31 July 2010

Issue: High Fructose Corn Syrup: Part 1

Today is the first part of a topic that grew in length as I was writing until I decided to split it into two parts. This is my first try investigating some issue facing people in the world, something that you may have an opinion about. Feel free to share your thoughts and observations in the comments. Come back tomorrow for part 2 which includes an experiment you can do on your own.

A Growing Problem

US Obesity and Overweight Rates
The United States is overweight. Not the land geographically, though it is quite massive, but the people who live there. The level of obesity has been climbing for the last three decades, though it has shown signs of slowing down. Two in three Americans are overweight, and the obvious place to look for answers is in our diet. One ingredient has stood out as a poster child for the growing problem. High Fructose Corn Syrup, or HFCS. I wanted to check out the claims and research, and see if I could clear up what we know about HFCS.

There are two discussions involved here. One is whether HFCS is less healthy than other sweeteners, such as sugar. The other is whether the obesity problem in the United States is tied to increased use of sweeteners in general.

The Unhealthier Sugar?

To tackle the first, it helps to compare HFCS to sugar chemically. HFCS, a thick liquid made from corn, is a mixture of fructose and glucose molecules, usually in a 55%-45% ratio with more fructose. Sugar is sucrose, found in your grocery store as crystals of table sugar. Chemically, sucrose is a fructose molecule joined to a glucose molecule. These are broken apart in the stomach and small intestine and absorbed. So sugar breaks down to nearly the same half-half mix of fructose and glucose that you get from HFCS.

30 July 2010

Liquid... Metal... Moving Art?

Swiss Science Center
There is a substance out there called a ferrofluid. It is quite possibly one of the coolest things ever. Ferrofluids are metals that exist in a liquid form, but when a magnetic field is applied, they solidify into neat shapes and patterns. They're generally composed of tiny particles of compounds that contain some amount of iron, such as hematite or magnetite. The particles are tiny enough to be suspended in a liquid. They were developed by N.A.S.A. in the 1960's and are now being used in a variety of applications, including engineering, electronics, medicine, the military, and art.

Also, you can make your own.

29 July 2010

Revelations about Revolutions

Copernicus (Img: Welcome)

Nicolaus Copernicus published his work claiming that the Earth revolved around the Sun in 1543, immediately before his death. He was not the first to make that claim, but his work and that of followers led to global acceptance of the theory and is considered the origin of modern astronomy. Copernicus delayed publication for fear of skepticism, mainly within the scientific community. But unlike Galileo later, he was not persecuted by the church. In fact, some in the Catholic Church urged him to publish and spread his ideas.

28 July 2010

Links: Smart Tortoises, Distant Planets, AIDS Research

Once a week, eventually every Saturday, we will find a few news stories so you can learn about the newest in science from the source without having to deal with our writing. Well… much of it.

First up, is one of the blogs from scienceblogs.com, which inspired some of what we are doing. It is a long read, but if you wonder how tortoises learn, it's worth a look.

The Thoughtful Animal at Scienceblogs.com

Next is something extra interesting for me. I have been keeping an eye on the Kepler Mission since it launched a year and a half ago. It is a telescope used to look for planets around other stars. Way back in high school I wrote my senior thesis on finding extraterrestrial life. I think I will use a post to write about that topic pretty soon. The Kepler Mission is the biggest leap in that area in 30 years, so I have been waiting for the results. The first batch of data was collected in January, and was scheduled to be made public next January, but apparently someone couldn't wait and "leaked" some of the results during a talk in the UK. They are very interesting and look like the first step in proving what astronomers have suspected for years. Planets like Earth may be very common in the galaxy.

Discovery News: Kepler Scientist: "Galaxy is rich in Earth-like planets"

Finally, quite a bit of news on AIDS research in the past couple days. The first link looks like an early step to a breakthrough, but is still some time off. The second link is something more immediate, but the article is largely focused on the controversial aspects. Take a look.

Singularity Hub: Antibody Neutralizes 91% of HIV Strains  
New York Times: Advance in AIDS Raises Questions as Well as Joy

27 July 2010

Deer Cross Here

Why did the chicken cross the road?

One of the largest problems with wildlife habitat is the problem of fragmentation. This is where a block of forest or plains or marsh is split into smaller pieces. This fragmentation can be caused by farmland, housing, or forestry, but most often occurs due to roads and is even a large problem in natural reserves. Roads represent an extremely dangerous crossing for most wildlife, as well as drivers, primarily due to collisions with vehicles. They also cause problems by splitting up wildlife populations (small groups of animals are more vulnerable to being wiped out than large groups), degrading habitat close to roads due to maintenance and pollution, and preventing access to resources on the other side.

Because there wasn't a bridge!

(Joel Sartore)
This problem has been tackled a few different ways. Underpasses that allow wildlife to cross beneath roads have been created for creatures who don't mind dusty, dark, enclosed spaces, such as turtles and raccoons. Large enough underpasses have even been used by deer and moose! However, large carnivores such as wolves, cougars, and bears generally don't like them. So if you can't go under, let's go over! Many wildlife-conscious areas, such as Banff National Park in Alberta, have begun installing wildlife crossing bridges or "green bridges" as they are often called. First installed in France in the 1950's, these are usually wide bridges planted with grasses and small shrubs with fences along the edges.


Green bridges have been shown to help lessen the effects of fragmentation and to decrease the number of vehicle collisions with large mammals by an average of 86% close to where the bridge is in place (sec. 4.4). They are currently being used in many areas with a high rate of success. In Florida, several underpasses have distinctly lowered the casualties of florida panthers on highways where they have been installed. Not just for roads, overpasses over a deep irrigation canal in Arizona have decreased the number of deer and other animals from getting stuck and drowning in the canal. Researchers have picked out tons of road kill "hot spots" that could benefit from crossings, but it's still a matter of time and money until they're considered everywhere.

26 July 2010

Moscow, the New Skyscraper Capital of Europe

Moscow's newly built skyscraper garden (Img:Bradmoscu)
Completed in 2010, the taller of the two City of Capitals skyscrapers, located in Moscow, is the new tallest building in Europe. Moscow is also home of the second and third tallest buildings in Europe, all completed in the last decade. Maybe the Russians feel that ground level is not cold enough in the Moscow winter and would rather be 1000 feet in the air. At 306 meters tall, about the height of US Bank tower, the tallest building in Los Angeles (the Sears Tower Willis Tower is 442 meters; damn it, I just can't get used to that.), City of Capitals is located in Moscow's International Business Center district. The same district contains four of the five tallest buildings under construction in Europe, all of which will be taller than City of Capitals, though at least two are on hold due to the economic downturn, and an additional, even taller, project has been canceled outright. The other of the five tallest buildings under construction in Europe is in London.

25 July 2010

Pluto, Not Quite a Planet

Poor, poor Pluto. The heavenly object that once stood tall with the eight planets that orbit our sun is now just another anomalous piece of rock, demoted, soon to be left off those colorful solar system diagrams that filled the walls of our grade school classrooms. Pluto may not be a planet, but it is still interesting.

Sort of Like a Planet, but not Really

Pluto was discovered in 1930, and named after the Roman god of the underworld for its expected cold, dark nature so far from the sun. The name also referenced the initials of Percival Lowell, who spent the final 20 years of his life searching, unsuccessfully, for a planet outside Neptune. Pluto orbits at 40 times the Earth's distance from the Sun, orbiting every 248 Earth years. There the sunlight is less than one thousandth as strong as on Earth. Pluto is so cold its surface is covered in frozen nitrogen. For about 20 year of every orbit, it crosses Neptune's path and is closer to the Sun than the eighth planet, though they cannot collide. This last happened between 1979 and 1999.

Sizes to scale (NASA)
Pluto is about two-thirds the size of the moon, with a radius of 1153 km. A large object, but small compared to planets. There are seven moons in our solar system larger than Pluto, as are all of the planets. Pluto was demoted to the status of "Dwarf Planet" in 2006, ending its 76 year run as the little planet that could.

24 July 2010

Latex In Your Lettuce

Guayule (USDA)
Natural rubber comes from latex produced by plants. The para rubber tree is the current source of natural rubber because of the rate at which it produces latex, but rubber fig trees, lettuce, dandelions, and guayule, a shrub native to Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico, all produce latex that can be made into rubber. Latex is what gives the thicker parts of the lettuce their bitter taste, and when you break a dandelion stem, the white fluid that oozes out is latex. That was a considerable part of my childhood right there.

Human Fish: Neither Human, Nor a Fish.

The inaptly named human fish (which I recommend NOT google image searching) is actually a salamander that, due to new research, is believed to be able to live up to 100 years! Studying this creature might give us some more insight into aging and, well, how to stop it.

Alternate Link:

"Human Fish" Breaks Lifespan Record

No More Needles? Awesome.

Vaccinations have just gotten simpler. A patch is being developed that has hundreds of tiny micro-needles that dissolve into the skin, taking the vaccine with it into the blood stream. Simple, pain-free, and, if studies on mice have any indication, more effective at immunizing. Hopefully, this becomes available before the next swine/bird/insertanimalhere flu epidemic comes around.

Additional Links:

BBC News: Vaccine Patch may Replace Needles

Hate Needles? Flu Patch May Take Sting Out of Your Fears

23 July 2010

Welcome. We come in peace.

Welcome. Thank you already, just for making it to our little blip on the internet radar. This is the blog of siblings Justin (Engineer) and Kristina (Biologist) Lapp. We are both graduate students in our respective fields, and very interested in all types of science.

Our goal is to provide an entertaining place for everyone to learn something new relating to science, whether you are a physics professor, or have never seen a science textbook. We will bring you the most interesting information we can find about science and engineering from skyscrapers to mountains to dinosaurs to galaxies. And we will try to find and share the scientific truth that deals with the current world, from animals and the environment to human health to use of technology to science's role in public policy.

We'll try to keep things pretty light. Our hope is that everyone (including us) learns something and enjoys coming to the blog. We don't want to lecture or tell anyone what to think. But we do want to show as many people as possible what it's like to view everything from a scientific perspective. Comments, suggestions, and questions are always more than welcome.

Our skills are not massive amounts of knowledge; surely many other out there beat us in that category. Instead our education paths and interests have taught us something about searching for information, discerning the good from bad, and conveying it. This will be a place for you to come and quickly find out something cool that you could find on your own, but never thought to look. Or to get all of the relevant information on a topic because we already scoured the internet and broke it down.

If you like what you find here, all we ask is that you come back again and tell your friends about us, especially if they are not scientists or engineers but have an interest in science. The more people who end up here, the harder we will work, and the better this place will be for everyone.

Thanks for coming, however you made it here. Now let's see how this little experiment goes. Scroll down for the first bit of science.

Tiny Dinos!

What's the smallest dinosaur ever? Well, it's kind of hard to tell, because the fossils that are found aren't always full adults. However, a couple of dinosaurs vie for the position: The smallest well known dinosaur is Microraptor, which is essentially a tiny version of the already small velociraptor we know and love (not anything like Jurassic Park led us to believe). It was about 16 inches long and 2.2 lbs (~1 kg). As small as that is, it doesn't compare to the tiny Epidexipteryx (shown here), which is known only from a single partial fossil and was described in 2008. It is only about 10 inches long and is estimated to weigh 164 g (that's 0.36 lb). Yes, that's about the size of your average hamster, and yes, I want a herd of them as well.

Additional Links:

BBC News: New Feathered Dinosaurs Discovered

The Hairy Museum of Natural History: Epidexipteryx hui

Dino-Bird from China Gives Clues to Bird Evolution