March 29, 2012

Flame Challenge

The Center for Communicating Science put forth a challenge to the science folk: explain what a flame is to an 11-year-old audience. It's called the Flame Challenge. The winning explanation will be chosen by a gaggle of 11-year-olds. I hope they like terrible animation!

Flame Challenge Video

March 28, 2012

Medieval Mysophobe, Part 1

People in medieval Europe did not know about microbes and were generally pretty unsanitary, but I wonder if there were any mysophobes back then nonetheless.

March 21, 2012

AMOEBOiD Preview

The iPhone game I'm producing is coming along amazingly, and I think it's time to share the progress. I'm going to show you some screen shots so you can see the gameplay. Some elements aren't finalized, so when the game is released it will look a little different. But whatever!

You are looking down at an amoeba on a microscope slide. The amoeba will follow your finger around the screen so you can lead it toward food and away from viruses. You'll also find other protists and DNA floating around. 

If you bump into other protists, you become friends. That protist goes into the jar in the lower left corner (notice the euglena seen above is now in the jar), and you can view a collection of all the protist friends you've met during the game on another screen. There are 8 different types of protists you will encounter: other amoebas, paramecia, euglena, volvox, stentor, vorticella, coleps, and aspidisca.

If you pick up DNA, you get extra points. Each level has 3 strands that will float by, and if you gather all of them, you will earn double points for the rest of the level.

If you get attacked by a virus, you are no longer a smiling, healthy amoeba, but are instead sort of unsure/quizzical about what is happening to you.

If you are hit with a second virus, you are just plain miserable.

If you are infected with a virus, you can improve your health by picking up medicine that will occasionally float by.

Viruses are constantly floating by, but be extra careful around the red ones.

They explode into smaller viruses that fan out to attack you.

(Also, look how many protists are in the jar!)
Seriously, watch out.

You're not always helpless against viruses though. Toward the end of each level (which is timed by that pink test tube to the right), a bit of radioactive material will float by. 

If you come into contact with it, you will be radioactive, impervious to viruses, and you'll blow them all away!

But if you don't get the radioactive super power, you might get infected with a 3rd virus as the level progresses. If that happens, it's game over and you explode!

I wouldn't go so far as to call this game truly educational. For starters, viruses can't be seen with a light microscope, and are about a billion times smaller than amoebas. And of course, there is no anti-viral red and while pill that amoebas take if they are infected. That's just silliness. I love silliness.

But while this game certainly takes liberties with some concepts (including protists having smiley faces), the general spirit of the game is educational in the sense that it's exposure to biology. At the very least, you can learn the names of a few different kinds of protists, as they will be in labeled jars when you see your collection. And you'll have fun gathering food, DNA, and friends in a microbial world. At least, I hope you do! 

AMOEBOiD will be available for iPhone and iPad in April 2012. 

March 19, 2012

Neutrinos and Science Both Follow the Rules

In case you're not up to date (or last September, as it were) on your particle physics, scientists said they had clocked a neutrino going faster than the speed of light. That's not supposed to be possible, so it was big news. But last week, scientists conceded that the seeming light-speed-i-ness was due to a measurement error. So light speed neutrinos = just kidding.

Revisions like these can sometimes upset people if it deals with Pluto or the triceratops,

but if you're upset that a scientific concept you loved is demoted or disproven, take heart in the fact that it means science as a whole is working: it's constantly being tested and updated so we have the best information.

It's important to point this out at a time when so many people believe that scientists are involved in some kind of conspiracy to only forward information that suits their goals, i.e. climate change, evolution, and the safety of vaccines. But the truth is that if anyone had evidence that these ideas needed to be updated, it would be out there, and science would do it.

So move over Pluto and triceratops. Make way for light speed neutrinos.

March 13, 2012

Debating Evolution vs Yogurt

I try to find humor in lots of unexpected places, such as the evolution vs. creation debate. Actually I have to, so as not to be crushed by the force of anti-science sentiment.

This video is my own caricature/mockery of the "debate" about evolution, which in the end, you'll see, is not really worth debating about. Science is here to stay, baby. You can no more squelch its progress than you can go back to asserting that the sun revolves around the earth.

But to clarify, this is my silly opinion about debating personal beliefs. Debating policy is entirely different, and yogurt should never be used when debating the importance of teaching evolution in school.

The Evolution Debate in a Nutshell

A special thank you goes to my hilarious friend Heather Klinke for wasting a perfectly good Saturday afternoon on the couch with me. You the best.

March 08, 2012

Women, Science, and Awesome Graphs

I hear that this month is "women's history month." Just like any other societal underdog that someone decided is worthy of a month all their own, I'm both honored and insulted.

And it seems that today, March 8 (or yesterday or last week, depending on when you're reading this) is International Women's Day.

So in honor of women's months, weeks, days, hours, and milliseconds, I'm going to take a look at a womanly issue that is very important to moi: women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Let's look at some data that I found at NSF's website, which I used to make a really great graph for you. Behold:

Figure 1.bloop: STEM PhDs Earned by Human Beings

Do you see what is significant about this graph? I will show you.

But watch what happens to women's representation when you go from STEM PhD-earner, to postdoc, to professor.

And just look at this same information in a radar graph.
Yes, I know. It's completely useless. 
Seriously, what are radar graphs good for? 

To be honest, I'm not all that worried that women are still underrepresented at the professorial level. With ladies earning PhDs in such awesome numbers, we just need time for these new PhD-carriers to work their way into the system. Keep in mind that a good number of professors are crazy old guys that will retire soon and make way for a more gender-balanced ratio of newcomers. 

But what can really inhibit women's progress in science is people's attitudes. I always think of Ben Barres, the scientist who started his career as a women and went through a sex change. As a man, his research was immediately much better-received. Someone even said after one of his talks, "Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister's." As an undergraduate at MIT, she (then Barbara Barres) was told when she solved a very difficult math problem, "Your boyfriend must have solved it for you." 

But even views like that will slowly die out (in some cases, as the people who hold them actually die themselves). 

And sometime soon, women will be equally represented within the STEM fields. Until then, lady professors of the universe, I salute you. You are fighting the good fight, paving the way for the rest of our uterus-toting kind to unlock the secrets of science. Keep being awesome.

And here is my last bit of women's day science statistics, the Facebook "like" stats of Beatrice: 65% of the readers are ladies. Hollah.