Archive for November, 2008

I wrote a ScienceShot for Science magazine’s website Friday! It’s the one at the top, titled “Splish-splash.”

This is the full picture: two shots taken 15 seconds apart by the Huygens Probe, which landed on Saturn’s moon Titan in 2005.

Image thanks to NASA/University of Arizona

Image thanks to NASA/University of Arizona

Astronomers thought those little splotches with the arrows in the right-hand image could have been raindrops–but drops of methane, not water. Titan has a methane cycle the way Earth has a water cycle, with methane lakes that evaporate into methane clouds and return to the lakes as methane drizzle. I bet it smells fantastic. But until now, we hadn’t actually seen any rain.

Technically, we still haven’t. But the long arrow in the bottom left corner of the image points to a genuine methane dewdrop. It condensed on the probe’s cold metal baffle, a little baseball cap-like protrusion that shields the camera from the sun, and then dripped down right in front of the camera. Amazing.

I talked to the author of the paper, Erich Karkoschka at University of Arizona, and another Titan expert at JPL, Robert West at JPL. Neither of them seemed particularly thrilled about the dewdrop. They were more interested in the rest of the paper, which basically said that it wasn’t raining where Huygens landed: the clouds were too wispy, they didn’t find any rainbows, and they didn’t see any actual rain from the sky. Karkoschka said we probably just landed in a dry spot. We’re pretty sure we’ve seen lakes and thunderstorm clouds elsewhere on Titan. He also said there’s a lot of seasonal variation, like monsoons in Arizona–except seasons on Titan last for 30 Earth years.

But the spot where Huygens landed is incredibly geologically rich–in the tiny part of the world it could see from its landing site, it saw hills and plains, sand dunes and river channels. The river channels indicate that liquid flowed through there at some point, but the variety alone is what struck Karkoschka. “Titan may be even more interesting than Earth,” he said.

I tend to leave my personal life out of this Blog O’Science, mostly because it’s not really that relevant. But this is an enormously exciting moment for me, dear readers: this is the first story I’ve ever pitched and sold to a major publication. It happened so quickly it kind of made my head spin: I emailed the editor, David Grimm, on Thursday, and he called me at 10 Friday morning to say he liked the story and wanted it by 2. Whoosh!

Hopefully there will be more of this.


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Dance Your Thesis

Okay, forget writing. ScienceNOW’s John Bohannon just showed me an infinitely superior medium for science communication: interpretive dance.

These folks are from a biochem lab at Louisiana State University, and they just won ScienceNOW’s “Dance Your PhD” contest in the Professors category. The dancers are professor Vince LiCata and his grad students, and they’re performing LiCata’s 1990 thesis, “Resolving Pathways of Functional Coupling in Human Hemoglobin Using Quantitative Low Temperature Isoelectric Focusing of Asymmetric Mutant Hybrids.” (Say that three times fast.)

They’re basically showing how oxygen binds to hemoglobin in different ways, depending on where the first oxygen molecules latch on.

Hemoglobin, a protein that transports oxygen around your blood, has four subunits, which tend to pair off into near-inseparable dimers (the pairs with matching gloves and goggles in the dance). If one dimer gets two oxygens (white balls) all to itself, it doesn’t cooperate well with the other dimer. But if each dimer gets an oxygen, they dance happily together, and usually pick up two more oxygens.

LiCata had to cool the molecules down and take pictures of them to study them–which explains the bearded “Old Man Winter” sprinkling “snow” and the paparazzi snapping photos.

This is my other favorite: grad student Sue Lynn Lau dancing her thesis, “The role of vitamin D in beta-cell function.” The sun produces vitamin D, vitamin D (Lau herself as the Sugarplum Fairy) delivers marshmallow glucose to somnolent beta cells, and the beta cells wake up and blow soap bubbles of insulin. Then they all dance around and the sun does four consecutive backflips.

Look how much fun they’re having! There should totally be more of this.

And there will be–the prize for the contest is to have your dance performed by professionals at the AAAS meeting in Chicago in February. I will definitely write about it, I promise.

For now, though, I need to go trade my laptop for a leotard.

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All right, I told myself I’d restrict my blogging to once a week so I could get my homework done or something, but this is just too cool:

Astronomers finally took a picture of an extrasolar planet.


(I got the image from the press release on EurekAlert.)

I know it just looks like a fuzzy dot, but it’s a gigantic breakthrough. Until now, astronomers only knew the planets were there because their gravitational tug made their parent star wobble, or because they eclipsed the star every so often, dimming its glow. Now that we can take pictures, we’ll be able to figure out what they’re made of, what their atmospheres are made of, how hot they are, all sorts of things! So exciting!

The New York Times coverage is excellent, and includes some colorful quotes. Go give it a read, if you haven’t yet.

But Ryan Anderson (my former Marslab colleague at Cornell) notes the image bears an eerie resemblance to something far more sinister

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lander-goodbyeAshes to ashes, I guess: JPL announced on Monday that the Phoenix Mars lander bit the dust.

We always knew it would end like this. The Martian winter is setting in, and Phoenix won’t get enough sunlight to keep its batteries charged up at the north pole. NASA hasn’t heard from the lander since November 2, and after a week of radio silence, they called it quits.

But they’re saying it’s “an Irish wake, not a funeral”–Phoenix did some awesome stuff! It continued the Mars Exploration Rovers’ tradition of outlasting its expected 90-day lifespan (Phoenix lasted five months; the rovers are approaching their fifth birthday). It found ice just below the surface. It took more than 25,000 pictures. It found evidence that liquid water existed on Mars in the past millennium or so. It even saw snow!

The lander’s accomplishments are summarized in several other places: the JPL press release, the New York Times, and this adorable blog it’s been keeping on Gizmodo, also a good source for lively descriptions of what the lander’s been up to. (This post has a video of Martian clouds. Awesome.)

So this is certainly a time for celebration as much as mourning. But the image of the lonely lander, freezing to death at the edge of a planet, entombed in the very ice and snow it came to study is…well, chilling.

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Hello, world!

Welcome to my Blog O’Science! This site is still very much under construction. Enjoy these radio telescope jokes while you wait:

A radio telescope is like a ball of string. Kittens enjoy playing with them.

A radio telescope is like a high school teacher: constantly (and fruitlessly) searching for intelligent life.

A radio telescope is like Pluto. It’s not a planet.

A radio telescope is like Tarot cards. It takes a lot of studying and at least as much blind faith to understand what they’re saying.

A radio telescope is like the Holy Roman Empire. It’s not holy, it’s not Roman, and it’s not an empire.

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