Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Tattoos: The Science in Your Body Art

In Brooklyn, Obama fans partied in the streets and hugged random strangers until the weee hours of the morning on November 5. Not everyone spoke the same language: some sang out in Spanish, others in Chinese, English, Italian, etc.-- but it didn't matter, body language said it all. In fact, some fans were so enthusiastic that they sported permanent body language: Obama tattoos. And this tattoo artist even offered free Obama tattoos! Deciding whether or not to sport body art for the rest of your life is a tough decision, and then there's the question of what colors to use. Perhaps a bit of information on the science of how tattoos work will be helpful:

Science Saves Fiction in "The First Vampire"

Normally, filmmakers add a huge dose of fiction to a dash of science in order to make a movie that is palatable to a mainstream audience. Fiction has no limits; it takes us as far as the imagination can dream– so it’s not surprising that these types of stories often draw a larger audience than, say, practical texts that detail hard facts proved by scientific research and peer-reviewed by dozens of nerds whose vocabulary is chock full of 14 letter words that include so many x’s and y’s that not only does a population of non-scientists moan with mental agony at the mere thought of reading such articles (myself being included in this group), we also refuse to play against scientists in scrabble. All of that is to say that fiction often helps to make a scientific idea digestible– it doesn’t often work the other way around. However, I just came across an exception to this general rule of thumb at the Imagine Science Film Festival’s screening of The First Vampire.

The lighting is terrible, the costumes are cheap, and the acting is below average—but the thirty seconds devoted to a few paragraphs of scientific justification that flashed across the screen just before the credits rolled made 23.5 minutes of watching a painfully terrible story-line unravel worthwhile.

Yes, science is capable of saving more than lives: it can save fiction too! And if you choose to keep reading, I’ll save you from having to waste 23.5 minutes of your life to get to the interesting tid bit of science at the end of The First Vampire:

The legend of the vampire is likely based on porphyria, which are rare and incurable genetic diseases that strike about one in every 200,000 people. Symptoms of porphyria include a vampire-like aversion to sunlight and garlic and a craving for blood.

Something about the sun’s rays seems to irritate the skin of those who suffer from porphyria to a such a degree that the skin becomes disfigured, may sprout unbecoming patches of hair in unusual places, and sometimes a body part (a finger, for example) falls right off.

Porphyria victims also have an averse reaction to garlic, which contains a chemical that exacerbates the symptoms of the disease.

Today, those who suffer from porphyria are treated with injections of heme, a product of blood. This treatment was not available in the Middle Ages, so perhaps victims of the disease self-medicated by seeking out blood where-ever they could find it, whether from beasts or humans.

Note: I would caution anyone who may have a roommate without health insurance (or at least a friend in the medical field who could hook them up with some heme) and who is also pale, hairy, and missing a few fingers. It’s not just fiction after all…vampires are for real!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Imagine Science Film Festival Review: Fermat's Room

First, I should tell you that the film is in Spanish, and if you can read, it's worth watching. Oh, and it's a math movie. So those who don't like math or reading are better off renting Dumb and Dumber-- but for everyone else, Fermat's Room is a fantastic movie, full of suspense and deception.
Four of Spain's brightest mathematicians are invited to a prestigious dinner party to discuss great mathematical enigmas. They do eat dinner, and they do solve a few word problems, but more importantly they are trapped in a room with a killer. It's not just any room, either. The room is rigged to hydraulic presses that push the walls in with every second that passes the alloted time that the mathematicians are given to solve a riddle. I won't give away the ending, but suffice it to say that some live, and some die.

Here are a couple of Fermat's puzzles to ponder, just in case you are invited to a mysterious dinner party before you're able to see the film:

1. In “False Land” everyone always lies. In “Truth Land” everyone always tells the truth. A stranger is trapped between two doors, each one guarded by a jailer. One of the guards is from "False Land," and one is from “Truth Land,” but the stranger doesn't know which jailer is from where.
One door leads to freedom, and the other doesn't. The stranger can only ask one question to one jailer. What should he ask to be sure that he knows which is the door to freedom?

2. How can you time a period of nine minutes when you only have two sand clocks, one that measures four minutes and one that measures seven minutes?

Dr Atomic: Doomed to Bomb?

“Art-Science?” hissed an anonymous opera-loving artist and dean at the City University of New York, when I asked if she would be going to see the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Dr. Atomic. “Science will only dilute true art. I expect it to bomb. I’ll read the review to confirm,” she snapped.
“But give it a shot– at least it’s not completely factually accurate, so you might like it…there could be some artistic merit, right?” I pleaded.


The anonymous dean is not the only one to protest the intermingling of science and art, but I believe these types will be missing out on a truly fantastic production. While the building of the first atomic bomb took about 27 months to complete, John Adams and Peter Sellers poured over the creation of Dr. Atomic for approximately six years. The result is a feast for all the senses. The set is appropriately stark and jagged and the sounds are heavy and intense (the Met installed a six zone surround sound for the very first time). Equally essential, the crashing and thundering causes not only the heart to beat, but also affects that other organ– the brain– in a way that only a work based on true experience can. There truth is…there is nothing more frightening than the truth, and for the most part Adams and Sellers stuck to the facts.

In fact, the libretto (written by Peter Sellers) is largely a compilation of quotes. Though this does not make for a hummable tune, there’s really no need of such a gimmick– the lines are too haunting to forget.

“The soul is a thing so impalpable, so often useless, and sometimes so embarrassing that at this loss I felt only a little more emotion than if, during a walk, I had lost my visiting card,” says Oppenheimer, who was, ironically, a graduate of the Ethical Culture School. Whether or not the creation of the bomb was ethical is debatable, but the production of the opera is certainly ethereal. Perhaps it takes art to find make something divine from a rubble of destruction.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

I’m Not Kidding: Rufus Seder’s Scanimation Books are Not Just for Kids

He may be old, but Rufus Butler Seder sure does have some cool moves. I purchased a copy of his first motion-picture book, Gallop, because it’s fantastically fun, of course. But when I met my best girlfriend for lunch and showed her my nifty new book, she was HORRIFIED, and promptly diagnosed me as a mamma-wanna-be: “Your biological clock is ticking. You’ve been shopping in the kids book section….ohmygod…” So, let me be clear: Seder’s moving images are works or art/science that just happen to be in the kiddie section of bookstores, but I assure you that they are fun for all ages…and buying a copy should not be a reflection of the tic toc of the biological clock. Please. Without further ado, here’s a little background on Seder:
It took him a very long time to come up with the technology for Gallop– decades, in fact. Rufus was in to art and magic as a kid, and now that he’s an adult….he’s still into it. About 20 years ago he started experimenting with LIFETILES, which are motion pictures that don’t require electricity or moving parts (A LIFETILE is an optical glass-tiled mural that appears to move as the viewer walks along side of it, so the only thing that has to move is the viewer). You can see LIFETILES at the Miami Zoo and various aquariums around the world, but these installations are way too large and expensive for normal people to put in their houses. Luckily, Rufus figured out how to make images move in a smaller format: books. The technology he uses to make this work is called “scanimation.” Here’s Rufus’ explanation of how it works:

Printed on the page is a series of distorted stripes representing a multiphase sequence of motion that means little to the naked eye. Printed on a clear plastic overlay is a series of black stripes. When the black stripes are moved over the distorted imagery at just the right angle and speed…you have motion. Fluid, sequential, multiphase animated motion. The beauty of this method is in its simplicity” It’s a centuries-old principle reinvented using the exactitude of modern science.

Seder recently came out with another moving image book, Swing. For the record, it’s a fabulous book-- and no baby required.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Does Science Make God Obselete?

The luncheon crowd at The Pierre roared with laughter as Christopher Hitchens, atheist and author of “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” debated whether science makes belief in God obsolete with Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, former physicist and author of “God at the Ritz; Attraction to Infinity”. Surprisingly, the two were in agreement so often that Hitchens ultimately stated that he would “…not accuse Monsignor of being a Catholic,” and further grumbled, “I protest! I was told I was going to argue with a person of faith.” Whether Monsignor could be classified as a “true Catholic” or not, they disagreed enough to keep the debate interesting.
Monsignor talked of unexplainable love, while Hitchens compared Jesus to Kim Jong Il, whose deceased father is actually still the official ruler of North Korea, making it a necrocracy. “They’re one short of a Trinity,” declared Hitchens, who went on to explain the similarities of how North Koreans are in a similar predicament as Christians, who are required to love God, even when He appears not to take good care of his people. Hitchens even went so far as to point out one important point of difference in his example, which is that one can escape North Korea by dying, but a Christian is condemned, conditioned, and forced to love and thank God for all Eternity.
Over the course of an hour and a delicious three course lunch, the Monsignor and Hitchens also covered superstition, condoms, homosexuality, and thousands of years of history– it was a mouthful for everyone, to say the least. In sum: the purpose of Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete’s faith is to make sense out of life, just as science fills that role for Christopher Hitchens.
The panel moderator, Washington Post’s Sally Quinn, kept an even keel by opening the panel with a reading of both panelist’s horoscope and ending it by quoting a bumper sticker: “I don’t know, and neither do you.”

Friday, July 11, 2008

From Dead Dude To Diamonds

Let's say you're dating a guy, and you've discovered that he's just not that bright, lacks an element of bling, isn't a gem to hang out with, and-- in sum-- he's just not working out to be "forever" material. No sense in trying to change his habits, ladies-- that never works. Science, however, can help you add brilliance and bling to your man-- forever. All you have to do is kill him, cremate him, and use the carbon to turn his body into a diamond. Now, there's a gem that will stay with you forever. Here's why it works:

You may not think your boyfriend has much in common with diamonds, but, in fact, there is one thing: they are both made of carbon, and that's all that matters at the end of the day (or rather, at the end of his life). It takes about six months to convert the carbon from cremated remains into a "sunburst" diamond, and about nine months to turn it into a "blue" diamond. That's right, it's the same amount of time it takes to have a baby....Regardless of whether you believe in rebirth or some sort of life-after-death, one thing is for certain: a boyfriend that becomes a born-again Christian is high maintenance, but a born-again diamond is much easier to live with than any other type of born-again currently offered by various religious faiths or other organizations. Here's more good news: the carbon left over from his cremation is enough to produce between 50-100 diamonds, so you could make necklaces, earrings, nose studs, bracelets, ankle, bracelets...

Boys: beware babes who wear a lot of bling.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Fast Food: Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream

When you’re really craving home-made ice cream, it’s no fun waiting the standard 24 hours for the mixture to freeze. You may as well be waiting for hell to freeze over. No worries—scientists with a sweet tooth have come to the rescue with a recipe for nitrogen ice cream that will allow you whip up some of the creamiest ice cream you’ve ever tasted— and it will only take few minutes instead of several hours.

What you’ll need:
1 stainless steel mixing bowl,
1 Wooden mixing spoon,
1 pair of gloves,
1 big sink, or any level place outdoors

What to do:

First of all, how hungry are you? When you decide how much ice cream you want to make, multiply that amount by five. This is the amount of Liquid Nitrogen that you’ll need (so for every gallon of ice cream, you’ll need five gallons of Liquid Nitrogen).

Follow your favorite ice cream recipe, mixing the milk, cream, vanilla, sugar, etc. in your stainless steel bowl. (note: leave your dieting friends at home because artificial sweeteners are not recommended--they may have a funky reaction with the Liquid Nitrogen. Use real sugar).

Once everything is mixed up, put on your gloves, put your bowl in the sink, and slowly pour in the Liquid Nitrogen, mixing with the wooden spoon until frozen to the perfect creamy texture. This should only take about 10 minutes.

Bon Appetite!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Eco-friendly Al Gore to Pee on the Bee at One Bryant Park

The TalkingScience office is fairly eco-friendly; we drink tap water and are planning to get a worm bin. New York is a competitive place though, and it’s tough to “keep up with the Jones’” when your neighbors are the hailed as the most environmentally responsible sky scraper in the world. Yes, our neighbors have completely outdone us, and we’re very proud of them. Pretty soon, they’re going to have Al Gore peeing on a bee.

Since Ann Marie (the Executive Director here at TalkingScience) and I have been planning a water conference and are utterly obsessed with all issues water-related, Alex Durst and Chief Engineer Ron German gave us a bee-hind the scenes tour of One Bryant Park to explain how they will cut down on water waste. The best part of the tour was the mens’ bathroom, where waterless urinals feature a friendly bee to guide men in their aim (the slogan, of course, is pee on the bee). “The Honey bees may be disappearing in some places, but they’re reappearing on all the urinals here!” Ron exclaimed. Giggles aside, though, the waterless urinals will save about 40,000 gallons of water per urinal per month. “The bee seems to be very popular with men who have used it,” says German, “though aiming abilities still vary.” I couldn’t help but wonder about Al Gore’s aim. He will soon be moving his investment firm, Generation Investment Management, to One Bryant Park. Who knows, maybe this will start a movement-- maybe Bush will be the next to pee on the bee. It will be the best thing he’s done for the environment for a while.
But I digress, there are lots of other systems in place to save water at One Bryant Park. For example, they have multiple 35,000 gallon tanks capture rainwater, which will be treated and re-used in the restrooms (regular, treated domestic water will be used for drinking). These efforts are projected to save 8-10 million gallons of water every year. Though the bee might get the most buzz on blogs, you can check out the long list of additional projects, plans, and systems to conserve energy and water at One Bryant Park by visiting their Web site.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Hype and History behind Hypnotherapy: Is it a Science, or Just a bunch of Silly Quacks?

I've seen people do some pretty wild things on stage when under the spell of a hypnotist. I sometimes wonder if these hypnotists are bitter, failed comedians reduced to making a living at the expense of silly volunteers whose curiosity sends them to the stage to quack like a chicken, stick ice cream in their nose, or run around trying to catch a non-existent tail. Not having a natural inclination to humiliate myself, the thought of paying someone to send me into a trance that would make me susceptible to the suggestions of a hypnotist and reduce my capability of making conscious decisions about what actions are appropriate in a given situation frightens me. The possibility that something awfully embarrassing might be lurking in my subconscious and a hypnotist could unleash such an inner monster is enough to make me tremble with trepidation. But curiosity gets the best of me every time, so off I went to try to face my fears about hypnosis, armed with science and skepticism

"I'm curious about the science behind hypnosis," I confronted one of the therapists at the NLP center. "Hypnosis is probably a placebo effect of sorts, right?"

"Kind of, but not really," he replied.

"Great, that's helpful," I grumbled, irritated.

"Do you want to try?" The therapist was calm and patient with my nervous, snappy remarks.

"Kind of, but not really—if you know what I mean." I mocked. "This is for my science blog, just so you know. Can we do this quickly? The mere idea is really scary for me. Please don’t ask me to eat an onion and run around the building. I did see a guy on stage do that once."

"No problem, We’ll keep this scientific. Make yourself comfortable. I suggest closing your eyes, but you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. Try concentrating on <a href='' >Hypnosis
intense, effortless relaxing..."

"Should I be getting sleepy? Very sleepy?" I asked, just trying to clarify.

“No. Hypnosis is not at all like sleep, though that is a common misconception. Let’s try again." He lowered his voice and murmured: “Picture yourself by the ocean, in a hammock. The breeze is warm and ssooooothing...”

I have to admit, envisioning myself swinging in a hammock on the beach did make for a relaxing few minutes, and I don't recall doing anything too crazy. Actually, I don’t actually recall much at all. If anyone saw me running around Union Square and clucking like a chicken, please do let me know. In any case, for the rest of the skeptics out there, here’s a bit of information on scientific studies in the field of hypnosis:

The history of hypnosis can be traced back to the ideas of James Braid, who proposed the theory of hypnotism as an alternative to the practices of Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer was the founder of Mesmerism, a popular mid-18th century concept that was based on the theory that trance and healing could be achieved through calling on a mysterious power referred to as “animal magnetism.” Braid countered the idea of the supposed magical powers of animal magnetism with his theory that an altered state is achieved through neuro-hypnotism. In his practice, James would hold small, shiny objects 8-16 inches from a patient’s eyes, causing strain and spontaneous closing of the lids. His patients did seem to fall into a sleepy trance. Eventually, James found that he could induce a trance-like state in many of his patients through mere suggestion, so he tried to adjust the already coined term “hypnosis” (borrowed from Hypnos, the Greek God of sleep) to “monoideism,” but was unsuccessful. Maybe the term “hypnosis” was already locked in the depths of his patients' subconscious mind.

As you may have guessed, not everyone is equally susceptible to the power of suggestions. Over the course of many Google searches, I came across a number of studies that have tried to link certain personality characteristics (such as gullibility, aggressiveness, various psychological ticks, etc.) but the only connection that continued to come up was a person’s ability and tendency to become absorbed in activities like reading, listening to music, and daydreaming (if you’re interested in more details about this, check out information about the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scales). If you are totally engrossed in my blog and can't pull yourself away, for example, you probably shouldn’t volunteer at a stage hypnotist's show (unless you like to cluck like a chicken, stuff ice cream up your nose, and eat raw onions).

For those of you who are reading this blog when you're supposed to be working at the office, maybe you want to reconsider your career path. Here's a link to information about how to become a hypnotist:
If you're always getting sleeeeepy, very sleeeepy, it could just mean that you have a really boring job. Good luck trying to get people to stuff ice cream up their nose.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Portrait of an Indian Scientist

Last week I attended a panel at the United Nations to learn about the results of a recent survey of practicing Indian scientists who hold a PhD or equivalent in their field of study. The justification for conducting such a survey was backed by good intentions: discoveries and inventions made by scientists have an enormous impact on the lives of nearly every person, so it seems that it would be a good idea to find out a bit about the general beliefs held by this select group of people. India is a particularly fascinating and relevant place in which to conduct such a survey as it is framed by the importance of history and ancient traditions while simultaneously leaping ahead at an impressive (and alarming) pace so as to be a front runner in cutting edge science and technology. It is also a country of great diversity, with a population of over one billion people. With this in mind, who wouldn’t want to survey their scientists? That said, I am a bit skeptical of survey results, since they seem to foster stereotypes that lead to dangerous and gross over-generalizations. Bearing this in mind, here is a summary of the results:

In India, about 80-85% of PhD scientists are men, and nearly 75% are between 40-55 years old. Most are also Hindu. A majority chose to pursue their career out of personal curiosity, while only around 10% are scientists because they have intentions of “doing good in the world.”

According to the survey, they certainly do not feel that their jobs are highly respected; most feel that the level of respect given to scientists is mediocre. This may be due to scientific illiteracy: nearly everyone listed on the survey form (media, government officials, the general public, etc.) was rated by scientist as being nearly illiterate in the sciences– politicians were rated the worst. The only exception was teachers, who scored one tenth of a point above average.

Because there are a number of alternative and traditional curative techniques practiced alongside Western medicine in India, the American surveyors asked the Indian scientists which, if any, of alternative methods they believe to be valid. The results show that while only 12% think that predictions based on horoscopes carry considerable merit, about half (49%) believe in the efficacy of prayer (38% are certain that God performs miracles). Personally, I do not share this belief (I’m not an Indian scientist), but if I did, perhaps it would explain why there are so few women scientists: they are second class citizens in many major religions, after all. If prayer is so powerful and important, Muslim women who want to be scientists should try to finagle a place to pray beside or in front of men (they currently are forced to pray behind the men).

According to one panelist, only 16% of practicing scientists (with a PhD) in the United States are female–so we are certainly not promoting women in the field any better than India. Perhaps we need a female Catholic priest to say a few prayers for the ladies, too.

Ultimately, I found the survey to be very alarming.
For more details about the survey, which is still a work in progress, you can visit

Thursday, June 12, 2008


It’s no surprise that Akituusaq was 115 pounds when he was born, after all, his mother weighs in at a whopping 1,450 pounds and his fat father is about 3,000 pounds (give or take 50 here and there). Akituusaq is a healthy little fellow with an amazing appetite (he has gained 1-3 pounds every day since he was born)—in fact, he didn’t just eat a piece of his birthday cake, he devoured the ENTIRE cake within minutes. There was an audience of wide-eyed kindergartners from PS 90 who sang happy birthday and cheered him on, of course.
Akituusaq, as you may have guessed, comes from “Atkins”—you know, the guy who invented the Atkins diet. Obviously, the Atkins diet doesn’t work, and his son is just another obese, narrow-minded American whose only knowledge of world history is the story about Marie Antoinette shouting “Let them eat cake!”
OK, OK, here’s the truth: Akituusaq, whose name means “a gift given in return” in Yupic (the language spoken by Alaskan Inuits), is actually a walrus who lives at the New York Aquarium. As you may know, walruses are not exactly born every day in NYC —this guy was the first walrus ever to have been born at the aquarium, which has been around for 112 years. His parents were orphans living in Gamel, Alaska when they were rescued by the NY Aquarium in 1994.
Don’t worry that you missed the birthday party— there are about 8,000 other animals at the New York Aquarium so if you visit, the likelihood that you’ll be there for a birthday is pretty high. In fact, I suggest skipping the Freddie Kruger movie night this coming Friday the 13th and heading to the Aquarium instead…it’s the first night of freebie Fridays. For details, check out