My Christmas List (for 2010)

I remember being very impressed by the Iridigm “butterfly wing” display technology at least as far back as 2004, before they were acquired by Qualcomm. The basic idea as described by Scientific American is to use the same principle as a butterfly’s wing to create color via interference rather than pigment (as in paper) or emission (as in most computer displays). Advantages include a truly paper-like level of ambient-light reflection, and zero power consumption except when changing the display. These are both highly valuable properties for an e-book reader, which is why it’s exciting that Qualcomm intends to come out with one.

Genetics Gets More Complicated

This story about microRNA is not only highly significant, but it’s also a wonderful tale of persistence and collaboration and everything that’s good about the scientific community. On top of that, it’s well told by the author, so I had to share.

Ambros’s work on that bizarre mutant provided one of the first signs that RNA might be much more important than anyone had suspected, but not until 2001 did the full story start to unfold. That is when studies finally convinced scientists that the minuscule RNA snippets they had taken to calling “microRNA” were regulating cellular and genetic processes throughout the human body and were critical factors in the determination of health and disease.

Another explanation is that, as with any remarkable scientific discovery, finding microRNA required just the right combination of talent, circumstance, and luck. Ambros found a perfect collaborator in his wife, Candy Lee, who was a lab technician. As Baltimore describes them (having worked with both), they follow the data rather than the scientific fashions; they are both technically adept in the laboratory; and “they have never been ambitious to the point of its getting in the way of reality.” This is not to say that they lack the drive to do good science, but that “they’re not worrying about the trappings of science,” Baltimore says.

They even recruit one of their kids to do some computer programming for the project at one point. How cool is that?

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Discovery

Since I know multiple people who have, or think they have, CFS, here’s some interesting news: it might be linked to a retrovirus.

Researchers found that two-thirds of people with chronic fatigue are infected with a retrovirus called XMRV, according to a new study in the journal Science Express. XMRV has also been found in the tumors of some prostate cancer patients.

The new study compared blood samples from 101 chronic fatigue patients with samples from 218 healthy people. About 67 percent of the sick people had XMRV, compared with fewer than 4 percent of healthy people.

Not conclusive, and certainly not a cure, but interesting.

Special Bonus Pictures – Harvard Museum of Natural History

These are from Sunday.

Donuts Improve Efficiency

…for wind turbines, that is.

I have a soft spot for solutions where the thought that goes into them is complex or subtle but the physical artifact that results is simple and robust. Looked at another way, the “what” is easy to understand but the “why” might require an advanced degree to understand. There’s a certain beauty to the shape an airplane wing or a ship hull, or even more to the equivalent biological forms which often remain superior in many respects. This is another good example. The shape could hardly be simpler, and anybody could build it according to a set of specs, but coming up with the ideal specs for a particular situation could be pretty difficult. It’s all about the thinking, not the building.

Random Science

Why are peppers hot?

“Capsaicin demonstrates the incredible elegance of evolution,” says Tewksbury. The specialized chemical deters microbes—humans harness this ability when they use chilies to preserve food—but capsaicin doesn’t deter birds from eating chili fruits and spreading seeds. “Once in a while, the complex, often conflicting demands that natural selection places on complex traits results in a truly elegant solution. This is one of those times.”

Woolly Lamboth

Bruno, who weighed in at a massive 21lb when he was delivered on Monday, is one spring lamb that won’t be going to the slaughter.

He is believed to be the biggest lamb ever born anywhere in the world, and farmer Mark Meredith plans to keep him as a pet to see how big he gets.

Mr Meredith, 44, who farms at Chaddesley Corbett, Worcestershire, said it took him 20 minutes to deliver Bruno the ‘woolly lamboth’, compared to a couple of minutes for the average 7lb lamb.

Dams and Earthquakes

From Discover:

The devastating earthquake that killed 80,000 people in China’s Sichuan Province last May may have been triggered by a recently built hydropower dam that lies only three miles from the quake’s epicenter, some researchers are arguing. The several hundred million tons of water piled behind the Zipingpu Dam put just the wrong stresses on the adjacent Beichuan fault, [says] geophysical hazards researcher Christian Klose

That’s a very scary possibility, considering all the other dam projects that are already underway (or even completed). I guess it just goes to show how interconnected everything is. Big projects like this affect many people, often in unpredictable ways, whether the power company is owned or merely supported by the state, and either way the people who are harmed deserve compensation from those who caused the harm. That’s true for China, and it’s true for the US, but it’s not clear whether either is prepared or inclined to ensure that the morally right things happen.

Oak Apple Galls

While I’m talking about oak trees, here’s the solution to another mystery. We often find little brown-spotted green spheres in our yard or neighborhood.

Not knowing what they are, I’ve called them pods and Amy has come to consider them an exciting find. As it turns out, “pod” is pretty appropriate because they’re actually galls formed by a species of wasp and even have wasp larvae in them. Click on either the picture above or the one below (from two different sites) for more info.

No Acorns Here Either

One of the disadvantages of having mature oaks in one’s yard is also having lots of acorns to clean up each year. If you leave them, they make already-poor soil even worse, but they’re a pain to pick up. Last year, it seemed like the squirrels were doing a particularly good job; after a couple of years with more than the usual number of acorns, last year was very light. This year we hardly have any. The winter moths took a really heavy toll on our trees this year, so my main theory is that the trees are basically conserving energy by not producing many acorns while the stress persists. The weird wet weather probably had something to do with it too. Apparently there’s a widespread dearth of acorns, with most people attributing it to the standard boom/bust cycles. For a blast from the past, I found an article I wrote in 2004 about the same topic, including a link to a story about very similar conditions leading the the 1968 squirrel migration.

Platypus Genome Sequenced

It’s not the first animal to receive this treatment, but it’s particularly interesting because of the platypus’s unique lineage and characteristics. Here’s the BBC story.

Scientists have deciphered the genetic blueprint of the duck-billed platypus, one of the oddest creatures on Earth.

The animal comes from an early branch of the mammal family, and like mammals it is covered in fur and produces milk. However, it lays eggs like a reptile.