13 September 2010

A Photograph of Philosophical Importance

Take a look at this photograph.

At first it might appear slightly interesting, a black and white photo, clearly from many decades ago. But this photograph is special because of its timing. This was taken way back in 1838, by Louis Daguerre as he was experimenting with the process to record images. It is of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris, and is one of the first photographs ever taken. Now the streets of Paris were not as empty as they appear here. Early photographs had to be exposed for several minutes (over ten for this one) to collect enough light, so anything that is not completely still for that time becomes a blur, and anything moving faster than a snail is invisible. Notice how blurry the trees are compared to buildings or streetlamps. This street was probably busy, but the moving people and carriages blended into the background. Except in the lower left. Let me zoom in. 


A shoeshine and his customer were still enough to be captured in this photograph. That makes this the earliest photograph of a person. Let me repeat that: Above is the very first photograph of a human being. Just something to think about.


11 September 2010

Anti-Aging Science

Most things with the words Anti-Aging attached would take quite a leap to be considered science.  But there is some real research in the area.  Here is something that looks like a mini-breakthrough.  A study has found a compound that was given to people as a dietary supplement, and may slow down the process of aging (but not stop or reverse it).  It works by activating enzymes in our body that rebuild parts of DNA (telomeres) which shorten over time and may play a part in making us old and wrinkly.  Telomeres also have something to do with AIDS, so this could be used as a treatment for AIDS patients also.  Read a more in-depth summary of the research here.

06 September 2010

A Lake in Antarctica

In a radar image, Lake Vostok appears as a smooth patch. (NASA)

One of the largest lakes in the world is located in Antarctica. If you are familiar with Antarctica, this should sound strange, because the entire continent is covered with ice. It should be too cold for lakes to exist there, and that is true…on the surface. But some unique conditions exist that allow lakes of liquid water to form under kilometers of ice. They are called subglacial lakes, and about 150 have been found in Antarctica. Geothermal heat rises from the bedrock below the glacier, and the glacier itself traps the heat at the base, keeping it insulated from the surface, where the temperature can be -60C (-75F). The heat melts the bottom of the glacier, and depressions in the bedrock trap the liquid water as the glacier slides overtop, sealing it off. At high pressure water freezes at lower temperatures, so the millions of tons of ice pressing on the lake makes its temperature hover around -3C (27F), despite the lake being fresh water.

The largest of the subglacial lakes is called lake Vostok, after the Russian research station that sits on the ice 4000 meters (13,000 ft) above the lake. The lake is approximately the same size and shape as lake Ontario (250km by 50km). With an average depth of over 300m (1000 ft), Vostok is the 7th largest lake on Earth by volume.

Most interesting about lake Vostok is its potential as an ecosystem. The lake has been sealed off from the surface for at least one million years. It is possible that bacteria or other microorganisms have adapted to the unique environment of the lake, and a unique set of species may live in it. Space scientists are especially interested, because lake Vostok is incredibly similar to liquid oceans that are probably below the icy surfaces of Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's Enceladus. Sealed from the surface and with no sunlight, if life continues to exist in lake Vostok after millions of years, it would be the best evidence yet that those moons may be hosting primitive life right now. The lake can also be used to test robots that we might send to investigate the ocean below Europa. We might know more about life in the lake very shortly. The Russian research team has been drilling down to the lake for about 15 years, stopping and starting many times, partially for concerns about contaminating the sterile lake. In March of this year, they announced that they are only 100 meters from the surface of the lake, and expect to break through some time this winter.

Update: Micro-pumps for micro-needle patches!

Patch Pump for Vaccine Delivery (Purdue University)
Remember a few weeks ago, I linked to an article about micro-needle patches? They were an ingenious new way to deliver vaccines easily (and painlessly). However, this new article mentions a problem not stated in the previous one; Large molecules of many drugs do not readily dissolve out of the needles and into the skin. For that, they needed a pump of some sort to drive the medicine into the skin. Scientists at Purdue University have done just that! The mechanism seems complicated (and slightly worrisome if something were to break in the pump), but it's still in the testing phase, so lets just get excited about it!

New pump created for microneedle drug-delivery patch.

01 September 2010

Link: New Dinosaur may be Closest Relative to Modern Birds!

As a kid, when most other kids wanted to become pop stars or actresses or astronauts, I wanted to be a paleontologist. A part of me regrets not following that path in life, but I can still get excited when a new dinosaur is discovered!

Left leg and foot of Balaur bondoc.
Credit: Mick Ellison; Zoltan Csiki;
Matyas Vremir; Stephan Brusatte;
Mark Norell; AMNH
Last month, paleontologists in Transylvania described a new dinosaur from fossils dug up in September of last year. They called the dinosaur Balaur bondoc, which basically means "stocky dragon" and is part of the dromaeosaurid theropod group, which also includes velociraptor and deinonychus. They are also the group of dinosaurs that spawned the line of modern birds. This new dinosaur has some morphological differences from other theropods, including two large foot claws, opposed to other raptors' single large claw. Balaur's hand bones are heavily fused, with only two working digits, which is believed to be an evolutionary precursor to modern birds' wings. These, among other features, make paleontologists believe that Balaur is the closest known relative to modern birds.

Very Cool.

A "stocky dragon" from Transylvania.

Beefy dino sported fearsome claws.

Balaur bondoc: A raptor unlike any you have ever seen.