Still in the Dark

The universe remains a mysterious place, and one of the biggest mysteries confronting astronomers today is that “the amount of mass we can see through our telescopes is not enough to keep galaxies from spinning apart.” Since the 1930’s, this shortfall has been covered by dark matter, a hypothetical substance which has never actually been observed. On the Weizmann Wave, we can consider an alternative called MOND (Modified Newtonian Dynamics) which “posits that gravity works differently on the intergalactic scale.” In fact, University of Maryland researcher Stacy McGaugh recently published a paper that says for low surface brightness galaxies, MOND works better than dark matter. But on Starts With a Bang!, Ethan Siegel says MOND was designed to work for rotating galaxies, and “the problem is it doesn’t do anything else.” To successfully model large-scale phenomena such as the cosmic microwave background radiation, there needs to be five times more mass in the universe than we can observe. But what or where it is, nobody knows.

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Successful Science Writing

On Confessions of a Science Librarian, John Dupuis considers the keys to writing a successful science book, such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Most important, says John, is crossover appeal: “normally picky reviewers loved TILoHL because it’s more than ‘just’ a science book. They saw it as a book that’s also about people and society and ethics.” John has a list of specific strategies to make a book appeal to a broader audience. Meanwhile, Chad Orzel offers insight into the writing process behind the sequel to How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, a popular science book from 2009 which was recently released in paperback. The sequel focuses on relativity instead of physics, but wisely, retains the talking mutt. Chad shares the morphing outline of his new book on Uncertain Principles.

Mapping Frontiers

The science of cartography has come a long way over the centuries, from the caricatured coastlines of antiquity to the highly-detailed satellite images of today. We know our terrestrial boundaries very well, and until all the polar ice melts and raises sea levels, mapmakers are busy looking elsewhere. Greg Laden explores the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone, which was modelled by observing the transmission of shock waves through the earth’s crust. Greg explains, “This sonar-like approach allows the mapping of underground three-dimensional structure,” and he has the pictures to prove it. On Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel marvels at a new map of the moon created by the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter, wherein each linear pixel equates to only 145 meters. If you get lost exploring the lunar wastes, don’t panic, just refresh your browser window and start again.

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

The science portion of The Nation’s Report Card was released on February 24th, with test scores from school districts in seventeen urban centers. Almost every district performed below the national average. Greg Laden explains, “Poverty determines the outcome of the results, and this is probably exacerbated in urban zones where private schools siphon off the small number of higher-income kids.” Although Department of Education officials were firm in their stance that “correlation does not equal causality,” Greg plots test scores against poverty level in the cities surveyed and reveals a very clear trend. Mike the Mad Biologist produces a similar slope using data from Massachusetts, where “a one percent increase in school lunch eligibility means the expected percentage of poorly performing students in math increases 0.88%.” He concludes, “our educational ‘crisis’ is one intimately associated with poor children. Yet our political betters refuse to comprehend that.”

Refusing to Yield

To judge by its name, cancer may seem like a monolithic disease. But a recent study which sequenced the genomes of seven prostate cancers reveals just how staggeringly complex the disease can be. The sequencing revealed not only DNA mutations, but rampant rearrangements of the chromosomes themselves. As ERV explains, “we arent talking a mutation here, a tiny deletion there—we are talking huge chunks of DNA in the wrong place.” Once a cell becomes cancerous—which is no simple transition—it no longer functions as part of a bodily community. Instead, it founds its own community of cellular opportunists. Orac writes, “individual cancers are made up of multiple different clones of cancer cells under selective pressure to become ever more invasive and deadly.” And the evolutionary pressures of the human body can generate some grotesque cells indeed. Like all life, cancer is adaptive and diverse, and refuses to yield. But so, of course, do we.