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Khalil’s Picks (8 June 2012)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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What diversity in this week’s picks of writings from young and early-career science writers. A snapshot: giving colours names messed with our minds, encoding information into living cells, what happens when galaxies collide, science of bubbles… and more.

Aatish Bhatia, science blogger, has a very interesting post about how our colour perceptions may affect language. This post got more views in a day than “What it feels like for a sperm,” one of his previous posts which has been selected for Open Lab, an anthology of the best online science writing. Says a lot.

The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains (part I)

In Japan, people often refer to traffic lights as being blue in color. And this is a bit odd, because the traffic signal indicating ‘go’ in Japan is just as green as it is anywhere else in the world. So why is the color getting lost in translation? This visual conundrum has its roots in the history of language. Blue and green are similar in hue. They sit next to each other in a rainbow, which means that, to our eyes, light can blend smoothly from blue to green or vice-versa, without going past any other color in between. Before the modern period, Japanese had just one word, Ao, for both blue and green. The wall that divides these colors hadn’t been erected as yet. As the language evolved, in the Heian period around the year 1000, something interesting happened. A new word popped into being – midori – and it described a sort of greenish end of blue. Midori was a shade of ao, it wasn’t really a new color in its own right.

Eric Sawyer,  science blogger at Scitable, depicts a fascinating study which is pushing the boundaries of technology. The study looks into encoding information into living cells! SO COOL!

In Living Memory: the First Steps toward Genetic Data Storage

Drew Endy’s group at Stanford has just published their latest paper—open access of course. It represents the first major step in a long-term ambition to create a reliable form of living memory—rewritable, retrievable digital information stored in living cells. Endy, a civil engineer by training but synthetic biologist in practice, has been at the forefront of recent innovations in genetic circuits and synthetic biology systems. In an interview with the New Yorker in 2009, he speculated: “If the cells in our bodies had a little memory, think what we could do.” Specifically, he entertained the idea that genetic memory could be used to encode a counter that tracks cell divisions. Besides making aging studies technically easier, anti-cancer therapies could be interfaced with the counter to specifically target cancer cells that are dividing out of control.

Amy Shira Teitel, freelance space writer, has a very awesome piece on Motherboard which explains what happens when two galaxies collide. Read! (Also, check out her archive full of great space stuff.)

This Is What Happens When Galaxies Collide

We live in the suburbs of a spiral galaxy called the Milky Way, which sits in a small neighbourhood of galaxies called the Local Group that includes the Andromeda Galaxy. Astronomers have known for a while that Andromeda is heading towards the Milky Way, but new data from Hubble shows that it’s going to hit us head-on in an epic galactic collision. On the plus side, we have 4 billion years to prepare for doomsday.

Paige Brown, science blogger at Nature Network, has a fascinating post about the science of bubbles! Bubbles are very important to life and that’s not just because they make us happy.

Bubbles for Life

They are a childhood delight. Big and billowy, small and ephemeral… all bubbles are magical. But the properties of bubbles are more important to life than we can fathom as toddlers chasing magical floating circles around the yard at dusk. Bubbles are a form of self-assembled monolayers… the thin soap-water-soap layer that forms the bubble assembles by itself (given the proper puff of air from our lips into the soap-covered bubble stick, of course).

Rachel Nuwer, freelance science journalist, last week reported on The New York Times’ Green blog about the wildlife rehabilitation center that opened last weekend in New York City. The piece also features a video report by Kelly Slivka and Kate Yandell, both young science journalists as well.

A Wildlife Rescue Centre for New York City

Since 2001, over 7,000 feathered and furry vagrants have passed through a cramped apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, with screaming babies stacked above solemn old-timers and sprightly young fellows whistling aside the gravely ill. But as my colleagues Kelly Slivka and Kate Yandell report in this video, this eclectic menagerie, known as the Wild Bird Fund, has now secured a 1,300-square-foot independent space that opens on Saturday on Columbus Avenue.

Kathleen Raven, who just started her internship at Nature Medicine, looks into research about brown fat, which until recently was thought to be used only by babies. She tells us how white fat may get converted into brown fat to slim us down.

Turning down the heat revs up brown fat

This past winter, vests were a hot button issue thanks to then US presidential hopeful Rick Santorum. But a vest that cools—rather than warms—could fire up studies of brown fat as researchers seek drugs that turn on this calorie-burning tissue. Compared with white fat, which mostly acts as an energy repository, brown fat serves to generate heat. In the past, researchers believed only babies made use of brown adipose tissue. Now we know adults have small deposits of brown fat throughout the body that burn energy only in chilly environments. With roughly two-thirds of the US classified as overweight, researchers are keen on pinpointing how brown fat is activated and how to convert white fat to its healthier cousin to help people slim down.

Do share links to your own writings in the comments. And have a nice weekend (looking especially at football/soccer fans).

Khalil A. Cassimally About the Author: Khalil A. Cassimally is the Community Coordinator of The Conversation UK. He's also a science blogger. He hails from a tropical island and is a happy geek. Subscribe to his updates on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @notscientific.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. paigekbrown 9:51 am 06/8/2012

    Thanks for the pick Khalil!

    Link to this

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