31 August 2010

Issues: Follow-up, HFCS and Mercury

Well, here I am back at my favorite topic. Over at my first post on the health effects of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) a commenter brought up the topic of mercury in HFCS. I did a little research and thought the results were interesting enough to warrant a follow-up post. I am presenting an opposing conclusion from the comment left, I am really grateful for the response, and hope I will get more.

On mercury in HFCS, there were two studies done in Jan of 2009, one peer reviewed, by Dufault et. al. in Environmental Health. The other was by Wallinga et al. at the Institute for Agriculture Trade Policy. Wallinga was actually an author on both papers.

The Dufault paper measured the mercury levels in HFCS samples from three manufacturers, and found levels as high as 570 part-per-billion (ppb), with a third of the samples above 100 ppb. A study by Health Canada shows that many common foods have 1-5 ppb levels of mercury, and fish typically are the largest contributor to mercury in our diet with 25-100 ppb levels common. The acceptable level of mercury in drinking water is 2 ppb. At average American consumption of HFCS of 50 g/day, HFCS contaminated to 500 ppm mercury could supply as much mercury as dental fillings or certain mercury containing vaccines, both of which are not recommended for pregnant women or small children, but at the same time are not areas of concern for health toxicity.

27 August 2010

Links: Plants Send for Help and Changing El Ninos

Tobacco Hornworm Caterpillar (A. Williams)
To start off today, we have a cool story that outlines one example of an evolutionary arms race. We usually see examples of predator/prey races, but it occurs in herbivore/plant interactions as well! Tobacco plants calling predatory insects to their aid when being eaten by caterpillars? If that isn't an extremely cool instance to evolutionary warfare, I don't know what is!

Plants send SOS signal to insects.

One of the worrisome unknowns about climate change is the effect on the Earth's oceans. We've been able to predict what we think might happen, rising sea levels, changes in currents and temperatures, etc., but until it happens, it's hard to tell what will actually occur. Well, it's happening, so the data is starting to come in. NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) have teamed up to study the effect of climate change on El Ninos. The findings show effects, of course, but what these effects mean for those that are influenced by the phenomenon aren't known yet.

El Ninos are growing stronger, NASA/NOAA study finds.

25 August 2010

Lakes of Minnesota and Wisconsin

Growing up in Wisconsin near the Minnesota border, there was a little rivalry between the states. More than once I heard the claim that Wisconsin actually has more lakes than Minnesota probably from people who had lived in the badger state for their entire life. So I wanted to check this out.

Lake Minnetonka, which means "Big Water" (Boricuaeddie)
Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes. Look at their license plates. But the state does not actually have 10,000 lakes. It has more. The official number is 11,842 lakes. So how about Wisconsin? Well, the Wisconsin department of natural resources claims that there are 15,074 lakes in Wisconsin. So Ha! But hold on. It turns out that the two states have different definitions of a lake. Minnesota's count includes only those that are all over ten acres and named. Wisconsin counts them even without a name and has no size limit. Wisconsin only has about 6,000 named lakes, even including those under ten acres. If Minnesota counted all lakes down to four acres without names, it is likely there would be over 20,000. 

22 August 2010

The Mother of All Extinctions

Despite the paranoia of many people today, there is really no reason to create contingency plans for velociraptor attacks. In fact, all of the velociraptors (or any other giant man-eating dinosaurs), are dead. Around 65 million years ago, there was a mass extinction you may have heard of. It was called the KT extinction because it formed the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods. This extinction event has been studied heavily, but was only one of five major extinctions known as the "big five". The most devastating extinction actually occurred about 150 million years before that and formed the boundary between the Permian and Triassic Periods. It is known as the PT extinction and marked the beginning of the age of the dinosaurs.

The PT extinction was so massive it is commonly called the "Great Dying" or the "Mother of all Extinctions" and occurred around 250 million years ago. It's estimated that around 95% of marine species and 70% of land species went extinct and was the only known mass extinction of insects. The composition of creatures in the sea previous to the extinction was mostly shelled creatures that were attached to the sea bottom. However, events of the extinction hit these animals hard. After the extinction, the sea was more heavily composed of free-swimming creatures. Dominant land creatures in the Permian were Sauropsids ("Lizard Faces") and Therapsids ("Beast Faces"). Sauropsids were the group that gave rise to reptiles, dinosaurs, and, eventually, birds and Therapsids were "mammal-like reptiles" that were the ancestors of mammals. Other land creatures of the Permian included some of the largest insects that ever lived, including Meganeuropsis, a dragonfly that had a wingspan of 27 inches (2.25 feet)! The PT extinction prevented the Earth from being overrun by giant dragonflies and nearly all of those massive bugs went extinct. Additionally the PT extinction was what finally wiped out the last of the trilobites.

Sketch of Lystrosaurus: D. Bogdanov
After the PT extinction came the Triassic era, the first of the well-known sequence of Triassic-Jurassic-Cretaceous that enveloped the time of the dinosaurs. However, it took a long time before the Triassic gave rise to dinosaurs such as Eoraptor and Plateosaurus. The Triassic period was overrun by "disaster species", or "weedy" species that thrived in disturbed environments. For example, bivalves, clams and oysters, were rare and out-competed in Permian, but took over the sea floor after the extinction. Lystrosaurus was a therapsid (mammal-like reptile) that flourished until dinosaurs began evolving later in the Triassic period. It's believed that Lystrosaurus alone made up 90% of land vertebrates in the early Triassic. This is the only time in history where a single specie dominated the land to this extent.

20 August 2010

Links: More Space, More Zombies, More Science

Braaaains!  (Arthur Chapman)

While I'm on the topic of zombies, here is some information on another type, ant-zombies. Some of you might know about parasite fungi that infect ants and manipulate their brain, causing the ant to die in a way that benefits the fungi. New fossil evidence shows that this behavior has been going on for tens of millions of years.

Science Daily: Fossil Reveals 48-Million-Year History of Zombie Ants

Next up is something that is probably cooler to me that the average nerd. I watched some Star Trek when I was a kid. If you did too, you remember the ship had these things called "Replicators" - devices which a person could ask for any type of food, and the food would appear out of thin air. As someone who has always liked technology and always like eating, I thought that having one of those would be the coolest thing, no cooking, no needing the right ingredients, just ask for something to eat and it appears. Kids always dream of having some magical toy. Some want a pet dinosaur, some want a big robot, some want a jetpack, I wanted a replicator. OK, and a jetpack. Anyway, it appears I am not alone, as a few scientists and inventors are applying 3-D printing to food. This article is about one design in the concept stages (the pictures are computer generated, this thing has not been built yet).

PhysOrg: Introducing Cornucopia, The Food Printer

Finally, because I am a sucker for pretty pictures from space, here is a best-of-this-summer gallery from the Cassini space probe orbiting Saturn that Wired collected. Enjoy.

Wired: The Summer's Sexiest Images From Saturn

18 August 2010

The Tale of ZombieSat

Braaaains!!! (Galaxy-15, Orbital Sciences)

The Galaxy-15 satellite seemed innocent enough. A simple communication satellite in geostationary orbit, it's only job was to sit in one place, receive signals (mostly for cable TV), amplify them, and beam them back to different places on the ground. It did that job with no trouble for about 5 years. 

Then, on April 5, 2010, Galaxy-15 malfunctioned, possibly due to a solar storm. Ground controllers found themselves unable to give the satellite commands. This was not unprecedented, plenty of satellites have been knocked out of commission by solar activity or other problems, to become pieces of space debris. Space debris needs to be monitored, but the risk of collisions with other satellites is small. Generally, a derelict satellite is not a big deal other than for the company that has to pay for a replacement. This event, however, was unique because Galaxy-15 was still functioning fine in most ways. It was receiving and broadcasting like normal, but would not respond to any commands. And this is important.

Satellites in geostationary orbits (always above the same point on earth) need frequent adjustments to stay in the same place, or they wander around, crossing paths with other satellites. And that's what Galaxy-15 started to do. It was at this point that the satellite gained its nickname: Zombiesat! It was wandering casually towards a gravity abnormality where dead satellites end up, cheerily doing what satellites do, relaying signals, but refusing to listen to any directions about how and where to do its job. The danger was (and still is) that its travels might take it past another satellite, where Zombiesat would steal the other's signal, and beam it off to who-knows-where before the correct satellite can receive it. 

So what were Orbital Sciences, controllers of what was now Zombiesat to do? Well, they first tried to reason with it, politely asking it to listen to their commands…200,000 times. When that didn't work, they did what anyone would logically do with any kind of zombie. They tried to kill it. On May 3, they sent it a strong signal which was supposed to cause the satellite's power system to malfunction and shut down. Zombiesat was unfazed. After that, ground controllers were out of options with Zombiesat as it drifted right into the neighborhood of another satellite, ready to mindlessly gobble up its signals.

What do you do if you are helpless and a zombie is headed your way? You get the hell out of there. So that's what the other satellite did. It moved out of the way as best it could while still relaying its signal. The procedure went well. Since then Zombiesat has drifted past three others without issue, and should pass a few more by the end of this month. At that point the satellite should lose power because its solar panels won't be pointed at the sun anymore. Then engineers may try one more time to get control. Basically they are now waiting for it to fall asleep and hoping to revive it with its memory intact. If that does not work, it will remain just a piece of space garbage, posing its satellite brethren little more danger after its three month drift of terror.

17 August 2010


1,340,764,245. Without some type of unit, this number is nonsense. The unit is people, expected population. Of two countries. Each. Based on current trends, on August 18, 2025, the population of India will catch up to the population of China, at 1.34 billion people. China's population growth is slowing, partly due to the one-child policy, and will eventually start to decline. India's population has been growing steadily. The numbers above are my own, from curve fits (see right) to world bank data. They don't quite agree with the numbers from real demographers, who, I'm sure, use better methods than me. Most people who study this predict India to pass China in population. Obviously nobody can predict the exact date or population when that will happen, but sometime in the next three decades we should have a new most populous country in the world.

15 August 2010

Issue: The use of dispersants in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Writing, as we have been, about science and the environment, we knew we'd be doing some posting about the deepwater-horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We didn't want to try tackling the whole damn thing, so I'm grabbing a smaller part of the problem about which you might not have had so much information thrown at you. (For an overall summary of the spill and clean-up efforts, go here)

How dispersants work. (NYtimes)
When the spill began, focus immediately went to stopping the gushing oil. When we realized that the spill was not going to stop quickly, focus shifted towards the clean-up. With this came the usage of dispersants. 1.8 million gallons of the stuff, which is more than has ever been used in one location. The primary dispersants used were "Corexit" brand dispersants, though the exact reasons why this brand was used isn't really known. BP claims that these dispersants were the only one available in the quantities needed, but there is much deliberation about that, and the company's connection to Nalco, the producer of Corexit.

Dispersants work on oil exactly the same way in which detergent cuts grease off of dirty dishes, with the use of surfactants. These are molecules with two ends, one is a water-seeking end that finds and attaches to water molecules and the other is an oil-seeking end that grabs onto an oil molecule. This negates the water-repelling properties inherent in oil, resulting in small droplets of oil mixing into the water column, rather than a large sheet of oil spread out on top of the water.

13 August 2010

Links: Disappearing Amphibians, Rabid Vampire Bats, and Plans for Cleaner Energy

Amphibians have been declining world-wide over the last several decades due to a mixed cocktail of pollution, habitat loss, climate change, and the uncontrolled spread of a devastating infectious fungus. One such amphibian is the elusive Golden Toad, which has not been seen since 1989. Now, scientists have begun a world-wide search for 100 of these frogs that have disappeared, hoping to find residual populations that can be protected.

Global hunt for "extinct" species of frogs.

Peru is battling a vampiric horror! Mainly vampire bats, bats that bite and drink the blood of sleeping mammals, that are infected with a strain of rabies. Four children have died after being infected by these animals, and over 500 people in total have been vaccinated after being bitten.

Peru battles rabid vampire bats after 500 people bitten.

And this week is big news for alternative energy... or at least plans for the next 20-or-so years. Research in nuclear power puts plants around the world by 2030 and a recycling idea that would negate the need for dealing with radioactive wastes! On the other spectrum, research into biodiesels that are made from plant-grown micro-algae claims to be able to produce sustainable and cleaner energy in 10 to 15 years, eventually eliminating the need for fossil fuels! Whether we can afford it is another aspect all together.

Scientists outline a 20-year master plan for the global renaissance of nuclear energy

Industrial production of biodiesel feasible within 15 years, researchers predict.

11 August 2010

Atomism – Getting Physics Right Accidentally

More right than he knew.

Start the Wayback Machine

It's time to drop some straight physics on you all. No, wait. Time to drop some history. Oh, hold on. Get ready for some history of physics! All the way back to 5th century BC Greece. This story starts with the metaphysical philosopher Leucippus.

Without going too deep into Greek philosophy, which is at the same time interesting and incomprehensible, Leucippus was trying to resolve an argument. One side argued that the universe was static and eternal where motion and changes were just an illusion, while the other spoke of a universe where the concept of change was the only thing that truly existed. Leucippus tried to make peace by hypothesizing that everything is made of some indivisible building block, but that these fundamental pieces could experience motion and constructed and that exists. Leucippus and his student Democritus named these particles atomos, or atoms; literally Greek for "uncuttable." For 2,400 years Leucippus' and Democritus' theory of Atomism was more correct than they probably ever imagined.

It would take thousands of years to figure out what exactly these "Atoms" were, but now we know there are, in fact, tiny particles that make up the entire physical world around us, not counting light and radio waves. Atoms of different types (elements) create the different materials and objects we see. 

10 August 2010

Gold - Heavier Than You Might Expect

Heavy. (Img: Bullionvault)
A gallon milk jug filled with gold would have a mass of 73 kilograms, or 161 pounds, instead of 3.8 kg (8.35 lbs) for a gallon of milk.  A cubic foot of gold is 547 kg or 1205 lbs, and would be worth about 21 million dollars today.  All of the gold mined in human history, 165,000 tons, would form a 20 meter (66 foot) cube, about the size of a five story office building. 

08 August 2010

Iceberg! Straight Ahead! (well, really far North, actually).

Peterman glacier,
the source of the island

On Thursday, August 5th, a massive glacier island cleaved itself off of Greenland, that not-so-green island way up North. It was about 100 square miles in size and is the largest glacier in the Arctic to have come loose since the '60s! It's not really known yet if the glacier will catch on land and freeze back in this Winter, or if currents will push the island through the obstacles in into the main ocean. If it did, it would likely interfere with shipping!

Greenland glacier calves island four times the size of Manhattan

Huge ice sheet breaks from Greenland glacier

07 August 2010

Links: Crazy Bus, Regeneration, and the Beauty of Alaska

Engineers in China have come up with a pretty elegant solution to the problem of overcrowded streets and buses stuck in traffic. They put the bus on stilts and it just drives over the other traffic while only taking up a tiny strip of road on either side.

China Hush: Straddling Bus

Possibly the holy grail of medical technology is human regeneration. It's the idea that we might coax the human body into growing back a lost limb or heart tissues that has led to all kinds of research. Healing cuts in your skin and broken bones are minor forms of regeneration that happen naturally, but, unlike simpler animals like amphibians, we can't regenerate larger parts of our body, probably because evolution forced us to trade long life and cancer resistance for wildly growing cells that can rebuild parts from nothing. This week plenty of news came out related to regeneration research. Here are a few stories. We are still a long way from regenerating a lost limb, but scientists are working on it.

NY Times: Two New Paths to the Dream – Regeneration

BBC News: Surgeons Rebuild Windpipe with Stem Cells

Nature: Skin Cells Converted to Heart Cells (more technical)

Jim Harris Photography
Last today, an incredible photo-essay of a backpacking trip through Alaskan mountains and glaciers. If you are one for beautiful nature pictures, you probably won't be able to stop scrolling down the page. The picture on the right is just one of many.

33 Days Across Wrangell-St. Elias NP, Alaska: The Southern Spiral

Also, this.

06 August 2010

Mauna Kea, Rising From the Sea Floor

Hawaiian islands from the sea floor. 
Mount Everest is regularly called the tallest mountain on Earth, and by one measure that is true. Everest stands 8,850 m (29,035 feet) above sea level, and no other mountain reaches higher. But Everest sits on the Tibetan plateau, 5000 m above sea level, and rises only about 3800 m (13,000 feet) above the surrounding terrain. Big, but if the bulk of the mountain was set next to Denali or Kilimanjaro it would be dwarfed. 

But another mountain you may already know is the point of this post. Mauna Kea, on the big island of Hawaii, is 4,205 m (13,796 feet) above sea level at the peak, but it's base actually lies 6,000 m (19,680 ft) below on the sea floor, for a total peak-to-base height of 10,203 m (33,476 ft), the most on Earth, land or sea. Also, check out the observatories on Mauna Kea.  I will leave you with this:

Yes, this is Hawaii. (NASA)

04 August 2010

Links: Composting Plastics, Venomous Octopuses, and Serenading Sharks.

Here's another link post, so you don't have to read my silly writings!

Our first link is about biodegradable plastics, the development of which has been going on for several years and there have been some results. These "plastics" are actually made from plant material, such as corn starch or tree-produced sugars, and degrade in a compost environment in 6 months time. I wonder when we'll be seeing these plastics in our grocer.

Compostable Plastics have a Sweet Ending @ ScienceDaily.com

World Centric: Bioplastics, a producer of these decomposable plastics. 
Great White Shark

Second is a quite silly continuation of our Ode to Discovery's Shark Week, a man serenading Great White Sharks. He was actually in the water with the sharks and guitar, but I'm guessing they dubbed over the music :).

Seriously, the video's pretty funny.

And our final link also takes place in the ocean, but deals with something with a little less of a backbone. It wasn't until recently that scientists discovered that all octopi, not just the Blue-ringed Octopus, are actually venomous. A study into Antarctic octopi discovered four new species of octopus and two completely new toxins that these octopus carry.

Scientists Tap Into Antarctic Octopus Venom

02 August 2010

Iiiiiiit's SHARK WEEK!

I lieu of Discovery Channel's Shark Week (which I look forward to every year), I give you the ridiculous looking "Goblin Shark" (Scientific name: Mitsukurina owstoni). It was named such because of the front of the shark, which looks much like a goblin's nose. That snout, called a rostrum, isn't just for show! It contains electro-sensitive organs that help it sense when other living things are nearby. It was first discovered in 1897 by a Japanese fisherman and, although many specimens have been recovered since then, there is still relatively little known about the shark. What is known is that it's a deep-water shark that rarely enters shallow water and is widely distributed. It's generally seen when caught accidentally by deep-sea fisherman or trollers, but this minimal harvest doesn't appear to be harmful to their population. Seriously, though, check out this video showing how the goblin shark attacks prey (or this man's arm).

01 August 2010

Issues: High Fructose Corn Syrup: Part 2

What's in Your Diet

Yesterday, I wrote about the current research on high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), how there is an ongoing but unclear debate on whether HFCS is any worse for your health than sugar, and that scientists point to sweeteners and lack of exercise for Americans' trouble with obesity. One thing that comes up is whether HFCS and other sweeteners are becoming more common in our food. So, today I decided to perform an extremely unscientific experiment involving my own diet. After my latest grocery shopping trip, I went through the ingredient list of each item I purchased. I tracked which contained HFCS, sugar, both or neither. Results are below, with notes (S,H,D indicate order of ingredients of Sugar, HFCS, and Dextrose):

High Fructose Corn SyrupSugarNeitherBoth
Hot Dog BunsBreadPotato ChipsCookies (D,H,S)
Hot Dogs (less than 2% H, more than 2% D)Hot PocketsMilkLemonade (H,S)
PicklesPasta SauceCheeseYogurt (S,H)
Stuffing MixFlavored Rice MixGround BeefIce Cream**
Tortillas (last ingredient)Chicken
Chocolate BarFruits… Assorted
Brownie MixVegtables…Assorted
Chicken Helper*
*Within the half dozen varieties of Chicken/Hamburger Helper (they were on sale) some listed sugar as high as the third ingredient, while others had none.
**Second to the lemonade, ice cream might be the best way to fill up on sweeteners. After cream and milk, the ingredients are, in order: sucrose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sugar.

There are a few things to point out here, but several ways to interpret the results. Remember this experiment is not designed to draw any scientific conclusions.