Julie Duke

Scope Correspondent
jjduke@mit.edu
Julie’s first book told the story of an “ugly” dinosaur who, à la “The Ugly Duckling,” had simply been hanging around with a dissimilar species. This story foreshadowed some of Julie’s life passions, including writing, studying evolutionary biology and history, and spending time with animals of the non-human variety. Julie grew up an aspiring veterinarian in St. Louis and entered Harvard College an aspiring writer. She exited college with a History of Science degree, having satisfactorily indulged her simultaneous loves for science and writing – particularly in an honors thesis her senior year, in which she explored anthropomorphism and scientific story-telling in the age of Darwin. Julie then worked happily alongside scientists and animals in the Conservation & Science department of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo for two years. At MIT, Julie is excited to write about biological science, conservation, and animals (both ugly and cute). She can often be found volunteering at wildlife rehabilitation centers, petting strangers’ dogs, and searching for bits of wilderness in the city.

Listening to Landscapes

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Scope Correspondent

Listening to Landscapes: Ben Cosgrove’s ‘Field Studies’

Hair to Stay

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Scope Correspondent

“You ready?” the hairdresser asked me with a smile, holding foil and a tub of light cream in her hands.

This was supposed to be fun, I told myself. Staring in the mirror, surrounded by scissors, blow driers and chemicals, I paused. I had always been brunette. Why did I so desire a change? I’d just wanted to try something new, different. Why was I suddenly hesitant?

The pungent stench of the bleach raked my nose. I knew that once the hairdresser brushed the mixture, containing the same chemical used in fertilizers and household cleaners, onto my hair, the molecules in the bleach would begin permeating every brown strand. The hair’s walls must first be penetrated. When the chemicals gained access to the depths of my hair, they would rob the color from the hair’s proteins, leaving only colorless molecules in their wake. Foreign molecules of a new color would then take up residence within the hair shaft while the outer wall of the hair remained open. Those strands of hair would transform at the molecular level, never to return to their former state. Full Article »

Robo-Tongues Taste for Better Wine

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Scope Correspondent

Sommeliers beware; a robot “tongue” is being trained to taste wine.

The electronic tongue—a machine that “tastes”—has been used to study the qualities of wine, water, beer, and even urine, but a team at Washington State University is working on further developing the machine’s wine-tasting skills in a large-scale red wine analysis project. The researchers arecurrently analyzing sixty-one different commercial merlots, local Washington vintages of varying price levels, to understand the characteristics that shape a good wine.

Although wine has been sniffed, swirled, and sipped for centuries, the chemicals and compounds that make up wine’s complex features remain unidentified. Using built-in chemical sensors, the e-tongue can perceive taste qualities in a fashion similar to the human tongue, yet with no boundaries of time, palatability, or toxicity—and with the added ability to detect specific molecules. Full Article »

A Penny for Your Thoughts

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Scope Correspondent

A review of Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures, by Virginia Morell

Crown, 2013

304 pages

 

One fateful day in March 1838, a twenty-nine-year-old Charles Darwin met a female named Jenny. Observing her in her exhibit in the London Zoological Garden, Darwin noted that Jenny, a young orangutan recently acquired by the zoo, “kicked & cried, precisely like a naughty child” when a keeper teased her with an apple. Having never met an ape face to face before, Darwin wrote furiously and excitedly in his notebooks, speculating on the thoughts and feelings of Jenny the orangutan over multiple visits. “Let man visit Ouranoutang in domestication,” Darwin wrote, “hear its expressive whine, see its intelligence when spoken (to); as if it understands every word said—see its affection—to those it knew—see its passion & rage, sulkiness, & very actions of despair.” Darwin found such instances enough to convince him that animals (the “higher” ones, at least) are intelligent, that they can feel pain, jealousy, happiness, and boredom.

But Darwin had been criticized for using stories like Jenny’s as scientific evidence. They are anthropomorphic, other scientists said; they bestow non-human animals with human emotions that we cannot prove they feel. This anti-animal-mind mindset ruled psychological science for decades, and its grasp is still felt today. Full Review »

More Than Just a Dwarf Planet

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Scope Correspondent

Many of us will never forget the day that Pluto died as a planet. Formerly the ninth planet in our solar system, Pluto was downgraded in 2006 to a lowly “dwarf planet,” and all of our childhood textbooks were changed forever. Instead of the smallest and most distant planet from the sun, Pluto became just another object in the region beyond Neptune known as the Kuiper (pronounced ky-per) belt. Full Article »

Preemies in Private Rooms May Require Extra Care

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Scope Correspondent

Babies born prematurely enter the world before they are fully prepared for it.  Research has shown that the noisy, chaotic environment of the typical open-ward neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), in which the infants are cared for, can cause adverse effects.

But a recent study shows that actions taken to amend these effects—namely, private rooms—could actually be worse for such premature babies. Full Article »

Water’s Electrifying Future

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Scope Correspondent

While observing video of what is now old news—water droplets “jumping” off of a water-repellent surface like self-propelled bouncy balls—an MIT researcher noticed something odd. When the droplets, only about one tenth the diameter of a strand of hair, crossed the path of another droplet mid-jump, they didn’t unite into a larger drop as would be expected; rather, they continued their impression of rubber balls and rebounded away from each other.

Intrigued, Nenad Milijkovic, an MIT postdoc in mechanical engineering, immediately began an investigation into the primary suspect behind all attract/repel interactions: electric charge. Milijkovic and his team placed a negatively charged electrode beneath a plate of jumping droplets, and as they hypothesized, the droplets zoomed toward it like bugs to a light—and when the charge was reversed, they leapt away, confirming that the droplets were positively charged. Full Article »

MIT can have Unique Impact on Future of Fossil Fuels, Students Say

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Scope Correspondent

“Our chance to lead against climate change” is the motto of a new student group at MIT, which has joined the growing national movement calling for universities and other organizations to divest from fossil fuels.

The group argues that MIT, as a leading university in energy and technology research, is in a unique position to send a powerful message to other universities, the government, and the world about the future of energy and the environment.

“We’re at MIT; we know the science and we know what needs to be done,” said Patrick Brown, a 5th-year graduate student in Physics and one of the group’s founding members. Full Article »

Twisted History: A New Way of Looking at Old Tornado Records

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Scope Correspondent

Unlike high-profile tornado events such as the deadly, 1.3-mile wide twister in Moore, Oklahoma earlier this year, many tornadoes have gone unnoticed and unreported. That is, until storm chasers began traversing the Midwestern plains and populations expanded further into rural areas.

This historical underreporting of tornadoes in rural areas has made it difficult for researchers today to assess the tornado risk of any given area and the possible effects of climate on tornadoes—studies which require data collected over long periods of time.

To correct this, researchers led by Florida State University Geography Professor James Elsner developed the first statistical model that takes into account population bias, or the fact that tornadoes near populated areas have been better reported than those in less populated areas, as well as changes in population densities over time. Full Article »

Birds May Follow their Beaks to Breed

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Scope Correspondent

Like Toucan Sam following his nose to Froot Loops, birds may use scent to find mates.

Though scientists have traditionally deemed odor insignificant in comparison to the wide array of colors, ornamentations, and calls of many avian mating displays, a team of researchers studying whether odor can predict reproductive success in birds discovered a striking correlation between smell and mate choice in dark-eyed juncos.

This new data could have potential implications for bird conservation research; “a junco is a basic songbird, which I never would have thought depended on smell in any way,” said Kim Peters, the Chief Scientist and Director of Bird Conservation at Mass Audubon, who was not involved with the study.

It could also influence studies on the olfactory systems of other species in which smell has not been considered noteworthy, and it may even suggest approaches for breeding programs and enrichment for birds in captivity as well, the researcher said.

The results were “surprisingly strong,” said Danielle Whittaker, the primary researcher and Managing Director of BEACON, the Center for the Study of Evolution in Action at Michigan State University. Full Article »