March 16, 2010
Science has never been my strength (that kid on the TV sitcom who blows everything up in the lab? That was me). But whatever I lack in scientific ability I apparently make up for in intuition.
One of the young scientists we featured here earlier today, Erika Debenedictis, just won Intel’s Science Talent Search 2010. Her project, “Traveling the Interplanetary Superhighway: An Autonomous Spacecraft Navigation System,” was selected as the top project among the 40 finalists (she beat out more than a thousand total entries).
Congratulations to Erika.
(As for me, I’m going to start playing the lottery).
Forty high school seniors have traveled from across the country to Washington, D.C., this week for Intel’s Science Talent Search 2010, a program from the Society for Science & the Public. While here, the students have presented their projects to rounds of judges at the National Academy of Sciences. And tonight, Intel will announce which students have won awards (among them, a $100,000 top prize).
I recently spoke with two of the finalists about their projects: one about software that could allow spacecraft to fly through space with little fuel, and another about the dangerous effects of burning indoor candles on air quality.
Erika Debenedictis, Albuquerque, New Mexico: “Traveling the Interplanetary Superhighway: An Autonomous Spacecraft Navigation System”
Debenedictis wanted to be an astronaut for years, but when she read an article about the “Interplanetary Superhighway,” she became curious about the vehicles that carried astronauts. The article explained the theory behind the Interplanetary Transport Network, a set of pathways through space that allow spacecraft to travel with very little energy. Using the pathways, spacecraft can move around the solar system with little or no fuel. Instead, they navigate orbits using gravity and the movement of planets, like a sailboat can sail using only ocean currents and the wind.
Spacecraft have used low-energy routes to navigate space before, most memorably when Japan rescued its Hiten lunar mission in 1991, and also in NASA’s Genesis mission, which is orbiting the Sun and Earth on one of the ITN pathways to collect solar wind particles. But Debenedictis says the method never been used specifically to travel to other planets. This area of research has lost most of its funding over the past decade, which means research on low-energy routes has nearly come to a halt.
Her goal is to revive it.
Satellites frequently use low-energy routes to travel through space, Debenedictis says, by using station-keeping ability (methods like an ion thruster or solar sail to keep a spacecraft in a specific orbit) that gives them continuous propulsion through space.
Debenedictis designed a software program based on this concept. When used on a spacecraft, the software could help satellites or spacecraft stay on one of ITN’s pathways with little to no fuel. And based on Debenedictis’ calculations, her program could save the space industry millions of dollars in fuel costs for their satellites and spacecraft and may even cut the time it takes to travel between planets—say, from the Earth to the moons of Jupiter—in half.
Debenedictics is talking to the Boeing Company with the hopes of running her software on their equipment, to see how satellites and other spacecraft would react to its station keeping methods. Instead of an astronaut, she now wants to be an aerospace engineer so she can continue her research and make low-energy orbits a reality.
“Nobody is funding low-energy orbits right now, but [scientists] think this is a cool area that hasn’t been figured out yet,” she said. “This is a good time for me to be around.”
Otana Jakpor, Riverside, California: “Indoor Air Pollution: A Comparison of Fine Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) Emissions from Paraffin and Soy Candles.”
Many people in Otana Jakpor’s home state of California have worried about outdoor air pollution. But they should be just as worried about pollution inside their own homes, Jakpor says.
Every year, about 2.4 million people worldwide die from diseases related to air pollution, according to the World Health Organization. Much of that exposure to pollution occurs indoors.
Inspired by her mother, who has severe asthma, Jakpor has spent several years studying indoor air pollution. Her most recent project examines the particles released by indoor candles made from soy and paraffin. What makes fine particulate matter, like that released from candles, so dangerous is its small size, Jakpor says. Because they are such tiny particles, they affect more than just breathing. The particles can go deep into the respiratory tract and from there into the blood stream, and cause heart attacks and cancer.
Using an air monitor from the University of California at Riverside, Jakpor tested both paraffin and soy candles in her own home, measuring the amount of fine particulate matter in the air before burning candles, while burning them, and after they were put out.
She found that one paraffin candle could produce as much as 50 times more fine particles (PM 2.5) than a soy candle. She also found that the candles’ wax petroleum, a byproduct of the burning candle, has similarities to diesel exhaust—a known carcinogen. The national air quality standard for outdoor particulate matter, like diesel, is 35 micrograms per meter cubed for 24 hours. The paraffin candle Jakpor studied released 52 micrograms per meter cubed during the same time period.
“I don’t want people to get scared and think they can’t buy candles anymore, but I think it’s important that people have knowledge and information about what they’re buying,” Jakpor says.
But knowing what you’re buying is tricky because many candles don’t have labels. Even candles labeled as soy could have paraffin mixed in with them, Jakpor says, and there are several other factors that could affect PM 2.5, like fragrances or metal in the wicks.
Those are factors Jakpor wants to study in the future. In the meantime, she is active as a spokesperson for the American Lung Association, testifying at environmental hearings about her research. “I like to be able to go and make my voice heard,” she says.
February 11, 2010
Valentine’s Day is only days away, and if you’ve procrastinated shopping for the special geek in your life, you’re probably panicking.
Relax. Start with a card. For those tight on time or cash (or stuck in the East Coast snow storm), it might be wise to download one of these science valentines. It’s easy to woo your valentine with poems like “You’re perfect in every single way, all the way down to your DNA …”
On the chocolate front, make crunching numbers more fun for your sweetie with a giant chocolate calculator. Just don’t try to take a bite – it’s real. If your geek loves experimenting in the kitchen, Chocolates and Connections: Formula Theory and Technique for the Artisan Confectioner could let them unleash a bit of creative creativity. It could also mean major payoff for you: somebody has to “test” the results.
Does your honey love microbes? Snuggling up with a cute and cuddly Mono giant microbe plush will bring a smile to any Valentine’s face (unless, of course, they actually do have mononucleosis … from you). But not to worry: there are also common cold and E. coli versions. Or you can give the closest thing to your real heart: a handheld, pulsating plush heart. It (thankfully) doesn’t spill blood, but it might be a little too repulsive for the squeamish geeks out there.
If we’re being realistic, it gets pretty hard after a while to avoid jewelry on this day. At least you have a lot of choices:
- The Kinekt Gear Ring whose gears actually spin (finally, a ring it’s acceptable to play with!)
- Earrings, bracelets and necklaces from Made with Molecules, including a caffeine molecule necklace for your coffee lover, or a resveratrol necklace for your red wine aficionado.
- Transistor stud earrings
- A diode necklace, with matching bracelet and earrings
- And for male geeks, this LED binary watch (assuming they can read it).
But you don’t have to sell an arm and a leg in order to impress your Valentine. Homemade surprises are (relatively) cheap and will likely earn you major points for dabbling in some geek activity yourself. Spice up bath time with homemade fizzy bath bombs, write a love note in invisible ink or make your Valentine their own crystal.
January 27, 2010
It hasn’t taken much research (aside, I guess, from trial-and-error) to know humans under the influence of anything, from martinis to marijuana, tend to function less efficiently .
But that doesn’t seem true for certain spiders, according to research done by William Eberhard, an entomologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and his team in Costa Rica. They found that orb-weaving Allocyclosa bifurca spiders “under the influence” of chemicals from parasitic wasps spun stronger webs.
The relationship begins when the female wasp traps the spider on its own web (how humiliating) and lays an egg on the spider’s abdomen. The egg grows into a larva that makes small holes in the spider’s skin so it can drink vital juices from the spider to survive.
After about a week, the larva matures—and having no apparent need for the spider any longer, kills it and drinks the rest of the spider’s internal fluids until only a husk of the former spider remains. (Sorry for those of you who are squeamish). The larva builds itself into a cocoon on the spider’s web, and emerges as a mature wasp a few weeks later.
How parasites affect their hosts’ nervous system is a poorly understood area of research. Eberhard allowed wasps to lay the eggs on the spiders and watched as the larvae grew. He noted how the behavior of the spiders, and the shape of the webs, changed as the larvae matured, but removed the larvae right before they killed the spiders.
Eberhard found as the larvae matured, the chemicals began to “affect the spiders at higher levels of behavioral decisions that determined the overall design of the webs,” so that the web protects the parasite, and not the spider, as it matures. So, when the larvae are young, they simply trigger the spiders to begin building a resting web, as if the spiders were building the webs for themselves. When the larvae are more mature, they induce the spider to manipulate the web’s actual design so it better protects a cocoon instead of the spiders themselves.
By removing the larvae before they killed the spiders, Eberhard also allowed the spiders to “sober up” and resume their normal behavior (which they did, oddly enough, in the reverse of the order in which the changes occurred).
Experiments like these are helpful for studying future animal behavior because the manipulations parasites make in their hosts’ behavior have “been honed by natural selection over long periods of time,” Eberhard told the blog Smithsonian Science, “Understanding how these mechanisms work promises new, exciting and potentially powerful access into determining how animal behavior is controlled.”
So if you see a spider that looks a little off (or who spins a web that looks like the one to the left) you should feel bad for the poor guy—the larva may have already taken over.