Archive | June, 2011

A Press Release and a Special Guest

29 Jun

We finally have an official press release about the STS-135 tweetup (I think the delay might have something to do with the Flight Readiness Review only officially confirming July 8 as the launch date yesterday).  It doesn’t have a lot of new information, but what it does have is pretty amazing.  You can read it here.

Not only will Mike Massimino be there, along with a lot of other amazing NASA-types, but also….  ELMO.  He’ll be learning about space exploration at NASA. Four-year-old me is pretty much over the moon about meeting Elmo in 8 days. As is twenty-one-year-old me.

I was always more of a Super Grover girl, though…


29 Jun

I had to comment on the monkey-targeted-advertisement thing.

1)  What bothers me about all the reporting I’ve seen of it is that it’s currently still a planned study, based on earlier results dealing with monkeys learning to use currency.  There are currently no published results from the study regarding advertising to nonhuman primates.  This sort of reporting is moderately irksome, as it presents the working hypothesis (Monkeys will respond as their human primate counterparts do to advertisements), without actually having tested it–testing the hypothesis being the point of the planned  experiment.

2)  Testing two different colors of jello (as the article rather vaguely suggests the researchers are maybe thinking of doing eventually?) could theoretically be problematic, depending on the species’ natural environment and what they’re accustomed to in captivity.  For instance, does red food = ripe, or does red food = poison?  Presumably any researcher would take this into account, but it isn’t mentioned at all.

3)  There is a psychological phenomenon that I believe we learned about on Day One of Psych 101:  the mere exposure effect.  If (as the study apparently assumes) the species’ psychological responses parallel those of humans (which I’m not saying is unlikely), such an effect would be an entirely plausible confounding variable.  Think about it:  Do I eat this food that I’ve been seeing a picture of for t amount of time, with no apparent adverse effects associated with it, or do I eat this food that I’ve never seen before?

4)  In principle, I would agree with their hypothesis, which is that linking the picture of Food A to images of the alpha male and females will create a tendency to prefer Food A over unadvertised Food B.  That seems like common sense. (Which is, of course, something to watch out for in the cognitive sciences.  Folk wisdom is not always wisdom.  That’s why it bothers me that they’re reporting on the study without providing any published results.)

5)  If the subjects do prefer the advertised food, it will (presumably) be because they associate it with sex and social status (anyone who wants to feel particularly superior to other primates might want to avert their eyes from that fact).  The reason these things sell, among humans and potentially other primates, is their utilization of reward pathways.

The other day at my internship, I was reading about the treatment gap for substance abuse in prison (it’s a horrifying problem, and worthy of its own post). My mind was wandering to the shuttle launch (in 9 days!!!), and NASA funding, and I thought, If only the brain weren’t wired in such a way as to become addicted to harmful substances, think of all the extra funding the government could have spent on NASA over the past few decades.

But then it hit me:  if the brain weren’t wired in such a way as to become addicted to harmful substances, there wouldn’t be any NASA.  There might not even be any people.  The same pathways that motivate us to eat, drink, fight, procreate–basically, survive as a species–can be hijacked by substances that do more physical and financial (and societal and psychological and many adjectives I’ve forgotten) damage than good.  But they can also be used to justify exploration, the search for new knowledge–in short, NASA.  From the best things humans have ever done, to the worst addictions that befall us, it’s all dopamine.

There are always consequences, sometimes unpredictable, or temporarily unexplained.  And that is why we do experiments, instead of simply theorizing.

“I don’t think he’s even noticed she has a brain”

28 Jun

Fair warning:  this is a blog post about science, geekiness, and feminism.

Right now, I’m listening to Lori Garver and Mike Massimino talk about the future of NASA.  Someone asked the question that I ask myself daily:  “Will there be a manned mission to Mars in my lifetime?”  Not only did Lori Garver answer yes, but she added (and I’m paraphrasing slightly), “Not just a manned mission, but also some astronauts of the female persuasion.”

Unfortunately, only men walked on the Moon.  That made me think:  until the last few years, I never had many female role models.  To be fair, until the last few years, all my role models tended to be dead white males.  Tolkien.  Nabokov.  Faulkner.  Thoreau.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with any of the above.)  I guess, in a pinch, I could have said Jane Austen, but she’s hardly a paragon of female empowerment for the 21st century.

My sudden acquisition of female role models coincides precisely with my approximately 3-year-old love of science.  First it was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and then Carolyn Porco, whose Cassini images helped me survive 2009.

Saturn is pretty much the coolest. Sorry, Earth.

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Tweetup Sign-up: DO THIS

25 Jun

NASA is holding another tweetup, August 4-5 at KSC in Florida, for the launch of the Juno spacecraft aboard an Atlas V rocket, which will arrive at Jupiter in 2016 (More info here.)  Registration is only open until Monday the 27th at 3 p.m. EDT.  Go.  Register.  Trust me:  I do not use all caps lightly.

You owe it to yourself to sign up for this, even if it means making a twitter account that you would otherwise never use.

I haven’t even gone to my NASA tweetup yet, and it’s already one of my favorite things that has ever happened.  The people, the science, the community, the shuttle, the fezzes.

Here’s a short story for you:

Once upon a time there was a girl.  Her parents met by coincidentally calling into a Chicago-based radio dating game show on the same day.  From the in-retrospect-terrifyingly-low odds of her own existence, she took the lesson that you should probably ALWAYS ENTER CONTESTS.  And registration for the tweetup is free, so, seriously, what is there to lose?

Plus, you could meet your soulmate (Relevant Tim Minchin song on the inherently flawed concept of soulmates:  “If I Didn’t Have You”).  Or, you know, see something made by your fellow humans launch to Jupiter.  Which is equally good.

A Nice Little Place in the Stars

21 Jun

The title of this post should really be “Growin Up.”  But I’m an English nerd as much as a science nerd, damn it, and I just couldn’t do it.  The lines “My feet they finally took root in the earth, but I got me a nice little place in the stars” are, of course, plucked from this song, which made me happy-sad earlier today.  (It’s someone’s fault that there isn’t a better word for that than “bittersweet,” just not mine.)


It has not been a thoroughly cheerful year for my weirdly varied pop culture interests.  Clarence Clemons died this past weekend, Elisabeth Sladen died while I was studying for finals, and, shortly before her, Nicholas Courtney.

As always, when confronted with spooky things like the steady passage of time, I turn to the data.  For once, those data are not entirely comforting.  For instance, 12 people have walked on the Moon.  The youngest was born in 1935.  Of those 12, 3 have died already (a fact I was unaware of until today, and which almost makes my point for me).

A practical solution to this unavoidable problem?  Make sure that someone is watching Tom Baker’s cholesterol levels, that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are always within the reach of capable cardiologists, that Ray Bradbury is kept well away from factors known to cause pneumonia.  Etc.

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The Science of Space, Brains, and Babies

18 Jun

The final flight of Atlantis will be STS-135.  (The STS stands for “Space Transportation System.”  The more you know.)  I’ve been skimming through previous missions, especially the earliest missions and the Hubble-centric ones, looking for things to write & think about while I wait patiently to board a plane to Florida next month.

STS-90, flown by Columbia in April of 1998, was a Spacelab mission, carrying a set of 26 experiments to be performed on nonhuman animals and on the crew themselves.

Spacelab Concept Art

Spacelab flew on 22 shuttle missions. The above is some pretty darn gorgeous concept art, which you should absolutely click to zoom in on.

These 26 experiments made up Neurolab.  I was surprised I had never heard of it, and glad to find a wealth of scientific literature about the experiments, some of which looked incomprehensible at first glance.

I love science that looks incomprehensible at first glance. Continue reading

Summer Reading

17 Jun

I really shouldn’t recommend a book that I haven’t read.  I know I shouldn’t.  But I think I’m going to go ahead and do something dangerously close.

This all started when I realized that there must be some research on the effects of space travel on the brain.  There just must be.  The most recent information I could find on NASA’s website (and I’m almost hoping I missed something there) talked about missions that “are planned for… 1998.”  So that was no good.

A bit more searching, however, yielded this nifty-looking tome, aptly titled Neuroscience in Space:

It does exactly what it says on the tin.

If the existence of this textbook (and hence my new dream career, pretty much) weren’t enough for one afternoon, it turns out that I can read the entire book for free, courtesy of my college library, which I am currently about 2,000 miles away from.

Technology may not be magic, but it seems pretty magical right now.