Shutter Speed

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Scope Correspondent

I sat in a chair across from the hospital bed, watching each shallow breath shrug its way out, into, and out of my grandfather’s chest. The amount of time between the conclusion of one breath and the start of the next one was just long enough that my eyes constantly flicked up to the monitor to make sure his heart was still beating. A stroke had paralyzed his right side from the shoulder down and severely impaired his ability to speak, and at 96 years old, he was already in less than peak condition. Full Article »

Bourbon County’s Ugly Angels

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Scope Correspondent

It’s not heavenly creatures, but a sooty black fungus that thrives on pollution produced in alcohol distilling processes. Now, Louisville distillers face growing pressure to curb the ethanol emissions that drive the spread of this “whiskey fungus.”

The fungus Baudoinia compniacensis grows in what is known amongst distillers as the angel’s share: ethanol vapors that escape the oak barrels during the aging process. The vapors allow this stubborn fungus to grow everywhere: sidings, plants, outdoor furniture, even toys left outside.

Each bourbon barrel loses about 2% of its liquid per year of aging, adding up to 2000 tons of ethanol released into the air by each of three large distilleries with maturation warehouses in Louisville: Heaven Hill, Brown-Forman, and Diageo—who market such brands as Elijah Craig, Jack Daniel’s, and Bushmills. Full Article »

Notes from a Citizen

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Scope Correspondent

I was born at the tail end of the creation of the world. Back then, most people could live in only one way, in the dull reality of one single place at a time. But I had a choice. In my dirty socks, I made regular pilgrimages to the basement, sidling past broken toys and half-folded linens. Our computer was, if I remember correctly, a dusty old Dell. I booted it up the way my mother had taught me. I waited. There was always that chance the connection wouldn’t make it—that AOL’s eerie mechanical music would suddenly falter, buck up, and die, taking all of my hopes down with it.

Back then, I thought that I was a regular earthly creature. I am an animal, therefore I must belong outside with the other animals. I should have known better. I should have known the first time I visited a beach in August heat, slathered in and reeking of high-powered sun goop. Children shrieking everywhere, while tears of sweat ran down the seam of my back. I waded into the ocean and asked for relief, and then it gagged me with salt instead. The message was loud and clear: This sloppy world is no place for someone like me. Full Article »

A New Theory on the Origin of Indo-European Languages

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Scope Correspondent

Five thousand years ago, marauding waves of nomadic horsemen swept out of the bleak Caspian steppes across Eurasia. The Kurgans, as they’re now called, were a warring culture who imposed their leadership and language on large swathes of people. From its violent origins, their tongue would give rise to the world’s most successful language family—at least according to one theory among linguists.

Proto-Indo-European was the ancestral language that, over millennia, branched into hundreds of languages spoken by 45 percent of the world’s population, including English, Hindi, Russian, and Urdu. The location of its birth has been the subject of fiery debate for centuries.

A fascinating and contentious new study in Science supports an origins theory that couldn’t be more different from the Kurgan hypothesis. In this alternate scenario, the proto-language spread and evolved not through conquest, but rather with the gradual, peaceful expansion of agriculture out of present-day Turkey.

The research team reached this conclusion through the innovative use of computational models borrowed from evolutionary biology. Languages, like DNA, mutate at measurable rates. If you can trace the evolution of similar words across different languages, you should be able to project backwards to identify their points of divergence and ultimate origins. 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 »

The Woman Scientist and the Woman Architect

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Fifty years before the term “carbon footprint” came in vogue, MIT held a symposium titled “Space Heating with Solar Energy.” Three women were on the 98-person registration list.

Scientists at the August 1950 gathering warned of dire situations familiar to us today. Eugene Ayres, a solar expert with the Gulf Research and Development Company, wrote in his paper’s abstract, “We know that time will come when we shall require a consciously engineered plan for solar energy utilization instead of simply burning up everything we can burn as rapidly as we can find and produce it.” He went on to outline the peak of the United States’s coal production, forecast oil being depleted within a century, and noted the possibility of having to import our fuel needs from abroad.

Embedded in this conference was another revolution: the opening of the field to women. Clippings from newspapers covering the event point to the persons who most captured the public’s interest: the “woman scientist” and “woman architect” who built the Dover House, a $10,000 house heated entirely by the sun. The scientist and the architect were Maria Telkes, an MIT researcher in the department of metallurgy, and Eleanor Raymond, who was based in Boston. 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 »

To Be or Knot to Be

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Scope Correspondent

The rufa Red Knot navigates from the top of the world to the bottom, and back, each year. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, however, the knot — a subspecies of one of the largest and most colorful sandpipers — is likely to become in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future.

The Service recently issued a proposal to add the shorebird to the threatened species list on the Endangered Species Act. The proposal followed several lawsuits urging the Service to “emergency list” the shorebird, whose population has declined by about 75% since the 1980s.

If approved, the knots will join more than 1,200 species in the U.S. on the Endangered Species List. Only a handful of species have been removed from the list because of recovery. Full Article »

The Color of Words

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Is the letter J a shade of tangerine or is it more grassy green?

New research suggests that the 1-2% of the population with an unusual condition that causes the brain to see letters and numbers in a rainbow of colors don’t have an inborn sixth sense; they develop their character-color associations over time.

Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which experiencing one sense leads to an automatic, involuntary experience in another. For example, there are people who taste sounds and people who see music. The condition runs in families, although the exact gene or genes involved have yet to be discovered. Full Article »

The Nature of All Things: E = mc2

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Scope Correspondent

It’s plastered on coffee mugs, bumper stickers, and t-shirts. There is a thirteen-foot statue of it in central Berlin. People rattle it off when trying to sound impressive. It has become synonymous with genius. It is the most well-known physics equation in the world. I’m talking, of course, about E = mc2, Albert Einstein’s most lasting contribution to the popular conception of physics. Full Article »

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