Wednesday 24 February 2010

The Open Laboratory 2009 - The best science blog posts of the past year

The Open Laboratory 2009, the best writing on science blogs throughout the past year, has now been published. You can buy the book online in PDF or soft-cover format.

I was pretty chuffed to have one of my articles, A sorry saga - the crumbling cookie, make the final list. This was an article that looked into the misreporting (actually, simply horrible reporting) of science in the UK media, and the notion that apparently biscuit-eating is an extreme sport in the UK. It examined what was a very good example of how not to report science in the newspaper.

The 2009 anthology was edited by SciCurious and you can browse the full list of articles that made the final cut, or if you are up for some heavy reading, have a look at the long list of nominated articles.

This is the second year I've been in Open Labs - in The Open Laboratory 2008, my post for Plus Magazine called United Kingdom - Nil Points about the maths of the Eurovision Song Contest made the cut. Eurovision is such a wonderful mix of maths, pop culture, politics and bad 80s music. I love it!

You can buy previous versions from lulu - 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Why I didn't become an actor

This video from 1995 aptly portrays why I followed science and I never went into acting. Not the most sciencey post I've put up recently, but a bit of fun. We made this video about the crime fighters Brad and VD when in Year 11. Those involved have ended up being quite creative - director Nick as a digital producer, and actor Scott as a designer. A good look back on the days of analogue tape. We were clearly influenced by Get Smart.

Thanks to Jason for digitising the video - or should I say, digitally remastering it. Would love to see any embarrassing high school videos you might have.

Saturday 13 February 2010

Ep 122: Science of Superheroes - Wolverine (Part 2)

This is the second part of our series on the science of Wolverine - specifically, how can we create Wolverine in the lab? Join Dr Boob and myself as we journey through Wolverine's characteristics and how they may be recreated in a human. Read more on Wolverine in part 1 of this series. To listen to this show, tune in here (or press play below):

Specifically in this episode, we tackle the topics of:
  1. What would happen to your bones if you completely covered them with metal? Bones are living parts of your body and make red blood cells, platelets and bone marrow - among other things - that are vital for life.
  2. Would a lack of platelets reduce Wolverine's ability to heal?
  3. Wolverine is likely to be on a cocktail of drugs, including anabolic steroids to beef him up, immunosuppressants so his body doesn't reject the metal coating on his bones, and various drugs to supply red blood cells, bone marrow and platelets.
  4. Could we really harness the healing powers of the sea cucumber for Wolverine, and would they work quickly enough?
  5. Are carrots enough to improve his sight?
  6. What metal could we use to coat his bones? It needs to be able to be injected as a liquid and then harden at body temperature. Most steels have melting points over 1000 degrees Celcius, and this would cause terrible trauma to his body. Dr Boob's suggestion was CerroLOW117, which is 44.7% Bismuth, 22.6% Lead, 8.3% Tin, 5.3% Cadmium and 19.1% Indium. CerroLOW117 has a melting point of 47 degrees Celcius, however lead and cadmium both accumulate in the body and have adverse health effects. It is highly likely CerroLOW117 would not be strong enough to help Wolverine anyway.
  7. And what is a phlebotomist?
For more on superheroes, check out our recurring science of superheroes series. And for more from Dr Boob, check out Chris's other contributions.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Tracking Mouse Clicks

Here is another funky app to add some interest to your work day. Anatoliy Zenkov has developed a tool (Mac and PC) to track your mouse pointer during the day. Simply open it up and let it run in the background for as long as you like. 8 hours of mouse tracks from my day today look like this:

My mouse tracks

The big dots are times when the mouse did not move - for example, the bottom right dot is my lunch break. I've added some extra notes to the image on flickr to explain these dots. My movements around the taskbar are clear, as are mouse movements to the top left - I was using Excel for most of the day, and many of the functions I used were located there, as were the open / close file options. I found this tool on FlowingData. I'd be interested to see your tracks.

Monday 1 February 2010

Ep 121: Science of Superheroes - Wolverine (Part 1)

Wolverine is probably the best known of the X-Men. Commonly known as Logan, Wolverine is a mutant who has animal-keen senses, super bodily strength, retracting claws, and the ability to almost instantly heal himself from injury. And thanks to some evil scientists, he has the near indestructible (and fictional) metal alloy adamantium fused to his bones, meaning that his claws and skeleton are almost unbreakable.

In the second episode of our regular series on the science of superheroes, biochemist Dr Chris Pettigrew (aka Dr Boob) and I discuss where in nature Wolverine's powers can be found, and how we might scientifically create Wolverine in the lab. This is the first of a 2-part show on Wolverine - see below for a brief description of some of the science discussed. Our first superheroes episode was on the science of Wolverine's fellow X-man, and sometime love interest, Mystique.

To listen to this show, tune in here (or press play below):

The name Wolverine comes from the Wolverine animal, which lives in isolated northern areas such as the arctic and alpine regions of Alaska. It is a stocky and strong animal that is very strong for its size and has been known to kill prey as large as moose. The wolverine is not actually a bear or a dog, but rather a mustelid, or in common parlance, a weasel.

While many of Wolverine's powers (such as strength and hearing) could come from its namesake mustelid, if we were to attempt to create Wolverine in the lab, we must first turn to the ocean:

Healing ability:

Sea Cucumbers are the champions of organ regrowth. All animals possess some kind of tissue repair mechanism, however the sea cucumber belongs to a group of animals that can regrow lost limbs - salamandas and some starfish also have this ability. The repair process involves cells called morula cells, which move to the point of injury. Although all animals have wound repair processes, not all can regenerate lost body parts. With the sea cucumber, the same processes that repair its injuries also repair limbs and internal organs, and this opens up the possibility that we could one day discover how to repair our own wounds and perhaps how to regenerate body parts. But as Dr Boob says, we are quite some way off from instant healing ability: "The odd bullet to the head won't be able to be dealt with."

Retractable Claws:

There is a remarkable analogue found in nature for Wolverine's retractable claws. University of Harvard biologists have determined that some African frogs have the ability to puncture their own skin with sharp bones in their toes. These bones then act as claws to attack predators. The defence mechanism was discovered by David C. Blackburn, James Hanken, and Farish A. Jenkins, Jr. Blackburn said, "It's surprising enough to find a frog with claws. The fact that those claws work by cutting through the skin of the frogs' feet is even more astonishing. These are the only vertebrate claws known to pierce their way to functionality."

Blackburn discovered the frog and its defences when he was conducting fieldwork in Cameroon and one frog he was studying scratched him. He found 11 frog species in the genera Astylosternus, Trichobatracus and Scotobleps who had this peculiar ability. Read more at Project Frog.

Smell, sight, hearing

Whilst there are obvious candidates in nature that have heightened sight, smell and hearing abilities, recent studies suggest that human and dog olfactory receptor genes evolved from a common mammalian ancestor, and as such Dr Boob thinks that mimicking the smelling ability of dogs could be quite "easy." Dogs have an olfactory sense approximately a hundred thousand to a million times more acute than a human's. Scenthounds can smell one- to ten-million times more acutely than a human, and Bloodhounds, ten- to one-hundred-million times more.

To hear more on the science of Wolverine, tune in here (or press play below):

Part 2 of this series on the science of Wolverine will be aired over the next few weeks. The song A Russian Peter was used in the background of this podcast, with permission from Ioda Promonet. Buy the full London Philharmonic Orchestra Peter and the Wolf CD, or download individual songs as mp3s, from Amazon here.