Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Space Missions: Then, Now, and Future

A new way to follow my blog (in case there weren't enough already): Follow my blog with Bloglovin

To build on yesterday's on "The Integrated Space Plan," here are a couple of neat infographics about space travel. The first is the where-we've-been-where-we-are type that nicely lays out some of the history of space travel. The second details some future NASA missions (dates not taking into account any and all government shut-downs).

Space Travel-revised2

Courtesy of: experiences

Infographic via ScienceDump

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Integrated Space Plan

Sean Ragan of MAKE magazine posted this really cool graphic. It was created in the 1980's by analysts at Rockwell International and was called the “Integrated Space Plan.” Ragan had seen the poster in the late 90's and finally tracked it down last year. He was able to was able to connect with a generous donor willing to entrust an original copy of the poster to him long enough to have it scanned at high resolution.

So what is it? Essentially, it is a really really detailed flow chart for establishing a permanent human presence in space.

This is a small, pretty hard to see version. For a serious close-up, I recommend getting the PDF version (linked below) and taking some time to scroll around. At first glance it looks like your monitor has effed up with all the lines. But upon closer inspection you will notice that is organized chronologically from top to bottom, the arrowed lines denote “Evolutionary, Supporting, or Synergistic Relationships” and “Communication/Data Links,” and big circles are “Plateaus of Human Technological Achievement.” The nodes include goals like “Interstellar Traversing World Ships” and “Create New Moons for Mars If Required.”

Put simply, this is amazing!

Integrated Space Plan (.PDF)
Integrated Space Plan (.PNG)

Note: Should you decide to go with the PNG image, know that it is not large in terms of data, but in terms of pixels, it is huge: 16800 x 27000. That means that your browser may not be able to display the image. If this happens, try  right-clicking on the link, selecting “Save as…”, and then opening it in a dedicated image-viewing and/or editing program.

Story Links:

Make's "The Rockwell International Integrated Space Plan"
Grist: "Exposed: Manufacturing conglomerate’s plan for moving humans off of Earth"

Monday, October 14, 2013

Socialite in the Dark: Do Eyes Really Matter When It Comes To Schooling?

It has been a while since I've visited the topic of blind fish. I know, I know! What took me so long, right? Well, I was browsing for fish papers, ‘cause I take care of lab fish now (I’m working my way up to Fish Whisperer status), and I came across a paper in Current Biology about the schooling behavior of cavefish, specifically the effects of eyesight loss on this behavior.

There are two main types of social “collective behavior” in fish: shoaling and schooling. Shoals are defined exclusively by social attraction, simply being near each other in a group. To form a school, individuals must also maintain coordinated body position with their schoolmates, showing polarized orientation and synchronized movement.

In a 2011 post, The Sleep of the Blind Fish, I introduced you to Astyanax mexicanus, commonly known as the Mexican cavefish or Mexican tetra. I’ll let you visit that post for more details on this species, but for today know that it has two, interfertile forms: the normal or surface form is pigmented, sighted, and has a natural photoperiod, and the blind form is albino, has no eyes, and lives in dark caves. The normal form actively groups into schools and shoals while the cave form has reduced this behavior. A study by Johanna Kowalko et al. looked to quantify this schooling behavior. To do this they made a sort of fish mobile attached to a motor. As the grouped plastic model fish on the mobile moved, the live fish had the option to join, orient with, and follow the group or not. Images and videos allowed the researchers to measure the position of the fish, average and proportion of time each fish spent with the school, and nearest neighbor distances. They found that surface fish followed the model school while cavefish did not. The surface fish swam significantly closer together than did the cavefish. Also, the cavefish showed a loss of the tendency to swim oriented to one another, or school, as well as a decreased tendency to shoal.

Greenwood et al. (2013) Fig. 1
Okay, so why is this? What do you need to do (or have) to form a group? Some type of sense, right? I mean, you need to find others of your species, be able to sense your place in the group, and be able to respond to others in your group. As we know, the cavefish have adapted to a dark environment and so have no eyes. However, they do have a increased number and distribution of taste buds and cranial superficial neuromasts (mechanoreceptors that detect movements and pressure changes in surrounding water, think lateral line or “touch”). Kowalko’s group found that surface fish have significantly fewer and smaller cranial neuromasts than do cavefish, likely an adaptation to cave life. However, they did not find this adaptation to have a large effect on the evolutionary loss of schooling. I’ll bet that your brain is jumping to the next logical conclusion: vision is important. And you would be correct. The researchers did a series of tests where they tested both types of fish in various light conditions. The surface fish actually preferred the dark, but when they were in the dark they swam farther apart and lost schooling behavior while the cavefish were unaffected by the lighting conditions.

Let’s take the next step: Is this a learned behavior or is it dependent on having eyes? It is known that cavefish develop eyes, which undergo apoptosis and degenerate. So if a surface fish were to lose its vision early in development, would it then behave like a cavefish? To test this, the researchers removed one, two, or no lenses/eyes in surface fish larvae (with some awesome microdissection skills I’m sure!), allowed them to grow up, and then tested their schooling behavior. They found that the removal of both lenses caused the fish to swim farther apart than partially-sighted (one lens) or control fish. The partially-sighted fish could follow the model school but still shoaled farther apart than did full-sighted controls.

Next, Kowalko's group wanted to see what was going on in the brain. Recent research has shown that surface and cavefish have different levels of monoamine neurotransmitters (signaling chemicals in the nervous system).  They used inhibitors to alter serotonin and monoamines. Then they ran their schooling tests. They found that serotonin levels make no difference, but preventing the breakdown of monoamines decreases schooling behavior and results in significantly greater distances between fish in the shoaling tests. These results are consistent with other evidence that a molecule involved in the synthesis of dopamine (a monoamine) affects schooling behavior in cavefish.

Finally (whew!), they performed quantitative trait locus (QTL) analysis. Basically, this is a statistical method that links the phenotype (trait) measurements and the genotype (molecular markers) to explain a genetic basis for a complex trait. They found homozygous cave alleles at a marker underlying linkage group 27 that results in a decrease in schooling behavior and a dark preference. They also found schooling QTL that does not fall in the same place as the QTL for dark preference, eye size, pupil size, or neuromast number. This means that there is are both vision-dependent and vision-independent genetic contributions to the evolution of schooling behavior. Interesting.

Is there a story here? Well, sure. Perhaps when the sighted, cavefish ancestors arrived in their new, dark homes they couldn't school because of the lack of light. Their new cave environment also had a different ecology than their surface habitat. For one, it had a lack of big predators. Schooling equals protection in numbers, so a lack of the need of protection equals a lack in the need to school. For another, caves have scarcer food. Groups eat more and eat together. When there is less food and it is more spread out it is advantageous to find and eat it alone. Put together, this relaxed the selective pressure on schooling behavior causing multiple genetic changes, only some of which are vision-dependent.

ResearchBlogging.orgJohanna E. Kowalko, Nicolas Rohner, Santiago B. Rompani, Brant K. Peterson, Tess A. Linden, Masato Yoshizawa, Emily H. Kay, Jesse Weber, Hopi E. Hoekstra, William R. Jeffery, Richard Borowsky, & Clifford J. Tabin (2013). Loss of Schooling Behavior in Cavefish through Sight-Dependent and Sight-Independent Mechanisms Current Biology, 23, 1874-1883 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.07.056

See also:

ResearchBlogging.orgAlison M. Bell (2013). Evolution: Skipping School Current Biology, 23 (19) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.08.022

ResearchBlogging.orgAnna K. Greenwood, Abigail R. Wark, Kohta Yoshida, & Catherine L. Peichel (2013). Genetic and Neural Modularity Underlie the Evolution of Schooling Behavior in Threespine Sticklebacks Current Biology, 23 (19), 1884-1888 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.07.058

(images via Seriously Fish)

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Ultimate Mentor Adventure!

Marvel Comics is looking for the next Jane Foster! The character in Thor and its sequel Thor: The Dark World is an astrophysicist played by Natalie Portman. Natalie, who graduated with honors before attending Harvard University, enjoyed playing a scientist and believes in encouraging girls in these types of roles. As such, she is working with The Walt Disney Company (who owns Marvel Entertainment as of 2009) in a new endeavor called the Ultimate Mentor Adventure.

Natalie and the Ultimate Mentor Adventure aim to "empower girls ages 14 and up in grades 9-12 to embark on a journey that will allow them to explore their potential in the world of STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Through the collaborative efforts of Marvel, the National Academy of Sciences, and Underwriters Laboratories, Inc., girls will have a chance to go out into the real world and ask successful women in STEM fields about what they do, how they got where they are…and how others can follow in their footsteps."

The finalists will get the opportunity to some of these incredible women in science, conduct interviews, participate in experiments and interactive events, go behind the scenes, and attend the premiere of Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World on opening day! To enter you must download, complete, and submit some forms (by October 20, 2013, 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time). Then you must interview a successful woman working in a STEM field in your hometown. Finally, you create a 5-minute video about yourself, uploading it to the Ultimate Mentor Adventure website.

Kinda wishing I was 14 again.

In case you didn't get that URL, here it is again:

Monday, October 7, 2013

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses

Do you live in or near Cambridge, Massachusetts? Did you know that there is a Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses (BAH!) over at MIT?

"The Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses (BAH!) is a celebration of well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect evolutionary theory. It is put on by Zach Weinersmith (cartoonist of SMBC), breadpig (publishers of SMBC and XKCD), and MIT's Lecture Series Committee. It is sponsored by the EvoS Consortium and This View of Life magazine (Editor-in-Chief David Sloan Wilson)," and it is part of the Cambridge Science Festival. Ben Lillie, director of Story Collider, will be the emcee for the evening (and I am hoping that he will record it for his podcast!).

The event was initially inspired by this comic:

BAH! will be held in MIT's Kresge Auditorium (48 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge MA, USA) on the evening of October 6th, 2013. Doors will open at 6:15 PM and the event will start at 7 PM. There will be 7 speakers presenting their bad theories in front of a live audience and a panel of geeky judges. These judges will determine who presented the best theory who will together determine who presented the best theory according to the following criteria:

  1. Force of Science - how much “scientific” information was brought to bear (graphs, real citations, “research” etc.)
  2. Artistry - how unexpected and clever the idea and presentation are, and how well the presentation is delivered.
  3. Parsimony - the simplest theory that explains the most data is best.
  4. Strength of Defense - how well did you defend your views to the judges. 
    • Note - being funny is not a good defense.

Unfortunately, submissions for this BAHFest closed on March 10th. But they might do another one in the near future, so keep thinking up bad hypotheses and maybe you can present.

Tickets for this event are $5 for students (valid student ID needed) and $10 for non-students.

Visit the BAH! website for tickets and more information. Oh, and if you go, leave a comment to tell us all about it!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Mars Explorer Barbie

Barbie® Doll is an iconic toy, and sure, she's gotten quite a lot of flak in recent years over her body size issues and bubbleheadedness. But Mattel, now the largest toy company in the world, has been taking some steps to revamp Barbie's image. Am I saying that there aren't still primped, empty-headed ones out there? No, there are still plenty of those. I mean, all University Barbie dolls are cheerleaders? Really?

But, on the positive image side, Barbie is also a computer engineer, a paleontologist, an architect, a pediatrician, a veterinarian, and even ran for President in 2012. Now meet Mars Explorer Barbie. Mattel released this new doll on Monday (Aug. 5, 2013), as part of their "I Can Be..." series, to coincide with the first anniversary of NASA's Curiosity rover landing on Mars. She's got a spacesuit, helmet, space boots, air tank, and is packaged with a cardboard cutout of the six-wheeled Mars Science Laboratory. All decked out in pink, of course. And while this isn't Barbie's first trip to space (there were Astronaut Barbies in 1965, 1985, and 1994 and a Space Camp Barbie in 1998), this is the first to be produced in partnership with NASA.


CinemaBlend's "New Mars Explorer Barbie is Stylish"'s "Mattel's Astronaut Barbie Becomes a Mars Explorer with NASA Help"
CollectSpace's "Mattel's Astronaut Barbie becomes a Mars Explorer with help from NASA"

Images from's "Barbie in Space: Iconic Doll's Astronaut Looks (Photos)"

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