Friday, 30 October 2015

Sketchy Fact #102: Beautiful Locks of Hair

The average person has the same number of hairs as the average chimpanzee. Our hair is just finer and is relatively useless.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Phineas Gage: The Living Halloween Costume

If you’re looking for a good, simple, and horrifying Halloween costume, our topic this week might serve as some inspiration. A warning though, this is not a tale for the squeamish.

On September 13, 1848, a man named Phineas Gage had a very rough day. Gage was a rail worker in Vermont tasked with the unenviable job of blasting rocks. While today this might involve dynamite, wires, and some measure of safety gear, 1848 was a different time. The process basically went as such: drill a hole in a rock, toss in some blasting powder, a fuse, and sand, and smash the whole mixture down with a tamping iron (a big metal pole). No one knows exactly why things went wrong for old Phineas, but you can rest assured that they did. Possibly because he forgot the sand, his tamping iron set of a spark which ignited the powder and set off a premature blast. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the blast itself that made Gage famous (at least to science-types); it was the tamping iron. The explosion launched the iron out of the hole in the rock and directly through Phineas Gage’s head.

The iron entered Gage’s head below the left eye socket and exited through the top of his skull, landing about 80 feet away. The blast threw him backwards, landing face up where his body convulsed for a few minutes. However, being a rail worker of 19th century constitution, once the convulsions subsided, Gage sat up, talked to his co-workers, and walked with little assistance to the wagon that drove him home… Yes, I’m serious.

Within a few hours of the accident, doctors arrived at Gage’s house. As they did their best to piece Gage’s skull back together, the man calmly explained to those around him what had happened. He only paused occasionally to vomit, the act of which “pressed out about half a teacupful of the brain, which fell upon the floor,” according to his doctors.

While Gage did his best to assure everyone he would be back at work in a few days, things were a little touch and go for the next couple of weeks. One day he would know who is friends and family were, the next he wouldn’t. Eventually he slipped into a coma. That is when Dr. John Matryn Harlow reopened Gage’s wounds and drained about a cup of pus and blood. After that, things went better.

Amazingly, Gage lived another 12 years, working mostly as a stagecoach driver in New Hampshire and Chile. Eventually though, his brain damage caught up to him and he developed seizures, which eventually led to his death.

The truly incredible thing about the story of Phineas Gage is the degree to which he recovered. Prior to his accident, the common understanding of brain function was that it was completely essential to life. What Gage taught science was that even trauma on an unimaginable scale was not only survivable, but not even all that impactful.

Actually, that isn’t totally true. What Gage actually taught science was that, while some parts of the brain are absolutely essential for life (such as your cerebellum, which controls breathing and other involuntary motor functions), some areas are devoted to higher-order functions. Following his accident, friends and co-workers reported that Gage’s personality changed somewhat drastically. The once polite, considerate man they had known became short, impetuous, and developed a cursing habit that could make a sailor blush.

Gage’s was the first documented case of how brain trauma impacts a person’s mental abilities. From him we learned that the brain’s frontal lobes play an important role in impulse control and planning for future events. We now know that this area of the human brain was the last to evolve and is critical in our ability to form functioning social groups, as it allows us to control our more instinctual behaviours. Your frontal lobes are the jockey that controls the horse of emotion and impulse.

Phineas Gage’s life can also serve as a cautionary tale in a world where we increasingly value fame and attention. In his day, Gage acquired a good measure of fame. He even spent some time at Barnum’s American Museum. But I guess if you asked old Phineas whether or not the fame was worth getting an iron bar through his head, he would probably just look at you, swear a bunch, then have a seizure.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Is it Aliens? What’s the deal with this new star?

Astronomy can occasionally be like high school. New discoveries spark curiosity and debate that sometimes can get ahead of itself, especially when the media gets involved. This past week has been the perfect example. In case you haven’t heard, the story goes like this: Scientists have found a new star and it’s weird. So weird in fact that one of the few explanations they are still considering to explain what is going on is that there might be an alien megastructure built around it.

Before we get too far into this, I want to point out that I am using the word “new” as in “we are now pay attention to this star.” It has always been in existence, minding its own business, 1500 light years from Earth. The star is named KIC 8462852, but for the sake of simplicity and a decent metaphor let’s call it Clint.

Clint is the kid who shows up for the first day of grade 12 and immediately catches everyone’s eye. He doesn’t dress like anyone else, doesn’t follow the same rules as everyone else, and doesn’t care that you can’t figure him out. He is mysterious, but you don’t know if he’s cool or just disturbed. Clint might even be a dork who goes home and plays with slide rulers all night, we just don’t know.

In real terms, the star we’re calling Clint is interesting because of what is going on around it. As you might recall from our discussion of exoplanets, astronomers detect planets outside our solar system by watching the light from distant stars. When a planet passes in front of a star, the light dims slightly. From this dimming, smart folks can work out the size, composition, location, and sometimes colour of the planet in question.

The problem with Clint, is that the dimming we’re seeing just doesn’t make sense. The thing with planets, is that they are generally pretty insignificant compared to their stars. As we learned in Sketchy Fact #100, over a million Earths could fit inside the Sun. The upshot is that even massive planets like Jupiter only block about 1% of their star’s light when they pass in front of it. However, scientists watching Clint have seen drops by as much as 22%! To understand how crazy that is, imagine being at the beach when a cloud moves in front of the sun and blocks a quarter of its light. The difference it makes is enough to make you want to layer up.

The other thing about the dimming of Clint (dibs on that album name) is that it is unpredictable. Planets orbit their stars at regular intervals. If you were watching the Earth pass in front of the Sun, you could reliably say that there will be a 365 day gap between so-called “transits.” Clint on the other hand is being blocked seemingly at random, and really frequently. Scientists have observed hundreds of dips in the light we’re receiving that indicate objects of all shapes and sizes. So what is going on?

Well, we are pretty sure we know what it isn’t. It’s not a problem with the Keplar space telescope that has been collecting the data and it’s not due to starspots (natural formation on the surface of a star that impact the light it gives off. It also probably isn’t a dust cloud caused by a collision between objects orbiting the star. Dust clouds of that sort gather and radiate infrared light, and that isn’t happening with Clint. So what is left?

There are two main theories astronomers are working with at this point:

1        Theory 1: It could be comets. It turns out there is another star that is relatively close to Clint. This star’s gravity could be disturbing Clint’s Oort cloud (most stars have a cloud of icy objects like comets in the far reaches of their solar systems.). If the neighbouring star passes close enough it could cause comets to fall into the inner solar system. As these comets melt they would release dust and occasionally explode, explaining the unpredictable nature of the dimming. In this case, it would be weird not to see excess infrared light, but not completely ridiculous since comets are made up of a lot more than just dust.

      Theory 2: It might, slightly, possibly, potentially could be aliens. I know, I know. Most people are either going to laugh that off or accuse me of getting their hopes up. But the pattern of dimming the researchers are seeing is what you would expect if an alien civilization built a megastructure like an array of solar panels around their star to generate clean, reliable energy.

The next few months will tell us more as scientists use the massive radio telescopes we have on Earth to try and detect radio signals coming from Clint’s system. They are expecting more data as early as January.

In the meantime, we’ll just have to sit in science class with pondersome looks on our faces as we try to figure out if we should give Clint a wedgie or ask him to prom.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Sketchy Fact #100: The Sun is Big.

       The sun makes up 99.8% of the mass of the solar system. Over a million Earths can fit inside it.  

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Pizza Party Perils: Does your metabolism have to slow down as you get older?

Part of getting older is not being able to eat all the crazy things you did as a kid. While teenagers may be able to eat an entire pizza in one sitting without showing any adverse effects, it is common knowledge that as we get older our metabolisms slow down and we put on weight more easily… But what if that wasn’t actually true?

To understand what I’m talking about you need to understand what the word metabolism actually means. Your body is a busy place. Even when you are sitting on the couch or laying in bed catching up on your favourite illustrated science blog, your body is hard at work doing a million different things. Blood is pumping though your veins, the muscles in your chest and diaphragm are flexing to pull air into your lungs, the synapses in your brain are firing at a rate that is hard you fully comprehend; and all of this requires energy. Your metabolism is just a measure of how effectively your body turns the food you eat into the energy you need to function.

A lot of things can impact your basal metabolic rate (the amount of energy your body uses to do all the basic functioning I just mentioned). Surprisingly, though, there isn’t as much variability as you might think. Many people claim to have a slow metabolism, but this is actual a pretty rare thing and is usually caused by an underlying medical condition like hypothyroidism or Cushing’s Disease. In truth, the big things that impact your metabolism are your sex and body composition.

Generally speaking men have less body fat than women and more of their weight is comprised of muscle mass. Even at rest, muscle burns more calories than fat so men tend to require more energy just to maintain a basic level of function. While you may not be able to control your sex, you have a measure more control over your body composition (within reason). People who lift weights can increase the proportion of their body weight that is muscle and thereby burn more calories. That is what is meant by body composition. Your age can work to slow down your metabolism, but only if you allow your muscle mass to decrease. Go to any master’s (over 40) track and field meet and you will find a whole suite of people who maintain speedy metabolisms simply by continuing to exercise and not letting their muscles deteriorate.

Particularly intense exercise has the added bonus of keeping your metabolism elevated for a period of time after you are done your workout. Known as “excess post-exercise oxygen consumption” (EPOC), the phenomenon is caused by the recovery processes taking place after a hard day at the gym or the track. A recent swath of articles in the fitness world with a surprising amount of science behind them argue that as you increase the intensity of a workout, you can get the same physical benefits of working out at an easier level for much much longer. Some have even suggested that if you run hard enough, 5 minutes a day can give you all the benefits of running slowly for an hour or more.

But If exercise isn’t your thing and you want to boost your metabolism anyway, there are options. One of the best is nicotine, which speeds up your heart rate and forces your body to burn more calories. The Mayo clinic suggests that smoking 20 cigarettes per day is roughly equivalent to putting on 90 lbs in terms of increase to your metabolic rate. (Contrary to popular thought, fatter people actually have faster metabolisms than skinnier people with the same activity level because it takes more energy to move blood around their bodies and they are likely to have more muscle mass.) Obviously nicotine has its drawbacks if you enjoy being alive and hope to continue in an animated state for a long period of time, but if all you’re going for is metabolic speed, it will help.

But even with the help of devastatingly harmful drugs and all the exercise we can handle, humans are wimps in terms of metabolic flexibility. Many animals can put us to shame. Bears in particular are masters of metabolism. Research has suggested that during their winter rest period (not technically hibernation) bears can reduce their metabolic rates by 75%. The net effect is reducing their body temperature by up to 6 degrees! In humans, that is grounds for hospitalization, but the bears manage it just fine. They don’t fully warm up again until up to three weeks after leaving their dens.

So in the end, you metabolism may not be an entirely changeable thing. But next time someone tries you give you spin about your metabolism slowing down with age, set them straight and tell them to hit the gym.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Sketchy Fact #99: Stop the Muzzlin' - GO VOTE!

Advanced polling begins today in the 2015 Canadian federal election. We would much rather provide you with a fun science fact, but the Harper Government has spent the past 10 years being totally uncool to scientists by slashing funding and preventing them from sharing the latest and greatest research about fish and whales and climate and all the other things that don't help Conservatives and their homies make money. With that in mind, this week's fact is more of a plea to all Canadian voters:

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Science Fact or Fiction? Matt Damon’s life on Mars

One of the most enjoyable parts of being an unapologetic nerd is the satisfaction that can be won by tearing apart bogus science in movies. Whether you are laughing at the impossibility of humans producing more energy than they consume in the Matrix or you are on the level of Neil DeGrasse Tyson who shamed director James Cameron for digitally producing the wrong constellations in the night sky in Titanic, there is a certain sick thrill in pointing out the details that writers and directors overlook (seriously though, why no feathered dinosaurs in Jurassic Park?).

Cynical movie-goers with a nerdy flare may however be disappointed in this regard by the latest science-fiction blockbuster: The Martian. While not every detail of the movie (based on a fantastic book by former computer engineer Andy Weir) is completely based in reality, the story integrates a surprising number of real NASA technologies. From Matt Damon’s emergency potato farm to the vehicle he uses to explore the red planet, NASA is hard at work creating the technology that will be needed to allow humans to survive on another planet.


In the book/movie, astronaut Mark Watney survives an accident that leaves him stranded on Mars after his crewmates evacuate. Watney is fortunate to have access to a base of operations known as the Hab. Astronauts today train for long duration space missions using the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Surprisingly, the real life version is a little more comfortable than Hollywood’s take on it. While Watney’s Hab is a single story affair made up of one large room with bunks, the HERA is a two story environment that provides living quarters, workspaces, hygiene modules and a simulated airlock. You’d think that 20 years in the future NASA could spring for the extra walls.

Food and Water

While the book and movie might take things a little further than current science has been able to achieve, we are well on our way to being able to produce both food and water in space. In 2014 astronauts in low-Earth orbit successfully planted the first ever extraterrestrial lettuce crop which they were recently able to harvest and taste. This marks a huge step towards sustaining astronauts for seriously long-term missions to other worlds. In terms of staying hydrated, Watney’s water reclaimer is a good stand-in for the technology already used on the International Space Station (ISS) which collects all the waste water from the day-to-day operations and from the astronauts own bodies, filters it and redistributes it. It’s not an exaggeration to say that astronauts end up making coffee with the water that left their bodies the day before.


In The Martian Mark Watney is lucky to have an “oxygenator” that pulls carbon dioxide from the air and supplies him with a steady stream of oxygen to breath. In real life we aren’t quite at the same level of sustainability, but NASA has managed to come up with a system that works well using a semi-closed loop. Astronauts on the ISS rely on the less cooly named Oxygen Generation System which uses electrolysis to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen in water by running a current through a sample. The oxygen is cycled back into the air while the hydrogen is pumped out into space. The system does, therefore rely on new water to keep it going, a problem that will have to be solved before we start shipping people to Mars.

Near Miss – Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG)

One aspect of Mark Watney’s odyssey that features prominently and isn’t quite right is his misadventures with the missions RTG. The RTG is a source of power generation that in the book, movie and in real life uses radioactive plutonium-238 to create energy from heat. Plutonium-238 is ridiculously radioactive and becomes quite hot all on its own. In the movie, this causes problems for Watney as NASA protocol calls for him to bury the system far from the Hab as its radioactivity could fry his DNA. In real life Plutonium-238 is dangerous, but not quite that dangerous. The radiation it gives off wouldn’t be able to penetrate a space suit or even human skin. Actually the thin atmosphere on Mars would make radiation from the Sun a bigger threat to Watney than the RTG, which can generate a little more electricity than it takes to run an incandescent lightbulb.

All in all, The Martian does a better job than most science fiction stories at keeping things real. There are a tonne of other elements from the movie that are true and we just didn’t have the space to share. For a more comprehensive list, check out this article by NASA themselves. If you’ve got NASA giving you props on the technology in the movie you made, you’ve probably done a pretty good job. Even better, Andy Weir managed to take the potentially boring science behind space travel and turn it into an awesome story.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Sketchy Fact #98: Too many studies, not enough nerds

The average number of readers for a scientific paper is said to be 0.6. A lot of research gets ignored. The upshot is we often don’t know what we know as a species.