On April 16, 1964, Frank Press had just returned from the site of a tsunami. Three weeks prior, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.2—the highest ever recorded in North America—had struck the southern coast of Alaska. The four-minute-long quake shook hundreds of miles of seaside sediment loose. Alaska’s shores tumbled into underwater mudslides, taking whole villages with them. Suburban homes sank into the sludge. Pavement cracked. Backyard bomb shelters crumbled. 131 people died. And with just two earthquake monitoring stations’ worth of data to go on, the young expert in digital seismology was summoned to the scene to attempt to sort out what had happened. Full Article »
posted November 24, 2015 at 12:47 pm
In which sense does the Universe make sense?
In the sense you sense a sense.
—Victor Weisskopf Full Article »
posted November 24, 2015 at 12:43 pm
In 1960s America, television programs like The Six Million Dollar Man showed a world where biotechnology could make us nearly immortal. Kids were enamored by the premise of bionic limbs, thinking they were better than their own arms and legs. One child’s desire to amputate his legs and replace them with bionic ones drove his mother to write to Senator Edward Kennedy for advice. Full Article »
posted November 24, 2015 at 12:33 pm
The straw-yellow dust is a nutritional juggernaut, rich in potassium (three times more than in the fresh plant), fiber, vitamin B6, and magnesium. In the 1980s Indian scientists even found that it cured ulcers. And yet, for over a century, scientists have tried, and mostly failed to get people to eat the dried, powdered fruit. Even body builders who routinely torture their taste buds with various concoctions won’t touch the stuff: Americans prefer their bananas fresh or not at all. Full Article »
posted November 24, 2015 at 11:47 am
Floating west of Bermuda on a clear day in 1959, a group of oceanographers noticed something odd. Henry Stommel, James Crease, and John Swallow, aboard the navy-hulled research ship Aries, had just deployed a swarm of oceanographic floats at different depths. Swallow had designed the floats and thought he knew what they would do: drift slowly north on leisurely currents believed to dominate the deep sea. Yet almost immediately, the floats began moving in every direction, clipping along at speeds ten times more than anticipated. Full Article »
posted November 24, 2015 at 11:41 am
In a recent Barbie ad, young girls step into professional roles such as neuroscience professor, veterinarian, and businesswoman. Titled “Imagine the Possibilities,” the commercial ends by telling girls “You Can Be Anything.” This may be a novel concept for Barbie, but it’s a decades-old message for the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), founded more than sixty years ago. Full Article »
posted February 25, 2015 at 11:56 pm
The primary act of social media—whether Twitter, tumblr, or Instagram—is virtual curation. Around the turn of the 20th century, though, the curation fad was literal: people roamed fields and forests to collect plant specimens and preserve them in plant libraries called herbaria. Now those old specimens are helping scientists reconstruct how trees have responded to shifts in the climate.
Scientists have recently gleaned data from New England herbarium specimens on historical timing of leaf-out—the time in spring when leaves unfurl, an important biological indicator of climate change. A team from Boston University used 1,599 plant specimens from 27 different tree species, dating from 1875 to 2008, to determine past leaf-out dates in New England. By combining herbarium specimen data with weather station data from the same time period, they found that trees leafed out 2.7 days earlier for each degree Celsius increase in April temperature. Full Article »
posted January 5, 2015 at 4:01 pm
At 4:20 AM on September 3, 1925, a colossal airship of aluminum, silk and helium—over two football fields long—floated over the quiet town of Caldwell, Ohio. Yet from his perch a third of a mile up, Lieutenant Commander Zachary Lansdowne was on edge. He’d been roused from sleep by his crew; the weather had gotten worse, sandwiching the dirigible between a nasty headwind from the south and brewing storms to the north. But he decided to stick to the plan, keeping her on a west-southwest line. There wasn’t any immediate threat, and besides, people all over the Midwest had anticipated the USS Shenandoah’s arrival for months. Changing course would disappoint the admiring crowds awaiting them. Full Article »
posted December 9, 2014 at 9:29 am
Vera Kistiakowsky was not pleased. It was February 3, 1971, and the MIT nuclear physicist was sitting in the audience at the American Physical Society’s first session on women in physics. The problem wasn’t the session itself, but, as she put it, “all these idiots in the audience responding.”
Case in point: Valentine Telegdi, a Hungarian physicist at the University of Chicago, said with a big smile on his face, “If I had been married to Pierre Curie, I would have been Madame Curie.”
Kistiakowsky recalls that it “made me want to get up and scream, but I didn’t.” Instead she decided to form a Committee on Women in Physics, “so I could rub the facts in.” Full Article »
posted November 24, 2014 at 2:29 pm
One afternoon in 1942, Randolph Major called John Clark Sheehan into his office. Major, the balding, self-effacing director of research at Merck Pharmaceuticals, was offering Sheehan his choice of research projects. Merck was looking into two interesting compounds: the steroid cortisone and the antibiotic penicillin. Sheehan said he was comfortable with steroid research, but Major interrupted him to say that Lewis Sarrett, a recent hire, was also qualified in this area.
Sheehan had heard of penicillin. “I knew that it was supposed to be a remarkable drug but very difficult to work with chemically,” he later recalled. This did not deter him. “If it is all right with you, Dr. Major, I’ll take the penicillin,” he said. At twenty-seven years old, Sheehan was about to begin the scientific mission that defined his career. Full Article »