radium girls, szilard’s dolphins, and zombies — oh my!

Soundjenluc It's Friday, Friday
Gotta get down on Friday
Everybody's lookin' forward to the weekend, weekend
Friday, Friday
Gettin' down on Friday
Everybody's lookin' forward to the weekend….

Everybody, join in! "Yeah, Ah-Ah-Ah-Ah-Ah-Ark/ Oo-ooh-ooh, hoo yeah, yeah." No? Oh well, haters gonna hate, I guess. It's not that we love the tune, per se, but we love the way 14-year-old Rebecca Black has exhibited considerable grace under fire in the wake of her decidedly mediocre video going viral. And while you're all deciding whether you'll kickin' it in the front or back seat this weekend, here's a nice roundup of nifty tidbits to sprinkle through your conversations.

The Radium Girls. Over at Speakeasy Science, Deborah Blum provides a fascinating (and elegantly written, natch!) account of the ill-fated women who worked in factories using "self-luminous paint" on watches so that World War I soldiers could tell the time on the battlefield. The key ingredient: radium, which had not yet revealed itself as the Bringer of Slow Death. As Deb says in her introductory note, "It remains a cautionary tale of radioactive elements, the slow recognition of their danger, and the risks of scientific over-confidence – that rings remarkably true today." Check her blog for two more follow-up posts over the next few days.

Leo Szilard, Sci-Fi Author? You betcha! Via io9, we learn that not only did Szilard play a vital role in nuclear physics — not to mention patenting a refrigerator prototype with Albert Einstein — but he also dabbled in tales of sentient dolphins. According to Peggy Kolm, Voice of Dolphins was published in 1961. It didn't exactly set the literary world on fire: "[T]he writing is pretty dry. Szilárd certainly wasn't known for his fiction, even during his lifetime. But Szilárd – and his tale – did play an important role in the establishment of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), an international research institute in Heidelberg, Germany." More promising is a forthcoming novel by Cornell physicist Paul McEuen called Spiral. It took him seven years to write, but judging by all the hot buzz, it was worth the effort. The Wall Street Journal describes Spiral as "a nanoscience-fueled thriller about a molecular biologist's struggle to prevent a global bioterror attack" — by tiny spider-nanobots of course.

Classroom Demo of the Week. Have you always been a little bit fuzzy on how a nuclear chain reaction actually works? Do those static drawings in textbooks and Wikipedia make your eyes glaze over? Well, the students in an the A.P. Chemistry class at Horizon Science Academy Cleveland high school built a terrific demonstration involving mouse traps and pingpong balls to show how a chain reaction happens. The experiment took hours to set up, and lasted just a few seconds, yet the students are apologetic about its scope nonetheless in their YouTube description: "There are only about 300 traps with 600 balls in this video. We plan on going bigger soon." Jen-Luc Piquant can't wait!

The Power of Horses in Science. Trust John Ptak to come up with priceless nuggets of historical science trivia. This week, he looks at the rarefied use of horses in scientific experiments and accompanying illustrations. Most notably: an image from Otto von Guericke's  Experiemnta nova (ut vocantur) Magdeburgica de vacuo spatio (Amsterdam, 1672).  As Ptak writes: "The image shows the greatest of von Guericke's efforts, and one of the greatest (or most important) experiments in experimental science–the dramatic demonstration of the vacuum, showing here that teams of horses could not pull apart two halves of an evacuated sphere, and of course the efficacy of air pressure operating against it (um, the vacuum)."

Hot Zombie Action! We can never get enough hot zombie action here at the cocktail party. Jen-Luc Piquant was thrilled when The Quantum Pontiff (a.k.a. Dave Bacon) Tweeted about a new online course to learn programming for Rails — geared to the zombie population, but I'm sure regular folk can take it, too. She has no idea what this Rails thing actually is, but wants to learn now just so she can take course, courtesy of The Code School. Meanwhile, Jessica Palmer at Bioephemera reviews the sequel to Quirk Books' bestselling mashup, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After, and finds it a bit lacking, particularly since the novelty of the original has worn off — but the trailer is totes awesome:

Also coming out soon is Steven Schlozman's long-awaited (by Jen-Luc Piquant, anyway) novel, The Zombie Autopsies. It, too, has an amazing trailer. (For past cocktail party posts on the science of zombies, go here, here and here.)


The Zombie Autopsies with Steven Schlozman, MD from GCP authors on Vimeo.

Flowchart of the Week. From David Bradley at Science Base comes this handy Fraudulent Invention Debunkifier to aid frazzled science writers in identifying whether that latest email is from a crackpot or a bona fide genius. Per David: "The Crackpot Flowchart (TM) will let you know in an instant whether the invention being touted is not only earth-shattering but whether it will rock the very foundations of modern science itself…. As a bonus, just swap out invention for theory to test whether that email is from the next Albert Einstein or the next Peewee Herman."

One Pill Makes Your Brain Explode. In the film, Limitless, a down-on-his-luck writer pops a pill and is able to think faster, remember every detail from his past life and generally outthink everyone. Yes, it's that hoary myth about how we only use 10-20% of our brain power cropping up in popular culture again. Time for a reality check! As Gary Stix writes over at Scientific American:

"With all of the neural machinery running full blast, what would be the result: Gordon Gekko, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso? Maybe not. With everything cranked up, at best, you might be ravenously hungry, sexually aroused and sending tweets while skydiving. More likely, though, things would be a lot worse. A flood of stimulatory neurotransmitters would lead to what the experts call “excitotoxicity,” in which circuit after circuit blows out, the kind of massive brain damage that occurs after a stroke. Metaphorically, your head would explode."

133244234 Ah! Bright Wings! Via BldgBlog, we learn that those fun-loving scientists at the Cornell Computational Synthesis Laboratory are in the process of "developing a flapping-wing hovering insect using 3D printed wings and mechanical parts. The use of 3D printing technology has greatly expanded the possibilities for wing design, allowing wing shapes to replicate those of real insects or virtually any other shape. It has also reduced the time of a wing design cycle to a matter of minutes."

Graphene: Wonder Material. Man, is there anything graphene can't do? Via Cosmos Magazine, we learn that "By wrapping bacteria with graphene –- a form of carbon that is only one atom thick — researchers in the U.S. are addressing current challenges with imaging bacteria under electron microscopes. The method creates a carbon cloak that protects the bacteria, allowing them to be imaged at their natural size and increasing the image's resolution."

Nuclear Reactor Designs and "Technological Lock-In." In the Boston Globe, Leon Neyfakh penned a thoughtful piece exploring why the reactor design used in Japan was chosen despite the fact that there are plenty of other design opens available. Namely:

Japan’s reactors are “light water” reactors, whose safety depends on an uninterrupted power supply to circulate water quickly around the hot core. A light water system is not the only way to design a nuclear reactor. But because of the way the commercial nuclear power industry developed in its early years, it’s virtually the only type of reactor used in nuclear power plants today. Even though there might be better technologies out there, light water is the one that utility companies know how to build, and that governments have historically been willing to fund. Economists call this problem “technological lock-in”: The term refers to the process by which one new technology can prevail over another for no good reason other than circumstance and inertia.

Wall Chart of the Week. And if you're wondering what some of those alternate designs might be, here's a series of colorful wall charts using cutaways to reveal the inner workings of those other nuclear reactor designs.

DIY Project of the Week. Jen-Luc Piquant has always wanted to build her own scanning electron microscope, and now here's a handy video showing her just how it can be done!

Full-Frontal Cartography. For some people, size really does matter. A lot. For the perennially insecure (and the size queens) among us, the folks at Disinformation have produced a handy world map showing the average penis sizes of men around the world. Not to be outdone, some waggish individual created an accompanying map showing that penis size is inversely proportional to intelligence. Whatever helps you sleep at night, dude.

The Beauty of the Brain. Smithsonian Magazine has a marvelous article by Laura Helmuth on brain imaging as art, focusing on a new book by Carl Schoonover, a neuroscientist in training at Columbia University, who has collected intriguing images of the brain for Portraits of the Mind. Quoth Schoonover, “They are real data, not artists’ renditions. This is what neuroscientists are looking at in their microscopes, MRI machines or electrophysiology systems. Neuroscience exists because of these techniques.”

And finally, just to bring things full circle, if you thought Rebecca Black's "Friday" was bad, check out Richard Feynman on the bongos. Dude really loves his orange juice. I think a cover version of this could be Black's next big hit!

2 thoughts on “radium girls, szilard’s dolphins, and zombies — oh my!”

  1. This stuff is just all so overwhelmingly cool. Thanks for compiling it! The wing design bit is especially intriguing to those of us who have an unhealthy fascination with biologically-inspired engineering.
    And, yeah, while the Zombie gimmick is getting a bit thin, let’s face it, ninja-like warriors sporting empire-waist frocks will never go out of style.

  2. I found it interesting, the paragraph about Leo Szilard followed by the paragraph about the chain reaction illustration. According to Richard Rhodes, in his The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Szilard was the first person who conceived of the idea that there could be a nuclear chain reaction if an atom could be found which would release enough neutrons after being struck by a neutron. I think this was just a few days after James Chadwick announced his discovery of the neutron. Szilard tried to patent the idea.
    The illustration of of a chain reaction using ping pong balls and mousetraps is quite old. I think I first saw it on the order of 55 years ago or so.

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