Category: Guest Posts

The Rise of the Lowly Worm

By Chris Mooney | April 19, 2011 8:57 am

This is a guest post by Beth Campbell, composed as part of the NSF “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop in Orono, ME, on April 14-15.

Why should you give a passing thought to the worm? After all, isn’t it just about the most plain, boring animal around? Generally… a small, slimy, pink cylinder without flashy appendages or coloration. Not really a ‘sexy’ representative of the animal kingdom. But what a resume – worms are the critical mass of workers keeping soil and marine sediments in a healthy state.

Earthworms and marine worms are engineers. Even with the most basic of nervous systems and stream-like torpedo forms, worms effectively change their habitats. ‘Bioturbation,’ people in the field call it. Mixing of soil and sediment by living things. Sounds basic, but without it, life for other living things on Earth would be very different.

Our lab studies a common marine worm – Clymenella torquata – or the bamboo worm. These worms ‘bioturbate’ the sediments of the oceans as they eat, defecate, move and build their homes. So what? Well, this sediment movement affects how fast material decomposes in the ocean and this affects whole food chains. (You know you love sharks and whales.)

I’m also trying to tease apart how these sorts of behaviors are altered by injury and changes in diet. If someone bites your head off, what if you could regrow it? Again, it may be surprising, but these inconspicuous animals pull it off automatically. But… it takes energy to do this, and in the meantime they rest and heal. And there are drastically compounded effects with repeated injury – which is likely the rule in nature, rather than the exception. And diet? Yes, early data suggests a noticeable effect on healing. Another reason to eat your veggies.

So don’t be so quick to judge. Sometimes in our haste we forget to appreciate that which is not obvious and showy. Even the lowly worm deserves respect.

In fact, this Earth Day, be green in a new way. In your busy day, think for a moment about the unsung heroes in the animal kingdom and … go out on a limb – bring up the topic in conversation with friends. Take the initial laughter, laugh along, and then keep the topic going a bit longer. Although worms may not yet be in vogue, you will be on the cutting edge of a new wave of appreciation for the ‘little guys’ that structure our world.

The Fastest Way to a Chemistry Student's Brain Is Through Hollywood Movies

By Chris Mooney | March 23, 2011 12:28 pm

This is a guest post created by Mark Griep at the NSF EPSCoR-sponsored workshop “Science: Becoming the Messenger” held in Lincoln, Nebraska, on March 9, 2011. Our morning exercise was to create a “message triangle” to help us communicate our research. In the afternoon, we used our triangle to write a blog entry. This is mine.

To fight the evil forces of scientific illiteracy, I have discovered many ways to use movies and movie clips to teach chemistry in and out of the classroom. They grab student attention, provide a bit of fun, allow me to teach some chemistry, and help train students to recognize chemistry when they encounter it in the real world. My goal is to motivate them to want to learn more chemistry outside the classroom.

Most people go to the movies for escapist entertainment or to enjoy the experience of watching glamorous people act out the complex social issues of the day. As a chemist who loves watching movies, I especially enjoy finding movies with scenes dealing with chemicals or with chemists as characters. In my decade-long search, my wife and I have watched over 400 of them, and used dozens of them to teach chemistry. For my purposes, the most useful movies have a ~3 min “chemical” scene that connects to the material in the classroom. On the other hand, I’ve even bundled several movie clips together to create themed presentations for high school and college students.

The best thing about using movie clips in the classroom is they embed the chemistry within a story about people. When students watch these clips, they can imagine how they could interact with chemicals. Then, I follow with an explanation as to whether the chemistry in the clip is real or fake. Amazingly, the chemistry described in movies is usually real and, even when it is fictional, it is based on reality.

You can visit my webpage to find a list of the movie clips I use most frequently. I?ve also co-written a book about 110 movies with chemistry in them called ReAction! Chemistry in the Movies. If you know of any movies containing chemical scenes, be sure to respond to this blog to let everyone know. Thanks for reading.

Texas Hosts the Inaugural UT Energy Forum

By Chris Mooney | February 15, 2011 8:50 am

This is a guest post by Melissa C. Lott, an engineering research associate at The University of Texas at Austin and a member of the Webber Energy Group. Her work includes a unique blending of technology and policy in the field of energy systems research. Melissa studies the economic and environmental tradeoffs of energy systems, including electricity generation (power plants) and transportation fuels. In this work, she focuses on electricity transmission (smart grid, RETI, CREZ) and energy efficiency programs. She has worked as an engineer and consultant for YarCom, Inc. for more than 6 years. Melissa holds two master’s degrees from UT Austin – in Mechanical Engineering and Public Affairs – as well as a bachelor’s degree in Biological Systems Engineering from the University of California at Davis. She has interned for the Department of Energy and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Energy & Climate Change Team for the Obama Administration. Melissa is also the author of the blog Global Energy Matters: Energy and Environment in Our Lives.

Serious energy discussion in this country is breaking out on many levels – national, state, local, and community. And, in the big energy state of Texas, the conversation recently extended into academia. On February 3-4, University of Texas at Austin student volunteers organized and hosted the inaugural UT Energy Forum – an event exploring energy in the context of “fostering interdisciplinary collaboration.” Over the two-day meeting, a diverse group of academics, government officials, and businessmen discussed the future of energy – and what that future could look like.

As a speaker (on the topic of the smart grid) and an attendee, I joined in both days of discussion despite the harsh winter weather that shutdown most of the city on day 2. Along with hundreds of other attendees, I listened to keynote speakers including as ARPA-E Director Dr. Arun Majumdar and UT assistant professor Michael E. Webber of the Webber Energy Group. I also enjoyed the format of panel discussions and 7-minute TED-style talks along with intelligent discussion both inside and out of the meeting rooms.

Throughout the forum, several themes emerged: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Energy, Guest Posts

Are you ready fo some FOOTBALL!?

By The Intersection | February 6, 2011 12:05 pm

This is a guest post by Darlene Cavalier, a writer and senior adviser at Discover Magazine. Darlene holds a Masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and is a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader. She founded and cofounded to make it possible for lay people to contribute to science.

For the first time in its 45 year history, the SuperBowl will be without professional cheerleaders. Have no fear! The Science Cheerleader is here!

Let me introduce you to Erin who’s going to jazz up your SuperBowl Sunday morning with some science!

Hey fans, I’m Erin and I’m psyched to introduce you to the 10th–and final–Science of NFL Football segment, produced by NBC Sports in partnership with the NFL, the National Science Foundation and the Science Cheerleader!

Why me? I’m a Science Cheerleader, one of more than 50 NFL cheerleaders pursuing careers in science and engineering. (Just wait until SciCheer introduces you to the NBA’s science-minded cheerleaders!)

As a St. Louis Rams cheerleader, I earned degrees in biology and psychology. I’m now working towards my Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and Masters in Human Sexuality while I help SciCheer bust down stereotypes and inspire more young women to pursue careers in science. We occasionally perform and talk to folks about science and engineering in unexpected places so don’t be surprised to find the “Superheroes of science”* at a venue near you! (*That’s what Science magazine called us; see what CNN, NPR, ESPN and others have to say.) You can learn more about my research and how I balance two seemingly different lives here.

And now, here’s some science for your SuperBowl Sunday!

In this segment, “Torque and Center of Mass,” NBC News’ Lester Holt, the narrator of the series, asks, “who wins the battle of the gridiron goliaths?” Holt adds, “according to the laws of physics, it’s the player who stays the lowest and masters the concept of torque – which is the tendency of a force to make an object rotate around an axis.”

Click here and scroll down to watch the video. Sorry, we weren’t able to embed the code here. It’s worth the click, though. Watch as the infamous Phantom cam is used to help scientists and NFL players break down plays and explain the science behind some pivotal movements.

If you’re an educator, be sure to visit NBC Learn to download free supplemental educators’ guides. Goooo science! And Goooo National Science Foundation for making this possible. Check out the entire Science of NFL Football series.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Education, Guest Posts, Uncategorized

And the Winner Is…

By Chris Mooney | November 19, 2010 9:58 am

Okay: I tabulated the data for our two guest posts arising out of the NSF “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop, with a cutoff time for traffic of last night at midnight. For traffic and referral sources, I used Google Analytics, for which Discover has provided us a subscription.

Here’s what I found for the two posts:

Alice Popejoy, “Genetic Discrimination: The Best Argument for Universal Healthcare You’ve Never Heard Of“: 6 stumbles, 9 diggs, 33 comments, 1294 pageviews, 994 unique visitors. Top off-site referrals: Facebook (224), Twitter (89), StumbleUpon (65).

Laurel Bacque, “The Universe on Ice“: 3 stumbles, 5 diggs, 28 comments, 590 pageviews, 485 unique visitors. Top off-site referrals: Facebook (102), Stumbleupon (77), Reddit (15).

Comments are where the two posts come closest, but overall–and especially when it comes to traffic–Alice Popejoy wins unambiguously. She had a slight advantage in that her post went up about an hour and a half earlier in time…but that itself cannot explain the gap between the two items. And Laurel Bacque had a different advantage–going second in this case meant being the top post on the blog for longer.

It is worth nothing that Alice had referrals coming in from 49 total sources, as opposed to 36 for Laurel. That made much of the difference, as did her stronger Facebook and Twitter showing.

Finally, I think the content of the posts made a difference: Alice’s is probably a type of post that works better in the blogosphere. It makes a strong argument that people are likely to have a reaction to. Laurel’s unpacks a fascinating scientific experiment at the South Pole–but her post wasn’t likely to…make anybody disagree.

That in itself is instructive. In the blogosphere, for better or worse, controversy and strong opinions often fare the best.

This whole exercise turned out far better than I could have hoped for, and will definitely be repeated in subsequent NSF workshops (although perhaps with some slight modifications). The post authors, and their workshop peers who contributed to helping draft these two items and get the word out about them through social media, worked very hard on this. In the process, I’m confident they gained a lot of insight into how the dissemination of online information works.

I want to congratulate and thank our two guest bloggers, Alice and Laurel, both of whom were very brave to do this. They both produced great posts in a very short period of time, all the while being edited by committee–only to then have to turn around and try anything they could think of to get the word out. (Now they know how we bloggers do it.)

If this exercise has demonstrated anything, it’s that social media make a dramatic difference in determining how much attention a blog post gets. Perhaps that’s no surprise, but it’s clear that for online communication, they simply can’t be neglected. They’re becoming king.

The Universe on Ice

By Chris Mooney | November 17, 2010 4:32 pm

This is a guest post by Laurel Bacque, composed live with the help of fellow attendees of the National Science Foundation’s “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop as part of this previously announced competition. This post is based on research from the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, an international collaboration funded by the National Science Foundation.

Deep in the ice of the South Pole, researchers are studying mysterious particles from the edges of the universe. Trillions of these particles, called neutrinos, stream through your body every second, but little is known about them. A better understanding of high-energy neutrinos could give astrophysicists new insights into the fundamental workings of the universe.

icecube sensorTo help detect these invisible, nearly mass-less particles, researchers are building the IceCube detector at the South Pole, using an enhanced hot water drill to penetrate the ice to a depth of nearly two miles. There, sensors are deployed to record neutrino interactions in the ice. This research had to be conducted at the South Pole because scientists needed a large quantity of very clear, stable material (ice) to build the neutrino detector. (When a neutrino interacts with the ice, a burst of blue light is recorded by the specially designed detector. )

One special attribute of neutrinos is that they travel through the universe and the Earth with relatively few interactions–meaning, they can arrive here spawned from events that occurred in the very early days of the universe. So observing them yields unprecedented information about the life cycles of stars and the dark matter that scientists believe makes up 23 % of the universe.

In other words, studying neutrinos is important because they might hold information about violent events (exploding stars, black holes) in the universe, and can help us understand how it was formed. That’s why it’s worth it for scientists to go to the extreme of drilling miles beneath the remotest part of the Earth in search of the otherwise invisible.

By going there, we find out how we got to be here.


Genetic Discrimination: The Best Reason for Universal Healthcare You've Never Heard Of

By Chris Mooney | November 17, 2010 2:48 pm

This is a guest post by Alice Popejoy, composed live with the help of fellow attendees of the National Science Foundation’s “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop as part of this previously announced competition. This post is based upon her undergraduate research done at Hamilton College; for more information about genetic information and discrimination see here.

In the X-Men movies, a few individuals have extreme genetic mutations (like the ability to fry things with one’s eyes) that change everything about how they’re treated in society. In the real world, we all have mutations in our genes that can cause adverse health effects.

coffee-mug-with-lipstickAnd though most people don’t know it–or barely think about it–the significance of this fact in light of the health care reform debate is massive. That’s because despite the historic passage of President Obama’s healthcare reform legislation, health costs remain the responsibility of insurance companies and employers.

Why’s that worrisome? DNA is found in every cell of your body and can be legally obtained by anyone who wants it–from, say, the lip of a coffee cup. Or a desktop keyboard.

Employers and insurance companies have an incentive to find out the “flaws” in your genetic code, and use that knowledge to try to save money. For example, they may not hire you if you have a mutated gene for cancer, or heart disease. Or they may charge you higher insurance premiums.

So be on guard: If we’re not careful, we’re looking at a future right out of the movie Gattaca, in which the availability of information about genetic differences between individuals leads to direct discrimination. Say you’ve got the two mutations that cause breast cancer–BRCA-1 and BRCA-2–and you apply for a job. You could be denied because the potential employer finds out somehow and wants to save money by hiring someone else.

Right now, that’s perfectly legal. And it’s happening.

Universal health care will remove these incentives to discriminate against you, based on your genetics, to save private interests money. Maybe we need to reopen the health care debate in a very different context than the one that’s being discussed now.

So, contact your legislator. Or, remove all the DNA from your body. I guess you can imagine the more practical option.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Guest Posts, Uncategorized

Getting Ready for the USA Science & Engineering Festival

By Chris Mooney | October 11, 2010 12:29 pm

This is a guest post by Darlene Cavalier, a writer and senior adviser at Discover Magazine. Darlene holds a Masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and is a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader. She founded and cofounded to make it possible for lay people to contribute to science.

The USA Science and Engineering Festival is approaching and several preamble events are taking place:

* Discover’s Carl Zimmer will be speaking about communicating science in the media at the Koshland Museum on Thursday, 10/15.

* At the same time (ahem) I will be moderating a panel discussion on Tapping the Wisdom of Crowds at George Mason University, in partnership with Discover Magazine, the USA Science and Engineering Festival and  Representatives from the White House, Innocentive, Galaxy Zoo, and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars will be on the panel to discuss and debate the opportunities and the perils of turning everyone into an expert for everything from advancing scientific research to improving public policy to solving today’s greatest challenges. Essential Details: Thursday 10/14, GMU, Research 1, Room 163, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, VA, 7pm-8:30 pm., RSVP: PSNELLIN@GMU.EDU]

Citizen science isn’t your thing? Well here’s something you’ve never seen before:

* 10 professional cheerleaders-turned-scientists and engineers will perform science-themed routines and cheers at the USA Science and Engineering Festival on October 23 and 24. These women are playfully challenging stereotypes as they help inspire young women–1.5 million of whom are little cheerleaders–to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. They’ll even be signing autographs on their Science Cheerleader trading cards.  More information on these remarkable women and this event, can be found here (Yes, Chris, you will also find pictures).

Prefer football to cheerleading? No problem:

* Through a partnership with the NFL, NBC, and the National Science Foundation, Science Cheerleader recently posted the first five of ten Science of NFL Football segments. If you are an educator, this is a sure-fire way to engage your young students in science!

Taking Science to Where the Peeps Are: NFL Football!

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | September 15, 2010 1:12 pm

This is a guest post by Darlene Cavalier, a writer and senior adviser at Discover Magazine. Darlene holds a Masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and is a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader. She founded and cofounded to make it possible for lay people to contribute to science.

Lots of chatter recently here and here among science bloggers debating and distilling the merits of various forms of science communication. Novel, broad approaches to reach new audiences were discussed. I hinted at one such approach in the thread and now I’d like to share the details.

I’ve been working with the National Science Foundation, NBC and the National Football League on The Science of NFL Football, a video series featuring current and former NFL stars and scientists to demonstrate and explain the multiple scientific concepts, core to the game of football.

The football action is broken down using a Phantom camera, which captures the players’ movement at rates of up to 2,000 frames per second. Players provide insights and scientists give blow-by-blow accounts of the specific scientific principles such as Newton’s Three Laws of Motion, kinematics and projectile motion. The Phantom video shoot was overseen by the NBC Olympics Production Group, which also provided research and technical support throughout the project.

Steve Capus, President of NBC News said, “NBC is extremely excited to offer this creative video series that combines science education and a sport that so many kids know and love.”

That’s right. We’re going to where the adults and kids are. Or, as NYTimes reporter Joanne Gerstner put it in this piece, “It’s almost like telling kids their favorite food was entirely made of really healthy vegetables.” In this same Times piece, Soraya Gage, executive producer of NBC Learn adds “… Getting the athletes to talk about what they do hooks the kids and the students. And when it’s coming from an idol, a sporting hero, they sit up and listen.”

A little back story. Originally pitched this as a series featuring the many procheerleaders who are scientists and engineers. Why? These women are remarkable. They are the real deal and they are passionate about inspiring young women to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. And, obviously, they are provocative (i.e. attention grabbers). As scientists/engineers AND procheerleaders, they epitomize opposing stereotypes. Turns out, they’re also proving to be influential role models and mentors to middle school girls, in particular. Before you snicker or roll your eyes, keep in mind that 1.4 million gals are cheerleaders and they look up to these women. You can bet plenty of these young science-minded cheerleaders are feeling torn between identities. Follow an interest in science? Or be jocks or cheerleaders? Science Cheerleaders say, “both.”

I chose to emphasize these so-called Science Cheerleaders because they speak from personal experience and they all have a good story to tell…and I can empathize with them. For years, while working at Discover Magazine, I kept secret my identity as a 76ers cheerleader for fear of being dissed. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. In fact, it’s partly due to my past cheerleading relationships that this NFL, NBC, NSF partnership came to be! As the NFL video segments are released on (about once a week), a procheerleader-turned-scientist or engineer will introduce the segment and we’ll link to an online interview we did with her. I think you’ll enjoy them and it’s one way of broadening distribution among young women. If Science Cheerleaders aren’t your thing, have no fear. The segments will be aired without the cheerleader-tie ins on NBC,, and

Without further ado, here’s the official announcement of the Science of NFL Football series. Hope you and your fellow football fans enjoy learning about the science and engineering of NFL football. (Oh, and that Science Cheerleader series pitch? Just wait.)

Al Roker, Lester Holt, and Deuce McAllister kick off the Science of NFL Football on this Today Show clip. The 10-part video series starring past and present NFL stars was produced in partnership with the NFL, NBC, and the National Science Foundation. As the segments are released each week, I’ll pop back here to The Intersection and provide a brief description and link to the new segment.
Visit and NBC Learn for more information and to download supplemental lesson plans available free to educators.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Announcements, Guest Posts

Who gets the credit for the BP container cap? YOU do.

By Chris Mooney | July 20, 2010 8:37 am

This is a guest post by Darlene Cavalier, a writer and senior adviser at Discover Magazine. Darlene holds a Masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and is a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader. She founded and cofounded to make it possible for lay people to contribute to science.

The world may never know for certain who sparked the idea for the current BP oil containment cap.  Professor Robert Bea, from the University of California, Berkeley, however, has a strong hunch:

Six weeks ago, Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, received a late-night call from an apologetic “mystery plumber.” The caller said he had a sketch for how to solve the problem at the bottom of the Gulf. It was a design for a containment cap that would fit snugly over the top of the failed blowout preventer at the heart of the Gulf oil spill. Read More


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