June 10, 2008

I Swear I Read It for the Articles...

So on a recent business trip I stopped in to a cramped airport newstand for a cold beverage, and I couldn't help seeing this on the magazine rack:

Honestly, I thought it was some sort of April Fool's issue of Sport's Illustrated leftover on the stands. But much to my chagrin—and the annoyance of the guy looking at Newsweek who I almost body slammed to reach for a copy—I found it to be a real and fun way to get my science news.

I picked up the May/June 2008 issue and could tell right away that some of the articles were a tad dated. But one busy lady can't read it all, so I did find several fascinating tidbits that were totally new to me.

For example, seems some European scientists have been trying to figure out how the brain manages to use electrical impulses to communicate signals without giving off heat. Their answer: It doesn't.

As any first-year physicist can tell you, the laws of thermodynamics state that you can't create or destroy energy. Mechanical processes such as, say, charged salts passing through ion channels—the long-held method by which electrical impulses travel along nerves—must generate heat.

Trouble is, experiments on brains in motion can't find any such heat.

Then there's the fact that experts have been hotly debating for centuries exactly how anesthesia works and why inflammation makes it less effective.

Instead, researchers at the university's Niels Bohr Institute and Germany's Max Planck Institute think that brain impulses are actually special sound waves called solitons. Unlike normal sound waves that lose their oomph over distances, solitons are like the Energizer Bunny: They keep going and going, provided the medium they're traveling in is at just the right temperature to hover between liquid and solid.

As it happens, that's just the right temperature of lipid membranes in nerves. And that would offer a handy explanation for why anesthesia craps out on you if your nerves are inflamed. According to the researchers, pain blockers change the melting point of lipid membranes, causing them to become mostly solid and thus blocking solitons. But inflammation masks the effect, making anesthetics less potent.

That's not to say there's no juice flowing when the brain is firing; plenty of experiments have shown proof of the electric sparks inside our heads. But the researchers put those signals down as ancillary to the sound waves—a byproduct, not the root cause.

Based on what I read in Science Illustrated, the soliton scientists make a pretty interesting case. I'll be looking forward to seeing if they set up some experiments to test what could be a very, uh, sound theory.

April 28, 2008

Poll: Best Science Movie?

The folks over at ScienceBlogs have an interesting movie poll running based on suggestions from the Seed editorial group. This is apparently their short list of the "most accurate, highest impact, most compelling" pro-science movies:

I can't complain too much about their choices, except to say that I'm not sure Jurassic Park counts as pro-science. Wasn't one of Ian Malcolm's greatest one-liners: "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."?

While the film did a nice job, imho, presenting the science at hand, it was an early version of what would grow to be Michael Crichton's legacy as a "novelist of doom" when it comes to extrapolating the possible impacts of new technologies.

Genetic engineering, rock on! Computer-operated safety systems, way cool! Until the grid shuts down and all hell literally breaks loose. The take-home message for me was definitely that there are some things humans are not meant to mess with, and Velociraptors are pretty close to the top of the list. (Don't believe Mikey? Well don't come crying to him when you are not prepared to prevent a raptor attack...)

So what's my pick for the best pro-science movie, you are forced to ask? I'd like to say Princess Mononoke: It's a compelling story; it appeals to a wide audience, including people under age 25; and it ends with the message that there has to be balance between environmentalism and progress.

But I guess it falls short in the "most accurate" category, since actual science content is thin to the point of invisibility. So I'm gonna be cheesy and go with Apollo 13. You can't really argue with a Hollywood blockbuster that manages to keep the human drama in check while giving viewers a fairly realistic slice of astronaut life—or at least a realistic view of a crisis situation.

Any other votes? Lay 'em on me, but only if you can tell me why.

April 25, 2008

Sakura In Space!!!

No, anime fans, this is not a mashup of Naruto and Cowboy Bebop.

By now I'm almost getting used to Japan's announcements that it's launching everything but the kitchen sink into space, from paper airplanes to boomerangs to highly advanced underwear.

Now, according to AFP, the next suborbital "tourists" will be cherry trees, one of the most beloved plants in Japan and a national symbol of beauty and renewal.

This week the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced plans to send the seeds from ten varieties of sakura to the International Space Station in October.

Among the spacebound is a type of tree called the Takizakura, or "cascade cherry blossom," an ancient breed designated by the government as a national treasure. The trees, some of which are more than 1,000 years old, draw hordes of tourists when they bloom in the small northern town of Miharu.

In addition to violets and lilies, JAXA's cherry tree seeds will stay in space for six months to see how they are affected by reduced gravity. Some of the seeds will even be planted once they return to Earth.

But as you might expect from such a venture, sending cherry trees into space is really half science, half marketing.

"Since the seeds will be returned with a certificate that they have gone to space, we hope to use them to promote tourism here while drawing children's interest in science," Miharu town official Sadafumi Hirata told AFP.

But hey, at the rate things are going, maybe in 500 years when we get that colony on Mars we'll be celebrating a cherry blossom festival around Hellas Basin in addition to the Tidal Basin …