Posts byAnna Goldstein

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From the Editor

Dear Readers, The Berkeley Science Review recently organized its first major event as part of the Bay Area Science Festival.  “Touch Me” featured late-show style interviews with researchers whose work focuses on the science of touch.  The atmosphere was electric for the main event, as three speakers kept attendees—campus affiliates and community members alike—leaning forward

I switched research groups – and lived to tell the tale

It’s that time of year again. New graduate students are frantically wandering from lab to lab, trying to figure out where to spend the next 4+ years of their lives. If everything goes well, they will find a research group with a healthy mix of interesting science, supportive peers, and a good mentor. If they make the wrong choice, they will join the ranks of the disgruntled—those unhappy souls whose passion for science has been obliterated and are simply counting the days (or years) until graduation.

Disgruntled graduate students are a pitiful breed. I know, because I was one of them. They dread greeting the first-years. They resent seeing so much fresh-faced optimism. “How dare you have hope for a bright future, when mine has been completely drained out of me?” they ask. It happens for a variety of reasons, but they inevitably end up wondering whether they were cut out for science in the first place. Maybe they start thinking about going to law school instead, or maybe they spend their days dreaming about starting a farm.

Farmer_and_tractor_tilling_soil (1)

This post is for those people. I’m here to tell you there is another option. You’ll kick yourself for not having thought of it sooner:

Training graduate students in SLAM (Science Leadership and Management)

Teresa (right) and I met in high school at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. We love doing science and talking about how to make science better. Regular readers of the blog may know that I feel strongly about the importance of skilled leadership in a lab. I believe scientists need to be taught the so-called “soft skills” that are required to be a good leader.

Last year, I recruited a team of dedicated, like-minded graduate students, and we created a class to teach ourselves what we wanted to know–what is the best way to run a lab? As we learned over the course of that semester, effective leadership is not second nature to most scientists, nor is it a mystery of the universe. There are some “best practices” for how to lead and manage that are well-known outside the academic culture, and they should be taught formally as part of a scientist’s graduate curriculum.

For this coming fall, our training program is growing into a series of talks that we’re calling Science Leadership and Management, or SLAM for short. (Allow me to pause here and give a standing ovation to John Haberstroh for his marketing genius. Who doesn’t love a good acronym?) We are preparing a stellar lineup of guest lecturers from a variety of science career paths to speak on subjects like motivating students, building effective teams, delivering feedback, and more. Our vision is that this type of training will someday be developed on a national level, to be applied at any university for any scientific discipline.

If this sounds like a good idea to you, there is something you can do right now to support SLAM. Go here to vote for our entry in the 2013 NSF Graduate Education Challenge. Teresa Lee (beloved BSR author) and I wrote an essay about SLAM for this contest, which you can read below. I’ve also included our answers to a brief questionnaire that accompanied our submission. Please vote now, and ask your friends to do the same!

Note: Registration is required to vote. After you’ve voted for us, take a look at the other entries. There are a lot of great ideas there, and I guarantee you will come away with a bit more hope for the future of science.

From the Editor

Dear Readers, Twice each year, we ask UC Berkeley and LBL students, postdocs, and affiliates to pitch stories about research on campus or on the hill that excites or inspires them. No theme is specified but common threads often emerge—a measure of Berkeley’s scientific zeitgeist. As an example, consider that over the past three issues,

Open access explained

Night_10The conversation about scientific publishing has exploded lately, online, in print and in person. Last week, the journal Nature released a special issue called The future of publishing. Also last week, Micheal Eisen (MCB professor and HHMI investigator at UC Berkeley, and co-founder of PLoS) posted a speech he gave on the past and projected future of scholarly communication in the age of the Internet. I want to start there, because his remarks were thorough and persuasive, and they inspired me to think differently about the issue of open access.

Have an opinion on open acces? Click here to vote in our reader poll!

A sampling of cool online tools for scientists

The internet is an amazing place. For scientists in particular, there is no shortage of online tools that make our lives and work more convenient. In my daily work flow, I use Google Reader to browse the literature, Google Scholar and SciFinder to search for specific papers, and Google Calendar to sign out instrument time (I swear this is not a paid advertisement for Google).

If you’re wondering how to increase your research efficiency (and your internet dependency) even further, you’ve come to the right place. I’m excited to share with you a few new tools that I recently stumbled across. Disclaimer: these are all new finds for me, so I haven’t actually started using them. If you have experience with them, good or bad, leave a comment and tell us what you think!

1. Quartzy
Of all these tools, Quartzy is the one that has the most potential to change the way science is done; it also seems to require the greatest time investment to get started. Once it’s up and running, I expect it will streamline a lot of everyday lab activities. Each lab member can sign on and search the group inventory, place orders, look up common protocols, and more. The interface is user friendly and I think this service will only get better with time. So ask your lab manager (or a particularly ambitious grad student) to sign up!

Omar Yaghi’s scientific empire, and the growing trend of satellite labs

If you’re interested in the future of how science is done, both in America and worldwide, then you must read this article from the September 28 issue of Science (subscription required): “Satellite Labs Extend Science.”

I’ll give you a short version of the story: big name scientists at American universities want more funding for their ideas and more manpower than their current positions can provide. Institutions in “emerging nations” want talent and direction to improve their research programs. The result is a satellite lab, which operates under advisement from the long-distance faculty member, while the host country supplies the funding. The PI sets the research agenda and visits occasionally. There is usually a native surrogate on the ground in the satellite lab to run things from day to day.

The idea of global scientific cooperation is certainly not new. Research groups often collaborate across national boundaries, and universities partner with institutions around the globe to share faculty and students. However, this new model is neither a collaboration nor a partnership. If research groups were countries, we would call it colonialization. If they were restaurants, it would be like opening a new franchise.

Data, data, everywhere a scientist, I have a love/hate relationship with data. When I don’t have enough data, life can be very difficult. When there’s too much, I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of numbers and pixels. Faced with the latter problem, a Berkeley researcher recently came up with a brilliant solution: share it!

Filipe Maia, a postdoc with LBNL’s Petascale Initiative, created a public database for people to browse and share their treasure troves of images taken with x-ray lasers. That’s right, I said x-ray lasers (as if lasers weren’t cool enough already). The Coherent X-ray Imaging Data Bank (CXIDB) aims to make the most of the terabytes of imaging data that is produced each day by researchers at particle accelerators around the world. That’s 1012 zeros and ones– put them together, and you get pictures of single molecules in motion. Because the laser pulse is so fast, it can capture snapshots of atoms as they move around. As you can imagine, scientists are using this opportunity and taking as many snapshots as they can, which means a LOT of data (thus the need for petascale computing, i.e. 1015 zeros and ones at a time).

Teach graduate students to manage and lead

Earlier this year, I got a pleasant surprise when a friend sent me an article from the March 29 issue of Nature. Jessica Seeliger, an assistant professor at SUNY Stony Brook and a former postdoc in Carolyn Bertozzi’s lab here at Berkeley, wrote an editorial that echoed an ongoing conversation among my friends and coworkers. The subject of the article was quite clearly stated in the title: “Scientists must be taught to manage.”

I want to type that again. Once more, with feeling: scientists MUST be taught to manage. If you already agree, just skip to the bottom; I have great news for you! If you need convincing, read on.

Cool things happening in the sky

I have two awesome bits of science to tell you about today, both of which might make you think twice next time you go outside and look up.Source:

First, there’s a new project out of the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL): the Solar Beacon. As part of the 75th anniversary celebration for the Golden Gate Bridge, scientist John Vallerga and artist Liliane Lijn conceived of a pair of heliostats atop the bridge towers that can reflect sunlight to any place in view of the bridge. The project will continue until August 30, and you can play along at home! Just go to the website, input your location and the desired time, and the mirrors will send the sun’s reflection wherever you want it to go. You can even program a custom show of flashes to spell out a code. Read more from the UC Berkeley News Center here.

The second science bit I want to mention is a bit farther up in the sky– approximately 250 miles. The International Space Station is complete after over a decade of construction, and last year, NASA hired a non-profit called the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to get people excited about doing research on the station. The first collaboration came as somewhat of a surprise: Cobra Puma Golf, which manufactures golf clubs and other equipment, plans to start a research program on board. Last week, CASIS put out a call for proposals on the subject of Advancing Protein Crystallization Using Microgravity. If you need a change of scenery from your boring old land-based lab, why not put in a proposal? You might find yourself in a new lab that orbits the earth once every 90 minutes. NPR has further coverage of the CASIS story here.

Rats learn to walk again after severe spinal cord injury

Do you ever look at the world around you and think, “How did we get here?” How did we come to live in a world with so much amazing technology? I frequently marvel at the amount of time and engineering that goes into the devices and processes we use every day. And then sometimes, we get a glimpse into the development of what is sure to be the technology of the future. The readers of this week’s issue of Science received just such a preview, in the paper humbly titled, “Restoring Voluntary Control of Locomotion after Paralyzing Spinal Cord Injury” (you can read the paper here; subscription required).

The team of Swiss researchers made two cuts in the spinal cords of adult female rats—not enough to completely sever the cord, but enough to cut off major pathways for signaling between the brain and the hind legs. Then they treated the rats using drug injections and electrical stimulation of the injured segments. To test whether or not the rats regained any motor function, they strapped them into harnesses that allow a full range of motion and enticed to move with food. Normally, a hungry rat’s brain would send signals telling her legs to move, but since the nerves carrying those signals were cut, she shouldn’t have been able to move at all.

Do creative children become creative scientists?

Skimming through the lists of new articles in my RSS reader today, my eyes stopped at one paper in particular. The title, “Genesis of Creativity“, would not have seemed out of place in a psychology text (indeed, there are whole journals devoted to creativity research), but this journal was ACS Nano. I clicked through, thinking that the article was perhaps about the discovery of creativity-inducing nanowires.

In fact, the article was something much less far-fetched but still quite interesting. It was a perspective by James Tour, a chemist at Rice University and recipient of the 2012 ACS Nano Lectureship Award. On the occasion of this honor, Tour felt compelled to think back on the greatest successes from his research career and trace them back to their sources. He starts by recognizing the students and postdocs who did the labwork, of course, but he doesn’t stop there. He profiles three exceptionally creative problem solvers from his lab and asks the question: If the greatest discoveries in nanoscience have come from these brilliant minds, where did the brilliant minds come from?

Congratulations to our staff! BSR wins Best Magazine

Last night was a big night for the Berkeley Science Review. We were named Best Magazine at the ASUC Publications banquet for 2011-2012!

In case you think the competition wasn’t fierce, here’s a list of all the ASUC sponsored publications. ASUC is the student government here at UC Berkeley, and each year they host a ceremony honoring the best publications from around campus. The BSR is no stranger to these awards, having been recognized almost each year since we began publishing in 2001. It was an honor to be there last night and see the BSR recognized as part of the body of high quality work being produced by Berkeley students. The student presenting our award commented on how easy it is for people of any background to pick up an issue of the BSR and enjoy it. Accessibility is one of our major goals in communicating the amazing science happening at UC Berkeley, and it’s nice to know that those efforts are paying off.

Trusting your fellow scientist

In my last post, I told you that Berkeley Physics professor Richard Muller is the go-to guy for proof of anthropogenic climate change. Maybe that strikes you as odd. Why would I look to a physicist for information about our atmosphere? Shouldn’t we be talking with UC Berkeley’s Atmospheric Sciences program instead?

Of course, Muller and his team at Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature don’t claim to be the first people to measure the change in global temperature over time. When they began that project in 2010, there was an active field of climate scientists claiming that the Earth is warming, and there was also an extremely vocal group of skeptics disagreeing with their results. Muller entered the conversation with the mindset of an impartial third party, someone who could analyze the data without any political or financial incentives often attributed to the climate scientists.


Cleaning the air by cleaning the ocean

It’s no secret that Earth has a CO2 problem. (Seriously people, the verdict is in. If you want to argue about this, I suggest you take it up with Rich Muller).

Common sense dictates that we should curb our CO2 emissions as much as possible. But what about all that anthropogenic carbon that is already in the atmosphere? Scientists and engineers have been scratching their heads for a long time about what to do with the nearly 400 parts per million of CO2 up there (data from Mauna Loa observatory via NOAA).

If we stopped burning carbon fuels today, this concentration would decrease slowly over time; there are many natural carbon sinks on the Earth’s surface, including plants and oceans. Unfortunately, we humans are adamant about our right to continue emitting carbon, consequences be damned. So the pressure is on for us to figure out a way to accelerate the extraction of carbon from the atmosphere.

From the archives: Science policy and you

The BSR staff works hard to give you only the freshest, most relevant science news. Unfortunate side effect of being relevant: some of our articles don’t age as well as others. Because the pace of discovery is so unpredictable, sometimes a scientific story can change almost as soon as it is written about. (As an aside, this is why you should subscribe to the BSR, so you don’t fall behind on the latest Berkeley science happenings.)

Today, I bring you a piece from 2006 that is still very relevant. It’s about how you (yes, you!) can get more involved in science policy. Temina Madon, a Berkeley grad and executive director of the Center of Evaluation for Global Action and the Center for Emerging and Neglected Diseases, was a Fellow with AAAS working in Washington D.C. at the time of the article. She profiles some famous scientists-turned-policymakers, and lists ways that you can become better informed and more active in shaping the policies that matter to you. Read it here, and please let us know in the comments if you have any information to add about the world of science policy.

Octopus sex: a holiday gift from the Berkeley Science Review

As I write this, I know many of you are at home with your families, roasting chestnuts and wishing for snow. But not me, dear readers! I’m back from vacation, my brain is booted up again, and I’m contemplating from the oddities of marine biology, specifically the mating habits of the blue-ringed octopus.

I was browsing the BSR archives today (a hobby I thoroughly recommend to the bored and curious) and I came across this piece about the poor gender-detection skills of Hapalochlaena lunulata: Eight Legs O’ Love. Way back in 2003, Colin McCormick wrote about these mysterious creatures being studied by Prof. Roy Caldwell. It’s short, so I’ll let you read it for yourself, but here’s a quote for you:

Male-male couplings typically last only 30 seconds, and the initiating octopus removes his hectocotylus (a modified third arm that delivers the spermatophore goods when the mood is right) amicably.

Now if that doesn’t pique your interest, I don’t know what will. Make sure you bring up this story with your extended family over eggnog. I guarantee an interesting conversation.

We are the 99% of scientists

Tuesday, November 15 was a big day at UC Berkeley. Crowds gathered all day in Sproul Plaza as part of a “day of action” for the Occupy Cal movement. In the Haas business school, a student with a loaded gun was shot by police. And in the evening, Professor Robert Reich delivered his Mario Savio Memorial Lecture to an audience of thousands, motivating them to continue working to battle income inequality.

At the same time, across campus in Stanley Hall, a group of graduate students and post-docs were attending a talk on “The Future of Science”, hosted by the VSPA. The speaker was Kennan Kellaris Salinero, president of Yámana Science and Technology. You might think that this was bad timing for such a discussion. Shouldn’t we have been outside protesting with the rest of the 99%? But Salinero’s talk drove home the point that the government and banks are not the only institutions in need of change. Change is also badly needed in the sciences, and it’s our responsibility as the future leaders of the profession to determine the direction of that change.

Live Blog: 2011 BERC Energy Symposium

It’s an exciting day for BERC members and the over 800 people attending the fifth annual energy symposium. Just in case you haven’t heard of BERC, it’s the largest energy club in the nation. They sponsor an array of educational programs to get the local community involved and informed on energy-related issues. They also host a lot of events at UC Berkeley connecting students and energy professionals, and today is the biggest event of the year.

The agenda includes two keynotes, nine panels, and special appearances by Chancellor Birgeneau and Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom. If you couldn’t grab a ticket before they sold out, then stay tuned. I will be blogging this morning’s events here as they unfold. And don’t miss Brian’s post covering last night’s Innovation Expo.

Volunteer to teach kids about water and energy

SEED studentsDo you like teaching? Do you wish you had an excuse to leave lab and talk to kids about science for a couple hours? If so, then today is your lucky day. SEED (Students for environmental energy development) is recruiting new volunteers for two awesome outreach programs in public schools near UC Berkeley.

You may remember SEED from Liz Boatman’s earlier post describing their after-school programs for 4th and 5th graders in Oakland. This year, the Water curriculum has been updated and promises to be a lot of fun. The lessons are divided into 20 weeks of classroom activities, followed by a 6-week long group project. And there are 3-6 volunteers per classroom, so that each mentor gets to engage with a small group of students.

If you prefer to work with older kids (I use the word “kid” in only the most positive sense, counting myself as a really old kid), then SEED’s second program is for you. This is the first year of an exciting project that focuses on engaging high school students. Mentors will visit Berkeley High School 7 times each semester and help a group of 10th graders to produce a video on an energy-related topic.

No experience is necessary to join, so what are you waiting for? There will be short training sessions and experienced SEED teachers in your classroom to guide you. The after-school program is once a week, for a few hours in the afternoon, and the high school program is one hour every other week. For both programs, mentors must commit to attending all sessions for the semester. Teaching is a great life experience, not to mention good professional development and an all-around fun time. Contact SEED via email to get started this fall.

The power of olfactory associations, or why I can never drink peppermint tea again

The readers of the BSR are an intelligent, forward-thinking crowd, so I know you will not think less of me if I admit that I don’t drink coffee. My hot beverage of choice comes from a leaf instead of a bean. That’s right, I’m a proud member of Team Tea.

I could talk about the virtues of tea all day. Just to name a few: reduced caffeine content means you can stay alert without getting jittery, you can grow your own at home, and there are a kajillion varieties (that’s a technical term). I and many other tea drinkers like to choose different teas to suit various moods or activities. For me, it’s usually black in the morning, green in the afternoon, and red or herbal at night.

Recently, I began to notice something very odd about my tea-drinking habit: I associate particular teas with whatever activity I was doing when I began drinking them. And I’m not talking about a conscious association; rather, the smell and taste of the tea has the power to completely transport me to another time and place. For example, whenever I drink my favorite Rooibos tea, I am brought back to last summer when my boyfriend and I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Netflix almost every night. The same thing is true for a wonderful Chai looseleaf tea and the novel I was reading at the time, Hyperion. It’s an involuntary reflex. No matter what I’m doing or thinking in the moment, I can make a cup of tea and the past suddenly has an overwhelming presence in my mind, whether I like it or not.

Feeling smug while watching Jeopardy, brought to you by the International Year of Chemistry

We are officially halfway through 2011, the International Year of Chemistry. While my life as a chemist has not been impacted so far (no one has given me a medal or a certificate or anything), I have noticed that outreach efforts have been generating more press coverage than usual for the field of chemistry. For instance, last month one of the categories on an episode of Jeopardy! (America’s Favorite Quiz Show®) was entirely chemistry-themed. Many of you will not be stumped by these questions (or should I say answers?), so give yourselves a pat on the back for being well-versed in chemistry. It was fun for me to catch a glimpse of the public face of chemistry and to remember back to a time when I thought EELS referred to a group of slimy fish.

Jeopardy – IYC-themed Questions from ACS Pressroom on Vimeo.

For more discussion on the IYC, I recommend the following series of articles:
A letter by David Ropeik where he claims to represent the public when he asks chemists to “just keep that stuff away from us, okay?”
The response by Katherine Haxton, one of the many dissenting voices who spoke up to defend the IYC as “far more than overcoming so-called chemophobia.”
This post (or pretty much any post) on ScienceGeist, describing the search for an alternative to the nonsense term “chemical-free.”

The old boys club

Two weeks ago, BSR blog contributor Liz Boatman wrote a heartfelt and eye-opening post (you can read it here) about the regrettable treatment faced by many female grad students in STEM fields. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing out.

One of the more shocking facts I stumbled upon in her post was that the Faculty Club at UC Berkeley once posted a sign that said “For Men Only”. I was well aware that women were not hired as faculty for a good part of the university’s history, but specifically banning women from even entering the Great Hall just adds insult to injury. I searched for a picture of the sign –  mainly to prove to myself that it really happened – and thanks to Susan Snyder and the helpful staff at the Bancroft Library, which houses the University Archives, I was granted access to a photo collection of the Faculty Club over the years. There was no picture of the offending sign (please let me know if you come across one), but I did find this gem. Click to see it full size:

I’ll present this photo without much comment, because I think it speaks for itself. You’ll note that this was in 1932, thirteen years after the founding of the Women’s Faculty Club. I also checked out the WFC’s historical photograph collection, but it was mostly photos of the furnishings inside (not a joke).

Too many authors

Last year, I was moved to write this post by my amazement at the length of the author list of a paper in Science. Soon after that, I came across a different article with over 100 authors, and suddenly that list of 56 didn’t seem quite so impressive. But as I recently learned, the distinction between 50 and 100 authors turns out to be completely meaningless—the folks at CERN have destroyed the competition.

Maybe destroyed isn’t a strong enough word. Let’s say they murdered the competition, and then blew up the playing field. This paper (currently in press and open-source from Nuclear Physics B) has over 3000 authors. I didn’t get an exact count; I opened the list as a comma-delimited spreadsheet and started to calculate the number of names, but then I remembered that I have a job.

To understand this situation, you have to know a little bit about CERN and the LHC. CERN  is a massive laboratory in Geneva, with thousands of employees devoted to various high-energy physics experiments that take place inside particle accelerators. The most noteworthy of these particle accelerators is the Large Hadron Collider, which began successfully smashing two 3.5 TeV proton beams together in March 2010. Each proton travels at nearly light speed, and when two of them encounter each other in a head-on collision (which happens a few hundred million times per second) they release a debris trail of elementary particles that can be detected and analyzed.

Letters to a pre-scientist, part 3

This is a continuing series. In part 1, I describe the pen pal project and my initial letter to Jason, a 6th grade student in eastern North Carolina. Part 2 contains Jason’s first response.

It was almost inevitable. My correspondence with Jason went the way of most pen pal relationships; I stopped writing back. I wrote to Jason mid-December, and I was excited for weeks afterwards, anticipating his reply. But by the time his letter came, things were busy in lab, and my to-do list was growing by the minute. Still, I thought about writing back to him almost every morning and again in the evening as I packed up to go home.

I did write back eventually, and afterwards, I wondered why I had postponed something so simple and enjoyable. Was I really too busy to jot down a quick note and drop it in the mailbox? Did I not care enough to take 5 minutes out of my day to make a small impact in someone else’s life?

In fact, I think I cared too much. I didn’t want to write something quick and mindless; I wanted to make the most of whatever small impact I could make. In the end, I spent much longer than 5 minutes deciding what to write and printing out photos, and I was satisfied that I’d given the project my genuine effort.

How I learned to stop worrying and love WikiLeaks

What do diplomacy, nuclear fusion, and quantum teleportation have in common? Read on for the answer, or if you’re too impatient, go straight to the source: WikiLeaks cable 10BEIJING263.

In case you were living under a rock for the second half of 2010, let’s briefly review the facts of the WikiLeaks scandal. WikiLeaks is an organization whose stated goal is to “publish material of ethical, political and historical significance while keeping the identity of our sources anonymous.” Since 2006, they have been publishing previously secret information on their website, helping whistle-blowers either outrage or embarrass various military and political figures. In late November of last year, the group began releasing a slew of classified diplomatic cables sent by US State Department representatives since 1966.

Despite massive amounts of media attention given to WikiLeaks and its spokesperson Julian Assange, I found myself wondering why this release of information upset so many people. In an effort to find some personal connection to the scandal, or at least to share in the sense of mystery and espionage surrounding the cables, I did a quick search for one word: “science”. I’d like to share with you the most interesting result of that search, which was a cable sent on February 2, 2010 from the US embassy in Beijing, China.

Science writing seminar Wednesday- featuring PLoS

Did you miss last week’s writing seminar with Mary Roach? Or more likely—did you go to that seminar and then sink into a deep depression, worrying that you would have to wait a whole year before the next one? Today is your lucky day! The Berkeley Science Review invites you to our second science writing seminar of the year, featuring Brian Mossop and Ruchir Shah. Brian is a science writer who works for the Public Library of Science (PLoS), and Ruchir is the associate editor of PLoS Biology.

Come hear about open-source publishing, establishing a career as a science writer, and how editors view your articles and manuscripts. Brian and Ruchir will present both sides of scientific publishing, as well as suggestions for those looking to join the field.

Wednesday, April 27th, 6-7pm
421 Stanley Hall, UC Berkeley campus

News from the Kepler observatory: our galaxy is really, really big

The Kepler observatory was launched into orbit in early 2009. Its mission: to search for planets in solar systems other than our own. Their recent results point to a staggering number of planets that share the galaxy with us, many of which orbit their sun in a habitable temperature zone: between 0 and 100 °C. This means that water-based life such as ourselves would neither freeze nor boil away, assuming that the planet has atmospheric pressure similar to Earth.

Normal, Earth-bound telescopes can detect light emitted from stars throughout the galaxy, but reflections and emissions from their orbiting planets are too weak to be detected that way. In order to “see” planets, Kepler actually measures a drop in the intensity of light we see when a planet passes directly between Kepler and a star.

You can’t spell “prescience” without “science”

On April 6, 2009, there was an earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy; 308 people were killed. Six days before that, on March 31, there had been a meeting of the Commissione Grandi Rischi (“Major Risks committee”) in L’Aquila, which concluded that a major quake was unlikely. Members of the committee were indicted the following year on manslaughter charges for not warning the citizens of L’Aquila to evacuate. This story contains an important lesson for any scientist, or at least some important food for thought. What exactly is our responsibility to society, when it comes to predicting the future?

Surprises found in the “Science Hall of Fame”

Breaking news from the world of culturomics! The most famous scientist of the past two centuries is Bertrand Russell, whose fame clocks in at a stunning 1500 milliDarwins. If you’re like me and have never heard the word “culturomics” before today, fear not. The idea is relatively simple, and the implications for study of human

BSR Issue 19 stories are online

If you haven’t seen the latest issue of the printed BSR around campus yet, you’re missing out. A message from the Editor in Chief introducing some of the stories in Issue 19 is reprinted below. Click through the links to read the online version of the print magazine and learn more about the exciting research happening in UC Berkeley labs.

Happy new year, from Arthur Compton in 1931

It’s the year 2011. (By the way, can we please agree to say “twenty eleven”? “Two thousand and ten” was tiresome enough, I don’t think I can handle two extra syllables). Instead of making my own new year predictions, I’d like to share those of Nobel Prize winner Arthur Compton.

In 1931, the New York Times collected opinions from leading thinkers on what the world would be like 80 years hence. Compton and others made some surprisingly insightful guesses. I encourage you to read the original article yourself, if only to appreciate the language nuances (apparently, no one blinked an eye at the word “corpuscles”).

Compton, who was professor-at-large at UC Berkeley when he died in 1962, had this to say on the fate of science:

“China, with its virile manhood and great natural resources, will be taking a more prominent part in world affairs, and science will no longer be a monopoly of the West.”


Letters to a pre-scientist, part 2

This is a continuing series. In part 1, I describe the pen pal project and my initial letter to Jason.

It’s rare that I get excited over a piece of mail these days. A couple weeks ago, in between the usual catalogs and credit card offers, I was thrilled to discover that one of my 6th grade pen pals in Macon Lowman’s class had written to me. Click below to read Jason’s letter and my reply.

Science writing seminar tomorrow- Dec. 2nd, 5pm

Here at the BSR, our goal is not solely to keep readers informed of the latest science news. We also provide scientists and enthusiasts the opportunity to practice writing about science and describing research clearly to people outside of that specific field.

As part of this goal, the Fall 2010 BSR seminar will focus on science writing and reporting. Hania Köver, former BSR editor-in-chief, will lead the discussion on how to be successful at both writing and interviewing. There will even be a workshop component where you can practice your newfound skills!

So don’t miss this chance to brush up on your science journalism techniques. The seminar is tomorrow (December 2nd) at 5pm in 521 Stanley Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.

Survival of the kindest

Have you heard the latest news out of the Greater Good Science Center? What’s that, you say? You didn’t know that UC Berkeley had a Greater Good Science Center? In a town whose reputation is already firmly in the “touchy-feely” category, there is a group of psychologists and sociologists studying how to make people happier. The video explains it all:

As a former would-be sociologist, I feel a fond nostalgia for the notion of compassion as a tonic for society’s ills. The main goal of the researchers at Greater Good is to show that kindness and cooperation are better survival strategies than competition and selfishness.

Letters to a pre-scientist, part 1

Macon Lowman teaches 6th grade science in eastern North Carolina (my very own home state). She began working for Teach for America this year, and she has has big plans for teaching her students what science is all about. I’ll let her explain:

I’m working with kids from extremely low-income areas, who consider completing high school a stretch, let alone college. Most of my students have never been out of the state of NC (or even their small town of Windsor). They have no connections to adults/mentors that are working in science fields, and very few people have pushed them to believe that they are capable of some of the huge and amazing goals they have for themselves.


Mascheroni (Ph.D., ’68) indicted in conspiracy case

UC Berkeley graduates make the news frequently, but you won’t see the following story in your alumni magazine. In September of 1968, Dr. Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni received his graduate degree in Physics; in September 2010, he received an indictment from the US government for 22 counts of various flavors of conspiracy and fraud. His wife, Marjorie, is also a Cal alum (B.A. in Fine Art) and is included as a defendant in the case.

As with the best legal dramas, the two sides of this story are drastically different.


Gaming for good: human thought beats computer algorithms at solving protein structures

Considering my fascination of late with unusual author lists in science papers, you can guess how excited I was to see an article in Nature that credited online gamers. I was especially amused to see that citation services like PubMed abbreviate “Foldit players” as “Players F.”

Now on the the actual story. We all know that playing video games can require serious problem-solving skills. Gamers sometimes spend hours each day solving puzzles and honing their spatial reasoning abilities. Did you ever wonder if those efforts could be applied directly to real-world problems?

Funding science in a slow economy

Early last week, Senators Tom Coburn (R- Oklahoma) and John McCain (R- Arizona) released a report entitled “Summertime Blues: 100 stimulus projects that give taxpayers the blues.” Among the projects highlighted in the report, there are a number of research studies funded by the National Science Foundation from their portion of last year’s stimulus funds (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). Of the $862 billion total dispersed by Congress, the NSF received $2 billion specifically for “research and related activities.” NSF chose to use these funds for highly rated proposals that had already been submitted for review, but which would otherwise have gone unfunded due to budget constraints.

Let me be clear from the beginning: it is not the goal of this blog to take any political stance. Our main interest is science, and science is not an inherently political pursuit. The opinions of policy-makers are not directly relevant to our pursuit of truth about the natural world.

Success from the Neanderthal Genome Project

When my labmate first showed me this paper, we marveled at the sheer number of authors. By my count, this work is credited to 56 scientists with 21 different affiliations (including UC Berkeley) in 7 countries. I don’t even know how to count the number of PI’s here; clearly it was a huge undertaking.

But now, knowing what they actually accomplished, I’m almost surprised that it took only 56 people. They sequenced over 4 billion base pairs, using three samples of bone from Neanderthals that have been dead for about 40,000 years. Most of the bones used were found in the Vindija cave site in northern Croatia.

The results tell us about the relationship between humans and Neanderthals during the late Pleistocene era: between the time when they split into two separate species (400,000 years ago) and when Neanderthals disappeared (30,000 years ago). Human subjects with European or East Asian ancestry had significantly more genes in common with the Neanderthals, compared to people from South or West Africa. This means that about 80,000 years ago, sometime after humans migrated out of Africa, they must have come into close contact with Neanderthals—close enough to interbreed and leave Neanderthal genes in the DNA of non-African modern humans.

Welcome to the BSR blog!

My name is Anna, and I’m your friendly neighborhood web editor. Our goal is to bring you more of the high quality content that you expect from the print edition, but without the long wait between issues. It’s like a steady course of appetizers for the entrée that is BSR!