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Curiosity Challenge: Why Do Flowers Smell Good?

Allie W, Age 12 Dear Allie, Flowers smell good and also look colorful for the same reason, to attract insects and birds. Flowers want these flying creatures to come visit them, so they can help them reproduce. Insects and birds spread the pollen and seeds of flowers to other ones, so they can be fertilized. This is also how flowers become fruit. Beware, some flowers only smell good to some insects and in fact they smell foul to people. For example “Stinking Corpse Lily” and “Western Skunk Cabbage” smell just like their household name implies. These flowers want to attract flies, like the ones that you commonly see circling in garbage pails. They are very large and beautiful, but luckily not chosen for common yard ornaments! Doris Glykys is a Principal Chemical Engineer at Amgen.  She’s passionate about bringing lifesaving science to the people.

Curiosity Challenge: Can Humans and Animals Understand Each Other?

Hey there, CSF fans, followers, and supporters! Anna Bishop here with a cool Zoosemiotics (animal communication) question from Ella Nelson, age 11, who wants to know if humans and animals understand each other. Excellent question! The answer is everyday and never: it depends on the animal, of course! If you were to scold your dog for getting into the garbage, he might not understand all of your words, but he would know you were angry because of your face, voice, body language, and gestures. He might feel ashamed, because he knows it is something he should not do. However, if you were to scold a chameleon, you might as well scold the wall. Chameleons, in the wild, do not communicate with one another, so their understanding of communication is essentially non-existent. They may be afraid of the loud noise, but they would not understand that you were trying to tell… Read More

Editing the Genome: An Event Retrospective

Museum of Science. Genome Editing: Now We Can, Should We? It was a complex question that greeted attendees of the Museum of Science on Tuesday evening: Now that we can edit the genome, should we? The evening started with thought provoking presentations given by Kevin Esvelt (MIT Media Lab) and Sam Lipson (Cambridge Public Health Dept). They introduced the CRISPR/ Cas9 genome editing technology, which was developed in 2013 by several groups including scientists in Cambridge, MA. The technology enables genome editing of any organism by a cut and paste mechanism that replaces the original DNA sequence with an engineered sequence designed by scientists. Changes to the genome can be limited to specific target cells or can be propagated across an entire species via a process called ‘gene drive’. The presenters also discussed the current environment of legislation around genome editing and the secretive nature of science, performed effectively behind… Read More

Chaos, Science, and the Thrill of Research: Tom Stoppard’s ARCADIA at Central Square Theater

Reviewed by E. Rosser   Science and history.  Scholars butting heads.   A house whose story spans generations.  Meet the agents of Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s classic play currently in production through the Catalyst Collaborative at MIT, a resident program at Central Square Theater.  For the past decade, CC@MIT has brought science to the public limelight by producing at least one play about science per season, with special emphasis on marginalized scientists whose stories are frequently neglected.  Past shows in this vein include: A Disappearing Number, about the life of genius Indian mathematician, Ramanujan; Breaking the Code, featuring the tragic end of computer pioneer, Alan Turing; and Photograph 51, focusing on Rosalind Franklin and her DNA discoveries that were scooped by male colleagues.  Arcadia doesn’t slot quite so easily into one single theme: it’s quite layered, touching on sexism in academia, the thrill of research, intellectual rigor, plenty of sex and interpersonal conflict,… Read More

Reflection on Street Astronomy (Friday 4/15/2016)

Passion. I thought for a day about one word that summarized my thoughts about volunteering with the Street Astronomy team (http://www.bostonastronomy.net/), and decided that passion bested simplicity. The premise of the event was simple: get together in the middle of Harvard Square with some telescopes and look at cool things in the sky. And it was effective. Friday night is prime time in the Square for families, friends, and dates, so there were plenty of folks looking to make the night a little more special. In the two hours that the team of astronomers kindly donated to the festival, we had two to three hundred curious minds expand through the four telescopes and a pair of binoculars. However, it was not just the big boxes, expensive equipment, and experience that the astronomers brought out that night. I felt what made the night successful was their passion for the cosmos and… Read More

Science + Theater + Diversity Conference with the Catalyst Collaborative at MIT

By E Rosser This Sunday, I sat down with a quantum physicist-slash-director on my right, and a playwright who works with telescopes on my right.  A slew of other participants, ranging from theater interns, to history students, to neuroscientists, to engineers circled their chairs around the room.  Together, we represented a broad range of interests and backgrounds, but today we were there to tackle our favorites: theater, science, and diverse representation.  After introductions, ample coffee, and some question brainstorming, we dug right into group dialogue, wondering how theater might effectively capture the scientific process, and how science, in turn, might be progressed by featuring in theater.  That dialogue was the central component of Sunday’s Science + Theater + Diversity Conference, hosted by the Catalyst Collaborative at MIT and the companies in residence at the Central Square Theater. Photo courtesy of Allison Schneider The CC@MIT is the only long-term collaboration venture… Read More

Curiosity Challenge: How do Cells Work?

Hi Jollie, thanks for the question. This is a hard question to answer because cells are so different from each other. Cells are specialized to do the job they perform. Nerve cells look completely different than liver cells and perform a different function within the body. Also animal, plant, and bacterial cells all differ from one another. To answer your question I’m going to focus on the general principles that enable animal cells to function.   Cells were initially discovered (observed) following the invention of microscopes in the 17th century.  Cell theory, stating that cells form the fundamental unit of life, was put forward over 150 years later. In the 20thand 21st centuries a major goal of biological research has been to understand how cells work, so that we can recognize what goes wrong in disease and how best to intervene to cure the condition. The working of individual cells… Read More

Curiosity Challenge: How Can Lizards Regrow Body Parts?

      You may know that some animals, such as reptiles and amphibians, can grow back lost body parts, but how do they do that?   Image via Wikimedia Commons The process that allows animals, such as reptiles, to grow back their lost body parts is called regeneration. In order to understand regeneration, we must learn about DNA and gene regulation. Every living organism, from bacteria to plants, and including humans, are made up of cells. Cells are known as the smallest unit of living things. Cells are really small, and you need a microscope to take a close look at them. In fact, the human body is made up of trillions of cells!    You may also know that DNA is called the genetic material in our cells. DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, and it contains instructions for our cells. DNA is made up of nucleotides. We have… Read More

Curiosity Challenge: How Were Animals Created?

Hi there CSF followers, fans, and supporters! Anna Bishop here again, answering an awesome biology question from Ava Hartshorn, Age 7: How Were Animals Created? ( a picture of animal cells under a microscope) Well, it all started about 575 million years ago, a time called the Ediacaran Period, when primitive animals began to develop. Lumps of cells probably weren’t what you were thinking of when you thought of animals! But lumps of cells created the first animals on Earth. There are three educated guesses about how this happened. The first thought is that animals were made from clumps of cells (the smallest units of life) that banded together (like a slime mold) in a group called a “grex,” and helped each other survive. Did you know a slime mold can move around, and is a kind of animal? Another idea is that one cell’s center separated into many cells,… Read More

Curiosity Challenge: Who Taught the First Teacher?

  Great question Onasis. The most straight forward answer I can give is: their parents. Teaching and learning in its earliest form would have occurred by imitation.  Our early ancestors would have imitated their parents, just like animals on nature TV shows imitate their parents’ hunting and survival skills.  The acquisition of language and the generation and use of tools enabled the initial advancement of the human species from small groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers to larger agricultural communities, in what is termed the Neolithic Revolution. The benefit of agricultural food production to the individual health in these communities is not entirely clear.  But, ultimately, these communities supported larger populations. The development of larger communities led to the specialization of skills and roles within the community, for example farming, building, and trade. These communities developed into sophisticated societies with governmental structures, formalized ideology, and religion. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians are… Read More