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My interview with Maggie Koerth-Baker on CU Science Update

25 May 2011

Maggie Koerth-Baker on CU Science UpdateBack in April, science writer and Boing Boing editor Maggie Koerth-Baker was on the University of Colorado campus for the 63rd Conference on World Affairs, where she participated in a bunch of awesome panels—everything from disease pandemics to the formative influence of superheroes on geeky young minds. She also granted me an interview for CU Science Update, a video podcast from the School of Journalism. The full episode has finally been released and is hosted by my friend and colleague Beth Bartel.

I asked Maggie about her role as Boing Boing’s science editor, how science journalism is different from reporting on other subjects, and the opportunities the internet affords for journalists to work in exciting, non-traditional ways. The CWA took place right after the Japan earthquake, so we used coverage of the tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis as an example both of how science can be misrepresented by traditional media, and of how Maggie and the Boing Boing team are able to avoid some of those pitfalls.

Watch the video at the CU Science Update website (Episode 21 – Science Blogging) or by subscribing to the CUSU podcast feed in iTunes.

A Word for Science Fiction: The Hidden Message in Pixar’s Films (via Science Not Fiction)

14 May 2011

Kyle Munkittrick has an excellent essay about the philosophical underpinnings of Pixar films and what Pixar’s approach to storytelling means for the future of humanity (well, U.S. culture at least) at Discover’s Science Not Fiction blog. The upshot is that Pixar is preparing a generation of young people to grow up with a vastly expanded definition of “personhood” and a set of positive story arcs as templates for the acceptance of new categories of “persons.” Assuming that advances like artificial intelligence, communication with dolphins, genetically modified humans, or contact with intelligent extraterrestrials are only a few decades away, we should be well-prepared.

Read The Hidden Message in Pixar’s Films | Science Not Fiction | Discover Magazine.

PRoD #3: Engineered virus makes cancer reveal itself

12 May 2011

Press Release of the Day is a short, pithy, accurate summary of the day’s weirdest, most interesting, or most-fun-to-write-about science press release.

Tumors detected in a mouse kidney using a modified herpes virus. Image courtesy of Cincinnati Children's Hospital.

Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center have created a genetically modified herpes virus that seems to trick tumors into announcing their own presence—loudly. If confirmed in human trials, the technique could become a cheap, portable way to detect cancers at a very early stage.

The herpes variant was engineered to bypass healthy cells and only infect tumors. It then causes cancer cells to produce a protein that is easily detectable in the blood. So far the virus has been proven to work on human tissue samples that included healthy cells as well as several types of cancer.

The virus was also tested in living mice—some healthy, others with the same types of cancer as the human tissue samples. Healthy mice showed no significant signs that the virus was replicating, nor elevated levels of the marker protein. But of the mice with tumors, more than 90% showed both virus replication and increased protein production.

In some mice, the technique revealed tumors that were still microscopic. Researchers compared that to finding a tumor less than half an inch wide in a human adult.

Aside from the fact that this method has yet to be proven on living humans, there is one other caveat: researchers expect that a human patient would develop an immune response to the virus after the first exposure, so in its current form the technique could be used only once.

The research was published 11 May in the journal PLoS ONE.

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Read the original paper: Cancer Screening by Systematic Administration of a Gene Delivery Vector Encoding Tumor-Selective Secretable Biomarker Expression (via PLos ONE)

Read the press release: Scientists use genetically altered virus to get tumors to tattle on themselves (via Cincinnati Children’s Hospital)

PRoD #2: Flipping hot Jupiters

11 May 2011

Press Release of the Day is a short, pithy, accurate summary of the day’s weirdest, most interesting, or most-fun-to-write-about science press release.

Image courtesy of CIERA

With the awesomely nonsensical headline/catchphrase/band name “Flipping hot Jupiters,” astrophysicists at Northwestern University have announced a model of planet formation that explains why some extrasolar planets appear to orbit their stars in the ‘wrong’ direction.

Among the many surprises caused by the discovery of planets orbiting other stars is the “hot Jupiter” phenomenon, in which a massive Jupiter-like gas giant orbits very close to its star. Even more puzzling, some hot Jupiters appear to orbit ‘backward’ relative to the direction their star spins around its own axis. That challenges current models of planet formation, which are based on our solar system—in which all planets orbit with the Sun’s spin.

The Northwestern model shows how interactions between two massive planets could put one of them into a backwards or “retrograde” orbit. The trick is that the planet does not reverse direction—instead, the planet’s orbit flips over.

A lot of things have to line up for this to occur: the two planets’ orbits have to start off tilted relative to each other; the less massive planet must be orbiting closer to the star; and the timing of their orbits must bring them into the right place at the right time. When conditions are right, the heavier planet periodically tugs on the other, increasing the tilt of its orbit very slightly. Add up enough little tilts, though, and the orbit flips like a pancake in slow motion.

Details of the model will be published 12 May in the journal Nature.

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Read the original paper: Hot Jupiters from Secular Planet-Planet Interactions (via CIERA)

Read the press release: Flipping hot Jupiters (via Northwestern University)

PRoD #1: Pyrite no pirate plunder, but fancy feast for phytoplankton

10 May 2011

Introducing a new feature at A Word for Science: Press Release of the Day (PRoD)!

Every weekday I’ll pick the weirdest, most interesting, or most-fun-to-write-about science press release I can find and write a short (<250 word) summary. Goals are to be pithy, accurate and timely—I’m doing this to develop the writing habit and improve my craft.

Today’s PRoD was written as a “headline” item for How On Earth, and was read on-air by yours truly.

Image courtesy of Flickr user nickpix2011

If you were a pirate retrieving a chest full of treasure from the ocean floor, you’d be disappointed to discover that it was only the common mineral pyrite, or “fool’s gold.” But to ocean-going bacteria and phytoplankton, pyrite is a priceless plunder.

That’s because pyrite contains iron, which is essential to all life but can be hard to come by in the deep sea.

Pyrite is emitted by hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean. Of course, we’re not talking about fool’s gold doubloons—these particles are tiny, about one thousand times smaller than the diameter of human hair. Scientists had thought that the mineral simply settled to the ocean floor.

But researchers from the University of Delaware and other institutions have shown that these tiny pyrite particles don’t settle. Instead they remain suspended in the water and are dispersed by currents throughout the ocean.

The researchers say it’s like giving the ocean a multivitamin—the iron is released slowly, providing an important nutritional supplement for the tiny organisms like phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are the foundation of the ocean food chain, and play a role in regulating atmospheric levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The discovery could shed more light on that process.

The research is published in the May 12 issue of Nature Geoscience.

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Read the abstract of the original paper: Hydrothermal vents as a kinetically stable source of iron-sulfide-bearing nanoparticles to the ocean (via Nature Geoscience)

Read the press release: Fool’s gold from the deep is fertilizer for ocean life (NSF via Eurekalert)

SkeptiCamp Boulder/Denver 2011

7 May 2011

Apropos of my last post, today is SkeptiCamp 2011!

SkeptiCamp is like a traditional conference turned inside out—the attendees are the presenters, and interruptions are encouraged (for heckling, questions, whatever). Topics this year range from “Adventures in Quantum Time Dilation” to “The Science of Intersex.”

Things are just getting underway and I’ll be making updates periodically, probably through Twitter (@awordforscience) using the hashtag #skepticamp.

“Skeptics” – A documentary short film

7 May 2011

A short documentary about that most curious of creatures, the skeptic. Featuring Phil Plait and members of SSaSS, the Secular Students and Skeptics Society. Produced for a graduate class at the University of Colorado School of Journalism.