Archive | July, 2013

A Science Communications Challenge

26 Jul
Winner of the ten-hundred and one word challenge.

Winner of the ten-hundred and one word challenge.

Here’s your challenge: create a poster about highly technical research. So far, so good. You can use images, photos, or cartoons, but — here comes the kicker — you can only use 1,000 of the most common English words.

Speaking as a guy who has to write about science and research and is typically up to my elbows in research papers, I do not accept this challenge! But, luckily, there are Penn Staters who are much more creative and courageous than I am.

A Penn State group from the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation not only took this challenge, they won it. They beat out 45 other Energy Frontier Research Centers. The contest was inspired by a cartoon in the popular XKCD cartoon that uses the most common English words to describe the blueprints of NASA’s Saturn V rocket, or an Up Goer 5. It’s pretty funny. Check it out.

If you have a second, you can read some of there other winners at the challenge website, too.

Daniel Cosgrove, who leads the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation, said that the contest emphasizes the importance of science and research communications and was a good exercise for the group. The center is investigating the use of plant material as a possible source of sustainable energy and communicating their goals to the general audience is necessary.

Science is a knowledge system. It’s how we find out things. But knowledge that isn’t disseminated — or should I just say, “spread” — isn’t really knowledge at all, it’s only data. Information may not be free, as anyone who has paid a cable television bill knows, but it definitely wants to be shared.

Using common language to explain complex subjects is difficult, but the payoff is tremendous. The more we learn, the bigger our knowledge net becomes and the farther we can cast it for even greater discoveries.

I’m glad other people at Penn State are committed to sharing the wealth of knowledge that this University produces.

I know you are all dying to know. About 78 percent of the words I used in this post are from the list of  1,000 most common English words. I used this web calculator to figure it out. Hey, C+! That appears to be slightly better than the normal deviation. I mean, it’s a little better than average.

Not the Heat but the Humidity

12 Jul
Cloudy sky

Cloudy sky over Penn State University Park campus. Credit: Patrick Mansell, Penn State

Today it is overcast, but not raining.  At least not yet.  It’s Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts time, and in my experience it is either blisteringly hot or we experience torrential downpours during this week in summer, but the weather forecast for the weekend looks good.

Not so the past three weeks.  We’ve been hit with rain nearly every day.  One day it hailed.  The ground is saturated and people who have never had water in their basements do now.  On some days I’ve been soaked from head to foot up to three times.  And it hasn’t been just the rain.  Even when it is not raining the temperatures have been on the high side for State College and the humidity has been very high, sometimes in the 80 and 90 percent range without rain.  It’s not unusual to start down a road only to find it closed due to temporary flooding.

July is usually one of our rainiest months, but this year has been unusual.  The normal range of jokes is circulating.  Checking for webbing between ones feet and mold just about everywhere.  But clothes dry; unlike the Wicked Witch of the West, humans don’t melt in the rain; and better weather is on the way.  No harm no foul, right?

Two students with backpacks from the back with umbrellas walking together in the rain

Two students walk in the rain on the University Park campus of Penn State. Credit: Patrick Mansell, Penn State

Not true. Certainly farmers are complaining because they can’t get into their fields and home owners have soggy lawns to mow with weeds that grow a mile a minute.  However, other aspects of the humid, hot weather are not always considered.

I was interviewing a researcher the other day about a materials formation process.  A method that will make perfectly spherical micron sized balls.  During the interview I asked lots of questions about the material, its uses and production.  We were just about finished with the interview when the researcher said, “Well, you know, with this weather, my graduate students have not been able to produce any material in the past two weeks.”

Even in a brand new, fully air-conditioned building, the systems could not keep up with the humidity.  This particular method needs dry air in order to produce the uniformly sized spheres.  During this past rainy period, the humidity was just too high to produce them.  Inside, in a laboratory, the weather was retarding the progress of  research.

This certainly isn’t the only research being done on campus suffering from the extremely high moisture content in our air.  A vast majority of things won’t dry in this humidity, even inside.  Some chemical reactions are affected.  Anything that is supposed to be anhydrous — without water — is going to have too much moisture and anything that is hydroscopic — water loving or water attracting — is also going to have too much moisture.

However, not only is science and technology research impaired by the humidity, but other areas of scholarship also suffered.  Paint won’t dry, ceramics retain water and paper becomes damp and unusable.  Baking a cake or doing anything with sugar or honey becomes difficult because sugar and honey are hydroscopic and draw more moisture into the food than required.  So, at least some food science research must be put on hold.

Two to three weeks does not seem like a very long time, but if you are a graduate student trying to finish research to defend your dissertation by a certain date, those three weeks could mean the difference between graduating in August or graduating in December.

Besides, while everyone is uncomfortable in the weather we have just had, the researchers suffering from too much moisture in the air have the additional inconvenience of not being able to do what they do best — move the frontier of science and technology just that much further along.

When People Go Viral Over Plant Viruses

8 Jul

We tend to think of viruses as nasty germs that we try desperately to get rid of, whether they’re in our bodies, or in our gardens.

Semper Augustus, one of the most expensive tulip sold during tulip mania. TTulip breaking virus causes the red and white streaks. (Wikimedia Commons)

Semper Augustus, one of the most expensive tulips sold during tulip mania. Tulip-breaking virus causes the red and white streaks. (Wikimedia Commons)

However, only a small percentage of the many viruses are pathogens, said Marilyn Roossinck, professor of plant pathology and environmental microbiology, and biology. Roossinck recently gave a talk about plant viruses at the Millennium Café, a weekly coffee break and science chat at Penn State’s Millennium Science Complex.

In fact, most viruses can work with a plant, as well as fungi, to improve plant health. They can boost heat and drought tolerance of certain plants, for example. Viruses can give plants beauty makeovers, too, that — by the way — can lead to economic bubbles. It was this type of viral artistry that helped create Tulip Mania in Holland during the 1630s.

The mania began when, as money from trade began to pour into the Netherlands, wealthy people started to build large estates and landscape those properties with exotic plants and flowers. Tulips, especially ones with interesting color patterns, became hot commodities and prices skyrocketed. At one point, tulip bulbs with extraordinary color schemes cost 10 times as much as a worker’s annual salary. The price of some tulips doubled in a few months.

Ingenuity fueled the mania. The Dutch became experts at creating colorful tulips by combining the virus-infected bulb with a solid colored bulb — grafting. They also became geniuses at marketing the bulbs, giving them brand names like “Admiral” or “General.”

The traders had no idea that a virus — often called a tulip-breaking virus — was causing the strange coloring. This wasn’t known for another 250 years, according to Roossinck. In some cases, the virus was spontaneously cured. This led to even more speculation on bulbs — leading to even wilder price gyrations.

Prices inevitably increased to a point where there were more sellers than buyers — and the market cratered. The effect of this bursting tulip bubble is still debated. Some say the tulip market’s collapse led to a general economic malaise throughout Holland, while more recent research suggests that the effect of the bubble was isolated to a fairly small group of wealth traders and collectors.

This might be a case where the virus wasn’t pathogenic, but human behavior, though, is another story.

You can find out more about Roossinck’s research here.

Here are a few stories about her research:

Wild plants are infected with many viruses and still thrive

Microbes team up to boost plants’ stress tolerance

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