In Defense of the Weather

It takes 13 seconds for the elevator in my building to get from floor one to floor five (Don’t ask me why I counted–something about my crippling claustrophobia, probably).

Sometimes, another person joins me. If he or she is a stranger, well, those 13 seconds can feel even longer. Recently, a Dutch scientist determined that it only takes four seconds for a pause to get awkward. So this elevator ride with a stranger is sometimes just over three awkward pauses long. Sometimes, though, my elevator buddy, unable to stand the #AWKS any longer, will jump in with a comment about–you guessed it–the weather.

The Brits are known for their insistence on talking about the weather, and in my experience Americans suffer from the affliction as well.

As a child born into the World Wide Web, where taking the time to craft a perfect quip is totally acceptable, when responding to a text can be as stressful as writing an SAT essay, relying on the weather as an opening with strangers used to disgust me. That’s it? I have a brain full of billions of rapidly firing neurons, doing computations that Watson could never dream of, and the only thing I can think of to say is “Man, was it hot today”!? Really?!

But then I read an Atlantic piece about the art of conversation and a researcher at MIT named Sherry Turkle, who studies human social interactions with technology. She was lamenting the loss of real conversation–between people who were face-to-face, at the same table, in the same elevator–and this line stuck out to me the most:

Occasional dullness, in other words, is to be not only expected, but celebrated. Some of the best parts of conversation are, as Turkle puts it, “the boring bits.” In software terms, they’re features rather than bugs.

We’ve all had the experience of writing and re-writing, delicately sculpting and molding that perfect email, text, Reddit argument, tweet, Facebook status, or feminist Tumblr rant. I remember being 12 years old, staring at my AIM chat box, where my crush had just said “whats up,” and struggling to think of anything cooler to say than “nm, u?” even though I really wasn’t up to anything at all.

It’s that “audience effect” that Clive Thompson talks about in his book Smarter Than You Think: “the shift in our performance when we know people are watching.” When you’re writing on the internet, either anonymously on a huge discussion board or semi-privately to your Facebook friends, or even in a direct message, we feel much more pressure to be (or at least sound) more and more interesting. Because we’re constantly being judged by that audience, you force yourself to write better and about things you feel are more interesting (even if they’re not).

But, as Turkle points out, that is not real conversation; real conversation is often boring, vapid, dull, lacking any depth and that’s okay, because we never know when we’re going to emerge into the oasis of conversational refreshment. (And, as Thompson also points out, most of our online conversation is just as shallow as our conversations IRL).

Now that previous pressure I once felt to be the The Most Interesting Man in the World at every waking second with every person I ever encountered, both online and off, has been lifted. And the more I think about it, the more I love talking about the weather. My best friend returns from a trip to New Zealand? Tell me about the weather! My co-worker mentions that she spent several weeks traveling around Australia and sleeping in a bus? Golly, it must have been hot! DC just got slammed with days and days of torrential rain? Let me tell you just how much my life was affected.

I can literally (and I literally mean literally) talk about the weather with anyone, be it the apathetic teenager at the CVS, the grumpy woman waiting in line to pee, or the person in my office building who I swear doesn’t even work there.

So here’s to talking endlessly about the weather. Here’s to awkward cubicle chatter about that time it was cold, that time it was hot, that time your camping trip got ruined because of the rain. While we’re waiting for our food to heat up in the cafeteria’s microwave, tell me about how strong the wind blew last night. While we wash our hands in the bathroom, I’d love to hear about how it’s unusually cold for this late in May. And the next time you and I run into each other in the elevator, you bethca I’m gonna comment on how cloudy it’s supposed to get this weekend. And I’m going to enjoy all thirteen seconds of it.


Radial drift and the hazards of planet-building

When a huge cloud of dust and gas collapses under the weight of its own gravity, heats up and spins for millions upon millions of years, a star is born. But during that process, the angular momentum causes a disk to form, and tiny dust particles around the disk collide, bounce off each other, stick to one another and eventually form rocky planets like Earth or gas giants like Jupiter.

Except that it’s not quite that simple.

As the proto-planetary disk spins, it’s depleted of its precious planetary building blocks. Particles larger than a centimeter interact with gas and lose energy, shrinking their orbit and causing them to drift quickly towards the inner region of the disk. Eventually, these larger bodies get lost in the forming central star. The larger the particle, the faster it will drift. A meter-sized boulder of material one astronomical unit away from the infant star can disappear within one thousand years—a blink of an eye in celestial time.

This so-called radial drift depletes the disk of dust, but that’s not the only hazard for growing planets. As particles and larger rocks collide, they don’t always stick together. Sometimes they blast each other apart, forcing the particles back to planetary square one.

It’s easy to imagine the microscopic-sized particles slowly sticking together to form millimeter or even centimeter sized particles, says post-doctoral fellow Laura Perez of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, but there’s a mystery—how do these centimeter-sized particles (which have already taken millions of years to form) get any bigger?

We’re all standing on a rocky planet, and since 2009, NASA’s Kepler probe has found hundreds more, so what gives? Somehow those tiny dust particles are growing into planet-sized bodies.

At this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago, IL, Perez described how her team, using highly sensitive radio telescopes at the Very Large Array in New Mexico, analyzed young star systems to get more insight into planet growth. With the VLA, the researchers found that the distribution of dust was consistent with radial drift–smaller particles were more highly distributed in the outer parts of the disk, while larger particles populated the inner region.

Recent observations using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, the newest and most sensitive radio telescope yet, showed that in most well-characterized proto-planetary disks, there is an asymmetry in the distribution of dust—one side of the disk has a higher concentration of dust than the other side. Perez speculates that there are areas where pockets of gas create pressure gradients, trapping dust particles and allowing them to grow larger without falling into the developing star.

Over the next year, Perez and her team will observe the distribution of gas in proto-planetary disks to find these high pressure pockets. Hydrogen, the most abundant gas in the universe, makes up most of the gas surrounding a developing star. But hydrogen is a “very picky molecule, in a way,” says Perez. Due to its symmetrical structure and low weight, hydrogen molecules are difficult to detect, even with the most sensitive telescopes. Instead, the team will be tracing carbon monoxide, a larger, more asymmetrical molecule that the telescopes can detect.

“This is why ALMA is going to be a revolution,” Perez says, “We’re going to see very clearly what the gas is doing, [and] see very clearly what the dust is doing.”

So far, the idea of a pressure gradient keeping dust particles together is a speculation, but the data gathered from ALMA will hopefully provide researchers with clues to the missing link between particles and planets.

VIDEO: Scientists watch the formation of memory-making proteins

For the first time ever, scientists have witnessed the formation of a protein crucial to memory formation.

In a “technological tour-de-fouce,” scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University used advanced imaging techniques and a never-before-seen mouse model to observe the formation and transportation of beta-actin protein, which is thought to be crucial to strong synaptic connections. Two papers published in Science report on the findings.

Hye Yoon Park, PhD and postdoctoral student, spent three years developing a mouse model that produces fluorescently tagged messenger RNA–the molecule that provides instruction for protein-synthesis–for beta-actin protein.

Dendrites–the spindly “fingers” of neurons–come together at synapses, structures that allow the transportation of neurotransmitters from one neuron to the next. Memories are thought be formed when synapses are strengthened and stabilized by electrical impulses, which change the shape of the dendrites. Beta-actin is thought to play a role in the shape-shifting of dendrites and thus the strengthening of synapses–and memories.

When she stimulated the mouse’s hippocampus—the area of the brain that forms and stores memories—Park observed beta-actin mRNA forming in the nuclei of neurons and travelling down to the dendrites, where the protein would be synthesized.

The second paper describes the work of graduate student Adina Buxbaum, who made a remarkable discovery about the unique way in which neurons regulate the production of beta-actin protein.

“Having a long, attenuated structure means that neurons face a logistical problem,” said Robert Singer, Ph.D., the senior author of both papers and professor and co-chair of Einstein’s department of anatomy & structural biology and co-director of the Gruss Lipper Biophotonics Center at Einstein, in a press release. “Their beta-actin mRNA molecules must travel throughout the cell, but neurons need to control their mRNA so that it makes beta-actin protein only in certain regions at the base of dendritic spines.”

To prevent the synthesis of more protein than needed, it seems that the mRNA is “packaged” into tiny granules. When neurons are stimulated, these granules fall apart, freeing up mRNA for synthesis. Buxbaum observed that after a few minutes, the free-floating mRNA becomes repackaged.

It seems that neurons have developed an “ingenious” method to control their memory-making proteins.

A Spacecraft Symphony

As Voyagers 1 and 2 blast deeper into deep space, they each take hourly measurements of the number of photons roaring past them. For 37 years, the spacecrafts have taken over 320,000 measurements. A musician with a PhD in physics, Domenico Vicinanza, has mapped each measurement with a corresponding note–higher measurements get a higher note–to produce some cosmically beautiful music. ScienceShots reports on the scintillating  symphony, which features Voyager 1 on piano and Voyager 2 on violin. The instruments overlap where the two spacecrafts were taking simultaneous measurement.

While Vicinanza admits he composed the musical arrangement purely as a fun way to present the Voyager mission data, he says transforming data sets into music in this way can help scientists recognize trends and patterns they might otherwise miss. And that makes for music that’s definitely out of this world.

Click the link above to listen.

Needle-less, on-demand vaccines: A new frontier for nanoparticles

Chemical engineers at the University of Washington have developed a new type of vaccine that could be a “game changer” in the fight against the most difficult-to-treat viral infections. Their vaccine, which could be made quickly, cheaply and be administered without a needle, uses nanoparticle technology to create long-lasting immune responses. So far, the vaccine has shown promising results in mice.

“What we wanted to do was essentially find out possible ways of producing vaccines on the spot,” says chemical engineer and lead author of the study, François Baneyx.

Traditional vaccines are made en masse in centralized locations, far away from where they might be needed. A vaccine made on-demand would be invaluable to physicians in remote places, especially in developing countries.

“For instance, a field doctor could see the beginnings of an epidemic, make vaccine doses right away, and blanket vaccinate the entire population in the affected area to prevent the spread of an epidemic,” Baneyx said in a press release.

Vaccines work by preparing your immune system for a viral attack. When you get vaccinated, you’re injected with a small dose of a microbe, which has special surface proteins called antigens that are recognized by the immune system as foreign invaders. Large cells called macrophages deliver antigens to the lymphatic system, where T cells and B cells are activated and sent out to the fight the invasion. Once the microbes have been destroyed by the lymphocytes, some of them are converted into memory cells, which will “remember” the microbe if it ever enters your system again.

Baneyx and his team were inspired by the natural process of mineralization, the process by which animals like mollusks build their shells, and engineered a protein that can mineralize an inorganic material—in this case, calcium phosphate, a compound found in tooth and bone. The resulting nanoparticles consist of a core of calcium phosphate with a “shell” made up of the engineered protein, which also acts as the antigen. (Nanoparticles are categorized as less than 100 nanometers in diameter. To put it in perspective, a strand of hair is 75,000 nanometers thick).

In a study, the researchers injected one group of mice with the vaccinating nanoparticles and another group of mice with the protein alone. Eight months later, the team infected the mice with a derivative of the influenza virus and found that the mice that had received the nanoparticle showed a heightened production of a specific type of T-cell, called cytotoxic—or “killer”—T cells.

The nanoparticles are so small that they can freely enter the lymphatic system, according to the study. Baneyx suspects that once the nanoparticles are in the lymph nodes, they are able to directly stimulate special immune response cells called dendritic cells, which are “powerful inducers” of T-cell responses.

In a real life scenario, the vaccine could be produced by mixing a freeze-dried protein—engineered based on proteins that exist on the surface of pathogens—with a solution of water, calcium and phosphate to produce the nanoparticles. They could then be administered by a disposable application system like a bandage or a patch.

Baneyx emphasized that the promising results have only been shown in mice, and that this vaccine has not been made for humans yet. The research was published in the journal Nanomedicine.

Predicting Literacy Success: A Quantitative Exploration

Remember in high school when teachers told you to use more exciting verbs and adverbs because that’s what makes good writing? Why, they proclaimed, should a character just “say” something when he can “exclaim,” “cry” or “cheer” something?

Turns out your high school writing teacher might have been wrong about this one.

A new paper from Stony Brook Department of Computer Science has found a correlation between successful literature and writing style—and it doesn’t look good for exciting verbs and adverbs. Assistant Professor Yejin Choi, a co-author of the paper titled “Success with Style: Using Writing Style to Predict the Success of Novels,” examined 800 novels from eight different genres and found several predictors of literary success.

Less successful books contain a higher percentage of verbs, adverbs and foreign words (so maybe trying to sound sophisticated by peppering your stories with nods to French cuisine isn’t the best choice). Less successful books also use extreme descriptions, typical locations and “rely more on topical words,” like ‘love,’ that “could be almost cliché.” Verbs that explicitly describe actions or emotions—like “wanted,” “took,” or “promised,” appear more often in less successful books, while simpler verbs like “say” or “said” appear in more successful books. More successful books also make frequent use of adjectives and conjunctions such as “and,” “but,” and “or” to join sentences.

Choi and her colleagues defined “success” by download counts from Project Gutenberg, a donation-run website that offers over 42,000 titles for free download in electronic format.

The researchers took 1000 sentences from the beginning of each book. They performed systematic analyses based on lexical and syntactic features that have been proven effective in Natural Language Processing (NLP) tasks such as authorship attribution, genre detection, gender identification, and native language detection.

 “To the best of our knowledge, our work is the first that provides quantitative insights into the connection between the writing style and success of literacy works,” Choi said. “Our work examines a considerably larger collection—800 books—over multiple genres, providing insights into lexical, syntactic, and discourse patterns that characterize the writing styles commonly shared among the successful literature.” Their analytic system was able to predict, with 84% accuracy, which books were more successful.

Choi and her colleagues also made an unexpected discovery: readability and literary success “correlate in opposite directions.” “We conjecture that the conceptual complexity of highly successful literary work might require syntactic complexity that goes against readability,” Choi said.

Finally, my struggles reading The Classics are validated.

Scientists introduce mammoth DNA into bacteria…wait, what?!

This is a SUMMARY of Ed Yong’s piece “The Bacteria that Absorbed Mammoth DNA.” Link is below!

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen found that bacteria can incorporate ancient DNA into their own genetic code, giving insight to the way bacteria can evolve quickly.

In his blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong describes the ability of microbes to pick up DNA from their surroundings. There are fragments of DNA everywhere, coming from living things that have died and decomposed. Most of “the fragments are far too small to include entire genes,” Yong wrote, but the research gives scientists insight into the ability for bacteria to adapt and evolve quickly.

Soren Overballe-Petersen and his team in Copenhagen knew that bacteria could incorporate small, damaged fragments of DNA into their own genetic code, and they “wondered if bacteria could take up extremely old DNA too.” The only problem, Yong wrote, was that it’s hard to find DNA from ancient microbes.

What Overballe-Petersen had was something they knew was really old: a 43,000 year old mammoth bone. The microbes were able to pick up this genetic material and insert it into their DNA. “This genetic material,” Yong wrote, “broken and shattered by many millennia of decay, is now back in living cells again.”

The research could give insight into problems like antibiotic-resistant bacteria that devastate hospitals, Yong wrote. Killing living bacteria in hospital rooms doesn’t necessarily kill the DNA, which could get ‘picked up’ by bacteria again, Overballe-Petersen said.

Read Yong’s original post here: The Bacteria That Absorbed Mammoth DNA