Living by Light

Jellyfish aren’t reknowned for specialized organs; they lack brains, guts, hearts, and lungs. But some of them have eyes in spades. Mo writes on Neurophilosophy that box jellyfish have “24 eyes contained within a club-shaped sensory apparatus called a rhopalium, one of which is suspended from each side of the cube-shaped umbrella by a flexible, muscular stalk.” A crystal called a stratolith weighs down each of the four rhopalia and ensures that the “upper lens eyes remain in a strictly upright position, regardless of body orientation.” For the first time, researchers have shown that the four upper lens eyes can detect terrestrial landmarks above the surface of the water, helping lagoon-dwelling jellyfish to keep their bearings. And on Oscillator, Christina Agapakis takes a peek at the future, when light-sensitive proteins delivered to the retina by a virus could help blind people to see.



Time goes on and turns our attention, but radioactive isotopes take a long time to decay. On Greg Laden’s Blog, Analiese Miller and Greg update us on the nuclear crisis in Japan. Although the dangers faced at the Fukushima power plant have diminished, the long term consequences have just begun. Greg writes “it has been a while since extensive fission has occurred in the leaking reactor” and “there is real progress in hooking up the plants to outside power sources.” Meanwhile, Ana’s extensive news feed documents irradiated produce, neglected and euthanized livestock, and a widened evacuation zone. On Casaubon’s Book, Sharon Astyk enumerates her first (and only) top ten list, with ways to reduce our dependence on energy. She suggests we stop voting for industrial production with our dollars, buy things used, and cut back on everything from “lumber to underpants.” Going green will take some ingenuity, but it will provide a safer, cleaner, and cooler world for future generations.

Observing the Curve of the Earth

On the USA Science and Engineering Festival blog, astronaut John Grunsfeld describes what it’s like to rocket into space. Astronauts first spend two hours strapped in on the launchpad, “flipping switches and thinking about our training and the jobs we have to do.” They count down to ignition, mindful of the 4.5 million pounds of explosive in the fuel tanks. After liftoff, the shuttle accelerates out of Earth’s atmosphere in less than nine minutes, causing each astronaut to feel like they weigh 700 pounds. An instant later, they are weightless. On Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel shares majestic pictures of the Earth from space, including a panoramic image from 1948 that clearly shows the curvature of the planet. Nowadays, MIT students can take a similar shot for only $150. But they still can’t compete with pictures of the Earth from the moon, from Voyager, from Mars, from Mercury, and from the rings of Saturn. Whether out the window or merely pixellated, the Earth is a truly beautiful place.

Making Waves

On Built on Facts, Matt Springer writes that “there’s really no such thing as a purely continuous monochromatic light wave” and “any pulse of light that lasts a finite amount of time will actually contain a range of frequencies.” Pass this pulse of light through a medium such as glass, which “can have a different refractive index for each frequency,” and some very weird things start to happen. On Life at the SETI Institute, Dr. Lori Fenton explains her study of “aeolian geomorphology – how wind shapes a planetary surface.” As it does on Earth, weather makes wave patterns in the dunes of Venus, Mars, and Saturn’s moon Titan, leaving a record of the meteorological forces at play. On Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel takes a step back from wave-particle duality. Researchers have observed wave interference in molecules that “contain up to 430 atoms, and are several nanometers across, making them by far the largest objects anybody has ever seen displaying wave behavior.” This brings the “quantum-classical boundary” a little closer to the human scale. But for now, we still behave a lot like particles.

Reaching for the Moon

The moon entrances us—it is near yet far away, familiar, yet unremittingly mysterious. In synchronous rotation, it has a face it never shows. It pulls the oceans; it stirs the blood. It beckons into the unknown. On Universe, Claire L. Evans says that in 1969, six artists snuck “a minuscule enamel wafer inscribed with six tiny drawings” onto Apollo 12’s landing module. Claire writes, “the artistry of this ‘museum’ is as much about the gesture of sneaking it, illicitly, onto the leg of the lunar lander, as it is about the drawings themselves.” On Starts With a Bang!, Ethan Siegel explains that due to the very slight tilt of the Moon on its axis, permanently shadowed craters at the North and South poles may hold “some very, very dirty ice, mixed with normal Moon-dust and rock, possibly similar to a glacier on Earth!” Could these ice-traps help sustain a lunar colony? Or should we be content to study the Moon with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter?

Reassessing Genetic Patents

On Bioephemera, Jessica Palmer considers the evolving relationship between patent law and DNA, as the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit hears the appeal of Association for Molecular Pathology v. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. At stake are patents that Myriad Genetics holds on two genes—BRCA1 and BRCA2—that it earned in the 1990’s. These genes correlate with breast cancer risk, and Myriad is the sole supplier of BRCA diagnostic tests in the United States. Jess explains that such patents do not mean a biotechnology company owns the DNA in our cells, but “a patent holder may have the right to exclude scientists from isolating or copying pieces of genomic DNA (or cDNAs) and/or using them for research, therapy, or clinical diagnosis.” BRCA testing currently costs about $3000 per individual, providing 88% of Myriad’s revenue. Many people argue that patents are necessary to provide incentives for costly research and development. But Jeffrey Toney suggests a different future on Dean’s Corner, saying “legal cases such as Myriad could serve as a turning point for scientists to embrace open innovation, liberating them from the constraints that patents can impose.”

What Makes a Planet?

Greg Laden draws our attention to an object named Vesta, which by itself makes up 9% of the asteroid belt. Greg says “if you take the largest handful of objects in the asteroid belt, Ceres, Vesta, Pallas and 10 Hygiea, you’ve got half of the mass of the entire thing, according to the most current estimates.” According to NASA, Vesta is even differentiated, meaning it was once hot enough to form a core, mantle, and crust. On Life at the SETI Institute, the Analysis Lead on NASA’s Kepler project explains how to spot a planet from hundreds of millions of miles away. Dr. Jon Jenkins says “We’re looking for one part per 10,000 drop in brightness caused by this tiny planet blocking a small fraction of the light from the star.” Kepler finds about ten new planetary candidates every day, and can also “hear” starquakes, the “songs of the stars.” Finally, on Starts With a Bang!, Ethan Siegel brings planetary dynamics closer to home. He says earthquakes occur as the planet differentiates itself, bringing the heaviest elements to the core, and the lightest elements to the surface. Every time this happens, the world spins a little faster.