Cooking with Chemistry: Hard Candy

Posted on October 31, 2011  Comments (2)

The video by Richard Hartel, professor of food engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, demonstrates how the molten liquid candy cools to form what from a technical standpoint actually is a glass. Unlike window glass made of silica, this tasty glass is made of sugar.

Viscosity describes a fluid’s internal resistance to flow and may be thought of as a measure of fluid friction. Water has very little viscosity (unless it is frozen). Thick honey has higher viscosity (especially if it is cooler – I keep my honey in the fridge and it does not flow very quickly).

As I have said before if I had understood the chemistry behind cooking as a kid I think I would have been much more interested in cooking.

Related: Understanding the Chemistry Behind CookingThe Man Who Unboiled an EggTracking the Ecosystem Within Us

Encouraging Curiosity in Kids

Posted on October 28, 2011  Comments (12)

How do you help make your children scientifically literate? I think the biggest thing you can do is encourage curiosity.

One way to encourage curiosity it is by answering their questions (and not saying: I am too busy, don’t bother me, don’t ask me?, stop asking why…). I know adults are busy and have all sorts of stuff we are trying to get done; and the question about why I need to wash my hands doesn’t seem worth answering. But I think anytime a kid is asking why is an opportunity to teach and encourage them to keep being curious.

It is very easy to shut off this curiosity, in our society anyway (we do it to the vast majority of people). The biggest difference I see between adults and kids is not maturity or responsibility but curiosity (or lack thereof in adults) and joy (versus adults who seem to be on valium all the time – maybe they are).

As they grow up kids will have lots of science and technology questions that you don’t know the answers to. If you want them to be curious and knowledgeable, put in the effort to find answers with them. You have to help them find the answers in a way that doesn’t turn them off. If you just say – go look it up yourself (which really they can do), maybe the 2% that are going to become scientists will. But most kids will just give up and turn off their curiosity a little bit more (until eventually it is almost gone and they are ready to fit into the adult world). Which is very sad.

Once you get them used to thinking and looking things up they will start to do this on their own. A lot of this just requires thinking (no need to look things up – once a certain base knowledge is achieved). But you need to set that pattern. And it would help if you were curious, thought and learned yourself.

Photo of kids intently studying on a Malaysian beach

My mom with a group of Malaysia kids apparently intent on learning something. I am there, but not visible in this photo. Photo by my father.

While walking in the park, see one of those things you are curious about and ask why does…? It is good to ask kids why and let them think about it and try and answer. Get them in the habit of asking why themselves. And in those cases when no-one knows, take some time and figure it out. Ask some questions (both for yourself – to guide your thinking – and to illustrate how to think about the question and figure things out). If you all can’t find an explanation yourselves, take some time to look it up. Then at dinner, tell everyone what you learned. This will be much more interesting to the kids than forcing them to elaborate on what they did today and help set the idea that curiosity is good and finding explanations is interesting.

It is fun as a kid if your parent is a scientist or engineer (my father was an engineering professor).

You often don’t notice traits about yourself. In the same what I know what red looks like to me, I figure we both see this red shirt you see the red that I do. But maybe you don’t. I tend to constantly be asking myself why. If I see something new (which is many, many times a day – unless I am trapped in some sad treadmill of sameness) I ask why is it that way and then try and answer. I think most of this goes on subconsciously or some barely conscious way. I actually had an example a few months ago when I was visiting home with my brother (who is pretty similar to me).

As we were driving, I had noticed some fairly tall poles that seemed to have really small solar panels on top. I then noticed they were space maybe 20 meters apart. Then saw that there seemed to be a asphalt path along the same line. I then decided, ok, they are probably solar panels to power a light for the path at night. Then my brother asked why are there those small solar panel on top of that pole?

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Epigenetic Effects on DNA from Living Conditions in Childhood Persist Well Into Middle Age

Posted on October 26, 2011  Comments (4)

Family living conditions in childhood are associated with significant effects in DNA that persist well into middle age, according to new research by Canadian and British scientists.

The team, based at McGill University in Montreal, University of British Columbia in Vancouver and the UCL Institute of Child Health in London looked for gene methylation associated with social and economic factors in early life. They found clear differences in gene methylation between those brought up in families with very high and very low standards of living. More than twice as many methylation differences were associated with the combined effect of the wealth, housing conditions and occupation of parents (that is, early upbringing) than were associated with the current socio-economic circumstances in adulthood. (1252 differences as opposed to 545).

I find Epigenetics to be a very interesting area. My basic understanding as I grew up was that you inherited your genes. But epigenetics explores how your genes change over time. This has been a very active area of research recently. Your DNA remains the same during your life. But the way those genes are expressed changes.

I don’t know of any research supporting the idea I mention in this example, but, to explain the concept in a simple way: you may carry genes in your DNA for processing food in different ways. If you have very limited diet the way your body reacts could be to express genes that specialize in maximizing the acquisition of nutrition from food. And it could be that your body sets these expressions based on your conditions when young; if later, your diet changes you may have set those genes to be expressed in a certain way. Again this is an example to try and explain the concept, not something where I know of research that supports evidence for this example.

The findings by these universities, were unfortunately published in a closed way. Universities should not support the closing of scientific knowledge. Several universities, that support open science, require open publication of scientific research. It is unfortunate some universities continue to support closed science.

The research could provide major evidence as to why the health disadvantages known to be associated with low socio-economic position can remain for life, despite later improvement in living conditions. The study set out to explore the way early life conditions might become ‘biologically-embedded’ and so continue to influence health, for better or worse, throughout life. The scientists decided to look at DNA methylation, a so-called epigenetic modification that is linked to enduring changes in gene activity and hence potential health risks. (Broadly, methylation of a gene at a significant point in the DNA reduces the activity of the gene.)

Related: DNA Passed to Descendants Changed by Your LifeBlack Raspberries Alter Hundreds of Genes Slowing CancerBreastfeeding Linked to More Intelligent Kids

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Eliminating NSF Program to Aid K-12 Science Education

Posted on October 24, 2011  Comments (2)

Changing American science and engineering education

In exchange for funding for their graduate studies, Kahler and other fellows contribute to the science curriculum in local primary and secondary schools from kindergarten through grade 12. Kahler taught science at Rogers-Herr Middle School in Durham.

He also taught for two summers in India, and in Texas, as part of Duke TIP, the Talent Identification Program, which identifies academically gifted students and provides them with intellectually stimulating opportunities.

Through these teaching experiences in different locations and cultures, Kahler observed several factors that affect the quality of education in American schools. One important factor is the training of teachers. Unfortunately, teachers are sometimes expected to teach science without having received an adequate background in the subject.

STEM fellows helped to address this problem by contributing their expertise and by helping to increase the scientific literacy of students and their teachers.

Kahler says that NSF GK-12 has a strong, positive impact to change this because it simultaneously improves the educational experience of students in primary and secondary school and trains graduate students to communicate and teach effectively.

Unfortunately, the NSF GK-12 program is no longer in the NSF budget for 2012.

Sadly the USA is choosing to speed money on things that are likely much less worthwhile to our future economic well being. This has been a continuing trend for the last few decades so it is not a surprise that the USA is investing less and less in science and engineering education while other countries are adding substantially to their investments (China, Singapore, Korea, India…).

As I have stated before I think the USA is making a big mistake reducing the investment in science and engineering, especially when so many other countries have figured how how smart such investments are. The USA has enjoyed huge advantages economically from science and engineering leadership and will continue to. But the potential full economic advantages are being reduced by our decisions to turn away from science investment (in education and other ways).

Related: The Importance of Science EducationTop Countries for Science and Math Education: Finland, Hong Kong and KoreaEconomic Strength Through Technology Leadership

Amazing New Light Field Camera: Adjust Focus After You Take the Picture

Posted on October 21, 2011  Comments (5)

The cool Lytro light field camera lets you adjust the focus after the picture is taken. Wow what a surprise the company is located in Mountain View, California. Oh wait, no that isn’t a surprise. Those of us in the USA should thank our lucky stars for having Silicon Valley in our country.

The Lytro will be available in early 2012 starting at $399 (a 8 GB model able to hold up to 350 images) and $499 for a $499 16 GB model able to hold 750 images.

The camera does take 3d images. That feature will be enabled via a software update after the initial release.

Related: Rare Saharan Cheetahs Photographed with Camera TrapAwesome Camera for Your CatCurious Cat Gadget BlogAmazon’s Android Tablet, the Kindle FireQubits Construction Toy

Engineers are the new Currency

Posted on October 19, 2011  Comments (3)

Silicon Vally investor discusses keys to good investment companies: “Engineers are the new currency… having the right engineers that can innovate and deliver is absolutely vital to success… It takes a great team to help the entrepreneur develop”

The video also makes the point that what separates Silicon Valley is the engineering talent.

Related: S&P 500 CEO’s: Engineers Stay at the TopEngineers Rule at HondaThe Google Way: Give Engineers RoomStatistics on Entrepreneurship

Get Your Own Siftable Modular Computers

Posted on October 18, 2011  Comments (3)

I posted about Siftable Modular Computers early last year. Recently I have seen ads for them on my management blog, so I decided to see what progress had been made.

The price is a steep but they do seem cool. A Sifteo pack of 3 cubes, plus software, 2 games… is $149. They also require Mac or Windows software. no straight Linux :-( Each extra cube costs $45. They started shipping (at least in the USA) on September 30th.

Even though it doesn’t say it is available for Android or Linux here is a video from the recent Android open conference by David Merrill

I do agree that the idea of using these cubes that are in our physical space that we manipulate is very cool. And the idea of intelligent play I very much support. But they need to reduce the price and make them available on the best operating system (Linux/Ubuntu) – which is also open and free. They have also released a software development kit for those interested in creating games for the device. I wish them well.

Related: Teenage Engineer’s Company Launches Safety StairOpen Source for LEGO MindstormsZubbles, Get Your Colored BubblesArduino: Open Source Programmable Hardware

I Always Wanted to be Some Sort of Scientist

Posted on October 17, 2011  Comments (0)

A nice simple post by a soon to be Dr. of Genetics and Molecular Biology on what being a scientist is like for her. I like her take, which I think is much more accurate than some of the generalities people use. The main reason people (men or women) become scientists because they want to be scientists.

photo of almost-Dr. Caitlin

Photo the almost-Dr. Caitlin

The truth is science requires you to be social. We share ideas, techniques, and equipment. A good scientist knows her limitations and uses someone else’s expertise when her own is not enough. The modern scientist communicates not only through conferences and journals, but also through blogging and Facebook.

When a non-scientist (usually my parents or some other close relative) asks me about what I do, they inevitably want to tie it back to how I’m curing a disease and saving the world. I am not curing a disease or saving the world.

I study science because it’s cool. I study basic science — asking questions for the purpose of learning the answer. That doesn’t mean what I do isn’t important. Lots of ground-breaking medical advances have been made just because someone asked a question no one else thought to ask.

To all you ladies fighting the good fight in other fields, keep at it, because the numbers are going up for women with advanced degrees.

I’ve always wanted to be some sort of scientist. When I was in elementary school I wanted to be a paleontologist because dinosaurs are awesome (and so was “Jurassic Park”). When I was 11, I read the Hot Zone and knew I wanted to be a biologist. Though there were times that I flirted with the Dark Side, i.e., medical school, but mostly only because when my teachers figured out I was good at science they said go to medical school. No one even suggested becoming a scientist.

Great stuff. Good Luck, Caitlin.

Related: Movie Aims to Inspire College Students With Tales of Successful Minority ScientistsKids on Scientists: Before and After Talking to Real Live ScientistsWomen Choosing Other Fields Over Engineering, Math, Physics and Computer Science

A Possible Explanation for the Faster Than Light Result Anomaly

Posted on October 14, 2011  Comments (2)

Faster-than-Light Neutrino Puzzle Claimed Solved by Special Relativity

So what is the satellites’ motion with respect to the OPERA experiment? These probes orbit from West to East in a plane inclined at 55 degrees to the equator. Significantly, that’s roughly in line with the neutrino flight path. Their relative motion is then easy to calculate.

So from the point of view of a clock on board a GPS satellite, the positions of the neutrino source and detector are changing. “From the perspective of the clock, the detector is moving towards the source and consequently the distance travelled by the particles as observed from the clock is shorter,” says van Elburg.

By this he means shorter than the distance measured in the reference frame on the ground.

The OPERA team overlooks this because it thinks of the clocks as on the ground not in orbit.

How big is this effect? Van Elburg calculates that it should cause the neutrinos to arrive 32 nanoseconds early. But this must be doubled because the same error occurs at each end of the experiment. So the total correction is 64 nanoseconds, almost exactly what the OPERA team observes.

It is great to see the scientific process at work. Those is support of the scientific method support open access science and this explanation is available via arxiv: Times Of Flight Between A Source And A Detector Observed From A GPS Satellite.

Related: Faster Than Light Speed Anomaly Reported by CERNMore Dark Matter Experiment ResultsThe Architecture of Access to Scientific Knowledge

Periodic Table for Kids

Posted on October 12, 2011  Comments (2)

Poster of the periodic table with some illustrations and explanations for kids.

Check out this previous post with a New Visualization of the Periodic Table and see the link in the comment to another variation.

Related: Understanding the Chemistry Behind Cooking2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Posted on October 9, 2011  Comments (3)

photo of Dan Shechtman

Dan Shechtman, Israel Institute of Technology, 2011 Nobel Laurette in Chemistry

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2011 to Dan Shechtman, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel for the discovery of quasicrystals.

In quasicrystals, we find the fascinating mosaics reproduced at the level of atoms: regular patterns that never repeat themselves. However, the configuration found in quasicrystals was considered impossible, and Dan Shechtman had to fight a fierce battle against established science. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2011 has fundamentally altered how chemists conceive of solid matter.

On the morning of 8 April 1982, an image counter to the laws of nature appeared in Dan Shechtman’s electron microscope. In all solid matter, atoms were believed to be packed inside crystals in symmetrical patterns that were repeated periodically over and over again. For scientists, this repetition was required in order to obtain a crystal.

Shechtman’s image, however, showed that the atoms in his crystal were packed in a pattern that could not be repeated. Such a pattern was considered just as impossible as creating a football using only six-cornered polygons, when a sphere needs both five- and six-cornered polygons. His discovery was extremely controversial. In the course of defending his findings, he was asked to leave his research group. However, his battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter.

Aperiodic mosaics, such as those found in the medieval Islamic mosaics of the Alhambra Palace in Spain and the Darb-i Imam Shrine in Iran, have helped scientists understand what quasicrystals look like at the atomic level. In those mosaics, as in quasicrystals, the patterns are regular – they follow mathematical rules – but they never repeat themselves.

When scientists describe Shechtman’s quasicrystals, they use a concept that comes from mathematics and art: the golden ratio. This number had already caught the interest of mathematicians in Ancient Greece, as it often appeared in geometry. In quasicrystals, for instance, the ratio of various distances between atoms is related to the golden mean.

Following Shechtman’s discovery, scientists have produced other kinds of quasicrystals in the lab and discovered naturally occurring quasicrystals in mineral samples from a Russian river. A Swedish company has also found quasicrystals in a certain form of steel, where the crystals reinforce the material like armor. Scientists are currently experimenting with using quasicrystals in different products such as frying pans and diesel engines.

Related: 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry: the Structure and Function of the RibosomeThe Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2006)

Read more on the science he has worked on. Our understanding of science is built on the discoveries of our predecessors and on the discoveries that counter what we thought we knew.
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