Book Review – Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

America’s astronauts are hailed as fearless explorers of the void, boldly going into the unknown and taking giant leaps for mankind. Their spacecraft, from the mighty Saturn V that launched the Apollo moon missions to the workhorse Space Shuttles, are recognized as cutting-edge conveyances drawing from the latest in science and technology. And both these men and their machines, writes Mary Roach, can be undone by something as simple as a clogged toilet.

Packing for Mars, courtesy of Mary Roach

In her 2010 book “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void,” Roach takes a gleefully irreverent look at the human element of spaceflight and just how unglamorous that element can be. From space psychology to motion sickness to the aforementioned toilet troubles, she examines the myriad difficulties that face travelers evolved under Earth’s gravity when adrift in space. Her style, a uniquely entertaining blend of brilliant humor and scientific rigor, is well suited to explaining the importance of the issues while never losing sight of their essential absurdity.

At her best, Roach seamlessly integrates quotable moments from an endless selection of astronauts and NASA scientists into her riotous narrative. In referencing early Soviet experiments on restricted hygiene (an important factor on a spacecraft with limited water supplies), she at first quotes a dry phrase from the scientific report: subjects spent “most of their time sitting in an armchair.” And then she paints an absurd but accurate picture: “The simulated astronaut of the sixties was a stinky guy watching TV in a dirty undershirt.”

The book has an excellent sense of flow for a popular scientific work, each chapter lasting just as long as necessary and transitioning into each other with pithy one-liners. For example, when moving from a section on earthbound isolation experiments to one on the study of psychology in orbit, she matter-of-factly claims that “[to] find out what would happen to a man alone in the cosmos, at some point you just had to lob one up there.” Roach’s masterly use of footnotes also allows her to keep the breezy tone of the text while incorporating juicy details for the enterprising reader.

Perhaps most importantly, Roach humanizes the explorers and researchers of the space program, giving them the flaws and quirks of everyday people. A choice selection from the Apollo 10 mission transcript, where the astronauts each deny personal responsibility for an “escaped” bit of waste, reads more like a group of college kids debating “who smelt it, dealt it” than a cadre of expert pilots. “Mine was a little more sticky than that,” in the words of Mission Commander Thomas Stafford.

Although the closing of the book, where Roach expresses the ability of spaceflight (despite its foibles) to inspire wonder, feels a bit perfunctory, “Packing for Mars” remains an enlightening and entertaining read. Her work offers a unique look at, well, the crap that goes on behind the scenes as mankind shoots for the stars.


A Personal Roundup – First Week with Science Recorder

My posting on Sword of Science has been delayed this week, but for good reason: I’ve been conducting a trial week as a contributor for Science Recorder! I’m responsible for producing two short science articles for that site four days a week, which has taken much of the time I’ve previously assigned to this blog. While I intend to continue Sword of Science, posting discussions and reviews of topics I find personally interesting, my schedule may become slightly more irregular. I encourage you to check out the work I’ve been doing on Science Recorder, the first crop of which is summarized below!

The path of the “Penguin Eclipse,” one of the topics I covered in my first week with Science Recorder. Courtesy of Wired.

Online telescope provides rare glimpse of Antarctic solar eclipse: An annular solar eclipse, the first of this year, took place last Tuesday over Antarctica. An online telescope operated by the Slooh Community Observatory gave viewers around the world a chance to see it.

Year’s first solar eclipse wows Australian astronomers: Australian stargazers battled cloudy skies to view that previously mentioned solar eclipse. The country won’t experience another solar eclipse for nearly a decade.

Ancient caribou hunters leave traces underneath Lake Huron: Scientists dove to the bottom of Lake Huron to uncover evidence of ancient caribou hunting. The elaborate structures and tool flakes point to a concentration of aboriginal activity in the area around 9,000 years ago.

Industrial nations’ greenhouse gas emissions dropping, but not by enough: According to recent United Nations data, greenhouse gas emissions fell across over 40 industrial countries in 2012. However, scientists warn that these reductions may be insufficient to stop the effects of global warming.

Astronomers measure day on distant exoplanet: Astronomers from Leiden University and the Netherlands Institute for Space Research calculated the length of a day on Beta Pictoris b, an exoplanet located 63 light-years from Earth. This finding represents the first measurement of day length on a planet outside the solar system.

Neanderthals and humans close in intelligence, say researchers: A new review of the archeological record finds that Neanderthals and humans were evenly matched in terms of intelligence. Researchers say that ancient cultural sites and artifacts point to sophisticated behavior among humanity’s “dimwitted” ancestor.

Deep-sea viruses and bacteria battle beneath the waves: Bacteria living near inhospitable hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor are challenged by infection by viruses, say University of Michigan researchers. The viruses hijack the molecular machinery of the bacteria for their own rapid reproduction.

Western US droughts leave long-lasting evidence in tree rings: Droughts in the western U.S. have been far worse than even current parched conditions, suggests new research. Results drawn from the thicknesses of tree rings show that the longest drought in the area lasted 16 years.

A Drop of Value – Wine Additives

As alcoholic beverages go, wine would seem to be among the simplest to produce, requiring little more than grapes, water and time; after all, humans have been producing the potable for over 6,000 years. But the modern, industrial-scale wineries of makers such as E&J Gallo, the company behind the Carlo Rossi and Barefoot brands, have little in common with the Copper Age vessels of the earliest vintners—and their products also contain ingredients that would have astounded their Neolithic forefathers.

Holding tanks at the largest winery in the world, operated by E&J Gallo in Livingston, California. Courtesy of Wine Business.

Take, for example, the coloring agent known as “Mega Purple.” The substance, a thick concentrate of grapes from the “Rubired” cultivar, adds a rich redness and jammy sweetness to any batch of wine. Mega Purple is astoundingly potent: 200 milliliters is enough for an entire wine barrel of 119 liters (less than two-tenths of a percent of the finished product).  Although few winemakers openly admit to using the additive, anonymous industry sources estimate that nearly 25 million bottles per year contain some Mega Purple, including several ultra-premium brands.

While Mega Purple adds flavor, sulfur dioxide prevents it from being lost. The chemical acts as an antimicrobial and antioxidative agent, fighting the negative effects that can come from improper wine storage. Yeast naturally produce small amounts of sulfur dioxide during fermentation, around 10 parts per million, but winemakers often add more to ensure the quality of their products. However, high levels of the gas can cause some people to have allergic or sensitive reactions, including asthma, stomach upset and dizziness.

The speed of wine production has also increased thanks to chemical additives. Aging in oak barrels, a lengthy and expensive process, adds flavors known as aromatic compounds and is considered an integral part of making fine wines. When winemakers don’t have the time or money to spend, they can add these flavors directly through oak essence, a concentrate that imparts vanilla, spice and coconut aromas. While oak essence is certainly convenient, it can’t replace the other benefits of oak aging, such as tannin reduction and the improvement of clarity and color.

In response to these practices, a growing number of winemakers have begun to market additive-free wines. Consumer acceptance has been a challenge; without the benefit of added sulfur dioxide, for example, a wine can become murky or become spoiled in transport. But, as sommelier Hugues Lepin explains, there are some definite positives to additive-free production: “I’m often being asked by customers to choose a wine that won’t give them a hangover and I always choose a wine that’s been made with little sulphur dioxide.”


Eyes On You – Cereal Psychology

Any beginner’s course on public communication stresses the importance of eye contact for building a connection between the speaker and the audience. The same holds true for advice of the romantic variety, with scientific research supporting the claim that direct eye contact makes people seem more attractive to potential mates. But eyes don’t necessarily need to be human to have a powerful effect: those of a talking cartoon rabbit are just as potent.

Trix, or at least the eyes of its mascot, are for kids. Courtesy of Wikia.

The psychologists of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab set out to examine the types of eye contact made by cereal “spokes-characters” with supermarket consumers. First, the scientists went shopping, scouring ten grocery stores throughout the Northeast for 65 different types of cereal and 86 different mascots. They measured the height of each box on the store shelf and then calculated the angle of the direction in which the mascot for each cereal was looking.

As might be expected, traditional “children’s” cereals such as Cap’n Crunch and Lucky Charms were placed at nearly half the height of “adult” cereals such as Wheaties and Quaker Oat Squares. But the researchers also found that the mascots on the children’s cereal boxes almost universally had downward gazes, while those of adult cereals stared straight ahead. This difference meant that the mascots made “incidental eye contact” with their target audiences.

Although directing a mascot’s gaze may be a common marketing technique, the Cornell researchers also wanted to determine if the trick was effective. They divided a group of 63 students into two groups, showing one set of participants a Trix box with a downward-gazing rabbit and the other a box on which the rabbit looked directly at the viewer.

According to Cornell researchers, this rabbit is more trustworthy. Courtesy of Cornell University.

Amazingly, simply changing the direction of the mascot’s eyes had a significant effect on measures of “brand trust” and “brand connection,” as well as preference for Trix over other cereals. Participants who viewed the box with the straight-staring rabbit reported feeling 28 percent more engaged with the brand than those who saw the alternative.

An unscientific examination (slightly NSFW) of other grocery products by Cracked’s XJ Selman shows the same pattern: Keebler’s elves, the Kool-Aid man and Kid Cuisine’s penguin all cast their gazes towards the toddler set. These brands share more than psychology with children’s cereals, as both are generally highly processed and high in sugar. The Cornell researchers noted that eye-contact marketing to kids is used mostly for unhealthy products, advising parents to avoid taking children down the cereal aisle lest they go “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.” But with their newfound psychological understanding, the scientists also hope to advise sellers of healthier products on how to generate childhood interest in eating right.

From the Vaults: A Wooly Issue – Deextinction of Mammoths

Editor’s note: Thanks to you, the readership of Sword of Science has significantly increased from my first posts nearly a year ago. I recently started volunteering at the Cincinnati Museum Center, and in honor of their emblematic Ice Age Trail, I’m reposting one of my earliest pieces, about efforts to bring back extinct species such as the woolly mammoth.

A little less than a week ago, a team of Russian scientists announced a startling find in the frozen wastes of Siberia: the complete carcass of a woolly mammoth, a relic from the most recent ice age over 10,000 years old. Although mammoths have been unearthed from the permafrost before, they are rarely recovered in such pristine condition, and never have they been found with liquid blood. Of course, there are only two words that come to mind when the blood of extinct species is mentioned: “Jurassic Park.”  The central conceit of Michael Crichton’s novel is that dinosaur DNA from blood trapped in amber-preserved mosquitoes is used to resurrect the Mesozoic beasts, with dire consequences.

While it’s unlikely that a herd of woolly mammoths will go rampaging through an ice age theme park anytime soon, it is becoming increasingly feasible that the genetic resources necessary to clone a mammoth will be developed. Blood itself is actually a rather poor medium from which to extract ancient DNA: red blood cells, or erythrocytes, do not contain any genetic information, and white blood cells, or leukocytes, are fairly fragile. In the words of Stephen Schuster, the biologist behind the sequencing of the mammoth genome, the genetic material in the mammoth blood is probably “as shattered as if you took a mirror and threw it on the floor.” Research is already in progress to clone a mammoth from bone marrow cells, which are more resilient and have better-preserved DNA.

A frozen baby mammoth, courtesy of National Geographic

Considerable amounts of effort are being invested in this project, but why (or is it even) a worthwhile investment? The “wow” factor of bringing back an extinct species is certainly a large part of the rationale. The sense of reaching back into the past, of letting people see something that hasn’t been seen for millenia, excites the imagination and draws attention to science in general. Conservation biology has a similar concept in the “flagship species,” a charismatic large animal that serves as a focus for  the ecological concerns of the general public. The plight of the manatee, for example, draws in attention and funding for the preservation of the Florida Everglades. Bringing back a mammoth would encourage a new generation of young scientists to explore the fields of molecular biology and paleontology. This kind of project may also put a more favorable public light on genetic technology, which has recently received a lot of negative attention due to the fight over GMO labeling and a recent Supreme Court case involving the agribusiness giant Monsanto.

Some scientists, like Jose Folch, see a bioethical imperative for work on de-extinction. Folch, whose team successfully cloned the extinct Pyrenean ibex (albeit one with a lifespan of seven minutes), believes that his work may serve as a basis “for future cloning-based conservation.” There is a sort of inherent justice in the thought that species wiped out by direct human impacts, like the passenger pigeon and the Steller’s sea cow, might one day be restored by direct human effort. However, there are many steps remaining between cloning an individual and reestablishing a population of an extinct species. Clones are genetically identical, and therefore rather vulnerable to disease or ecological stresses. Evolution and migration have shaped ecosystems in the absence of extinct species, even over the short timespans some have been extinct, and it is likely that not all species would fit comfortably back into their niches. A less obvious danger is the thought that with this sort of technology, the importance of traditional conservation is somehow reduced. Why bother with protecting existing species if we can call them back at will? Yet as scientists have continually learned, all species are connected; the loss of one obvious organism could have unforeseen effects on countless others, and it’s best to conserve as many as possible while we try to understand the web of life.

News Flash – NASA Cuts Ties With Russian Space Agency

WASHINGTON – A NASA official announced yesterday that the agency would be cutting the majority of its contact with its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos. Citing Russia’s “ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” in the Crimea crisis, Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations Michael O’Brien confirmed that communications between NASA and Russian officials would be suspended until further notice, with the exception of cooperation on the International Space Station.

Launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket, courtesy of

This break comes at an inopportune time for NASA; having retired the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, the agency has relied on launches of Russian Soyuz rockets to send its astronauts into space. While NASA has encouraged the development of private American spaceflight companies such as Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, which has sent a number of resupply missions to the ISS over the past several years, Russia is currently the only provider of manned launches, charging US and European astronauts up to $70 million per trip.

Many in the agency have expressed frustration over the current state of affairs. Said one anonymous NASA scientist, “NASA’s goals aren’t political. This is one of the first major actions I have heard of from the US government and it is to stop science and technology collaboration… You’re telling me there is nothing better?” The announcement comes on the heels of a blog post by NASA administrator Charles Bolden criticizing Congress about the level of funding for US spaceflight. As Bolden wrote, budgets “are about choices. The choice moving forward is between fully funding [President Obama’s] request to bring space launches back to American soil or continuing to send millions to the Russians.”

NASA has few other options for getting its personnel into orbit in the near future. Although China has developed the capacity for manned spaceflight, current restrictions prevent NASA from hosting Chinese citizens due to fears of technological espionage. Development of the European Space Agency’s Crew Space Transport Vehicle isn’t slated for completion until 2020, and India’s human spaceflight program is only in its beginning stages.

Although perhaps better known for the competitive “space race” of the mid-20th century, the relationship between the Russian and American space agencies has recently been one of productive collaboration. From the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975 to NASA’s visits to the Russian space station Mir in the 1990s, scientists have managed to mostly avoid the political tensions between the two countries.

Internet Roundup – Trivial Science

The biggest recent story in science news has been, well, as big as things can possibly get: scientists manning the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole announced the discovery of gravitational waves, direct evidence of the inflation of the universe hypothesized to have occurred in the first fractions of a second after the Big Bang. Yet most researchers work on problems far less cosmic. What follows is a collection of articles on topics more likely to arise around the dinner table then across the universe.

The 2007 Ig Nobel Prize, awarded to achievements that “first make people laugh” and then make them think. Courtesy of the BBC.

Scientific American: Fact or Fiction?: The 5-Second Rule for Dropped Food – Whether in the kitchen or at an outdoor barbeque, many people rely on the “five-second rule” to determine if a fumbled foodstuff is still safe to eat. Larry Greenemeier talks with an array of microbiologists to learn just how quickly bacteria can hitch a ride on fallen edibles.

The Atlantic: Chemists Decree: Don’t Pee in the Pool – What your mother always told you turns out to be good advice, at least in this case. As Julie Beck explains, urine and chlorine mix to produce chemicals that are far more harmful than either component.

XKCD What If?: Today’s topic – Lightning – Randall Munroe, author of the webcomic “xkcd,” has quite a reputation for tracking down the answers to offbeat science questions, especially those regarding danger to life and limb. This collection of lightning-related responses is no exception; if you’ve ever wondered what happens if a bolt strikes a bullet, prepare to have your curiosity satisfied.

SIAM Blogs: Perfect Billion-Dollar Madness – As the men’s NCAA basketball tournament enters its “Sweet Sixteen” round, sports fans across the country are mourning the loss of their perfect brackets. Tim Chartier’s analysis of just how unlikely such a bracket is may help soften the disappointment.

Popular Science: Goats Found To Be Much Smarter Than Previously Believed – Primates and dolphins get the most positive press in terms of nonhuman intelligence, but scientists are finding out that the barnyard also contains some big brains. As reported by Douglas Main, goats display surprising spatial reasoning and memory abilities.

The Scicurious Brain: IgNobels 2013! Beauty is in the eye of the beer0holder – The pun in the title of this article is, surprisingly, sourced from the original research it describes. The winners of the 2013 IgNobel Prize in psychology, as discussed by the eponymous blogger behind Scicurious, took a careful look at the “beer goggles” effect that causes drinkers to perceive themselves as more attractive.

Dog Spies: Is DOGTV Right for Our Nation’s Dogs? – What seems like a silly concept—a TV station for canines—turns out to have serious implications. Julie Hecht ties DOGTV into the larger animal psychology concept of “enrichment” and examines whether the tube is really sufficient to engage a pet’s attention.