Celebrating sound science communication with Scientific American

Today we celebrate a veritable institution in the international popular science communication landscape – the magazine Scientific American today celebrates its incredible 167th birthday, making it the oldest continuously published monthly in the US.

Scientific American – a staple on the news stands and magazine racks of good bookshops around the world.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The first issue of the magazine, then a four page weekly newspaper, appeared on this day back in 1845.  It was published by Rufus Porter, a very interesting character who, besides being a magazine publisher, was also a painter, inventor, schoolmaster and editor. In line with Porter’s personal interests, the magazine reported on happenings in the US Patent Office, as well as having popular articles on inventions of the time.

Porter’s interest in the magazine didn’t last long – after 10 months he sold it to Alfred Beach and Orson Munn I (for a whopping $800).  It remained under ownership of Munn & Company, who, in the century between 1846 and 1948, grew it from its humble beginnings to a large and influencial periodical. In the late 40’s it was put up for sale again, and this time the magazine was sold to three partners, Gerard Piel, Dennis Flanagan, and Donald Miller Jr. They reportedly planned on starting their own new science magazine, but finding that Scientific American was for sale, they opted to rather buy that and work their ideas into the existing title. They made significant changes to the magazine, updating and broadening its appeal. Ownership remained stable from 1948 to 1986, when it was sold to the German Holtzbrinck group, who has owned it since. The current Editor in Chief is Mariette DiChristina – an experienced science journalist and the first woman in the magazine’s history to hold the position.

What has kept the magazine alive and relevant for so many years, is the fact that it has consistently focused on an educated, but not necessarily scientific public, clearly explaining the scientific concepts it reported on and maintaining strong editorial quality control. It has also, since its inception, focused on clear, explanatory visual illustrations to accompany its articles. In its long lifetime, the magazine has published contributions from many famous scientists, including more than 140 Nobel laureates. Albert Einstein contributed an article called “On the Generalized Theory of Gravitation” in 1950.

In 1996, the Scientific American website was launched. A mobile site, as well as the Scientific American Blog Network, followed in 2011. For the past 10 years since 2002, the magazine has been hosting its own annual awards, the Scientific American 50, recognising important science and technology contributions of the previous year, across a wide range of categories from agriculture to defence to medicine.

Here’s looking forward to many more years of quality science communication, and a big double-century celebration in 2045!

Some slithering stories on World Snake Day

So today is World Snake Day. Which is quite an amusing thought when you live in New Zealand, where there are no snakes. OK, that’s not exactly true – we have snakes, but not of the terrestrial variety – a few sea snakes have been known to laze around our waters, if somewhat irregularly.

The frightening Dispholidus jellytypus, one of New Zealand’s few indigenous snakes. Best advice when you come across one is to eat it before it eats you!
(© All Rights Reserved)

So why don’t we have any land snakes in New Zealand? After all, eons ago, when the New Zealand land mass first broke away from Australia, mammals and snakes were already sufficiently distributed that in all likelihood the island of New Zealand started out with its fair share of snakes.

It turns out that over many millions of years, as the climate changed and the world went through the most recent ice age, the snakes on the island, as well as most mammals, were unable to survive, and they became extinct. While numerous animal species have since been reintroduced to New Zealand, and various species of birds have returned, snakes were kept out, maintaining our current snake-free habitat. Similarly, many other island countries such as Hawaii, Ireland, Greenland and Antarctica are also snake-free.

To be honest, I am quite happy with the situation as is – like Indiana Jones, I’m not a great fan of the slimy suborder of Serpentes. Not that I don’t find them fascinating, but after numerous close encounters of the slithering kind, while hiking and travelling in Africa, I just prefer my current situation of having a significant body of water between me and them.

Here’s to all the snake lovers out there – I hope you have a great World Snake Day, wherever you are. Me, I think I’ll be snacking on some jelly snakes to celebrate.

Artificially green – celebrating the synthesis of chlorophyll

Today seems to be one of those ordinary days in history – at a cursory glance, nothing seriously bad happened, but nothing too exciting either.

Well, I am no chemist, but the fact that chlorophyll A was for the first time synthesised in a laboratory on this day back in 1960, is probably pretty exciting. Its chlorophyll, after all – the abundant green stuff which allows plants to absorb energy from light, and through the process of photosynthesis, fuel much of our planet.

The organic chemist responsible for this achievement was Robert Burns Woodward, from the Converse Memorial Laboratory at Harvard University. For this, and his other work in the field of organic synthesis, Woodward was awarded the 1965 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Chlorophyll – fuelling our planet.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Talking about synthesized chlorophyll and photosynthesis, I read an interesting 2011 Economist blog post, Babbage Science and Technology, about work being done around artificial photosynthesis and the creation of the “artificial leaf”. The science-fiction style scenario envisaged from this is a world where roofs of city buildings etc can be covered with “artificial trees” replicating the photosynthesis process to create hydrocarbon fuel directly from sunlight. These “forests” could help offset the emission of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, and create an unlimited supply of fuel for transport – a magical concept.

In the USA, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent in research laboratories in California etc working, in the words of President Obama, on “developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars”.

The potential energy produced by the sun is vast – apparently the energy from the sun hitting the earth in a single hour, exceeds all the energy consumed by humans in an entire year! Imagine if a significant portion of that energy could be harvested in a commercially viable manner. Currently solar energy (in the form of sustainable biomass) provide less that 1.5% of our energy needs, with solar panels contributing less than 0.1%.

Current solar power generators suffer from the fact that the supply of sunlight is not constant, and energy has to be stored in batteries – a wasteful process. What scientists are working on (and what chlorophyll has been quietly doing for millions of years), is to turn the sunlight directly into chemical fuel – a potentially huge paradigm shift in the harvesting of solar energy.

While scientists have already been able to efficiently create fuel from sunlight in laboratory conditions, the problem is that it cannot yet be done at an economically viable cost. The technology is also highly fragile, nowhere near the robustness required for continuous commercial implementation.

So they are looking at nature for inspiration, and more specifically chlorophyll. In the words of Babbage, “chlorophyll acts as a catalyst that drives the oxidation-reduction reaction between carbon dioxide and water to produce carbohydrates and oxygen. In the pursuit of the artificial leaf, then, the main task is to find catalysts that can mimic the intricate dance of electron transfers that chlorophyll makes possible.”

Amazing research is being conducted on this topic, creating and studying different light absorbers, chemical catalysts and membranes to support these. And interestingly, it appears one of the wild cards in this research race is a small research group from Massey University down here in New Zealand. A research team at the university’s Nanomaterials Research Centre, led by Wayne Campbell, has produced a porphyrin dye that works with solar cells based on titanium dioxide. In the lab, these cells are reported to generate electricity 10 times more economically than conventional photovoltaic panels.

I have been unable to find any information on the current status of this research (much of the published results are about 5 years old), but potentially, these porphyrin dyes can become an economically viable catalyst for producing solar fuel for cars and electricity for homes.

It’s exciting stuff, and potentially huge for a greener future (even if some of the green may be artificial)!

Celebration of the Senses Day – taste, smell, hear, see, touch (and more)

Today is Celebration of the Senses Day – a day to remind yourself of your body’s amazing sensory abilities.

Given that, at any moment in time, we are bombarded by such a diverse combination of sensory experiences, our appreciation of the individual senses can become somewhat muddled. Our taste experience is affected by the smell, texture and temperature of our food. Similarly, our hearing is said to decrease after overeating, and our sight is affected by noises around us. Sight can also be hampered after eating fatty foods.

On Celebration of the Senses Day, how about conducting a couple of in-house experiments to give your senses a shake up?  Have a blindfolded smell-a-thon of items in the fridge. Listen to a piece of music in a pitch dark room. While you’re at it, dance around in the dark! Mix up your food experience by mashing, freezing or colouring different foods to create new and surprising sensory variations. Look at things around you through a looking glass. In short, utilise your senses to experience the world anew.

Here’s another interesting snippet – if a sad, depressed person tells you their world is dull and grey, and flowers have lost their smell, they’re not just speaking metaphorically. Research shows that sensory perception can actually be diminished in depressed individuals.

So focussing on a renewed appreciation of your senses can actually even help you to get out of that emotional rut you’re in.

Focusing on your sensory experiences can help make you a happier person.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Five senses? Try ten!
The categorisation of our five primary senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch) is attributed to Aristotle. While this categorisation is still valid, humans have a number of additional ‘sensory abilities’ not covered by the above. These secondary senses include:

  • Sense of balance and acceleration – the ability to sense body movement, direction and acceleration, and to maintain balance and equilibrium.
  • Temperature sense – the ability to sense heat and the absence of heat (cold).
  • Kinesthetic sense – the ability of the brain to be aware of the relative positions of various parts of the body without sensing these via the ‘normal’ senses (like being able to touch your nose with your finger, with your eyes closed).
  • Sense of Pain – the sense of pain was previously believed to be an overloading of pressure receptors, but it has since been identified as a distinct phenomenon that intertwines with the other senses, including touch.
  • Sense of Time – the ability to perceive the passage of time, both short passages as well as longer time cycles.
    (Source: Wikipedia)

Cool, isn’t it?  Even more senses to experiment with on Celebration of the Senses Day… Have fun!

Celebrating the birth of Alan Turing, father of modern computer science

This year is the centennial celebration of the birth of Alan Turing, giant in the fields of computing, artificial intelligence and cryptoanalysis.

Turing was a man very much ahead of his time, both intellectually and socially. A brilliant logical mind, Turing played a pioneering role in the development of the field of computer science through his description of a hypothetical machine called the “Turing machine”, which has become the blueprint of the modern computer.

He also played a key role in the success of the Allied Forces in World War II, through his contribution to cracking the German Enigma code. He designed and helped build a code breaking machine known as the “Bombe”, which represented a huge leap forward in the field of cryptoanalysis.

After the war, Turing made further contributions to the field of computer science and created the ‘Turing Test’, which tests the ‘thinking ability’ of a computer, thus laying the foundation for the field of artificial intelligence.

Alan Turing, computer science giant and tragic gay hero.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Sadly, as mentioned, Turing was also out of time at a social level – being gay in an era when homosexuality was still a criminal offense. An incident with his boyfriend led to Turing being arrested for ‘gross indecency’. To avoid prison, he agreed to “chemical castration” through estrogen therapy. As a result of his arrest, Turing’s military clearance was also revoked and he was unable to do further work for the British government, severely stunting his further academic contributions.

Two years after his conviction, Turing committed suidice by eating an apple poisoned with cyanide, a sad reference to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which apparently was one of his favourite films.

Turing received a posthumous apology from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009, where his contribution, and the social injustice he was subjected to, was finally publicly acknowledged.

One can but wonder how much more the brilliant Turing may have contributed, had he been afforded more time.

Take Your Dog To Work Day – what’s your pooch thinking?

Today, believe it or not, is Take Your Dog To Work Day. This day was initiated by Pet Sitters International, and has been celebrated since 1999.

The rationale behind the day is the celebration of the human-canine bond, and the promotion of pet adoption by making life – including the workplace – more accepting to pets, in particular dogs. Employers are encouraged to open their workplace to employees’ pets on this special day.

The lovable bulldog – breed of choice for Adam Sandler and Winston Churchill, among others.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Seems a good enough idea, doesn’t it? I think the following bit of research has the potential to further promote and enhance the human-canine bond:

According to a recent article in Scientific American, scientists have (pun alert!) embarked on a study of dogs’ thoughts, by means of fMRI brain scans of unsedated dogs. The research team says this provides a first peak into the thought processes of dogs.

Of course the key problem in scanning the brain of an fully awake, unrestrained dog, is that the animal is unlikely to remain still for the duration of the scan. However, after seeing the level of training achieved with dogs in the US Navy, lead researcher Gregory Berns from the Emory University Center for Neuropolicy, felt they should be able to train a dog to behave inside the fMRI.

Two dogs – a 2-year old feist and a 3-year old border collie – were trained to walk into the scanner and remain still while being scanned. In addition, they were trained to respond to certain hand signals – one indicating the dog was about to receive a treat, and the other that it wasn’t.

Recognition of the “treat” signal caused activity in the caudate region of the dogs’ brains – a region also associated with reward in the human brain.

While this can perhaps be viewed as a rather simplistic result, it is early-stage canine  neuro-research, and it does open the door for further studies into canine cognition, for example how they respond to human facial expressions, and how they process human speech.

Such research could definitely shed new light on the 15 000 year old human-canine bond – perhaps it can even help explain why certain people prefer certain breeds.