Monday, February 26, 2007

Someday, it will affect you.

Cancer. The sibilance of the word itself conjures up a sneaky, conniving beast intent upon destroying your cells, your organs, your very life. The American Cancer Society predicts that 12,760 Kansans will be diagnosed with cancer during 2007. During your lifetime, you or somebody close to you will be diagnosed with some type of cancer.

The good news? Breathtaking developments in detection and treatment during the last 20 years have dramatically increased the survival rate for cancers. It's being detected earlier and treated more effectively because of research into how cancer grows and changes in the body.

Science writer Carl Zimmer has written extensively about cancer. Zimmer has the rare ability to write about complex scientific topics in a clear, easy-to-understand manner. Here are links to a few of his posts on the topic:

From that article:
Natural selection is not natural perfection. Living creatures have evolved some remarkably complex adaptations, but we are still very vulnerable to disease. Among the most tragic of those ills—and perhaps most enigmatic—is cancer. A cancerous tumor is exquisitely well adapted for survival in its own grotesque way. Its cells continue to divide long after ordinary cells would stop. They destroy surrounding tissues to make room for themselves, and they trick the body into supplying them with energy to grow even larger. But the tumors that afflict us are not foreign parasites that have acquired sophisticated strategies for attacking our bodies. They are made of our own cells, turned against us. Nor is cancer some bizarre rarity: a woman in the U.S. has a 39 percent chance of being diagnosed with some type of cancer in her lifetime. A man has a 45 percent chance.
Read, listen, learn. Be able to make informed decisions when the time comes.

Monday, February 19, 2007

This is Your Brain on Chocolate

Some Types of Cocoa Can Improve Brain Function!

According to research presented yesterday (1/18/2007) for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS),
"A number of scientific studies suggest that some types of cocoa contain substances that could enhance blood flow in the brain and improve brain function."

The rest of the story:
"The session was titled "The Neurobiology of Chocolate: A Mind- Altering Experience?" It was sponsored by Mars Incorporated. The company has been sponsoring research on the nutritional and medical potential of cocoa's naturally occurring flavanols for the last 15 years."

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

About the State Science Standards . . .

The issue has been all over the news: ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, The Daily Show . . .

Science is all about asking questions, using an orderly method to find ways to explain our world in terms of matter and energy. I'd no sooner try to keep you from asking questions than I would give up chocolate.

My fellow science teachers and I have been accused of brainwashing and inspiring fear in our students, and of promoting dogma and atheism.

By now you - my students - know me pretty well. I'll let you make up your own minds on that one.

Please don't take my - or anyone else's - opinion on the science standards issue as carved in stone. Here is a link to a document (warning: pdf) that highlights the changes that were made Tuesday.

Analyze the evidence. Form your own conclusion.

And remember, if you have concerns that you aren't comfortable sharing with me, please let your parents, or your guidance counselor, or an administrator know quickly. Although no learning occurs without some discomfort, I don't ever want you to feel ridiculed. Or brainwashed. Or fearful.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Order of the Science Scouts . . .

Members are:
- fond of IPCC reports (especially the pictures).
- into badges.
- grieving for the slow and miserable death of the Hubble Space Telescope.
- not in the business of total world domination.
- committed to the constant and diligent presentation of science stories, be it to editors, producers, directors, educators, relatives and/or friends of various ilk, in an effort to lessen the gaps in this thing we call public scientific literacy.

Here are the badges I can rightfully claim. How about you?

The "talking science" badge.
Required for all members. Assumes the recipient conducts himself/herself in such a manner as to talk science whenever he/she gets the chance. Not easily fazed by looks of disinterest from friends or the act of "zoning out" by well intentioned loved ones.
Erm, what is it I do for a living again . . . . ?

The "MacGyver" badge.
In which the recipient has demonstrated that his/her science communciation prowess was handy in simplifying a potentially challenging scenario. For example, was able to escape from unjustified prison term, with the clever use of a paper clip and WD-40. You know, that kind of thing.
You don't want the gory details, but it involved one of the offspring, a fancy restaurant with no high chairs, and a diaper.

The "I blog about science" badge.
In which the recipient maintains a blog where at least a quarter of the material is about science. Suffice to say, this does not include scientology.
Welll . . . this might be a stretch.

The "arts and crafts" badge.
Because you can't have a bunch of badges without an arts and crafts badge. This one assumes the recipient has all manner of "craftiness" with a sciencegeek twist.
Why was it that the Brownie troop really really liked the crafts, but the Cub Scouts abhorred them? Could it have been the pink fuzzy stuff? Anyway, my undergrad chemistry profs can confirm that my lab results often included unexpectedly vibrant colors. Cyan, anyone?

The "I'm pretty confident around an open flame" badge.
Recipients have demonstrated proficiency around open flames in laboratory settings.
If "proficiency" means "haven't caught my own hair on fire yet," it's all good.

The "inappropriate nocturnal use of lab equipment in the name of alternative science experimentation / communication" badge.
In which the recipient has "borrowed" scientific supplies for the sake of stealth scientific communication.
AKA "Fun with Lasers and People Who Made Bad Decisions Earlier This Evening." ;)

The "destroyer of quackery" badge.
In which the recipient never ever backs down from an argument that pits sound science over quackery.
'Nuff said. Heh heh heh.

The "I've touched human internal organs with my own hands" badge.
In which the recipient is "hopefully" doing something that is somehow related to human health.
Hey, it was a cadaver lab. And I will never, ever, ever eat liver again.

The "has frozen stuff just to see what happens" badge
(LEVEL I)In which the recipient has frozen something in the freezer for the sake of scientific curiosity.
Hailstones. 'Course, as a kid I didn't know about the defrost cycle, and those beautifully layered treasures turned into flat blobs.

(LEVEL II) In which the recipient has frozen something in dry ice for the sake of scientific curiosity.
My fingertips.

(LEVEL III) In which the recipient has frozen something in liquid nitrogen for the sake of scientific curiosity.
Ahhh . . . . the good stuff! Roses, grapes, bologna (for a 'cold cut' sandwich, of course), rubber tubing . . . pretty much any inanimate object that would fit.

The "I work with way too much radioactivity, and yet still no discernable superpowers yet" badge.
...Although not for lack of trying...
. . . it's not a good idea to play a practical joke on anybody with practical science knowledge. Trust me on this one, okay?

The "I will crush you with my math prowess" badge.
Seriously, scary stuff.
Meh. Test scores. Math was my weakest. Didn't let it slow me down. If I can handle this science stuff, anybody can. Seriously.

The "experienced with electrical shock" badge
(LEVEL I) In which the recipient has had experience with the electrical shocking of an organism. Humans are organisms.
(LEVEL II) In which the recipient has had experience with the electrical shocking of a human. I am a human.
In which the recipient has had experience with the electrical shocking of himself/herself.
I forgot about the ol' 'keep one hand behind your back while you're working' rule. In my defense, this happened during an era when most of my friends were learning how to make chocolate chip cookies without burning them. I was learning how to burn IC chips.

DISCLAIMER: Freshman, I have three times your life experience . . . learn from my mistakes, 'kay?

Loosely adapted from here.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Scientist Friday 2/2

There are 40 scientists to recognize this week.

That's because they're the 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search, kind of a science fair on steroids. These seniors competed for over half a million dollars in scholarships - with the top prize a scholarship of $100,000. Those who made it into the top 40 received at least a $5000 scholarship and an Intel (of course!) laptop.

As usual, the state of New York dominated the awards, producing 12 of the 40 finalists. The winners are also disproportionately from special, state- or large-city-wide science/math magnet schools.

These high school students have been working with university faculty to investigate everything from methods of predicting sunspot movement to measuring passive love to leadership change, violence, and the cycle of relative power.

You know, we could do this too! There are students at HHS who have the potential to compete at this level. But it wouldn't necessarily be easy.

Here's what we'd need:

  • First, more support for gifted programs & enrichment at the secondary level.
  • Second, a strong partnership with university faculty. Most FHSU science faculty I've met - and had the privilege to work with - would *love* to mentor a high school student at this level.
  • Third - and probably most important - we'd need a feeder system, where students who are interested in science are nurtured and encouraged from the early years to take more science classes, go to summer science camps, and participate in academic competitions.

It would be nice, of course, if we could promise that the winners would receive signing bonuses, endorsements from calculator companies, and cute/handsome cheerleaders shouting "Hold that thought! Hold that thought!
But we all know that the nerd factor is a tough one to shake . . . that's a topic for another day.

Meet the winners here. And go here for a lighter look at real geniuses and science fairs.