Category: Science


I was reading this morning about Galaxy 4C60.07 – a very distant, early galaxy whose light has traveled some 12 billion years (two years post Big Bang).  I’m always fascinated that we’re able to glance into space and see events unfold in the fancy camera work of the universe from long before our earth was even a twinkle in our galaxy’s eye.  This got me thinking about what it means that the information reaching us is billions of years old and how our place in the universe heading away from origin and other objects alters our perceptions of those events.  

Without the science, if we looked into the sky and were able to see the same images, captured by the Spitzer infrared space telescope, it would be easy to assume the events were unfolding in present time.  Of course, our understanding of trajectory and the speed and flexibility of light has resulted in some complicated, but comprehensible measurements which help us define our place in the universe.

 We watch old movies and reminisce about the way things were.  What is it we feel when we look deep into our universal past and see black wholes and white light blobs forming at such a distance from our own existence as not visitable in our own life-times?  We may not reminisce, but perhaps what is captured is something akin to the magic we feel whenever we watch performances by the late screen stars Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire or Betty Davis alive and well on-screen, immortalized on magnetic tape.  Notice the similar movements as we float light as air round a light post in the rain photos recorded in sequence on magnetic tape on a planet spinning around an ancient star spinning in a spiral galaxy among billions of other stars.


Volcanoes May Have Provided Sparks and Chemistry for First Life
Published on the NASA website 10.16.08

Lightning and gases from volcanic eruptions could have given rise to the first life on Earth, according to a new analysis of samples from a classic origin-of-life experiment by NASA and university researchers. The NASA-funded result is the subject of a paper in Science appearing October 17. 

Miller's original samples

The Bada Lab at Scripps holds the original samples used by Stanley Miller to study the origins of life. Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of Calif., San Diego 
Print-resolution copy 

“Historically, you don’t get many experiments that might be more famous than these; they re-defined our thoughts on the origin of life and showed unequivocally that the fundamental building blocks of life could be derived from natural processes,” said lead author Adam Johnson, a graduate student with the NASA Astrobiology Institute team at Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind. 

From 1953 to 1954, Professor Stanley Miller, then at the University of Chicago, performed a series of experiments with a system of closed flasks containing water and a gas of simple molecules. At the time, the molecules used in the experiment (hydrogen, methane, and ammonia) were thought to be common in Earth’s ancient atmosphere. 

The gas was zapped with an electric spark. After running the experiment for a few weeks, the water turned brown. When Miller analyzed the water, he found it contained amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins — life’s toolkit — used in everything from structures like hair and nails to processes that speed up, facilitate, and regulate chemical reactions. The spark provided the energy for the molecules to recombine into amino acids, which rained out into the water. His experiment showed how simple molecules could be assembled into the more complex molecules necessary for life by natural processes, like lightning in Earth’s primordial atmosphere. 

Diagram of Miller's original experiment

The apparatus used for Miller’s original experiment. Boiled water (1) creates airflow, driving steam and gases through a spark (2). A cooling condenser (3) turns some steam back into liquid water, which drips down into the trap (4), where chemical products also settle. Credit: Ned Shaw, Indiana University 
Miller came to the Chemistry Department at the University of California, San Diego in 1960. Professor Jeffrey Bada, a co-author of the paper, was his graduate student in chemistry between 1965 and 1968. Bada joined the faculty of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (part of UCSD) in 1971. 

“Stanley and I continued to work on various projects until he died in 2007. When Adam and I found the samples from the original experiments, it was a great opportunity to reanalyze these historic samples using modern methods,” said Bada. The team wanted to see if modern equipment could discover chemicals that could not be detected with the techniques of the 1950s. They analyzed the samples and turned to Daniel Glavin and Jason Dworkin of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who helped the analysis with state-of-the-art instruments in their Goddard Astrobiology Analytical lab. 

Miller actually ran three slightly different experiments, one of which injected steam into the gas to simulate conditions in the cloud of an erupting volcano. “We found that in comparison to Miller’s classic design everyone is familiar with from textbooks, samples from the volcanic apparatus produced a wider variety of compounds,” said Bada. 

“We discovered 22 amino acids, 10 of which have never been found in any other experiment like this,” said Glavin. This is significant because thinking on the composition of Earth’s early atmosphere has changed. Instead of being heavily laden with hydrogen, methane, and ammonia, many scientists now believe Earth’s ancient atmosphere was mostly carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen. 

Diagram of Miller's volcanic experiment

The apparatus used for Miller’s “second,” initially unpublished experiment. Boiled water (1) creates airflow, driving steam and gases through a spark (2). A tapering of the glass apparatus (inlay) creates a spigot effect, increasing air flow. A cooling condenser (3) turns some steam back into liquid water, which drips down into the trap (4), where chemical products also settle. Credit: Ned Shaw, Indiana University 


“At first glance, if Earth’s early atmosphere had little of the molecules used in Miller’s classic experiment, it becomes difficult to see how life could begin using a similar process. However, in addition to water and carbon dioxide, volcanic eruptions also release hydrogen and methane gases. Volcanic clouds are also filled with lightning, since collisions between volcanic ash and ice particles generate electric charge. Since the young Earth was still hot from its formation, volcanoes were probably quite common then. The organic precursors for life could have been produced locally in tidal pools around volcanic islands, even if hydrogen, methane, and ammonia were scarce in the global atmosphere. As the tidal pools evaporated, they would concentrate the amino acids and other molecules, making it more likely that right sequence of chemical reactions to start life could occur. In fact, volcanic eruptions could assist the origin of life in another way as well – they produce carbonyl sulfide gas, which helps link amino acids into chains called peptides.” said Glavin. 

The research was funded in part by the NASA Astrobiology Institute. “This research is both a link to the experimental foundations of astrobiology as well as an exciting result leading toward greater understanding of how life might have arisen on Earth,” said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute headquartered at NASA Ames Research Center. The team also includes James Cleaves of the Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington, and Antonio Lazcano of Facultad de Ciencias, National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Mexico. 

Bill Steigerwald 

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Avocado Seed

I’m attempting once again to grow an avocado tree from seed.  This time I’m going to wait the WHOLE six weeks before giving up.  I’ve not yet been successful, but I also didn’t realize little avocados gestate for so long. I’m concerned because while inserting the toothpicks, the seed cracked a little.  Does anyone know whether this is okay or should I try another seed?  I suppose I should try several seeds.  That would be more scientific.  

*Avocado Nutrition Facts*

Avocados contain just 5 grams of fat per serving. 

Avocados contain NO cholesterol and NO sodium.

Avocados contain 60% more potassium per ounce than bananas! 

Avocados are high in fiber, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium and folate.

Today we visited the Riverbank Zoo in Columbia, SC. The girls rode ponies and saw a hatchling flamingo.  They also sang with monkeys, fed goats, petted tortoises and heard a tiger MEOW.  (And I even had the opportunity to see several leopard sharks up close and personal).  The zoo is also somewhat self-sustainable with massive gardens full of veggies and herbs.  

This was our first visit in the daytime to the neighboring city to the south and I was impressed with how tropical it felt.  In only an hour and 45-minutes, we went from the mountains to a place that felt much like Florida with its native vegetation unlike anything I had seen before, as varied and bountiful as the tropics (there was a tree with leaves far larger around than the length of my hand).

The all-time cutest exhibits were the koala bear and meerkat habitats.   The koalas were napping and had curled themselves up comfy into the arms of tree-branches.  One meerkat took a fascination with me and I swear behaved as if we were doing a Vogue photo-shoot.  

When asked what the girls enjoyed most, for the older two it was the pony trail-ride (although milking the fake cow was right up there).

Our littlest giggled when the goats literally climbed the fence to eat out of her hand.  They were sweet-natured and beautiful goats with shaggy colorful coats.  And what personality!  

We crossed a bridge over the Saluda River (Columbia marks the convergence of the Broad and Saluda) and saw the old stone foundation of a bridge that was burned during the Civil War.  In the peace and shade on the other side, we rested (and remembered the automatic features of my camera).

Afterward, we visited the elephants, giraffes and the sea-lion a little boy emphatically suggested we see.  I was certain the elephants were Asian elephants for their size, but through the crowds, I read something about Africa on the signs.  We were on some kind of deck above the enclosure, so perhaps the elephants appeared smaller.  Regardless, they were gorgeous creatures caught red from bathing in the Carolina clay.  

And how difficult it must be for a giraffe to eat grass when it feels so inclined!  We saw first-hand how they do it.  

We concluded our day with a visit to Erick’s uncle’s 18th century stagecoach house where the girls enjoyed tractor rides around the property while we sat on the front porch sipping iced-tea.

 

On August 24th, 79AD, one day following Vulcanalia, the Roman festival for the god of fire, Mt Vesuvius erupted and buried the town of Pompeii in layers of ash and pumice.  At the time, those living in Pompeii were not even aware that the beautiful mountain dominating their horizon was an active volcano.  In fact, the hadn’t even a word yet for volcano in their vocabulary.

Charlotte, NC was one of only four cities in the United States granted permission to display for the next few months artifacts and the body casts of people, pets and even livestock uncovered in Pompeii.  

Today I took the girls to the exhibit.  I knew I couldn’t fully explain the devastation, so I did my best to help them understand what we would be seeing once we entered the exhibit by showing them a BBC film about the disaster and also by talking about what life would have been like for people living 2000 years ago.  

Inside the museum we saw frescos – (and we learned the word fresco translated into English means “fresh” and described the method of painting murals while the plaster was still wet, or fresh) – preserved by the hot ash ovens with bread still inside, jewelry, currency, and several types of amphorae which were large ceramic vessels that held oil, wine, fish or grain.  Inscribed on one of these amphora was the Latin word “Auctus” which gave rise to our English word meaning auction.  The writing also described the day the piece was sold at auction, “under a blue sky” and the name of either the buyer or the seller.  This information was relayed to us by a scholar and actress dressed as if she had just walked out of the first century.     

I didn’t realize we would be seeing the body-casts.  We were lead down a dark hall into a darkened room where only the eerie white casts of bodies could be seen.  These casts were made by Giuseppe Fiorelli who excavated the site during the nineteenth century.  According to Wiki, “During early excavations of the site, occasional voids in the ash layer had been found that contained human remains. It was Fiorelli who realised these were spaces left by the decomposed bodies…”  Fiorelli devised a way of injecting plaster into the molds thus preserving the bodies of victims of Vesuvius down to the expressions on their faces.  

Even I was not prepared for the emotions that swept through me.  And my youngest begged to go home.  The sight was both compelling and humbling:   The dog chained and without hope of surviving; the couple holding each-other in one final embrace; the slaves whose legs were bound; the woman who tried in vain to cover her face with a cloth against the toxic plume; the pig whose ribs shown through patches of thick skin.  The images will haunt me for some time.  Not in the bad way you might imagine, but in a way that reminds us of our own mortality and keeps us present in the moment.  These casts are the ghosts of our history and they tell their own stories to us individually.  

A walk through uptown concluded our day in Pompeii where our cityscape, though taller, is not all that different.  We still build monuments to ourselves of marble and adorn these buildings with art and sculpture.  We walk the crowded streets full of bustling commerce.  And we walk among those more or less fortunate than ourselves in that imaginary hierarchy that means little in the scheme of things; for the slaves of Pompeii are remembered and revered alongside the wealthiest and most influential members of their society. 

Above: Bronze statues at Trade and Tryon, the Hearst Tower (my favorite building)

And I can’t leave out the gals who had a splendid adventure.  I love that Wolfy is just fixated on the Bank of America tower.  You can’t see the top when your standing at street level – it’s pretty magical for a little person.

Plastic bags are very difficult to recycle and very few make it to the recycling phase.  Most end up in landfills, or scattered across the country-side and in our waterways where they are ingested by smaller and smaller creatures until there’s a level of petroleum detectable all the way up the food-chain.  SO, the next time asks you whether you prefer paper or plastic, bring them cloth or tell them paper because it’s easily recycled.  Donate bags, if your store will accept them, or encourage a friend to bring his/her own bags when shopping.  It all makes a difference.  

Yesterday, when I asked the Home Economist about going to paper, I learned that this is the first week they are plastic-free!  I spoke with them about bag donation (since I think slowing the purchasing of paper bags (which come from beautiful CO2-absorbing trees) is a good next step).

We made it to Michigan (and through Michigan taking a more scenic, albeit much longer route winding our way through forests, farmland and little towns).  Total duration: 18 hours.

I forgot to mention a previous adventure which subsequently made for a lot of fun had on the longer trip north.  Friday morning, Erick woke the whole family and hurried us out the door and down to the Apple Store to wait in line for the new iPhone.  I thought he was insane – the line was hundreds of people long (five-hundred during our six hours) and the wait was boring, but the reward well worth it.  I’ve never before been so enthralled with technology (you know, the word that means magic). 

At first glance, the unassuming little device appears to be little more than an iPod, but spend some time surfing the internet and email photos while driving through a mountain tunnel and you’ll know the little iPod-GPS-camera-phone has super-powers.  Rather than using satellites to locate your position on the map, it triangulates your position by bouncing signals off nearby towers.  Maybe not as cool as satellites, but someone had to come up with the idea and I’m impressed.  I’m also impressed that Erick needed only stand near his computer while his personal data was uploaded “magically” to his iPhone.  And that during our trip, I snapped a photo of the “Welcome to Michigan” sign, attached it in an email and sent it to Erick’s family awaiting our arrival up north with the message, “We’re here.”  Me, a simple human being, capable of wielding such power!  Bwah-ha-ha!

Anyway, wow.  Again, wow.  Cooler even than the personal computer.

The word paranormal combines two words “para” or beyond and normal.  It’s the study of things that seem to defy scientific explanation.  Really, there are plenty of things in science this heading might encompass – For decades, the neutrino, a subatomic particle with little to no mass, defied our human understanding of how particles function, but you didn’t see scientists labeling the activity “beyond normal.”  Paranormal research began in at the turn of the last century as a way to study extra-sensory perception, or ESP.  Today paranormal research groups study everything from psychic phenomena like telepathy to channeling to ghosts to astrology.  In other words, literally anything beyond normal.  

I had always thought of the word differently: para as in parallel or a world or concept parallel to our laws of binding our physical universe.  I thought of paranormal as the research enveloping all things non-physical.  I’d still like to think of it as a science with the same approach to all things scientific – using hypothesis, conducting experiments, gathering evidence, conjecturing, debunking, etc.  

Poltergeist phenomena is my favorite.  Found in nearly all cultures and religious groups, the activity of the “noisy ghost” is widely reported and documented.  So are hallucinations.  And yet, a single poltergeist event can be witnessed/encountered by multiple people, so I put more validity into claims of this activity.  As a child, I experienced something that would be defined as poltergeist activity.  I don’t feel silly admitting this because I believe strongly there is a valid explanation for these experiences.  

In my opinion, we don’t have to believe in the supernatural, to better understand the paranormal.   In talking with people, I’ve found most have some story to share – even the skeptics – of something they just can’t explain.  And yet, they all share a desire to find some explanation.

Modern day ghost-hunters invest a good deal of time and money into capturing evidence of paranormal activity.  Whether actual ghosts or residual energy, these pseudo scientists employee EMF meters to measure electric-magnetic fields, recording devices to record “EVPs” or electronic-voice phenomena, infrared and thermal cameras to measure and capture movements or sudden changes in temperature in a room and other tools to assist the investigators with seeing in the dark.  

When I first met a “ghost-hunter,” I had a lot of questions and I wasn’t very polite about asking.  Questions like, “Isn’t hanging around grave-yards cliche?” or “Don’t you think walking around houses in the dark is a good way to scare up experiences that might not occur in broad daylight?”  

These questions were quickly answered.  Graveyards tend to make people uncomfortable at night so investigators take new people there to see how they handle fear.  Okay, makes sense, but why the dark?  I was told this was the quiet time and it was more likely you would capture genuine activity than during the day.  There are just too many noises during the day and investigators prefer to turn off any unnecessary electronics to avoid EMF interference. Hence, dark places at night.

I’m actually more impressed than anything getting to know people who study ghosts on the side.  They’re not crazy as I expected.  They’re not charging people money to do bogus investigations.  I was told if someone charges for their work, beware.  Most investigators will do anything to discredit their own findings because they know these findings will be equally scrutinized by any skeptic.  Still, the fact remains, if you haven’t experienced the paranormal, can you ever really believe it?

Then again, I’ve never seen a neutrino, but I am no less a believer.  

Visit CERN’s website to learn more.

Ice on Mars!

Water on mars?  The Phoenix Lander, while digging a small trench in the red planet, uncovered a bright material thought to be ice or salt.  After a few days the material was not as visible leading scientists to believe they had uncovered a layer of ice.  Read more on the Nasa.gov website.