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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: science, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 1,088
1. The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats

The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats: A Scientific Mystery  by Sandra Markle Millbrook Press, 2015 ISBN: 9781467714631 Grades 4-7 Sandra Markle's third book in the Scientific Mystery series is just as engrossing as The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs and The Case of the Vanishing Honey Bees.  In The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats readers are introduced to a problem: bats are

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2. Celebrating Women in STEM

It is becoming widely accepted that women have, historically, been underrepresented and often completely written out of work in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Explanations for the gender gap in STEM fields range from genetically-determined interests, structural and territorial segregation, discrimination, and historic stereotypes. As well as encouraging steps toward positive change, we would also like to retrospectively honour those women whose past works have been overlooked.

From astronomer Caroline Herschel to the first female winner of the Fields Medal, Maryam Mirzakhani, you can use our interactive timeline to learn more about the women whose works in STEM fields have changed our world.

With free Oxford University Press content, we tell the stories and share the research of both famous and forgotten women.

Featured image credit: Microscope. Public Domain via Pixabay.

The post Celebrating Women in STEM appeared first on OUPblog.

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3. 10 Math & Science Topic Choice Mentors + 10 Book Giveaways

Do you have students who are interested in math and science, but claim they hate writing or don't know what to write about in their writer’s notebooks? Here are 10 newer picture books to inspire them to write about their passion.

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4. Chernobyl's Wild Kingdom by Rebecca L. Johnson

Chernobyl’s Wild Kingdom: life in the Dead Zone By Rebecca L. Johnson Twenty-First Century Books. 2015 ISBN: 9781467711548 Grades 5-12 To review this book, I borrowed a copy from my local public library. On April 26, 1986, Reactor Number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded sending extremely high levels of ionizing radiation into the atmosphere that would cover the area.

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5. Why causality now?

Head hits cause brain damage, but not always. Should we ban sport to protect athletes? Exposure to electromagnetic fields is strongly associated with cancer development. Should we ban mobile phones and encourage old-fashioned wired communication? The sciences are getting more and more specialized and it is difficult to judge whether, say, we should trust homeopathy, fund a mission to Mars, or install solar panels on our roofs. We are confronted with questions about causality on an everyday basis, as well as in science and in policy.

Causality has been a headache for scholars since ancient times. The oldest extensive writings may have been Aristotle, who made causality a central part of his worldview. Then we jump 2,000 years until causality again became a prominent topic with Hume, who was a skeptic, in the sense that he believed we cannot think of causal relationships as logically necessary, nor can we establish them with certainty.

The next major philosophical figure after Hume was probably David Lewis, who proposed quite a controversial account saying roughly that something was a cause of an effect in this world if, in other nearby possible worlds where that cause didn’t happen, the effect didn’t happen either. Currently, we come to work in computer science originated by Judea Pearl and by Spirtes, Glymour and Scheines and collaborators.

All of this is highly theoretical and formal. Can we reconstruct philosophical theorizing about causality in the sciences in simpler terms than this? Sure we can!

One way is to start from scientific practice. Even though scientists often don’t talk explicitly about causality, it is there. Causality is an integral part of the scientific enterprise. Scientists don’t worry too much about what causality is­ – a chiefly metaphysical question – but are instead concerned with a number of activities that, one way or another, bear on causal notions. These are what we call the five scientific problems of causality:

8529449382_85663d5f6a_o
Phrenology: causality, mirthfulness, and time. Photo by Stuart, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 via Flickr.
  • Inference: Does C cause E? To what extent?
  • Explanation: How does C cause or prevent E?
  • Prediction: What can we expect if C does (or does not) occur?
  • Control: What factors should we hold ïŹxed to understand better the relation between C and E? More generally, how do we control the world or an experimental setting?
  • Reasoning: What considerations enter into establishing whether/how/to what extent C causes E?

This does not mean that metaphysical questions cease to be interesting. Quite the contrary! But by engaging with scientific practice, we can work towards a timely and solid philosophy of causality.

The traditional philosophical treatment of causality is to give a single conceptualization, an account of the concept of causality, which may also tell us what causality in the world is, and may then help us understand causal methods and scientific questions.

Our aim, instead, is to focus on the scientific questions, bearing in mind that there are five of them, and build a more pluralist view of causality, enriched by attention to the diversity of scientific practices. We think that many existing approaches to causality, such as mechanism, manipulationism, inferentialism, capacities and processes can be used together, as tiles in a causal mosaic that can be created to help you assess, develop, and criticize a scientific endeavour.

In this spirit we are attempting to develop, in collaboration, complementary ideas of causality as information (Illari) and variation (Russo). The idea is that we can conceptualize in general terms the causal linking or production of effect by the cause as the transmission of information between cause and effect (following Salmon); while variation is the most general conceptualization of the patterns of difference-making we can detect in populations where a cause is acting (following Mill). The thought is that we can use these complementary ideas to address the scientific problems.

For example, we can think about how we use complementary evidence in causal inference, tracking information transmission, and combining that with studies of variation in populations. Alternatively, we can think about how measuring variation may help us formulate policy decisions, as might seeking to block possible avenues of information transmission. Having both concepts available assists in describing this, and reasoning well – and they will also be combined with other concepts that have been made more precise in the philosophical literature, such as capacities and mechanisms.

Ultimately, the hope is that sharpening up the reasoning will assist in the conceptual enterprise that lies at the intersection of philosophy and science. And help decide whether to encourage sport, mobile phones, homeopathy and solar panels aboard the mission to Mars!

The post Why causality now? appeared first on OUPblog.

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6. My Writing and Reading Life: Jess Keating, Author of How to Outswim a Shark Without a Snorkel

As an author and zoologist, Jess Keating has tickled a shark, lost a staring contest against an octopus, and been a victim to the dreaded paper cut. She lives in Ontario, Canada, where she spends most of her time writing books for adventurous and funny kids.

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7. Because Waiting Is So Boring

Parallelogram 4

I know I said Parallelogram 4 (Beyond the Parallel) wasn’t coming out until next Tuesday, January 20.

Weekends are for reading. It’s out now. Enjoy!

Kindle
Nook
iTunes
Kobo
Smashwords
Paperback

And the prices for the first 3 installments will still stay nice and low until next week, so if you haven’t read Parallelogram 1, 2, or 3 yet, you can scoop them up at a bargain!

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8. Are wolves endangered with extinction in Alaska?

Wolves in the panhandle of southeast Alaska are currently being considered as an endangered species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in response to a petition by environmental groups. These groups are proposing that the Alexander Archipelago wolf (Canis lupus ligoni) subspecies that inhabits the entire region and a distinct population segment of wolves on Prince of Wales Island are threatened or endangered with extinction.

Whether or not these wolves are endangered with extinction was beyond the scope of our study. However our research quantified the genetic variation of these wolves in southeast Alaska which can contribute to assessing their status as a subspecies.

Because the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) defines species as “species, subspecies, and distinct population segments”, these categories are all considered “species” for the ESA. Although this definition is not consistent with the scientific definition of species it has become the legal definition of species for the ESA.

Therefore we have two questions to consider:

  • Are the wolves in southeast Alaska a subspecies?
  • Are the wolves on Prince of Wales Island a distinct population segment?

The literature on subspecies and distinct population segment designation is vast, but it is important to understand that subspecies is a taxonomic category, and basically refers to a group of populations that share an independent evolutionary history.

Taxonomy is the science of biological classification and is based on evolutionary history and common ancestry (called phylogeny). Species, subspecies, and higher-level groups (e.g, a genus such as Canis) are classified based on common ancestry. For example, wolves and foxes share common ancestry and are classified in the same family (Canidae), while bobcats and lions are classified in a different family (Felidae) because they share a common ancestry that is different from foxes and wolves.

Wolf in southeast Alaska.  Photo credit: Kristian Larson, the Alaska Dept of Fish and Game. Image used with permission.
Wolf in southeast Alaska. Photo credit: Kristian Larson, the Alaska Dept of Fish and Game (Wildlife Conservation Division, Region I). Image used with permission.

Subspecies designations are often subjective because of uncertainty about the relationships among populations of the same species. This leads many scientists to reject or ignore the subspecies category, but because the ESA is the most powerful environmental law in the United States the analysis of subspecies is of great practical importance.

Our results and other research showed that the wolves in Southeast Alaska differed in allele frequencies compared to wolves in other regions. Allele frequencies reflect the distribution of genetic variation within and among populations. However, the wolves in southeast Alaska do not comprise a homogeneous population, and there is as much genetic variation among the Game Management Units (GMU) in southeast Alaska as there is between southeast Alaska and other areas.

Our research data showed that the wolves in southeast Alaska are not a homogeneous group, but consist of multiple populations with different histories of colonization, isolation, and interbreeding. The genetic data also showed that the wolves on Prince of Wales Island are not particularly differentiated compared to the overall differentiation in Southeast Alaska and do not support designation as a distinct population segment.

The overall pattern for wolves in southeast Alaska is not one of long term isolation and evolutionary independence and does not support a subspecies designation. Other authors, including biologists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, also do not designate wolves in southeast Alaska as a subspecies and there is general recognition that North America wolf subspecies designations have been arbitrary and are not supported by genetic data.

There is growing recognition in the scientific community of unwarranted taxonomic inflation of wildlife species and subspecies designations to achieve conservation goals. Because the very nature of subspecies is vague, wildlife management and conservation should focus on populations, including wolf populations. This allows all of the same management actions as proposed for subspecies, but with increased scientific rigor.

Headline image credit: Alaskan wolf, by Douglas Brown. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

The post Are wolves endangered with extinction in Alaska? appeared first on OUPblog.

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9. Time as a representation in physics

A previous blog post, Patterns in Physics, discussed alternative “representations” in physics as akin to languages; an underlying quantum reality described in either a position or a momentum representation. Both are equally capable of a complete description, the underlying reality itself residing in a complex space with the very concepts of position/momentum or wave/particle only relevant in a “classical limit”. The history of physics has progressively separated such incidentals of our description from what is essential to the physics itself. We will consider this for time itself here.

Thus, consider the simple instance of the motion of a ball from being struck by a bat (A) to being caught later at a catcher’s hand (B). The specific values given for the locations of A and B or the associated time instants are immediately seen as dependent on each person in the stadium being free to choose the origin of his or her coordinate system. Even the direction of motion, whether from left to right or vice versa, is of no significance to the physics, merely dependent on which side of the stadium one is sitting.

All spectators sitting in the stands and using their own “frame of reference” will, however, agree on the distance of separation in space and time of A and B. But, after Einstein, we have come to recognize that these are themselves frame dependent. Already in Galilean and Newtonian relativity for mechanical motion, it was recognized that all frames travelling with uniform velocity, called “inertial frames”, are equivalent for physics so that besides the seated spectators, a rider in a blimp moving overhead with uniform velocity in a straight line, say along the horizontal direction of the ball, is an equally valid observer of the physics.

Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, in extending the equivalence of all inertial frames also to electromagnetic phenomena, recognized that the spatial separation between A and B or, even more surprisingly to classical intuition, the time interval between them are different in different inertial frames. All will agree on the basics of the motion, that ball and bat were coincident at A and ball and catcher’s hand at B. But one seated in the stands and one on the blimp will differ on the time of travel or the distance travelled.

Even on something simpler, and already in Galilean relativity, observers will differ on the shape of the trajectory of the ball between A and B, all seeing parabolas but of varying “tightness”. In particular, for an observer on the blimp travelling with the same horizontal velocity as that of the ball as seen by the seated, the parabola degenerates into a straight up and down motion, the ball moving purely vertically as the stadium itself and bat and catcher slide by underneath so that one or the other is coincident with the ball when at ground level.

hourglass
Hourglass, photo by Erik Fitzpatrick, CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr

There is no “trajectory of the ball’s motion” without specifying as seen by which observer/inertial frame. There is a motion, but to say that the ball simultaneously executes many parabolic trajectories would be considered as foolishly profligate when that is simply because there are many observers. Every observer does see a trajectory, but asking for “the real trajectory”, “What did the ball really do?”, is seen as an invalid, or incomplete, question without asking “as seen by whom”. Yet what seems so obvious here is the mistake behind posing as quantum mysteries and then proposing as solutions whole worlds and multiple universes(!). What is lost sight of is the distinction between the essential physics of the underlying world and our description of it.

The same simple problem illustrates another feature, that physics works equally well in a local time-dependent or a global, time-independent description. This is already true in classical physics in what is called the Lagrangian formulation. Focusing on the essential aspects of the motion, namely the end points A and B, a single quantity called the action in which time is integrated over (later, in quantum field theory, a Lagrangian density with both space and time integrated over) is considered over all possible paths between A and B. Among all these, the classical motion is the one for which the action takes an extreme (technically, stationary) value. This stationary principle, a global statement over all space and time and paths, turns out to be exactly equivalent to the local Newtonian description from one instant to another at all times in between A and B.

There are many sophisticated aspects and advantages of the Lagrangian picture, including its natural accommodation of   basic conservation laws of energy, momentum and angular momentum. But, for our purpose here, it is enough to note that such stationary formulations are possible elsewhere and throughout physics. Quantum scattering phenomena, where it seems natural to think in terms of elapsed time during the collisional process, can be described instead in a “stationary state” picture (fixed energy and standing waves), with phase shifts (of the wave function) that depend on energy, all experimental observables such as scattering cross-sections expressed in terms of them.

“The concept of time has vexed humans for centuries, whether layman, physicist or philosopher”

No explicit invocation of time is necessary although if desired so-called time delays can be calculated as derivatives of the phase shifts with respect to energy. This is because energy and time are quantum-mechanical conjugates, their product having dimensions of action, and Planck’s quantum constant with these same dimensions exists as a fundamental constant of our Universe. Indeed, had physicists encountered quantum physics first, time and energy need never have been invoked as distinct entities, one regarded as just Planck’s constant times the derivative (“gradient” in physics and mathematics parlance) of the other. Equally, position and momentum would have been regarded as Planck’s constant times the gradient in the other.

The concept of time has vexed humans for centuries, whether layman, physicist or philosopher. But, making a distinction between representations and an underlying essence suggests that space and time are not necessary for physics. Together with all the other concepts and words we perforce have to use, including particle, wave, and position, they are all from a classical limit with which we try to describe and understand what is actually a quantum world. As long as that is kept clearly in mind, many mysteries and paradoxes are dispelled, seen as artifacts of our pushing our models and language too far and “identifying” them with the underlying reality that is in principle out of reach.

The post Time as a representation in physics appeared first on OUPblog.

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10. Transforming the police through science

Amidst the images of burning vehicles and riots in Ferguson, Missouri, the US President, Barack Obama, has responded to growing concerns about policing by pledging to spend $75 million to equip his nation’s police with 50,000 Body Worn Videos. His initiative will give added impetus to an international movement to make street policing more transparent and accountable. But is this just another example of a political and technical quick fix or a sign of a different relationship between the police and science?

At the heart of the shift to Body Worn Video is a remarkable story of a Police Chief who undertook an experiment as part of his Cambridge University Masters programme. Rialto Police Department, California serves a city of 100,000 and has just over one hundred sworn officers. Like many other departments, it had faced allegations that its officers used excessive force. Its Chief, Tony Farrar, decided to test whether issuing his officers with Body Worn Video would reduce use of force and complaints against his officers. Instead of the normal police approach to issuing equipment like this, Farrar, working with his Cambridge academic supervisor, Dr Barak Ariel, designed a randomised field trial, dividing his staff’s tours of duty into control – no video – and treatment – with video. The results showed a significant reduction in both use of force and citizen complaints.

Why is this story so different? A former Victoria Police Commissioner described the relationship between the police and research as a “dialogue of the deaf”. The Police did not value research and researchers frequently did not value policing. Police Chiefs often saw research as yet another form of criticism of the organisation. Yet, despite this, research has had a major effect on modern policing. There are very few police departments in the developed world that don’t claim to target “hot-spots” of crime, an approach developed by a series of randomised trials.

However, even with the relative success of “hot-spot policing”, police have not owned the science of their own profession. This is why Chief Farrar’s story is so important. Not only was Farrar the sponsor of the research, but he was also part of the research team. His approach has allowed his department to learn by testing. Moreover, because the Rialto trial has been published to both the professional and academic field, its lessons have spread and it is now being replicated not just in the United States but also in the United Kingdom. The UK College of Policing has completed randomised trials of Body Worn Video in Essex Police to test whether the equipment is effective at gathering evidence in domestic violence investigations. The National Institute of Justice in the United States is funding trials in several US cities.

This is the type of approach we have come to expect in medicine to test promising medical treatments. We have not, up to now, seen such a focus on science in policing. Yet there are signs of real transformation, which are being driven by an urgent need to respond to a perfect storm created by a crisis of legitimacy and acute financial pressures. Not only are Chiefs trying to deal with the “Ferguson” factor, but they also have to do so against a backdrop of severe constraint.

“Science can provide a means to transform policing as long as police are prepared to own and adopt the science”

As the case of Body Worn Video has shown, science can provide a means to transform policing as long as police are prepared to own and adopt the science. But for Body Worn Video not to be an isolated case, policing will need to adopt many of the lessons from medicine about how it was transformed from eighteenth century barber surgeons to a modern science-based profession. This means policing needs an education and training system that does not just teach new recruits law and procedure, but also the most effective ways to apply them and why they work. It means that police leaders will need to target their resources using the best available science, test new practices, and track their impact. It will require emerging professional bodies like the College of Policing to work towards a new profession in policing, in which practice is accredited and expertise is valued and rewarded.

Obama’s commitment to Body Worn Video will not, of itself, solve the problems that Ferguson has so dramatically illustrated. The Rialto study suggests it may help – a bit. However, the White House announcement also included money for police education. If that is used wisely and police leaders grasp the opportunity to invest in a new science-based profession, then the future may be brighter.

Headline image credit: ‘Day 126 – West Midlands Police – CCTV Operator’ by West Midlands Police. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

The post Transforming the police through science appeared first on OUPblog.

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11. Animal Teachers

Animal Teachers  by Janet Halfmann illustrated by Katy Hudson Blue Apple, 2014 ISBN: 9781609053918 Grades PreS-2 The reviewer received a copy of the book from the author. Janet Halfmann shares interesting facts about how animals learn from their parents in her latest nonfiction picture book. Children will enjoy learning how otters teach their young to swim, mother kangaroos teach joeys to kick

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12. Minerals, molecules, and microbes

The study of minerals is the most fundamental aspect of the Earth and environmental sciences. Minerals existed long before any forms of life. They have played an important role in the origin and evolution of life and interact with biological systems in ways we are only now beginning to understand.

One of the most rapidly developing areas in what is now called ‘geobiology’ concerns the role of microbes in processes both of mineral formation and destruction. For example, the ‘geobacter’ bacteria, shown in the accompanying picture taken in an electron microscope, are not just sitting on an iron oxide mineral surface but interacting with it because it is their method of ‘respiration’ (just as breathing oxygen is ours).

A transfer of electrons between the microbe and the mineral in this case brings about a change in the chemical state of the iron (its ‘reduction’) which also causes the mineral to dissolve. Interactions of this type are now known to play important roles in the release and movement of metals and other elements, including pollutants such as arsenic, at the Earth’s surface.

A very different story linking minerals and the living world concerns the ways that many organisms form minerals to fulfil a particular function, such as providing an external skeleton (shell).

For example, the chalk rock responsible for the ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ in the south of England are almost entirely composed of the remains of microscopic plates of calcite derived from a protective armour around unicellular planktonic algae (‘coccolithophorids’). In many cases the products of such processes of ‘biomineralisation’ are delicate structures of great beauty.

A good example is provided by the (as illustrated) ‘radiolaria’, free-floating single celled organisms found in the upper regions of the water column in the oceans, and  which have skeletons of poorly crystalline (‘opaline’) silica.

Growth of Geobacter sulfurreducens on Poorly Crystalline Fe (III) Oxyhydroxide Coatings, used with permission from David Vaughan.
Growth of Geobacter sulfurreducens on Poorly Crystalline Fe (III) Oxyhydroxide Coatings. Used with permission from David Vaughan.

Amongst the most remarkable examples of organisms producing a mineral to serve a specific function are the ‘magnetotactic bacteria’. Here the bacterium concerned produces a chain of perfect crystals (see illustration of magnetite crystals), most commonly of magnetite, which make use of the magnetic properties of that mineral. It seems that these organisms use magnetite to become aligned in relation to the Earth’s magnetic field and therefore in the most advantageous position in relation to the sediment-water interface.

One of the most challenging questions in all of science is: ‘How did life on Earth originate’? It is now widely believed that minerals played a key role as catalysts for biochemical reactions and templates for the emergence of the complex biomolecules needed for life. Many different routes have been proposed for the emergence of the first living organisms, almost all have major roles for minerals. These roles may have been in providing catalysts through biomolecule sized cavities in their crystal structures or weathered surfaces. Other routes involve clay minerals as substrates aiding in the formation of the first self-replicating genetic molecules, or look to the environments at, or near, mid-ocean ridges where hot fluids emerge releasing a stream of metal sulphide mineral particles. At the present day, both micro- and macro-organisms utilise chemical energy available in these environments for their metabolisms. Iron sulphide minerals are suggested as the key catalysts in these models.

fig 6 3
A double chain of magnetite crystals in a magnetotactic bacterium. Courtesy of the Mineralogical Society of America. Used with permission.

There are challenging questions in all of these areas, whether it be understanding the electron transfer processes involved when bacteria interact with minerals, the mechanisms involved in biomineral formation, or the complex roles probably played by minerals in the emergence of life on Earth.

In these and many other cases, it is the processes at mineral surfaces which are critically important. Only in recent years has it been possible to study mineral surfaces at a molecular scale. Today, we are at the threshold of a new understanding of the processes taking place at the surface of the Earth which integrates the mineralogical, geochemical and biological realms at the molecular scale. Understanding what happens at surfaces and interfaces at scales from global to molecular is key to that understanding. Here, the emergent field of ‘molecular environmental science’ should provide new insights into the way our planet ‘works’ comparable to the revolutionary advances seen in human biology associated with the genetic code.

Featured image credit: Didimocrytus tetrathalamus, by Tim Evanson. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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13. Stardust making homes in space

Although we rarely stop to think about the origin of the elements of our bodies, we are directly connected to the greater universe. In fact, we are literally made of stardust that was liberated from the interiors of dying stars in gigantic explosions, and then collected to form our Earth as the solar system took shape some 4.5 billion years ago. Until about two decades ago, however, we knew only of our own planetary system so that it was hard to know for certain how planets formed, and what the history of the matter in our bodies was.

Then, in 1995, the first planet to orbit a distant Sun-like star was discovered. In the 20 years since then, thousands of others have been found. Most planets cannot be detected with our present-day technologies, but estimates based on those that we have observed suggest that almost every star in the sky has at least one extrasolar planet (or exoplanet) orbiting it. That means that there are more than 100 billion planetary systems in our Milky Way Galaxy alone! Imagine that: astronomers have gone from knowing of 1 planetary system to some 100 billion, in the same decades in which human genome scientists sequenced the 6 billion base-pairs that lie at the foundation of our bodies. How many of these planetary systems could potentially support life, and would that life use a similar code?

Exoplanets are much too far away to be actually imaged, and they are way too faint to be directly observed next to the bright glow of the stars they orbit. Therefore, the first exoplanet discoveries were made through the gravitational tug on their central star during their orbits. This pull moves the star slightly back and forth. Only relatively heavy, close-in planets can be detected that way, using the repeating Doppler shifts of their central star’s light from red to blue and back. Another way to find planets is to measure how they block the light of their central star if they happen to cross in front of it as seen from Earth. If they are seen to do this twice or more, the temporary dimmings of their star’s light can disclose the planet’s size and distance to its star (basically using the local “year” – the time needed to orbit its star – for these calculations).  If both the gravitational tug and the dimming profile can be measured, then even the mass of the planet can be estimated. Size and mass together give an average density from which, in turn, knowledge of the chemical composition of that planet comes within reach.

stars
Star trails, by MLazarevski. CC-BY-ND-2.0 via Flickr.

With the discoveries of so many planets, we have realized that an astonishing diversity exists: hot Jupiter-sized planets that orbit closer to their star than Mercury orbits the Sun, quasi-Earth-sized planets that may have rain showers of molten iron or glass, frozen planets around faintly-glowing red dwarf stars, and possibly some billions of Earth-sized planets at distances from their host stars where liquid water could exist on the surface, possibly supporting life in a form that we might recognize if we saw it.

Guided by these recent observations, mega-computers programmed with the laws of physics give us insight into how these exo-worlds are formed, from their initial dusty disks to the eventual complement of star-orbiting planets. We can image the disks directly by focusing on the faint infrared glow of their gas and dust that is warmed by their proximity to their star. We cannot, however, directly see these far-away planets, at least not yet. But now, for the first time, we can at least see what forming planets do to the gas and dust around them in the process of becoming a mature heavenly body.

A new observatory, called ALMA, working with microwaves that lie even beyond the infrared color range, has been built in the dry Atacama desert in Chili. ALMA was pointed at a young star, hundreds of light years away. Its image of that target star, LH Tauri, not only shows the star itself and the disk around it, but also a series of dark rings that are most likely created as the newly forming planets pull in the gas and dust around them. The image is of stunning quality: it shows details down to a resolution equivalent to the width of a finger seen at a distance of 50 km (30 miles).

At the distance of LH Tauri, even that stunning imaging capability means that we can see structures only if these are larger than about the distance of the Sun out to Jupiter, so there is a long way yet to go before we see anything like the planet directly. But we will observe more of these juvenile planetary systems just past the phase of their birth. And images like that give us a glimpse of what happened in our own planetary system over 4.5 billion years ago, before the planets were fully formed, pulling in the gases and dust that we now live on, and that ultimately made their way to the cycles of our own planet, to constitute all living beings on Earth.

What a stunning revolution: from being part of the only planetary system we knew of, we have been put among billions and billions of neighbors. We remember Galileo Galilei for showing us that the Sun and not the Earth was the center of the solar system. Will our society remember the names of those who proved that billions of planets exist all over the Galaxy?

Headline image credit: Star shower, by c@rljones. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.

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14. Pitter and Patter



I have a lot of books that fit under the theme "landscape" so here's some more artwork. This is from Pitter and Patter, written by Martha Sullivan, published by Dawn Publications, and illustrated by me, Cathy Morrison. It comes out this spring and is about the water cycle.

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15. Parallelogram 4 Now Available for Pre-Order!

Parallelogram 4

Happy 2015! And here’s a new book for you!

Parallel universes. Time travel. And a race for teen amateur physicist Audie Masters to save her own life before it’s too late.

Enjoy the exciting, mind-bending conclusion to the PARALLELOGRAM series.

You’ll never look at your own life the same way again.

I am BEYOND ecstatic to be able to tell you that PARALLELOGRAM (Book 4: BEYOND THE PARALLEL) will be coming out January 20, 2015, and is available right now for pre-order! Yes! Finally!

This final book in the series took me a long, long time to write (as those of you who have been waiting for it can attest), but you’ll understand why once you read it. It’s full of adventure, mystery, love, some very cool science, and the return of what I hope are some of your favorite characters.

In celebration of the final book coming out, each of the first three books in the series will be a mere $2.99, and the new book will be only $4.99–but only until January 20. After that, all of them return to their regular prices.

So if you haven’t read the first three books in the series yet, now’s your chance. I’m your book nerd friend who’s saying, “Come on! Come on! Catch up so we can discuss it!”

Can’t wait to hear what you all think. I truly wrote this series for YOU!

You can pre-order Book 4 from:
Kindle
Nook
iTunes
Kobo

Thanks for being my readers! Hope you love the book!

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16. Physics Project Lab: How to investigate the phenomena surrounding rubber bands

Over the next few weeks, Paul Gluck, co-author of Physics Project Lab, will be describing how to conduct various different Physics experiments. In his third post, Paul explains how to investigate and experiment with rubber bands…

Rubber bands are unusual objects, and behave in a manner which is counterintuitive. Their properties are reflected in characteristic mechanical, thermal and acoustic phenomena. Such behavior is sufficiently unusual to warrant quantitative investigation in an experimental project.

A well-known phenomenon is the following. When you stretch a rubber band suddenly and immediately touch your lips with it, it feels warm, the rubber band gives off heat.

Unlike usual objects, which expand when heated, a rubber band contracts when you heat it. To see this, suspend a rubber band vertically and attach a weight to it. Measure carefully its stretched length by a ruler placed along it. Now blow hot air on the rubber band from a hair dryer, thus heating it. Measure the new length and ascertain that the band contracted.

The behaviour is also strange when you try to see how the length of a rubber band depends on whether you load or unload it. To see this, suspend a rubber band, affix to its bottom a cup to hold weights, as shown.

Now increase the weights in the cup in measured equal increments, and for each weight measure the length, and the change in length from the unstretched state, of the rubber band by a meter stick laid along it.

Force Versus Length with hysteresis
Force versus length with hysteresis, image provided by Paul Gluck

For each weight, wait two minutes before the new length measurement Record your results. Now reverse the process: unload the weights one by one, and measure the resulting lengths.

For each amount of weight, will the rubber band have the same length when loading as when unloading? No, the behavior is much more subtle and is shown in the graph, in which one path results when loading, the other when unloading. This effect is known as hysteresis, and is related to energy losses in the band.

What happens to the sound of a plucked rubber band?

Try it: pluck a rubber band while gradually stretching it, thereby increasing the tension in it. In the process the plucking produces a pitch which is practically unchanged. But if you keep the length of a rubber band constant but increase the tension in it somehow, the pitch will change. You can keep the length constant, while changing the tension, as follows: fix one end of the rubber band or strip. Pass the free end over a little pulley, affix a cup to that end to hold weights, then putting increasing amounts of weight into the cup will increase the tension in the rubber band, while keeping its length constant.

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‘band ball’ by .VEE, CC-by-2.0 via Flickr

Unless you have perfect pitch and can detect small differences in pitch, you may need more sensitive means to detect the variations. One way is to have a tiny microphone nearby that will pick up the sound produced when you pluck the band. This sound is then passed on to a software (on the Web search for ‘free acoustic spectrum analyzer’) which analyzes the sounds and tells what frequencies are present in the plucking sound.

Finally, how does a flat thin rubber strip transmit light? Take a very thin flat rubber strip and start stretching it. Now shine a strong spotlight close to one side of the strip and measure the intensity of the light which is transmitted on to its other side, while the strip is stretched. You would expect that as the strip is stretched it becomes thinner so more light should get through, right? Wrong: for some region of stretching the transmitted light intensity may actually decrease.

If you have access to a physics lab and modern sensors you can set up an apparatus which will allow to explore in depth the whole range of phenomena to greater accuracy.

Have you tried this experiment at home? Tell us how it went to get the chance to win a free copy of the Physics Project Lab book! We’ll pick our favourite descriptions on 9th January.

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17. Mr. Ferris and His Wheel

Mr. Ferris and His Wheel  by Kathryn Gibbs Davis illustrated by Gilbert Ford Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014 ISBN: 9790547959221 Grades K-5 The reviewer received a copy of the book from the publisher. In 1893 Chicago hosted the World's Fair. How could Chicago make a lasting impression on the world after Paris revealed the Eiffel Tower at the previous World's Fair? A contest was held, and George

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18. Physics Project Lab: How to make your own drinking bird

Over the next few weeks, Paul Gluck, co-author of Physics Project Lab, will be describing how to conduct various different Physics experiments. In his second post, Paul explains how to build your own drinking bird and study its behaviour in varying ways:

You may have seen the drinking bird toy in action. It dips its beak into a full glass of water in front of it, after which it swings to and fro for a while, returns to drink some more, and so on, seemingly forever. You can buy one on the internet for a few dollars, and perform with it a fascinating physics project.

But how does it work?

A dyed volatile liquid partially fills a tube fitted with glass bulbs at both ends. The lower end of the tube dips into the liquid in the bottom bulb, the body. The upper bulb, the head, holds a beak which serves two functions. First, it shifts the center of mass forward. Secondly, when the bird is horizontal its head dips into a beaker of liquid (usually water), so that the felt covering soaks up some of the liquid. As the moisture in the felt evaporates it cools the top bulb, and some of the vapor within it condenses, thereby reducing the vapor pressure of the internal liquid below that in the bottom bulb. As a result, liquid is forced upward into the head, moving the center of mass forward. The top-heavy bird tips forward and the beak dips into the water. As the bird tips forward,  the bottom end of the tube rises above the liquid surface in the bulb; vapor can bubble up from the bottom end of the tube to the top, displacing some liquid in the head, making it flow back to the bottom. The weight of the liquid in the bulb will restore the device to the vertical position, and so on, repeating the cycle of motion. The liquid within is warmed and cooled in each cycle. The cycle is maintained as long as there is water to wet the beak.

Gluck Drinking Bird
‘A drinking bird’, image provided by Paul Gluck and used with permission

The rate of evaporation from the beak depends on the temperature and humidity of the surroundings. These parameters will influence the period of the motion. Forced convection will strongly enhance the evaporation and affect the period. Such enhancement will also be created by the air flow caused by the swinging motion of the bird.

Here are some suggestions for studying the behaviour of the swinging bird, at various degrees of sophistication.

Measure the period of motion of the bird and the evaporation rate, and relate the two to each other. You can do this also when water in the beaker is replaced by another liquid, say alcohol. To measure the evaporation rate the bird may be placed on a sensitive electronic balance, accurate to 0.001 g. A few drops of the external liquid may be applied to the felt of the head by a pipette. Measure the time variation of the mass of this liquid, and that of the period of motion, without replenishing the liquid when the bird bows into its horizontal position. Allow for the time spent in the horizontal position. Establish experimentally the time range for which the evaporation may be taken as constant.

Explore how forced convection, say from a small fan directed at the head, changes the rate of evaporation, and thereby the period of the motion.

The effects of humidity on the period may be observed as follows: build a transparent plexiglass container with a small opening. Place the bird inside. Vary the internal humidity by injecting controlled amounts of fine spray into the enclosed space. You can do this by using the atomizer of a perfume bottle.

By taking a video of the motion and analyzing it frame-by-frame using a frame grabber, measure the angle of inclination of the bird to the vertical as a function of time.

Do away altogether with the beaker of liquid in front of the bird and show that all it needs for oscillatory motion is the presence of a difference of temperature between the bottom and the top, a temperature gradient. To do this, paint the lower bulb and the tube black, and shine a flood lamp on them at controlled distances, while shielding the head, so as to create a temperature gradient between head and body. Such heating increases the vapor pressure within, causing liquid to be forced up into the head and making the toy dip, just as for the cooling of the head by evaporation. It will then be interesting to study how the time elapsed before the first swing and the period of motion are related to the effective surface being illuminated (how would you measure that?), and to the effective energy supplied to the bird which itself will depend on the lamp’s distance from the bird

There are many more topics that can be investigated. As one example, you could follow the time dependence of the head and stem temperatures in each cycle by means of tiny thermocouples, correlating these with the angular motion of the bird. Heat enters the tube and is transported to the head, and this will be reflected in a steady state temperature difference between the two. Both head and tube temperatures may vary during a cycle, and these variations can then be related to heat transfer from the surroundings and evaporation enhancement due to the convection generated by the swinging motion. But for this, and other more advanced topics, you would have to have access to a good physics laboratory, obtain guidance from a physicist, and be willing to learn some heat and thermodynamics as well as the mechanics of rotational motion, in addition to investing more time in the project.

Have you tried this experiment at home? Tell us how it went to get the chance to win a free copy of the Physics Project Lab book! We’ll pick our favourite descriptions on 9th January.

Featured image credit: ‘Drinking bird photo’ by Christopher Zurcher, CC-by-2.0, via Flickr

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19. Tiny Creatures: the world of microbes Written by Nicola Davies

Tiny Creatures: the world of microbes Written by Nicola Davies; Illustrated by Emily Sutton Candlewick Press. 2014 ISBN: 9780763773154 Grades K-3 To write this review, I borrowed a copy of the book from my local public library. Nicola Davies has penned some terrific science books. I really like Surprising Sharks! and Gaia Warriors. Davies excels at explaining the natural world and our

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20. Coots and Eagle

While in Idaho a few weeks ago, we watched a lone eagle repeatedly try to catch a coot in the water.

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21. Population ecologists scale up

“Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Experience, 1844.

The concept of looking at nature through multiple lenses to see different things is not new and has been long recognized. As always, the devil is in the details. Recent developments in analytical tools and the embracement of an integrative metapopulation concept and the newly emergent field of functional biogeography, are allowing exciting new insights to be made by population ecologists that have direct bearing on our understanding of the effects of environmental change on biodiversity patterns.

The metapopulation concept posits that isolated populations of organisms are connected through dynamics of dispersal and extinction. Across a landscape, areas of suitable habitat occur, which at one point in time may or may not host a viable population of a particular species.  I study this concept with terrestrial plants, and have asked what environmental conditions determine suitable habitat for metapopulations.

Much of the foundational work in this topic was conducted on butterfly populations in meadows across otherwise forested habitat. Regardless of study organism, embracement of this concept has been enough to make population ecologists realize that studying single populations may give only a limited view on generalities of ecology and evolution. Indeed, taking this concept on board, has led population ecologists to want to predict in which areas of suitable habitat across the landscape a new population may establish.

“There’s no getting away from field work!”

There are obvious conservation and management implications that result from being able to predict the geographical distribution of a species, whether an invasive exotic spreading across the globe, or an endangered organism. Unfortunately, just knowing where a species or a group of species may occur across the landscape is not enough. Individuals in some populations may have low fitness and their populations may be barely hanging on. For some species such as potential island colonizers, it has been proposed that limited ability to colonize vacant habitat patches may be due to the occurrence of closely related species occupying a similar niche.

Important ‘missing pieces’ from a full understanding of the metapopulation puzzle have been through inclusion of population growth rate estimates and incorporation of species evolutionary relationships (i.e., their phylogenic ancestry). Population ecologists have been toiling away making fitness estimates of their species of interest in the field. Systematists, on the other hand, have been grinding it out in the lab to generate the molecular data necessary to construct phylogenetic trees to help classify their species.

Larch Forest in Autumn Skarbin Laerchen Mischwald 03CC BY-SA 3.0, Johann Jaritz (own work) via Wikimedia Commons
Larch Forest in Autumn. Skarbin Laerchen Mischwald. By Johann Jaritz. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Community ecologists studying multispecies assemblages, as a third-dimensional angle to this question, have been working with geographers to develop species distribution models.  It is only recently that the analytical tools have emerged that allow these groups of scientists to collaborate and address questions of common interest about metapopulations.For example, Cory Merow and colleagues have recently shown how Bayesian models can be used to propagate uncertainty estimates in the application of integral projection models (IPMs) to forecast growth rates as part of predictive demographic distribution models (transition matrix models could also be used). In other words, species geographic distribution predictions can be improved by accounting for population-level fitness estimates.

In another study, Oluwatobi Oke and colleagues have shown how phylogenetic relationships among 66 co-occurring species in populations across a metapopulation structured landscape of Canadian barrens can improve understanding of species distribution patterns. The basis for Oke et al.’s phylogenetic patterns among their species was the large angiosperm supertree based upon nucleotide sequence data of three genes from over 500 species.

The basis for all of the work described above are precise and accurate estimates of individual fitness and population growth rates. There’s no getting away from field work! Methods for carrying out the field work component of these studies, to allow the use of modern statistical methods including Bayesian analysis, IPMs, and transition matrix models, have to be planned and carried out with care. We have come a long way in the last decade in enabling population studies to scale up to address fundamental questions at higher levels of the ecological hierarchy.

The field of population demography is moving fast. For example, the recent launch of the COMPADRE Plant Matrix Database, with accurate demographic information for over 500 plant species in their natural settings worldwide, will make addressing these scale-related types of comparative evolutionary and ecological questions even more tractable in the future.

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22. Physics Project Lab: How to build a cycloid tracker

Over the next few weeks, Paul Gluck, co-author of Physics Project Lab, will be describing how to conduct various Physics experiments. In this first post, Paul explains how to investigate motion on a cycloid, the path described by a point on the circumference of a vertical circle rolling on a horizontal plane.

If you are a student or an instructor, whether in a high school or at university, you may want to depart from the routine of lectures, tutorials, and short lab sessions. An extended experimental investigation of some physical phenomenon will provide an exciting channel for that wish. The payoff for the student is a taste of how physics research is done. This holds also for the instructor guiding a project if the guide’s time is completely taken up with teaching. For researchers it seems natural to initiate interested students into research early on in their studies.

You could find something interesting to study about any mundane effect.  If students come up with a problem connected with their interests, be it a hobby, some sport, a musical instrument, or a toy, so much the better. The guide can then discuss the project’s feasibility, or suggest an alternative. Unlike in a regular physics lab where all the apparatus is already there, there is an added bonus if the student constructs all or parts of the apparatus needed to explore the physics: a self-planned and built apparatus is one that is well understood.

Here is an example of what can be done with simple instrumentation, requiring no more than some photogates, found in all labs, but needing plenty of building initiative and elbow grease. It has the ingredients of a good project: learning some advanced theory, devising methods of measurements, and planning and building the experimental apparatus. It also provides an opportunity to learn some history of physics.

gluck
Cutting out the cycloid, image provided by Paul Gluck and used with permission.

The challenge is to investigate motion on a cycloid, the path described by a point on the circumference of a vertical circle rolling on a horizontal plane.

This path is relevant to two famous problems. The first is the one posed by Johann Bernoulli: along what path between two points at different heights is the travel time of a particle a minimum? The answer is the brachistochrone, part of a cycloid. Secondly, you can learn about the pendulum clock of Christian Huygens, in which the bob and its suspension were constrained to move along cycloid, so that the period of its swing was constant.

Here is what you have to construct: build a cycloidal track and for comparison purposes also a straight, variable-angle inclined track. To do this, proceed as follows. Mark a point on the circumference of a hoop, lid, or other circular object, whose radius you have measured. Roll it in a vertical plane and trace the locus of the point on a piece of cardboard placed behind the rolling object. Transfer the trace to a 2 cm-thick board and cut out very carefully with a jigsaw along the green-yellow border in the picture. Lay along the profile line a flexible plastic track with a groove, of the same width as the thickness of the board, obtainable from household or electrical supplies stores. Lay the plastic strip also along the inclined plane.

Your cycloid track is ready.

The pendulum constrained to the cycloid, image provided by Paul Gluck
The pendulum constrained to the cycloid, image provided by Paul Gluck and used with permission.

Measure the time taken for a small steel ball to roll along the groove from various release points on the brachistochrone to the bottom of the track. Compare with theory, which predicts that the time is independent of the release height, the tautochrone property. Compare also the times taken to descend the same height on the brachistochrone and on the straight track.

Design a pendulum whose bob is constrained to move along a cycloid, and whose suspension is confined by cycloids on either side of its swing from the equilibrium position. To do this, cut the green part in the above picture exactly into two halves, place them side by side to form a cusp, and suspend the pendulum from the apex of the cusp, as in the second picture. The pendulum string will then be confined along cycloids, and the swing period will be independent of the initial release position of the bob – the isochronous property. Measure its period for various amplitudes and show that it is a constant.

Have you tried this experiment at home? Tell us how it went to get the chance to win a free copy of the Physics Project Lab book. We’ll pick our favourite descriptions on 9th January. Good luck to all entries!

Featured image credit: Advanced Theoretical Physics blackboard, by Marvin PA. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.

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23. Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page,

Steve Jenkins and Robin Page have a talent for presenting the animal world in endlessly interesting ways for readers young and old, as they prove once again with Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do. Jenkins's colorful collage-style illustrations get up close and personal with the sometimes strange faces of animals from all over the world in this new book,

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24. GalĂĄpagos George by Jean Craighead George, paintings by Wendell Minor

Happily for us, Jean Craighead George, who died in 2012 at the age of 92, worked right up to the end of her long, well travelled life. George, a naturalist who was known for imbuing her books with science and nature and illustrated many of her own books, worked often with artist Wendell Minor, who wrote this wonderful tribute to her. Galåpagos George is their final collaboration. 

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25. Saturn Could Sail and Other Fun Facts by Laura Lyn DiSiena and Hannah Eliot, illustrated by Pete Oswald and Aaron Spurgeon

Saturn Could Sail and Other Fun Facts by Laura Lyn DiSiena and Hannah Eliot, illustrated by Pete Oswald and Aaron Spurgeon, is part of a fantastic, fact filled series of non-fiction picture books published by Simon & Schuster called "Did You Know?" Oswald and Spurgeon, who worked on the movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, are the perfect illustrators for this kind of non-fiction

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