As all you Darwin fans out there probably already know, today marks the 150th anniversary of the great man's work, 'On the Origin of Species.'  And here at NOVA we have been ramping up for this event for some time.

While Darwin's 200th birthday (last February) was celebrated with gusto, I think it's equally (if not more) important to toast his decision to publish his 'dangerous idea' about evolution.  This was something he struggled long and hard with - until one day a letter arrived in the mail that would force his hand.

I just found out that President Obama is speaking at MIT (just a hop, skip and jump across the river from our offices) about clean energy research and to promote Senator Kerry (D-Mass.) and Senator Boxer's (D- Calif.) energy bill.  You can watch online here.  Or it's on live on the White House's channel on Fri. Oct. 23 at around 12:30 pm EST here.  Obama is only the second sitting president to visit MIT (Bill Clinton was the first in 1998, when he gave the commencement speech). 

The other night I happened to flip by an episode of CSI Miami and when I saw it included a plot line involving bacteria, I perked up.  The episode, called 'Bad Seed,' had the CSI-ers investigating a woman who had been poisoned by E. coli from some contaminated lettuce she ate.  The investigators traced the source to feces run off from nearby cattle onto the farm where the lettuce was growing.  So far so good.  Then the show takes a turn and the woman's boyfriend gets sick - but not from E. coli. 


Grow Your Own Meat

With summer over (at least here on the east coast) the last tomatoes and peppers are being harvested from home gardens, apple picking is wrapping up at local orchards and farmers' markets are shutting up shop. 

But never fear, you can now bring the locavore movement indoors with the new Cocoon fish and meat maker.  The sleek pod-like contraption grows meat or fish from simple packets of muscle cells and nutrients. Check it out:

We were on to this idea a while ago during our very first season of NOVA scienceNOW. Check out the segment on 'lab meat' here.
Luis von Ahn, profiled on this past season of NOVA scienceNOW, has just sold his company reCAPTCHA to Google.  The company came up with the idea for  'CAPTCHAs' - those squiggly words many websites require you to type in to verify that you are a real human (and not some auto-spammer).  Computers have trouble reading the skewed letters, but humans have no trouble at all. 

But the 'catch' with 'CAPTCHAs' is that many of the words come from scanned documents such as book and newspaper archives.  So they actually do double duty - protecting you from spam and helping to catalog all sorts of new information by teaching the computer to read blurred or faded words from the scanned text. 

Google plans to use the technology to help with their large text scanning projects including Google Books and Google News Archive Search.

Find out more about CAPTCHAs and their inventor here.

Running (Almost) Barefoot

When WGBH, NOVA's parent PBS company moved locations, our new home (in Brighton, MA) just happened to be next to the offices of the New Balance shoe company.  And they just happen to have a store in the building adjacent to ours.  So whenever I pass the store, it often brings running to mind.

Which leads me to my current post - Not too long ago I bought a pair of running shoes.  They are quite snazzy - with powder blue trim and futuristic looking mesh over the toes.  But they don't come close to some other running shoes I recently came across - the Vibram FiveFingers.  A cross between a gorilla's foot and a waterproof slipper, the shoes are meant to mimic the act of running barefoot.  Check out a demo video from Wired:

Sounds a little strange, but there is some science to back up the idea that running without shoes could actually prevent more injuries than it sounds like it would cause.
When we think of plants, most of us think of static green things that sit in their soil and don't do much more than photosynthesize. But there is a whole other side to these organisms. Science is showing plants can do everything from ward off insects and other predators, to recognize and communicate with their own relatives.

'The Happening' Ain't Happening'
 In M. Night Shyamalan's 2008 film, 'The Happening,' [Movie spoiler alert! Skip to the next alert if you want to avoid spoilage of the plot... and the movie's premise!]...
In honor of yesterday's 'Audacity of Hops' - where President Obama met with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and police Sergeant James Crowley over a 'cold one' to discuss Gates' recent arrest - I thought I would mention a beer created by a scientist from some rather unique yeast. 

As you may know, beer is made when yeast cells ferment grain to produce the frothy, flavorful drink that goes so well with pizza.  Raul Cano, a microbiologist at California Polytechnic State University, had the idea to make beer out of some pretty special yeast he'd been studying.  What was so unusual about said yeast?  Cano extracted the yeast from a 45-million-year-old fossil

Just like in the film Jurassic Park, the fossil was entombed in amber. Unlike in Jurassic Park, we know we can't resurrect dinosaurs from ancient creatures stuck in amber, but Cano thought maybe he could start a little smaller and bring back to life the single-celled yeast microbes he found inside.  Amazingly it worked!  And since he couldn't think of anything else to do with the ancient yeast (which just so happened to be the same type used by brewers) Cano decided to make beer with it.

The ancient brew wasn't half bad - Cano even sent some to the Jurassic Park 2 cast party.  Want to try some?  You can soon - it will be sold starting this fall in California under the label 'Fossil Fuels Brewing Company.'   

On a personal note, as a former microbiology major, I have some heavy respect for yeast and the lovely amber fluid they create.  And I must admit, seeing that possible career choices in my field of study included working at a brewery went a long way in helping me choose my major.  Perhaps I should have studied paleontology as well - who knew fossils would play a role alongside microbiology in brewing! 
Who knew it was so hard to name an element in the periodic table?  But that's what happened with the ultra heavy element formerly known as ununbium (number 112 on the table).  Sigurd Hofmann's team at the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany, were the first to make the element back in 1996.  Tradition has it that the creator can propose a name.  But it's up to the official chemical naming organization, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) to finalize that name. 

The German team proposed the name 'copernicium' - after the famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus who discovered the earth orbits the sun.  IUPAC only recently acknowledged the element and the group is still in the midst of evaluating the proposed name 'copernicium.'  According to their naming standards, it is acceptable to name an element after:
• a mythological concept or character (including an astronomical object);
• a mineral, or similar substance;
• a place or geographical region;
• a property of the element; or
• a scientist.

It seems like scientists are a popular choice.  Hofmann's team has named a number of other elements, including element 107 - Bohrium, after Niels Bohr (for more on Bohr, check out The Elegant Universe) and number 109 - Meitnerium, Lise Meitner (learn more about her in Einstein's Big Idea).  I say Copernicus is bound to be next.

I always find it interesting when a drug meant for one thing - say cancer - ends up helping a whole other disease - say, a rare neurological disorder.  This is precisely what happened to Edith Garrett, featured in this Boston Globe article.  19-year-old Garrett suffers from a disorder called neurofibromatosis, a rare genetic condition that causes benign tumors to grow in the brain.  The tumors cause everything from facial paralysis to lost hearing - both of which Garrett suffers from.  Recently Garrett started on Avastin, a class of cancer drug called an angiogenesis inhibitor - meaning it blocks blood vessel growth to the tumor, effectively starving it.  The drug is showing a lot of success in the patients using it - six of seven people taking it have regained their hearing - Garrett is one of them.

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Credit: WGBH Educational Foundation

Angiogenesis in cancer was first discovered by famed cancer researcher Judah Folkman - who recently passed away.  NOVA scienceNOW paid tribute to the great  man and describes where his work on angiogenesis has taken us.  Check out the segment here.   And for the complete story of Folkman's rise to fame, check out our hour-long special, Cancer Warrior.

Not many people get to have something in nature named after them. And Dr. Robert Drewes, Curator of Herpetology for the California Academy of Sciences recognizes his good fortune. He thinks it's a 'wonderful honor' to lend his name to a new species of stinkhorn mushroom, discovered on the African island of Sao Tome. Perhaps Dr. Drewes has yet to see the new fungus, now dubbed Phallus drewesii, which is two inches long, shaped like a phallus and gives off a foul, rotting meat odor. Or perhaps he is blinded by the celebrity that often comes with having something named after you.

Our president can commiserate - not long ago, he had a new species of lichen named after him - Caloplaca obamae. Once again, he didn't have much choice in the matter since it's the finder's choice in naming the discovery. But like Dr. Drewes, I'm sure the president smiles fondly whenever he comes across his bright orange lichen. In the same way, Dr. Drewes must be so proud to look upon his namesake phallus-shaped 'shroom.
Filmmaker Mark Lewis knows how to showcase an animal. This is a producer who can bring a chicken to life like you wouldn't believe. His famous documentary 'The Natural History of the Chicken' is a perfect example. In what other nature film could you watch the story of a woman who brings back to life a once frozen solid chicken using 'mouth-to-beak' resuscitation? Or who else could make an ordinary ferret extraordinary through the eyes of eccentric ferret-lover pet owners who write songs about their beloved animals and even dress them up as cowboys, hula dancers and ballerinas?

One of my favorite scenes of a documentary comes from another of Lewis' hilarious film on the Australia animal scourge: 'Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.' The scene starts with a long shot of a truck swerving back and forth along a road. The driver is speaking while he's swerving and he's talking about how he takes aim at and kills as many cane toads on the road that he can - he does it to protect the natural wildlife, which, unlike the artificially introduced toads, he truly does love. As the truck gets closer, you start to hear thumping, which you can only assume are the toads getting run over.

These amazing films are no typical nature shows - Lewis' verite style that lacks narration draws you in to a subject you never thought could interest you and keeps you coming back for more.

Check out the PBS blog Q&A with filmmaker Mark Lewis to learn more.
It's not often you find the label 'Viewer discretion advised' accompanying a science talk. But that is what this Ted Talk by author Mary Roach warns. And for good reason. In her talk, Roach, bestselling author of 'Stiff' and 'Bonk,' shows a highly disturbing movie of a pig farmer inseminating and 'manually stimulating' a female pig to improve its litter numbers.

The Science of Orgasm
Framegrab from TED

Aside from the cringe-worthy film, the talk is actually quite interesting. But for all the crazy experiments that have been done over the years to examine orgasms, we still have no clue what evolutionary purpose the behavior serves in us. So although I'm still not sure why it's 'good for me,' I do know why it's good for a pig.
If you've been following this blog religiously (as I'm sure you have been), you may have read one of our previous posts about naming a fungus after President Obama, or the one about the attempt to name a piece of the space station after Stephen Colbert.

Well it looks like Colbert will finally get his name claim to fame and - it could be argued - that it's way cooler than a presidential fungus.

Two entomologists took on Colbert's challenge to the science community to "name something cooler than a spider" after him to honor him. So the scientists named a beetle after him. And to let Colbert know about it, they sent him a picture of the bug along with a birthday card asking 'What has six legs and is way cooler than a spider?' The answer, of course is the newly discovered diving beetle from Venezuela, Agaporomorphus colberti.

It's nice to see scientists with a sense of humor similar to Stephen Colbert's.

Swine Flu on Twitter

I'll admit it, I've been getting a little worked up about this possible Swine Flu pandemic. So it's probably not a good idea for me to keep track of the action using social networking sites, but I just can't resist.

So I started 'following' the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Twitter. And that's how I found out there are now 2 confirmed cases of swine flu in my state (Massachusetts).

I can then go to Facebook and join one of the dozens of 'Swine Flu' members and groups out there (some funny, some serious, some just down right ridiculous).

Luckily I can then go to You Tube and watch a CDC podcast with a calm looking doctor telling me the facts (and in my mind, not to panic).

So maybe there is something to this social networking, after all (at least something more than telling me - or worse showing me - what my cousin had for breakfast this morning).

A Fungus Among Us

A researcher at UC Riverside has named a newly discovered species of lichen after President Obama. Dubbed 'Caloplaca obamae,' the orange-colored lichen is actually a cross between a fungus and an algae. The discoverer, Kerry Knudsen, collected the final samples of the lichen during the last weeks of the Obama campaign and he finished the paper announcing the discovery on Inauguration Day. According to scientific protocol, it's up to the person who discovers a new species to name it. Wonder if he had to get the President's permission. I suppose it could have been worse - he could have found a slime mold, instead.
The New York Times reported today on an Australian artist known as Stelarc who has been working on implanting an artificial, Bluetooth-enable ear in his arm. It's all part of his art exhibit that looks at the blurred lines between the living human form and its artificial extensions.

Stelarc has had to undergo a number of surgeries to implant the ear and has had to endure many infections along the way, delaying his 'art.' He plans to have a microphone installed in the ear on his arm, which will post all the sounds it records on the web.

I would say that this whole 'exhibit' is without a doubt 'creepy.'
It looks like the folks at Segway haven't just been sitting around waiting for the profits of their original people-moving invention to come in (who wouldn't want to Tour DC, Paris or even Budapest by Segway?)... They've actually been working on the next Segway - Project P.U.M.A (Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility).

According to their blog, the vehicle can expand to hold up to two people in a seated position, runs on lithium ion batteries, goes at a speed of up to 35 mph and runs for up to 35 miles per charge.

You can check out their sleek YouTube video here.
A key part of researching a story for television is, well, the visual element. If there's nothing to see, it doesn't belong on TV. So it's probably not surprising that we spend a lot of time watching things on the web.

Take this Popular Science video posting on the evolution of cuteness, for example. It's actually cobbled together from YouTube home videos. Now tell me, who doesn't love to watch cuteness? We're talking instant television success (why do you think AFV is still on the air?)!
Heirloom tomatoes are the ultimate symbol of the small, local farmer. We think of these many-colored oddly-shaped tomatoes as some of the more flavorful varieties that only come around once a year. You would think with all its many shapes and colors, this type of tomato would have enormous genetic variety. But unfortunately you'd be wrong. Heirlooms are actually a highly inbred species due to many failed breeding experiments throughout the ages.

One problem with all this inbreeding is that it has made heirlooms more susceptible to damage from its environment - the tomatoes crack more easily and tend to have less protection from many pests. So now researchers are selecting for certain genes from the tomato genome and inserting them into the heirlooms to make them more resilient without changing their taste or familiar heirloom shape. Researchers are also looking in to making regular tomatoes tastier by looking at what makes heirlooms so good - again, it's not all in their genes. It's actually more that heirloom plants grow fewer tomatoes on each vine, allowing them to have a more consolidated flavor. Who knew there was so much we could learn from an old frumpy-looking fruit?

Crazy Animal Robots

Check out this crazy dog-like robot video made by MA-based Boston Dynamics. The idea is to use the robot in battle situations to transport heavy equipment through rough terrain. Looks like they really tested this guy out, getting someone try to kick it over and making it cross over a particularly icy patch of ground, then replaying both situations in slow-mo (not unlike an action film battle scene).

Now it looks like this 'BigDog' robot now has some competition from another Boston area company called Vecna. They are making a similar robot called BEAR that they promoting as "the robot that can save your skin." Unlike BigDog, BEAR stands on two legs. You can see for yourself on Vecna's website.

Rapping Science

Kudos to John Tierney for finding this awesome rap on Evo Devo (the science of Evolutionary Developmental Biology):
Tierney Lab.

For those who haven't heard of Evo Devo before, this is the science that looks at how we and all the species on earth evolved by looking through the lens of development (i.e. how an animal grows up from an embryo). So by understanding how an embryo grows into its complex adult form, we can find clues in the animal's genes as to how new limbs and body function arise (e.g. by looking at what genes are turned on to make a limb, we get an idea of the pathway that evolved in order to make limbs).

Also note in the rap one of the rappers is wearing an old Toronto Blue Jays hat - my home team! (Though now living in Boston I am of course a Red Sox fan :)

Creativity Google-Style

Google has a lot of things going for it, as we all know. But one thing I think they really got right was that they allow their employees one day a week - that's 20% of their time - the luxury of working on new, innovative projects for the company. This could be anything their hearts desire, no matter how wacky or overly ambitious. They then have the option to post and test out some those crazy ideas on Google Labs.

And the results are pretty telling. Without this 20% ideas policy we wouldn't have applications like Google Books, Google Scholar, Google Earth, Gmail... the list goes on.
So I know I'm a bit late to be talking about love, but I was traveling on Valentine's day so I missed out on celebrating with my beloved. But I did catch a neat podcast on the American Physiological Society's site, Life Lines.

Lucy Brown, a neuroscientist at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine scanned the brains of young people newly in love. Making sure they thought only about love (not sex - which has its roots in another part of the brain), Dr. Brown scanned the subjects' brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they looked at photos of their beloved. She found that their feelings of love could be traced to a part of the brain called the ventral tegmental area - an area that has to do with reflexes and primitive learning (e.g. hunger, thirst) and reward systems. This suggests that romantic love is more of a primal drive to pursue a preferred mate, rather than just an emotion.

Interestingly, both chocolate and cocaine also activate this ventral tegmental area. So maybe the expression 'love is like a drug' isn't too far off the mark!
The recent economic stimulus package includes financial aid for university science departments. The bill allocates an extra $10 billion for the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and an extra $2 billion for the NSF (National Science Foundation) to stimulate shorter-term grants for science research. The provisions on the money are that it must be used soon and it must stimulate the nation's economy.

So the question is: How will this money be spent? Most federal science research funding has remained flat for several years, so these additional funds are much needed. And while some of the money is being earmarked for laboratory and building improvements, where will the rest of it go?

Of course there are some concerns with the provisions. For example, will we cut funding in global health research in favor of more domestic benefits? Will stem cell research remain off limits, preventing us from finally catching up with the rest of the world in this fast expanding field? And what about providing jobs for all those graduating PhD scientists? While it's great to encourage people to go into careers as scientists, it's not so great when those people find they can't get hired due to the lack of available positions. The NIH has urged universities to make new hires a priority as they contemplate how they will spend the stimulus funding. Will the institutions listen?

New scientific advances can undoubtedly boost the nation's economy (particularly in the fields of clean energy and biomedicine), but we have to choose wisely in how we spend additional federal funds to make sure what science is done continues to provide for advances in all fields around the world.
It's official - the Boston Globe has followed the lead of countless other national newspapers and has decided to deep six its 'Health and Science' section. I'm not surprised, really, as the section has been shrinking steadily for years. It first went from a full, robust stand-alone pull-out section to a progressively shorter couple of pages in the end of the front section just before the op-eds. This morning, as I flipped to the start of the section, I noticed a short note on the top left-hand corner of the page:

Starting next Monday, the stories and features that now appear in the Health/Science section will move to other sections of the Globe. Personal health stories, including Health Answers and briefs about medical research, will move to "g", which will have a personal health focus on Mondays. Science articles, including Ask Dr. Knowledge and The Green Blog, will move to the Business section, which will have a science and innovation focus on Mondays. White Coat Notes will be published online only, at

Is this just another sign of the times for the print media or could we look at it in a more positive manner - science is so prevalent that it doesn't need its own section and there is a place for it in all the sections of the paper? I wish I could argue for the latter, but I fear it's more likely the reality we are facing is that science print media is a dying breed.

I suppose that's good for someone like myself who is in science television, but I still feel a sense of loss that yet another consistently measured and reliable form of science journalism is facing such tough times. Besides, didn't our new president just tell us he wants to help restore science to its rightful place? Doesn't that mean we should be working harder to cover MORE, not less science in ALL forms of media?

"Sexy" Science

I was recently in Chicago for the annual AAAS meeting. The AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) is the largest professional science organization in the world. Some 10,000 people participate in the meeting - so it can be a bit overwhelming, to say the least.

This year, though, I had a mission. I focused in large part on the many sessions dealing with evolution. Evolution was a big part of the conference clearly because of the famous naturalist Charles Darwin's birthday (he turned 200 on Feb. 12, in case you hadn't heard).

One of the more entertaining sessions I went to featured Dr. Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College London, author, television personality and New York Times blogger. Her session dealt with the topic of evolution and sexual behavior.

Gaia Remerowski

Gaia Remerowski left NOVA in 2009. Before that, she served as NOVA’s senior researcher.  Not to be confused with a scientific researcher (it happens), she researched and developed science stories and helped with the editorial content for both NOVA and NOVA scienceNOW. For NOVA, she has worked on shows such as Ghost in Your Genes, a revolution in genetics with far reaching effects on our health; The Big Energy Gamble, about California’s ambitious plan to cut emission; and Car of the Future, a search for the next clean vehicle with the famous ‘Car Talk’ brothers.  For NOVA scienceNOW, she developed stories ranging from secret artificial diamond labs to the science behind the deadly anthrax terrorist attacks.  Prior to joining the research department, she worked on the production team for Rx for Survival: A Global Health Challenge, a six part series on global health issues narrated by Brad Pitt.  She holds a Master’s degree from Boston University’s Center for Science and Medical Journalism and a Bachelor’s degree in Microbiology and Immunology from McGill University in Montreal, Canada.  

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