Watching the Numbers Go By

June 1st, 2010

I became aware of this PBS oil leak widget last week.

There is something mesmerizing about watching the numbers scroll past.

The numbers of gallons leaked is so high at this point that it seems unreal. How did this happen? Why isn’t it fixed yet? Can that really be the low estimate?

I can’t even wrap my brain around the enormity of the disaster. What do the numbers really mean?

So, here are some numbers I’ve calculated as I try to make sense and get perspective:

The low estimate of around 20,414,200 gallons (and rising) is about 486,052 barrels of oil, or 30 Olympic sized swimming pools. This quantity of oil would fill the tanks of approximately 1,360,946 cars, assuming a tank size of 15 gallons. That’s more cars than the number of people who live in San Francisco.

Or, it could fill my car’s tank nearly 1.4 million times. My car gets 25 miles to the gallon on average, and can potentially travel 375 miles on one tank of gas. I could conceivably drive somewhere around 510,355,000 miles with the low estimate of how many gallons have leaked so far. That’s 20,414 times around the earth’s equator, or 2041 times to the moon (or about 1020 round trips).

It’s 93 million miles to the sun, so I could make the round trip there almost two and three-quarters times. And, depending on where Mars is, I could get there and back either 7 times or once.

On the high end of the leak estimates, I’m looking at being able to travel about 4,400,000,000 (that’s 4.4 billion) miles! That could get me to Pluto when it’s at its closest.

Obviously, I know my car couldn’t travel in outer space, but it’s interesting to think of what the oil that’s leaking into the Gulf of Mexico could have done.

The low estimate of the leak is far lower than the amount of oil being produced per day for our consumption, but the high estimate is getting up there… a bit more than China and Iran produce in a day. Interestingly, depending on the estimate you choose to look at, we are either looking at a disaster that is simply two times as large as the Exxon Valdez or something that is somewhere between the first and second worst oil spill in history.

I can only hope that the worst case estimates are not correct, but regardless, this is big and is bound to get bigger until it is fixed. The numbers and constant news reports are mind-numbing, but don’t get complacent.

If it matters to you, make some noise that this is not what you want for your world.

Synthesizing Our World

May 26th, 2010

Most of the media, yours truly included, was abuzz this past week about the news from the J. Craig Venter Institute that they had created a bacteria with a fully synthetic genome. Now, how far the proclamation was taken was a matter of sensationalist bent; was it “artificial life” or something less sci-fi?

In my personal opinion, which I tried to discuss a few places, it is a landmark report if only for the sheer technological know-how. The Venter Institute has proof-of-concept of various techniques working together for the first time. The bacterium they created are copies of an existing bacterium, but the copy genome was produced base by base in a dish rather than inside a living organism. Also, the copy genome was inserted into another species of bacteria whose genome had been removed (it was a shell of its previous self), and successfully took over the management of the bacterial body.

Now, the Venter Institute has generations of little baby bacteria that are the product of successful asexual bacterial reproduction (i.e. cell division) from that first synthetic generation. If they are dividing and multiplying like regular bacteria, I have to say it is a job well done. But, if they truly want to create artificial life, they are going to have to figure out how to create the bacterial body that goes with the DNA.

I’m sure scientists are already working on that problem, but in the meantime, the Venter Institute will be working with the DNA to determine what genes are necessary for life, what the minimum size limit is for a genome to run a microbe, and which genes can be added successfully to bacteria to make them do our bidding.

In addition to this very visible bacteria story, another equally interesting and potentially sci-fi scientific development hit the journal Nature this last week. Robots… little tiny robots that crawl around inside your cells to fix things are a bit closer to reality.

According to Bethany Halford of Chemical &Engineering News:

“Using DNA as the key construction material, one group of researchers created a nanoscale robot that can autonomously walk across a track, and a different group prepared a nanofactory in which DNA robots can carry and deposit nanoparticle cargo.”

The track in question will eventually be your cytoskeleton, the tiny fibers that give your cells their shape, and act as the transportation routes for cellular delivery systems. If the groups involved in these two studies can put their work together, we will have tiny machines that can carry payloads from place to place within your cells – a goal of researchers wanting very specific intracellular chemical delivery.

Also from the article:

“A goal of our field is to refashion and reimagine all the complex biochemical machinery of cells to suit our own purposes—to have synthetic molecules that can move around and carry cargo as protein motors do in cells, to have molecules that act as chemical factories, which make a particular product based on a particular chemical input, and above all to make these processes modular, to make them engineerable,” notes Paul W. K. Rothemund, the Caltech scientist who invented DNA origami.”

So, someday in the possibly not-so-distant future we may have synthetic bacteria that do our bidding in the environment, AND synthetic machines that help us live healthier lives.

Viruses Are Cool

May 25th, 2010

And, yes, they cause colds. But, when it comes down to it viruses are the sneakiest survivalists around… especially considering that they aren’t even alive.

Last Friday, I got to talk with Dr. Vincent Racaniello, Dr. Rich Condit, and Dr. Alan Dove (PhD turned science writer), virus experts the lot of them, on their show, This Week in Virology. Ostensibly, I was invited on the show to discuss my transformation from scientist grad student to scientist media person, but I was really just there for the virus science.

If you haven’t had a chance to listen to this podcast, I highly suggest giving it one. The hosts are Columbia University professors, and they eloquently discuss the finer details of the viruses that make you sick. However, it’s not a show for the scientifically faint of heart. These guys really dig into the nuts and bolts of the living dead. The conversation is fairly high level, but they do a great job of making it interesting. I found myself hanging on their words wanting to learn how the little things work.

But, I am a certified geek. I thrive on the details because to me they add nuance to the scientific story unfolding around my ears.

You will just have to see what you think for yourself. Check it out at

I’m on Justin.TV!

May 7th, 2010

So, on the prodding of my friend and old Revision3 colleague, Neha Tiwari, I started doing a live chat program on last week. It’s called the Science Chat, and that’s what I do. I answer questions and talk about science for an hour.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a live-streaming set-up that allows me to take callers and actually vocally chat. But, I am able to respond to all the people who show up and ask questions or make comments in the chat room.

I have to say that I was completely overwhelmed the first week by all the people who were really interested in asking questions about science itself, recent news items, or were just curious about the way things work. I had a hard time keeping up with the flow of the chat, but I’m not complaining at all. All the activity made for an intense hour that I think was extremely fun.

And, I think lots of people who showed up enjoyed it too. I had over 30,000 unique views that first week, and hit that mark again this week. Not too shabby for a little science show… check out the premier…

Watch live video from DrKiki on on

and the 2nd episode for yourself…

Watch live video from DrKiki on on

Anyway, I definitely have to thank all the people at for getting this started, (moderating all the unnecessary commentary in the chat room) and making it a success right out of the gate. Neha, you and the team rock! I never would have started doing this or found out about the great audience without your suggestions.

It’s been such a great experience that I’m definitely going to be chatting on a weekly basis, if not more often. I’d also love to get interesting science-y people over to my home studio to do the chat with me (I do have two microphones…). I’m sure company would make it even more fun. So, let me know if you, my science-y friend, are interested in chatting with me and the audience.

Let’s see where this thing can go…

I’m Judging You.

April 21st, 2010

Well, either you or your scientist friends.

The Scientist Magazine just announced “The Labbies”, a competition to find:

scientists and scientific laboratories that show real tech savvy in presenting their research to the wider world. Send us your coolest videos, neatest lab websites, sharpest blogs, most user-friendly interactive multimedia, and any other technologically-advanced presentations you use to communicate your science.

I’m one of several judges who will be rating your cool-factor, “including the father of the infographic Nigel Holmes,Jeffrey Segall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, NY, and David Kirby of the University of Manchester.”

I am really excited to see what scientists are doing in the multimedia and transmedia spaces these days. It’s no longer a flat website world. It’s an immersive universe of information and communication. Scientists need to understand this change and progress with it in order to keep up with cultural demands.

So, whatchya got?

Dust Off That Synthesizer!

March 2nd, 2010

Bring out the Moog, and prepare your Theremin!

Or, maybe it’s a banjo and some cowbell… hell, I don’t care.

I’m just looking for original science-y music for the This Week in Science 2010 Compilation Album.

The guidelines are that it needs to be about science or inspired by science AND YOU MUST BE ABLE TO GRANT ME LICENSE TO USE IT.

I don’t want something by Blackalicious unless you are in Blackalicious. That said, if you are a friend ofBlackalicious, tell them to get in touch with me.

Why am I making a science-y music album? Well, I’ve made an album for our home radio station’s annual fundraiser each year for the past four years, and I’d like to go for a fifth.

Our station, KDVS 90.3 FM in Davis, is a non-commercial, free-form radio station that gets more than half of its budget from its annual fundraiser. We set aside a portion of the limited cd pressing for use as premium gifts for people who donate to KDVS during our show. The remainder of the cds are sold later in the year in order to recoup our production costs. TWIS makes no money from these albums.

What we need, however, are super cool science-y songs donated for use on the album. Without songs, there is no album.

As a musician what do you get in return? Well, in addition to being on the album, you will be played during TWIS repeatedly during the year, linked to from the TWIS website, and get the warm-fuzzies from helping to support free-form, non-commercial radio and science all in one go.

How can you submit a song? Email me (kirsten at thisweekinscience dot com) with an mp3 or a link to an mp3 of your song(s). Please, put TWIS Compilation in the subject.

If your song is chosen for the album, I’ll be in touch to ask for a higher bit-rate, uncompressed .aif or .wav file and your John Hancock on a basic licensing and use agreement. We like to take care of a lot of the post-production when we master the album, so the less compressed / produced on the final version the better.

Any questions, just email me at the address above.

Oh, and the fundraiser is mid-April, so I’ll need songs asap! Submission deadline is March 15th.

AAAS 2010 in Review

February 25th, 2010

Each year the AAAS annual meeting brings together scientists, science organizations, and journalists from all over the world. This year the meeting was in San Diego. It was rainy.

A few highlights of my trip were the many discussions of dolphins, doomsday scenarios, and conversations about the changing face of science communication.

It turns out that dolphins might be a great model species for studying type 2 diabetes. However, several other researchers suggest that dolphins should be given non-human person status, which would make that kind of research incredibly difficult. The only reason that people feel all warm and fuzzy about dolphins is that they have an intelligence that we can recognize as similar in some ways to our own. This led to think that human-like intelligence should not be a factor in determining conservation status for animals since intelligence is something we don’t even understand and have a hard time defining. We need to get over ourselves and our over-inflated sense of importance in the universe before tackling these issues.

Mathematicians are finding new ways to use their skills by working with social scientists and urban planners to figure out how to plan for the weird things people do on sidewalks, roads, and in buildings.

It was reinforced that scientists need to remember to keep the public in the loop when planning and executing potentially controversial experiments. Transparency is key to things like hadron colliders and geo-engineering. Keeping people in the dark only leads to greater mistrust and development of more conspiracy theories. So, go talk to the people, you scientists!

And, on that note I’ll end with some points about science communication.

Bloggers for the large part were not allowed press access to AAAS. This is because historically AAAS has only allowed journalists working for accredited organizations to attend. Now, many freelancers, like myself, get around this issue by joining writing organizations like NASW. So, for all you serious science bloggers who didn’t get to attend this year, or who are regularly denied access to professional meetings, until the media landscape changes and new media professionals are considered press in their own right, consider joining an organization that will give you that accredited status. That’s how you get into the parties with the free drinks!

Secondly, I was on a panel about empowering young scientists to help communicate science to the public. Several examples of what an organization called “Sense About Science” in the UK is doing in conjunction with “Voice of Young Science” were brought to light. There are lots of young scientists interested in helping to dispel myths related to science and health. We also discussed various aspects of what is wrong with science in the media these days as well as what is right with it. I expressed my view that new and social media are going to play an increasingly important role in getting science out to the public. Right now, although these online media forms do allow “echo-chambers” to form quite easily, they do allow exceptional access to information and distribution of ideas.

Finally, mass media is still slow to accept independent online media, and even resents its presence (for obvious reasons). However, science journalism can only benefit from people from all areas of the communication sphere working together. Mass media is shrinking, but it will not disappear, and independent media will continue to grow. Together they can make science communication even better.

The Things Roos Do

February 8th, 2010

Little did you know that kangaroos have the power to save the world.

A recent press release in my email in-box tipped me off to the hidden super-powers of our bouncing animal friends from the land of Aus.

According to the press release, a study published in 2009 found that bacteria living in the guts of roos produce cancer-fighting anzymes. When tested in mice, injections of bacterial spores had 35-40% success in fighting cancerous tumors.

“In the labs, we train the bacteria, so they develop their innate ability to colonise tumours, digesting them, and stimulating the body’s natural immune system,” said Assoc. Prof. Ming Wei from the Griffith Institute of Health and Medical Research.

This study got me to thinking about what else I have heard about kangaroos through the science grapevine, and I remembered another amazing kangaroo ability that was uncovered back in 2007… kangaroos can fight global warming.

Well, it’s actually once again thanks to the bacteria that live in their guts that kangaroos have the fate of the world on their shoulders.

Most ruminants, animals with stomachs capable of fermentation, produce LOTS of methane. Methane is known to be a powerful greenhouse gas and a major factor in global climate change. Most of the methane released into the atmosphere related to human activities comes from our livestock. So, scientists are trying to figure out how to reduce the methane produced during the ruminant digestive process.

Back to kangaroos… kangaroos are foregut fermenters like cows, but it turns out that they don’t produce methane. The bacteria in their guts utilize a slightly different chemical process from that of other fermenting bacteria, and produce acetate as a bi-product instead.

Now that they have this interesting piece of information, scientists are on working on transferring kangaroo bacteria into cows. The problem they have to solve is how to get the bacteria to live in a stomach that is both anatomically and environmentally different from that of the kangaroo.

I wonder if it might be easier to get people to eat kangaroo.

A TWISmas Cartoon

December 28th, 2009

Tony Steele's Xmas Evolution

Thanks to Tony Steele for this awesome TWISmas cartoon!

TWISmas Tales

December 22nd, 2009

This year, we had a contest on This Week in Science. We gave prizes to the best holiday science poems, songs, or tales that minions created and sent to us. The winning entries are below:

A Visit From Kirk Cameron by Jason Quade
‘Twas the night before Twis-mas, when all through the lab,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a rat;
Post it notes hung by the monitor with care,
With hopes that my efforts would soon come to bear.

I drove home my car, while clearing my head,
My children were nestled all snug into bed,
Robo-wife in charging dock, I had a night cap,
And settled into bed for a long winter’s nap-

When out in the garden there arose such a clamour,
The Mrs. warm-booted and asked, ‘What’s the matter?’
Ran to the window and I could have sworn,
There was a tiny sleigh pulled by unicorns.

Cell phone in my hand as I dialed Nine – One – One
I knew in a moment it must be Kirk Cameron.
Creationist tunes seemed to play from a band,
But they came from Ray Comfort, a banana in hand.

More rapid than the progress of science they came,
They whistled, and shouted, and call’d unicorns by name:
“Now! Young-Earth, now! Old-Earth, now! Ussher, and Malign,
“On! Blinders, on! Pseudo, on! On Intelligent-Design;

A shovel my wife produced, I asked, “Why?”
She said that weak arguments would soon pile high.
“Scientific proof they claim to come by,
When they meet with an obstacle, they point to the sky”;

So up to the house-top Kirk Cameron he flew,
Propelled by hot air from the conclusions he drew.
As I put down my phone, and was turning around,
Down the chimney Mike Seaver came in with a bound:

A bundle of books was flung on his back,
And he look’d like a peddler just selling some crap:
His eyes – how they twinkled! His dimples how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;

A wink of his eye soon gave me to know
This mid-night visitor would not readily go.
He tip-toed across, like a man who is mad,
And proffered a book which he laid in my hand.

His Hollywood mouth gave me the Heeby-Jeebies,
The book that he gave was ‘On the Origin of Species’
“Don’t worry he said”, with a sideways look,
“There’s nothing to fear in my little book.

We’ve prefaced the thing with lies near to treason
Sometimes you have to circumvent reason.
We took out the worst parts that put holes in our theory.
A chapter ….. or four. They were rather dreary.”

My hackles were up, but Violence wasn’t the solution
The poor Man-Boy needed an education in evolution.
And I said:
“Tis true Darwin’s book is of public domain,
To mar it with fairy tales, for that I say SHAME.

Individuals are variable, Variations are inheritable
Some offspring within a species are naturally perishable.
Survival and reproduction is for the apt and the strong,
And the history of the earth is very very long.”

When I finished he pulled his fingers promptly from his ears,
First I thought he didn’t listen, and then I saw the tears.
And it was at that moment that he had a choice,
He could embrace the science, do good with his voice.

Would his brain stay three-sizes-too-small that Twis-mas Eve
Or would he get excited, understand and believe?
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And ran out the window; it shattered, What a jerk!,
And laying his middle finger aside of his nose
He flipped me the bird, Ray Comfort was a-doze.

He sprung to his sleigh, children still in their beds,
His pony unicorns lost the cones from their heads.
But I heard him exclaim, ere they drove out of sight-
“Just because it’s not true doesn’t mean it’s not right!”
Dashing through Kigoma by Angela Heinz (sung to the tune of Jingle Bells)
Dashing through Kigoma
Chasing after chimps
Trying to find a fecal sample
So I can gather it.

Collecting all my data
Each minute that tick tocks
Man it can be grueling
But science really rocks!

Oh grad student, grad student
Making science waves
Working on some new research
For this TWISmas day.

Grad student, grad student
Future science nerd
Making sure the messages
Of evolutionary biology are heard.  YAY!
Darwin of TWISmas Past by Justina Pupkaite
I didn‘t want a lot for TWISmas,
There was just one thing I dreamed about,
I didn‘t care about the fossils
Or anything that science found –
I just wanted the red-bellied Claus
To slide my chimney at night
And turn me into a flying unicorn!
So I could join his deers in flight.

To my defense it can be said
That it was many years ago,
And nothing much was yet in my head.
But I had the desire to grow
Into a shiny flying unicorn!
And so I went to school to learn how
Only in the new light to be born
Into a scientist-to-be somehow.

And then the glorious star of education
Started shining like energy-save bulb.
I started following it with no vacation
For my hungry brain. I joined the club –
I followed Newton, Mendell and Einstein;
But still my dream lived on –
While all the knowledge was fine,
I wanted to be a unicorn!
But everyone would say
(Less and less patiently to a varying degree)
That there was no way!
But I needed the argument explained to me!
I was told that it was how people were created,
And nothing would ever change.
I thought that there were things to be debated,
But the bell rang TWISmas break.

And so I went home on the night before TWISmas,
Snuggled up in bed, and was fast asleep,
When I heard a whooshing sound, and sitting up
I saw the Grandfather Darwin from the deep
Of Christmas past. He explained
How species come to be and evolution works.
And I listened, my breath bated,
Waiting to find out if I could be a unicorn!
But Grandfather Darwin went on to tell
How every individual is born with slight variations,
And they survive more or less well.
Those that reproduce pass on their adaptations,
Which takes years and years and years.
And that is how species change and form.
The evidence is all around out there!
To survive you have to be strong
And to adapt to the conditions.
That is how useful traits remain:
Some have the predisposition
To become another‘s prey…

And so a new picture appeared
In my mind: species fell in their places
On the huge Earth family tree.

Grandpa Darwin vanished without traces.
I cuddled up and fell asleep,
Happy that it was all in my head.