Today, we have the cool edition of Picks. Geology becomes cool thanks to seashells, bacteria reach new cool levels because they control water’s freezing point, a supernova from a thousand years ago did not give birth to any stars (I’ve decided that this is cool), DNA sequencing in schools should make science even cooler. And more cool stuff.

Very cool indeed.


Alex Kasprak, in The Sieve, makes geology and a line graph look cooler than Curiosity on Mars. From where I stand, that’s quite something. Alex explains how seashells are actually history books which recount how our planet’s climate changed oh-so-many years ago. I highlighted this piece in my review of Johns Hopkins University’s The Sieve on his blog, but here it is again... top of the pile.

The Revolution Will Be Clumpy

Geologists are able to tell you the exact history of the waxing and waning of glaciers over the past five million years because microscopic creatures in the ocean have been unwittingly recording this dance in their shells. Their shells are made from the carbon and oxygen found in seawater. As glaciers form, seawater is removed from the ocean and trapped on land, resulting in subtle changes in the chemistry of the ocean. These changes are recorded in the shells, which create a detailed history as they pile up on the ocean floor.

Ideal for Reddit’s TIL (Today I Learned) subthread/subreddit, Sedeer El-Showk in his blog, Inspiring Science, has a piece about bacteria and water’s freezing point. Better put: how bacteria actually dictate the freezing point of water. Even better put: water’s freezing point is not 0C if it isn’t contaminated.

The bacteria that make it rain

Strange as it may seem, water doesn’t actually freeze at zero degrees. In fact, even at temperatures as cold as -10°C, water still needs help turning into ice. Living creatures of all stripes have learned to take advantage of this curious fact in different ways, though none have done so with quite as much style as bacteria.

Joel Winston, in, has a piece about some cool science not being done by scientists. Synthetic biology in the garage type of thing.

Amateur scientists build Lego-style synthetic BioBricks in public lab

While some may believe that science is better left to scientists, hundreds of amateur biologists around the world have been setting-up makeshift biology labs in their homes, garages and community centres. Some of these "biohackers" or "DIY biologists" have political motivations to open up science for all, a few attempt to address an absence of research in rare genetic diseases, some are curious and have a desire to learn, while others are taking part just for the sheer fun of it all.

Eric Sawyer, in his Scitable blog, Bio 2.0, says that with technologies becoming more and more affordable—think DNA sequencing—schools and universities should invest in them for undergraduate education. Eric argues that with better technologies, undergrads can do much cooler and interesting lab experiments which should increase interest in science.

Cheaper Genomes Should Enhance Undergraduate Education

Some things in science are just intrinsically expensive. Digging kilometers-long tunnels filled with high vacuum and superconducting magnets will forever be out of the reach of amateur scientists and universities alike. But some technologies start off appearing intrinsically expensive and rapidly cheapen to the point of becoming widely available. The first computers were enormous machines that required a dedicated team of personnel, but now many of us carry one around in our pocket. DNA sequencing must at first have looked like an intrinsically expensive technology, but today it could not be clearer that DNA sequencing is much more like computing than high energy physics. The cost of sequencing a human genome has fallen at a staggering rate over the last decade (just look at the graph). In fact, the rate of innovation in the DNA sequencing community far exceeds Moore's Law. If DNA sequencing did follow Moore's Law, with the cost of sequencing a genome being cut in half every 18 months, sequencing a human genome would today still cost millions.

When a star explodes to form a supernova, new stars form from the deathbed. But, as Kelly Oakes explains in her Scientific American blog, Basic Space, a thousand years ago, a supernova “lived and died fast, leaving no companion star behind.”

Supernova 1006 lived fast and left no companion behind

A supernova that lit up the skies in the year 1006 lived and died fast, leaving no companion star behind, astronomers have found. The result is the latest clue in a puzzle that has been troubling astronomers for some time – how does this type of stellar explosion happen? Supernova 1006 exploded, as seen from Earth, in the year 1006 (hence the name). It was probably the brightest star ever visible to humans and could have been bright enough to read by at night . Astronomers know that it was a type Ia supernova – a particular type of stellar sticky end that involves taking another star along for the ride.

Jordan Gaines writes about a paper which details the life of a 86-year old woman with Bálint's syndrome. Bálint's syndrome comprises neuropsychological impairments which completely distorts a sufferers’ visual field and affects any hand movement which requires vision. (Raise your hand and touch your computer screen. That’s nearly impossible to do for someone afflicted with Bálint's syndrome.)

Sight without seeing: Bálint's syndrome

So begins a paper published this past week in Neurology: "It was a quiet Thursday afternoon when 'A.S.', a 68-year-old woman from a suburb of Chicago, awakened from a nap to the realization that something was terribly wrong." What?! What's wrong! Must...keep...reading... As the article continues, we learn how A.S. and another patient, J.D., adjust to their lives before and after their diagnoses of Bálint's syndrome.


Find more writings from early-career science writers by following this Twitter list. Happy reading.

UPDATE (02.14 am EDT October 1): Sedeer El-Showk's name was initially misspelled. Apologies.