Archive for: March, 2011

A Sense of Wonder and Awesome Slime Molds

Mar 30 2011 Published by under Brain & Behavior, Humor

I've never understood the claim that science somehow detracts from the beauty of the natural world.

I think xkcd sums it up the sense of wonder scientists get with a new discovery pretty nicely:

The sense of wonder at a new scientific discovery is similar to but not identical with the "sensawunda" you can get reading science fiction. It's an excitement at learning the previously unknown, at uncovering the mechanisms that underlie the complexity of life and the vastness of the universe, or of discovering an unexpected flower growing in your yard.

But unlike the fantastic but imaginary science of science fiction, the scientific sense of wonder comes from the discovery of how the universe - from quasars in distant galaxies to the smallest viruses* - is organized and functions.

And I think  it goes without saying that slime molds are indeed really cool.

Dog Vomit Slime Mold (Fuligo septica) at China Camp State Park, California.
By Franco Folini on Flickr.

The pretty yellow color is from the pigment  fuligorubin A.  Dog vomit slime molds are also unusually resistant to the toxic metals zinc and cadmium.  There is indeed evidence that fuligorubin pigment can bind the usually toxic metals.**

That's cool not only because it allows dog vomit slime molds to grow in inhospitable environments, but because it suggests slime molds might be used to help reclaim metal-contaminated soils (along with metal-accumulating plants).  The purified yellow pigment could someday be used to develop new treatments for zinc poisoning.

A different species of slime mold can apparently even solve a maze faster than a Japanese graduate student (technical paper)! I'm not sure anyone has tried similar experiments with Fuligo spetica, but just imagine the possibilities: a industrial wasteland reclaimed and ruled over by intelligent yellow overlords.

OK, maybe that's more sensawunda territory. But slime molds are cool. And new discoveries about unusual biochemistry of our fellow Earthly inhabitants are indeed wonderful.


* And, of course,  even smaller down to subatomic particles. But I think viruses are cooler than muons and gluons.

** A note on the importance checking original sources:

The Wikipedia article about Fuligo septica states:

"The mechanism of this metal resistance is now understood: F. septica produces a yellow pigment called fuligorubin A, which has been shown to chelate metals and convert them to inactive forms"

and cites:

Latowski D, Lesiak A, Jarosz-Krzeminska E, Strzalka K. (2008). "Fuligo septica, as a new model organism in studies on interaction between metal ions and living cells". Metal Ions in Biology and Medicine and Medicine 10: 204–9.

But the conclusions drawn by the authors of that paper (available in Google books) aren't quite as definitive as the Wikipedia article suggests:

Obtained results revealed that pigment fuligorubin A content was higher in Fuligo septica treated with zinc solutions (Figure 2). This could be the evidence of involvement of fuligorubin A in process of zinc ions detoxication and moreover it could ensure tolerance of Fuligo septica to high concentration of zinc and other toxic metal content.  [p.208; bold emphasis added]

There may be another paper out there more clearly demonstrating the function of fuligorubin A, but Wikipedia doesn't cite one and I couldn't find such a paper after a brief search.

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March Showers, Spring Flowers: The Gold

Mar 27 2011 Published by under Biology & Environment

Yesterday I posted about the variety of blue and purple wildflowers that have sprung up after the recent rains.  But while the lupines and bellflowers and blue dicks provide spots of color, it was the yellow flowers that brightened the hillsides on an otherwise gloomy evening.

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March Showers, Spring Flowers: The Blues

Mar 26 2011 Published by under Biology & Environment

I love spring rain.  It makes the air fresh, the weather cool and after a day of sunshine brings a profusion of yellow and blue and purple flowers.

Admittedly I consider most of those flowers weeds when they appear in my garden. But they look lovely on the local hillsides and add color to the less-well-tended bits of pavement around town.

Yesterday evening I walked the nearest hillside trail and took pictures of some of the flowers underfoot. I've done my best to identify them, but I wouldn't be surprised if some are mis-identified. Corrections are welcome!

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Harvard Lectures: The Science of Cooking and Molecular Gastronomy

Mar 03 2011 Published by under Food & Cooking

The Science and Cooking Public Lectures were a popular series of lectures presented through the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences last fall. Now it's available online for everyone to watch*.

The introductory lecture features Harold McGee (author of On Food and Cooking), who talks about the history of using science in cooking up through current techniques in molecular gastronomy. That first session also includes a lecture and demonstration by Spanish chefs Ferran Adria - considered one of the "best chefs in the world" and head chef at elBulli - and José Andés, who was trained by Adria and now has several restaurants in the Washington DC area.

You can view the entire lecture series on YouTube or iTunes

Subsequent lectures include "Sous-vide Cooking: a State of Matter", "Brain Candy: How Desserts Slow the Passage of Time", and chemistry of olive oil, chocolate, meat glue and more.

It's very cool stuff. The only bummer is that YouTube doesn't let us sample the food prepared during the course.

Additional information on some of the topics and historical books mentioned during the first lecture:

• Harvard Professor L. Mahadevan's studied the "The Cheerios effect" (technical PDF). You can read a non-technical explanation at

• Harvard Professor Kevin Kit Parker helped invent a cotton candy-inspired machine for spinning nanofibers, with possible applications in creating artificial organs.

Modern Cookery for Private Families was originally published by Eliza Acton in 1845.

•  "Housekeeping in the Twentieth Century" by Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards was published in the March 1900 issue of the American Kitchen Magazine. It's the source of the quote "each family has a weakness for the flavor produced by its own kitchen bacteria". She also imagines a future where "we shall eat to live and not only live to eat", and have pantries stocked with factory-prepared foods.

The Physiology of Taste (La Physiologie du Goût) was published just before author Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's death in 1825

• For recipes using sodium alginate and calcium chloride (as in the lecture's demonstration) and other gelling agents, check out Martin Lersch's free e-book Textured: A hydrocolloid recipe collection. He also has a brief post about the chemistry.

There are additional videos and information links on the official Science and Cooking Public Lectures web page

* It looks like the lectures were made available online several months ago, but I just discovered them now.

(Via Martin Lersch's Khymos blog)

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Ant vision and other animal superpowers

Mar 01 2011 Published by under Art & Science, Biology & Environment

Imagine you were an ant, crawling through the grass.  You would have a view of your surroundings invisible to the people towering above you.

Or imagine you are a bird, using your ability to sense Earth's magnetic field to migrate halfway around the world.

Interactive media designers and artists Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada collaborated to provide people with the experience of experiencing the world the way non-human animals do.   They call these animal superpowers.

For example they have developed an ant apparatus that uses microscope "antennas" on your hands to transmit a 50-fold magnified view of wherever your hand is resting. Watch their promo video:

As you can see, they've also developed a head-mounted solenoid compass that's supposed to provide a bird's sense of a direction. There's also a cool child to adult converter, which lets a kid see the world from an adult's height and speak in a deeper voice. I would have loved that when I was 10.

Watching regular people try out the ant apparatus makes it look like it's an interesting experience.

The project is ongoing, and Woebken has considered a number of other "superpowers" he could mimic through technology - for example insect communication through pheromones.

More info: Chris Woebken | Animal Superpowers

(via the TED blog)

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