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.