The Science of Fairy Circles

In Namibia, little bare patches form in the grass after the rainy season. These are called ‘fairy circles’, and no one knows what causes them to form. A biologist at Florida State University named Dr. Walter Tschinkel has begun to tackle the problem. He first observed these fairy circles while on vacation, and thought they must be caused by termites. However, no termites were found. Since then, he’s been trying to understand the circles, but has not quite deciphered their cause yet. He did discover that they have a lifespan that averages about 41 years, and he is continuing to work on the problem. For now, the fairy circles will just have to remain a mystery.

For more information, you can read the ScienceNow article here.


Sustainability Science and the Rio Summit

The Earth Summit 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil took place last week (June 20-22, 2012). Unfortunately, it was underwhelming and there was the definite sense that the politicians had very little interest in actually discussing how to save the world. This attitude towards sustainability is unfortunate, especially on the heels of an essay published this month in PLoS Biology. The article, The Macroecology of Sustainability, by Joseph Burger and colleagues, discusses how the field of sustainability science falls short because it often fails to take macroecological factors into account. The authors provide the example of the ‘successful’ Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery. It has been dubbed a success because, from a management perspective, it is sustainable; they can harvest fish, and the numbers returning the following year do not decrease significantly. However, from a macroecological perspective, the fishery likely has large downstream effects that are unaccounted for, including affecting other salmon predators such as bears and bald eagles. If the same managerial success story is looked at from an ecological perspective, it may not be regarded as such a huge success.

Additionally, the authors warn that we may be beyond the sustainable threshold, if we want to maintain current standards of living and development (not to mention trying to spread those things to currently-underdeveloped societies). Oil, copper, coal, and fresh water are four natural resources that we regard as fairly essential to modern-day life that have constantly increased in consumption since 1961 (see graph below, from the article). Economists and sustainability scientists may counter these data with optimistic scenarios (because we haven’t run out of anything yet), but the fact is that there are limited resources on Earth.

The main point of the PLoS Bio article is to question the way sustainability science evaluates its successes, but I would like to move it to a slightly larger issue at hand: the lack of concern people have for these issues. I’m guilty of it myself. I use a lot of energy and water, since I run an air conditioner, use electricity, take daily showers, buy mostly fruits and vegetables that have probably been grown with fertilizer and shipped in from somewhere far away, drive often, and even fly with some regularity. And unless people change their habits (myself included), it is unlikely that there will be any change in the short-term. But the fact that politicians don’t even seem to care enough to make an effort at the Rio summit is disheartening. The short-term political schemes will amount to nothing if we run out of natural resources.

I’m sorry that this post is a bit of a downer, but it’s important to remember that the world is not just full of unlimited energy every once in a while.

Flatfish’s Eyes

When I tell you that flounder are pretty cool fish, you might think that I mean that they taste good or you might be thinking of Ariel’s only real friend, the yellow-and-blue Flounder:

Well, you would be wrong on both counts. What I mean is that real-life flounder are a type of flatfish, and as such they have a really interesting feature: extreme asymmetry, in that both of their eyes are on the same side of their body. This is because they spend most of their time on the sea floor, and so their predators are generally going to come from above (so it pays off to have two eyes on the incoming-predator side). Here’s a picture of an actual flounder:

Well, the reason I’m telling you all of this is because there has been a recent discovery about how both eyes came to be on the same side of the flatfish. Scientist have been wondering about this for some time now, and now there is fossil evidence that the eyes slowly migrated. A transitional-stage fossil flatfish has been discovered, and it has one eye in a normal position but the other eye is towards the top of the other side of its body. Transitional fossils like these make pretty compelling arguments for the path that evolution took to get us where we are now.

A New Mineral Discovered!

A new mineral has been discovered, and to make it all the more exciting, it comes from space!! The new mineral is called panguite and was discovered on a meteorite that was formed approximately 4.567 billion years ago. The chemical composition is (Ti4+,Sc,Al,Mg,Zr,Ca)1.8O3, which includes common elements like oxygen and aluminum, but also contains unusual ones such as zirconium and scandium, which might help scientists understand the nature of the environment before and after the solar system was formed.

Along with panguite, eight other new materials were discovered and are still being studied.

Researchers create a new male contraceptive that you apply like lotion

For years now I’ve heard that hormonal contraceptives for men are in development. Most of these contraceptives have been in the form of pills or shots of hormones, but the most recently tested treatment involves testosterone-progestin gels that can be applied topically to the skin. Combining the two hormones increases the percentage of men to 88 or 89% who have a reduced enough sperm count to prevent pregnancy (testosterone only resulted in 23% of men having reduced sperm counts). Some even lacked sperm altogether! And the really nice part about this treatment is that men could use it at home, as opposed to having to get a shot from the doctor. It’s an exciting development! And maybe once men are able to have more control over their reproductive health, there will be a reduction in the push against women being allowed to have control over their own reproductive health. Or is that wishful thinking?

Anyway, for the source of this story, here’s an article at, and here’s one from ScienceBlog.

Women in Science: Marketing Fail

The European Union’s Research and Innovation team has recently begun an initiative to increase the number of girls interested in entering Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. It’s a great idea, but so far their execution has been less than ideal. They released this video, which if you choose to watch it, shows a couple of dolled-up girls dancing around while ‘science-y’ things (e.g. beakers, safety goggles, test tubes) pop up with ‘girly’ items (e.g. lipstick, designer sunglasses):

As this article points out, the people behind this commercial had perfectly good reasoning to justify it, but hadn’t done their research. Girls exposed to this kind of STEM promotion decreased their self-proclaimed ability in math and science and declared lower interest in pursuing those careers. Personally, as I watched the video, I was turned off from science, and I’m actually a scientist! So hopefully the EU has some other ideas on the backburner, because it seems that this one isn’t their best.

How would you try to get women & girls interested in science?

Video Games Aid Scientific Research

There have been several video games over the years that have utilized gamers to help scientists understand cellular and molecular interactions. Now there’s a game that models the structure of RNA as it moves around cells, which could help lead scientists create new drugs (or start the zombie apocalypse, as one of the high-scorers of the game points out). But it’s a pretty interesting take on scientific inquiry, and it seems to be a very effective one. So go play EteRNA  and help science out!