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Probing life and learning

On Friday evening, a large crowd gathered at The Laboratory at Harvard for an exercise in fast-paced, big-time brilliance. At Big Ideas for Busy People, ten scientists each had the floor for five minutes to discuss their work’s significance. Five more minutes for questions followed each presentation, while a prominent countdown clock marshaled the time. The ideas introduced by this group of Harvard and MIT researchers spanned topics as varied as multiverses and optigenetics. These engaging speakers dipped into the origins of life, the roadblocks of rote learning and the reason why we might be able to call our era the most peaceful of the human species’ existence. Two main themes seemed to crop up several times in the discussion: the search for life in the universe, and the importance of innovative learning. Alan Guth, a physics professor at MIT, introduced the idea of multiverses and suggested that our universe… Read More

Standing Up For Science

Last Tuesday, Sense about Science hosted a great discussion about the interactions between scientists and journalists.  Here are 10 tips for young scientists, based on the panel’s wisdom. SPEAKERS:Leonor Sierra, Sense About ScienceKaren Weintraub, freelance health and science journalistDr Chris Reddy, Woods Hole Oceanographic InstitutionMorgan Thompson, Science in the NewsB.D. Colen, Senior Communications Officer for University Science, Harvard University 1. Learn why the public should care about your research.  If you work in cosmology, you might be able to say something like we’re made of star stuff, and get away with it, as Carl Sagan did.  But usually non-scientists are more interested in the practical applications of your work than in the gee-whiz factor.  If your research contributes to knowledge about cancer, or climate change, or why we should all switch to a 30-hour work week, tell people that before you get into the nitty-gritty of your experiments.  They’ll be… Read More

Wonderful Webs

Charlotte made hers terrific, radiant and humble. With grace, she expended enormous amounts of energy to spin stunning webs. E.B. White introduced the wonders of spider webs to a general audience in his 1952 children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web. Charlotte was know for spinning elaborate patterns, presenting her piglet friend Wilbur’s admirable qualities in silky web words to convince farmers to spare this sensational pig from being slaughtered. Charlotte was some spider. But the tool she used to spread her message—silk—is one of spiders’ most basic and fundamental adaptations. Spinning a web allows them to trap prey, cocoon their young and float far away on its strands. On May 3 from 7:00 to 8:30pm, the Cambridge Public Library is hosting a session called “Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating.” There, science writer Leslie Brunetta and evolutionary biologist Catherine L. Craig will delve deeper into… Read More

Climate Change and Martian Bones

In a virtual world called Arcadia, sifting through yards of Martian bones is all in a day’s work. Chasing through leaves, over rivers and between red mountains, the goal is to find bone specimens, analyze them and figure out what tragedy happened in fictional Arcadia to leave so many scattered remains and no signs of life. Launched in 2010, this game called Martian Boneyards is the brainchild of Cambridge-based Educational Gaming Environments group (EdGE). The gaming group is just one division at TERC, a larger non-profit organization that focuses on math and science education. So how do Martian bones relate to science and math education? The game designers believe that some of the skills you need to succeed in Martian Boneyards—collecting evidence, analyzing data and drawing conclusions—are the same tools someone uses to succeed in science. The game is part of a larger massively-multiplayer online environment (MMO) called Blue Mars,… Read More

Making Sense of Science in the News

Check out these recent headlines from the New York Times: Defending Vaccination Once Again, With Feeling March 28, 2011-By ABIGAIL ZUGER, M.D. E.U. Talks Fail on Food Imports From Clone Offspring March 30, 2011 – By JAMES KANTER The Truth About Climate Change, Still Inconvenient April 4, 2011 – By PAUL KRUGMAN – Opinion Radiation and Food Supply Concerns Are Growing April 6, 2011 – By WILLIAM NEUMAN and FLORENCE FABRICANT Sometimes, reading the newspaper is an angst-inducing experience.  I start worrying about epidemics, radiation, climate change and genetically modified crops.  I wonder, in the wake of a natural disaster, would our food supply be safe?  Is my friend acting in her family’s best interest or putting the whole community at risk when she refuses to vaccinate her children?  Am I going to get sick from sleeping with my cell phone too close to my head?  Confusion ensues. These concerns… Read More

Perception and Deception

Chances are good that David Ropeik knows what you’re afraid of. A risk perception consultant, previous instructor of risk communication at the Harvard School of Public Health, and author of two books on the topic, Ropeik is well attuned to human fears and certainly knows risk. The rest of us, however, tend to get risk all wrong. We fear things that come with little actual risk, and at the same time, we are less afraid of more probable harm. For instance, people tend to worry about nuclear power more than fossil fuels, cancer more than heart disease, and vaccines more than coming down with the diseases they prevent. But in each of these cases, the thing we fear less This phenomenon is what Ropeik dubs the “Perception Gap.” He will be presenting a talk on it at the Festival on May 2, emphasizing how understanding this gap can help us… Read More

Science of the Eye

Your retina, which is the film in the back of your eyeball’s camera, takes light and converts it into an electric signal. Technically, it’s a little chunk of your brain that’s been lodged into your eyeball. The human retina can transmit data at a rate of 10 million bits per second, a speed that’s competitive with your Ethernet connection. The eye is a fantastic, complicated tool. Nearly every animal has one. For people, it’s the dominant sense, the source of most of the information we receive from the world. We learn to trust our eyes. Still, vision isn’t perfect. Optical illusions show just how easy it is to trick those retinas (or technically, that brain). Let’s look at a couple examples: All of the horizontal lines in this picture are parallel. …Even though they appear otherwiseAnd this gray bar is the same color, the whole way across. Test it by… Read More

Are You Tasteblind?

Imagine being handed a small cup of liquid to taste, and as the liquid sweeps over your tongue, you taste nothing special—it’s just sugar water, you think. Meanwhile, the person next to you has downed an identical cup of liquid, only to spit it out in disgust. Now imagine the same scenario, but you and the person beside you are chimpanzees instead. An experiment was conducted in the late 1930s on chimpanzees to see whether they could detect the presence of a certain bitter compound called phenylthiocarbamide, or PTC for short. For the experiment, twenty-seven chimpanzees were given solutions of sugar and PTC. Twenty of them reacted to the solutions rather negatively. (Some of those twenty even behaved hostilely to the experimenters in an attempt to express their distaste with the drink they were given.) Those twenty were labeled as tasters because they could taste (and hated) the bitter PTC…. Read More

So You Think You Can Be Princess Leia?

  “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi; you’re my only hope,” might have crossed your mind if you thought about going to see the MIT Museum’s holography collection through the Cambridge Science Festival’s “Explore Holography” event. Perhaps you decided to go because you were excited at the prospect of being able to don your Princess Leia costume and reenact that famous scene. And maybe, you were completely disappointed when you finally saw what the Museum meant by “holograms.” The truth is, most of what you see in the news and media claiming to be holograms actually aren’t real holograms. Sure, they might provide some cool 3D visuals, but they’re not done using the holographic technology that I discussed in my previous two blog posts. Most of what we think we know about holography comes from television and movies. If you’re like me, you probably watched the original Star Wars Episode IV: A… Read More