September 6 – OMG! GMO!

Today’s factismal: We’ve been using genetically-modified organisms to save lives for 38 years.

If you keep up with the news, you are aware that there is a lot of arguing going on over the use of genetically-modified organisms, also known as GMOs to the acronym-lovers out there. On the one hand, there are those who (rightly) point out that we don’t know everything about how DNA works and that inserting genes isn’t as exact a science as we would like. (Though it is getting much, much better.) On the other hand, there are those who (rightly) point out that we’ve been genetically modifying organisms for 12,000 years yet and have yet to create a Killer Tomato; instead, GMOs have simply saved thousands upon thousands of lives – and given us cuter pets.

These Norwegian rats are GMOs; they have been selectively bred to have unique coloring and a friendly temperament (Image courtesy CDC)

These Norwegian rats are GMOs; they have been selectively bred to have unique coloring and a friendly temperament
(Image courtesy CDC)

Genetic modification techniques have advanced a lot since the days in Sumer when we’d breed wheat to be bigger, tastier, and better in beer, though it took a long time to get there. Back in 12,000 BCE, it would take decades of painstaking work to change an organism via selective breeding. It wasn’t until the DNA molecule was identified as the thing that made chromosomes work back in 1953 that genetic modification slipped into overdrive and designer genes became something more than a science fiction fantasy.  Just twenty years after Franklin, Watson, and Crick identified the structure of DNA, scientists were creating new organisms that had DNA from two (or more) critters.

DNA makes up the chromosomes which tell our cells how to be us (Image courtesy  U.S. National Library of Medicine)

DNA makes up the chromosomes which tell our cells how to be us
(Image courtesy U.S. National Library of Medicine)

But they weren’t doing this for fun. They were doing it to save lives and to learn more about DNA so that they could save even more lives. For example, one of the first GMOs was a bacterium that had a gene to make antibiotics inserted into it; the idea was to test new ways of creating life-saving drugs. And the first commercially successful GMO was a type of e. coli (one of the bacteria that lives in your gut) that had been modified to make human insulin.

E. coli may not look like much, but this GMO is a life-saver! (Image courtesy NIH)

E. coli may not look like much, but this GMO is a life-saver!
(Image courtesy NIH)

That was important because at the time diabetics had three choices. They could try to keep themselves alive by eating a diet of less than 1,000 calories a day. They could take insulin derived from sheep or cows and risk a life-threatening reaction with every shot (the first patient to have an insulin shot nearly died due to his reaction). Or they could just die. But the GMO e. coli changed all that when it was patented back on September 6, 1978. Because the GMO produced human insulin and not insulin from a cow or sheep, there was no risk of an allergic reaction. And because e. coli was inexpensive compared to sheep and cattle, the new source of insulin was much, much less expensive. Suddenly, everyone could afford the new medication and diabetes changed from a risky disease to a manageable condition.

If you’d like to learn more about genetic modification and maybe even try a little virtual modification on your won, why not flip over to Phylo? This citizen science project asks you to help sort out DNA so that we can better understand diseases like cancer and diabetes – and maybe even create a GMO that will help cure them!
http://phylo.cs.mcgill.ca/

 

September 2 – An Ill Wind

Today’s factismal: The lightning in a Category 1 hurricane has enough power to run a house for more than 300 years.

If you read the news today, you know that Hurricane Hermine has come aground in Florida. This ended the long dry spell for hurricanes damaging the US mainland (though Sandy was a hurricane in 2012, it had been downgraded to tropical storm before it came ashore); it was the first time in eleven years that the US mainland was hit. Of course, you don’t have to get a hurricane to get lots of storm damage, just ask the folks who sat through Sandy or Allison. Although it is too early for firm estimates, experts think that the damage from this storm will end up costing the US at least $5 billion.

A satellite image of Hurricane Sandy showing the temperature differences in the clouds (Image courtesy NASA)

A satellite image of Sandy showing the temperature differences in the clouds
(Image courtesy NASA)

So what causes all of that damage? The short answer is “energy”. Hurricanes are nature’s way of taking heat from the equator (where it is hot) and moving it to the poles (where it is cold). They do that by using the heat to evaporate water, which forms clouds, which forms storms. Because that heat also causes the air to expand, it drives winds which can drive water in the form of storm surge. Add it all together and you’ve got a lot of energy moving around, looking for something to break – like Florida.

Hurricane Hermine making landfall in Florida (Image courtesy NOAA)

Hurricane Hermine making landfall in Florida
(Image courtesy NOAA)

But how much of the storms energy is released by the different parts of a hurricane’s life cycle? Scientists have run the numbers and found that a hurricane typically releases about 0.002% of its energy as lightning. Now that may sound like small potatoes, but for a Category 1 hurricane, it works out to be enough energy to run a typical household for 360 years or so. (The trick is catching the lightning.) Storm surge is what does most of the damage along the coast and yet it is just 0.02% of the total energy of the hurricane. The winds in a hurricane are what creates that lightning and tornadoes and other exciting side-effects. They are understandably much more powerful; they represent about 4% of the total energy in a hurricane. Interestingly, the sheer weight of the water falling from the sky as rain and hail releases about as much energy as the wind does. Thus far we’ve accounted for about 9% of the energy in a hurricane with the lightning and the storm surge and the winds and the rain. Where is the rest?

Some of the effects of a hurricane (Image courtesy NOAA)

Some of the effects of a hurricane
(Image courtesy NOAA)

It is released high in the sky as water vapor condenses into rain drops and is known among meteorology wonks as the latent heat of vaporization (which is just a fancy was of saying “the heat stored {latent} in vapor”). As the water vapor is carried higher into the atmosphere by the rising air currents, conditions change so that water vapor is no longer stable and water is; this is what forms clouds (which are just raindrops that are too small to fall). When the water condenses, it gives back some of the energy that was used to turn it into a gas; the rest of the energy has gone into raising the vapor high into the sky and powering all of the other special effects.

But here’s the odd thing. Even though we can use satellites to track hurricanes and help people get out of their way, we still don’t know how reliable our satellite images of the clouds that make up hurricanes are. And that’s where you come in. NASA has a citizen science program called S’COOL that asks for people like you and me to tell them what clouds are out there when the satellites pass by. To participate, float on over to:
http://scool.larc.nasa.gov/rover.html

 

 

August 31 – Make A Wish

Today’s factismal: Today is the 174th birthday of the US Naval Observatory.

Back in 1842, international power meant sea power. The nation with the biggest, strongest ships was the nation that could control the seven seas and protect its interests across the globe. But it wasn’t enough to just have the biggest and strongest ships; you also had to be able to get them to where they were needed. And for that, you needed three things: accurate chronometers, accurate star maps, and accurate predictions of the tide. And to get those things, you needed just one thing: a Naval Observatory. And in 1842, the US got one. In an ironic note, this new center of accuracy and precision was initially given two names that were used interchangeably; it was both the “National Observatory” and the “Naval Observatory”.

Whatever it was called, this new center was a major improvement over the ramshackle collection of maps and star charts that the Navy had made do with before. Using a telescope, the US Naval Observatory set out to chart the stars with as much precision as they could. They then used the star charts to develop ephemerides tables which were books containing the rising and setting times of those stars at a specific point on the Earth. Using those tables, they were able to do two things. First, they checked the clocks that went out on every US Navy ship before and after they went on a voyage. That allowed the Navy to improve its navigation and to estimate the amount of error in their charts. Second, it allowed the ships’ captains to determine where they were at any point in time with just a 3 mile error.

The outside of the US Naval Observatory hasn't changed much in 178 years

The outside of the US Naval Observatory hasn’t changed much in 174 years. The gold ball still drops every day at noon to tell the ships in the harbor what time it is. (Image courtesy US Navy)

It wasn’t long before the US Naval Observatory took the first radical step that would define its legacy. At the 1853 Brussels Conference, the US proposed that all nations share their ocean charts for the good of all. Up until that time, nations had jealously guarded their data in the hopes that it might provide them with some advantage during a war. After a lot of talking, the US convinced the rest of the world that what made nations powerful wasn’t war; it was peace and trade, and for that, everyone needed good maps. Soon the nations were sharing the data and the oceans were mapped in greater detail than ever before – and trade was better than ever before.

This is the telescope at the US Naval Observatory that discovered the moons of Mars in 1877

This is the telescope at the US Naval Observatory that discovered the moons of Mars in 1877 (Image courtesy US Navy)

That radical approach continued through the years as the US Naval observatory organized scientific expeditions to watch eclipses and transits and planets (they discovered the moons of Mars) and then shared the data with everyone, free of charge. Perhaps the most notable example of the US Naval Observatory’s radical ideas started in 1960 when they launched a series of satellites into low Earth orbit where they provided US Navy ships with navigational fixes once an hour. In 1978, the first of the new NAVSTAR-GPS (later shortened to just GPS) satellites was launched; within a decade, their data would be made freely available to civilians as well as the military. Thanks to them, we now more more things around the globe faster and safer than ever before.

LEDA 89996 is a spiral galaxy (Image courtesy NASA)

LEDA 89996 is a spiral galaxy
(Image courtesy NASA)

And it all started with a bunch of US Navy officers peering through a telescope, wondering what that little light was. If you’d like to join in on the fun, then why not head over to Galaxy Zoo? Believe it or not, there are still lots of things to discover out in space and the US Naval Observatory (and many other groups) would like your help doing it! At Galaxy Zoo, you’ll look at images of galaxies and try to decide what type they are. That data will then help us understand how the universe has changed over time and what might be next – and maybe even how to improve our GPS even further. To learn more, turn your scope to:
https://www.galaxyzoo.org/

August 29 – Something to Wine About

Today’s factismal: If a ladybug gets into the grapes when you make wine, it can make your Riesling taste like a Sauvignon blanc.

Ah, ladybugs! One of the joys of youth (“lady bug, lady bug, fly away home!”) and the joy of gardeners everywhere (at least until the gardener realizes that the lady bug is eating the plants and not the aphids), these amazing little critters never cease to amaze. They are full of contradictions and confusions, as you might expect for a group of beetles that includes more than 6,000 species spread over six continents.

A nine-spotted ladybug (Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

A nine-spotted ladybug
(Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

For example, their name. In England, they are lady bird beetles, named for Mary (“Our lady”) due to their red color which resembles the red cape that Mary is often depicted wearing. In Germany, the name is “Mary’s beetle” (marienkäfer). In Eastern Europe, they are called lady flies. In Scandinavia, they are lady cows (that last sounds a bit disrespectful). And in America, they are called ladybugs. But to a biologist, they are coccinellidae (“red backed beetles”).

And then there is what they eat. Though most species of ladybug feast on spider mites, aphids, and other insect pests that feed on plants, there are several species such as the Mexican bean beetle and the large leaf-eating ladybird that prefer to skip the middle-bug and eat the plant themselves! And even the ladybugs that prefer to gnaw on other insects can turn into pests once the aphids have run out; they have even been known to nibble on humans! (No word on if SyFy will turn this into a TV movie – “Ladybugtopus”.)

And then there is the ladybug’s color. Though most ladybugs are red with black spots, some are yellow or orange with black spots and a few are even black with orange spots. But in all cases, the purpose of the color remains the same; it is a warning to other critters not to eat them because they taste nasty. And that nasty taste can sometimes affect people, too. When grape pickers annoy the ladybugs, the beetles release chemicals to scare them off. If those chemicals don’t get washed off before the grapes are pressed they can make the juice bitter and like ammonia; this effect, which can make a sweet wine taste like a dry one, is known as ladybird taint.

A multicolored Asian ladybug (Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

A multicolored Asian ladybug
(Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

But the most confusing thing about ladybugs is how they respond to changes in their environment. In addition to the shifts in temperature and moisture caused by changes in climate, the ladybug is being stressed by (believe it or not) the ladybug! During the early part of the last century, many organic farmers introduced non-native ladybugs in an attempt to control aphids and other plant pests. Unfortunately, the non-native ladybugs had few predators and so soon started crowding out the native ladybugs. As a result, many ladybugs are becoming rarer. But biologists don’t know how rare they are.

A transverse ladybug (Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

A transverse ladybug
(Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

And that’s where you come in! The next time you are outside, look around for ladybugs. If you see one, report it at the Lost Lady Bug Project. Your garden will thank you!
http://www.lostladybug.org/index.php

August 26 – Well, Blow Me Down

Today’s factismal: The “Year Without A Summer” was not caused by the eruption of Krakatoa.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – way back when, there was a massive volcanic eruption that was so loud it was heard in Australia and put so much ash into the air that everything froze and we had a year without a summer. Great story, right? The only problem is that it isn’t; instead, it is two great stories.

The eruption of Mt Saint Helens was actually fairly small as such things go (Image courtesy USGS)

The eruption of Mt Saint Helens was actually fairly small as such things go
(Image courtesy USGS)

The first story is actually the last one. Back in 1815, Mount Tambora in Sumbawa exploded in the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. It turned 24 cubic miles of rock into dust and debris and was loud enough to be heard for 1,200 miles. The eruption alone killed some 11,000 people. Worse, all of that dust in the air dropped the global temperature by a full degree below which was enough to kill crops and cause starvation in many areas; experts estimate that this killed another 60,000 people. (For comparison, the global temperature is now nearly two degrees above average this is not a good thing, either.)

When Pinatubo erupted in 1991, it cooled the planet by about 0.25 °

When Pinatubo erupted in 1991, it cooled the planet by about 0.25°

The second story happened nearly 68 years later at a spot nearly 900 miles away. On August 26, 1883, Mount Krakatoa erupted violently. The eruption wasn’t a surprise as the mountain had been spewing “fire fountains” into the air for months. What was a surprise was the size of the eruption; experts think that the neck of the magma chamber had become plugged with debris. Like holding your thumb over the neck of a soda bottle while shaking it, that allowed the pressure to build until it finally spewed out. That would have been bad enough, but the eruption created a caldera that went down below sea level. As the ocean water rushed in, it created a phreatic (steam) explosion, resulting in a sound so loud it could be heard 2,600 miles away and a tsunami that devastated coastlines across the Pacific and killed some 36,000 people. Because this was a smaller explosion than Tambora, only a few cubic miles of dust were tossed into the stratosphere and the weather was only made chilly instead of cold. As a result, there wasn’t the mass starvation of the previous eruption.

Exciting as the two eruptions were and interesting as the volcanology is, there is another facet to the two events that has a far more practical effect on us today: their effect on the weather. Since modern meteorological systems weren’t in place during the two eruptions (heck, meteorology hadn’t even been invented when Tambora blew!), climatologists must search for clues to their effects using old ship’s logs and diaries. And that’s where you come in. At Old Weather, you can look through the logs of sailing ships to discover what the weather and other things were like. By highlighting those entries, you help the folks who are trying to figure out what our new weather will do next. To learn more, blow on over to:
https://www.oldweather.org/

August 24 – Tembling In Fear

Today’s factismal: An earthquake is called a temblor by the folks who study them.

The past 24 hours has been very interesting. In that time we’ve seen a Mb 6.8 earthquake in Burma, a Mb 6.2 temblor in Italy, and a Mb 6.0 event in Indonesia.

A comparison of the energy released by the big earthquakes we've had in the past day

A comparison of the energy released by the big earthquakes we’ve had in the past day

Though we still don’t know what the damage from these events will be, most experts expect it to be a few hundred dead in each case because the areas that were affected are mostly un-reinforced masonry buildings. that do not hold up well in an earthquake. Now, the typical lay reader is probably thinking “I should donate to the relief funds” and the typical lay reader would be right. Getting supplies and shelter to those in the disaster areas will definitely help more people survive. But the typical lay reader is probably also thinking “Gosh, three biggies in one day – there has to be something going on” and the typical lay reader would be wrong.

The past week's temblors (Image courtesy USGS)

The past days’s large temblors
(Image courtesy USGS)

The typical lay reader is wrong because there are earthquakes every day. Lots of them. On a typical day, there are about 4,000 earthquakes. Now most of those events are very small; they tend to be Mb 1 or Mb 2. But every year there are 134 or so events with a magnitude between 6 and 7. So on average we would expect to see an earthquake this large about once every three days. And since earthquakes happen at random, the odds of seeing three events in any given 24 hour period are not that bad – about 1 in 27. In other words, we should expect to have a replay of today’s events about once a month or so. Fortunately, most of the Earth is empty ocean so most of those replays take place far, far away from any people.

One year of earthquakes across the world. (Image courtesy the USGS)

One year of earthquakes across the world. (Image courtesy the USGS)

We get earthquakes because the Earth is hot inside. That heat creates motion in the mantle that geology wonks call convection. And the motion of the mantle drives motion of the Earth’s crust, breaking it into large rigid sections called plates. As the plates collide to form mountain ranges or scrape alongside in transform zones, they release energy as earthquakes. For Burma, the plates that are colliding are the India plate and the Eurasian plate and the mountains that are being built are the Himalayas. For Italy, the plates that are colliding are the Nubia plate and the European plate and the mountains that are being built are the Apennines. And for Indonesia, the plates that are colliding are the Australia plate and the India plate and the mountains that are being built are Indonesia. And though the temblors cause a lot of damage and deaths they also give us a chance to learn more about how to make the next one less dangerous.

The different layers of the Earth. Only the outer core is molten; everything else s solid!

The different layers of the Earth. Only the outer core is molten; everything else is solid!

You see, after each earthquake, people who felt it have gone to the Did You Feel It? page and told the USGS what they felt. That helped the geophysicists to determine which parts of the world are most susceptible to earthquake damage which tells  first responders where we need to improve building codes and emergency response.

The results of Did You Feel It? for the past decade (Image courtesy USGS)

The results of Did You Feel It? for the past decade
(Image courtesy USGS)

If you’d like to help, participating is easy. The next time you feel an earthquake, go over to Did You Feel It? and let them know what you felt. Then sit back and enjoy the knowledge that you’ve just helped make us all a little bit safer.

August 23 – Far Sighted

Today’s factismal: Galileo demonstrated the telescope to the public for the first time 407 years ago today.

It isn’t often that someone invents one device that literally changes the way we see the Universe; what is exceptional about Galileo is that he invented two devices that did it. In 1625, he invented a occhiolino (“little eye”) that allowed him to explore the world of the miniscule; at a dinner in his honor, one of his students gave the device the name that we now know it by: the microscope (“seer of little things”). But that wasn’t his first foray into optics, nor his most famous. For that invention, we need to step back to August 23, 1609, when Galileo revealed his telescope (“seer of distant things”).

Galileo's telescope revolutionized our view of the Universe - literally!

Galileo’s telescope revolutionized our view of the Universe – literally!

Though there were field glasses before Galileo, they had limited magnification and blurry images. Worse, the poor quality glass caused rainbow rings to show around everything. Galileo got around these problems by using several lenses in series to adjust the image bit by bit. This method is still used today in binoculars and other optical devices.

Jupiter and three of its moons, as seen through a modern camera (mine)

Jupiter and three of its moons, as seen through a modern camera (mine)

Once Galileo had invented his telescope, he turned it onto the sky and saw nothing but trouble. One of the first things he saw was Jupiter and four bright points of light that circled around it. By the end of the week, he had proven that these small starry messengers revolved around Jupiter. Being a savvy sort, he published his findings in Sidereus Nuncius, a short treatise that was dedicated to Cosimo II de’ Medici and called the four moons of Jupiter “Medicean stars”. We now know them as Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, and Io and call them the Galilean satellites.

Before Galileo, nobody knew that the Moon had craters (image from my camera)

Before Galileo, nobody knew that the Moon had craters (image from my camera)

His invention literally changed the way we see the universe, but his discovery did so figuratively. Under Aristotle’s view of the cosmos, the Earth was the center and everything revolved around it. Things in the heavens were perfect and pure, and were in heaven because they were pure and perfect. Because the ideology fit so well with the dogma of the Catholic Church, it was adopted as Church Law – to challenge it was to challenge the very essence of belief. Though some troubling differences had arisen between the pure circles demanded by Aristotle and the observed paths of the planets, these were smoothed over by Ptolemy’s “epicycles” of circles on circles. Questioning these ideas was dangerous at best and heresy at worst.

The Solar System as Copernicus saw it (and Galileo proved)

The Solar System as Copernicus saw it (and Galileo proved)

Galileo did worse than question them: he made it possible for anyone to see that he was right and the Church was wrong. By simply looking through the telescope, people could see everything that he discovered. They could see the moons of another planet. They could see the “jug-ears” of Saturn. They could see the phases of Venus. They could see the spots on the face of the Sun and the scars on the face of the Moon.

Galileo's sketch of Saturn

Galileo’s sketch of Saturn

Galileo was first rewarded for his discoveries and then punished for his hubris. He became a superstar in Pisa, and other city-states wooed him, trying to get him to move and to bring his beautiful ideas with him. But his ego led him to clash with others, making enemies out of supporters. Eventually, he was brought before the Inquisition for heresy and threatened with torture. He renounced his views and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. It would be 206 years before the Roman Catholic Church would take his works off of the banned list and 376 years before the Vatican would formally clear him of any wrongdoing.

Galileo's drawing of sunspots (Image courtesy The Galileo Project)

Galileo’s drawing of sunspots
(Image courtesy The Galileo Project)

In opening the heavens to us, Galileo laid the foundations of modern science. He showed that clear logic alone (Aristotle’s approach) is not enough. Logic must be backed with evidence and hypotheses must be checked against observations. If you would like to honor Galileo, there is no better way than in joining one of the citizen science groups that is classifying and naming features on the Moon!
http://lunarscience.nasa.gov/citizen-science/