Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Blogging Is A Battle And We Are The Soldiers

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Geekosystem. Yes, these are my co-workers at Geekosystem, one of the writers for our sister site The Mary Sue, and the Abrams Media COO showing you what the world of badass blogging is really about. Clearly, we take our jobs very, very seriously around these parts.

The video was made after Intel solicited mid-level blogs to submit videos describing themselves as part of some sort of contest. No idea if we won, or what exactly the prize would be but it was a lot of fun just watching them film, let alone having the video to remind me of the joy of being an Abrams Intern. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Geek Roundup: The Best Science Posts From My Internship

I know I haven't been posting on here as often as I used to, but that doesn't mean that I've been slacking. My summer internship is working as a blogger for Geekosystem, one of the Abrams Media Network websites. I've been writing posts about a lot of interesting science over at Geekosystem, and I wanted to highlight some of my favorites from the past month.

Exposure to puppy pictures are just one perk of being a Geekosystem Intern
Mind Control Hat Uses Light To Guide Mouse Behavior: This post is about research out of MIT that developed a wireless control mechanism for optogenetics applications. The researchers used optogenetics (the use of light to stimulate neurons to fire at specific times) to control the motions and behavior of the mice.

Hand Hacking Device May Give Users Musical Ability: I have no musical ability to speak of, and though I do own a guitar that collects more dust than it makes music. Perhaps if I had a PossessedHand device I would get more use out of my guitar. This is a device that sends electrical impulses to your muscles instructing them to move your fingers in a specific pattern, like plucking guitar strings. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson Thinks The Onion Deserves A Pulitzer: A video post that pretty much speaks for itself, I love how fun and clever Tyson (who is a famous astrophysicist, in case you aren't familiar) is in this video. 

The Secret To Youth, In Yeast At Least: This post is about the discovery of a gene in yeast that is responsible for taking old cells and keeping them young. This gene can be turned on or off to control the aging process. 

Japanese Researchers Create Swimming Endoscope: File this one under things that make me shudder. Called the "Mermaid" researchers in Japan have developed a remotely controlled endoscope that swims through the digestive system relaying images of the various structures. 

Flies Sense Magnetic Fields Using Human Protein: We know that birds and other animals have the ability to sense the Earth's magnetic fields which enables them to visually guide their movements. New research shows that humans have the protein responsible for this ability, but not the actual power. But in flies, the protein works its magic. 

New Virotherapy Cures Prostate Cancer In Mice: Writing this post took a lot of science writing skillz, if I do say so myself. I saw many overblown headlines about a "vaccine for cancer" that were just totally inaccurate for what this story really is. This is a technique that uses viruses as a means of introducing a treatment for cancer into the body. While successful in mice, it hasn't been tried in humans, and certainly has nothing to do with vaccines. 

Eavesdropping Rodents Listen To Each Other: New research shows that chipmunks and woodchucks will heed the alarm calls of the other species, even though they do not communicate directly with each other. 

Neural Prosthesis Restores Long Term Memory: This was a very cool post (if I say so myself) about the development of a device that can manipulate the formation of memory by electrically controlling different areas of the brain. This could have important implications for memory-loss disorders. However, this too has only been proven in mice. 

Insect Makes World's Loudest Mating Call In A Surprising Way: Well, this one you'll just have to read to find out about. But let me put in the caveat that its not the most appropriate piece I've ever written.

Less Sunspot Activity Is Not A Climate Change Fix: Doing a bit of debunking and clarifying on this one, addressing some overblown claims about the effect that a reduction in sunspot activity on the sun would have on Earth. 

Russia To Build Floating Nuclear Power Plants: The title pretty much says it all. But, the main idea is that Russia intends to build nuclear power plants in the arctic to provide power for their oil exploration activities. The number of things that could go wrong which spring to mind is astounding. 

A Cool Brain Offers Relief To Insomniacs: This was a very cool study that showed that one of the most effective and easily applicable methods to treat insomnia, may be a cap that cools the brain. This could have a big impact on the way insomnia is treated, moving the industry away from sleeping pills which can be highly addictive. 

Disappointment At Tevatron: No New Particle: When particle physics becomes a let down. 

Aquatic Spider Uses Web As A Gill To Breathe Underwater: Things that completely creep me out while still being very cool. This spider uses its web as an air sack that it breathes out of while it is underwater to keep it from having to come up to the surface (and thus exposing itself) more than it really has to.

Just a small sampling of the very cool science that has been going on in the last month. There are so many interesting things that I've gotten to cover for Geekosystem (though I tend to pitch all science stories and must settle on about half, they still let me cover a lot of great stuff). I've been learning a lot about how to tell if something you see on the internet is legitimate, what sources to go to for post ideas, and how to write for a varied audience that doesn't always know they're going to be interested in a science topic.

One thing I've been struggling with while writing for Geekosystem are the comments I get on my posts. Some of them are nice and either point out a typo or minor error or just provide an opinion about the post, but the majority I either don't understand what the criticism is or I'm being accused of making mistakes that I don't think I have. I'm being encouraged to interact more with people in the comments, but I'm not sure how to handle it really. Although knowing the internet, I know that comments could be much much worse, and are for many people. I just need to get a thicker skin I suppose.

I'll try to do more roundups of the science posts I write for Geekosystem, but never fear I have no plans to abandon my own little corner of the internet here, where I can say what I want and the commenters are people I know!

Friday, June 24, 2011

New Method May Provide Clues To Dinosaur Body Temperature

Scientists have many questions about how the internal condition of dinosaurs (not preserved in fossilized remains) may have influenced the way those creatures lived. One of the conditions in question is whether or not dinosaurs were cold blooded or warm blooded and what were their internal temperatures. But now a team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology believe they have developed a method by which they can identify the internal temperature of dinosaurs based on fossilized teeth. 

Caltech Geochemists Rob Eagle (L) and John Eiler
The researchers, led by postdoctoral researcher Robert Eagle, studied isotopic concentrations in 11 fossilized teeth from sauropods (the long-tailed, long-necked dinosaurs). The teeth were recovered from sites in Tanzania, Wyoming and Oklahoma and belonged to Brachiosaurus and Camarasaurus dinosaurs. 

The method used for this analysis is called a clumped isotope technique. The concentrations of the isotopes carbon-13 and oxygen-18 in bioapatite, a mineral found in teeth and bone. How often these isotopes bond with each other (clump, if you will) hinges on the temperature. The lower the temperature the more the isotopes tend to bond with each other. So, the researchers measured how these isotopes clumped together to determine the environmental (in this instance the internal condition of the dinosaur) temperature. At least, the temperature of the tooth.

The study allowed the researchers to estimate the temperature of Brachiosaurus to 100.8 degrees Fahrenheit and the temperature of Camarasaurus to 96.3 degrees Fahrenheit. This is warmer than living and extinct reptile species (like crocodiles) but is cooler than birds both of which are believed to be modern descendants of the dinosaurs. According to the researchers the measurements are accurate to within one or two degrees.

Drilling a Camarasaurus tooth
Prior to this research, the best way to evaluate the internal temperature of dinosaurs was to infer what would be most likely based on the dinosaur's behavior and physiology. However, researchers sought a method that would be more specific. That's not to say the researcher's new method is infallible. While they have made big claims about it being "bullet proof," it remains to be seen whether this method is the most accurate and effective. 

The study led the Caltech researchers to conclude that dinosaurs were warm blooded (have an internal mechanism to moderate body temperature), but they warn that the issue is actually more complicated that just temperature readings. Even if the creatures were cold blooded and relied on their environment for warmth, they still could have had very warm bodies. Unfortunately knowing the temperature of the teeth don't answer all of the remaining questions about dinosaur temperature.

The scientists hope to expand upon this study to include analysis of the teeth of other species of extinct vertebrates, in addition to determining the internal temperatures of small and young dinosaurs that may reveal more about how temperature affected the way these creatures lived. The research paper was published in ScienceExpress. More information (from a press release) is available from Caltech and in the following video (which were both used as sources for this post.) 

(All media courtesy of Caltech)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Arabian Oryx's Comeback Story

We see so many stories proclaiming the final nail in the coffin of so many species around the world (and indeed, species extinction is a serious issue) but today there is actually some good news about the Arabian oryx, which was previously considered extinct in the wild. Good news needs to be talked about more, so inspired by this post from New Scientist I wanted to share the Arabian oryx's story.

Arabian Oryx, via Wikimedia Commons
Around 1972 the last wild Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx) was killed, most likely in Oman. While the species was extinct in the wild there were still several in captivity, particularly at the Phoenix Zoo, which received four wild Arabian oryx in 1963 as a part of a conservation effort called Operation Oryx.

After the species went extinct in the wild, individuals from the zoo’s breeding program were brought together with individuals from royal collections in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to make a last “world herd.”  A breeding program began and in the early 1980’s the first individuals were reintroduced into the wild in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. 

The Arabian oryx has since flourished, reaching a wild population of more than 1000 individuals, and is continuing to increase. This had led to the Arabian oryx officially being moved from endangered to vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. A 2008 assessment showed that the Arabian oryx had recovered enough to no longer qualify as even an endangered species.

The IUCN Species Program produces, maintains and manages the IUCN Red List, and implements worldwide species conversation projects. The Species Program is headquartered in Switzerland and is designed to determine the relative risk of a species facing extinction. The Red List is used to keep track of and bring attention to the plants and animals that directly risk global extinction. 

IUCN Red List categoriesUnder IUCN Red List Guidelines a species can only move to a lower category if none of the criteria for the higher category have been met for five years or more. To be considered endangered there must be 250 or fewer mature individuals of a species, so the Arabian oryx, which is doing well at over 1000, will be listed as Vulnerable starting this year.

The Arabian oryx is native to the Arabian Peninsula, and doesn’t have many natural predators; humans drove the animals to extinction from hunting. In addition to the 1000 in the wild there are another 6,000-7,000 individuals alive in captivity around the world, many within the Arabian region.

Interestingly, the population that was re-introduced to Oman (where the last wild Arabian oryx were killed before it went extinct in the wild) has been struggling. The Oman population was hurt through illegal live capture for private sale, and has been rendered ineffective because only males remain.  Most new populations are in secure areas that are relatively safe from poaching, but animals that wander outside protected sites have no guarantee of safety. 
Future release locations for animals bred through captivity will be determined by the potential effects of drought and overgrazing, which have reduced available areas where populations could thrive. 

Now that I'm spending my days perusing the internet (so much more than ever before!) I've seen a lot of strange, strange, and I mean STRANGE things. In addition there is also so much negative news from hackers to politicians to criminal cases and everything in between that I feel like little glimmers of good news, particularly about successful conservation efforts should to be recognized. It doesn't make the bad news easier to swallow, but it still makes things seem brighter. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Being A Geek Is Glorious

I have been struggling lately to keep to my "one blog post a week for the entire summer," resolution. The reason being that in addition to having found myself in five states (IA, IL, MD, NY and of course NJ) in the last month I also started my internship. This summer I am working as a blogger for Geekosystem, which is one of the Abrams Media Network websites.

While I'm short on time for personal blogging, I have been having a blast blogging professionally. I started a week ago and have already written 23 posts. I have been shocked by the sheer volume of things the internet cranks out each day, and equally shocked by how much those things are repackaged and recycled.

I've been tweeting most of my posts so I won't re-list them all here, but there are a few standouts. The posts I have written have been on a variety of topics, including (though not limited to) Vulcan flashdrivesAudio CAPTCHAs (which I had no idea what they were,) Techie words added to the dictionary"New" (really they are pretty old) elements added to the periodic tableAn explosion on the sunPeople that are using Google's money to buy GoogleHackers that are sort of funny but not really because hacking is a serious crime, and An aquatic spider that uses its web as gills to breathe underwater.

I have already learned a lot of things from my internship, the wisdom of which I will impart here:
  • People on the internet like Corgis. Apparently, Corgi's are a thing.
  • Traveling 1.5 hours each way to work is not sustainable, unless you are Wonder Woman (I'm not.)
  • I do not understand the allure of Nyan Cat. Why is this a thing? No, really...
  • Pokemon is actually thinly disguised cockfighting.
  • I should really start watching Doctor Who.
  • You shouldn't read the comments if you are already having a bad day, someone is bound to hate you/your post for obscure reasons. While comments can tell you a lot and spark great conversations, you have to be ready for them good and bad.
  • Living at home means I walk in the door to dinner that is already made and that is phenominal.
  • Backpacks are good. Dorky as all get out, but completely genius. 
  • I would like more hours in the day.
  • There was/is a meme of fingers painted like zombies. What? 
  • The internet has surprises like Terrifying Clown. To be avoided at all costs.
  • I really (REALLY) want to know more about comic books. I might need a tutor. 
  • Trains don't work when its hot. At least, not NJ Transit trains. (I already knew this, but it deserves mention for being a major engineering fail.)
  • My parents deserve metals for all the schleping to and from the train they do on a daily basis.
  • It is possible for an office building to regulate their AC temperature to normal human non-refridgeration levels, and it makes getting dressed in the morning much easier. 
  • You should check the google analytics for your posts, and learn what your audience really likes.
  • Planking, like Corgi's, will get your hits on your site. 
  • There are too many cat memes, and not enough puppies. 
  • Dachshund in chainmail never ceases to make me smile.
  • I am a pretty pretty princess.
  • The internet is bound and determined to ruin my childhood memories. 
Last but not least, I have learned that Lady Gaga and Judas Priest make for a killer mashup. No seriously, I did a post that was just this:

To be serious for a moment (which, with all I have learned about the glory of the internet is a little difficult) I am really enjoying my internship. The best thing about it so far has been the completely wonderful, welcoming and encouraging people I'm working with and the great atmosphere and pace of the job. It is nice to be an intern and not have the weight of an entire site on your shoulders. Feeling like I'm a part of a team does wonders for my desire to get up in the morning and go to work. I can't wait to see what the next three months will bring.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

An Extinction Intervention

Over the course of the year doing grad school work at UW-Madison, I've written a few different articles for class assignments. I've decided to publish this article here, though it should be noted that this was written in December 2010 from interviews conducted throughout the Fall of 2010. I feel that the information and perspectives still hold a lot of value, so I wanted to share it anyway.
Managed relocation is a potential solution to the biodiversity loss posed by climate change, but the policy’s unpredictable risk ignited the scientific community in a debate that questions how society views conservation in the context of impending extinction.

Every summer, your backyard garden produces a cornucopia of vegetables because it gets enough sunlight and rain to make your plants bloom. But, then your neighbors plant trees in their yard that cast a shadow on your garden. Without sunlight your plants wilt and suddenly its goodbye tomatoes. So what do you do? Well, next year you move the garden to a sunnier spot. Problem solved.

Moving your garden to a sunny spot is an easy way to keep up with the changing environment of your backyard, but would it work on a larger scale?

The rapid changes to ecosystems around the world predicted by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) include the widespread extinction of species that don’t adapt fast enough. That is, unless a policy like “managed relocation” -- the shifting of species to new environments to counteract the affects of climate change -- can be implemented successfully.

Some conservationists in the United States have jumped on the idea of managed relocation. The most notable project so far is the transportation of the Torreya (Torreya taxifolia,) a conifer tree, from Florida to North Carolina by the independent group the Torreya Guardians. Whether the Torreya experiment will work is unknown, but it has drawn attention to the risk associated with relocating species.

Torreya taxifolia
via Wikimedia Commons
Unlike moving your garden to that perfect sunny spot, moving species involves a fragile web of ecological connections that when broken, could create more problems than solutions.

Managed relocation is exemplary of an overall trend in ecology toward an interventionist approach focused on species. This trend is a challenge to previously established conservation policy that focused on protecting habitat to help species, and has opened debate about whether human meddling will save or sacrifice Earth’s biodiversity.

David Richardson, Professor of Ecology and Deputy Director of Science Strategy at the University of Stellenbosch (South Africa,) says whether more attempts at managed relocation will be made and whether they occur with the sanction of government will depend on the success of projects like the one conducted by the Torreya Guardians.

“A few spectacular failures would probably nail the coffin on the concept,” said Richardson in an email message. “Managed relocation is undoubtedly very risky and the practice could cause more problems than it solves. But then, losing species is also very risky, so the price of taking no action could be very high, perhaps higher than undertaking managed relocation.”

The Risky Business of Managed Relocation
Moving species through managed relocation poses both a risk of total failure, and a risk of extreme success. The fragile connections between species in an ecosystem cannot be easily replaced, and even the most heavily researched relocations can fail completely. Unexpected new connections can also form, causing a species to explode in their new habitat and become invasive.

“The way managed relocation gets framed is that it is a trade off,” said Jason McLachlan Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame. “On the one hand you don’t want species that you care about to go extinct, but on the other hand we have a bad track record with moving species around. We come with good intentions but cause more problems.”

According to Ralph Grundel, a research ecologist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in Porter, IN the complex science of moving species is enough reason to be skeptical that managed relocation will succeed. Grundel’s own work relocating the Karner Blue Butterfly only a few miles away from its natural range has failed, even after extensive research into the habitat specifications needed by the species.

Karner Blue Butterfly Source: Wikimedia Commons
“When you introduce a new species into another species range, you are rolling the dice because you don’t know how the species will interact,” said Grundel. “It can be really challenging, so aside from the ethics of whether we should meddle, our ability to succeed if we wanted to do these things I’m pessimistic about.”

With debate mounting about whether humans could or should micromanage the survival of species, researchers like McLachlan and Grundel say that a redefinition of the way the US thinks about conservation is needed to consider the ethical problems posed by intervening.

From conservation to intervention
According to Ben Minteer, Associate Professor at the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University, for over a century the United States’ stance on conservation (outlined by the Endangered Species Act) has been to protect species from human involvement in the species native environment.  But, if the habitat can’t be maintained – due to climate change – then a new policy will be needed.

“Now things are changing,” said Minteer. “In the most extreme cases we have to go in and round the species up and move them to a place that is different from their native range. If we don’t do that we’re committing them to extinction.”

According to Minteer, the majority of researchers who have investigated the implications of climate change on biodiversity are in agreement that a plan is needed for future action. But, whether managed relocation is that plan is uncertain.

 “What we are going to be forced into is this strong interventionist approach to conservation,” said Minteer. “I say this with a heavy heart, but we are moving toward a planetary management situation where we become much stronger manipulators of the landscape to make it more amenable to saving species, and to make sure that it provides the services that humans depend upon.”

More harm than help
“We really don’t know what we’re doing,” said Jessica Hellmann an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame. “But everything that we do has side affects.”

Hellmann says managed relocation can be thought of like a medical treatment. Cancer patients are given chemotherapy even though it has detrimental side affects, because the treatment is more beneficial than the side affects are harmful. Managed relocation may be a treatment for species suffering from climate change, but researchers don’t know if the benefits will outweigh the side affects.

Researchers are experimenting to figure out which species can be moved, and where they can go based on climate change models. “We want to create the sweet spot,” said Hellmann. “You want the population to be successful, you just don’t want it to be so successful that it starts overwhelming other species and damages the ecosystem.”

While some researchers are busy figuring out the feasibility of managed relocation, others have taken a different approach to finding solutions to the extinction problem posed by climate change.

“We aren’t going to be good at managed relocation, and the consequences of not being good at it go back to this larger issue of how we as a society deal with changing climate,” said McLachlan.

According to McLachlan, instead of trying to make solutions like managed relocation feasible researchers should attack the underlying problem, climate change itself.

“The idea that any of these other plans is going to be easier and less expensive than just reducing green house gas emissions isn’t true,” said McLachlan. “At least with green house gases we know how to reduce them and we know it would work.”

When compared, the uncertainty of managed relocation makes the certainty of reducing green house gas emissions a sensible undertaking.

“Right now our path is to totally perturb the earth and then go around and fix it afterwards,” said McLachlan. “If you don’t like that option, you might think about not breaking the entire Earth system in the first place.”

According to Grundel, the United States is in the middle of what he calls “devilishly difficult decisions,” about ecological policy. While researchers may be at odds about human interference, one thing is certain – rash future action could trigger unexpected detrimental effects.

“We’re doing an unprecedented manipulation of earth’s atmosphere, but we can’t predict the dynamics,” said McLachlan. “The answer is we better be careful, everyone lives on this planet, so it’s really not a good idea to do an unprecedented experiment on it.”