Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dinosaur Joe and the Raymond Alf Museum

What a cool way to kick off my week of paleo-nerdery!

I was lucky enough to be invited to the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology by my friend (and curator of the museum), Dr. Andy Farke. Located in Claremont, California, it is just a quick train ride away from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings happening this week in Los Angeles.

Dinosaur Joe
Lately, this museum has been in the news big time (including the New York Times yesterday), because of their newest fossil display: Dinosaur Joe.

Dinosaur Joe, if you haven't heard, is a baby Parasaurolophus--a type of duck-billed dinosaur with a tube-like crest on its head. It's ultra cool for several reasons:

1. It is a pretty complete specimen.

2. It's young, so it teaches us how the species matured (the baby dino has the beginnings of a crest on its head!).

3. It was passed over by seasoned paleontologists as a non-important bit of bone. It was a high school student that drew their attention to it so that the discovery could actually be made.

And that's what's really sets the Alf Museum apart from anyone else: their work with high schoolers. They are located on the campus of the Webb Schools--an international boarding school for grades 9-12--and often take in students to assist in the lab, in research, and out on digs. It's a great opportunity for students, and obviously a great opportunity for the museum! Without these students, Dinosaur Joe may have never been found.

The museum itself is really well put together. It's small, but it's filled to the brim with beautiful exhibits, fantastic educational experiences, and gorgeous fossils every where you turn. Designed as a loop to take you through time, it ranks among the best layouts I've ever seen for a museum of its size.

There are fossils of all sizes, all equally impressive, and one of the biggest collection of tracks and footprints I've ever seen. Not to mention beautiful (and sometimes fairly epic) art!

If you ever get a chance to swing by the area, make sure to stop in. You won't be let down (unlike the poor T. rex below).

Mammals' gotta eat, right?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Monthly Science Roundup #2

Once again an entire month managed to escape me! November should slow down, but in the meantime I have missed all of October's science updates and can't let that slide. So in the style of September's roundup, here are the top FOUR science stories of October, in no particular order:

1. Signals from the Big Bang

Hershel Space Observatory

Learning about the very beginning of the universe is obviously a bit of a challenge. But thanks to new data from the South Pole Telescope and the Herschel Space Observatory, science has taken another step closer to understanding the Big Bang.

When the Big Bang occurred, it left a radiation imprint on the universe, and a small percentage of this radiation occurs as polarized light. There are two modes of this light: E-modes and B-modes. We've found E-modes over a decade ago. B-modes have proven elusive, though, and--sadly--are also the version that would provide serious information on the initial gravitational waves that occurred during the massive "inflation" of the universe fractions of moments after the Big Bang.

But now they've detected some. As light twists, crossing the universe and getting deflected/pushed around by the gravity of galaxies and dark matter, it produces B-mode radiation. That's what has been now found, thanks to the work of many dedicated astronomers. What we're still waiting on is whether the even more primordial version of this B-mode radiation has been detected. That should be revealed in 2014.

2. Women Cave Painters

Turns out cave art wasn't a "guy thing", like has been predominately assumed. About three quarters of all cave paintings may have in fact been done by women, according to a new study.

By measuring the hand prints associated with cave paintings and analyzing them next to proportions of men and women's hands from populations of European descent, it was discovered that not only was there clear sexual dimorphism among the cave hand prints, there was also a predominance of female hands in the paintings.

These hand prints could mean anything, but a likely hypothesis is that they're used as an artist's signature. This gives an insight into early human culture that goes against common assumptions of gender roles in ancient groups. But it brings up a new question: why mostly women?

3. 441 New Amazon Species Discovered

On expeditions over the past four years have lead to the discovery of over four hundred new species in the Amazon rainforest. Of course, most of these are already in danger because of the environmental issues that region faces.

Among the new species include a piranha that doesn't eat meat, a flame-colored lizard, and perhaps most adorably, a monkey with babies that purr to one another. You read that correctly. Purring baby monkeys. If you get nothing else out of this blog post, I hope you at least have now smiled.

4. Single Species for ALL Early Humans?

Old American Museum of Natural History human evolution tree. Source.

This has been all over the news lately. A new skull has been found that has features so varying, that it seems to unite all species of early Homo (the genus of primate that humans belong to) into one single species. No more Homo rudolfensis vs Homo habilis. Just one united species.

First of all, the scoop: a new early human skull has been found in the Dmanisi region of Georgia. It's 1.8 million years in age, and is known as "Skull 5". It's preservation is spectacular. It's part of a group of skulls that are often thought of as the earliest Homo erectus, as it changed from Homo habilis.

Now take a look at the 2 million year mark on the picture above. See all the various "Homo" skulls at that time? They got split into different species based on features that are constantly argued over by paleoanthropologists. There's an age-old debate here.

Were these really different species? (Argument: modern primates have more than one species in their genus, why shouldn't we have had the same in prehistory?) Or were these different skulls all from one species that had a huge variation in skull shape? (Argument: species today can be wildly varying within their own bounds, so why not us?)

The new skull favors the second of the two arguments. And despite my eyebrow-raising at how it's been reported in the media (hype will always be hype), I'm not going to lie, this is very exciting stuff. The new skull has a variety of features shared with "different" species of Homo, young and old, and in particular, contemporary.

Basically, the traits of skull 5 should not all be in one skull. By our current understanding, and especially by the "different species" argument, they really shouldn't. And yet, here we are. Put it with the other skulls from the site, and it just makes it worse. None of that stuff should be together! Or so we thought.

John Hawks, anthropologist and web-blogger, sums it up best:

The entire early Homo sample has barely more variability than is found within the single Dmanisi site, at a single time.

What this means is that over the hundreds of thousands of years that Homo was kicking around as an early genus, at one single time at this one site, skulls have just as much variation among themselves as the entire lot of the rest of the stuff that's ever been found anywhere. Huh. Well then.

Imagine if you had never heard of Skittles, and then found a red Skittle. Maybe two. And then a couple days later, in a different place, you found a green Skittle. And maybe a week, later, a yellow Skittle in a different town. You might start assuming that each place has its own color Skittle, or that only certain colors show up at certain times. But then there's the day you discover an actual bag of Skittles. And you realize they all exist together. That's kind of what's happening here.

So it is a big deal. And it's messing with my brain, because I've always been a big fan of distinguishing Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis. But as we've learned with Denisovans and Neanderthals, it is possible for different groups of humans to interbeed, even if they look different from one another or have other genetic distinctions. So there are ways of explaining this. I'm just not sure how to fold it into my personal version of our family tree just yet.


There were a ton of other cool stories this month that I wished I'd been able to highlight (one in particular, but I will get to that soon enough). Weekly Science Roundups will be back on track for November!

But first: SVP 2013.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

NaNoWriMo: The Best Thing Ever

In a slight deviation from my usual posts, I'm going to discuss something dear to my heart: NaNoWriMo.

For those who somehow have never heard this term before, NaNoWriMo stands for "National Novel Writing Month". The challenge: in one month (specifically, November), write 50,000 words of a new, original novel.

Now, the rules are often bent, and that's just fine. I think officially it's morphed a bit through the years and isn't as strict as it once was. But as a stickler for rules, I always followed them to the letter. I would plan, outline, and character sketch, but I wouldn't begin penning a word of my new story until November 1st hit. 

I have done NaNoWriMo for the past four years. I have won NaNoWriMo for the past four years (which means each year I hit 50K before November 30th). But I will not be doing NaNoWriMo this year.

Why am I making this decision? The answer is simple: I don't feel like NaNoWriMo can help me any more than it already has.

As an aspiring author, I started NaNo in 2009, hoping to get a full story down on the page so I could begin to seriously pursue my dream. I did that. It was such a successful and fulfilling way to write a novel, that I wrote a sequel to my NaNo novel in 60 days in Spring 2010. And I wrote the third in the series during NaNoWriMo 2010.

And then I paused. I had a lot of material. I had joined a writing group, and was getting into the nitty-gritty of revisions. I didn't really need more material.

So during 2011, I stopped writing and instead revised the heck out of my first NaNo novel. But the siren call of NaNoWriMo caught me by surprise that November, and I found myself writing a brand new story even though I had no real reason to do so. This time, it was completely unrelated to the trilogy of stories I'd already typed up. It was new, and fun, and different.

In fact, the "newness" of the story got me so excited, that I started another new story in Winter 2012... which I then abandoned in Spring 2012 when I found my real new story (aka, the one I've now polished to awesomeness and am currently agent-hunting with).

And even though I had found my Awesome Story earlier in 2012, I still couldn't resist NaNo and the allure of writing yet another new story. So in November 2012, I wrote sixth novel.

It was like an addiction. A wonderful one.

But it needs to stop. Six novels in four years is fabulous. But I don't need to turn that into seven by November 30th, 2013.

I'm working towards traditional publication, and NaNoWriMo is no longer useful in the way it once was. Back when I started, NaNoWriMo was exactly what I needed. A way to prove I could write an entire novel. A way to get over my finickiness and just get words down. A way to blow through a story from start to finish, and train my mind to think as a plotter in a pantser world.

NaNoWriMo taught me just how far I could push myself. (Record: 12K in one day.) NaNoWriMo taught me how to produce material under intense deadlines. NaNoWriMo became the model after which I did everything writing-related. It works for me.

...A terrifying deadline. A seemingly impossible goal. Go.

It's the perfect motivator for me. But I never would've known that if I hadn't taken up the challenge back in 2009, and I never would've known the satisfaction of creating an entire tale in a short stretch of time, either.

But now I know what I can do, and I've discovered that I can get just as much done when I establish my own personal deadlines as I do during November. So this year, I'm not doing NaNoWriMo. It won't give me what I need anymore. Right now, I need to shop my Awesome Story to agents. I also need to revise a NaNo from 2012. And I need to draft a particular novel that I've been promising my critique group I'd write for over a year now.

On that note, that's something else NaNo has taught me: not every book is right to draft in thirty days. Some work great. Others do not. The particular novel that I want to do next needs to be crafted into first draft-dom, and not vomited out like my others. It will be a new challenge, and it won't be possible to do in thirty days.

So, to sum up, NaNoWriMo is awesome and I encourage all aspiring writers to do it at least once. But as for me, I think I've reached the natural conclusion of my personal NaNo character-arc.

Some closing advice for anyone doing NaNo:

1. You can do it, even if you're doing other things with your life...to an extent. I worked full time each year I won. That said...

2. You will need to shut out most socialization. You need your evenings and weekends. You need those days off. Trust me. Just clear your calendar now.

3. Write during weird hours. Wake up earlier than normal. Or stay up later than normal. Get yourself something caffeinated, sit down at an odd time, and write. Because of the oddness, you won't immediately get yourself distracted with habitual Facebook checking, etc.

4. Prepare as much as you can beforehand, but don't be afraid to abandon your outline halfway through the month if you find your story going down a different road. Your characters will tell you where to go.

5. Do word sprints. If you're on Twitter, you can connect with others doing these. Or on the NaNo forums. 15 minutes can turn into 1000 words if you're racing someone else.

6. Don't worry if things aren't making sense. They won't. Your draft is going to S.U.C.K. and be riddled with plot holes. And that's fine, because no one will read that draft. You can revise it before showing anyone, if you ever chose to show people it at all.

7. When that unplanned character shows up at 25K? Let him in!

8. The first 10K are fun. The second 10K are difficult. The third 10K drag painfully, but keep pushing. The fourth 10K is where you'll start to feel like a writing robot. The fifth 10K...that's where it gets exhilarating.

9. Join the official NaNo site and enter your word count each day. It's so much fun to watch that little personal word graph climb! It's one of the only sources of satisfaction you will get for 30 days. Take it.

10. Never look back. If you stop to edit or revise, you lose precious time. Don't look back, don't delete. Just keep going. Revisions are what the other 11 months of the year are for.

Best of luck to anyone embarking on this adventure! And thank you, NaNoWriMo, for giving me the confidence to chase my dream.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Monthly Science Roundup #1

September came and went, and I never had a chance to sit down and do any weekly roundups! But I didn't want to just ignore all science news from the past 30 days, so I've decided to post my first ever "monthly" roundup, with four of the biggest science news stories September had to offer.

1. Evolutionary History Rewritten?

Generic Placoderm anatomy.
"Every now and then you are confronted with jaw-dropping specimens like Lucy the Australopithecus (an extinct, upright-walking hominid) or the first batch of Chinese feathered dinosaur, unleashing a flood of new information that greatly clarifies our view of the distant past and often forces us to rethink what we thought we knew about evolution. A little fish called Entelognathus now joins the ranks of these exceptional fossil discoveries." - Dr. Brian Choo, Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology in Beijing

So this happened. It's a very cool find, though it's going to need more scrutiny before we overthrow what we've previously thought of our evolution. Here's what was presented and proposed (and make no mistake, I am geeking out about this):

Classically, we say that the fish-to-land transition animals were descendents of shark-like cartilaginous fish, who eventually developed a strong enough skeleton to handle life out of water. But a new discovery shows that a group of early fish known as "placoderms" (famed for their outwardly bony armor), actually had three specific types of bones that were thought only to be found in the bony group of fish that scampered out of the water much later on. Cartilaginous fish do not have these bones. Therefore, the ancestor to cartilaginous fish and the bonier air-breathing, scampering variety, was actually a member of the placoderm family. Follow that?

Take-home message: Bony skeletons were the ancestral state. Not cartilage. Cartilaginous fish LOST their bones.

This is a really big deal. Textbook-rewriting-big. The order of skeletal development in evolution has just been turned on its head. If it holds up. (I hope it does. It's kind of awesome.)

2. Water on Mars

Okay, maybe this doesn't sound like news. We've known about water on Mars for a while, right? Well, this time we're learning about water via the first ever chemical soil sample analysis from Curiosity! Especially since it involved using X-ray diffraction, which was long thought to be impossible to miniaturize enough to put on any sort of rover. Obviously, they managed it with Curiosity.

So what's the buzz? Turns out, there's a whopping 2% of water in one scooped up sample of dirt, which sounds like great news for rocket fuel farming. However, they also found a lot of perchlorate in the same sample, which is toxic to rocket fuel, and would make harvesting this water for that purpose rather difficult. Somewhat more interesting, is that it is likely both of these substances are only in the dirt because they're being absorbed from the thin Martian atmosphere.

There was a lot of media hype about finding water in this sample, but don't let that fool you. Mars is a hostile environment. Utilizing this water would not be a walk in the park. The bigger story here is the methods used to detect these things. I'm excited to see what else Curiosity finds with its fancy equipment.

3. Oxygen in Our Atmospher Earlier Than Thought

Banded Iron Formation. A geological early indicator of oxidation.
Based on geology, the usual accepted date for the first appearance of oxygen (in any serious quantity) in Earth's atmosphere was about 2.6 billion years ago. But researchers recently drilled into 3 billion year-old rock, and unexpectedly stumbled upon signs of oxidation from way back then!

Whoa. So what's going on? Oxygen has been hypothesized to have entered the atmosphere when photosynthesis developed in cyanobacteria. So this means either photosynthesis developed in cyanobacteria hundreds of millions of years earlier than though, or photosynthesis developed in something else way earlier, or there's another way of getting oxygen into the atmosphere in massive quantities that no one has thought of yet.

This is going to open up a slew of debate, and I'm anxious to follow along and figure this out with the scientists.


Okay, so not really. BUT THEY COULD.

Researchers at MIT have taken photons and gotten them to smush up together to form molecule-like structures. A serious feat, since photons have generally been thought not to have any real mass or interact with each other at all.

So what these interacting photons are doing is binding together and creating their own type of mass by pushing against one another. Essentially what theoretically happens in lightsabers. Because Star Wars is real and 9 year-old me is cheering louder than the Ewoks after the second Death Star explosion.

This was discovered when researchers sent photons into a super-cooled atom cloud. Because of atomic properties, nearby atoms can't be in the same level of excited state simultaneously. So photons exciting atoms end up pushing each other along so that the first photon moves on while the second excites a different atom. This energy transfers from atom to atom as they move. But this whole process slows the photons, so they end up leaving the cloud together, as a sort of "molecule".

And if we can make photon "molecules", we someday might be able to build entire photon structures. BUILD THINGS OUT OF LIGHT. LIKE LIGHTSABERS. AND MY LIFE WOULD BE COMPLETE.

Okay I'm done now.

Really. That was September.