Monday, December 31, 2012

Yearly Science Roundup: 2012

A lot of neat stuff has happened this year in the world of science, and it wasn't easy narrowing things down. My weekly roundups include three cool things per week, but since this is for the entire year, I've decided to go with my personal favorite top five science stories for 2012. Enjoy, and have a Happy New Year!

5. The Transit of Venus

With the next transit over 100 years away, this was our generation's last chance to get to see our neighboring planet Venus in full daylight.

Really full daylight.

In fact, you couldn't even view it without safety equipment, because Venus was crossing the path of our Sun. The transit occurred on June 5th, 2012 and I was extremely lucky to get to see it happen. I live in Boston, which was completely cloudy that day, but happened to be on vacation in California at the time, where it was nice and sunny! With the help of some eclipse glasses, I had no problem seeing our sister planet passing in front of our Sun, silhouetting it brilliantly in the sky.

And I wasn't alone. Around the world, scientists were recording this event and using it to mimic our search for exoplanets. One of the ways to find planets around other stars is to watch for their own transits, and record the dips in sunlight and even the light filtering through the exoplanet atmospheres to determine their composition. The transit of Venus allowed for scientists to refine this technique in our own solar system. What a cool opportunity. I just couldn't resist including this awesome event in my Top 5.

4. Light Remains Reigning Speed Champion of the Universe

Sometimes, major news in science doesn't come from new discoveries, but in the defense of old ones.

In 2011, an experiment appeared to show that neutrinos were traveling faster than light. This obviously caused a huge amount of uproar, confusion, and excitement. But to make a long story short: they were wrong. Neutrinos did not travel faster than light.

In the original experiment, neutrinos (small subatomic particles) were measured to travel in a particle accelerator 60.7 nanoseconds faster than light could travel. However, this year it was reported that there were two major sources of error in the experiments of 2011: a faulty GPS link, and a clock that ticked slightly faster than it should. Combined, these two errors created the faster-than-light anomaly.

I include this in my Top 5, because it's always important to acknowledge how much of science is about explaining bizarre observations. If something seems unlikely, it probably isn't real. Mounds of evidence need to exist in favor of the unlikely scenario before it can be accepted as fact. This particular science story is a wonderful example of why that rarely happens. Human error is prevalent in experiments, and thus scientific studies are always about repetition. If you can repeat your results, you might be onto something. If not, look closer and you'll eventually find what went wrong.

Science-y advice for 2013: remember this concept the next time someone tells you something that seems unbelievable. (Hint: you probably shouldn't believe it.)

3. Space Shuttle Program Ends and SpaceX Takes Up the Challenge

With the space shuttle program going into retirement and the various shuttles being delivered to museums around the country, SpaceX launched the first commercial craft to dock with the International Space Station.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft delivered a load of cargo to the ISS on May 25, 2012. This pushes the potential of commercially designed spacecraft beyond just the realm of wealthy and imaginative corporations and fully into reality. While some are still concerned about privatizing space travel, I see it as the next logical step in technology.

SpaceX's Dragon capsule was successfully recovered after landing in the Pacific Ocean on May 31st. It is now approved to re-supply the ISS as needed, and has already been back to the ISS as of October of this year.

With this successful year of missions behind it, a variant of the Dragon is likely to be developed to deliver supplies to Mars in advance of a proposed (and once again, privatized) human visit down the line. I'm keeping a watchful eye on all of this, because I wouldn't be surprised at all if they succeed in this next step.

2. Higgs Boson Found!

No 2012 Top Science Stories list is complete without a nod of the head to CERN and their long-awaited discovery of the Higgs boson particle.

Announced on July 4th, 2012, CERN revealed that two different studies both identified a particle that matches what the Higgs boson should be. However, for the time being, CERN is careful not to say that it's definitively the Higgs boson, just in case something odd pops up. Once again, a great example of science testing and retesting itself to be as sure as possible.

This discovery is a huge deal, because the Higgs boson is responsible for the existence of mass as we know it. It's a particle of the standard model of physics that had yet to ever be observed, but has been predicted to exist for 50 years. This thing needs to exist for modern physics to make any sense.

Because of its extreme importance to physics, the Higgs boson discovery ranks high on my Top 5 list. However, to me personally, it still can't beat out my number one:

1. Curiosity Lands on Mars in a TOTALLY AWESOME WAY

As should be no surprise to my readers, Curiosity's successful landing on Mars tops my list of awesome science stories of 2012. Not only was this landing the most badass way to land a robot on Mars, it also happened on my birthday (in my timezone) and was the very first time I watched something this spectacularly epic happen. My generation missed all the moon landings, so for me, this is it. The coolest thing I've ever got to watch NASA do.

Since her landing, she's found amazing new evidence of water on Mars and even hints of organics. Curiosity is there to look for signs of life, and so far, is beautifully doing exactly what she was built to do. She's a technological achievement like none we've had before, and NASA has already announced that its next rover will be based off of Curiosity's design. This resounding success is not only providing us with amazing science, but has once again sparked the interest and adoration of adults and children in regards to space exploration.

As a science educator, I can't NOT love everything about Curiosity. And with Curiosity already reporting some pretty interesting and surprising discoveries in her first few months, I can't wait to see what she teaches us in 2013.

Happy New Year! And here's to a 2013 filled with even more amazing science!

Friday, December 21, 2012


Well, this is it, folks. The world's supposed to end today. We all know it, now we just need to sit back and wait for it to happen.


Actually hold on. How do we all know the world is supposed to end on December 21st, 2012?

Some Mayan calendar thing, right? 

Right. The Mayan's. An ancient civilization that knew everything about the universe and always got the answers right. Like that heart-cutting-out business. That was right on the money.

And actually...wait. Has anyone actually looked into the whole Mayan calendar thing? Are we sure they predicted the end of the world to be today? Like, really sure? Because while it is kind of rainy and windy out there, it's all in all not that bad of a day so far.

Huh. Turns out, if you take even thirty seconds to do any proper research, you'll find out that the Mayan's didn't say anything about the end of the world on December 21st, 2012. In fact, they have calendar systems that continue on for millions of years past today.

What ends today is one cycle of their b'ak'tun time measurement. This is kind of like our "century". A b'ak'tun is 394 years long, and we've gone through many of them already. Thirteen, actually, according to the Mayans. And all the past ones never gave us trouble. Is this one special for some reason?

No. Once again, the Mayans did not think the world would end at the end of this cycle. Who knows what they did think would happen, but they wouldn't have charted stuff past this date if they thought it was the end of the world. Duh. I like Phil Plait's idea that for all we know, today could've been like a Mayan New Year celebration, with parties and drinking.

So why do people think the world is ending today? Hype, mostly. Greedy television channels looking to make money (I'm looking at you, History Channel). Silly blockbuster movies. People ALWAYS want to think the time they're living in is "special" somehow, and hey, the end of all time would be a pretty special occasion.

All this day proves is that people also don't always think rationally or do their own research. This is why science education is so ridiculously, hugely important. We need to train our youth to think reasonably. To research before coming to conclusions. To test things. Our country is a laughing stock because of our general ignorance and inability to use logic.

So if this really is the start of a new cycle, like the Mayan's did predict, let's hope it's one of reason and sensibility. I'd be more than happy to see the end of the world of stupidity our culture just loves to embrace. Let's start a new era of rational thinking, please.

Also, Happy Solstice to all!

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Safe Place to Learn

I think the events of this past Friday have made us all give pause and hug our families tighter. When we do get moving again, which everyone has (or will) at their own pace, it's obvious that all of us are moving with the extra weight of sorrow in our hearts.

I just wanted to make a brief post this morning to say thank you to all the teachers and school personnel across the country who put on their bravest faces and walked back into their schools today.

You are why schools are a safe place to learn. From bandaging schoolyard scrapes to putting stickers on homework to keeping smiles going throughout the day, you're why children feel safe. You're their comfort. And despite your own sorrow and fear, your own crushed heart in the wake of this awful tragedy, you're going to be there for these kids each and every day no matter what. You know that, and they do, too.

I'm not going to address the discussions happening all over the internet and news about gun control, mental illness, etc etc, because honestly, all those proposed safety plans pale in comparison to recognizing and caring for the front line heroes we send our children to each day.

Today, I salute elementary school staff. The people who look after and protect the hearts of kids who are not their own, but who they love like they are. Terror hit on Friday, but you're pushing through that to help others, and nothing is more heroic than that. Thank you. Thank you for giving children a safe place to learn.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Weekly Science Roundup #12

It's a space-themed week in the Science Roundup. And no, not just because of the announcement of $1.5 billion missions to the moon that Golden Spike plans to offer for later this century (though that's pretty cool, too).

Instead, we start out with a mission that began in 1977...

1. Voyager 1 Reaches Final Region of Solar System

Soon, Voyager 1 will finally exit the area of space influenced by our sun. While this is cool news, some people might be scratching their heads and wondering, "Wait, didn't it do that already? Or something similar?". The answer is of course, no. However, it's not a surprise that there's confusion on the issue. The only reason we've been able to properly determine the edge of our Solar System is through the Voyager missions, after all, so it's really up to Voyager's reports to let us know where the true edge is. 

Turns out it's very close now. In 2004 Voyager 1 passed through the Termination Shock into a turbulent area of solar winds known as the heliosheath. But this past July, Voyager 1 has been sending back readings of intense magnetic fields with charged particles bouncing all over instead of a supersonic charged particle wind like it'd been experiencing in the heliosheath. However, recently it's clear that the particles are coming from both inside our heliosphere (the area of our sun's influence), and outside it. There's a new wind, so to speak. Interstellar magnetic fields are mixing in with our sun's fields. 

In other words, we're almost out. There are particles from beyond our solar system getting detected by Voyager 1, and scientists suspect that within two years we'll have finally crossed over beyond our heliosphere and out into interstellar space. It's really happening, guys. We're about to leave our Solar System...

...just as we gain a better understanding of how our sun may have formed in the first place.

2. New Chemical Bonding Discovery Gives Insight Into Star Life Cycle

White dwarf stars form at the end of a star's life cycle, and are incredibly dense. Like, unbelievably dense. But how? And what does this mean for other parts of a star's life cycle?

A new answer has been proposed to explain this density. A group of scientists have created a model of an as-of-yet undescribed type of chemical bonding that works through some pretty serious magnetic fields. Fields that make anything we could create here on Earth just plain pathetic.

These magnetic fields put atoms into bonding situations we can't even hope to replicate with our current tools, so for now all experiments have been done through computer modeling. However, with this new idea in mind, astrophysicists may be able to go forth and observe this phenomena in the natural world. It's not every day you get the chance to test out the existence of a newly discovered type of chemical bonding, after all.

And in our final piece of news...

3. Okay, Yes, Another Asteroid is Coming but it is NOT BRINGING ABOUT THE APOCALYPSE

4179 Toutatis will pass by Earth on December 12th, but with a nice wide berth (over 4.3 million miles away). It's not bringing doomsday, and it is highly unlikely this asteroid ever will. So with rumors already starting regarding this space rock, this is just a reminder that seriously...the world isn't ending anytime soon.

What is exciting, is that 4179 Toutatis will give scientists a chance to study a pretty wonky space object somewhat up close. The thing is shaped almost like a peanut, and tumbles through space along its longer axis while it also precesses (or wobbles) like a top. The thing is, every time it gets close to something big, like the sun for instance, its mass shifts and its movement shifts, too. It makes for quite the challenge to study.

Its peanut shape raises load of questions about its formation. Did something smaller once hit it, messing up its shape? Did it once split apart and is now reforming back together? With the asteroid's approach this week, its these types of questions that may start to be answered. And the more questions we can answer about asteroid formation, the more we'll understand the formation of the solar system and our own planet...

...Which, by the way, isn't going to be destroyed soon. Just to make that, once again, abundantly clear. I suppose I'll have a blog post regarding that particular nonsense later this month, though, as the newest "end of the world date" draws nearer.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Novel Update

I'm currently working on my most ambitious project yet. It's a near-future semi-sci-fi middle grade novel with oodles of characters and even more twists and turns. I have a rough first draft written (not including the ending, because the originally planned ending has changed). My main character in this story shares my love of logic and planning, but is even more extreme than I am when it comes to organization. In the spirit of her, I've decided to approach the novel just like she would.

As such, I've made lists of everything that must be done before I can tackle Draft 2. I've also made pretty graphs and charts that are yet to be filled in with the following information. Since part of the goal of this blog is to share my writing process with others, here's what I've come up with:

For my major characters (6 people) I must flesh out for each:

- a character arc
- the main lesson(s) learned
- special skill and its use in the novel
- a diary entry from their perspective all regarding the same scene
- family and cultural background
- physical description

For all other characters (about 20-some people or groups of people) I must list:

- name
- age
- description
- motivations
- plot events they trigger for the MCs

Then it's onto the chapter breakdowns. For each chapter I must outline:

- setting
- action
- character development
- technical notes (this is sci-fi, future-y, and must have all tech stuff make sense)

Then I need to draw out and detail two major locations, and two other major tech-y devices that play big roles in the story.

Finally, I want to attempt to write a query letter for the novel just to aid me in picking out the parts that matter the most and confirm what my story is centered around.

I want to begin Draft 2 in January. So I have less than a month to accomplish all this background stuff (you know, in my spare time outside of work and when my brain is fuddled with steroids and pain meds) (I sprained my knee, for those not in the know). I'm not sure how I'm going to do it, but I'm going to try my best. If I can pull this novel off, it's going to be the most complex and epic thing I've ever written.

*Stares at above lists*. But uh...yeah. I certainly have my work cut out for me.

(And for anyone wondering, no, this isn't my NaNoWriMo novel. I drafted this particular novel during Summer 2012.)

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Weekly Science Roundup #11

NaNoWriMo is over (and I won for the fourth year in a row!) so now it's back to your regularly scheduled blogging.

Since it turns out the biggest science story is not from Mars after all, we'll instead lead in with...

1. Water and Organics Found on MERCURY (Didn't see that one coming.)

Yes, that's right. The closest planet to the Sun and the second hottest planet in the solar system apparently has frozen water and likely even organic material stuck in the shadowy craters at its poles.

On Thursday, NASA reported that multiple studies have confirmed the existence of water ice at the poles, something once thought impossible. However, despite being so close to the Sun, thanks to the tilt of the planet certain craters at Mercury's poles are in constant shadow and can actually remain at cool enough temperatures for ice to form.

As if discovering water ice on Mercury isn't enough, scientists also now suspect the dark material at the poles contains complex organic compounds, most likely delivered by asteroid or comet collisions (also likely the reason for the ice).

This is really cool news. It shows even in a hostile environment like Mercury, the basic building blocks exist for life to form. That might mean that in the universe, it's not uncommon for these basic things to exist together in many, many places. But do they always lead to life? Clearly not. Scientists are almost completely certain that despite water and organics on Mercury, life never formed there.

Now if only we could get this type of news from Mars. (HINT HINT, Curiosity.) (Yes, I still might be smarting over the rumors from last week.) Okay, onto something that will get me excited again.

2. DNA Photographed!

Credit: Enzo Di Fabrizio

WHOA! This is super cool, you guys. SUPER COOL.

For the first time ever, DNA has been directly photographed! Enzo Di Fabrizio, a physics professor at the Magna Graecia University in Catanzaro, Italy, used an electron microscope to get the image above.

Along with his colleagues, Di Fabrizio got strands of DNA to get "stuck" stretched between two silicon pillars and sent a bunch of electrons through the silicon. The molecules were then illuminated and captured on camera.

Now, this image isn't actually one isolated double helix. It's actually a few DNA strands wrapped around each other. The procedure used to photograph them would actually damage a single DNA strand too badly and it would disintegrate if it wasn't a part of a collection of DNA strands. In the future, they hope to modify their techniques so that they can get an image of one double helix. Then perhaps even move onto RNA! For a bio nerd like me, these are some really exciting prospects.

However, the geo nerd side of me loves THIS story:

3. Grand Canyon Much Older Than We Thought!

The generally accepted age of the Grand Canyon in Arizona is around 6-7 million years old, but new evidence suggests it might be closer to 70 million.

"Our research implies that the Grand Canyon was directly carved to within a few hundred meters of its modern depth by about 70 million years ago," said Dr. Rebecca Flowers of CU-Boulder. She and her team looked at the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium atoms to helium in the mineral apatite to determine at what point the rock of the canyon walls got close to the surface from the effects of erosion. She makes it clear that this new date only applies to the Western portion of the canyon, and that other sections of the canyon may have formed later and combined together into what we see today.

The Grand Canyon has been notoriously difficult to date, so this new date will likely be met with controversy. However, I think this new dating method described in the article above has a lot of merit to it, and wouldn't be surprised if it's close to correct.

If it is, that means when you visit the Grand Canyon and stand looking down into it, you could conceivably be standing where a T. rex once stood, gazing at a nearly identical sight.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Maybe Not

Okay, so apparently NASA people have not found anything all-too-thrilling on Mars, despite saying that they had. I am amused how they refer to the exciting news as "rumors", conveniently leaving out that it was their own people that started them.

Source: Copyright Maki

Oh well. Onwards, Curiosity! Go forth and find something real to hype us all up!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

We now interrupt NaNoWriMo because SOMETHING IS HAPPENING






Wednesday, October 31, 2012

SVP Highlights: Biodiversity Hotspots

Hello, blog world! NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow, so today I begin my recap posts from the 72nd Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meeting. (Fingers crossed that I've correctly read all their fine print about what I'm allowed to post about.) Without further ado, I present to you the first of a series of brief SVP highlights that I'll post throughout the month as I work on my NaNoWriMo novel. Here we go!

Biodiversity Hotspots: Centers of Evolution?

Biodiversity hotspots are where oodles of animals live—levels of variety seen nowhere else on Earth. There are hotspots of biodiversity in the world today, such as the rainforests of Indonesia and the Amazon. Likely, there were hotspots in the past as well.

Around 150-100 million years ago, it seems there was such a hotspot actually fairly close to the modern day Amazon. It was located in what is now Columbia and it is the focal point of this blog post.

In Hans Larsson’s SVP talk on October 17th, 2012, he proposed that hotspots of biodiversity are actually the cradles of evolution. They might be where most new species originate. This makes a certain amount of sense: the more species already there, the more likely different morphs will turn up and speciate into new lineages. 

To test this, Larsson looked at the fossil record of Columbia during its hotspot time. He found tons of fossils and huge diversity among the remains, solidifying the idea that this area was a hotspot. Beyond this, he also found that this fossil locality happens to be where the earliest members of many animal lineages are found (including possibly the earliest true sea turtle!). 

So is this evidence that hotspots are also the places where evolution tends to leap forward? Possibly. Personally, I think it’s a really cool idea, but it needs to be tested further. We need to make sure there isn’t another reason they’re finding the earliest members of modern lineages in that area. Could it be that these early sea turtles, for instance, could actually be found many other, non-hotspot places that just didn’t end up preserving in the fossil record? I don't know the answer to that, but I'm certain qualified people are looking into this. Probably even Hans Larsson himself. After all, this is a question that the fossil record can answer better than any study of modern living things.


Larsson H. "THE CRETACEOUS NEOTROPICS: COLOMBIAN VERTEBRATES AT THE BOUNDARY OF SHIFTING ENVIRONMENTS AND THE MESOZOIC MARINE INTERCHANGE". Talk. Society of Vertebrate Paleontology 72nd Annual Meeting. Raleigh Convention Center, Raleigh, North Carolina. 17 October 2012.

Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2012, p. 8.

Monday, October 22, 2012

SVP Highlights and November Blog Plans

Two thoughts converge into one!

1. I've been trying to collect all my notes from SVP (the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting I was at last week) and put them together into one super cool post. However, even by cutting out discussions on over 3/4s of all the talks I went to, there's still way too much.

2. Since November will be filled with NaNoWriMo, very soon I will have zero time for blogging.

Thus...idea born! For the next month,watch this blog for posts every other day that focus on one new idea or discovery in paleontology. I’ll get them all prepared ahead of time, so I won’t be swamped with blogging during NaNoWriMo, and you will get to see them over the course of November, so there won’t be any dry spell on my blog. It’s genius! Or at least, it’s a reasonably well thought-out plan.

The posts will be under the header “SVP Highlights”, and will be filled with cool fossil science that I guarantee will get you thinking about paleontology in a whole new way. The first of these posts will begin this week, even though it’s not November yet. One month of every-other-day posts just isn’t enough! I have tons of awesome things to share with you all, and to fit it all in, I’ll need to get a move on these highlights in late October. So keep your eyes peeled!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Musings on SVP

Imagine, for a moment, that you once studied an obscure language for many, many years. You studied this language to the point of near fluency, but then were suddenly cut off from anyone who spoke it. You adjusted. You went back to speaking the language spoken natively in your country. Years later, however, you were kidnapped and dropped off in a nation where the primary language just so happened to be the one oddball one you'd studied previously. It all comes crashing back to you in a way you didn't realize your brain could even manage.

This is what the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meeting has been like for me.

© 2012 The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

I left the world of academic paleontology three years ago with a Masters instead of a PhD. And when I sat down Tuesday to listen to the first paleontological conference talk of the mind was blown. Not just by the talk...but by what I understood from the talk. I had completely forgotten that I knew all those words! Paleo geek-speak is like another language--a language I had forgotten I'd ever known in the first place.

And beyond merely exercising a vocabulary that's been collecting dust in my brain, this week I've gotten the rare chance to witness what my life would have been if I hadn't left grad school. Two roads diverged, and I chose the road less traveled, but what would've become of me if I hadn't? Now I think I know.

I would've been here. Just as I am now. At this conference.

Except I would've been presenting research. I would have new results on Miocene ape locomotion, using new fossils that hadn't been discovered when I left grad school three years ago. I would've been using new analytical methods, like geo-morphometrics (an increasingly popular method I've seen and semi-drooled over during several talks this week). I would've swarmed the tables of free reprints, snatching up all ape-related journal articles like someone was handing out cash.

Oh wait. I just did that last one. Old habits are hard to break?

Ahem. Anyhow. In a lot of ways, I've gotten a glimpse at what PhD-me would've been like this week. It's...weird, to say the least. But in other ways, it's also helping me to bring closure to that horrifically difficult decision I made three years ago.

I made the right decision. I've known that this entire time, but being back in the academia environment confirms it. I love paleontology. I've loved this week. I've geeked out over pretty much every talk I've been at (and believe me, I've been at a lot...there are twenty four possible talks to see each day if you time things right). And while I've enjoyed being back and catching up on all the newest research...I have had zero wishes or desires to contribute to the research.

And that's why I know I made the right choice.

I love learning about prehistoric life and evolution. I love teaching about it. I love writing about it. I love introducing others to it.

But I do not love tearing my hair out as my statistical analyses all contradict one another, having professors breathe down my neck about my data collection methods, or finding out my dig site has been closed due to overseas rioting, therefore putting research on hold. None of that is any fun. And to me, publishing my very own research was just not worth any of that stress.

This isn't to say I didn't like my research. I did. And at times, I miss it. Just not badly enough to make a lifetime career out of it. If you're going to get a PhD, you must love what you're doing enough to put aside all other interests. I couldn't do that. I like too many different things. And what I love wasn't research at all...

...It was teaching. And so here I am. Three years later, back at SVP. This time, as a representative from my museum instead of as a grad student. It's been an identity-crisis kind of week. I know I'm here from my museum where I work a professional full-time job, but I keep reverting back to "grad school" me. (Case in point: I seriously do have a stack of reprints on my hotel desk right now that I scavenged from the freebie table. Am I ever going to use these? No. Could I resist grabbing them in a race against other students? No. "Grad school" me is kind of a scary person.)

So I guess the moral of all this is that while it's been nice to visit, I'm glad I no longer live in the world of academic paleontology. Science education and communication is where I belong. It's where I'm happy, comfortable, and productive. I'm glad I've retained the skills needed to survive a week of paleontological discussions (you gotta log-correct your data for those principal components analyses if you're going to rule out body mass in your efforts to demonstrate axial skeletal morphological variation, or you'll never resolve that paraphyletic tree...and then how would you even begin sorting out how much vertebral loading changes anterior-posteriorly throughout ontogeny within each clade?). It's nice to be able to keep up with what's being said in the talks. So for the ability to do that, I thank you, grad school.

And I tip my hat to the new generation of grad students, and especially to doctoral candidate Ashley Hammond of the University of Missouri. She's working on a lot of the things I was hoping to work on in my own PhD pursuits. She gave a fantastic talk this week on suspensory adaptations in Miocene apes, using measurements of hip abduction from living taxa. I now feel I can retire from the world of paleontological research without guilt. She's got this Miocene ape locomotion stuff covered (and, dare I say, much more impressively than I likely would've managed).

Stay tuned for SVP highlights (read: cool new paleo discoveries!) to be posted in a few days.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Weekly Science Roundup #10

They extract the preserved blood from the mosquito, and bingo: dino DNA!

...or not. It's Weekly Science Roundup Time!

1. Jurassic Park Just a Dream?

New research shows that DNA, like other chemical substances, has a decay rate known as a half-life. This research shows that DNA's half-life is 521 years. That means every 521 years, half of its bonds break (or decay away). Then 521 years later, half of what's left decays away. And so on, and so forth.

Practically speaking, this means DNA over 1.5 million years-old would be unreadable and basically just a mess of mostly broken bonds. After 6.8 million years, every single bond would have been broken and there'd be nothing left to even pick at. Therefore, 65 million year-old dinosaur DNA would be impossible to read, much less use to clone a dinosaur.

However, with this research being done on the bones of extinct moa (giant birds from New Zealand that died out thousands of years ago), it actually proves that cloning an extinct dinosaur is totally plausible. The moa DNA is less than 1.5 million years-old. We could therefore use it to bring back their species! Since birds are dinosaurs, we'd have actually achieved the Jurassic Park dream. It might not be a T. rex, but it'd still be bringing back an extinct dinosaur from the grave, which would totally count as awesome in my book.

2. Asteroid Fly-By

Lines point to the asteroid. Copyright: Gianluca Masi

Asteroid 2012 TC4 flew by Earth on Friday, just about 60,000 miles away from Earth's surface. That's only a quarter of the distance from here to the Moon!

However, the asteroid itself was only about the size of a house. Yes, a house is big, but a house-sized asteroid hitting Earth wouldn't mean worldwide devastation. Local devastation, sure, but not worldwide. ;)

In any case, scientists were positive it wouldn't hit our planet, despite flying by so close to us. But this is a great reminder of why we need to keep pushing forward with space missions and research. There are asteroids that come close to Earth, and at some point there's sure to be one that puts our world at risk. We know asteroid collisions are possible, we've got the brainpower to figure out how to stop them, we just need the funding to get the programs in place. Vote science! It may save your life! </minipoliticalstatement>.

3. Curiosity Finds Another Cool Rock!

In other space news, Curiosity is still shooting lasers at rocks and has yet again found something unexpected. 

Similar to a bizarre type of igneous rock from Earth, this rock likely formed from (possibly water-rich) magma getting pushed up through Mars' mantle. On Earth, the crystals in this only form when magma is water-rich, so this adds to the growing pile of evidence that H20 was present at least at some point in Mars' past, and possibly still around today. Eep! It's just getting more and more likely that water played a real role in Mars' past.

I hope I get to report again next Roundup about another cool rock Curiosity finds! Go, Curiosity, go!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Weekly Science Roundup #9

Back in action! This week, meet a spiky dinosaur face-to-face, learn the truth about Vitamin C, and holy cow, a new comet!

1. The Newest Fanged Plant-Eating Dinosaur of AWESOME

Pegomastax africanus is the newest heterodontosaur dinosaur discovery, and is possibly the most bizarre one yet. Heterodontosaurs are dinosaurs that have differently shaped teeth, and were some of the earliest dinosaurs to ever evolve. This new specimen dates to around 200 million years ago.

Pegomastax has a beak-like front to his jaw, curved like a parrot's, then has big sharp fangs (possibly for battling other Pegomastax), and finally in the back, several tall teeth good for eating plants.

Paleontologists aren't completely certain that the fangs weren't for meat-eating, but it seems unlikely based on their wear patterns. There are modern animals (muntjacs, anyone?) that both have fangs and live as herbivores, and that seems to be the case here.

Also, did I mention this dinosaur is tiny? It's only around the size of a house cat. And it's covered in bristly spines. Is there anything about this animal that isn't amazing to imagine?

2. You don't need to take daily Vitamin C and D pills. Really.

Really. Yes, we need these vitamins in our lives, but at least for people who eat a typical diet (read: almost everyone), you get all you need from your food.

"But what about when preventing colds?" you ask, "Doesn't extra C help keep you from getting sick?"

No. Taking vitamin supplements doesn't prevent colds. This has been demonstrated time and time again with Vitamin C, and the newest study takes down Vitamin D as well.

There's zero evidence that either type of supplement lower your risk for getting sick. There is possibly evidence that Vitamin C speeds up your recovery during a cold by potentially up to 12 hours, but that result hasn't been replicated with much accuracy. The bottom line, is that as long as you're drinking OJ/eating a piece of fruit/enjoying some broccoli in your life with some frequency, you're golden on your vitamin levels.

Still unconvinced? Hoping to harness the (possible, maybe half-day speedier) beneficial effects of Vitamin C when you're sick? Just drink an extra half glass of OJ, and you're more than set. It's cheaper, more natural, and tastier. Done and done.

3. New Comet Discovered!

A new comet has been sighted! The Russian discoverers saw comet 2012 S1 passing by Saturn last week, and it's been since revealed that this comet should pass by Earth at the end of next year. That is, if it survives its trip past our sun in a few months.

The comet is over a mile wide, and could potentially be one of the brightest comets in history. As it sails past the sun, gas and dust will be blasted off it, giving it a huge tail and creating conditions for it to be super reflective as it goes by Earth. Scientists can't be certain of just how bright it will actually look (or even if, once again, it'll survive long enough to pass us), but if things go as predicted, it should put on a seriously awesome show next year. How awesome? Well, imagine a ball of ice dashing past us and shining as bright as---

Wait. No. I must restrain myself from over-hyping how cool this thing will look could end up being until the actual flyby date gets closer...


Still restraining...

...This is going to be a long year.

Friday, October 5, 2012


My friend and fellow member of my writers' group interviewed me on her blog today. You can find the interview here!

Tara Sullivan is an amazing author whose debut novel, GOLDEN BOY, will be hitting the shelves next summer. GOLDEN BOY follows the story of Habo, a 13 year-old albino boy in Africa, as he struggles to discover his own self worth while others hunt him down for a twisted form of "luck" medicine. It's a suspenseful, heart-tugging, beautifully written story, and I can't wait for everyone to get a chance to read it next year.

As it's debut date gets closer, I hope to repay Tara and do an interview with her on my own blog! Additionally, I'll be posting a special blog entry next spring about the genetics of albinism, and what it means, medically, for those who are albino.

Thanks again for the interview, Tara! I look forward to hosting you on Discoverific! in a few months!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Curiosity Discovers an Ancient Streambed

There's conglomerate on Mars.


In the newest update from Curiosity, they've gotten the first photographic evidence of an ancient streambed with actual rounded gravel cemented together as solid rock over time. This cemented-together gravel is known as conglomerate, and is a type of sedimentary rock that forms from river deposits.

These stones were rounded via liquid water at some time in the past, and were left behind when the river dried up. Only a quickly traveling liquid could round these stones in this way and leave them deposited in streaks like those Curiosity has discovered. Previous study from earlier rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) proved that the most common liquid on Mars in its history would've been H20, because of the mineral deposits found in the dirt on Mars. Therefore, it's almost certain that the liquid that rounded these stones was from a stream of water.

All photo credits to NASA

And not just any stream. Before now we just knew some water was possible some time in Mars' past. Now we know it's not just "some" water. This was a stream at least ankle deep, but possibly even knee deep in sections, and moving at three feet per second. Three feet per second! And it likely stretched on a long, long ways across the crater where Curiosity is hanging out. This was a serious stream. The thick layers of stone also suggest this wasn't a one time deal: this stream existed for a long period of time, with cycles of flooding and drying.

Wow. This is amazing.

It's been less than two months and Curiosity has already found an ancient, fast-moving stream that could easily have hosted some sort of life. However, the question of whether life was possible on Mars (which is Curiosity's most important job) is still up in the air. Curiosity has found signs of significant amounts of water, but there are many other requirements still missing.

Good thing Curiosity is designed to last at least two entire years more. I can't wait to see what she finds next.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

GUTGAA: Tagged!

I was tagged by Lauren Barrett, and now must answer a series of questions about my book. I'm presuming this is meant for the book I'm currently querying and GUTGAA-ing (is that a word?), so here we go!

What is the working title of your book?

ENDANGERED. This is actually the current working title of my book. It used to have a different title, but then I had a critique by an agent at an SCBWI conference. She not only hated my old title, but also explained why it would make it difficult for kids to find my book in libraries and stores. I could've lived with an agent hating the title. But kids not being able to find my book? That didn't sound good to me. Since I wasn't married to my old title, I immediately went about coming up with a new one.

This new title is growing on me. I'm not in love with it, though, so I don't think I'll have trouble changing it again in the future if my publisher wants something different. You know, my imaginary publisher. *gazes wistfully*

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It came to me as I drove from NYC to Boston over three years ago for a job interview (for a job I ended up getting, and for a place I still work for today!). I wanted to write something that would get kids interested in protecting the planet, and tried to think back to what kind of fantasies I had as a kid for inspiration. My biggest fantasy (the one I acted out in my head on long car drives when I was around 8-10 years-old) was finding an abandoned animal by the side of the road. In my fantasy, I'd yell, "STOP THE CAR!" and we'd pull over and there'd be some animal in a box and I'd have to take it home and care for it, because no one else would.

By the time I'd arrived in Boston that day, I'd not only come up with the premise for my novel, I'd come up with six of the characters. The premise shifted quite a bit as I started writing, but the characters have been the same since they landed in my brain three years ago.

What genre does your book fall under?

It's primarily adventure, though a fantastical element drives the plot, so it's also fantasy. There's mystery involved. Oh, and it's contemporary. My usual fallback description is MG Fantasy Adventure, though I always worry that isn't quite right.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I really have no clue. I don't know the names of most actors, and since my characters are kids, anyone who looks their age now would never look their age in a few years when this would be anywhere near the realm of possibility.

Once I saw a girl who was perfect for one of my main characters, though. She was standing on a street corner in the rain. I wanted to pull over and shout, "HEY! YOU NEED TO PLAY MADDIE WHEN THEY MAKE A MOVIE OUT OF MY BOOK!"

I decided against terrifying the child and just drove on. I did end up making cartoon versions of my main trio once on an online character creater, though:

Maddie, Hayden, and Liam. My main trio.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

When Maddie's Spirit Animal monkey gets sick it means woolly spider monkeys are about to go extinct, and although she's only in sixth grade, she must travel with wildlife Guardians to Brazil to save the species from poachers before it's too late.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I won't self-publish it. I only want it out there if it'll be repped by an agent and published through traditional methods. I don't disagree with self-publishing, but it's not for me.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

One month. November, 2009. I did NaNoWriMo for the first time ever that year, celebrating my new-found free time (grad school was finally over). I spent the next two years revising and rewriting, of course, but NaNoWriMo was a great way to push out a first draft.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest? 

MONKEYS! There are monkeys.

But if you're the type of reader who's looking for more than monkeys, you might also like to know that while the premise is about saving species, the focus is actually on my trio of main characters. I love writing middle grade precisely because of the internal journeys kids take at that age. For instance, out of my main trio, Maddie in particular faces many challenges beyond rescuing monkeys. Her biggest is overcoming peer ridicule and standing for what she believes in, despite everyone else in her life telling her she's crazy. It's her story of finding inner strength that actually keeps pushing me to get this thing published, more than the environmental aspect of it.

As another side note, I've actually written two sequels to this book already. But shh! Don't tell the agents. ;) ENDANGERED can stand alone just fine.

Now to play tag!

I tag Juliana Brandt, because her blog sometimes has adorable dog pictures in its posts and I'm hoping to see at least one pop up in this questionnaire (if she chooses to answer it).

Monday, September 17, 2012

Japanese River Otter: Extinct

This is all we'll ever get to see of the Japanese River Otter for the rest of our existence. It was declared extinct by Japan's Ministry of the Environment on August 28th after over 30 years of no wild observations.

Along with the river otter, the newly updated list of extinct animals includes a subspecies of Asian black bear and horseshoe bat.

We often take moments of silence to remember people who have lost their lives. If you can, please take a moment today to reflect on the loss of entire species.

And more than just a moment of silence, I believe we should mourn this loss through action as well. Could you donate to a wildlife rescue organization this week? Or take some time to pick up trash in a park or at the beach? Maybe sign a petition for habitat protection? Anything. Just please...don't let these species slip away without even a nod of recognition in their direction.

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
-Dylan Thomas

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

How Paleontology Prepared Me For Writing Fiction

I didn’t go to school to be an author. Sure, I took some side courses in literature and creative writing, but my focus was on science.

My passion is science. Literature and writing is a secondary love. For people whose primary love is the latter, then majoring in English/Writing, going onto MFAs, etc, is a great path. But it wasn’t mine. And to be honest, I don’t feel like I needed that path to teach me the skills to write fiction. 

To be a fiction author, you must love stories. You must be creative. You must have a basic grasp of sentence structure and grammar. You must learn to take critique and improve your work based on the suggestions of others. You must be okay with the idea that you can’t please everyone.

Let’s look at those one by one to see how the profession of science fits each.

1.       You must love stories. 

Scientists love stories. They devote their life to finding the story behind everything around us. Paleontologists are looking for the story of how life got to be how it is today. They’re looking for the lost stories. The stories of creatures that lived before us. The stories we missed observing.  Being a scientist is having a thirst for a fuller picture. Science is story.

2.       You must be creative.

Scientists base their careers on asking, “What if?” Hypotheses cannot come about without creative thought. Throw a babble of information at a scientist, and they’ll use their creative minds to find how it fits together. Paleontologists must have imagination to do their work, because the creatures they study generally don’t exist anymore! They get a skeleton (or less) to look at, and from that they must piece together the life and death of an animal no one has ever seen before. If that’s not the basis for character development, I don’t know what is.

3.       You must have a basic grasp of sentence structure and grammar.

A huge part of science is communication. Scientists are nothing if they can’t get their ideas across to others. Now, some may argue that scientists are terrible at communicating, because no one understands them. That’s just not true. Scientists may use words people are not accustomed to, but that doesn't mean they're speaking incorrectly. Their grammar is just fine. It has to be, or they’d never get published in any academic journals. Now, as with all writers, some are better writers than others. But the point stands that to be a successful scientist, you must be able to write in a clear, understandable way. (Understandable at least, to your peers who know the lingo.)

Writing up my paleo research definitely honed my skills as a writer. I wanted others to understand all the cool things I was figuring out. I had to discipline myself to double check my grammar, read sentences out loud, and edit continuously. It was a lot of work, but now as a fiction writer I have those great habits already built in.

4.       You must learn to take critique and improve your work based on the suggestions of others. 

This is a doozy. Scientists do not pull punches when it comes to critiquing each other. No one is nice. It’s a cutthroat profession. You pour your soul into a project, and the professors around you destroy it with barely a glance. Sometimes they’re wrong, and you’re right. If that’s the case, you likely did not present your argument clearly enough. Or, the professor is a jerk. That happens, too. Or, you just need to suck it up and change something, because the professor has, in fact, found a legitimate problem with your work. In any case, you must develop a thick, thick skin and handle changing things based on what other people say.

5.       You must be okay with the idea that you can’t please everyone.

Finally, scientists never all agree on one thing. They might be on board with some general ideas (gravity, for example), but they'll nitpick the details to death and argue with each other to death as well. That's what drives science. If everyone just agreed with each other, no idea would ever be challenged and we'd still be convinced that the sun goes around Earth.

Because of this, when you present scientific research you must expect criticism and disagreement. You can try to change minds, but it doesn't always work. There will always be someone who disagrees with you. There will always be a negative review. You just have to learn to accept that.

I hope this clears up some things. I've had a few people question why, as a science nerd, I write fiction rather than non-fiction. Or why I bother writing at all. There seems to be a weird division, a sort of "right brain/left brain" dissonance, in which people put science and literature at opposite ends of a spectrum. It doesn't have to be that way. Really!

People of any profession can write fiction. And those various professions can have useful lessons that can be repurposed for fiction writing. There is no right or wrong path on the road to becoming an author, after all. If you want to write, then write!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Weekly Science Roundup #8

After a blog hiatus, it's good to be back in the swing of things! I've missed sharing the newest, awesomest science with you all.

1. Remote Controlled Cockroaches. Seriously.

New research done at North Carolina State University has resulted in cockroaches that people can steer around remotely. I'm not kidding. WE NOW HAVE REMOTE CONTROLLED COCKROACHES.

By strapping a biologically interfacing robotic backpack (read: gizmo) to a cockroach's back, people can actually control where the roach is going. Little signals get sent to the cockroach's sensory system, tricking them into moving. Manipulative? Sure. But it's actually for a good cause.

The goal is to create a biological task force that can infiltrate rubble during disasters to search for trapped humans. People have been trying to design robots to do this, but this innovative team of researchers decided, "Why mess with perfection?". Cockroaches are amazing survivors, super durable, and can climb around on almost any surface. Sending in a fleet of roboticized cockroaches to unstable, earthquake/bomb-struck areas is just pure genius. Pure. Genius.

And speaking of using animals to help out...

2. Sea Otters Lend Their Adorable, Fuzzy Paws In The Fight Against Global Warming

A new study suggests that by crunching on urchins, sea otters could indirectly reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere. This is because sea urchins decimate kelp forests, which utilize CO2 in photosynthesis, and by reducing urchins, you therefore increase kelp.

Kelp is extremely great at using up CO2, more-so than most other plants. If we let more kelp grow in our oceans, we may see some drop in CO2 quantities in the air. That's pretty darn useful, if you ask me.

This whole thing might seem like a simple idea (it is), but the concept of using animals to help reduce CO2 is actually new. Saving endangered sea otters can now be thought of as another way to save ourselves, rather than just a way to stop their singular species from going extinct. I think that's both insightful and practical. Kudos to the team behind this study for thinking outside the box.

And now, onwards to the story I've been waiting this whole post to get to...

3. Supervolcano in Hong Kong!!!

So it turns out, Hong Kong is on top of a supervolcano. A SUPERVOLCANO. But don't worry, it's extinct.

To be more specific, geologists have recently determined that parts of Hong Kong and its outer isles reside on top of an ancient supervolcano. That's where its lovely hexagonal basaltic rock formations come from. There were some intense lava flows there a long time ago. Really intense.

A supervolcano is exactly what it sounds like: a humongous, ungodly large volcano. This one was likely eleven miles across. Just think about that for a moment. Let that sink in. An eleven mile wide volcano.

Now that you've picture it, calm down. It's been not only dormant, but actually extinct (no way, no how it can erupt) now for over a hundred million years. So we don't have to worry about evacuating Hong Kong. Seriously, don't worry.

What's awesome about this is that major geological features, such as supervolcanoes, have mostly been assumed to have been discovered already. So to realize there's one right under such a major human population is pretty astounding. For a geology geek such as myself, this deserves all the spots on this Weekly Science Roundup. But I held myself in check and just kept it as one of the three posts. You're welcome.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Gearing Up To Get An Agent: Intro Post!

So here's the deal, followers: for the next month, I'm going to be participating in a blog hop called "Gearing Up To Get An Agent" (graciously hosted by Deana Barnhart). The goal of this blog hop is to connect writers who are in the process of querying agents (like I am) and maybe even snag some agent attention along the way.

Science-y posts shall continue, never fear! I'm back from my end of August hiatus and will restart my Weekly Science Roundups and other posts now that September has arrived. However, in addition to my regular posts, I'll be participating in this awesome blog hop. It's my first hop ever, and I'm excited to get going!

So without further ado, here is my intro post:


Here's what you need to know about me: I'm a little nerdy. Maybe more than a little. But at least I embrace it, right?

Anyway, while "nerd" sums me up pretty well, I probably should give some more details for the purposes of this blog hop. My name is Katie, I'm 27, and I work as an educator for a big science museum (that Shall Not Be Named). I'm also trained as a paleontologist (Masters, not PhD, full disclosure). I was en route to get a PhD and then decided that I didn't want to live out my days in dusty basements measuring bones. I preferred sharing my enthusiasm for fossils with people who might not know much about them, rather than those who already had an appreciation for evolution. So I left my program and couldn't be happier for it.

Now I teach kids and the general public not only about paleontology, but also about astronomy, zoology, geology, meteorology, physics, and engineering. I've worked on the side for museums and zoos my whole life, and now I get to make a living off of this awesome career path. I love it.

So where does writing fit in? Well, that's been a lifelong love as well. I wrote my first "novel" in elementary school and haven't stopped writing since. Nowadays I write middle grade fiction, focusing on stories with a science connection.

I have a cat named Galileo who is too smart for me to keep up with, I play golf and viola (neither particularly well), I have a homemade Harry Potter wand, several lightsabers, and a talking two-foot tall Captain Jack Sparrow. Pinkie Pie is best pony, Michigan is going to have a great season despite losing to Alabama, and life, uh...finds a way.

Onto the questions!

Where do you write?

Either at my desk or on the far-right end of my sofa in the living room.

Quick. Go to your writing space, sit down, and look to your left. What is the first thing you see?

Desk: my cowboy hat. Sofa: A plastic pok├ęball. 

Favorite time to write?

Early morning before I have to go to work (like 6 am). Waking up and diving into writing before my brain remembers all the lovely distractions of the internet keeps me productive.

Drink of choice when writing?

Coffee is disgusting, but it keeps me awake and focused. So my drink of choice is coffee (cold) with lots of added sugar/creme/fancy flavors. 

When writing, do you listen to music or do you need complete silence?

Music, please! At a low volume, preferably.

What was your inspiration for your latest manuscript and where did you find it?

Latest completed manuscript? Or latest Work In Progress? I'll go with latest WIP so I don't ramble for too long. My inspiration came when I was driving one day, thinking about what science fields I knew enough about to base a story around. I realized I hadn't written any stories about space before, and about thirty seconds later I knew what I had to write. All it took was remembering what kids got most excited about during my planetarium shows. The biggest thing that inspired them. And boom, I had a premise for my new WIP.

What is your most valuable writing tip?

Set word count goals. And give yourself prizes for meeting them. You can be an amazing writer, but if you don't get the words on the page, it means nothing. Meanwhile, for those of us that aren't naturally amazing writers (*cough*me*cough*), busting out tons of material improves your writing just by sheer numbers. Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes. Follow-up tip: join a critique group! Again, for us non-naturally talented, this is a great opportunity to practice editing. This only serves to help when it's time to revise your own manuscript.

Whew! That was a long post. Thanks for reading if you actually made it through the whole thing. Looking forward to the rest of this blog hop!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

RIP Neil Armstrong

I've returned from a wonderful camping trip to the sad news that Neil Armstrong passed away on August 25th.

His spirit will live on not just in aspiring astronauts, but in adventurers, pioneers, and explorers of all walks of life.

May he rest in peace knowing just how many small steps and giant leaps he inspired.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Weekly Science Roundup #7

This week, we have three stories that are somewhat surprising and somewhat controversial in nature.

1. Ichthyosaurs got the bends?

While it may seem almost ridiculous, ancient marine reptiles suffered from the same condition human divers can get: the bends.

These reptiles lived in the water, 24/7. So why the bends? Well, interestingly enough, the earliest ichthyosaurs didn't seem to have this problem. It wasn't until later, near the end of the Jurassic and into the Cretaceous periods that this issue cropped up. There are a few ideas out there as to why.

Perhaps they were getting chased by scarier (faster, more evolved) predators later on, moving quickly from the surface to the deep to escape. The pressure changes could've forced the nitrogen in their lungs to dissolve in their body, and surfacing again would've formed the nitrogen into the painful internal bubbles divers dread. Another idea is that they just dove deeper and deeper as time went on, but never evolved the ability to deal with the nitrogen like modern whales have.

No matter what happened, it's clear from scarring on their fossilized bones that these animals really did get the bends. Some scientists even go so far to say that the bends could've contributed to their eventual extinction, though I'm not sure how serious they are.

Speaking of "are you serious?" scientists...

2. Neanderthals and Humans Interbred - no wait they didn't - no wait they did - no wait -

According to a new study, humans and neanderthals didn't interbreed (despite overwhelming recent evidence that they did).

Now, I don't mind people trying to prove stuff wrong in science. In fact, I encourage it. That's what science is all about. But this study? I'm not convinced.

First of all, Discovery News and all other media outlets reporting on this: your article titles need some work. So do your articles, frankly, in this case. You report this as if it's conclusive evidence that neanderthals and humans didn't have children together, when in fact this does not prove that at all.

What this study actually shows is that a computer model demonstrated another way for the percentage of "neanderthal DNA" that exists within modern humans to have gotten there (rather than from interbreeding). They suggest it's all from our last common ancestor with neanderthals, something that was still considered...a couple of years ago .

Unfortunately for those who did this study, we've got loads of new data now with the genomes mapped. There are dozens of reasons the conclusions of this study just don't hold water, and the take-away message is that the modeling this study did is outdated. Thankfully, at least Nature News has updated their article to reflect this.

So did neanderthals and humans interbreed? Our best evidence still suggest that they did. Studies like the one being reported all over the place right now just don't take enough of the newest empirical evidence into account. Yet they get all hyped up anyway and confuse the general public.

Oh well. While the general public might not be well versed in the nuances of genomics, they can at least do a pretty great job at reporting on the threats facing various species in our country...

3. Citizens get species on Endangered List that government agencies miss.

Thanks to U.S. citizens, animals are being protected that would've otherwise been ignored by U.S. Fish and Wildilfe Services. 

This is really neat and shows just what people can accomplish when they push to save their non-human neighbors.

A study showed that animals in the Endangered Species Act that got there through citizen petition, rather than through appointment by the FWS, were more likely to be "in the way" of developing land. The FWS tries not to step on too many toes, but citizens don't hold such qualms. Also, the species nominated by citizen petition were significantly more threatened, on average, than those nominated by the FWS. Essentially, many species are only on the list today thanks to the initiatives of every-day people.

This should (hopefully) stop people from halting citizen reports of threatened species, as certain politicians have tried to do. This is clear evidence that citizens are a valuable part of the identification and protection of endangered species in this country.

Go citizens, go!

NOTE: I will be on blog hiatus until the end of August, as I'll be camping for several days between now and then, and also need to concentrate on wrapping up my current WIP novel. Thanks for understanding, and I'll see you in September!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Pluto isn't a planet and WriteOnCon changed my novel's first pages.

So I had a great experience at WriteOnCon this week. (WriteOnCon is an online conference for children's book writers, for those not in the know.) At first I wasn't sure what I could get out of an online conference, but it turns out the answer is a lot!

The livechats and vlogs were all fascinating, but I personally got the most out of the forums. That's where I was able to post my query letter and first five pages of my novel and get them critiqued by random (awesome) strangers.

After a day of review by others, something was clear to me: my opening 2 1/2 pages needed to be rewritten. Almost entirely. I was shocked. Shocked, because I had worked my novel to perfection months earlier. It was the best I could write it. And before that, I had worked it to perfection last year. Again, to the best I could write it. And the year before last year, I had done the same thing.

Huh. Noticing a trend, here.

Could it be that the quality of my novel decays over time as it sits on my hard drive? I think it's great, and then a couple months later it's gotten all gross and soggy, with mold spores galore?

Or...perhaps I've just become a better writer over time. Perhaps as I learn more and apply that knowledge, it forces changes onto things I thought were pretty set as they were.


As a scientist and a fiction writer, I can't help but notice things those two professions have in common. By spending time studying and experimenting, we grow in our knowledge, whether scientific or literary.

Pluto was "demoted" because we learned more about its part of space. Turns out, it's just one of over 200 icy objects orbiting the sun out past Neptune (known as the "Kuiper Belt"). Since it hasn't turned all those things into its moons, it hasn't successfully cleared out its orbit neat and tidy like a planet should. Planets must have enough gravity to boss around anything and everything in their particular orbit around the sun.

Pluto doesn't do that. We didn't know that before 2005, because we didn't know all those other tiny icy things existed. We just plain didn't see them before then.

Whoops. Well, at least Pluto is finally grouped where it should be! Congratulations on finding your true family, Pluto!

Likewise, my first few pages of my novel were scrutinized closely by myself and my critique group over and over. They changed many times, but finally settled out into awesomeness...

But that was back in 2011. Back before I learned how to see the "tiny icy things". Back before I knew what I know now.

So it was time to make changes. I realized that this week and worked tirelessly to revise my first few pages. At first, I hated the changes. I resisted. It wasn't how it used to be. It wasn't the opening I had memorized from reading it out loud to myself on repeat so many times. This is what I like to refer to as my "PLUTO IS STILL A PLANET YOU GUYS. STOP BEING MEAN TO PLUTO. GOSH." mentality.

It's a silly mentality. Once I set my stubbornness aside, I was able to spend two straight days crafting a wonderful new opening. An opening that demonstrated my protagonist's character and conflict neatly and clearly. An opening that fits with how the rest of my entire novel reads.

Pluto found it's rightful category in space, and my book just found it's new rightful opening.

Thank you, WriteOnCon.

So what does the future hold? Will my first pages stay the same forever? Almost certainly not, no. Will Pluto remain categorized as a Dwarf Planet? Honestly, probably not. We'll change that around as the need for new categories emerges in the future.

Science and writing are both about adaptability. When you learn something new, you apply it to the old and change it. Update it. Help it make more sense.

Maybe that's why I love them both so much. They've taught me the beauty of change.