Saturday, April 27, 2013

Weekly Science Roundup #19

Since I finished my novel draft, I'm allowed to have a bit of science fun around here again. Time for a Weekly Science Roundup!

1. CONFORM. Monkeys do.

In a new study featuring pink and blue corn, of all things, vervet monkeys demonstrate that conforming to social norms is a trait with deep roots in our primate brains.

Monkeys that switched from a group where all corn colors were acceptable to eat to a group where only blue was acceptable (this group had been giving gross-tasting pink corn earlier, so they only ate blue) immediately conformed to eating only blue corn like was customary for their new group. Well, except for one guy:
The one monkey who did not switch, was the top ranking in his new group who appeared unconcerned about adopting local behavior.
So it seems that fitting it culturally is a big deal for vervet monkeys, likely because the "locals" know what's safe and it's evolutionarily a good idea to heed local advice. Unless you're a bad*ss trend-bucker, like that top-ranking monkey who didn't care one way or another about what culture told him.


So Dark Lightning is a real thing, and not just a teenage garage band name.

Dark Lightning is an intense gamma ray burst caused by fast-moving electrons hitting the air during a thunderstorm, and no one knew about it before 1991. It's been a mysterious phenomena since its discovery, but now scientists have learned that it might be linked to normal, "bright" lightning.

What new research has shown, is that Dark Lightning may be triggered by the electric field that forms just before visible lightning. When electrons move quickly, that moving charge releases energy that we see and hear as lightning, but it might also result in these electrons smacking around air molecules and simultaneously creating gamma radiation.

Basically, the moral of this story is that lightning is way cooler than we thought, and dark and "bright" lightning might be two sides of the same awesome event.

3. Dinosaurs Crouched, So Now They Can Fly

Theropod dinosaurs walk on two legs, as do humans. But the way humans move around bipedally is very different than the way dinosaurs do.

Humans stand upright, with our legs straight underneath us, while theropods have a crouched, bent-legged posture. Our way is more efficient, so why don't birds walk like us?

Well, new research suggests that as forelimbs got bigger and bigger, the center of mass had to move forward in dinosaur bodies to compensate (think lever and fulcrum). Thus, the feet--being what holds up the center of mass--had to move forward. The femur ended up becoming more horizontal so that the feet can be farther forward under the animal, creating the zig-zag leg posture that we see today.

One reason forelimbs increased in size was because they were becoming wings. But before being used for flight, the forelimbs were likely increasing in size to aid in capturing and manipulating prey with their sharp, deadly claws. So once again, we can confirm birds evolved because dinosaurs are scary, scary creatures.

This goose WILL destroy you. There's no denying it has murder glinting in its eye.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Novel Update #3: The Pieces Are In Place!

My brain, deciding on which plot ideas to use in one single manuscript.

I've successfully finished Draft 2 of my Work In Progress! Draft 2 was a serious overhaul, concentrating on getting all the plot points in order and fleshed out, as well as adding in a brand new ending. In all, I chopped over 60 pages of material, wrote nearly 150 new pages of material, and as a result, actually have a legitimate draft of this novel completed.

But it's still got a long way to go.

I'll be handing it off to my critique group soon for a full read-through (they've only seen bits and pieces so far). Before then, I'd like to chop at least 25-30 pages out of this version through some tough-love editing. I also need to thread the finer points of the plot through in a more consistent way (now that I finally know what those points are) and have to fiddle with many technical details, as this is a sci-fi story.

Right now it sits at a whopping 88K words (!!!), which is enormous for a Middle Grade novel, even if this is technically "upper" MG. I'm hoping my critique group will have some helpful ideas for how to tighten the entire manuscript up, but I'm also coming to terms with the fact that this book is just bigger than any other story I've ever done. Both in terms of length, and in terms of depth/scope. If I can eventually get this under 70K, it will be a miracle. It might not happen, honestly. Should make querying this sucker interesting, to say the least.

I may have bitten off more than I can chew with this story. I just have to hope that my critique group will help me focus in on the relevant pieces of this tale, as they've done for me before. Connecting the story dots in this thing has been nightmarishly difficult, just because there are so many of them. I've never taken on a project this huge before, and I still don't know what others will think of it.

The one thing I do know is that I have fallen in love with my main cast and I finally have all the plot events in an order that feels real to me. Also, as I've begun to read-through this second draft, I find myself looking forward to certain scenes and getting caught-up so much in reading that I forget that I'm meant to be editing. These are good signs, right? I can hope, at least.

Onwards, to constructing Draft 2.5!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Week Forever Burnt Into Memory

AP Photo/Julio Cortez
Monday feels like an entire lifetime ago. I think you could ask anyone in the metro-Boston area, and they would agree.

"It doesn't feel real."

"It feels like the past few days don't exist."

These are the types of things people are saying. It's not that we aren't aware of the past few days' existence (trust me, we're painfully aware). It's that they were so surreal, that I and many others keep expecting to wake up and have it be Marathon Monday again. Like, this week was just a nightmare, that all this time hasn't actually passed, that this past week was just so horrifyingly removed from reality, that reality must've actually gone on hold, and time will pick back up where it came crashing to a halt last Monday.

But it won't. Somehow, we all need to accept that all this did happen. It wasn't a nightmare. That we need to somehow learn to move forward after experiencing horror close-up.

I consider myself amazingly, superbly lucky in all this. No one I knew was hurt or killed. I was home safe. I didn't have to witness the carnage on Monday in person. I wasn't trapped in Watertown yesterday.

But to say I wasn't affected by any of this would be a flat-out lie.
Happy morning, preparing for the runners to come by.

I was at the Boston Marathon on Monday. I wrote about that day here, back when I was barely coherent enough to string sentences together. I was handing out water at Mile 3 with many of my friends and coworkers. I left after the runners finished passing by. I went home. Many of my friends and coworkers did not.

Many of them were down near the finish line when the bombs hit.

I spent Monday afternoon and evening watching the news and obsessively checking texts and emails. Some friends checked in sooner than others. Some took hours. Painful, scary hours, as at that time there were no official names or numbers for the dead and injured. And all we could do was wait to hear from those we cared about. Boston waited to hear. Massachusetts waited to hear. Let's be honest, this is an international event...the world waited to hear.

Tuesday. I went to work. People I knew were okay. That much was a relief. But what wasn't a relief was learning some of the names and faces of the victims, or heading back into the city, knowing the danger was still out there. I was able to speak to some of the people who were there on Monday. There was hugging. I wore the BAA pin that they hand out to all the Marathon volunteers. I wore that every day this week.

Wednesday came and things felt no more resolved. I was beginning to become more determined not to be intimidated by the events, though, and managed to get more work done in the office than I had on Tuesday (which, lets face it, was not the most productive day). Press conferences were canceled, postponed, then canceled again. It was a day of turmoil and zero answers. All I could do was hope that the lack of answers meant someone, somewhere, was getting close to solving this thing and had to keep it under wraps.

Thursday. A service was held in Boston to remember the victims. Many Important People were there. Traffic was awful. Life continued on in its new, foggy-brained way. Still no answers, and many began to worry that it was too late for answers. That surely, the person or people responsible had escaped already.

Thursday evening, we saw their faces. A long-awaited press conference showed a video clip of two people suspected to be the Marathon Bombers. The FBI requested the public help identify them and locate them, but to by no means approach them.

As I'd done every night that week, I turned off the news and crawled into bed early with a book (I've been rereading THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER). I read for a while--long-enough, I'd hoped, to keep the nightmares at bay.

My 6 am alarm went off. I immediately checked my phone for the latest in the news, as I'd been doing every morning. I expected nothing. I expected the news to be much the same as it'd been every other day since the attack...that there were leads, but nothing major.


And I flew out of bed. My knee is broken, and I still have no memory of how I got into the living room with the news on and my computer booting up so quickly. I have friends in Watertown. Many friends.

I watched in horror as they showed video from the night before of a firefight with explosions in this quiet suburb. I could only stare, numbly repeating, "Holy shit. This isn't happening. Holy shit. This isn't happening."

The scene down the street from my friends' apartment.
I soon got confirmation that all my friends were okay. None of them were being held hostage or anything. That gave me some relief. But then, as the morning progressed, I watched the SWAT teams move through the neighborhoods, and then converge around one particular area and one house...which happened to be around the block from the home of two of my good friends and coworkers, Karen and Donna.

And the police were reporting that the man that had died had a suicide vest on him. That the one in hiding may blow himself up, or blow other things up, or shoot other people like they did to that poor officer (who I later learned is from my town, continuing to make this whole situation far too personal). There was a terrorist bomber hiding somewhere absurdly close to my friends.

I couldn't turn the news off. I couldn't.

In continuing surrealism, sirens in my neighborhood were constant. I was confused as to why...after all, technically our town wasn't on the "shelter in place" list, though looking out my window it was clear we were all opting to "shelter in place" anyway. Not a soul was out.

Then I learned, first through Twitter, then eventually through the news, that police had converged on the apartment that the terrorist brothers lived in. Some Google mapping confirmed what I'd thought: this apartment was 1.5 miles away from my own.

Now, I wasn't worried about it being rigged and blowing me up...after all, I was over a mile away and that'd have to be one impressive bomb. Rather, knowing that the police were clearing everyone out of that area and moving in with bomb squads had me on edge for those who were close enough to be hurt. And I also worried that the bomber or perhaps accomplices might try to get back to the apartment, or escape from it, or who knows what.

Outside Karen and Donna's apartment. That is Karen's car.
So while helicopters flew over my street and cops drove by all day securing the terrorists' apartment, I kept one eye out the window and the other on Facebook, keeping tabs on my friends who were inside their Watertown apartment, doors locked, waiting for the bomber to be caught or killed.

When 6 pm came, officials stated that they were lifting the lockdown, and I could barely believe it. I mean, they hadn't caught the guy. Sure, they couldn't keep the city on lockdown forever, but the terrorist was still out there. 

I gave up at that point. Twelve straight hours of news, twelve straight hours of levels of stress I can't ever remember being in before in my life, except for five days earlier...I had to just turn it off. They weren't getting anywhere. They'd lost him. I made plans for a weekend of staying indoors, door bolted shut. If they'd lost him, by that point it wasn't inconceivable that he'd made his way out of Watertown to one of the surrounding areas, after all.

And then, about forty-five minutes later, a tweet from a friend caught my eye. Shots being fired in Watertown.

Oh God.

It was just like that morning. I threw the news back on, fear clutching me. My friends had JUST posted about possibly leaving their apartment now that they'd gotten the "all clear".

But they were okay. They reported in quickly that they were okay (though they were out in the street when it happened and heard the gunfire).

Just as I got that news from them, it became clear over Twitter and local channel I was on that the police had him cornered. They had the remaining bomber. They just needed to get him out of a boat parked in a backyard without him blowing anything else up.

The stress wasn't over. I wanted this kid taken in alive. We need to know why they did what they did. We need him alive. And I still had fear that he had bombs somewhere he could set to explode.

So when it finally happened...when I watched on TV as the cops all relaxed in unison and began applauding...I physically shuddered in relief.

It was over. They had him. Nothing else was blowing up. No one else was getting shot. My friends were safe. Everyone was safe.

I don't know how to put into words the emotion I went through last week. I tried to give a run-through of the events here, but it doesn't do it justice. Nothing will. I hit a level of emotion and stress I didn't know was humanly possible, and I wasn't even directly involved. I can't imagine what it must have been like to be at the bombing on Monday. To be a first responder. To be in Watertown yesterday. All these levels of involvement further than my own.

So I guess that's my message to everyone who wasn't here at all. I don't think it's possible for most Americans outside the situation to begin fathoming what life has been like here in Boston this past week. Everyone is enormously grateful of your support, but just know that many of us aren't ready to look at these events in any "bigger context" yet. We're recovering. We're celebrating our newly regained freedom. We're grieving for those hurt and killed. We're pulling ourselves back together.

We'll let the rest of the country and the media debate things like motives, political implications, etc. But for us here in Boston, we're all just remembering how to breathe.

Thank you again to everyone who reached out in concern for me this week. Knowing you cared has been one of the few positive things I could cling to through this all. And I want to send a special thanks to all the law enforcement officials who made our city safe again this week, and to the first responders who saved so many lives after the attack. Gratitude doesn't begin to describe what I feel. Thank you.

*Photo Credits: AP Photo/Julio Cortez, Karen Powers, and myself.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Boston Marathon Bombing

I know this isn't exactly science-related, but I just...have to put my thoughts together somehow.

Today's been surreal. Scary. Sad.

I'd just gotten home after a morning of handing out water for the Boston Marathon runners and having lunch with my coworkers. We'd been at the Mile 3 water stop for hours, and I currently have a broken knee, so I opted to go home after we were done with lunch. Others carried on and went further down the Marathon route to watch the end of the race. They went somewhere in Brookline, near the end of the route. I went home.

This was my fourth year working the Mile 3 Water Stop. It was tons of fun, as it always is. Lots of smiles, laughs, and cheers. Again, with my broken knee, I couldn't pass out the water myself, so I sat in a chair and cheered the runners on, thinking to myself, "Gee, I guess I'll just have to remember this year as the year that I couldn't pass out water".

No. Not even close.

Once home, I settled in to rest and flipped on the TV. I couldn't find Boston Marathon coverage, so I turned it back off. Then I got on my computer. Not long after I logged onto Twitter, a particular Tweet caught my eye. It was something about explosions as the Boston Marathon.

That gave me pause. I was skeptical as to what it meant. After all, I had just come from the Marathon, hadn't I? And nothing on TV had been talking about the Marathon...

So I googled "Boston Marathon explosion". I turned the TV back on. Reports were just coming in. Everything escalated in the blink of an eye.

Outside my apartment, a string of emergency sirens sounded. On the news, images of a blood-spattered Boylston Street worked its way through the confused fuzz of my brain, telling me that something horrifically awful had truly happened. Within four minutes of this initial confusion, my sister called, having just heard about it herself. I told her I didn't know what was going on, that I didn't know anything, and I didn't know if anyone I knew was safe or not. I probably sounded fairly panicked.

See, I personally knew both runners and spectators that could've been near the finish line, including my coworkers who had opted to go down to watch the race end. And I suddenly realized I needed to know that they were safe.

Thus began the frantic texting. The frantic phone calls. Part of me remembered the panic would go two-ways, so I tried to call my parents, to make sure they knew I was safe. But by that time, calls weren't going through anymore.

I can't begin to describe my mental state as things got worse in the news, and as I continued to not hear from anyone else who was running or watching the Marathon. Instead, I'll just say that thankfully, it did eventually turn out that everyone I knew was safe.

But that isn't true for many, many other people today. Including an eight year-old child that lost his life from these bombs.


Today, I got my fourth Marathon jacket. It's bright yellow. I was joking around this morning that I couldn't even remember what I'd done with the other three I already own, each in a different color. They were likely in storage somewhere, wrinkled and forgotten.

But today, I've watched people in these yellow jackets run away from explosions. Run in assistance to help people caught in the explosions. Run to embrace each other after chaos hit.

I can safely say, this jacket won't ever be forgotten.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Weekly Science Roundup #18

I geek out about fossils for most of this roundup, and then we get serious and talk about predictions for this year's hurricane season. It's Weekly Science Roundup time!

1. Oldest Dinosaur Embryo's Found (With Organic Remains!)

Artist rendition of a theropod embryo. The new discovery is over 100 million years older than this species.
It's the beginning of the Jurassic. Dinosaurs that most people have never heard of roam around Earth, including sauropodomorph Lufengosaurus--an 8-meter-long two-legged, long-necked dinosaur that may be an ancestor of the more familiar four-legged, long-necked dinosaurs of the later Jurassic.

But people should know this name, because it's going to go down in paleontology history of providing not only the oldest known fossil dinosaur embryos, but also the oldest organic material from dinosaurs (to my knowledge and research).

The fossils were found in China. A whole set of disarticulated (scattered) bone remains include embryos at different stages of development. By studying these various fossils at different stages, paleontologists have already deduced that this animal likely moved about in its egg, just like modern birds. Additionally, they've learned that these animals grew rapidly, which make sense given how huge they get. By growing quickly, they'd also avoid predation easier when young. It's fun when biology makes sense.

The organic material found is in the form of proteins from the bone-tissue called collagen, and this stuff can be used to compare to proteins of other species. Since this collagen is so old, it opens doors to discovering organic materials in other fossils that paleontologists have never dreamed of recovering such material from. Cool!

And now, to jump ahead in time...

2. New Insight into the Life of Australopithecus Sebida

Full disclosure: I was trained as a physical anthropologist, so I always have more than my fair share of skepticism from any story involving human ancestors (and want to smack certain "science news" organizations for reporting this story as a new "half-human, half-ape that knocks Lucy out of the park"...grrrrrr...stupid media hype...)

Ahem. Anyway.

Here's what we do know about the latest studies concerning Australopithecus sebida:

Just as forensics teams use dental records to identify remains, paleoanthropologists use dental remains to figure out who is related to who in the fossil record. New studies have shown that A. sebida has dental traits that likely make it a sister group to Homo, potentially more closely related to us than A. afarensis (Lucy's species). However, do keep in mind, these remains are a million years younger than Lucy's, meaning there's been a million years of potential changes between the two species. From what I've read, I'm personally intrigued at this potential relationship to Homo, but not yet convinced. After all, everyone wants to find and work on the species that gave rise to the genus Homo. However, the fact that the researchers who work on A. sebida are from varied institutions gives me hope that this is indeed good science, and that the relationship of A. sebida to Homo may yet be much more than just a pipe dream. It'd be awesome if it was.

In the less controversial side of this, the postcranial remains (everything other than the head) show that while A. sebida definitely walked upright, it likely wasn't walking like we do. It's foot bones indicate that it turned its feet inwards when striding, and may have still been using its feet for climbing trees in addition to walking. Also, it's flaring rib cage would make it difficult to run and have its arms swing with each step, like we do. It definitely wasn't as adept a biped as us, but it does show that there were many different styles of bipedalism back in the day. Ours just happened to win out.

If I still had access to paleo journals, I could go into a lot more legitimate analysis here, but alas, we must move on to something completely different:

3. Hurricane Season 2013

Hurricane Sandy, as seen from space.
We're just a few weeks away from the start of the 2013 Hurricane Season! And as someone who was stuck in the path of Sandy (and who's poor sister bore the brunt of it), I'm personally anxious to hear the predictions for this year.

So...what are the predictions?

Well...pretty much a copy-paste from last year, honestly. Last year we saw 19 named storms. This year, they're predicting around 18 storms: including 9 hurricanes, of which around 4 will be intense hurricanes. This is going to be another very active storm season. For perspective, usually there are only around 11 named storms each year, which includes 6 hurricanes.

They're also predicting a nearly 50% chance of a major hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast, and a smidge higher chance of one hitting the East Coast.

These predictions stem from two major factors (again, click here to learn more):

1. El Niño is going to be quiet this year. During active El Niño years, hurricanes are less likely because the increase in high-up winds over the Atlantic tear storms apart.

2. Sea Surface Temperatures were above average in the eastern tropical part of the Atlantic this spring. Warmer waters from this region help spawn storms. Interestingly, the pattern of atmospheric pressure that has increased the temperatures in these waters is the same pattern responsible for the colder-than-average spring we've been having in North America.

I guess all this means is that once summer hits, I should stock up on emergency supplies again.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Guest Post by Janet Greger: Make a Woman Scientist Your Heroine

Today, I'm happy to introduce a special guest blogger: Janet Greger. She's a scientist and an author of medical mystery/suspense novels. Check out her latest--MURDER: A NEW WAY TO LOSE WEIGHT, which just hit Amazon yesterday!

Janet is here to tell us about perceptions and misconceptions about women in science, and why female scientists can inspire great stories. Take it away, Janet!

Marie Curie, one of the only woman scientists people can ever seem to name off the top of their heads.

I’m glad to be at the home of adventures in science and storytelling today. Thank you Katie.

What do students expect a woman scientist to be?

During my years as a professor in the biological sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, many students admitted to me that I was not what they expected. When I asked what they expected, they always stuttered. These were the points that they admitted; I suspect the points they didn’t admit would be more interesting. They expected me to:

• Be gray-haired and to look dumpy,
Not always have a Diet Coke can or two on my desk and a bag of cans ready for recycling in the corner,
• Be more proper, less frank, in my comments.

What is the public’s image of scientists?

My students’ comments made me think. Does the general public have preconceived images of scientists? Do scientists in fiction reflect these popular images? Or does popular fiction affect the image of scientists among the general public? Or all three?

From the 1880’s through the 1970’s, Drs. Frankenstein, Jekyll, and Strangelove characterized the images of scientists in movies and novels. Scientists were aging, un-athletic, males with anti-social tendencies. Comic strips changed the image of scientists to be handsome, male superheroes with big egos (like Batman and Iron Man). Now TV shows (like CSI, Bones, and NCIS), feature attractive, young women as scientists.

Facts on women in science

To a certain extent, the changes in the images of scientists in fiction reflect reality. Women held 4.5% of the full professorships in science and engineering in 1973 (when I became an assistant professor) and 17.9% of the full professorships in those fields in 2003. So we’ve made progress but have a long way to go.

Why is the image of women in science important? 

* Recruiting students into science is always a challenge. Unrealistic images only make it harder to attract students, especially women and minorities to science majors.

* Scientific discoveries offer great ideas for novels, and not just science fiction novels. I tried to include bits on epidemiology, virology, and science policy in my novel Coming Flu. I tried to infuse the feel of a medical school (the blend of clinics, research labs, brilliant investigators and wannabes) into Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight.

* Many strong-willed heroines can be found among the women scientists of the twentieth century. I want to introduce you to three of them, whose careers occurred prior to 1980.

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) helped to define the fine molecular structures of DNA with her meticulous X-ray crystallography  (a way of picturing the location of atoms in molecules). Many wonder whether she would have shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with Watson and Crick in 1962 if she had not died at 37 in 1958.

Elizabeth McCoy (1903 -1978) was a microbiologist. In 1946 the New York Times ran this headline “Wisconsin University Girl Wins Patent on an Industrial Solvent.” At that time, the “girl” was 43 years old and was only the second woman (outside those in nursing or home economics) to achieve a full professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. No one reported her response, but she was known for her salty vocabulary. She was fiercely independent and shoveled snow from her long driveway in her seventies. (If you haven’t lived in the upper Midwest, you may not appreciate this feat.)

Hellen Linkswiler (1912 -1984), a nutrition professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was more ladylike than McCoy, even though her background was probably rougher. As a child, she ate moldy bread because there was no other food in Oklahoma during the dust bowl years. In 1960, a banker refused her a mortgage for a home, even though she was full professor, unless a man cosigned the loan. So her father (whom she supported) signed the loan. Although highly professional, she had a domestic side. She was an avid gardener, a great cook, and rated painting (walls not art) as her favorite pastimes.

I hope they inspire you to include a woman scientist in your nest novel or to “stick it out” in pursuing a career in science.

JL Greger has been a scientist, professor in the biological sciences, textbook writer, and university administrator. Now as a writer of fiction, she inserts glimpses of scientific breakthroughs and tidbits about universities into her medical mystery/suspense novels.

In Coming Flu, epidemiologist Sara Almquist is trying to stop two killers: the Philippine flu, which is rapidly wiping out everyone in a walled community in New Mexico, and a drug kingpin determined to break out of the quarantined enclave. Coming Flu (paperback and Kindle formats) is available on Amazon.

In Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight, Linda Almquist, Sara's sister, is scrutinizing a "diet doctor" for recklessly endangering the lives of his obese research subjects. Soon she finds her research entwined with a police investigation of two murders. Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight is now available on Amazon or from Oak Tree Books.

For more info, see Janet's website: or blog:

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Weekly Science Roundup #17

It's Weekly Science Roundup time! Sit back, and enjoy DEEP SPACE EXPLOSIONS, a species of turtle that never existed, and chimps thinking about thinking about bananas (no, that's not a typo).

1. Farthest Supernova Ever Seen

Supernova UDS10Wil in the CANDELS Ultra Deep Survey

Hubble has managed to out-do itself yet again. It's spotted a supernova explosion that's over 9 billion light-years away. As a reminder, 1 light-year is equal to over 26 trillion miles. Just to put this all in perspective for you.

Anyway, the reason this is so important is that the farther away something is, the older the light is reaching us. We're looking back in time 9 billion years when Hubble views this supernova. This gives us clues to the structure and behavior of the early universe.

Finding this particular type of supernova (type 1a) so early helps to determine how which version of type 1a supernovae was more common back in time--a merger of two white dwarfs, or a white dwarf feeding off a normal-sized star until it explodes. The second type can happen relatively quickly, but since there are so few supernovae that far back in time, it suggests that version of type 1a explosions is actually more rare. It's looking more and more likely that type 1a supernovae near the beginning of the universe were usually the result of two merging white dwarfs. That, in turn, is going to tell us more about the timing for the distribution of heavier elements, such as iron, in the early universe. Awesome!

2. Extinct Turtle Never Really Existed At All

A bit of good news for our second topic on the roundup: Pelusios seychellensis isn't extinct!

...It actually never was a real species in the first place.

*Cough* So this is mildy embarrassing. Turns out, the few specimens collected of mud turtle called  Pelusios seychellensis were actually from a species called Pelusios castaneus. The species that was thought to exist would've been native to the Seychelles, but instead these turtles are native to West Africa.

"In fact, for a long time researchers were amazed that the supposed Seychelles turtles looked so deceptively similar to the West African turtles. But due to the great geographic distance, it was thought this had to be a different species," explained Dr. Uwe Fritz, director of the Museum of Zoology at the Senckenberg Natural History Collections in Dresden.

The best explanation is that some hitched a ride to the Seychelles at some point, thanks to humans. It wouldn't be the first time. Last year, Dr. Fritz proved another type of mud turtle on the Seychelles was also not native to the islands, and instead there because of people. So yeah. Moral of this story: don't trust the classification of any Seychelles turtle.

On the less silly side of turtle conservation news, while it is nice to know humans are "one species less" on the list of extinctions we've caused, this isn't the time to let our guard down. Nearly 700 pig-nosed turtles were confiscated in an airport in Jakarta, Indonesia last week. These were likely heading to the pet trade, which is a major cause of trouble for many reptiles, including the pig-nosed turtle, which is listed as a species vulnerable to extinction.

3. Chimps Have Metacognition

And for our final story of the roundup, chimpanzees continue to impress. An experiment was designed to quiz chimpanzees about the type of food reward that they would receive if they answered correctly. The food was hidden, and the chimpanzees had to use information the researchers provided to determine what kind of food it was. Once they had it figured out, they would press a symbol that matched it.

Sometimes, that information was simply seeing the food item before it as hidden. But other times, the information was sorely lacking in usefulness, and the chimpanzee had no way of knowing what kind of food could be hidden. So in those cases, chimpanzees actually got up and went to take a look for themselves at the hiding spot, and then came back to report what they learned.

This might seem like a no-brainer solution to us, but just imagine for a moment asking any other animal to do this. Seriously, just think for a moment about telling your dog, "I've got a treat for you, but I'm only going to give it to you if you can point out what kind of treat it is from this giant list. And also, I'm not going to show it to you first or tell you what it is. Your one hint is that the treat is hidden in that box over there. Your move."

Maybe some of you with smarty-pants pooches are saying, "I bet I could teach my dog to do that!"...But that's just it. Chimpanzees came up with this solution on their own. They taught themselves. They are capable of seeking out further information to solve a question being posed to them at an entirely different location, with the reward only coming much later.

This type of thinking, called "metacognition", is actually most easily described as thinking about thinking. We do it all the time. It's the ability to recognize your own cognitive state, to understand that you don't know the answer, but are capable of knowing the answer if you do a bit of detective work. It goes beyond problem solving. It goes beyond tool making. This is another step on the intelligence scale that humans were fairly confident only we out of all the animal kingdom had achieved.

Nope. Wrong again, humans. Chimpanzees are so close to being on-par with us, it's almost unnerving. ...Unnervingly awesome, that is. I freaking love apes.

Sorry, that was a long third part of my roundup. My inner-physical anthropologist nerd is showing through.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

20 Years Later: Welcome (Back) to Jurassic Park

I was seven years-old. I was afraid of The Little Mermaid, All Dogs Go To Heaven, Fern Gully, and the My Little Pony movie.

But I loved, loved, LOVED dinosaurs, and I wanted to see Jurassic Park more than anything in the entire world. So after seeing the movie for themselves, my parents finally gave in. I could see the movie, on the condition that I would let them take me out of the theater if I got too scared (which they were probably betting on, given my track record).

So it was Summer 1993. I sat in the theater, getting ready to watch my first ever big-screen PG-13 thriller, wondering if it would help explain that bizarre McDonalds commercial I kept seeing on TV. Just before the movie began, my mom told me I could hold her hand if I needed to do so...

...but as it turned out, I didn't need to. For the little girl afraid of nearly every other movie ever made, I had only awe and amazement at watching dinosaurs run around eating people on the big screen in front of me. In fact, it was my mom who grabbed my hand during one particularly jump-worthy scene (even though she'd already seen the movie and should've known it was coming--it was when the raptor bursts through the piping after Ellie gets the power restored). She later claimed it was a preemptive hand grab to keep me from getting scared, but even at seven years-old I knew better than that. ;)

Jurassic Park instantly became my favorite movie. I was enamored. I'd been announcing my life goal of being a paleontologist since I was in the first grade, so maybe it shouldn't have been such a surprise to anyone that to me, Jurassic Park wasn't scary. It was fascinating. I remember a conversation in the schoolyard as a kid, where I was explaining to people why I wasn't scared of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. "Dinosaurs are just animals, and they need to eat. That's not scary." (Octopus-women who grow gigantic and laugh ultra-evilly, though...that's a whole 'nother story.)

I couldn't wait to own the movie for myself. I had to make everyone I knew watch it repeatedly, including my poor little sister who genuinely was afraid of it. I had to own the soundtrack. I had to have the posters. I had to tape record the "making of" documentaries whenever they came on TV. One year after starting piano lessons, I had to learn how to play the theme for myself, which you can watch below in all its awkward glory. And for my 10th birthday party, I had to have a Jurassic Park sleepover, complete with Pin-the-Lawyer-in-the-T-Rex's-Mouth and, of course, a late night, all-light's-off viewing of the movie (that scared the pants off some of my party guests).

Long story short, tomorrow night I get to see this movie in theaters for the first time since that original, magical experience. I'm even going to put up with 3D, which I can't stand, just so I can get the full IMAX screen.

Through the years, my love of Jurassic Park hasn't diminished one bit. I'm lucky to have found a whole clan of people through my job who also obsess over this movie, and we annoy everyone else in the office by quoting it incessantly. 

But I think the pinnacle of my Jurassic Park fan-life was made just this past month, at my museum's Dinosaur Day symposium.

I'd spent two year's putting this event together, and we had many fabulous paleontologists attend. The biggest name, though, was Jack Horner.

Jack Horner was one of the consultants for Jurassic Park, and it's said that Dr. Grant was partially based off of him. This guy was basically one of my childhood heroes, and not only did I get to work with him, something pretty amazing happened at the dinner event that marked the end of the symposium.

Jack Horner was saying a few words to all the dinner guests about how they're working on genetically reverse-engineering chickens to look more like classic dinosaurs. A person at one of the dinner tables near the back asked what he planned on doing with these engineered dinosaurs. My co-organizer, who was sitting next to me at the table closest to Dr. Horner's podium, shouted, "Theme Park!"

Jack replied, "I don't know. Where would I put it?"

And, without even missing a beat, in front of a room full of VIPs, scientists, and the president of my museum, I burst out with: "On an island off the coast of Costa Rica!"

And Jack laughed. And I laughed. And then I'd realized I'd just cracked a Jurassic Park joke with Jack Horner, and I had to make sure I wasn't dreaming. Most of the room had zero idea why we were laughing, but I didn't care. The seven year-old me had just attained ultimate wish fulfillment, and that was all that mattered.

So I think I'm ready. It's been twenty years. In that time, I've been a paleontologist, I've dug up fossils, I've become our museum's go-to dinosaur girl, and I've even worked with Jack Horner himself. Seven year-old me would be delighted beyond comprehension to have known all of that was in my future.

And, as cheesy as it sounds, I just can't help but wonder if any of this would've happened to me if it wasn't for this epic movie. Would I have taken the same path? Would I be a different person today?

I guess I'll never really know. Maybe I should just listen to Ian Malcolm and trust that life...finds a way.