Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bronx Zoo Cobra Found On Twitter

Last friday the Bronx Zoo (that would be in New York for those of you unaware) announced that it was missing an Egyptian Cobra (which is poisonous) from its reptile house. According to the zoo, the 20-inch snake is most likely in the vicinity of the building, which was immediately closed off and is being searched.
An Egyptian Cobra. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The missing snake was fodder for late night comics like David Letterman, and has made a media buzz. However, for the skeptics among us who don't buy the zoo's story that the snake didn't escape into the public, there is now a Twitter account that is assuming to chronicle the snake's adventures as it roams Manhattan. Proof that the snake's more than 35,000 followers probably didn't have a whole lot to do with themselves today...but entertaining nonetheless.

Update 3/30/11 - As of 4pm BronxZoosCobra has more than 150,000 followers on Twitter. Glad to see that people can have a sense of humor about something like this.

Update 3/31/11 - At 4pm today the Bronx Zoo announced that the Cobra, which was missing for seven days, was found in a section of the reptile house which was closed to the public. The snake was found coiled in a dark corner, and will "rest" for a few days before being returned to the exhibit.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Advice from Sheri Fink

While this semester of grad school has been somewhat challenging, today I got the opportunity to enjoy one of grad school's biggest perks: access to amazing writers and resources. Pulitzer Prize winner Sheri Fink spoke at UW today, and while I wasn't able to attend her talk because I was in class, I was still able to meet her this morning and discuss my work and career thus far. 

Sheri Fink's article The Deadly Choices at Memorial is a great piece of investigative journalism that takes an in-depth look at how a lack of emergency preparedness led to unnecessary death at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. The article won the Pulitzer Prize and had an impact on the establishment of new guidelines for how emergencies should be handled. 

At 13,000 words the article is very long, but very compelling. It raises important questions about what should be done in an emergency, but also makes you question what you would do if you were in the situation the Doctor's and Nurses at Memorial Medical Center found themselves in. The answers aren't as clear cut as you might think, even when you are sure of what is right and what is wrong.

The opportunity to meet and talk to a writer of her caliber is something I'm sure I wouldn't have if I wasn't back in school. She was wonderful to talk to because she really seemed interested in where I am in my career and what I hope to accomplish. As I was explaining myself she stopped me and told me that I was being too humble. She told me that I was an expert in science communication and I should own it.

I tend not to think of myself as an expert in anything, but with a Bachelor's in science writing, one year of professional experience, and now half of my Master's program under my belt I can say that I'm an expert in science communication. I hesitate to make a statement like that because it makes it seem as though I have nothing else to learn. I always feel like there is more that I can learn and ways that I can improve. Working with the sciences, I've found a willingness to learn to be a critical component to writing good articles.

Right now I'm more comfortable with "expert in training," but maybe once I finish grad school I'll be more comfortable owning the title of expert outright. Regardless I appreciated her encouragement, it was a good pick me up. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Science For Six-Year-Olds: Animals & Tool Use

This is a special Science Decoded post for Mrs. Podolak's first graders at Lincoln-Hubbard Elementary School (yes that would be my Mom's class). My viewers in Lincoln-Hubbard's first grade liked my post Animal Cognition & The Genius Parrot about Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her experiments with Alex the african grey parrot, so I decided to do a post just for them to give them some more information about animal cognition (thinking) by sharing some videos about tool use in animals.

Animal cognition is a fascinating subject because we don't even know everything about how our human brains work, yet we have been able to observe other species demonstrating the ability to think. The following videos show some interesting examples of animals showing us that they do think about their surroundings by using tools to achieve their goals.
Chimpanzees - termites are a source of food for chimpanzees, but they can be extremely difficult to catch because the mounds they build to live in are thick and hard for a chimp to break into. So, chimps have developed a way to infiltrate (sneak into) the mounds. They even modify (change) simple tools (a regular stick) by making them into brushes which capture even more termites.

New Caledonian Crows - birds like to eat nuts, but getting through the hard shell to the tasty part can be very difficult. These crows have devised a special way of cracking the nut, and even found a way to safely collect the edible part of the nut once it has been smashed. (Because this is a BBC video it needs to be watched on YouTube but clicking below will take you to the right link).

Octopus - Researchers have found an example of tool use by the octopus. The organism takes coconut shells and gathers them to use as a shelter which is a startling and significant use of an object external to the animal's self to achieve a goal among invertebrates (animals that don't have a spine, the bones in their back.)

There are many other examples of animals using tools, which shows that the ability to manipulate an object and use it to accomplish a task is by no means a uniquely human trait. If there are any questions, leave them for me in the comment section and I'll be sure to answer them!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Knut the Polar Bear Dead At Age Four

Knut as a baby. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Yes, I am posting a memorial piece for a polar bear. Yes, I know that I talk about polar bears too much. But, this really is an interesting case of mysterious death - one that was witnessed by hundreds and has cause an onslaught of media coverage of what may very well be history's most widely read polar bear obituary.

Knut was a polar bear born in captivity in the Berlin Zoo in December of 2006. He gained world wide fame, basically for being so darn cute. He was raised by the zookeepers after being rejected by his mother and was the first polar bear to survive infancy at the Berlin Zoo in 30 years. He died March 19, 2011 in his enclosure at the zoo in front of an estimated 700 viewers. His death has been the subject of worldwide media coverage from the UK's Daily Mail to New York Magazine.

Reports say that the polar bear had a spasm, and was then seen floating in the water in the enclosure before the exhibit was closed off by zoo personnel. Polar bears in captivity have been known to live up to 30 years, and Knut was not known to have any medical problems so his sudden death at age four is mysterious. A necropsy (an autopsy for animals) will be performed to determine what happened to the bear.

Knut a little older. Source: Wikimedia Commons
As far as polar bears go, you couldn't have a bigger celebrity than Knut. He was on the cover of Vanity Fair in 2007, he has been marketed through plush toys and children's books, he was the subject documentary films and even had his name trademarked by the Berlin Zoo. His untimely death even warranted him an obituary in People Magazine's website.

While I don't intend to get sappy about the loss of this animal, I do think it is important to note because Knut succeeded in getting people to feel emotionally invested in animal rights issues and to get people talking about science topics like climate change (and its effects on polar bears). He was a major draw to the Berlin Zoo and the loss of revenue will most certainly be felt. Hopefully the necropsy will be able to determine how he died so that zookeepers can learn something about how to keep animals in captivity healthy.

Update 4/1/11 - The Berlin Zoo has released the results of Knut's necropsy. The findings show that the polar bear's official cause of death is drowning, which occurred when he collapsed into the pool in his enclosure. The reason Knut collapsed is still a bit of a mystery. The necropsy showed encephalitis (brain swelling and irritation) most likely caused by a virus, although the exact virus remains to be identified. So far rabies, botulism, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) have been definitively ruled out as the cause of the brain swelling. The zoo will continue to test Knut's remains to try to identify the virus.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan: All Nuclear Disasters Are Not Created Equal

Sadly, the headlines are once again swamped with stories of the latest natural disaster to wreak havoc on the Pacific Rim. On March 11, 2011 an earthquake (8.9 on the richter scale) and subsequent tsunami (a wave created by the shifting bedrock in the ocean following an earthquake) shocked Japan leaving thousands dead, and many more missing.

Nuclear energy is a widely used source of power in Japan. As a result of the earthquake and tsunami, damage to the nuclear power plants has resulted in several explosions and the release of radioactive material. While the media is fixated on the threat posed by the imperiled nuclear power plants, there is a significant amount of misinformation, information without context, information in the wrong context, and complex information that is just not explained adequately in the media's coverage.

The following list will hopefully clear up some of the confusing information I've seen in the popular coverage of Japan's nuclear situation.
Diagram of the type of reactor at Fukushima
Source: Nuclear Energy Institute
1. The design of nuclear reactors vary: The nuclear reactors in trouble in Japan are the Mark 1 design by General Electric. This design has been controversial since the 1970's when it was discovered that the cooling, ventilation, and containment systems (the areas causing trouble in the Japanese plants) could be problematic in the event of a meltdown, explosion, or other event. The New York Times' article Reactor Design in Japan Has Long Been Questioned states that the most common type of nuclear reactor is a pressurized water reactor where the system is encased in steel and cement and that, "the type of containment vessel and pressure suppression system used in the failing reactors at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant - and in 23 American reactors at 16 plants - is physically less robust, and it has long been thought to be more susceptible to failure in an emergency than competing designs." The New York Times' article goes on to explain that many American plants manufactured in General Electric's Mark 1 design have been modified to fix the problems in the original plans. Americans should not be panicking that the nuclear reactors in the United States have the same problems as the ones in Japan. Each nuclear power plant needs to be evaluated in its own right for safety.

2. Comparisons to Chernobyl or Three Mile Island are difficult to make: Chernobyl, located in the Ukraine, was a nuclear disaster that occurred on April 25, 1986 due to a flawed reactor design and human error. The Chernobyl reactor was of a soviet design, and according to the World Nuclear Association, "the design of the reactor is unique and the accident is thus of little relevance to the rest of the nuclear industry outside of the Eastern bloc." Chernobyl was the only nuclear accident to cause human deaths due to direct exposure to radioactive material. Comparisons can be made to the situation in Japan about the extent of damage, but only once the situation is under control has been thoroughly assessed. Three Mile Island was an American accident in 1979 that occurred when a cooling malfunction caused part of the nuclear reactor's core to melt. There were no adverse health effects associated with any radiation released from the plant after the accident. The build up of hydrogen gas following the meltdown was a factor in the Three Mile Island accident, and is causing problems in Japan but again differences in exact reactor design and protocol make it difficult to compare the situations.

3. The International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale is not definite: Even though the INES scale is intended to help publicly convey the threat created by a nuclear event, designation of a certain level on the scale is not a reason to panic. The INES scale runs from 1 (very little danger to the general public) to 7 (widespread health and environmental impacts). Right now everyone is rushing to label the situation in Japan, but so far it is classified as somewhere between level 4 and level 6. The numbers (or levels) are not hard and fast, but it is a clear indication that this is a major event and should be treated with all necessary precautions to ensure the safety of the Japanese people.

4. Radiation is not distributed evenly: When a nuclear power plant experiences an explosion or a meltdown that causes the release of radioactive particles or debris into the environment it can be very complicated to track what areas are going to be effected by radiation. According to members of the Union of Concerned Scientists precipitation like wind or rain can cause the radioactive material to be distributed sporadically. The areas closest to the effected plant will be the first concern for scientists and policy makers assessing the radioactive fallout, but other areas (even far from the immediate vicinity of the plant) need to be assessed for radioactivity.

Map of Japanese Nuclear Sites
Source: International Nuclear Safety Center
5. Not all Japanese nuclear plants are in danger: There are 54 nuclear reactors in Japan located at 18 different sites throughout the country. The reactors in the north of the country experienced the most damage, particularly the Fukushima Daiichi plant which is located closest to the area hit by the earthquake. There are six nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. Reactors 5 and 6 have had water pumped into them and are currently at a low risk of an incident. Reactor 1 experienced an explosion on Saturday March 12th that damaged 70% of the fuel rods in the reactor, but so far it is reported that the containment vessels are intact. Reactor 2 experienced an explosion on Tuesday March 15th that damaged the suppression pool - a part of the cooling system leaving the fuel rods exposed. This reactor is leaking radiation. Reactor 4 experienced an explosion on Wednesday March 16th that caused a fire in a pool of spent fuel that is exposed to the air. The spent fuel contains more radiation than the fuel rods inside the reactor, so leaving them exposed (as they are now) means that radiation is leaking out into the environment. Reactor 3 is currently the center of an intense effort to cool the fuel rods by pumping in sea water. This reactor is the only one at the Fukushima Daiichi plant that uses plutonium, and thus contains the most radiation. The Kyodo News has a breakdown of the damage to the plant by reactor that contains more information.
Reuters has a great info graphic, that breaks down the earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear disaster. The BBC also has an interesting article about the way that nuclear situation in Japan will impact further nuclear development around the world. As more information comes out I'll try to update this post, but I hope that I've been able to provide some background on elements that I've seen in multiple articles about Japan's nuclear situation.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Not Who You Say You Are: Is "Ambush Journalism" A Good Tactic?

From NPR CEO Ron Schiller to Governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker these days no public figure is safe from so called Ambush Journalism. The LA Times recently ran an article on what seems to be an emerging trend - the gathering of information by pretending to be someone else. Essentially, misleading the target of your investigation by not disclosing who you are, or what information you are after and then publishing the video or audio recording.

In the case of Ron Schiller and Scott Walker the public devoured these recordings, causing if nothing else embarrassment and a lot of hoopla. But is this method of trapping people when they think they are off the record effective? The LA Times' James Rainey argues that it isn't, because even though the recordings aren't exactly flattering they are A. easily manipulated and B. don't always produce the intended result.

Rainey calls ambush journalism, "secret recordings and ham acting designed to draw out the worst in others." In the case of Ron Schiller, Rainey (and NPR itself) argues that the tape show the NPR fundraiser towing the line between the organization's journalistic activities and their fundraising activities by insisting that that NPR doesn't bend its coverage to suit financial donors. According to Rainey, the tape succeeded in taking down Schiller because he also made statements about liberals being more intelligent and the Republican party being full of gun-loving extremists.

But not all ambush journalism is successful in taking down a target. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has been a media target due to his attack on union bargaining rights and the subsequent protests at the capitol for the last month. Blogger Ian Murphy called Walker in February and claimed to be Republican campaign donor David Koch. Murphy was able to get Walker to admit that he considered planting trouble makers into the crowd of protestors, but they never actually did.

Really all Murphy accomplished was making Walker look arrogant, the phone call hoax just served to get the already over exposed governor into the media even more. All this makes me wonder if trying to trap targets by pretending to be a friend or ally when really you are trying to get them on record saying something incriminating is a good direction for investigative journalism to be heading.

Journalism is supposed to be about transparency. I believe journalists need to admit who they are and their affiliation. Even citizen journalists who intend to gather information and disseminate what they find out need to be honest about who they are. I don't think there is a clear sense of right and wrong when a lie is exposed by a lie. But is there still room for morality and right vs. wrong in journalism these days?

Is the only way to get the "real" story to lie about who you are? I don't think so. I think good investigative journalism, reporting, and writing can turn up the facts and paint a clear picture of a person or issue without having to trick them into saying something incriminating.

Maybe I'm idealistic but I don't think you have to tell lies to get to the truth. I think if there is something incriminating to be found, hitting the books, checking the paper trail and following through with as many sources of possible will turn up the same information you might get out of trapping a target with an audio or video recording. I think ambush journalism is only necessary when we stop putting in the time it takes to be real reporters. If you have to trick people into talking to you - you just aren't creating good journalism.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Violence & Forced Silence in the Evolution vs. Creation Controversy

I'm going to try not to launch into a personal diatribe about why religion and evolution don't have to be mutually exclusive, but please note this post is entirely my opinion - an editorial if you will.

It seriously burns me that so many people insist that the issue of human origin has to be black and white either all science or all religion, completely overlooking the grey area where science and religion could meet if we were willing to see things in a new way. I bring up this up, despite it being undoubtedly controversial, because of this: Imam who believes in evolution retracts statements. Dr. Usama Hasan, a lecturer at Middlesex University in the UK and an Imam at Leyton Mosque in east London has retracted statements in favor of evolution after receiving death threats.

I'm not criticizing Dr. Hasan for saying he thinks he went too far and retracting the statements. But I am criticizing the fact that he was put in the position where he felt he had to. People should be able to disagree about ANY issue, let alone their personally held (even when publicly expressed) religious beliefs without fearing for their life.

According to the BBC's article on the retraction, Dr. Hasan originally made the comments in 2008, but in January 2011 received death threats following a lecture where he re-iterated the ideas. The original opinion piece by Dr. Hasan, which appeared in the Guardian Newspaper, stated that Muslims are in need of an open discourse about creationism and evolution because science can neither prove or disprove the existence of God. This is an argument that is true for any religion, and honestly not one that I find all that extreme. He's just saying we should talk about it.

The following video is of Dr. Hasan trying to explain his beliefs on evolution to a group that heckles him from the start. What strikes me most is when he says to the audience, "disagree if you wish, but please read," he encourages them to learn basic science and gets verbally berated for it.

In the Guardian article Dr. Hasan also says, "One problem is that many Muslims retain the simple picture that God created Adam from clay, much as a potter makes a statue, and then breathed into the lifeless statue and lo! it became a living human. This is a children's madrasa-level understanding and Muslims really have to move on as adults and intellectuals."

Now, I get why he pissed people off with the above statement. No one wants to be called a child for believing as they do. It is incendiary, more incendiary than some of his other claims in favor of evolution. He poked the proverbial sleeping bear with this one. But that doesn't mean the people he offended should be allowed to threaten his life, or should even feel it is their right in the first place to tell him that he deserves to die for his ideas. No one has that right.

As a society we have determined that it is not okay to just kill anyone who doesn't agree with you. Death threats and intimidation are illegal, religiously grounded or otherwise. I think it is honestly a tragedy for society that someone who encourages a peaceful meeting place between science and religion has been in a way silenced by fear.

If we don't question religion, how can we be sure that it is really what we believe? I don't think that blindly following the interpretations of religious texts is the best way to guide your actions through life. Think about your religion. Think about what the texts say. Think about the world in which you live, and what you know to be true about it. Look at the scientific evidence. Give it due consideration. Form an opinion based on all of that, and allow others to disagree with you. If someone wants to believe that science is itself the work of God, let them. It doesn't hurt you, or diminish what you believe.

If we can not express our beliefs, even when critical of the beliefs held by others, then society is not free. Why can't we all just get along, really? Having differing opinions on the origin of humans doesn't hurt anyone socially, economically or otherwise. As a society we COULD just agree to disagree on this issue. But I have no misguided hopes that we someday will.

For a full disclosure of where my personal bias stands on this issue, I identify my own beliefs with the following thinking: "That which is impenetrable to us really exists. Behind the secrets of nature remains something subtle, intangible, inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything we can comprehend is my religion" and "Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind." -  both are Albert Einstein.  And for good measure: "There is not a righteous man on Earth who does what is right and never sins" - Ecclesiastes 7:20. No one is right all the time. To think so is in itself to challenge religion (at least in this example, Christianity - to which I most closely identify of all the organized religions.)

If EVERYONE whether you believe in Evolution, Creation or something in between could come down off their soap box to admit that maybe the opposing view isn't pure hooey, wouldn't we all be better off? You don't have to sell out your own beliefs or give up on them to admit that another way of thinking might be possible. If only we could all be so highly evolved as to do so....

Sunday, March 6, 2011

History Remains a Mystery: DNA Can't Confirm Remains Are Amelia Earhart

I use Science Decoded for class and have assignments that require me to post in certain ways. This week I'm ATTEMPTING to write in a diamond structure (writers will know it but that means really specific- big issue- really specific.) I'm going to try to do so by tackling Amelia Earhart and the role of DNA analysis in identifying her possible remains, a subject I previously mentioned in the post What Happened to Amelia Earhart?

Today she is the topic of book reports, the namesake of streets, schools and scholarships, and even the subject of a major motion picture starring actress Hilary Swank. But in 1937 when she decided to fly around the world, Amelia Earhart - famous though she was - was also something unheard of at the time. She was a woman shattering convention – simply because she wanted to.

Amelia Earhart broke her first world record at the age of 24 on October 22, 1922 when she flew her airplane to an altitude of 14,000ft. The highest altitude then recorded for a female pilot. By April 8, 1931 she would beat her own record soaring to 18,415ft. She set four records for speed from 1930-1933, and in 1932 she was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, five years to the day after Charles Lindberg first accomplished the feat. She wrote a book about the trip called “For the Fun of It.”

Earhart became a champion for women’s rights by being an outspoken female figure in a male dominated field. In 1932 she helped form, and was elected president of the Ninety Nines a club for women aviators.

According to the website operated by the estate of the famous aviator, Amelia Earhart is quoted as having said, “One of my favorite phobias is that girls, especially those whose tastes aren’t routine, often don’t get a fair break. It has come down through the generations, an inheritance of age-old customs which produced the corollary that women are bred to timidity.”

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Earhart was the first person to fly solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City, the first person to fly from Mexico City to Newark nonstop, and the first person to fly across the Red Sea to India. Not just the first woman. She was the first PERSON to complete these milestone trips.

Having accomplished all of this it is no surprise that on June 1, 1937 when she was 39-years-old Earhart set out to become the first woman to fly around the world. She almost succeeded. On June 29th, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan arrived in Lae, New Guinea with only 7,000 miles of the trip left. On July 2nd Earhart and Noonan took off for their next checkpoint at Howland Island. 

It is here that the story of a strong female aviator, a role model for men and women alike becomes a mystery. She was sucked into the vortex of the Bermuda triangle. She flew to Rio to live a life of secrecy. She was abducted by aliens. Although the theories about why Earhart never arrived at Howland Island are many, truly no one knows what happened to her, Noonan, or their twin engine Lockheed Electra airplane. Although the most likely scenario is that Earhart and Noonan were unable to find Howland Island and then ran out of fuel.

With clouds obscuring the stars, Noonan’s ability to navigate would have been heavily compromised. The failure of their radio transmissions would have left Earhart and Noonan unable to ask for help. Landing in the ocean or on one of the South Pacific’s islands may or may not have killed the aviator. She was declared dead, but some say she could have survived the landing and lived for awhile as a castaway. This theory was buoyed in 2010 by the discovery of three bone fragments that might be a human finger on Nikumaroro (formerly known as Gardner Island) in the Republic of Kiribati.

It was on Nikumaroro in 1940 that a British Naval officer found 13 bones including a skull believed to belong to a castaway. The bones were sent to Fiji for analysis where they were later misplaced. A connection was never made to Earhart because at the time the bones were analyzed and believed to belong to a man. American officials were never officially notified of the discovery.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) took up the mystery of what happened to Earhart and Noonan and the possibility that the 1940 Nikumaroro bones were either the aviator or her navigator in 1988. An analysis of records from Fiji conducted by TIGHAR forensic anthropologists based on new computerized technology indicate that the initial analysis was wrong and the remains belonged to a white female.

TIGHAR conducted new searches of the island in 2001, 2007 and 2010. The search in 2010 turned up the three bone fragments, reportedly in the same area that the original 13 misplaced bones were found. TIGHAR recruited the help of Cecil Lewis of the University of Oklahoma’s Molecular Anthropology Laboratories to analyze the bone fragments. Last week TIGHAR announced that Lewis’ findings were inconclusive. It is possible that the bones are a human finger bone, but bones could also belong to a sea turtle. Other organisms like birds and fish have been ruled out due to the structure of the bone.

Nikumaroro Map. Source: Flickr.
The initial test for the presence of human mitochondrial DNA conducted by Lewis was positive, but subsequent tests did not replicate that result. Because the process of extracting DNA damages the bone, further attempts to determine the bone’s origin would use up the rest of the sample. Doing so would make independent replication – a crucial part of the scientific process in which other scientists conduct the same experiment to make sure that the results are valid – an impossibility.

A mitochondrial DNA profile on Earhart has been compiled from a female relative. Mitochondria are an organelle – a small part of a cell. Mitochondria are involved in creating energy to power the cell. Unlike the rest of the cell, mitochondria contain DNA that is directly passed between mother and child, meaning that it is the same for all individuals on the maternal side of the family lineage.

TIGHAR has decided to shelve the DNA testing of the 2010 Nikumaroro bone fragments to ensure that in the future when DNA analysis technology improves to the point where less material is needed to discover if the bones are human (and if they are Earhart’s) there will still be enough of the bones left to test. But, when the bone is able to be tested for human DNA, the mitochondrial DNA profile of Earhart will be used to confirm if the bones are hers.

Other artifacts recovered from the Nikumaroro site (including what may be fecal matter, a freckle cream jar, and evidence of meals being cooked) are still being analyzed for direct evidence of Earhart or Noonan. Another expedition to Nikumaroro is scheduled for the summer of 2012 – to mark the 75th anniversary of Earhart's flight and disappearance. The new expedition will focus on finding the remains of her Lockheed Electra, believed to be deep down on the slope of the reef on the Island's west end.

The identification of Earhart’s remains (if they are hers) would be a triumph of scientific technology. As her story becomes intertwined with science, it becomes ever more ironic that Earhart didn’t view the information gathered from her flights as science. “I lay no claim to advancing scientific data other than advancing flying knowledge,” she said. “I can only say that I do it because I want to.”

If Earhart has a scientific legacy it is not to be found in her bones. Earhart believed women should never stop trying to excel in fields dominated by men. She busted the boys club of aviation, and paved the way for women to do the same in other fields. Female scientists who have broken into their own boys club, and penetrated the historically male dominated research fields embody Earhart’s determination to succeed.

Whether or not science will one day be able to tell if Earhart met her end on Nikumaroro Island, her legacy to science, and all of society, is in encouraging women to break with convention.

“Now and then women should do for themselves what men have already done – occasionally what men have not done – thereby establishing themselves as persons, and perhaps encouraging other women toward greater independence of through and action. Some such consideration was a contributing reason for my wanting to do what I so much wanted to do.”

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Daffodil Organs

Today is the first day of March, ushering in what (I desperately hope) is the spring season. To celebrate March and spring I wanted to share the article, "Oxford scientists say trumpets in daffodils are 'new organ'." Daffodils are one of my favorite flowers, and their arrival also marks the end of winter's cold so I'm posting about them today as a form of wishful thinking.

The trumpet (gold) and petals (pale yellow)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Daffodils are unique among flowers because they have five parts (called organs) instead of the typical four. The four parts all flowers have are the sepals, petals, stamens, and carpals. The fifth part that daffodils have is called the trumpet, or corona. Researchers have struggled in the past to determine what the trumpet is, typically lumping it in with the petals.

But now, researchers from the University of Oxford (UK) have determined that the trumpet is not a part of the petals, and is its own unique organ. The researchers discovered this by studying the flowers as they formed, and dissecting the bulbs to see how the different parts of the flower developed. In daffodils, the four main parts that all flowers have develop at the same time, while the trumpet is formed later. Because of this difference in development times, the researchers concluded that the trumpet is distinct from the other four organs.

For a little article about the classification of parts of a daffodil, I really like this story. The article has some interesting background and quotes that put the finding in context. This is a fun science article, and the next time I see daffodils, I'll be sure to check out the trumpet-petal difference. Fingers crossed I'll see daffodils (and spring!) sometime soon.