Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How the Honey Bee Got Its Sweet Tooth

I love when people send me interesting science articles, especially ones in the New York Times since I still haven't figured out how to get into my account, and therefore still do not have access to their web content. Thanks to Endri for this one, about honey bees in NYC.

The Mystery of the Red Bees of Red Hook by Susan Dominus is about the feeding habits of honey bees, but it also offers a comedic commentary on health and nutrition as an added bonus. Bees that are being raised in Red Hook (Brooklyn, NY) and on Governor's Island have been showing up in their hives with red bellies, and have been producing bright red honey combs.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The bee keepers were perplexed about what would turn the bees and their honey bright red, so they decided to investigate. The culprit turned out to be the Dell's Maraschino Cherry factory. The bees have been feeding on the syrupy-sweet red liquid that you see in the containers of cherries that you can buy in the grocery store. Researchers tested the honey for the red dye (No. 40) used in the cherry liquid, and confirmed that the bees have been bingeing on the liquid produced at the factory.

The mystery that remains is how the bees are getting access to the liquid. Neighbors have reported seeing the bees in unusually high numbers around the factory, but no one has pin pointed how they are getting to the liquid. The cherry factory declined to comment for the article, but did hire the New York City Beekeeper's Association to help find a solution to the problem.

What I like most about Dominus' treatment of the honey bees in the article is the way she paints them as disobedient children. Her opening centers on the fact that if the bees were raised right they wouldn't be straying from home to go eat junk food. It's a whimsical way to approach the topic, while inserting a little bit of her own commentary on human health and nutrition.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Polar Bear Protection

Polar bear at the Henry Vilas Zoo
Madison, WI August 2010
It's Thanksgiving! But instead of talking turkey, I'm going to talk about polar bears. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently designated an area twice the size of the United Kingdom as protected habitat for Polar Bears to help combat the effects of global warming and the reduction of sea ice on the polar bear population.

Setting aside the land is important, because some of it was previously open to and slated for oil drilling by Shell. The only reason Shell hasn't already drilled in that spot is because of a temporary stay due to the BP oil spill that occurred earlier this year in the Gulf of Mexico, (Shell still intends to drill in other parts of the Arctic starting in 2011.)

For those who don't know, Polar Bears are my favorite animal so I've done several reports on threats to habitat prevention in the arctic for school. It is amazing the amount of wildlife that depends on the arctic.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sebastian Junger's War Zone

Last week I read Sebastian Junger's War. I think that because of my close proximity to September 11th, I feel pretty strongly about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet reading this book made me feel like I don't actually know a damn thing about them. Even from Junger's point of view as an embedded journalist, I feel like I learned a lot about the war.

When I was at Lehigh I met a veteran named Matt that I though was amazing for his willingness to talk candidly about his tours in Iraq. He was from New York and joined after September 11th, he told me he joined because you can't let something like that happen in your backyard, you have to stand up and fight back. Talking to him was my first real glimpse of what war is like.

We talked about what it was like to go from being in a war zone to suddenly being transplanted onto a college campus, especially one like Lehigh. In the land of polo shirts and flip flops all of his tattoos and his combat boots certainly didn't fit in. He got called back to Iraq in 2009, and I graduated and left Lehigh so I've lost track of him since, but I still really appreciate everything he was willing to share with me about his experience.

My memories of talking to Matt definitely shaped the way I viewed Junger's reporting. From what I already knew about what Matt said being in the Army was like, I have to say I think that Junger did a great job of accurately relaying what he saw and experienced. I don't doubt what Junger says happened during his visits to Afghanistan, he was able to paint scenes in a way that conveyed not only the action, but the emotion (or lack there of) of each situation.

War is a good read, and I recommend it for anyone who wants to get a glimpse of what Afghanistan is actually like. But, I also recommend talking to veterans themselves, no one else can tell their stories the way they can, not even Sebastian Junger.

Also for anyone interested, Junger did make a documentary about the unit that he embedded with (the same one in the book) called Restrepo. It won the 2010 Grand Jury prize for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.

Blood Drops Determine Age

Most science writers are well aware of the CSI effect, the idea that television shows that show "forensic science" are actually pretty misleading, and cause the public to believe certain things about forensics that are simply not true. Because of this I think that articles about developments in forensic science are very important because they help shed light on the actual capabilities of tools like blood tests, and DNA analysis.

An article published in Current Biology this week describes a recently developed way to use blood drops to determine age. This capability will most certainly be useful in developing a profile of victims or criminals in cases where blood is a part of the evidence but identity is unknown. The BBC article: test tells age from blood drops.

The technique utilizes a specific type of immune cell, called a T cell. This is a significant development because to date the information contained in a blood sample can only be used to confirm the identity of a known person. With this new technique, researchers can describe characteristics of an unknown person to help identify them.

Friday, November 19, 2010

What's the Matter with Antimatter?

Now I'm not really a physics person, considering my less than stellar attempt at high school chemistry, I have never attempted a physics class, though I know enough to get by with my writing. The holy grail of physics these days in the large hadron collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland. This week researchers from CERN are reporting that they have successfully captured the first antimatter atom (of antihydrogen.)

This is important because antimatter is a largely unexplored field in physics. The idea is that each atom has a counter particle made of antimatter (sort of like having an evil twin) but these antimatter particles have been difficult to study because they are typically destroyed by coming into contact with their real matter counterpart. Researchers don't know why the universe is largely made of matter instead of antimatter, but with the ability to trap and study these particles, they may be able to find out.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Encouragement From Jim VandeHei

Today for J800 my class attended a lecture and question and answer session with Jim VandeHei, the co-founder of Politico. Politico is a web and print based media outlet for national political news, that has been pretty successful in the last few years when other media outlets have been struggling (by that I mean they are actually making money instead of bleeding it, hiring young reporters instead of closing ranks on not letting anyone new in).

It was really encouraging to hear someone say that Journalism isn't dead, and that if you are bright and driven you'll be OK. The main thing that I took away from his talk was that if you know what you want to do and what you want to report on, you should  just be out there doing it. Don't take any job that doesn't have to do with your field, don't settle. Make yourself known, and just keep calling until someone gives you a chance.

Even though I'm still leaning more towards a public information officer position than a full blown journalist position, it was nice to hear that it can be done. Not finding a job after going through all the effort of moving to Wisconsin to get my Master's degree is definitely something that scares me. Listening to VandeHei made me inspired to start looking for an internship for next summer (which is my Thanksgiving break goal).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Stem Cells On The Brain

Human Embryonic Stem Cells. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
An interesting clinical trial just began in Russia, where doctors intend to inject stem cells into the brains of stroke patients to see if the cells can serve as a potential cure for the negative effects of a stroke. The BBC article: Stem Cells Used in Stroke Trial

So far only one patient has been injected with the stem cells (which are embryonic pluripotent cells) but it is notable because he is the first patient to ever have stem cells injected into the brain as a potential cure. It is also controversial to use humans for this type of study considering how much still remains to be learned about the brain and about stem cells.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Great Unknown

I find it astounding that even with all of the technology we now have there are still parts of the world that have yet to be explored. Even today, new species are still being discovered, which just makes me wonder how many species we have killed off without even knowing what they were.

I remember when I was in Costa Rica in 2005, our guide was pointing out species of plants that he said were new and waiting to be classified. He was hoping to get credit for finding one of them, and thus get the naming credits. It made me feel so small that there are so many different organisms in the world. I think it is the little kid in me that just wants to poke and prod and understand all the amazing new things there are to study. 

In the last week a new species of bat (that was actually first sighted in the 1970's) was discovered to be a distinct species in Ecuador, and a new species of squid was found in the Indian ocean. I find it pretty exciting that there are still things to explore. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rolling Nowhere

Today my group in J669 gave our midterm presentation on Ted Conover's Rolling Nowhere. The book is Conover's first, which was published in 1984. The premise is that as a young anthropology student, Conover spent four months riding around the county in empty boxcars with the homeless. He did it as an experiment for his thesis, but after he returned from the trip and finished his degree, he decided to turn his personal narrative of the experience into a book.

I am pretty happy with the way our presentation went. I have an unfortunate cold, so I was a little worried I would lose my voice or have to keep blowing my nose and be obnoxious while the members of my group were presenting, but Robitussin (arguably one of the worst tasting substances known to man) kept my symptoms in check long enough to get through our 1 1/2 hour discussion.

My contribution to our analysis was to compare and contrast Conover with the other authors that we've read as part of our class work for J669. I also contributed a little to the questions and discussion that we had after we all presented the parts we prepared individually. We talked a lot about the ethics involved in immersion reporting, and whether or not it would even be possible to give an accurate portrayal of homeless life given that Conover was an upper middle class college kid.

Overall I think it was a success, the class definitely helped us out by participating in the discussion and bringing up issues of their own to talk about. After I asked the first question, they really ran with it (prompted by Deb) and we didn't have to add much more to keep the class talking for another 15 minutes. Its always good when you can fill the entire time you are allotted and we did that, so I'm optimistic.  I also got another paper back in J620 today and it was another A so I'm two for two in that class, which is also good.

I'm definitely headed into the home stretch of this semester. The only assignments I have left are my finals, and one more book for J669 (Sebastian Junger's War). It has gone incredibly fast!

What Makes A Cat Tongue News?

Ok, so earlier this week I questioned what made the study on cricket testicles news, and now here I am again questioning why a scientific find is in the news, courtesy of the BBC.

Mystery of how cats lap is revealed by Rebecca Morelle is really stretching it in my opinion. I can understand how you might observe a cat lapping up water and be curious about how they do it so well, but I really don't see why this is breaking news. Perhaps it is a slow day for science?

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
When did the biggest scientific discoveries become cricket balls and cat tongues? Can't we do better than that? Aren't we? We spend millions of dollars on research, how are these the best stories out there (and I assume these must have been best as they led the BBC's science coverage on the days they each ran)?

I am going to go out on a limb and say that stories like this are caused by the need to publish something (ANYTHING) quickly. With the internet it is shifting from the quality of a story to the number of stories that you can produce. I think its sad that the best the BBC is putting out is high speed video of a cat drinking as their science news. This isn't going to entice readers to start giving a damn about science.

We can't just cover every single scientific finding. As journalists it is our job to determine what stories are the most interesting, to track down obscure threads and follow them until you get a story that no one else has, and to inform the public about the scientific findings that they need to know about. I think there are very few people out there that would say they really needed to know about cricket testicles and cat tongues.

Seeing stories like this makes me want to change the journalistic system. I don't blame the writer, she wrote the story she was assigned. I blame the fact that no one is willing to spend the money on investigative, in depth reporting anymore. Give reporters the resources, and we'll deliver the goods. Without the support journalists need to get the good stories, you're gonna get cricket balls.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Scientists Peer Into Their Crystal Ball

One of the stories highlighted on the science pages of the New York Times this week is a multimedia piece called Voices: What's Next in Science by Carl Zimmer. I think the piece is interesting to note because it uses audio clips, pictures, and short write ups to give an overview of what scientists in a variety of disciplines predict will be hot topics in their field in the coming year.

The scientific areas featured are Space Science, Conservation Ecology, Ocean Science, Game Design, Climate Change, Genomics, Neuroscience, Engineering, Biotechnology, and Mathematics. I found these choices a little puzzling. What about stem cells, or biomedical research as a whole? The piece includes engineering and mathematics but ignores physics and chemistry, why? Also, while I find science gaming interesting and I think its a great new field for encouraging people to become interested in science, I don't see how it fits in with the other specialities.

I also find it interesting that they use the term conservation ecology, which is specific and scientific, but then they use the term ocean science as a lump term for all the specialities that involve the ocean, and the same for space. It doesn't really seem cohesive for me to flip flop between specific and general.

The audio clips, and the fact that the write ups are so short make this a very accessible article that I think even people who don't typically read science news could be interested in. It is a good example of how to use multimedia, without having to go terribly out of your way as a journalist.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Creepy Crawlies On the Brain

Tarantula at the DaVinci Science Center, Allentown PA
Credit: Erin Podolak,  July 2008
I'm not scared of many things. I love snakes, heights, roller coasters, and being in the dark. Most of the typical things that freak people out don't have much of an effect on me. Except spiders. I can't stand spiders.

I think my fear of spiders stems back to being told that every year in our sleep humans EAT an average of eight spiders without even knowing it. Imagining a spider creeping along my skin and the way their little legs would feel definitely freaks me out. I'm not so afraid that I'll run away or anything, but some shrieking is usually in order.

Researchers are now using tarantula's to help study fear reactions in the brain. I think brain research is really interesting, considering how little we actually know about how the human brain works. Figuring out how the brain controls all the things we think and do can tell us a lot about ourselves. I feel the same way about genetics and studying our genetic code.

Tarantula helps scientists map how brains process fear was featured in the LA Times.

Promiscuous Crickets

The article: Cricket testicle size clue to promiscuous mating in the BBC was just too good to pass up for a blog post. I mean come on, cricket testicles? Who wouldn't chuckle.

Source: eHow
The researchers found that bushcrickets have the largest testicles of any organism, accounting for 14% of the cricket's total body weight. The study correlated the large testicles with the promiscuity of the organism. The more the organism gets around, the larger the balls. 

That this is news, and that thousands of dollars were probably spent determining this makes me laugh, and then makes me question why we spend our time and money investigating some things. I want to know what good is going to come of knowing that crickets have the largest testicles, because aside from just expanding humanity's knowledge of insect sex I don't really get a lot of value out of this. 

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Sea Anemones

There is no real point to publishing this image other than that I just think it is cool and very pretty. It was on Wikipedia Commons as the picture of the day, which is how I found it. (Side note: has it become obvious yet how much I love Wikimedia Commons?)

This image is from the book The Royal Natural History by Richard Lydekker, which dates back to 1893.

A Little Politics

Since this is a science and journalism blog I try to stay out of politics. That is why I didn't offer my commentary on Tuesday's midterm elections. Most of the attention in the California election went to the defeat of Proposition 19 (legalization of marijuana) but I think the defeat of Proposition 23 is also important to note.

The proposition was a move to suspend California's regulations on green house gas emissions, backed by oil companies. According to the LA Times, industry in Silicon Valley (which is investing billions in clean energy) opposed the propositions, and may have added to the surprising defeat.

The LA Times article Prop 23 battle marks new era in environmental politics is an interesting read for the way it chronicles the cross over between science, environmental activism, and politics. I have a particular interest in the way that scientific information can shape policy through informing the public. As one of the first major public votes on issues related to climate change and global warming I find these results surprising, but encouraging.

But then again, it is just California. When Texas stands up to oil companies and makes moves to reduce green house gas emissions and invest in alternative energy, then I'll be impressed. But for now, we have a small political victory for climate science.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Help Me Obi Wan Kenobi

My experience with holograms doesn't extend much farther than Princess Leia's secret message to Obi Wan Kenobi, entrusted to R2D2 in the first Star Wars movie released (but really the fourth story in the series) A New Hope. Yeah, Nerd Alert, I'm OK with it. Anyway, Star Wars has shown us that holograms are something used in a galaxy far far away, certainly not here on Earth, and certainly not in present day. But alas, Star Wars has led me wrong.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
New research from the University of Arizona is close to making holograms a reality. So far, the group is able to film a video image and beam it to a new location where it updates in "near" real-time. The research team has been working to improve the speed at which the images are conveyed, and has gotten them as fast as every two seconds. Video with a continuous flow of images, like Princess Leia's famous message, is just around the corner.

The BBC article by Jonathan Amos, "Hologram messaging coming of age," breaks down the process like this:
1. A series of cameras arranged in a semi-circle take multiple images of a person or object from lots of different angles.
2. The images are fed into a computer, where they are processed and then sent to another computer at a different location
3. A specially designed 3D printing system receives the images and based on the information contained in them, controls a laser that "writes" the images onto a screen made of a special plastic.
4. The special plastic screen can update every two seconds, but a light source is needed to be able to see the changing holograms.

The researchers say that holograms will be useful for manufacturing, to update plans or blueprints as workers are designing new models. I think it has value simply for being cool and for proving to Star Wars geeks that IT COULD ACTUALLY HAPPEN, well at least the hologram part.

That's Not Your Real Name Is It?

Aloysius Hoffenhorse. It was then that I knew this guy was feeding me bull shit.

My J800 teacher is pregnant, and went into labor this morning so rather than cancel class, she sent us out at 9am to go on a journalism scavenger hunt. While interviewing people on the street to see what they thought of the election last night (as was required for the assignment,) I met the afore mentioned Mr. Hoffenhorse.

He looked perfectly inconspicuous, nicely dressed in jeans and a button down shirt with a sweater over it. He was smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee, sitting on a cement planter up near the capital. I approached and asked if he would mind answering a few questions about the election. I explained that I was a journalism graduate student, and I would appreciate it if he could provide a few comments to help me with my assignment.

He agreed to talk to me, but as soon as I asked him his name I knew he was just going to feed me a bunch of crap. Before I gave up he also told me that he learned who won the election based solely on his instincts (no media necessary) and that if I needed to reach him I could feel free to email him at blackerthanblackhaseverbeen@yahoo.com.

Why must people fuck with me? I just wanted to know what newspapers or TV stations he followed. He could have said he didn't want to be interviewed, instead he wasted my time for his own entertainment. It  was pretty funny, but at the same time I was really frustrated with the assignment.

I don't think I learned ANYTHING from doing it. I already knew that the world is full of characters, that often make your job more difficult. I didn't need to freeze my ass off scrambling around for three hours to learn that.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Harry Potter: Scourge of the Owls?

New research out of India is drawing a correlation between a spike in the black market trade of owls and the popular Harry Potter books and movies. Apparently the stories, which feature a white owl (named Hedwig,) have led to a surge of people seeking owls as pets, as well as for what the BBC calls "black magic" rituals.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
As a reader, I am interested in the research methods used to draw the correlation between the loss of owls and Harry Potter. I wish the article talked more about how the researcher came to his conclusion, because simply noting the popularity of a series that features an owl as a minor character (I think its minor, I've never actually read a single one of the Harry Potter books) is a far cry from actually quantifying its connection to a decrease in owls.

This type of investigation reminds me of the correlations made between video games and violence, or metal music and violence. I think that how studies of this type are conducted is a pretty important component to the story, because simply stating that something is a significant relationship doesn't make it so, I want to see the numbers.

From the BBC: Harry Potter blamed for fueling India owls' demise

Monday, November 1, 2010

Rally to Completely Bash the Media

Last weekend was the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or) Fear in Washington D.C. led by John Stewart (the sanity part) and Steven Colbert (the fear part.) While Stewart did make fun of society in general, most of his ire was directed at the media. As a member of the media, it made me want to hang my head, not in shame, but in frustration.

Every profession has to have its wackjobs, weirdos, and complete morons, right? So why pick on the media? Well, mostly because not every profession has the power to sway public opinion like journalism. So when we get a nut job among our ranks it does a lot more damage. But I don't think that journalism's faults can be attributed solely to people who have lost their marbles (you know, those "Fair and Balanced" people.) Like most things in America, journalism is a competition. The best story wins, whether or not it has been fact checked and verified. The nature of the field itself, works against those in it.

The struggle to attract viewers or readers has a lot to do with why the media sensationalizes stories. If John Stewart wants the media to shape up and do a better job of reporting honestly and clearly, it would be good if he could provide an audience that has a longer attention span than a two year old. We're all guilty of it, if a story isn't flashy or scandalous we aren't going to read it. So how are journalists supposed to find a balance between going over the top and having readers, or being true to the impact of the story and risk having no one give a damn? 

I appreciate the message of the Rally to Restore Sanity, I wish that journalism wasn't so over the top sometimes, but what are we supposed to do? No one wants to pay us to put in the kind of hours and dedication it takes to chase down a compelling story. Unless I want to live in a box under a bridge I'm going to need to find a way to turn out stories like a machine. Being a hamster in a wheel isn't a good way to inspire great reporting. 

There are a lot of young and seasoned journalists out there that can do great journalism. I'd like to know what John Stewart's answer to the problems in the journalism industry would be. Its all well and good to indite the media, but he didn't offer any solutions on how to fix things. You don't have to be special to step up to a microphone and start pointing fingers. Finding a way to support innovation and help cultivate ideas about how to improve an entire industry, now that would be helpful.