The Secret to Dolphins’ Swimming Speeds

By Brad Balukjian | January 23, 2014 4:01 pm

dolphins

The “Acknowledgements” section of a scientific paper is usually a good cure for insomnia—just a list of names of collaborating scientists and funding agencies. So what is the U.S. National Swim Team doing in the acknowledgements of a new paper on dolphins?

Turns out our swim team held the answer to one of marine biology’s oldest conundrums—how dolphins swim so fast with limited muscle power.

The problem dates back to 1936, when Sir James Gray studied a dolphin clocked swimming at 22.4 mph around a boat (note: that’s fast for water). Using a simple hydrodynamic model and what he knew about the dolphin’s size and power, Gray concluded that there was no way the dolphin could move that fast without some fluid mechanics wizardry, such as some special technique to modify the flow of the water and reduce the amount of drag. Herein lay what became known as “Gray’s paradox”—short of having the same trainer as Alex Rodriguez, how could dolphins move at that speed?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: animals

Personalized Medicine Slogs Toward Reality

By Lauren Gravitz | January 23, 2014 2:41 pm

gene research

For years, medical researchers have been talking about the day when babies will have their whole genomes sequenced at birth, the day when genomic analysis will allow every patient to be treated not just based on her condition but on which treatment is the best match for her genetic quirks. There will be a day, they say, when we will all carry our genomes around on a thumb drive. But the hurdles, fiscal and otherwise, have proven difficult to overcome.

The DNA of one set of human chromosomes contains 3 billion base pairs—most cells are diploid and have two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent. Sequencing these six billion base pairs, one pair at a time, is unquestionably faster and cheaper than it once was: Since its less-than-humble beginnings almost 15 years ago, human genome sequencing has dropped from $100 million to around $1000. Instead of years, it can now be completed in a day or two.

Yet while that’s incredible progress, it’s not quite enough. Not only is it still too pricey for everyday use, but once that genome has been sequenced it also has to be mapped and analyzed—the process in which the sequenced base pairs are assigned to the correct chromosome and assessed for mutations, something that can take a couple of days or more. What to do with the resulting data is another problem: The genome and its resulting analysis typically occupy about 400GB. (For reference, the 2013 laptop I’m using to write this post has a storage capacity of 250GB—my genome wouldn’t come close to fitting on it.) Securely storing data from 500 or 5000 patients—at about $1 per gigabyte—typically costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: genes & health

The Scientific Complexity in a Seemingly Simple Snowflake

By Daniel Tammet | January 21, 2014 12:19 pm

snowflakesOutside it is cold, cold — ten degrees below, give or take. I step out with my coat zipped up to my chin and my feet encased in heavy rubber boots. The glittering street is empty; the wool-gray sky is low. Under my scarf and gloves and thermals I can feel my pulse begin to make a racket. I do not care. I observe my breath. I wait.

A week before, not even a whole week, the roads showed black tire tracks and the trees’ bare branches stood clean against blue sky. Now Ottawa is buried in snow. My friends’ house is buried in snow. Chilling winds strafe the town. The sight of falling flakes makes me shiver; it fills the space in my head that is devoted to wonder. How beautiful they are, I think. How beautiful are all these sticky and shiny fragments. When will they stop? In an hour? A day? A week? A month? There is no telling. Nobody can second-guess the snow.

The neighbors have not seen its like in a generation, they tell me. Shovels in hand, they dig paths from their garage doors out to the road. The older men affect expressions both of nonchalance and annoyance, but their expressions soon come undone. Faint smiles form at the corners of their wind-chapped mouths. Granted, it is exhausting to trudge the snowy streets to the shops. Every leg muscle slips and tightens; every step forward seems to take an age.

When I return, my friends ask me to help them clear the roof. I wobble up a leaning ladder and lend a hand. A strangely cheerful sense of futility lightens our labor: in the morning, we know, the roof will shine bright white again. Hot under my onion layers of clothing, I carry a shirtful of perspiration back into the house. Wet socks unpeel like Band-Aids from my feet; the warm air smarts my skin. I wash and change my clothes.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: water

Seven Things You Didn’t Know About Rosetta

By Sarah Scoles | January 21, 2014 10:22 am
468057main_rosetta_concept_946-710

This artist’s concept represents ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft passing by an asteroid. Courtesy NASA

In case you were asleep yesterday and missed the big news, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft woke up from its 31-month hibernation. After the robotic equivalent of a drinking a black coffee — warming its navigation systems, pulling out of a spin, and pointing a radio dish toward Earth — Rosetta beamed a message to its home planet: Hello, world. NASA’s Goldstone antenna in California picked up the transmission and sent it to a roomful of scientists, who engaged in some unprecedented fist-pumping at the news that their comet-chronicling craft was alive and well. Rosetta’s Twitter account then said “hello” to the world in 23 different languages.

Rosetta is on its way to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a 1.9 by 3.1-mile (3 by 5-kilometer) chunk of dust and ice that’s headed toward the sun. When the spacecraft reaches its destination, it will begin to orbit the comet, spending two months scrutinizing the surface. This is a first: While astronomers have taken fly-by pictures, no one has ever tried to give a comet a satellite.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

Time Travel Via Wormhole Breaks the Rules of Quantum Mechanics

By Bill Andrews | January 16, 2014 12:52 pm

time-travel

Science has done it again everybody! Brace yourselves for this groundbreaking news, freshly determined by physicists: Time travel, if it exists, may have some weird consequences. Gosh, who’d have thunk it?

But no, seriously, a recent article suggests that a certain kind of theoretically possible time machine would wreak minor havoc with a firm principle of quantum mechanics, the often-weird science of the smallest bits of the universe. You know what this means: We get to explore the science of time travel!

Time Travel: No, Really

Let’s get this out of the way first: Obviously time travel exists, because it’s already the third week of 2014. We’re all time travelers (chrononauts), technically, moving 1 second per second through time. Certain weird side effects of relativity theory also mean time can travel more quickly under certain conditions, so it’s even possible for you to travel into the future (someone else’s future, at least) faster than the usual rate.

The “useful” kind of time travel, though, for sci-fi authors and dreamers alike, is into the past, Back to the Future style. And, happily, relativity theoretically can make that possible, too, by warping the fabric of reality, space-time, so much that it loops back on itself. A so-called wormhole (again, officially deemed possible by science) could be the bridge that connects two different times.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

How the Smell of Your Home Could Be Making You Sick

By Julie Rehmeyer | January 14, 2014 12:06 pm

house mold make you sick

Joan Bennett didn’t believe in sick building syndrome. As a specialist in mold toxins, she had even testified in trials in support of insurance companies denying claims to homeowners who claimed that they had been sickened by toxins from their moldy houses.

Then Hurricane Katrina struck, Bennett’s home was flooded, and she evacuated. “A month later, as a form of psychological sublimation, I decided to travel back and sample my home for mold,” she said. Her house smelled horrendous, worse than any mold she’d ever smelled. She donned a mask and gloves and protective gear, but even so, she felt awful – dizziness, headache, malaise. She walked outside and felt better. Then it struck her: “I think there’s something in this terrible mold I’m smelling.”

But she still believed in her old arguments against the theory. She knew how much mold toxin we ordinarily get exposed to from mold in food, and she still knew that it was far greater than any we could breathe from spores in the air.

But the smell of mold was another matter. Most things we can smell are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and some VOCs are known to make people sick. “I knew that a minor theory was that sick building syndrome might be caused by the VOCs that make fungi smell moldy,” Bennett says.  And then she thought, “Ta da! Maybe there is such a thing as sick building syndrome, and maybe it has nothing to do with the fungus toxins I’ve been studying all my life!”

That moment transformed her research career. Along with her house, she’d lost her entire frozen genetic stock of fungi in the storm, because the power had gone out and everything had defrosted. She had to mostly start over anyway, and now she wanted to prove her new theory.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Smug Couples Patronize Singles to Feel Better About Themselves

By Guest Blogger | January 7, 2014 11:01 am

By Samantha Joel, University of Toronto

engagement ring

People tend to see their own lifestyle as being the ideal lifestyle. A single person may question why anyone would choose to shackle themselves to one partner rather than live it up with the single life. Then there is that smug married couple who pushes for other couples to also tie the knot, so they can similarly bask in wedded bliss.

This phenomenon is called “normative idealization”, which is the tendency to idealize one’s own lifestyle and believe others would benefit from it too.

Where does such insufferable behavior come from? It has been suggested that people might idealize their own relationship status not because they are actually confident that it is ideal, but rather because they are trying to feel better about their own lives.

Psychologists at Stanford University and the University of Waterloo tested whether people were more judgmental of others’ lifestyles when they felt threatened regarding their own. Their results are published in the journal Psychological Science.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: psychology

How a New Type of Astronomy Investigates the Most Mysterious Objects in the Universe

By Sarah Scoles | January 6, 2014 1:14 pm

verylargearray

In 2007, astronomer Duncan Lorimer was searching for pulsars in nine-year-old data when he found something he didn’t expect and couldn’t explain: a burst of radio waves appearing to come from outside our galaxy, lasting just 5 milliseconds but possessing as much energy as the sun releases in 30 days.

Pulsars, Lorimer’s original objects of affection, are strange enough. They’re as big as cities and as dense as an atom’s nucleus, and each time they spin around (which can be hundreds of times per second), they send a lighthouse-like beam of radio waves in our direction. But the single burst that Lorimer found was even weirder, and for years astronomers couldn’t even decide whether they thought it was real.

Tick, Tock

The burst belongs to a class of phenomena known as “fast radio transients” – objects and events that emit radio waves on ultra-short timescales. They could include stars’ flares, collisions between black holes, lightning on other planets, and RRATs – Rotating RAdio Transients, pulsars that only fire up when they feel like it. More speculatively, some scientists believe extraterrestrial civilizations could be flashing fast radio beacons into space.

Astronomers’ interest in fast radio transients is just beginning, as computers chop data into ever tinier pockets of time. Scientists call this kind of analysis “time domain astronomy.” Rather than focusing just on what wavelengths of light an object emits or how bright it is, time domain astronomy investigates how those properties change as the seconds, or milliseconds, tick by.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

A Bitter Pill: Slow Progress Toward a Male Contraceptive

By Carrie Arnold | December 26, 2013 2:30 pm

contraceptive pill

Scientists have called the contraceptive pill one of the most important inventions of the twentieth century. Now, more than fifty years after the Pill was first released, contraception remains a woman’s world.

Sure, men can use condoms or have a vasectomy, but women have a much more dizzying array of options from which to choose. From pills to contraceptive vaginal rings to intrauterine devices and more, most scientists and pharmaceutical companies have focused their contraception efforts on women.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many reproductive health scientists say that we need more, not fewer, options for contraception. The problem is that virtually all contraception is being geared toward women. That’s largely because, historically, contraception was grouped in with the traditional female concerns of family and childbearing.

“There are a fair number of women who are dissatisfied with their current method of contraception,” said Michael O’Rand, a biologist and male contraception expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: sex & reproduction

The Infested Mind: An Entomologist’s Crippling Fear of Insects

By Jeffrey A. Lockwood | December 16, 2013 11:44 am

grasshopper

On July 11th 1998, my life was ominously transformed by an encounter with the once-familiar subjects of my research. Having been hired by the University of Wyoming a decade earlier to study the ecology and management of rangeland grasshoppers, I thought that I pretty much knew these insects.

I had spent that fateful morning gathering data from research plots. A week earlier, my field crew reported that to the north, where deep draws were etched into the prairie, the grasshoppers were reaching biblical proportions. I decided to see for myself.

The earthen banks rose above my head as I descended into the gulch, where the insects had massed into a bristling carpet of wings and legs. My arrival incited pandemonium. Grasshoppers ricocheted off my face, tangled their spiny legs into my hair, and began to crawl into the gaps between shirt buttons.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: emotions, insects
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