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Podcast: Symmetry

If you place a ball on the top of a perfectly symmetric hill, it shouldn't move. At least, not if you're a theoretical physicist. In practice, we all know the ball will 'choose' a side. So, nature breaks symmetry. How do physicists deal with symmetry breaking in nature and what does this mean for biologists? In this episode we talk with scientist Philip Kidd, visiting student in Dr. Eric D. Sigga's Laboratory of Theoretical Condensed Matter Physics. He tells us about the symmetry of physics, and how it translates to the natural world (or doesn't). Further reading a review of biological symmetry breaking from NCBI a video of a hydra cut in half and then regenerating our first podcast, on DEET and mosquitoes Image courtesy of DOE joint genome institute.  

Living in 3D // Real-D

by Maryam Zaringhalam, @thisisartlab The most outrageous-seeming science fiction constructions have a rather amazing longstanding habit of becoming reality. It’s actually almost impossible [for me at least] to imagine that in the not-so distant past space travel // robots // the Internet existed solely in the imaginations of sci-fi writers + consumers. Despite being a Millennial, well-versed + up-to-date in the latest-and-greatest innovations and gadgetry, I can't help but have my mind utterly blown each time science fiction becomes fact. My latest obsession? 3D PRINTING. 3D printing blood vessel networks out of sugar using the Rep Rap at University of Pennsylvania. As its name suggests, 3D printing creates an object from a three-dimensional digital model, known as a CAD [Computer-Aided Design] file. To print a 3D product out of this virtual blueprint, the CAD file is sliced into a series of 2D cross-sections. Successive slices are printed, stacked, and fused one on top of the other much like a standard inkjet printer, but instead of ink, 3D printer cartridges deposit drops of materials like rubber, plastics, metals, and more. Because 3D objects are printed + stacked layer by layer from the ground up, 3D printing is often referred to as

Aesthetically Speaking

By Maryam Zaringhalam, @thisisartlab A couple weeks ago, I sat in on a lecture at Columbia University that addressed four open questions in computer science. To be perfectly honest, due to a rather severe case of jet lag and a certain rustiness where math is concerned, I quickly lost interest as the professor began to delve deeper into the mathematics behind each problem. What struck me most about his talk, however, was what brought him to these problems in the first place. For him, these computational conundrums are quite simply “beautiful questions." The winner of Northwestern University's "Capturing the Beauty of Science" competition. Graphene oxide. Image by Andrea Towers. Science-speak is laden with the language of aesthetics. We evaluate our hypotheses + theories in terms of their simplicity // symmetry // unity—by any criteria that distills the chaotic nature of the world around us into a simple assertion—and call them elegant [e=mc2 // evolution by natural selection]. We deem our supporting evidence—our figures, graphs, microscopic movies—downright gorgeous when they succinctly support our claims, while simultaneously appealing to our visual sensibilities. We even have the overwhelming compulsion to turn our work into a neatly packaged narrative, weaving our data

Smell Check

By Maryam Zaringhalam, @thisisartlab Taken from The Daily Doodle. My name is Maryam and i'm a congenital anosmic. I was born this way—a rare mutant with a lifelong inability to smell Anosmia literally means 'without smell. While I most certainly do have a nose (my grandmother would even say it's impressively large), it is incapable of telling my brain that it is sensing anything. When a person smells, what the nose is actually detecting is a series of tiny odor molecules in the air, which make their way through the nasal passage. There, they bind to odorant receptors located on the surface of olfactory neurons. These receptors recognize a given odor molecule by its characteristic shape and size. Once a particular receptor binds and recognizes an odor, it initiates a series of changes in the neuron. This neuron then *fires* a chemical message, setting off a chain of events—a signaling cascade—that relays the presence of that particular smell up to the brain. The average person can bind and distinguish up to 10,000 different odor molecules, which is a whole heck of a lot considering humans have a relatively poor sense of smell! I, on the other hand, have a genetic mutation—a

Pork chops and applesauce…and worms?!

By Monica Mugnier Porkchops with Cider, Horseradish, and Dill. I am spoiled when it comes to pork chops. My dad is a great cook, and he used to make pork chops for dinner a lot.  When I was twelve or thirteen, my best friend, Melissa, came over for a pork chop dinner.  While she loved to hear Peter Brady talk about them, pork chops were her least favorite meal. But she was polite, so she tried it. She was shocked by my dad's dinner: "Wait, they aren't always dry?" So I was excited last weekend when my boyfriend and I decided to try a recipe for Pork Chops with Cider, Horseradish, and Dill from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, by Deb Perelman. I am a huge fan of Smitten Kitchen, pork chops, cider, and horseradish (not so much dill, but oh well), so this sounded good.  I was hoping for some juicy pork chops like my dad used to make. Our attempt at making dinner had mixed results. On the injury front, I did burn my fingers moving a hot roasting pan in the sink but (for once) didn’t end up with any blisters. While I was moderately successful in not getting injured, I

5 Steps to Separate Science from Hype, No PhD Required

By Gabrielle Rabinowitz and Emily Jane Dennis   “Does flossing decrease my risk of heart disease?” No, but is it good for you? Yes. “Does aluminum cause Alzheimers?” Nope. “Should I start following the Paleo Diet?” Probably not & paleolithic people probably didn’t either. As scientists, we’re asked these sorts of questions all the time. Although we’re trained to evaluate scientific ideas, it definitely doesn’t take a PhD to judge the latest craze or newest finding. To do it yourself, follow these 5 steps:   1. Separate the sales pitch from the science Almost everyone is trying to sell something. In articles about science, the sales pitch is usually right in the headline. The science is harder to find. Start by looking for a quote from a scientist. Read the quote but ignore the spin the author put on it. Don’t forget that scientists can have biases too: be skeptical of scientists who don’t acknowledge the limitations of their research and fail to present alternate explanations. Also, check to see who’s funding the research- they might have an agenda too! In short, read articles carefully and figure out if the claims they make are based on the facts they present.   2.

Getting Cheeky with Photons: The Optics of Blue Monkey Butts

By Dan Gareau, @LASER_Beam A mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx) with bright blue skin tone. If you’re anything like me, you may have wondered why some monkeys have bright blue skin. Even if you don’t pay careful attention to monkey butts, you may still have wondered what makes some people’s eyes blue. To answer these questions, it is important to first understand how light interacts with living stuff, which we call biological tissue. Light is a collection of little packets of energy, called photons, that whiz through the air.  Photons come in all different colors, and when these colors are all together, we see white light (like sunlight or light from a light bulb). But photons of different colors act differently when they enter biological tissue. You can think of a photon as a drunk person walking through a forest.  The drunk person enters the forest and walks into a tree, D’oh!, changes direction (scatters) and walks another short distance and into another tree, D’oh!  D’oh! D’oh! D’oh! .... and before you know it the drunk person exits the forest in a random place going a random direction. When photons enter the skin, it is just like the drunk person

Riddles in the Dark

By Maryam Zaringhalam, @thisisartlab Moray eel in Japan ”We know more about space than we do our oceans, even though the oceans sustain all life on our planet.” - Sylvia Earle To the obligate land-dweller, life underwater is just about as foreign as life on other planets. Hidden from our land-centric consciousness, the average human seldom considers our aquatic counterparts, even though they frequently end up on our dinner plates. Out of sight. Out of mind. And yet, all modern life—aquatic and land-dwelling—was born from water. We share a common unicellular ancestor that serendipitously emerged in the water 3.5 billion years ago. So in the grand scheme of things, these aquatic aliens are actually more like our long-lost cousins.  But somehow, in the last 50 years we have eaten our way through over 90% of the ocean’s big fish—the tuna, the sharks, the marlin. We have, through widespread bottom trawling practices, destroyed hundreds of seamounts and ancient coral systems. Our influence in recent history has placed an enormous strain on our underwater relations and their habitat. Unfortunately, our impact has gone largely unnoticed, because the underwater world remains concealed from our conscientious consciousness. In an effort to reveal this hidden

Fractaled Atlas

By Maryam Zaringhalam, @thisisartlab fractals in nature. snail shell // milky way // leaf veins // motor neuron No matter where we look in the natural world, we are sure to find recurring patterns. As a result, natural scientists devote their careers to [humbly] attempt to find and define these very patterns. The most abundant of these natural motifs is arguably the fractal—a geometric structure that can be subdivided into smaller parts that look roughly similar to the whole. Take the branching pattern of the veins on a leaf as an example: zoom into one of those branches, and you'll find that it's reminiscent of the overarching branching structure // zoom into one of those branches' branches and you'll find the same thing... over and over again! At their core, fractals are simply the geometric result of repeating the same pattern over and over at a smaller and smaller scale—increasingly tiny patterns within a greater overarching motif. But fractals are the ultimate paradox. Though they are built on simple repetitions, they are infinitely complex. You can subdivide // zoom in // subdivide // zoom in and you'll still see the same [or similar] patterns emerging and repeating with

The Fine Li(n)e

By Simona Giunta Science communication faces stiff challenges with the blurring of boundaries between public and private science and the fragmentation of audiences. (Jean-Francois Podevin/Science Photo Library) 'A scientist, in a broad sense, is one engaging in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge'.  Scientist Definition: Wikipedia Is the universe expanding or contracting? How did life on Earth begin? How does damaged DNA get repaired? These are all tough questions for scientists, but are they the toughest?  Actually, no. One question I have always dreaded as a scientist is: “What exactly do you do?” There are two reasons why this seemingly simple question is actually very complicated to answer.  The first reason is that scientists often struggle to explain their research in lay terms. For many scientists, breaking down highly technical information in simple terms is an exercise akin to sending a probe to Mars! The second problem is the low science literacy rates in the US. For instance, terms like ‘DNA’ and ‘proteins,’ which are widely used by mass media, are neither fully understood nor appreciated by the public. Whose fault is this? Circle back to the first reason! So, how did I handle the dreaded question? “I’m a

Happy Pi Day!

By Laura Seeholzer Happy Pi Day!  It's a fact A ratio immutable Of circle round and width Produces geometry's deepest conundrum For as the numerals stay random No repeat lets out its presence Yet it forever stretches forth Nothing to eternity. - David Saul and Danielle Mathieson  Can you figure out the pattern in this piem (pi + poem - us math geeks love wordplay)? Remember, pi = 3.1415926535897932384626433832795028... It is not a coincidence that the first word word of the poem has 3 letters, the second word has 1 letter, the third has 4 letters, etc.  People use piems as mnemonics (piphilology) to memorize the digits of pi. However, if you want to memorize large sequences of pi, I would recommend more creative methods. Currently, Lu Chao holds the world record for number of digits recited. Over the course of 24 hours and 4 minutes he recited 67,890 digits of pi. There were no bathroom breaks because the Guinness Book of World Records mandates that you only have 15 seconds between numbers. The youngest pi competitor, so far, is a three-year-old girl, Grace Hare, who recited 31 digits! What a feat. I’m excited when I correctly recite my nine