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!