Archive for March, 2008

March 2008 Rap-Up


March was a slow month for news.
There wasn’t a lot to peruse.
Except a robot in space,
And a skeleton’s face,
Science did not have much of a muse.

Unless you count blood going bad,
And dying trees making experts sad.
There was little, you know…
Some bacteria in snow,
And turns out stretching was only a fad.

Science wasn’t altogether removed.
The thermoelectric effect was improved.
Watch out for pacemakers at risk,
Polyps shaped like disks,
And climate skeptics with something to prove.

— by Joseph Caputo and Lauren Rugani

Posted by Joseph, under science rap-up  |  Date: March 30, 2008

Popular Science Toys For Kids



Looking to foster a love of science in your favorite 8-year-old? Why not try replacing his or her favorite magic kit with a chemistry set? If that doesn’t work, there are a whole lot of options for science toys nowadays. You just have to know where to look.

One place you’ll have little luck is the mainstream toy store. When asked about their most popular products, a Cambridge KB Toys representative replied, “Aside from telescopes and microscopes, we don’t have a lot of science-related toys.”

Specialty toy stores like Stellabella Toys, located in Cambridge, and Zoinks! Toys, in Hanover, Mass., provide the widest selection of playthings for future scientists and doctors.

Scientific Explorer Kits are a popular line with customers at Stellabella. There are over three dozen kits to choose from, ranging from the basic “My First Weather Kit” to “Disgusting Anatomy: Brain,” which helps kids make their own gelatinous brain out of strawberry-kiwi Jello.

Another Stellabella seller is Snap Circuits. Using a plastic grid and snap-pn wires, kids explore their inner electrician by connecting AA batteries to doorbells, sirens, and AM radios. The kits range in difficulty from a Jr. version, which contains 30 parts, to Extreme – enough parts to make 750 projects.

Over at Zoinks!, the Gross Science series from Curiosity Kits is an easy sell. With projects like “Snot Science” and “Everyday Ooze” that look at the science behind mucus and bad breath, not only do kids learn about the human body, but apparently hygiene. “They’re mostly geared towards boys,” says Roisin, a Zoinks! spokeswoman, “but girls like them too.”

Another interactive biology product is DK Publishing’s “Alive: The Living, Breathing Human Body Book.” While not quite a toy, it does use fiber optics, pop-ups and sound to illustrate anatomical concepts for kids in the 8 to 12 age group.

“It’s great to start children young so they understand how and why things work,” says Roisin. It can’t hurt, and you never know, toy-inspired curiosity may be the first step to a Ph.D.

Photo from Action Products International, Inc.

Posted by Joseph, under business  |  Date: March 28, 2008

disregard in a field of overhead projector light

behind the metal doors a dusted acre

of schoolhouse technology. sixty

or more but now even just one

too heavy.

           the shrine

we call it, the tour guide said,

because      the light, the purr

of fan, nearly breathing—and all

lined up like this, you get

the feel of cathedral, slope

of votive candles.

                 of course they pretty

much did worship the stuff, she added,

leading the edge of tourists

in and purblind, they foraged for

anything—glint of steel rolling

from a squared neck or bulbs

naked, obvious as teeth. but

only black

                    wide open

inarticulation people must have

once known looking at the sky.

in the hips of an old school they were found, settling like a necklace of prehistoric bones, and placed here, in a room wired for the twenty-first century. Electricity— sixty-four bulbs at six hundred watts, you might even hear it, she said—small motors of minnows, her voice an ellipse handswidth apart through the undimensioned room, and looking up, a few dozen laundry lines divide the darkness, or cracks in a ceiling, who knows—because you can always make out something, even when you blink and you blink because nothing’s really there. Stasis in darkness and then the countdown: ready set sudden splash of squares, hitting like the two-tone wings of spring moths. the light on, projectors now projecting—the machines from their carapaces blind and make hostage of each silhouette, tacked to the wall and dark as the first time you had sex because it wasn’t love.

— by Melissa Barrett, Poetry Editor

Posted by Joseph, under climate change, poetry  |  Date: March 26, 2008
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Mr. Caputo Teaches Solar Power



The 6th installment of “Mr. Caputo Teaches…,” my experience as an extracurricular science teacher in elementary and middle schools across Massachusetts.

It was 3:15 p.m., and the middle schoolers ran into the room. After a few minutes of yelling, furniture rearranging and gossip, the quieter students looked up at me – still putting the finishing touches on the day’s lesson – and asked what we’re going to make. “A solar water heater,” I responded, clasping my hands together, “but more importantly, we’re going to talk about climate change.”

I was genuinely excited. We all know what adults have heard, but what about kids who will be living with the consequences of global warming for the rest of their lives? As they settled into their seats, munching on cookies and crackers, I began. “What can you guys tell me about climate change?”

One girl in pink nearly jumped out of her seat. “It’s why you shouldn’t drive cars, because the carbon dioxide gets in the air and hurts the ozone layer. That’s why you should walk and ride bikes, and recycle.”

After a few more statements like this, I realized the students were confused and not just by the science. (Greenhouse gases and the ozone layer have NO relationship). Although their teachers and parents are well meaning, the students are being misled into thinking this issue has an easy solution.

So I made it personal. I asked them about ways they’ve reduced their carbon footprint. Some told me by walking to school, others said they biked. Ater a few minutes of discussion, however, they realized they didn’t have much control over their own emissions. “I have to get a ride because my book bag is too heavy,” one boy said, “so school causes global warming.”

One girl then raised her hand with a solution. “What if scientists developed a way to stop humans from breathing out carbon dioxide? Like put a tube in your throat or something?” I couldn’t have been more impressed, because she hit the nail on the head with one of global warming’s biggest problems. “Would you want a tube in your throat?” I asked another student. Nobody wanted a tube in their throat. “The most important part of developing a solution,” I said, “is making sure it’s something humans want to do.”

This conversation then led into the day’s project, a solar water heater made out of plastic tubing and tupperware. Although we did use an electric lamp as our replacement sun, it was a way of modeling how to get energy from natural means. After the project was complete, we discussed solar-powered cars and wind-powered boats.

Although recycling and biking are important behaviors for lowering an individual’s impact on the Earth, I wanted the kids to go home understanding this is something that requires a societal change. If my generation can’t provide the technology, then at least my students will.

Posted by Joseph, under Mr. Caputo  |  Date: March 24, 2008
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On Screen: Animals Behaving Worse



Yep, animals are up to no good: They’re eating our garbage to nourish their young, stealing our newspapers to build their nests, and disturbing our sleep to call mates. Just when we think we’ve cut down enough trees or poured enough pesticides, nature’s nuisances keep coming back. What’s a human to do?

NATURE’s “Animals Behaving Worse,” which premiered this evening on WGBH, is an insult to viewers’ intelligence. Sure, we’ve all heard stories of the menacing gang of Brookline turkeys or a seagull who ran away with lunch, but it’s difficult to believe that anyone would categorize these behaviors as malicious. The documentary, however, calls these animal invasions into human territory an “all-out turf war,” which is humorous, because look around and you’ll see, if there was any battle – we won.

The film’s weakness wasn’t its footage, although some of the shots were a bit awkward and the editors went B-roll crazy from time to time, the problem was the concept. This was a human-centric film. The anecdotes, ranging from a man whose yellow support-our-troops ribbons were stolen by a squirrel and a woman who scares black bears away from human-populated zones, were meant to highlight the way animals disrupt our day to day lives.

The producer, James Donald, could have gone so much deeper. The anecdotes in the film would have fit fine in a documentary exploring how animals have and have not adapted to human expansion. Instead, the viewer was bombarded with complaints by hotel guests of of crowing roosters or margarita-stealing monkeys. Only one expert was asked for any insight into these behaviors, but rather than asking why animals do this, the interview was about how.

By calling these animals “bad”, the film avoids some heavy moral questions. If creatures are going hungry because humans have taken up all the land and food, why not let them rummage through our garbage? If an introduced species is destroying an ecosystem, is it our responsibility to get it out? Instead, we are told how invasive species like killer bees and Asian cod will affect human economics.

Human elements are necessary to make a documentary relevant and keep viewers watching, but a film with a title reminiscent of a FOX special and so little substance shouldn’t carry the NATURE brand.

Posted by Joseph, under nature, reviews  |  Date: March 23, 2008
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Science Lab 2.0


"In general, undergraduate students experience lab as one more thing they have to do to get through a required science course. Students have called the experience a meaningless cookbook exercise that forced them to go through steps they didn't understand as a way to explain a theory they didn't care about. We decided to do something about this problem, and address student's concerns."

–VisionU Rationale

Undergraduate science lab components are getting an upgrade at Boston University’s College of General Studies. Two natural science professors are downloading an important new component, one sometimes left out of the traditional program – Fun!

Well, more than fun they hope. “My ultimate objective is that they are learning something,” says Professor Karina Baum, a molecular biologist, who along with her colleague Professor Samuel Hammer, teach hundreds of non-science majors per semester.

To make biology lab more relevant, Drs. Baum and Hammer are asking their students to communicate science in visual and interesting ways. Students break into groups and have the option to use hands-on microscopes, (“The ones you see in C.S.I.” says Dr. Baum), or attach their digital cameras microscopes and produce quality pictures and video. Instead of writing a traditional lab report, with an objective, hypothesis, results and conclusion, groups can choose to edit a video so that anyone can watch their work and understand what the lab was about. The finished products are uploaded onto YouTube, where they are viewed and commented on by classmates and professors.

“We as scientists, we see things. We see action and results. Instead of telling something, why don’t you record it,” says Dr. Baum, who describes herself as a visual learner. “We saw a little bit of growth? Show me how the thing grows. It’s more realistic.”

This way of teaching, dubbed VisionU (Visualizing Science in our Non-major Undergraduates) is an experiment of its own. When they received the 2006 Boston University Instructional Technology Grant to fund the project, Drs. Baum and Hammer conducted a pre-survey of what students were taking away from their classes. They haven’t done the post-survey yet, but judging from students’ reactions, they expect good results.

Dr. Baum predicts that this pro-tech approach to science and learning is the way things are moving. She does note, however, a division between professors at Boston University on the value of the Web. She sees it as having advantages and disadvantages, but the Internet is undoubtedly a technology that students are comfortable with. Out of the 100 groups she ask asked to upload videos, only one didn’t know how.

“This is something new. I still have a lot to learn, but it has been a positive experience,” says Dr. Baum. “It makes me see that the same set of data can be presented in so many different ways.”

For more examples of their work, visit the Team T Bioblog.

Posted by Joseph, under science education, video  |  Date: March 21, 2008

Science Reporting in Peril?


“Most science reporters tend to behave rather like sports writers: they have chosen their topic out of love for it,” observed sociologist Dorothy Nelkin. Unlike sports reporters, however, this love may not be shared with the general public.

At a discussion this evening on “Science News: The Good. The Bad. And the Outrageous,” delivered at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, David Aguilar, the Center’s director of public affairs, introduced the topic with a dissection of what’s in the newspaper. What’s news, he said, is an indication of what the public finds interesting.


Based on an informal analysis of newspaper content conducted over the past 3 weeks by Aguilar, (results above), 5% of the newspaper is dedicated to science, health and the environment. Peer-reviewed studies have also shown similarly low results. These numbers were unsettling to the scientists and astronomy-hobbyists in the Center’s audience, although there was an obvious bias. The truth is, many people find Britney Spears more interesting than supernovas.

It’s important to be cautious with Aguilar’s data, as well as how we define public interest. If he only counted articles written specifically by science reporters on hard science, then he may be painting a sadder picture than what’s really happening. Especially in this age of climate change and personal genetics, science elements are often integrated into economics, political, arts and even style stories. Also, he only looked at newspapers, which many people buy for the horoscope or sports coverage or read online, so whether or not that is an accurate portray of the public interest is debatable.

Also, what is the quality of that 5%? Are they gee-whiz science stories, meant for pure entertainment or are they important and relevant. Many science articles in the New York Times or the Washington Post discuss how public money is being spent on research – a topic relevant to all readers – as well as scientific or medical issues that affect policy, education and personal health. Those invested in science, who may wish the public shared their passion, can always go to magazines or Websites that specialize in science news.

One reason Aguilar cited for the small percentage of science news is a lack of trained science reporters. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Graduate and certificate programs like the one I attend at Boston University have been around for decades and their numbers are growing. Even without training, journalists don’t necessarily need a science background to produce accurate and interesting science stories.

Is science reporting in peril? No, it hasn’t been. In fact, things should only get better as the Internet allows people to pinpoint information relevant and interesting to them. The key is making sure it exists when they do this search. The job of newspaper editors is to decide what science their readers need to know now, for everything else there are science-specific publications. Aguilar set himself up for disappointment by analyzing a digital age with a traditional media.

Posted by Joseph, under science writing  |  Date: March 20, 2008
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Sound Byte: University Suicide Law


Biology meets policy in this radio piece examining whether or not a university can be liable if a student commits suicide. The problem, I found, is that universities sometimes do too little because they are afraid of doing too much. This fear is caused by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a law created to protect student records from their parents, and a cause of confusion for universities who are also acting in loco parentis, or “in the place of the parent.” How can a university protect itself and its student? With a university-wide crisis plan and a solid understanding of this complex law, experts told me.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 6 or above) is required to play this audio clip. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

This was originally recorded for an Advanced Radio Journalism course with Professor Anne Donohue at Boston University.

Posted by Joseph, under audio, health (mental), policy  |  Date: March 18, 2008

St. Patrick’s Day Special: Irish Scientists


Circa 1660, Irish physicist and chemist The Hon Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691), seventh son of Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork. Original Artwork: Engraving by W Holl. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) Robert Boyle.

In the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day, and the fact that over 24% of Massachusetts residents are of Irish ancestry, (compared to 12% of the nation as a whole), this Science Metropolis post is dedicated to the great men and women of Irish descent who’ve contributed to science and medicine over the centuries.

#1) Robert Boyle (1627-1691) – a.k.a. The Father of Chemistry. Changed the field by dismissing alchemy as pseudo-science and developing the concept of an element in his most famous work, The Sceptical Chymist, published in 1661. One year later, he determined that the pressure and volume of a gas are inversely related at constant temperature, which is known today as Boyle’s Law.

#2) Francis Rynd (1801-1861) – Invented the hypodermic needle and syringe in 1844 as a doctor at Dublin’s Meath Hospital. He used them to make subcutaneous injections on his neuralgia patients. Up to that point, drugs had only been taken orally.

#3) George Johnstone Stoney (1826-1911) – Coined the term “electron” after calculating the negative elementary particle’s magnitude. Author of of over 75 scientific papers, many on the study of spectra and the kinetic theory of gases.

#4) Ernest T.S. Walton (1903-1995) – The only Irish-born scientist to receive a scientific Nobel Prize. In 1951, Walton, along with colleague John Cockcroft, were awarded the honor in physics for building the first linear accelerator. They used it to smash protons into an atom of lithium to produce helium nuclei, thus artificially converting one element into another.

#5) Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943- ) – Discovered the first four pulsars – rapidly rotating neutron stars – as a postgraduate at Cambridge im 1967. She is currently Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Mansfield College

#6) Thomas Gernon (1983- ) – Won the Millennium Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (Ireland) for his project “The Geography and Mathematics of Europe’s Urban Centres.” Currently mapping the underground architecture and structure of a kimberlite dyke system for his postdoc work.

Photo of Robert Boyle from iStockPhoto.

Posted by Joseph, under history, specials  |  Date: March 17, 2008

One Blogger Responds to Climate Change Art


BCA Climate Art Ad

The problem with climate change is that it’s abstract. We’ve all heard that carbon dioxide levels are rising, along with the average global temperature, but we can’t feel these changes like we can the effect of a space heater on a chilly room. Add a bitterly cold Boston winter, and the threat of global warming doesn’t seem so urgent. Magazines and newspapers try to move us with photographs of polar bears, pollution, and the carbon cycle, but this is an issue that needs more than a thousand words.

Greed, Guilt & Grappling: Six Artists Respond to Climate Change” at the Boston Center for the ArtsMills Gallery does a satisfactory job of making global warming relevant and visible, but sometimes at the expense of making visitors feel guilty about their lack of eco-awareness. The exhibit, co-organized by visual artists Mags Harries of Cambridge and Clara Wainwright of Brookline, will run through March 30 and is free to the public, although a donation of $5 is suggested.

The most interesting works allow visitors to see the impact an individual can have on environment. Instant Noodles by Michael Sheridan uses 400 empty noodle packages tossed into a corner to symbolize the mass of waste even a simple meal can accumulate over time. (He also asks visitors to factor in the use of palm oil to make the product, another serious environmental issue). On the ceiling above the main gallery is Carbon Footprints by Lajos Heder, drawings of shoe imprints created from a mix of acrylic paint and the carbon released from the 2007 California wildfires. The piece is powerful because it turns the invisible – our carbon dioxide emissions – into a black substance we can see, taste and touch.

Visitors are asked to write their own reactions to climate change on the wall where the foot path begins, part of the exhibit’s goal to encourage dialogue on the topic. While some of the messages seemed right out of the Greenpeace handbook, such as “Luxury living perpetuates global warming” and “I want my kids to build a fort in the woods one day,” others were permeated by eco-guilt. Phrases like “I hate relying on public transportation” and “I feel guilty for enjoying my cab ride,” even caught the attention of Boston Globe reporter Amy Farnsworth.

The exhibit goes quickly from depicting abstract environmental concepts to climate change activism. This was most evident in The Eco-Shaman Robes by Clara Wainwright. Visitors are meant to put on one these well-crafted and colorful garments, each portraying some kind of endangered critter, walk outside and engage strangers in conversation about climate change. While audience participation does bring an issue like global warming to life, because of the politics and the obvious bias, the robes come off as oddly cultish. (Greg Cook at the Boston Phoenix offers another perspective on this example in his review of the exhibit).

Most frustrating of all was Global Yawning for a Small Planet by Jay Critchley, a video exhibit in which two side by side projectors screened footage of people yawning. His argument is because yawning is a social act that can be shared, so should the act of fighting global warming. The problem with this logic is that yawning is instinctual while changing one’s behavior requires thought, consideration and a plan.

Overall, the exhibit is an interesting fusion of art and science, admirable for engaging the public in a dialogue about global warming. Creating work that maintains a balance between reflective and didactic without making exaggerated scientific claims is an effective way to leave visitors beaming with eco-excitement.

Posted by Joseph, under arts, climate change, reviews  |  Date: March 15, 2008