Category Archives: Science

We Are What We Drink

Cerling and Ehleringer over at the University of Utah just published a paper in the online journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” describing their new forensic technique, which uses Hydrogen and Oxygen isotope concentrations from local water tables in your hair to determine where you have spend your time.

The two maps here show predicted average hydrogen (top) and oxygen (bottom) isotope levels in human hair across the continental United States — isotopes that vary with geography because of different isotope levels in local drinking water. The ratios of heavy, rare hydrogen-2 to lighter, common hydrogen -1 are highest in red and orange areas in the top map, and lowest in the blue and darker green areas. The ratios of heavy, rare oxygen-18 to lighter, common oxygen-16 are highest in red and orange areas of the bottom map, and lowest in the blue and darker green areas. Credit: University of Utah

“You can tell the difference between Utah and Texas,” Ehleringer says. But, Cerling adds, “You may not be able to distinguish between Chicago and Kansas City.”

So in case you’re considering a life of crime, you might want to

  1. Consider a new bald or buzz-cut look so the encoded travel history you carry along with you is limited.
  2. Drink only bottled water
  3. Shelve any green tendencies and eat at only imported meat and produce.
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Filed under chemistry, Science

Aqua Forest Aquariums in SF

If you happen to live in the area, and have the slightest interest in fresh-water aquaria, don’t miss this amazing store in San Francisco.

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Read my whole review of the field and the store complete with more images at the WISE student blog where we’re helping schools learn how to set up these incredible balanced micro-ecosystems.

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Filed under Biology, Education, Science

New WISE Web Site Launched

Hi all,

We just launched the new web site for the Westminster Institute for Science Education [W.I.S.E.]. Click on the logo below to check it out, including the links to the student and teacher blogs. Comments and suggestions welcome!

Oh yes, and for any of you wealthy philanthropists or corporate titans with a hankering to invest in nationwide science, math, or technology education reform, donations are encouraged! Just email or message me, or post a comment here on “All the Best Bits.”

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Filed under Education, Math, Science, Technology

Flagging Economy Needs Science Investments

A very topical Op-Ed piece from Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle by Intel Chairman Craig Barrett. I liked it so much I include it in its entirety here.

Flagging Economy Needs Science Investments

Sunday, January 20, 2008

“Two years ago, the National Academies published the seminal study on U.S. competitiveness entitled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” The study identified major shortcomings in U.S. investments in basic scientific research as well as in math and science education for our youngsters. The suggestions contained in this study were immediately picked up by the Democratic House Leadership as their competitiveness strategy and later by President Bush in his State of the Union message under his American Competitiveness Initiative. Legislation in the form of the America Competes Act was passed in the House and Senate in 2007, and it appeared the United States was finally going to move forward after years of neglect to increase investment in math, science and basic research. All parties agreed that our competitiveness in the 21st century was at stake and we needed to act.

So much for political will.

The recent budget deal between Republicans and Democrats effectively flat-funds or cuts funding for key science agencies. Excluding “earmarks,” the Department of Energy funding for fiscal year 2008 is up only 2.6 percent, thus losing ground to inflation. The National Science Foundation is up 2.5 percent, with the same result. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is up 11 percent, however the labs where research happens only get 2.3 percent, again losing ground to inflation. Key national laboratories, such as the Fermilab, which focuses on high-energy particle physics research, face the likelihood of hundreds of jobs being lost and the closing of some facilities, helping to shortchange defense research. Predicting the impact of such funding cuts in basic research on future job creation is difficult. Who could have predicted a $300 billion semiconductor industry from the invention of a transistor? But our kids who are heading to college are very smart. They will make their career decisions based on where they see the priorities of our government and economy.

The funding decisions on the America Competes Act took place a few days after Congress passed a $250 billion farm bill. In the eyes of our political leaders, apparently, corn subsidies to Iowa farmers are more important for our competitiveness in the next century than investing a few billion in our major research universities. The president expressed his happiness with the budget and Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, said, “The president didn’t get his priorities, we got ours.”

At a time when the rest of the world is increasing its emphasis on math and science education (the most recent international tests – NAEP and PISA – show U.S. kids to be below average) and increasing their budgets for basic engineering and physical science research, Congress is telling the world these areas are not important to our future. At a time when we are failing our next generation of students, politically charged topics such as steroids in Major League Baseball and the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes command instantaneous congressional hearings while the seed corn (no pun intended) of our future is ignored and placed lower in priority than billions of dollars of earmarks.

Perhaps this would all be a moot discussion if we could continue to import the best and brightest minds from around the world to start and staff our next generation of high tech startups. But Washington can’t even get that strategy straight, as legal immigration – the process by which bright, highly educated workers immigrate to the United States – is being choked by our inability to control illegal immigration. While the EU has proposed a simplified and expanded program for importing highly educated talent from the rest of the world, we continue to make if more difficult for the same talent to work in the United States, even when some of these knowledge workers have received their education in the United States at partial taxpayer expense.

Where are the voices in Washington to bring reasoned debate and action to these topics? Where are the voices among the presidential candidates to propose solutions to these challenges? What do we elect our political leaders for if not to protect our long-term future?

The United States stands at a pivotal point in our history. Competition is heating up around the world with millions of industrious, highly educated workers who are willing to compete at salaries far below those paid here. The only way we can hope to compete is with brains and ideas that set us above the competition – and that only comes from investments in education and R&D. Practically everyone who has traveled outside the United States in the last decade has seen this dynamic at work. The only place where it is apparently still a deep, dark secret is in Washington, D.C.

What are they thinking? When will they wake up? It may already be too late; but I genuinely think the citizenry of this country wants the United States to compete. If only our elected leaders weren’t holding us back.

Craig Barrett is the chairman of Intel.”

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Nikon Small World Image Contest Results: 2007

Nikon just posted the results from their annual photo micro-graph competition, and the winning images are simply stunning. One of the things that struck me about this year’s images was the significant leap in imaging technologies based on florescent DNA tagging combined with the use of confocal microscopy and volumetric tomography, even over last year’s images.

I really enjoyed browsing the Nikon site, going back in time, to see how science has advanced over even a couple of years. Clearer vision brings clearer insight, as they say; these images let us see things never seen before and witness processes first-hand that were mere hypothesis last year. More than insight, there is wondrous beauty and complexity in every image. Here are a few of my favorites from the 2007 gallery, but don’t miss browsing the rest on the home site.


Zebrafish embryo midbrain and diencephalon showing neural fibers in blue and developing neural interconnections in red, by Michael Hendricks of the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory, National University of Singapore.

Erpobdella octoculata (fresh water leech) muscle strands surrounding a central nerve cord at 25x magnification, by Vera Hunnekuhl, Department of Zoology, University of Osnabrück, Osnabrück, Germany

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Giant unilamellar and multilamellar vesicles (liposomes) at 40x magnification, by Dr. Jorge Bernardino de la Serna, MEMPHYS-Center for Biomembrane Physics, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Fyn, Denmark.


Trematode sp. (parasitic worm) at 400x magnification, by Rodrigo Mexas, Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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Lime tree leaf vessels architectonics at 60x magnification, by Dr. Josef Spacek, University Hospital, Department of Pathology, Charles University Prague Faculty of Medicine Hradec Kralove, Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic.

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Cancer Cells at 1500x magnification, by Tomasz Szul, High Resolution Imaging Facility, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, Alabama, USA.

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Filed under Photography, Science

Science and the Islamic World

I just stumbled upon a fascinating article on Science in the Islamic World, by a Pakistani scholar named Pervez Amirala Hoodbhoy at PhysicsToday.org. The article is mostly an exploration of the rise and fall of scientific inquiry in the Islamic states and the attendant root causes. There are clearly lessons here even for Western states that face rising tides of fundamentalism and calls for conformity, religious or otherwise.

The author doesn’t skip a beat as he calls out the similar US trends surrounding religious conservatives and their push for Creationism, Intelligent Design, curbs on genetic research, and so on.

But there are also some interesting tidbits on the technologies for daily living in the Islamic world, and how they have penetrated largely in support of the religions which otherwise strive to limit their spread.

“…while driving in Islamabad, it would occasion no surprise if you were to receive an urgent SMS (short message service) requesting immediate prayers for helping Pakistan’s cricket team win a match. Popular new Islamic cell-phone models now provide the exact GPS-based direction for Muslims to face while praying, certified translations of the Qur’an, and step-by-step instructions for performing the pilgrimages of Haj and Umrah. Digital Qur’ans are already popular, and prayer rugs with microchips (for counting bend-downs during prayers) have made their debut.”

A great read start-to-finish.

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How Nerds Eat

I just stumbled on a great post from Julieanne over at Cosmic Variance.

“My temporary officemate runs down to the vending machine and buys a bag of gummi bears. He dumps them on the desk, sorts them by color, and then proceeds to eat them in order of increasing bin size (i.e. the pile of 1 orange one, then the pile of 3 yellow ones, then the pile of 4 green ones, etc).

If I buy a bag of M&M’s, I sort them by color, then figure out a division that lets me arrange them in a triangle, with one color per horizontal row, but allowing colors to be repeated (i.e. it’s ok for 9 red M&M’s to show up as a row of 7, and then further up, a row of 2). I then eat off each diagonal, producing a progressively smaller triangle, but one that maintains the horizontal color structure till the tasty end.

My kids, who I suspect inherited a geek-streak a mile wide, also sort multicolored candy into patterns and make up an algorithm for eating it.

The non-scientists who I have asked about this habit look at me like I’m nuts. (So do people who grew up in large families, because someone was bound to snarf the candy before they could take the time to develop this particular neurosis.)”

One of my personal favorites on the candy consumption side is to conduct natural selection experiments with M&Ms. I like to take two M&M’s and squeeze them together until one fails structurally, and then I eat the failure, setting aside the victor to participate in the next round of trials. The winner of the single elimination tournament is the most fit M&M prototype for future generations. The superior M&M is always the last to be eaten.

I am also known to organize my French Fry consumption by waiting just until the smallest fries reach the perfect temperature, and then eating them in order of increasing size, catching each one as it passes through the optimal temperature (for the layman, the higher surface area-to-volume ratio of the smaller fries means that they cool faster.)

My wife does, in fact, think I’m nuts, though she seems to find it endearing in some odd way.

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Filed under Humor, Science