So this is somewhat old news, but we’re one step closer to clean, safe fusion energy with an announcement by the National Ignition Facility that they have test fired their 500 terrawatt laser system!  To give some perspective on just how much power that puppy has, the laser that I use that can easily burn your retina and even your skin is only 5 watts, so the NIF laser has ONE TRILLION TIMES the power of our own, quite dangerous, laser.  Oh, and it’s about 1000 times more power than the entire United States uses at any given time.  No biggie.  In other (related) news, I’m totally jealous of the NIF.
So, why is this a step towards clean, safe energy?  Because the purpose of this laser system is to ignite a fusion reaction between deuterium and tritium to produce helium and a TON of energy.  Basically, the lasers are shot into a tiny hollow gold chamber which is filled with the deuterium and tritium.  The extremely high energy laser beams generate vast amounts of heat and pressure (I will get into exactly how this happens at another time) which push the deuterium and tritium atoms together, providing them with enough energy to overcome the Coulombic repulsion and enabling the process of nuclear fusion.  By the way, a furnace that enables nuclear fusion?  That’s a star!

But wait, wouldn’t having a star right here on our planet grow and run wild and burn everything up?!?!  Glad you asked!  In a word, no.

Current nuclear energy is a product of nuclear fission as opposed to nuclear fusion.  Nuclear fission is when one element breaks down into two, releasing energy and radiation in the process.  Nuclear fusion is when two atoms combine to form one, also releasing energy.  Fusion can start a chain reaction (like in a nuclear bomb) but with fission you need to have fuel – deuterium and tritium – in order for the reaction to continue.  So unless you have an unlimited supply of deuterium and tritium, and have them in exactly the right place (the focus of the laser beams), you cannot possibly have a “run away” fusion reaction.  That’s why fusion is such a safe form of energy!

So there you have it.  We are one step closer towards building a clean, safe, byproduct free energy source, and making our very own Earthbound star.

NIF: How to make a star

And how Inertial Confinement works

P.S. To be fair, the 500 terrawatts is only achieved by combining 192 separate beams… Just saying 😉


Science Literacy.  It’s important.  As a nation, we have pathetically low scientific literacy which leads to all kinds of crazy shit like this, or this, or this(NSFW).   Magnets.  Yes.  Yes we do know how they work, actually.  I agree that lack of scientific literacy is a huge problem in this country.  But recently I ran across a quiz from the Christian Science Monitor which claims to determine if you are scientifically literate or not.  You can find the quiz here.

The quiz is filled with questions about the chemical make up of the air, the number of moons of various planets, and what symbols physicists use.  Frankly, to consider these things to be the marker of science literacy is to wholly miss the point.

We live in a world of the internet, of wikipedia, of instant knowledge at our fingertips.  The pros/cons of that are a discussion for another day, however the fact remains that this is the way our world is structured.  Therefore memorization is less important than ever, while comprehension, abstract thought, and creativity are more important.  The ability to comprehend concepts is far more important than the ability to remember what Greek letter is used to represent friction.  Especially since the symbol for friction in air is not the same as friction in a liquid, for example.   Albert Einstein is oft quoted as saying, “never memorize something that you can look up,” and when it comes to science literacy, I think that is key.  You can look up facts, you cannot look up understanding.

So I don’t care if you can’t recite pi to 100 decimals.  I don’t care if you don’t know which planet is closest to the sun.  Nor do I care if you don’t know the Greek alphabet from Arabic.  There are more important things to understand.  Below are some (though by no means all) things that I think are important for you to understand to be considered scientifically literate.

The Scientific Method – observe, hypothesize, test, analyze, repeat.  This is arguably the most powerful concept in all human history.

The means by which we evolved – the mechanics of Natural Selection.

Conservation of Energy and Mass – why you can’t get something from nothing.

The Atomic Theory of Matter – everything we know of is made up of 118 elements.

Genetics – DNA lets us inherit traits from our parents, and is made up of only four basic molecular “letters.”

Scale – understanding that one billion is REALLY REALLY BIG.  Unless you are talking about the number of atoms in the universe.  Or national debt.

These are just a few.  But I think the understanding of any single one of these concepts is far more important to a layperson than the entire contents of the Christian Science Monitor’s quiz.

What are the most important scientific concepts in your mind?  Tell us in the comments!


In honor of The Avengers, I wanted to write a post about superheroes in general, and who exactly are my favorites.

What makes a superhero/villain?  Well, frequently it’s a stupid looking costume, lame name, and magical powers, right?  They get bit by something or inject themselves with something or are exposed to radiation or come from another planet.  These are the Superman, the Hulk, Poison Ivy, Spider-Man, Captain America, Thor, etc., etc., etc. of the world.  Frankly? I think that kind of superhero is just plane lame (with the very important exception of the X-men.  I mean c’mon, Wolverine’s like, the ultimate badass).

But there is another kind of superhero.  This kind is rarer and far more awesome.  This is the kind of superhero who have no magic powers.  This is the kind of superhero with flaws.  This is the kind of superhero who is a normal human, just like you and me, but who has a skill, who works hard and hones that skill until no one else in the world can compare.  Although sometimes they still wear a stupid suit…  This is the kind of superhero we can all aspire to imitate.

So who are these heroes?

Bruce Wayne/Batman – the prototypical self-made hero.  Bruce was born into great wealth, it is true, but he chose to use that wealth, and his incredible intelligence and ingenuity, to turn himself into the caped crusader.  Batman has no superpowers at all.  He does not have to hide his super strength or x-ray vision, and he is not immortal or invincible.  He is just a human, but one who has spent years building the legend that is Batman.  He worked hard to acquire martial arts skills, he worked and studied to build all his cool superhero equipment, he sacrificed and succeeded in becoming one of the most badass superheroes ever despite not having a single super power.

Tony Stark/Iron Man – same deal as Batman, Tony Stark was a brilliant person with money to spare (this time partially inherited and partially made from his own business and engineering savvy) who, when thrown into a seemingly untenable situation, said, “screw this, I’m building a flying metal suit, getting out of here, rescuing a village, and saving my friend – with my brain beeoytches!”  There is no situation that Stark can’t think his way out of.  Actually, it’s incredibly appropriate that both Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes are played by Robert Downy Jr…

Katniss Everdeen – not really a superhero in the usual sense, but still she is a normal human who, when put into extraordinary circumstances, rises to the occasion with skills that most of us have not attained.  She overthrows an entire government, not with superpowers and magic, but with cunning, bravery, and excellent marksmanship.

Hawkeye – speaking of marksmanship, Hawkeye is another excellent example of a self-made superhero.  Working at a circus, Hawkeye learns to shoot a bow and arrow and, through hard work and practice, becomes to proficient that he eventually becomes one of the Avengers.

Black Widow – again here is a super hero who’s powers merely include a brilliant mind and a ton of martial arts training.  Black Widow is a brilliant spy because she is smart enough to trick her enemies into giving up their information by making it seem like the other way around.  Then, in true superhero fashion, she kicks their asses.

So there you have it, my list of the best superheroes ever.  Agree? Disagree?  Tell me why in the comments!

The unintended theme of this week’s post is modern medicine.  There have been several amazing studies this week about improving the quality of our lives and health, so let’s get to it.  But first,  happy belated mother’s day!

I love chemistry.  And Star Trek.  And especially chemistry that brings us closer to living in Star Trek.  A Stanford scientist has come up with a new method for restoring sight to people with certain types of blindness by combining Geordi LaForge style goggles which shine infrared laser pulses into photodiodes implanted beneath the retina.   The light both triggers the photodiodes then send signals to the brain allowing it to “see” the images, AND generates the electricity needed to run the photodiodes!  I mean, how is this not the coolest sounding thing ever?!

So getting sick sucks.  Especially when it’s a virus – you can’t kill those suckers.  Viruses are a real pain.  Except when they can help power your iPod or cell phone!  That’s right, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs have used the piezoelectric properties of certain viruses to generate electricity, and used it to power a small LCD.

Ok.  This is really, really exciting.  Humans have been searching for a Fountain of Youth for almost as long as we’ve known about death.  Modern medicine has brought us ever closer, and now María Blasco of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre has developed a new gene therapy treatment which extended the lifespan of mice by, on average, 24%.  The most incredible part? The mice were injected not as embryos, but as 1 and 2 year olds! There have been no primate studies yet, but this is certainly a Big Freaking Deal.

Stem cell research has a new feather in its cap.  A group at Columbia University has used embryonic stem cells to produce bone tissue in large enough quantities that it can potentially be used as a bone graft in patients with centimeter and smaller defects.

The debate over nature versus nurture has raged on for years, but a recent twin study suggests that your genes may play a fairly large role in determining your character traits.

I love it when we make cyborgs.  I truly believe that combining humans and machines is the future of humanity, and that is exactly what this work is doing.  People with tetraplegia were able to control a robotic arm, and move it with good precision in three dimensions, using their minds!  A small chip is implanted in the motor cortex, and it measures neuronal activity. Through these signals, the participants could control these robotic arms. Ain’t technology amazing?

That’s it for this week, have a good one!

So it’s my second week of trying to do this weekly science roundup, and already I’ve dropped the ball.  This does not bode well, but I will keep on trying!  I just started my actual lab work this week so I’ve been busy learning how to use the laser, the streak camera (omg so cool!) and Matlab – hence letting this slide.  But I’m back!  Here’s this week’s Science Roundup!

This news item makes the somewhat misleading claim that scientists have made light pulses that travel faster than, well, light!  Of course, there is more to it than that.  The pulse is shaped like a Gaussian and by combining pulses from various sources, the “hump” can be skewed forward to arrive earlier than it should have.  The leading edge of the pulse, though, arrives when it should.   So sadly there will still be no time travel.

Except, of course,  if you are an entangled particle! This is really, really cool! Scientists have found that two particles which can be entangled (or not) may be entangled (or not) AFTER measuring whether they are (or not)!  Quantum physics is crazy.  Which is why I love it!

Scientists at the University of Leicester have recently been able to turn off neurodegeneration, specifically the kind which leads to prion diseases and possible Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, in mice.  This may prove a huge step forward in the treatment of these diseases.

One step closer to viable hydrogen fuel cells and other artificial photosynthetic systems!  Woot!

And another artificial photosynthesis item, just for good measure.

And to cap it off, here’s an image of a star being eaten by a black hole!

Someone I am quite close to, let’s call him Steve,  has a learning disability.  He is incredibly intelligent; his teachers all say he is one of brightest students they have had.   It takes no more than five minutes of conversation with him to know his teachers are correct, yet his grades are dismal.  Steve isn’t able to process symbols the way most of us can, and certain types of abstract thought are difficult and sometimes even impossible for him.  As a result, math, especially algebra which is entirely based on the manipulation of symbols, is almost impossible for him.  So is essay writing, which requires the ability to organize concepts into discrete chunks based on abstract rules.   And trying to do these things quickly, like on an exam? Forget it.  Give Steve an oral exam, though, and he shines.  Ask him to explain the causes of the civil war, or the mechanism of evolution, or the progression of musical styles through the 1900’s and he will do so perfectly.

And yet, because of the system of education we have in place, Steve, for all his brilliance, had to drop out of high school and settle for a GED.

The way education is structured in this country is quite old fashioned and ineffective.  We divide students up by age rather than ability, learning style, comprehension, or any of the other infinitely more meaningful categories we could come up with.   We allow students to take algebra 2 classes when they barely scraped by the a D in algebra 1 rather than demanding mastery of the prerequisites before allowing students to continue.   This system is rubbish, and it hurts everyone.  The poor students end up eking out C and D grades while never truly learning or understanding the material, putting them in a bad position for the next course.  The good students are harmed because they are not allowed to progress too much faster than the rest of the class.

I could continue, but Sir Ken Robinson says all this much more eloquently than I can, so I will let him do the talking for me.  Please comment, and tell us how you think we can change our education system to be more effective.

Want to improve your economic decision making? Try thinking in a foreign language!  Thinking in a foreign language helps you distance yourself emotionally from the decision, helping you to common pitfalls like loss-aversion and allows you to process your decision in a more rational manner.   I wonder what reading the Bible in a foreign language would do…?

Common knowledge suggests that after a certain age, say 4-6, it becomes impossible to learn a second language like a native speaker. Well, this is starting to  look like bunk.  According to new research by Georgetown University Medical Center, learning a second language via immersion, even as an adult, can create the same types of activity and pathways in the brain as learning your native language!  Well I don’t know about you, but this is excellent news for me! I may speak German like a German yet!

So there’s this new particle discovered by CERN.  I’m not a particle physicist, so basically I got nothing. Still, pretty cool!

Time travelling neutrinos may be out, but time travel (for a very loose definition of the term), may still be possible!  Yay!  In this experiment, it was shown that it is possible to affect the entanglement state of particles after not only measuring the system, but potentially after the particles in question no longer even exist!  Of course, this is only possible in a quantum system – anything you or I experience is too large/slow/complex for any such effects to apply.  Find complete paper here.  Warning: this news may cause crankery among the science-illiterate. Side effects include perpetual motion machine prototypes, cold-fusion concept art, age-reversing healing crystals, and epicly awesome sci fi novels.

Good news! Evolution still works! Shocking.

Not sure about this one.  An inventor in the UK has developed a suit of sorts which is designed to improve athletic performance.  Essentially, it vibrates when the wearer’s body positioning is outside of the desired region.  It is claimed that this tactile feedback improves the “muscle memory” of the wearer, enabling them to improve their form more rapidly.  Video here.

Older Stuff


EDIT: I mistakenly wrote that the motion of no confidence had passes when in actuality it was not passed.  Please see Antonio’s comments below for further clarification.  

First off, this is old news.  I didn’t have time to write about it when it happened, but it is something that has been eating at me for a while, so here it goes.

Several months ago, an astounding piece of news came to the world’s attention.  By now you’ve all heard about OPERA, the experiment that seemed to show that neutrinos, tiny, uncharged subatomic particles, were travelling faster than light. This was a huge statement to make – the inability for anything to move faster than light is at the very core of our understanding of physics, and is the basis for much of our technology.  You’ve all heard about this by now (and if you haven’t, click here) so I’ll just skip to the end. Neutrinos don’t break the universal speed limit – there was just some faulty hardware.

Cool!  Physics still works! Everyone, pack up and go home! Wait! No, not you two! Antonio Ereditato and Dario Autiero, wait! Come back!

Basically, the spokesperson for OPERA, Antonio Ereditato, and the experiment coordinator, Dario Autiero, have both resigned after failed “no confidence” motion from the other scientists working on the project (the motion failed with 14 votes – 20 would have been required for the motion to pass).   Ereditato, in an interview with Nature, cited professional tensions as the main reason for leaving, however he also admitted that the decision to publish their FTL neutrino data contributed to the vote.  IF that is true, and if these two men are being penalized for releasing the data, then I, as a scientist, am incredibly disappointed, and the scientists at OPERA should be ashamed.

Let me back up.  When the announcement was made about the possibility of neutrinos travelling at FTL speeds, the press release by the OPERA scientists were VERY skeptical.  Essentially what was said was, “hey guys, we have this crazy, impossible result.  We’ve checked and double checked and WE can’t find something wrong.  There are two options here. 1) neutrinos travel faster than light and physics is broken OMFG, or 2) we screwed up somewhere and can’t figure out where.  So,on the off chance that it IS #1, y’all need to know. And in the much more likely #2 scenario, plz help us fix our experiment!”

In other words, they did EXACTLY what scientists SHOULD do.  They made their data public, open to scrutiny from other scientists, and they acknowledged that the likelihood was that there was something wrong with their experiment and they asked for help figuring it out.  You can read the whole press release, including subsequent updates, here.  In a post by Jennifer Oullette on Discovery Blogs she wrote,

Science quoted the proverbial “unnamed source” within OPERA as saying that many team members were unhappy specifically with Ereditato’s management of the press rollout, and Autiero’s botching of the actual measurement. And no scientist likes to hear about potentially revolutionary results via press release, instead of directly from their colleagues.”

I disagree with basically all of this.  The press release was done exactly as it should have been – it was honest, humble, and a more than a little exciting.  And I certainly wouldn’t mind, as a scientists, hearing of something this big through a press release – after all, what better way to disseminate the information to a vast number of eager scientists all at once?  And finally, the measurement being botched? Really guys? You all worked there as well.  Why are you all attacking him? Why didn’t YOU notice the faulty wiring?

It seems to me like all of this was just an excuse for the team to either get rid of two guys they didn’t like in the first place, or for them to save face in what was, admittedly, a somewhat embarrassing incident.   Let me be clear, though.  This should not have been an embarrassment.  In fact, I think the scientists should be quite proud at the way this was handled. Science NEEDS to become more open if we hope to thrive as a field.  Scientists NEED to have people check and double check their work if we hope to remain honest. And scientists NEED to communicate openly and honestly with the public if we hope to gain back their trust.

So, for the way you handled the press releases for the OPERA experiment, Antonio Ereditato and Dario Autiero, I salute you.

This just showed up on my Google+ feed, and I wanted to share it. Basically, it’s a list of 50 websites from universities to TEDTalks to NASA which can be used to further your STEM education – for free!


Science suggests, maybe not…

The United States seems to be more politically polarized than ever, certainly than I have seen it in my lifetime, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.  With issues like abortion, gay rights, and birth control back on center stage (birth control, really? What is this, 1965?), the differences between conservatives and liberals feel even more pronounced.  In this political climate, is there a way to bridge the ever widening gap between the parties?  Sadly, new(ish) research suggests that it might be more difficult than we’d like.  

Conservatives and liberals don’t just have different opinions, but research suggests they have different thought processes all together.  For example, people who identify as having conservative political leanings tend to show a larger reaction when faced with threatening images than people who identify as liberal-leaning. It has also been demonstrated that conservative leaning individuals tend to be significantly less open to new experiences and slightly more conscientious than liberal-leaning participants.

Not only that, but according to this review article, conservatism and liberalism have been shown to correlate with different brain structure AND with different genes.  It has been found that two areas of the brain, the right amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) seem to be involved in the conservatism/liberalism divide, with a larger ACC correlating with liberalism and a larger right amygdala correlating with more conservatism.  These two areas are particularly interesting as the ACC deals with conflict and the amygdala with responses to threatening situations, with the right amygdala dealing especially with negative emotions such as fear.  This corresponds well with the psychological studies which showed that conservatives tend to exhibit a stronger reaction to negative images than liberals.

Two different genes were examined as well, the serotonin transporter gene, 5HTT, and the monoamine oxidase A gene, MAOA, and it was found that different alleles of both genes were predictors of political leaning. While the neurological effect of different genes is still poorly understood, it does seem that alleles of MAOA are associated with depression and aggression (with one allele even being dubber the “warrior gene”), and that 5HTT alleles are associated with anxiety and neuroticism.

This research brings up a crucial question – if the difference is psychological, physical, perhaps even genetic, can we ever come to a consensus, or even a compromise?  I’m honestly not sure.  Perhaps the one light in this tunnel is that these studies are by their very nature correlative studies, not causative ones.  In other words, it is possible that these traits are not fixed, and that we can overcome our physiology.  The question now, of course, is how?