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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

A Colorful Conundrum

For some people, solving a Rubik’s Cube takes no time at all. But for many, cracking the puzzle presents a real test. Getting all the colored squares to line up in the right order, let alone doing it quickly, is a head-scratching, mind-bending challenge. The cube was invented in 1974 by Erno Rubik, a Hungarian sculptor and architect. Some of the characteristics of 3-D objects troubled Rubik: he wanted to visualize how their parts could move independently, while keeping the larger object intact. As a way to play with this property, Rubik invented the cube as a learning tool rather than a puzzle. Realizing the model’s potential after scrambling it and finding himself stumped, Rubik first patented the game in 1975 as the Buvuos Kocka, or “Magic Cube.” In 1980, the toy hit the international scene when it appeared at fairs in London, Paris and New York. By 2009, the… Read More

Sparking Curiosity

Where would you hide if you were stuck in a lightning storm? Ideally in a car or a building with a lightning rod, right? However, would you feel safe from lightning inside a giant metal birdcage? Moreover, should you feel safe? To find an answer, a place to look would be at the ever popular Theater of Electricity, located at the crossroad between the electromagnetism exhibits and the weather exhibits at the Boston Museum of Science. The Theater of Electricity is literally a theatre; the center of attention is a live-action display of electricity that is performed regularly — and with educational instruction! The Theater certainly has an impressive aura. Giant metal cables encase the stage of the Theater, separating the stage area from the audience. On the stage are the gadgets of electricity, like a kite, big coils, and even a human-sized birdcage. But most attention-grabbing are the two… 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

Human Organs, Microchip Style

Microchips—tiny integrated circuits made of electrical paths that store information—are small by definition. Some of the ideas surrounding their use, however, are big. Very big. Dr. Donald Ingber, Director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, is on the forefront of investigating what microchips can do for human drug development. Ingber is one of the speakers at this year’s “Big Ideas for Busy People” event, which is the running start to the Festival on April 29th, Festival-eve. The evening will involve revolutionary ideas in current science, presented at a rapid pace: picture a condensed version of TED talks. Ingber will deliver a five-minute talk called “Human Organs-on-Chips: No More Animal Studies for Drug Development?” Virtually all the pharmaceutical companies in the world use animal models to test drugs intended for eventual use by humans, says Ingber. He and his colleagues have been busy reproducing the function of… 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

Inspiring Minds: Meet Women in Science

Two summers ago, I worked at the Chulabhorn Research Institute in Thailand. Its tongue twister name comes from its founder, the youngest daughter of the Thai king. “When I grow up, I want to be just like Chulabhorn.” I remember one of my co-workers saying. “She’s an organic chemist and a princess!” Though it is unlikely my friend will grow up to be a princess, if she follows the trend that modern women are setting, she can be an organic chemist and just about anything else she pleases. Here are a few examples: Erika Ebbel Angle is a biochemistry student at Boston University. She’s also a former Miss Massachusetts. And an entrepreneur. While she was still an undergraduate, Erika founded an organization called Science from Scientists, which sends scientists into classrooms to give students a hands-on introduction to the joy of performing experiments. Linda Elkins-Tanton is a professor of geology… 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