Saturday, January 26, 2013

Rescued Blind Sea Lion Pup

So with all my writing commitments this weekend, I am going to have to skip this week's Weekly Science Roundup. Instead, you should watch this adorable video of Shedd Aquarium staff target training a blind sea lion pup. The pup was found and rescued last summer on a beach in Santa Cruz, California. He's too cute!

Friday, January 25, 2013

We Aren't Doomed-ish!

Last night, I had the fun experience of attending the Museum of Science's "Beyond the Telescope" evening in their Charles Hayden Planetarium.

This is an event that occurs a couple times a year, and brings in a special guest speaker. Last night's was Dr. Timothy Spahr, director of the Minor Planet Center. His talk was called "Searching for Near-Earth Asteroids", and he had some awesome special effects thanks to it being held in the planetarium.

I learned a ton, but perhaps the first fact from last night I should mention is this:

THIS IS NOT GOING TO HAPPEN AGAIN. Yes, a big asteroid killed a lot of critters 65 million years ago, plummeting the planet into chaos and darkness, but Dr. Spahr reassured everyone last night that scientists already have tracked all the asteroids of this size. They aren't going to hit us. None of them. We've found them all. They're easy to find, because they're big.

So yay! No planet-wide catastrophe via giant asteroid!

On the other hand, we do have other asteroids to worry about. One of my favorite special effects from the talk was watching our solar system "fill up" with newly discovered asteroids through a timelapse animation. From 1980-1990, we found 10,000 asteroids by taking pictures of the sky and just looking. The nineties brought along digital techniques. Between 1990-2000, we found 100,000 asteroids. By 2010, 500,000.

There are still millions left to find.

They're smaller, sure. And the vast majority have no chance of crossing Earth's path. The ones left to find are mostly 50 meters across and tinier, but still, a 50 meter wide asteroid can punch a mile wide hole in the ground. Case in point:

That's Meteor Crater in Arizona. It is a mile wide, made by a 50m iron meteorite. What if that impact had happened somewhere today, somewhere populated?

The work done by the Minor Planet Center is certainly important, and they're learning and revising their techniques all the time. Their primary goal is to predict which asteroids could hit Earth. In 2008, they really did achieve that goal. For the first time, they identified an asteroid that actually was on a collision course with Earth. Unfortunately, they only identified it about 20 hours before it hit.


Luckily, the asteroid was only 3 meters wide and landed in the Nubian Desert. It broke up before it landed, and scientists were actually able to find pieces of it! And with that sort of "practice" run now under their belts, they've got a much better grasp on how to locate objects heading our way.

For anything bigger than the 2008 asteroid, there are plenty of methods being developed to deflect the space rocks from colliding with Earth. We can attach rockets to push the asteroid away, send up a giant spaceship to act as a gravity pull to tug it away from us, or even hit it with stuff. NASA's already hit space stuff with stuff before:

That's an actual picture of NASA crashing a chunk of copper into a comet in 2005. On purpose. Just to see if we could. Awesome. (Well, I'm sure there was a more science-y reason, too).

So really, the moral of all this is we don't have to worry. Yes, we should fund these projects so we can be safe, but as long as we actually allow these people to do their work, we aren't going to be in danger of getting hit by an asteroid. Go Minor Planet Center!

Minor Planet Center on Twitter: @MinorPlanetCtr

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Weekly Science Roundup #15

My brain is stuffed with a fun mid-winter head cold. Please pardon any spelling errors or absurdities you may read below.

1. Dogs Aren't Wild Like Wolves Because We PLAY WITH PUPPIES

Possibly the most fun I've had doing a Wikimedia Commons picture search EVER.
Okay, so maybe you're saying, "Gee, dogs are friendlier because we socialize them? Isn't that obvious since like, forever?" but bear with me.

As it turns out, dogs and wolves begin to explore their environments at different ages. Wolves begin at two weeks of age, when only their sense of smell is active. Dogs begin at four weeks, when their sense of smell and their sense of hearing are both active, followed quickly by their sense of sight.

Now, anything added to a puppy's world when a new sense is developed is rightfully quite terrifying. But since dog pups only deal with one new sense added after their initial exploration phase (and added quickly, at that) while wolf pups have to deal with two, that cuts down on the panic associated with encountering new things (people, cats, horses, goats, etc) in dogs compared to wolves.

Also, in the case of wolf pups, even if people somehow end up raising them, it's generally not from before the pups hit two weeks. Meanwhile, when people raise dog pups, it often is already by the time they hit four weeks. During their first exploration phases, wolves don't encounter humans, while dogs do. Such a wonderfully simple explanation for one of the biggest mysteries in dog domestication.

Now to figure out at what point in their evolutionary history, the gene switched in wolves to allow them two extra weeks before they began exploring...

2. Reversing Disabilities in Pre-mature Babies?

In an amazing new discovery, doctors think it might be possible in the not-so-distant future to actually reverse disabilities in babies that are born prematurely.

It turns out that low blood (and therefore oxygen) supply to a developing brain doesn't cause an irreversible loss in brain cells. The neurons don't actually die in all cases; instead, their maturation gets disrupted. If doctors intervene early enough, they could promote the proper maturation of the neurons and resolve brain disabilities before they even strike.

Biology is awesome. 

Okay, so now that we're all happy and optimistic, filled up with puppies and babies and pleasant feelings...I'm going to unfortunately have to burst your bubbles. I'm sorry.

3. Climate Change is Officially Messing With Two Awesome Places

The Amazon Rainforest had a drought in 2005, and another in 2010. These droughts are due to climate change. There is no denying it. The evidence is all there. What scientists didn't expect was how long it would take the rainforest to recover from drought. As of 2010, when the second drought hit, the forest still hadn't recovered from the 2005 yet. This isn't just a matter of letting it take a year to bounce back. These droughts hit hard, harder than any scientist had predicted. 


And along with the study on the effects of climate change on the Amazon, a biodiversity hotspot and one of the last great wildernesses our planet has, another study has just come out explaining the upcoming effects of climate change in what will always be my home: the Great Lakes region, Midwest, USA.

I won't even try to top the introductory explanation given in this article here :
In the coming decades, climate change will lead to more frequent and more intense Midwest heat waves while degrading air and water quality and threatening public health. Intense rainstorms and floods will become more common, and existing risks to the Great Lakes will be exacerbated.
Excuse me while I go curl up and shake for a bit.

Maybe I'll go look up more puppy pictures on Wikimedia Commons for a while. And then get back to working on my science stories for kids, because someone has to talk some sense into the next generation if they're going to be left dealing with this crap.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

An Argument for Science In Fiction

I've made the argument before, and I'll make it again: kids learn more than just morals from stories.

Phrased another way: you don't have to read nonfiction to learn science (or any other subject, for that matter). Yes, nonfiction is a great learning tool. You'll never catch me suggesting kids stop reading nonfiction. I just want us to get past this weird idea that nonfiction is for LEARNING FACTS and fiction is for LEARNING LESSONS.

Why not learn both from both?

That's my personal goal, actually. To create fiction that has real factual content, and to create nonfiction that inspires moral behavior. Totally possible. This already happens all the time, actually.

Rebel Alliance, FTW.
Case in point: Me. Age ten. Outside of school reading, I read nothing if it didn't have STAR WARS emblazoned across the front. Seriously. I was an addict. It was my whole life. Someday I'll find and post an embarrassing picture of myself surrounded by my Star Wars books and action figures, wearing my Han Solo-encased-in-carbonite t-shirt, and wielding my telescoping lightsaber and my real sound-effects blaster.

Flash forward fourteen years. It's 2009, I'm just starting a new job at a new museum, I just earned my Masters in paleoanthropology, and the first thing they want me to teach is...astronomy.


Huh. I've, uh...never taken astronomy. Or even really cracked a book open about it (or so I'd thought).

As I began to pour through our database of astro-info, I started picking up the terminology and obscure factoids oddly fast. I mean, I'm good at memorizing, but even this seemed crazy quick to me. How did I learn all of what was essentially Astro 101 in just about three weeks?

No, it's not because I'm a genius (though thanks if you assumed that!). It's because I'm a geek. Specifically, a Star Wars geek. I may have never opened a textbook on astronomy, but I'd read nearly a hundred books that took place in space.

Light Speed. Blue Shift. Quasars. Black Holes. Supernovae. Red Giants. I knew these words. I knew them all, and even had a surprisingly accurate idea of the science behind each. While obviously not everything in Star Wars is scientifically accurate (*cough*no sound in space*cough*sorry TIE Fighters*cough*), enough of it is close enough that when it came time for me to read some space NONfiction, I was already on board with almost all of it.


Flash forward again 3 years, 4 months, and I'm a seasoned planetarium presenter, a pro at teaching astronomy to the public, and I even head up our museum's observatory.

Oh, and I'm also working on my very own sci-fi fiction novel for middle grade readers. Something I hope would've even dragged ten year-old me away from Star Wars for at least a day.

So there you have it. Science in fiction totally works. At some point I'll need to post about my love affair with Kate Messner's EYE OF THE STORM.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Weekly Science Roundup #14

Asteroid edition? Asteroid edition!

1. We Aren't All Doomed in 2036!

An 325 meter diameter asteroid named Apophis will swing close by Earth in April 2029. Astronomers are 100% sure it won't hit us then (so you should be, too). But what they weren't sure of was if it would hit us on its second pass in 2036.

Let that sink in for a moment. A 325 meter wide space rock had a chance of hitting us in 2036. The impact would've been unimaginably bigger than any nuclear bomb ever set off here on Earth.

But yay! Good news! With further study, NASA has confirmed that Apophis WILL NOT HIT EARTH in 2036. Thanks, NASA, for being on top of this and looking out for our planet. Seriously. And especially thanks for giving us super-advanced notice, so us science educators can begin to calm the masses 23 years in advance: Apophis isn't going to be the apocalypse. Repeat: Apophis isn't going to be the apocalypse.

Looks like we don't have to worry about asteroids getting to close. Well, unless we decide to drag one here ourselves. But that'd be crazy, wouldn't it?

Er...wouldn't it?

2. A Moon For Our Moon

The Keck Institute for Space Studies says that NASA is contemplating the logistics of pulling an asteroid into orbit around our moon.


They actually aren't nervous at all about it getting out of control. We have a good understanding of gravity and orbits now, so this wouldn't be too scary. The cost wouldn't be much more than the cost of sending Curiosity to Mars, and would provide us easy access to explore an asteroid with robots and maybe even humans. This could possibly even allow us to begin mining asteroids in the 2020's.

We'd have to robotically drag it here, of course. Safely, too, so we don't accidentally send it in some new wonky direction. But hey, I wouldn't put anything past NASA. If they actually manage to get the funding support, and even often when they don't, they really do accomplish whatever they set their minds to.

But back to asteroids naturally flying at us...

3. We've Got Another Near Miss Heading Our Way Next Month

The day after Valentine's Day, asteroid 2012 DA14 will swing within 18,000 miles of Earth, just missing us as it heads onwards through the solar system.

The asteroid is about 45 meters across, and won't be easily visible to anyone without a telescope. It's these sort of asteroids that blow my mind. How often in our past have asteroids like this just sailed on by, with none the wiser? Seriously. For all our panic about getting hit by space rocks, we sure do get missed by plenty.

Though, personally, it's comforting to know someone's keeping track of these nowadays, just in case something heads our way one day and doesn't have a track that misses us.

Yeah. Uh...let's keep the space programs going, please.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Novel Update #2: Forced Break

This picture has nothing to do with this post. I just thought you might want something adorable to look at.

Let's face it. Working full time (and then some) doesn't always leave a lot of time left over for writing. Spraining your knee and being on sleepy pain meds for two months straight doesn't leave much time for late-night-after-work or early-morning-before-work writing sessions, either.

But sometimes, being forced to take a break from noveling can be a blessing in disguise.

A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of my forced break, I woke up one morning and BAM--the perfect ending to my novel popped into my head like it had been just hiding under my pillow all along.

At that time, I already had a novel ending roughly drafted. Two different endings, in fact. But neither of them had ever sat completely well with me. That glorious morning, everything fell into place. I knew what I had to do for the end of my story. Goodbye ending ideas One and Two, and make way for amazing ending idea Three.

Around the same time, another breakthrough occurred. For weeks I had been working on character sheets and background exercises to wrap my head around the people and places in my novel. It had been tedious work, and I'd feared it would never amount to anything. And then, something clicked. I began to hear my characters in my head, like I had with the characters from my long-term novel that I recently (and reluctantly) shelved. They started out with whispers, but their voice are growing louder every day. I know these people now. I hear them.

More recently still, I sat down and wrote out a one page summary of my current WIP, including the new ending. Everything flowed, everything worked, and everything was beautiful. What had once been a discouraging manuscript from a summer of forced writing had become a beacon of nerdy-wordy hope:

My novel can and will be amazing.

If I hadn't stepped away from it, all these realizations never would have happened. Draft One would've still been a scary, ugly thing that I wanted to hide away. But now it's not. Now it's just Draft One of what will become something much better.

I'm still working full time (and then some). I'm still on sleepy pain meds. I still have very little time between work and sleep each day. But somehow, some way, I will make time. I'm determined to get this novel out into the world.

This is my promise to the internet: I will have not only a revised, but fully polished draft of this novel by the end of April, if not sooner. I will use this blog to hold me accountable to that promise. Science posts will by no means take a backseat, never fear. My work-in-progress novel is tied directly into science, after all. But I do need some public place for me to check-in regarding my progress, so this will be it.

I guess the take-home message here is that sometimes, life gets in the way, and sometimes, that can actually be a positive thing for your writing. Our brains work in fascinating ways. Take advantage of that.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Weekly Science Roundup #13

How fitting to start out 2013 with my 13th Weekly Science Roundup?

Onwards, in the name of science!

1. Itchiness Explained!

This new research is of particular interest to me. Itching from allergies is awful! That's why I was so excited to read that science is one step closer to understanding how and why we experience the sensation of "itch".

Itching is a useful sensation, informing of us an irritant, but itching can also become the irritant if it goes on for a long time. Now, scientists have discovered a type of cell in the skin of mice that specifically triggers the itch-feeling. Even if these cells experience pain, they signal it to the brain as itch.

This is critical to learning how to stop chronic itching. Before, it was uncertain if the same cells experienced both pain and itch and separated out the two sensations to let the brain know what was up. However now it seems that cells are more specialized than that, and there truly are "itch" cells. With this knowledge, scientists can begin to work on procedures to target those particular types of cells and tone down their relay messages to the brain for people who suffer from chronic itchy problems.

Science, I love you.

2. New Martian Meteor is all Water-y

Northwest Africa 7034 is the first meteorite to be dated to the 2.1 billion year-old geological epoch of Mars. It likely originated from Mars' crust, as it contains many minerals deposited via volcanic activity.

It also contains way more water than any other Martian meteorite to date. It surfaced on Mars about 2 billion years ago, and there likely interacted with water. Not oceans of water, exactly. But some significant amount of water, perhaps from brought in from comet impacts. That's how water was hypothesized to get to Earth, after all. So why not Mars, too?

I just think it's awesome that while rovers are sent to Mars so we can learn more about the red planet, in a unknowing way, Mars has sent us objects in return. Martian meteorites--rocks freed from Mars' surface by impacts that eventually make their way to Earth--are one of the coolest types of space visitor Earth has ever received.

But as cool as these first two stories are, my third story this week makes me smile the most.

3. Oviraptors Knew How to Shake Their Groove Thangs

As many modern dinosaurs do today, it appears likely that the bizarre herbivorous therapods known generally as oviraptors actually shook their tail feathers for display.

The evidence comes from the fossils. The final vertebrae of their tails were fused, forming a pygostyle, which is a long ridged structure that modern birds have to support tail fans of feathers. In addition, the vertebrae of the tail closer to the body were short (and existed in a large quantity), which allows for great flexibility. Finally, the bones demonstrate large, strong muscle attachments down the tail that would allow for dramatic swishes of the tail in an up-and-down and side-to-side motion...just like modern peacocks. Whoa.

Of course, we can't actually guess what their dances looked exactly like, but isn't it awesome that we can deduce from a few fragmented fossils this degree of behavior? Oh, paleontology, you are an amazing science.