On Science and War

The temptation toward politics is often strong; after all, have you heard about the House Science Committee?Syrian wreckage

No, really.

However, this is one of those difficult times, when the winds swirl with rumors of wars. Thus:

• Charles P. Blair — The Chemical Weapons of Syria (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

• Federation of American Scientists — Nerve Agents


On Mice and Cocaine

Every once in a while you might hear someone complain about some odd science experiment in which a university spent some money doing something that might seem nearly nonsensical. To wit, did you hear the one about the team at UC Berkley that observed mice on cocaine?

You know, I forget the details of the old story about giving chimpanzees cocaine, but it was something like you would expect, that the group stratified unnaturally and generally began behaving like drug addicts. Even then, though, people are dubious about the value of such scientific inquiry.

Which brings us back to the point: Why would you give cocaine to mice?

And the answer:

Cocaine can speedily rewire high-level brain circuits that support learning, memory and decision-making, according to new research from UC Berkeley and UCSF. The findings shed new light on the frontal brain’s role in drug-seeking behavior and may be key to tackling addiction.

CocamausLooking into the frontal lobes of live mice at a cellular level, researchers found that, after just one dose of cocaine, the rodents showed fast and robust growth of dendritic spines, which are tiny, twig-like structures that connect neurons and form the nodes of the brain’s circuit wiring.

“Our images provide clear evidence that cocaine induces rapid gains in new spines, and the more spines the mice gain, the more they show they learned about the drug,” said Linda Wilbrecht, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and lead author of the paper published today (August 25) in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

For mice, “learning about the drug” can mean seeking it out to the exclusion of meeting other needs, which may explain how addiction in humans can override other considerations that are necessary for a balanced life: “The downside is, you might be learning too well about drugs at the expense of other things,” Wilbrecht said.

Using a technology known as 2-photon laser scanning microscopy, researchers made images of nerve cell connections in the frontal cortices of live mice before and after the mice received their first dose of cocaine and, within just two hours, observed the formation of new dendritic spines.

It has been said that cocaine is the Devil. Inasmuch as science might have anything to do with such a characterization, let us reiterate the summary: It appears that from the first dose, cocaine begins physically rewiring the brain to make the seeking of cocaine a priority.

This goes well beyond any lock-and-key addiction propaganda they ever gave us as kids to explain why drugs are bad, m’kay?

Obviously, there remains much research to be done about how this process works in humans, but for now at least we know why anyone would want to give cocaine to mice, or mice to cocaine, or otherwise combine mice and cocaine.

In all honesty, I wrote that backwards the first time: Why would you give mice to cocaine? Except, by the psychopathology of everyday life, I’m not sure that was the wrong question.

As near as we can tell, by our own B. D.

Hip To Be Square

Thomson ReutersIt’s not your average top-ten list, that much is certain. Jeffrey Marlow’s list, distilled from Thomson Reuters includes some familiar notions like, “Impact of Climate Change on Food Crops”, and, “Ocean Acidification and Marine Ecosystems”, but also some wake-up suggestions and reminders such as, “Enhanced Visible Light Photocatalytic Hydrogen Production”:Light, Rocks, Water

Hydrogen fuel cells have been “the next big thing” in energy for years, with proponents trumpeting their potential to drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But producing the hydrogen has been a stumbling block. New materials – complex catalysts often involving metals such as cobalt, nickel, iron, or molybdenum – have helped scientists learn more about the molecular mechanisms of water-splitting hydrogen production. With continued progress, futuristic fantasy of sunlight-powered cars may be resuscitated.


see King and Pendlebury.

Deborah Blum’s Poison Pen

Congratulations to Deborah Blum of Wired Science:

Deborah BlumAs readers of this blog know, I have an endless fascination—perhaps an overflowing fascination—with the chemicals, often poisonous, that are part of our everyday lives.

So I am happy to tell you that in addition to writing Elemental here at Wired, I will also be writing a monthly column on environmental chemistry at The New York Times.

The new column is called “Poison Pen” (which suits me perfectly!) and the first topic is metals in lipstick. You might be surprised to know that the latest research found nine different metals in lipstick, from lead to cadmium, aluminum to titanium.

And, yes, Poison Pen is up and running with that first story on lipstick is, indeed, up today:

A soft pink, a glowing red, even a cyanotic purple — millions of women and girls apply lipstick every day. And not just once: some style-conscious users touch up their color more than 20 times a day, according to a recent study. But are they also exposing themselves to toxic metals?

Most lipsticks contain at least a trace of lead, researchers have shown. But a new study finds a wide range of brands contain as many as eight other metals, from cadmium to aluminum. Now experts are raising questions about what happens if these metals are swallowed or otherwise absorbed on a daily basis.

“It matters because this is a chronic long-term issue, not a short-term exposure,” said Katharine Hammond, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of California at Berkeley and the lead author of the new analysis. “We’re not saying that anyone needs to panic. We’re saying let’s not be complacent, that these are metals known to affect health.”

Go get ’em, Deborah!


So tell me this isn’t embarrassing: I actually took my daughter outside to wave at Cassini last month, praising the almighty coincidences of physics, chemistry, biology, neurology, psychiatry, and psychology that brought me to remember, just in time, that this was happening. The young lady, of course, was less than impressed.

So I didn’t mention anything to her, later, about how I went back down to my desk, after tucking her into bed, congratulating myself and feeling all self-satisfied, and then looking again and realizing that while JPL and I share a time zone, the shoot was planned for that hour UTC.


Earth and Moon, as seen from Saturn; July 19, 2013Color and black-and-white images of Earth taken by two NASA interplanetary spacecraft on July 19 show our planet and its moon as bright beacons from millions of miles away in space.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured the color images of Earth and the moon from its perch in the Saturn system nearly 900 million miles (1.5 billion kilometers) away. MESSENGER, the first probe to orbit Mercury, took a black-and-white image from a distance of 61 million miles (98 million kilometers) as part of a campaign to search for natural satellites of the planet.

In the Cassini images Earth and the moon appear as mere dots—Earth a pale blue and the moon a stark white, visible between Saturn’s rings. It was the first time Cassini’s highest-resolution camera captured Earth and its moon as two distinct objects.

It also marked the first time people on Earth had advance notice their planet’s portrait was being taken from interplanetary distances. NASA invited the public to celebrate by finding Saturn in their part of the sky, waving at the ringed planet and sharing pictures over the Internet. More than 20,000 people around the world participated.

“We can’t see individual continents or people in this portrait of Earth, but this pale blue dot is a succinct summary of who we were on July 19,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Cassini’s picture reminds us how tiny our home planet is in the vastness of space, and also testifies to the ingenuity of the citizens of this tiny planet to send a robotic spacecraft so far away from home to study Saturn and take a look-back photo of Earth.”

Explorer Down: Kepler Ends Extended Mission

Sad news, even though NASA is looking to engineer some lemonade:

Kepler TelescopeFollowing months of analysis and testing, the Kepler Space Telescope team is ending its attempts to restore the spacecraft to full working order, and now is considering what new science research it can carry out in its current condition.

Two of Kepler’s four gyroscope-like reaction wheels, which are used to precisely point the spacecraft, have failed. The first was lost in July 2012, and the second in May [2013]. Engineers’ efforts to restore at least one of the wheels have been unsuccessful. … the spacecraft needs three functioning wheels to continue its search for Earth-sized exoplanets ….

…. Informed by contributions from the broader science community in response to the call for scientific white papers announced Aug. 2, the Kepler project team will perform a study to identify possible science opportunities for a two-wheel Kepler mission.

Depending on the outcome of these studies, which are expected to be completed later this year, NASA will assess the scientific priority of a two-wheel Kepler mission. Such an assessment may include prioritization relative to other NASA astrophysics missions competing for operational funding at the NASA Senior Review board early next year.

Explorer down.

Continue reading


Flight Path detail
Like you really need anyone to tell you there’s cool stuff to see in this Universe:

• The BBC introduces us to Michael Markieta’s really cool flight path data visualization.

• Meet Caton, a loggerhead sea turtle who really likes hanging out with people.

• Fare thee well, GALEX. Fare thee well, Jason-1. Thank you, both, for such dedicated service.

• Did you raise a glass to Curiosity, who celebrated a year on Mars this month?

• Speaking of faithful service, did you hear that Opportunity now holds the mission record for NASA extraterrestrial surface travel? Oppy watchers are now tuned in as the faithful rover pushes for the all-time world-offworld record. Go get ’em, Oppy.

• You are free to believe or not the video of the SpaceX Falcon 9 “Grasshopper” divert test below, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

Cassini Dances With Crystals

Cassini, ever faithful, brings out the geek in Matt Hedman. And it is to our great benefit:

Since July 19, when Cassini positioned itself in Saturn’s shadow and began gathering data from this rare vantage point, ring scientists such as myself have been poring over the streams of data coming back. We’re waiting—as you all are—to see the full mosaic of the Saturn system stitched together by the imaging team, but in the mean time, we’ve been looking at individual images and near-infrared data to see what we can learn about Saturn’s rings.

Images of Saturn and its rings backlit by the sun are not only exceptionally beautiful, they also provide us with unique information about Saturn’s rings. Earlier backlit images of Saturn’s rings obtained by Cassini back in 2006 and 2012 revealed previously unseen dusty rings as well as unexpected structures in already known rings. The new mosaic will allow us to look again at some of the hardest-to-see rings, to track changes in the distribution of tiny ice grains near Enceladus’ orbit, and to investigate differences in the particle sizes among different dusty rings.

When Cassini looks back towards the sun during opportunities like these, the rings that are most easily seen from Earth appear fairly dark to Cassini. The reason is that the rings we Earthlings can see through telescopes are mostly formed from pebble-to boulder-sized particles, and they are getting the full blast of illumination from the sun. Cassini, however, is looking at the unlit sides of these objects. By contrast, other rings like the D, E and G rings appear exceptionally bright from Cassini’s vantage point. This occurs because the tiny dust-sized grains in these so-called “dusty rings” are very good at scattering light when the sun is behind them. (Just think of how dust motes floating around in a room become visible when we look towards bright windows.)

PIA08328Since dusty rings are so much easier to see in backlit images, extremely tenuous rings that are otherwise very difficult to detect become clearly visible. In the images Cassini took of the Saturn system in 2006, we can see faint ringlets lying along the orbits of Saturn’s small moons Pallene and Janus. These rings are likely composed of material knocked off the surface of their respective moons by micrometeoroids. We are keen to get another clear look at these features to see if they have changed over the last seven years – which is about the length of a Saturn season. In particular, we are interested in seeing if changes in Janus’ orbit over the last few years due to its interactions with Epimetheus have influenced the structure of its ring.

PIA08321 detail 2

Just So We’re Clear ….

Science and WarSo … you know, not to belabor the point. But I just want to be clear, here: I said it’s important. Here, look at the weird colored stripes. Click on them to find out what they mean. Or maybe a hint:

Neil deGrass Tyson recently noted that the 2008 bank bailout was larger than the total 50 history of NASA’s budget. Inspired by that comparison, I decided to look at general science spending relative to the defense budget. How do we prioritize our tax dollars?

And remember, NASA is one of the few government agencies that routinely does its job correctly. Strangely, another is the National Institutes of Health. Actually, one might reasonably complain that their budget is low, but it does creep upward. And there is always discussion to be had about how far is too far, but come on. NASA knows very nearly exactly where to look for life in this Universe. They have a couple places in mind and know within about a thousand miles where to look. And given what might actually be there, they won’t need the thousand. They might need only ten. And the difference between getting there and landing, or just flying around in circles, taking ever-finer photos? Is it worth it?

Is it worth it to know?