Phoenix on Mars

By now you will have seen or heard about the Mars lander, Phoenix.

Phoenix has been sent to Mars’ arctic region to conduct a 3 month long investigation and, while there is plenty of commentary and news in the usual places, one of the very best sources is the mission’s main site.

Recent highlights include a remarkable photograph of Phoenix’s descent through the Martian atmosphere, with parachute deployed, taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

I’m sure there’ll be plenty more news adn developments in the coming months.

Tasmanian genetics – part 2

Tasmanian Devils are now officially endangered as a result of a highly contagious facial cancer that has been sweeping across the island state amongst the population of these marsupials.

This is the first transmissable cancer known to medical science. While some viruses have been implicated as causal factors in the development of some cancers, this is the first time a cancer itself has been found to be transmitted by metastatic cells from one animal’s tumour to another individual.

The tumours are transmitted when one animal bites another – which apparently they do quite frequently – and then begin to grow aggressively. Eventually, they cause sufficient damage to the tissues of the facial skin and muscle that the animal cannot feed and starves to death.

It’s a pretty grim situation and zoologists are keen to isolate the remaining uninfected Devils to prevent the irretrievable decimation of the species.

Tasmanian genetics – part 1

DNA from the extinct Tasmanian Tiger has been resurrected. The tassie tiger – actually the largest known carnivorous marsupial, and more properly called Thylacine – was declared extinct in 1936 when the last captive specimen (Benjamin, shown below) died at Hobart Zoo.

But this week, researchers at Melbourne University revealed that DNA from preserved specimens of thylacines had been inserted into mouse embryos and expressed the original function (in this case, the thylacine gene took over from teh the original mouse gene developing cartilage.)

This is a long way from Jurassic Park, but the parallels are intriguing…

History of mobile phones

You might recall the history of computer memory a couple of weeks ago. Here is more in the same vein. The movie clip at this link is a great overview of the evolution of mobile phone design. Beware: obnoxious background music – be ready with the mute button.

You might recognise one or two models of your own experience. Personally, I’m hanging out for the official release of an iPhone here in Australia. And so, judging by the school yard chatter, are a large number of secondary students. The implications of that trend are worthy of a thesis…

(pic via Wikipedia, showing Dr Martin Cooper of Motorola, who made one of the first mobile phone calls before I was born! I feel young, now :-)

Getting ID confused with Science. Still happening…

Woah. Where to begin with this one?

Turns out that, according to a study of science teachers in the USA, 1 in 6 believe that humans have been on Earth fewer than 10,000 years. 1 in 8 present Creationism to their students as “a scientifically valid alternative to evolution”. During a school year, biology teachers might be lucky to spend 5 hours on the topic of human evolution. Nearly a half of these teachers believe that a supernatural being has a hand in evolution.

This boggles the mind.

Firstly, if this is correct then there is a significant number of American science teachers who are completely unaware of the meaning of the term ‘theory’ as it applies to their area of (alleged) expertise. Here is what Wikipedia has to say on it:

In science a theory is a testable model of the manner of interaction of a set of natural phenomena, capable of predicting future occurrences or observations of the same kind, and capable of being tested through experiment or otherwise verified through empirical observation.

I could have picked any one of a variety of similarly phrased definitions from ’round the web (go look for some yourself), but the point that it can be tested is critical; no faith-derived explanation can be, and future predictions from a faith perspective are notoriously imprecise or just plain wrong.

Secondly, it is probably against the law. Several recent court judgements in the US have underlined the need to keep ID out of the science classroom. Unfortunately, without any kind of standardised curriculum, the materials taught in Science classes are still vulnerable to being hijacked by the superstitious.

For a concise analysis of the highlights, I can recommend this blog entry, at

I imagine this happens in Australia too, although I’m proud to say that I know of no-one in my school or in my extended professional circle who would do this. Still, it could happen…

(cartoon from – a precis of the argument against ID)

Lost and found in the universe

Space may not be so empty after all. Astronomers are reporting that they have discovered material forming a ‘backbone’ for the universe, along which the galaxies we can see are arrayed, and that this is a store house of regular baryonic matter (protons, neutrons & electrons making up familiar atoms).

Again, the way this study has been done is really clever. The scientists were looking at the light coming from stars and studying the way it was changed as it travelled towards Earth. Along the way, baryonic matter absorbed light at predicatble wavelengths in fairly consistent ways allowing the observers to draw very solid conclusions about the nature and quantity of the ‘stuff’ filling up space.

BTW, don’t confuse this stuff with dark matter. Baryons are attracted to the gravitational influence of dark matter to form the ‘cosmic web’ but that’s a whole ‘nother story…

(illustrations from Space Telescope Science Institute, STSI, at NASA)

Be a cat person, early

There may be a protective effect against asthma in being raised as a child in a household with a cat.

It was reported today that the Columbia Centre for Childrens’ Environmental Health (CCCEH) has described the development of an immune response, as early as 2 or 3 years of age, to cat allergens. They go on to show that by the age of 5 this translates into a lower risk of those children showing symptoms of asthma, such as wheezing.

In the centre’s own statement: “The presence of cats in the home at a very early age seems to help reduce the risk of developing asthma.”

I wonder if this might be the case in households with dogs or other common domestic pets?

Solar stickers

Going with the theme of yesterday’s posts on renewable energy comes news of solar panels that are installed quickly like stickers on building roofs and come in a variety of colours and shapes.

The disadvantage of the low-profile design is a trade-off in efficiency. As yesterday’s post on the solar lilies showed, a panel needs to be able to follow the path of the sun through the sky during a day if it is to collect the maximum amount of solar energy. The panels discussed here are stationary – lying flat along the unchanging roof-line – and the resulting drop in efficiency is fairly substantial (somewhere in the order of 5%).

Still, the design of the collection elements in solar panels is also the subject of improvement; I imagine it wont be long before this limitation is removed by advances in panel design.

Bonus article linked at the bottom of the Treehugger page: Hairy Solar Cells created from nanotubes. Nice!

More bad scifi

A little while ago I wrote about the state of biotech and how it was uniformly misrepresented in popular culture. Well, I’m not alone in lamenting the poor science that passes for plot development in today’s – and yesteryear’s – blockbusters.

First up today was the Mad Biologist’s attack on the monster from Cloverfield. Ironic, huh? I guess humans can’t pass on the opportunity for a fight… Anyway, scary as a 100 metre tall, ravenous denizen of the deep may be, it can’t compete with the simple fact that its proportions are unfeasible outside a supportive, watery environment. The article I’ve linked to is a really quick and entertaining read, and explains the root of the issue in a very simple and accessible fashion.

And this brought back to mind a significantly longer essay that I first read a couple of years ago. This one deals with a number of famous, older movies from the 50s and 60s when the spectre of a global nuclear exchange spawned an entire genre of films depicting giant mutant beasts laying waste to civilisation. These giant metaphors of humanity’s hubris were often vanquished by some heroically clever underdog-kind of person. But of course, the real story lies in the improbability of the physics and biology in these stories.

Anyway, the main point, I suppose, is that there is great value in being entertained by these films – they are entertaining and they do allow us to contextualise issues that might otherwise make us despair! – but audiences should never think them accurate.

Solar power

Two interesting sites that I came across today – one of them not much more than a catalogue, but useful nonetheless – both pertaining to solar power.

The first one, the ‘catalogue’, is a simple illustration of teh kinds of materials you can easily obtain to produce clean energy for household consumption. Both wind and solar generators are represented, together with the simple appliances that can store the generated energy and tie the larger power grid to your generator (for still, cloudy days). I read somewhere of a scheme here in Melbourne, Australia, where communities got together to bulk-purchase just this kind of hardware. Sharing the costs, and taking advantage of some rebates available from the government, makes this an increasingly appealing option as prices continue to drop.

The second site reports on a design concept that won 1st Prize in the International Design Awards ‘Land and Sea’ category. I love this one: solar cells that look like giant water-lilies spread out along the River Clyde in Glasgow. I’m sure, if this ever got off the ground and past prototype stage, that it could be a great way to supplement the generation of power for populated areas close to large bodies of water. The pads rotate to remain facing the sun and the cooling effect of the water maintains the efficiency of the solar cells even when they get very hot. Brilliant work!


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