Tag: biology

Science Ranch 2012

By Phil Plait | October 11, 2012 11:01 am

Science Ranch 2012 has wrapped up, and it was way, way too much fun.

Quick background: my wife Marcella and I started up Science Getaways, where we create vacation packages and add science to them. We figured we love learning about the places we visit; their natural wonders, the geography, biology, and more, so why not make it official and put something like this together for other science lovers? At Science Getaways we take vacation packages and add exploration hikes, talks by scientists, star parties… y’know, SCIENCE. The point was to get like-minded science afficiandos together and have them get even more out of their time off; that’s why we call it a "vacation with your brain".

Our first venture was to the C Lazy U Guest Ranch in Granby, Colorado. Nestled in a valley in the Rockies, it’s a stunning setting with lots of natural beauty. We invited geologist Holly Brunkal and biologist/ecologist Dave Armstrong to come, with me pulling astronomy duty. In September, a group of science lovers descended upon the ranch for four days of fun, relaxation, and… SCIENCE.

I know I may be a wee bit biased, but I think everyone had a lot of fun. The ranch itself boasts a lot of outdoor activities: horseback riding, a ropes course, biking, and more. Marcella and I had to laugh; when we first organized this Getaway, we asked folks if they’d like to ride horses, and only a few said yes. But once everyone got there, nearly every single person went for at least one ride! It was a great way to get out into the hills without a lot of effort – helpful in the rarefied air at 2500 meters (8000+ feet) elevation!

The science was, of course, amazing. We learned a lot about the local flora, fauna, and geology of the region. Did you know the Rockies we see today are actually the second Rockies? There used to be a range here in Colorado hundreds of millions of years ago, and they eroded away. Eventually, a new mountain range pushed up, forming today’s Rockies.

Driving the lessons home, we went on several hikes to explore the natural world ourselves. At different times during the week we saw moose, bear, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes, foxes, and chipmunks. At one point we had a handsome young fox poking around nearby too, probably looking for lunch.

Probably the highlight of the hikes was when we all went to a stream bed near the ranch. Over the years it’s wandered a bit, exposing rock washed down from the hills. Within a few minutes, one of our guests found a fossilized leaf imprint dating back to the Creataceous Era, more than 65 million years ago! Not five minutes later another guest found a lovely specimen of petrified wood. We all started poking around in earnest after that; I found some fascinating samples including anorthositic rock, and a lovely layered sedimentary rock that got baked by a lava intrusion, turning it black as coal.

Of course, there was astronomy. Oh my, was there. The first night we walked outside from the main lounge room, and even before our eyes had properly adjusted to the dark we could see the Milky Way blazing overhead. I had my new Celestron 20 cm (8") telescope, generously donated for the occasion by Celestron, Inc., and we took it a few hundred meters out from the lights of the ranch to observe. We saw a dizzying variety of celestial favorites: globular clusters, planetary nebulae, binary stars, open clusters, galaxies (M 31, the Andromeda Galaxy, was amazing and easily visible to the naked eye), and more. It was chilly, but we still had a lot of folks stick around for hours while we observed. I usually observe from my home where the skies are decent, but being out where it’s truly dark makes a world – ah, a Universe – of difference.

One of the most fun times, I think, was just everyone asking questions while I answered them. We did that combined with a naked eye tour of the night sky; me with my green laser pointer showing folks how the stars rise and set, how the planets move, and even our location halfway to the edge of the galaxy. With a little ingenuity and a laser pointer, it’s actually pretty cool what you can learn under the stars.

The last night at the ranch was wonderful. It had clouded up just before sunset, so we all gathered in the main area where the ranch set up a campfire. We talked, laughed, and generally had a great time socializing. It was truly lovely.

Thus endeth Science Ranch 2012. But that’s most certainly not the end of Science Getaways! Marcella’s been hard at work getting the next one set up, and we’ll have an announcement about it very soon. Stay Tuned!

Image credits: leaf fossil by me; horseback pic by Jon Sager; campfire shot and Milky Way by Jason Bechtel.


Related Posts:

- Science Getaways: Dark skies
- Coathook to the stars
- Science Getaways: T-4 months
- Science Getaways

New research points toward "no" on arsenic life

By Phil Plait | July 9, 2012 11:56 am

In December 2010 a team of researchers, with NASA’s blessing, announced a truly remarkable result: bacteria that lived in California’s Mono Lake not only thrive in the arsenic laced water, but have incorporated arsenic into their biophysical processes. This was a big deal, since it wasn’t thought that this was possible (while arsenic has similar properties to the biologically-necessary element phosphorous, replacing one for the other had never been seen before in nature).

However, the team found their findings immediately under fire by other biologists. Here is my initial report on the press conference announcement, and here’s my followup after severe doubt had been cast on the findings, and a third article from a few months later. Basically, the team’s methods, analysis, and results were found to be lacking, and two other groups of biologists started up their own investigation to replicate the research.

Today, Science magazine published the results. Arsenic? Nope. One team found that while the bacteria thrive in arsenic-rich water, there must be some phosphorus present for it to live (indicating the cells had not replaced As with P). The second team found no evidence that arsenic had been incorporated into the cells’ biochemistry.

This is disappointing but not unexpected news.

When NASA held the press conference, a lot of media – including me – were very excited. We trusted NASA that the work had been vetted by other scientists and was legit. While I think the work was done honestly – that is, the research team didn’t cheat or anything like that – it’s looking like they jumped to their conclusion, and the initial peer review process didn’t work as it should have.

But there’s more to it than this. The members of the original team are sticking by their results, saying that not finding something may not indicate it’s not there – in other words, the followup research may have missed the arsenic. While that’s possible, it comes across as stubbornness in the face of contradictory results. That is simply an interpretive opinion by me, but it does seem odd that they claim the new results actually don’t refute their original findings. It looks to me (though I’m no biologist) that they certainly do.

[UPDATE: Here's a good article by my pal Dan Vergano at USA Today about this, and he also got great quotes from both the original researchers and the other teams.]

Discover Magazine’s The Loom blogger Carl Zimmer – who has always been very skeptical of the results – live-blogged this new announcement, which makes for fascinating reading. There are some great quotes in there, and it’s worth your time to read through. DM’s 80 Beats blog also has relevant links about all this.

There are several lessons I think we can pull from all this:

1) The scientific process works, but there’s friction with the journalistic process. Of course, we’ve known that for a while!

2) Just because there’s a press conference, and just because it’s backed by NASA, doesn’t mean the results are true. That’s a hard-won thought for me, but one I take seriously.

3) The thing we shouldn’t forget: all the biological research teams do agree that the bacteria in Mono Lake actually do thrive in those arsenic-heavy waters!That itself is an important scientific result. While those bacteria may not incorporate the poison into their own biochemistry, it shows again that life can adapt to extremely difficult and even previously-thought toxic circumstances. The ramifications for astrobiology (finding life on other planets) are still important, and this gives us strong and critical insight into the very chemistry of nature itself.


Related Posts:

- NASA’s real news: Bacterium on Earth that lives off arsenic!
- Independent researchers find no evidence for arsenic life in Mono Lake
- Arsenic and old posts
- Arsenic and old Universe

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