Having a social justice warrior meme group has brought people into my life who are serious about their politics and also fucking hilarious.
Welcome back to another installment of "Science Happenings That I Found Interesting." I haven't done one of these in a while, so this is more a collection of things I found interesting in the month of March, instead of just last week.
Firstly though, I really hope you are all watching Cosmos. The first episode was not overly impressive, but I have LOVED the second and third. If you didn't love the premiere, I implore you to give it another chance.
ANYWAY. The most amazing thing has happened and it is our first discussion point.
1. BIG BANG BREAKTHROUGH
Scientists have announced the first direct evidence to support the Big Bang. This is a very big deal. Nobel Prize worthy.
You should really read all you can about it, but my understanding is that an experiment known as Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP2) has detected the gravity wave signature that rippled through space time itself just a minuscule fraction of a second after the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago.
To be precise, that's T= 0.00000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds.
To understand the significance of this at all, you need to have a basic understanding of inflation theory, something first posited by Alan Guth in the 1980s. Adam Frank explains inflation on the NPR 13.7 blog:
Back then paradoxes and puzzles kept popping up which threatened to topple the Big Bang. Scientists like Alan Guth realized that, in order to make the idea work, there must have been a brief moment very early in cosmic history when a little sliver of post-Big Bang space-time began expanding much faster than its surroundings. Like an inflating balloon blown up by a high-powered compressor, this tiny "pocket" of space-time stretched very, very quickly to become our entire observable universe.
But almost as rapidly as it began, this period of inflation ended and left us with what we have now: the leisurely expansion we see today. In spite of its brevity, this brief period of Inflation was all-important. It was inflation that set us on the trajectory for everything that has happened afterward: galaxies, stars, planets and us.
WE ARE ALL STAR STUFF.
Frank goes on to explain how such an event could be detected:
The violence of the early universe was so extreme that it would leave space-time itself ringing like a bell. Almost as soon as inflation was proposed some scientists predicted that it would leave a "gravity wave" signature.
It seems that this "gravity wave" signature has been found.
That is supposed to read "BOOM" but instead it says "MOOB" because mirrors.
2. Monster Chicken will now be starring in your nightmares
It turns out a pile of bones that has been puzzling paleontologists for decades is a giant chicken from hell. The Anzu wyliei (nicknamed "Chicken from Hell" due to the fact that it looks like a terrifying hulk chicken and because its remains were found in the Hell Creek geological formation) was a 500-pound, 11-foot tall, ostrich chicken hybrid that had giant, 5-inch claws.
Like myself, Lawrence Witmer of Ohio University is really curious about mating rituals:
The tall crest and almost certain presence of feathers mean that it used visual display as a means of communication — and we can only wonder at what kind of courtship and threat displays it might have had.
It's true we can only wonder, but luckily I am very good at wondering.
3. A great explanation of why salt is so amazing.
We've all been told that salt is great because it "enhances other flavors" but what's rarely explained is how. It has to do with ions and electrical charges and it's actually pretty elegant in its simplicity. According to Lloyd Ellman:
Inside the taste bud, atomic mechanisms for producing salty, sweet, sour and umami flavors are pretty similar; a complicated biological process called depolarization creates an electrical charge that's sent off to the brain. Salt acts as an amplifier for these flavors by increasing the charge.
But salt also interferes with bitter flavors, which seems to contradict the above. That's because bitterness is a different beast:
Bitterness works differently. Instead of generating an electrical charge, the taste bud releases a calcium ion (Ca2+ for you chemistry majors) that creates a signal for the brain. For reasons not entirely understood, salt overrides this reaction in the taste buds, effectively masking the bitter sensation.
This is why you lick salt off your wrist (or someone else's wrist) when you do shots of cheap tequila.
4. Two halves of the same turtle arm were found 200 years apart.
It is a fossil miracle, kittens.
One half of a turtle arm (not the whole arm, just the bone) has been at the Academy of Natural Sciences, now at Drexel University in Philadelphia, since 1849. Analytical chemist and weekend fossil hunter Gregory Harpel found the other half while looking for shark teeth in the stream beds of Monmouth County.
David Parris, the museum's curator of natural history, made a really funny joke to himself about how it looked like the other half to the bone at Drexel and then promptly freaked the eff out once he realized they fit together perfectly. "As soon as I saw them fit together -- it was just like, what I'm seeing in front of me can't be happening. It's too crazy," he said.
I'm actually deeply moved by this story. I think it's really beautiful.
5. E. coli is everywhere, and now it's being used by MIT to create the very first "smart," self-assembling material.
E. coli, the bacteria that you are being told is ALL OVER YOUR PHONE AND COCKTAIL LEMONS, is being used for something that is very cool and not disgusting. According to DailyTech, the bacteria is being combined with gold nanoparticles to create hybrid materials that can communicate with each other and change composition over time.
E. coli was chosen because of its sticky biofilms, which allow other cells that stick to the E. coli to become attached. These biofilms contain proteins called "curli fibers" which contain the self-assembling CsgA protein. When peptides are added, CsgA can be modified to collect and then self-assemble other materials.
Those are my favorite science stories of recent. Special thanks to Capone Alonious for bringing the Hell Chicken to my attention.
What science are you excited about? Are you watching Cosmos? Did you die when Neil deGrasse Tyson held that baby?