Boing Boing 

The making of Drunk Science (and why I am never making another one)

I've gotten a few questions about the Drunk Science video that I posted here yesterday. The two most common: "Will there be another Drunk Science?" And, "Jeezus, didn't science journalist Charles Q. Choi drink a bit too much for this?"

The answers to those questions are, respectively, "No" and "Yes". Choi is probably the best person to explain both answers, which he does in a blog post that discusses the science of an alcohol-induced blackout, and why — despite the fact that everybody involved with Drunk Science thinks the final result is pretty damn funny and generally good Internet — we won't ever be doing anything like that again.

Read the rest

Sucking up to shrimp

Say you're a marine biologist and you want to study the little bitty creatures of the sea — shrimps and worms and things like that. How do you go about capturing them?

Why, with an underwater vacuum, of course.

At the PNAS First Look blog, David Harris writes that this "SCUBA-tank powered vacuum, called an “airlift,” inhales shrimp, sand fleas, marine worms, and 'things that would swim away if they had the chance.'"

More accurate, but less reliable

This is a fascinating problem that affects a lot of scientific modeling (in fact, I'll be talking about this in the second part of my series on gun violence research) — the more specific and accurate your predictions, the less reliable they sometimes become. Think about climate science. When you read the IPCC reports, what you see are predictions about what is likely to happen on a global basis, and those predictions come in the form of a range of possible outcomes. Results like that are reliable — i.e, they've matched up with observed changes. But they aren't super accurate — i.e., they don't tell you exactly what will happen, and they generally don't tell you much about what might happen in your city or your state. We have tools that can increase the specificity and accuracy, but those same tools also seem to reduce the reliability of the outcomes. At The Curious Wavefunction, Ashutosh Jogalekar explains the problem in more detail and talks about how it affects scientist's ability to give politicians and the public the kind of absolute, detailed, specific answers they really want.

Inside a nuclear fusion research lab

In downtown Cambridge, Mass., there's a research laboratory where scientists create plasma — the superheated, energy-dense gases that make up the Sun — and then try to manipulate that matter in ways that could, someday, be useful to the human race. Last week, the folks at The Physics Central Buzz Blog went inside this facility. Follow along on their virtual tour of a plasma physics lab.

How bad research gets published (and promoted)

In 2010, a group of scientists claimed to have found bacteria that could build its DNA using arsenic, instead of the phosphorous used by the rest of Earth's life forms. Within days, the research behind "arsenic life" was under serious scrutiny and we now know that it was totally wrong. But the work was peer-reviewed. It was sponsored by NASA. How do so many experts make such a big mistake? Dan Vergano at USA Today has an excellent article looking at just that — and it includes the peer review comments that helped the arsenic life paper get published. Though normally secret, Vergano got a hold of them through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Fantastic tour of the International Space Station

Sunita Williams was in charge of the International Space Station for six months. On her last day in space, she made this 25-minute video — a much more in-depth tour of the ISS than I've personally ever seen before. This is the first time I've actually been able to get a sense of the whole interior layout of the ISS, rather than just seeing one place and then another with no understanding of how they connect. What's more, you really get a sense of the unearthly weirdness of moving through this space where walls are never just walls and "up" and "down" are essentially meaningless.

The video includes a detailed (but safe for work) demonstration of how to use the ISS bathroom; a behind-the-scenes peek of the pantry (with separate pantries for Russian and Japanese food); a visit to the Soyuz craft waiting to take Williams home; and the vertigo-inducing horror pod where all the really great pictures of Earth get taken.

Money quote: "I haven't sat down for 6 months now."

Also, for some reason, it bothers me that she refers to the "left" and "right" side of the Space Station, instead of port and starboard.

Science, confidential

We've talked here before about the crazy things you can find when you read the "Methods" section of a scientific research paper. (Ostensibly, that's the boring part.)

If you want a quick laugh this morning — or if you want to get a peek at how the sausages are made — check out the Twitter hashtag #overlyhonestmethods, where scientists are talking about the backstory behind seemingly dry statements like "A population of male rats was chosen for this study".

In which Santa helps remind us all of the importance of metadata

Metadata is one of those things that is so important, it becomes easy to forget about. We often collect metadata without thinking about it. When we don't collect it — or if we collect it in a sloppy manner — we notice very quickly that something has gone wrong. But when someone says the word "metadata", a large number of us go, "the what now?" And start trying to remember what that word means before we make ourselves sound dumb in conversation.

Metadata is really just information about information — it helps us organize, find, and standardize the things we know and want to know. At the Information Culture blog Bonnie Swoger offers some Christmas-themed examples that will help you remember what metadata is, help you understand why it's such a big deal, and improve your ability to do metadata right.

If you stumbled across this list on the web you might be able to guess what it was, but you couldn’t be sure. It would also be difficult to find this list again if you were looking for it. The list creator might find this pretty useful, but if he or she shared it with others, we would want some added information to help the new user understand what he or she was looking at: this is metadata.

Metadata for this data file:

Who created the data: Santa Claus, North Pole. An email address would be nice. This way we have some contact information in case we need clarification.
Title: “My List” isn’t a title that is conducive to finding the file again. While it might be tempting to just call this “Santa’s list” that won’t help other folks who see this file. The title should be descriptive of what the data file contains, and “Santa’s List” could be many things: Santa’s list of Reindeer? Santa’s list of toys that need to be made? A more descriptive title might be “Santa’s list of naughty and nice children.”
Date created: We don’t want to confuse this year’s list (2012) with last year’s list (2011). This could lead to all sorts of unfortunate events where nice kids get coal, naughty kids get presents, or infants (who weren’t around in 2011) get nothing at all.
Who created the data file: Perhaps Santa created the data, but then used an elf to input the data into a computer file. Many computer programs automatically record this information, although you may not realize this. How the list was created: Behavioral scans? Parental surveys? Elf on the Shelf reports? All of the above? In order to reuse this data in future research projects, we need to know how it was collected, including collection instruments and methodologies.
Definitions of terms used: What is “naughty” what is “nice”? How did Santa place a child into one category or another?
File type: What kind of file is it? The data here are pretty simple, but Santa has lots of different file formats to choose from: excel, .csv, xml, etc. Knowing the file type helps end users determine if they can use the data.

Read the full story and get more great examples

The many stages of writing a research paper

Timothy Weninger recently submitted a research paper to a computer science conference called World Wide Web. On his way to that, he went through 463 drafts. Bear in mind, this paper has only been submitted, not yet accepted, so there's probably even more edits that are still yet to happen. Welcome to the life of a scientist.

In this video, Weninger created a timelapse showing all the different stages of his writing process, as he added graphs and went through cycles of expanding, contracting, and expanding the text. But mostly expanding. The paper grows from two pages to 10 by the end of the video.

[Video Link]

Via Bill Bell

How To: Film cheetahs in slow motion

For this project you will need one cat toy on a string, a high-speed camera mounted on a moveable track, and also some cheetahs.

This behind-the-scenes video shows you how National Geographic and the Cincinnati Zoo captured amazing footage of big cats in motion. It's a complicated process and I wish they'd shown more of the animal-handling part of it. I certainly didn't realize that some zoo animals were so comfortable with humans that you could walk them around on a leash and let them off to run free around a dozen unfamiliar members of a camera crew. Still great to watch, though.

Via Laughing Squid, which has the 7-minute video showing the final footage of running cheetahs.

How experimental design can create conflicting results

Is coffee bad for you or good for you? Does acupuncture actually work, or does it produce a placebo effect? Do kids with autism have different microbes living in their intestines, or are their gut flora largely the same as neurotypical children? These are all good examples of topics that have produced wildly conflicting results from one study to another. (Side-note: This is why knowing what a single study says about something doesn't actually tell you much. And, frankly, when you have a lot of conflicting results on anything, it's really easy for somebody to pick the five that support a given hypothesis and not tell you about the 10 that don't.)

But why do conflicting results happen? One big factor is experimental design. Turns out, there's more than one way to study the same thing. How you set up an experiment can have a big effect on the outcome. And if lots of people are using different experimental designs, it becomes difficult to accurately compare their results. At the Wonderland blog, Emily Anthes has an excellent piece about this problem, using the aforementioned research on gut flora in kids with autism as an example.

For instance, in studies of autism and microbes, investigators must decide what kind of control group they want to use. Some scientists have chosen to compare the guts of autistic kids to those of their neurotypical siblings while others have used unrelated children as controls. This choice of control group can influence the strength of the effect that researchers find–or whether they find one at all.

Scientists also know that antibiotics can have profound and long-lasting effects on our microbiomes, so they agree on the need to exclude children from these studies who have taken antibiotics recently. But what’s recently? Within the last week? Month? Three months? Each investigator has to make his or her own call when designing a study.

Then there’s the matter of how researchers collect their bacterial samples. Are they studying fecal samples? Or taking samples from inside the intestines themselves? The bacterial communities may differ in samples taken from different places.

Read the full story at The Wonderland blog

Image: Apples & Oranges - They Don't Compare, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from thebusybrain's photostream

How To: Preserve a bat for museum display

Here's a big difference between nature and a natural history museum: In the wild, when you find a skeleton of anything, it's seldom arranged in a neat, orderly, anatomically correct manner. Even if an animal dies in captivity, nature won't just conveniently produce a skeleton suitable for mounting.

So how do museums get the perfect skeletal specimens that you see behind glass?

The answer: Lots and lots and lots of tedious work. Plus the assistance of a few thousand flesh-eating bugs.

This video from the University of Michigan traces the creation of a bat skeleton, from a fleshy dead bat in a jar, to a neat, little set of bones in a display case. It's painstaking (and moderately disgusting) work. Sort of like building model cars, if the Ford Mustang had realistic organ tissue.

Thanks to Neil Shurley!

Fossils in storage: How do you sort through the backlog?

Yesterday, I posted about Pegomastax africanus, a parrot-like dinosaur whose fossil was discovered not in a remote waste in some far corner of the world, but in a rock that had sat in storage at Harvard University for 50 years.

In the post, I tried to explain why something like that could happen. The simple fact of the matter: A successful archaeological or paleontological dig will produce far more material than the original scientists have time (or money) to sort through, process, and examine. So lots of stuff ends up sitting in storage.

That led BoingBoing reader Matt Fedorko to some interesting speculation:


"...This seems like a perfect opportunity to exploit 3D scanning technology to put the shapes of fossils, at least, into some kind of digital storage area where other researchers could look at a dig's haul and start to work with them spatially, or beside any of the other data that is collected in the field or logged during the cataloging procedure."

Now, Charles Q. Choi, a journalist who wrote about the discovery of Pegomastax africanus, says that Matt's idea isn't all that far-fetched. In fact, scientists already do something like this with the fossils that do get closely examined.

Read the rest

A tour of the bat cave

In this video for Science Friday, bat biologist Nickolay Hristov takes a thermal camera inside Carlsbad Caverns to see what bats do in the dark when nobody's watching.

In his footage, a blazing yellow blob on the cave ceiling—which the video's narrator likens to a pool of lava—is actually a mass of bats, packed closely together and hanging upside down. Here, Hristov can see, in person, the very social world of bats, playing out as though he weren't even there.

It's a great video, and well worth watching.

Via Science Friday

EDIT: Video embed is fixed and should work now.

At sea for science

The Joides Resolution is a large boat—more than 450 feet long and almost 70 feet wide. That's small compared to a lot of cruise ships, but big enough to house and feed and provide work space for 126 people. It's a floating city, with a movie theater, helipad, hospital, cafeteria, laboratories, and a giant drilling rig. But even a big boat can start to feel small when you have nowhere else to go, and no land in sight, for two whole months.Read the rest

Blackout tracker tells you where the electric grid is down

The other day, someone asked me what the most surprising thing was that I learned while writing Before the Lights Go Out, my book about America's electric infrastructure and the future of energy. That's easy. The most surprising thing was definitely my realization of just how precarious our all-important grid system actually is.

There are two key things here. First, the grid doesn't have any storage. (At least, none to speak of.) Second, the grid has to operate within a very narrow window of technical specifications. At any given moment, there must be almost exactly as much electricity being produced as there is being consumed. If that balance is thrown off, by even a fraction of a percent, you start heading toward blackouts. There are people working 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, making sure that balance is maintained on a minute-by-minute basis.

That's a long way of explaining why I find Blackout Tracker so fascinating. Put together by Eaton, a company that makes products that help utilities manage different parts of the electric grid, this little web app shows you where the electric grid has recently failed, and why. The Blackout Tracker doesn't claim to include all blackouts, but it gives you an idea of the number of blackouts that happen, and the wide range of causes blackouts can have. For instance, in the picture above, you can see that Wichita, Kansas, had a blackout earlier this week that was related to a heatwave—hot weather meant more people turned on their air conditioners in the middle of the day, and, for whatever reason, there wasn't enough electrical supply available to meet that demand. The result: Blackout.

One major flaw: Most of the time Blackout Tracker can't tell you how long a blackout lasted. But that's probably got more to do with what information the utility companies are willing to release than anything. Still, I think this program is a nice primer for people who aren't aware of all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to make sure electricity remains flowing, nice and steady.

Check out Blackout Tracker (Also available for the UK, Canada, and Australia/New Zealand)

Learn more about how the grid works (and doesn't work) in my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

I don't remember where I picked this link up from, so if you're the one who sent it to me, please give me a little tap and I'll make sure you are properly thanked!

Sarah Robles: The strongest woman in America lives on $400 a month

Meet Sarah Robles. She can lift as much as 570 pounds. In last year's weightlifting world championships, she bested every other American—both female and male. Sarah Robles is going to the Olympics in London this summer. But at home, in the United States, she lives on $400 a month.

Track star Lolo Jones, 29, soccer player Alex Morgan, 22, and swimmer Natalie Coughlin, 29, are natural television stars with camera-friendly good looks and slim, muscular figures. But women weightlifters aren't go-tos when Sports Illustrated is looking for athletes to model body paint in the swimsuit issue. They don’t collaborate with Cole Haan on accessories lines and sit next to Anna Wintour at Fashion Week, like tennis beauty Maria Sharapova. And male weightlifters often get their sponsorships from supplements or diet pills, because their buff, ripped bodies align with male beauty ideals. Men on diet pills want to look like weightlifters — most women would rather not.

Meanwhile, Robles — whose rigorous training schedule leaves her little time for outside work — struggles to pay for food. It would be hard enough for the average person to live off the $400 a month she receives from U.S.A. Weightlifting, but it’s especially difficult for someone who consumes 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day, a goal she meets through several daily servings of grains, meats and vegetables, along with weekly pizza nights. She also gets discounted groceries from food banks and donations from her coach, family and friends — or, as Robles says, “prayers and pity.”

She's not alone. Holley Mangold, the other American woman who'll be doing Olympic weightlifting in the same division, works part-time for a BBQ restaurant and lives in a friend's converted laundry room.

In fact, while the biggest stars in the most-watched events can pick up million-dollar endorsement deals, the truth is that most Olympic athletes live on extremely modest incomes. That's especially true in countries like Canada, which lacks the kind of government support system you find in places like China and Russia, but also lacks the plethora of large and small private endorsement deals that are available to some (but not all) American Olympians.

I think this is interesting. Every time the Olympics come up, I hear friends and talking heads alike arguing that the amateur athlete no longer exists. Everybody in the Olympics is really a professional and that makes it all less exciting—or so goes the conventional wisdom. The reality is that, for the most part, we're talking about people who make big sacrifices to be able to compete at a high level in a sport they're obsessed with for its own sake, not because they're getting rich. Sponsorships, rather than tainting the sport, do also help some athletes know where their next meal is coming from. After reading some of these articles, I think the vast majority of Olympic athletes probably fall squarely into Happy Mutant territory.

Read the rest of Buzzfeed's profile of Sarah Robles

• Read the New York Times' profile of weightlifter Holley Mangold
• Ivestopedia: Olympic Athletes—Back to Reality
• Wired: Olympic Runner Fights to Change Sponsorship Rules
• ABC News: How Can Olympic Athletes Find a Real Job?
• Time Magazine: Keeping Afloat (which contrasts the profits of the U.S. Olympic Committee with the small incomes that support many Olympic athletes)