News Flash – The Martian Paywall

BOSTON – Controversy surrounded the publication of the first research from NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory on Thursday as Michael Eisen, co-founder of the open-access journal PLOS ONE, made the relevant papers freely available without permission. Claiming that NASA’s decision to publish the articles behind Science magazine’s paywall was “completely unfathomable,” Eisen posted links to the research on his personal blog.

Curiosity rover, courtesy of NASA/JPL

Eisen argued that NASA’s status as a government-funded agency meant its works were not subject to copyright, as outlined by Section 105 in Title 17 of the U.S. Code. However, the authors of the papers included several scientists not employed by the government (including project co-chair John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology) who held copyright to their distinctive works. Science issued a statement explaining that the articles were subject to the magazine’s “License to Publish,” which allows authors to retain copyright and post links to the articles on personal websites. NASA appeared to reverse its stance on the issue following a storm of criticism on social media; as of Saturday, the papers could be downloaded freely by following the links on the MSL website. Neither government officials nor the researchers have chosen to comment on the issue.

Recent government action regarding open access to research has been variable. As explained by Wired’s David Dobbs, a significant portion of government-funded research must be made available to the public 12 months after its initial publication in accordance with the National Institutes of Health’s Public Access Policy, although this regulation primarily covers biomedical research. In 2012, advocates of open access tabled the Research Works Act, a bill promoted by major scholarly publishers that would have repealed this policy in addition to restricting access to other government-funded articles. Yet in the highly publicized case of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz pressed federal felony charges for the illegal publication of articles from the online database JSTOR.

Getting Served – Robot Bartenders

Most scientists, with the exception of beleaguered graduate students, don’t exactly have the reputations of party animals. Yet most enjoy a good drink now and then, and some researchers (such as those discussed in this blog’s last post) have devoted their efforts towards developing better beverages. Other scientists are researching how to make the process of getting those drinks easier: Sebastian Loth and his colleagues at Bielefeld University in Germany are developing a robotic bartender by the name of JAMES.

JAMES, courtesy of

The robot’s name stands for Loth’s project, the Joint Action for Multimodal Embodied Social Systems. As explained on the project’s website, the researchers are exploring how humans combine multiple simultaneous forms of communication, such as “gesture, gaze, body language, facial expressions, and natural-language dialogue,” to get their points across in social settings. “Embodied social systems,” or robots that interact with people, will need to understand this complex communication to fulfill their duties without awkward interfaces, and they could eventually be taught to communicate back at humans in the same way. In a bar setting, for example, a robot bartender might have to distinguish between customers making conversation with other patrons and those trying to order the next round of drinks.

Loth and colleagues reasoned that the best way to determine the rules of such complex communication was to learn from the experts: actual German bartenders. The scientists (presumably while nursing a liter or two) took careful notes on more than 100 orders attempted by patrons, examining which types of communication were most effective at getting a bartender’s attention. As might be expected, two types of actions got the best responses: standing adjacent to and directly facing the bar, which got a patron served within 35 seconds 95 percent of the time, and looking directly at a bartender, which achieved the same result 86 percent of the time. Other behaviors, like talking with other patrons at the bar or examining the drink menu, were unsuccessful; somewhat surprisingly, waving at the bartender was also an ineffective method of getting served.

Although JAMES will have to rely on computer vision to make out these cues, knowing which cues are important will allow it to serve customers more efficiently. This kind of research is a small step towards developing robotic assistants for the sick or elderly, where the consequences of misunderstood communication are more important than momentary thirst. Luckily, the problem of robotically mixing the perfect cocktail has already been solved.

A Toast to the Tannosome – The Wine Organelle

If you spend any time around wine snobs, you will likely hear the beverage described with a bewildering array of adjectives, from “flamboyant” to “unctuous” to “velvety.” Some connoisseurs lend a scientific air to their critiques through referencing the presence of tannins, a class of molecules that give red wine its astringency. Yet before last week, even a wine lover with a degree in enology (the study of wine, in which several US schools offer graduate programs) would be unable to say where exactly tannins arise in the grape cell. A recent study by Jean-Marc Brillouet and his colleagues at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research has revealed the existence of a previously unknown cellular structure, the tannosome, which is responsible for the production of these compounds.

A glass of cabernet, courtesy of

Although humans have learned to enjoy the bitterness of tannins, their primary role in nature is that of predator deterrents. When an herbivore bites into a tannin-containing plant, its cells and cellular compartments are broken open, releasing a wide range of chemicals. After tannins are released, they tend to attach themselves to available proteins and enzymes, and in the case of herbivory, the digestive enzymes of the predator are the most likely targets. By binding to molecules like trypsin and chymotrypsin, tannins inhibit digestion and can even kill insects that ingest enough of them. The association of bitter tastes with tannins has evolved to encourage us to seek less well-defended plant foods.

Yet tannins can also bind to enzymes in the plant, which would disrupt its regular functions; to avoid harming itself, the plant must store tannins in a safe place. The most common device for isolating potentially dangerous compounds in a plant cell is the vacuole, a compartment (or organelle) surrounded by a membrane that the plant can regulate to determine what passes through. This membrane, called the tonoplast, had been previously suggested as the location of tannins in the cell, but Brillouet and colleagues were uncertain about this hypothesis. The researchers closely examined a wide range of tannin-containing plants under different settings with a transmission electron microscope, which allowed them to study the structure of the cells at a greater resolution than had been done before. The data indicated that tannins were not located in the tonoplast, but instead in an entirely separate part of the cell they called the tannosome, which both synthesizes and stores the compounds.

As explained by Ian Burbulis, a biochemist at the University of Virginia who was not involved in the study, the discovery of the tannosome is a big deal because “[p]eople have been trying to figure this out since the 1960s.” This step towards understanding the molecular mechanisms of tannins could allow researchers to manipulate the contents and taste of wine. For example, co-author Charles Romieu conjectured that his team could eventually “play with [tannins] perhaps to make wine feel more smooth in the mouth.” Although this level of precise engineering is still theoretical, it’s certainly a possibility to which it is worth raising a glass.

News Flash – Science Laureate

In light of the state of science education discussed in this blog’s last post, it seems reasonable that the U.S. government would be eager to take even the smallest of steps towards promoting scientific literacy among the nation’s young people. One such step, proposed as H.R. 1891 by a bipartisan group of representatives on May 9, would be the creation of an official “Science Laureate of the United States” appointed by the president. Much like the U.S. Poet Laureate, the Science Laureate would serve as a focus for the communication of his or her field, traveling the country to speak on the importance and excitement of scientific research. As described by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the bill, “As our society becomes ever more technical, a role model for how important scientific advancement is for our nation’s future will help us. The Science Laureate can serve that role, as an accomplished individual to engage Americans on the importance of science in our lives and who can encourage our students to be the innovators of tomorrow.”

Based on the bill’s widespread support among House lawmakers, it was scheduled to pass earlier this month through the expedited “suspension of the rules” procedure, which limits debate for non-controversial measures such as naming post offices. But controversy did arise after the bill reached the attention of Larry Hart, legislative director of the American Conservative Union, a Washington, D.C.-based group claiming to be the “oldest membership-based conservative organization in the United States.” Hart contacted the leaders of the House Republicans, who subsequently removed the bill from the schedule and sent it into the standard series of legislative steps.

In an interview with National Public Radio, Hart explained, “What I couldn’t understand was why [Republican] folks who constantly give speeches saying that they’re upset with President Obama’s appointments would give him the power for new appointments, particularly in the area of science, which he has a particular view of — in my opinion — a very politicized view of science.” A letter Hart sent to Republican lawmakers and conservative lobbying groups clarified his objections, stating that Obama could use the position to promote White House views of “climate change and regulation of greenhouse gases.” A spokesman for one of these groups, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, was quoted as saying about the bill, “There’s no way to make it work. It would still give scientists an opportunity to pontificate, and we’re opposed to it.”

It is this last quote that should be of the most concern to supporters of science. As it stands, the bill does have a number of problems that would benefit from further discussion: laureates would be unpaid, have ill-defined duties, and be required to juggle academic and government commitments. But these practical concerns do not counter the wisdom of supporting a public figure for science education. A Science Laureate would encourage people to learn more about the world around them and make better decisions about matters of science as they pertain to public policy. If this possibility frightens a group of lawmakers, then perhaps it is time for that group to examine the scientific basis of their own positions.

Ivory Tower – The Science of Teaching Science

I’m currently reading the last book published by famed astronomer and science advocate Carl Sagan, “Billions & Billions“; it is a bittersweet experience, not only because Sagan passed away in 1996, but also because many of the problems he discusses have worsened in the nearly 15 years since the book’s publication. Environmental pollutionglobal climate change, and the unnecessary conflict of religious and scientific worldviews continue to permeate world affairs, and it seems as if the United States has made little headway in establishing the widespread understanding of math and science needed to alleviate these problems. In the nation’s schools, where progress might be made most easily, American students rank in the bottom third of learners from industrialized countries.

Courtesy of Uncyclopedia

Ironically, the way science is traditionally taught has little scientific backing. As Grover Whitehurst, former director of the Institute of Education Sciences (a government think tank for education), explains, “You could pick up an education journal and read pieces that reflected on the human condition and that involved interpretations by the authors on what was going on in schools. It was more like the work a historian might do than what a social scientist might do.” The concept of “learning styles,” for example, spread largely on qualitative or anecdotal reports rather than quantitative data. Most studies of learning style fail to include controls in which students are taught with a style they do not prefer, and even properly conducted studies tend to conclude that style has little effect.

The rote memorization of theories, facts, and formulae comprises a large portion of instruction time in math and science classrooms. Yet the past 20 years of research support an entirely different approach, one based on experiencing concepts rather than learning them by heart. In response to this work, a coalition of state governments and educators has produced the Next Generation Science Standards, a framework for science education in grades K-12. Educators should place their focus “on the core ideas—not necessarily the facts that are associated with them. The facts and details are important evidence, but not the sole focus of instruction.” One approach recommended by the standards is the use of modeling: instead of being shown a diagram of the water cycle, students might construct a diorama with a lamp for evaporation and a plastic lid on which water could condense.

Technology in the classroom is also a hot topic among educators, but the research warns against expecting gadgetry to act as a cure-all for student engagement. Students without access to technology want it to become available, but beyond a certain point, interactivity and a sense of a learning community become more important. Teachers risk disengaging their classrooms if technology is merely used to upgrade the efficiency of traditonal, top-down models of education. A report by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, explains that if students use technology to explore their own interests, as mediated by their peers and mentors, it becomes a much more effective learning tool. An educational system that frees the curiosity and inventiveness of students has the best chance of producing a generation ready to tackle the heady scientific problems of our time.

Internet Roundup – Amazing Science Photos

A good figure can often elevate a scientific text from informative to inspiring. What would Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” be without its branching tree of life, or James Watson and Francis Crick’s paper on the structure of DNA be without its emblematic double helix? While perhaps not as groundbreaking as these historic illustrations, the following photographs also inspire a sense of wonder and curiosity about the natural world.

Eunice aphroditois, courtesy of Jenny Huang

The behavior of the “Bobbit worm,” a 10-foot creature from the ocean floor, is just as terrifying as its looks. The worm snaps at fish from its hiding place underneath the sand, often scissoring them in two with its mandibles.

Hot Hot Heat Island, courtesy of Nickolay Lamm

This photograph of the Jersey City skyline, taken using a thermal camera, demonstrates the heat retention capacity of large urban areas. In the summer, these “urban heat islands” can be up to 22°F warmer than their undeveloped surroundings.

Unknown structure, courtesy of Troy Alexander

One might expect this intricate, weblike formation to be a textbook example of evolution in action, but the opposite is true: its origins have stymied scientists the world over. Located by a graduate student in the Peruvian Amazon, the structure is thought to be the product of a moth or spider, but no one is certain.

Martian surface, courtesy of NASA

This panorama may look like a piece of moldy bread, but it actually depicts the craters and valleys of Mars. NASA scientists believe that these features were formed by meltwater from snow, hinting at the planet’s wet (and possibly life-sustaining) history.

Gum-leaf skeletonizer caterpillar, courtesy of Nuytsia

The gum-lead skeletonizer caterpillar is just one of the animal oddities depicted on the delightfully zany “WTF, Evolution?” Tumblr. As it undergoes molting, the insect retains the exoskeleton around its head, leading to the distinctive “stovepipe hat” appearance.

Hang Son Doong, courtesy of Carsten Peter

The Hang Son Doong caverns may be the most massive subterranean passage in the world; for scale, that beam of light comes from a headlamp attached to a person. It is estimated that the caves could contain a continuous half-mile of 40-story skyscrapers.

Brain in a Dish, courtesy of Madeline Lancaster

Although this 3-D model of the human brain, grown using stem cells by a team of Viennese researchers, isn’t what first comes to mind from the phrase “brain in a jar,” it has the potential to answer real questions about neurological disease. The so-called cerebral organoid shares much of the organizational development of an actual brain and could serve as a model for diseases like autism.

Bass up the Beef – Taste and Sound

Anyone who has tried to enjoy a gourmet meal while suffering from a cold knows that perception of taste involves more than the tongue. The taste buds, as previously discussed on this blog, can distinguish the five basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory), while the nose is responsible for distinguishing more complex aspects of food; chewing forces airborne aromas through the nasal passages, and the brain fully recognizes flavor only when taste and smell are combined. But new research suggests that a ringing ear may be have a similar effect as a stuffy nose when it comes to the appreciation of food. The sounds that accompany a meal can have a surprising influence on the perception of its flavor.

In what could be considered a direct sonic metaphor for the clogged-up sinuses, a team of British scientists exposed tasters to different levels of background noise as they consumed a sampling of cookies and potato chips. The researchers found that a cookie, when eaten under loud conditions, tasted less sweet than the same cookie eaten under quiet conditions; they observed the same pattern for the saltiness of the potato chips. Loudness did, however, enhance the tasters’ perceptions of crunchiness, which may be just as important as actual flavor to the enjoyment of food. Another study correlated the “enjoyment of biting” for a number of different foods with crispness, which was quantified by the amount of high-frequency sound produced by a texture analyzer (effectively a mechanical mouth) biting into the food. Malcolm Povey, author of the study, suggested that humans are “genetically disposed to appreciating crispiness as a sign of freshness in food.”

Texture Analyzer, courtesy of Texture Technologies

One experiment successfully turned this correlation on its head: instead of manipulating the crispness of the food itself, Massimiliano Zampini and Charles Spence changed the sounds tasters heard while eating. In his study, participants were given 90 potato chips, each one identical in composition, thickness, and texture. The bite noises for each chip were recorded by a microphone placed by the mouth of the taster, and these noises were “remixed” live into a pair of headphones worn by the taster. Zampini and Spence found that if he dulled the attack of the bite noise, the taster would likely rate the chip as soft and stale; conversely, brightening the noise caused the tasters to rate the chip as crisp and fresh. The study received the somewhat dubious distinction of the 2008 “Ig Nobel Prize,” an award given to experiments that “first make people laugh, and then make them think.”

For businesses that serve food, however, this research is no laughing matter. The effects of loudness on taste, for example, has led airlines to examine how the white noise in the cabins of their planes might be the real culprit behind the blandness of dining in the sky. Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal has attracted patrons to his restaurant with a dish he calls the “Sound of the Sea“:  “razor clams, sea urchin, and oysters paired with seafood foam, tapioca and panko sand,” served alongside a conch shell containing an iPod with a soundtrack of crashing waves. While this approach is something of a gimmick, it recognizes how the taste experience is really a feast for all of the senses.