News Flash – Russia and Greenpeace

MOSCOW – A group of 30 activists and journalists aboard the Greenpeace International vessel Arctic Sunrise were taken into custody by Russian authorities on Sept. 19 after a protest against the offshore Gazprom oil platform Prirazlomnaya. Although the initial piracy charges against the group, now being called the “Arctic 30,” have been reduced to hooliganism, all of its members continue to be held in the northern Russian city of Murmansk and risk prison sentences of up to seven years.

The Arctic Sunrise, courtesy of Greenpeace

Two of the activists had attempted to climb the oil platform on Sept. 18 with the goal of unfurling a protest banner, but were countered with high-pressure streams from fire hoses; after being pushed into the ocean, they were detained by a Russian coast guard vessel as “guests.” Authorities stormed the Greenpeace ship itself on the following day. A message from the ship’s Twitter account described the boarding as “pretty terrifying. Loud banging. Screaming in Russian. They’re still trying to kick in the door.” The Arctic Sunrise was then towed to the Russian coast.

Greenpeace sent its ship to the Arctic Sea to protest the potential environmental damage due to the exploitation of the Prirazlomnoye oil field, roughly 60 kilometers offshore from the nearest settlement on the Russian coast. Although remote for humans, the area is home to a unique array of wildlife, including polar bears, narwhals, and walruses. Scientists argue that due to the region’s inaccessibility and temperature, an oil spill would be nearly impossible to clean. According to Igor Chestin, chief executive of the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Federation, “Not a single oil company currently has the technology to deal with an oil spill under the ice. Some of them know how to collect oil from the surface of the water, or from the surface of the ice, which is like land. But under the ice? There are no technologies which can deal with that, and that means that the oil can spread over the place.”

Russian officials have indicated that the development of Arctic resources is a key part of the country’s future economic growth. As global climate change continues to melt ice in the region, the Arctic has become more accessible to the shipping vessels that carry its oil and natural gas reserves to market. In addition to its economic development, Russia has begun to reestablish a military presence at a Soviet-era base in the region.

International pressure has been mounting over recent weeks for the release of the Arctic 30. Frans Timmerman, the foreign minister of the Netherlands (the flag country of the Arctic Sunrise), stated to the BBC that “I don’t understand why this could be thought to have anything to do with piracy; I don’t see how you could think of any legal grounds for that.” A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also expressed hope that “this case will soon be resolved.” However, Russian legal action continues to proceed against the group.

A Foundational Fear – Ophidiophobia

As Halloween continues to draw closer, it seems appropriate to address one of mankind’s most common fears: ophidiophobia, or the fear of snakes. Those with the phobia often try to explain it with a personal traumatic experience, cultural conditioning, or an aversion to the way the animals move, but some scientists believe that the fear has much deeper roots.

Large and venomous snakes are most prevalent in the tropics, as are primates, and the threat snakes posed to our ancestors may have been a selective pressure that left an evolutionary mark. After all, primates who were unable to identify and deal with snakes would have been less likely to reproduce and pass on the traits leading to that naive behavior. In a recent study, Quan van Le of Toyama University in Japan and his colleagues found evidence to bolster this hypothesis: particular neurons in the brains of several macaque monkeys that respond to images of snakes.

Brown tree snake, courtesy of teejaybee

The researchers implanted electrodes on individual neurons in two regions of the brain, the medial and dorsolateral pulvinar, that are found only in primates. Previous research has suggested that these areas are important to the visual detection of threats, particularly the medial pulvinar, which receives direct input from the eyes in addition to processed input from the rest of the brain.

After placing the electrodes, the authors showed the macaques a series of images: geometric figures, monkey hands, monkey faces, and snakes. The scientists then measured how many neurons responded to each type of image, how powerful the response was, and how quickly the response occurred. When snakes were shown, the response was faster, stronger, and happened in more neurons than for any of the other stimuli.

Lynne Isbell, a coauthor of the study, considers its results to be exciting support for her “snake detection theory” of visual evolution. Eyes that face forward, combined with brainpower capable of sophisticated pattern recognition and the detection of elongated, moving forms, would have been an invaluable advantage for early primates at the risk of falling prey to serpents. She has argued that the evolutionary importance of stronger sight even led to the reduction of the sense of smell to free up the necessary resources in the brain.

Although the fear of snakes may be evolutionarily derived, it has taken on a life of its own in human myths and legends. From the deceiver of the Garden of Eden to the shape-shifting nemesis of Disney’s Aladdin, the reptiles have been cast as villains time and again. Yet snakes often provide ecological benefits, preying on pests such as rodents and slugs, and the vast majority are harmless to humans. Taking a more scientific approach to snakes may help ophidiophobes recognize the basis of, and perhaps finally overcome, their fears.

Internet Roundup – Trick or Treat

Halloween is just around the corner with its bewildering assortment of man-made monsters, of vampires and mummies and their ilk. But for something truly scary, you need look no further than nature. What follows is a small collection of the most unsettling products of animal evolution — just remember, even the most freakish adaptation is there for a reason!

The sheepshead fish, courtesy of the VA Institute of Marine Science

No photo manipulation here — a mouthful of very human-looking teeth actually adorn the gums of the sheepshead fish (Archosargus probatocephalus). And just as in human mouths, a variety of teeth with different roles helps the sheepshead efficiently consume a variety of food, from plant material to other marine vertebrates.

The star-nosed mole, courtesy of PBS

The bizarre schnoz of the star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata) is the perfect organ for its underground lifestyle. Every tentacle in the “star” contains thousands of touch receptors, including ones that can sense electrical fields and microscopic textures, compensating for the mole’s almost complete lack of sight.

A lamprey, courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Lampreys, such as this example of Petromyzon marinus, are an early example of extreme efficiency: a mouth to feed and a body to move the mouth around. The fish have remained much like their ancestors of 360 million years ago, making them valuable to scientists studying evolution and primitive behavior.

A trapdoor spider, courtesy of

The spider genus Cyclocosmia carries around a massive, hardened abdomen, which ends in a disc covered with a series of intricate grooves. This armor literally serves to cover the spider’s rear, as it uses the disc to prevent predators from entering its narrow burrows.

The wrinkle-faced bat, courtesy of Rolf Muller

This mug looks like it belongs on a pig or a pitbull, but it’s actually found on the Central American wrinkle-faced bat (Centurio senex). The folds are thought to help direct sound waves for the bat’s echolocation abilities.

Promachoteuthis sulcus, courtesy of

Another marine animal with apparently human dentition, the “teeth” of Promachoteuthis sulcus (which has no common name) are an illusion of the covering over its conventional beak. Why these teeth are present, no one is entirely sure; only one specimen of the species has been discovered to date.

Venezuelan poodle moth, courtesy of artour_a

The Venezuelan poodle moth doesn’t yet have a scientific name, but it’s an example of the tremendous amount of diversity in the South American rainforest that has yet to be discovered. Zoologist Arthur Anker was only able to capture photographic evidence of this alien-looking species.


Cleaning House – Fighting Space Junk

You may get annoyed if a passing driver on the interstate litters your path with a soda can, but it’s unlikely to cause any serious danger to your automobile. Now, imagine that the can is flying toward you at over 3,000 meters per second (over 6,700 miles per hour) — and you’re flying a spacecraft instead of driving a car.

This is the danger posed to future astronauts by orbital “space junk,” the detritus left from earlier space missions that now circles the Earth without human control. NASA tracks over 500,000 pieces of debris, 20,000 of which are larger than a softball, including a number of full-sized satellites and rocket boosters. Currently, astronauts have few possible responses to encountering this junk: those in the International Space Station either perform a “debris avoidance maneuver” or, if they lack sufficient warning, hunker down in an attached Soyuz capsule that can serve as a lifeboat if a collision should occur. But aerospace engineers are investigating proactive methods that could eventually clean up the mess mankind has left in orbit.

Space junk in orbit above Earth, courtesy of NASA

Two of the most seriously considered technologies seem like they’ve leapt off the screen of “Star Wars.” The first, proposed by James Mason and his colleagues at the NASA Ames Research Center, involves turning the beam of a ground-based laser onto troublesome pieces of debris. A laser powerful enough to actually destroy an object would be prohibitively expensive (sorry, wannabe Vaders), so Mason instead plans to use the beam to push junk objects out of dangerous paths. Photons, the “particles” that make up light, carry momentum that is transferred to whatever they run into; this force is relatively tiny, but applied over the course of several hours, a stream of photons could nudge debris into harmlessly burning up on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. It’s worth noting that the same principle could also be used to propel spacecraft, as has been explored by designers of “solar sails.

The second proposal, offered by Hanspeter Schaub of the University of Colorado Boulder, is eerily similar to the tractor beam seen in many works of science fiction. A satellite, which Schaub playfully acronymed GLiDer (Geosynchronous Large Debris Reorbiter), would emit a stream of electrons towards a piece of space junk, giving the debris a negative charge while the satellite gained a positive charge. This charge difference would cause the object to become attracted to the satellite and trail behind it; after the junk gained speed, the satellite would release the beam, launching it into deeper space. Although the process is relatively slow, an estimated two to three months per object, a collection of GLiDer satellites could make short work of the larger obstructions in geosynchronous orbit.

Space, in the words of science fiction author Douglas Adams, “is big — really big.” But in our neighborhood, useful orbits are limited, and carelessly cluttering them up may have severe consequences for future space exploration and development. These cleanup methods are a good place to start in solving the problem, but the message for space agencies should be clear — don’t litter.

Book Review – Unscientific America

If you get most of your news from network television, it’s not entirely inconceivable that the most science-related coverage that crossed your screen in recent weeks was an account of Bill Nye the Science Guy’s short-lived run on “Dancing With the Stars.” And according to Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, the authors of “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future,” this kind of casual disregard for science in the media is a big problem.

In their book, Mooney and Kirshenbaum argue that prevailing American culture gives the public relatively little contact with the world of science, and when that contact does occur, it is too often “baffling, intimidating, and even downright unfriendly.” The authors claim that politicians, news and entertainment media, and religious leaders, as well as scientists themselves, all share some of the blame for this failure.

“Unscientific America,” courtesy of the authors.

The book’s first few chapters, which detail the changing prominence of science in America over the last 100 years, may be its most fascinating, especially to those readers (like me) born late in the century. The space race of the 50s and 60s placed science at the center of the culture, with corresponding financial and political support (including the first official presidential science advisor). Enthusiasm for science waned in the late 60s and 70s as the postwar political consensus began to fall apart, then reemerged with Carl Sagan and his famed miniseries “Cosmos.” The authors exhibit something of a political bias as they discuss the negative effects of the Reagan and two Bush presidencies, but their evidence generally supports the decline of public science through the book’s publication date in 2009.

Their discussion of science journalism is also particularly illuminating for the way in which it points out the lack of communication between the “two cultures” of scientists and reporters. Journalism, for example, often has little patience for the incremental progress of science and the corrections sometimes needed after new results are discovered, while science often bristles at the idea of journalistic balance on “settled” issues such as global warming. The authors point out a similar disconnect between science and Hollywood, where science consultants on feature films risk being seen as stodgy if they disrupt the narrative flow of a blockbuster by insisting on strict adherence to fact.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum propose that the best way to return science to cultural prominence is the training of well-rounded scientists, professionals able to cross the cultural divides that exist between academia and other fields. Although formal education is important, the authors argue that the majority of science learning takes place out of schools and that exposure to scientific concepts in other contexts does more to promote awareness about their relevance. They claim that as science progresses in its impacts, scientists must realize that communication is a central part of their job description. The thesis is sound, and “Unscientific America” offers a solid look at the issues surrounding science in the societal eye.

At the Peak – Nobel Prizes 2013

The Nobel Prize that attracted the most attention this year was likely the peace prize, awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (in a contest with women’s education advocate Malala Yousafzai, the youngest nominee in Nobel history) for its work to eliminate chemical munitions like sarin in Syria and other nations. But the three prizes for the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine) recognize equally impressive contributions in their respective fields.

The Nobel Prize medal, courtesy of Wikipedia.

This year’s Nobel Prize laureates in physics were Peter Higgs and Francois Englert, who shared the prize for their theoretical analyses of the particle that bears Higgs’s name. The Higgs boson’s importance derives from the way in which it confers mass on other “elementary” particles, such as quarks (the building blocks of protons and neutrons) and electrons. In essence, elementary particles travel through an invisible field of energy, called the Higgs field, which is filled with Higgs bosons; the bosons interact with the other particles, transferring the field’s energy into mass according to Einstein’s famous equation E=mc^2 (which states that energy and mass are equivalent). Although the two scientists predicted the particle in 1964, it wasn’t until the construction of the Large Hadron Collider in Europe that the results of high-energy particle smashing confirmed its existence in early 2013.

The Nobel Prize in chemistry was shared among Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel in acknowledgement for their foundational roles in the computer modeling of chemical reactions. Although treated with skepticism when first developed, computer models now allow scientists to determine exactly what happens at each step of a chemical process, which is vitally important for fields such as drug development. The three scientists created models that incorporated both the classical physics necessary to work with large-scale molecules and the quantum mechanics needed to simulate smaller molecules and reactions between compounds. With enough computing power, laureate Levitt predicts that chemists could simulate an entire living organism using a refined version of the models he helped develop.

The physiology or medicine prize was also a joint award, split between James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman
and Thomas C. Südhof for discovering the way in which cells direct the traffic of vesicles. Vesicles can be thought of as miniscule packages created by cells to contain “cargo” such as hormones and enzymes, and they are shipped to locations both inside and outside the cells that construct them. The laureates’ work focused on how vesicles are sent to the right place in the organism at the right time; Schekman’s research concerned the genetics of the process, while Rothman’s work uncovered the proteins that attached vesicles to their destinations and Südhof’s determined the timing of the deliveries. Taken together, their efforts provide major insight into a process that, if disrupted, can lead to diabetes and disorders of the nervous system.

Q&A – Marisa Wikramanayake on @RealScientists

Among the far-reaching scientific consequences of the U.S. government shutdown has been the disabling of NASA’s Twitter feeds, including those of the agency’s astronauts and the Mars Curiosity rover. While social networking might be more popularly associated with desperate attention seekers and pictures of cats, many researchers and journalists have turned to Twitter and other services to spread the word about the amazing world of science.

One such group of researchers administers the feed @RealScientists, a rotational account that features a different scientist or science communicator each week. Conceived by Bernard Kealey and currently run by @theotherdrsmith, @ScienceSarah, and @upulie, the feed promotes the concept that Twitter offers one of the best ways of “communicating directly with the end-users of your research — the people who paid for it, one way or another.” The account’s constantly changing curators have exposed followers to fields as diverse as medical entomology, biogeography, and marine biology.

Marisa Wikramanayake (@mwikramanayake), a science journalist and editor from Fremantle, Australia, is the current curator of @RealScientists. She graciously agreed to be interviewed about the Twitter feed and the role social media plays in science communication.

Marisa Wikramanayake, current curator of @RealScientists

Sword of Science: What exactly does @realscientists do?
Marisa Wikramanayake: Real Scientists tries to educate and inform people about what it is actually like to be a scientist and carry out research in different areas of science. There are a lot of stereotypes, from lab coats to Einstein hair and mad scientist genius, and a lot of scientists are pretty cool people, but they are nowhere near those stereotypes. And there is a sense that people don’t really know what is involved in scientific research. The account aims to correct that, and of course allow the rest of the science community a peek behind their coworker’s lab door.

SoS: What are the most effective ways you’ve seen social media used to promote science?
MW: I do think Real Scientists is effective in what it does. I also think that there are quite a few good YouTube series as well; SciShow and CrashCourse are two of them. People run really cool science-related photo competitions online on Facebook, and Instagram and Flickr have open groups for people to add their science-related photos. I know some scientists who are fantastic at using Twitter, and there is one huge community (128,000+ strong) on Google Plus disseminating news about events and science in an easily digestible form within the community.

SoS: Do the various social media platforms differ in terms of science promotion?
MW: Well, yes and no. Each social media platform is built to do one or two things well, and it mostly has to do with 1) creating content and 2) sharing it. If you create content on one then you can share it on others or attempt to cross post it, so it depends. If you create a video on Youtube, the link can be posted anywhere.

You can use different kinds of promotion if you know what your goal in doing so is and you know where to find your target audience, but it would involve using channels differently. You would use YouTube, Instagram, and Vine as means of creating content that can then be shared around later. You would follow media on Twitter if you were interested in promoting research, sharing content, and answering questions. Networking would be best done on Twitter, Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, and Google Plus. Deciding on your primary goal is key.

SoS: How will traditional science journalism and social media coexist moving forward?
MW: Traditional science journalism was text and a photo in a paper or online, and with social media you can get science journalism where one piece works across different platforms. You can have text online with video and photos, then add timelines from apps like Storify and Timeline JS and graphs and tables. You can have podcasts, and then you can share it all on platforms like Twitter. That’s how I see it working — a convergence of usual journalism practice with the ability to try all sorts of things with the social media platforms available. I also think it will lead us to do more feature pieces analyzing the science, discussing the history of a field or process, or talking about the larger issues around science.

SoS: What are the best social media accounts for readers with a general interest in science to follow?
MW: I mentioned quite a few of them before. SciShow is great if you want more than the basics that CrashCourse teaches you, in terms of YouTube series, and there are easily more if you search for them. The Science on G+ community is 128,000+ strong, and therefore very useful. @RealScientists on Twitter (of course) is a fantastic means of seeing what really does take place. There are Reddit communities and Facebook groups and Twitter hashtag chats — #agrichat is one of them and #scicomm another. There are groups that recommend science books on apps and platforms like Goodreads. It seems that everywhere you look, there is another place to learn something.