Archive | May 2013

The Periodic Table—ASAP!

Kudos to AsapSCIENCE for “The NEW Periodic Table Song (In Order).” The three-minute song indeed recites the names of all 118 elements in order of atomic number—along with other fun facts about the periodic table.

For music, the lyricists used a familiar section from Jacques Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld.” If you’re not into opera, you’ll still recognize the tune as the “Can-Can” song.

So, kick your heels up and click HERE to sing along with science!


Guilty as Charged?

Brain activity tests to tease out guilty memories aren’t as foolproof as some people think. So says new research from a team of European scientists.

The tests’ premise is that brain activity scans can show when guilty people recognize details from a crime. When researchers told test subjects to suppress memories of a mock crime, however, some people successfully beat the tests.

While the tests aren’t used in American courts, law enforcement agencies in some other countries do use them, including India and Japan. “Using these types of tests to say that someone is innocent of a crime is not valid because it could just be the case that the suspect has managed to hide their crime memories,” says lead investigator Zara Bergstrom in the press release announcing the study results. Bergstrom is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Kent.

“Interestingly, not everyone was able to suppress their memories of the crime well enough to beat the system,” notes co-author Michael Anderson at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge.

In other words, the tests may have some use, in the same way that lie detector tests have some use. But they’re not conclusive. Nor should their results be admissible in court.

On one level, the whole business of tracking memories with brain activity sounds like something out of Star Trek Voyager or Deep Space Nine. Are we just a few steps away from Total Recall?

At another level, the research reaffirms something we all know. Some people are really good liars. Of course, this isn’t good when someone has committed an heinous crime.

But maybe we don’t want high-tech tests to be able to tease out all our memories. Maybe sometimes we just want to keep a secret to ourselves.

Blown Out of Proportion?

Things got blown out of proportion when 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot tried a science experiment without adult supervision at her Florida school last month. Kiera mixed toilet bowl cleaner and a bit of aluminum foil inside a plastic bottle. The reaction produced hydrogen gas, which blew the cap off with a loud pop. School officials suspended her from Bartow High School in Florida. They had her arrested too, although authorities eventually dismissed the charges.

Kiera’s story struck a chord with former NASA scientist Homer Hickham. One time when police alleged that Hickham had started a forest fire, his physics teacher and high school principal came to his defense. Now Hickham has arranged for both Kiera and her twin sister Kayla to attend Space Camp this summer. That’s good news for Kiera, who hopes to eventually work in robotics.

Movie buffs may remember that Hickman wrote Rocket Boys, the book that inspired the 1999 movie October Sky. Even if you’re not into science, check out the book or the movie. It’s a great coming-of-age story.

For my part, I became curious. Why would toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil cause an explosion?

Argonne National Laboratory provides a great online explanation in response to a question posed by 14-year-old Lynn in the year 2000. Scientist Vince Calder explains that the chemical reaction is:

6HCl + 2Al = 2AlCl3 + 3H2

The hydrogen is released as a gas. And, as Calder adds:

“Hydrogen is explosively flammable, so one should not play around with this.”

Speaking at a press conference, Kiera said, “I made the mistake of performing my experiment outside of the classroom. However, that is the only mistake that I feel that I have made.”

I hope Kiera learns a lot more about lab safety. Adult supervision may not sound like fun. Goggles, gloves, and other precautions may not seem glamorous. But they’re important for protecting students.

Safety rules aren’t just for schools, either. Academic, commercial, and governmental labs all require their people to practice safety protocols.

Here’s hoping Kiera has a satisfying career in science and technology. Safe experimental practices can help make that career a long one.

And please: Do NOT try this at home!

Farmer’s Seedy Practices Violate Patent Protection, Says Supreme Court

It was a case of small-town farmer going up against the goliath corporate giant. However, both the law and facts favored the giant, so the giant won. In my view, that’s the right result.

Image copyright held by Kathiann M. Kowalski

Soybeans–Copyrighted image by Kathiann M. Kowalski

Yesterday the Supreme Court issued its unanimous decision in Bowman v. Monsanto Co. The Court held that Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman violated Monsanto’s patents on Roundup Ready soybeans. The Hoosier’s huckster ploy was planting beans from a grain elevator instead of buying seed for subsequent plantings from Monsanto, as his original contract provided. Bowman was betting that the grain elevator seeds would be mostly Roundup Ready soybean progeny, and they were.

Roundup Ready soybeans are one of many genetically modified organisms (GMOs) grown as crops in the United States and abroad. Because of biotechnical engineering, the plant carries a gene that lets it withstand applications of glyphosate, a broad-spectrum weed killer sold under the brand name Roundup. Compared to various other herbicides, glyphosate breaks down relatively quickly in the environment. Using it on Roundup Ready crops saves farmers time and money.

The opinion by Justice Elena Kagan rejected Bowman’s “seeds are special” arguments. Yes, plants normally replicate themselves. “But we think that blame-the-bean defense tough to credit,” wrote Kagan. Bowman actively planted and cultivated the beans. His actions went beyond the license granted by Monsanto when farmers buy seed and grow the beans. And allowing such actions would deprive Monsanto of the incentives granted by patent protection.

The case would have been far different if Monsanto had been going after an organic farmer whose fields became seeded by GMOs borne by the wind. But Bowman was basically just trying to save some money. If he felt the patent protections were too broad, he should have lobbied his legislators or switched to another crop.

As Robert Barnes at the Washington Post notes, vaccine makers, software designers, and others have a stake in the outcome too.

For every invention that pays off, many more fail. Patent protection is the legal system’s way of providing an incentive for researchers to keep working and betting on long shots.

That’s more than just a hill of beans.

Don’t Eat Up Everything You Read

It’s been a crazy week here, but the sun is finally shining, the Indians have had back-to-back wins, and everyone here is healthy and well. Here’s hoping you enjoy some fun in the sun this weekend and most other days too!

Before you sign off the computer and head outside, let me pass along some sage advice from science writer Tabitha M. Powledge. On today’s On Science Blogs feature for the National Association of Science Writers, Powledge talks about the realistic risks posed by avian flu. The World Health Organization says the disease presents a possible pandemic threat. That doesn’t mean the sky is falling, however. No sustained human-to-human transmission or community-level transmission has shown up yet.

Powledge ponders whether writers are often too alarmist. Powledge also makes this point for everyone who follows blogs or Tweets:

More than ever, it’s important to be skeptical about the sources of the information you consume.

In other words, think about who’s writing and spreading the information and why. Is the person a responsible journalist or respected authority in a field? How verifiable is the information? Are conclusions supported by sources and data?

On a lighter note, Powledge includes a link to Mark Lorch’s post for The Guardian last week. April 25 was the 60th anniversary of Watson and Crick’s Nature article on the double-helix structure of DNA. In honor of the occasion, Lorch showed how to make a DNA model from licorice whips and British jelly babies. Apparently they’re a tasty treat on Dr. Who. I’m not sure whether they’re vegetarian.

Whether you’re scarfing down sweets or soaking in the sunshine, have a great weekend!