Thursday, March 29, 2012

Great teacher thrives in unique habitat

The journal Science is publishing biologist Nitya Jacob's paper "Investigating Arabia Mountain: A Molecular Approach" so that other teachers can emulate her methods. Photo by Kay Hinton.

By Carol Clark

A favorite biology professor introduced Nitya Jacob to Arabia Mountain when she was a student at Agnes Scott College. Sandra Bowden took her botany class on field trips to the Georgia granite outcrop.

“I remember thinking how weird and otherworldly the outcrop looked, with strange plants, unique to that habitat,” Jacob says. “I loved getting to see these plants in the wild that I had been learning about.”

Now Jacob is an assistant professor of biology at Emory’s Oxford College, introducing a new generation of students to Arabia Mountain. She developed a lab module that trains freshmen and sophomores to collect samples on the outcrop, then investigate microbial diversity through DNA isolation and sequencing.

“I want my students to be aware of their biological surroundings,” Jacob says. “It’s so easy to go about life without ever thinking about what’s around you.”

The popular lab module, which Jacob has been teaching and refining for six years, is one of only 15 winners nationwide of the 2011 Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction. The journal Science is publishing Jacob’s paper, “Investigating Arabia Mountain: A Molecular Approach,” in its next issue, so that other science teachers can emulate her methods.

“I always had this dream of publishing in Science, like a lot of scientists do,” Jacob says. “But when I decided to focus on teaching, I thought, ‘There goes any chance of seeing my name in Science.’ I’m just blown away by this.”

Jacob's favorite tree growing up was the gulmohar, Hindi for "peacock flower." In English, the tree is known as Royal Poinsetta. Photo by Nitya Jacob.

Jacob grew up in India, in a small town near Pune. Her mother was a professor of English and linguistics, and her father was a professor of psychology and philosophy of religion. But Jacob was fascinated by nature from an early age.

“We had a big yard and I was always surrounded by plants and animals,” she says. “My favorite tree was a gulmohar. It was easy to climb, and it has these fascinating red flowers. Four of the petals are plain red, and one has a white and yellow pattern. It also produced these long seed pods that I could use as a ‘sword.’”

Jacob came to Georgia to attend Agnes Scott College, where she majored in biology. While Sandra Bowden mentored Jacob in biology, chemistry professor Linda Hodges involved her in lab research. “We were isolating compounds from plant extracts to test their anti-glaucoma activity,” Jacob says. “I felt really inspired by getting to do real science.”

The classroom turned out to be Jacob’s true passion, something she realized as a post-doc in Illinois. “I find myself happiest when I’m around students,” she says. “They have a certain kind of energy and an eagerness to learn.”

Oxford students gather microbial samples from Arabia Mountain. While the plants and geology of the granite outcrop have been studied in detail, its microbes have not. Photo by Nitya Jacob.

She found the perfect fit as a teacher at Oxford College, which has easy access to forests, the Oxhouse Science Center and the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area. The mountain is a monadnock, an exposed granite rock, rising nearly 200 feet above the piedmont. Sandy hollows in the granite surface fill with rain water and turn into vernal pools, harboring an array of unusual plants, like the bright-red diamorpha and the endangered fleshy-leafed little amphianthus, and isoetes melanospora – better known as black-spored Merlin’s grass.

These quirky survivors have adapted to extreme heat and drought conditions. “They are truly living on the edge, in this very specific habitat,” Jacob says.

That got her wondering: What unseen life could the outcrop be harboring? While the plants and geology of Arabia Mountain have been studied in detail, its microbes have not.

Jacob’s curiosity, and her desire to inspire students the way her own professors did, led her to work Arabia Mountain into curriculum of Biology 142. She drew on the experience of her colleague, Oxford biologist Eloise Carter, who co-wrote a field guide to granite outcrops.

Working in teams, the students design an original research question about investigating microbial diversity on a granite outcrop. They gather microbial samples in the field, from pools, leaf surfaces, rocks and soil, then grow cultures back in the lab.

First they look for visual differences in the bacterial colonies, which can have different colors, shapes and surface features. The students have isolated two types of bacteria that are purple, for instance, which they have so far collected only from wet or damp environments.

Jacob helps students analyze their data in the lab. Photo by Kay Hinton.

The research teams select morphologically distinct bacteria from their collections and use a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique to amplify the DNA sequence. They further analyze, examine and synthesize the data, looking for patterns in different bacteria from different collection areas. They discuss their outcomes and make arguments, before presenting their findings in a research seminar format.

“I loved that class,” says Susanna Brantley, who took it as a freshman and is now a junior majoring in biology at Emory. “It was a real research project and not a so-called ‘cookbook’ science class. I was learning something, but also doing something meaningful, maybe even contributing to new scientific knowledge.”

The students have made several interesting discoveries. “Some of the bacteria we’ve found has apparently never been identified,” Jacob says. “When you put the DNA into the database and look for a match, there isn’t one.”

Studying bacterial diversity, and how it adapts to different environments, could help solve human problems of pollution, energy and health.

"I want my students to be aware of their biological surroundings," Jacob says. Photo by Carol Clark.

Rachel Koval, who took Jacob’s class in 2006, is working on a masters in public health at the University of Michigan. One of her projects involves looking at microbiological diversity in diarrheal diseases in Peru, to learn more about how the disease has changed as the environment has changed.

“When you learn how microbes adapt to different settings, it can give you a better idea of how natural selection can work,” says Koval, who remains in close touch with Jacob.

Jacob is slight, soft-spoken and preternaturally calm, yet exudes a quiet power. She did not hesitate to use it by politely admonishing a visitor to Arabia Mountain who was trampling an endangered plant while taking a photo.

“My students were really outraged about that and they came to me and asked me to do something,” she recalls. “That’s when I realized that what they are learning is sinking in, and it’s important to them.”

On a recent outing to Arabia, on a sunny day with a cool breeze, students scattered over the face of the outcrop. They called out to Jacob if they saw a plant that was new to them, or found something interesting swimming in a vernal pool.

“I’ve been doing this for years,” Jacob says, “but every time I bring students here they have big smiles on their faces, and that makes it all seem new to me again.”

A creek runs through this teacher workshop

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Proving math is good for endurance sports

Theoretical math and endurance exercise go together like paper and pencil, says Ken Ono, above. "Each activity makes me better at the other."

By Carol Clark

Some people run from their problems. Emory math professor Ken Ono runs with his.

“I do the bulk of my creative research when I’m outdoors, running or cycling, and free of other obligations,” says Ono, who studies long-standing problems in number theory. “Exercise clears my mind. That’s when I can really get down to the nature of a problem.”

While Ono’s mind is getting down to math, his heart is getting pumped up. At 44, he has been named to Team USA for his age group by the USA Triathlon Federation. On May 19, Ono will be competing in the 2012 International Triathlon Union Cross Triathlon World Championships in Pelham, Alabama.

“I’m not going to win,” Ono says, calculating his odds, “but I’m excited to compete against the best in the world, wearing the red-white-and-blue.”

Set in Alabama’s Oak Mountain State Park, the triathlon involves a 1,500-meter swim across a lake, a 19-mile mountain-biking trail and a 10-kilometer cross-country run.

“Maybe it was a mid-life crisis,” Ono says, when asked what possessed him to try out for a spot in the competition last year, his first triathlon. “Some people buy sports cars.”

Ono qualified for the national team by performing well in off-road triathlon and trail runs known as the XTERRA series. Last year he ranked 14th for his age group in the Southeast region.

He quickly improved. Over spring break, Ono competed in an XTERRA national event in Miami. He is now ranked third in his age group nationally.

"I do the bulk of my creative research when I'm outdoors, running or cycling, and free of other obligations," Ono says.

Ono is a seasoned athlete. While an undergraduate at the University or Chicago, he was a nationally ranked cyclist for the Pepsi-Miyata team, competing in the U.S. Professional Cycling Championships.

Now married and the father of two, Ono stays active in solo sports like surfing, running and cycling. He also enjoys hiking. Last year, he and a colleague made an important discovery about partition numbers while they were hiking in a north Georgia forest. As they made their way to a waterfall, they noticed patterns in the trees that helped them see a centuries-old problem in a new way.

“Nature guided us to one, crystal-clear, important idea,” Ono says.

Theoretical math and endurance exercise go together like paper and pencil, says Ono: “Each activity makes me better at the other.”

In the lead up to the triathlon world championship, he’s training three hours a day. The grueling workouts might seem unbearably long, but Ono’s mind is busy with collections of math problems.

“I especially love running in the woods,” he says. “When I’m alone with my thoughts, just me and the sounds of birds and a stream, it gives me clarity and focus. On those rare occasions that you hit upon an idea to prove a theorem that you’ve been struggling with, it’s a rush, like a runner’s high.”

How a hike in the woods led to a math 'Aha!'
New theories reveal the nature of numbers
How culture shaped a mathematician
The math of rock climbing

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A field botanist's take on the pollen blitz

By Carol Clark

The first day of spring was more like summer at Emory’s Oxford College campus, 40 minutes east of Atlanta. It was the seventh straight day of highs above 80 degrees, breaking the March record for an unbroken stretch of such high heat in the Atlanta region.

Biology professor Eloise Carter and students in her field botany course returned to the lab from a trip to nearby Oxhouse Lake, sweaty and dusted in pollen. As the students laid out specimens of flowering plants they collected, Carter brought out her iPhone to show photos to another biologist in the department.

“It’s pollen,” she says, showing what looked like a sandy beach, but was actually tree pollen coating the surface of the water along the lake shore.

The count of 9,369 particles of pollen per cubic meter of air on Tuesday was 55 percent higher than the previous record, set in 1999. A mild winter, leading up to a hot spring, has blown back the clock, driving the blitz of allergens from trees that are pollinated by wind.

Instead of tree pollination extending as usual from February to May, “it’s been telescoped down,” Carter says. “It’s pretty extreme.”

Carter, who has been leading students on biology outings since 1988, has been collecting data for 25 years on what plants flower when around Oxford, Georgia.

The loblolly and short leaf pines are shedding pollen now, on their usual schedule. But flowering that is usually spread out over a month for 10 different varieties of oak has been collapsed to the past few days, she notes. Mulberries, box elders, sweet gums, birch and sycamore are also currently in the mix.

“I’m wondering what’s going to happen downstream from now,” Carter says. Late in the semester, will there be any flowering plants left for her field botany students to collect? Perhaps plants that normally flower in the summer will blossom and fill the spring void, she speculates.

Plants decide when to flower based on the length of day and the temperature. “While plants may respond to temperature changes, insects may or may not,” Carter says. “If you get a real disconnect between plants and their pollinators that may affect the reproduction of rare plants, agriculture plants and others. Plants living on the fringe of their range might even be eliminated.”

Top photo by

A creek runs through this teacher workshop

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bluebirds egg on spring

A glorious, blue egg appeared on this first day of spring in a bluebird nest on the quadrangle of Emory's Oxford Campus. The proud parents are busily flitting about amid the oaks and ornamental pear trees. "They just finished building their nest," says Oxford biologist Eloise Carter, who installed a wooden bluebird box just outside of her office. Last year, two clutches of birds were raised in the little box.

If you want to attract bluebirds to your yard, Carter recommends buying a special bluebird house for them, with the right sized opening. "It's best to put the house up in February, because then the bluebirds have time to shop around for a home, but you probably still have time to attract some this season," she says.

Add water and a feeding station. "They especially love mealworms," Carter says. "The birds will see, 'What a great neighborhood, it's got food and it's safe,' and they'll move in."

How culture shaped a mathematician

"I like to connect abstract math with things that are really concrete," says Skip Garibaldi. Photo by Bryan Meltz.

By Carol Clark

As a graduate student, Emory math professor Skip Garibaldi visited the Orangerie Museum near Paris. He and a friend, a fellow mathematician, were transfixed upon entering one of the museum’s galleries. But it wasn’t the stunning mural of Claude Monet water lilies that grabbed their attention.

“I said, ‘It’s a whispering chamber!’ And we immediately ran to opposite ends of this oval room and began having a conversation,” Garibaldi recalls.

No plaque identified the whispering phenomenon. But the mathematicians recognized the geometry of ellipses that allow sound waves to travel around walls without getting much quieter.

Here’s what a non-mathematician would probably first notice upon entering the Monet gallery:

Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Here’s a diagram of what caught Garibaldi's attention:

Now Garibaldi is himself part of a museum exhibit that opened this month at the Smithsonian Institution. “MathAlive!” aims to reveal the beauty of math to middle and elementary school students, by showing it through the eyes of hip young engineers, designers, urban planners, athletes and others who use math in their work and play.

“A lot of good things are going on right now to help get kids interested in math,” Garibaldi says, from the Khan Academy phenomenon to the Museum of Mathematics opening this week in New York. “That’s great, because technology is integrated into everything we do today, and if you want any kind of career in technology, engineering or science, math is the gateway.”

The interactive MathAlive! exhibit combines math with virtual reality to let visitors do things like design a skateboard, and then test it out to see how it works, or operate a robotic rover to pick up samples from the surface of Mars.

Garibaldi, who is an avid rock climber, inspired an actual climbing wall at the exhibit.

Watch a "fly-through" of MathAlive! in the video below. The traveling exhibit is a collaboration of the Raytheon Company, NASA, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and others. In addition to the Smithsonian, MathAlive! will travel to the Arizona Museum and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The philosophy behind MathAlive! is that one way to get kids interested in a subject is to find a way to make it fun and cool.

Popular books and movies guided his own meandering trail through academia, says Garibaldi, who grew up in semi-rural Fairfield, California, on the edge of the Central Valley.

Garibaldi became fascinated by physics after an uncle gave him a copy of “The Cosmic Code” by Heinz Pagels, a physicist and mountain climber who had a gift for explaining complex topics in ways that were both gripping and easy to understand.

Here’s how Pagels wrote about cosmology in the 1982 book:

“Lately I dreamed I was clutching at the face of a rock but it would not hold. Gravel gave way. I grasped for a shrub, but it pulled loose, and in cold terror I fell into the abyss ... what I embody, the principle of life, cannot be destroyed ... It is written into the cosmic code, the order of the universe. As I continued to fall in the dark void, embraced by the vault of the heavens, I sang to the beauty of the stars and made my peace with the darkness.”

Credit: EE One/Wikipedia Commons.

Pagels was a larger-than-life figure who embodied what he wrote. In 1988, he died while climbing Colorado’s Pyramid Peak (above), in an accident that was eerily similar to his dream.

Another book that influenced Garibaldi was “Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman: The Adventures of a Curious Character.” This classic memoir by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman covers everything from safecracking to meeting Albert Einstein.

“It’s got real science in it, but it’s also fun,” Garibaldi says. “If you’re a geeky kid and you read that book, it would be really hard not to have Feynman as a hero.”

By the time he was a sophomore in high school, Garibaldi had taken most of the math and science courses offered in the vicinity of his small town. So he decided to skip the rest of high school and apply to college. He enrolled at Purdue.

“Looking back on it, it seems like a crazy idea,” Garibaldi says, “but it didn’t seem strange at the time.” He explains that he had recently seen the movie “Real Genius,” starring Val Kilmer as one of the youngest students ever accepted to study physics at CalTech, where he and a roommate develop a high-powered laser.

Although he enjoyed the theoretical aspects of physics, Garibaldi says he didn’t like working in a lab. He switched his major to computer science in his junior year at Purdue, but once again hit a wall.

“I had spent a lot of time programming, going back to 7th grade, and I was getting tired of being in front of a computer screen under fluorescent lights,” he says. “I just don’t like being encased in a room.”

Garibaldi went on to a PhD program for math at the University of California at San Diego. “One advantage of math is you can do it yourself, anywhere, even at the beach,” Garibaldi says. “All you need is a pencil and paper, or sometimes, not even that.”

As he immersed himself in becoming a theoretical mathematician, he discovered a twin passion: Rock climbing.

Garibaldi climbing Desert Reality in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area near Las Vegas. Photo by Craig Clarence.

Precision is key to both scaling a mountain safely and finding the solution hidden in a maze of equations, he says. “They both involve puzzle solving. And they both require close attention. You tune out everything else. You get taken away from the every day.”

While in San Diego, and later during a post-doctoral position at UCLA, Garibaldi continued to hone his climbing skills. “When you’re climbing you have a lot of adrenaline and focus, and that affects what you remember,” he says. “I did hundreds of climbs in Joshua Tree National Park, and my memories of each one of them are intense because of the focus that I had while doing them.”

Garibaldi met his wife, Julia, a fellow mathematician, while at UCLA, and the couple moved to Atlanta in 2002 when he joined the Emory faculty. The math department was seeing a rise in enrollment, which Garibaldi thinks may have been at least partly due to more appearances of math in popular culture, like the movie “A Beautiful Mind.” Russell Crowe (left) played real-life mathematician John Nash in the hit movie, which won the 2002 Oscar for best picture.

As a theoretical mathematician, Garibaldi grapples with esoteric subjects, like cohomological invariants and an enigmatic structure known as E8. But he also strives to help non-mathematicians see the world of numbers as he does. He wrote a paper called “Finding Good Bets in the Lottery – And Why You Shouldn’t Take Them” and a computer program that allows people to rearrange the stars in the U.S. flag. He also starred in a popular YouTube video called “The Math of Rock Climbing.”

“Pure math is, to a great degree, separated from reality. So whenever possible, I like to connect really abstract math with things that are concrete and make it publicly accessible,” Garibaldi says. “When I’m teaching, I show students how the math in cryptology applies to their computers, and how the math of finance can be used to analyze whether the market is pricing something correctly.”

Garibaldi says that his greatest ambition is not to solve a major mystery in math or science, but to help young people sense the beauty and wonder inherent in those mysteries. “I have two young kids,” Garibaldi says. “I want to write a popular book on science that someday they will find just as compelling as Heinz Pagels’ and Richard Feynman’s books were to me.”

The math of rock climbing
Rock climber takes on surfer's theory
Lottery study zeros in on risk

Monday, March 12, 2012

Medical mistakes, in fact and fiction

Keeping up with Sanjay Gupta, an Emory neurosurgeon, best-selling author, and CNN’s chief medical correspondent, is “not for the weak of heart, or the weak of anything,” writes Craig Wilson, who interviewed Gupta about his new novel for USA Today. Following is an excerpt of the article:

“The book's title, 'Monday Mornings,' refers to when physicians at ‘Chelsea General’ in suburban Detroit gather for their weekly ‘Morbidity and Mortality’ (M&M) meeting — a time to discuss and analyze what went wrong in recent surgeries, a private meeting Gupta says is held at most hospitals. That operation on the wrong side of the brain? It's discussed there. It's like going before a jury of your peers, not a fun outing for the erring physician.

“’It's unsettling to surgeons to realize they're not infallible. Operating on the wrong side of the head? It happens,’ he says, adding that no one is harder on themselves than doctors. …

“Deb Futter, Gutpa's editor at Grand Central Publishing, praises Gupta for the way he blends medical facts and storytelling.

“’Everyone is fascinated, and terrified, by what goes on behind the scenes at a hospital. Dr. Gupta's novel takes you right to the heart of the medical world,’ Futter says. ‘He manages to make the doctors real people with real problems and also marries medical information with a riveting plot.’”

Read the whole article in USA Today.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

'The Cosmonaut' shows a hero's fall to Earth

The 1960s space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was much more than a battle of technology. It was a human drama. Two of the most compelling characters were Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, and his best friend and fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, the first human to die in space flight.

As NPR summed it up: “In 1967, both men were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission, and both knew the space capsule was not safe to fly. Komarov told friends he knew he would probably die. But he wouldn't back out because he didn't want Gagarin to die. Gagarin would have been his replacement.”

Emory film major Nikoloz Kevkhishvili, from the country of Georgia, chose this story for his entry in this year’s Campus Movie Fest (CMF). His short film “The Cosmonaut” (see above) recently debuted on campus with the other Emory entrants. “The Cosmonaut” won the Paladin Society’s Courageous Spirit award for breaking the norm, and also awards for best soundtrack and best drama.

CMF, which began at Emory 11 years ago, has grown into the world’s largest student film festival. The top films from the 2011-2012 competition will be shown at the CMF Grand Finale this June in Hollywood.

Fueling the dream of travel to the stars

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Novelists, neuroscientists trade mental notes

By Carol Clark

No one can predict where the conversation will go when novelist Salman Rushdie talks about the creative process with Seana Coulson, a cognitive scientist who studies language with multiple meanings. But when two bright minds come together to explore a deep mystery from entirely different angles, you can expect sparks.

“Metaphors and the Mind” is a day-long symposium at Emory on Thursday, March 8, bringing together writers and neuroscientists to exchange their thoughts on language, creativity and the brain.

“We hope that everyone, both the scientists and the writers, will leave the symposium with new ideas about experiments they’d like to try,” says Laura Otis, an Emory professor of English, who organized the symposium with Krish Sathian, a neurologist at Emory's School of Medicine. “We each have different kinds of knowledge, and we want to see how combining them can lead to new ways of looking at things.”

Emory creative writing professors Rushdie, Jim Grimsley and Joseph Skibell will converse with three leading neuroscientists: Coulson from UC San Diego, Anjan Chatterjee from the University of Pennsylvania and David Kemmerer from Purdue. The symposium is hosted by Emory’s Center for Mind, Brain and Culture and the Laney Graduate School’s New Thinkers, New Leaders Program. It’s free and open to the public. Click here for more details.

The event grew out of a graduate seminar, “Images, Metaphors and the Brain,” that Otis teaches with Sathian. Students from neuroscience, psychology anthropology, religion, English and comparative literature are enrolled.

“We have amazing conversations,” says Otis, who researches how scientific and literary thinking coincide and foster each other’s growth.

The seminar explores everything from Sathian’s research on how the brain puts together visual imagery and touch sensations to English professor Patricia Cahill’s work on the theater and the sense of touch in early modern England.

Bringing together students from a range of specialties gives them glimpses of how different minds work. “Occasionally someone will use just one word to express a complex thought, and then just assume that everyone else gets their meaning, but often that isn’t the case,” Otis says.

Otis bridges the complexities of science and the humanities more easily than most. She was part way through a PhD in neuroscience when she realized that she didn’t want to be a scientist. “I loved studying how something binds to a cell, and a cell opens and things start pouring in or out,” she recalls. “I’m fascinated by the biology underlying memory, identity and communication.”

She could function okay in a lab environment, and was good at many of the technical tasks, but she didn’t enjoy the collaborative atmosphere. “It just didn’t feel right. I’m a loner, I work best on my own,” she says.

Otis had always loved language. “I was trying to beat down my passion,” she says, “because I thought that studying literature was selfish, and wouldn’t help humanity the way that science can.”

She eventually reached a breaking point, becoming so unhappy that she couldn’t continue on the path to neuroscience. Then she found her niche in a PhD program in comparative literature at Cornell. Otis’ interests and passions combined to put her at the vanguard of a growing movement to bring together the experiences of artists and the findings of neuroscience.

“You can learn things from science, and you can learn things from storytelling and other forms of art. Now we are putting the two together,” Otis says. “It’s a fertile field of new ideas about the mind.”

Above photo of books by

Metaphors activate sensory areas of the brain
Digitizing the mind of Salman Rushdie
Sorting truth from false memories

Friday, March 2, 2012

Fueling the dream of travel to the stars

Interstellar travel is a fantasy of many children, and believe it or not, the ambition of some scientists. Photo from 2008 Maker Faire by Jim Merithew/

Human space technology may be limited, but human dreams are not. Emory physicist Sidney Perkowitz was among the ex-astronauts, engineers, artists, theologians, students and science-fiction writers who celebrated that paradox during the 100 Year Starship Study (100YSS) conference last fall in Orlando.

Think robots in space, nuclear fission, solar-powered sails. These are just a few of the ideas being bandied about for making interstellar travel a reality.

In a report on the conference for a recent issue of Physics World, Perkowitz describes what it was like to be immersed in “humanity’s adventurous, stubborn, mad and glorious aspiration to reach the stars.” Following is an eScienceCommons interview, about the dreamers and doers pushing at our horizons.

eScienceCommons: Who is behind the 100YSS and the conference?

Sidney Perkowitz: It was organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defense. DARPA is famous for being willing to sponsor off-the-wall ideas, because you never know where basic research will take you. Supposedly, they’ve looked into things like telepathy and telekinesis, pure science-fiction stuff. But DARPA points out that research into space travel has brought advancements in technologies with civilian applications, like robotics, batteries and new materials. DARPA doesn’t necessarily believe that someone will build a starship, but the effort to do so could provide some useful spin-offs.

The Space Shuttle Endeavour'srobotic arm hovers over Earth's horizon, before a starburst from the Sun. Photo by NASA.

eSC: What kind of people attended the starship conference?

Perkowitz: All kinds. Mae Jemison was there. She is a former NASA astronaut and the first black woman to travel in space. Among the many things she’s involved with is a program encouraging young people to go into science.

I met another scientist, a Georgia Tech graduate interested in founding a company to sweep up all the human-made space debris floating around the Earth. And I heard a talk by an Iranian woman who had come up with the money to become one of the few civilians to go into space. She said that once you’ve done that, you never think about Earth in the same way.

There were a couple of visual artists there, who felt they would be inspired by hearing more about space travel, and a lot of science fiction writers. A theologian at the conference gave an interesting talk about space travel being a kind of spiritual expansion, like going beyond the roof of a cathedral. Another theologian made a complicated argument about the nature of evil and redemption, and how they might apply to life on other planets.

The ideas of some people at the conference were completely off the wall, but who knows? You should always have some visionaries around. Some of them will be wrong, but some of them will be right.

An artist's impression of how common planets are around the stars in the Milky Way. Art by European Southern Observatory/M. Kornmesser.

eSC: How realistic is it that we could ever reach even one of the closest stars to the sun, more than 4 light years away?

Perkowitz: I don’t think it’s going to happen soon. The distances are so great, I’m not sure that technology will ever match them. But I believe that we should keep trying, just like we should keep trying to cure cancer. I think the dream of interstellar travel is important to the human race.

Unmanned space probes armed with telescopes and other instruments have allowed us to learn more about the solar system during the last 20 years than we have during the previous 2,000 years. The discovery of exo-planets has changed our whole conception of the universe. We used to think there were nine planets, then eight because they demoted Pluto. The latest findings suggest that there are actually more planets in our galaxy than stars. That’s phenomenal, and it opens up the possibility of extraterrestrial life by a factor of millions.

Fantastic light: From science fiction to fact
Is Iron Man suited for reality?

Female bonobos play up homosexual bonds

Ella Davies writes in BBC Nature:

“Female bonobos ‘advertise’ their homosexual activity to important audiences, say scientists.

“Researchers studying communication among the apes found that females made the most noise during sex if the 'alpha female' was nearby. Low-ranking females that were invited to have sex with high-ranking females would also call to tell other group members about the bond.

“Experts suggest females communicate the encounters to boost their status.

“The species Pan paniscus are referred to as the ‘erotic’ or ‘promiscuous apes’ because they regularly engage in sexual contact with both their own and the opposite sex.

“’[Sex] is used to reduce stress and competition, develop affiliations, express and test social relationships and for reconciling conflicts and consoling victims in distress,’ explained Dr Zanna Clay, from Emory University in Atlanta, who has been studying vocalisations in the species for five years.”

Read the whole article in BBC Nature.

Chimps, bonobos yield clues to social brain
The bi-polar ape, in love and war

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Immerse yourself in a 'warm pond' of music

An artist's rendering of a young planet, similar to how Earth may have been 3.5 billion years ago. NASA/JPL CalTech/R. Hurt

By Carol Clark

Take musicians and their instruments, chemists and their research, a composer and his computers and random acts of audience participation. Gather these ingredients into an otherworldly, “warm pond” atmosphere and stir. No one knows what the final result will be of “First Life,” a multi-media imagining of the chemical origins of life by Steve Everett, Emory professor of music and a composer.

“We know that the performance will be a unique experience, but beyond that, this piece is full of unknowns, which is what I really like about it,” Everett says.

“First Life” debuts on Sunday, March 4, at 7 pm in Emory's Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. The composition was supported by the Center for Chemical Evolution, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA. Scientists from Emory and Georgia Tech are leading the center’s efforts to answer one of the most intriguing questions in science: How did life begin? How could molecules from the chemical inventory of early Earth, some 3.5 billion years ago, have self-assembled into new molecular entities, eventually leading to the building blocks of life?

Video below shows a computer simulation of molecular assembly produced by Martha Grover's lab. We added the sound of a crowd assembling in a concert hall.

“Molecules aren’t static. They’re vibrating, just like sound,” Everett says. “That’s one reason that music is an ideal way to create metaphors for this research.”

Everett, a former math major, who relies heavily on computer engineering for many of his musical compositions, began work on “First Life” by cracking open biochemistry books. He also talked extensively with the Center of Chemical Evolution’s Martha Grover, a chemist and bio-molecular engineer at Georgia Tech.

“A biological organism has the ability to respond to its environment and learn from its past experiences,” Grover says, “while human-designed systems are typically more rigid and thus less ‘intelligent.’”

Grover is developing probability models for certain chemical bonds, and combinations of those bonds, that could happen under certain conditions.

Joseph Haydn's musical handwriting, from the original copy of Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser.

Music also relies on probability formulas, Everett says. Joseph Haydn, for example, produced more than 100 symphonies, and much of his music has a similar sound, because he composed using a rule-based system. Each piece was a variation on those rules.

“Composers embed logical, organic patterns into the music,” Everett says. “Listeners respond to these patterns on a cognitive level, and they may experience a sense of beauty and the sublime, or even discord, because of them.”

Through a process known as computer sonification, Everett turned Grover’s models for chemical assembly into sounds. He then limited the resulting random pitches to a few musical scales, to create pieces to be played by the Vega String Quartet.

One of the pieces in “First Life” is titled “Methane, Ammonia, Hydrogen, Water.” The different chemicals are represented by different sounds played loudly, then softly, with little order. “But whenever the composition goes into a mezzo forte, they start to lock into a repeating rhythm,” Everett says. “They don’t quite make it, though, and they go off into chaos again.”

Watch a video, below, of conversation between musician Steve Everett and biochemist Marth Grover.

The music from each of the stringed instruments will stream live into a computer synthesizer during the performance. Everett will control the synthesizer, and combine the resulting sounds with percussion and live audio-visual displays. Actual research from the Center for Chemical Evolution will also be narrated by Grover and David Lynn, chair of chemistry at Emory and another key scientist at the center.

The audience will also play a role in the performance of “First Life,” although Everett is withholding details to ensure as much spontaneity as possible for the event.

The sonic interpretations of the chemical research will be mixing with the brain chemistry of listeners. Each person present may have an entirely different reaction, and some reactions may not be entirely positive.

“I’m interested in exploring new potential reactions to sound,” Everett says. “Science isn’t trying to be pleasant and enjoyable, it’s trying to answer questions by exploring the unknown. I hope that the audience will walk away with a lot of questions, but also the desire to learn more about the research at the Center for Chemical Evolution, and why it’s so important.”

Peptides may hold missing link to life
Teaching evolution enters new era
Where music meets technology
When music and molecules converge