Thursday, December 22, 2011

"Only a Theory," and My Favorite Debunked Idea

If I had a nickel for every time I heard the phrase "only a theory..." well, I suppose I'd be on my way to having a good collection of nickels.  I might even have enough for a cup of coffee.  Am I right?

(The above is one of the many downsides to always wanting to be technically correct, but I'm going to get back on track now.)

"Only a theory" is pretty much the same as saying "only everything we know."  A theory, despite the colloquial definition, is not just some idea you had lying awake at night.  Theories are amassed from vast amounts of information, all pieced together into one model that explains everything.  And I mean everything.

If you look at the theory of gravity, or universal gravitation, the reason it was so amazing was that it connected the rules governing objects falling toward the Earth, and the rules governing the orbits of planets around the sun.  Nobody before Newton had ever connected those two phenomena, but many had tried to explain one or the other separately.  The problem was, without looking at the whole picture, a satisfactory answer was impossible.

So, let's be clear right now.  In scientific terms, a theory is a model that explains all the information we have, but is impossible to directly observe.  A hypothesis is an untested idea that, through research or experimentation, could be proved, disproved, or become a theory of its own (if it fits all the data yet is impossible to directly observe).  A hypothesis that does not fit the data is discarded, and a hypothesis that fits some of the data, but not all of it, is probably waiting for a better one to come around.

A current model of atmospheric electric currents.

An outdated model of atmospheric electric currents.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Extra-solar planets and you

I love that I live in this age of planet discovery.  In 1992, the first planet (or dwarf planet, minor planet, or Trans-Neptunian Object) in Pluto's neighborhood (besides Pluto itself, discovered in 1930) was discovered, and since then there are now more than 1200 on record, including Eris, Makemake, Haumea, Sedna, Orcus, and Quaoar.

Love those names.

Outside our solar system, planets are being discovered at record speeds by the orbiting Kepler telescope, which is watching about 150,000 stars and waiting for the amount of light they give off to dip.  The dip could be for a variety of reasons, but if it dips again, there might be a planet passing by in its orbit.  And if the light dips again, after the same amount of time has passed, you've found a planet for sure.  And if you know how big and bright the star is (which you can determine from its light spectra), you know how much light the planet is blocking, and therefore how big it is.

Some of the first planets discovered outside our solar system were discovered with similar techniques.  Watch a star, see if it dims, and see if it dims with regularity.  The other method involved careful measurements of the stars position, and seeing if it moved side to side with regularity.  That would indicate a planet's pull on its star, tugging it around as it orbits.  Both methods began rudimentarily, only detecting the biggest gas giants orbiting closer to their suns than Mercury to ours.  These are commonly known as "sun-grazers."  And when you're looking for Earth-like planets, you have to keep looking.

This is all prelude to the big news.  So far, Kepler (the satellite, not the long-dead astronomer) has discovered 708 confirmed planets (at least three passes) and over 2,000 planet candidates (only two passes so far).  These results were announced yesterday, and one of those 708 confirmed planets had some interesting features...

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Personal Update and a Holiday Science Book List

It's 10:47 AM, Monday, December 5th, and I'm sitting in my apartment in Albuquerque, New Mexico as a bitterly cold wind gusts dusty snow everywhere outside.  I have the day off today, but my wife is at work, and my Internet connection is acting dodgy at best.  I have my coffee, but my usual distractions are failing me right now.  It appears the universe is telling me it's time to update.

For the past couple months, I've been settling into a new routine of waking up late, going to work late, and coming home late.  My current job is the least enjoyable I've ever had, and I don't mind saying so, as I'll probably be leaving it soon.  In fact, I think I used to have nightmares about needing to take a job at a call center, and here I am.  (I was told it would be mainly email correspondence, which I think I would have enjoyed if it had turned out to be true.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Leafcutters

Every time I tell someone about leafcutters, I have a captive audience.  I don't even need the pictures to showcase these amazing animals' talents.  I'd read about them when I was young, but didn't truly appreciate what they do until much later, probably around the time I was in college.

I got to see them in person for only the second time in my life a few months ago, during a trip to Costa Rica.  The first was on a trip to Brazil with my family when I was thirteen.  I didn't even think to take pictures then.  This time I knew better.

These leafcutters had a nest within a five minute walk of the hotel where my wife and I stayed, near some houses and open land.  I can't imagine the locals having any problems with the ants; a leafcutter ant in your house is lost.

So, what makes leafcutters so special?  I can sum it up in two words:  they farm.

Monday, November 7, 2011

How We Know: The Periodic Table of Elements

As anyone who has been through high school chemistry should know, the "periodic table" is that not-quite-rectangular chart covered in letters and numbers that symbolize every type of atom we know about.  Some of you may have had to memorize it.  My school provided it for every test where we might need it, which was essentially cheating, since the periodic table itself is just a big cheat sheet that provides a wealth of information if you know how to look for it.

First of all, remember that the table isn't just the elements in numerical order arranged in a strict grid.  It has towers on the left and right sides, and entire extra rows sandwiched in between some elements near the bottom.  These were not arbitrary decisions.  By laying out the table this way, many elements that have similar properties are grouped together, so you know where to look for the noble gasses, for instance, or the alkali metals.

But I don't want to get too much into how we use the periodic table today.  I want to give you two dates, and you'll see the question I'd like to answer.  First, the periodic table as we know it was developed by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869.  The scanning tunneling microscope, an instrument capable of viewing individual atoms, was first developed in 1981, over 100 years later.  Additionally, when Mendeleev developed his table, only 63 of the 118 elements we know of today were known, and yet, his table did not have to be drastically altered to accommodate the new arrivals as they came.  In some instances, the table actually predicted elements that had yet to be discovered.

Making history doesn't always look like much.

So, how on earth could Mendeleev and other scientists possibly know what they were looking at on the atomic level, in order to produce a chart organizing the elements by such properties as the relative weight of an individual atom?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Allow me to draw you in... to the new host of Handsome Science!

Hello, Readers!

Welcome to, the new location for all your good-looking science needs!  I dropped Tumblr simply because I don't know nearly enough of the html coding language to modify my page to my liking, and what I want Handsome Science to be wasn't quite possible with any of the templates I'd found.

Blogger, run by Google, on the other hand, is extremely customizable, even for someone with zero coding ability.  Essentially, if you can create a Word document, you can set up a blogspot blog.

(Blog blog blog.  There, now that word has temporarily lost all meaning for me.)

So, about my hiatus.  I'm afraid I haven't been able to buckle down and write much since gaining gainful employment.  I will try to get up early enough to write, but I think I will stick to a more reasonable goal of two or three posts a week instead of five.  My brain has a silly tendency to give up if I can't reach a goal instead of doing my best and falling a bit short.  So I'll set a more reasonable goal and see how that goes.

There was another problem I experienced two weeks ago, a kind of hurdle I set up that I just couldn't jump over.  I was working on "How We Know:  The Periodic Table," but I couldn't for the life of me find any online resources that explained how John Dalton came up with the first atomic masses.  I could have guessed, but that's not what we do here.  So I'll set that aside in favor of something I can talk about:

Tractor beams!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Science For This Service Announcement:

Hello Readers.  I was unable to update Handsome Science yesterday, and will probably have to skip a science-y update today, due to some changes in my personal life.  I had been unemployed for three months when I started this little blog, and had plenty of time each day to research and type up a new post.  It worked well for my working style, which is very loose and not fond of specific deadlines (don't tell my new boss!).

However, starting yesterday I've been working at a customer service call center here in town to pay the bills, and the new schedule has thrown my life into a bit of disarray.  I'm in training right now, from 3 pm to midnight, which means my time to update HS is limited to "mornings" (about 10 am to 2 pm) or "evenings" (about midnight to 2 am), instead of all day at my leisure.  This means I now have to plan my posts ahead if I want to update on time, and I'm not very good at that, but I'm trying.

Soon I will update with a "How We Know" I started work on yesterday on the periodic table of elements, and it should be a good read, when it's ready.  Thank you for your patience, and keep checking in!  I'm planning on returning to a daily weekday schedule by next week, or I may decide to skip a couple weekdays in favor of adding weekend posts as well, so stay tuned!

-RSR, your Handsome Scientist

Friday, October 14, 2011

The ant bit me sharply on the edge of my finger.

The ant bit me sharply on the edge of my finger.  The sensation grew slowly, a bit like being poked by a red-hot sewing needle.  I ignored it, steadying my camera for another shot.
The nest I was aiming at was just a crack in the sidewalk, but hundreds of the tiniest ant were milling around the opening.  Many had wings, so I knew at once that these would soon take off on a mating flight.

My pictures revealed the detail of this to me later; I had seconds to take them before more ants climbed onto my hand, which was resting on the ground for stability, and bit me on my thumb, my knuckle...  I got up quickly and shook them off.  The small ants were only out in such numbers to protect their winged new queens and male drones until they were ready to fly, mate, and start new colonies or die trying.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Why It's Cool: Asteroid Vesta rocked by mighty impacts

Asteroid Vesta rocked by mighty impacts

A little bit of history, first:

Ceres was the first asteroid ever discovered.  It was found in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi, and was actually predicted by an earlier astronomer and mathematician, Johann Daniel Titius in 1766.  This prediction was reinforced by Johann Elert Bode in 1772, and the mathematical formula used has become known as Bode's Law.  (This was discredited when Neptune was discovered and didn't fit the model.)

Uranus was discovered in 1781, and it happened to fit Bode's Law, so the idea gained credibility, and the search for the "missing planet" in between Mars and Jupiter was on.  When Guiseppe discovered Ceres, he first took it as the missing planet, but conservatively announced it to be a comet.  However, its observed motions differed from all known comets up to that time, and soon even more objects like it were discovered, all in similar orbits between Mars and Jupiter.

The importance of looking for asteroids

Two videos in a row, I know, but this was just posted today by Phil Plait, who writes the Bad Astronomy blog over at Discover Magazine.  He's a great speaker and writer, and he's discussing a rather important issue here, the not-insignificant threat of asteroid impacts, and what we can do about them.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Debunking misconceptions about evolution

Another favorite video, debunking several common myths that refute evolution.  It clarifies evolution, showing that it is based on a few observable facts, such as genetic variation in offspring, and relative fitness of individuals.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

How We Know: The Expansion of the Universe

The universe is a big place.  The scale of it is nearly impossible to conceive except through series of pictures, or a video showing a zoom-out from a park in Chicago to the furthest reaches of what we can see, while increasing the zoom speed as we go.  Even with the rapid acceleration*, the journey takes some time, and by the time you get to the end, it's easy to forget the vastness of space in between landmarks.

The best visuals are probably these two:

Powers of Ten video

The Scale of the Universe flash tool

Now, the universe is so big that it can take several billion years (the record is about 13 billion) for light from one end of it to reach us, because light has a fixed speed**.  So far this is all just background information.  The real question boils down to how we measure the distance and speed of these objects that are billions of light years away from us.  There are a few steps to get there.

What isn't Google good for?

To generate ideas for the new column "How We Know," I thought I'd try a little creative Google searching.  (You can see my custom background of a fuzzy little weevil in the background.)  I was pleasantly surprised by this search in particular.  Google was trying to guess how I might finish my search phrase based on what other people had searched for in the past, so the guesses here are all things that many people out there were wondering.

I also wanted to point out here my choice in calling my column "How We Know," not "How Scientists Know."  I decided I didn't need to separate scientists from the rest of us any further than the gap that already exists.  We can all be scientists, after all, by simply asking a question, and using observation to find out the answer.  Also, the knowledge of scientists is not exclusive to anyone.  That knowledge is released, published, and shared.  The knowledge becomes ours.

With that in mind, keep an eye out for an update very soon where I will attempt to answer the goatee-scratchingly good question, "How do we know that the universe is expanding?"

Monday, October 10, 2011

New Focus for Handsome Science

Dear Reader,

The picture here of a damselfly eating another little bug is just something nice to look at while I talk about a new focus I want to give Handsome Science.  I feel like I've been neglecting two of my main purposes here:  helping people understand the significance of science in the news, and explaining exactly how scientists come to their understanding of life, the universe, and everything.

With that in mind, I'd like to begin updating here at least once a week with one story with each purpose in mind.  To cover the news stories, I'm thinking of the column title "Why It's Cool" (although I'm sure there will be bad news from time to time, so it may occasionally be "Why It's Not Cool").  For explaining broad, general concepts, "How We Know."

For example, one headline last week was "Venus surprises with ozone layer."  With "Why It's Cool," I'd go into the backstory a bit, describing Earth's and Mars' ozone layers, where they come from, and what they do, talk about why we didn't see Venus' until this week, explain what it means for now, and speculate on what it means for the future.  (Hint:  ozone is made from oxygen, and oxygen is often pumped out by living things, like on Earth, but can be found inorganically as well, like on Venus and probably Mars.  But if we can detect oxygen on distant planets...)

"How We Know" would cover broad concepts like what goes on under the Earth's crust, what stars like our sun are made of and how they work, photosynthesis, the Big Bang, evolution, tectonic plates and continental drift, and nuclear energy.  These are the concepts that you learn about in high school science classes, but rarely, if ever, are given the backstory of how these things were discovered.  How do we know what happens inside the Earth or Sun if nobody's ever been there?  That's the kind of question I'll be trying to answer.

I'm hoping to do one "Why It's Cool" and one "How We Know" every week, with pictures, videos, and ramblings filled in between as usual.  I'm also tempted to post more eclectic things on the weekends, but this blog is still in "open beta," so let's do one thing at a time.

All the best,

Saturday, October 8, 2011



I'm a big fan of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  If you like it, don't be afraid to bookmark it.  They're all this good, or better.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Science News Under the Microscope: Quasicrystals

My browser's home page is the website for BBC News.  I don't often linger on it--usually I move on to Reddit and then my blog roll or cat videos or whatever--but I do like to take a quick glance and make sure that I'm aware of the top few stories of the day.  If it's something really important, it's going to be there.

As I type this, the top stories are:

1) "Greece hit by new general strike"
2) "Afghans 'foil Karzai death plot'"
3) "Nobel win for crystal discovery"

Now as a human, I have sympathy for what Greece is going through, and I'm glad that a life was saved and a murderous plot foiled, but as a fan of science, it's the third story that really gets my attention.  But there's a problem here:  I don't really know what this story is talking about.
But I want to know, and I'm going to try to find out.  And I want to do that here, "live."  This should be fun, right?

11:29 AM - Nobel win for crystal discovery I've already read the headline and the opening few sentences.  The nobel prize in chemistry this year went to Daniel Schectman, a researcher working in Israel.  It seems unusual that the prize is being awarded to one person, I'm guessing teams of researchers are usually required to accomplish Nobel-level work.  What he's done is a little less clear to me.  He has discovered the "structure of quasicrystals," which was thought to be impossible.  I don't know what a quasicrystal is or why it should be impossible.

11:37 AM - I've read the article, and it covers the basics:  how quasicrystals are made, what they're made from, what makes them special, and how they can be used.  There's also a lesson here about imagination and doing work you believe in, even if others think you're wrong and crazy for trying it.  So now I know that quasicrystals are formed from rapidly cooled metals--molten metals "squirted" onto a cool surface.

The resulting structure is "perfectly ordered," like a crystal, but "never repeating," which is very noncrystalline.  Hence:  quasicrystal.  (Additional note:  all crystals are ordered on the atomic level; it is the atoms themselves, and the number of bonds they can make, that determine the shape of the structure of a group of them.  Quasicrystals are similarly arranged on the atomic level.)
I've also learned they tend to be hard, not to stick to other materials, and do not pass heat or electric charge well.  Therefore, they may find use in non-stick coating on frying pans, durable razor blades and fine surgical needles, and even light emitting diodes (LEDs) and diesel engines.

The "tapestry" picture accompanying the article is actually a picture or representation of one of these quasicrystals, and the caption reveals that a quasicrystal was first observed in 1982!  Since then, quasicrystals have been found naturally and researchers are now involved in an "entirely new branch of structural science" devoted to creating, discovering, and testing new types of quasicrystal.

11:52 AM - I still have a few questions.  How long has this research been going on?  Are quasicrystals already found in products on the market?  Is there anything else cool about these things I should know?  I'm going to check Wikipedia.

11:58 AM - Oh gosh.  I almost fell into the rabbit hole.  There's a lot of cool stuff here.  Skip to the History section.  If you don't, and you're like me, you'll get bogged down by the third paragraph at the top.  This field appears to cross over heavily into mathematics, specifically geometry and patterning.  Sorry, I'm kind of just getting lost in the pretty pictures here...

12:05 PM - Okay, let's wrap up.  BBC actually did a very good job of explaining this, so this post might have been a waste of time.  I'll post it anyway, but I'll probably throw up a bug picture or video or something a little later on today as a bonus.  But I'm glad I looked a little more into it, because the mathematics of it is really quite beautiful (or should I say handsome?) and worth checking out.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Not an especially large ant...

Not an especially large ant, perhaps the size of a pencil eraser, Pogonomyrmex rugosusis a common species of desert harvester ant in and around Albuquerque.  Yesterday was a rare overcast day, making it perfect for taking photos like this with my cheap little point-and-shoot camera.  If you've bought a camera within the last few years, wait for a cloudy day, get real close, and take a picture.  The detail may surprise you.

Monday, October 3, 2011


Oh, no, already?  Well, yes.  I was a bit rash in my post on the closing of the Tevatron when I declared the reason to be solely funding-related.  I later kept hearing from NPR and BBC that it was shut down as "obsolete."  I'm still not sure about that reasoning, though.  I can still imagine it to be doing useful work, much like an amateur astronomer can still discover objects in the solar system that professional researchers can miss, with low-cost backyard telescopes.  But, if the Tevatron is like a backyard telescope, and not much cheaper to run than the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, I can see how the inefficiency might make the machine less than cost-effective.
I also neglected to point out that quantum physics has already provided us with useful devices like transistors and lasers, which led to modern computers and smartphones, and DVD and Blu-Ray players, replacing vacuum tubes and magnetic tapes, respectively.  This insight came directly from a book I just started, Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku, which seems like it's going to be a very good read.
This is a good opportunity to make a useful point about retractions.  The scientific process is rife with retractions, and this process of self-editing can make science difficult for people to keep up with ("How many planets are there now?") or even trust, with the reasoning:  "If science keeps changing the facts, how can we believe any of it?"
Well, the answer to that cuts to the root of science, and the fact that humans are doing it.  Science is the process by which we use experimentation and observation to reach conclusions about the nature of... anything, really.  But humans are making the observations, running the experiments, and even when computers and robots are given the grunt work, humans are still deciding what to observe and how to run the experiment.  And the problem with humans is, we make mistakes (see paragraphs 1 and 2 above).  The scientific process does a great deal to cut down on human error, but we still manage to reach a false conclusion now and then, or oversimplify.
(Also consider the effect of improving technology.  Before microscopes, people didn't know if disease was caused by invisible agents in the air or water, or if the air and water itself was bad, and caused illness and death.  When the microscope was invented, people could finally observe the disease causing bacteria in patients' bodily fluids.)
One way that science keeps changing is from new observations that call into questions old models of the way things work.  When Newton explained gravity it threw out old models of planetary motion, once explained by aether, winds that pushed the planets, or even angels.  And then when Einstein explained general relativity, gravity wasn't thrown out, but had to be modified to explain effects that Newton never even knew about.
Sometimes old models have to be completely removed to account for new observations, and sometimes the old models can be modified.  Either way, "facts" change, and that makes people uncomfortable.  That's fine.  Frankly, I get a bit angry at myself when I learn that an interesting "fact" I'd been sharing with people is misleading or completely false.
So, retractions are upsetting, it's true.  But consider the alternative!  A world where science makes no retractions, where anything that is declared to be true remains true forever, and heaven help you if you question it!  Where free thought is discouraged, as it might lead to insights and observations that question established "facts."
You can see where I'm going with this.
We're human.  We make mistakes.  It's okay.  The important thing is not to beat yourself up over it, leave your mistakes behind, hang on to the ideas and models that work, and keep moving on to the next big thing.  As an observer, understand that the facts you depend on today might become just like the silly antiquated ideas of yesterday, in exchange for a brighter tomorrow.

Friday, September 30, 2011

"Tevatron atom smasher shuts after more than 25 years" - BBC

Tevatron atom smasher shuts after more than 25 years

Another blow for American scientific research, both in the U.S. and the rest of the New World.  The Tevatron is/was the second most powerful particle accelerator in the world, operated by Fermilab, and it smashed atoms together at near-light speed right here in the midwestern United States.  And it will be shut down for good possibly by the end of the day today.

This comes after news in April that SETI, the project to listen for extra-terrestrial radio signals, halted operations, and lacks the funding to continue.

Both of these examples have something in common:  they're extremely difficult-to-defend scientific projects.  People don't know what the point is of smashing atoms together to try to see the bits that come off, or listening for a signal that might never come, and would take decades, centuries, or longer to send a message back if one ever came.  I'll admit, sometimes I don't know what the point is either.  But then I remember something.

Two centuries ago, people knew what electricity was.  Well, some people did.  It was used in scientists' labs to make frogs' legs switch.  It was used at fancy parties to give people a little shock or tingle, or make their hair stand up.  You could see little sparks go from one electrode to another.  It was a quaint little party trick, but nobody could really imagine any use for it.  Less than a hundred years later, electric light was powering a city street, its utility was proved, and new industries of electric power and electric machines were born.

Electricity was a long shot.  It felt like magic to many people, the same way that the quantum mechanics, the behavior of atoms and electrons, feel like magic to you or me.  The more you learn about atoms, the bits that make them up, and how they interact, the less it all makes sense.  And it seems crazy that you could learn anything useful from trying to study them.

But atoms, like electricity, were studied anyway.  And research in atoms and their properties led us to create a devastating weapon, and a source of relatively clean energy.

And now we live in the "Information Age," where computer processing power translates into real power.  And we got here through engineering breakthroughs, with not much help from the developments in quantum theory (what these colliders are working on) along the way.  But there is talk of "quantum computing" on the horizon, a development based on quantum theory that would revolutionize the computer industry, increasing their processing abilities by orders of magnitude, and making possible calculations that are impossible on current machines.

And SETI, well, listening for space aliens is still a long shot.  We may not hear anything for thousands of years, or ever.  But, what if we do?  What if we catch an alien broadcast?  What would that mean for the world?  Could we get over our disputes and grievances, put an end to petty politics, and finally work together as one humanity toward a common goal of mutual prosperity and expansion beyond the globe?

Well, yeah, that's a bit far-fetched, but it's easy to imagine and might have a pinch of truth to it.
And finally, when you consider the costs of these projects, compared to what it takes to grow our food, power our homes, educate our children, and especially fly our planes and soldiers into foreign countries, funding particle accelerators and radio telescopes and staff to run them is really not so much.  Scientific programs in this country get by with a pittance, but they show amazing results.  And now we seem to be content letting other countries take the scientific helm, as the Large Hadron Collider continues smashing atoms, and China's and India's space programs get off the ground.

I agree that budgets all over the country are in crisis right now, and people are struggling, so I won't push for this over all other causes.  But when we get things sorted out again, let's not forget where science got us, even when it seemed like a waste of time.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

DNA Transcription and RNA Translation

This is an example of one of those moments in my science education where things... just... clicked.  Maybe you know the feeling.

I knew about DNA, RNA, transcription, translation, proteins, the nucleus, molecules, et cetera, et cetera, but this video, after watching it in my high school biology class made everything fit together in a coherent picture.

For me, the realization had a few parts.  First was:  proteins are molecular machines, and everything they can do is based primarily on their shape.  Everything in the video, aside from the double-helix DNA "red" strand, and the single-helix RNA "yellow" strand, is a protein or amino acid, those little red bits that get stuck together to make the deep red hemoglobin protein at the end.  (Since hemoglobin, which uses iron to carry oxygen through the blood, is responsible for the red color of blood, its color in the video might be accurate!)

But those big, chunky blobs throughout the videos are very special proteins that can only do what they do based on their shape.

Now, right at the beginning of the video we saw a bunch of these proteins latch on to the DNA strand, and several had to come together before the work could be done.  On a tangent, this is a perfect example of the "Intelligent Design" irreducible complexity argument.  The argument goes, "Well, see this thing here.  It couldn't work at all if you take one piece away, and if evolution always adds just one piece at a time to a structure, this would be useless until you had everything put together at the end, so evolution wouldn't select for any individual component.  Therefore, an Intelligent Designer/God/magic/a wizard did it!"  In this case, the process can be done by one protein acting alone.  Other proteins can be added to refine the process or speed it up.

My second realization took a bit of extra thought.  I was still confused as to how all these bits and blobs actually came together.  How do they find each other?  The truth is, the video doesn't show everything going on.  It can't.  What you aren't seeing is that big empty space inside the cell and inside the nucleus, is FULL of these proteins, amino acids, nucleic acids, strands of DNA and RNA, sugars, fats, everything!  The video shows a big open space with a few shapes inside working together, but that empty space is a soup of molecules partaking in similar interactions.  The video had to take that out just so you could see what they wanted to show you.

So the second realization was that molecules in your cells don't know what to do, and don't seek each other out, they're just all crammed in there together, they bump up against each other, and they react, based purely on chemical bonds and shape.  And it all just happens on its own purely because it can, and when it does it well it can keep doing it for years and years to come.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Bug Books at the Library

Earlier this year, my supervisor at the library where I worked gave me the task of creating and maintaining a book display on any subject I liked.  Well, I had no other option, really, than to choose insects and spiders, did I?

This is a picture of the display right around the beginning of the month of May, when I had just gotten it set up.  The Dewey Decimal system keeps all the insect non-fiction together (number 595.7), so it was fairly easy to find books for the display.  Most of what was on the shelves was focused on local New Mexican and southwestern fauna, like the butterfly book on the upper left, but I was trying for a more eclectic display.  Let me give a quick run-down of the books I had read and wanted to share at the library:

The Life of Insects by Viktor Pelevin (top, center)- This was one of the rare fiction books on this display, and the first on this list I ever read.  I picked it up for the first time, almost at random, while visiting my older brother's college's bookstore.  I was in high school.  I didn't know anything about the author, but the cover and book jacket intrigued me, and it wasn't too expensive.  The book takes place in post-Soviet Russia, following the lives of several people, who are also insects, who are also people.  It's a bit difficult to explain, or imagine, but eventually the book kind of swallows you up and you're along for the ride.  The characters include some mosquito businessmen with a fellow American mosquito going out on a bender of bloodsucking, a dung beetle father explaining all the mysteries of the universe to his dung beetle son, a young queen ant and the perils of domestic life, and a cicada who tunnels his way through life, going to work and home again, and briefly to America where he nearly turns into a cockroach, all while digging, digging, digging in a straight line.  It's a great read.

Life in the Undergrowth by David Attenborrough (center)- A great look at the whole terrestrial arthropod kingdom, told in order of evolutionary descent, with centipedes, millipedes and scorpions in the beginning, and ants (of course!) and bees at the end.  This would be a great coffee table book, really, since it is full of beautiful pictures of all range of insects and spiders.  I learned a lot from this book, and Sir Attenborrough is a wonderful teller of the tale of life.

Clan Apis by Jay Hosler (center, right)- A graphic novel, appropriate for kids and teens, but a great little book for anyone to read.  It tells the tale of a worker bee, from hatching as a larvae to (spoiler alert!) a timely death after a short, but fulfilling life.  It's a cute little story, full of facts about the lives of honey bees and the insect world, and the pictures are wonderfully illustrated.

Insectopedia by Hugh Raffles (bottom, left)- Not as comprehensive as the "-pedia" ending led me to believe, it nevertheless provides 26 stories, in alphabetical order by chapter title, about the nature of the complex and diverse relationships between humans and insects.  There are heartwarming stories as well as revolting ones, most notably the stories of the stomping fetishists, mostly men who enjoy watching women stomp on things, and imagining themselves as the recipient.  (That chapter gets very Freudian.) On a lighter note, I will say that after reading this book I never more wanted to try roasted locusts.  Does anyone have a recipe?

Ants at Work by Deborah Gordon (bottom, center, only spine showing)- I'll just say right now, you could probably skip this book unless you really, really, love southwestern harvester ants and want to know all the nitty gritty details of how their colonies are actually organized and how researchers are finding out.  I learned a lot from this book, but it's not written for a wide audience.  If you do love harvester ants and want to everything about them, this is the book for you!

Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer (bottom, right)- Last and certainly not least, this book was a great overview of the world of parasites and much more entertaining a read as that sounds.  Zimmer has that much-coveted quality of writing that is easy to read and grossly (har har) informative.  He argues that parasites should not be considered the lazy cheats of the animal kingdom, and should certainly not be ignored as insignificant.  Rather, their adaptations for life within other creatures are impressive, and their impact on the environment can be drastic.

So there you have it.  Unfortunately, the epilogue here is that not many of these books were actually picked up.  (Sad face.)  However, half of the display was devoted to children's books, and those flew off the shelves by comparison.  So books like What to Expect When You're Expecting Larvae got to enlighten young minds, and the display was reorganized to give more space to similar bug-themed picture books.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Velvet Ants and Ant Police

While staying up too late last night and browsing my favorite subreddit,r/whatsthisbug, I came across a picture of a bug I actually recognized, the velvet ant.  Now, the velvet ant is not actually an ant, but a relative of all ants and wasps.  The males have wings and often aren't identified easily, but the females, unusually in wasps and ants, lack wings and have bright red or orange fur covering their bodies.  They are a very cool insect to find, but they are said to have one of the most painful stings in the insect kingdom, so whenever I've seen one here in New Mexico, I've never tried to pick it up.

Now, I'm getting sidetracked here, because what I wanted to really talk about was what happened in the discussion of that velvet ant photo.  I don't often chime in to these discussions, because more knowledgeable scientists and bug trackers are usually around to identify creatures down to the genus or species, when I have more of a layman's understanding of arthropods.  But I had to here, because people started talking about ants and ant egg-laying behavior, and ants, as you will know doubt discover while you're here, are my favorite, and there are few books about ants out there I haven't read.