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Lab Letters Issue 16: The Spinning Face Illusion, The Dawn Bird, and Real-life Automail

Hello there! For this week’s Lab Letters, I’ll tell you all about illusions, a dino-chicken, and a really cool hand.

Let’s get this science micro-post rolling!


The illusion that can’t fool schizophrenics


Before watching the video, let me first tell you that the gently rotating face is a convex one – when it turns over, you get to see the other (concave) side. And yet, even if you’re aware of this, your brain still succumbs to the illusion that makes it appear as if the face is convex too – and is spinning the other way. This is because of how human brains work – we have bottom-up processing, which deals with sensory input (i.e. what we see); and top-down processing, which involves previously gathered information (i.e. what we expect to see).

However, it seems that for schizophrenics, a conflict between their bottom-up and top-down processes causes them to be immune to the illusion – they don’t get fooled like the rest of us. Scanning the brains of normal and schizophrenic people revealed differences in how their brain regions interact: the visual areas (bottom-up) and the top-down areas of schizophrenic brains aren’t as well-connected as those same areas in healthy brains. Without the top-down process prodding them to see the face as convex, they end up seeing the image for what it really is.


Top-down processing allows the brain to render the ambiguous H/A letters correctly so that even though the letters look the same, they still makes sense in context. (source:

 While it’s tempting to conclude that schizophrenics are good at “keeping it real” because their brains aren’t fooled by spinning faces, it is important to keep in mind that symptoms of schizophrenia include hallucinations and the inability to distinguish reality. The lack of cooperation between brain regions is just a part of a complicated story.


Move over, Archaeopteryx


The specimen is 50 cm long from beak to tail. (source:  T. Hubin/IRSNB)

A newly discovered fossil in northeast China has been found to be 160 million years old, predating the famed Archaeopteryx, widely known as the first bird, by 10 million years. Named Aurornis xui (aurora = dawn, Latin; ornis = bird, Greek; xui = Xu Xing, Chinese paleontologist), the fossil was bought from a local dealer and was later verified in Belgium.

Dawn bird, artist rendering. (source: Emiliano Troco)

Archaeopteryx may have been unseated as the oldest bird specimen, but much of what defines a bird is still based on its features. An older specimen doesn’t exactly mean an overhaul, but it affords a larger view on how prehistoric birds have evolved. Nature abstract found here.

And finally…

Meet Nigel Ackland.



In 2006, he was working as a precious metals smelter when he got into an accident involving a blending machine. His right forearm was crushed, and it had to be amputated. He tried out a couple different prosthetics (hooks, claws) before getting fitted for the bebionic3, the “world’s most advanced cybernetic limb”. He recently went to the Global Future 2045 Congress, a conference for futurists and engineers and the like, where he showed off his arm to a swarm of attendees.


Here he is showing the different settings and preset grips for his hand, and then pouring himself a cold one.


Here he is tying his shoelaces and responding to viewer questions (yes, he can flip you off. Cybernetically!). AND, his wrist spins 360 degrees. How about that, normal puny-handed humans?

Ackland is loving all the attention, and he says having a bionic hand makes him feel human again.


Well! I’ll see you again next time for another FF LL. Good night everybody!

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Lab Letters Issue #15: Dead Man Walking, Space Jewelry, and a Glowing Cockroach

Hello and welcome once again to Lab Letters, FF’s weekly science micro-post! This week we’ll be checking out the walking dead, an ancient bead, and new animals discovered in 2012.

Let’s go!

Interview with a dead man

Graham is suffering from Cotard’ delusion, a rare neurological condition that makes people believe that they have died or have lost their organs, and thus no longer need to eat and take care of themselves. The illness first manifests as depression and hypochondria, proceeding to delusions of negation (“my brain doesn’t exist anymore”) and severe depression.


Sorrowing Old Man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’), van Gogh, 1890.

Patients are severely depressed and cannot be reasoned with: even when doctors pointed it out to Graham that he was having a conversation with them, he still thought his brain was fried or didn’t exist, and that it was pointless to seek treatment. (image source:

 A peek inside the activity in Graham’s brain revealed very low brain activity – similar to someone asleep or under anesthesia. And yet, he was wide awake and getting annoyed at his doctors who keep on insisting that he’s not dead. Neurologists think that understanding the illnesses of those specific brain regions – the frontal and parietal ones – would give them a better understanding of how consciousness arises in the mind.



The iron bead was found in Gerzeh cemetery and dated to be from 3350 to 3600 BCE. (image source: Open University/University of Manchester)

This bead is 5000 years old and made out of a meteorite

The tubular iron bead was discovered, among other artifacts, in 1911. It was found to have an unusually high nickel content, initially thought to be a smelting accident. Now it looks like it came from outer space. UK meteorite scientists used an electron microscope and an x-ray CT scanner to settle things, and yes – extraterrestrial origin confirmed! In addition to the high nickel content, the bead also showed Widmanstätten patterns, characteristics of a metal that cooled very slowly (several million years-type of slow)… much like a meteorite inside their parent asteroid.

Researchers said that they are keen on testing other Egyptian artifacts as well. Although, this isn’t the first time a relic was found to come from outer space. Folks, meet Iron Man.



And finally…

Here are the top 10 new species of 2012, as compiled by the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University. Taxonomy, the science for classifying living things, developed when Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus devised a two-name system of identification in his 1735 book Systema Naturae. The list was released to coincide with Carolus Linnaeus’s birthday on 23 May, 1707.



A glow in the dark cockroach! Pro: you’ll be able to see it in the dark. Con: you’ll be able to see it in the dark. (image source: Photograph: Peter Vrsansky & Dusan Chorvat/ASU)




A fabulous lyre sponge! Looks like a centerpiece, but is actually carnivorous. (image source: MBARI/ASU)




The social media lacewing! First posted to Flickr before it caught the eye of entomologists. #BugsOfInstagram anyone?


Full image gallery here.

And that is it! I will see you next week for another FF LL!


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Lab Letters Issue #14: Le Grand K, Grey Hair, and a Space Oddity

Hey there! Now that the election dust has settled, more or less, let’s get back to Lab Letters, FF’s weekly science micro-post! Let’s see what we have for this week.


The International Prototype Kilogram, also known as Le Grand K, sits under three nested bell jars and is cleaned every 40 years. (credit:

A Better Kilo

Ever wonder how we worked out how heavy a kilogram should be? It sounds like a recurring loop (“well, it should be just as heavy as a… uh… kilogram!”), and that is exactly right. There exists the kilogram, a standard that is sitting in a vault in France. The kilogram unit was named by the French in 1795 and defined as the mass of one liter of water at 4C, and a more practical ‘reference weight’ made of platinum and iridium was then made in 1879. Forty replicas of this standard weight are found all over the world. Recently, however, these kilogram standards have begun to vary in weight because of accumulating dust from the atmosphere. The kilogram is also the only remaining SI unit that is still based on a physical weight. So the folks at Swiss Federal Office of Metrology put out a call for better ways to measure and define a kilogram, and it seems that Mettler Toledo (known for making precision measuring instruments) has found one: the watt balance is a scale that measures the amount of voltage required to lift the kilogram standard in an electromagnetic field. Other teams from the world over are also in the game. Check out Team Avogadro and Team Planck.


Michael Jackson had had vitiligo since the 1980s, which eventually caused all his skin to lighten in color. (source:

 Goodbye, Gray Hair & Vitiligo

A grey hair develops hydrogen peroxide accumulates in the hair follicle and bleaches it out completely. Now, researchers from the UK and Germany have discovered a cure: stop the accumulation, and you can reverse the bleaching. And it works on people with vitiligo, too, because it targets the same mechanism. The “topical, UVB-activated pseudocatalase” is an antioxidant that prevents the buildup of, well, oxidants, including hydrogen peroxide. I guess people won’t be needing that spray-on hair in the future.


And finally…


This is a snapshot taken by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield on his last day as Commander of the International Space Station. Along with two astronauts, Hadfield returned to Earth via the Soyuz spacecraft that landed in Kazakhstan on 13 May 2013.

Hadfield has been lauded for his efforts to make space exploration cool again by actively engaging people on social media. He has a Youtube channel, where he shows Earthlings what it’s like living in orbit (exercise is important! food comes in sachets! tears just pool on your face!), and a Twitter account (@Cmdr_Hadfield) that he uses to post spectacular pictures taken from space and interact with Canada’s other famous space captain.

He recently turned over command of the ISS to Russian Pavel Vinogradovin, but not before posting his cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, which is also the first music video made in space. Sit down for a minute and let that wash over you. Now go watch the video here.


I’ll be seeing you folks next week! Same time, same place.



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Lab Letters Issue #13: Longer Lives, Sexy Voices, and the Rose

Hey there! Come join me for this week’s Lab Letters. It’s FF’s weekly science micro-post!


Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Yeast can ferment sugar, turning it into alcohols and carbon dioxide. It is used to brew beer and make dough rise. (source: yeast


800 Year Lifespans Now Possible? Not Quite.

Definitely an eye-catcher and an interest-pique-er. But one must be wary whenever reports come in of scientists curing cancer or prolonging lifespans. When the title sounds a little too science-fictiony, it probably is. In this case, it turns out that the experiment was done on baker’s yeast – a type of unicellular fungus that is a well-studied model organism for geneticists. Using a combination of a calorie restricted diet and gene deletions, researchers at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles have demonstrated a tenfold increase in the yeast’s lifespan. So, assuming that the average lifespan is ~80 years old, you kinda get how the fantastic headline came to be. While yeast shares a lot of genes and cellular pathways with humans (there’s a reason it’s a model organism, after all), it is important to note that cellular signaling is a very complex phenomenon and that the exact mechanisms of aging are still being worked out (both in humans and yeasts). So for those of you who are thinking of saying hello to their great great great great grandkids in the future, I’d recommend reading past science news titles and actually reading the contents. This PhD comic explains it all:




I owe you a yo-yo, Mr. Sheffield! You totally read that in her voice. (source:

These Voices Will Get You Pregnant

Oops. See what I mean with the titles? Anyway, it has been shown that women prefer deeper voices while men go for voices with a higher pitch. But why? Researchers at the University College London decided to investigate. According to previous research, different voice pitches (and other vocal characteristics) can indicate different body sizes. The hypothesis is that men prefer a high-pitched female voice because it indicates a small bodied-female. Women, on the other hand, prefer a deeper voice because that suggests a large guy. Not only that, but “breathiness” also helps: perhaps it makes the voice seem happier and less aggressive.

To be able to control every vocal characteristic and ensure uniformity, the researchers used a speech synthesizer. They made it say “I owe you a yoyo,” and let their test subjects decide which voice is sexiest.

Here are the most attractive voices:

Most attractive female voice by Jmstrom

Most attractive male voice by Jmstrom


And the least:

Least attractive female voice by Jmstrom

Least attractive male voice by Jmstrom


My only criticisms of the study are the small sample size and the surprising absence of Don Draper’s smooth dulcet ad pitch.


And finally…


(source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

The Rose is what NASA calls Saturn’s north polar storm, measuring 2000 km across, whirling at 530 kilometers per hour, and following a hexagon-shaped weather pattern. This is a false-color image; the green areas indicate high clouds while the red areas indicate low clouds. In contrast, this is what it would look like without the color enhancement:

(source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

The Cassini spacecraft took these snapshots from 419,000 km away. It has travelled 3.54 billion kilometers to get to Saturn and has been hanging out in the Saturnian system since 2004.


Wasn’t that neat? That’s all for today though. I’ll see you next week right here on FF LL!




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Lab Letters Issue #12: Soft Robots, Super Rice, and a Wet Towel in Space

It’s that time again – the time for your weekly science updates. This is Lab Letters. Let’s go!


Hello doggie! An example of an evolved soft robot, showing natural-looking body structure and gait. The red and green blocks represent muscle-like materials. (Not shown: dark blue blocks represent bone, light blue blocks represent soft support/tissue) (source: Cheney, MacCurdy, Clune, & Lipson, Cornell/University of Wyoming)

Robot Evolution

Studying the evolution of a species can get tricky. There’s a lot of observing, measuring, cataloguing, sample collecting, testing, and waiting – especially for organisms that take a long time to mature. So a team of engineers at Cornell University in New York presumably just said, “Y’know what, evolutionary biology? We’ll just build our own organisms! With cubes and stuff!” That’s exactly what they did. Using a compositional pattern-producing network (CPPN), they built up block shaped robots consisting of 4 types of materials: bone, tissue, and two types of muscles. Then they laid down one rule: faster robots have more offspring. Then they let the simulation run. Here’s what happened:

So far, I’ve been able to make out a galloping sofa and a drunk goat. What do you see?



It’s alive! (1) Orysza sativa variety IR56 grown on normal soil (2) IR56 grown on salty soil (3) Oryza coarctata grown on salty soil (4) IR56 and O. coarctata’s first and second generation offspring, grown on salty soil. IRRI scientists hope to make this supercrop available to farmers in 4 to 5 years. (source: Jena/

IRRI breeds super crop

Don’t you just hate it when the Assyrian army marches into your city, burns your houses, kills your babies, enslaves you and your buddies, and then, just to make sure you’re completely screwed over, salts your land so that nothing can ever grow again? Well! Those Assyrians shouldn’t be so smug! The International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños has announced the successful production of a rice strain that can tolerate high amounts of salt in the soil. This new strain capable of tolerating twice as much salt as its predecessor was made by crossing two very genetically different rice species. The exotic wild rice O. coarctata can tolerate salt levels comparable to seawater, but isn’t edible. Meanwhile, O. sativa variety IR56 is a cultivated and edible species. Sounds easy? Out of 34,000 crosses, only three embryos were rescued, and only one embryo actually started growing.


The most massively useful thing an astronaut can have

Commander Chris Hadfield of the International Space Station has been busy showing us Earth-bound humans how astronauts live (eat, exercise, sleep, cry, pee) in space. In this video, he performs a simple experiment: what happens when you wring a wet towel in space?

Magic happens.

The experiment was actually conceptualized by two grade 10 students in Nova Scotia, Canada, using items that are readily available in the ship.


And finally…

Happy Earth Day! Here’s a picture showing the Earth, as seen from outer space. That there is the reusable Dragon spacecraft docked to the International Space Station.


Tweeted by SpaceX


That’s it for today, see you next time here on FF Lab Letters!


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Lab Letters Issue #11: Clear Blood, Inception, and the Elephant Bird Egg Affair

Hello, here we go again with Lab Letters, FF’s weekly science micro-post! Let’s begin.


A pair of ocellated icefish that were brought to the park by krill fishermen have recently spawned, which would enable scientists to study the specimens more carefully. (source: NOAA Fisheries Service)

Clear blood, full heart, can’t lose

The ocellated icefish (Chionodraco rastrospinosus), denizen of the chilly Antarctic ocean, has been found to have clear blood. The fish lacks hemoglobin, a protein that shuttles oxygen around in the body and also gives blood its characteristic red color. Specialists at the Tokyo Sea Life Park speculate that the fish makes up for this by using blood plasma pumped by its huge heart instead. And the weirdness doesn’t end there. The fish also doesn’t have scales – it’s thought to just absorb oxygen directly through its skin. It seems this icefish is bent on redefining what it means to be a fish – heck, even a vertebrate.


The learning algorithm generates videos like this that shows images from the internet and the 20 most common things the subjects dream about. Bigger words = more likely that it’s what the subject is currently dreaming. (credit: Horikawa, Tamaki, Miyawaki, & Kamitani)

 The BRRRRRMMMM sounds are optional

The fun continues in Japan as researchers in Kyoto have successfully developed an algorithm that learns how to predict what human test subjects are dreaming about, with 60% accuracy. To do this, test subjects would get woken up right after they’ve fallen asleep (just as they’re about to start dreaming), and they report what they were dreaming about. The descriptions would be correlated with fMRI readings – basically, pointing out which parts of the brain are active at a specific time (ex. when dreaming about cake).

This process was repeated 200 more times each person; then the (awake) subjects were shown the most common pictures of their dreams. If the fMRI readings matches the ones while they were asleep, then yay – they were able to backtrack and confirm that yes subject 001 was indeed dreaming about cake. Feed all this data into a learning algorithm, and it can actually tell which of the most common 20 dream items the subjects were dreaming about – it got it right 60% of the time!


And finally…

This is a pre-17th century sub-fossilized Elephant Bird egg. It will go on auction in London on April 24 and is expected to sell for $30,000 to $45,000. Elephant birds lived on Madagascar and became inexplicably extinct during the 17th or 18th century.



So, was today as good for you as it was for me? It does not matter. I shall see you again next week!


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Lab Letters Issue #10: BIL Gates, Darwin’s Letters, and an Otherworldly Green Rock

Welcome to Lab Letters, FF’s weekly science micro-post! So what’s new? Nothing, just setting up a computer in my own damn cells!



A computer in my body? What could possibly go wrong? (source:


BIL gates can be used to make biological computers

Not the Microsoft founder, mind you. BIL gates stand for Boolean integrase logic gates, which is what a team of Stanford University bioengineers have designed, in conjunction with a transistor-like genetic device. What a mouthful. Let’s break it down.

Stanford University bioengineers have announced that they have created a transistor made of genetic material. Much like how transistors in your computer control electronic signals, these ‘transcriptors’ can amplify or control genetic ones. RNA polymerase is an enzyme responsible for gene expression. Transcriptors control RNA polymerase using integrase, another enzyme that controls RNA polymerase movement. What the Stanford team did was to put this into a device that accepts input signals that directly affect the integrases. Then they designed logic gates  into the system, so that they can directly manipulate the output. They have demonstrated this in E. coli,  one of geneticists’ trusty lab organisms.


A model for a system with a biological transcriptor (grey box). The signals affect the integrases (A and B), which are in a Boolean logic set-up (AND, OR, NAND, etc.) so that the output (RNA pol) can be modified. In this case, the signals could be anything – exposure to a drug, cancer cell markers, changes in insulin levels, etc. The modification can be a change in gene expression, resulting in different marching orders for different cells (make more insulin! tumors, go kill yourselves! let’s make more blood cells!). (source:

Forethought bonus #1: these enzymes work in a variety of organisms from bacteria, fungi, plants, to animals, to minimize compatibility issues.

Forethought bonus #2: the Stanford team released their transistor designs and BIL gates free for public use, to encourage more work and collaboration from anyone interested. Now that’s just nice.

With this introduction of logic functions integrated into biological systems, all that’s left in order to make a biological computer are mechanisms to transmit data and to store data. Wait, they’ve already done that? Awesome.

Excel-lent. (source:



BFFs Charles Darwin (left) and Joseph Hooker (right). (source:


Darwin’s Letters

Cambridge University’s Darwin Correspondence Project has recently released images of Charles Darwin’s previously unpublished personal correspondences with his close friend Joseph Hooker. Darwin, famous for his theory of evolution by natural selection, kept a collection of plants and sought the help of his botanist friend in classifying them. In one particular letter he discusses subtle variations in plants, which he surmises may be ignored until they accumulate. Darwin also confided in his friend about his early ideas about evolution – that species can change. He writes:

 At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable. … I think I have found out (here’s presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends.

The two men also talked about their private lives and families; Hooker wrote to Darwin an hour after his 6 year old daughter died. Darwin suffered a similar event years earlier when his 10 year old daughter, Annie, died as well.

The Darwin Correspondence Project has over 7500 of Darwin’s letters, all neatly scanned, transcribed, and footnoted.


And finally, check out this green rock.

credit: Stefan Ralew/

It may look like your average moss-addled piece of everyday earth chunk, but it actually came from Mercury. Yeah, the planet. Just like conditions on the planet, the rock has a very low iron content and a lower magnetic intensity. Data about Mercury came from NASA’s currently-in-orbit MESSENGER spacecraft.


Now wasn’t that fun? I will see you next week for another dose of fun and FF LL!



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Lab Letters Issue #9: Squared Circles, Faster Swallows, and the Golden Record

Hello darlings! Did you miss me? I sure missed you! Welcome to another issue of Lab Letters, FF’s weekly science micro-post! Enough with the words. I’ll tell you exactly what to do for today:



Chipper British numberphile James Grime tells the bizarro story of that one time in American history when the value of pi almost became 3.2. It all started when Edward Goodwin wanted to square the circle (note: it’s a real geometry problem).

Is it possible for these two shapes to have the exact same area? And to be drawn using a finite number of moves? (source:

Then the weirdness happened:

1. Edward Goodwin claimed to have solved it

2. He raced to the patent office to copyright his proof

3. But magnanimously allowed his home state of Indiana to use it for free

4. He almost got it to be proclaimed as law

5. Lulz in the US Senate


Watch the video below:

And that, kids, is why “squaring a circle” is a metaphor for attempting the impossible.



Do you have that friend who always acts all smug and says that evolution is a lie, and that animals can’t possibly evolve in an observable way? Have them READ THIS:

It seems that cliff swallows are evolving to have shorter wings, an adaptation that increases agility and take-off speed. It also probably helps them dodge cars speeding along on the highways of Nebraska, USA. This ‘vehicular selection’ (as opposed to, say, natural selection) is yet another case of human activities directly affecting evolution in animals.

 Makes for more efficient coconut transport. Thanks, Evolution! (source:



Despite initial reports earlier this week, NASA has set the record straight: the Voyager 1 spacecraft has NOT left the solar system. Not yet, anyway. The Voyager program, consisting of two unmanned probes, were launched in 1977 initially to study Jupiter and Saturn, but have extended their mission to go out into the farthest corners of the Solar System, and eventually, to go beyond that.

Aboard the spacecraft is the Voyager Golden Record, a copper-plated gold phonograph intended to present the variety of life on Earth should intelligent extraterrestrials stumble upon the mission. The record contains spoken greetings from 59 languages, sounds found in nature, a variety of music from different cultures and times, the brainwaves of a woman, and 116 images showing the diversity of life on Earth.


The number system


DNA structure and replication


The inside of a seashell


Dancer from Bali


Eating and drinking


Rush hour in India


Antarctic expedition


Rocket launch


Then-US president Jimmy Carter included a message for whoever would find the record:

 We are attempting to survive our time so that we may live into yours.

The committee that prepared the Golden Record? Chaired by none other than Carl Sagan. The full album can be seen here.


That does it for today, I hope you enjoyed this week’s FF LL! See you next week,

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Lab Letters Issue #8: Life on Mars, the Higgs, and a Frog Brought Back from the Dead

How’s it going, friends? Welcome to another issue of Lab Letters, FF’s weekly science micro-post!


NASA’s Curiosity rover exploring Mars, artist rendering.

(source: Maas Digital LLC/National Geographic Channels)

 Life on Mars?

NASA’s Curiosity rover isn’t just a space truck with a camera, it is literally a laboratory on wheels. It has lasers, a bunch of spectrometers, telescopes, sensors for every environmental condition, a navigation system, a robotic arm, and even a gentle brush for removing Mars dust. It has been rolling around the surface of the red planet, drilling into rocks and analyzing samples. Its latest findings suggest the presence of certain minerals (sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon) in a rock found at Yellowknife Bay, which also exhibits signs of once being wet, possibly once a lake or a river that dried up a long time ago. This, coupled with neutral, non-harsh conditions (not too salty, not too acidic), would have made that environment habitable to life.

Here’s a scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion lab discussing the recent findings and comparing them to rock samples from a different area of Mars


More pictures and the official press release here.


Above: Protons are smashed together in the Large Hadron Collider to produce a bunch of particles. A Higgs boson would quickly decay into specific ones, which can then be detected. The yellow lines represent particle tracks after impact. CERN’s July 2012 announcement about the discovery of a Higgs boson-like particle had everyone buzzed – is this it? Have we finally found the particle that gives mass to matter? Have we solved physics? Does quantum theory make sense now? Have we found the reason for the universe? Have we found GOD?!!?

 Keep Your God Out Of My Physics!

The term ‘God particle’ gets tossed around a lot; it’s catchy (catchier than Brout-Englert-Higgs particle) and gives a little wink to the whole religion/science debacle. And with the recent announcement from CERN bolstering their July findings, expect the God particle term to get bandied around even more. But should we be calling it the God particle? The term was first used by Leon Lederman in his book The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?. It was supposed to be a joke; his publisher wouldn’t let him call it the Goddamn particle. Now he says he’s managed to piss off both scientists and the clergy by coining the term. Lederman talks more about the choice of name and how people reacted to it in an interview with National Public Radio.


Get ready for de-extinction

Continuing with the Bible references, Australian scientists of the Lazarus project have managed to revive an extinct frog species, if only for a little while. The gastric-brooding frog (Rheobatrachus silus) was discovered in 1973 and became extinct by the 1980s, but some tissue samples were saved and stored in deep freezers (-80°C). Scientists were able to extract DNA from the tissues, and inserted that into a donor egg cell from a different frog species (Great Barred Frog, Mixophyes fasciolatus). The DNA of the donor egg cell was inactivated by ultraviolet light, and when replaced with gastric-brooding frog DNA, some of the egg cells began to divide. Sound familiar? That’s the same technique used to create Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal. Unlike Dolly, the embryos failed to mature and didn’t survive beyond a couple of days. In the wild, they would have entered the world like this:


Hello world! The gastric-brooding frog mom swallows its eggs, grows its young in its stomach, and gives birth via her mouth. Gastric-brooding frogs became extinct in the 1980s.

(source: Australian Government Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts &Bob Beale)

DNA tests confirmed that the embryos were indeed gastric-brooding frogs. Scientists are now looking to refine their techniques and discuss the implications of reviving extinct animals, such as the dodo (said to be delicious) and the woolly mammoth (said to be woolly).


It seems that life really does find a way.



And finally…

(source: Supervliegzus 2010/Getty Images)

 This is a picture of a couple of squirrel monkeys riding a capybara. Story here.



So, my dears, which extinct animal would you want to be brought back? Answer in the comments! Meanwhile, I’m off! Laters.   ♥


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Lab Letters Issue #7: 3-D Printed Skulls, Golden Rice, & Viking Sunstones

Hey there, pals! Time for another issue of Lab Letters, FF’s weekly micro-post!

The man with the plastic skull

Here’s something that’s been making the rounds lately: the guy with a 3-D printed skull. How is it done? First, the biomedical/materials manufacturing company Oxford Performance Materials scanned the patient’s head, modeled the missing chunk of skull on a computer, printed it out, then surgically put it into the patient’s skull. The company says the implant was ready in two weeks after the head scan.


The small indentations made on the skull replacement encourage cell growth

(source: Oxford Performance Materials)

 A 3-D printer works by adding layers upon layers of material (usually plastic) to construct an object initially rendered in a computer. The highly precise method allows users to build stuff with great detail and customization. 3-D printing  isn’t a new technology, having been around since the 80s. Recently though, it’s gotten cheaper, more efficient, and more robust –  it is now a quickly growing field that has applications in a whole lot of different sectors (engineering, medicine, modeling, industrial design, etc). Now we can print out body parts, guns, food, and even haute couture. I wouldn’t download a car, but I will absolutely print one out if I could! And the future says I definitely can.


Left: Golden rice Right: White rice.

(source: Forbes)

I can’t believe it’s not buttered rice!

 Meanwhile, back at the farm, scientists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Laguna have been crafting golden rice for the better part of three decades. Golden rice is a genetically-modified grain that contains beta-carotene, which makes it yellow. Once in the body, beta-carotene is processed into vitamin A, an essential nutrient for a healthy immune system and normal vision. Earlier this year, IRRI has announced that it has concluded two seasons of field trials in Camarines Sur. This is part of a long regulatory process by the Department of Agriculture to ensure the safety and efficiency of the product. IRRI hopes to make the grain widely available to the public by 2015.


Left: Viking warrior in the Middle Ages Right: a modern visualization


 The magical Viking sunstone

The Vikings are known as fearsome medieval warriors who wore horned helmets, drank wine from the skulls of their fallen enemies, and scoured the Scandinavian peninsula looking for women to rape and villages to plunder (not all true, by the way). They traveled extensively on water, and were very much adept at nautical navigation. Some sources claim that they used magical sunstones to help them locate the sun when it was cloudy or even during dusk. Accounts of Vikings using sunstones were believed to be merely allegorical, but recently a team of French scientists have reported finding a crystal in the wreckage of a British ship that sunk in 1592 in the English Channel. It was found near the ship’s navigational equipment, and was determined to be Icelandic spar, a polarizing mineral that can break up sunlight into two beams. By rotating the crystal until the two beams line up, the position of the sun can be determined. Note that the Vikings weren’t around anymore in the 16th century, but the British sailors may have used a sunstone as a backup for their magnetic compasses.


Left: Iceland spar is made of calcite and can bend light two ways Right: the calcite crystal pulled from the shipwreck.

(source: R.Weller/Cochise College; Alderney Museum)

Your next wallpaper is here

National Geographic, in celebration of its 125th anniversary, recently launched a tumblr site for its old photo archives. The photos show a variety of eras and cultures, from a motorcycle club in 1960s London to a Texas cowgirl parking her pony to Alexander Graham Bell kissing his wife in a tetrahedral kite. Yep.





Hope you had fun, and I’ll see you folks in next week’s Lab Letters!



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FF’s Lab Letters Issue #6

Hello friends! Welcome again to Lab Letters, FF’s weekly science micro-post! Let’s get right to it, shall we?


HIV is a nasty, cunning virus that pokes its way into immune cells and literally hacks them into producing more of itself. It slowly disables its host’s immune system and lets opportunistic infections (i.e. pneumonia) finish the job. Left: colorized scanning electron photo of HIV (yellow) invading a human T cell (blue). Right: external structure of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). (source: NIH, Russel Kightley

Take that, HIV!

US scientists have announced that a 2 1/2 year old kid has been ‘functionally cured’ of HIV infection. This means that a tiny amount of virus DNA may still be present in the cells, but standard tests come out negative and there are no signs that it is spreading. Right after being born to an infected mother, the unnamed child was also found to be HIV positive. The pediatrician decided to act quickly and put the infant on antiretroviral drugs within 31 hours after birth. Antiretroviral drugs are commonly prescribed to HIV patients – these are very effective in destroying the virus. However, patients have to keep taking the drugs for the rest of their lives. If they stop, the virus comes back. Turns out that HIV can hide out and lay dormant in the cells for a while, patiently biding its time. What makes this case special is that the child stopped taking the drugs. Several months later, the child is found to be HIV negative. He/she should be a walking virus bag by then! It seems that in the child’s case, launching an early attack meant that the virus simply never found the time to infect enough cells and find a hiding spot in the immune system. Experts say that the child has a normal life expectancy and is not infectious.


The sunny Philippine cylindrical snake (Hologerrhum philippinum) can be found in Zambales

A snake a snake! Ooh it’s a snake!

A team composed of American, Filipino, and Dutch scientists led by herpetologist Rafe Brown traversed the Sierra Madre mountain range and discovered roughly a hundred new species of amphibians, lizards, turtles, snakes, and crocodilians. A majority of those are endemic to the northern Luzon region, already known for being a biodiversity hotspot, especially for 90 – 100 amphibian species (70 – 80% endemic). My heart goes out to the conservationists and naturalists dealing with all the mining, deforestation, climate change, urban development, and military shoot-outs with commie rebels happening in the area.

What Captain Kirk says, goes.

The SETI Institute recently held a poll to help name Pluto’s two newest moons – and the winners are Vulcan and Cerberus! Note that the winning names will be submitted to the International Astronomical Union, who, along with the 10 astronomers who made the discoveries, will have the final word. Expect the official names to be announced in the coming month or so.

And finally, the question I’m sure everyone has at least once pondered in their life: why do men have nipples? You can find the answer here in this short video.

And that concludes your weekly dose of FF LL! See you next week!

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FF’s Lab Letters Issue #5

Hello there! Welcome to FF’s Lab Letters, the weekly science micro-post: VIDEO EDITION!


The 5 minute cancer diagnostic test

Jack Andraka is a 15 year old high school freshman who was able to develop a technique to detect pancreatic, lung, and ovarian cancer using carbon nanotubes and antibodies. The paper strip sensors cost 3 cents and results are ready in 5 minutes.



The McGurk effect is what occurs when visual and auditory inputs seem to clash. Try lip-reading while listening to the guy in the video above. This phenomenon is unique because even though one is aware that it is an illusion, the effect doesn’t change at all.


The other space rock last week

Although largely outshone by the meteorite that crashed in Russia, asteroid 2012 DA14 (predictably) glided by the Earth last February 15. Astrophotographer Colin Legg captured the moment on camera, with other stuff included (meteors, man-made satellites). 2012 DA14 can be seen travelling top to bottom on the left side of the screen. The orange burst of color on the right is a persistent train from an unrelated meteor.


Engineering for dummies

(You can skip the intro and head on over to the 1:50 mark)

This is a short lecture from the Chevrolet Motor Division in the 1930s explaining how they solved a problem you may not even know existed in cars – by the ingenious use of differential gears. It’s the bee’s knees! Consider that the next time you take your jalopy out to pick up your squeeze.


That was quick and fun wasn’t it? I’ll see you next week for yet another edition of FF LL!


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FF’s Lab Letters Issue #4

Hey there, buddy! Welcome to another edition of Lab Letters, FF’s weekly science micro-post!

How was your weekend? I hope you found your perfect match at the mating dating game during last Saturday’s Darwin Date! If not, you can still Facebook stalk the one that got away here.


Keeping one another company, 7.3 billion kilometers away from the sun

(source: AFP/Getty Images)

Pluto Rocks!

Let’s talk about Pluto. You haven’t forgotten about the little guy, have you? While we’ve known for a while that Pluto has a troop of five satellites in orbit, the two newest (as of 2012) moons have yet to be named. For now they are codenamed P4 and P5 – the P’s presumably stand for ‘plain’ and ‘placeholder’. Thankfully concerned citizens have come up with a couple of potential names and submitted them to the International Astronomical Union (IAU). If you’re not particularly feeling the Greek names (suggestions include: Hypnos, Orpheus, and Persephone) that celestial objects are normally named after, you can go here and submit your own. Voting ends 25th February. Here’s hoping this naming contest doesn’t get hijacked by internet pranksters.

And play bingo all day long

 The 25-hour work week

The head of the newly-established Danish branch of the Max Planck research center is in favor of redistributing the amount of work that people do throughout their lives. Professor James W. Vaupel is an expert in the field of biodemography, the fusion science of biology and demography that usually studies improved longevity and its effects on populations. Vaupel says that people shouldn’t have to spend a majority of their younger years working and then completely stop upon retirement. The better model would be for people to work less hours, but keep working until they’re 80 (or as long as they still can). It would benefit both age groups, as younger people will get to spend more time with their families and pursue their interests, and there is evidence that working part-time can have physical and psychological benefits for the elderly. Everyone wins! Except the robots that would eventually have to do all the work while we lounge around getting into internet arguments.


It’s made in the core of a dying star, not of a core of a dying star. Astrophysicists just don’t understand Norse mythology, man.

That’s a lot of elephants

Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speculated about Mjolnir’s weight on Twitter, but was quickly proven wrong when Thor fans pointed out that the hammer actually weighs a mere 42.3 pounds. Still, the discussion doesn’t stop there, as something that light and strong is of great interest to materials scientists. Could it be a form of metallic hydrogen? It is possible that such a substance could be formed? Under extreme physical conditions, perhaps? Like… a dying star?


In Soviet Russia… Space Explores YOU

If you still haven’t seen it, here’s video footage of the meteorite that crash landed in Chelyabinsk, Russia a couple of days ago.


And here’s a compilation of meteor videos, all in one place

And if you’re wondering why so many drivers in Russia have cameras mounted on their dashboards, this might help explain it. Basically, corrupt law enforcement + insurance fraud. Lucky strike for the meteor, I guess?


That does it for this week’s FF LL! Join me again next week!

‘Till then, ♥

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FF’s Lab Letters Issue #3

Hello lovers! Welcome to another edition of Lab Letters, FF’s weekly science micro-post!

Shock! Surprise! And more shock today as the Pope announces plans to abdicate by the end of the month. Within the first few hours of the announcement, Rome was already abuzz with rumors of possible candidates to replace Benedict XVI, including Manila cardinal Luis Tagle. Meanwhile, the job vacancy has attracted a bunch of interesting applicants eager to don the hat and Prada shoes: check out this cover letter from neuroscientist/comedian Dean Burnett!

Speaking of neuroscience…

Colorized fish brain. Great at parties.

(source: Muto et al., Current Biology)

Fish thoughts revealed using laser pointers and food

Japanese scientists have found a way to look inside a brain and watch how thought happens in real time. They did it with baby zebrafish brains, so the thoughts probably went like: “That Paramecium sure looks like a tasty treat!” The fish were bred so that their brain cells contain GCaMP7a, fluorescent proteins that light up when the neurons are active. When the fish saw something moving, say, a bright light or a potential snack, the region of their brains responsible for controlling eye movements lit up like fireworks. See for yourself, watch the video here.


Monopoly kitty: she will kill you with taxes and then her claws


Soft kitty, warm kitty, little ball of death

 A recent report in Nature estimates that cats – both domestic and stray ones – are responsible for a staggering amount of wildlife mortalities in the United States. Their primary targets are birds (2.4 billion/year) and little mammals such as chipmunks and mice (12.3 billion/year), making it a looming conservation crisis. Experts are calling for more adoptions, neuterings, and for cat owners to just keep Mrs. Tuffsy inside the house!


Owls and their twisty heads

Did you ever wonder how owls can twist their heads all around, and not break a neck or burst some blood vessels? A Johns Hopkins dream team of researchers including medical illustrators and neuroradiologists have found out: a combination of expandable blood vessels and extra space in the vertebrae that accommodate stretching/twisting arteries. Hey, you gotta figure something out if your eyeballs can’t move, right?

Here’s a perfect demonstration, among other things:


What’s that? You wanted to sleep tonight? Well tough.


Do you smell that? That’s the musky scent of love in the air. Let’s see how other members of the animal kingdom do it – as if they were humans! Those bonobos sure know how to party.

How cuttlefish get down. Look closer.



And finally, if you’re looking for something to do this Valentine’s Day, we got you covered. Leave your The Notebook DVD and your ice cream pint at home, and join us this Saturday on the 16th as we celebrate Darwin Day with a Darwin Date! We’ll talk about how evolution has shaped love and sexual selection, what the deal is with Pinoy DNA, and talk about Darwin as a freethinker. We even have a mating dating game planned for the more adventurous folks! RSVP here.

See you there, and see you next week for yet another FF LL!  

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