could be the thing that saves your life.

[1] I learned a few cool things while researching for this article. While reading we generally wait for a punctuation mark to blink, women blink at the same rate as men (but women on birth control blink 32% more), and while speaking to each other we wait for pauses in speech to blink (except for those diagnosed with autism, whose blinking is unaffected by speech).
[2] I suppose the program they watch is unimportant to the study, but I'm quite happy with the researcher's choice.

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Saturday Links: December 29, 2012

Oh NO!!!! I forgot the links for December 22nd. No worry, I didn't forget about it this week.
  • An amazing little spider that builds a larger decoy spider out of leaves.
  • Project Pilotfish -  A cool idea: Build a boat capable of piloting itself from California to Hawaii.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Christmas Present for my Dad

My dad loves Hershey's Kisses, but he never eats them. He thinks the effort of opening them is just too much work. So, two years ago on Christmas I gave him an entire bowl full of unwrapped Hershey's Kisses. He should have no problem enjoying them now, I thought. Wrong. Maybe he saw something poetic in the unwrapped chocolates or maybe he really doesn't like them anymore. Either way they were placed in a display cabinet in his dining room. They are still there today.

This Christmas I decided that since he won't eat chocolate that is easy to get into, maybe I needed to make the chocolates harder to open. Below you'll find pictures of the wrapping and unwrapping. Enjoy.

The gift - My dad's favorite chocolates

The tools provided (Also part of the gift)

The wrapping tools

Step 1: Removes candies and place in zip-loc bag

Step 2: Cover in duck tape

Step 3: Zip ties around the duck tape

Step 4: More duck tape

Step 5: Place gift inside of a steel vacuum chamber

Step 6: Seal vacuum chamber

Step 7: Tightly wrap rope around the vacuum chamber

Step 8: Place knife inside the chamber. You don't want it to be easy...

Step 9: Place zip ties around the rope. They don't need to be cut, but they do make the rope harder to get off.

Step 10: Wrap metal wire around the rope and place inside box.

Step 11: Sacks to keep the vacuum chamber from falling over inside the box.

Step 12: Wrap in duck tape and provide tools for opening the chamber.

I also added a note that said "Your journey of opening this gift has just begun. You may use only the tools provided"

Step 13: See, it looks pretty, right?

And now, for the pictures of the opening on Christmas day.

Oh son, you've been so thoughtful with the other gifts, you shouldn't have given me another one too...

Reading the note and  noticing the ominously placed wrenches. What could be inside?

Watching Grandpa open his present (He also helped me wrap it).

First look at the vacuum chamber. This couldn't be the gift, could it?

Just getting started untangling the rope.

The zip ties made it impossible to just slide the rope off. It had to be untangled.

A knot at the end made it difficult to feed through some of the zip ties.

Explaining his new strategy.

Get to work opening the chamber. Forget the rope.

This turned out to be a bad strategy. He couldn't get the wrenches in place around the rope as easily as he thought.

Soliciting some help. I think this is cheating...

Using a bolt as a saw for that troublesome knot. 

With the knot cut and some of the bolts off he was able to slide the rope off.

Having too much fun. "The gift is probably something small, the real fun is the opening"

Almost there.

Found the knife. This would have been nice to have half an hour ago...

Using the scissors on the knife to cut the zip ties.

Almost there! The prize is in sight!

Holding his favorite candy.

And, in case you were wondering, he did eat the chocolate. He also swore revenge. I guess we'll see what next year has in store for me...

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